Friday, November 30, 2012

Whisky Advocate Runs Feature Story on White Whiskey by...Oh, Hey. Me.

You have to look at white whiskey 
on its own merits. 
If you judge it 
compared to aged whiskeys, 
it fails. 
Every time.

~ Darek Bell
Corsair Artisan Distillery

Shea Shawnson pours Double and Twisted light whiskey at Elixir
The current issue of Whisky Advocate magazine has a feature article on white whiskey by yours truly. [Edit 12/9/12: scroll down for a link to a PDF of the article.] White, light, unaged, minimally aged, and "raw" whiskeys are growing in popularity. Not everyone — including those who make it — agrees on what it is, so when editor Lew Bryson asked me to take a run at white whiskey, I made some phone calls, packed a sandwich, and hit the road to talk to distillers who make the stuff and drinkers who down it.
As grain spirits come off the still, in- dustry insiders call the heady, limpid distillate new make or white dog. Every whiskey distiller in the world makes it and almost all of it is destined for barrels. Some, though, trickles out to the public. Lately, distillers and consumers alike have taken to calling it white whiskey. Marketers trumpet it as a hot new thing. In truth, the wheel has been around longer. And fire, of course. But new make was old hat when Johnnie Walker took his first wobbly steps. 
What is novel is that until about 2005, few dreamt a market still existed for the stuff.
My travels brought me up the west coast of the United States. From tiny sheds up dirt roads to a distillery in an old Air Force hangar, I met with men and women making, selling, drinking, and mixing white whiskeys.
Bars and restaurants from New York to Seattle offer white whiskeys as a matter of course, even pride. White Manhattans and albino Old Fashioneds abound. If whiskey cocktails unblemished by oak are insufficiently exotic, trendy tipplers can ask for them “improved” 19th-century style with a few dashes of absinthe. 
Despite growing awareness and acceptance, the category is dogged by three recurrent questions. Two are worth addressing in passing: (1) Is white whiskey moonshine? and (2) Is it any good?
I tackle those in about 500 words, but the third question, the one people should be asking and which fills the bulk of the article, is what do we do with it? Pick up the Winter 2012 issue of Whisky Advocate for some of the answers — including arguments that the way many white whiskeys are made is completely wrong — or download a PDF of It's a Nice Day for a White Whiskey here.

Interviews, insight, and recipes from Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole and Shea Swanson of Elixir in San Francisco, Darek Bell of Corsair Artisan Distillery (and author of Alt Whiskeys), Jim Romdall of Vessel in Seattle, Ian and Devin Cain of American Craft Whiskey distillery, barber and distiller Salvatore Cimino, 13th generation master distiller Marko Karakasevic from Charbay, and, midwife to the modern tiki renaissance, Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry.

Here's a bonus recipe that didn't make the article from bartender Rhachel Shaw whom I ran into as a customer at rum bar Smuggler's Cove. Shaw pays tribute to Elizabeth Taylor (whom one can only presume guzzled staggering quantities of raw whiskey) with a drink named for the late movie star's perfume:
White Diamonds  
1.5 oz. Koval Chicago Rye
.75 oz. Cocci Americano
.5 oz. Maraschino
1 dash Bitterman's Grapefruit Bitters
Stir on ice. Strain. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Crispy Moonshine Onion Rings

In Charred & Scruffed, his 2012 book on otherwise new grilling techniques, restaurateur and barbecue enthusiast Adam Perry Lang leverages an old trick — folding liquor into flour-based batter or dough — to yield flaky pastries and batters. After our recent turkey deep-frying, we had plenty of peanut oil around, so I decided to put his recipe for "moonshine" onion rings to the test.

Alcohol in pastries is nothing new. We’ve seen, for instance, that Polish Mardi Gras doughnuts known as paczki are sometimes made with vodka and pie crust recipes using vodka have been floating around for years. It’s not there as a flavoring or to get eaters drunk; vodka can discourage gluten formation in pastries, lending a crisp and flaky texture.

Lang is co-owner of the Original Moonshine brand which is why he specifies it but, as we all know, isn't actual moonshine. Not a value judgement; just a statement of fact. If you have some, use it. If not, you can easily substitute vodka, genuine moonshine, home-distilled neutral spirits, or any one of the lighter "white" whiskeys on the market. You can use mature whiskeys or even brandies — just be aware that they'll impart flavor you may not want in your onion rings.

The verdict? Yep; they are crispy and tasty. Break out the ketchup, malt vinegar, and aioli. Just be sure to eat these little buggers while they're hot because even when they're crispy, cold onion rings are best left for dogs and stoners.
Crispy Moonshine Onion Rings 
8 cups peanut oil
3 large Spanish onions cut into ½”-thick slices and separated into rings
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
plus more for sprinkling
2 teaspoons freshly ground
black pepper

4 large egg whites
1 c Original Moonshine, clear corn whiskey, or vodka
2 c cornstarch
2 tsp sea or kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp cayenne pepper
About 4 cups panko crumbs

Heat the oil to 350°F in an 8-quart pot. Meanwhile, put the onions in a large bowl and pour the milk over them to moisten them; drain.
Put the flour in a large sealable plastic bag, add the salt and pepper, and shake to mix. Working in batches, add the drained onion slices to the flour, seal the bag, and shake vigorously to coat the slices, then spread on a baking sheet.
For the batter, whip the egg whites to soft peaks in a large bowl. Fold in the moonshine. Sift the cornstarch, salt, black pepper, and cayenne over the egg whites and fold in gently.
Spread the panko crumbs evenly on a baking sheet. Line another baking sheet with paper towels. 
Working in batches, add the onion rings to the batter, then, one at a time, toss onto the panko crumbs and flip over to coat with crumbs; repeat until you have filled the baking sheet with a generously spaced layer of onions. 
One by one, drop the coated onions into the hot oil, without crowding, and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon, transfer to the lined baking sheet to drain briefly, and sprinkle with salt, then transfer to a mesh cooling rack (this will prevent the onion rings from becoming soggy). Repeat with the remaining onion rings and serve.

Adam Perry Lang (2012)
Charred & Scruffed: Bold New Techniques for Explosive Flavor on and off the Grill
280 pages (paperback)
ISBN: 1579654657

Goes well with:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ernie Button's Vanishing Single Malt Scotch

Put that back. You can't just take any crap. 
Now. Single malt, 16 year old, taut, full flavor, warmer, not aggressive. 
Peaty aftertaste.
Takes out the fire but leaves in the warmth.

~ Frank (Brendan Gleeson)
28 Days Later

Abelour 103
We've all cleaned glasses with residue of drinks in them, but Ernie Button realized that something other than dirty dishes — something beautiful — was happening under our very noses. While putting a glass that had held Scotch whisky in the dishwasher, Button noticed a film of residue with fine, lacy lines on the bottom. Closer examination led to a photography project, Vanishing Spirits – The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch.
What I found through some experimentation is that these patterns and images that you see can be created with the small amount of Single-Malt Scotch left in a glass after most of it has been consumed. The alcohol dries and leaves the sediment in various patterns. It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results. I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Some of the images reference the celestial, as if the image was taken of space; something that the Hubble telescope may have taken or an image taken from space looking down on Earth. The circular image references a drinking glass, typically circular, and what the consumer might see if they were to look at the bottom of the glass after the scotch has dried. A technical note about this project. The images were titled with the specific Scotch that the rings were created with. The number is a 3 digit number that has nothing to do with the age of the scotch. Merely a number to help differentiate between images.
To my eye, Button's vanishing single malt images look as much like photos taken from celestial telescopes or by undersea Arctic explorers than they do photos of something so warm, comforting and homey as single malt Scotch. A link to the project in his portfolio is  below.

Balvenie 125
Specimen - Glenfiddich 15
Macallan 103
Dalwhinnie 122

Goes well with: 

  • Photographer Ernie Button's seriesVanishing Spirits – The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch.
  • The Purpose of Good Liquor, in which I ship out a bunch of nice Scotch for no other reason than it would make someone happy. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our Creeping Ruralism

For some years in the 1980's, I volunteered at the Lakeside Nature Center, a rehabilitation refuge for Missouri wildlife. There, I helped feed and care for possums, owls, rattlesnakes, falcons, turtles, eagles, and a host of injured animals that needed to recuperate before being released. A few, such as Bubo, the blind great horned owl, were unable ever to return to the countryside. The thing is, "the countryside" in this case was Kansas City; over two million people lived within a twenty minute drive in any direction. Back then, identifying fox tracks and owl pellets in the wooded parts of town felt like possessing some secret knowledge. No matter how tall our buildings, I realized, "the country" is right there in their shadows.

Fuckin' 'ell! David Mitchell goes farming (video below)
Only now, the country is coming out of the shadows. And it's not just because Americans have a growing awareness of untamed animals in our midst. People are actively cultivating rural sensibilities in cities. In a search for sustainability, self-reliance, and a growing concern to know the origins of their foods, homeowners are uprooting lawns — both front and back — to install edible gardens. Some have begun raising modest numbers of livestock like chickens, rabbits, honey bees, and goats (San Diego has a new ordinance; one may own two goats — no more, no fewer). Pickling, jam-making, and meat curing classes are the hot new thing and where better for alumni of these classes to sell their surplus than at local famers' markets that are cropping up like field mushrooms? Writing in The Gaurdian, Paula Cocozza makes clear that this creeping ruralism is not confined to the United States:
Everywhere you look, the countryside has crept into cities and towns – the way we shop, eat, read, dress, decorate our homes, spend our time. Street food is sold out of revamped agricultural trucks, or from village-delivery style bicycles. City-dwellers are booking into a growing number of courses on rural life; urban bees and chickens are commonplace (though do keep up: ducks are where it's at now). And when Rebekah Brooks wanted to get the prime minister's attention? "Let's discuss over country supper soon."
Of course, as the guy who penned a how-to guide on home distilling, it's probably no surprise that I'm right along with them. When we met recently with a landscaper who tried so hard to push for succulents all over the property, she pushed back when I said they weren't for me. "They're drought-resistant," she explained. "They'll grow in your soil..."

"Look," I interrupted. "Here's the deal. If it doesn't end up on my plate or in my glass, I don't want it in my yard." She froze, hand in mid-gesture. "OK. Message received." Then she smiled: "Where in the country are you from?"

Where in the country? Why, Southern California, of course.

While we figure out the plant situation at the Whiskey Forge, check out David Mitchell (in a bit for The Mitchell and Webb Situation) after he gets bit by the farming bug and cannot believe the money to be made at it:

Goes well with:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Alistair McAlpine, Chuck Cowdery, and the Distiller of the Year

In his 1992 book, The Servant, Alistair McAlpine espoused unswerving commitment to both a Prince and an idea — an idea so powerful that it is the Idea. Now retired from political life, Lord McAlpine held the office of treasurer and Deputy Chairman of Britain's Conservative party and was a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher. The Servant is his complementary riposte to Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince and a fascinating read on the motivations and machinations of a ruthless, amoral fanatic.

I was reminded this morning of one of McAlpine's maxims while reading Chuck Cowdery's recent piece on Wine Enthusiast magazine naming Michter's Distillery Distillery of the Year. In a line that has been embedded in my brain for the better part of twenty years, McAlpine opined:
In order to establish in the Prince's mind that the Servant is a specialist, it is important for him to comment only on his subject, and to assert, when asked of other matters, "I know too little to be of help."
This is, as is much of McAlpine's advice, disingenuous or at least a facet of the duplicitous public persona, the myth, a Servant must forge. A Prince's Servant after all exerts considerable influence, even in those fields for which he professes ignorance. But the sentiment is at the heart of Cowdery's beef with Wine Enthusiast. The problem, as he explains, is that the wine enthusiasts stumbled when they ventured into the unfamiliar realm of spirits. In fact, the modern brand Michter's is not a distillery — though a Pennsylvania distillery did once bear that name. It is that bugbear of brands laying claim to being actual distilleries to which the spirits writer has taken great exception over the last few years, a marketing creation he dubs a Potemkin Distillery. Writes Cowdery:
Michter’s today is what is known as a Potemkin Distillery. The façade is quite elaborate. They even have a person with the title of master distiller. His resume includes Brown-Forman, a major distillery owner and operator, except he wasn’t a distiller there. Wine Enthusiast Spirits Editor Kara Newman claims that Michter's is a distiller even though she acknowledges they “don't have their own brick-and-mortar facility.” 
“Like a great many smaller producers,” she insists, “they have used stills at other facilities.” Newman claims that Michter's “selects the mash bill, yeast, etc. and oversees the physical distillation and other production details, right down to figuring out the best bottling strength and aging times.” From this she concludes that Michter's “is not working with whiskey made by anybody else.” 
What she describes is a fanciful explanation of contract distilling, but it’s doubtful Michter’s even does that much. More likely they buy bulk whiskey, selecting from whatever is available. The whiskey Michter’s sells is good and making those selections is an important job, but it’s not distilling.
Read the rest of Chuck's piece — How Can A Non-Distiller Be Distiller Of The Year? — and his explanation of why such a move offends some here.

Goes well with:
  • Cowdery is not the only one to note that many modern spirits brands hide behind non-existent distilleries, but he did bestow upon them the fitting moniker "Potemkin" distillery. Here's his thinking behind the name.
  • The Faber & Faber edition — my introduction to McAlpine's writing — of The Servant is out of print, but it is reproduced along with The Prince and Sun Tzu's The Art of War in the edited volume The Ruthless Leader: Three Classics of Strategy and Power (ISBN: 471372471, Wiley, $36.50).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Poached Phoenix: An Elaborate, Nine-Bird Turducken

Little onions boiled in champagne were served with it, 
along with a lettuce-and-vinaigrette salad, 
and there was fresh fruit for dessert. 
Let a man from an old Creole family 
arrange a dinner for you and, of course, black, black coffee 
could be the only proper ending to the meal. 
That and deep, slow breathing.

Peter S. Freibleman

American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (1971)
With Thanksgiving nearly on us and Christmas fast on its heels, we well and truly have entered turducken season. Though it sounds like a Dr. Seuss creation, the dish — as most Americans now know — is not a single creature, but an amalgam of three: a chicken, a duck, and a turkey, each one boned out, stuffed into the next, and roasted. Its boosters have included New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, writer Calvin Trillin, and football commentator John Madden. Many assume that is a Cajun dish. They’re only partially correct.

Entrenched though its South Louisiana pedigree may be, the turducken has roots that stretch far into antiquity when animals stuffed inside other animals graced the tables of the wealthy. Among the cognoscenti, Hebert's Specialty Meats of Maurice, Louisiana is widely regarded as having introduced commercially produced turducken in the 1980’s. They sell thousands of the things to this day (see below for a link).

But before Hebert’s, there was Jimmy Plauche and his “special dinner” of nine birds, each nestled into the next larger one until one turkey encased them all. Each bird was cooked separately and the whole then poached in stock from all nine. Plauche lived not in Cajun-dominated Acadiana, but in New Orleans where he ran the popular restaurant Corrine Dunbar’s from 1956-88. Peter S. Freibleman describes just such a off-site special dinner in his 1971 Time-Life book, American Cooking: Creole and Acadian:
Now and then the owner of Corinne Dunbar's will work up a special dinner for a few friends, served not at the restaurant but in a private room at a hotel in the French Quarter where he can collar some chef to do his bidding for the two or three days it takes to prepare the meal. On one such memorable occasion, Jimmy Plauche…had heard somewhere that you can stuff a bird into a bird into a bird just as long as you can find a bird big enough to contain the last one. He found nine birds around town, and tried it. The dish he served consisted of a snipe that was stuffed into a dove that was inserted into a quail that was placed in a squab that was put into a Cornish game hen that was tucked into a pheasant that was squeezed into a chicken that was pushed into a duck that was stuffed into a turkey. All the birds had been boned, and each had been boiled separately with seasoning to make a stock. A stuffing of wild cherries and almonds was placed around each bird to make it fit snugly into the next. The final nine-bird result was poached in all the combined stocks. When the chef carved it, the partakers felt as if they were eating a single legendary bird, a sort of poached phoenix. 
Assembling a modern turducken is something I can manage at home. This thing, though? If I could find the man or woman willing to take on the task, I'd gladly leave it in those capable hands.

Goes well with:

  • Want a more modern, streamlined turducken? Many places will ship one to your door, but Hebert's (pronounced "A bears") has been making them since 1985. Check out their online store at
  • Precious antiquarian booksellers will gladly sell you at inflated prices secondhand copies of the Time-Life cookbook of the world series from the late 1960's into the 1970's. Save your money. If you're patient, you can eventually buy the entire 27-volume collection (as I did) for 25 to 50 cents per book at yard sales and thrift shops. Including the little spiral-bound recipe booklets that accompany the larger books, I may have spent as much as $18 for the whole set. Don't dismiss them as corny, cheesy remnants from an unsophisticated era; these are well-written, well-researched, and engaging texts from knowledgable authors. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Quick Look at Long Pepper

Among my thousands of cookbooks, some ingredients are called out so often that they don't even raise an eyebrow. Want apple recipes? Give me an hour: I can get you hundreds. Got a hankering for tomatoes? Wait right there; thousands of suggestions line my shelves. Ditto salt, onions, and garlic. Even the once-exotic fresh ginger is a grocery store staple now. Yet the old books or those printed in far-off lands occasionally toss out a casual mention of once-common ingredients that can make many modern Western readers pause. Such may be the case with long pepper.

Long pepper
Long pepper from India (Piper longum) was once heralded as one of the ancient world's more expensive spices. Culinary historians Philip and Mary Hymen give a snapshot:
In the third century B.C., Theophrastus wrote that there were two kinds of pepper: black pepper and long pepper. Nearly four hundred years later, Pliny described and gave prices for three: black pepper, which cost 4 deniers a pound; white pepper, which cost 7 deniers a pound; and long pepper, costing 15 deniers a pound. Almost two thousand years later on, two of Pliny's peppers are still with us, but the third — long pepper — seems to have disappeared. 
Keep in mind that the Hymens were writing in 1980. Modern eaters' tastes have evolved somewhat since the days of Devo, Joy Division, and Captain Beefheart. The good news is that this exotic spice has crept into circulation in the West again — and is it not nearly as expensive as in the days of Pliny. Though online merchants carry it, I bought a 5-ounce package at a Dean  Deluca store in Kansas on the clearance rack for about the cost of a cup of chai. In fact, a separate species (known variously as Piper officinarum or P. chaba or P. retrofractum) grown in Indonesia is available to modern cooks as well. The latter is longer than the Indian variety and tastes better.

Unlike the miniature cannonball-shaped black peppercorns so familiar to us, long pepper is shaped like little cattails or perhaps long, very tightly closed pinecones. These small greyish brown-black spikes consist of a number of tiny seeds adhering to a core. On opening a jar, its musty, piquant smell immediately fills the space suggesting exotic blends more than a single, dominant spice. The taste is a bit like black pepper; it has more heat and a bite, anyway, but there's a sweet lingering undertone. Crush it in a mortar, cook with it whole, or grind it as you would black pepper.

In their essay Long Pepper: A Short History (included in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy, see below), the Hymens detail the origins and fall from popularity of the spice. In a nutshell, they argue that in the ancient and Renaissance worlds, long pepper provided heat in dishes. When chile peppers arrived from the New World and took root all over Europe, demand for such piquant notes was easily satisfied by relatively local crops, rather than by pricey imports. The market simply withered away. By 1702, they report, a French writer declared "I have nothing to say about long pepper since it is no longer used with food."

Don't tell that to Zakary Pelaccio whose Fatty Crab restaurants in New York serve drinks as good as the Malaysian-inflected food. His book Eat With Your Hands includes a recipe for a black pepper/rhubarb pickle which he exhorts readers to make with long pepper if they can get their hands on some.
Zakary Pelaccio's Black Pepper Rhubarb Pickle

3 rhubarb stalks, peeled and cut into 1-inch-long matchsticks (peels reserved)
1 cup sugar
2 Tbl freshly ground black pepper, ideally Indonesian long pepper
Combine the reserved rhubarb peels with the sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, then strain into a medium saucepan, discarding the solids.
Warm the syrup over medium heat until it's just hot to the touch, add the rhubarb and the black [long] pepper, and take the pan off the heat. Let it sit for at least an hour or up to many. Keep it in the liquid, covered, up to a few weeks in the refrigerator, until you're ready to use it.
Goes well with:

Alan Davidson and Helen Saberi (2002)
Forward by Harold McGee
The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires
512 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1580084176

Zakary Pellacio (2012)
Eat with Your Hands
368 pages (hardback)
ISBN: 0061554200

Monday, November 12, 2012

Homemade Bacon Jam with Apple Cider

It’s pork and apple season around the Whiskey Forge. The mornings are cold again and I’m glad to have laid in supplies of cured meats along with various ciders and apple brandies to help take the chill off these brisk days and dark nights.

Frying the bacon; brown but not too crip
Of course, it’s never quite not pork season here and when the meat in question is bacon, seasons don’t play into the menu as much as they might with, say, a crown roast or garden tomatoes; we eat the stuff sparingly, but all through the year. When recipes for jam based on bacon started pinging on my radar last year, I decided to tweak them and give a go to my own version. Coffee seems an integral flavoring to many recipes, but it’s not a taste I wanted in my jam. Tinkering with cider, cider vinegar, and maple syrup instead helped give this sweet meaty jam a deep and complex flavor.

Spread it on toast? Yes, if you like. I mix mine into baked mac n cheese, fold it into cream of celeriac soup, streak it trough layers of a potato gratin, add it to cooked spinach with more garlic, and put dollops in folded-over puff pastry with a bit of cheese to bake cheaty little hand pies.

What would you do with it?
Bacon Jam 
2 pounds smoked, dry-cured bacon
3 large yellow onions
8-10 cloves of garlic
1/3 c/80ml grade B maple syrup
2/3 c/160ml cider vinegar
2/3 c/160ml light brown sugar
1 c/250ml apple cider
1 tsp black pepper 
Done cooking; ready for the processor
Cut bacon into lardoons or small strips. Place them in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pan, then cook on very low heat, stirring now and then, until the bacon is browned but not too crisp.
While the bacon is gently frying, peel, quarter, and slice the onions thinly. Peel and mince the garlic. Combine them in a bowl and set it aside.
When the bacon is cooked, remove it from the Dutch oven with slotted spoon and set it aside in a bowl. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the hot bacon fat, leaving in as much of the browed bits as possible that cling to the bottom of the pan.

At this point, throw away this fat if you want — but that would be foolish. Save it for making  cornbread, bacon fat mayonnaise, sautéing vegetables, flavoring succotash, etc.

Turn the prepared onions and garlic into the bacon fat in the pan and cook over a low flame until they start to brown. Deglaze the pan with a splash of water or cider if necessary. Add the remaining ingredients, including the cooked bacon, and bring to a boil. Boil about two minutes, then reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring now and then, until the entire mass is sticky, dark brown and the meaty bits of bacon look almost shellacked (about 2.5 hours).

Towards the end of the cooking, stir often; it likes to stick to the pan.

Cool this mixture off the heat for about five minutes, then pulse in a food processor 3-4 times to yield a rough puree.

Done. Put in it a jar, keep it in the fridge.
~ Makes about 3.5 cups

Goes well with:
  • Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon (and a hand-dandy bacon glossary)
  • Maynard Davies' Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer. Maynard has several bacon books. My review of his latest and most detailed is here, ideal for those who want to cure pork bellies.  Includes links to his other bacon books.
  • A broad, steaming bowl of Speckklößebacon dumplings for a wicked hangover (or just a simple, homey dinner).