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.

Grand Autumn Cocktail

-1Proposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

My proposal for this drink included a wish that I could enjoy the cocktail on a crisp October evening by the fire pit. I did enjoy the cocktail, although the crisp evening by the fire eluded me. We have not had the rain which has besieged our neighbors in South Carolina, but it has been rainy and quite inhospitable for time outside. Especially on the usual cocktail Saturday and Sundays.

The Grand Autumn cocktail comes from Better Homes & Gardens magazine. I hope the fact that my wife is a subscriber makes it legal for us to use it with proper credit since you need a password to get the recipe on-line. Here is the recipe either way:

2 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce St. Germain
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
3 ounces ginger beer

Mix the first four ingredients and shake or stir with ice. Strain into a double old fashioned or mule cup, add the ginger beer and ice, and stir gently. It is an Autumn drink so Barritt’s or Gosling’s are a good choice for the ginger beer to get that nice Fall color. I also chose a rye whiskey for a more peculiar reason even if it loosely falls into the family part of this blog.

I am an Astros fan, which is typically painful to admit, but, this year, I’m proud of their progress. Growing up south of Houston it was the only reasonable choice to root for the home team, and my affection was cemented through free tickets provided to area students who made the honor roll. There was a point when all five kids in our family were eligible, and we had far more tickets than our parents had energy for trips to the Astrodome. Somehow my oldest son has the same affliction, and even our youngest seems to have a soft spot for a team that I most often reference as “The Sortas” for their ineptitude. This year was an exception (even if they did lose to the Royals), and the three of us enjoyed a weekend in Houston to see them in person. Now, what does that have to do with rye whiskey?

I went shopping for the whiskey at the same time the Astros were struggling to get one of the last spots in the playoffs. They didn’t have the brand I was looking for and I had settled on another option and headed to check out. At that point I spotted a display of Yellow Rose rye from Houston. It seemed like an omen and when it comes to sports I am very partial to omens. Since that purchase, the Astros have made the playoffs, dispatched the Yankees and are holding their own with the Royals. When you are an Astros fan and usually just hoping for relevance, that’s a lot. Thank you Yellow Rose.

Here’s David’s Review:

grand.dmSometimes, in odd Walter Mitty moments, I imagine this blog being picked up by some liquor company and climbing on a gravy train so full of gravy I don’t have to work anymore. That’s not likely to happen—though, if some liquor giant is out there, let me just say “Please?” Yet if it were to happen, one of my top candidates would be Crabbie’s Ginger Beer. I confess I love the stuff and would love having my consumption of it fully subsidized.

Which is to say I loved this drink. Rye (another favorite) and Elderflower liqueur (now in less expensive forms than St. Germain) add to the appeal, but really it’s ginger beer. Something about ginger’s zing complements spirits, adding interest to any concoction.

The lime and bitters, of course, are good too, but they almost seemed nods to other cocktails like bucks and Manhattan varietals. I suppose they add, but, really, you know, it’s the Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Are you listening, Crabbie’s? I’m not hard to find.

Now, why this is a Grand Autumn cocktail is a complete mystery to me. Even after each seasons of drinking, I’m sometimes unsure of why one drink settles in one time of year. I wouldn’t dare drink a gin and tonic in December, but I suspect that’s conditioning rather than any intrinsic summeriness associated with gin, or tonic, or both together.

Someone out there in cyberland may tell me that Rye is a warm spirit or that ginger is evocative of seasonal fare or that elderflower, redolent of blossoms now blown, adds a wistful longing for the just passed. I get all that. I do. Generally, as an English teacher, I’m all in favor of reaching after meaning (read: bullshit), but this drink just didn’t say autumn to me, not at all.

Not withstanding that somewhat peevish criticism, however, it was mighty good… thanks, Crabbie’s Ginger Beer.

Jonathan’s take: Sing with me – There’s a Yellow Rose of cocktails, that I am going to drink…

David’s Take: I think I’d like it in any season… I bet you can guess why.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

I’m still on this autumn thing, so I’m going to make another attempt at another concoction presented as a seasonal cocktail, a Melaza Punch, featuring molasses, the ostensibly autumnal ingredient. We’ve tried Maple syrup, so why the heck not? The wrinkle here is that this drink also includes Tequila and Pineapple Juice, so it’s really stretching the fall envelope. I’m interested in hearing what Jonathan thinks of this seasonal question, and what better way to elicit a fiery response but to put the issue to a big test.

3GT

3GT2Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Inventing a cocktail should be the easiest thing ever—just stumble over to the liquor cabinet, pull out a couple of bottles and maybe a mixer, combine them, and gussy up the glass with some garnish. It’s true that it’s simple to select ingredients and, unless you’re looking to match a flavor profile or attempt some exotic preparation, it’s simple to stir, shake, or swirl them together. Getting the drink right, however, means the loving trial and error of choosing complementary spirits, determining their proper proportions, and, of course, coming up with a name not already claimed.

A tough job, though I suppose someone must do it. This week I volunteered.

The G’s in “3GT” stand for three ingredients we encountered elsewhere: Ginger beer (which we used in the Kentucky Mule and the Dark n’ Stormy), Gin (which, Jonathan tells me, is his favorite spirit, one that comes in many distinctive varieties), and Goldschläger (which we used before with champagne, and which is apparently more commonly ingested by crazy people as shots). The T is tonic because, well, everything else in this drink is alcoholic, and you can’t do much experimenting when you’re under the table.

And, since I get to tell my own origin story for this week’s drink, I’ll take the unusual tack of telling the truth: I like all these ingredients and wondered if they might taste good together. Crabbies Ginger Beer has become a favorite libation for me, nicely spicy and sweetish. Ransom’s Old Tom Gin, the variety I chose for this drink, lends a mellow and botanical tang. Goldschläger is really strange stuff to be sure, but the cinnamon taste adds a different sort of heat (and I have a whole bottle to use up). Tonic is the bitter element to keep the whole thing from being too sweet.

Yet the origin story isn’t over. Though I’m revealing this drink today, alas, additional research may be necessary to perfect it. It still may be too sweet and still may need more bitterness. I’ve experimented with including another half-ounce of a friend’s homemade Amer Picon (before I—tearfully—used it up) or Punt e Mes, a particularly bitter red vermouth. Both, I think, enhanced the drink, but I didn’t want to burden Jonathan with another hard (or impossible) quest.

So here is the recipe I devised (with the other variation in parentheses):

3 oz. Ginger Beer

1 oz. Old Tom Gin

.5 oz. Goldschlager

(.5 oz. Punt e Mes)

Tonic to fill

Fill an 8-10 oz. glass half way with ice, add the first three (or four) ingredients and a cherry. Pour tonic to fill the glass. Stir gently and serve.

Naturally, I’m apprehensive about Jonathan’s reaction but have decided to accept his comments as part of the next stage of the creative process. Maybe, Dear Reader, you can help too.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

jbm3GT

The proposal for this drink had me wondering if I am too critical. My first thought was that I had been hard on David’s other original drink, The Pear Culture, but I loved that drink and wrote so. Then I thought there was some disparity between my reviews of drinks that I proposed and those for which David was the proposer. It wasn’t a complete reading of all blog entries, but it appears I have been fairly equal in my likes and dislikes. That leaves me with one last idea – David was setting me up for a drink he had invented, tried, and didn’t like. That can’t be it either as this drink could make the cocktail list at any bar.

Last week was a great example of the difference in my taste and David’s tastes. Our list of beer by preference wasn’t completely inverse, but it was close. And it goes further than that. David is mostly vegetarian, and I am full on carnivore. Where he might prefer fruit and vegetables, I am likely to go towards a cheeseburger and sweet potato fries, the latter my nod to some semblance of nutrition. I do not eat that poorly, but if it wasn’t for the heartburn that increases with age, I could find a way to eat some form of nachos almost any night. In sum, it seems we should have conversely different tastes in cocktails too, but for the most part have agreed on the good, bad and in between.

This cocktail’s best quality is that it is can change with variations in each base ingredient and still be excellent. Here are some of the examples: I used Jack Rudy’s mix to make my tonic but it was apparent that strong to weak tonics would work; David suggested an Old Tom gin, which I used, although a second version with a more juniper forward gin made a less sweet version; and, the ginger beer I chose was non-alcoholic (mostly because it looked more interesting than the alcoholic version available) and that ingredient alone could completely change the profile of the drink so there could be endless versions. I kept the Goldschlager the same in each drink because the cinnamon was a great counterpoint to the herbs and ginger. I wouldn’t change that, but won’t be surprised if David did to great success.

Jonathan’s take: Seriously, this could and should be on cocktail lists far and wide.

David’s take: What can I say? I’m biased.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

Easter is not a holiday one would associate with cocktails. Although I learned long ago that an internet search will return results for almost any insane search, I was surprised how many results there were for “Easter cocktails”. Even the ever present Pinterest page (I ignored that). David should have St. Germain liqueur, and I should have bought some long ago. That hole in my cabinet will be filled and we will be trying the St. Germain cocktail a mix of liqueur, sparkling water and Prosecco.

Dark ‘N Stormy

Proposed by: Jonathan20141019_165024_resized

Reviewed by: David

The questions I started with last week went unanswered, and this week is no different. Those questions were simply what the difference between a mule and a buck cocktail are, as well as what differentiates ginger beer and ale. As best I can tell, there is no answer because there is no difference.

There are multiple meanings to mule and buck beyond their cocktail uses. A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey (forget learning cocktails, now I know a cross between the opposite sexes of each animal is called a hinny). It can also be a drug carrier, a women’s shoe with no strap on the back or some stubborn dolt who won’t give up trying to figure out why the heck a drink is called a mule. Buck could be the male deer in my backyard who is still pissed that our dog chased his fawn a couple of weeks ago, or the marker in poker that designates the next dealer, leading to the expression “pass the buck.” My favorite use is the adverb form of buck that means “completely” as in “I drank a bunch of dark ‘n stormys and next thing I knew I was running buck nekkid down the beach.”

The best explanation for why the words are used with cocktails goes back to the second drink featured in this blog – the Horse’s Neck. The original of that drink was simply ginger ale and bitters and did not include alcohol. When it was added, the name was amended to include “with a kick.” It makes only the tiniest amount of sense that the translation of that was from a kicking horse to a bucking mule, but that is the story that has evolved.

When it comes to cocktails, though, the use of mule and buck now means any drink that is mixed with ginger beer/ale, citrus, and a spirit. The best part of that is the simplicity. Take the ale or beer in four parts, the spirit in two parts and the citrus in one part and you have a cocktail. You don’t even have to stick with those proportions, and, if you toss in some bitters, who can blame you. There are more complicated variations that use ginger liqueur, as David mentioned last week, or ginger simple syrup but that ruins the utility of the basic recipe in my opinion.

The Dark N’ Stormy is trademarked by Gosling’s and use of any other rum besides Gosling’s Black Seal makes the drink a rum buck. To truly taste the cocktail by that name we went with the classic Black Seal in two parts, Barritt’s ginger beer (also from Bermuda) in four parts and an ample wedge of lime. If we added a little lime juice to the mix (that would be the one part mentioned above), you and Gosling’s lawyers don’t know about it.

There are so many rums and gingers that this is a drink, in its non-trademarked buck/mule form, that demands experimentation. The tailgaters that recommended the drink also made versions with Kraken rum, Crabbie’s ginger beer, Saranac ginger beer and the all of the combinations that allowed. The picture that is included is a version with Bacardi spiced rum that is lighter and lets the citrus come to the forefront. All of the versions were a hit, although I will admit that the true Dark ‘N Stormy was the best in my estimation.

It was a week when the country of origin for this drink, Bermuda, was truly dark and stormy thanks to Hurricane Gonzalo. It sounds like the island nation fared well, all things considered, and I’m happy we got to enjoy their national drink with true Bermuda ingredients.

And Here’s David’s Review:

dark.andI thought briefly about not buying Gosling’s Black Seal because, well, proprietary cocktail recipes reek of craven marketing and rampant capitalism. No one should own a cocktail in a free country, right? Fortunately, however, I read a review of the rum’s appearance as “A little foreboding” and its greeting as, “an enticing unpleasant aroma.” Then I had to have it. It wasn’t at all expensive anyway. And, just as described, its creosote color repelled light and offered a dense molasses and sulfury taste perfectly cut by lime and ginger beer. Almost from my first sip, I wanted another.

Last week, when Jonathan asked about ginger beer, I really didn’t know the difference, but I can at least answer one of his questions (I’m happy Jonathan answered the other). Now I understand that ginger ale uses fresh ginger—uncooked, unprocessed, the raw stuff—whereas ginger beer involves fermentation and is usually less sweet, more spicy. I used Fever-Tree ginger BEER (they have an ale version too), yet what struck me most was not the difference between beer and ale but how effervescence counters the weighty gravitas of a seriously dense spirit like Gosling’s. More trigeminal interference, I suppose.

While examining alternative recipes, I encountered one that urged leaving out the lime, but, to me, that would be a serious mistake. As with the Mules last week, fresh citrus adds sweet, sour, and bitter elements contributing to the cocktail’s complexity. In another case of the sum being greater than its parts, the burnt sugar taste of the rum, its hint of anise—almost like licorice—needs the spicy ginger and tart lime to dilute and lift it.

As Jonathan said, this cocktail, like many we’ve encountered lately, also seems amenable to improvisation. Though I haven’t tried it yet, I might substitute ginger liqueur (despite what my brother says) and a combination of tonic and seltzer. I might try paler rum—perhaps even caçhaca, though I suspect that will make it both lighter and less stormy, maybe light ‘n drizzly. I may even try garnishing with pickled ginger. Crazy, I know, but sometimes a week isn’t enough to explore one of these drinks, especially when it seems as well-conceived (good work, Gosling’s Black Seal people) and balanced as this one.

David’ Take: I’ll have another.

Jonathan’s Take: The rum mule/buck is an experimenter’s dream, but try it with Gosling’s and make their attorneys happy.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Though it seems odd to suggest a Martinez before the Martini, the former is a predecessor to the latter—and maybe we’ll have to try a Martini after that. A sweeter drink involving gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters, it promises to be another cocktail with some heft and potency… just my cup of alcohol. And, unlike a Martini, I’ve never had one… which is the fundamental requirement for being included on this blog, right?