Saturday, January 28, 2012

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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.


Sylvan said...

Thanks for the review. Order placed!

Matthew Rowley said...

De nada, Sylvan ~ check back in once you've got it; am curious to hear your take on the book.

michael said...

Reading this, I'm curious about what you think of two things.


Do you think there's a saturation point for craft distillers and do you think that it is a lower point than for craft brewers?

and Second

Reading forums and other info on distilling, some give the advice to never charge a still with beer. Do you know why that is? My guess was that the hops resin might stick to the equipment and effect the taste of subsequent runs, but that's only a guess.

Tony Harion said...

Sounds very interesting!
Thank for the great review!

Matthew Rowley said...

Hey Michael ~

I do think there's a saturation point with craft distilleries. I also think we're nowhere near close to reaching it. New York state alone used to have more than a thousand small distilleries, more than twice what exist in the entire country now. Well, legal distilleries, anyway. The first decade of the new distillery trend has seen much vodka, but if you talk to distillers, you'll realize that the majority who sell vodka — while they may be proud of their products — do so to keep the lights on and their names in public consciousness; vodka pays the bills. Their long-term aspirations often center on whiskey or specialty spirits such as absinthe. And that market is far from saturated. I myself would love to get more brandy flowing.

As for beer in the still, the most common complaint/obstacle I've hear from distillers is that still tends to puke from excess foaming. Watching the temperatures should check that tendency. Some home distillers even put a bit of neutral oil in their boilers to keep surface foam from forming — but more cautious application of heat seems the better route.

Distillers: what say ye? Does hops residue gunk up your rigs? If so, what's your preferred method to remedy that?

Tony ~ I've seen photos of your fantastic new still, but it should be broken in by now. Are we about to start seeing some Brazilian whiskeys?

Tony Harion said...

I haven’t made any whiskey so far (would love to), but the rum is turning up pretty smooth and quite a few fruit brandies too.

Look what you´ve done, now we have two copper stills and a brand new Rotovap just came in last week.

Cant wait to see what the vacuum gear does.

Trid said... hops gunk from beer, although I've used a drop or two of canola oil to combat the frothiness [1]

Remember, even traditional washes are puke-prone, so hops plays little into it.

I confess that I'm excited to see bierschnaps/hops whisky come out from behind the shadows. The drawback is that it may not be my little secret anymore.

Trid said...

I *swear* that wasn't a Santorum joke!

Anonymous said...

Enjoying your blog, but brettanomyces is a yeast.

Matthew Rowley said...

Anonymous ~

Man. I'm not used to waking with egg on my face, but the moment I read your comment this morning, I knew that you were right. Brettanomyces lambicus is not just a yeast; it's one of the earliest yeasts any curious brewer learns. I've not only known about it since I came across Belgian yeasts in my (very) dog-eared, college-era copy of Charlie Papazian's homebrew book; I've actually brewed with it and consumed its byproducts in great quantity.

I can't imagine what I was thinking when I wrote something that so clearly doesn't jive with the contents of my own head. Might as well have have written something equally preposterous like that Julia Child's catchphrase, "Don't have a cow, man," was actually coined by first-century Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus.

Thanks for the catching that; I only wish I'd done the same. Good to have you around here.

Anonymous said...

I only noticed because I'm a big brettanomyces fan.
Thanks for the good blog.

Matthew Rowley said...

Sure nuff. Come on back any time.