Monday, March 30, 2015

Expert Level

Here's a simple, straightforward cocktail that really took off after an unexpected twist.

2 oz pear-infused gin
3/4 oz cinnamon syrup
1 oz lemon juice

Shake and strain into a double old-fashioned glass over a large ice cube; top with 2 oz Fulton Expat.

I originally tried topping this with good old soda water, but that fell somewhat flat; the Expat added welcome spice, bitterness, and body that really kicked this into the stratosphere. If you can't get the Expat, a decent Belgian dubbel and a dash of bitters ought to do.

Man, I dig a good beer cocktail; an unexpected success is even better.


I'll admit: this is nothing more than a Jerry Thomas-style Improved Cocktail as applied to a Japanese whiskey. But damn if it isn't one of the most suitable spirits I've performed this treatment on. It's smoky and light and floral; a perfect match for the accenting liqueurs.

2 oz Japanese whiskey (Akashi White Oak)
1/4 oz citrus syrup
1 dash maraschino liqueur (Luxardo, duh)
1 dash absinthe (4-5 squirts from an atomizer)
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Stir and strain in a cocktail glass over a large ice cube; garnish with a large strip of lemon peel.

Master Martinez

In the vein of the Best Boulevardier, here's a revised take on a classic that absolutely dominates other drinks that share its name. I'm a big fan of the Martinez, but this is the best one that I've come up with yet.

1 1/2 oz Tanqueray Malacca (there is no substitute)
1/2 oz barrel-aged kirschwasser
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica, because it's worth it)
1 dash maraschino liqueur (Luxardo, duh)
1 dash cinnamon syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass; garnish with a lemon twist (check out the channel knife; haven't used that in a while!) and sip slowly.

Sorry about the kirschwasser; it's something you'll have to make age at home yourself, but it's totally worth it. Some brief time in oak really does help to round off the raw edges of the kirsch and mixes very nicely with the vermouth.

Desert Gourd

This one just kind of emerged out of an extra egg white, extra tequila (the best kind), and a random syrup hanging about in the fridge. Turned out pretty dang well.

2 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz brown sugar-butternut squash syrup
1/4 oz orange curacao
1 oz lime juice
1/2 egg white (good luck dividing that; you'll just have to make two)

Combine and shake without ice, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a rocks glass over a couple of extra cubes. Do not even consider garnishing, unless it's with a little bit of grated nutmeg and lime peel. Which it should be.

Frankly, I would have loved to try this with mezcal and a couple dashes of chocolate bitters... but you do what you can with what you have.


Been quiet around here lately! I had a (read: only) regular reader call me out on this the other day. You know who you are.

Anyway. It's not like I haven't been drinking (perish the thought!) so much as I haven't been writing. Let's clear out the backlog a little, eh?

Best to enjoy it while we can; the wife and I are planning on a few weeks of relative sobriety in April, so we may wind up with another Mocktail Week scenario. This is not a bad thing; it has to happen sometimes, so let's enjoy it to the best of our ability.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

MxMo XCV: Oat-Fashioned

I've been thinking for a while about throwing in on a Mixology Monday as a way to challenge myself. Well, folks, the time has arrived! I only just spotted this month's theme via Cocktail Virgin Slut's submission, but since the old-fashioned is my hands-down favorite cocktail category, I knew I had to give it a go.

This theme was picked by Laura of the Sass & Gin blog (what a name!) whose announcement summed it up like so:
The Old Fashioned is the original "cock tail," dating to the early 1800's. In this humble bartender's opinion, it is the pater familias of all other drinks, and it has taken its place as such in the recent cocktail revival. We have seen many variations of the Old Fashioned (i.e. Mayahuel's Oaxaca Old Fashioned, PDT's Benton's Old Fashioned) and the resurgence of similar cocktails (i.e. the Sazerac). The bitter's market has exploded over the last decade, with more flavor profiles than ever before, and with a more health-conscious public, your local grocery store is likely to carry a selection of sugars to play with (agave, coconut sugar, turbinado, etc).

So, here's the challenge: We will be sticking to the traditional ratios of spirit, bitters and sugar, but I'm challenging you to step outside the box with your selections. In addition, how will it be chilled or garnished? Do you want to add a secondary spirit or rinse? Go to town!
Since I've had a few odd whiskeys rattling around lately, I figured I'd give one of those a shot in an old-fashioned rendition. We've had a (relative) heat wave here in MN over the last week, and I was feeling oddly nostalgic for winter today, so I also wanted to stick with some really robust, dark flavors as a send-off. Koval Oat was the immediate choice of spirit for its deep, distinctive grain character, and to emphasize that further I added in a small splash of the darkest liqueur I had on the shelf: the pitch-black Sicilian amaro Averna, which has a great licorice-and-orange flavor, serving as both a backup sweetener and secondary bitters here. As for syrup, I had a bit of a beautifully rich squash syrup hanging around that seemed the only logical selection.

2 oz Koval Oat Whiskey
1/3 oz brown sugar-butternut squash simple syrup (1:1)
1 dash Averna (call it 1/6 oz, or a barspoon)
1 dash Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter bitters

Build over a large ice cube in a double old-fashioned glass and stir to chill. Garnish for once with a prettily cut strip of orange peel; sometimes it pays to be presentable.

I really dig the oat presence that hangs around from start to finish here, backed up by the buttery notes from the squash syrup, the richness of the brown sugar, and the licorice twang of the Averna. Koval Oat isn't an especially spicy whiskey, so it might also be fun to bring more dark-spice notes in with something like an allspice dram. I suppose that'll have to wait for another day, since we're on a deadline here...

So, kudos to Laura for picking a theme that dragged me off the fence, and cheers to the Mixology Monday folks for running this fun event. Hopefully I'll have more submissions to come!

p.s. Here's the roundup post if you're looking for the other entries. Lots of tasty-looking stuff...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Spirits: Weird Whiskey

This time I don't have to argue about my spelling of whiskey. These are strictly American products, but they are funky samples of the lot. Or maybe they're just showing the range of the term; after all, "whiskey" can be made of just about any grain that can be fermented and distilled. Most of the big categories have some definition about what grain that can be. Scotch, for instance, is (primarily) malted barley; bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Others have strict requirements around how the spirit can be aged (bourbon, again, must be aged in fresh charred oak barrels). But just because something falls outside those boundaries doesn't make it bad, just different.

There are a lot of good craft distilleries popping up, and many are taking advantage of the room for experimentation when working on a smaller scale. This means more products popping up that skirt the boundaries of traditionally defined spirits. I like this maverick approach, because I think it's laudable to support small businesses, I have some pretty esoteric preferences, and sometimes those distillers hit on a real winner. Like the oddities below.

Koval Oat Whiskey

About: Koval Distillery gets bragging rights as the first distiller operating in Chicago in over a hundred years, though there are more recent others whose products I also quite enjoy. They're all about small-batch, single-barrel, hand-produced stuff, which to me defines the term "craft" and which I can solidly get behind. They also seem to like trying out new stuff, hence this whiskey produced from 100% oats. There might be a couple other oat whiskeys out there, but I can't recall seeing any of them on shelves. (That's not even the weirdest product Koval makes; they also produce a whiskey made from millet, a grain which I used to feed to my parakeets, and an eau-de-vie made from sunchokes, which... I mean, what the fuck?)

Tasting Notes: This is different from classic bourbon in the same sense as rye whiskey, only... well, oats. Okay, that's simplistic, but it's also true. There is a hard-to-define robustness about this one which puts me in mind of good, slow-cooked oatmeal, the real deal made from steel-cut oats. It's a little bit musty and off-putting on the nose, but the palate picks up with that oat character, some rich caramel notes, and a little vanilla. The vanilla hangs around and builds up a marshmallow-ish character that reminds me of maraschino liqueur, which carries on into the spicy, lingering finish. I can't wait to try this in an old-fashioned with a touch of maple syrup (and maybe a coffee bitters).

Temperance Trader Chinato Barrel Aged Bourbon

About: Temperance Trader hails from the Bull Run Distillery in Portland, Oregon; or it mostly does, anyway. The base whiskey itself is a fairly high-rye bourbon that's actually distilled in Indiana, but it's aged, bottled, and cut down to proof by Bull Run using the same water that supplies the city of Portland. This particular curiosity (which is experimental enough to not even be listed on Bull Run's website) additionally gets aged in barrels supplied by a local winemaker after being used to age their chinato. This is the Italian term for what I'd normally call a "quina", a fortified wine flavored with cinchona bark, modeled after the well-renowned Barolo Chinato. As soon as I saw that, I didn't care that it was a tiny bottle, I just had to have it.

Tasting Notes: The nose on this is shockingly like smelling a really robust vermouth; rich, herbal, full of caramel. At the end, there's a nice burn and bourbon smokiness to remind you that this is a spirit, after all. On the palate, there's a curious inversion; it tastes initially like a fairly straightforward bourbon, maybe a little sweet for me, stuffed with vanilla and sweet dried fruits, notably dates. But then it starts to pick up the spicy notes of the rye, and with that comes faint tannin and sweet spices from the chinato aging. The finish is a hybrid, smoky and lingering like good bourbon but also strangely flowery (I think of rosehips for some reason). Weird stuff. I'm not sure how much I'd like the base bourbon on its own, but the chinato finishing really puts a unique spin on it.

Dry Fly Straight Triticale Whiskey

About: Dry Fly is a true, small-scale craft distillery based in Spokane, Washington, with a big focus on local sourcing of their ingredients. All the grain, for example, comes from regional farms (which explains their heavy reliance on wheat) and their tasty gin is flavored with local botanicals too. Their products don't typically go too far off the deep end, but this is one of the more interesting, made from a hybrid of wheat and rye. Not a blend of rye and wheat whiskeys, mind you; this is made from 100% triticale, an unusual grain developed in Scotland by crossing wheat and rye strains. Most definitely a unique product! What's more, these guys seem really focused on spreading the gospel of craft distilling; they're the only distiller I've run across that actually offers an in-depth course on starting up a distilling operation. Kudos, gentlemen.

Tasting Notes: A lot like a bourbon on the nose, really; I'd guess they use the same aging process as their classic bourbon and wheat whiskey products. There's a note of intense gingerbread there that I really like. The palate is a funky hybrid (shocking, I know) which starts off with a soft, yeasty bread character, backed up quickly by peppery rye, complemented by notes of dried apple, orange zest, and ginger. The oak comes out as it sits on your palate, but that rye spice carries on into a drawn-out finish, slightly bitter and backed up by the wheat roundness to produce a sort of pumpernickel flavor. My only complaint is that finish is a bit hot and mouth-drying, but that's no surprise given that this only spends about two years in oak. I hope they've got some on reserve, because it would be really cool to see what happens to this after several years in the barrel.

Honestly, kids, this isn't even the beginning; it's weird whiskeys all the way down. Why, not even a day ago we covered a whole series of unusual whiskeys I sampled at Rathskeller. Elsewhere on this blog we've seen Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, which is a solid, readily available bourbon substitute. Most whiskey nerds will already know about Angel's Envy Bourbon, which is finished in port barrels; to be honest, I didn't care for it, but their less common rum-finished rye is fucking incredible. I'll gladly recommend Panther Distillery's Pike Street Bourbon as a great local option, and it doesn't stop there. Weird whiskeys everywhere, and so many good ones to try!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Adventures: Duluth

I've been a little coy about discussing my location, and honestly, I'm not really sure why. It's not like anyone other than close friends reads this little booze-diary of mine, and it would take a lot more drinking to convince me I'm worthy of stalking. As in, hallucinogenic levels of alcohol.

Hence, this entire post is dedicated to our recent drive up to Duluth, a little jaunt that we mostly planned around teaching my wife to ski. However, as it turns out, skiing's kind of a daytime activity, which left the nighttime to wander around seeking out local watering holes. Fortunately we'd done a little scouting in advance and stayed down on Canal Street, a lively little part of downtown with many a brewpub in walking distance.

And a craft distillery to boot! One of the first places we visited was Vikre Distillery, whose products I've written about before. They've also got a neat little tasting room out front, outfitted in very chic Scandinavian style; think Bauhaus meets North Woods, which is funky but cool. It's tiny, with a small bar and a lounge area for maybe 20, separated from the actual distillery area only by large sliding-glass panels. This gave me ample opportunity to nerd out on stills while sipping on a couple nicely-executed cocktails and a neat little tasting flight of gins and aquavit. The whole place is homey and comfortable, and I was really surprised by the obvious skill of the bartender (whose name I didn't manage to catch) as he turned out drinks using house-made everything. (Apparently this is a legal requirement of the law that allowed such cocktail tasting rooms.) I also managed to spot a couple big casks stamped with port labels lined up along a wall; I'd bet that Vikre have a port-finished something-or-other in the works, and I'm pretty excited to see the end result! You heard it here first.

Right next to our hotel was the Canal Park Brewing Co., so we pretty much had to stop by and take home a growler. We tried most everything on tap over a couple of visits, and the Greedy Bastard Black IPA was our stand-out favorite. We also popped by the Bent Paddle taproom for an apres-ski beer (and additional growler) one afternoon. But perhaps the best pub we tried was the 7 West Taproom, a really basic-looking place with a surprisingly extensive beer list. They also have a neat sampling method: write your beers directly onto a paddle with dry-erase marker, receive tasting pours of said beer.

Still, nothing held a candle to our favorite place: a beautiful, historic basement bar called the Rathskeller.

I doubt you can appreciate how much I wish this place was located closer to home. We might get into a lot of trouble down there. A bit of explanation: the bar itself is located in the sub-basement of Tycoon's Alehouse, a restaurant situated in Duluth's 1890s-era town hall. The name is a German term for a drinking establishment located in the basement of a city hall (I love such fantastically precise German words) and, true to form, this one is about 20 feet below street level in an old cellar which was apparently once used as a temporary jailhouse. There's no signage; instead, you must weave your way back to an elevator at the back of Tycoon's, and hit the button ominously marked "-1". We only knew about the place thanks to a tip from one of our regular bartenders down at my favorite pub back home.

My god, but this place is cool. The shot above shows about half the lounge area, which is laid out with plush chairs in-between mortared columns with thick arches, with a bar laid out along a wall. On that bar is a well-curated selection of whiskeys, which I did my best to taste through.
No, seriously: I made a pretty good dent. Granted, it took two separate visits (or more accurately, after the first visit, we really wanted to come back for more) but I sampled just about every whiskey on that bar that I hadn't tried before.

Here's just a sample, the highlights of the first evening. First among these, to the left: Bushmills 1608, a blend created to commemorate the distillery's 400th anniversary (yeah). This, frankly, might be the absolute best Irish whiskey I've ever sampled. Rich, spicy, smooth, malty, slightly peaty; absolutely delicious sippin' whiskey, and a really unique Irish blend. In the center: Prichard's Double Chocolate Bourbon, a really nice, rich whiskey with a ton of chocolate on the nose. Despite that, it's very nicely balanced on the palate, with just some touches of bitter chocolate on the finish. On the right is something really cool: a custom Woodford Reserve blend developed specifically for Tycoon's. Apparently, the head brewer at Fitger's Brewhouse (who also has a stake in Rathskeller) regularly visits the Woodford distillery, and on his last trip developed a custom blend from different barrels! Not too far off from the base Woodford formula, but spicier, and not something you're going to find anywhere else.

Honestly, though, the best part of the whole adventure was the company we found. First, the bartender at Rathskeller, a knowledgeable and welcoming barman by the name of Cade. He knew his stuff inside and out, and was happy to accommodate my indecision. When we visited on the second evening, he not only remembered the bottles I'd tried, but my wife's whiskey preference too, and he was happy to pull down all of the bottles so that I could snap pictures. Now that's a good bartender.

Second, in a bizarre coincidence, we ran into the very same dude from the pub who recommended Rathskeller to us in the first place, in addition to our other regular bartender and their lady friends. Kudos to Jeff and Evan for their fine taste, as always. For once, I got to buy them a drink, and we had a hell of a time chilling out. That was most definitely a pleasant surprise!

Overall, it was a hell of a trip. I don't know when we'll make it up to Duluth again, but when we do, you'll very likely find us at one of these spots again.