Local Micro-Distilleries

img_0292Proposed By: Jonathan

Pursued By: David

Bigger is better, right? In the world of spirits one could think that must be the case. Name a well-known liquor or liqueur and it is probably owned by one of the ten largest conglomerates of all things alcoholic. The biggest of the big is Diageo. Their collection includes scotches like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff in the vodka category and Baileys for a smooth liqueur touch. Throw in Guinness and a very long list of others and they are a one stop company.

There are plenty of others like them. Pernod Ricard is number two, Beam Suntory three and the most well-known name in rum, Bacardi, four. Bacardi doesn’t just limit themselves to rum though. Their varied stable includes Grey Goose, Dewars, Bombay and even the liqueur with one of the best marketing stories  – St. Germain.

The point is not that bigger is worse. These are well established brands that are using the recipes that made them popular, and they have to stick to industry requirements. Scotch, bourbon, and tequila as categories all include deep ownership from these large companies, but they still have to meet the laws that define that spirit.

The idea with the current proposal was to try something local in a classic or inventive cocktail. David was to use spirits found in and around Chicago and I have used some found in the Charlotte region.

It is actually an easy challenge that is getting easier. Two years ago North Carolina had around 30 micro distilleries. Today, the trail includes over 40 stops. Those spirits are heavy on moonshine but include a number of other liquors. The moonshine is understandable to anyone who has ever heard the history of stock car racing in the Carolinas. Early racers honed their craft of making race cars from publicly available vehicles (stock) in order to out run authorities when hauling illegal hooch. Of course, moonshine is really just raw unaged liquor and if you are going to start a distillery that is a good way to get started. The growing maturity of the industry is beginning to show with those white liquors being flavored (gin), aged (all sorts of whiskeys), and crafted (aged gin, brandy, sweet potato vodka and the like).

I made two cocktails but only tasted one of them. The first was a classic of sorts using single malt whiskey called The Modern Cocktail:

1.5 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon bar sugar
1.5 ounce Rua (Great Wagon Distilling) single malt
1.5 ounce Sloe Gin
Dash Absinthe
Dash orange bitters

Mix lemon juice and sugar in shaker, add ice and all other ingredients, shake and strain into a coupe. Garnish with cherry.

The second was a suggestion included on the web site of the distillery called the Maple Cooler. Oddly, Muddy River Distillery is one of the few I found that offered unique ideas for their spirits.

3 dashes bitters
1.5 ounce Queen Charlotte’s Carolina Rum
1.5 ounce fresh orange juice
.5 ounce maple syrup
1 ounce club soda

Mix everything but soda in a shaker with ice, shake, strain into an old fashioned glass with ice and top with soda. Garnish with orange peel.

The Scotch drinkers that tried the Modern seemed to like it. Maybe even enough to have another before going back to Scotch on the rocks. I forgot to taste it myself but I did try the Maple Cooler. It was a nice crossover drink that people who like a little sweet, interestingly maple syrup sweet in this case, and those that like a non-sweet drink cocktail could agree on. It is a very nice use of the more complex spirit that Muddy River offers.

A few more things: I wanted to use Southern Artisan Spirits Cardinal Barrel Rested Gin in a drink. I did that back when we made gin and tonic variations, however, and decided not to repeat in a part as punishment  for them for not keeping their web site up to date. Al Gore invented the web to advertise craft spirits didn’t he? Carolina Distillery makes an apple brandy perfect for the Fall season. At our last tailgate a number of guests enjoyed a drink that was equal parts of that brandy, Barritt’s ginger beer and fresh apple cider. Made a bunch but never tasted those either.

David’s Entry:

img_1777Some believe cocktails are a waste of good spirits. If the bourbon, scotch, gin, or even vodka is good enough, they say, why adulterate it? That perspective certainly seems crucial to micro-distilleries hoping to attract connoisseurs willing to pay for the extra costs of small-scale production. Like many boutique-styled markets catering to those in the know, the process sometimes matters as much as the product.

Like Charlotte, Chicago seems to have a new micro-distillery popping up each week. For this post, however, I chose Koval, one of the first and the first distillery founded in Chicago since the mid-nineteenth century… if you don’t count prohibition bootleggers. Their website describes a “grain-to bottle mentality” that includes locally-sourced organic ingredients, milling and mashing on-site, and signature packaging and bottling. You’re as likely to encounter Koval at a Lincoln Park farmers’ market as at your neighborhood liquor store. They mean to establish themselves as a Chicago thing, and their marketing, though quiet, has been quite effective. Their product is also much respected. Since its founding eight years ago, Koval has won many gold, silver, and bronze medals at international whisky competitions.

The website points out that, in many Eastern European languages, “Koval” means “blacksmith,” but they prefer the Yiddish word for “black sheep, or someone who forges ahead or does something new or out of the ordinary.” I’ve tried a number of Koval products (they also make imaginative liqueurs), but for this post I’ll talk about their Rye Whiskey. Their rye is unusual because it’s made from 100% rye, but that’s not why I chose it. Rye is a spirit I may possibly maybe might know somewhat well enough to judge. Truth is, all those unadulterators have me at a distinct disadvantage—my palate has never been so advanced that I can speak confidently about what anything tastes like.

And I always sound ridiculous when I pretend I understand how to describe spirits. But here goes: people who know rye might expect spiciness and little of the mellow or corn-y warmth of bourbon, and this rye doesn’t have that sort of body either. But Koval’s approach isn’t to make a spicy rye. Theirs is clean and crisp—more white than brown sugar—and has a bright, light, and unusual quality. If you’re thinking about rye bread when you have a sip, you’re going to be surprised… this isn’t that.

Not that this isn’t good for sipping. Wine Enthusiast gives it a 91 and says, “This rye has aromas of vanilla and coconut. A faint sweetness shows on the palate, with initial notes of coconut and almond, while the finish is gently spiced and drying.”

And to that, I say, “Yeah, what they said.”

As this proposal asked, I also tried this rye in a classic cocktail, the De La Louisiane, which you loyal readers may remember is equal parts rye, red vermouth, and maraschino liqueur (with Peychaud Bitters in an absinthe-washed coupe). I figured that would give me the plainest picture of how Koval might stand up to other ingredients, and I was right. To be honest, however, the Koval nearly disappeared, which made me wonder whether it’s too refined for mixing.

Or maybe it’s just too refined for me. The expense of most micro-distillery offerings means they aren’t likely to supply my usual bourbon, rye, scotch, gin, or vodka. It’d be nice if local micro-distilleries could compete with multi-nationals on price, but alas and of course not. They’re a nice treat, yet remind me that, when it comes to boutique spirits, I’m just not worthy.

Jonathan’s take: I understand global companies but it sure is nice to support creative people making local product.

David’s Take: Like Jonathan, I support local commerce and spirituous ambition… though Old Overholt is probably too good for me.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

So, it’s that time of year again, and I googled “Unconventional Holiday Cocktails.” Disappointingly, many of the old stand-bys turned up (Mulled Wine, Eggnog, Hot Buttered Rum) as did many wretchedly sweet drinks (Peppermint “Martinis” and Spiced Coconut Hot White Chocolate). Finally, I discovered something that might be warm enough and light enough to enhance rather than drown the good cheer, Spiked Pear Cider.

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Sidecar

sidecar-jmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

It is a little hard to believe that there are any classics left for us to try. When you study cocktails—an exaggeration of the idea of “study” if ever there was one—it is hard to believe there are so many cocktails available to try in general.

The Sidecar has the typical disputed history, but what is not in dispute is its origin. This is a drink that derives from the brandy crusta. David Wondrich (yes that guy again) notes the crusta as the genesis of citrus in a cocktail. A New Orleans bartender, Joseph Santini, created the brandy crusta at the New Orleans City Exchange bar in the 1850’s. The recipes for these early drinks are complicated by ingredients (gum syrup), garnishes (half a lemon peel) and glassware (a wine glass that isn’t what most would call a wine glass) that need interpretation. Here’s the gist of the crusta after Wondrich finished interpreting:

2 ounces brandy,

1/2 teaspoon curaçao,

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 dashes bitters.

Take a wine glass, coat the rim in fine sugar, add the peel of half a lemon, mix all the ingredients in a tumbler with ice then strain into the glass.

It is easy enough to see how the Sidecar evolved from the crusta, but the question remains: who did it and where did the name come from? One story traces the drink to the now familiar, at least to discerning readers, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Sometime after World War I an American serviceman, who very responsibly caught a ride to the bar in a motorcycle sidecar, asked for something fancier than straight spirit and was served a mix of cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice in equal parts. The Ritz Bar is also given as a Paris birthplace of the drink but the back story is the same.

Those stories are countered by a couple of others. There is the version where the drink was born in Buck’s Club in London. In the English version the proportions may be different, but the motorbike accessory is still cited for the name. Another idea is that the evolution of the crusta occurred in the city where it originated—New Orleans. My favorite part of that one is the different explanation for the cocktail’s name. When a bartender mixes too much of a drink, the extra is poured into a shot glass, and it’s is referred to as a sidecar. Although I overdo the mixers all the time—that’s why I typically use a glass that can handle the extra—I am not sure I have seen a professional bartender make that mistake. I like the term though.

The final issue for this cocktail are proportions. As noted earlier, if you order the Sidecar in Paris you will get equal amounts of all three ingredients. Others suggest that the best mix of cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice is 2:1:1 or 8:2:1. The latter is too complicated, and I like the lemon juice to be more dominant so I chose the former. Mix everything with ice in a shaker, shake and strain into a coupe that has been rimmed with sugar. Garnish with an orange peel. As my picture shows, I skipped the sugar and used a wedge of orange. I figure, if they can’t settle on a story, why should I follow the recipe exactly? That is why since Crustas were also made with other spirits, I made a Sidecar version with bourbon substituted for cognac. The whiskey was very dominant so I would suggest sticking with the classic version of the classic.

Here’s David’s Review:

sidecarThis cocktail is one of the few I’d tried when Jonathan and I started this blog, which, since I’d had about ten cocktails before this adventure, is saying a great deal. I was out with a friend who ordered a Sidecar and I took it as an omen. “I’ll have a Sidecar for his Sidecar,” I thought.

That was a long time ago, but I remember sitting with my friend at the bar watching the bartender agog at how unfussy the drink seemed, hardly the elaborate production of a libation I expected at the time.

Now I know, the only complicated aspect of most classic cocktails are their origin stories. Everyone, it seems, wants to get credit for making something so simple that anyone goofing around with basic ingredients might stumble upon it. The classics of the classics—like Old-Fashions and Manhattans and Martinis—morph into endlessly accessorized versions with the inventions and additions of ambitious mixologists. I’d be the last person to scorn their efforts because this blog is a tribute to some pretty clever combinations of spirits and mixers, but sometimes you just can’t improve on the essentials.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Sidecar is an essential. Like Jonathan, I followed Wondrich’s perambulations and experimented with proportions and ingredients—I’m with him on the bourbon, but, as I like a sweet counterbalance to lemon, I upped the curaçao a little—but really the recipe Jonathan offered is as sound as granite. And I liked this libation.

Would I make the Sidecar my signature drink? No. The conversation about “Which cocktail would you choose if you could only order one for the rest of your life?” continues. However, I am in awe of classic cocktails like the Sidecar because I can actually remember how to make them even months after my last one and also because they are reliably delicious.

Jonathan’s Take: In the beginning there were just spirits, then there were cocktails and after that there’s a sidecar load of variations.

David’s Take: The older I get, the bigger the appeal of the classics… but, then again, maybe I just want to become one.

Next Time (Proposed by David):

Since Jonathan proposed a classic we’d somehow missed, and I’m going to propose a somehow missed ingredient—Sloe Gin. As always, introducing a new bottle to our liquor cabinets has to come with an apology, but I’m tired of walking past the Sloe Gin and thinking, “What IS that stuff anyway?” My research tells me sloes are wild and apparently beautiful British berries that have  astringent taste no one would like if it weren’t pickled in alcohol. I looked a number of recipes using it but finally settled on the naughtily-named Nice and Sloe (because I’m pretty sure Jonathan and I already own or can easily obtain the other ingredients).

Equal Parts Cocktail

ughProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Mixologist author Kara Newman describes equal parts cocktails as, “Easy to remember but challenging to develop.” Well, I guess that depends on your standards, on both counts. If you’re just looking to balance sweet, sour, bitter, and spirit, a host of combinations will develop in interesting ways. However, if you’ve had a few of these cocktails, remembering might be harder than you imagine.

Newman’s book, Shake. Stir. Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts, will come out in October. The book, she says, encourages versatility. She urges cocktailians not only to create new drinks but also to re-envision and re-proportion some favorites.

What appealed to me was simplicity. For once, I might make something I can remember when someone says, “How do you make that?

I’ve been experimenting with the equal parts cocktail for the last month or so—and sorry readers, our blog-silence is my fault, not Jonathan’s. I’ve reached important conclusions:

  • plan before you act—failing means failing entirely
  • don’t expect a single ingredient to establish itself as the star—maybe that will happen, but probably not
  • use ingredients you like by themselves
  • add some non-alcoholic elements; otherwise, the drink or it will be lethal

I made a number of these cocktails, and most I invented. I’ll offer two for your consideration—one sweet and one sour

Sam I Om (a Mimosa Variation)

one ounce each…

Gin

St Germaine

Lillet Rose

Orange Juice

Tonic

Shake the first four ingredients, add to glass and top with tonic

Whatever

one ounce each…

Lime Juice

Mezcal

Benedictine

Triple Sec

“Take a ratio that already works,” Newman suggests, “and just swap out elements one at a time until you end up with a drink you enjoy.” And maybe that’s all the advice you need to begin experimenting.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

IMG_0218-2The first thought when I read David’s proposal was that I should make a sweet and a non-sweet drink. The second thought was that this idea would also allow me to re-visit the concept of layered drinks and the fascinating, to me, use of specific gravity to figure out the order of the layers. Neither thought was realized with great success.

There were all sorts of sweet and semi-sweet drinks that came to mind. I knew that I did not want to proportion a group of different alcohols which meant that I needed fruit drinks, milk products, syrups and the like to mix as a non-alcoholic portion. All of those make the drink sweet. I just could not come up with the equivalent in a savory or bitter drink although I hope on reading David’s intro that he was able to do so. The ultimate choice in this category was my version of the key lime cocktail:

1 ounce vanilla vodka
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce half and half
1 ounce pineapple juice
1 ounce lime syrup (maybe it was cheating but I mixed key lime juice and simple syrup 50/50)

Shake everything together with ice and strain into a glass rimmed with crushed ginger snaps and garnish with a lime.

The result was an all too white, fairly sweet drink that fell well into the tiki category. Good but one was plenty.

One of the main purposes of the layered drink, besides testing specific gravity, was to use a liqueur from South Africa that seems to be gaining the popularity it deserves. Amarula is sweet cream liqueur from South Africa made from fruit derived from the marula tree. That tree is also known as the elephant tree due to the pachyderms fondness for it. Interestingly, elephants eat the fruit, bark and branches of the tree so they can be hazardous to its health except in the spread of fertilized seeds in their dung.

I made two layered drinks with amarula the first of which is called the Monk’s hood. That one, with specific gravity in parentheses is Kahlua (1.14), Frangelico (1.08) and amarula (1.05). The second one substituted white crème de cacao (1.14) for the Kahlua. The gravities are so close that separation was going to be difficult so I used chilled shot glasses, poured each liqueur over a bar spoon to introduce them delicately and chilled the drink to let them separate further. None of that worked very well but the drinks were great. As great as doing shots for a not too young person can be that is.

Jonathan’s take: I am sure that sometime this week I will wake in the middle of the night and realize a proportional drink with rye whiskey that I could have made. Then I will go back to sleep.

David’s take: Reviewing a whole class of cocktails? Clearly more empirical evidence is needed.

Next time (Proposed By Jonathan):

Vodka is not my favorite. It must not be David’s either since it is the major spirit that we use the least. The time has come, however, to try a cocktail with vodka at its core. There are plenty of classics that we could, perhaps should, try. There are also variations of those – such as the madras version of the screwdriver. It’s the beginning of blueberry season though so I am proposing the gravely named Razzle Dazzle cocktail.”