Absolut Oak, or Absolutely Unnecessary?

aboakMajor brands are always looking for the next big thing.  In some cases it’s a novel flavor or a new expression of the latest barrel proof.  With the monstrous rise of popularity in whiskey, bourbon and other brown spirits clear spirits have started a decline.  Vodka in particular has started to slump (-0.3%) even in the face of an overall rise in the sale of hard liquor (1.3%).

This has hit the brand Absolut by Pernod Ricard particularly hard as they rely on vodka sales for a large portion of their portfolio.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the graph lines snaking both directions.  So what can you do?  Whiskey takes time to produce and the marketing turn from vodka to whiskey can likewise be a shift if you’re not already doing something similar.  Most of the major labels aren’t willing to sell in the face of such a boom so you can’t buy your way into popularity.

So someone, somewhere thought, “What if we made a whiskey flavored vodka?”.  Flavored vodkas have been a thing for a while now, and while they too are on the decline the idea isn’t without merit.

It runs into a number of difficulties at the outset.  You can’t make an *aged* vodka.  The regulations in the US and likely any number of other countries simply don’t allow for vodka to have an age statement.  Which is why you’ll often see non-whiskey products spending time “Resting” in a barrel.  Rested or Infused are the non-regulatory buzzwords that basically mean barrel aged without all the red tape.  Next, if you’re making a spirit from grain then putting it into a barrel, it’s really just whiskey.  Calling it a vodka means you spent the time on the still to take it all the way up to high proof before cutting it down with water.  You lose the “flavor, odor and character of whiskey” that you need for it to qualify under US regulations but you get a lot more mileage out of your spirit.

Something gets lost in the translation here.  People like whiskey for more reasons than just the smell of leather and the taste of cinnamon and vanilla.  There are subtle differences between vodka and whiskey that can’t really be explained by base ingredients.  It may be as simple as time and the x-factor present in a true barrel as opposed to a bag of toasted oak chips.  What you get with Oak by Absolut is really just what it says on the label.  Oak flavored vodka.

Whiskey snobs won’t be tempted, vodka drinkers won’t see the appeal, whiskey lovers won’t get anything out of this that they can’t get from a similarly priced bottle of whiskey.  At $27 a bottle here in Oregon this is way more than I’d pay for vodka and far less than I want to pay for bad whiskey.


Morgenthaler wrong on spirits buying?

I want to state unequivocally that I have a lot of respect for Jeffery Morgenthaler.  The man is a Portland icon, bartender of the year, and has been at the bleeding edge of cocktail innovation for years.  I bought his book, I visit his site, and you can occasionally see me in the comments there talking about accounting and cocktail costing.

Last year he wrote this article for Food Republic.  It’s taken me some time to get back to writing my own blog but I want to respond to a couple of his points.

The core of his article is when buying spirits: “Liquor made from grain is better from large distilleries, while liquor made from fruit is better from small producers.”

He breaks it down into a couple of points but I think you will find more in the exception to his rule than in the observance.  A lot of grains are commodities.  They are big bulk things that don’t differ very much from one place to another, there isn’t a sense of terroir like you get in wine because you’re generally not getting single small farm lots when you get your grain to the distiller.  You’re getting giant truck load lots that have been mixed and blended and homogenized.  This is not true all over the world.  A lot of craft distillers are now using estate grains, grown on the property of the distillery.  Or single farm batches where they know exactly where the grain is coming from and what kind of conditions shaped it.  Distilleries in Washington, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere are all doing this and others are trying to where they can.  In these cases the grain can make a great deal of difference in the finished product, good or bad.

Another point he makes is that liquor is in general a big industrial process.  For producers like Jack Daniels, Heaven Hill and Bacardi this is often true.  For craft producers it is almost never true.  Even the largest craft producers are still doing a huge amount of their work by hand, and using equipment that doesn’t have anything like the level of control that you are likely to see elsewhere.  The upside to that, is they are using equipment that would be impossible for larger producers to use and still make a profit.  Alembic stills and pot stills are only two of the types of stills that are far more common in craft than they are in major corporate producers.  These stills often make much more complex and flavorful spirits, and are consequently more common among producers of brandy and other fruit liquors than they would be otherwise.  Trying to make flavorful brandy on a column still is hard.  Like P = NP hard.

Lastly I want to cover something that Mr. Morgenthaler doesn’t.  Just because something is “craft” doesn’t mean it was made using base ingredients.  The untold story on a lot of craft products, (as well as some major labels *cough*bulleitrye*cough*) is that they source their spirits from major producers like MGP.  Which means unless you do a lot of research, the juice in your bottle of craft, could be exactly the same as the juice in your bottle of top shelf corporate.  What happens after the still strips out all the fluff can have as great an impact as where the grain came from first.

Some of the best made gins in the world right now aren’t starting from wheat.  They start with neutral grain spirit made in the same plant that cranks out Bulleit Rye, Angel’s Envy Rye, and hundreds of other producers.

Craft producers are more likely to take chances on products that won’t find an audience globally.  They’re also far more likely to use seasonal fruits, nuts or herbs.  They cycle their products frequently, make mistakes into products and make things that you won’t find on the back bar at a dive.  They are making some of the best products out there from Balcones Single malt, to Oola Gin.

I think my own rule of thumb would be, “For risk and adventure try Craft.  For consistency and price, stay with corporate.”
In the end really Mr. Morgenthaler’s first point is his best.  “when it comes down to it, it’s all about what’s in the glass, right?”

Great America Faux Moonshine

IMG_20140613_153856The current craze in general spirits is whiskey. Very few people will dispute that vodka has gone the way of the 90’s and whiskey has become the
current potable of choice among the intelligentsia. This has led to a number of things, among them whiskey bars, whiskey podcasts, a slew of
small batch artisanal whiskey distillers and lastly a sideline in whiskey that almost no one could have predicted.

At the same time that whiskey was making the rounds of the finer bars and restaurants, popular culture latched onto the trailer park as the
spawning ground for the next spate of reality televisio
n. Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo and a number of other shows all attempt to capitalize on
the american appetite for low rent southern style culture.

Somehow the two areas have come together and prompted the return to popularity of moonshine alongside its more refined barrel aged brother bourbon
and cousin Scotch.

For those living under an IKEA ROKROK for the last few decades moonshine is functionally a type of whiskey in that it is an alcohol derived
primarily from grain and made largely in the united states. The more technical definition is a spirit made from ~80% corn and traditionally
bottled at the same proof it leaves the still which can be anywhere from 80-150. Methods exist to produce a product of even higher proof but
they often involve the addition of adulterants not fit for human consumption.

Moonshine gets its grandeur from the history of independent folk living the free life and dodging the man to make their outlaw whiskey.

To sum up, moonshine is generally:
1. Corn based
2. High Proof
3. Made Independent of the legal system

The third we can forgive as everyone wants to make a profit and it is far easier to get national distribution when you don’t have to haul your
product in the back of a race car to avoid the cops.

The number of legal moonshines on the market has spiked in recent years and more and more are seen every day. The most prominent of these is
Midnight Moon but other brands such as Firefly or Ole Smokey are making their bid for shelf space. Many if not all of them are sold in a faux
backwoods style so that the bottles appear to be mason jars with wide mouth openings.

IMG_20140613_153904On a recent trip to the grocery store, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the distressed wood display case of what appeared at first glance to be a rack of Midnight Moon. You can see from the photos my confusion. The labels share the same hipster artisanal black and white style labeling and the again faux mason jar container, but on closer inspection you will note the name Great America.

This my dear reader is a moonshine malt beverage as envisioned by the marketing department. It has no corn, isn’t high-proof and is coming in under the 15% wire so that they can make it into grocery stores which is about as far from bootleg as you’re likely to get.

Bottled at a beastly 28 proof and sold in flavors such as “Apple” Pie, Carolina Clear, and peach for the un-princely sum of $5.99 per 23 fl oz. Compare this to any other malt beverage which runs 7.99 for a 6 pack of 12 oz bottles.

I selected the “apple” pie flavor as I presumed it would be the least inedible. I was mistaken. This brew like most malt beverages has a slight metallic flavor followed immediately by a kind of sour sweetness. If there were any actual apple involved in this process it must have died of embarrassment.

Further drinking is not rewarded. It’s just as bad on the third sip as it is on the first. If it were even slightly more palatable the prospect
of 22 further ounces of this product might be worthwhile but from the rim of my wide mouth jar all I see is a river of pain.

I detest this product, both for what it seems to embody as well as for the poor execution. In an attempt to salvage my purchase I attempted to make cocktails with it. I was partially successful, actual apple juice seems to mitigate the flavor problems somewhat but I cannot recommend
this either as a base or as a mixer as it provides nothing in either capacity that couldn’t be better served by another product.

Lastly, there is a sort of mock cinnamon that floats in suspension in the apple pie flavor and while I had my jar stored on its side the cinnamon
appeared to settle into a slimy brown line on the bottom (side) of the jar. At first I took this for mold but after dumping the jar realized
that it was simply sediment. If this was real cinnamon I could expect a similar result as ground cinnamon is amazingly hydrophobic but I’m
almost positive that it was something else which just leaves me feeling slightly creeped out at having consumed it in the first place.

Knowing most of the readers of my blog are unlikely to purchase malt beverages in any form means that my recommendation against this product
isn’t entirely necessary but I put this out there for the general populace to avoid Great America’s Faux moonshines where-ever possible.

Rant: Strawberry Basil Martini

rant martiniThere are a lot of things you can assume about a place called the California Pizza Kitchen.  Being a naturalized Oregonian I too carry a certain disdain for the California ideal and can point and laugh with the best of the moistened natural born locals.

Things will be made with blue corn and have too much cilantro.  Flatbreads and fusion food.  Things in wraps and pizza made with artichokes and garlic cloves.

I stopped into one to snag food before a late movie, this was a failing on my part as there were a couple of venerable Portland food cart outlets just outside the door and they were both cheaper and more interesting.

What struck me in their menu was the picture at the left.

If you’re read my rant about the Gingerbread martini you may already know my personal distaste for the overuse of the word Martini.

This drink you can see is about as far from an actual martini as you can drift and still be drinking a cocktail.  For starters, martinis are generally clear, not opaque.  A dirty martini might be a bit cloudy but in all you’re using far more clear spirits than not.

It contains, no gin, no vodka, no vermouth and nothing even remotely similar to any of the above.

Broken down, the VeeV spirit is a strange duck.  Their website seems to deal more with their sustainable business practices and business philosophy than with the taste and process of their product.  The Açaí berry is a tasty and popular little devil.  It’s a pain in the ass to type with the little Cedilla under the c mucking up the smooth flow of a good thought.  It’s a double pain to pronounce, Ah-Sai-ee, which is probably why they called this a strawberry basil, rather than an Acai-strawberry.  People get uncomfortable ordering things they can’t pronounce.

You’ll note the blurb doesn’t mention the giant basil leaf dropped in the middle of the glass.  I’m a big fan of putting herbs into drinks for scent notes and flavor bits.  In this case it just looks like a funny garnish, something I don’t want to eat because it’ll have gotten all mushy from the rest of the drink.

I’ve not had the Veev spirit solo, and their site doesn’t give you an idea of what kind of spirit you’re supposed to take it for.  If it’s a flavored vodka then it’s failing to park itself in the right market share.  If it’s an eau de vie like brandy then it’s a bit low brow for the normal target there.  If it’s a fruit drink it’s a little clear for a mixer.  Here it’s being used as a base spirit which confuses one as to if this is a weak drink or a fruity drink.

Next up is the strawberry puree.  Fruit purees are generally something you find in a daiquiri, which is then going to involve Rum.  If you call it a daiquiri people are going to expect a blended drink instead of something served straight up.  This could be a blended drink, but lacking anything but the picture to reference how is the diner supposed to tell if it’s going to be cold or icy?

Lastly we come to the only thing that really peaked my interest.  Agave sour, the name alone makes me want to play around with nectar and syrups.  I can’t tell if it’s supposed to take this in a tequila direction, be a low-glycemic replacement for the simple syrup in sour mix or if it’s a stab at a whiskey sour which is just lemon juice and spirit.

Sadly a half page picture and a bare 17 words are all we have of description.

Rant: Can Crafted Cocktails

Cancraft bannerI’m not sure what kind of demons possess the chefs and bartenders at the corporate headquarters of the various chain restaurants that sometimes find myself visiting.

In this case the question arose before I had even had a chance to glance at the menu.  Standing tall in the front lobby was this banner.  The name alone gave me a twinge.










Two different drinks each splashed into a can shaped glass that you can buy and take home.  A Coors lite with ginger and lemonade sounds like a ginger ale with lemon and alcohol.  The bitter beer component boggles me for a bit.

The blue moon is a step out since you’re adding both orange and lime juice to an orange flavored vodka and a hoppy wheat beer.

I don’t know if I’m just disgusted with the idea of mixing beer and hard alcohol in a “cocktail” or if the choice of beer is what really offends me.  Have to run this one past the HopBoxer and see if I’m way off base.

Rant: Ignorance is Bliss

The real trouble with cocktail snobbery is that it becomes almost impossible to drink anything you haven’t made yourself.  There are a few bars where this is the exception but I can begin to see why people would favor one place as their sole drinking establishment.  In the last month I have been to birthdays, conventions, parties, bars, pubs and restaurants.  At any given time my go to drink in terra incognita is the kamikazi.  It’s simple, hard to screw up and doesn’t require me to muzzle myself from staring at pictures of things in martini glasses that aren’t martinis.

Of the 3-5 kamikazi’s that I have ordered I have to say that the best by far was one made in the upstairs bar at Big Al’s.  If you have not been to one of these places before Big Al’s is a  combination pizza place, bowling alley, arcade, bar and sports bar.  It’s functionally a casino where the gambling is replaced by whack-a-mole ticket games.

All of the other times I’ve had this very, very simple drink made for me there is something wrong with it.  Too much lime juice, bad triple sec, sometimes I just can’t put my finger on it but I’m betting the vodka is to blame.

All of this from the combination of vodka, triple sec and lime juice.  It’s embarrassing that anything more complicated than a screwdriver and I feel like I have to give the bartender the third degree about what he’s putting in my glass.  I’m just not sure if it’s more embarrassing for him or me.

Come back around to the convention I went to in April.  Someone at the event was having a birthday party and they handed me $300 and a general list of booze-o-hol that they wanted.  I was to make haste to the liquor store and acquire potables for the evening.  The list was fairly simple, a nice collection of rum, vodka, tequila and the like.  No crazy expensive whisky or bizarre requests.  But still the list annoyed me because it seemed to lack any real direction.  It wasn’t like I was trying to make anything specific, it was just a list of baseline alcohol that someone would later add some kind of fruit juice or soda to in an attempt to become as hammered as possible.

So when the party rolled around I pulled out my travel case and lay down the law of good drinking.  I made my own drinks using top shelf vodka and liqueurs and let the craziness of the party fade into the background as I mixed solid and tasty cocktails.

Some nights you can wish that it is as simple as putting a gallon of hood river vodka through your liver but for the life of me I can’t seem to bring myself to so casually toss aside my palate just to watch the room wiggle.

Rant: Maraschino Cherries

I quote to you here from The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks

“American growers favored large sweet cherries (a different species, Prunus avium), and they had developed a brining process that involved bleaching them in sulfur dioxide, which removed all the color but could also turn them to mush.  To solve that problem, they added calcium carbonate (widely available at plaster and paint stores in those days) to harden them.  What was left was described in one American agricultural report as nothing but bleached cellulose “in the shape of a cherry” that was then dyed with coal tar, flavored with a chemical extract of stone fruit called benzaldehyde, and packed in sugar syrup.”

This ladies and gents is why maraschino cherries suck.  The flavor comes not from the fruit but from a windowless building in New Jersey.

Oregon is blessed when it comes to fruit.  There are at least five  farmers markets within a 10 minute drive of my home where I can purchase any of a dozen varieties of cherry fresh off the tree.  An hour behind the wheel and I’m standing in an orchard with a wicker basket ready to pick my fill.  Swing a recently deceased feline and I’m sure I could hit a neighbor with a neglected Bing Tree behind his house.

Other places are not so lucky, but even then, why in the world would you want to eat those little bright red death-balls when you can get the yellow/red perfection of a Rainier.

Make your own

Buy a Better Cherry

The difference here is really one of flavor.  Both recipes call for maraschino liqueur but the luxardo actually use Mascara cherries which are a sour cherry as opposed to the sweet dessert cherry you’re likely to find at the supermarket or the farmers market.

Rant: Unholy Drink Creations – Gingerbread Martini

if you see me drink this kill me
for the love of all that is holy

I had the misfortune to dine at Outback Steakhouse recently.  Aside from the overpriced meat cuts and the pink lighting that makes everyone look slightly underdone there was the above to greet me from the drink menu.

What’s wrong with it you might ask?  Where to begin.

For starters, serving something in a martini glass does not make it a Martini.  No gin? GTFO and DIAF.

Next up, I can understand a certain whimsy with regards to garnish.  Shaved chocolate, fruit peel in amusing shapes, even captain crunch in the right context.  But whipped cream and a cookie does not make a cocktail, it’s a desert with too much Kahlua.

Can I get a “What the hell” for gingerbread stoli?  I’m a fan of some Stoli flavors, straight, blueberry and at least a couple of others.  But this one is going right up there with glazed donut vodka, maple bacon beer and bacon vodka as a bad idea.  It was a bad idea and the people who thought it up should feel bad.

Consistency also takes a hit here.  Gingerbread stoli, gingerbread cookie in the middle but the rimming is graham cracker crumbs.  You’ve already lost your virginity it’s a bit late to ask for your dignity back, go ahead and put gingerbread on the rim too.

I’ll admit to having made a few sweet drinks in my time.  The buttery nipple, slippery nutcracker et al.  I’m no stranger to the wonders of irish cream.  But it’s May.  This is like putting eggnog lattes on your summer specials or offering shamrock shakes in september.  Gingerbread isn’t the kind of thing you think about when the temp gets to the 80’s. You can’t even claim Christmas in July as a defense, that’s still two months away and it wouldn’t even make sense then either.

Lastly, I know it’s kind of a food snobbery way to go about it but has anyone had gingerbread that tastes like actual ginger lately?  The processed sysco brand gingerbread flavoring that both stoli and outback employ in this drink are more akin to a slightly vanilla brown sugar than to anything that actually has ginger in it.