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.]

Aquavit Week 2013

Aquavit Week returns in its second year with new aquavit, a new location, and a new aquavit barrel-aged beer from Breakside Brewing. A new website and a new logo too. Check out the site for all the details.

Yuzu Sour

Yuzu Sour 1

Here’s another of our new cocktails at The Hop and Vine, this one using a delicious drinking vinegar from Genki-Su, a new company based here in Portland:

1 1/2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz yuzu vinegar
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Shake, strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

The Genki-Su vinegars are very good and can be purchased online. I especially like their shiso flavor, which I’ve used in a very similar cocktail with rum.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

New cocktails at The Hop and Vine

Red Right Hand

My bartending these days has migrated from the west side to the east side of the Willamette River, allowing me to trade in monochrome dress slacks for denim and plaid. But the approach to cocktails remains the same. In addition to picking up occasional shifts at the exceedingly cool Expatriate, I’ve taken over the menu at one of my favorite places and long-time collaborators, The Hop and Vine.

With their frequently changing tap list and expansive bottle shop, The Hop and Vine is a great place to work on beer cocktails. The Mai Ta-IPA and Averna Stout Flip are both featured on the new menu. Of course we’re doing more than just beer though. Here’s a look at one of our other new cocktails, the Red Right Hand:

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaca
3/4 oz Aperol
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz honey-chamomile syrup

Shake and serve up. To make the syrup, simply mix equal volumes of honey and chamomile tea.

Bartenders will often tell you that the hardest part of creating a new cocktail is naming it. I came up with this recipe for a Bars on Fire event at The Coupe in Washington, DC. I’d been stuck on the name and forgot to send it in before deadline. I remembered while listening to “Red Right Hand” just as the gong hit; thanks to a red hue provided by Aperol, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds solved my naming problem.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

Oola-la!

Oola-la! Oola bourbon, dry vermouth, Gran Classico, Seven of Hearts late harvest viognier.

It’s been a while since I posted a cocktail recipe here, so here’s one that was slated for a menu I never got to put together — maybe for the best, as the name is a bit too cute. It features bourbon from Oola in Seattle, a very nice bourbon made with a blend of aged bourbons and Oola’s own four-grain mash. A high rye content comes through in a pleasant spiciness.

The other Pacific Northwest ingredient I planned to use in this one is the delicious Seven of Hearts Ice Princess dessert wine pressed from frozen viognier grapes, which goes very well here. Mostly this drink shows once again the fantastic flexibility of the Alto Cucina and why it’s one of my favorite cocktails to play with:

1 oz Oola Bourbon
1 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz Gran Classico
1/2 oz Seven of Hearts Ice Princess Viognier
orange peel, for garnish

Stir, serve up, and garnish with an orange peel.

These are fairly local brands, so feel free to make substitutions.

The costs of convenience

Abandoned liquor store

Over at Blue Oregon, politico and former pub owner Jesse Cornett argues against liquor privatization, satisfied with the system the way it is:

Bar and tavern owners obtain their liquor almost the same way that anyone in Oregon does: they buy it from a liquor store. It comes with a small discount and can include delivery. When I called in my order, they would ask when I wanted it. Right away? Sure. See you in 30 minutes. At a certain time? Great, we’ll see you then. Run out of a particular product late in their hours? Just pop by. Call on your way and it’s sitting at the counter waiting for you. The system works exceptionally well for Oregon’s pub, bar and restaurant owners. Obtaining liquor was much more convenient than any other product.

Jesse is absolutely right about this. Oregon’s system makes buying liquor simple. To stock the bar I manage, I make one phone call, receive one delivery, and write one check. Easy! In contrast, our wine buyer deals with more than a dozen distributors, taking separate deliveries and writing individual checks for each of them. Pain in the ass!

So yes, the current system is convenient for bar managers. But that’s a terrible reason to keep it in place. It leaves unaddressed, for starters, the cost to the bars. Licensees in Oregon receive only a very small (about 5%) discount off retail. The set price means we don’t spend time bargaining or making deals, or what is known in less regulated states as “doing your damn job.” It also means we pay more for our liquor, making it harder to put quality spirits in our menu cocktails.

The situation is even worse when we want to bring in relatively esoteric spirits from other states. Oregon distilleries benefit from the fact that the state’s monopoly buyer, the OLCC, gives them de facto favorable treatment. The agency is very likely to “list” their products, meaning it will purchase them in bulk and sell them at a lower price. That’s good for local distillers, but not so good for out-of-state producers and the consumers who want to buy their spirits.

As an example, I requested aquavits made in the Midwest as special order items this year. To the OLCC’s credit, they both eventually arrived, but our system renders the prices exceedingly high. The Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit sells in Oregon for $42.45 a bottle. In its home state of Wisconsin, I see it selling for $29.99. The North Shore Aquavit from Illinois? $47.25 in Oregon, $27.99 at Binny’s in Chicago. Shipping costs account for a portion of the difference, but not nearly all of it.

Advantaging local distillers over out-of-state producers shouldn’t be the goal of our distribution laws. It may even be unconstitutional. I have no doubt that skilled local producers will continue to thrive in a private market, just as they do in the privatized beer and wine system. And if there are some producers who cannot survive without the government buying their product in bulk, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the business.

(As a point of contrast, Matt Yglesias notes at Slate today that Washington, DC’s unique openness to importing spirits is part of what has made the city’s bar scene so fantastic. Oregon would do well to follow its lead.)

If Jesse’s argument were correct, there would be no reason not to extend it to restaurants’ other inputs. If a state monopoly on liquor is so great, why not monopolies on beer and wine too? Or on meat and cheese and fish and bread and vegetables? It would be so much easier on the chefs! But no one would take these ideas seriously, because we’ve long since figured out that essentially free markets are the best way to distribute normal goods. Liquor is a mostly normal good – and to the extent that isn’t because of negative externalities, taxes are a far better way of addressing that than inefficient distribution is.

As I never tire of reminding people when it comes to questions of distribution, markets are for consumers. Not only consumers who want local products, but all consumers – even the ones who just want stuff that’s basic and cheap. They would very much like to pick up a bottle for a few dollars less than they pay now and not have to visit a special store to get it. This is why privatization is likely to happen eventually, regardless of how it affects bar managers and local distilleries. Consumers are tired of dealing with a distribution system designed for the 1930s.

And this is where Jesse has a good point: There are going to be winners and losers with privatization, and distributors and large retailers are going to exert their influence to ensure that they get an advantage. This is one reason that Washington state’s privatization measure bars entry to new, smaller stores. If Oregon privatizes via ballot initiative, as appears increasingly likely, then we may end up with similar problems.

The solution to this is acknowledge that getting privatization right is difficult, but doable, and to demand that the legislature write a bill that learns from Washington’s mistakes and puts consumers first. The alternative is to wait for ballot initiatives written by retailers, one of which will inevitably pass.

[Photo by Joseph Novak used under Creative Commons license.]

[Disclosures: In addition to working as a bartender, I consult for several spirits brands and beverage-related products. I have not worked for retailers or distributors.]

New cocktail books — and a reader giveaway

In the past few months a slew of cocktail books have come out that share one detail commending the excellent taste of the authors: They all include a recipe or two from me. That’s all I need to know to conclude that a book is worth buying, but for those with more exacting standards, here’s a little more information about them.

901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide, Stew Ellington — For truth in advertising, it’s hard to beat the title of Stew Ellington’s book. It is what it says it is. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect from it. The size is the first surprise. The book is big, with a nice hardcover, and spiral bound so that it lays flat while open. This makes it ideal for referencing while mixing. Like the title says, it’s practical.

After a brief introduction the book launches into “68 lists of the cocktails by type, flavor, theme, and more” to fit every mood, occasion, or whim, including “postprandial” and “expensive.” Then comes the meat of the book, 901 Ellington-approved cocktails presented in alphabetical order and given a star ranking.

My Shift Drink is one of the cocktails, earning a ranking of 4 1/2 stars. Before this goes to my head, I’ll note that other 4 1/2 star cocktails include the Surfer on Acid and the Goober. Part of the fun of this book is that it’s so eclectic and isn’t afraid to slum it with ingredients like coconut rum and Midori. These drinks appear right alongside mixologist favorites like the Brooklyn and Boulevardier. Stew is a passionate enthusiast rather than a professional bartender, and even if I question some of his selections, he reminds me to take off my blinders and try things I may normally overlook.

One of my frustrations with many contemporary cocktail books is that in the hunt for originality, they call for ingredients that are too esoteric or require too much preparation for easily trying things out. These books certainly have their place, and I enjoy them, but making complicated drinks is what I do for a living. When I come home, I want a book I can flip through to find something to try on a moment’s notice. Generally eschewing homemade or hard-to-find ingredients, 901 Very Good Cocktails is perfect for that. Anyone wanting a cocktail book that rewards casual and frequent exploration will be very happy with it.

Savory Cocktails, Greg Henry — Greg is a food and drink writer based in Los Angeles. His collection of savory cocktails rounds up mostly contemporary drinks in chapters focusing on sour, spicy, herbal, umami, bitter, smoky, rich, and strong. This is a very culinary approach to cocktails, and many of the recipes will require some shopping or preparation. They look like they’re worth the effort. A couple beer cocktails, including a take on the Dog’s Nose garnished with porcini mushroom powder, I have bookmarked for trying soon.

My own Golden Lion and Smokejumper are included, along with classics, Greg’s originals, and contributions from other notable bartenders. Greg is also a professional photographer and the book is very attractively shot. Definitely recommended for fans of strong, unusual flavors and those willing to put some work into making fantastic drinks.

Mezcal: Under the Spell of Firewater, Louis E. V. Nevaer — Where to begin with this one? A friend alerted me that my Mexican Train mezcal cocktail appeared in this book, so I ordered a copy expecting a solid introductory guide to the spirit. How could I have anticipated that Mezcal 101 would include a chapter on mezcal and sex?

You deserve just the right kind of mezcal. The kind that will make your nipples erect and irresistible to your partner. (Who needs ice cubes when you have mezcal on hand?) The kind that will make oral sex explode like fireworks. The kind that will mix with the taste of sweat, and salt, and the pheromones that emanate from each other’s nether regions to create something that, if it were to be bottled, would sell millions of flasks at Bergdorf Goodman.

If I’d written a chapter like that, perhaps The Cocktail Collective would have sold better. So maybe this book could have used a little editing, but in few spirits guides does the voice of the other come through so directly. It’s a slim volume, very offbeat, and you may find better resources for straightforward, factual information about mezcal. That said, it’s a fun book, and would probably be a useful reference if you’re visiting Oaxaca (which I’ve yet to do). The recipes for mixing and cooking with mezcal are also intriguing.

The Cocktail Hour: Whiskey, Brandy, and Tequila, Scout Books — You may remember Portland-based publisher Scout Books’ first trilogy of pocket cocktail guides, devoted to vodka, gin, and rum. They’re back with a sequel collection for the spirits above, once again featuring recipes from a bunch of mostly West Coast bartenders and writers, along with charming illustrations.

As with the first collection, I’m giving away a few sets of this new one to a few lucky blog commenters. To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post, one comment per person, before the end of the day this Friday (PST). On Saturday I’ll randomly select three winners and send them the set of books.

Mixing with Yogurt

In December 2011, when I wrote my annual year-end list, I included an item for the spirits product I most wanted to see in the US. It was Bols Yogurt liqueur, one of the handful of bottles I smuggled in my suitcase from Amsterdam. Strange as it sounds, this is a low-alcohol liqueur that captures the aroma and taste of real, tart yogurt. It’s unlike anything else on the American market and I was intrigued by the possibilities of using it in cocktails. It was a hit in Europe, but for various contractual reasons Bols was unable to bring into the US until this summer. Now it’s finally here — ironically, just as I leave my role as brand ambassador with the company.

Now that I can pick up a bottle any time I want, I’ve begun mixing with it. This has included a few obvious failures — my attempt at a “Yogroni” came out looking like Pepto Bismol — but also some really tasty drinks. One cool thing about this liqueur is that it doesn’t curdle with citrus. Mixed with lime or lemon, it gives a softer edge to tart cocktails. As a basic formula, complementary base spirit + citrus + fruit + Yogurt will make a drink that works pretty well, and that’s how I’ve been using it behind the bar with the great Oregon berries we get in the summer.

Another opportunity to use the spirit just came up with a cocktail competition from Veev, a spirit flavored with acai berries. I figured the fruit flavors in the spirit would play well with the yogurt and tried out a simple drink that I assumed would need some additional layers of flavor. As it turned out, it was good as is, and I didn’t add anything more to it. The use of trendy superfruit spirits and weird liqueurs might cause you to pass this one over, and it’s not something I would have tried if not for the competition, but sometimes deliciousness comes from unlikely sources. So here’s the Leite de Baga:

2 ounces Veev
1 oz Bols Yogurt liqueur
3/4 oz lime juice
berries or other seasonal fruit for garnish

Shake hard with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the berries.

Obligatory competition note: The first round of the competition is based on online voting, which I probably have no shot at winning since I won’t be clogging Facebook and Twitter with repeated posts about it. But the grand prize is a trip to Rio de Janeiro, so I will provide the link should you be struck by the urge to vote.

Navigation cocktail

Navigation cocktail at Metrovino: Reposado tequila, jalapeno tomatillo jam, Ferrand dry curacao, lime, and egg white. Cinnamon on top.

Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan Cookbook is a title that called out to me, especially after seeing many positive reviews for it. Though I don’t have any strong desire to move back to Texas (except on income tax day), I do miss the food. And while Portland’s restaurant scene is taking a few stabs at Tex-Mex, nothing I’ve tried has fully hit the mark yet. My best bet is cooking at home, and Lisa Fain’s recreations of Texas cuisine from her New York City apartment have been an excellent guide.

The recipes are consistent winners. One of the standouts is a tomatillo jalapeno jam spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. I made it to serve with chevre, but it’s so good that I knew I wanted to work it into a cocktail too. The Navigation, a play on the Margarita, is the result of that experimentation:

1 1/2 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz dry curacao
3/4 oz lime juice
1 egg white
2 barspoons tomatillo jalapeno jam
cinnamon, for garnish

Shake the ingredients without ice to aerate, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a dusting of freshly grated cinnamon.

We use Ferrand for the curacao at Metrovino, but other cognac-based orange liqueurs like those from Combier or Mandarine Napoleon would also work well. For the jam recipe you’ll have to buy the book. If you happen to be in Portland, this is on our current menu.