Announcing Cocktails on Tap

If it seems like I’ve been writing very little this year, there’s a good reason for that. I’ve actually be writing more than ever, but that effort has been going into my first full-length book. Since 2011 I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a book on beer cocktails. The road to publication is long and winding, and for a long time it looked like the project was not going to happen. Then in the fall of last year everything finally clicked into place, thanks to the work of my agent Jud Laghi. In December we signed a deal with Stewart, Tabori, and Chang to publish Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.

The upside of being patient is that the book is far better than it would have been had I written it a few years ago. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang makes beautiful books, and my editor there, Laura Dozier, has been supportive the entire way of making this the definitive book on mixing with beer. You can see that commitment to quality in the cover above. And on the inside? Full-color photographs shot by David L. Reamer, whose most recent work includes the Toro Bravo and Le Pigeon cookbooks. A foreword by Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Guide 2015. A deep dive into the weird history of beer cocktails, the best of my original drinks and collaborations with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik, and contributions from some of the most creative bartenders I know. More than fifty recipes for cocktails and punches made the final cut. I’m sitting in a coffee shop now approving the final color proofs and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all turned out.

Cocktails on Tap will be released on March 17, but you can pre-order it now. And please do! This book has been in the works for a long time and I can’t wait to get a copy into your hands.

Playing with the Novo Fogo Caipirinha Kit

The Caipirinha — a simple, rustic combination of muddled limes, sugar, and cachaca — is one of the world’s most popular cocktails. It’s also one of the easiest to prepare, tolerant of some imprecision in measurement and requiring no straining whatsoever. Just muddle the limes and sugar, add cachaca and ice, shake, and pour the whole thing into a glass. A basic recipe:

2 oz cachaca (Novo Fogo of course!)
1/2 lime, quartered, trimmed of pith
1 tablespoon superfine sugar

That’s pretty easy. To make it even easier, Novo Fogo Cachaca recently introduced a new Caipirinha Kit containing a bottle of their silver cachaca, a nice wooden muddler, and two mason jars in which to make and serve the cocktails. The jars eliminate the need for even having a cocktail shaker; shake everything in the jar, pop the lid, and drink. It’s so easy, even a pug can do it.

Well, almost.

Since I work with Novo Fogo, they sent me a few of the kits to play around with and try out in some seasonal variations. Another great thing about the Caipirinha is that it’s incredibly versatile. The simple base of sugar, lime, and cachaca lends itself to lots of possibilities, pairing nicely with fresh fruit, herbs, and other spirits. I took the kit out to a few parties to see what we could come up with.

First up was meeting with my friends Tom, Kristen, and Porter the Pug. Taking advantage of end of summer Oregon produce, we hit the backyard with a bunch of berries. A couple combinations that worked: A Caipirinha with huckleberries and basil, and another with blueberries and St. Germain. In both drinks a handful of fruit was muddled along with the lime and sugar, then everything shaken together.

The next stop was a picnic with the Portland Culinary Alliance at Goschie Hop Farms in Silverton, Oregon. This was right at the beginning of fresh hop season, so hops were everywhere. As you can imagine, the place smelled amazing. (Yes, that’s an entire room filled with hops.)

This gave me the idea of making a fresh hop Caipirinha. The Caip-beer-inha, a Caipirinha topped with a splash of IPA, is a cocktail Ezra Johnson-Greenough and I have served many times, so this seemed like it could work. It turns out that muddling hops doesn’t actually extract a ton of flavor, although the drink was nice enough. A fresh hop cone does make a killer garnish though. When they’re in season, I could imagine using them to decorate a Caip-beer-inha.

Finally, at a cocktail fundraiser event at Fish Sauce, Tommy Klus, Will Ray, and I dialed in a Caipirinha made with kummel, a liqueur flavored with caraway and other savory herbs, proving that Caipirinhas really can work with just about anything. This one had cachaca, lime, sugar, kummel, and Angostura bitters, and was surprisingly tasty. (Recipe coming soon; the photo above is our old-style mason jar.)

The Caipirinha Kits are already available in a few states, including Oregon, with many more on the way.

(Some photos courtesy of Tom and Kristen. Check out Kristen’s Etsy design store for wedding and party ideas.)

A visit to Diam’s high-tech cork facility

Most of the press trips that wine, spirits, and beer writers are invited on focus on what goes into the bottles we drink. In July, I was invited to Spain for a trip dedicated instead to the part that seals so many of those bottles: cork. Corks are one of those things we tend not to think about until they malfunction by crumbling apart, oxygenating a wine, or introducing “cork taint.” The growing acceptance of screw caps and synthetic corks is partly a response to the challenges of using natural cork. Our host in Spain, Diam, is a company that makes a sort of hybrid technological cork, combining natural cork material with new techniques for removing impurities and increasing consistency. They brought us to their facility in San Vicente de Alcantara to show off the process.

Preparing for this trip, I had romantic visions of the cork forests of Spain and Portugal. These visions were eventually fulfilled on an evening trek into the countryside, as seen in the photos above.

However most of our visit was spent here to learn about Diam’s technological process for transforming bark from cork trees into reliable stoppers that won’t ruin a bottle of wine. This was more industrial than romantic, but it was a fascinating learning experience.

We arrived a little too late in the season to see the local cork harvest, but the photo above (provided by Diam) shows how it’s done. The bark of cork trees is rich in suberin, a rubbery, waxy substance. In nature, the suberin prevents water loss by keeping moisture inside the tree. This same quality makes it great for keeping wine locked inside bottles.

Slaking the world’s thirst for wine requires a lot of cork. (Above: piles of fresh cork bark awaiting processing at Diam; you can barely make out a few people working on top.) Fortunately, harvesting bark doesn’t kill the trees, and after reaching maturity each tree can be harvested about once every decade. Driving through this region of Spain and Portugal, the brightly colored trunks of recently stripped trees stand out along the roadside.

After processing, traditional corks are made by punching through the bark. Obviously punched corks can only be extracted from sufficiently thick bark and much of the material is left behind. This can be put to other uses, including the technological corks made by Diam.

Here my friend Baylen demonstrates his invention of cork knuckles. Not a product offered by Diam — yet.

The Diam process begins by grinding the bark and sorting out the suberin-rich powder, which they call “cork flour,” so that it can eventually be reformed into a cork shape with food safe binders and microspheres. Agglomerated corks have been around in some form for years; it’s the step prior to agglomeration in which things get interesting.

Diam’s biggest innovation is treating this cork flour with supercritical carbon dioxide. In a supercritical state, created under very high pressure, fluids take on properties of liquids and gases. They are able to both permeate a substance and dissolve materials. By fine-tuning pressure and temperature to control its density, supercritical CO2 can be used to extract some substances while leaving others behind. If you drink decaffeineated coffee, there’s a good chance the beans you brew were treated in this way. The CO2 process is one of the main methods used to selectively extract caffeine from green beans.

Diam uses this same process to remove impurities from cork. The most important of these are TCA and TCB, the chemicals associated with cork taint. But lots of other stuff gets removed too, resulting in a cork that is neutral in its potential flavor impact on wine. (Above: quality control testing of corks by infusing them in water.)

A neat advantage of making corks this way is that other characteristics can be controlled too. By varying the elasticity of the corks, Diam can design them for less expensive, short-term aging, or for higher end wines intended to age for years. The box above shows their 1, 3, 5, and 10 year corks; they’ve also recently introduced a cork designed to last for 30 years.

They’re also able to control the permeability of the corks. Corks are naturally permeable, but a cork allowing too much air into a wine can ruin it. On the other hand, depending on the wine, a little bit of oxygenation could be a good thing. These corks come in varying degrees of permeability, allowing wine makers to choose the corks best suited to their wines.

Though conversation about corks tends to revolve mostly around wine, Diam also uses its process to make corks for beer and spirits (photo above courtesy of Diam). The corks for spirits raised an interesting question for me. I’ve rarely come across spirits I’d identify as suffering from cork taint, but on the few occasions I have the off aromas have surpassed anything I’ve come across in wine. Since spirits are much higher in alcohol than wines, and since alcohol is such a good solvent, I’d have thought that TCA would be an even bigger problem for spirits than it is for wine. Yet we rarely hear about spirits being “corked.”

As it turns out, I was half right. Spirits are a more effective solvent. But the team at Diam directed me to a scientific paper evaluating tasters’ ability to detect TCA in cognac, and it turns out the threshold level for perceiving it is much higher. The paper is in French, but in loose translation the tainted spirits had aromas of “mold, mushroom, wet mop, etc.” However the concentrations needed to perceive these notes unambiguously appear to be an order of magnitude larger than for wine. Higher alcohol seems to have a masking effect for the TCA. (I suspect that the tendency to store wine on its side, in contact with cork, and to store spirits standing vertically may also be a factor, but I don’t know for sure.)

One funny aspect of the Diam corks is that, at the insistence of wine makers, they have striations printed on them to mimic natural cork. A casual consumer could pull one out with a corkscrew and never notice the difference. Seeing the unfinished Diam corks come out and then get printed to resemble their purely natural punched cousins reminded me, of all things, of Howard Roark’s critique of the Parthenon in The Fountainhead:

“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

Because wine is tied up with tradition, that’s why. Despite the rise of synthetic stoppers, screw caps, and wine that comes in kegs and boxes, people still want to pull a plug of wood out of a bottle neck, even if that means occasionally dumping a corked bottle down the drain. And for wines that are meant for aging, corks are still one of most proven tools.

Are all these new high-tech corks really necessary? Claims about the rate of cork contamination are controversial. For one thing, cork isn’t the only source of TCA; it can enter wine at other stages of the production process, but the final consumer will declare the wine to be “corked” regardless of whether the cork is the actual source. Other defects, real or imagined, may also be attributed to the cork. (Working for several years in a top wine bar, it wasn’t uncommon to have “corked” wines returned that seemed fine to me. Did customers imagine it or just not like the wines? Am I less sensitive to TCA than other consumers? I suspect it was a little of both.)

Estimates of the rate of cork contamination range from 7% at the very high end to under 1% on the low end. The Cork Quality Council claims that rates have dropped more than 80% in the past decade thanks to improvements in the industry; they have a website, CorkTaint.com, dedicated to rehabilitating cork’s image and promoting studies showing low rates of contamination. Diam, for its part, declined to wed itself to a particular number.

Still, no one likes to open up a special bottle of wine to find that it’s been ruined by a fault that could have been prevented. The market now offers a lot of options varying in price, consistency, and longevity for sealing different wines, all of which have their place. The Diam corks are an interesting addition to that spectrum. I’m not a winemaker, nor do I pretend to possess the expertise to say which closures are best for which wines, but after this visit I certainly wouldn’t mind finding a higher tech cork in the next bottle I open.

12 Bottle Bar comes to Portland

David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, authors of the 12 Bottle Bar weblog, have long been two of my favorite cocktail writers. After knowing them online for several years, we finally met in person at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Chicago last March, where we presented a panel together on the history of beer cocktails. And now they’ve turned their blog into a full-length book, The 12 Bottle Bar from Workman Publishing.

The premise of the book is simple: If you’re making drinks at home, you may not want to be like me and have an entire corner of your living room taken up with booze bottles, a kitchen counter covered in bitters, and a refrigerator so full of vermouth and other aperitifs that there’s barely any room for food. You may only want, say, twelve bottles.

The 12 Bottle Bar is their take on which dozen bottles those should be along with creative, engagingly written recipes for cocktails you can make with them. The picks aren’t all obvious. Genever makes the cut but tequila doesn’t. Lesley literally wrote the book on gin and genever a few years ago, and of course I’m glad to see genever getting more appreciation, but that choice will surely drive some conversation. The drinks include contributions from many of their friends in the industry, including a few from me (but don’t let that call their good taste into question).

David and Lesley will be in Portland this Thursday (September 18) to promote the book. At 7:30 they’ll be doing a signing at Powell’s on Hawthorne Avenue. Then around 9:00 we’ll all head down the street to Bazi Bierbrasserie for a few cocktails from the book featuring El Dorado rum and Bols genever. Come buy a copy and join us for a round.

Recent reading, drinks edition

Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, Tony Abou-Ganim with Elizabeth Faulkner — Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, except among fancy mixologists. As craft cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, whiskey, gin, rum, bitter and herbal liqueurs, and other flavorful spirits have found favor with bartenders. Vodka, though in demand from many consumers, often struggles to find a place on the menu.

Vodka doesn’t have much presence in the canon of vintage American cocktails, which is one reason cocktail bars shun the spirit. Whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, and fortified wines abound in vintage books. Vodka arrived late on the scene, not taking off in the United States until enterprising marketers mixed it with ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule, served in frosty copper mugs. This early success set a smart strategy for vodka: Rely on other ingredients to provide flavor and present cocktails in a striking way.

Like many bartenders, I tend to avoid vodka on my own menus. There are a limited number of ounces to work with in a drink and it can seem a waste to use them up on a spirit that is legally defined in the United States as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” With the wealth of other spirits now available, there is almost always something available to complement the other elements of a drink and provide additional layers of complexity: The botanicals of gin or aquavit, the funky notes of rum or cachaca, the oakiness of cognac or whiskey. Why opt for vodka instead?

Thus Tony Abou-Ganim has his work cut out for him Vodka Distilled. Abou-Ganim aims to fix the disconnect between consumers who love vodka and the craft bartenders who often ignore it. With more than three decades in the industry, including landmarks such as Po and the Bellagio, there’s no one better suited to do it.

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me to write this book,” writes Abou-Ganim in the introduction. He also disputes the popular notion that all vodkas are the same. “Think about tasting and comparing one vodka to another not, not as comparing apples to oranges but akin to comparing apples to apples — apples of the same variety grown in different orchards with differing geography and under various climate and nutrient conditions.” Though subtle, the differences are there.

Following his advice, I pulled out the myriad bottles of vodka I’ve acquired over the years, most of them never opened, and had an impromptu tasting. I tried them first neat at room temperature, then again after chilling in the freezer. It’s been a long time since I put much thought into tasting vodka, and I have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience. Subtle nuances were readily apparent and drinking them chilled was enjoyable.

The most valuable part of the book may be the chapter of vodka cocktail recipes. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, one’s guests (at home or in a bar) are likely to request vodka cocktails from time to time. It’s good to have some drinks up your sleeve. Vodka Distilled provides a good selection. And while I might be tempted to substitute gin in a few of them, they make a tasty collection of classics and a few new creations.

Other sections of the book look at vodka and caviar pairing — currently out of the budget of this reviewer; regulations and definitions; methods of production; and tasting notes on 58 different vodkas. Photographer Tim Turner’s work is elegant. I learned quite a bit from the book, and recommend it.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Amy Stewart — How much fun can a book that’s essentially an orderly listing of plant facts be? If it’s about how plants are transformed into drinks and it’s written by Amy Stewart, quite a lot. I found myself eagerly consuming The Drunken Botanist — sassafras to sundew to sweet woodruff, to take a random selection — on a long plane trip. It begins with the plants used for fermentation of alcohol, moves on to those used for flavoring during productions, and ends with fresh ingredients added at the last minute in the making of cocktails.

The book includes recipes and tips for gardening, though I’m going to find the most use of it as a very thorough reference (at least until I move into a place more friendly to growing plants). It’s engagingly written and highly informative, easily one of the best drink books to come out last year.

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, Tom Acitelli — Maureen Ogle, who has been the go-to historian of American beer since the publication of her book Ambitious Brew, endorses Tom Acitelli’s history of modern American craft brewing: “My reign is over. Craft beer has a new historian, and I hereby hand my crown to him (and do so with good cheer).”

It’s a very thorough, well-researched book, and covers both the very early days of brewing at Anchor and New Albion along with recent developments. (Maybe I’m being provincial, but my one complaint is that the Pacific Northwest brewing scene seemed to be a bit neglected.) The history may be too detailed for a casual reader who’s not deeply into beer, but for those who are, this is the book to get.

Bar Jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting, James Porco — This book isn’t about drinking, but rather the potentially violent situations that arise when people drink too much. Having spent most of bartending career in genteel spots like The Carlyle and Metrovino, my qualifications for reviewing a book on bar brawls are extremely dubious. I did fence in college though, and took a year of aikido, so my skills may come in handy if a fight ever breaks out while I’m sabering a bottle of champagne.

James Porco, a professional bouncer and certified ninjitsu instructor, is qualified to write one. His book explains basic techniques, with an emphasis on ideally avoiding violent confrontation altogether and on ending it as quickly as possible with strategic grapples when fights do erupt. It’s written in a jokey style, sometimes veering too much into bro territory, with some amusing real life anecdotes involving pickle fights and drunken circus clowns (really). Techniques are broken down with photographs and instructions. You’ll need a partner to practice the maneuvers, and learning from a book is much harder than learning in person, but there seems to be enough detail here to try things out. It’s a fun book with some sound advice that, hopefully, one won’t have many occasions to use.

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: This cocktail may produce discomfort in those who have a low tolerance for capsaicin, perceive cilantro as a soapy flavor, suffer from a real or imagined gluten sensitivity, are in a state of shock over the price of limes, or believe that putting beer in a cocktail will lead only to discord. All others may find it refreshing and enjoyable.

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo barrel aged cachaça
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz habanero syrup
small handful of cilantro leaves
2 oz wheat beer

Combine the cachaça, lime juice, habanero syrup, and cilantro in a shaker. Shake with ice and strain into a flute or cocktail glass. Top with the beer and stir gently to combine.

Habanero syrup:

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
5 habanero peppers, stemmed but not deseeded

Combine sugar and water over heat and stir until dissolved, bringing to a boil. Add peppers and remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain and keep refrigerated.

This cocktail was created for Novo Fogo’s Bars on Fire event in Washington, DC, where offense was kept to a minimum.

Bars on Fire at Cafe Saint-Ex

Corrida de Cavalos

I’ve been too wrapped up in book duties to post many cocktails lately, but now that that’s mostly complete I’m back to blogging and tending bar. My next stop takes me back to my old home of Washington, DC where I’ll be guest bartending at Cafe Saint-Ex on Tuesday with Franklin Jones of The Gibson! We have a menu of Novo Fogo cachaça cocktails ready for our Bars on Fire event, happening 5-8 pm. Here’s a preview of one them, the Corrida de Cavalos. It wasn’t made with horse racing in mind, but the use of mint and the timing of the Kentucky Derby is such a nice coincidence that I’ll pretend it was intentional.

2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaça
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz mint vinegar
1/2 oz rich simple syrup (2:1)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz soda
mint sprig garnish, for garnish

Shake cachaça, lime, vinegar, syrup, and bitters with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda, garnish with fresh mint.

To make the mint vinegar:

1 cup champagne vinegar
leaves from 5-6 mint sprigs

Bring vinegar to a boil, pour over leaves, and allow to infuse overnight or for a couple days. Strain and bottle.

Good news for wine growlers

Last month I noted that the Tax and Trade Bureau had issued a new ruling that would have made the increasingly popular practice of filling growlers with for wine for off-premise consumption a lot more complicated. Among other things, the rules would have required retailers to receive permission from the TTB to act as a bottling house and to keep up with various records and labeling requirements. Fortunately, the wine industry spoke up and the TTB has changed its mind [pdf]:

TTB recognizes that our existing regulations were intended to cover traditional taxpaid wine bottling activities, rather than the filling of wine growlers.

Accordingly, TTB has determined that it would be appropriate to engage in rulemaking on this issue so that we can modernize our regulations to specifically address the filling of growlers with taxpaid wine. This will allow TTB to evaluate what regulations are necessary in order to protect the revenue without unduly burdening businesses that wish to engage in this activity. This will also enable us to evaluate comments from all interested parties, including consumers, industry members, and State regulatory agencies.

In the interim, we are suspending TTB Ruling 2014-3 pending rulemaking on the filling of growlers.

Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter.

Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee Fire

Unless you don’t care at all about whiskey, you’ve probably heard by now about the debate in Tennessee. In brief: Last year the state legislature passed a law officially restricting use of the term “Tennessee whiskey” only to products that meet all the requirements of bourbon and undergo charcoal mellowing. This is the traditional definition of Tennessee whiskey and the law was backed by Jack Daniel’s, the brand owned by Brown-Forman.

On the other side is a new effort to relax the law, such as by allowing distillers to skip charcoal mellowing or age their whiskey in used oak barrels. This effort is pushed by Diageo, owner of the George Dickel brand of Tennessee whiskey, which also complies with the traditional definition.

The debate has divided whiskey enthusiasts and libertarians, two groups with substantial overlap on a Venn diagram. Purists like Chuck Cowdery come down in favor of Daniel’s and against Dickel. My libertarian-leaning friend Doug Winship does too, though with a few more caveats. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason notes that the existing law is a wee bit protectionist.

What’s a libertarian whiskey lover to think? I’m a bit conflicted myself. Below is my attempt at working it out, seen through the lens of a much easier case: bourbon.

Unless one holds that the position that there should be no legally defined standards of identity at all, one is probably OK with the standards for bourbon. (Basically, it has to be at made from at least 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, and distilled and aged within certain ranges of proof.) Whether or not these were ideal standards at the time of passage, it would be a tough case to make that they should be changed now. Any distiller lobbying to do so would rightly be seen as trying to water down established standards.

With that in mind, here are five things I think the bourbon standard of identity has going for it:

1. Clearly defined processes within a well-established tradition among multiple producers.

2. Market recognition of the designation.

3. Long-standing law.

4. Broad geographic application (bourbon can me made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky).

5. Doesn’t restrict competition from other distillers making other kinds of whiskey (they must simply refrain from using the word “bourbon”).

Now let’s compare this to Tennessee whiskey. Historically, this product is identical to bourbon in all but one essential aspect, the use of the Lincoln County process. This is the filtration of unaged spirit through charcoal, a step that mellows the finished whiskey.

Taking the five points above, how does a “Tennessee whiskey” designation compare to that of bourbon?

1. Clearly defined tradition among multiple producers: Tennessee whiskey definitely has the tradition part down. So much so, in fact, that despite my obsession with liquor laws, it’s easy for me to forget that it wasn’t legally defined until last year. Charcoal mellowing is deeply and historically entwined with Tennessee whiskey. The multiple producers part is not as solid. Until recently, there was only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel (thank you, Prohibition). Now there is also Collier and McKeel and Prichard’s, the latter of which doesn’t use the process. Score: Daniel’s 1, Dickel 0.

2. Market recognition: This one’s more of a judgement call, but my impression is that consumer association of Tennessee whiskey is very strongly associated with Jack Daniel’s, and by extension with the processes used to make it. Moderately informed whiskey drinkers can tell you about the mellowing process that makes it unique. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

3. Long-standing law: There is no federal standard of identity for Tennessee whiskey. The Tennessee law went into effect less than a year ago. However NAFTA defines Tennessee whiskey as a bourbon produced in Tennessee, which does get at the requirement of using new barrels, but omits the charcoal mellowing. There’s a conservative case for not changing established law without good reason, but it’s weak here. I’m calling this a draw. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

4. Broad geographic application: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Tennessee whiskey, obviously, can only be made in Tennessee. This presents problems. What do you call charcoal-mellowed bourbon made in another state? What do you call a whiskey made in Tennessee that isn’t mellowed or doesn’t use new oak barrels? It would be nice if there was some other word for traditional Tennessee whiskey that didn’t involve a place name. Instead, non-traditional producers will have to use a work around like “whiskey distilled in Tennessee” (and is that really any less confusing for consumers?). Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 1.

5. Doesn’t restrict competition: Bourbon regulations apply equally to everyone. The Tennessee law doesn’t. It protects the three producers who follow the traditional recipe. It also protects Prichard’s, which doesn’t use the mellowing step, but was grandfathered in and is allowed to call its product Tennessee whiskey anyway. Any newer producers making a product otherwise identical to Prichard’s have to call theirs something else. This is a legal mess. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 2.

So the final score is a tie. I’m not saying that’s a definitive measure or that all of these considerations should be weighted equally, but after giving this some thought my reluctant conclusion is that I just don’t care that much. There’s a good case to be made that Tennessee whiskey and its associated processes have a long, well-established tradition worthy of legal protection (at least as worthy as many other standards of identity). There’s also a pretty good case that legal protection is unnecessary and that the existing, extremely young law is too muddled to be worth defending. Keep it in place and Jack Daniel’s will continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile. Repeal and it and Jack Daniel’s will also continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile.

The upshot is that unless you’re invested in Brown-Forman, Diageo, or another Tennessee producer, this law isn’t going to affect you. On the merits, I lean ever so slightly to keeping the law as is. But if it’s repealed, I’ll be fine with that too.

There are, however, a couple thoughts to take away from this. One is that regardless of how this plays out, other states should not follow suit. As the boom in small distilleries continues there is going to be a temptation in other states to impose new legal standards on their own products. I’ve already heard talk from Oregon distillers about the possibility of creating a standard of identity for “Oregon whiskey.” Given the huge diversity of distillers here — we’re at more than 60 now — I can’t imagine a definition that will work for everyone and reflect established traditions, of which there really aren’t any. Trying to define one would be putting the cart before the horse.

As a bartender and spirits writer, I can deal with a special designation for Tennessee whiskey. But if I find myself having to remember 50 different state designations, regret for this sort of thing is going to set in very quickly. If I wanted to memorize a bunch of arcane place-related trivia I would have become a sommelier. I’d much rather see what individual creative distillers come up with, regardless of where they’re located.

Secondly, neither company strikes me as particularly sincere in their efforts to sway consumers, legislators, and the press. It’s hard to believe that Diageo executives are truly losing sleep over the plight of small Tennessee distillers whose creative impulses are being stifled. They’ve already taken plenty of heat for that stance and I won’t pile on here.

But how about Jack Daniel’s? They are pitching their brand as the stalwart defender of the Tennessee whiskey tradition. From their press release:

“When consumers around the world see ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ they expect it is a premium product representing a world-class standard and utmost quality,” said Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. “What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that’s inferior to bourbon and label it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect.” [...]

“Using quality grains, quality water, quality barrels and other natural ingredients has been the backbone of Tennessee Whiskey and, frankly, the bourbon industry for decades. Why in the world would we want to change that now by inserting artificial ingredients into our processes? And why in Tennessee would we willingly give the bourbon industry the upper hand in quality by cheapening the process we use to make our whiskey,” Arnett said.

And that’s all well and good, but I just looked online and there are six different varieties of Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, two steak sauces, and four different EZ Marinaders. EZ what now?

If you like marinating, you’ll love Jack Daniel‘s® EZ Marinader®, the country’s first ready-to-use liquid marinade in a flavor-sealed bag. In three EZ steps and without any mess, you are ready to cook! All the flavor with none of the fuss.

But it’s made with genuine Tennessee whiskey, right?

The product contains no alcohol. We use Jack Daniel’s® Tennessee Whiskey flavoring, which keeps the bold, hearty flavor associated with Jack Daniel’s®.

OK then. Jack Daniel’s also makes a honey liqueur. And this arrived in my mailbox this weekend:

This, to be fair, isn’t labeled Tennessee whiskey. It’s a “finely crafted cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.” Which is fine. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make liqueurs with their spirits or to make money, the latter of which is pretty clearly the motive here. Cinnamon whiskey liqueur has become immensely popular and the company wants to get in on that. And though I don’t make a habit of drinking the stuff and haven’t done a side-by-side tasting, I can honestly say that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is better than the others I’ve tried in the category.

The problem is that Jack Daniel’s case for legally defining Tennessee whiskey is that its brand has worked hard for decades to build that standard and establish it with consumers around the world. To a large extent, they’re right. But they’re also willing to slap that brand onto everything from EZ Marinader® to cinnamon whiskey liqueur. And if you can tell me with a straight face that small distillers ageing whiskey in used bourbon barrels are a bigger threat to the pure image of Tennessee whiskey than these heavily marketed items, then the first shot of Tennessee Fire® is on me.

Say “Grrr…” to new growler regulations

Avid beer drinkers are familiar with the “growler,” a big jug used for transporting beer from a tap to one’s home. Filled and sealed properly, they keep beer fresh and carbonated for short-term consumption. (With caveats!) They’re great for when you want to bring home a beer that’s only available on tap or want to entertain guests. Living in Portland, one of the best beer cities in the world, I’ve taken advantage of this convenience many times.

In recent years, wineries have also begun selling their wine in kegs. In some situations — properly equipped restaurants, for example — this can more cost-effective and less wasteful than dealing with bottles. And, naturally, some places with wine on tap have also begun filling growlers. Oregon and Texas have both legalized wine growler sales in various venues and Washington is following suit. Here in Oregon, licensed wineries, restaurants, bars, and retailers are all free to fill growlers with wine.

Last week, however, the Tax and Trade Bureau weighed in on the practice. First the good news: selling wine in growlers is legal under federal law. Although states had gone ahead with wine growler fills, this was apparently ambiguous. It’s good to have it clarified.

Then there’s the bad news: Selling wine in growlers is going to involve a lot more red tape than selling beer. Under federal regulations, filling a growler with beer is considered filling a large glass and doesn’t impose additional burdens. (State laws, of course, may vary.) The TTB’s new ruling [pdf] clarifies that it’s not going to be so simple for wine. Specifically, the agency has determined that filling growlers with wine for off-premise consumption is considered bottling or packing for tax purposes, and that any person engaging in the activity must first qualify as a bottling house of taxpaid wine.

This means that before they can sell wine in growlers, businesses will have to apply to and receive permission from the TTB. And once qualified as a taxpaid wine bottling house, additional regulations will come into effect for wine growlers that don’t arise with beer:

1. Proprietors will have to “keep records of taxpaid wine received, bottled or packed, and removed.”

2. Proprietors will be responsible for measuring customers’ containers and ensuring accurate fill level and alcohol content.

3. Proprietors will have to label each container with “the name and address of the premises where bottled or packed; the brand name [...]; the alcohol content; the kind of wine and the net contents of the container.” They will also be required to remove or cover any preexisting labels on containers that don’t accurately describe the new contents.

It’s not clear to me yet exactly how burdensome these regulations are going to be, but the decision does seem to put the kibosh on dreams of making wine growler fills as ubiquitous and easy as they are for beer. With more restaurants and urban wineries offering wine on tap, growler fills were poised to be a new and convenient option. Here in Portland, for example, the forthcoming Coopers Hall announced plans to open with forty different wines on tap for on-premise consumption or take-away.

Assuming they stick with the plan, they’ll have to comply with these new regulations. I’m guessing that large retailers like Whole Foods will also find it worthwhile to qualify. But depending on how much of a hassle it is to do this, I expect many other restaurants with wine on tap may not bother.

The TTB notes that the Internal Revenue Code has different provisions for wine and beer and that this is the justification for the differential treatment with regard to growlers. Absent a change in the law, their hands may be tied. But from a policy perspective, it will be disappointing if this turns out to be an effective obstacle to the further adoption of wine kegs and reusable containers.

[Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter, a great source for northwest wine news. Photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Kaitlyn Tierney.]

Quick Little Pick Me Up

Cocktail blogging has been slow here as I’m currently on break from working in bars and restaurants to focus on writing my beer cocktail book. It now has a publisher and will be coming out early next year from Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, with photography by the extremely talented David L. Reamer. We’ve completed about half the shots at this point and I can tell you already that the drinks are going to look fantastic.

That means I’m not doing much drink creation at the moment, but here’s one from a while back that I’ve been meaning to post. I got the idea of doing a coffee-infused amaro from Matthew Biancaniello in Los Angeles. I made an infusion of Stumptown Hairbender espresso beans and Ramazzotti amaro, then played around with it in several cocktails that I was never quite happy with. The infusion itself was delicious though, so I ended up just putting it on a big ice cube with a lemon twist. Sometimes easiest is best.

This drink started out on the Metrovino brunch menu, then migrated to the after dinner menu, and finally made it over to The Hop and Vine. I don’t think it’s available anywhere right now, but it’s simple to make at home.

8 oz Ramazzotti
10 grams coffee beans

Lightly muddle the coffee beans to crack (but not pulverize) them. Seal in a glass jar with Ramazzotti. Infuse for 24 hours, strain, and bottle. If you want to make more, just scale the recipe upward.

To serve, pour two ounces in a glass with a big rock and express a lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.

[Photo by Julia Raymond for The Hop and Vine.]

Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut arrack

My trip to Sri Lanka was primarily dedicated to tea, but along the way we made a point to explore as many aspects of the local drinks culture as possible. For distilled spirits, that meant coconut arrack, the country’s signature and most popular spirit.

To prevent confusion, it’s best to start with what coconut arrack is not. It’s not Batavia arrack, the Indonesian spirit distilled from sugar cane and red rice. It’s also not Mediterranean arak or raki, the anise-flavored liqueur. Though these spirits may share a common etymology, the similarities end there. The tastes and methods of production are completely different, and they’re not substitutes for each other.

Sri Lankan coconut arrack is distilled from nectar drawn from coconut flowers, collected by “toddy tappers.” This nectar rapidly ferments into a low-alcohol beverage called toddy. Sadly I did not have an opportunity to try this, but it’s photographed below.

The fermented toddy is distilled and aged in barrels of oak or halmilla, an indigenous tree species. After ageing it’s bottled and sold in the ubiquitous “wine shops,” which purvey all kinds of alcoholic beverages.

In every example that I encountered, spirits were purchased by walking up to a window display and ordering from a cashier who retrieves the requested bottles and completes the transaction. Even if the alcohol counter was within another store, it was completely cordoned off. I’m guessing this is a legal requirement. Regardless, outside of the airport duty free store I didn’t come across any place where one could freely roam the shelves.

The shop windows range from utilitarian…

… to more upscale.

As seen above, a lot of the big global brands are here. There’s also a variety of coconut arrack to choose from. The cheapest of these can be had for about three US dollars per 375 ml bottle. At the higher end, I found an offering from Mendis with an eighteen year age statement that sold for about $35 for 700 ml. In total, I sampled about eight different bottlings of coconut arrack, and brought four home with me.

One word of advice about buying arrack in Sri Lanka: Read the fine print! One of the bottles I picked up was awful. So awful, in fact, that not even a bus of bartenders would drink it. A glance at the label revealed the reason. Just as there are mixto tequilas that blend agave with neutral spirits, there are coconut arracks that do the same with neutral spirits and distilled toddy. But whereas mixto tequilas require at least 51% of the spirit to come from agave, the percentage of coconut spirits in some arracks is as low as 3%. The ones I tried have nothing but price to recommend them.

The pure arracks, though, can be quite nice. They strike me as most comparable to rum, though with a distinctive floral note and brightness. Barrel ageing contributes hints of vanilla and smooths out the spirit.

Fortunately, one no longer has to go all the way to Sri Lanka to try it. White Lion VSOA is now available in the United States, produced by Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka. The VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” an abbreviation used to comply with American labeling regulations regarding the word “arrack.” It’s definitely among the best I’ve tried and worth seeking out for a unique addition to one’s bar. (White Lion also provided the toddy photos above.)

One more word of advice when shopping for alcohol in Sri Lanka: Keep an eye on the sky. Poya, which fall about every thirty days and follow the lunar calendar, are religious holidays. If there’s a full Moon, the sale of alcohol is forbidden. Even in hotel bars catering to tourists, you will be greeted with a sign like the one above. Fortunately our hosts warned us of this the day before, and our bus of thirsty bartenders was well rationed with local beers and arrack.

Speaking of beer, the one above was my favorite of the ones I tried in Sri Lanka. Most of the beers sold here are refreshing lagers, but this was a full-bodied stout. Was I man enough to deserve it? Maybe not, but I enjoyed it anyway.

By this time in our trip we’d made it well up into the hill country to Nuwara Eliya, once known as “Little England” for its popularity with the British. I understand the appeal. Up here the weather is comfortably temperate compared to the heat and humidity along the coast. It’s no wonder the British moved inland and upward, bringing colonial architecture, a golf course, and billiard rooms with them. Visiting the Grand Hotel is like stepping back in time a hundred years, with wi-fi.

Indidentally, I wonder now if the American drinks writer Charles Baker stayed in the same hotel. In the foreword to Jigger, Beaker, and Glass, he mentions spending “two days in Newara Eyliya, hill station back of Colombo, Ceylon, to get our breath.” On that same adventure he also went to visit a friend at Galle Face…

“… where we swam in the blood-warm Indian Ocean and drank enough of his Flying Fish cocktails to do, and lay on the cool sand and listened to Tauber sing Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz on the gramophone. Then when we swam again we slipped out of our suits to make the water feel better, and finally, when it was very late indeed, we dressed and said goodnight and vowed eternal friendship to our host; then for precisely no reason at all dismissed our waiting carriage with a flourish of gross overpayment and walked all the way back in our evening clothes through a new quiet rain to the jetties and the motor launch, just in time to prevent one of our best American cruising friends from consummating bribery of of the Quartermaster of the good ship RESOLUTE into letting him hoist a purchased baby girl elephant — whom he said was Edith, and over whom he politely held a Burmese parasol of scarlet oiled silk — from a hired barge onto the forward hatch in a sling!”

And, well, you get the picture.

The Grand Hotel is home to one of Dilmah’s T Bars, cafes in which one can order a nearly full range of Dilmah teas. Whether coming down to it for tea in the morning or sitting outside late into the night with a hookah, I loved this place.

On our final night here, we each gave a presentation on various ways to incorporate tea into cocktails. For my own, I opted to go with a riff on classic punch technique, which often uses tea instead of water to dilute the strength of the higher proof ingredients. Given how much coconut arrack I was hauling around with me, I wanted to use that too.

Teamaker’s Punch
500 ml Dilmah green tea
100 g palm sugar
7 oz lemon juice
6 oz Damrak gin
3 oz White Lion coconut arrack
cinnamon
nutmeg

Brew the tea and then pour it hot into a punch bowl with the palm sugar. Using a muddler, crush the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients, grate nutmeg and cinnamon atop the punch, and slip in an ice block or ladle into ice-filled punch glasses. (In Nuwara Eliya I used jaggery, but I’ve adapted the recipe to palm sugar, which I find more readily here.)

And, finally, remember not to let good punch go to waste.

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols, Dilmah, and White Lion.]

Elevating tea in Sri Lanka

My first post about Sri Lanka talked about my informal, very quick tour of Colombo. For the rest of my visit with Dilmah and Bols I was on a much tighter schedule, with a ten day trip around the country devoted to tea education, video and photo shoots, various cocktail events, and some amazing excursions. From that point forward we were also joined by a professional photographer and film crew, so these posts will have great images like the one above in addition to my amateur shots.

Our began at Dilmah Tea headquarters with a tasting, which took me back to my coffee cupping days. The tasting process for tea is similar to that of coffee, involving examination of the dry leaves, infusion, and lots of really loud slurping.

Another parallel to coffee is in the desire to emulate wine. Wine is the template for many other foods and drinks that producers seek to raise from commodity to specialty item. Dilmah follows this path with their Watte (literally “garden”) series of teas. Marketed in direct opposition to commodity blends, these each highlight a different growing region of Sri Lanka. They’re all black teas, grown and processed pretty much identically with the exception of elevation. The difference this makes is striking, as one can tell just by viewing the brewed teas next to each other.

The low elevation tea is darker, stronger, and robustly astringent. As origins get higher into the hills, the tea mellows and becomes lighter and more delicate. Dilmah makes the parallel to wine explicit in their marketing, comparing each tea to a different grape or style:

Yata Watte (low garden, 1000 feet above sea level) — In the style of Cabernet Sauvignon!

Meda Watte (middle garden, 2-3000 feet above sea level) — In the style of a Shiraz!

Uda Watte (high garden, 4-5000 feet above sea level) — In the style of a Pinot Noir!

Ran Watte (golden gardens, 6500 feet above sea level) — In the style of fine Champagne!

This was the most enlightening tasting of the trip, and I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about tea.

With initial classes out of the way, we moved on to the really fun part of the trip: Departing the city and heading into the hills to visit tea estates. While on the road, each of us bartenders was also tasked with filming a short cocktail video. I volunteered to be one of the first, gathering ingredients as we worked our way up and improvising a drink with local ingredients.

Our first stop was a roadside fruit stand where I picked up nelli fruit, also known as the Indian gooseberry (not pictured). Tart and fibrous, and tough to eat on their own, these were completely new to me. Locally they’re often prepared by long simmering in sugar syrup to sweeten and soften them, so I figured I would use them that way.

Stop number two was our first actual tea estate. Sri Lanka produces much of the world’s true cinnamon and the estate cultivates cinnamon trees interspersed among the tea bushes. Inside we inhaled the heady fragrance of fresh cinnamon bark being shaved and bunched into sticks, then got to try our hands at it ourselves. Below, UK Bols ambassador John Clay gives it a go.

Further upward at the estate manager’s bungalow, fellow bartender Simon Toohey and I coaxed this fantastic cinnamon into a lightly tart syrup with sugar and nelli fruits. The final ingredients needed for the cocktail were tea from Dilmah and spirits from Bols. Being in the region, I naturally picked the Yata Watte low grown tea. And while one might have expected me to indulge my love for Bols Yogurt, being outside of the US I seized the opportunity to use the six year old Corenwyn, my one bottle of which I ration carefully at home.

Lastly, it was up just a little higher to a spot on the estate with a stunning view. Behind me going down the hill were rows of tea bushes. Rising up in the distance, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This is, without a doubt, the most stunning setting in which I’ve been invited to make cocktails.

It was not, however, the easiest. We had to contend with fading light, an incoming storm, and, most vexingly, a bakery truck — like an ice cream truck in the US — playing its music somewhere in the rolling hills. Seemingly every time we began a take, the dulcet tune of Fur Elise would come echoing through the pristine setting. Getting around this required clever mic work from the video crew, and whenever it started to rain I was rushed into the van to stay somewhat dry. The set was completely broken down and put up again at least once. Between takes, Bols brand manager Ara Carvallo kept me looking presentable.

By the time we got to the final close-up shots, rain was pouring down and we huddled awkwardly with umbrellas to keep things somewhat dry. It’s a testament to the crew that in the actual video everything comes together so smoothly.

Here’s the recipe for the Nelli Hot Pot (aka the Rainmaker), on the off chance anyone reading this happens to have Dilmah Tea, Bols Corenwyn, nelli fruit, and real Ceylon cinnamon on hand.

1 1/2 oz Bols Corenwyn 6 year
1 oz cinnamon-nelli syrup
5-6 oz hot Dilmah Yata Watte tea
Combine ingredients in a tea cup.

And finally, just to demonstrate the skill of the crew in dealing with the elements, here’s the glossy shot:

And here’s what director Steve McCallum and I actually looked like when the shoot was over:

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]

Aquavit Week: Bob Dillin’

Definitely #AquavitWeek weather. Gamle Ode Dill, Genki-Su cranberry vinegar, lemon, simple, dandelion & burdock bitters.

This week in Portland has been among the coldest since I moved here five years ago, which has its downsides, but is also perfectly fitting for Aquavit Week. The dusting of snow is light by Scandinavian standards but enough to shut a lot of things down here, freeing up time to warm up with aquavit.

This is a new cocktail from our Aquavit Week menu using the delicious Gamle Ode Dill aquavit. Following last year’s Dill Collins, which inadvertently reminded everyone of Phil Collins, we’re sticking with the musician theme with the Bob Dillin’:

1 1/2 oz Gamle Ode Dill aquavit
scant 3/4 oz Genki-Su cranberry drinking vinegar
3/4 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 dashes Elmegirab’s Dandelion and Burdock bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Shake and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, garnishing with the lemon peel.

Aquavit Week 2013 Menu

Aquavit Week 2013 is finally here! Below is the menu we’ll serving tonight (and all week long) at The Hop and Vine. In addition to the drinks below, we’ll have an aquavit barrel-aged braggot from Breakside Brewing, neat pours of various aquavits, and a selection of Scandinavian-inspired fare. We also have a bunch of other bars and restaurants joining us for the celebration, all offering aquavit cocktails of their own.

Hot Toddy 9
Linie aquavit, Swedish punsch, lemon, star anise

Bob Dillin’ 10
Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, cranberry vinegar, lemon, sugar, dandelion and burdock bitters

Swordplay 10
Temperance Regnig Dag aquavit, Maurin quina, Campari

Aquavit & Tonic 9
Sound Spirits aquavit, dill and mustard seed tonic

Norwegian Rose 10
Krogstad Gamle aquavit, Laird’s bonded apple brandy, lime, grenadine

Golden Lion 10
North Shore aquavit, Dolin blanc vermouth, Galliano, celery bitters

Dudley’s Solstice Punch 9
Raspberry-infused Krogstad Festlig aquavit, St. Germain, lemon, sparkling wine

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

A deluge of new aquavit

A few days ago I joked on Twitter that every time I get my hands on a new American aquavit, a new one springs up within 24 hours to make my collection incomplete. That couldn’t be more true than in the month of November, during which four — or maybe 3 1/2 — new aquavits distilled in the United States came on to the market. I’ve also heard through the grapevine of several more in the works for 2014.

This rendered my comprehensive guide to aquavit available in the United States rapidly out of date, so I’ve updated it accordingly. Here are the new arrivals:

Riktig Aquavit – A brand new offering from Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle. Flavored with caraway, mustard, and spices, then rested on local alder wood. Only six cases released in the initial offering. I really like it, so hopefully there will be more on the way.

House Spirits Small Batch Aquavit – This is a very limited edition spirit, with just over 100 375 ml bottles available for sale at the House Spirits tasting room. Apparently aged for several years and flavored with caraway, anise seed, grains of paradise, and dill. If you’re in Portland, swing by the distillery ASAP to pick up a bottle before their gone forever.

Montgomery Distillery Aquavit – A new aquavit from Missoula, Montana, infused with caraway, dill, citrus, and other botanicals.

Green Hat Ginavit – Not quite an aquavit. A gin-aquavit hybrid from Green Hat in Washington, DC, aged in Laird’s apple brandy barrels. A limited release for the winter.

In my year-end post for 2012, I predicted that 2013 would be a big year for aquavit:

Small distilleries need to generate revenue by making products that they can release with little or no ageing. Gin and vodka are the usual choices, but both of these markets are very competitive. The aquavit market is uncrowded and offers great opportunities for creativity with new botanical profiles. This is complemented by growing interest in the “New Nordic” cuisine.

A couple years ago, the only two domestic aquavits in constant production that I am aware of were Krogstad and North Shore. Now there is also the aged Krogstad, Sound Spirits, Gamle Ode, and a limited release from Bull Run. In 2013 I predict more new aquavits and more bartenders discovering the spirits’ versatility in cocktails.

A month ago this wasn’t looking like a great prediction, but now it looks like it’s finally panning out.

Mixologists and the Teamaker trip to Sri Lanka

When I was 21 years old, living in DC for the first time, and knew nothing about alcohol, my friend Courtney took me to a bar and handed me a drink. “Try this,” she said. “It’s a Long Island Iced Tea.”

“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t like tea.” It was then that I learned that while a Long Island Iced Tea does use practically every other ingredient on the face of the earth, it doesn’t contain any actual tea. Ten years later, I would still politely turn down this cocktail, but for different reasons. And real tea, I now know, is wonderful stuff.

I thought of this story a few months ago when I was offered an incredible opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka to learn more about tea and explore its use in cocktails. As part of a collaboration between Lucas Bols, with whom I then worked more directly, and Dilmah Tea, a unique Sri Lankan tea company, I joined nine other bartenders from around the world — England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and New Zealand — for a ten-day tour of the country packed with tea tastings, tours of tea estates, and Iron Chef-style challenges to create tea cocktails at various stops along the way. It was in many ways the trip of a lifetime.

But first there was the matter of getting there, which required nearly 24 hours of travel. Surprisingly the northern route took about as much time as heading west, taking me from Portland to Seattle, from Seattle to a seven hour layover in Dubai, and finally from Dubai to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo for an early morning arrival. I was the first bartender to land, and despite the time change, was stir crazy from all those hours in planes and airports. So I left my bags at the hotel and wandered off in search of fresh air and street food.

I might as well have had a large “T” for tourist written on my forehead for as obvious as it was that I’d just arrived. It wasn’t long before a friendly off-shift employee of one of the hotels offered to show me around. I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted to walk and find a place to eat. But he was persistent, it soon became obvious that going on foot wasn’t getting me anywhere interesting in that area, and my schedule for the rest of the trip was out of my hands, so I eventually thought what the hell and gave in. We flagged down a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis, and were on our way for the most whirlwind tour of a city I’ve ever been on. To where? I had no idea.

As the tuk-tuk drove us up an isolated dirt road, I began to doubt the wisdom of zipping off with this stranger in an unknown city. But I needn’t have worried. Our first stop turned out be a towering Hindu temple, which was strikingly ornate, although deserted at the moment. We walked around, snapped a few photos at my guide’s insistence, and were on our way to the next stop within a few minutes.

This turned out to be another temple, Buddhist this time, bustling with people. And one elephant. I wasn’t expecting to find a live elephant right in the middle city, but there he was, getting a good scrub down.

Also present: the temple elephant’s predecessor, preserved in the courtyard. The inside, too, was packed with stunning works of ivory that I hoped were at least few decades old.

Our next stops were political landmarks, including what I think is the capitol and then Independence Square, built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948. It was empty save for a snake charmer performing on the steps, from whom I kept my distance.

From what I can figure from Googling, the next place we visited was Viharamahadevi Park, the largest public park in the city. Though a nice place, I wasn’t sure why my guide was walking us through it. It was almost entirely full of young couples in various states of making out and that definitely wasn’t on my agenda. Then we got to the tree above. The things hanging from it? Those are flying foxes, among the largest bats in the world.

These are amazing creatures, circling the tree even in day time. It was fantastic getting to see them in person, and I only caught glimpses of them the rest of the trip, so I was grateful that my guide brought me here.

Through all this we still hadn’t stopped for what I initially set out for, which was food that didn’t come from a plane or airport. I finally convinced him to take us somewhere for us to have lunch. By this time I had no idea of where we ended up, but it served some of the best crispy chicken I’ve ever had.

Finally it was time for me to get back, but the guide insisted on one more stop, trying to sell me on bargains at a dubious gem store from which he’d presumably get a kickback. Then there was an offer of stopping for a massage with implied extra services, which I also declined. The tuk-tuk brought us back, and I paid for the tour — a little too much, in hindsight, but it was a side of the city I wouldn’t see during the more structured experience to come.

Back at the hotel I went to the pool and found a David Wondrich book left open by a chair, a good sign that other bartenders had arrived. Our first day was mostly free of responsibilities, so we spent it drinking Dilmah teas and spirits from our home countries. The next day, however, we had a our first challenge: Presenting a variety of tea cocktails to about 70 guests visiting from all over the world to learn more about tea.

My usual go to for tea cocktails, smoky black lapsang souchong, was picked by someone before me. But Dilmah had something even more interesting, what they called their Ceylon Souchong. Instead of firing the tea over pine, they use fragrant wood from cinnamon trees, which are often grown right alongside tea plants. I made a simple syrup with the brewed tea and it worked perfectly in a variation on one of my drinks from a few years ago, the Smokejumper:

2 oz Bols Genever
3/4 oz Ceylon Souchong syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz Galliano
freshly grated cinnamon, for garnish

Shake and serve on the rocks.

Here’s a short video of the event, which was a fun way to kick off our week of events:

This was the first of five cocktail challenges we had throughout the trip, so I’ll be posting the rest soon, along with notes from the more official parts of our tour.

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]