Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hulabilly Lemonade: The Fireflies Won't Be the Only Ones Getting Pleasantly Lit

Tiki Oasis is in full swing again. Regular readers know that for several years now, I've made a point of attending the four-day extravaganza of rum, beehive hairdos, Bettie Page lookalikes, surf tones, and tiki madness in San Diego. This year the theme is Hulabilly. Otto von Stroheim, the founder of TikiO, invited me to give a talk. So yesterday afternoon, we filled a ballroom, threw up some slides, hit the sauce, and delved into my field: illicit liquor. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll add some more stories from that talk, but I had so many requests for my boozy lemonade recipe yesterday that I realized I should put it up while the hulabilly hodown was in full swing.

Johnny Jeffery flew in from Wisconsin to join me for the talk since he was the distiller for one of the whiskeys we were tasting: Death's Door white whiskey. Jeffery is in the privileged position of sampling his white white right off the still. His recommendation for the rest of us who can't get it at quite such high proof? Try it in a margarita.

The Hulabilly Lemonade I made as a welcome drink for the crowd is a twist on an old-fashioned front porch lemonade…with two differences. The first is that I used two sugar syrups — one demerara and the other caramelized, which isn’t as sweet, but gives the drink a soft, almost praline note that complements the fresh lemon juice. The second is that I asked the volunteers helping out with the talk to pour in a whole bunch of whiskey.

Without the whiskey, the lemonade makes a good Arnold Palmer when mixed 1:1 with black iced tea. With whiskey, though, and cooling off on the porch some hot evening with a pitcher of this Hulabilly Lemonade and a few glasses…well, let’s just say that the fireflies won’t be the only one getting pleasantly lit.
Hulabilly Lemonade 
1.5 oz Death's Door White Whiskey
4 oz front porch lemonade (see below)
2 teaspoons caramel syrup (optional, see below) 
Mix whiskey, lemonade, and caramel syrup over ice. Garnish with mint if you're feeling extra fancy.

Front Porch Lemonade 5 parts lemon juice
5 parts water
3 parts Demerara simple syrup 
Stir until blended in a jar, pitcher, or gallon jug. 
A note on the caramel syrup: In my opinion, the caramel syrup really makes this shine, but it's not strictly necessary — you could leave it out entirely. It not just tastes good, though; it's a nod to old-school bootleggers who sometimes faked age in illicit spirits with caramel (a practice that hasn't died out). Author David Lebovitz has good notes on making caramel; if you've never made it, check them out before you begin. The way I make this cocktail syrup, it's a simple ratio: two parts sugar to one part water so that the final version — by volume — is 25% more than the original sugar volume. First, measure whatever quantity of plain white table sugar (12 ounces by volume is a handy amount for home use). Then measure half that of water (6 ounces in this example). Have it at the ready.

Slowly caramelize the dry sugar in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan (I use an unlined copper pot, but use what you've got). When it reaches a rich amber color, immediately (and carefully) pour in all the water. Be careful: it will spatter and steam. The whole mass will seize up in a hard candied blob. No worries. Turn the heat to low, stirring now and then, until the sugar dissolves. Some water will have evaporated as steam, so when the whole thing is liquid and cool, put it in a measuring cup and add just enough water to make the total volume 25% more than the original volume of sugar. In this example, 12 ounces (100%) plus 3 ounces (25%) = 15 ounces. Just top off with cool water until the total volume is 15 ounces. Easy peasy.

Goes well with:

Friday, August 2, 2013

Not So Fast: Barrel Aged Gin Hits a Snag

We cocktail types like the barrel aged gins that have been showing up over the last few years on the American market. Their oakiness with suggestions of vanilla, nuts, butterscotch, and other more ephemeral tastes and smells can add intriguing and pleasant notes to mixed drinks. Those aged gins, however, were never supposed to have been approved. Oh, sure, some slipped through the scrutiny of the TTB (the federal agency tasked with enforcing regulations on, among other things, liquor). But the days of barrel-aged gins — at least by that name — are over until federal regulations catch up with distilling as it is practiced among today's nimble distillers.

From the Summer 2013 issue of Distiller, here's my piece originally titled "Not So Fast: Barrel Aged Gin Hits a Snag."

* * * 

Once thought of as almost extinct, aged gins have begun a tentative reemergence in the American market. Some consumers are puzzled by shades of honey and amber in what for many is the quintessential white spirit, but vintage spirits enthusiasts and cocktail aficionados greet the category with enthusiasm. They work particularly well in mixed drinks such as Negronis and the Martinez. As distiller PT Wood explains, “Aged gin is something that not everyone is doing and people are looking for things like that. I, for one, think it’s a delicious spirit.” How they are permitted to describe such spirits, though, has taken a few distillers by surprise.

The US Code of Federal Regulations (27 CFR Part 5 § 5.40) forbids as “misleading” age statements for several beverages, including cocktails, cordials, and gin. Yet some brands plainly declare their gins aged. In 2009, for instance, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau approved Corsair Artisan Distillery’s application for Barrel Aged Gin aged 6 months in charred American oak. “We submitted, it passed. It was no big deal,” says Corsair’s Darek Bell. Within the next three years, Smooth Ambler received approval for Barrel Aged Gin, Roundhouse got the green light for Imperial Barrel Aged Gin, and others came to market. More recent applications, however, have been rejected for using the same language. The product itself is not at issue, but an effective ban on age statements has led distillers to invent creative circumlocutions.

“I didn’t know anything about the TTB’s latest stance until we submitted and got denied,” explained Rob Masters, president of Colorado Distillers Guild. Masters distills Spring44’s Old Tom Gin, sweetened lightly with agave nectar and aged in toasted Chardonnay barrels. His application to use the plain-language description barrel aged to describe the gin triggered a COLA rejection in 2013. “Our way around it was using the phrase ‘barreled in American oak.’” Likewise, PT Wood’s application for barrel aged gin was rejected. After consulting with TTB, the co-owner of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery chose Treeline Barrel Rested Gin. “We also tried ‘barrel conditioned.’ There was a whole litany of other options. We finally agreed that ‘barrel rested’ wasn’t an age statement so much as a process statement.”

Domestic producers aren’t alone in bringing aged juniper spirits to the American market. Cognac Ferrand’s aged French gin Citadelle Réserve is available in several vintages; the Dutch firm Bols sells an aged expression of their popular genever; and Beefeater releases Burrough’s Reserve this summer, an oak 'rested' gin.

At one time gin was aged routinely, if inadvertently, in wood because barrels were the most economical option for storing and transporting it. In The Practical Distiller, his 1809 manual for the distilling trade, Samuel M’Harry advised American colleagues seeking the custom of “respectable neighbors” to filter their juniper-flavored spirits through maple charcoal then put the spirits into “the sweetest and perfectly pure casks.” M’Harry counseled against new barrels because they would impart color and taste to this premium gin. One could take this to mean that gin — proper gin — should be as clear as spring water. A more nuanced reading reveals that, while respectable neighbors in the young Republic may have ponied up more for maple-filtered gin untainted by barrels, those who drank common gin drank spirits that smacked of wood. Barrel aging, one could argue, is not modern innovation, but a return to American gin’s roots.

The discrepancy between earlier COLA approvals for barrel aged gins and the TTB’s current position rejecting them does not reflect a change of regulations or any new interpretation of existing rules. In fact, the agency seems stuck enforcing rules its employees understand are not aligned with current industry practice or consumer expectations. Tom Hogue, Director of TTB’s Office of Public and Media Affairs, offers an explanation. “In 1999, we were seeing approximately 69,000 label applications. Last year it was more than 150,000.” Rather than nefarious intent, new rules, or inequitable application of regulations, Hogue attributes the discrepancy to human error.

“The regulation hasn’t changed,” he says, “and I don’t think the interpretation of the regulation has changed. With that volume of applications, as we go back through things and get fresh eyes on something, if we see something that’s not compliant, we work with the label holder on a case-by-case basis to figure out the best way forward in a way that’s appropriate and balanced.” He notes that the Unified Agenda, the semi-annual list of regulatory actions the federal government intends to take, will post proposed regulation changes specifically for distilled spirits. Though no timeline is set for a discussion of aged gins, once proposed changes are posted, the public is invited to comment.

Robert Lehrman cautions that waiting for changes to occur through Unified Agenda action, however, could take years. The founder of Lehrman Beverage Law in northern Virginia helps distillers navigate complex federal regulations, including label compliance. His take on the CFR regulation is practical: age or no age on a label is a simple matter of fact. “If it’s true, not misleading, and factual, the government needs to get out of the way.”

His advice? Craft producers who make aged gin should “band together to petition the TTB and say ‘This rule is against innovation, against high-quality product, and really it serves no one and benefits nobody.’” Rather than simply allowing or disallowing age statements, he proposes a middle ground that specifies how long and in what gin is aged. “And that conceivably could go through relatively fast.” Faster, presumably, than waiting for the comments phase of the Unified Agenda.

Now that TTB staff have cottoned to the age statements implicit in barrel aged gin, they are obliged to deny new applications for aged and barrel aged gins. Unless the regulation changes — or someone lobbies successfully to change it — distillers must instead propose workaround phrases that describe their gin’s time in wood. A frustration, undoubtedly, but whatever we call them, more aged juniper spirits are on the way — and that’s progress.

Goes well with:

  • The current issue of Distiller has more on gin, distilling regulations, spirits judging, an article by Corsair Artisan Distillery's Darek Bell on incorporating smoke in vodka, gin, whiskeys, and other sprits, and other. Check it out here.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bookshelf: Hubert Germain-Robin's Traditional Distillation

Since the 18th century, Hubert Germain-Robin’s family has been in the distilling business. The Frenchman has carried on the tradition in northern California where, in the early 1980’s, he co-founded Germain-Robin distillery, now known for exemplary brandies. His first name has become so enmeshed with the rise of American craft distilling that, like Beck, Coolio, or Divine, no other is needed. To those in the know, there is but one Hubert.

Traditional Distillation: Art & Passion brings together his insight gleaned from decades of making eaux de vie both in France and California. With 18 pages devoted to the anatomy and operation of the Cognac pot still known as an alambic charentais, the book is less a step-by-step instruction manual for distilling spirits than it is a gentle guide for readers with at least a rudimentary understanding of stills. Hubert does not merely dispense technical instructions on distilling; he discusses the reasons a distiller may choose — or not — to take particular actions. “Remember,” he exhorts, “With distillation you cannot go back. You will have to live with what you distilled.”

Like an avuncular Sun Tzu or Baltasar Gracián whose 17th century Art of Worldly Wisdom advised readers on flourishing with honor in a duplicitous world, Hubert structures much of his book on maxims. He advises not simply “do this” or “don’t do that,” but why one course may be preferred to another, all the while urging readers to balance honesty and humility with vigilance, observation, discipline, and common sense. Distilling, he makes clear time and again, is a subjective adventure, the success of which depends on the distiller’s vision.

With sections on vinification, cleaning a still, tasting spirits, and the origins of defects in spirits, Traditional Distillation gives both broad notes (“Be truthful in your criticism. The first impression is usually the best.”) and specific directions (“Don’t do any cleaning during the obtention of the EDV, due to the ability of alcohol to absorb odors.”). When more seasoned distillers are sometimes accused of hoarding hard-won knowledge, here is an earnest attempt to share a wealth of personal and practical experience.

The real art of distillation is, as Dan Farber notes in the introduction, at the heart of conversation between distillers. Hubert has given a gracious opening to those who want to join the conversation.

Goes well with:

  • Of course, buyers can find a copy of his book on Amazon, but Hubert Germain-Robin sells it through his own site.
  • C. Anne Wilson's Water of Life is a detailed look at the origins and growth of distilling in Europe. It is an excellent, if in parts dry, work. My review is here
  • Consider also Darek Bell's Alt Whiskeys, a very different sort of distilling manual from one of America's more innovative distillers. My review is here
  • A slightly altered version of this piece appears in the 2013 annual directory of the American Distilling Institute. In the same issue, I also have a feature article discussing the decision to build or buy a still when distillers want to open a distillery or expand production. Get a copy by contacting ADI at
  • Don't know Dan Farber? You should; he makes some of the nation's most wonderful brandies at Osocalis