Monday, November 23, 2015

Spirits: Widely Varied Rums

This is a post that I've been wanting to do for a while, in part because it celebrates a spirit that I think is under-appreciated by the drinking public at large, and in part as a rehearsal. After a year's hiatus, a good friend (most of those reading this will know exactly who, but this is the internet, so let's keep things comfortably anonymous) has invited me back to run another holiday party drink extravaganza! I am wildly excited, given what a blast I've had doing these events to date.

One of the best old-fashioneds I've had in recent memory is a rum variant, and I decided that I'd do my own as part of the lineup for this event. It's a great place to dive in, because it allows for some context around the history and ultimate simplicity of the old-fashioned format. It also provides for a springboard into rum, showing off its historical pedigree, the amazing quality that's available today, and how it can be superbly applied in cocktails. That's what I want to get into with this intro, which will be much longer than what I'd ultimately deliver live (don't worry, Mystery Friend, I'm not planning an extended lecture here) but the written format gives me a chance to structure and lay out my history. Stick with me, we'll get to some tasting soon too.

So: Rum. The origin of the name is unknown and sports many colorful theories (as with so many boozy terms) but the term starts appearing in the 1600s, often alongside the even more delightful "kill-devil". This gives a clue for how it was perceived: rough, fiery, potent, and unsavory, a stigma that clings to it even today.

Rum is, by definition, a distillate made from sugarcane, usually from molasses (we'll talk about exceptions later). As it turns out, since yeast eats sugar, sugarcane will ferment very nicely, and that's been known for thousands of years; a fermented sugarcane drink called brum has been produced by the Malay people for ages. But more relevant to us, the same fact was re-discovered on early American colonial sugar plantations. Somebody noticed that the molasses (produced as a byproduct of sugar refining) fermented nicely if allowed to sit in the tropical heat; somebody else then had the genius idea to distill the resulting alcohol, concentrating and preserving it.

What we now call "rum" was born, and it quickly became associated with the sailors who conducted trade in sugar and slaves during the Colonial period. Rum became a hot commodity in the notorious slave trade that fueled Europe's economic expansion, to the point where the term "rum triangle" became synonymous with the routes. Sugar (along with rum) and other raw materials were shipped to Europe; finished goods like textiles and guns were shipped to Africa; slaves were shipped in horrifying conditions to work the sugar plantations in the Americas, and the whole thing went round again. As the New England colonies grew, a modified route also developed that shipped sugar to New England (to be fermented and distilled), rum and goods to Africa, and slaves back to the West Indies and Caribbean. This isn't exactly the most savory backstory, but it shows you that rum had heft. It was a major export, which together with cotton and tobacco provided an economic engine driving growth in the early American Colonies.  Today's world might look very different without it.

Part of the reason for this popularity is that rum was one of the few distillates available at the time. Whiskey was perhaps being produced in small quantities in the rocky Scottish and Irish islands, but in a rough and barely palatable form. The column still used to produce clear spirits like vodka and gin hadn't been invented yet. That left brandy, which was expensive, and more importantly for the British, it was foreign. Rum provided a viable alternative, being made from sugarcane in colonies largely controlled by the British. That in turn provided fuel for a navy full of thirsty sailors.

It seems odd today that a massive military operation could be essentially powered by booze, but it's true. Consider the conditions. Voyages of any kind across the ocean took weeks or months, and you had to bring all your provisions along with enough space left over for cargo. Crewing a ship took dozens of men, which on the ocean meant not only food but hydration. Before the days of effective filtration and storage methods, fresh water could become corrupted and spread disease after a few weeks. Instead, ships carried beer (and wine for the officers) which kept longer due to its alcoholic content, and also provided some nutrition - indeed, a significant portion of the average sailor's daily caloric intake came from beer. But beer was no less bulky than water, and would go off if kept for any length of time in the hot and stuffy hold of a ship.

Eventually, British vessels began to carry spirits as well, which took up less cargo space, kept pretty much indefinitely, and which could be used to supplement stocks of fresh water as available. David Wondrich's Punch! makes a pretty compelling case for punch (the original mixed drink!) being born out of spirits mixed with water to cut down their proof, a concoction known as "grog". Often this was spiked with citrus to combat scurvy, and sweetened for taste. At first grog used a Javanese distillate called arrack, but rum provided a close substitute that was much easier to find on voyages to and from the Americas. Eventually ships were supplied with even cheaper gin, but not before rum became firmly entrenched as a sailor's drink. In other words, rum was a sort of military technology, one that kept sailors hydrated, entertained, and scurvy-free when combined with citrus. It helped to power the single greatest navy on the seas, strengthening the British Empire and shaping the history of the Western world. How's that for heft?

But, back to the modern world. Rum is nowadays produced primarily in the Caribbean islands that hosted the sugar plantations where it was born. Some newer US-based micro-distilleries also make rum, but the producers operating in New England during early colonial days have been supplanted by whiskey distillers. With such extensive history, it's perhaps no big surprise that rum styles have diverged and diffused over the centuries, and just about every island has its own take on the concept. Some use column stills to mass-produce a light, airy product; others stick to older pot stills of unique and arcane design. Some carefully blend different varieties for a smooth, sippable product; others like more spice and bite. Most of what we call "rum" is produced from molasses, but there are variations such as rhum agricole (produced on former French colonies, such as Haiti and Martinique) and cachaça (produced in Brazil) are made from fermented whole sugarcane juice instead, which hasn't been processed to refine out the pure sugar. That stuff is a whole different beast in terms of flavor, and less common here in the US anyway.

Just as there's wide variation in style between American, Scottish, Irish (not to mention Canadian and Japanese) whiskeys, there are many different renditions of rum, and it's instructive to taste them next to each other. Or, at least, that's the conceit that I'm operating under. Hence, here are three different rums from three different islands. All three are produced from molasses, moderately aged, and can be found for $25-35 apiece. I consider them all solid, everyday, multi-purpose rums, but they are far from identical, as we'll see.

Plantation Grande Reserve 5 Year Old

About: Let's start with an easy one, made in the tiny island nation of Barbados. Despite the island's history as a British colony, the rum itself is bottled by Pierre Ferrand, a French cognac producer who also imports one of my favorite white rums and one of my highly prized sipping rums. So I may be biased, but this rum earns points for being a smooth, straightforward product that does very nicely in cocktails while being perfectly enjoyable on its own. It's aged in bourbon barrels in the Caribbean climate, then gets "refined" in French oak casks. The website suggests that the 5 years on the label is all in the bourbon barrels, so I'm not sure what exactly that last part means, but it has a definite impact on the final flavor.

Tasting Notes: Perhaps predictably, this rum has a lot in common with a relatively-young cognac. It's sweet up front, with a solid apple-pie core, but laced with the ineffable haut goût (or "hogo" in rum terms) which is really difficult to define but often sought-after both in older brandies and in rum. There's not a ton here, but it's noticeable, and it opens up the tropical-spicy flavors that begin to dominate the palate. Lots of guava, clove, allspice, vanilla, and a little whiff of coconut too. The finish ends just a little bit spicy, which is enough to draw you in and take another breath of the guava-apple-allspice nose again and start the process all over. This is a bit too smooth for Tiki-style drinks or anything with a lot of citrus, since those are basically designed to compensate for rougher rums, but it's a really good choice for off-beat mixing in stirred drinks (like a rum old-fashioned) and it's a solid sipping rum if you don't want to break the bank.

Pyrat XO Reserve

About: Pyrat is bottled by Patrón (a company you may have heard of) and is sourced from Guyana. No, not the French one, the other one; did you know there were two Guyanas in South America? The distillate is undoubtedly a modern product, as seen below; the bottle, as seen to the left, is a squat pirate fantasy not designed with bartenders in mind. Also pay no attention to the "XO" on the bottle; the use of such grading terms is traditional for brandy, but totally unregulated outside of the French tradition, perhaps doubly so in a former British colony. So there's a lot of questionable branding going on here, but it's not a bad entry-level product inside.

Tasting Notes: This is a less subtle beast than the Plantation, but it has lots of the same sweetness up front. The nose is somewhere between root beer and ginger ale, with a strong whiff of lime peel. It tastes unsurprisingly of molasses, loaded with nutmeg, star anise, allspice, and ginger, which gets sweeter as it sits on the palate. Gradually this develops into a strong sweet orange quality, reminiscent of orange liqueur, with some tropical fruit (papaya?) and funky hogo in the background. Notice a pattern? The sweetness is really overwhelming by the end, but that actually makes it a decent dessert rum, possibly very nice for a rum cake or other confectionery. Pyrat also fits nicely into a Tiki cocktail blend; I'd definitely like this offset with another dry, overproof rum and plenty of citrus.

Matusalem Gran Reserva

About: Although this one says "Cuba" on the bottle, it's actually made in the Dominican Republic, Cuban imports being embargoed until recently. As it turns out, a number of Cuban rum producers left the country after the revolution (you've heard of Bacardi, right?) and set up shop in neighboring countries to continue their trade. The "15 years" on the bottle isn't the same minimum age that you'll find on whiskey; it's an estimated average, as this is produced using the solera system. Also used for sherry, madiera, and other dessert wines, this is a method by which the product is fed from barrel to barrel and continuously blended; because the barrels are never fully drained, this means that some fraction of the distillate could be much older than the date on the bottle, though none is exactly as old as stated.

Tasting Notes: My initial impression is that this tastes older than either of the preceding rums. It's restrained, with a noticeable presence of oak, or cigar box maybe. The nose has little bits of coffee, vanilla, raisin, nutmeg, and orange peel, without any one overwhelming the whole. On the palate, it's the driest rum here, with only a little residual raisin and toffee sweetness not quite balancing things out and leaving the texture little thin. The flavor is as complex as the nose; dried orange, allspice, and vanilla start out, with coffee, tobacco, and oak following but not predominating. The allspice builds toward the finish and the bitter toffee quality returns too, leading things out nicely. The only thing really missing is hogo, which makes this less appropriate as a traditional Tiki rum, but the smoothness is great for mixing in simple cocktails. I particularly like a rum Boulevardier variation* which lets the bitter qualities shine while reinforcing with sweetness.

*2 oz aged rum, 1 oz Campari (or similar), 1 oz (good) sweet vermouth, 1 dash orange bitters, assembled over a large ice cube. Let's call this one a Privateer, though I'm sure there are plenty other cocktails with that name.

So: rum is pretty variable stuff! Keep in mind that this is just one moderately-aged subset of rums; there's much more variation between categories than displayed here. I'm looking forward to talking about it, among many other things.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sour Grapes

It's been a while since I've written up an actual drink! Feels a little... nostalgic. Lately I've been making relatively simple cocktails, and it's not too often that one jumps out and grabs my attention. This is a very welcome exception, so much so that I had to get it down.

1 1/2 oz G'Vine Nouaison gin (we'll do a writeup on this soon too)
3/4 oz red wine
3/4 oz tamarind syrup (I'd have loved to use a sour grape syrup, but this is close enough)
3/4 oz lime juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Yum. A really nice, simple take on a gin sour that also tastes shockingly of grape.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Spirits: Koval Distillery Whiskeys

In August, the wife and I took a trip to Chicago for our anniversary. I had every intention of writing up the entire trip, I swear, but somehow life intervened and that post simply never happened. But, I did manage to bring a couple souvenirs home from our final stop just before skipping town: the distillery and sampling room at Koval Distillery.

I've talked about a couple of Koval's unusual products before, but the visit was a real education in just how odd their stuff is. The distillery was founded by a wife-husband duo who hail from Austrian families with a history of distilling brandy, which in Europe generally means trying to capture the nuances of a specific fruit in their distillate. I love such unaged European brandies, and it's really interesting to see how the approach translates to distilling whiskey from grain.

Practically, what this means is that Koval uses only 60% of the total output of their still to make each batch of whiskey, using what's known as the "heart". (It's probably worth noting that their main still is much bigger than the display model seen to the left.) The 10% toxic "heads" which come out first get used to clean the floors, and the 30% largely flavorless "tails" that come last get collected and re-distilled into vodka. Thrifty! Their barrels are smaller than the 55 gallon model used by most domestic bourbon distillers. Instead Koval ages for about 2 years in smaller 30 gallon barrels (made in Minnesota) with a variety of finishes.

And that finish, I'd say, is one of the things that makes Koval's product so interesting. They distill using a variety of interesting grains, all of them carefully sources and certified organic, but in the tasting room you get to try differently-aged samples: the same whiskey, from the same grain, in three totally different expressions.

This color difference gives you a preview of what's to come. The white whiskey on the left is aged for a single day (apparently legally required to label it "whiskey") and no more; the other two are aged for about two years. In the middle is a "toasted" barrel expression, with no char on the inside of the barrel; on the right a bourbon barrel with a classically charred interior. This makes for a shocking difference in the finished product.

Now, these are also distilled from different grains, but having sampled practically every combination available at the tasting room (at the encouragement of my long-suffering wife) I can tell you that the finish makes just as much difference than the source grain. Let's not belabor this with the format that I've kept to in other spirit reviews, because the different styles that these represent are as interesting as the specific whiskies I brought home.

First, the white whiskey. I'm usually suspicious of white whiskeys, since they have a reputation for roughness thanks to the infamous poor quality of moonshine. In truth, there are a surprising and growing number of quality minimally-aged whiskies out there (High West calls them "silver whiskey" in a superb branding move) and Koval's are easily the best I've ever tried. These are essentially fresh off the still, having been aged only in barrel for a single day, which is apparently legally required in order to label them with the term "whiskey". Essentially, they're the pure stuff, as close to a straight expression of the grain as it's possible to get.

The Oat version that I brought home is sweeter on the nose than other new-make whiskies, bordering on the round sweetness of a classic eau-de-vie, only... tropical, somehow. The body is beautifully smooth and creamy, without a hint of burn; the grain is a predominant flavor, providing a persistent sweet quality reminiscent of oatmeal (duh). As it sits on your palate there are little pops of maple, vanilla, apple pie, guava, and a growing spicy character (think allspice and white pepper) that lingers into an extended finish. From what I recall of the other white whiskies, they differ mostly in the details; the rye is unsurprisingly spicier, for example, but shares the same impeccably smooth, silky-sweet palate. Every single one is amazingly smooth and delicate for such fresh spirit, a great testament to Koval's distilling practices.

Second, we've got Koval's Toasted Barrel expressions, which were the most exciting find for me. This whiskey is distilled just like the others, then decanted and aged in barrels whose oak staves are briefly heated to "open up" the wood grain without developing the char characteristic of bourbon barrels. It's instructive because even though it's produced in the same fashion and aged for the same length of time, the result is totally different from the other styles. That's easily seen in the pale gold color, which resembles scotch or a delicate Irish whiskey more than it does most caramel-brown American whiskey.

Out of the available options, I chose the Spelt to take home (made from a subspecies of wheat) because it was the most unique of the available grains and also because it edged most into complex, delicate scotch whiskey territory. As with all of Koval's products, it's a little sweet and grainy on the nose, but also carries a pleasantly sawdusty aroma like fresh-cut wood. That's reflected on the palate, which is delicately sweet at first with notes of nougat like a good Irish whiskey, touched up with a vaguely floral note, like a very subtle chamomile. A spicy presence grows and grows, with intensely peppery notes and the drying presence of the wood tannins, all against a backdrop of honey, wheat, and a bitter-herbal character that puts me in mind of absinthe. It's one of the sweeter toasted barrel versions, less spicy than the rye, less floral than the millet, and I can't think of a single other whiskey I've tried made from spelt, so it gets points for uniqueness too. The only problem is that it's a very limited release, quite possibly sold only at the Koval distillery, and I've been unable to find it anywhere locally.

Finally, though by no means last, are the more traditionally styled whiskies aged in charred oak barrels, in the same fashion as bourbon (in fact, bourbon is included among them, but distinguishes itself by using millet in the mash). Again, these are aged in small barrels for a shorter amount of time than larger producers. The size of the barrel, and the resulting increase in surface contact, is partly what produces the classic rich caramel color despite only about two years in oak. But don't worry - the flavor is still distinctively Koval.

My selection of these was the Four Grains whiskey, made from a combined mash of oat, barley, rye, and wheat (what proportion of each isn't specified). This strikes an intriguing balance between the qualities of all those constituent grains. It's spicy and fruity on the nose from the rye, with big hints of orange peel and malt. Sweetness is immediately evident on the palate, in a fruity/floral combination that reminds me a lot of maraschino liqueur with some honeyish acidity. It grows increasingly grainy in a breakfast-cereal sort of way, with the airy quality that I always associate with wheated whiskies, and a light undercurrent of char. Eventually it turns to cinnamon and nutmeg, and winds up in an intensely peppery and lingering finish with a hint of licorice. It's one hell of a whiskey with a lot going on, though it maintains the sweet fruitiness consistent with Koval's other expressions. This bottling, fortunately, is one of the easier versions to find, and well worth hunting down!

All three of these (and the expressions that they represent) are excellent products, and Koval a very welcoming distillery. I highly recommend visiting! You can taste to your heart's content, view the workings of a true craft distillery, and pick up products that can't be found anywhere else. For us, it was the perfect endcap to our vacation.