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?”

New Drinking Gadgets Overview

gear

The following is a listing of drinking gadgets, hardware and tech that I am presently too poor to review personally.  I wish I had the cash for these but time will tell.  If you personally have one, please feel free to comment with your own take on their actual application.

Fizzics beer dispenser:  Looks like a 1 bottle keg replacement.  Having had to clean beer lines before I can only imagine how hard it would be to clean and sanitize this bastard without a slew of bottle brushes and a gallon bucket of iodine wash.  Retail at $200.  On sale for $150 last time I checked.

Jevo Jello Shot Machine: Really intended for the bar itself rather than the home, this machine appear to still be in the pre-order process.  Pricing isn’t listed unless you fill out a contact form.  It also appears to use “flavor pods” which sounds like a K-cups scheme to try to lock you into their supply of basic ingredients when you can get 12 pounds of unflavored gelatin for about $150.  I have some friends who regularly make trays of these shots but I don’t think the countertop unit would save that much time.

Somabar: Robotic Bartender: A completed kickstarter that is still in the production process.  You can pre-order one of these for $429.  It holds up to 6 ingredients in the “pods” on either side.  I’m sure there is an optimal load for one of these things to make the maximum number of drinks but I can think of 6 base sprits to put in the thing right off the bat so if you’re really into craft this isn’t going to last very long.  Additionally I’m betting that carbonation isn’t going to fly which removes anything with coke, ginger ale, club soda or tonic without adding an extra step.  The size of this thing in photos says it will fit in any kitchen, but I’m betting someone in a loft apartment with an efficiency kitchen isn’t going to have the counter space for something this size.  This is certainly one of the best looking units I’ve seen recently but I don’t think it’s ready for anything more complicated than a good highball.  I can make a lot of screwdrivers with four-hundred dollars.

Picobrew Zymatic: Countertop beer brewing appliances are hardly new but this one clocks in at a whopping $2000.  Brewing 2.5 gallons of beer in about 4 hours is an amazing accomplishment when you take a lot of the hands on aspects of the process into account.  I’m not as into home brewing as some other people I know but most of them don’t have the scratch to plonk down on something this big.  Carboys are cheap and so is most of the associated equipment.  If you have the time but not the money you can do bigger and better things cheaper.  If you have the money but not the time, maybe go support one of the many fine craft brewers who are working to break into distribution in markets dominated by the likes of AB-inbev and Millercoors.

ALCHEMA: Cider is the new beer.  Fruit juice is cheap and plentiful and you barely have to do anything to it for fermentation to start.  The process can be finicky, having one batch of accidental cider some out tasting like old shoes is more than enough incentive to look for better options.  Clocking in at somewhere around $500 depending on when you backed it or pre-ordered this is not a consumer grade piece of tech.  Unlike the Picobrew, this process appears to take a bit longer.  1-2 weeks for cider and longer for some other things like mead or wine.  Having just gotten off of a cider making binge this somewhat irks me.  Primary fermentation, or the simple transfer of sugar into alcohol is pretty quick, but the resulting output is often cloudy, full of yeast and has a lot of odd flavors that can be removed if you remove the solids and let it sit and rest for a bit before drinking/bottling.  This machine seems to want to accelerate that process by taking the finished product out as soon as possible.  The self sterilizing carafe is a nice touch and does remove a lot of the messier aspects of the cider process but again, $500 buys a lot of craft cider and you don’t have to wait 2 weeks to see if it’s good.

Drinks on a Plane

AirbagI’m not a frequent traveler.  I seem to have found my location in the universe and seldom wander far from home.  On the rare occasion that I do travel, flight is not my preferred method.  I have nothing against it, it simply has gotten too hairy since the TSA started their security theater project.

In particular I dislike not having access to my own beverages.  Having to toss a perfectly good bottle of water and purchase another at the exorbitant airport prices is galling.  Even worse if you want to drink on the plane or in the airport you can have the added experience of highway robbery without ever leaving the plane.

In flight beverages can be even worse.  A single airplane bottle of crown royal that goes for $1.50 on the ground can run $7-$10 in the air.  Admittedly you can get a free coke and ice to go with it but that’s still a pretty hefty markup.

With a little careful planning you can drink on the plane and avoid paying out the nose for it.

It turns out that there is a little loophole in the TSA regulations.  You can bring any liquid through the security check so long as it is A) Less than 3.4 oz and B) fits into a quart size zip-top bag.  This means if you are willing to make due to hotel shampoo you can use that quart size bag to bring almost a dozen 50ml bottles of various alcohols onto the plane with you.

I have confirmed all of this through personal experience.

Even a couple of bottles of personal stash can make the difference between a good flight and a poor one.

Some things to keep in mind:
Don’t let the attendants see you open them, it’s just easier to avoid the hassle of having them tell you to put it away.
Plan your cocktails.  Getting free mixers from the drink cart is great.  Having a handful of single malts and a bottle of jagermeister to help them along is not.
Don’t overdo it.  Being drunk and disorderly on a plane is a great way to end up in federal prison.

Lastly, I came across this after my trip but I fully plan to snag a couple for road trips and future flights.

Jack Rudy Carry-on Cocktail Kit

What is the difference between Whiskey, Rye, Scotch and Bourbon?

6156035_origI had an opportunity to work in a distillery retail store, which is much like a standard liquor store only with a limited selection.  People of all types came along with questions like “do you sell scotch?”  At first I was befuddled, that people could be so ignorant of what they were drinking.  After a couple of weeks I stopped wondering and started pulling out the details so I could really answer people’s questions.  One of the most prominent was “What is Bourbon?”

This is actually a much deeper question than it first appears because it comes right on the heels of the more important question, “What is whisk(e)y?”

The term whiskey simply means any grain spirit distilled to less than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and aged in an oak barrel.

Bourbon, Rye and Single Malt whiskeys are all sub-types of whiskey that specify a specific grain type that predominates.  So you could make whiskey with 20% each of corn, rye, barley, quinoa and wheat but you could never call the resulting franken-whiskey anything other than just whiskey.  If you have at least 51% of rye you can call it a rye whiskey but anything less and you’re stuck with the general label.  Please keep in mind that much of what I’m going to discuss here is based on American regulations or American trade deals with other countries.  Some things could be different outside the US and I’m also not a lawyer or an expert on TTB regulations.

Aging and the White Dog

The aging stipulation is actually a funny bit.  The rules say you have to age it, but not how long.  Another loophole is that predominantly corn whiskey can be sold unaged.  This is where moonshine comes from.  Moonshine or White Dog is a kind of unaged whiskey where the product spends as little time as possible in a barrel.  In some cases this is simply the time it takes to pump the liquor into and out of the barrel.  Some distilleries like House Spirits let their White Dog rest for as long as 3 days.  Because there is no regulation on the term white dog anyone can use it to mean any number of things.  So if a label says white dog but not whiskey then chances are it doesn’t contain the right amount of corn or that they age it in something other than oak, if at all.  Moonshine is also an unregulated term so it could just as easily refer to a sugar based spirit as shown in Pink Panty Dropper Watermelon Moonshine.

If the whiskey has been aged for at least 2 years and contains no other flavoring or coloring additives it may also be labeled as Straight Whiskey.  This can be applied to any type from Straight Rye to Straight Bourbon.  If a whiskey is over two years it gets the option to be called straight, it’s not a requirement but if you see straight on the label you can infer something about the age.

Beyond that the rules regarding age are rather complicated.  That is a link to the TTB regulations on Age, whiskey occupies a full 6 pages of this 16 page document.  The big take away is that if the spirit is less than 4 years old then an age statement is required.

Bourbon

Bourbon is actually a sub-type of corn whiskey, where corn whiskey requires at least 80% corn in the initial mash bourbon is less stringent and requires only 51% or greater.

All bourbons are aged in new charred american oak barrels, this statement requires some parsing.  New means unused previously, only fresh barrels are used for each batch.  This means that some of the flavors and mellowing involved in the contact between alcohol and wood never gets to carry over from batch to batch.  Additionally it means that there are quite a few used bourbon barrels on the market as the distillery can’t reuse old barrels for bourbon.  These get snapped up by beer brewers, rum makers and scotch distillers for use in their own less stringent aging processes.

The next part of the statement is charred, this means that the barrel will be imparting both color and flavor to the spirit as the charcoal filters the spirit over time.  Uncharred barrels will generally do this to some degree but never to the same extent that even a lightly charred barrel will.  Charring is not an on or off process.  Barrels can be charred or toasted to any number of degrees which allows the distiller to control how quickly and to what extent flavors will be imparted over the aging process.

Lastly we come to American Oak, this is important because there are actually many species of white oak from American to French and even an Oregon specific variety.  Each has a slightly different character due to climate, soil and species that can impart drastically different flavors to the finished product.  For a prime example I suggest tasting the Burnside Oregon Oaked Bourbon alongside its 4 year counterpart and compare the differences.  Requiring a specific species limits the range of flavors that the wood can vary from and also gives a healthy kick to the American Cooperage industry.

Bourbon has some other finicky bits about barrel strength, bottle strength and such but most of these don’t impact the differences between other whiskey.

Tennessee Whiskey

As bourbon is a sub-type of corn whiskey, so too is Tennessee Whiskey a sub-type of bourbon.  Only recently defined by Tennessee state law they have defined Tennessee Whiskey as a bourbon that undergoes the Lincoln County Process.

This means that first off the producers in Tennessee have to adhere to all of the normal restrictions for bourbon with regard to content, age, and process.  The Lincoln County Process refers to a process where the raw unaged bourbon is filtered through sugar maple charcoal prior to being cut and barreled.  This is not an exact process as different distilleries will either soak or trickle the whiskey through the charcoal and will do so at differing proofs and temperatures.

Funny Story, none of the distilleries that use the Lincoln county process are actually IN Lincoln county.  Jack Daniels, George Dickel and several others are located in next door Moore County and have been for most of their existence.  A little digging shows that Moore county was created out of parts of Lincoln county sometime in the 1850’s which means it’s not a new change.

Additionally, the only distillery actually in Lincoln county is Prichard’s.  Through an amazing example of targeted lobbying Prichard’s managed to get an exception to the Tennessee law added which exempts them from the requirement to use charcoal filtering on the basis that they have never used it before.  The law was originally sponsored by Jack Daniels and so I don’t really see much wrong with other distillers getting their digs in against a law which promotes exactly the process JD has been using for over a hundred years.  What makes it funny is that Prichard’s has only been around since 1997 and was able to have enough sway to get something like this done.

Rye Whiskey

Legally a Rye Whiskey is one in which the grain content has at least 51% rye.  As explained above bourbon is primarily corn with the remainder being composed of things like rye and wheat.  It is therefore possible to have a rye and a bourbon in which the difference in the content is a 2% change from rye to corn.

I can’t actually name any whiskey that meets this definition as most companies do not publish their grain bill but under the rules it is possible.

Rye tends to have a spicier flavor as compared to the mellow notes of wheat.  Rye also has a fairly distinctive aroma.  Rye is aged in oak like most other whiskey but unlike bourbon does not have the same level of restrictions on how it is produced and under what circumstances.

This leads to a lot more variance in how rye is composed and a lot less consistency across various brands.  Many major brands offer a Rye from Bulleit‘s rather traditional offering to the Ri-One craziness from beam-suntory.

Scotchy Scotch Scotch

First off all scotch is made in Scotland.  If it’s made outside of Scotland the definition gets a bit more murky but some alternative names include American Single Malt, Single Malt, Malt Whisky, and of course he catch all Whisky (no e).  The second big requirement for all of the types in this category is that they use predominantly barley or malted barley in their grain bill.  Third Scotch is aged for three years in oak casks.

When they say made in Scotland they get really picky, it must be processed, converted, fermented, distilled, aged, bottled and labeled IN Scotland.

Their naming guidelines are equally odd.  You cannot use the name of a distillery on the bottle unless the product actually came from there.  This is in contrast to the US where we are presently having our own growing pains with non-distilling producers.

Single Malt Whisky is actually three terms and not one.  The Single portion means how many distilleries were involved in the process.  Single means it all happens in one shop, Blended means more than one distillery’s product was combined into the results.  Malt means that the contents are 100% malted barley, if instead it said grain it would mean that other cereal grains were used in the grain bill.

More interesting still is that the laws in Scotland actually prohibit the production of non-scotch whisky.  So you will likely never see a Scottish bourbon, or a good Scottish rye.  It would take forever to list out the more salient details of the various kinds of scotch and I’m nothing like an expert on any of them but suffice to say they are many, manifold and delicious.

As to American Single Malts there have been a number of them arising over the years and several of them have outperformed ancient named Scottish brands in tasting competitions.

Irish Whiskey

Previously one of the most popular types of whiskey, Irish Whiskey has taken a pretty hard fall over the years.  Generally similar to scotch, there are considerably fewer restrictions on how it is produced.  For one thing most Irish whiskey is distilled three times compared to two for scotch.  It is also aged for three years.  Beyond that, it simply has to have the character of the component grains to qualify.

For such a famous spirit it is very strange that there are only a bare dozen distilling operations in the entire country.  The most famous of which are the distilleries producing Jameson and Bushmills.

What is Malting?

You might only hear the term Malt when talking about scotch but the process itself is used in a number of areas.  Essentially what happens is that grains are exposed to water and then allowed to sprout, this begins the process of converting the stored starch in the grain into sugar.  The grains are then very rapidly dried and the process stopped creating a product with a lot of accessible sugar and a high content of the enzyme which breaks down starches already active and ready to go.  Any grain can be malted but it is not necessary to put this fact on the label, so if you see malted *grain* on your whiskey it was the distiller’s choice to put that there.

In general this provides for a more rapid fermentation than using unmalted product.  Additionally, barley contains a much higher concentration of the enzyme than other grains which makes malted barley an excellent product for kickstarting the fermentation process in other grains which might take much longer to begin fermenting on their own.

It is also how you begin the process of fermenting things like potatoes which do not normally contain enzymes of their own and would otherwise not ferment.

More recently synthetic enzymes have come on the market allowing distillers to produce similar results without the addition of barley to their products.

What is Sour Mash?

Sour Mash is another optional label component.  The process is a bit like keeping a bit of sourdough starter to begin your next batch.  Some of the fermented mash from a previous batch is added to new washes to allow some of the original yeast strains to carry over.  This has a big impact on flavor and most of the best whiskey is sour mashed whether they say so on the label or not.

A list of terms that don’t actually mean anything

Handcrafted
Small Batch
Barrel Aged
Cask Strength
Moonshine
Single Barrel

Tonic Water Comparison

toniclineupMy favorite liquor by far has to be Gin.  There can be no greater expression of gin’s history and utility than the simple gin and tonic.  To that end I am always on the hunt for the next great tonic water.

History

Tonic water itself has a long history and it all starts with the main ingredient Quinine.

Quinine is used for two major purposes, the first is flavoring tonic water and the second is fighting malaria.  The entire reason to make tonic water in the first place was to serve it to people worked in malaria ridden portions of the world.

Quinine was originally derived from the bark of a south american tree called the Cinchona.  A hardy little tree that grows at very high altitudes in the Andes mountains.  The Cinchona contains several alkaloid chemicals and was shown to the Spanish by South American natives sometime between 1560 and 1782.

Because the chemical was so effective a treatment and malaria so common in parts of the world being actively explored at the time, use of the bark as a medicine became common among sailors in the Spanish and English navies.  When combined with the sailor’s ration of lime juice to ward off scurvy and their gin ration you have the beginnings of the gin and tonic as it spread across the British empire.

Modern tonic water bears very little resemblance to that originally crafted in its heyday.  The difference between a recreational use and a medical use is significant.  The US FDA limits tonic water to no more than 83mg per liter while a therapeutic dose is closer to 500-1000 mgs.

As a result modern tonics are less bitter and often sweetened resulting in problems for those seeking to create classic cocktails from older bar guides.

The Contenders

I have assembled five of the top contenders to the crown of #1 tonic water.  Discounting my own house made tonic syrup they are as follows:

Schweppes: Dating back to the 1780s Schweppes claims the title of oldest soft drink in the world.  The company has undergone some changes over the years as it has been bought and sold.  Schweppes brand is currently owned by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group based in Plano, Tx.  They also produce Canada Dry so I saw no reason to include that brand here as they are functionally pretty similar.

Fentimens: Using a recipe that dates back to 1905 the current Fentimens company was relaunched by the Great Grandson of the founder in 1988.  They claim to ferment and brew their sodas for 7 days.

Fever Tree: Based in London, UK their first product released 2005 was their premium Indian Tonic water.  They have since followed up with a number of variants including a naturally light, elder flower and Mediterranean variety.

Q Tonic: Founded in 2004 and based in New York.  Q drinks strives to make a high quality tonic water. They have also released a number of other lines including ginger beer, grapefruit and lemon.

Bradley’s Kina Tonic: Based in Seattle, WA and created in June of 2013 Bradley’s was the result of successful kickstarter campaign.  At present the Kina Tonic is the only product they have.  Unlike the others Bradley’s is a syrup which requires the addition of carbonated water.

The Rules

To make for a fair comparison we need to get each of these into an equal solution.  With one syrup on the bill that means figuring out a fair dilution.  Bradley’s website calls for 0.75 oz of syrup to 3 oz club soda.

So as a baseline we should use 3.75 oz of each product in out setup.

I don’t want to extend much above 5 oz total but a 1.5 oz shot of gin should be sufficient to make things work.

London Dry is the traditional element to use in this case and so I’m going to try two gins, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray.  Both should give the more significant juniper flavors that this needs.

So our finished recipe should be:

3.75 oz Tonic water
1.5 oz Gin
Small twist of lime

With five competitors and two gins this is going to be a struggle to complete, but I throw myself on that grenade for you dear reader.

The Results

Flavor

In the end I wound up doing this in a couple of batches.  I brought the bottles with me and had various people taste them both with and without gin.

5. Schweppes: About what you’d expect, pretty mild.  Slightly sweet with low to minimum bitterness.  Rated lowest of all of the options.

4. Q Tonic: Lacking the corn syrup of schweppes Q tonic rated slightly higher with all testers.  The flavor was cleaner but also significantly more bitter.

3. Fentimens: There is a distinct lemony flavor to this tonic likely from the use of lemon extract or citrus oil in addition to the citric acid.  It was the only one of the bottles that disclosed the exact flavoring ingredients so it’s likely that others had similar items just in lower amounts.

2. Fever Tree: A close tie with the Fentimens for favorite bottled the fever tree was by far the smoothest of the five for flavor with gin.

1. Bradley’s: The far out winner for flavor was the bradley’s tonic.  I don’t think it was entirely fair as the Bradley’s was built as a flavorful tincture rather than a simple tonic but most people sampled were far more impressed with the flavor of this than any other tonics.

Price and Availability 

It should be said that all of these can be bought over the internet for similar prices as what you’d find in stores.

1. Schweppes – $1.25 for 1L, available pretty much everywhere.
2. Q Tonic – $2.29 for 9oz, Found it in three grocery stores and a number of liquor stores in various sizes
3. Fever Tree – $2.75 for 16.9oz, also in a four pack of 200ml for about $14, found in a couple of specialty stores
4. Fentimens – $3 for 9.3oz, found it in only one store and it wasn’t the kind of place I would normally expect
5. Bradley’s $10 for 8oz – this is the equivalent of about 11 doses at 3/4oz

Final Thoughts

The schweppes, Bradley’s and Fever Tree all have screw caps that close well keeping the carbonation in long enough to use up a whole bottle.  The Q tonic does come in cans and larger bottles with screw caps but the volume is daunting unless you’re throwing a G&T party.  Most of these recommend using the product within three days of opening so gauge your need versus the quantity because it goes flat quickly.

Again Bradley’s comes out the clear winner here because it keeps longer in the fridge and can be used in any quantity you want, the need for club soda to mix is a drawback but having a soda stream on hand makes that an easy adjustment.  It is sold in fewer places but obviously can be bought less often and stored for longer periods.

Portland Distillery Crawl: Mk II

Distillery RowPortland’s Distillery scene is expanding and exploding.  A recent article about local distilling pegged the number of distilleries at just over 27 between Forest Grove and Troutdale.  This is a staggering number and even more so when you consider that I can think of at least 1 they missed.  In the state of Oregon at large there are 35+ that fall under craft distilling and likely several more that aren’t on the radar beyond a street sign.

In my original Post I outlined some basic stops for a good distillery crawl.  Since then at least 2 new locations have opened on distillery row and some new west side locations have become worth the trip out to the suburbs.

 

 

East Side:

There are two outliers on the Distillery row.  Wild Roots distilling is on NE 6th and Couch, this is easily 15 blocks from the next stop on the row.  Stone Barn Brandy works is on SE 19th and Sandy, 24 blocks from their next most southerly neighbor.  While Wild roots is new they have only two products listed, Stone Barn however has over a dozen at various times and is well worth the trip.  If you have to cut one or the other out for time I would suggest starting at stone barn and then parking near House Spirits and walking the rest of the row.

Some new eateries have sprung up in the last few years as well.  Next door to Bunk Bar is the Boke Bowl a relatively new asian food place that has some wonderful noodles, steam buns and drinks.

On 12th and Hawthorne is one of the best food truck pods in Portland.  Despite recent shakeups and the  threat of their lot being turned into mixed use apartments they have endured and signed a new lease, visit now for crepes, mexican food, whiffy pies and BBQ.  Plus across the street is Lardo.

Around the corner from Stone Barn is 50 Licks Ice cream where you can get a taste of Portland’s hand dipped ice cream culture AND cocktails in the same building.

West Side:

Less of a crawl and more of a road trip, but there are a number of places worth hitting up on the west side.  In the downtown area there are still the steadfast likes of Clear Creak and Bull Run Distilling, each close enough to hit in quick succession.

Far out in the depths of Tigard is Indio Spirits, with 11+ products on their menu and one of the older distilleries in the area they are well worth finding.  Their flights are small but have larger samples so bring friends and share to get a better idea of the full line.

Even further out in yet another unassuming business part you will find Bootleg Botanicals, Big Bottom Distilling, Tualatin Valley Distilling and Vertigo Brewing.  Located just off Cornelius Pass Road near Cornell, many are not open for tastings every day.  Their out of the way nature means zero foot traffic, so some like Big Bottom are only open on Saturday or by appointment.  Be sure to plan accordingly, check schedules and likely call ahead.  Knowing how distillers hours run they could forget to open entirely if they aren’t sure anyone is coming.

Planning the Perfect Crawl

Driving: First and foremost I cannot stress enough the need for a designated driver.  Not all of these places are close enough together to walk and given the versatility of Oregon weather you do not want to rely on your feet to get you everywhere.

Packages: Second, check out PDX Distillery Row.  At $20 it is by far the best value in the city for tasting what the various distilleries have to offer.  The passport is good all year which removes some of the immediacy in trying to hit all 7 locations in one day.

Dates are important, some of these places are not open 7 days a week.  Some aren’t even open 2 days a week so planning for any given day is important.  I recommend Saturday as a prime day, most places are open the longest on the weekends.

Time, some of these places have only 1 or 2 offerings.  Some have over a dozen.  The amount of time you and your group can take sampling at any one is going to vary greatly depending on the length of time you spend sipping and how long you spend listening to the patter about the drink itself.  In general tasting rooms are going to be open from around 11am to 6pm.  It is possible to hit up to 7 locations in one day if you get started early and have an experienced guide, otherwise plan to hit the places that most interest you first on the chance that you will run out of time to do them later.

Food.  Eat before, and make sure you eat something relatively filling.  There are any number of great places to catch lunch before you head out.  The Green Dragon on SE 9th has Rogue Brewing’s great selection of sandwhiches, Oven and Shaker does a great Brunch, hunt around it’s a great chance to find some out of the way Portland Food.

FOOD!  Take a snack break after your first 3-4 stops.  You’ve likely just downed the equivalent of 8-9 oz of random shots.  Time to take a quick breather and reload before you hit the next couple.  Grab some pie, or debris fries.  Take a half hour to work some of that stuff and get the better part of the botanicals away from your digestive tract.

Storage is important, if you’re taking more than 1-2 people with you be aware that you will buy things.  There is too much good stuff for anyone to pass up entirely and after three or four drinks your ability to say no to a good deal somewhat evaporates.  Carting an armfull of bottles around with you from shop to shop is a hassle.  Be sure your transport has space for everything and is handy for when you buy.

Costs:  While distilleries are not required to charge for their samples, most do.  The only one I’ve encountered that was entirely free was Clear creek.  Most others offer a single $5 tasting platter of 4-5 tastes.  Some will do $1 single tastes, others like Eastside have deluxe and premium flights that offer higher end offerings.  If you’re not doing the distillery row passport expect to spend at least $5 per person per location.  You can get this cost waived if you make a purchase in some places but not all.

Stocking Your Bar: Part 3 Mixers

wpid-0141222_161248.jpgBy this point you should have a basic idea of what kind of alcohol you actually want to drink.  Even if that idea is as simple as “Vodka”.  If you don’t then please see Part I and Part II of this series first.

I have heard stories from friends and customers many times that they “just can’t drink X” because it does something to them either physically or emotionally.  I can understand, having a friend find out the hard way that they are allergic to juniper *after* three gin martinis is an un-fun evening.

Having narrowed the field down from the six or seven major types of alcohol to just one or two is a major accomplishment.  Now comes the harder part.  From here you have to start finding brands that you like and adding mixers to make cocktails.

Finding favorite brands is tough.  The only working method is to go through them one at a time and give them a chance.  Each is going to be a bit different and will have something that appeals to one person over another.  Experience is everything.  This can get expensive quickly if you don’t find one you like early.  You can use my airplane bottle method from part 1 of this series but that won’t work for every brand.

On the other hand, finding mixers and liqueurs is a good deal easier.  Cocktails generally fall into a couple of basic categories.  I choose to break them down into Citrus, cream, fruit, spice/herbal and mocha but this is by no means an industry standard.  Each of these has a couple of flagship products that are accessible to all drinks in that category as well as a few that defy category entirely.

Citrus for example is headed by liquors like Cointreau, Combier, Gran Mariner, limoncello, triple sec and Curacao.  Mocha is led by Kaluha and creme de cacao.  Cream liquors are most commonly associated with Irish cream, or newer liqueurs like rumchata, rumpope and advocaat.  The fruit liqueurs are generally non-citrus such as cherry herring, Parma, or Amaretto.  Spice or herbal liqueurs come from a number of roots but are monastic such as chartreuse, benedictine, kummel or aquavit.

Depending on your preference each of these is a good start for making drinks in the category of your choice.  Having a bottle of each would prepare you for cocktails of almost any stripe.

For example Cointreau or Combier are both examples of Triple-sec a generally clear liqueur made from bitter orange peels.  Triple-sec is the base spirit for classic drinks like the Cosmo and the Margarita.

Application of these mixers to your existing base of spirits, sodas and syrups will give you thousands of quick combinations with little effort and a maximum level of compatibility.  Your best option is to pick an area that you think you want to explore and pick up a smaller bottle of one of the core liqueurs.

As with anything choose flavors that you would pick elsewhere.  Don’t drop money on a chili pepper vodka if spicy foods are not to your liking.  Don’t drink Creme de Cassis if you’re not a big fan of black currant.

Once you’ve got your mixer, your juice and your base spirit a simple 2,1, 1/2 combination is usually enough to get you going.  For every 2 ounces of base spirit add 1 ounce of liqueur and 1/2 ounce of fruit juice.  If that appeals to you somewhat you can work on the proportions until it’s perfect.

Stocking Your Bar Part 2: Basics

wpid-received_817805461613150.jpegFor my previous ramblings on how to stock your bar check HERE.

A long running argument among my friends is what actually constitutes a cocktail.  The line has been fairly drawn by me at three ingredients and by at least one of my more vocal companions at two.  Under his rule the rum & coke would qualify as a cocktail but under mine the screwdriver would not.  The bar has not been solidified but is constantly in flux.  What remains is that when you boil most cocktails down they are a mixture of a high proof spirit, some lower proof liquor or liqueur and a syrup, juice or soda.

This means that after you have found your base spirit the next portion of the process is finding your mixers.  Because the liqueur section is slightly more difficult and sometimes unnecessary (re: screwdriver, rum and coke, Jack and Ginger) the form of your basic fillers becomes a more important portion of keeping a well stocked bar.

 

Sodas

To start with I want to tackle sodas.  The single most vile and beautiful thing that you can add to your drink is in the form of sugar and carbonated water.  Just like with a base spirit the end result all depends on quality and what you’re willing to put into making your drink.  For the most simple drinks a mini-fridge full of small cans of major label sodas is more than enough.  The smaller size means that you can make one or two drinks without having to worry that an entire 2 liter bottle is going to go to waste before you can get to the rest of it.

If you want to upgrade a step from there, the number of premium bottled sodas has exploded in recent years with everything from Reeds premium ginger beer to high quality organic tonic waters like Q Tonic.  Keeping a six pack or two on hand is easy and fun.

On a half step laterally is the soda stream fountain.  I was given one of these as a gift and can say with authority that it pays for itself in fridge space and flexibility.  The reason this is a half step is that many of the syrups available are made with basic low cost ingredients and not more flavorful premium items.   If you own a soda stream you can take the next step by having the ability to make your own sodas from syrup concentrates which obviates the problems inherent in the store bought syrups.  This also allows you to make things that are not as common in store bought syrups such as porter syrup, Ginger Syrup and Tonic Syrup.

 Syrups

A syrup is generally a high sugar liquid.  The sugar content can come from anything be it honey, agave nectar, or fructose from fruit juice.  These are generally non-alcoholic and are added like a concentrate in small amounts.  Some well known ones include Grenadine (pomegranate syrup), chocolate syrup, Orzha (Almond Syrup), and Simple Syrup which is just sugar water.  Syrups are painfully easy to buy.  Torrani has made a line of both full sugar and sugar free syrups for years with a flavor line that runs into the dozens.  A quick trip to Cash and Carry shows 2-3 other semi-generic brands with similar offerings.

Syrups are also hellishly simple to make, with the verity of sweeteners available in bulk you could quite easily make a dragonfruit and saffron syrup with an agave nectar base if your tastes ran that direction.  With a minor addition of an ounce or two of vodka the syrups will keep in the fridge for weeks.

Sourmix2Juices

Fruit juices are one of *the* most common additives to cocktails.  Starting with Lemon and lime juices and following onward to orange, pineapple, grapefruit and from there to non-citrus juices like apple or cranberry.  Much like the sodas there are ample retail options for many of these juices, but fresh juices are often best where possible and so having limes or lemons to squeeze yourself is great.  Oranges are a bit more difficult as the juices can be bitter without any outward sign, this is why it is best to get oranges in season and to test them before you run an entire pitcher of juice.

Having a selection of fresh juices on hand is key to flavorful cocktails.

Gracious Thanks to Diana C. for the bar photo at the head of this post.

Stocking Your Bar: Part 1

mybar

To the average drinker not a great amount of thought goes into the content or composition of the liquor cupboard.  When spirits are needed spirits are purchased, and after a number of parties, dinner parties, superbowls and new years have gone by one might be left with an aging bottle of ouzo, a half empty jug of pina colada mix and some aborted homemade Limoncello.

It is only when one has the desire for a cocktail that the barren nature of the collection becomes evident.

But where to start?  What to buy?  How much should one purchase to be reasonably comfortable?

A myriad of sources will try to sell you on what the fully stocked bar resembles and how many of their advertiser’s products you should keep on the shelf.  Some people do a passable job of getting some of the point across.  The one that inspired me to do a better job of explaining my philosophy was Doug at everydaydrinkers.com.  He starts to ramble a bit after the first couple of minutes but he does give a basic goal.  You should stock your bar with things *YOU* like to drink.

Where he starts to go wrong is to put the search for what you like to drink into the hands of a novice.  If you don’t know how to stock your bar you can spend a long time in the wilderness of flavors before you find the one or two go-to drinks that you personally enjoy.

Worse yet, you may find some drinks that you think you like.  But having had much experience in bartending, might never be able to reproduce a drink you had once in a bar.   Sort of a Dunning-Kruger for cocktails, not knowing what you like you can’t figure out what to buy to figure out what you like.

I think in this feature I’m going to answer the question of how to understand what you want to drink, and how to get the widest exposure to different kinds of alcohol flavors without having to put a lot of money into bottles up front.

To that end my first recommendation is: airline bottles.  The 50ml size bottle dates back a long way before the airplane.  Cognac distributors have been making 50ml size bottles of their product for tasting since the early 1800’s.

These bottles offer you just over an ounce and a half of product.  Generally enough for most any cocktail you could want, and for some mixers enough for two or three drinks.  This is something of a bargain in most cases.  Consider that a normal bottle is 750ml at about $20+ per bottle.  That works out to about two and a half cents a ml or about 1.33 for a 50ml bottle.  Most of the bottles I’ve purchased clock in at anywhere from $1-3, which means you can pick up a half dozen for less than what you pay for a full bottle of one spirit.

Not every distiller or distributor is going to offer this size of bottle, and worse still a lot of stores don’t carry a very big selection of them.  The ones they do carry tend to be from bigger companies with recognizable names.

For instance I found a 50ml of Grand Marnier at the place down the block for a buck fifty.  Tasting this can tell you if you’re ready for barrel aged spirits or if you should stick to bols triple sec.  Instead of dropping $43.00 on a full 750ml bottle of Grand marnier and being stuck with most of a bottle you didn’t like.

This can also be a way to try out boondoggles like Glazed donut vodka or the new Jack Daniels honey whiskey.  Sure it sounds interesting, but once you have it on the tongue who knows if it’s going to be sweet, cloying, metallic or artificial.

They also tend to be perfect for camping, travel or picnics.  I have a 50ml of Clear Creek Kirshwasser that I refill for some of my limeade projects when I need something to fit into my travel case and inside of a shaker.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of what to drink, but at least you’re not putting all your money into a few risky bottles at the outset.

If you’re wondering that’s a picture of my own bar selection from a couple of months back.  Left to right you have Brandy, vodka, gins, whiskey, bitters.  At the back, some spice liqueurs, chocolates, coffees, followed by fruit liqueurs, and syrups.  And yes if you look at the bottom right you can see four 50ml bottles.  Jack Daniel’s Honey Whiskey, St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, Grand Marnier and Cointreau.

The cointreau was for a project, the Grand Marnier is for an article about the differences between triple sec, grand marnier and curacao.  The jack is a boondoggle and the St. Germaine was because I’ve been burned on overly floral concoctions before and I wasn’t about to invest in a big fancy bottle of eau de toilette.

For reference the St. Germaine is fantastic stuff and deserves a much longer article which I will do justice at some point.