Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Wu of Maker's Mark

For what shall it profit a man 
if he shall gain the whole world, 
 and lose his own soul? 

 ~ Mark 8:36

Never mind whiskey aficionados; tongues on even vodka lovers were wagging earlier this month over a rare public relations stumble in Kentucky. Rob Samuels, COO of Maker's Mark, announced that the alcoholic strength of the company's signature bourbon was to be lowered from 90 proof to 84 proof.

The company had announced, quite literally, that it was watering down the product.

The ensuing uproar was immediate, vocal, and sustained. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, indignant fans deplored the decision and excoriated the firm. Bartenders who prefer overproof spirits that can stand up to the dilution of mixers and ice in cocktails bemoaned the new direction. Users howled indignation and pundits prognosticated the future of the brand (opinions ranged from “I’ll never buy Maker's again” to “In a year, who will even remember?”). It became a national story. Up in Vermont, WhistlePig vowed to increase the proof of its rye whiskey. I stayed mostly mum on the topic. Regardless of what others recalled next February, I would remember who did this.

I was struck immediately by the resonance of Samuels' announcement with Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle. The book depicts a world in which Germany and Japan emerge victorious in World War II. Between them, they conquer and divide a disgraced former United States. I must have been ten when I read it first, but Dick's depiction of wu — a slippery concept applied to handcrafted jewelry in the book, but applicable to whiskey here — has stayed with me for more than thirty years.

It wasn’t indignation over the decision to dilute the whiskey or even anger, really, I felt. Rather, it was sadness. Another layer on our ever-thickening patina of loss. True, Americans have experienced great gains in recent decades in fields such as medicine, technology, and publishing. But we have suffered a concomitant erosion of our greatness. Heroes once idolized have been exposed as flawed — sometimes deeply flawed — humans; OJ Simpson, Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, John F. Kennedy, Michael Vick. Endless obstructionist caviling among our politicians have led many to despair that we will ever be better off than our parents.

Our entertainment has grown recursive; witness the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Arthur, The Karate Kid, or Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene reshoot of Pyscho, movies that did not need to be remade, that arguably should not have been remade, that do not leave the world a better place in their passing. Our homes, by and large, are not built as well as those of a hundred years ago. On it goes. NASA's space program: gutted. New Orleans: flooded and nearly lost to us. The lunacy of creationism taught as fact to defenseless children who will be unable to compete for jobs as adults because they simply will not understand how the natural world works as well as their grandparents did.

Into this morass steps Maker's Mark with another assault on our faith in the goodness of humanity. And why? Why reduce the proof of this iconic whiskey? Profit. Global thirst for American whiskey has grown steadily in recent years and supply has not consistently kept pace with demand. Maker's in particular has experienced shortages, despite a 2012 expansion that increased production capacity by some 45%. Watering the whiskey was seen as a way to increase almost instantaneously the available inventory by 6%.

Deplorable things happen. Every day. Drove my Chevy to the levee and all that. But it's not all odious Kardashians, pedophile priests, and watered down whiskey. Not even close. There are good things as well. Whether it's the residuum of my midwest upbringing or a Catholic education that drives me to be what the Jesuits dubbed a man for others, I choose to spend time making and pursuing things that make the world better. As the California designer Mike Monteiro writes in Design in a Job, "[Y]ou are responsible for what you put into the world...and you can only stand as proud of the work as its benefit to society entitles you to." Amen, brother. Whether it's websites or whiskey, we shoulder a moral responsibility for what we bring into the world.

For the past twenty years or so, there's usually been a bottle of Maker's knocking around the house, but when Samuels made his initial announcement, my thought simply was to abandon the label quietly. No point in making a fuss. I'd never tasted the lower-proof version and the erosion of quality is arguable. We were assured the taste was nearly identical. That was beside the point. For decades, Maker's has presented itself using the language of heritage, tradition, and craftsmanship, a brand — a family — hitched to the yoke of history. Through it all, that squat bottle with its red wax top remained unchanged. The trope of Maker's as custodian to an unbroken legacy of quality suffuses marketing materials, bottle design, and even the grounds of the distillery itself which in 1980 was declared a National Historic Landmark. Your haircut, your president, and your wife may change, but Maker's would always be Maker's.

Until the day it wasn't, the day we were told it was to be cheapened for the masses. And that brings us back to Dick's novel. In The Man in the High Castle, Robert Childan, a dealer in historic Americana — Colt revolvers, Buffalo Bill's head in a jar, Civil War recruitment posters and the like — has presented a piece of modern American jewelry to Paul Kasoura, a wealthy young Japanese civilian newly stationed in occupied San Francisco. Kasoura secretly laughs at Childan for presuming to present such a piece, but soon develops an unexpected attraction to it.
"Here is a piece of metal which has been melted until it has become shapeless. It represents nothing. Nor does it have design, of any intentional sort. It is merely amorphous. One might say, it is mere content, deprived of form.”
 He goes on.
“Yet,” Paul said, “I have for several days now inspected it, and for no logical reason I feel a certain emotional fondness. Why is that? I may ask. I do not even now project into this blob, as in psychological German tests, my own psyche. I still see no shapes or forms. But it somehow partakes of Tao. You see?” He motioned Childan over. “It is balanced. The forces within this piece are stabilized. At rest. So to speak, this object has made its peace with the universe. It has separated from it and hence has managed to come to homeostasis.”
“It does not have wabi,” Paul said, “nor could it ever. But—” He touched the pin with his nail. “Robert, this object has wu.”
Wu, Dick tells us though Kasoura, is a quality that allows us to experience a tranquility associated with holy things. It is not necessarily apparent, even to its maker who may recognize only that the object satisfies, that it is complete. By contemplating such things, we gain wu ourselves. Kasoura is profoundly moved by it. With subtle discomfort, he informs Childan that an associate wishes to replicate the piece in plastic or base metal — tens of thousands of units — for sale to the poor and superstitious in Latin America and Asia. The deal, he confirms, would be worth a great deal of money. “What about wu?” Childan asks. “Will that remain in the pieces?”

Kasoura is silent, but we know the answer. It will not.

Childan could take one of two paths. One could make him immensely wealthy. The other is less clear. He seizes the decision to meet the exporter. Then, in a moment of clarity, he realizes the trap.
Whole affair a cruel dismissal of American efforts, taking place before his eyes. Cynicism, but God forbid, he had swallowed hook, line and sinker. Got me to agree, step by step, led me along the garden path to this conclusion: products of American hands good for nothing but to be models for junky good-luck charms.
Which path does Childan take? Read the book.

Maker's Mark, however, made the honorable choice. Chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr. joined Rob Samuels in a conference call to confirm that fans' protestations were heard loud and clear. Geoffrey Kleinman relates their conversation here at and confirms that, after just a few days of online furore, the whisky will return at 90 proof.

Well, I'll be damned. Turns out there's room on my shelf for Maker's after all. And if, from time to time, it's not available, that's ok.

Goes well with:
  • Mike Monteiro's 2012 Design is a Job is ostensibly selling design for web designers, but it's a practical little manual for creative types of all stripes — and those of us who work with them.
  • We also disdain watered down bacon. Maynard Davies aims to show how bacon was done the old way
  • Don't know Dick? You may know more than you think. His stories have been made into movies such as Minority Report, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly. Pick up a copy of The Man in the High Castle at your neighborhood bookstore or online here
  • Got a thing for Dick? You may also enjoy these Charles Bukowski postal stamps
  • David Toczko's 2012 book, The Ambassador of Bourbon: Maker's Mark and the Rebirth of America's Native Spirit, presents over 250 photos of the Maker's Mark distillery, including fermenting mash, barrels in the rickhouse, hand-dipping of the those red wax seals, and some archival material. Introduction by Bill Samuels, Jr. and foreword by Rob Samuels. Pick up a copy here

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An Old Distiller's Trick Revived in Oregon

In Hillsboro, Oregon, west of Portland, the Imbrie family erected a granary barn around 1855, a few years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. With a handful of repairs here and there and a new concrete floor, it remains standing today. Inside, distiller Bart Hance makes whiskey and brandy on a still that's almost as old as the building itself.

Look closely: that's a metal can dangling in the middle.
The still is a French model, known in Cognac as an alambic Chartentais, typically used to make brandy and popular on the American west coast. This one was found in an old barn in France and shipped to Oregon where it stayed boxed for years before being installed in the granary. Other than a few brass fittings, the pot still is entirely copper and has a graceful, curving neck through which alcohol-rich vapor rises on its way to the condenser. At 160 gallons, it's not the biggest still one will find in the United States, but it is one of the more venerable. Unlike some modern stills, it has no sight glasses, no thermometers, no computerized reports indicating what's happening inside. On an old still like this, to know what's happening on the other side of the copper at any given moment, one must relies on sight, smell...and sound.

Sure, there's the sound of the gas fire. The intensity of that sound will indicate broadly how much heat is directed at the bottom of the pot. If the sound of the fire dies away unexpectedly, trouble — dangerous trouble — may be brewing. But attendees of a brandy distilling workshop sponsored by the American Distilling Institute learned from Hance to listen for another sound: the jarring clang of falling metal.

See, it takes a long time for wine or beer to heat up in the boiler of a pot still, especially if it's at the frosty room temperature of an old wooden barn. A distiller can't just sit there like a plate of biscuits waiting for the wash inside the pot to warm. There are forms to be completed, barrels to move, and a dozen other tasks involved in running a distillery. So, lacking readouts and internal thermometers common in some modern stills, Hance deploys an old French trick well-known to Cognac makers that allows him to do those other jobs while the still heats. He attaches a large, empty metal can to a string, then loosely wraps the string around the still's neck. With a dab of wax, the string stays in place.

And then the distiller walks away.

As the wash heats and vapor begins to rise, the copper (an excellent heat conductor) grows warm. Eventually, the neck grows warm enough to melt that dab of wax and — CLANG — the can drops and clatters onto the bricks below, sounds loud enough to be heard anywhere in the barn. That's the signal that Hance has perhaps ten minutes before liquids start trickling from the condenser and to wrap up whatever he's doing; there are cuts to be made.

Hats off, Hance; that right there is some old school merde.

Goes well with:

  • A visit to Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and Imbrie Hall. The former Imbrie homestead is now owned by McMenimins who were instrumental in getting the property listed on the National Register of Historical Places. The whiskeys, brandies, and other spirits made at Cornelius Pass and at the company's Edgefield distillery are not for sale in liquor stores, but are entirely for internal use at the various bars, hotels, and restaurants under the McMenamins banner. Imbrie Hall, however, offers a selection of bottles for take out.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Distill America: All the Tastings You Can Handle

Tickets are on sale for the Madison Malt Society's annual Distill America. The shindig (MMS's fifth) is February 23, 2013. A note from Kristine at Koval came over the transom this this morning promising that the Chicago distillery will be on hand to pour spirits. She writes:
Relish the chance to experience over 45 distilleries and over 150 unique spirits at a more intimate tasting event, where each table is backed by a direct representative of the distillery. Craft highlights include Clear CreekKentucky Bourbon DistillersMississippi RiverNew HollandRansomRogue Spirits, and St. George. Chicagoland is well represented by Koval and fellow locals North ShoreFEW SpiritsQuincy Street, and Tailwinds. Our Michigan friends from Journeyman will also be in attendance.
Attendees are promised "all the tastings you can handle, complimentary hors d'oeuvres, and unbeatable intimacy with each distillery." Unbeatable intimacy? Woof ~ I might have trouble explaining that one at home.

Additional distilleries scheduled to be on hand include Heaven Hill, Death's Door, Quince and Apple, Four Roses, Square One, Yahara Bay, and more. General admission tickets are $55. For an extra $10, the VIP pass will get you in an hour earlier than general admission. Tickets, events, and more information are available at Distill America.

Goes well with:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013 American Artisan Spirits Judges Announced

Hubert Germain-Robin nosing brandy at Huber's Starlight Distillery
The American Distilling Institute has announced its panels of judges for the 7th annual judging of American artisan spirits next month. The lineup includes active and retired distillers, bartenders, authors, industry consultants, and a few journalist types such as yours truly who may (or may not) fit into one or more of the above categories.

The judges will analyze and critique hundreds of spirits over two days at Huber's Starlight Distillery where we'll break out into separate panels: one for brandy, one for rum, and one (or possibly more) for whiskey.

It is fun? Hell, yes. Is it all fun? No. The days start early and end late. No perfume, no cologne. No scented hand soap. No coffee (at least, not at the table and not if you don't want a big Rowley stinkeye). Though invariably some spirits are excellent and some are flawed, we remain stoic and sit almost entirely in silence. No grunts, no groans, and — as Gene Wilder's young Frankenstein would have it — no yummy sounds.

The judges are:

Will I tell you the results on my return to sunny Southern California? No, I will not. For that, you'll have to wait until they are announced at ADI's annual meeting in Denver (April 1-4, 2013). And then I'll pass it on.

Now, about that yummy sound...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Price of (Citrus) Perfection

Georgia O'Keeffe lemons show up with surprising frequency
In a major grocery store, whether it's Safeway, Ralph's, Tesco, or Albert Heijn, you're apt to find beautiful fruit on offer. Oranges so immaculate and perfectly spherical they could be ornaments. Eureka and Lisbon lemons so hefty, so perfect, that they each could stand as the very definition of "lemon." Down the line: perfect fruits and vegetables. Well, perfect to the eye, anyway. Relatively high prices reflect  culling of the oddballs, the defects, the grotesque, the undersized, and the unevenly ripened. Limes for 69¢ each, individual lemons for 89¢.

In a pinch, sure, I'll buy just enough at those prices to eek through whatever citrus shortage drove me to that particular store. But at the rate we burn through fruit — especially citrus for cocktails — I'd be a damn fool paying retail prices for perfectly formed specimens.

Enter the second-tier grocer. You may not know about them in your community, but even many small towns (and I've lived in a few) have markets that serve immigrant communities. I'm not talking about high-end specialty stores that cater to well-heeled world travelers (though those are nice, too). Rather I mean the small stores with ingredients imported from "back home"or made locally in a familiar style that less affluent shoppers nonetheless crave; curry blends, certain cheeses, particular breads, teas, syrups, sugars, sweets, pickles, etc. In Philadelphia, there's the 9th Street Italian market. In San Diego, my go-to place for such things is North Park Produce. The store clearly buys a lot of seconds — those fruit and vegetables that aren't quite up to snuff for display at the major chains, the ones that were culled. These are the fruits I tend to buy for cocktail and cooking.

Limes with a bit of wind blemish, oranges with a blush of green on one side, and lemons that can be, frankly, bizarre are what I'm after. Most of them are actually fine, just undersized. And the prices? Well, they fluctuate, but a single dollar will typically get me 4-5 pounds of oranges (pounds, mind you, not single oranges), 7-10 lemons, or anywhere from 8 to 20 limes. At those prices, we're almost never without the ingredients to crank out any one of hundreds of cocktails.

Of course, if drinkers or eaters will see the fruit as part of serving or prearing it, more seemly specimens may be in order. A big bowl of defects and seconds on the bar is not going to get you top dollar for your cocktails. But a hybrid approach is fine. Serving fresh lemonade from a huge see-though dispenser? Juice the cheap ones, but buy a bag of big perfect beauties to cut in half, ream, and float in the mix.

Customers, after all, do pay a premium for pretty food.

Goes well with:

  • Bitter oranges. The season is drawing to a close, but I scored a bunch at North Park Produce (3551 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA) for $1.39/lb and used most of the batch for making vin d'orange. The rest is going into a cake later today.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making Vin d'Orange with the Last of the Seville Oranges

Now that winter has hit full stride, the citrus offerings could hardly be better. We’ve been making marmalades, lemon curds, desserts, and cocktails with the aromatic bounty. In the kitchen now, I’ve got 5 kilos of navel oranges, a box of Meyer lemons, a bowl of blood oranges, several dozens each of limes and Eureka lemons, a bowl of bergamots — and three Seville oranges.

Those last three bitter oranges may end up as the base for ice cream or a cake. Maybe syrup. Perhaps a tincture. Not entirely sure. I’ll have it figured out by dinner. The rest of them are soaking in wine.

Unlike relatively sweet Washington or Valencia oranges typical of American supermarkets, the rough-skinned Seville oranges are an older bitter/sour variety with limited availability in the US. Centuries ago, when members of the English and French aristocracies grew trees in their glass-enclosed orangeries, these were the fruits they grew. In Florida today, grocery stores and fruit stands may sell them as sour oranges or naranjas agrias — a core component of Cuban mojo, a ubiquitous (and delicious) marinade. In Spain, most of the bitter orange crop is exported to the UK where it is turned to classic orange marmalade. The dried peels of Caribbean harvests remain the building blocks of numerous famous orange liqueurs.

Lumpy-ass bitter oranges, freshly washed
But it is France, where bitter oranges are known as bigarades, that inspired me this weekend to convert a batch into a simple orange-infused aperitif called vin d’orange. The instructions below may seem proscriptive, but in truth, it’s a flexible recipe with room for adjustments. Do you prefer a drier result? Use less sugar and a drier wine. Like something more full-bodied? Try it with red wine rather than the rosé I used. If white wine is your thing, who’s to stop you from using white? Precedents exist for each. You could even ditch the bitter oranges entirely and make vin de pamplemousse with grapefruit.

By early summer, the wine will have taken on the ethereal taste of vanilla and bitter orange. Balanced with the sweetness of cane sugar, it will be just the thing for our pre-meal drinks outdoors. And, of course, if you want to play with it as an alternate to sweet vermouth or Lillet, you’d be on solid ground.
Vin d’Orange

8-10 Seville oranges (about 1 kilo or 2-2.5lbs) quartered lengthwise and sliced in smallish chunks — peel, pith, seeds, and all
2 entire lemons, sliced similarly
6 (750ml each for a total of 4.5 liters) bottles of cheap but decent rosé wine (see below)
1 liter vodka 80 proof/40% abv
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise and cut into thirds
700g-1 kilo sugar (1.5-2.2 lbs)

If you have a container large enough to hold 2 gallons, put everything in it. If, like me, you use two smaller jugs, split the ingredients evenly between them.

I'll get to you when I return from Kentucky.
Put all the ingredients into one (or two) jars. Seal, shake. The sugar won't all dissolve at first. Patience; it will over time. Put the jars in a dark spot such as a cabinet, closet, or basement. Give it a shake or two every day for two weeks. Just to show it who's boss. Then every week or so do the same. So it doesn't forget.

After a rest of 30-60 days (I find better extraction at 60 days, but even an hour shows marked improvement on taste and some impatient souls simply can't wait two months), strain the mixture into a large clean bucket, carboy, fermentation tub or what have you. Cover it and let it settle a day, then line a funnel with several layers of cheesecloth and rack the heady wine into the clean bottles you saved, leaving any sediment behind in the bucket.

Done. Label it, date it, store it in a cool, dark place. One bottle should go into that cool, dark place known as the fridge.
Equipment note: You’ll need one or two large glass jars or stainless steel containers for the long infusion. Make sure they are airtight. I used 5-liter glass jugs with swing tops and gasket closures. When the time comes to bottle, you’ll also need clean glass wine bottles. My suggestion: wash and save the ones you emptied into the jugs.

Goes well with: