Archive for Musings

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:

Oxidized Flavors

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.

Signs you may be turning pro…

Posted in Musings with tags on April 3, 2011 by Mr. Manhattan

Does your dishwasher look like this in the morning?

A Passion for Whisky: Richard Paterson

Posted in Musings with tags on October 14, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

I’m sitting before my computer. It’s after dinner (an unremarkable repast this evening) sipping a slender wine glass full of Gonazalez Byass Apostoles “Palo Cortado Muy Viejo” sherry. It’s 30 years old and it’s delicious. How I came to be sipping it, is also how I came to be sitting before my computer this evening, writing. It was during lunch last Friday, in the hours before WhiskyFest San Francisco, that Richard Patterson brought it up in conversation. Richard is the famous Master Blender for The Dalmore scotch whisky and it’s no coincidence that he mentioned it. The used barrels from this particular solera, along with those from the Matusalem, Del Duque and Amaroso lines, are given a second life when they are shipped to Alnes, in Scotland, refilled with new make whiskey and let to rest again.

The lunch, to which I had been invited at the last minute, was a rather intimate affair. There were four of us total: Virginia Miller, from the Bay Guardian, Dawn Lambert, Marketing Director for Whyte & Mackay in The Americas, myself, and, of course, Richard. We met at Wayfare Tavern and after a little bit of a wait, settled down to a lovely table upstairs over looking Sacramento Street. Dawn got right to work, unboxing bottles of The Dalmore and getting us set up with glasses.

I had encountered Richard for the first time a few months back in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail under rather different circumstances. I happened in on a seminar he was giving on The Dalmore. The seminar was already in progress. He was standing at the front of the room, offering some choice words about people who put ice (of all things) in their whisky! Shortly thereafter, Richard grabbed a handful of of the stuff from a nearby bucket and threw it across the room to further make his point. I had no idea who this madman in the jacket, tie, and kilt was, but he had my undivided attention. And it wasn’t all show: amidst the peppery language and gesturing Richard was imparting serious knowledge about the history of The Dalmore and how best to appraise it. Here was a man with passion for his profession.

The reason for that passion is readily apparent to anyone who reads through Richard’s recently published semi-biography “Goodness Nose.” He comes by it quite honestly. He grew up in Glasgow where both his grandfather and father had spent their lives in the warehousing and blending end of the whisky trade. Richard had his first encounter with “the business” when he was but eight years old and his father asked (nay, demanded) that he sip and describe what was given to him. Though it would be a few more years before Richard tucked in and formally joined the trade, by 26 he was named Master Blender for Whyte & Mackay Distillers, a position he’s held ever since. He was probably the youngest person to have attained that distinction. Looking over the long list of achievements and honors conferred since then you can see the wisdom of that appointment.

It occurs to me now that one of the questions I did not ask Richard is when did he first discover his penchant for public speaking and his talent as a performer. There are a many great whisky (and whiskey) experts in the world but not all of these people are equally great at presenting that knowledge in an entertaining and lively manner.

While Richard occasionally lapsed into what might be called his “routine” (he brought his giant plastic bugs out when talking about the impact of phylloxera on the wine trade), the intimate setting gave Virginia and myself the opportunity to drill deeper on topics as they came up in conversation. For example, we learned a lot more about the aforementioned soleras from which the sherry cooperage comes and that Beam in the US along with Heaven Hill, supply them with used bourbon barrels. (The split is about 50/50 between the two wood sources.) I got to ask about the warehouses at The Dalmore and learned how they are constructed and organized (new make starts life at the bottom where its most damp). I learned that Alexander Matheson, the founder of the distiller, established it after having made his fortune in the opium trade in China. (Talk about trading on vices!)

Advice on how to nose and taste a whisky…

Richard likes to be known as “The Nose” — the primary tool of anyone in his trade. Unsurprisingly then one of the lessons he likes to impart on his guests is how to properly smell and taste a spirit. That involves a number of steps, not least of which is using the right kind of glass [*], holding it by the stem or base, and sticking your nose in and out of it, using both and then alternate nostrils (our sense of smell is not symmetric), until you get the full olfactory “sense” of what’s you’re about to taste. This should be followed by taking two tastes: the first of which may be quick (“Hello!”) and the second of which should be long, with the spirit held in the mouth and moved around in it, including under the tongue. Richard encourages folks to hold this second taste for as long as two minutes, a feat that none of us could manage. He claims there are flavors that only come out after prolonged contact.

You’ll not be too surprised to learn that Richard’s lesson on nosing and tasting comes with sound effects, supplied by Richard himself. As he holds the taste of whisky in his mouth, he makes a series of “umm-umm-umm” sounds and turns his head to and fro, all to punctuate the fact that he’s moving the spirt all around.

I should mention at this point that during the course of lunch (which lasted nearly three hours) we tasted through the entire line of The Dalmore from the 12 year old “entry level” bottling to the King Alexander III, with its six wood finishes. As an ultimate treat, Richard poured a taste of the very rare and expensive Sirius bottling. This is a blend of whisky from 1865, 1926, and 1939. It’s almost hard to describe what a whisky this old tastes like. At the moment I cannot even put words to it.

We also sampled some of ‘new make’ (unaged and undiluted) whisky, a bottle of which Richard pulled out from his (bottomless) satchel to illustrate some point or another. Virginia and I of course wanted to try it. It was pretty amazing, exhibiting lemon, cream, grass and cereal notes. It was very different from the corn and rye based ‘white dogs’ I’ve sampled from american distilleries. Richard says that he and the other blenders regularly sample the new make whisky since the distillers are often making small adjustments to it. A surprising (to me) assertion was that these samples would change after resting in glass for about month and need to be tried again to fully asses them.

[*] – That would be a copita [ko-pita], a small tapered sherry glass. The taper helps focus the aromas of what ever is in it. Alas, we did not have this critical tool and so made due with what was on hand at the bar: small rocks glasses. Note to self: next time I have lunch with Richard Paterson bring a box of copitas. ;->

Advice for the craft distiller…

I was particularly interested in Richard’s take on the new craft/artisanal distilling movement here in the US. There’s been a lot of discussion about this topic recently with the number of products on the market greatly increasing. I asked him what advice he’d give to the craft distiller from his position as a Master Blender? His answer was unequivocal: go out into the world and find wood (by which he meant barrels) which is unique and distinctive. That makes sense given that 60% or more of the flavor in a wood-aged spirit comes from the barrel in which it’s held. For many distillers here in the US that could mean eschewing the coveted label of bourbon or rye (because of barreling requirements) though it might also mean producing a truly original product. Richard also stressed the importance of age. He mentioned 10 years, which would be a long time in the barrel here in the US but his point is well taken. There are a lot of 2 year old whiskeys now on the market. We don’t need more of these.

Eventually it came time for Richard to depart and take a break before he’d be “on” again in front of the crowds at WhiskyFest. Of course, not before desert including some King Alexander III malt and a bit of chocolate. I was by then certainly ready for a breather before an evening that promised to be full of yet more whisky. I felt plenty warmed up however. My senses were primed and my brain was alive with thoughts on what it takes to make a whisky great. Among other things, I knew it depends on the talents and passions of people like Richard.


A few photos I wanted to add but which didn’t easily fit into the piece.

First, toward the end of lunch Richard performed a whisky parlor trick for us, floating a goodly amount of The Dalmore over water. Here’s a photo of that:

Second, I wanted to include a shot of the sherry I purchased a couple of days later. I had to go on a bit of a quest for them but was rewarded by discovering a store called The Spanish Table in Berkeley. It has the most comprehensive selection of sherry, port, Madeira, and Bual I have seen anywhere. Their selection of table wines also appears quite extensive. The Spanish Table is located at 1814 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley CA. The phone # is 510.548.1383.


Posted in Bartenders, Musings with tags , on August 11, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Sometimes being in the cocktail/spirits community is like getting to ride a magic carpet. The trick is recognizing when the carpet has arrived (it’s always unexpected) and being able to step aboard (one can’t always get away). Last night I got on the carpet and was whisked to the front door of Bar Agricole for what appears to have been it’s first soft opening. As you’ll see from the photos below, it’s a luminous space inhabited by incredible bartenders making inviting drinks. I look forward to making myself well known there (carpet ride optional).

TOTC 2010: Off the Hook in So Many Ways

Posted in Bartenders, Cocktails, Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , , , on July 25, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

So I had promised myself that, armed with media badge and a new camera, I’d be blogging every evening from Tales of the Cocktail. That was a good idea but not much more. I did manage to tweet a fair amount, however, which left a kind of breadcrumb trail by which some of my time here could be accounted for. I suppose the good news is that I managed to take notes (and photos) at all the sessions I attended and that now, with my head beginning to clear I’ll be able to post some post-TOTC reports and reviews. Things to look forward to include a dive into the realm of amari, investigations into the origin of proof (both over and under), and how Buffalo Trace plans on crafting a perfect American whiskey.

But in the meantime…here are a few snaps to tide you over.

My Garage…My Warehouse

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on July 9, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

There’s an awful lot you wind up taking on when you decide to publish your own book. For example, once you get your books printed, you need to figure out where to store them all. Thank heavens for a large garage and a very understanding GF.

Curaçao Bound…

Posted in Left Coast Libations, Musings with tags , on May 10, 2010 by Mr. Manhattan

Yes, that’s right. Mr. Manhattan is about to take a vacation on the lovely and cocktail culturally important island of Curaçao. I am sure to make a visit to Mansion Chobolobo, home to Senior Curaçao de Curaçao while I’m there. I’m also certain to get my share of diving and swimming and generally loafing about. I will be disconnected from the electronic teat we call the internet while away. I’ve got a number of new posts on the back burner including one last exotic citrus discovery and a preview of the amari seminar at Tales of the Cocktail. Look for ’em when I return. And keep those pre-orders coming in.

In the meantime, those of you at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic may bump into some of our spies friends distributing a lovely little postcard for Left Coast Libations. For those of you less fortunate, here’s what it looks like.