Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Closing Shop

Though it wasn’t always the case, I am an early riser. As I have done on thousands of mornings, I am nursing my second cup of tea and have answered the most pressing emails before sunlight has even hit the roof. At this early hour, fifteen or twenty minutes might pass between each stray car and truck that trundles by our old California craftsman home. This quiet lull is my favorite part of the day. Even the cat can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Soon, though, when the New Yorkers wake, I’ll start putting in calls to the East Coast and begin the day in earnest.

Yet today is different. Today I’m throwing a tarp over the Whiskey Forge and closing up shop. Regular readers — bless you, every one — will not be surprised. You will have seen this coming. The posts have grown more sporadic than they’d ever been and, although I have plenty to write about, the time it takes to research, write, edit and put up good, original, quality content simply isn’t there. I will not write insipid posts about the top five drinks you simply must have in Brooklyn, fifteen things you didn’t know about absinthe, the seven best breakfasts in Palm Springs, America’s ten best microdstilleries, or other such noise blogs churn out when they’re clawing for attention — or circling the drain.

John Held Jr illustration for the 1930 book
The Saloon in the Home or A Garland of Rumblossoms

I’d love to tell you about the trips I’ve taken to Germany, to the UK, and around North America to bars, distilleries, and spirits and cocktail competitions. How awesome would it be to share news about great music, books, and films? Curated information about cool stuff from an actual curator! [Well, a retired one, anyway.] The food and drinks I’ve downed in the last six months alone are more than any person deserves.

But those will have to wait.

While I’ve had great success professionally, the last year has been trying personally. Several friends have died. One took a dive off a building and ate the sidewalk, leaving his widow bereft, his children fatherless, and me swirling in a stew of anger, contempt, and, ultimately, acceptance. Although much of my professional writing involves — and will continue to involve — alcohol, a gout diagnosis made me realize that my nights of excess that elide into morning are, for the most part, behind me. Not long ago, I participated in an intervention for someone I love very much. It remains a heartbreaking mystery to me how alcohol is an enjoyable pastime for most people while it lays waste to the lives of others.

Work continues. There are book chapters to write and edit for others. I’ve joined the editorial board of David Wondrich’s forthcoming Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails. I continue to write for magazines, give public talks, chime in on radio and television, and consult on the occasional script. Work travel over the next few months will take me around the United States and probably Scotland, Germany again, London, perhaps Cuba. Not sure about that one, but there will be distilleries nearly everywhere I go. An aggressive publishing schedule for a new book has put an end to most socializing. When I looked for things to cut from my schedule, movies and weeknight drinking were easy. Then dinners with friends got the axe, as did non-essential travel, video games, and writing in coffee shops (which is so often a writer’s dodge for doing actual work). Facebook? Yeah, you’ll find me there, but don't bother: in truth I barely engage. You might have better luck on Twitter where I am @mbrowley.

What was left to cut? The Whiskey Forge, of course.

At the end of the day, I’m an historian and writer, not a blogger. The Whiskey Forge has been a side project since 2008, but I’ve never accepted paid ads, never took money for writing about anything, never tried to monetize the thing in any way. All on purpose. By design, it is not a revenue stream. With no interns, no assistants, and no staff of any kind — not even a bar back — the blog needs to be put aside.

Not permanently, but — for now. I’ve spoken with colleagues about launching again once things get more settled. By the end of the year, there may well be a revitalized Whiskey Forge. But not today.

So. Not goodbye, but auf Wiedersehen. We'll meet again.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Raising a Glass to Johannes van Dam, Who Taught Me How to Handle Gout

"Jesus, Jesus, allmächtiger Gott, 
ai, ai, ai, 
sei vorsichtig, Alois! 
Das Zipperl!"

~ Ludwig Bemelmans
Hotel Splendid

While otherwise in good health, I have developed gout, a sort of arthritis caused when uric acid crystalizes in joints. Although the condition has a genetic component, certain foods can aggravate it. Drinking alcohol to excess is almost certain to bring an attack. Mine is the classic version: a hot, swollen joint in my big toe. Fortunately, the attacks are infrequent, but when they strike, the pain is exquisite. Even a breeze could bring agony on those days. The writer Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) describes the condition in a paragraph that might as well be describing me:
Grandfather had several times a year attacks of very painful gout, which in Bavaria is called Zipperl. Much of the time, one or the other of his legs was wrapped in cotton and elephantine bandages. If people came near it, even Mother, he chased them away with his stick saying: "Ah, ah, ah" in an ecstasy of pain and widening his eyes as if he saw something very beautiful far away. Then he would rise up in his seat, while his voice changed to a whimpering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."
Johannes van Dam
Photo: Harry Meijer
My old friend Johannes van Dam coached me on how to deal with gout and what prescriptions to ask of my doctor. Johannes, an indefatigable food writer who dominated Amsterdam’s dining scene for decades, suffered from the affliction as well. When I used to visit the city — “our cosmopolitan village,” he called it — the two of us would eat all over town: bakeries, restaurants, cheese shops and butchers, markets, cafes, Indonesian and Chinese restaurants…wherever there was good food to be had. Forget American restaurant critics who traveled incognito; even the postman on the street would hail him by name. Now and then, we had tea or hot chocolate and simply watched movies at his flat above the Athenaeum bookstore in the center of town. Like my own home, his was packed with thousands of books dealing with food and drink.

It was he who told me about allopurinol to prevent an attack of gout and colchicine if one struck anyway. I learned also that a shot of Torodal (ketorolac tromethamine) on the first day of an attack can turn me from a bed-ridden invalid to a hobbling, cursing cripple. A vast improvement, believe it or not. Sadly, Johannes was struck by a heart attack the day we were to have dinner together in Amsterdam last year. While my travel companions hit coffee shops and the Van Gogh Museum the next day, I sat with van Dam in hospital. A friend of his, another well-known Dutch writer, came by to chat as well. On hearing that I was an American food historian, he made a slight jab. “Well, I suppose you must write about hot dogs and hamburgers, such things as that.” “No,” my old friend interjected before I could say a word, “He is a serious scholar; he is the American Johannes van Dam.” A lie, of course, but it was kind of him to say so.

Walking him down to the hospital’s newsstand, I shook his hand in the lobby and turned away, knowing it was the last we’d see each other. Van Dam, the man who taught me to love Amsterdam as if it were my own hometown, died not long after. "I know you love a stiff drink," he once told me, "but it has its problems and gout is one of them." Nevertheless, I'll raise a glass to Johannes van Dam. Just one.

Gout. Feh. Seems I may have it for life. If only the same could be said of old friends.


  • In 2011, Van Dam and veteran barman Philip Duff each weighed in on the origins of the Dutch eggnog advocaat. Summertime is coming. Certainly not advocaat weather, but why not bookmark the recipe I use and bust it out once the weather turns cold? 
  • The University of Amsterdam has awarded, the past two years, the Johannes van Dam Prize "given annually in recognition of an author’s extraordinary achievements in communicating gastronomical knowledge." Claudia Roden received the first prize, Harold McGee the second

Friday, April 11, 2014

Duties of a Bartender (1884)

George Winter’s short book How to Mix Drinks: Bar Keepers’ Handbook was published in New York around 1884. It leans heavily on the work of the celebrated bartender, Jerry Thomas, who died just a year later in the same city. It was Winter, though, I thought of on a recent evening in Kansas City. After downing my first Boulevard (a local favorite) at a bar, I ordered a second. The bartender popped the cap off the second bottle and, while I was momentarily distracted in the business of shaking loose an ardent admirer, he poured the ale into the same glass. Hm. Tacky. Not send-it-back tacky — and I probably would not have cared in a dive — but it was an amateur’s mistake in a fairly swanky place.

Winter’s book came to mind for its ruminations on the duties of a bartender. “Under no circumstances,” he wrote, “should a stained or dripping glass be handed out to a customer or used in mixing a drink…” It's a maxim as true in 2014 as it was in the years before Wilhem II was crowned Emperor of Germany and king of Prussia.

Here’s the rest of Winter's
Duties of a Bartender
Probably in no other branch of business is the person in charge brought so constantly in contact with people of every class and disposition, as is the bartender, and he should therefore be an intelligent man and a good judge of human nature. He should be at all times polite and attentive to customers, and present a neat and cheerful appearance, having a pleasant look and word for each one who favors him with his custom.

It is the great aim of a successful bartender to make as many friends and to control as much trade as possible, and the surest way of doing this is to pay the closest attention to the wants of patrons and making such an impression upon the mind of the customer, through furnishing a good article of the liquor called for, as well as serving in such a gentlemanly and artistic manner, as that he will remember the place, call again himself and recommend it to his friends.

A bartender, like an actor, should never show that he is feeling unwell or in a bad humor, as it is calculated to make a bad impression on the patrons, who are to him what the public is to the actor. In short, he should sympathize with those who are not feeling well, appear jolly to those who are apparently light-hearted, and in general use good judgment in his conversation with all with whom he comes in contact while in the discharge of his duties.

With these few words on the general attributes of a good bartender, we will enter upon the details of his business. 
Glasses of all the various kinds should be arranged on the bench so that they will be handy when wanted. When a man steps up to the bar the bartender should at once present himself before him, and, producing a glass of ice water upon the counter, ask the customer in a polite and pleasant tone of voice what kind of liquor he wishes.

All mixed drinks should be made in full view of the purchaser, and such skill and dexterity should be used in handling the bottles, glasses, etc., as will gain the admiration of the customer and establish the bartender as an expert in his profession.

Under no circumstances should a stained or dripping glass be handed out to a customer or used in mixing a drink, and it is always advisable to have a number of glasses about two-thirds filled with water and ice on the bench ready for use at any time, but the customer should not be expected to pour out the water from a pitcher as is sometimes done.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Quaffing from the Tomato Tin

A gentleman of the tin can brigade
In the summer of 1889, the St. Paul Daily Globe in Minnesota published a tongue-in-cheek study of drinkers in bars — the self-important society man with his elegantly curved arm, the lady who drinks Champagne, the man about town with the latest gossip and news of the freshest scandals, the regular who drinks alone because he likes it and does so in silence, the “posers” who blow foam off their lagers…and this guy, the vaguely Irish, slightly simian tough who pinches stale beer dregs in a keg and…well, read on.

But peerless as she is and tempting as is the sight of beauty and wine, the lady thinks the liquid she is about to taste not with half so tumultuous and pleasurable anticipations as the gentleman of the tin-can brigade as he makes a fat find of stale beer in the discarded keg in front of the saloonist's door. Already provided with a cigar stump from the gutter, he has now made a discovery that to him is more than jewels and fine raiment. There is enough of the flat extract of hops in the keg to fill the can, and ecstasy— yes, unspeakable joy— is imprinted on his features. He has a withering contempt for cold victuals now, and he would scoff at champagne. Safely to the nearest alley will he hie him, and there alone and unaided will he engine in a Bacchanalian revelry that will not cease till the tin vessel is emptied thrice and again. He will attempt no style in drinking. He will simply hoist the can with both hands, and not until it has been replenished and drained many times will he sleep, to be awakened rudely by the policeman, who will hammer the soles of his feet with the stinging club.

St. Paul Daily Globe
July 28, 1889

Reminds me of the juice served at certain lowbrow bars — either as punishment or prize — consisting of all the spills that accumulate in bar mats, a sickly prank juice of commingled whiskey,  energy drinks, cordials, vodka, shot slops, deflated beer foam, melted ice, and whatever else didn't stay in the glass. 

Goes well with:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bierocks, Beer Rocks, Berrocks

I made the mistake of posting a food photo on Facebook last month without explaining how to make the things. Yesterday several friends took notice and asked for the recipe. For those who cannot do without bierocks, here’s that recipe. Bie-what? Yeah, we had that conversation at home. Between a Midwesterner and a native Californian, it went something like this:

"What are they?"
"They're what?"
"German bao."


Coastal Californians, of course, have more intimate knowledge of dim sum dumplings such as xiaolongbao than they do of Midwestern comfort food, so appealing to a bao sensibility was simply a fast way to get at the heart of the meaning. I could have just as easily called them Kansas empanadas. Bierocks, brought to the American Midwest by 19th century Mennonite immigrants, are stuffed rolls that fit in the palm of your hand.

Norma Jost Voth writes in Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia (volume 1):
Bierocks, among Molotschna Mennonites, were bread pockets amply filled with a mixture of ground beef and cabbage. A little like a hamburger sandwich, they made a hearty meal, were conveniently served hot or cold and made ideal traveling companions for trips or picnics...The word Bierock is related to the Turkish word berok or boerek. Today, in the Crimean city of Simferopol (where Russian Mennonites went to school or went shopping) they are called cherbureki and sold on the street.
Also spelled beer rocks or berrocks, the word is also a cognate of piroshki, pierogi, pirogi, and the dozens of other spellings for those thick, filled dumplings popular in Polish families, and are similar to Russian, Ukrainian, and other central and eastern European dumplings. These, however, are a bit bigger and baked rather than simmered and pan-fried. In the American Midwestern states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, even larger versions are sometimes known as runzas (because, wags that we were in college, we figured a meal of the low-grade examples from our dorm’s cafeteria would deliver a nearly immediate, and perhaps fatal, case of the runs).

No worries. These shouldn’t cause such gastronomic distress — unless you gorge a dozen or so. Then you deserve it. In fact, I am under orders to make more “German bao.” The recipe below is one I adapted, slightly, from Bruce Aidells and Dennis Kelly’s good book, Real Beer and Good Eats. The filling is classic: cabbage, onions, and sausage. It is, however, a versatile recipe and practically begs to be tweaked. Some variants I like: (1) Make a pseudo-Reuben by swapping out 2 cups of rye flour for 2 of all purpose flour, add some caraway to the dough, and use sauerkraut, pastrami, and Swiss cheese (deli Swiss is fine or class it up with a nice Comte or cave-aged Emmenthal), (2) Use any or all of mushrooms, fried onions, spinach, or Swiss chard as fillings. (3) Try roast pork, garlic, broccoli raab, and sharp provolone. You get the idea. Keep the stuffing moist and fully enclosed when you make the buns and you should have no problems.


1½ pounds/680 g fresh sage or smoked sausage, removed from the casings
1 cup/300g onion, diced small
4 cups/300g shredded cabbage
1 Tbl fresh minced garlic (or 1 tsp powdered)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried onion powder
½ tsp pimento/smoked paprika

⅓ cup/75g sugar
½ tsp salt
1 package (1 ounce) active dry yeast
1½ cups/350ml warm cooking water (at about 100° F.) from the potatoes
⅔ cup/150g butter, softened
2 eggs
1 cup/265g warm mashed potatoes (at about 100° F.)
7—7½ cups/about 900g all-purpose flour

To make the filling: Fry the sausage over medium heat 3-5 minutes to render some of the fat. Pour off the fat, and add the onion, cabbage, salt, and spices. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the cabbage has wilted. Set aside to cool while you prepare the dough.

To make the dough: Dissolve the sugar, salt, and yeast in the warm potato water. Proof in a warm spot (80-100°F/27-38°C.) until the mixture becomes bubbly, about 5-10 minutes. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Blend in the butter, eggs, mashed potatoes, and 7 cups of the flour.

Knead on a floured surface until the dough becomes elastic and easy to work, about 5-10 minutes. Add the remaining flour if needed. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the dough doubles in size.

After it has risen, punch down the dough and form into 24 equal balls. Pat the balls into ½-inch-thick rounds, about 2 inches in diameter. Place about ¼ cup of the filling in the middle of each round. Form the dough around the filling to make round rolls. Pinch the seams together and place, seam-side down, on a baking sheet. Put in a warm spot and let the rolls rise for 20-40 minutes. It the surface of the dough has dried out, brush lightly with water.

Heat the oven to 375°F/175°C. Bake the rolls for 20-25 minutes or until the beer rocks have a nice golden color and a mouth-watering aroma. The rolls freeze well.

Makes 24 rolls, 3-4” diameter.

Adapted from Bruce Aidells and Dennis Kelly (1992) Real Beer and Good Eats: The Rebirth of America's Beer and Food Traditions.

Goes well with:

  • Aidells and Kelly's book can be had for ridiculously little money on Amazon. 
  • Speaking of homey Midwestern foods, it's still cold and wet in huge swaths of the US; try some German bacon dumplings or homemade egg noodles to take the chill off.  
  • Norma Jost Voth's Mennonite Foods and Folkways from South Russia is not quite as cheap or common as Real Beer and Good Eats, but it should be easy enough to track down copies in the US and Canada. Volume one can be found here and volume two here.
  • Finally, if you just can't bring yourself to make dough from scratch, you could — in extremis — pop open a tube of ready-to-bake biscuits, stuff them, and bake them off as above. It's ok: I've cooked drunk before, too. Tart them up at least a little, though; an egg glaze, maybe, sprinkled with flaky salt, caraway seeds, or a blend of cumin and smoked paprika. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My New Book: Drugstore Whiskey, Pharmacy Gin

You've heard of bathtub gin, sure. Everyone has. The stuff has become shorthand for the legendary horrors of Prohibition-era drinking. But what was it? No, for real: what was that stuff — and was it always a horror? Where did it come from? Where did it go?

A peek inside.
Kornschärfe: It schärfes the Korn.
Though it may seem as if the action has slowed around here, the truth is that behind the scenes at the Whiskey Forge has been hectic as I've been writing for various magazines, traveling, giving talks around the country, and getting elbow-deep in several book projects. This morning, I woke to a tweet from Bitters author Brad Thomas Parsons congratulating me on the announcements for one of those books.

Here's the deal: I have a contract with Countryman Press, a branch of W.W. Norton, for a new book tentatively called Drugstore Whiskey, Pharmacy Gin that will hit the shelves in 2015. Eater reports "Veteran booze writer and author Matthew Rowley is at it again, this time turning his attentions to the recipes of the Prohibition bootleggers." Publishers Marketplace gives a little more:
Author and historian Matthew Rowley (Moonshine!, 2007) continues his exploration of illicit alcohol and cocktail culture in Drugstore Whiskey, Pharmacy Gin: Making It and Faking It with 200 Secret Booze Recipes from the Height of Prohibition. Using high-resolution images from a secret 1920’s manuscript, Rowley examines the traditions, ingredients, and cultural context of Prohibition bootlegging with extensive annotations and over 200 recipes. Sold to Ann Treistman at Countryman Press by Lisa Ekus of The Lisa Ekus Group. Publication Fall 2015.
If you've come to any of my talks over the last six months or so, you already know a bit about this since I've been using some of the material when kicking around notions of Prohibition-era urban moonshine. Years ago, I was given a gift: a 1920's manuscript hidden within what looked like a book of poetry. It wasn't. Rather, the book held page after page of handwritten recipes — in English, German, and occasional Latin — for gins, genevers, absinthes, whiskeys, rums, brandies, and dozens of spirits and cordials, essences and extracts, all tied to New York City at the height of Prohibition. Some recipes are for genuine articles. Others hail from an earlier era, a time when traditional beverages relied on herbs and spices for their flavors. Still others depend on 19th century advances in applied chemistry simply to fake some spirits and "enhance" others.

It'll be cool. Even most bartenders hip to vintage drinks haven't seen anything quite like this.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Okolehao, Historic and Modern

Many drinkers prefer it to gin (1912 ad)
One week in September of 1886, the Deputy Sheriff in Maui rounded up fourteen men the Honolulu Daily Bulletin called “illicit dealers in the ardent.” The ardent in this case was okolehao, the Hawaiian analog of mainland moonshines. Early journalists called it white mule and Hawaiian whiskey — although it wasn’t really whiskey. Not yet. That came later.

A handful of cocktail recipes calling for okolehao show up in the historical record. If you read Jeff "Beachbum" Berry’s books on tiki drinks, however, you will learn, perhaps with disappointment, that okolehao is extinct. Berry suggests a few substitutions — he proposed Martinique rum at first, but later recommended bourbon or rye — and there’s a reason. We'll circle back around to that. He wasn’t wrong; when he wrote the books, oke, as some call it, had fallen from production.

Like a lot of other discarded spirits these days, okolehao is back. In fact, in the summer of 2013, attendees of my standing room only talk on moonshine at Tiki Oasis in San Diego sampled a twist on a whiskey sour made with a modern take on the old spirit: 100-proof okolehao from Island Distillers in Honolulu. It’s a cane and ti-root distillate that's earthy, vegetal, and a little funky.

Hawaiian Moonshine

Distillation seems to have come to Hawaii in the 1790’s. I say “seems to” not because the date is uncertain, but because Hawaiians seem not to have distilled spirits at all until then. That changed when William Stevenson, an escaped convict from Australia, used rendering pots from a whaling ship as the boiler for a rudimentary still. The iron pots were said to resemble a woman’s plump backside and the nickname “iron bottom” stuck. In the local language, “iron bottom” was "okolehao" and the stuff eventually became nearly as popular as the bit of anatomy that inspired it.

Like moonshines in general, okolehao didn’t have a single recipe. There were as many ways to make it as there were stills and distillers. Any single batch might contain distillates of taro, rice, honey, corn, bran, sweet potatoes, kiawe beans, molasses, breadfruit — whatever was nearby and cheap and could be fermented. If pineapples were cheap, it had pineapples in it. If white table sugar were cheap, then that’s what distillers used.

Ti plant, courtesy of Dave Flintstone,
Island Distillers
But one thing held this island mule together in a way that mainland moonshines, in their diversity, did not and do not have — a single, defining, ingredient: ti. From the day Stevenson made that first batch until now, regardless of other ingredients it may contain, ti is at the heart of Hawaiian moonshine. For countless visitors over the last century, taking home a bottle of okolehao — or at least taking one as far back as the ship where it was emptied before next landfall — was a reminder of their time in that Pacific paradise.

Ti shrubs grow throughout Hawaii. It is also called ki especially in 19th century accounts. The botanical name is Cordyline fruticosa and historical accounts boast of “inexhaustible” supplies. The leaves have medicinal and decorative uses, but the big, starchy root is what is what we’re interested in.

On mature plants, these roots are huge; they can grow to 25 kilos or more, bigger than a lot of dogs. Dave Flintstone, distiller at Island Distillers, says that when harvesters select plants for his okolehao, they look for those with a central stalk about the thickness of a man’s wrist.

After workers unearth them, the roots are baked in underground ovens called imus. If you are familiar with how tequila is made, you’ll see the resemblance to how agave hearts — the piñas — are roasted in kilns or ovens.

Freshly unearthed ti root,
courtesy of Dave Flintstone, Island Distillers
In each case, starches convert to sugars under heat and the whole thing is crushed and fermented. Distillers run the low-alcohol ti root wash through stills to concentrate the ethanol but collect those compounds that give okolehao its characteristic funky taste and distinctive smell.

In fact, okolehao’s smell could be a problem for distillers, haulers, and customers. That distinctive aroma often tipped off law enforcement to nearby stills and mash tubs, or confirmed that a container had held okolehao and not, for instance, whiskey or water. When caught red-handed in towns with their illicit cargo, Hawaiian bootleggers often smashed the glass demijohns they used to transport their haul to the ground in attempts to destroy damning evidence. This dodge was so common that during the 1920’s, one catty journalist suggested that officers should be issued sponges so they could mop up evidence and squeeze it into vials before it trickled away.

When police did capture okolehao, though, it had a habit of transforming in evidence holding rooms. Old reports note that quantities of the local moonshine remained the same, but in storage, the proof sometimes mysteriously would go down. Any kid who’s drunk her parents’ liquor and topped off the bottles with water knows exactly what happened in those police storage units; somebody inside was pilfering the hooch.

Holy Terror Hitchcock:
not a fan of the oke
It worked in reverse, too. Not only did hooch disappear, it sometimes showed up where it did not belong. In the mid-1890’s, the Marshal in charge of enforcing laws in the short-lived Republic of Hawaii was Edward Griffin Hitchcock. Known as “Holy Terror” Hitchcock, he was the top law enforcement officer in the islands. The nickname “Holy Terror” came from his efficiency in rounding up criminals, but the moniker was also a poke at his family; his father had been a missionary and the younger Hitchcock kept ties to Hawaii's missionary community.

In 1894, Marshal Hitchcock issued a letter to owners and managers of every place in the islands that sold liquor. In it, he schooled them on Hawaiian law and reminded them of the fines that could be levied on any person who sold adulterated liquor.

The adulteration in this case was okolehao. Rumors were going around that saloon keepers had been stretching their stocks of imported liquor with the local moonshine. The Hawaiian Star newspaper explained the next day that
Okolehao is very cheap and, containing such a large per cent of alcohol, can be employed in the preparation of drinks to immense pecuniary advantage. It was at one time, if not now, used in the preparation of wine. An extract was imported to which diluted okolehao was added in such quantities as to bring the alcoholic property up very high.
So what we have is a wine extract coming from California that’s got very little, if any, alcohol in it. Local merchants would add okolehao and water. Give it a stir and what've you got? Wine! Adding both high-proof okolehao and water to imported whiskey — maybe with caramel to bring back a semblance of barrel-aging — was a way to cheat customers and squeeze more profit out of every drink sold.

Swapping out moonshine for legal liquor is underhanded and illegal. And it is a trick that is still done in some bars — especially for customers too drunk to notice that their vodka is more white mule than Grey Goose.

Despite those early reports of “inexhaustible” supplies of ti plants, harvesting them is hard work. That’s why, since the 19th century, other sugars went into the mash: pineapple, refined white sugar, cane juice, rice — again, the stuff that was nearby and cheap. Very early on, ti became something distillers added to the mash rather than something they fermented as the mash.

From Island Distillers,
a 100-proof modern take
on Hawaiian moonshine
Authentic okolehaos, in other words, have long been made from less than 100% pure ti root. Some were pure, but not all. When I asked Flintstone why he didn’t make a 100% ti root distillate, he said that, though economics factored into it, the primary reason is that modern palates would find it too harsh and unpleasant, making it too hard of a sell.

And that brings us around to Jeff Berry’s recommendation to use bourbon or rye when there’s no okolehao. The first legal, commercial producer of ti-root okolehao was E. H. Edwards. In 1906, he imported a 200-gallon still to Kona specifically to make it. His business ultimately failed because the product was inconsistent, but he did make enough to put in barrels and ship to a bonded warehouse in Honolulu where it aged and took on color from the barrels.

You probably wouldn't mistake one for the other, but Edwards’ spirits started looking, smelling, and tasting — at least a bit — like whiskey. When his company was bought out, the new owners continued the practice; bonded, barrel-aged okolehao became common until Prohibition, when all beverage alcohol became illegal.

By the mid-twentieth century conditions had changed. Okolehao was legal again and popular both with tourists and US military stationed in Hawaii. By the 1960’s, however, okolehao had ceased being a blend of ti root and other sugars fermented and distilled on the islands, but was instead whiskey imported from the mainland and flavored with ti extract or ti roots simply ground and steeped in the whiskey to give it the "authentic" taste. This is why, when mixing drinks from recipes that call for okolehao but date from the 1960’s, Beachbum Berry says to use bourbon or rye.  Minus the funk of ti, that’s pretty much what midcentury okolehao was — at least the commercial stuff.

Hats off to Dave Flintstone for helping to resurrect local, high-proof wet goods.

Goes well with:
  • Okolehao, naturally. Pick up a stoneware bottle of the 100-proof cane-and-ti distillate when you're in Hawaii or track down distiller Dave Flintstone through his distillery's site, Island Distillers to have a supply shipped.
  • Swipes, the Pruno of Territorial Hawaii. Not all the beverages of old Hawaii were something you'd want to drink. By all accounts, swipes were a scourge that made many a sailor regret his stopover to the Hawaiian islands en route to the Philippines. 
  • Visiting sailors and desperate drinkers aren't the only ones to his the sauce in Hawaii. In 1911, the Hawaiian Star printed a tall tale of feral hogs getting into a batch of okolehao.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage

BC: Before Cabbage
This time of year, the pantry is loaded and the fridge is full. We’re working our way through it all, but we’ve had our fill of rich dishes and heavy meals. My last hurrah will be a huge pot of grillades we’ll cook off this afternoon for a New Year’s breakfast tomorrow. Otherwise we’re winding down the holiday season and have started picking at leftovers rather than cooking many full meals — carving off a few ounces of smoked ham for hash, sandwiches, or snacks; killing off the gravlax, tucking into roasted sweet potatoes from two nights ago; using the last bits from open bottles and jars.

A fridge purge, in other words. Good to do a few times a year, anyway, but eating up everything in what's been a fridge full of rotating food makes me feel — just a bit — virtuous. Either that, or I'm a sensitive about how much money we tend to blow on the holiday feasting and it's time to reel in the spending.

Part of the purge did involve a bit of cooking, but a hot dish of pork and apples — and a few other odds and ends lying about the place — was quick and barely any work at all. The juniper berries give it a whiff of gin; just the thing for a chilly night.

AD: Already Done
Smoked Bacon, Apple, and Cabbage 
8-12 oz smoked bacon, sliced and cut into finger-width pieces
1 green/white cabbage, cored and sliced coarsely
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cooking apples, cored and cut into slices or small chunks 
6-8 juniper berries, crushed
1 tsp sea salt
2 long peppers, crushed (or 1 tsp black pepper)
1 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 Tbl brown sugar
a knifepoint of ground mace or a few gratings of nutmeg 
Heat the oven at 350°F/180°C. 
In a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid (I use a big-ass Le Creuset), cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and just lightly crisped at the edges. Add the onion and cook until it softens. Add the apple chunks and stir them around until they’ve got a bit of color, then stir in the seasonings and the cabbage. Add the remaining ingredients and cover. Pop it in the oven and cook 30-45 minutes until the apples are cooked through, the cabbage is softened, and the whole thing is piping hot.

Goes well with:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Home Fires: The State of Home Distilling in the US

Lew Bryson, editor at Whisky Advocate, asked me write about the current state of affairs for home distilling in the United States. A blanket federal ban on the practice is in place, but a few states are bucking those laws with more permissive laws and regulations of their own. Regardless of the laws, sub rosa distillers from the East Coast to the West are making an awful lot of homemade liquor for themselves, their families, and friends. No, I didn't forget you, Alaska. In fact, I'd be surprised if we don't see a new reality show called something like Alaska Bootleggers or Ice Road Moonshiners in the near future. From the Fall 2013 issue of Whisky Advocate, here's a piece originally titled Home Fires.

Casual observers often assume that home distilling, like wine making or beer brewing, is legal in America. Zymurgy Bob knows better. According to federal law, distilleries are never permissible in homes. His advice? “Do everything you can to reduce your visibility to the law,” he exhorts. “Conceal what you are doing.” The pseudonymous author of Making Fine Spirits, a guide to building and operating home-scale stills, closes his introductory chapter with modern home distilling’s most ironclad commandment: Thou Shalt Not Sell.

Alcohol distillation in the United States is highly regulated and federal judicial code is uniformly severe with those who skirt the rules. Once federal prosecutors bring charges against a suspect for illicit distillation, they are forbidden by law from dropping the case without express written permission from the Attorney General. If found guilty, violators could face up to five years in prison and be fined $10,000. Because illicit distillation, the argument goes, is a tax dodge, those who defraud the United States of tax revenue through such clandestine distilling shall forfeit (not may or mightshall forfeit) the land on which the distillery is located as well as equipment used to make spirits and all personal property in the building and yard.

Running off a few liters of whiskey or ultra-pure vodka in the basement may seem a harmless pastime to some, but are they perverse enough to risk losing homes, land, and nearly all their possessions by actually firing up a still?

For thousands of Americans, the answer is yes. Across the country, hobbyists buy and build small stills for making spirits in secret. Profit is beside the point; these distillers do not sell their products. Compared to the output of Chivas or Beam, their covert batches of gin, rum, seasonal brandies, whiskey, and hausgemacht absinthe are miniscule. Tuthilltown Spirits alone loses more in angel’s share than what most hobbyists produce in a year. Their enthusiasm, however, burns no less brighter than that of professional — and legal — craft practioners.

One California hobbyist, Navy Frank, grows wormwood in his yard and keeps glass jugs of homemade spirits in his dining room. Home distilling, as Frank describes it, is a facet of a larger DIY ethos. “It’s a maker mentality that drives people to make homemade cheese or beer or build something with their own hands or garden. There’s all this wonderful cross-pollination. If you sketched the connections of what people like us get excited about, they would form the most overlapping Venn diagram ever.”

Frank — not his real name — is a Navy veteran and an engineer by trade. In his cellar he makes rum, neutral spirits, absinthe, honey distillates, and a peated single malt. “That’s probably my favorite, but after sharing, and sampling, and more sharing, I’m down to just one bottle.” His modular distillery system uses three separate pots that can be rigged with different heads and condensers that vary with what, and how much, he is making. The largest boiler could hold a child. The smallest, no bigger than a rice cooker, is for extracting botanical essences.

I mention a New York distiller who created a flavor library of over 200 botanical extracts, including angelica seed and rare agarwood. “Oh,” he smiles. “Ramón!” Despite the continent between them, the two distillers know each other through online hobbyist groups. In this, they are typical. Hobbyists regularly turn to online forums such as Yahoo Distillers and Artisan Distiller for guidance. Like Frank and Bob, Ramón prefers a pseudonym, but because he works in the distilling industry, his concern goes deeper than their straightforward desire to avoid legal attention. While it’s not uncommon for craft distillers to have learned the basics of their trade at home, and even continue to refine it there, the majority who do so will not admit that on the record. Like them, Ramón assumes investors, concerned that federal liquor violations could ruin a licensed distillery, might jettison a partner or employee accused of illicit distilling. “If TTB keeps making it easier to open distilleries,” he muses, “then maybe the hobby side of the equation could finally become legal. I’d happily pay for a permit to make ten gallons or twenty each year for myself. I bet 90 percent of home distillers would do the same.”

While it’s true that several hundred American craft distilleries have opened in the last decade, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) does not issue permits for home distilling for any price. Some states, though, allow noncommercial production to varying degrees. Alaska, for instance, excludes “private” manufacture of spirits from its alcohol control laws...except in quantities that exceed federal limits. In other words, Alaska allows zero liters for home distillers. Missouri is more explicit, asserting that “No person at least twenty-one years of age shall be required to obtain a license to manufacture intoxicating liquor...for personal or family use.” Such use in the Show Me State, it may be noted, is up to 200 gallons per year. Go, Missouri. Arizona expressly permits personal distilling of spirits such as brandy or whiskey if owners register their rigs with the state’s Department of Liquor Licenses and Control. According to DLLC, however, none has done so.

Mike McCaw, distillery consultant and publisher of Zymurgy Bob’s book, argues that as governments are forced to examine all spending, “We may, just may, be at a political inflection point where [legalizing home distilling] could is simply not cost effective to chase down people with ten gallon stills.” Bob himself is less sanguine. Speaking by phone on his book tour, he says that pursuing people with ten gallon stills “does make sense if they’re selling it and there is tax evasion going on. And that is one of the main points of the whole “do not sell” prohibition. There is no money and so no tax being evaded there.”

“I hope — I hope — that’s giving me a margin of safety.”

I hope so, too. Good luck, Bob.

Goes well with:

  • First things first. If you have legal questions about distilling in your country, state, or province, please get in touch with consultants and/or attorneys who know your local laws. The discussion forum of the American Distilling Institute is a good place to start. In the UK, check in with the Craft Distillers Alliance
  • The business about unregistered distilleries and distilling with intent to defraud leading to forfeiting  one's property in the United States is addressed 26 USC § 5615. The full text is here
  • Zymgurgy Bob's book, Making Fine Spirits, is available here. Mike McCaw, distillery consultant, still designer, and publisher of Bob's book, can be reached through The Amphora Society
  • Whisky Advocate magazine is here. An earlier piece I did on white whiskey — and what to do with it — for the magazine is here
  • Even the Ten Dollar Whore Sneered at Me, in which a New Orleans...ahm... independent contractor disapproves of me.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bookshelf: The Big Con

Never be untidy or drink with a savage. 
There is nothing worse than drinking 
when you are trying to tie up a mark. 
You've got to have your nut about you all the time. 
You need what little sense you've got to trim him—and 
if you had any sense at all, 
you wouldn't be a grifter.

~ anonymous roper in David W. Maurer's The Big Con

Today, we've got something on the fringes of saloon culture and the sporting life. I've spent uncounted hours — years, even — in the company of criminals. Moonshiners, mostly, but thieves, embezzlers, enforcers, bad cops, and felons of various stripes. One connected mook I knew in Philadelphia had $80,000 stolen from his closet and didn't report it because, well, it wasn't the sort of stash one wanted to explain to the 5-0. After nearly three decades of hearing and hearing about cons, the patter of confidence games, scams, and rip-offs spike in the conversational landscape like flashes of lightning.

Short cons, designed to separate a person from the money he is carrying on him, seem particularly obvious. In fact, on my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, the short con was ubiquitous; vendors, waiters, taxi drivers, fixers, and others tried to shave a bit of trim from tourists. Here, someone "forgets" to give the right change, there someone else pads the bill with an entree nobody ordered. For the locals, it must be like shooting fish in a barrel. The short con is not always a terrible thing. In New Orleans, if a little kid bets you a dollar that he can tell you where you got your shoes, take the bet, lose a buck, and walk away with everyone smiling. A con, sure, but also a dollar's worth of entertainment.

Then there's the big con. Almost nobody walks away from a big con with a smile. In 1940, University of Kentucky linguist David W. Maurer published The Big Con, his study of confidence men, suave criminals who, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, bilked marks out of enormous amounts of money. By the time Maurer wrote his book, this particular style of grift was already in its decline. Nominally concerning the language of these mostly nonviolent criminals who gained the confidence of newly-made millionaires, well-to-do farmers, wealthy businessmen, and others who could get their hands on lumps of cash, the book is simply fun reading.

Maurer introduces grifters such as the Yellow Kid, Crawfish Bob, Limehouse Chapppie, the Big Alabama Kid, Slobbering Bob, the Postal Kid, Queer-pusher Nick, the Hashhouse Kid, Fifth Avenue Fred, the Indiana Wonder, the Jew Kid, Tear-off Arthur, Devil's Island Eddie, and the High Ass Kid. You'll learn about the blow-off, the cackle-bladder, the wire, the rag, the pay-off, and a whole lot more of the language you might expect to hear around Prohibition-era saloons, joints, and hangouts.

In the world of criminals of the period, con men were talked about as the aristocrats of crime. Insidemen who maintained big stores (fake betting parlors, brokerages, and gambling dens where mark were fleeced one right after the other) traveled widely, stayed at the finest hotels, dined well, dressed impeccably, sometimes had drivers and avoided socializing with 'lesser' criminals such as second-story men, pickpockets, and heavy racket types who resorted to violence. They leveraged and worked with crooked cops, hoteliers, circus managers, train conductors, detectives, judges, district attorneys, and saloonkeepers. They almost never worked their home town or anyone who lived in the town in which they operated. Rather, they worked over travelers on ocean liners and, especially, trains.

Writes Maurer:
The ease with which people make traveling acquaintances may account for the great number of marks which are roped on trains or ships. When a mark is off his home ground, he is no longer so sure of himself; he likes to impress important-looking strangers; he has the leisure to become expansive, and he likes to feel that he is recognized as a good fellow. The natural barrier to friendships come down. He idles away time chatting and smoking in a way he would not do at home. And the roper knows how to play upon the festive note which is always latent in a traveler away from home.
Cities such as New York, Denver, Chicago, and New Orleans had hundreds of ropers working the trains feeding the city. When they found a mark they felt could be taken for $10,000, $50,000, or more, the roper befriended the 'savage' and brought him into town to meet the insideman who would propose a sure-fire way to make money...illegally.

And the whole con hangs on that. Con men felt that they could never cheat an honest man because he wouldn't take the bait of a crooked way to make a killing by, say, delaying the results of a horse race by a few minutes to place a bet with the help of a disgruntled wire operator. But, writes Maurer, the first world war "brought a crop of millionaires and sub-millionaires whose purses swelled out of all proportion to their knowledge of investments. As soon not these men had made the money slightly on the shady side and to them the rag and the pay-off [two types of con games] appeared as very logical methods of taking profit." These were the marks on whom con men preyed.

If you've enjoyed movies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, David Mamet's House of Cards, The Sting, and — especially — The Grifters, do yourself a favor and check out Maurer's book. Nicholas Cage in Matchstick Men is a lesser contribution to the genre, but even bits of Django Unchained seem lifted from its pages. It's back in print with a forward by Luc Sante from Random House's Anchor Books imprint.

Goes well with:
  • Gene Siskel's and Roger Ebert's takes on the 1990 film The Grifters