Monday, March 23, 2009

Drinking in Belfast

The Polish bartender flashed a blushing smile. He reached over the bar, pulled my head closer, and planted a surprise kiss. “Tonight,” he beamed over the unce-unce-unce club music, “You drink for free!”

Had we been in Kraków or Gdańsk, this might have played out differently. But in Belfast, where I’d come to hear music, the Polish are a new and growing minority. Poles had immigrated in appreciable numbers only since Poland joined the EU in 2004 but already in Irish towns, business banners in English and Polish—or even Gaelic and Polish—are no longer the discordant signage they once seemed.

Sebastian, the beaming bartender, came after hearing of job opportunities. Before settling on Northern Ireland’s capital, he hadn’t spoken any English. Like many of his compatriots, he began work in the service industry; like many, he was self-conscious of his fluency. He shouldn’t have worried.

During an idle moment, I quizzed him about the North and he, in turn, asked about the United States. After days of exploring the city and slogging through the occasional barely-intelligible Norn Iron way with words, his flawless English—newly acquired yet nearly devoid of accent—was a blessing on my ears. I told him so.

Sebastian, apparently, had a button and I’d just pushed it. After that, he refused any money; true to his word, I drank for free.


Friday, March 20, 2009

American Distilling Institute's Brandy Conference

Bill Owens, the silent Bill Owens, the one who’s not talking, can give the impression of a passively curious man. He watches. He listens. Sometimes he peers over steepled fingertips or takes a quick note. But when that mouth opens, a dawning sense of mania begins to take hold. Owens is seized with a fever for, among other things, craft distilling.

Avalanches have caused less confusion than the flurry of words, notions, and half-formed plans that leap from his tongue. “You know what somebody ought to do is…” and he’s off again, ideas tumbling one after another down a steep slope of logic until somehow, at the bottom, he’s convinced others that they are just the right people to implement his ideas.

Owens is president of The American Distilling Institute and from his office in Hayward, California, he’s emailed and called most every commercial distiller, rectifier, and merchant bottler in the United States. He is an indefatigable proponent of artisan, small-volume distilling. In a series of roadtrips, he’s traveled tens of thousands of miles, visiting as many craft distilleries as he could, meeting distillers, taking photos, making short videos, and convincing a lot of them that his organization ought to be the voice of artisan distilling.

As ADI takes on that mantel, Owens’ influence becomes apparent—undeniably at the center, he is surrounded and in touch with distillers, interns, manufacturers, and journalists across the United States who pick up the challenge of “You know what somebody ought to do is…” Then they do it. They form committees, they set up a website, they write for his magazine Distiller, and they lobby legislature for tax reform on distilling.

Some of the ADI’s activities include an internship program for aspiring distillers to pair with more experienced mentors in the field and working to define micro-distilling though the ADI Forums with input from artisan distillers around the country so that the practitioners may define their craft before legislatures do.

But the big event of the year—the one that brings so many distillers face-to-face—is ADI’s annual distilling conference. This year’s theme is brandy and is hosted at St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA. You can bet I’m going to be there. With 40 craft distilleries represented at the conference, there’s rarely a better time to get an insider’s take on the industry and where it’s headed.

Sessions this year include American Eau de Vie (with Jorg Rupf, Steve McCarthy, and Ted Huber); California Alambic Brandy (a discussion between Dan Farber and Hubert Germain-Robin), and The Classic French Brandies: Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados (Charles Neal).

Other events:
  • Meet the Maker craft spirits festival open to the public beginning at 2:00pm, Sunday April 5th—a chance to meet distillers from around the country and sample their whiskeys, absinthes, gins, rums, vodkas, and, yes, brandies ($40).
  • “Meet the Mixologist” (for those in the industry only) for tasting artisanal spirits and learning how they may be used behind the bar
  • A two-day, hands-on brandy distilling workshop at Osocalis in Soquel, CA ($525)
The full schedule is here.

What: The American Distilling Institute's Brandy Conference
Where: St George Spirits/Hangar One, Alameda, CA
When: April 3-7, 2009
Cost: $500 for the conference. Extra events additional (see above), but an extra person may register for $350

Regrettably, I won’t be in on the workshop. I’m sure Bill will find something for me to do.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton Dead at 61

Farming, gardening & making moonshine is a dieing [sic] art.
I hope Popcorn taught someone the fine art of making moonshine.
We needed him, now who will take his place?

WBIR comments

According to Knoxville, Tennessee's WBIR, moonshiner Popcorn Sutton was found dead in his home today. The 61-year old distiller had been recently sentenced to 18 months of prison for distilling spirits without a license and, as a felon, carrying a firearm. Looks like Popcorn will take a pass on doing the time.

Sutton was the author of Me & My Likker (good luck finding a copy) and the subject of Neal Hutcheson's film, The Last Damn Liquor Run I'll Ever Make. According to, federal agents last year seized "three stills with 1,000-gallon capacities, hundreds of gallons of moonshine-making ingredients such as mash, more than 850 gallons of finished product, guns and ammunition."

I wrote about his arrest at the time and posted two videos featuring the bearded and be-overalled moutaineer. You can check them out here.

Popcorn, the secret of your, ahem, "apple brandy" is safe with me.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Irish Potatoes Three Ways

It is often asked of me:
“ When did you first begin making candy?”
And I am obliged to say
I cannot honestly remember,
for as children we were allowed
all the candy we wished,
provided we made it ourselves
—and thus made sure of its purity.

~ Mary Elizabeth
My Candy Secrets (1919)

It’s St. Patrick’s Day this week, and—regardless of background—for mid-Atlantic sweet-tooths that means Irish Potatoes.

Though some home confectioners do make mashed-potato candies, there isn’t a spud to be found in this Pennsylvania candy. Turns out, it’s not all that Irish, either. But this time of year, Philadelphia is besotted with little round coconut candies that, once rolled in cinnamon, do look a bit like tiny taters.

For those Philadelphia expats who treasure the faux little tubers but don’t have access to them, I’ve put together two recipes that use common ingredients and one for more professional kitchens. See? It’s not all about beer and whiskey for St. Patrick’s Day (though if you poured a wee drop of spirits while making them, who’s to know?).

Rowley’s Irish Potatoes

A recipe from the days I lived in Philadelphia and worked behind the scenes at the Mütter Museum. How can I tell? Well, two ways: Irish potatoes are a solidly—though not exclusively—a Philadelphia-area confection, probably a relic from the days when the city’s sugar refineries pumped out a third of the sugar used in the US.* Though rum is not strictly a traditional ingredient, it doesn’t make a hateful addition.

8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature (Plugra)
2 lbs confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract
14 oz shredded coconut
1 Tbl rum (Mount Gay Eclipse), optional
Powdered cinnamon

Cream the butter and cream cheese in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Add half the sugar, mix, scrape down the bowl, then add the rest and beat until smooth. Add the vanilla extract, coconut, and rum (if using). Mix to blend. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate one hour to stiffen the mass. Roll into small balls about ¾” across. Roll in cinnamon, shake off excess, and store in an airtight container.

Note that these benefit from a day’s rest at room temperature to allow the flavors to merge and the raw taste of the butter to mellow.

* How else can I tell? The Mütter is a museum of medical history and pathological anatomy. I spent a great deal of time analyzing skeletal remains as part of a repatriation program to determine which remains in the collections were Native American and which were not. My original notes for forming the sweetmeats called for rolling them into small balls, “slightly smaller than a defleshed distal thumb phalanx.” Work, clearly, was on my mind.

Irish Potatoes #2

This is a recipe from a Philadelphia friend who uses fresh cream in her version, though she advises storing them in the refrigerator until an hour before serving.

1 tsp powdered cocoa
2 Tbl ground cinnamon
2 Tbl confectioners’ sugar

1 ½ cups unsweetened coconut flakes
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
3 Tbl heavy cream
½ tsp vanilla extract

Mix all dusting ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Finely chop the coconut in a food processor. Add the other ingredients and pulse until it forms a mass. Roll out 1” balls of the mixture and set aside for an hour in the refrigerator to firm. Roll each small white center in the dusting, shake off excess, cover, and store in the fridge.
Candy Irish Potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day

W.O. Rigby has an unusual take. Most recipes and commercial examples call for coconut as de rigeur and the small size is taken for granted. His 1920 recipe calls for almond and bon bon cream and are substantially larger, suggesting something more similar to the Christmastime marzipan confections we see in German and French confection traditions.
Take five pounds of bon bon cream and into knead one pound of almond paste, stiffening it with XXXX powdered sugar while working, if necessary. When thoroughly kneaded, shape into small spuds about the size of an ink bottle, and while moist rub with powdered cinnamon. Use almond paste or pignola nuts pressed in sides to represent eyes or sprouts, or simply make little dents for the eyes. Care must be taken to get the cinnamon to stick good.
Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher (13th edition, 1920)


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bookshelf: The Sovereign People are in a Beastly State

Inishowen swarms with private stills
and an active person is necessary
to suppress them.

~ 1750’s parliamentary report

With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, let’s talk about Irish whiskey. For now, the illicit kind.

At almost 300 pages before the index, Aiden Manning’s 2003 account of illicit distilling in Donegal, a single Ulster county perched in the very northwest of Ireland, is a work of love. Or possibly an historian’s obsession with liquor and those who make it in secret. His densely packed and thoroughly annotated pages are underscored by tales familiar to those who follow moonshine narratives in America—killings, beatings, corrupt police, high-minded reformers, and clergy whose sermons railing against local distillers may in fact be fueled by the products of clandestine stills.

If the stories are somehow familiar, it is no doubt because Ulster, that province so rife with strife for hundreds of years, hosted an ingrained culture of smalltime distilling. Many Ulstermen (and women) who migrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century subsequently migrated south along the Appalachians, where mountain distilling took on a distinctly Irish cast that continues to this day. Even the distilling vocabulary of Irish poitin-makers aligns with that of American moonshiners. Those interested in Appalachian distilling would do well to look to its Irish antecedents and parallel developments: Donegal Poitin fills the role nicely.

Manning looks at the products of private distilling (that is, poitin or Irish moonshine) from its early years through the 1850’s when Ireland’s revenue police disbanded and the aftermath of a series of famines diverted official attention from the matter. He reviews in meticulous detail evolving legislation against poitin as the Irish try to come to grips with the moral, economic, and theological ramifications of endemic private distilling.

For most of the period he covers, illicit distilling truly was endemic and startling, given the number of small stills seized, destroyed, and sometimes put to use by shady revenue agents. To back up his claims about the ubiquity of illegal distilling, Manning taps voluminous records of revenue agents, governmental ministers and magistrates, and court officers as well as old deeds and private accounts from the National Archives of Ireland, Trinity College, the British Library, and other venerable collections. It is, admittedly, sometimes dry reading.

But stick with it and an image emerges of centuries-old battle of wits between those who would uphold revenue laws and seemingly every man, woman, and child in the county hellbent on either making or selling whiskey. Manning’s first words, in fact, are “I am deeply indebted to illicit distilling, as without it, I would probably not exist.” His father, a Garda (or policeman), had been sent to Connemara to suppress poitin-making while his mother was there to teach knitting as an alternate skill. We are fortunate that their efforts to quash the practice led to a damn fine celebration of it.

Despite the charts and facts and figures, Donegal Poitin is indeed a celebration of the Donegal people distilling barley, sometimes oats, and very rarely potatoes into spiritus loci. Distilling kept the Ulsterfolk through all but the hardest of times and, despite crushing poverty, Manning paints many locals as (mostly) honest people beset by corrupt revenue agents spurred on by poorly-planned and special interest-sponsored legislation.

Herein, revenue agents are not villains per se: as in America, local constabulary are often portrayed as sympathetic to distillers’ needs while poorly-paid officers dispatched from other areas widely lacked such sympathy and often turned to bribery, thuggery, and sometimes outright murder to earn what they could. The 1830’s reforms enacted by Colonel William Brereton cut almost 2/3 of the revenue police as incompetent, corrupt, and more of a danger to the populace than the distillers they were charged with to put down. Though the revenue police disbanded officially about twenty years after this, the professional code of conduct Brereton established greatly improved the respect such officers commanded—at least when they were within sight. The light of the moon may have revealed an entirely different story.

Donegal Poitin: A History
Aiden Manning (2003)
Donnegal Printing Company

Goes well with:

A Whiskey Forge review of John McGuffin’s In Praise of Poteen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

German Bitters, an Untried Recipe

My French is entirely self-taught and I’m not by any assessment fluent. Oh, I’m competent enough not to starve or go without a roof when I travel in France. I’m also able to dig through old books to find recipes for those homemade tinctures, infusions, macerations, and beverages of which the French still seem inordinately fond.

But because I’m leery of sounding foolish with my ham-fisted translations in print, I turned to upstate New York cider maker and longtime friend S. David White, who yielded a more user-friendly reading than the one I came up with for this old recipe. The result seems to yield more of an amer style bitter than the cocktail bitters we usually think of. Did you catch that "seems" so? Haven't made this concoction. Just offering for your consideration. Might in fact be a delightful cocktail ingredient.

This recipe, for German bitters, is from M. Ferreyol’s 1894 Manuel Pratique pour la Fabrication rapide et economique des Liqueurs et des Spiritueux sans Distillation (reprint available here). White’s translation follows (and, in the Shake ‘n’ Bake tradition, I helped).

Bitter allemand

Anis vert……………………………………………...…10 grammes
Bais de genievre…………………………………......10 —
Ecorces d’organges ameres seches……...…….10 —
Sauge seche………..………..………..………..….….10 —
Absinthe seche………..………..………..………..…10 —
Calamus………..………..………..………..………..…10 —
Girofles………..………..………..………..………..……5 —
Menthe seche………..………..………..………..…….5 —
Lavande fleurs seches………..………..………..…..5 —
Racine d’angelique seche………..………..……..…5 —

1º On pile finement toutes les substances et on les fait macrer pendant 10 jours dans 1 litre d’alcool a 90º.

2º On soutire la maceration et sur le residue on verse un mélange compose d’alcool ½ litre et l’eau 1 litre.

3º Au bout de 10 jours, on mele les deux macerations, on colore avec du jus de cerises noires, puis on filtre.

German Bitters

Anise...………..………..................10 grams
Juniper berries ..………..………...10 --
Dried bitter orange peel ..……...10 --
Dried sage ..………..………...........10 --
Dried absinthe..………..……….....10 --
Calamus ..………..……...........…...10 --
Cloves ..………..…................……...5 --
Dried mint..............………..……….5 --
Dried lavender flowers....…...…...5 --
Dried angelica root..………..……...5 --

First — Finely grind all the ingredients above and macerate them for 10 days in a liter of 90 degree alcohol.

Second — strain off the maceration [e.g., the liquid] and retain. Onto the residue pour a mixture of ½ liter of alcohol and 1 liter of water.

Third — After 10 days, mix the two macerations. Color the liquid with black cherry juice, then filter.


Friday, March 6, 2009

White Dog and Pink Shrimp

For years, I've been a fan of Indonesia's sweet soy sauce called kecap manis, distant cousin to America's ubiquitous tomato ketchup. Even though it's practically a staple in grocery stores catering to Asian customers in the US, Westerners don't often know the molasses-like sauce. And that's a shame—because a bottle keeps forever in the larder and in a pinch when guests arrive, it lends itself to a lot of different on-the-fly marinades, dips, and even sneaky barbecue sauce.

In particular, I like a simple marinade that's little more than the kecap, melted butter, and lime. Sometimes I doctor it up with ginger or red chiles. And if I happen to have a supply of straight-from-the-still white dog, a dose of moonshine whiskey is liable to go in the sauce, too. No moonshine? That's ok: You could leave it out entirely or, if you have some overproof rum such as J. Wray & Nephew or Lemon Hart 151, use a dose of that instead.

With a few tweaks and optional ingredients, this is my recipe as Fred Thompson used it in his Barbecue Nation (The Taunton Press, 2007).

Bootleg Shrimp

2 lbs 24-26 count shrimp
4 oz unsalted butter
4 oz fresh lime juice
4 oz kecap manis (Heinz ABC brand)
2 oz white dog or overproof rum
1 Tbl fresh ginger, grated (optional)
1-2 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)

Clean the shrimp, but leave the shells on, rinse them, and set them aside.

Melt the butter in a small pan or skillet. If using, add the red pepper and ginger. Simmer briefly to extract their flavor. Remove from heat (remember, kids: high-proof liquor is flammable) and add the remaining ingredients. Stir to combine.

Add half this marinade to the shrimp, toss to coat, and set aside for 20-30 minutes while heating the grill. Grill the marinated shrimp 2-3 minutes per side (in two batches if necessary) until pink and showing a little char on their shells. Dump them in a large communal bowl and serve with the remaining half of the sauce (heated) for dipping on the side.

Lots of towels. Make some rice or bread to go with.

Nah, I'm not shilling Heinz products. It's just that ABC is good and—at less than a cup of Starbucks coffee—the 21-oz bottles are cheap. According to Business Week ("The Ketchup King Prospers" by Matthew Boyle, 8 Sept 2008), ABC is the second-largest soy sauce company in the world, second only to Japanese behemoth Kikkoman. With over $200 million in sales (2007), it's a good bet there's some in your neighborhood. If not, you could swap out sorghum or cane syrup such as Steen's. Won't be the same, but I'm happy to come over and try the results.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Paul Clarke Writes on Moonshine

Giving bottles of homemade liquor
is one of the best presents I’ve ever found...

~ "Ben"
anonymous Seattle home distiller

I've been away in New Orleans for a week, but today am catching up on all kinds of good things.

One of those is the March 2009 issue of Imbibe. Paul Clarke's "New Moon Rising" article is a pretty dead-on discussion about the increasing popularity of secret distilling among American spirits enthusiasts.

Nicely done, Paul: Whether it's called moonshine, home-distilling, or "nano" distilling, it's impossible to cover every aspect of the subject in a single article (or even a 90-minute presentation). A lot of journalists still fall back on old truisms and stereotypes about extra-legal distilling that just don't hold the water they used to. This is one of the few times I've read something recently that actually reflects the quiet trends I've been seeing in the field for the past two decades.

That's not just self-serving because Clarke quotes me. He also talks to Mike McCaw, co-founder of the Amphora Society, to several unlicensed distillers striving to make high-quality spirits under the radar, and to Joe Michalek, president of Piedmont Distillers (whose Midnight Moon and Cat Daddy spirits both draw on Southern moonshine traditions), and Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits whose Old Gristmill Authentic American Corn Whiskey relies on an heirloom variety of corn that's otherwise not commercially available in the US.

Clarke also covers the topic with some additional information over at the Cocktail Chronicles. Go check 'em out.