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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Bobby Burns

BB4Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

“Hey, where have you been?” an imagined reader may be crying. For the first time since starting this blog, Jonathan and I took an unanticipated stop. We’re both terribly busy and, when illness intervenes or anything surprising, it’s tough to find the time to make a cocktail. Sad but true. So we’re going to be scaling back, offering our cocktailian journey every other week rather than every week.

Policy announcement passed, onto this week’s drink…

Robert Burns (1759–96) is variously known as as Robbie Burns, Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Favorite Son, the Ploughman Poet, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and, simply, “The Bard” but not, anywhere I can find, “Bobby Burns.” He is THE Scottish poet, an early practitioner of Romanticism, a general aesthetic hero in his homeland, William Wallace with a quill.

A large portion of Burns’ fame springs from his writing in Scots vernacular as English overtook his nation. Though he was the son of a tenant farmer, a tenant farmer himself, and not a college graduate, he rose to prominence in his own lifetime. “I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as… to see my birthday,” he wrote, “inserted among the wonderful events in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks…. and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

Okay, I’m not sure he ever made those books and those lists I never I heard of, but he is famous enough to have a cocktail named after him.

Many Americans know Burns (without really knowing him) because they sing his lyrics to Auld Lang Syne each New Year’s Eve or because they’ve heard a few lines from “A Red, Red Rose.” Even though I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature, I don’t know his work that well either. I just like cocktails with literary names.

My true attraction to this week’s drink, however, was the main spirit Scotch. Like Jonathan, I have some unfortunate memories of encountering it and some deep-seated need to rehabilitate it. How can any decent cocktailian, really, sidestep one of the chief whiskeys and the favorite of so many connoisseurs?

That would be like, well, dissing a major poet of Scotland.

My hope for the Bobby Burns hinges on its other ingredients, Benedictine and Sweet Vermouth. The drink from this blog that has come closest to winning me over to Scotch was, after all, another sweet entry, the Rusty Nail. That, however, was Scotch overkill, as it combines Scotch and Drambuie, Scotch liqueur. The Bobby Burns promises something like the Vieux Carré, a Manhattan style concoction. There’s no fruit—so no distraction from the spirits—but Scotch purists probably oppose even this much adulteration.

2 oz. Highland malt scotch
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Bénédictine

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

The Bobby Burns is the creation of Dale DeGroff, author of The Essential Cocktail and one of the favorites of this blog. For my version, I chose Glenmorangie, a reasonably priced single-malt that, as the picture indicates, even came with two nifty glasses. Right now, some reader is probably saying, “Hey, those glasses are for Scotch, not some wifty sweet drink” or, alternately, “Hey, what do you work for Glenmorangie, or what?” I’ll accept either insult if, at long last, I’ve found a palatable use for Scotland’s most famous export.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

bobbyjbmIn the last drink review David quoted Stephen Dedalus and for this drink he proposed one (purportedly) named for the Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns. I sense that I have exited the cocktail blog world and entered an English literature course. Of course he says he was looking for a successful Scotch based cocktail, but that is too simple.

Our close followers probably noticed we missed a week. That was my fault. Between a bad cold and work obligations, I never had a night when I could, or wanted to, try the cocktail or any alcohol at all. There are those that claim a medicinal benefit to liquors. In fact it kept the distilling industry alive during prohibition to some extent. I even cited that medicinal claim at one point when I noted that our Dad had a sore throat/cold cure that consisted of bourbon, honey, lemon juice and occasionally onion. I still think that was to induce his whining children to fall asleep and have never looked to spirits for their curative properties. The end result was that it took me two weeks to try the Bobby Burns and any opinion I express should be couched in terms of still limited tasting abilities.

Scotch based drinks are a short list and I think I have an idea why. Scotch is very assertive and doesn’t play well with others. There was hope though as this mix with sweet Vermouth and Benedictine had more promise than the others we have tried.

I used a blended Highland Scotch, Dewar’s, to try and tamp down the assertiveness. It still overcame the sweetness and herbal tones of the other additions. If you like Scotch, my guess is that those additions would be unwanted distractions and if you do not favor Scotch they are not enough. It was better than any Scotch drink we have tried, which is saying something, but my recommendation would still be to leave the Scotch neat, on ice, or alone.

Jonathan’s take: The Bobby Burns is a lovely Fall color but Scotch was not the medicine I needed.

David’s take: Maybe Scotch is the loner of the spirits.

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I love Fall which should be apparent from my past drink selections (and that I have said that before). My love does not include pumpkin beers or the abominations that are committed in the world of coffee concoctions, but the rest of the tastes of the season are great. And what says Fall more than Better Homes & Gardens? I am going back to that source for the Grand Autumn cocktail. Made with rye whiskey, St. Germain, lime juice and ginger beer, I hope that it can be enjoyed on a crisp October evening with nice fire in my new fire pit.

Blood and Sand

Proposed by: DavidBlood&Sand

Reviewed by: Jonathan

It’s easy to dispense the pertinent facts about the Blood and Sand…

  • Rudolph Valentino: famous cinematic lover and American icon.
  • Blood and Sand: a 1922 silent film in which Valentino plays a matador who becomes reckless and hopeless when his affair with a seductive widow ruins his marriage.
  • Blood and Sand: a prohibition cocktail reputedly named after said film for its use of blood orange juice.

What interests me is the drink’ appearance on so many Top 100 Cocktail lists. I lead a circumscribed life and need not go again into my dearth of savvy, but I know no one who says their drink of choice is a Blood and Sand, and, though I don’t spend a lot of time at restaurants, I don’t recall ever seeing it on even the most extensive drink menus. So what is it about this drink that makes it so famous… without really being famous?

The history of the cocktail is, in mixology terms, pretty pedestrian. It first appears in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book and, in 1997, was updated to include Cherry Heering by Dale DeGroff in Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. DeGroff himself, however, tried the cocktail mostly because it confounded him. Just like me.

So that leaves me only a few lame explanations for the drink’s supposed prominence. There’s the name, of course, which is colorful, and its association with a melodramatic film that was, by some accounts, worthy of lampoon and parody. It has since been remade, twice, once in 1941 and again in 1989. Then, the use of blood orange juice is exotic, though many recipes ask for plain orange juice (and, alas, so did I… couldn’t find a blood orange this time of year). Another possibility is that it’s a scotch cocktail, and those—apparently—are rare.

Yet none of those speculations satisfy me and lead me into bigger, maybe naïve, questions: “How do cocktails become popular and/or revered?” and “Who’s responsible?”

I like to think about Valentino himself seeking some refreshment after a particularly taxing scene and inventing this cocktail on a whim and on the fly. I like to think about every cocktail as rooted in experimentation and improvisation. I like to think about bartenders passing a recipe among themselves or customers carrying it from one establishment to another like a virus simply by requesting it or mixologists carving a niche for a drink by refining and updating it.

But the interweb only tells me so much. I only have my imagination.

And the recipe:

  • .75 oz Scotch

  • .75 oz Sweet vermouth

  • .75 oz Cherry brandy

  • .75 oz Fresh orange juice

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

trytryagainBlood and Sand. What are two things I’d rather not drink, Alex? I do realize we have had drinks called a Monkey Gland and Horse’s Neck but this one may take the cake for most peculiar name. Of course David has already explained the name is less description than connection.

The use of Scotch is appreciated, no matter what the name. I keep a few different bottles of Scotch in the house for friends who visit, but have never used it successfully in a cocktail. This drink, with its sweet Cherry Heering, sweet Vermouth and fresh squeezed orange comes as close to success as I think you can get though. The Scotch hides in the background, letting the cherry taste come forward. The layers of sweet also mask the barley liquor, but to an extent that you wonder why a dry vermouth or even the Benedictine substitute from last week isn’t used. I have to imagine that true Scotch drinkers would be offended, even if they wouldn’t be mixing a Scotch cocktail in the first place.

This is also another example of the beneficial use of fresh over bottled. I made the drink for neighbors over the weekend and since I was making more than one, I squeezed fresh oranges. When it came time for the picture, though, I used bottled orange juice and result was a cloudier, thicker and sweeter drink. If you are going to try this one, don’t be lazy like I was. Squeeze away. The difference is noticeable.

Jonathan’s take: There aren’t many cocktails using Scotch and this one works, but I may try some less sweet variations.

David’s Take: The scotch was certainly disguised—and maybe that’s the point—but no flavor seemed that prominent to me. I’ll keep searching for an effective scotch cocktail.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

Winter has hardly gotten started and I am already tired of it. I need some spring, some summer and some warm sun. Since none of that is going to happen soon, I think we need to go tropical next week. Years ago we visited the home of Pusser’s rum in the British Virgin Islands. One of their signature drinks is the Painkiller and if we can’t go back to Tortola the least we can do is try to recreate that most descriptive cocktail.

 

 

The B-52

Proposed by: JonathanB-52

Reviewed by: David

The B-52 is a shot, a layered drink, a dessert or a memory device depending on your perspective. Before addressing all of that though, where did the name come from? Is it the super bomber used by the U.S. military for well over 50 years now? The beehive hairdo whose upright form resembles the nose of that bomber? Or could it be the band formed long ago in Georgia famous for me and David because of the rock lobster?

In some way or another the name comes from them all. The B-52 is a stratofortress bomber built by Boeing since the 1950’s. It is still in use today and has become known, among many other reasons, for its easily identifiable nose structure. That structure in turn resembled a famous hairstyle that dates to 1960. The beehive hairdo has its place in history but could still be seen on musical stars, like Amy Winehouse, in the last decade. The shape of the bomber nose and the hairdo are intertwined in the name of the band that formed in Athens, Georgia in the mid 70’s. The group that became the B-52’s started with an unplanned performance that followed the sharing of flaming tiki drink. You have to love that story for the nice, neat package that creates for a drink blog. Of course all of that is if you believe one of the many creations stories for this cocktail.

The story that I am sticking with is the one that connects the drink back to the band, and from there all the way back to the bomber. In this version of creation, a bartender at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta created the shot. Peter Fich was apparently known for naming his drink creations after his favorite bands and the mix of coffee liqueur, Irish cream and orange cognac was named for that band in Athens. Their name in turn was derived through a dream, or so the story goes, and the beehive hairdos favored by the two female lead singers. And of course the beehive hairdo was tied back to the plane and its distinctive nose structure. So in all the drink is named for a band, named for a hairdo, which looks like a bomber. Makes perfect sense.

This is layered drink whether you consume it as a shot or mix and sip. The first layer is one part Kahlua, the second is one part Irish Cream, and the final layer is one part orange cognac. There are other versions that substitute Frangelico for the orange cognac (B-51), tequila for the Irish Cream (B-52 in the desert), absinthe for the orange cognac (B-55), peppermint schnapps for the Irish cream (B-57) or amaretto for the cognac (B-54). I’m sure there are more than that, and that somehow my expanded liquor cabinet could help make them, but you get the idea.

Party stores sell cups of all sizes and thanks to the whiskey tasting from some months ago, I have a supply of 1.5 ounce cups. I mixed B-52’s, B-51’s, and B-55’s for a tasting group. The classic was by far the favorite, and brought back some fond memories (I did not press for details) for a couple of friends who were dating at the time they first enjoyed them and now fall into the happily married for longer than they care to admit category. Another nice connection.

Here’s David’s Review:

portrait3I don’t lead the sort of life that routinely—or mostly ever—includes shots. However, f you look at the B-52 as a scientific proposition, it hardly counts as serious drinking. It’s not about rushing alcohol to the brain at all. It’s about specific gravity.

My wife found an article she’d clipped from the Louisville Courier-Journal over 25 years ago that lists spirits according to their weight, so that, if you were extra careful and had a shot glass a meter tall, you might “build” a drink with nearly 100 layers of spirits.

In making my first B-52, I went with the classic recipe, but after that I tried other combinations that might cooperate with the formula. I tried a B-55 (also called a B-52 Gunship) that substituted absinthe for triple sec, and I tried adding scotch as the top layer (pictured above). My experiments were partly play, but I also hoped to find some flavor combination that, besides being aesthetically pleasing, might taste the best.

I was torn on whether to drink in layers or mix. On Thanksgiving night I tried layers. Last night, I tried stirring before I drank.

But here’s the trouble: I don’t like Baileys much…. which is to say I don’t like it at all. Cream and alcohol are an iffy mix—no liqueur should curdle, as far as I’m concerned—and to me Baileys is as opaque in flavor as it is in appearance. It’s supposed to taste like Irish Whiskey and does, but everything added makes it sickly-sweet. I know plenty of people who enjoy Irish Cream, but, for some reason, it reminds me of a Three Musketeers candy bar dissolved in alcohol. Even its smell puts me off a bit. I imagine the nightmares my mind would invent if I drank too much of the stuff… testy leprechauns and Irish step-dancing hippos.

I know, I know, it’s all a matter of taste. Someone loves every spirit. I wish I liked it, and maybe a reader can introduce me to the perfect use for Baileys. In the meantime, based on first exposure, I’m ready to give away my seven-eighths of a bottle of Baileys.

I’ll also throw in Blue Curaçao, Crème de Menthe, and Malört as a bonus. My wife finished the Campari or you could have that too. My list of abhorred cocktail ingredients is not that long, but it’s growing.

Being a fan of the ironic whimsy of the band the B-52s and a true product of the late 70’s and early 80’s, I wanted to be wowed, and it was fun to play with the various possibilities. Plus, these shots were beautiful in a nearly Seussian way and certainly different from anything else we’ve tasted. I may return to the idea of layering using the yellowed list my wife found. However, as the B in the B-52 (and its variations) must stand for “Baileys,” I’ll be looking for a B-52 without the B.

It could be I’m just not made for shots, but, as fun as the science was, I’m fine with mixing rather than building drinks.

David’s Take: More pleasing to the eye than to the palate, and, as I’ve learned over and over on this blog, taste matters most.

Jonathan’s take: Sweet story, sweet memories and sweet drink. The variations are fun though, and boy did I have folks asking for more.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Jonathan’s birthday falls on Pearl Harbor day, which is next Sunday, so I thought about proposing a Pearl Harbor cocktail… but that’s much too tropical, not at all seasonal. Instead, I thought it’d be interesting to try something with gin. Though it’s not generally seen as a winter drink either, a number of winter gin recipes online intrigued me. So I decided on a Winter Gin Sangaree. The word “Sangaree” comes from the Spanish root “sangre” or blood, which it shares with “sangria.” In the specific case of this drink, the term refers to a style combining gin and wine dating from the 1770s. For my purposes, however, this concoction is intended to honor my beloved brother, with whom I share bonds of blood and friendship… and cocktails.

Whiskey (or Whisky) and the Old Fashioned

heavenProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are classic cocktails and there is the classic cocktail. If the Old Fashioned is not the most classic cocktail, it is on the very short list being considered. A cocktail, or bittered sling for you old fashioned types, is defined as a spirit, water, sugar and bitters. The Old Fashioned is traditionally a whiskey, sugar, water and bitters. There may have been a different bitter in the original recipe but since it is no longer available Angostura is the most common.

This may be one of the few drinks, despite its age, for which there is some consensus about the history. It was created in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880’s at the Pendennis Club. The recipe was introduced to New Yorkers through one of the Pendennis Club members, Col. James Pepper, who had it made at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. There were variations that included different types of gin, brandy and other whiskeys and it is not too hard to imagine that rum was another alternative at that time.

The most traditional way to make an Old Fashioned uses straight sugar. The sugar, in lump or granular form, is muddled with a small amount of water. The whiskey and bitters are added followed by ice and a garnish of lemon peel. I chose a recipe that used simple syrup instead of the muddled sugar and water:

2 ounces whiskey (rye or bourbon classically)
.5 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitter
Lemon peel for garnish

Mix all ingredients in glass with ice, stir and strain into a glass (old fashioned of course) with a large chunk of ice then garnish with lemon peel. I also made a version with demerara simple syrup and orange bitters. Purists may argue that the classics should remain steadfast to the basic recipe, but this is a drink that has almost as many variations as the simple list of components permit.

The second part of this week’s selection was a whiskey tasting, in part to determine what to use in the cocktail. Thanks to this blog, I had a number of options to taste and friends contributed more. A group of us ended up trying two regular bourbons, one high proof bourbon, a wheat whiskey, a rye whiskey and one from Tennessee.

Tastings can be as detailed and complex as you want, but we settled on some introductory comments and instructions from Bourbon Jerry on what to look for and consider and a basic rating system. All the participants tried small, very small, tastings of numbered whiskeys (so there would not be any bias), rated them on a scale from 1 to 10 with the higher number the better rating, and added short comments if they chose.

Not too surprisingly, the higher end selection of the two bourbons was rated best. It was a little unexpected that the other straight bourbon, which by itself on ice has been a very popular brand with some of the regular bourbon drinkers, was the lowest rated. The wheat, rye, Tennessee and high proof bourbon all had similar ratings with notes that ranged from the basic “smooth” to the more detailed “tastes like pine trees.” Not exactly pure science, but an interesting way to compare and contrast. One final note – after the tasting it was hard to get folks to try the drink so maybe one endeavor or the other at a time would be better.

And Here’s David’s Review:

whiskers1As seriously as I took this tasting process—and I thought of it as the main event before making my Old Fashioned—my assessment was anything but scientific. Even if I put aside using one version of each whiskey to represent the style and overlook my suspect tasting apparatus, the task itself was troublesome.

When students miss the purpose of comparison-contrast analysis, I sometimes demonstrate with paperclips. The paperclips I pass around look identical but, on closer examination, differ in subtle ways. One is more tarnished, another noticeably re-bent into shape. One is slightly larger or smaller, a frailer gauge, another grade of metal, or looser than another. The point is that, when two things seem alike, you become more discerning and make subtle—we hope, more valuable—distinctions.

Whiskeys are so different it’s difficult to compare in subtle ways. Were they paperclips, they’d be a brass fastener and a bobby pin, an alligator clip and a clothes pin, or a surgical clamp. I wondered, “What do these seemingly unlike things have in common that makes them all whiskeys?”

Of course, you can look elsewhere for the technical answer, but as a taster (with some help from a friend, thank goodness), I recognized oak in nearly all and a mellow, rounded sweetness that, depending on the type, announced themselves or demurred. On top of that flavor base, the way they entered and exited my notice varied considerably.

A taster’s vocabulary is usually much more savvy, but comparing unlike things is tough. Six bourbons or scotches might incite subtler, more taster-worthy diction, as Jonathan’s process suggests. However, here’s my line-up, with preferences (and ranks) after each:

Scotch Whiskey (Glenmorangie Single Malt, 10 Year Old): Thanks to an unfortunate experience at a Revolutionary War reenactment many years ago, I have a pretty indelible sense of what scotch tastes like. It’s earthy, often peaty or smoky, and, compared to some of the other whiskeys on this list, seems harsher in its attack and more lingering in its aftertaste. Though the particular scotch I tried was mellower and less leathery than the Islay scotches I’ve tried, it nonetheless reminded me that scotch is the most distinctive whiskey, redolent of tannin and more sulfurous (to me) than the others.

Though I’m not a scotch man, I can appreciate its unabashed idiosyncrasies (4).

Irish Whiskey (Powers Gold Label): Depending on your taste, the multiple distillations of Irish Whiskey either make it smooth (and thus highly drinkable) or domesticated to the point of being too tame. To me, the Powers evoked caramel that almost erased the oak until it reappeared at the finish and created something refined, more gentle than bold. Fieriness and distinctively different components weren’t as notable in this Irish whiskey. Maybe the proof of two spirits—the scotch was stronger—accounts for that, but flavors appear to cooperate more in Irish whiskey.

Drinkable, partly because some flamboyance seems washed out by distillation (5).

Canadian Whisky (Bison Ridge Canadian Whisky, 8 Year): A fine line divides “subtle” and “confused.” People who love Canadian Whisky will say my tasting apparatus is flawed, but, in this field of whiskeys, the Canadian variety seemed tame, relatively uniform in medicinal flavor start to finish, thoroughly distilled. It could be the brand I chose, but this spirit possessed less woody or sweet overtones than its brother-whiskeys. Were they a family, Canadian Whiskey would be the reticent one—visitors lean in to catch a few words.

Canadian Whisky is solid, likeable, and maybe not ambitious enough for me (6).

Bourbon (Rebel Yell): Bourbon seems all about corn and displays a rounded gravity and sweetness that sets it apart from the other whiskeys. Any bitter or tannin-y flavors imparted by the oak are largely subdued by a taste that, for me, recalls cornbread. There’s something quite cooked about bourbon that some enjoy and some don’t. My tasting companion finds its grain elements so overabundant they distract from its spiritousness. Bourbon comes closest to the candied flavor of liqueurs (without their overt sugariness).

I like Bourbon’s recollection of cornbread, though I see why some don’t (2).

Rye (Rittenhouse): As a higher-proof rye whiskey, my version made itself known right away in a very alcohol-forward first impression. However, the sharp and spicy taste of rye also rests with rye itself, which—think about rye bread—can conjure anise or fennel. The sweet element in rye takes a second seat to an almost botanical taste, seeming more burnt—think pralines—than refined. Rye’s popularity in cocktails may rest in its capacity to echo whatever spice, sweetness, or botanical taste the other ingredients provide. One its own, its more direct, and for some, probably too harsh.

Among whiskeys, rye may be less palatable straight but is a welcome chameleon in cocktails (1).

Corn Whiskey/Moonshine (Buffalo Trace White Dog, Mash #1): Having encountered moonshine only in movies and television, I expected it to be close to ethyl alcohol in potency and distillation. However, the particular variety I chose reminded me much more of cachaca. It seemed uncooked, and, having never been aged in any sort of cask, nothing mitigated its almost candy corn smell and taste. Yes, it was potent (quite) but not at all in the medicinal way I thought. In fact, it felt closer to raw bourbon or rum than vodka.

This whiskey’s corn power and taste seem crude, which is a good and bad thing (3).

My choice for the Old Fashioned was Corn Whiskey—not because I liked it best but because it seemed the most dramatic. After tasting all those whiskeys, it seemed especially alcoholic to me. I see why the Old Fashioned is Don Draper’s favorite. It’s straight and sweet. Yet, I’d never in a million years make another with Corn Whiskey (and doubt he would either) because the spirit seems to steal the show.

Jonathan’s take: I am no purist, so the basic Old Fashioned offers endless possibilities and an excuse to acquire more bitters.

David’s take: Cocktails that promise variation and experimentation are a this not-so-savvy cocktailian’s dream.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

As my late and long posting indicates, this week seemed pretty ambitious to me. Next week, not so much. After a week of drinks that made me feel like I was being embraced by a series of grandfathers in wool cardigans, I thought it’d be nice to try a Cosmopolitan, an easy and breezy combination of vodka, cranberry juice, and orange liqueur… and quite a leap from Mad Men into Sex in the City.

The Rusty Nail

drinxProposed by: David

Reviewed by: Jonathan

When Jonathan and I started this enterprise, I’d given little thought to cocktail history we’d learn along the way. Every drink has a quirky, often disputatious, provenance. Some seem stranger than fiction, positively invented, and some, I suspect, are.

David Wondrich, cocktail historian—excuse me, how does one get that job?—says the Rusty Nail was born during the British Industries Fair of 1937 and called a B.I.F, which appeared over 20 years after the commercial introduction of Drambuie, a whiskey and herb liqueur some say originated in the late 18th century. After 1937, the Rusty Nail took on many aliases: D & S, Little Club No. 1, a Mig-21 (during the Vietnam war), and, in Chicago, a Knucklehead.

Other cocktail historians—wait, there’s more than one… and are there room for more?—locate the Rusty Nail in the early 1960s Manhattan 21 Club. In 1963, the chairwoman of Drambuie approved the recipe and, supposedly, the drink became popular with the Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The rest of the world, wanting so desperately to be so cool, followed suit. People probably just liked snarling it at bartenders Sinatra-style.

As for the name that stuck, I could find little evidence of its origin, except for one account claiming a bartender in Scotland named it when he rewarded uncouth American patrons with the drink stirred with a rusty nail.

For the record, I cry bullshit on that story—nice to attribute the name to a Scotsman and all, and we know our countrymen can be obnoxious, but the drink is American through and through. I’m more prone to make up a story of my own… which I might… and disseminate… just to see if I can find my own way into cocktail lore.

Before the recipe, one more thing. The recipe comes with many varieties, the Rusty Ale (a shot of Drambuie in beer), the Smoky Nail (with Islay Scotch), the Clavo Ahumado (Mezcal instead of Scotch), the Railroad Spike (with coffee and Scotch and Drambuie and bitters) and The Donald Sutherland (Rye instead of Scotch). There are others, no doubt, but that’s enough to keep you trying variations for a while.

Now here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. Pour the ingredients into an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes.
  2. Stir well.
  3. Garnish with the lemon twist.

rnailHere’s Jonathan’s Review:

It seems like scotch should be in my taste palette both from its makeup and my own. The mash from which it begins is predominantly malted barley making it essentially distilled beer. There is also the Scottish heritage of our surname and paternal ancestry. Even our maternal line, although tracing from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, includes our great grandmother’s (nee Agnes McDonald) family tree which goes back to Thomas McDonald. He was from Ireland though so maybe that’s part of why I am always on the fence about this particular spirit. Then again it might not be ingredients or genetics.

The part of this cocktail that has been most intriguing from the first time I had seen the recipe is the Drambuie. Although its base is malted whisky, the addition of honey and herbs adds a sweetness and flavors that can’t help but enhance the taste of scotch in my mind. I tasted the Drambuie on its own, and it in turn needs the scotch to cut that sweetness.

Thanks to their use in other cocktails we have tried, there was a basic scotch blend and a smoky one available as choices for the main spirit. I made versions with both of course. The version using Johnny Walker Black was the more successful mix. The Drambuie enhanced the scotch and there was just enough sweetness without being too much. I got the second version (I was sharing this week with my oldest son) made with Black Grouse. I thought the smoke and sweet would blend well, but it wasn’t nearly as smooth. Should have switched them when my son wasn’t looking.

This cocktail also proved the benefit of edge smoothing that occurs with the dilution of water. Spirits are distilled to a much higher alcohol percentage and then cut or bloomed with water. The slow melting of ice in the Rusty Nail had the same mellowing effect and it improved as that happened.

Jonathan’s take: Looked forward to the Drambuie, but in the end, it and the scotch needed each other.

David’s take: Oddly, scotch may be my least favorite spirit. One recipe told me to cut the sweet Drambuie with the scotch, but, personally, I liked the sweetness best.

Next week (proposed by Jonathan):

I will be spending time this week with a large group of golfers, many of whom are old friends from college. Thinking we might try a cocktail associated with golf, I put the proposal to a vote. Instead we will be returning to those college days and the drink will be the alcohol heavy Long Island Iced Tea. Here’s hoping we remember our age when we do.

The Toast of the Town

Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Toast3The proposal last week noted that we have not tried a cocktail with Scotch. There are classic cocktails like the Rob Roy or Blood and Sand, but don’t seem to be nearly as many variations with Scotch as there are with other whisky (or whiskey). On the other hand, Scotch whisky can vary by being single malt, single grain, blended and all of that with different distilleries by region. The single malt is simply water and malted barley, while the single grain, oddly, can use other grains but is made at a single distillery. The blends make this more complex by blending more than one single malt, more than one single grain, or single malt with single grain.

Once a neophyte grasps that, and the taste variations that come along with it, there are the recognized regions and the differences that brings. The regions are Speyside, Cambeltown, Islay, Lowland and the Highlands. One of the things I find most peculiar is that while Scotland may be an island itself, it has small islands on which they make Scotch. That seems like a region too, but those are included in the Highlands region. Islands are highlands? Of course they are.

Not complicated enough yet? Scotch must be aged in oak casks for at least 3 years to meet requirements but can be, and is, aged much longer to mellow, smooth and increase the complexity of taste. Someone could, and no doubt has, spend their lifetime taste testing all the single malts, single grains, the blends derived from them, and the aged Scotches. I know that I have few friends who would happily volunteer for that task.

The cocktail this week is a relatively new one created by Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. It is called the Talk of the Town and I found it in the e-book Speakeasy Cocktails. It uses a blended Scotch from the Famous Grouse family called Black Grouse. Black grouse is described as being smoky and smooth which was appealing as a contrast to the standard sweet and sour (citrus) that make up so many cocktails.

2 ounce Black Grouse blended Scotch

.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juiced

.5 ounce fresh lemon juice

.75 ounce honey syrup (simple syrup made with honey instead of sugar)

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a coupe or martini glass.

In the proposal I suggested that David may want to go to Sable to try this drink. Interesting that, as David notes, it doesn’t appear on the menu any longer. Not sure this is a verdict on the cocktail, or a comment on the cocktail bar that is constantly mixing and re-mixing to find new combinations.

Here’s David’s Review:Toast 2

I’m compiling a list of bars and restaurants I’d like to visit when my brother comes to Chicago. If you were to arrive here on or around St. Patrick’s Day or the evening of some post-season game, you might think Chicagoans are all nomadic drunks, but we have some sophisticated drinkers too. We don’t all have mustaches, drink PBR, and bray about “Da Bearrs.” Just about every eatery on my list features a cocktail special to that place and—as a bonus—many serve good food.

So I was happy to visit The Sable Kitchen and Bar, one of the dim minimalist, black-furnished, in-the-know spots that seem to appear on every corner inside the loop. Perhaps you have them in your city too—this one had an eight-foot long fireplace filled with a video screen displaying flames. Because it was 1° F the night my wife and I visited, we’d have liked a real flame more, still I’m not making fun. One of the most wonderful aspects of living in Chicago is its celebration of, well, celebrations. Any excuse for a libation will do. Certainly a cold night will do.

But enough civic pride. When we arrived at The Sable, I explained we were on a mission—I might have said… “from Gawd” in that Blues Brothers way, but everyone has heard that around here so it’s understood. The cocktail menu rebuffed us. It didn’t include The Talk of the Town, but our waiter carried the recipe off, explaining their bartenders could make anything.

He returned with the drink and news—they knew the drink after all, as “The Toast of the Town,” and it had appeared on some previous incarnation of their cocktail menu. The drink I tasted, however, seemed a little cobbled together. The recipe calls for honey simple syrup, and this version seemed to have a too-generous squirt of honey in it. Too sweet and nearly hiding the Scotch, for which I’d longed.

Fortunately, he’d brought just one, and, by the time my wife’s arrived, the bartender had evolved—or changed—and I understood how this cocktail works. Though I hadn’t had the chance to try Black Grouse by itself, it’d been advertised as a peaty spirit, and the citrus and honey served to blunt, without eradicating, the somewhat leathery taste of the Scotch. Her drink was lovely, and I wanted to steal it.

We have an Islay Scotch at home. It comes from an earlier drink recipe, but we only use it now to illustrate to guests how strange and “challenging” a spirit can sometimes be. I’ve been trying to rehabilitate Scotch ever since that unfortunate evening before I participated with my fiddler college roommate in a reenactment of the Battle of the Greensboro Courthouse (don’t ask), but I’ve been unable. Now, finally, I feel I’m making progress. Why shouldn’t I like Scotch, why shouldn’t it go with citrus and honey and whatever else, why shouldn’t I join the ranks of those in Chicago and elsewhere who find Scotch the most subtle spirit, a gift of the Celtic gods?

David’s Take: Scotch purists would say any mixed drink is an unjust adulteration of the perfected moderated spirit, but, properly executed, this drink was delicious.

Jonathan’s take: The smokiness that seemed so inviting may be the drawback to this. The initial taste is blended and wonderful, but the peat lingers at the finish.

Next week (proposed by David):

Oddly, here in Chicago we’ve been having Manhattan week (of 14 days, apparently… see earlier comments about Chicago) with assorted restaurants offering their own variations. Suddenly I wondered, “How have we missed trying such a classic?” I thought it might be fun to invite Jonathan to try the traditional type—or one of those variations—while I try another version. So let’s hop Southwestern to LaGuardia and New York to try a Manhattan.