Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Judging American Brandies

In early April, The American Distilling Institute convened a panel of judges in Alameda, California to evaluate dozens of American fruit spirits. The submissions ranged from European-inspired varietal grappas and whole-fruit-in-the-bottle pear eaux de vie to a purportedly extinct American spirit, barrel-aged peach brandy. By day’s end, 58 spirits had been swirled, sniffed, sipped, and sometimes spat. Along with Rogue Spirits’ distiller John Couchot, I poured a fair number of those half-ounce doses for judges sequestered behind sliding doors off the upstairs aerobar of St. George Spirits.

Talk about two kids in a candy store.

As John and I poured spirits from competing distilleries, we scoped out the expansive liquid arsenal before us. Occasionally, a brandy once opened had an aroma so beguiling that our eyes locked, our lips curled into bookend smiles, and we were compelled to do some pre-judging of our own.

When tasting spirits, judges may talk of straightforward smells and tastes of orange, peach, pineapple, juniper, or almond notes. They can also sometimes get more esoteric and less complimentary with the references—yeast extract, blackcurrant leaves, white pepper, biscuits, varnish, Band-Aid, fungal, paint thinner, or boiled cabbage notes aren’t unknown.

Conference attendees sampling after the judging.

That’s all well and good, but it can lead to some seriously overwrought prose in the wrong hands. Consider an approach espoused by Gary Regan at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Regan’s particularly Spartan approach to evaluating spirits called for using as few words as possible: one word is best, two is good, three is ok. Anything more than that and you may be blowing hot air up our skirts.

There is a middle ground, of course. I like the one-word approach. Orange. Oak. Peat. Even Autumn or Grandpa. Gets at the heart of the thing immediately. Provides a nice platform for developing what you’d want to do with the spirit. But well-made spirits (and some disastrous attempts as well) may be more complex than a mere three words capture. As a heuristic device, Grandpa gets the mind working, but he’s not a monolithic aroma. What else does he smell of? Cigars? Old shoe leather? Aqua Velva? Freshly-mown grass? Grandma, perhaps? We’ll put aside for the time being what he might taste like.

Stepping up to classify those points that distinguish gold medal spirits from also-rans, the Wine & Spirits Education Trust has developed an approach to liquor tasting that guides tasters through evaluating a spirit’s appearance, nose, palate, and aroma & flavor characteristics (download Level 4 Diploma - Spirits pdf here).

ADI’s hundred-point system is informed by WSET’s system, but it heavily weights a spirit’s aromatics and flavor. When evaluating the spirits, the eight judges assigned points in six categories;
  • Appearance (10)
  • Aromatics (30)
  • Flavor (30)
  • Mouth Feel (10)
  • Finish (10)
  • Balance (10)
By the time the judges emerged from the private room, clear winners had already emerged. By the by, notice that Peach Street Distillers of Colorado took home five medals. Congratulations, boys. And congratulations to all the winners. They are:

Fruit Infusions (fruit infusion in a fruit spirit)
Gold: St. George Spirits—Aqua Perfecta Framboise Liqueur
Silver: Huber Starlight Distillery—Raspberry Dessert Wine
Bronze: Uncle John's Farmhouse & Winery—Apple Dessert Wine

Eau de Vie—Pear
Gold: Westford Hills
Silver: (Tie) Peach Street Distillers & St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta
Bronze: Harvest Spirits

Eau de Vie—Other
Gold: St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta Framboise
Silver: Peach Street Distillers Peach Eau de Vie
Bronze: Westford Hills Distillers—Kirsch

Gold: Peach Street Distillers—Gewurtztraminer
Silver: Peak Spirits—Riesling
Bronze: Peach Street Distillers—Muscat

Gold: Huber Starlight Distillery
Silver: Great Lakes Distillery

Best of Category: St. George Spirits—Heirloom

Double Gold: Brandy Peak—Pear Brandy
Silver: Peach Street Distillers—Peach Brandy

Grape Brandy
Gold: Jepson Vineyards—Signature Reserve
Silver: Jepson Vineyards—Old Stock
Bronze: Osocalis—Rare Alambic Brandy

ADI brandy judges from left to right: Nancy Fraley (CA), Graham Hamblett (NH), Brendan Moylan (CA), Dan Farber (CA), standing moderator Andrew Faulkner (CA), Rory Donovan (CO), Deborah Parker Wong (CA), Hubert Germain-Robin (CA) and Don Beatty (CA). All told, the judges spent eight solid hours judging submissions.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Forbidden Ham: Konohiki Short Pig

If tiki pads paid as much attention to their food as they do drinks, a lot more converts would be listening to Jake Shimabukuro and donning Hawaiian shirts. As it stands, tropical cocktails take the lion’s share of attention while hungry drinkers frequently make do with appetizers that just don’t try as hard as the well-crafted beverages.

Exceptions are out there, of course. Jeff Barry, Wayne Curtis, and Chris DeBarr put together a tiki meal for last year’s Tales of the Cocktail on New Orleans that paired locally-sourced foods with “exotic” spices and reportedly elevated the stellar cocktail experience to new heights (can’t vouch for that as I was making a glutton of myself that night at Cochon with a table full of distillers and snoots of Ted Breaux’s Perique liqueur).

But thoughts of that dinner surfaced recently after I bought a spiral-cut ham. The industrial glaze packet included with the ham reeked of clove oil, too much cinnamon, and too much sugar. So I threw it out. A light glaze was called for while the ham baked, but what to substitute at a moment’s notice? Over the pings of the warming oven, a siren call softly came of tiki cocktails. Yes, tiki would save my ass.

The ham could not be simpler, assuming you have two tropical staples on hand: Angostura bitters and orgeat, the almond syrup called for in drinks such as the classic Scorpion Bowl or San Diego’s own Coronado Luau Special. Heating the orgeat and bitters with Dijon mustard proved just the taste I was going for. Pineapple might work, but I didn’t have any. Clearly, this is a recipe the invites dinking and tweaking.

The ham may be whole or half, bone-in, or boned. In this instance, it a half, bone-in, spiral-cut number.
Konohiki Short Pig

One ready-to-eat ham

1 cup/250ml Dijon mustard (whole grain or Creole is fine)
1 cup/250ml orgeat
½ oz Angostura bitters

Preheat the oven to 350°F/162°C. If the ham has skin, cut it off and trim any fat to ¼” or so. Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil and place the ham, fat side up, in the pan. Cook about ten minutes per pound (so about two hours for a half ham, up to three hours for a larger one) or until the internal temperature reaches 130-40°F/54-60°C. Remove from the oven and bump the temperature to 425°F/218°C.

In a small pan, heat the glaze ingredients together and whisk until smooth. Pour this glaze over the ham. If it is spiral-cut, make sure the glaze gets down in between the slices. Heat in the oven another 20-30 minutes, basting now and then with the juices and glaze that pools on the bottom of the pan.

Remove the ham from the oven, cover it loosely with aluminum foil and let it rest about 20 minutes before carving and serving.

And—because I think the guy's amazing—Jake Shimabukuro playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps. You can play it while your short pig gently bakes.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bookshelf: Cordial Waters

Volodimir Pavliuchuk is so well known among hobbyist distillers that if he spent a week in internet silence, home distillers from New York to New Zealand would call his local police to make sure the man had not fallen in his boiler.

Pavliuchuk, better known as Wal, is a pillar of Yahoo’s online distillers’ group. His near daily posts about and links to historical recipes, PDFs of old distilling manuals, ethnographic accounts, essays, and dissertations on producing spirits spur hobbyist distillers to recreate bygone, lost, and forgotten spirits. Or, at least, to know about them.

And now Wal has a book. Cordial Waters: A Compleat Guide to Ardent Spirits of the World hit the shelves recently and home distillers everywhere should be breaking out wallets right about…now.

The book covers distilling basics, including simple recipes for creating vodka, whiskeys, brandies, rum, and other spirits from primary ingredients. Purists may balk at plain white sugar in some recipes or additives for emulating peat or barrel aging, but recall that the recipes are for home enthusiasts who may not have access to expensive professional equipment. If those bother you, skip them. There’s plenty enough here worth digging into.

The meat of Cordial Waters—the reason you want to buy this book—is 260 recipes Wal gives for flavored spirits; cordials, liqueurs, flower waters, crèmes, gins, flavored whiskeys and brandies, citrus infusions, bitters, kümmel, pastis, absinthes, monastic liqueurs, genevers, vodkas (flavored with bison grass, tormentil, tobacco, birch buds, spruce, and more), spiced rums, cream liqueurs, spirits spiked with beans and nuts, shrubbs, and—for you tiki fans—Hawaiian okolehao. Hell, he’s even got mesquite mash. And mastic liqueur. Laudanum. Crazy shit with alkermes, cochineal, and ants. So many more culled from sources spanning centuries and continents.

The recipes have been scaled to standardized 1- or 4-liter batches. Many readers—perhaps especially those with little experience, or patience with, interpreting older recipes—will find this a great convenience since such recipes often call for outdated or uncertain measurements [hands, drachms, “enough,” two bottles (what size?), until it becomes a stiff paste, etc.]. By presenting the recipes in liters and grams, Wal skillfully works around the uncertainties a novice might encounter.

Readers with a tenacious historical or bibliographic bent, however, will regret that the book does not present original recipes alongside the adaptations nor does it cite each recipe’s source. This redaction—understandable given the book’s space restrictions—nevertheless is frustrating because original recipes contain valuable clues about techniques, procedures, purposes, and sometimes even reasons why mixtures were made at certain times and not others.

An 1890 falernum recipe, for instance, calls for milk, presumably cow’s. Milk? Really? See, that’s interesting in and of itself. I trust Wal, but want to learn about its role from the original. Was it a fining, maybe? Combined with lime juice, allowed to settle, then racked and strained, that may just work, but modern versions from the cocktail crowd and rum enthusiasts don’t use it. A citation would give enough information to start a library hunt in earnest. Ah, well. Second edition perhaps.

Regardless, Cordial Waters is a delight. Those who want to learn more no doubt will latch onto innumerable nuggets of insight larding the book. Buried in notes for a rosa-solis recipe, for example, is mention of a 1609 recipe that calls for Brasilwood boiled in rosewater to create a red color. What New York or San Francisco bartender is doing that? Also noted is that drying celandine (Chelidonium majus) reduces its toxicity and that adding 0.1 gram of silver nitrate/liter prior to redistilling causes hydrogen cyanide in stone fruit spirits to precipitate as insoluble silver cyanide. These are good things to know.

It’s not all fancy, outrageous, or outré concoctions. There are plenty of recipes that can be made with little more than store-bought vodka and fresh herbs or spices. Knowing something about cocktails and liquor, though, would be a great help in understanding procedures and, occasionally, when to veer from directions.

Of particular use is an appendix explaining the Pearson Square. Homebrewers and winemakers are familiar with this handy diagram that allows mixers to calculate quickly the amounts of two liquids required to fortify or dilute alcoholic beverages. Several examples (including one suggesting that Pavliuchuk likes his martinis 7:1) show in clear detail how to make simple calculations using the square.

Who should buy it? Every hobbyist distiller. Who else? Bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts, drinks historians, botanists, ethnopharmacologists—anyone who enjoys making cordials and liqueurs. Certainly anyone with a still will find inspiration here. In these tight times, and with the long-overdue ascendancy of cocktail culture, that’s a lot of people.

Who else should buy it? You.

Do so here.

Goes well with:
  • Moonshine! ~ my own novice's guide to distilling. Publisher's Weekly calls it "the last book one will ever need on the art of in-house hooch." Perfect for Father's Day.
  • The Compleat Distiller ~ Mike Nixon and Mike McCaw's treatise on the science of making spirits, a classic among modern hobbyist distillers.
  • Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails ~ Ted Haigh's erudite profile of cocktails fallen into obscurity and now enjoying a renaissance. Second edition is forthcoming.

Volodimir Pavliuchuk (2008)
Cordial Waters: A Compleat Guide to Ardent Spirits of the World
152 pages, paperback.
Published by The Amphora Society
Pakuranga, New Zealand


Friday, April 3, 2009

Meet the Maker Ticket Lottery Winners

It's been a long and boozy day.

The American Distilling Institute's brandy conference kicked off this evening with a reception hosted by the generous Fritz Maytag of Anchor. There was no sampling of his whiskeys or gins, but a tour of the brewery (with stills, naturally) and plenty of beer, sausage, and Maytag blue cheese. Before that, ADI ran a juried brandy competition with guest judges behind closed doors at St. George Spirits in Alameda. I stopped by to talk to the judges and ended up washing glasses and pouring snifter after snifter of brandies with John Couchot of Rogue Spirits. Some true beauties, some that needed work, but what a delight to have hundreds of bottles of American brandies right on the bar in front of me. One could make enough sidecars for a year.

Most brandies there—as well as whiskeys, gins, absinthes, and others—will be available for sampling at Sunday's Meet the Maker event at the distillery. Let's see, let's see...Was I supposed to do something to prepare for that?

Oh yes! Time to announce the winners of the ticket lottery for admission to Sunday's event. Thanks for everyone who emailed—an overwhelming response for such short notice, far more than expected and I'm only sorry that I don't have more passes to hand out. From a random drawing of names, and in the order picked, the passes go to...
  1. Jason Beck, San Francisco
  2. Neal Aronowitz, Portland, Oregon
  3. Sherman Owen, Shepherdsville, Kentucky
  4. Ted Weinstein, San Francisco
Neal and Sherman, I know you'll be at St. George Saturday. Track me down and I'll hand you your golden tickets in person. Jason and Ted ~ If you're around for the conference, find me tomorrow. Otherwise, I'll leave them with your name with the admissions folks Sunday.

Good night, good night, everyone.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meet the Maker Ticket Lottery

[Edit: winners have been announced and the lottery is closed. Thanks to all who entered!] I’m giving away admission tickets and one of them may just have your name on it.

This Sunday, the American Distilling Institute is holding Meet the Maker at St. George Spirits/Hangar One in Alameda, CA, just outside San Francisco. While the theme of this year’s ADI conference is brandy, Sunday is not just about fruit spirits—the men and women who actually make brandy will be on hand to pour samples of other wares such as whiskey, gin, absinthe, and more. They’ll be happy to walk you through their products and answer your questions.

I’ll be there. Will you? Well, just maybe you will. See, I’ve got five tickets to the event and that’s four more than I need. So I’m holding a lottery to give away the spares. Here’s the deal: Email me by 5pm (San Francisco time) this Friday, April 3rd to put your name into a lottery for one of the spares. I’ll conduct a random lottery to determine the winners and post the results here on the Whiskey Forge later that day. Come Sunday, I’ll leave the tickets (each a $40 value) for you in an envelope with your name at the admissions desk.

  • Who: You
  • What: Meet the Maker
  • Where: St. George Spirits, 2601 Monarch St, Alameda, CA 94501
  • When: Sunday, April 5th, 2-5pm
  • Cost: $40 (unless you score one of the Whiskey Forge free passes)
How to Enter the Lottery
  • Email me: [moonshinearchives (at) gmail (dot) com] by 5pm PST this Friday, April 3rd. No entries will be accepted after this.
  • Include (1) your name, (2) preferred email address, (3) city and state and (4) telephone number
  • Please, if you can't make it, pass on this lottery so that folks actually in and around San Francisco can attend and the tickets don't go to waste.
  • Winners will be notified by email and posted here.
If you don’t want to take chances and be certain to get admission, you can purchase tickets here or buy them at the door the day of the event.

See you there!