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Quetzalcoatl (co-ex-all-cuat-ol) the feathered serpent god of redemption one day recalled his passion for Mayahuel (Maya-Who-Well) the goddess of fertility. Finding her asleep in the sky he awakened her and persuaded her to travel to the earth with him. There they joined into the union of a forked tree. When Mayahuel’s grandmother, an evil star demon awoke and found her gone she was enraged and dove straight from the sky to find the two lovers. She tore Mayahuel to pieces and ordered her servant demons to devour her body leaving a saddened Quetzalcoatl alone to grieve. In this state Quetzalcoatl gathered her bones and planted them in the earth. From her humble grave grew a plant, a simple spiny plant called Maguey which we now refer to as agave. And from this simple plant came a milky, viscous sap called aguamiel or honey water. Once fermented this brew would be known as pulque, a true nectar from the heavens. When distilled this rich elixir took on a new life, one that transcended its godly status to reach the hands of  common men so they too could be in tune with Quetzalcoatl and his forlorn lover Mayahuel and this new life was called Mezcal  

 

 

The Fire Inside

In 1968 a famous mural was uncovered during an excavation in central Mexico at the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla some 70 miles east of Mexico City. This mural, simply called “Pulque Drinkers” offers a far reaching grasp into the traditions of Mexican culture. The lightly fermented aguamiel or honey water has the strength of your classic American canned beer but somehow this is the seedling of one of the greatest treasures on the earth. We may think of Tequila as Mexico’s symbolic spirit but the fire inside Mezcal de Oaxaca (Wha-Hawk-a) is unmatched. Tequila is a cousin to mezcal which is just the fermented juice of the maguey plant that is distilled to make a spirit. But unlike Tequila, Mezcal de Oaxaca has a deep smokiness and fruity aroma that is solely its own.  The process is simple; the hearts of agave are smoked in giant pits and then crushed, fermented and distilled. Easy enough right? Not so much actually. Everything is done by hand and organically and not just in that wholefoods sense but in the way the process unfolds. The maguey is manually harvested and smoked by wooden embers that are gathered from the dead and fallen trees of Oaxaca. Horses still pull the stone milling wheels to grind the hearts into pulp. They are fermented in clay containers and distilled in ancient alembic stills as they were for centuries. This may be nearly as old as Irish whiskey.  

The history of mezcal like pulque itself is a bit cloudy but when the conquistadors came to the new world they tried the brew. This was a very serious offering from the Aztec priests as this was not for the common man. In fact it was only for festivals, ceremonies and sacrifices. Perhaps this was to ease the suffering of the gods’ dainties. Public intoxication was frowned upon during Aztec rule. Needless to say the Spaniards were not impressed with the milky elixir but saw some potential. Perhaps they were the first to distill  pulque into a crude spirit that would later become mezcal but some of the stills used are not the round, bulbous stills of Western Europe. May of these stills that are used today resemble those of the middle ages when it has been highly theorized that the far east had already made contact with the “New World”  hundreds of years before the Europeans. There have even been leaves from the Coca plant found in the wrappings of ancient pharaohs so it is quiet plausible that distillation predates the Spaniards in the Americas.

From its beginnings pulque was an intrinsic part of Mesoamerica. It was the corner stone of every celebration, sacrifice and ritual. It was the essence of the spiritual being. Little has changed throughout the centuries. The idea of mezcal as being all curing is still a common theme throughout the southern state of Oaxaca and when it is offered to you, it is an offering of ones soul.

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Que Viva la Revolucion

Mezcal has become the latest craze in cocktail bars throughout the country. The interest has grown immensely over the past three years and although for my mother who 1st tried mezcal as a child in Hermosillo, Mexico I am tickled by this. But I do worry that the demand will, like it had done to Tequila; steal the generic integrity of the spirit. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great Tequilas produced and imported into this country but there are also a ton and I mean a ton of poor, inferior brands to make sure that there is plenty of product to keep a humble salt and lime industry operational. To be honest I have only come across a couple of poor brands of mezcal which I will not name in this blog but I will say that even though the thought of eating a worm or scorpion sounds cool at a party (I have done this numerous times and yes it is fun and great initiation for newer employees at our bar) it is not the hallmark of what  mezcal is. Talking about great mezcal and focusing on these brands would be like talking about foie gras and offering you liver and onions. These all have their place in the world but not here.  

What I love about Mezcal is the diversity of the maguey plant. It can have as much individual flavor as grape varietals. The climate still plays a role as it does with wine and whiskey. Most of the serious Mezcals are coming from very high altitude sites. The higher the altitude the richer and more complex the Mezcal becomes. The age of the maguey is as important as it is with grape vines. The water is as distinctive as with Kentucky Bourbon. The varietals of maguey defiantly remand indigenous to Mexico. Oaxaca is still the most well known region but there are several regions such as Dorango and Guerrero and like the French AOC or Italian DOC’s that protect their individual terroir, identity and history, these Mezcaleros and lovers of the fire inside have protected their mezcal from becoming an overly marketed, watered down industry that Tequila can be where many of them now resemble a heavy Vodka and not the spirit that is iconic, hard and like Mexico herself, seldom pretty but always beautiful. 

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Cock Fighting with a Sun Surfer

Modern day love can inebriate the soul like it did to Quetzalcoatl and Mayahuel. Some years ago a surfer from Colorado heading down to Oaxaca with a friend in a quest to find themselves were thrown randomly in the center of a  great celebration. Several students in a trade school were dancing and singing in the street. You see, it was graduation day and in the poorer areas of the world a new Lexus is not  the gift of choice, instead people opt to celebrate as a whole community and to me seems to be a truer sense of joy. These two men were grabbed into the streets and forced to dance. They were handed gasoline cans filled with a firey substance that burned their lips but cooled their souls. It was their first taste of Mezcxal de Oaxaca but it would not be their last. They opened a bar on the beach and began to sell Mezcal to locals and surfers alike. One day our hero gets an ear infection and had to go to the local clinic. There he met his Mayahuel. She nursed him back to health and over the following months the slow and charming ritual of courtship began. The only problem, she was to be married. After a few hardy punches with the rival suiter and some iced up wounds her fiance left the two alone and they soon married. As luck would have it her father was a Mezcalero, a maker of the ancient and magical elixir mezcal. And so our hero and his friend started an import company to sell his father-in-law’s mezcal and soon Mezcal Vago would be introduced to the United States. 

You see many of these Mezcals are not brought to you by the same companies that bring in Don Julio ( a fine product) or Jose Cuervo (my mother once said that if you don’t have something nice to say then shut your trap… so I will). Those who offer us the treasures of Mezcal are small, independent producers, importers and well, regular people. There is no incentive for me to work with Mezcal, no gift to put a Mezcal cocktail on my cocktail list. Here, for me, like it was for our hero, for the Mezcalero who became his father-in-law, for my mother a simple understanding of the culture of Mexico. It is one of ritual which you can see so intimately through a Mexican Catholic mass where the rich and powerful history of Aztec, Toltec, Mayan and Seri cultures who have sometimes integrated a western idea of inclusion but not the western ideal of assimilation. It is the power of Mezcal that keeps me in check to remember who I am, where I came from and where I want to go. To surf on the sun.   

Clear is the new Brown

Join us in Saloon on Tuesday, January 20th at 7 pm for a tasting of Mexico’s rare and powerful elixir. We will taste through 4 unique varietals of maguey, each one like the terroir of great wine vineyards, an individual to its region offering a one of a kind flavor profile.

Tickets are $35 per person (all inclusive) and can be bought through Eventbrite.com

Come and taste what Saloon calls Mexico’s white “brown” spirit

 

 

Strong Water

Let me bring you love from the fields is one of my favorite lines in Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” which is not about romantic love or platonic love but one of the natural world. One of winds and the smell of mosses and reeds. The other day I was walking through the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on a bone chilling, damp morning. My winter coat was foolishly left on my bed as I rushed out of the house knowing I only had a couple of hours before I had to get my daughter from school. When I arrived and realized I had no wallet (which was in my jacket) and no jacket (which was surrounding my wallet) I sat in my car for about 3 minutes and thought of what my next move would be. As I really needed some fresh air to relax a very busy mind I put on my winter boots (thankfully in the trunk of the car), zipped up my hoody and walked through the murky, damp mist. I walked in silence (in mind as well as in body). Then a thought entered my head and I became encapsulated with my surroundings.  I started thinking about, of all things, scotch whisky. I began envisioning  the mossy grasslands, the damp cold chill of the Highlands but mostly, probably because I was ankle deep in it, water.1508587_1523411054582057_1166259763034242158_n
I often use the term “terroir” when I discuss spirits, wine and beers but, what does it really mean? What are all those fancy pants wine snobs referring to? Is it an earthy quality? Napa Valley is said to have terroir but for them it is luscious, lip smacking fruits and sweetly tannic oaked qualities so earthiness is right out. What it means at least in the literal is the effect of the elements. California has ample sunshine and dry mild weather which can make for a deeply fruity and yet mildly complex wine, but does Two Buck Chuck offer terrior? Some would say no, but I say yes. Why? Even though this is a factory jug wine that is sourced through the entire state of California there is still a sense of place. And that sense of place is very straight forward. It is in the lack of pretense. It’s the sociability of drinking wine. The everyday for the every body. For the forgotten art of simple conversation among friends. Mostly on how cheap the stuff is. But to me that is as much about terroir as is the great hills of Burgundy. Yes, it is in the soils, the sun and winds but it can also be found in a Jewish deli in Brookline, a barber shop in Harlem, a pub in Southie. But there is also the full embrace of terroir. The complete understanding of the literal and the figurative. It is the elements and the elemental that is often unthought of. It lays in the streams and rivers throughout the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland. It is in the tributaries of Isaly where peat moss is king and even the barley that is not dried by this medicinal and smoky smelling moss, the flavors live in the waters and in the mentality of distiller.
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The legacy of history. It is in the height of the stills at Glenlivet, the broad, onion stills at Aberlour and the sweet salty air in Islay. Scotch to me is all about terroir. It is a single pin prick on the map. It is an iconic sense of being. It is the strong water.
North by North West
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There is nothing like a great Highland single malt. Even the word “Highland” gives such a feeling of strength and pride. This is quite evident at the 1st inhalation of the intense, broad shouldered power of the oily distillate. What is odd is that an area with so much regional stance is so very vast. The Highlands comprise most of Scotland, but within it’s corners lies the subtle arms of great whisky. It can be a striking contrast to the sub region of the Highlands where the most prevalent single malts are produced. scotland_whisky_region_map_by_stirpel-d5fxslt
This is the region of Speyside where the great river Spey cracks the top of the region off of the North Sea right down the center of Eastern Scotland. From this river runs many small tributaries that house iconic names like The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenrothes and Aberlour What is most striking is that producers like The Glenlivet and Glenrothes which to me make two of the most iconic Speysides are nestled right next to The Macallan and Aberlour who are known for big, punchy flavors. As I stated earlier, terroir is as much nurture as it is nature. The nurture is often times the work of the stillman and the still itself. The great potstills of Scotland are made of copper. Copper is a natural purifier so the larger the still the softer your whisky will become. As the fermented liquid evaporates in the still the vapors that travel to the condenser come in contact with the copper of the still neck. As it does the copper strips away oils, fats and acids. The resulting distillate will become lighter and delicate so the larger the still the more the vapors connect with the copper. Distilleries like Glenlivet and Glenrothes have large necked stills, in fact Glenlivet has the tallest stills in Scotland which are about 15 feet.102477175
In sharp contrast their neighbor The Macallan has the smallest stills in Scotland with Aberlour coming in right behind them. What this does is give the whiskies an oilier and fuller flavor profile as it comes off of the still. It is the still masters job to decide at what point he will separate the foreshots or heads (the high octane, fruity spirit) the hearts (the cleanest, purist part of the distillate) and the faints or tails (the vegetative, funky and low octane distillate at the end of the run).010
Even though distillers like the Macallan and Aberlour are in the heart of Speyside, they choose to create a dram in the style of the highlands, rich, bold and powerful. It is there sense of terroir.
Then of course there is the water. Distilleries historically have set up shop next to water sources that they think will give them the best whisky. Hard water which comes from softer minerals has a sweeter, minerally backbone. The best way to really understand this is with Kentucky Bourbon because it is the intrinsic base of Kentucky whiskey not corn which most people will think. Kentucky has a ton of limestone. The springs that filter through the limestone which is a sedimentary rock, strips away the calcium, phosphorous and potassium from the rocks. This now gives the water a sweet, deep and rich flavor profile. This is evident right from the source. There is nothing like tasting spring water from Kentucky. It is the backbone and bass tone to Kentucky whiskey. Scotland is no different although the water sources are much more varied. The Glenlivet is known for having sweet, rich water and even though a dram of Glenlivet can be delicately nuanced, the mouth feel can be powerful in a subtle way. SPIRIT_5water
Aberlour on the other hand has a softer water source which means that the stones that the water runs through is harder rock like granite which is much tougher to erode. This makes for a sligh tly drier distillate. The strength of Aberlour comes from the smaller stills which make a richer spirit on the palate with a dry, light finish. So where does that deep color and sweet palate come from when you are talking about the Macallan or Aberlour, that would be the intense Olorosso oak that is used. This gives the whiskey as sweetly spiced, nutty and dried fruit note. The sherry barrels (or butts) used pack a huge punch of flavor and color so you will get notes of the sweet, fortified Spanish wine on the nose and front of the palate but the finish in both of these whiskies are incredibly soft and subdued. This compared to the delicate aromas of the Glenlivet 16 year Nardurra which uses  ex-bourbon barrels develops a soft toffee and honeyed tone with hints of sweet, purple flowers and butter. There’s almost a creme texture without the brulee. But where the sleeping giant gathers its footing is on the finish. It is long and lush. And of course past the water, still man and barrel selection there is also the elements that your barrel will age in, sometimes for decades. News_774
Where There’s Smoke
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One of the most identifiable aromas and flavors of Scotch is the intense, smoky, medicinal smell of peat and no place wears this like a suit of armor as does the small island of Islay. Islay (Aye-la)  is off of the south western coast of Scotland where the chilly, salty winds permeate aging barrels. It is also home to a decomposed moss that when harvested is as thick as a brick. Once this moss is dried it is used to fire the kilns that are used to dry barely on what is called “the malting floor.”Microsoft EPS EMEA conference, Cannes, October 2011photo Peter Sandground
Lets step back a bit here for some explanation. When barley is in its raw form it is hard, starchy and dry. To get out those rich, maltose sugars you need to soak your barely in water. Once it begins to germinate a small little sprout will burst from the hard husk of the grain.
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This is the sweet, golden promise of what will be rich, heady whisky. Now the grain has to be dried for if it is left to germinate too long it will lose that maltose sugar and develop too much starch. Although Scotland has a rich supply of forests, it is overwhelmingly the grasslands that dominate the nation and below these grasslands lies the fossilized moss  that was once the sweet, purple flowers known as heather. This moss is called peat.926
Peat moss is not the most efficient way to heat your kiln as it burns really fast but it also burns a hell of a lot hotter than wood causing a quick drying and it also leaves behind an intense, smoky almost campfire aroma with notes of iodine, dried tobacco and the subtlety sweet, purple flowers it once was. The stanch, powerful, salty and lean Islay whisky is born.
This is the Island where Laphroaig, who’s cellar is literally below the shore line create a salty, medicinal whisky. It is where Lagavulin makes a sweet, broad, smokey Scotch, but there are two distilleries where the intrinsic terroir sleeps in the waters and floats in the air around the aging whisky. The subtle salty aromas and herbal peat are present because they are present on the Island. I am referring to Bunnahaibain (Boon-ah-ha-vin) and Bruichladdich (Brooke-law-dick) who both make whiskys that are unpeated meaning they don’t use peat moss to dry their barley. bunnahabhaindistillery1024x768
Bunnahabain has been distilling since 1881 but they have only been bottling their whiskys for since the 1970’s. For the first part of their distilling history they sold off their whiskys to blending houses. When I 1st tasted  Bunnahaibain  I loved the sweet, delicate notes of peat and the flavors of dried fruits from the old sherry butts. However I was skeptical on putting this on a list. You see when people see Islay on a bottle of Scotch the immediate emotional response is the hefty, peaty whiskies of Ardbeg or Bowmore. Those that  think that terroir is only of nurture rather than nature might be disappointed. This is a whisky that carries very subtle flavors of peat and salt which comes from the sea air and the naturally peaty waters. Bruichladdich makes some of the most exciting Scotches I have had in many years. They are one of the only major distillery using 100% Scottish barely. Most other distilleries get their barely from eastern Europe where it can grow like a weed. They also source out the specific farms where they get the barley from. The Rockside Farms which I am drinking now has a bright, peaty aroma with notes of Bergamot tea, smoked almonds, vanilla cake, dried apricot and well, the actual distillate. You can get a sense of what actually came off of the still. It is not masked with intentional peaty notes, or overly rich, oaky notes. Bruichladdich can make intesely peated whiskys like the Octomore which has 3 times the peat of Laphroig but the majesty of the dram is in the unpeated, single sourced, pure, sweet and salty goodness. This to me is terroir at its essence. It is understanding the relation between the farm, the waters and the air. It is a model of earth, wind and fire.  Capture CH b
Dueling Banjos
What I have learned over the years of researching and most importantly, drinking my way through understanding culture is that there is no clear answer for understanding people. Everything is hidden in a murky layer or history and regional identity of ones place in the world. In the case of Scotch whisky it is understanding 1st of all your location, the air, the stills handed down to you, your self proclamation and sometimes anointed identity. It is understanding that even though you work next to the bold and rich, you can be soft and delicate. Knowing your terroir is the reconciliation of those before you, those around you and those to follow. The only way to really know is to crack the bottle so you can understand this world and bath in its waters.
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Yatte Minahare!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anatomically correct

To start understanding Japanese whisky, it’s complexity, it’s layered palate and aromatics we will look in reverse. Instead of starting with history, regions and physiological makeup lets start with the glass. As we all love a great single malt whisky, we’ll talk specifically about Nikka Whisky 12 yr single malt “Miyagikyo”.
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This reminds me of a delicate Speyside Scotch like the GlenRothes 1998 Select. The heather and honeyed tone and subtle Bourbon notes finish with lightly spiced cake. It feels light to medium in the mouth with a lingering finish that leave flavors of lavender and leather with the slight saltiness of sunflower seeds and smoked almond.
There should be no surprise that the comparison to Speyside is an easy one, the humidity and general climate are kindred. The fatter based pot stills with the longer necks and smaller condenser help to produces a soft and delicate dram. When Masataka Taketsuru set up the Miyagikyo distillery  he had all of this in mind. The water source of the Nikkawa river, the grassy hills where the distillery now sits and the trail of oaks that lead to its doorsteps could easily be mistaken for a Scotch distillery.  To be fair in drawing the coincidence, Masataka studied the art of distillation at the Longmorn distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland. This is in no way to take away from the distinct elegance of Japanese whisky, it is only to understand and quantify its birth. This is indeed where Masataka began his journey of bringing fine malt whisky to Japan, by learning the traditions of Scottish distillation while understanding his Japanese roots. There is an almost soft, sweet pear and apple aroma to most Asian malt whiskies that remind me of fine Cognac. I suppose there is a reason the French and Japanese always seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to gastronomy as they have a symbiotic identity.880_TR_Miyagikyo-Nikka
There is true art in a pour of Nikka or Suntory or even Taiwan’s great Kavalan whisky. There is something that I identify as Asian complexity. With Japanese whiskies I find a soft and subtle power. Think of great sushi. It is not just in the delicate cut of the fish but in how the fragrant soft rice is packed. This subtly can be a foundation of strength where as the Taiwanese are making a spirit that is bolder and heartier to match some of the spicier, saltier cuisine.
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In 1918 the young Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland where he attended Glasgow University to study chemistry. There, coming from a family with centuries of sake brewing under their belt he decided to study the art of Scotch whisky. At that time in Japan there had been great commerce and friendship between Japan, the United States and Europe. There was trade of clothing, foods, spices and alcohol. The Japanese have long been making sake and a spirit called Shochu, a sake distillate. Right around the 1850’s give or take, drinks made of malted barley started to infiltrate Japanese bars and liquor cabinets. It was at this time that American brewers came to set up shop, this endeavor later became the Kirin Brewery. Even Scotland’s famous author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became an obsession with the Japanese. It naturally followed that the dram of his homeland became as well loved as golf on the Island nation of Japan. port wine The missing component of producing fine whisky was the know-how. No matter what spice or herb they used they could not make a comparable whisky. It is even said that many Japanese whisky labels read “made with Scottish grapes.” At that time they had a long road ahead of them.
When Masataka was in Scotland he began to learn the art of blending whisky at the Hazelburn distillery in Campbelton. Later in Longmorn he learned the subtly of distillation and was the 1st person from Japan to do so in the UK. There he met his match. A young Scottish woman, the daughter of his host family who’s fiance had died in Damascus during WWI.Rita Taketsuru - the Scottish mother of Japanese whisky
Masataka had given her a gift of perfume and she in return gave him a collection of Robert Burns’ poems. Coming from a traditional Japanese and Scottish family they had decided to elope as their marriage was not condoned by the family nor was their love even understood. Back in Japan Rita became an English teacher and Masataka went to work for with Shinjiro Torii.OLD BT
In 1923 Masataka helped Shinjiro build the famous Yamazaki distillery which is still today Japan’s most famous and important whisky house.
By 1934 the need to build his own distillery became too much and on Japan’s northern island the Yoishi distillery was built and the Nikka brand was born. His Miyagikyo distillery which we have now tasted was not built until 1969 where he produces a grain spirit made in the famous Coffey still but his single malt shows his true mastery and interpretation that had begun on his Island almost a century before. It is no wonder he is considered the Father of Japanese whisky. Masataka passed unto the next world on August 29th, 1979 where he has undoubtedly  been collecting and bottling all of his angels share ever since.
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Flatlanders
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In 2005 the Taiwanese company, King Car, producer of foods, beverages and a leader in the biotech industry began building the Kavalan Distillery which means “People of the Plain”. The Kavalan people were the 1st inhabitants of the region just south east of T’aipei.
There, King Car found the perfect water source from a spring that fed snow melt from mount Yilan out to the Pacific ocean where the sea mist meets mountain air creating a perfect micro climate for aging a world class whisky.Yilan
In fact in several blind tasting panels with some of the best malt men and women in the industry, Kavalan consistently out shines many of its Old World Scottish forebears. Not that their whisky is a superior product. They are only taking the tradition of fine Scotch whisky by using the same stills, techniques and malts (most malted barley the Japanese and Taiwanese use are imported from Scotland) but have incorporated their individual water source which can dramatically change the flavor profile. They distill to their own abilities and taste. It is new and different. The Kavalan line showcases the elegant terrior and complexity of a fine Scottish malt whisky while holding a sweeter, creamier mouth feel that lovers of  Bourbon can understand. It’s aromatics offers the sweet, custardy aromas of the deeper Highland with the subdued heathered tones. The buttery, vanilla quality of well seasoned Bourbon barrels with the broad spiced structure of old Sherry butts helps to bridge a gap between the subtle smoked and salty notes of Scotch and the wide brush stroke of a powerful Bourbon. This is always a great go to for the Pappy fan who does not quiet get the delicate dryness of Scotch yet. They are a very young distillery who are moving the malt industry forward with the use of old world machinery and new world ideology. This has become one of my favorite whiskies and one of the most exciting twists to a road often traveled but rarely deviated from.
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Applied Alchemy
In creating a cocktail with a complex spirit you have to keep the integrity of the spirit in mind. You don’t want to over shadow or over power the liquor whether it be whisky, rum or vodka for that matter. In working with Japanese whisky I want to showcase the delicate fruit notes and play off the spiced aromas from the sherry wood. I am using Hibiki 12 yr today, the blended whisky from Suntory which utilizes a corn based grain spirit and single malts from their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries.
Wabi Sabi (aka balance in art and nature)
1 1/2 oz Hibiki
1/2 oz Lustau PX Sherry (This is to play off of the intrinsic  sherry aromas from the whisky)
1/2 Dolin Vermouth Blanc (The vermouth blanc gives a hint of sweetness)
1/2 Dolin Dry Vermouth (This gives a subtle herbaceous buttery texture)
2 dashes Fee Brothers oak aged gin orange bitters (This particular bitter adds an herbal note that is usually offered by a sweet vermouth rouge)
stir and strain into a cocktail glass
spritz with orange oil and garnish with a cinnamon stick
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My 1st experience with Asian whisky some 3 years ago changed my out look on whisky in general. It is not just the history of a region that gives rise and rights to produce something profound and beautiful. It is the acknowledgment of a collective history, our place in it and how we are as much a shaping force as those who have come before us. We learn from them and have something to teach them as well. The joy and intensity of enthusiasm with dedication and  understanding your place in the world allows us to not be held by the preconceived idea of who we are but what we can give. Thank you Masataka for understanding this human gift.
 
Yatte Minahare!!!!
sammy davis jr

The Flavor of the Republic

 

The Road Often Traveled is the Road Less Known

So as we get closer to the wearing of the green and shots of Jameson are passed around making perfect strangers the best of friends… until Irish Car Bombs are ordered I think it best we talk a bit about the Irish whiskey you all know and love, or at least think you know but really love saying “can we get a round of Jameson shots?” The history of Irish whiskey is a road that has many paths. It is thought by some that Spanish monks brought distillation to Ireland some 1600 years ago with their Aqua Vita (water of life). The first spirit of Old Ireland was not whiskey at all but most likely a derivative called Poitin which was a reference to the copper pot stills used in the distillation process. This was a blend of malted barley, and sugar beets. Ireland at the time was a wild place where heathen tribes roomed the lands and the monastic culture was just getting its footing. images

 

The early settlements like of Glendalough just south of Dublin may have been the birthplace for what we now call whiskey but like all history this to is a bit cloudy. One thing for certain is the monastic alchemist where the first to began the art of distillation in Ireland, much earlier by the way then the Scots. This was not a drink for the every-man however; it was made for the wealthy. Kings throughout Europe began to hear about this magic elixir Poitin. Over time through trade and wars they began to seek out the spirit and it was widely distilled until 1661 when King Charles II outlawed its production. Here it became a refugee for the Irish traditionalist who would hide it in his cupboard. By this time usice beathe (Gaelic for aqua vita which later became whiskey) was the spirit of choice in the emerald isles.  4728590_f260

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bedtime Story For Building Better Behavior

The beloved St. Patrick and the shots of Jameson has its roots in an old Irish folktale. Once upon a time in Ireland a Priest named Pat sat belly up in an inn and was served what was most likely a shot of Poitin. He felt short changed by the inn keepers stingy pour and immediately told him that a devil had taken refuge in his cellar and was feeding from his dishonesty. Pat then told the inn keep  the only way to salvation and retribution was to seek the light unto a realm of generosity. On his next visit Pat saw that a frightened inn keeper was filling patrons’ glasses to the brim. He and the inn keep went down to the cellar and soon found the devil banished into the nether regions of folklore and obscurity. He then proudly proclaimed that drops of usice beatha shall be consumed in honor of his feast day. What a modesty guy right? I wonder what the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control Commission) would think of the bar keeps pressured generosity but I suppose over severing was not a fear of the time.  st apt

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds of a Feather?

Although Jameson is one of the world’s bestselling and most well known whiskeys, the story of the Irish distillers is a sad one. Let’s now jump to around the 1830’s. A young man named Aeneas Coffey who was French by birth but brought up in Ireland had created a unique and revolutionary still. At the time Irish whiskey was very similar to Scotch whisky. They used 100% malted barley, many distillers used peat moss to fire their kilns to dry the barley (this is the smoke in Scotch whisky) and everything was pot stilled making a sturdy, complex and robust spirit. Aeneas had made a modification of what we call the column still. Inside the still were several plates and compartments. As the alcohol vapor reached the next compartment the spirit grew in strength. In the end distillation was faster and the spirit that came out was delicate, light and subtle. When he showed Irish distillers they literally, like St Pat with the heathen snakes, chased him out of Ireland. To the Irish distillers it was not proper whiskey but to the Scots it would become their salvation. Aeneas went across the waters to the Lowlands of Scotland where they began to listen to and experimented with his still. They started to make a grain spirit using wheat and corn as a base. Then they would blend in their single malt whisky with the grain spirit. The resulting dram was light, nuanced and subtly complex. It was almost like a Scotch cocktail. The base of the bottle would be the lighter grain whisky and then you might add a touch of a Speyside Scotch for elegance, a bit of Highland for texture, some Islay for smoke and a finish of Lowland for balance. No one paid much mind to the crazy Scotsmen’s early attempts at blending whisky but in the 1850’s a fungus began to attack grapevines throughout France affecting the regions of Cognac and Armagnac. This limited the export of brandy to England. Then 20 years later a louse called phylloxera began to kill the root stocks of virtually every vine in Europe. This halted all together the export of brandy to England. It was impossible, after all to be an imperial power without spoils so the British began looking north. They came across blended Scotch and Scotland never looked back. It was lighter then single malt whisky, it was cheaper, very easy to drink and the British loved it.  220px-Coffey_Still

Unfortunately for the Irish this meant doom for many small, independent distilleries, in fact it was doom for all of them. As they were either forced to shut down due to lack of interest and sales or were gobbled up by cooperate mongrels names like Jameson, Tullemore Dew and Powers were sold off to mega giants to be distilled in one distillery. As of now there are only 3 working distilleries in Ireland; Middleton, which makes about 40 labels like those mentioned above, Bushmills and now Cooley which is the only independent distillery in Ireland. irish map

Scottish vision meant that smaller, independently owned Scotch distillers could sell off most of their production to a blender responsible for names like Dewars, Cuttysark and Johnny Walker while maintaining their finances to fund their personal single malt bottlings. In fact blended Scotch whisky comprises roughly 95% of the scotch market in the world so to see maybe one or two blended scotches in a restaurant but have to option to order 10 different single malts is an absolute privilege that we have in this country. Unfortunately for many distillers in Ireland the idea of blending didn’t fully take hold until 1947 with Tullemore Dew but by then it was far too late. I think what is interesting is that whiskeys like Jameson and Bushmills, which are both fine spirits have only become popular in today’s market because they now do what 4 generation before thought to be un-Irish and frankly not whiskey. the-old-jameson-distillery

Having no blending company to sell whiskey to and help fund them means that now we are left with just brand names. This is not to say that Irish whiskey is poorly made or that it is not relevant in the world of Whiskey, quite the contrary. There are amazing whiskey’s coming from Ireland. Many of my favorite comes from one place, Cooley.  Locke's Distillery

Today the differences between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are broad and yet slight. There is a rule of thumb when it comes to the differences but a rule of thumb is only a generalization. The first main difference is the smoky attributes that Scotch has. Often times someone will ask “what is your smokiest Bourbon?” Well, I have a hard time answering this because Bourbon and whiskey in general are not smoky. Perhaps they are referring to the char of the barrel because the smoke we smell in Scotch whisky (which by the way is not intrinsic to all of them) comes from a type of moss called peat. This grows throughout Ireland and Scotland. Peat burns hotter than wood or coal so it is fuel effective to use the heat that peat gives off to dry your malted barley. This was the standard throughout Ireland until about 200 plus years ago. Now wood or coal is used to produce a soft and subtle aroma. The next major difference is in the barley used. The Scotch use either 100% malted barley or a mixture of malted barley and the grain spirit to produce the lighter blended Scotch. Because Ireland imposed a hefty tax on malted barley in the 1800’s distillers (at this point there were plenty of them) began to use a mixture of malted barley and raw barley. This created the delicate elegance to Irish whiskies still present today. The malted barley gives a rich, robust and viscous note where as the raw barley is citric, spicy and leathery. The last major difference, other then the natural terroir both countries have is the length of distillation. The norm (which is not always the case) in Scotland is that the whisky is distilled twice. With each pass through the still the spirit rises in alcohol but becomes cleaner and a bit more pure. There are a few examples of Scotch distillers who will distill three times like Glengoyne and Auchentoshan but for the most part a double distillation is the practice. This makes a heady and robust spirit. With a triple distillation, like in the case of Irish whiskey the spirit becomes much lighter. Initially the alcohol off of the third run of the still will be higher than the second but more water is added to the spirit to bring the strength down to a modest 40% alcohol by volume which will lighten the overall flavor and aromas. Like Scotch whisky, this is only the rule of thumb as there are examples from Cooley that are double distilled and peated like their punchy and yet beautiful single malt Connemara.

connemara

 

 

 As far as barley is concerned distillers like Bushmills distill only malted barley rather than the blend of malted and unmalted that is the standard in Ireland. The white label and their Black Bush is 100% malted barley blended with a grain spirit that is produced at the Middleton distillery way south and then transported to the Protestant northern town of Bushmills. Overall there is a subtle sweetness and generosity to Irish whiskey. They can be as light and humbly soft spoken or as Proud, bold and brash when the time is right, as any Irish transplant you may meet on St Paddy’s day.

FM

Applied Alchemy

 This was a cocktail I originally made last year when our own Cardinal Sean O’Malley had his name thrown in the papal hat. It is simply called The Cardinal. The idea came one night as I was closing the restaurant. I wanted to make a drink in honor of our local kid done right by using Irish whiskey, wine from the Cote du Rhone, home to the lyrically and lovely name of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, i.e. New Chateau of the Pope (There is a cool and long papal history to that name and town that I won’t bore you with today). Then I added Cardamaro (this has nothing to do with Cardinal but cardoons rather although I feel the name fits). Then I finish with lemon and simple syrup. In the end it was a fun and easy drink, but about a week ago I came across a sampling of the Poitin I mentioned earlier and I really wanted to incorporate it into the drink after all it was the “first” spirit distilled in Ireland so I tweaked the recipe to compensate so a grassier, younger elixir

The Cardinal

¾ Irish Whiskey (I like Killbeggan from the Cooley distillery. This has a high malt content which makes for a richer whiskey profile)

¾ Glendalough Poitin Sherry cask finish

¾ Cote du Rhone wine (any easy wine will do here, you just want a wine with soft fruit and spice)

¾ Cardamaro

¾ lemon

¼ simple syrup

Shake well in a shaker and the double strain into a Marie Antoinette glass

Garnish with a crucified Maraschino cherry (I wasn’t sure about the garnish at first but Catholicism is all about the macabre right?)

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In the end what I have learned over the last few weeks of Irish whiskeys and over the last several years of the Irish in general is that they do not live in concept of contrast. Quite the opposite, even within the most unique of Irish whiskeys or the complexity of the Irish spirit there is always a sense of unity, contemplation and understanding of who they are, why they are and where they came from and they don’t give a f@#k who knows it!! 

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Mr. Trololo


Dinner With Mr. Trololo

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So, I just want to start off by saying that I wasn’t sure when I should publish this blog but I am certain that the Olympics were not in my mind when writing this but about 3 weeks ago my family and I went over to our very good friends house for dinner. This is not unusual but there were a couple of unique aspects to the evening. 1st of all it was my 41st birthday which was not completely strange as a lot of people have had birthdays, I myself have had at least 40 before this one. What was different was that I chose to secretly share it with friends (I am not very fond of candles). This was the one rule I gave my family going in to the evening. One reason why I wanted to attend the gathering of friends was because of the type of dinner Dan and Dyvia were having. Dan is of Russian descent and wanted to have a traditional Russian dinner. For me the deal signer was the drink of choice for the evening… vodka. Yes my brown spirited friends, that ol’ neutral standard, that tofu of spirits. What made this stand out for me was my complete aversion to the liquid. As I have spent the last several years studying and tasting Vodka’s brown brethren whiskey I have had a bad image of vodka, vodka drinks and quite foolish of me, vodka drinkers. What I learned that evening is that we in this country have no idea how to drink the spirit. Dan has been drinking vodka since the age of 12 when his Russian grandmother taught the proper way of doing a vodka shot.  Vodka was not made for Cosmos or screw drivers, in the end these drinks were made for those who don’t know how to drink. Please take no offense with this as I am merely suggesting that vodka cocktails were not created to showcase the sophisticated elegance of a neutral spirit but rather to give you a buzz without the realization that you are drinking alcohol. Much of this has to do with our sugared up soda generation, I blame Reagan for this one… for no reason other than he can’t argue this fact.

The proper way to drink Vodka is simple, pull a bottle from the freezer, pour a small amount in a tiny glass and drink it back, plain and simple. What Dan does and what is the common practice in many Russian households is to infuse the vodka with citrus peels. One the night in question he had 2 bottles of Stolichnaya on the table. The 1st was infused with lemon zest, the other with dill. What I though was really cool was that he had each bottle encased with ice and decorated with said infusions. This was done by emptying a 2 liter soda bottle and cutting it in half He then placed the infused vodka bottle in the bottom half of the plastic soda bottle. He added water until it almost reached the cut line, then added whatever he wanted to decorate with such as citric slices, herbs or flowers for that matter. He then place it outside during a frigid winters night and brought it back in the next morning. Once the surrounding water was frozen he cut the plastic off the bottle and was left with a vodka bottle that is encased in a cylinder of ice. This insured an ice cold bottle of vodka with every shot.

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The vodkas were clean and fresh and the citric essence was subtle. It was about the aromatic and floral flavors of the lemon and dill rather than the brightly acidic tartness or the green, earthy flavors. This was paired with a traditional dumpling called Pelmeni which literally means “ear bread”. This tortellini shaped offering was stuffed with either meat or mushrooms and boiled in a richly flavored chicken stock. The soup was garnished with sour cream and dill. The size and shape of the dumpling is region specific. Near the western border of Russia you are served one huge dumpling stuffed with a spice, minced meat. In Siberia where Dan’s family comes from they are smaller and often stored outdoors during the winter to freeze and preserve them over the long Siberian cold.

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They paired so perfectly with the Vodka that we drank about a bottle and a half of the stuff. This was such a satisfying end to a freezing January day and astoundingly perfect after my traditional birthday hike, and let me tell you, I was left with the cleanest hang over I ever had.  It really was a treat and opened my eyes to the true joy of drinking an often shadowed spirit.

Hard, Cold facts

One of my favorite things about drinking with company is conversation. With inebriation there is a certain amount of truthiness that follows and although it is often encumbered with an overall lack of reasoning, some of those stories are great. As the belt loosens and the gullet relaxes so did our tongues. The night had a heated political overtone and I am sure we fixed the world’s problems many times over but unfortunately I don’t remember what the solutions were, or the problems for that matter. But certain memories stayed intact. The history of the importance of vodka in Russia was one. It may have all begun back in the 9th century long before the column still was invented which has become a staple for the spirits production (read the “A Horse Named Bully” blog for a quick column still run down). At that time it would have been distilled only once and would have been a lot funkier then it is now, think white whiskey here. The root of Vodka is voda which simply means water and like whiskeys’ uisce beatha or eau de vie (both meaning water of life) that was the point. At that time and much, much earlier beer, wine and for those who could hire an alchemist, alcohol was the only source of drinkable liquid, drinking water was the luxury.  Like most spirits of the era, alcohol was medicinal and reserved for those with the means. By the 16th century it was recognized as the national drink of both Russia and Poland. The flavored vodkas we all know and love (or not for some) are not new, there are recipes dating back to the 18th century when vodkas would have be infused with items like hazelnut, calendula and even horseradish. It would have at this point distilled twice, diluted with milk and distilled again. It was not easily produced as large scale production was not yet common place but when the column still was invented about 100 years later it was  a game changer and as war marched throughout Europe so did Russia’s alcohol. This was common place through the “old” world. It is what brought the wine trade though ancient Rome, Gaul and Spain. I always imagine Roman soldiers marching through burning villages running off with the women and grape vines (this actually happened). It’s an odd thought in some ways but it was the reality of a developing continent and the 18th and 19th centuries were no different. Wars seemed to be a boom time for the clear elixir and after the communist manifesto Stalin encouraged the consumption of Vodka and freely distributed it to his soldiers. In much the same way that the British controlled China with opium and a virgin democracy controlled Native Americans with whiskey Stalin was able to maintain an ideological backlash on a nation.

The Three Amigos

Applied Alchemy

So as I mentioned before I am not overly fond of Vodka cocktails, I like it when a drink retains its initial identity and although I think what makes a cocktail is not its base spirit but rather its mixer (try making a Manhattan with tequila or a margarita with whiskey, they are still great drinks) the base spirit offers a subtle complexity and finish to the palate. I am a big believer in amaros like Cynar (I’m sensing another blog soon) and incorporate them in many drinks including sour based cocktails. I like the aromatized liqueur to take center stage in a drink, after all it’s the cantina we really remember on Tatooine, not Han Solo. So here’s a drink I through together this afternoon with some lemon infused vodka I made the other night.

Trolololita

2 oz lemon infused Vodka (it can be straight Vodka if you prefer but if you do use a flavored vodka make it yourself, it’s so much better)

.5 oz Senior y Co clear Curacao

.5  oz Cynar

3 dashes Peychauds bitters

1 drop pastis

stir and strain into a some tuliped glass

garnish with lemon a lemon peel

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or if you’re a purist take one bottle of Vodka ( I like Russian Standard Platinum)

pour the contents into a container equaling greater than 1 liter.

Take a potato peeler and peel two lemons and place the rinds into the vodka filled container. Let it sit for a day but taste frequently (this is my favorite) part and filter out the peels when you reach the preferred flavor

Then place the vodka back into the bottle and then place the bottle into the 2 liter bottle of coke as mentioned before with the water etc.

Let it sit overnight and when the bottle freezes…

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drink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staff Drinks with Tracy – the “Viva Cortez”

Saloon Viva CortezNothing washes down a cocktail like a revolutionary slogan. Named for a folk hero on the Mexican American border,  Saloon’s Tracy prepared her own creation, the Viva Cortez in front of me, otherwise I would have assumed that this was an established drink ordered from cocktail menus all over the land.

This warm, spicy drink is an homage to cinnamon’s place in Mexican culture, honoring its close relationship with its comrade, Mezcal. The Cortez of the name was a wanted man, Gregorio Cortez, a cause célèbre in the fight for Mexican-American rights, with as much staunch support forSaloon Tracy limes his cause as the Mezcal gives to its warm companion spice. Gregorio was on the run for alleged horse stealing and wound up in eleven Texan jails, before finally being released due to pressure from a massive Defense network. Once a tenant farmer, now a local hero, there was no going back for Cortez,  who gave up the tenant farmer’s life to fight in the Mexican American War and died soon after.

A ½ an ounce of Punt es Mes, the Italian sweet vermouth, is added to the brew. There is also cinnamon syrup and thai chilli peppers. Tracy explains that thai chilli peppers are chosen for their warmth over jalapenos, which have a more herbal flavor. Lime Juice adds a “bright vividness” to the Viva Cortez that is as essential as the legend. The limes must be fresh: Tracy’s emphatic instruction, underlined in my notes, reads: “can’t emphasize enough!”

The drink was born during aSaloon Viva Cortez preparation phase when Tracy was really into Tiki drinks. With all the fascination surrounding these drinks, she recalls how surprised everyone was to discover that one of the so-called ‘secret’ ingredients was nothing more than cinnamon.

And yet “nothing more than cinnamon” is the main ingredient in a tasty cocktail with a gazpacho tint and a heady warmth. Cortez lived on in the Corridos sung about his deeds; the Viva Cortez has its own longlasting kick. This is definitely one that you’ll remember the next morning.

The Fire Inside

Lost Souls

 

 Quetzalcoatl (co-ex-all-cuat-ol) the feathered serpent god of redemption one day recalled his passion for Mayahuel (Maya-Who-Well) the goddess of fertility. Finding her asleep in the sky he awakened her and persuaded her to travel to the earth with him. There they joined into the union of a forked tree. When Mayahuel’s grandmother, an evil star demon awoke and found her gone she was enraged and dove straight from the sky to find the two lovers. She tore Mayahuel to pieces and ordered her servant demons to devour her body leaving a saddened Quetzalcoatl alone to grieve. In this state Quetzalcoatl gathered her bones and planted them in the earth. From her humble grave grew a plant, a simple spiny plant called Maguey which we now refer to as agave. And from this simple plant came a milky, viscous sap called aguamiel or honey water. Once fermented this brew would be known as pulque, a true nectar from the heavens. When distilled this rich elixir took on a new life, one that transcended its godly status to reach the hands of  common men so they too could be in tune with Quetzalcoatl and his forlorn lover Mayahuel and this new life was called Mezcal  

 

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The Fire Inside

In 1968 a famous mural was uncovered during an excavation in central Mexico at the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla some 70 miles east of Mexico City. This mural, simply called “Pulque Drinkers” offers a far reaching grasp into the traditions of Mexican culture. The lightly fermented aguamiel has the strength of your classic American canned beer but somehow is the seedling of one of the greatest treasures on the earth. We may think of Tequila as Mexico’s symbolic spirit but the fire inside Mezcal de Oaxaca (Wha-Hawk-a) is unmatched. Tequila is a cousin to mezcal which is just the fermented juice of the Maguey plant that is distilled to make a spirit. But unlike Tequila, Mezcal de Oaxaca has a deep smokiness and fruity aroma that is solely its own.  The process is simple; the hearts of agave are smoked in giant pits and then crushed, fermented and distilled. Easy enough right? Not so much actually. Everything is done by hand and organically and not just in that wholefoods sense but in the way the process unfolds. The maguey is manually harvested and smoked by wooden embers that are gathered from the dead and fallen trees of Oaxaca. Horses still pull the stone milling wheels to grind the hearts into pulp. They are fermented in clay containers and distilled in ancient amebic stills as they were for almost 4 centuries. This is nearly as old as Scotch whisky. The history like pulque itself is a bit cloudy but when the conquistadors came to the new world they tried the brew. This was a very serious offering from the Aztec priests as this was not for the common man. In fact it was only for festivals, ceremonies and sacrifices. Perhaps this was to ease the suffering of the gods’ dainties. Public intoxication was frowned upon during Aztec rule. Needless to say the Spaniards were not impressed with the milky elixir but saw some potential. Perhaps they were the first to distill  pulque into a crude spirit that would later become mezcal but some of the stills used are not the round, bulbous stills of Western Europe. May of these stills that are used today resemble those of the middle ages when it has been highly theorized that the far east had already made contact with the “New World”  hundreds of years before the Europeans. There has even been leaves from the Coca leave found in the wrappings of ancient pharaohs.

From its beginnings pulque was an intrinsic part of Mesoamerica. It was the corner stone of every celebration, sacrifice and ritual. It was the essence of the spiritual being. Little has changed throughout the centuries. The idea of mezcal as being all curing is still a common theme throughout the southern state of Oaxaca.

pulque

 

Que Viva la Revolucion

Mezcal has become the latest craze in cocktail bars throughout the country. The interest has grown immensely over the past three years and although for my mother who 1st tried mezcal as a child in Hermosillo, Mexico I am tickled by this. But I do worry that the demand will, like it had done to Tequila; steal the generic integrity of the spirit. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great Tequilas produced and imported into the country but there are also a ton and I mean a ton of poor, inferior brands to make sure that there is plenty of product to keep a humble salt and lime industry operational. To be honest I have only come across a couple of poor brands of mezcal which I will not name in this blog but I will say that even though the thought of eating a worm or scorpion sounds cool (I have done this numerous times and yes it is fun) it is not the hallmark of what  mezcal is. Talking about great mezcal and focusing on these brands would be like talking about foie gras and offering you liver and onions. These all have their place in the world but not here.

Two distillers, Fidencio and Piedre Alamas, in my mind create two of Oaxaca’s greatest artisan spirits. Fidencio which is certified organic has an edge to it and yet it is complex and balanced. The Sin Humo (without smoke) gives the subtle flavor of the maguey. The Espadin varietal of maguey which is the great grandfather to the blue agave has a sweet fruity aroma with bright pepper. Their other bottling, the wild maguey called Tobala is harvested in secret locations like it was a white truffle in a Piemontese forest. This has a rich funkiness that holds the viscosity of mother pulque in the forefront.  These are both like Mexico. They are bold, somber, tough and yet elegant. Then there is Piedre Almas which loosely translates to lost soul and to me it is like a great burgundy. This is a distillery that does not seek uniformity or status quo. Every batch is completely different. They are always great but every bottle is like an individual painting and expression of mezcal. Imagine Picasso reproducing el Guernica over and over again. Although it is impressive to have a style of absolution I am not sure if I would classify it as art. One of Mezcal de Oaxaca’s greatest gems is the Pechuga or poultry breast and to be quite frank it is hands down, the best spirit I have ever tried. That’s right, they use poultry breast in the production of this elixir, turkey to be specific for Piedre Almas. The breast is studded with berries, nuts, herbs and spices. The aromas are sweet and enchanting. The palate is lush yet clean with sweet spice and cherries on the finish. This may seem odd initially but the earliest practices of great nations such as the Aztec, Toltec and Maya continue to pulse through the soul of Mexico so that she may still give her offerings to the gods and goddess’ and  we too can grace ourselves with her holiest of beings.

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Sun Surfing

In early January the earth will be the closest it gets to the sun during its annual cycle and although January seems reserved for Scotch whisky and Bobby Burns I cannot think of a better way to honor this moment then by treating ourselves to the flavors of fire. So on January 14th in Saloon at 6:30 we will be having a 4 course dinner featuring the mezcals of Fidencio and Piedre Almas and just as we would with great Scotch we will be enjoying the purity of these liquids in their nudity. No sour mix, no licking the salt and sucking of the lime. Tonight we will drink as it deserves; Mexico’s brown, white spirit.

sun surfing

 Tickets are $55 per person all inclusive and can be purchased at eventbrite.com

 

 

 

 

Should Old Acquaintance be Forgot

Yes, we all know that line, the first verse to Auld Lang Syne by the Scottish Poet Laureate Robert Burns. And even though the poet is credited for the work of every corny New Years Eve cliché it was inspired by James Watson with his poem Old Lang Syne which loosely translates to Once Upon a Time.

Regardless of the meaning, the song and sentiment seem an appropriate means to a toast at the dropping of the ball when we drink some bubbles and make ourselves promises that we will never keep. But I was wondering the other day why January 1st when almost every ancient culture celebrated their new years on any date but.

 

Ball Drop

 

Once again we have to thank the Romans for this. Yes the folks that brought you planet names, the calendar and plumbing. It’s incredible to me that a culture so far removed from us today still makes our cultural world go round. The name January comes from Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings who had one face looking to the past and the other looking forward. Our New Years stems from his celebration. Symbolically this seems apt but I’ve been wondering why not the Solstice which marks the 1st official day of winter. The shortest day seems like a great starting point to me. Or, how about the equinox that awesome day when you can balance an egg on its side. These days seem more magical as well as scientific and universal. No one is excused from the rational of science no matter how hard they try.

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Or we could shift our New Year’s around like the Chinese. Perhaps it can reflect our position to the sun. Our next closest pass to the sun will be January 4th. Maybe this is too much for our tweeted generation #Jan4#close to sun#still cold. But no matter when or how we celebrate there are traditions that transcend a date. It could be eating grapes in Spain, lentils in Umbria, crowding into a tiny bar while kissing a perfect or not so perfect stranger or running around the block with luggage in tow for a Colombians hopeful wish of travel. These traditions seem to feel hard wired in our emotional past but whatever they are they always feel like a doorway into another sense of being where anything is possible.

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Tiny Bubbles

When we think of the New Years Eve we think one drink and one drink only, Champagne. This is another puzzle to me. Champagne is truly one of the greatest gifts we have ever given ourselves. It is a perfect match for food pairings and yet it is one that we ignore until a toast is in order. Could it be the toasty quality due to the bottle conditioning? Coincidence perhaps. I am no exception to this however and when we say good bye to one of our Friends in either Saloon or Foundry on Elm I am more than happy to open a bottle of Perrier Joulet Belle Epoque and even though I know how these flavors delicately pair with food I only seem to open them when it’s a special occasion. Perhaps it is the labor and time that goes into Methode Champenoise that makes me reluctant to pop a bottle while eating a ham sandwich (If the bread is toasted it makes be a bangin’ pairing). The story of Champagne goes back to another age millions of years ago.  Old Lang Syne there was an ocean over the region we now call Champagne that left intense calcium deposits and fossilized sea anemones. This gives the wine an immensely mineral backbone with a subtle smoky and saline finish.

Old France

Because it is so cold in Champagne the grapes never ripen like they would elsewhere. The Chardonnay grown here is not the sweet, juicy, tropical flavored profile found in Sonoma, nor is it not the creamy, apply brightness you find in Chablis. Here it is lean, highly acidic and minerally. Pinot Noir, the star of Champagne does not carry the same weight and fruity aromas that it would in warmer climates where it is widely planted either. Yes, I said Pinot Noir. The famous black grape made more famous by a silly movie of two friends in Santa Barbara gives Champagne its sophistication. Why a red grape in a white wine? Bill Russell of Westport Rivers Winery some 40 miles south of Boston once told me “Pinot Noir wants to be a white wine and has all the flavor components of one.  Every now and again it’s willing to be red and when it is it can be the greatest red there is.” I tend to agree with him on this as there is nothing like great burgundy in a great year by a great producer but it is constantly a perfect fit for Sparkling wine. Westport Rivers is nestled close to the shoreline of Horse Neck beach. Not only is this one of the best beaches in Massachusetts with water you can actually swim in but also has some of the geologic compounds found in Champagne. If you ever take a trip down you may notice all the sea shells on the driveway. I would say that he is one of the best sparkling wine producers in the country. He also makes some great beer too.

 

Contrary to popular belief, it was not the famous seventeenth century Dom Perignon who created bubbles in wine, it was actually the simple process of fermentation. When yeast eats sugars they poop alcohol. If stored in an enclosed space the alcohol being a gas has nowhere to go thus Carbon Dioxide is born. What the famous Dom did was understand wine making techniques within the cool climate of Champagne. Like Bill from Westport, Dom Perignon believed that Pinot Noir wanted to be a white grape. He lightly pressed his grapes to have little to no color extraction with the run off juice. These delicate, sparkling wines developed their finesse and elegance with the intuition and foresight of the Monk

 

The most plausible story was told 100 years prior to the most famous Dom’s legend in the Pyrenees region of Limoux (Lee-moo) with once again a group of monks. In 1531 there were detailed descriptions for the production of Blanquette Limoux (little white of Limoux). These wines which are now always frothy were said to have cork stopped flasks’ which was not the common practice of the time, in fact wine was often consumed in a sheep’s bladder. Once bottles became more prevalent the use of cork was the next step to make wine as we know today. Cork itself was easy for the monks to obtain as they bordered a cork forest. Once that piece to the puzzle was solved secondary fermentation that makes what we call sparkling wine would have been easily achieved.

Leave it to the monks to make the best of anything. They truly were and are the keepers of culture, I mean what else is there to do other then make bread, cheese, beer, wine, spirits, cordials, write books, create art and learn. This is almost selling point to me.

 

dom_perignon_mousse_1296602322

Applied Alchemy

Most of the Champagne cocktails we drink today are only sour cocktails finished with a bit of bubbles. I prefer the simplicity of a sugar cube and bitters. The true toasted quality of the wine remains a prominent fixture in the glass. This is a simple play on the classic Champagne cocktail coming from a Foundry/Saloon alumni Tracy Witkin.

The Opening Act (this is an apt name for a New Year’s cocktail)

This is built in a Marie Antoinette rather than a mixing glass

1 sugar cube

3 dashes of Peychauds bitters

3 dashes of Fee Bros. Rhubarb bitters

¾ oz Dubonnet rouge

top with sparkling wine

Awesome_1388426440848 

Whatever your New Years Eve tradition is and whichever resolution you break I wish you all a prosperous and happy 2015 and beyond

Cheers ,

Manny

The Second Call For Last Call

Saloon1“A friend showed me recently an unpublished letter of Henry Clay, written a hundred years ago. In this letter Clay said that the movement for temperance ‘has done great good and will continue to do more’ but ‘it will destroy itself whenever it resorts to coercion or mixes in the politics of the country.’ Franklin D. Roosevelt -August 27th 1932 Sea Girt, New Jersey

I think we all can agree the Prohibition was a complete and utter failure. It destroyed business and created a greater divide among the classes. It was also the catalyst for some of the worst criminals in our Nation’s history. How did it get to that point? Why did the Washington establishment, many of whom drank like fish allow this to happen. It was not as simple as a bunch of prudish do-gooders wielding axes and bibles or cowering politicians on the take. In the end the movement gained momentum because we drank too much, short and simple. Breweries and distillers were completely unregulated. Their fight to stop government from interfering in their profits or their demonetization of the opposing industry toppled their houses of proverbial cards in a drunken stumble. In short, they had it coming.

I think there needs to be some empathy for the Carrie Nations or Henry Clays of the world. The suffering of women, the poor and those who struggle with the drink were often ignored in the name of progress. Just another part of the collective myth that our greatness — or right for greatness — is a birth right, as long as you are born in the right place. We are told this when we are first told anything. In the end, we looked at those who could not control their reaction to alcohol as less than those who could or that it was simply not their fault at all, and by removing the bottle from them we shall solve any issue that lead them to drink in the first place. There are those who still believe that poverty, alcoholism, victims of sexism or a lack of education is a mark of character, not circumstance. So let’s step back for a minute and look at where the greater issues began.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the yada, yada, yada. Ok, maybe not that far back, although I’m sure the Aztecs did not remember the conquistadors after a night of drinking Jerez with much kindness.

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron should be.
When this answer arrived from that jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

These are the words to a tune that Francis Scott Key used to write the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was in fact a famous drinking song. The tune was actually a very common one in London bars. The seeds of over indulgence were already planted in our most prized and renowned sense of being. The only problem was the amount it would be ingrained in our culture and our lack of understanding of the body’s chemical response.

As breweries became more established, taverns popped up all around the country in both large cities and small towns. But not like today. Imagine walking into a tavern with a long oak bar that serves only Bud, or Miller, or PBR. These bars were contracted out or downright owned by major brewers and in great numbers. In some communities there were taverns for every 150 people including children. These were not the posh cocktail bars you might find on E 23rd Street or even a cool subterranean hangout in Somerville, MA. Several of these bars were set up in poorer immigrant neighborhoods where people had little opportunity for the American dream. All they had was beer and whiskey. Some of these places were so dingy and dirty that they reeked of men relieving themselves right at the bar. That’s why those handy little foot rails are by your feet. Bars were so busy that if you had a place at the bar you stayed belly up at the bar. When nature called, you took take a drink, unzipped and order another round. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. Many had a stainless steel troth running along the floor of the bar with a faucet on one end and a drain on the other for just such occasions.

These places also lured people in with the promise of gambling, prostitutes and food — free food. Happy hour is born. The discontent for the immigrant fueled the temperance fire, but there were some good elements to having the ol’ watering hole. Different classes of men could mingle, talk, trade ideas, share a meal or a drink, and if the need arised, have a good old fashioned shoot out. Heck, Thomas Jefferson even wrote the Declaration of Independence at a tavern. But, in the end, the effects of drunken stoopers were too much for the poor women who had to bare the brunt, in many ways, of the good ol’ American bar. Drink responsibly was not in the vernacular.

By 1893 when the Anti-Saloon League formed (kind of like a boring, turn-of-the-century Justice League) the roots of the temperance movement were so widely spread that many states had already  adopted the prohibition model. It was really only a matter of time. What’s funny is that if these brewers and distillers self-regulated and worked together instead of pointing the blame at one another, or if Uncle Sam stepped in when children came home intoxicated (which was common in many communities), this unthinkable and silly solution could easily have been avoided. After all, once you tell someone what they can’t have, they will undoubtedly want it with a vengeance.

Saloon2By 1932, when FDR gave his speech calling for the end of prohibition, the temperance movement had all but fizzled out. As speakeasies grew in popularity, the amount that people drank also grew. But it had become more and more serious as people began drinking beverages that were potentially hazardous. Bathtub gin was the drink of choice. No sazeracs, old fashioneds or Champagne cocktails. This was the time of the sours. These were made to cover the awful flavors of chemically laced spirits.

Canadian whisky was king brown, bars had trap doors, loose floor boards and drop out bar tops. For the first time women who were not ladies of ill repute were allowed to cavort with men in the same bar. The water closet became common place (this was another prohibition first). This was the benefit of the Volstead Act, but raids and gang warfare became a reoccurring theme in 1920s America. When FDR was seeking the presidency the idea that the bible giveth and the bottle taketh away was losing steam. And although that mentality is still at times in our subconscious thought, it was plain to see by its supporters that this great plan for American piety was not working. But alas we live and learn… kinda.

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Saloon3Because brandy would finally be accessible in 1933 I decided to have a go at one of my favorite spirits while writing my little rant here: brandy. Today it’s not fine Cognac, but but rather Spain’s great brandy Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva by Gonzalez-Byass. This is a brandy from Jerez, Spain; better known as sherry (the British bastardization of Jerez pronounced hair-eth). Lepanto is produced in la Frontera de Jerez on the southwestern coast of the country. In a previous blog post we discussed the simple process of brandy being distilled by grapes, so we need to go no further with the basics other than it is the Palomino grape used here, and as the name implies, it is the work horse of Jerez.

The brandy is aged in a system of barrels called solera. This is when you layer oak casks on top of one another. They are all connected and when the bottom batch is ready to be bottled the upper levels of spirit filter down unto the level below, then new batch is added to the top. This will always keep a constant flow of brandy present in barrel. No matter when you start your solera the first wine — or in this case brandy — will always be present in the casks. This will maintain a very steady style of brandy. Because it is aged for 12 years in used Jerez barrels, there is a rich nuttiness on the nose with notes of brown sugar, flan and caramel. The mouth feel is broad and well-structured. It is not the custom of brandy producers to have too much alcohol in the bottle, so the mellow 40 % leaves a creamy texture on the palate. The flan comes through on the mid palate with notes of butterscotch and soft nutmeg on the finish. It is warming without imposing any heat to the chest. It is complex and balanced, and the flavors linger on with a little bit of Mexican chocolate, vanilla and burnt orange peel.

Applied Alchemy

I was originally going to make a riff on the Sidecar as it would have been commonly consumed by prohibition’s repeal, but I opted, by the advice of a friend, to create an Old Fashioned instead. Because there is a subtle elegance in the glass, I wanted to have a relaxed cocktail, I also wanted to bring out some of the richer Jerez-oaked notes and play on the nuttier aromatics by using Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters in conjunction with the brighter spice if Angostura orange

Saloon4Pedro’s Angel
Gently muddle one slice of Clementine and one Luxardo Maraschino cherry with 2 dashes of Fee Brothers  Black Walnut bitters and 2 dashes of Angostura Orange bitters

  • 2 oz Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva Jerez Brandy
  • 1/2 oz Gonzalez-Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Jerez
  • 1/4 oz Bigalett China-China

Add ice and stir and roll into a double rocks glass

Turning 21

Saloon5Thursday, December 5th  is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. The 21st Amendment brought a lot of changes for much of the drinking culture in the United States. What we now call the Old Fashioned was given its fruit; the larger brewers who could afford to sell soda instead of beer were able to maintain an empire of watery, weak beer as smaller breweries waited in the shadows until the mid 1990s. The wine world lost a lot of footing and unless your name was Paul Mason or Gallo your “Boutique” label would have to wait its turn for the flavors of Reunite on ice to run its course. But with every slow evolution comes a strong revolution. We are now on the footsteps of great distillers, brewers and wine makers. Unlike the German brewer, Scottish distiller or French wine maker we have been given license to innovate. This is why some of the best distillers, brewers and wine makers throughout the old world have begun to see refuge in our colony of libations. Hopefully they are met with more kindness than their predecessors were 200 years ago.