GIVEAWAY: River Cottage Booze Handbook

Well, what the hell is this? I forgot there was a blog here.

The nice people at Ten Speed/Random Penguin sent me two copies of the River Cottage Booze Handbook. I’m keeping one of them because I can. I’m offering the other one to one of you lucky bastards.

It looks like this:
97816077478579781607747857

IF YOU LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, leave a comment and I’ll pick someone at random and I’ll send it to you. Nobody reads this blog anymore so I probably just have to toss a coin once to pick between the two of you who comment.

COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED.

Review: Tasting Whiskey, by Lew Bryson

On the cover of Lew Bryson’s Tasting Whiskey, there’s a quote from the whiskey writer Charles Cowdery: “I shouldn’t say this is the only whiskey book you need, but it probably is.”

Mr. Cowdery’s reticence is understandable; he writes whiskey books, and he wants to maintain his comfortable lifestyle. I don’t know if I’d go so far as Cowdery. I’ve read some damn fine whiskey books in my years as a tippler, and I’d recommend them all.

Tasting_Whiskey

But I will say this much: this is the book you want and need if you’re just starting out in whiskey.

Bryson maps the major styles of whiskey, from bourbon to rye to Canadian, from Irish to Scotch to Japanese, and from craft to the various world whiskeys (that is, from growing markets such as India and Taiwan). He describes what sets the various styles apart from one another; so, for example, he details the grains that are in each style, the barrels it’s aged in, the climates and warehouses that hold it, and the length of time its aged.

Scotch, for example, is made primarily or exclusively from malted barley; it’s aged in used barrels (normally bourbon, but with some sherry and other wine casks tossed in for additional flavor); it ages in a cooler climate that enables longer aging; and it can age for up to 30 years or more without getting too woody.

Bourbon, conversely, is made primarily from corn, with other grains in the mix to add accent flavors; it ages in new oak barrels that impart more woodiness than do scotch’s used barrels; it ages in a warmer climate that ages it more rapidly than Scotland’s cooler climate; and therefore, it usually reaches its peak at roughly 10-12 years.

Each individual style is different, and Bryson masterfully explains how those differences affect the flavors of the finished product.

Every whiskey drinker starts somewhere. I started with bourbon and moved to scotch and then rye and on to other styles. When I started drinking scotch, I couldn’t begin to understand what made it unique until I started reading books that helped me puzzle it all out. Tasting Whiskey is such a book.

Its other strength is the infographics the book uses to illustrate some rather complicated concepts. I write about whiskey, and so I know that it’s not always easy to describe, in words, the effects of barrel aging, or how barrel placement in a warehouse affects how quickly or slowly the whiskey ages. These infographics, illustrated masterfully by Andrew Heath, demonstrate these concepts concisely and thoroughly.

49_cAndrewHeath_StorageLocation_TastingWhiskey 60_cAndrewHeath_EvolutionofFlavor_TastingWhiskey

Excerpted from Tasting Whiskey (c) Lew Bryson. Illustrations by (c) Andrew Heath. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

After describing the major styles, Bryson then provides advice on how to drink the stuff, in an enjoyable chapter on water, ice, and cocktails. Is it okay to drink your whiskey with a bit of water? Bryson tells you. On the rocks or neat? He has some answers for that as well. Cocktails? Of course! What I enjoyed about this chapter was how conversational and story-oriented it was. No recipes at all, just a description of how to make a damn good Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

I’ve met Bryson in person; we were in Kentucky together earlier this year for Jimmy Russell’s anniversary celebration at Wild Turkey. He impressed me with his approachable and avuncular temperament, and that personality shines through this book.

If you’re new to whiskey, and you need a friendly guide to the topic, Bryson’s book is for you. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll still find this book to be enjoyable and useful. I learned quite a bit from it.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, and Lew Bryson is a personal friend of mine.

Review: Chasing the White Dog

My brother Bill runs a still on the hill
Where he turns out a gallon or two
And the buzzards in the sky get so drunk they can not fly
Just from sniffing that good old mountain dew.

In popular conception, moonshine is a hillbilly thing. Imagine a bearded, overall-clad, avuncular fellow manning his still. Meanwhile, his good-ol’-boy nephews are straightenin’ the curves, staying one step ahead of the county sheriff while delivering the goods. If that’s your view of ‘shine, well, you’re not alone.

In his book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, author Max Watman explores this view of ‘shine and finds that it’s far from the whole picture. In researching his book, released February 2010 in hardback and earlier this year in paperback, Watman shadowed prosecutors and federal agents, talked to the legendary Junior Johnson, and drove through the hills and forests of Virginia and the Carolinas on the trail of hooch.

As Watman recounts in this entertaining and well-researched book, however, there’s far more to illegal distillation than just podunk corn likker. Watman recounts his own efforts to get an illegal still going, and the sometimes-comical, sometimes-delicious results. He tracks down microdistillers–places like Colorado’s Stranahan’s–that specialize in small-batch, craft distilling.

Many of the folks involved in the craft distilling scene started out making artisan spirits at home, prior to going pro, and Watman speaks to a few of these people as well–men and women making whiskeys, eaux de vie, and applejack for their own use or to share with friends.

Now Preacher John walked by, with a tear in his eye
Said that his wife had the flu
And hadn’t I ought just to give him a quart
Of that good old mountain dew

But Watman also examines an area of illegal distillation that few people are paying attention to–one that’s become a serious problem in urban areas. Y’see, Uncle Jesse’s been branching out. Ol’ Jess learned a few years ago that there’s not much money in making a few gallons for his neighbors in Hazzard County. So Jesse’s gone big.

He invested in an industrial-quality still and started buying pallets of pure sugar. If he’s very careful, he can hide behind the old cornpone stereotypes, while making vast quantities of something called sugar jack. This stuff ain’t no mellow sipper, meant for you to enjoy while barbecuing.

No, sugar jack is rotgut; it’s harsh and acrid. Jesse can pump it out fast, cheap, and in massive amounts, and it’s not meant for rural consumption. Most of it is sold for a dollar a shot at so-called nip joints, or shot houses, which are unregulated, unlicensed establishments. Aimed mostly at the urban poor, nip joints foster other criminal activities in addition to illegal hooch: gambling, narcotics, and prostitution, namely.

The sugar jack itself is nasty work; Watman describes his only taste of it in terms that are both funny and frightening. You can easily believe the liquid itself poses significant health risks. In conjunction with the nip joints in which it’s sold, though, it has become a deadly serious public-health problem, especially in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There’s an old hollow tree, just a little way from me
Where you lay down a dollar or two
If you hush up your mug, then they’ll give you a jug
Of that good old mountain dew.

But it’s not all sinister. As I mentioned earlier, Watman talks to hobbyists, and briefly becomes one himself, who make artisan brandies and white-dog whiskeys with very small stills. And he asks himself, why is this illegal?

And make no mistakes here: unlicensed small-batch distilling is entirely and completely illegal in the United States. You can lose your home and all of your assets if you’re caught, and then you’ll get to go to jail. Now, the likelihood of such dire consequences isn’t high; after all, law enforcement has far bigger problems with sugar jack production and nip joints. But you need to be aware of them anyway.

I’ve blogged on this topic before, first when I reviewed Matt Rowley‘s book Moonshine and again in a three-part interview about small-batch home distilling, with Rowley, Mike McCaw, and Ian Smiley [part 1, part 2, part 3]. I think the conclusion of most rational human beings (it’s certainly Watman’s conclusion) is that, yes, large-scale unlicensed distillation can and should remain a felony, punishable by serious jail time and property seizure.

But the law really does need to make some provision for small-batch distilling. Set limits on how much you can make, sure, just as there are currently limits on how much beer and wine a person can make at home. Retain a prohibition on selling home distillates. But for god’s sake, allow a person to bring home a few bushels of apples from the farmer’s market every October and make some bloody applejack! Where’s the harm in that, really?

My uncle Mort, he is sawed off and short,
He measure ’bout four foot two,
But he thinks he’s a giant when you give him a pint
Of that good old mountain dew.

They call it that good old mountan dew,
And them that refuse it are few.
I’ll hush up my mug if you’ll fill up my jug
With that good old mountain dew.

[Chasing the White Dog was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes.]

Martini Project: DeVoto Edition

The martini: easily the most-often mixed drink in our household, and the one I have the most fun playing with. As Paul “Birthday Boy” Clarke pointed out recently on Serious Eats, it’s a much more flexible drink than people give it credit for. With the explosion of the gin category in the last few years, there are now many expressions of the martini’s base to experiment with. Vermouth, however…

Until recently, most elbow-benders didn’t have much choice in the vermouth market. You could find Noilly Prat, Cinzano, and Martini & Rossi just about anywhere. If you were in a larger market, you could probably Boissiere and Stock, as well. In the last couple of years, though, that’s changed. I won’t say the category has exploded, but some excellent new vermouths are on the market now, and if you can find them, you’re in for a treat–Vya and Dolin immediately come to mind.

Further, if you expand your definition of martini to include a drink mixed with other fortified wines or aperitifs–sherry, Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano, or Bonal Gentiane-Quina, for example–you open up for yourself a number of new avenues for combinations. Until early this year, however, my options in Rhode Island were rather limited. Now, though, the Haus Alpenz portfolio is available to us, and I already have several nearby stores that carry the line of Dolin vermouths. (And I’m working them on the Americano and Bonal.)

With that in mind, it’s time to start playing. The game is, here, I’ll be mixing up various variations on the martini–different proportions, different ingredient combinations, etc. I want to get to a point where I can say, “Hey, I really like Bonal with Plymouth, and I also think Dolin’s the perfect partner with Tanqueray.” (These are just examples, of course; I’ve never mixed them that way yet.)

I’ll begin by tackling the De Voto recipe that Paul mentions in his SE column. In his newly reissued (and handsome) book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, first published in 1948, the author and literary critic Bernard De Voto wrote of the martini that …

[t]here is a point at which the marriage of gin and vermouth is consummated. It varies a little with the constituents, but for a gin of 94.4 proof and a harmonious vermouth it may be generalized at about 3.7 to one. And that is not only the proper proportion but the critical one; if you use less gin it is a marriage in name only and the name is not martini. You get a drinkable and even pleasurable result, but not art’s sunburst of imagined delight becoming real. Happily, the upper limit is not so fixed; you may make it four to one or a little more than that, which is a comfort if you cannot do fractions in your head and an assurance when you must use an unfamiliar gin.

Now, most people would probably skip the 3.7 nonsense and go right for the 4:1 measure. After all, that’s easy. If you’re stirring for two, that’s 4 oz. gin and 1 oz. vermouth. For one person, it’s a snap to halve that. But how do you measure 3.7 or 7.4 or 1.85 ounces of anything? I always hit that roadblock and never went farther.

But I’ve been reading one of De Voto’s contemporaries lately, the gourmet, railroad aficionado, bon vivant, boulevardier, and long-time newspaper columnist Lucius Beebe. He wrote of a 1963 trip to Boston, in which he luncheoned in the private Union Club. He writes of their martinis that they’re “magnificent” and mixed “precisely according to the immutable formula laid down by the late Bernard De Voto.”

So to hell with it. I’m a geek, there’s gotta be a way to hack this. I remembered my digital kitchen scale. I placed a mixing tin on the scale and zeroed out the weight. Then I carefully poured 37 grams of water into the tin. That’s a little over 1-1/4 oz. but not quite 1-1/3. Okay, I could work with that. Take 37 grams of gin, 10 grams of vermouth; then it’s simply a matter of scaling that up to make two cocktails. I still needed the digital magic machine to get the right measure, but fine. Anything for you, dear ones.

De Voto Martini for Two

  • 148 grams gin (I used Bombay, which isn’t quite up to De Voto’s standard of 94.4 proof, but it was good)
  • 40 grams Dolin dry vermouth
  • lemon twist, for garnish (upon which De Voto simply insists)

Stir, dammit. Garnish.

Prior to dilution, that comes out to 188 grams or approximately 6.63 oz. for two cocktails. Just about perfect for my glass size, with a little left in the mixing glass. Now, an Imperial variation.

De Voto Martini for Two, Imperial

  • 5-1/2 oz. gin
  • 1-1/2 oz. vermouth
  • lemon twist

Stir, dammit. Garnish.

That’s not quite to the 3.7 standard, but it’s as close as you’ll probably come with traditional bar measures. That gives you 7 oz. of martini, prior to dilution, for a ratio of 3.66667 to 1.

And now even I’m weirded out by the geekery of this post.

DISCLAIMER: I was sent a review copy of The Hour.

My month of rum: The Lytton Fizz (and a bonus cocktail)

My month of rum continues today, with a couple of drinks featuring Cruzan Black Strap Rum. One of my goals for this project is to explore the depth and breadth of rum; there are very many different styles of rum out there, and yeah, that’s one reason I find the category a little intimidating, but frankly it’s also why it excites me. The idea of tasting my way across the category is pretty cool.

One thing I didn’t really explain last time was that I used Mount Gay Eclipse rum for the Royal Bermuda cocktail. That recipe calls specifically for a Barbados rum, as I mentioned, and I went with the Eclipse because, well, in part because it’s inexpensive, a good bargain at the 22 bucks my local pharmacy charges. (I think they’re overcharging a tad, but they’re so convenient that it’s worth an extra buck or three.) Also, in a rum-101 post, Matt “Rumdood” Robold recommends it as a good starter rum, in the amber/gold category. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now in various things and I find it to be a great mixing rum. It even sips fine, neat or on the rocks, although it’s a little simple for sipping; you’d probably want to go upmarket in the Mount Gay brand for that, and try the Mount Gay Extra Old, which is just delicious.

CruzanBlackStrapRumLTRBack to the black, now. The Black Strap is an interesting beast. You may have seen black-strap molasses around at the grocery and you may have even used it in, say, baked beans, but let’s step back and look at molasses for a moment. To make molasses, sugar producers take sugar cane, extract the juice from it, and then boil the juice so the sugar crystallizes. The molasses this first boiling produces is very sweet because sugar still remains in it. So to economize and wring out as much sugar as they can, producers then boil the sugar out again, and then finally a third time. It’s this third boiling that produces blackstrap. Interestingly, blackstrap molasses is one sweetener that’s actually good for you. The boiling process concentrates all the nutrients in the molasses, so blackstrap is rich in vitamins and minerals, especially iron.

Blackstrap has an important benefit for distillers. Because it ferments quickly, it doesn’t form as many fusel alcohols as other ferments do. Without delving too deeply into distillation-101, let me just say that a certain amount of fusel alcohols are necessary for certain spirits, but if you have too many, the flavor is rough. So they must largely be removed from a distillate before it can be bottled. (It’s the presence of these that in part explains the “rotgut” reputation of plastic-bottle spirits and mason-jar moonshine.) Blackstrap, because it lacks some of these fusels from the start, creates a smooth and easily drinkable rum.

Which also means it mixes well into cocktails, and isn’t that why you’re here? So let’s get on with it.

Lytton FizzThe first drink I have today is something called the Lytton Fizz. I’m not just drinking my way through the rum world right now, I’m also reading it. One of the books on my current reading list is Wayne Curtis‘s excellent And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. I’m probably the last cocktail geek on the Internet to read this book, shamefully, but that’s okay. The Lytton Fizz is not one of the ten titular drinks, but it does appear in an appendix at the back. It’s the creation of bartender John Myers of Portland, Maine. It’s the last cocktail in the book, and it appealed to me for its seasonal ingredients, mint and Thai basil, both of which we had on hand. There’s a problem with it, though. Here’s the recipe as it appears in Curtis’s book, skipping the herbs:

1/2 oz. falernum
1/4 oz. lime juice
2 dashes of bitters
1/2 oz. dark rum

Hm. Equal parts rum and falernum? That falernum stuff is sweet. Very sweet. And what makes this a fizz is that it’s topped off with fizzy ginger ale. Not to second-guess Messrs. Curtis and Myers, I knew this had to be a simple typo, or the drink would be unbalanced and overly sweet. I told Jen I thought the 1 had gotten lopped off somehow and it should be 1-1/2 oz. rum. So I hit Google and sure enough, the results of the 2005 Rum Fest were posted, and I was right. There, Myers’s recipe calls for an ounce and a half.

So, enough of that. Here’s the recipe from the Rum Fest page:

Lytton Fizz

In a Collins glass, muddle

  • 4 fresh mint leaves
  • 3 Thai basil leaves
  • ½ oz. Falernum
  • ¼ oz. lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Fill with ice. Add 1 ½ oz. Cruzan Black Strap Rum and top with ginger ale. Stir.

Be sure to muddle gently, though. Press too hard on the mint, and you’ll open veins in the leaves that will express bitter oils into your drink.

Bonus: Corn ‘n’ Oil

Corn 'n' Oil

  • 2 oz. Cruzan Black Strap Rum
  • 1/4 oz. Falernum
  • 1/4 oz. lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Build over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Stir.

Cocktail photographs by Jennifer Hess.