Friday, January 25, 2013

XXX: St. George's 30th Anniversary Single Malt Whiskey

Just as 2012 was heaving its last gasp, I plunked a bottle of St. George Spirits' 30th anniversary single malt whiskey on my desk with every intention to crack it open on my return. See, at the time, I was due to be away for much of January. And so I was. But I picked up a wicked cold on the road. Sense of smell and taste completely rubbished, I avoided tasting new spirits and stuck with those I already knew (often in the form of hot, chest-warming drinks liberally dosed with rum or brandy).

I'm back at work now, but it's a pity I didn't get to the whiskey sooner. It's exquisite.

Like many American distilleries, St. George has been presenting spirits that push, pull, and tug at traditional categories. Take its dry rye gin, an unaged, pot-stilled 90-proof rye whiskey finished with juniper and other botanicals typical of gin.

Likewise, the 30th anniversary single malt brings in an unexpected dimension. Finishing whiskey in casks once used for Port or Madeira, for instance, is not unheard of but the distillery here has taken advantage of its inventory of barrels that previously held its pear eau de vie. The result is a lush, heady, distillate; once I pulled the cork, its aroma filled the office. The pear is there as well as the malt, but roasted orchard fruits come through with an overall spiciness that suggests ginger and toasted nuts. Sweet, but not cloying. Despite the high proof (47.3% abv), it's balanced, almost — but not quite — as much a joy to inhale as to drink. Brendan Gleeson's line from 28 Days Later rises to the surface of my mind; Takes out the fire but leaves in the warmth.

A long finish lingers, lulling me into a contemplative, almost glassy-eyed mood, making me wish I'd started a fire in the hearth before I'd poured some into the tumbler. There will be no mixing cocktails with this one. Instead, I pull my sweater a little closer in a big, comfortable chair, bury my nose in the glass, and stretch out the moment as long as I can.

The release is limited to 715 bottles, so it may take some sleuthing to track down one for yourself. And it's not cheap: retail will run you around $400 for a 750ml. How to get a bottle? St. George's website advises: "Because of the extraordinarily limited nature of this release, we have had to allocate bottles to select retailers in the markets we currently have distribution. Please contact your favorite local retailers to see if they have a bottle or two. Many bottles have already been snapped up, but we know where to find the ones that remain…If you need assistance scoring a bottle of your own, please contact our office at 510-769-1601."

Goes well with:

  • A Fistful of Pears, Bread & Gin's spaghetti Western-inspired take on a bittersweet cocktail using St. George's pear eux de vie and pear liqueur.
  • Ernie Button's Vanishing Single Malt Scotch, in which photographer Button turns an eye to his dirty tumblers for an unexpected discovery. 
  • A persistent rumor holds that when a Scotch distillery replaces an old still, a new one — completely reproduced down to every last ding and dent — takes its place so the new spirit is unchanged from the old. The chairman of the company that has made most of the stills in Scotland takes issue with that and sets the record straight.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Haggis Recipes

A 2003 survey suggested 
that a third of US visitors to Scotland 
believed the haggis 
was an animal. 
Nearly a quarter thought 
they could 

 ~ Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

“Of all offal,” writes Anissa Helou, “lungs are perhaps the least interesting gastronomically.” Helou’s Offal: The Fifth Quarter, is devoted to preparations of those “variety” meats such as lamb’s tongue, pig trotters, oxtail, and, yes, sheep and pig lungs now coming back to vogue, as they do in times of economic turmoil. Well. Lungs may take a bit more getting used to than some other cuts.

Not, however, for legions of Scots and Scottish Americans who mark Burns Night — January 25th — as one of the primary occasions for dishing forth haggis, the lead into any proper Burns Supper celebrating the life and poetry of the 18th century poet Robert Burns. Haggis is an unusual bit of Scots charcuterie that is both a bit of a joke among outsiders and a point of national pride. Traditionally, sheep’s lungs provide the bulk of protein, though heart and liver are also in the mix. Mixed with onions, oatmeal, and spices, the ground meats are stuffed into a stomach and simmered for hours.

While it enjoys a degree of popularity in Scotland (and, increasingly, England and Wales), authentic Scottish haggis is banned in the United States. It’s the lungs, you see. According to a recent piece in BBC News Magazine, US food safety officials regard lungs as “inedible.” Americans craving a bit of haggis can either try smuggling some in (not advised), opt for a domestic lung-free version (see below), or take a DIY approach and make it at home.

For those who want to tackle this "great chieftain o' the pudding-race" themselves, here are two haggis recipes. The first is from Anissa Helou who lifts it from F. Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen. Helou reports that one could use bone marrow rather than suet but advises that doing so requires the cooking time to be doubled.
Haggis #1

 1 sheep's pluck (heart, lungs and liver)
250g minced beef suet

2 medium onions, finely chopped

250g coarse oatmeal, toasted in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes

Good pinch cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 teaspoons dried herbs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large sheep's stomach, cleaned very well

300ml milk

Prepare the lungs (see below) and discard the windpipe. Place in a large saucepan, together with the heart and liver. Cover with water and place over medium heat. As the water comes to the boil, skim it clean and boil gently for 1½ hours, or until completely tender. Remove the pluck from the pan. Trim away all gristle and nerves and chop them very fine. Strain and reserve the cooking liquid. 
Put the chopped pluck in a large mixing bowl. Add the suet (or chopped bone marrow, if you are using it, chopped onions and toasted oatmeal. Add the cayenne pepper, nutmeg and dried herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well, adding enough of the pluck's cooking liquid to have a smooth mixture. The mixture should be highly seasoned.  
Spoon the mixture into the sheep's stomach until it is three-quarters full. Sew the opening and place in a large pot. Cover with water. Add the milk. Place over a medium heat. As soon as the stomach swells up, prick it in several places, then reduce the hear and simmer for 3 hours, adding boiling water to cover if the water level goes below the stomach.
Serve very hot.

Helou’s method for preparing lungs: Rinse the lungs well under cold water. Put in a saucepan and cover with water. Add a 4" cinnamon stick and salt to taste and place over a medium-high heat. As the water comes to the boil, skim it clean. Then cover and cook for 40-45 minutes, or until the meat is done.

The second haggis version is one of two offered by British bacon curer Maynard Davies in his essential Manual of a Traditional BaconCurer. Although Davies’ recipe also calls for a sheep’s pluck (its combined heart, lungs, and liver), he suggests preparing it without the lungs. “Some manufacturers,” he reports, “put lights [lungs] and rinds into haggis but I am not a big believer in that. I say, put the best in and get the best price.” Lungs, no lungs: your call. 

Haggis #2 
5 lb sheep's liver, hearts and tongues
1 lb beef suet

3 lb oatmeal

2 Spanish onions
3oz fine salt
1 oz white pepper

1½ pints of stock

Juice of one lemon
Put a sheep's or lamb's stomach in a strong solution of salt water to cleanse. Turn inside out and make sure it is very clean. After 30 minutes throw the water away and repeat the process — cleanliness must be paramount in these preparations. Clean the liver by placing it in a strong solution of salt water; this will remove any blood clots and debris. When clean, take out the liver and remove all the sinews; repeat this process with the tongue. 
Boil the liver, tongues and other oddments. Keep the water from the boiler for your stock. When cooked, mince all the meat ingredients on a medium grid. Mince the suet on a fine grid: add a small amount of flour so that the suet does not stick to the grid. 
Now put the oatmeal into a large container. Mix the oatmeal with the stock left from the cooked meat; mix into a fine paste and place in your bowl chopper. 
Add the minced meats and finely minced onions. Add the suet and spread this evenly in the bowl chopper. Lastly, add the seasoning, spreading this evenly over the surface. Turn in the bowl chopper until the mix is of a fine consistency; add more seasoning if necessary until the desired taste is reached. 
Check the stomach before stuffing to make sure it is well cleaned. Do not over-fill — fill three-quarters full to take into account expansion. Make sure the top is tied with a good knot; sometimes it is necessary to sew the stomach to close it. 
Now place the haggis in the boiler and cook gently for 21/2-3 hours, at no hotter than 180°F. Any hotter and the haggis will burst. To check that they are adequately cooked, use a needle and prick one of them — the needle should come out clean if the haggis is well cooked.
It is best to remove the haggis from the boiler using a sieve. Place the haggis on trays, leaving a space between them to cool. Place in the fridge when cooled.

Goes well with:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Replacing that Worn Out Still — Every Ding and Dent?

Since the nineteenth century, the Forsyth family has made stills. By some estimates, they have fabricated nearly half of Scotland’s whisky stills. Their firm, Forsyths, specializes in larger distillery systems, but builds each model to order and has made some as small as 50 liters. I recently spoke with Richard Forsyth Sr., chairman of the company, about Forsyths’ presence in the North American market. Although their footprint in the US is modest, it covers some noteworthy distilleries, including Balcones Distilling, Distillery 209, Kings County Distillery, Philadelphia Distilling, and Woodford Reserve. Building stills, however, is not the firm’s bread and butter. Repairing them is.

Old copper stills wear out. Or is that a Dalek?
Most American distilleries were founded in the last decade and are simply too new to have to contend with worn-out stills. In Scotland, however, aging equipment is an ongoing concern. “Our main business,” reports Forsyth, “is replacement of worn stills. Distilleries can run 24/7 and run down pot stills quite quickly. We check the copper’s thicknesses on an annual basis in Scotland and home in on wear areas. We write reports and then sit down with each client to agree on a replacement program.” The traditional two-still process in Scotland is particularly hard on the equipment. A preliminary run on the first still produces low wines, a relatively low-alcohol liquid. These low wines are then run through a second still, often called a spirit still, which concentrates ethanol further yielding white dog or new make which, when aged, cut, and blended (or not), becomes the Scotch whisky we know.

The wear patterns on those stills are exactly opposite. Harsh low wines, explains Forsyth, corrode the upper parts of a still within 10-12 years, while the pot may last 30-40. On the second distillation, it’s the other way around. Low wines and feints corrode the boiler, but the spirits rising through the upper parts are much more refined, so upper parts like such as the Lyne arm and swan’s neck may last 30-40 years, but the pot only 10-12 years.

Rather than replacing the entire still — an expensive proposition — Forsyths craftsman cut away worn areas and replace them with new materials. Those apocryphal stories about Scotch distillers replacing old stills with brand new ones that exactly replicate every dump and dent so that distillers can faithfully reproduce whisky that is exactly the same every single time? Turns out that’s just a good story for gullible drinkers.

 “Replacing old stills down to the last ding, bump, and patch?” chuckled the chairman. “That’s not quite true; those old stills may have a dent or two. Rather than replace the entire still, we only replace the parts that require it. If we cut out a patch or replace a part, we will replicate angles and shapes religiously, so that the contours of the boiler or Lyne arm, for example, are exact duplicates. After all, if we built it, we still have the original plans. But every ding and bump? No, we don’t do that.”

So pour that in your glass and drink it.

Goes well with: