Archive for Bourbon and Rye

New McKenna @ Ledger’s

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on June 23, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Just a quick follow up to my posting about selecting barrels of bourbon with the East Bay Study Group back in March. The bottled bourbon has arrived at Ledger’s at last. The group’s first place selection is available as Barrel #8. As the barrel was a relatively low fill you can expect this one to sell out pretty quickly. The second place selection is available as Barrel #9. There’s a lot more of this as the barrel had a surprisingly high fill. (We had expected both to be on the low side.) Both bottles are very reasonably priced at about $25 each.

One thing worth pointing out is that technically these are NOT McKenna bourbons in as much as the barrels we selected don’t necessarily conform to Heaven Hill’s own profile for that product. Heaven Hill has chosen to make the McKenna label available for this particular barrel purchase program (a huge expedience) but was willing to provide a relatively wide range of samples to us try. This is worth keeping in mind whenever you are evaluating a privately purchased and bottled barrel of whiskey. Not all programs are equally flexible (i.e. some programs only offer barrel samples which are more or less “on profile” for the label) but in the case of Heaven Hill and McKenna, we are afforded a great opportunity.

Vermouth in the Balance

Posted in Amari, Bourbon and Rye, Cocktails, Manhattans, Musings with tags , , , , on April 21, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Part one of an investigation into achieving balance in spirits-driven cocktails.

A few days ago I had the occasion to revisit an old original cocktail called The Criollo. I created it back in 2009 when I first fell in love with amari (singular amaro), the class of Italian digestive bitters that many bartenders were experimenting with at the time, most notoriously in the so-called “Black Manhattan.” In that cocktail some or most of the vermouth is replaced by an amaro. My particular goal was to bring chocolate flavors into a manhattan-style cocktail that would appeal to adult drinkers—i.e. not be creamy or too sweet. I had found that Mozart (the people who make the Austrian chocolates) had a liqueur (Mozart Black) that claims to contain 87% cacao mass. It wasn’t creamy but still pretty sweet with plenty of chocolate flavor. My thinking was to balance the sweetness of the Mozart Black against the bitterness of the amaro. Here’s what I came up with:

The Criollo (No. 2, AKA The Mozart Black Manhattan)

2 oz. rye
3/4 oz. Amer Boudreau (or Ramazzotti)
1/4 oz. Mozart Black chocolate liqueur
1 barspoon Grand Marnier
1 short dash Fee Bros. Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
1 short dash Angostura orange bitters (optional if you used Amer Boudreau)
Long thin orange peel, for garnish

I liked it well enough when I first formulated it but when I remade it I was struck right away by how sweet it was. Not sickly, but pretty out there. I don’t know why it didn’t strike me so at the time. However, the reason for its sweetness is certainly no mystery to me now: it was the amaro. While we experience them as bitter, most amari contain a lot of sugar. I am guessing anywhere 20 to 30% by volume, possibly higher. Add that to the sugar in the Mozart Black liqueur and then my barspoon of Grand Marnier, and well, my recipe starts to look pretty lopsided. Think of it in terms of major flavoring components:

rye: congeners+wood flavorings
amaro: sugar+bitters/herbs
liqueur: sugar+cacao
liqueur: sugar+orange
aromatic bitters: bitters/herbs

If this were a glass of wine I was tasting, I might apply the adjective “angular,” meaning to me that the flavor is dominated by a couple of notes (in this case sweet and bitter) that don’t particularly harmonize. Nothing much links them together (though the chocolate and orange do help). In my mind, when I picture the flavors of this cocktail, this is what I see:

What this cocktail needed was a major rethink!

Back to Basics

I started by considering my point of origin, the Manhattan and flavors lent to it by the ingredient I had chosen to replace, the sweet vermouth. To be honest, it’s not an ingredient I had given my deepest thoughts to before. I knew which brands I liked but had otherwise taken it more or less for granted. Now however l had reason to really engage with it. Why does sweet vermouth create a balanced cocktail while the combination of amaro and liqueur (a pretty complex set of flavors) fails to do so? For starters, the vermouth is far less sugary. But what else is going on in there? I decided that it would be worthwhile tasting though a number of different sweet vermouths* and cataloging aromas and flavors. Here’s my aggregated list:

vanilla, orange peel, white pepper, wine, licorice, sun dried tomato, cedar, mint, dust, brown sugar, nuts, vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, menthol, baby powder (flowers), anise, cherry, plum, chalk, band-aid, bitter

If I then reduce this list to classes of aromas and flavors, I get this more canonical list:

Acid
Sugar
Herbal/Bitter
Oxidized Flavors
Fruit
Minerals
Savory

Looking at this list, two things occurred to me in quick succession:

First, this single ingredient is capable of providing a very wide spectrum of flavors. It has what I believe flavor chemists call high amplitude, where “amplitude” is defined as the total effect of flavor and aroma in a food. The higher the flavor amplitude, the more broadly it stimulates our taste buds. (Ketchup is the classic example of a food which has high amplitude.) So including vermouth in a cocktail provides a big flavor bang for the buck. Depending on the brand of vermouth used, it tickles pretty much every major flavor receptor in some degree.

Second, neither of the ingredients I used in place of the sweet vermouth provided any significant amount of acid. If you think about all the different sorts of ingredients one uses in spirits-driven cocktails, you can see that while it’s easy to get sugar into the drink, its much harder to get acid to balance things out—that’s the brilliance of citrus in a sour. Vermouth, being based on wine, brings acid along with all of its other flavors. In addition to balance, that acid also helps heighten our experience of all the other flavors as well.

It seems pretty obvious that when we replace vermouth in a spirits-driven cocktail, we’ve got a pretty tough act to follow. It’s kind of a super-ingredient: complex flavors and acid. In The Criollo cocktail, I had found a way to bring complex flavors together (there’s plenty going on in there) but I had lost any acid that might balance against the additional sugar in those ingredients. Obviously I could try adding back some vermouth to fix The Criollo and re-balance it. That seemed like going backward. What I really wanted to know is what other options I might have for bringing acid into a spirit-driven cocktail. It was time to do some serious science!

Next: Putting Ingredients to the Acid Test

[*] - Vermouths evaluated were: Carpano Antica, Dolin rouge, Noilly-Pratt rouge, Vya sweet, and Cocchi Barolo Chinatto. Technically the latter isn’t a vermouth but it can certainly be used as one and I happen to have an open bottle.

McKenna Barrels On Their Way

Posted in Bourbon and Rye with tags on April 17, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

A little update for those of you who might be following the story of the East Bay Study Group’s recent tasting of barrel samples from Heaven Hill.

First off, Ed agreed with the group’s appraisal of the samples and also agreed that purchasing two barrels made a lot of sense (especially given how fast the last barrel sold out).

Second, the group has been informed by Heaven Hill that the selected barrels have been dumped and bottled. Product is making its way west from Kentucky as I write this. It should arrive within the next few weeks and show up on the shelves @ Ledger’s sometime thereafter. Below is a photo of one of the barrels as it was dumped.

Hmmm, whiskey!

Lunch with Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller from Four Roses Distillery

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on October 6, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller from Four Roses at a luncheon arranged for the local press by Laura Baddish of The Baddish Group. Also present were representatives from Kentfield Marketing Group including Meryl Cawn and Kurt Charles. Kentfield does marketing and on-premise sales for Four Roses in the greater SF Bay area. We gathered at Zero Zero in San Francisco for the occasion.

About Jim…

Jim Rutledge has been in the spirits business for over 43 years. He started work with Seagram’s in 1966 when they owned the Four Roses brand. He held a variety of positions within the company but ultimately transferred to the Four Roses distillery in 1992. In 1995 he was named Master Distiller, a title he’s held ever since. Jim’s predecessors at Four Roses include Ova Hanye and Charlie Beam (who retired in 1994). Jim’s won an array of awards for his work including membership in the Bourbon Hall of Fame and Malt Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

A bit of (complex) history…

While Four Roses distillery has a history which dates back to well before prohibition, it’s not a brand which was well known among discerning drinkers in the United States until after 2002. Prior to that, Seagram’s, who owned the brand since 1913 (or 1941, or 1943, depending on who you ask), had chosen to sell only an inexpensive blended whiskey under that label here in the states. (For those those who may not know: a blended whiskey contains only a small proportion of barrel aged spirit. The bulk is grain alcohol which results in a much lighter simpler product.)

In 2001, a controlling interest in Seagram’s was purchased by Vivendi, who was after the company’s entertainment holdings. Vivendi then sold off its interest in the drink business, a part of which was acquired by Diageo. Diageo eventually divested itself of the Four Roses distillery which was then purchased by the Japanese beer brewing company Kirin. Kirin had been the distributor for Four Roses bourbon (not the blended whiskey) in Japan and wanted to continue selling it there. [*] Kirin also agreed it was time to re-launch the brand here in the United States. According to Jim Rutledge, shortly thereafter the distillery purchased all the remaining stocks of the blended product and had it destroyed. (Wow!) The single barrel bottling was then released in the US as a way of building the brand back up.

[*] — Following all of this? The history of Four Roses is nothing if not complicated. I have done my best to simplify it. A much more detailed, though perhaps no less confusing account, can be found here.

Mr. Rutledge holds forth…

I had already known that much of what makes the Four Roses product distinct involved two mash bills (including a high-rye of 35%) and the use of five distinct yeast strains. The results are 10 distinct bourbons out of which the various bottlings are then derived. These were details which Jim reiterated to the group. There is simply no other distillery working in this manner today making Four Roses a truly distinctive product.

News to me was the use of multiple single-story rack warehouses (AKA rick houses) in which the product is aged. These are unique in the Bourbon industry. There are 20 warehouse at the distillery; each is about 40,000 square feet in size (that’s close to one acre each) and holds over 24,000 barrels. The storage racks inside are six barrels high. According to Jim, there are two distinct advantages to all of this.

First, the single story design results in only a six degree difference in temperature between the racks at the top and bottom of the warehouse. This means all the barrels age more or less evenly regardless of where they are positioned. This more or less obviates the need to rotate barrels through the floors over time, a practice which Jim asserts no one follows any more anyway.[*] I also learned that in general warehouses are neither temperature nor humidity controlled. Thus the environment inside is dependent on outside conditions and under goes seasonal variations.

Second, it means that in the event of a fire (such things happen), not all of the stock will be threatened. In fact, each year’s ‘make’ is distributed between all of the warehouses so that a fire in one would not have the effect of ‘wiping out’ a given vintage.

[*] — In multi-story warehouses the temperature differential between the top and bottom floors can be quite extreme. Traditionally barrels were rotated between floors during aging to ‘average out’ the effects of temperature or to heighten the same in a set of barrels by choosing to not rotate them.

What about the whiskey?

While Jim was doing all this talking, we were encouraged to start tasting the five whiskeys which had been poured for us: three regular selections and two unaged (“white dog”) samples poured to show the effect of the different yeasts on the flavor.

The three regular selections were the Yellow (made from a blend of all 10 bourbon recipes), the small batch (a blend of two recipes), and the single barrel (a single recipe based on the high-rye mash bill, bottled at 100 proof). All were quite delicious. I was most impressed by the ‘yellow label’ which I hadn’t bothered to taste critically before. It had a nice roundness and a goodly dollop of sweetness. However, at 40% alcohol it seems likely to get lost in many cocktails. I only wish it were a higher proof product.

Two additional “white dog” samples were poured to show the effect of the yeast used. Both used the same mash bill (the high-rye) and were more or less the same proof, about 138, just as they came off the still. The difference in nose and flavor was frankly quite astonishing. Where one was restrained the other was effusive and floral, totally changing the sensation of ‘heat’ on the palate. Jim told us that it’s equally illuminating to taste new make whiskey using the same yeast but where the mash bill varies. I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to have that experience.

Finally…

Over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to meet Master Distillers from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and now Four Roses. In the heads of these men (and yes, for the moment, this seems to be pretty much a white male dominated game) resides the bulk of wisdom on the making of American barrel aged spirits. And while small production (AKA artisanal) craft spirits are becoming something of a hot product category, it feels like distillers at these much newer ventures will be playing catch up with their more senior counterparts for a while.

Certainly large established distilleries have a fiscal advantage that most small start up distilleries don’t share in the form of a pipeline of product that’s ready for market every year. But they also have something else: a long history of making reliable and consistent product and the domain expertise on how to do that passed from distiller to distiller. [*] The value of lineage and wisdom passed on between generations cannot be underestimated.

[*] – And in all fairness, the small distiller has the advantage of being able to experiment, bringing possibly novel products to market more quickly, and without risking an established brand.

WhiskyFest’s a Comin’

Posted in Bourbon and Rye, Spirits News with tags , on September 9, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Just a reminder to all of you who live in the bay area that San Francisco WhiskyFest™ is coming upon us. Once again it will be held in the capacious San Francisco Marriott from 6:30 to 9:30 PM (VIP admission gets you in an hour earlier.) While it’s not until the 8th of October, there’s some expectation that tickets will sell out. [UPDATE: There are fewer than 50 of the VIP tickets left as of this afternoon.] If you’re serious about brown goods, this is a not to be missed event. I went last year and I can tell you it’s a great opportunity to taste dozens of the best barrel aged spirits on the planet and meet with (fawn over?) many of the distillers and ask your burning hot questions. Don’t like scotch whisky, you say? Well, fret not! Our home-grown products are well represented here as well by the likes of Anchor Distillery, Buffalo Trace, Michter’s, Stranahan’s, Four Roses, Pappy Van Winkle, and Heaven Hill (to name but a few). There will also be chances to sip some microbrews and maybe even the odd rum or cognac. And just to round things out, there could be cocktails! Last year Rickhouse offered samples of their signature cocktails throughout the evening.[*]

Seminars…

If you can drag yourself away from the tasting tables, there are also seminars to attend, each about 45 minutes in length. (Admission included in the price of your ticket, but space is limited.) Richard Patterson (Master Blender, Whyte and Mackay) will be giving his (in)famous, expletive-laden lecture on The Dalmore, complete with tasting and ice throwing. Fritz Maytag (Anchor Distilling Company), Neyah White (Brand Ambassador for Yamazaki) and Parker Beam (Master Distiller for Heaven Hill) will also be giving talks, though unfortunately their seminars run in parallel with one another so you’ll have to make a tough choice. A complete list of seminars can be found by clicking here.

Anything else?

It’s not very well advertised but there’s an incredible buffet of hot and cold food available before and then during the event. (And yes, that’s included in the price of your ticket too!) So there’s no reason to eat dinner before arriving. They even switch over to deserts toward the end of the evening, just to round things out. A perfect time to sample the Compass Box Orangerie or Germain-Robin XO.

Oh, and you also get use and take home a lovely little Glencairn tasting glass. That’s actually the “official” whisky tasting glass, sometimes known as a nosing glass. I’ve found it works equally well with whiskey too!

411

More about the seminars, guests, and who’s going to be pouring what can be found on the Malt Advocate’s web site:

http://www.maltadvocate.com/whiskyfest_san_francisco.asp

Tickets to WhiskeyFest San Francisco 2010 (Regular admission $110; VIP admission $150) can be purchased on-line by clicking here.

[*] – Unfortunately, I have learned that the Rickhouse crew will not have a booth at this year’s event—though they will be participating in WhiskyWeek, a broader set of activities throughout the city, that run from October 4th through the 9th. Details on those activities can be found as they become available here.

A Toast to Brooke(lyn) Arthur

Posted in Cocktails, Left Coast Libations, Manhattans with tags , , on April 18, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Last Friday was Brooke Arthur’s last evening as Bar Manager at Range. Folks (OK, bartenders) were dropping by to say good-bye to her there and bid her good luck at Prospect, Nancy Oakes’s latest restaurant, where she’ll be managing as well. Those of us who stopped in were treated to a Brooklyn for which Brooke had so very kindly brought in her own bottle of Amer Picon from Spain (I think she said that’s where she got it). Only in writing this post did I realize how totally appropriate and fitting that selection was.

Now it’s Sunday. A beautiful day here in Oakland, California. I’ve got a few racks of baby back ribs smoking slowly in the Weber. A perfect time for a cocktail on the back deck. Remembering Brooke’s Brooklyn I decided to make one of my own, undoubtedly to slightly different effect using, among other things. Wild Turkey rye, Dolin blanc and my bottle of Amer Boudreau. Yummy never the less and more importantly, worth raising, in toast, to Brooke, where ever she may be today! Cheers!

Brooklyn

2 oz. Wild Turkey 101-proof rye
3/4 oz. Dolin blanc vermouth
1/3 oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1/3 oz. Amer Boudreau
orange peel strip, for garnish

Stir over ice to chill.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Garnish with the orange peel.

[For more discussion on this cocktail, take a hop over to Jay Hepburn’s write up at Oh Gosh!]

B is for Bergamot, C is for Calabria

Posted in Cocktails, Exotic Citrus, Left Coast Libations with tags , , , on January 29, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Another in a series of posts about exotic citrus.

Those of you who follow my tweets (@manhattan_up) know I was recently blown away by a cocktail made for me by LCL contributor Brooke Arthur at Range. It was called the B-Line, a variant of their Third Rail cocktail, made with fresh squeezed Bergamot oranges. I left Range on a mission to find Bergamot oranges so I could re-create this amazing cocktail at home. Over the next few days I scoured the markets I know carry unusual citrus. When I inquired about them at my favorite Berkeley Bowl I was told only that they had come and gone. [See UPDATE at the end of this post.] However I persisted and finally located Bergamots at Monterey Market in north Berkeley. Joy!

What are Bergamots?

First, a bit of 411 for you straight from wikipedia:

The bergamot Citrus aurantium subsp. bergamia (Risso & Poit.) synonym (Citrus bergamia Risso) is a fruit the size of an orange, with a yellow color similar to a lemon, and has a pleasant fragrance. The juice tastes less sour than lemon, but more bitter than grapefruit.

The real magic in Bergamot however comes from the peel in the form of the oil it contains. This oil is not all all sweet or particularly citrusy (in contrast to orange or tangerine oils) and has a rather distinct rosiny character, which is not to everyone’s taste. It’s this oil which is used to give Earl Grey tea its unique aroma. (Actually, people are often surprised to learn this since orange is NOT what one thinks of when they smell Earl Grey.)

The best Bergamot fruit are grown in the province of Calabria in Italy, where the juice is used as a folk remedy for malaria. Reggio Calabria, the capital, is in fact sometime called “The city of Bergamot.” The fruit may also be made into marmalade, which after tasting the fruit, I could see being delicious.

NOTE: just after posting this I found a wealth of additional information about Bergamot oranges. Rather than simply re-state what someone else did so well already, I’ve elected to include a link for those interested in learning more to follow at their leisure. Here you go:

http://www.practicallyedible.com/edible.nsf/pages/bergamotoranges

My Creation: Calabria

While I loved the B-Line (see recipe below), I felt the intensity of the Bergamot would be further complemented by additional spice and complexity, specifically a higher-proof bourbon than the Bulleit and an amaro in place of the Lillet (which is pretty lightweight). After a bit of tinkering, I came up with this libation named for the region in Italy where the best Bergamot fruit are grown.

NOTE: I wanted to continue the tradition of giving train-related names to derivatives of The Third Rail. Unfortunately, the tram system in the capital of Calabria, Reggio Calabria, doesn’t have a distinctive name. Here is a beautiful old photo of the capital with a tram to go with this delicious cocktail anyway.

Calabria

1 1/2 oz. Old Grand Dad 114-proof bourbon
1 oz. Bergamot orange juice
3/4 oz. honey syrup (2:1)
1/2 oz. Amaro Averna
4 drops Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters
2 small pieces of Bergamot orange shell (after juicing)
A very long thin strip of orange peel, tied with an overhand knot, for garnish

Shake everything, but the garnish, hard over ice.
Double strain into a chilled coupe.
Garnish with the knotted orange peel.

B-Line

1 1/2 oz. Bulleit Bourbon
1 oz. Bergamot orange juice
3/4 oz. Lillet blanc
1/2 oz. honey syrup (1:1)
1 – 2 dashes orange bitters
1 piece Bergamot orange peel or a small chunk of orange*
A thin strip of orange peel, for garnish

Shake everything, but the garnish, hard over ice.
Double strain into a chilled coupe.
Garnish with the orange peel.

NOTE: This cocktail just got a nice write up on sfist.com. Here’s the link.

(*) – The recipe outline on the Range blog “Cocktail of the Day” calls for the chunk orange but I am pretty sure Brooke made it for me with a piece of peel in the shaker.


UPDATE: A few days after first writing this, here’s what greeted me at Berkeley Bowl:

The moral of the story, I guess, is to take what the produce people there have to say with a large grain of salt.

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