Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bookshelf: Alt Whiskeys

...[T]he recipes in here reflect the last 3-5 years 
of tinkering with different recipes, techniques, and ideas 
in an effort to do one simple thing: 
expand the horizons of what whiskey can be. 
And, of course, have fun.

~ Darek Bell
Alt Whiskeys

A decade ago, fewer than a hundred distilleries supplied all of America’s domestic legal liquor supply. Today, we can boast four times that number. Well, “boast,” perhaps, is not wholly accurate. That growth has entailed missteps and occasional outright failures as this cohort of new distillers — who may have been hobbyists or working in wholly different fields five years ago — make the transition to more seasoned professionals.

But make no mistake: the transition is underway.

There’s an exuberance common among new distillers, a willingness to try unproven ingredients and techniques. Consider Chip Tate’s Rumble made from wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and figs from Balcones Distilling in Texas or New Holland’s Hatter Royale, a barley spirit from Michigan finished with hops. Then there’s Darek Bell’s triple smoke malt whiskey that blends a bit of chocolate malt with a triple whammy of German-, peat-, and cherry-smoked malts.

Bell is the owner of Corsair Artisan Distillery. He’s also a hell of a distiller with the credentials to prove it. He trained at the Seibel Brewing Institute and is a graduate of the Bruichladdich Distilling Academy. His whiskeys have won numerous awards. His book, Alt Whiskeys, hit the shelves this week.

Tapping that fat vein of experimental distilling, Bell subtitled the self-published tome Alternative Whiskey Recipes and Distilling Techniques for the Adventurous Craft Distiller. Alt Whiskeys is a turning point in the literature of American distilling. There’s nothing else out there that captures, page after page, our modern distillers’ spirit of innovation with new ingredients, techniques, and equipment — or that reveals the deep connections between craft brewing and craft distilling, as evidenced by Bell’s thorough use of original and target gravities, fermentation temperatures, barrel notes, and other specific technical notes that read more like something from brewers' manuals than the recipes one usually finds for spirits.

“What’s wrong with whiskeys the way they are now?” Bell writes.
Absolutely nothing. As a whiskey geek myself, I am an avid whiskey lover. You might even say whiskey obsessed. BUT I do think whiskey could be better. Different. More interesting. Brewers have a palate of over 50 different types of malt at their disposal to draw from, while most distillers just use plain 2 row barley.
How could they be better, different, more interesting? The book gives ample suggestions and guidelines, starting with grains. American distillers are familiar with corn, wheat, rye, and barley, of course. Bell, however, explores alternatives; amaranth, quinoa, spelt, kamut, grain sorghum, millet, blue corn, tritordeum, and more. Buckwheat, even — not actually a grain, but it can be treated as one, as Bell demonstrates in his recipe for 92 proof buckwheat bourbon. More of them come into play in his seven- and eleven-grain bourbons.

Click to embiggen
Bell’s background as a brewer shines through across the pages. An oatmeal stout whiskey is an early tip-off, but he lays out his cards in two chapters devoted entirely to whiskeys inspired by America’s craft brewing beers. There’s the pumpkin spice moonhine, a riff on 1980’s-style pumpkin ales, and a mocha porter whiskey. Other whiskeys are based on witbier, Russian imperial stout, Octoberfest, dopplebock, American lager, Bavarian helles, and Pilsner.

But he really hits stride in the chapter on hopped whiskeys. “If whiskey is distilled beer,” Bell asks, “why has an element so critical to the history of beer never been used?” Well, it has been used, just not widely; hopped whiskeys are still a surprise even to many whiskey drinkers. Bell embraces the bitter flower cones with abandon.

Seven hopped whiskey recipes reveal multiple ways to get the hops’ nose, taste, and tang into the bottle. Some, such as dry hopping, are familiar to brewers, but hopping whiskey is not exactly the same as hopping beer. Distillers work with a sealed vessel, so there’s no just tossing in hops as brewers do during the cooking of the beer. Bell’s solution? A handmade double-valved hop insertion pipe for the still that allows distillers to add hops at particular points in the run. He also deploys hop backs, hop teas, and hopbursting, a technique that introduces massive amounts of hops late in the process that allows the distiller to amplify the hops aroma (and a bit of bitterness).

Another chapter explores alternates to hops, malt, and yeast. Wormwood wit whiskey, anyone? Chamomile wheat whiskey? How about an elderflower Bohemian pilsner whiskey, barley sochu, mint-chocolate milk stout whiskey, or cannabis moonshine? I’ve yet to taste a yeast-free [see comments below] whiskey made with Brettanomyces lambicus, so familiar to lovers of Belgian lambic beers, but Bell lays out how to make a soured barley example fermented with a lab-cultured strain from yeast vendor WYEAST.

And there’s smoke. The chapter on smoked whiskeys includes recipes, of course, but even more useful for the experimentally-minded distiller, guidelines for types of woods, how to smoke malts, and how changing the percentage of smoked grains in a mash bill affects the perception of smoke in the final product. Want to build a smoke injector? Learn how to make liquid smoke (even though Bell gives the stuff only qualified endorsement)? That’s here. So’s a corn cob smoked whiskey, inspired by a Tennessee meat-smoking technique.

About 60 recipes in all, rounded out with a chapter on cocktails from Josh Habiger.

Alt Whiskeys belongs on the shelf of every American distiller, legal, extra-legal, or simply aspiring. Whiskey lovers, see what’s going to be happening to your beloved spirit over the next few years — not just from Corsair,  but from distilleries across the country. The rest of you lot, if you want to understand why this is one of the most interesting and promising times for distillers in hundreds of years, get this book.

Then break out the whiskey.

Darek Bell (2012)
Edited by Amy Lee Bell, Photography by Pete Rodman, Forward by Bill Owens
Alt Whiskeys: Alternative Whiskey Recipes and Distilling Techniques for the Adventurous Craft Distiller
200 pages (paperback)
Corsair Artisan Distillery
ISBN: 0983350000

Amazon sells it here.

Goes well with:
  • Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer. As I wrote two years back, "If you make sausage or cure your own meats—any kind, not just pork—don’t delay. Get a copy of Maynard’s book today. It’s the one we’ve been waiting for." Just so, Alt Whiskeys is the one we've been waiting for.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Drink What You Like (Regardless of the Mixologists' Sniffy Disdain)

if i was bartending with anyone
who said shit like that
i would pull his underwear over his head
and throw his ass
out the front door

Over the holidays, one of the local markets slashed prices on liquor. Cointreau, in particular, was nearly half price, so I bought several months' worth. As I was checking out, the clerk read the neck tag's recipe for a margarita and, sounding genuinely sad, said "Damn, I've been making this wrong for years." I asked him "Well, do you like your margaritas?" His face brightened immediately. "Oh, yeah. They're great!""Then what do you care what someone else says you should be drinking? Make them the way you like them."

Now, I like well-crafted, classic drinks as much as the next guy and hold bartenders who purport to make them to certain standards — I'll send back a Manhattan that's been shaken, for instance — but the thing about drinking is: drink what you like. Listen to what seasoned boozers have to say, but don't be intimidated by them. Do you like, for instance, your red wine chilled...or with fish? Well, cork dorks may disapprove, but drink your red wine chilled and with fish. Is what you want right now — for whatever mysterious reasons — a Long Island iced tea? Well, then, order one.

But not from this incompetent pretender:

Thanks to John T. Edge from Oxford, Mississippi who sent me this gem this morning. You'll find this guy in the video everywhere. Portland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans (well, during Tales of the Cocktail, anyway), San Francisco, Los Angeles...and probably your home town.

You know...wait. Hang on. On second thought, DO order that Long Island ice tea from the mustachioed, waistcoat-wearing, bitters-making douchebag. The theatrics alone may well be worth the price of the drink. Who knows?  He might just make you the best Long Island you've ever had.

Goes well with:
  • Victoria Moore's How to Drink.  She writes: “It’s often said that life’s too short to drink bad wine, but I’d go further. Life’s also too short to drink good wine, or anything else for that matter, if it’s not what you feel like at the time. There’s no point in popping the cork on a bottle of vintage champagne if you really hanker after a squat tumbler of rough red wine.”
  • Brad Thomas Parsons' book Bitters. It's a good read for regular folks wanting to know more about the history and use of cocktail bitters, but beware that it's also kindling for the fevered prejudices of guys like the ridiculous fool in Shit Bartenders Say above.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Whiskey Litmus Test in Wineries

Last week, we spent several days in and around San Francisco, including the wine country north of the city. I enjoy wine, but I don't spend as much time mulling it over as I do spirits. So, while I've never given much thought to the cultural differences between various wineries, the question was foisted on me when conversations tilted from wine to whiskey.

In Napa, we started off one morning sampling sparkling wines. It's the kind of place where busloads of tourists disgorge during the season, but the setting was great and we had nowhere to be, so we looped back around after initially passing by. Once we were seated and were making our way through the samples, a winery employee asked what we usually drink. When we replied "whiskey," she  made a face. "Whiskey? That's weird. Who drinks whiskey? Is that like a Midwestern thing?" We were a bit frosted at the putdown, so we bought nothing.

Whiskey came up at another winery (they asked what I do). Out comes a chilled bottle of Brian Ellison's white whiskey from Death's Doorsmack — right on the counter.  They weren't selling it; the stuff was there to fortify the staff. At that place, we did buy the wines, including a few bottles of pinot meunier, a variety better known for blending, but its rich, lush, and almost smoky notes may appeal to confirmed whiskey drinkers. Last year I didn't know it existed; this year, I hope to drink my weight in it.

The first winery was big, corporate, a name you'd probably recognize. The second was much smaller, lesser known, most of the grapes were grown right there at the vineyard, and the staff just oozed friendliness. Turns out that regardless of whether they're selling whiskey, wine, bacon, or grits, my sympathies are almost always with smaller producers who make what they sell.

Cheers to the artisans of this world.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bookshelf: Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars

Many of these bars are the only public gathering place
in the rural communities they serve. These simple taverns offer the individual the valuable opportunity for face-to-face conversation and camaraderie, particularly as people become more physically isolated through the accelerated use of the internet’s social networking, mobile texting, Facebook, LinkedIn, gaming, and the rapid fire of email.

~ Carl Corey

Not being on Facebook is like not being in the phone book; people just expect to find you there. And for a small business owner like me not to be on Facebook is just stupid. Yet last year, I said to hell with it and posted my last status update, telling friends and clients that I’d rather grab a meal or drinks in person than spend even more time at my keyboard.

Sure, I miss invitations to parties here and there. Conversations about distilleries and restaurants go unnoticed. I sometimes learn weeks afterwards that someone has moved to Chicago or San Fransisco or has become a new father.

But new clients find me through word of mouth, family and friends still call with news, I was invited to more parties in the last six months than I could possibly attend, and work keeps me in touch with food and drinks folks almost single every day. I’m spending more time now in the actual, face-to-face company of friends than at almost any time in the Facebook years.

Carl Corey’s book Tavern League reminds me of just why I decided to ditch the ubiquitous social media site. Through evocative photos of nearly four dozen Wisconsin taverns, Corey depicts a world where friends and neighbors still gather in what some friends dismissively deem “meatspace” to socialize and to find a sense of belonging that Facebook, Twitter, on-demand television, World of Warcraft, or (my personal weakness) Xbox can’t even approximate.

Though I’ve never been to any of the taverns in the book, I’ve weighed down many a seat and stool in places like them throughout the Midwest. In his foreward A Toast to Old-Timer Bars, Jim Draeger explains their importance to Wisconsinites in particular:
Taverns have been and still are predominantly a family business. Low start-up costs, long hours, and patrons longing for a "home away from home" have all rewarded the mom-and-pop operations, and these neighborhood joints have been a cornerstone of the Wisconsin tavern experience. For much of our history, workers lived in modest dwellings: small houses, apartments, and tenements with little space for gatherings of family and friends. Without family rooms, decks, and patios, Wisconsinites used the tavern as an extension of their own living rooms, a place to socialize with friends, family, and neighbors. Tavern owners responded to this longing for a home away from home by decorating their bars to reflect their interests as well as those of their patrons. Their local flavor became a comfortable attraction to their regular patrons and gave each tavern a particular and unique character. As a result, tavern owners have been staunchly individualistic, resisting attempts to standardize, franchise, and homogenize their spaces.
Cheers to Carl Corey for a touching look at some of our beloved public spaces. Long live the Wisconsin tavern. And the Missouri tavern. And the Louisiana tavern. And all the other great places in America where locals gather to have some drinks, swap stories, shoot pool, do a little shuffleboard, and — now and then — sing along to a little Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings.

Carl Corey (2011)
Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars
136 pages (hardback)
Wisconsin Historical Society Press
ISBN: 0870204785

Goes well with:
  • A look at America Walks into a Bar, Christine Sismondo's look at the tavern's place in American history
  • Jerry Apps' book Breweries of Wisconsin from University of Wisconsin Press (now in its second edition). These brands in here are exactly the ones I drank in the Midwest as a budding — and underage — homebrewer scrounging for cheap reusable bottles.
  • My run-in with paczki, a sometimes-vodka-spiked doughnut with Polish roots found throughout Polonia, including, where I came across them, Wisconsin

Monday, January 16, 2012

Gooseberries in Hops Syrup

An untried recipe for my brewing friends who have loads of hops lying around. Yeah, I know; January is the wrong time of the year for fresh hops, but come this Spring, there will be hop shoots to eat in the German style like asparagus and, after the vines blossom, plenty of hops syrup for those tempted by such things — either for preserving gooseberries as Helen S. Wright suggested in her 1912 The New England Cook Book or for adding bittersweet notes to cocktails.
To Preserve Gooseberries in Hops

Take large gooseberries, make a small hole in the end and remove the seeds; be careful not to break them. Take fine long thorns or thin skewers and fill the stick of thorn with gooseberries, place in a covered pan, with enough water to cover the fruit, scald, but do not let the water boil, until they are green. Drain them. Have ready a syrup made by boiling whole gooseberries until they break; drain off the water. To 1 pound of hops allow 1½ pounds of granulated sugar; to this add the water and let boil until the hops are clear green; then take them out and lay them on a platter.

Boil the syrup until it is thick. Place the hops in a deep jar, then put in the gooseberries that are on the sticks, cover with syrup, and seal.

Goes well with:
  • Real Marshmallow Syrup, a look into a funky, bosky, and deeply odd syrup made from the roots of Althaea officinalis.
  • Syrup of Violets, Three Ways — one recipe from 1844, one from 1814, and an even older example of Sirrop of Violetts from 1604.
  • Opium syrup. Babies, it was said, cried for the stuff. More likely, the tiny little junkies cried when it was withheld...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kinderheim Gritz: Prohibition-era Pork Belly Charcuterie

North Carolina has liver mush, Pennsylvania is known for scrapple, and in some parts of Appalachia, poor-do is the local name for a dish that gives outsiders pause. These are venerable and entrenched regional charcuterie specialties with names that can be off-putting to modern eaters. Those who either grew up with them, though, or who have overcome the names, know that the stuff can be damn delicious when prepared properly.

Meat porridges such as scrapple or the unfortunately named liver mush are specialties that are particularly easy to make at home. They vary in their makeup, but share four characteristics.

  • are made with meat (finely ground or chopped pork is most common, though beef, poultry, and even bison are not unheard of)
  • are thickened with cereal or buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
  • have a thick, gruel-like consistency when cooking
  • thicken on standing so that, once cool, may be sliced and fried
Yep. It's a Kookbook.
Add to these the Ohio/Kentucky specialty goetta. Like the others, it’s an immigrant dish. Although sometimes made with beef rather than pork, goetta is essentially scrapple made with steel-cut oats in the place of scrapple’s buckwheat. Its name is a transliteration into English of the Plattdeutsch (Low German) götta, meaning groats (i.e., hulled, cracked grains). In standard High German, the word is Grütze, a cognate our own Southern grits. In fact, my great grandmother’s name for sliceable puddings such as scrapple was Happelgritz. Happel is an old dialect word for “head” suggesting that her recipe was made from pork head — a very common practice.

Her recipe didn’t seem to survive. At least, I haven’t found it yet. I recognized the gist of it, though, in a recipe from a Prohibition-era fundraising cookbook from Addison, Illinois just outside Chicago. The recipe is, simply, Gritz. Its use of steel-cut oats puts it firmly in the Germanic Ohio/Kentucky goetta tradition while its call for pork bellies appeals to modern eaters who have rediscovered this unctuous cut of pork.

From the 1927 Kinderheim Kookbook, here’s Mrs. W. G. Bohnsack’s recipe for

4 to 5 lbs. of fresh pork sides (the part used for smoking bacon), cut in 3 or 4 inch pieces
Cover with hot water, add
1 teaspoonful sage
1 teaspoonful thyme
1 teaspoonful sweet marjoram
2 to 3 tablespoonfuls salt
½ teaspoonful each of cloves and allspice (ground)

Boil until meat is tender. Take meat out of juice and put through meat chopper. Strain liquid and add to it 1½ lbs. steel cut oats and stir until it starts to boil and boil fifteen minutes stirring constantly. Stir in ground meat and let all come to boiling point. Put tightly covered kettle in oven at 300° and bake one hour. Turn off gas and let gritz in oven one-half hour longer. Stir occasionally while in oven. May be cooked on top of stove by stirring constantly 1 hour or until oats are soft. When cooked gritz must be consistency of corn meal mush.

Fry in iron skillet ten minutes for breakfast. Gritz should be made in cold weather only. Small pig's head may be used instead of pork sides. After having made gritz once, each cook can determine whether she needs more oats, less meat or more seasoning.

Goes well with:
  • William Woys Weaver’s book Country Scrapple is a scholarly, but short and enjoyable, exploration of not just scrapple, but panhas, goetta, poor-do, liver mush, haslet, pashofa, backbone pie, and other such goodnesses in need of exoneration among squeamish eaters. I drew on it here for parsing out the shared characteristics of scrapple-like dishes and for some of the German vocabulary. 
  • My own bacon dumplings for a wicked hangover.

William Woys Weaver (2003)
Country Scrapple
162 pages (hardback)
Stackpole Books
ISBN: 081170064X

Friday, January 6, 2012

Who Makes Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey? And Why Call it "Wild?"

As I recall, a bumper sticker on Popcorn Sutton's truck read Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Keep that in mind when talking about one of American moonshine's most prolific self-promoters.

Here's the deal with moonshine stories; there are more lies, falsehoods, deceptions, poorly understood half-truths, bluster, bravado, misquotes, and corrupted second-hand information than at a West Virginia Liars Contest. Many of these untruths are willful misdirection, but most — maybe even the majority— of them are simple misunderstandings, innocent of malice.

I think that's what landed on my desk yesterday morning.

Ever since the Discovery Channel began broadcasting its new series Moonshiners last month, the Whiskey Forge would get frequent spikes for searches about late moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton. Even before that, he often showed up in the site traffic reports, but this was more than the usual pings here and there. Yesterday, surfers from across the US and Canada were digging into earlier stories about Sutton.

What gives? He's been dead for some time now. Why the sudden interest? Turns out Huffington Post ran a story about him and the new 93-proof white whiskey crafted on his persona and the moonshine he made. Also turns out that Huffington Post doesn't have an ear for Southern accents. The article includes a video in which Sutton's widow Pam talks a bit about the whiskey. It quotes her as saying:
“We have a distillery set up in Nashville, Tennessee. We can’t legally call it moonshine. We have to call it Tennessee Wild Whiskey, and also Popcorn’s liquor is the first white whiskey that the federal government has approved.”
Well, a few clarifications are in order. Mrs. Sutton doesn't call it "Tennessee Wild Whiskey" in the video. What she says is "Tennessee White Whiskey." If you hear talk or read of a new "wild" whiskey, double check that source.

Sutton's white whiskey, however, it not the first approved by the federal government. Just last Fall, Whiskey Advocate magazine ran Lew Bryson's reviews of more than a dozen unaged or minimally aged white whiskeys. There are plenty of such spirits out there and plenty more on the way.

The brand's website is here, but as of today, it's just a parking page. The distillery Pam Sutton mentions isn't one of Popcorn's old rigs in which he cranked out thousands upon thousands of gallons of untaxed liquor. "Nashville" was the giveaway. Popcorn operated in and around Maggie Valley, North Carolina, about midpoint between Asheville and Gatlinburg. No, Nashville and commercial white whiskey mean one thing to me and one thing only: this particular grain spirit got its (legal) start at DSP TN-15006, our good friends at Corsair Artisan Distillery, makers of some really lovely spirits.

Darek Bell of Corsair tells me Jamey Grosser originally used Corsair stills to make Sutton's whiskey, but just secured his own Distilled Spirits Plant permit. The TTB confirms it: Popcorn Sutton Distilling, LLC of Nashville, Tennessee has its DSP*. The day to day operations guy is distiller Travis Hixon, formerly brewer at Nashville's Blackstone Brewery.

Congratulations, boys, on getting your own place set up. Any chance we'll be seeing some legal versions of Popcorn's brandies?

*Edit 1/10/12 I had originally written that DSP TN-S-15009 was assigned to Popcorn Sutton Distilling, LLC, but Christian Grantham of Short Mountain Distillery corrected the record: HIS Tennessee distillery is TN-S-15009. I can only sympathize with distillers and the endless reams of paperwork they have to endure to get a legal distillery up and running. 

Goes well with:
  • Legal Moonshine? You've Been Conned, a bit I wrote this summer about the flawed concept of so-called "legal moonshine."
  • One of Corsair's standout whiskeys is the triple smoke American single malt. Attendees of last year's Tales of the Cocktail session on New American distilleries got to sample some, but if you missed out on that, do try tracking some down. 
  • Moonshiners runs on the Discovery Channel on Wednesdays. Last week's marathon of it is what made me late for a New Year's Eve party. I happen to like the show, even if—as are all "reality" shows—it is so clearly a product of artifice. Viz Popcorn's bumper sticker supra.
  • The West Virginia Liars Contest has been going on for decades. I've never been, but would love to make it one day.