Friday, October 31, 2014

Beginner's Flight: Vodka

This is going to be a series of posts about how to start sampling different types of spirits if you are a beginner drinker. What's the difference between bourbon, scotch, and Irish whiskey. How is London dry gin different from American or Indian made gin? The best way to figure out what you like is to go out and try things. With so many options out there I thought it would be nice to give newbies a jumping-off point into their world of spirits. I'm trying to find bottles that are available at nearly every liquor store or can be procured easily enough. Today, I'm talking about vodka. 

A lot of people think that vodka is just booze that's meant to be mixed and can't really be appreciated. I hope a little sampling of straight vodka can change their minds. These vodkas should be enjoyed neat if you want to really figure out the differences between them.

1. Grey Goose. 
This is a fairly new vodka to hit the shelves french made but has already made a big splash into the market. Grey goose uses an interesting recipe featuring French wheat fairly prominently and using water from the cognac. It has a very smooth almost floral citrus nature. This is a favorite for a great many vodka drinkers due to its light nature.

2. Ketel One. 
This vodka goes all the way back to a distillery in the Netherlands from 1691. Its current recipe is only about 30 years old, however. It again uses European wheat. This one does have a bit more of a tingle to it than Grey Goose. I find that this feels a bit more authentic than the french made GG.

3. Chopin.

This is actually a personal favorite vodka of mine. It is a polish made potato vodka. It has an almost creamy texture to it. Many people think all vodka is made from potatoes. Most really aren't; they are made from various grains from region to region. That oily nature does still leave a little burn in the back of the throat. The mouthfeel of this vodka is truly unique.

4. Smirnoff (red label). 
This is actually one of the oldest Russian vodkas in production today though in fairness it is now made all over, including the United Kingdom and the US. The price point is cheap and it is quite versatile in cocktails. Smirnoff is probably the highest distributed vodka in the US. That said, when drank straight against any more premium brand one can really see a difference in smoothness and flavor.

Special mentions to: Russian Standard, Tito's, Belvedere, Ciroc, Absolut

I believe that if life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade... And try to find somebody whose life has given them vodka, and have a party.
- Ron "Tater Salad" White

Photo Credit: pxfuel, Me Pixels

Friday, October 24, 2014

Tequila 101: What's the difference?

A lot of people just regard tequila as one simple spirit and in fairness, many cocktail recipes do see it as such. When a recipe calls for tequila it is usually totally up in the air whether it would be best with an aged tequila or a Blanco, a mixto or 100%, or even nice mescal instead. Tequila does have a number of distinctions strictly enforced by the Mexican government.

First things first, all tequila is mescal. Mescal is the technical term for a spirit made from the Weber blue agave plant. tequila simply has to come from the designated tequila regions.

Tequila breaks down into five basic classifications, as well as two extra categories. The first classification is silver tequila, also sometimes called platinum, Plata, white, or Blanco. Blanco style tequila is unaged and thus has a totally clear color and a sweeter finish, free of any harsh smokiness. The next grade is Reposado, or rested tequila. Repo tequilas are aged for between two months and a year. They develop a slightly yellow or golden tint to them and have a balance of sweet and smoky flavor, creating a nice balanced complexity. Anejo tequila is aged between one and three years. It has a nice rich yellow color and a rich smoked flavor like some milder whiskeys or aged rums. Extra Anejo is the classification for any tequila aged longer than three years. Extra Anejo can sometimes shift in color so dramatically it becomes as brown as whiskey on brandy. Many premium extra Anejo tequilas are aged in specially selected used barrels to infuse that old flavor. The Patron Burdeos uses old French Bordeaux wine barrels giving the tequila flavor notes of brandy, making it ideal for sipping straight.

You may have noticed that I only listed four classifications there. The last classification is Gold or Joven tequila. When tequila is aged it takes a bit of work. It adds complexity to the tequila. Aged tequilas, those that have that yellow color, thus tend to cost a bit more. When a bartender picks up a bottle of tequila and pours out that gorgeous gold liquid instead of clear, you knew you were getting the more complex and expensive brand product in your cocktail. Gold tequila decided to bank on this idea. They took a Blanco tequila and added caramel food coloring and flavoring to attempt to give it the appearance of aged tequila. These tequilas are usually much lower quality mixto tequilas and tend to result in the poor experiences many people associate with tequila.

Lastly, I come to mixto tequilas, a separate way to distinguish types of tequila. The majority of tequila companies make their tequila with only 100% Weber blue agave. Mixto tequila means that you are not using only the agave plant as the only sugar in distillation. Mixto tequilas use sugarcane and other sweeteners while maintaining at least 51% agave. Essentially if you don't see the words 100% blue agave on the bottle, you can assume only half the bottle is actually pure tequila. Many people often associate blended sugars with how many people get hangovers after drinking low-quality tequila.

"Tequila. Straight. There's a real polite drink. You keep drinking until you finally take one more and it just won't go down. Then you know you've reached your limit."
- Lee Marvin

Photo Credit: Matador Network, 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Gin Lifestyle

Gin has been associated with old women for a while in my opinion. Mothers, doctors, and protectors are the ones who drink gin. Gin in this day and age has a fairly distinct flavor, especially to the young drinker. It's nothing too revolutionary. This may be an oversimplification, but it's essentially it is just the original vodka infusion, flavored with juniper and assorted other botanical notes. The flavors and process are what give it these associations in my view.

Botanicals are often used as medicines and remedies. Coriander, cassia bark, angelica, licorice, grains of paradise are all common flavoring agents of gin. Coriander helps with a variety of digestive issues and can ease joint pain. Cassia cinnamon lowers blood sugar, helps with nausea, and some people use it for sexual aid. Angelica is used to help circulation and increases appetite. Licorice eases sore throats and coughs. Juniper, the dominant flavoring component of most gin is used as medicine to treat digestive health, cure urinary tract infections, and help with kidney stones. Of course, alcohol itself is used for a variety of medical issues. Doctors to this day recommend a bit of wine to help the heart. There was a case I heard of a man who was prescribed a bottle of whisky (Johnie Walker Black Label) to cure his blindness caused by formaldehyde poisoning. The article can be found
here. Ethyl alcohol is used all over, and in some developing nations, they improvise and use it to fight a lot of poisons and bacteria.

The quintessential gin cocktail is the gin and tonic. Tonic, of course, is synonymous with medicine. The cocktail was introduced by the British navy to help fight malaria which was prevalent around India. The typical lime garnish was also a common cure for scurvy.

Gin has something of a dry, bitter flavor. You may not associate any particular alcohol with medicine and I urge you to change your thoughts on this. In fairness, alcohol is a poison. But we use chemotherapy as a treatment and that is really just a poison fighting another poison. Alcohol is the same way. Gin is the greatest example of this, alcohol blended with a variety of other medicines. It's oldest history goes to a dutch physician who knew that juniper drinks were already being used by patients to calm nerves and settle stomachs. 

This is going to be a part of a series I'm doing about how different spirits appeal to different cultures and personalities. Check out my other posts on Rum, Tequila, Whisky, and other liquors and liqueurs. Much of what I'm posting has been opinion, much of it generalized and is not meant to be thought of as fact.

No quote today but enjoy this video:

Photo Credit: Pikrepo

The Tequila (Mescal / Mezcal) Lifestyle

Tequila has always been associated with tradition and family.

First just a quick snippet on the difference between tequila and mescal (mezcal). All tequila is mescal. Tequila simply has to be made in the designated tequila regions. Tequila has been a bit better distributed globally and is usually seen as a more premium style, much like the differences between champagne and sparkling wine.

When I think of tequila and mescal I think about the old west. People wearing big hats, working with their hands, and doing everything from scratch is the face of tequila. Tequila is fairly unique in that, to my knowledge, it is still dominantly, if not exclusively, harvested by hand, with next to no help from machinery at all. Many wineries have switched to mechanical harvesting. Whiskeys, vodkas, and other grain-based alcohols have been using massive threshers and harvesters. With tequila, it's still the jimador out there in the fields with the donkeys. Taking their bladed coa carving off the leaves of the agave is a very daunting task. Jimador families have been training their children in the craft for countless generations. It's long days in the sun, heavy lifting, decent chance of injury, and it's not the highest paying work. But it is the tradition.

That handcrafted element carries on into a lot of aspects of tequila production. I'm going to reference Patron here, as I've done some work with them. Not only do they employ family harvesters, but the craft of their distillation is also quite traditional. When they wanted to increase production past their original small factory, they didn't buy a larger facility, they built an identical factory right next door, using the exact same water source and the same methods. Their new line of Patron Roca actually uses the original volcanic stone to mash the cooked agave to get all the juices out. admittedly this is now pulled on a rope by a tractor instead of a poor donkey. The bottles are hand blown and every one is unique. It's definitely true that not all tequila companies do this. Many use mechanical shredders rather than a stone, and I'll happily say that I don't think a hand-blown bottle makes a product taste better. But it's a part of the culture of tequila for me. Tequila recipes really were tinkered with or touched all too much until recently when some flavored tequilas started coming out.

This is going to be a part of a series I'm doing about how different spirits appeal to different cultures and personalities. Check out my other posts on Rum, Whisky, Gin, and other liquors and liqueurs. Much of what I'm posting has been opinion, much of it generalized and is not meant to be thought of as fact.

"Take life with a grain of salt, a slice of lime, and a shot of tequila."

Photo Credit: Pikist, Wikimedia

The Absinthe Lifestyle

Absinthe drinkers are the dreamers of today and yesterday.

Absinthe was the drink of the impressionist period, as well as the follow-up movements of post-impressionism, surrealism, and modernism. Degas, Gauguin, Manet, and Picasso painted absinthe in their work. Vincent Van Gogh was a ferocious absinthe drinker. The author Hemingway said, "One cup of [absinthe] took the place… of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.” Idea changing, brain warming, alchemy, I like that.

Absinthe has of course been embraced by the gothic culture. Absinthe was featured in Bram Stoker's Dracula and Interview with a Vampire. Moulin Rouge featured a literal embodiment of absinthe in the green fairy, which featured Ozzy Osbourne dubbing the laugh of the character. Marilyn Manson has developed his own brand of absinthe, Mansinthe, which he has used as a base for some of his oil paintings.

There is a ritual about absinthe. A fantasy and sense of wonder surround the drink. The myths of its hallucinogenic properties still remain. Absinthe hasn't even been legal in the United States for the last ten years. The hallucinogenic properties are, of course, grossly exaggerated. It's understandable how the lore continues though. First, it's fun to scare people with that fact. Second, you're not supposed to drink it straight. You have to dilute it and guess what, it changes color! It is a bizarre chemical reaction that a casual drinker wouldn't have seen before and probably wouldn't trust. The sense of taboo about absinthe has caught on with the outcast and eccentric crowd. Dream on, paint your dreams, live your dreams, don't be scared. 

This is going to be a part of a series I'm doing about how different spirits appeal to different cultures and personalities. Check out my other posts on Whisky, Rum, Tequila, Gin, and other liquors and liqueurs. Much of what I'm posting has been opinion, much of it generalized and is not meant to be thought of as fact.

"After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
- Oscar Wilde

Photo Credit: wikimedia

Monday, October 20, 2014

Whiskey 101: What's the difference?

I have a number of students coming to me having no idea what whiskey is or knowing anything about the spirit. Whiskey is simply a grain-based spirit that has been distilled and aged. What make whiskey so special is the versatility of the simplicity. Most would categorize whiskey based on the region it comes from. This is a very good start, but you must keep in mind that each region has their own laws and standards of how their whiskey must be made in order to qualify for their moniker. The biggest whiskeys / whiskys are Scotch whisky, Bourbon whiskey, and Irish whiskey. There is also, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, Tennessee whiskey, and even French and Italian whisky. There are many subsets in each of the broad categories, but that'll be in my Whiskey 201 post(s).
Scotch Whisky has to naturally come from Scotland. Globally, it is the best selling style of whiskey or whisky despite its relatively small geography to work with. For the record, whiskey and whisky are the exact same thing, it's just that different nations and companies have chosen to spell it one way or another. Given the small region and strict laws, scotch is a very consistently excellent product. Scotch must be made with barley as the main grain in the mash. Scotch must also be aged at least 3 years in oak barrels. Finally, scotch must be at least 40% alcohol (80 proof) though it can technically go up to 94.8%.

Bourbon Whiskey has to be made in the United States of America. Contrary to popular belief it does not have to be made in Bourbon, Kentucky. The dominant mash of bourbon must be corn. corn is a sweeter grain compared to barley so many bourbons are often regarded as sweet whiskeys. A fairly unique thing about bourbon is that it can only be aged in fresh, unused, charred, oak barrels. Bourbon does not have a required duration for its age though any straight bourbon must be aged at least 2 years. Many modern scotch companies actually use old recycled bourbon barrels or sherry barrels. Bourbon again can't be sold at less than 40% but does have an upper limit of 63%.

Irish whiskey must, naturally, come from Ireland. Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times compared to the two times for most other styles of whiskey. The amazing thing is that only 7 Irish whiskey distilleries exist compared to some 105 Scottish distilleries. Irish whiskey has very much the same laws affecting it as scotch. Irish whiskey must be aged at least 3 years in wood casks, and be no more than 94.8% alcohol. Due to the water sources and how the grains are cooked and distilled, Irish whiskey is seen as was of the smoothest, lightest, on the market and is fantastic for beginner drinkers of straight whiskey. Because of this, Irish whiskey has become the largest growing section of the whiskey community.

Tennessee is just a straight bourbon type whiskey made in Tennessee. Canadian whiskey has to come from Canada and has laxly the same regulation as the other big name whiskeys. Japanese, French, and Italian whiskeys naturally come from their respective countries. It is worth mentioning that there a number of other terms used in classifying whiskeys such as single malt vs blended whiskies, rye whiskey, and flavored whiskies.

“Love makes the world go round? Not at all. Whiskey makes it go round twice as fast.”
- Compton Mackenzie

Photo Credit: Wikimedia, pikist

Orange Liqueurs 101: What's the difference?

There is a large variety of orange flavored liqueurs available for a number of different applications. Triple Sec, Blue Curacao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, X-rated, and Solerno all have an orange flavor. Each one of them is a bit different, of course.

The most abundant style of orange liqueur is triple sec. You will find a cheap brand of triple sec in the well at most bars. Brands like Jacquin's, Bols, Hiram Walker, Dekuyper, and many others all make a triple sec orange liqueur. Triple sec is called triple sec due to typically being distilled three times and tending toward a drier (sec) orange.

Cointreau was seen as the original premium orange liqueur. The original orange liqueur was a product called Combier. Distribution of Combier is fairly limited, however. Cointreau is seen as one of the best, widely distributed, premium orange liqueurs on the market today.

The direct counterpart to Cointreau is Grand Marnier. The two products have almost exactly the same price point depending on your region. Where I live, they both cost $35 a bottle. Grand Marnier is quite distinct in that it is an orange liqueur that is blended with cognac. This changes it to having a brown color and creates a fairly unique blend of flavor that some people will drink straight.

Curacao is another style of orange liqueur. Curacao takes its name from the island of Curacao off the coast of Venezuela. The oranges used in curacao tend to be those from the island, but there is no such legal requirement. The fun thing about curacao is the color palette available. Americans have blue curacao everywhere. There is also green, red, and orange curacao. This is literally just food coloring and dye added to the liqueur. We like the blue color because bartenders are creative people and people love pretty drinks. We already had other liqueurs in all the other colors, so when a blue liqueur came to be available it caught on like wildfire.
There are a few other orange liqueurs worth mentioning quickly. Solerno is a premium liqueur made from the blood orange. Campari is a bitter liqueur that uses just the peels of oranges as one of it's many flavors. Campari should not be used as a substitute for any other orange liqueur. X-rated is a liqueur made with french vodka, blood oranges, and passion fruits. Many other recent liqueurs use orange and other fruits as well, like Gran Gala and Patron Citronage.

“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”
- Ogden Nash

Photo Credit: Wikimedia, Needpix

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Rum Lifestyle

When we think of rum, what do we think? I know I think pirates, fruity tiki drinks, and daiquiris. I see rum as a spirit meant to represent an escapist philosophy.

If we look at the daiquiri cocktail, you might know it was invented in the Cuban mining town of Daiquiri. It is widely agreed that the drink was invented by the mining engineer, Jennings Cox. If we look at the origins of a cocktail like this it can probably be agreed that miners were looking for an escape. The United States military was occupying Cuba and the economy was poor. They took what they had around, sugar, limes, and rum, and created a delicious cocktail. I, of course, cannot talk about the daiquiri without talking about Hemingway.

Hemingway was a massive daiquiri, cocktail, and rum drinker. Hemingway traveled the globe never settling too long in a place he didn't like. Born in Illinois, he joined the red cross during world war one and was sent to Paris as it was under bombardment. The war provided a lot of material for his writing. Arguably his most famous piece, The Old Man and the Sea, which he wrote in his later days when he settled in Cuba, reflected the great escape from the harsh tolls of reality that is the sea. And, of course, the author's tragic demise being his ultimate escape. That said, the author's favorite style of daiquiri was the papa doble, double rum, no sugar.

The daiquiri eventually became synonymous with the dream of sitting on a hot beach with a hot partner and a cold drink to seal the deal. In short, that's the tiki dream. Tiki, in general, has had a bit of an escapist lifestyle. The first tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles, provided a tropical home away from home for those unable to live on the beach year-round. Tiki bars are usually decked out with idols, fish, boats, and other Caribbean artifacts.

And finally, when we think rum we think of pirates and our favorite absent-minded captain asking "Why is the rum gone?" Pirates historical have been cowards and deserters. Piracy extends from medieval times to this very day. When reminiscing of the pirate era, we think of cannons and muskets. Many pirates were old naval military men who decided they didn't want to fight for the state. They fled to the sea, fulfilling that escapist rum philosophy, taking and doing what they liked.

Rum is a sweet spirit. It goes hand in hand with fruits and sugars. Unlike other spirits that are very harsh and grounding, rum takes us away from reality. Rum is an escape. When you want to escape your strenuous job, forget the horrors of war, or just run away into the open sea, rum is the spirit to help you do that.

This is going to be a part of a series I'm doing about how different spirits appeal to different cultures and personalities. Check out my other Posts on Whiskey (Whisky), Tequila, Gin, and other liquors and liqueurs. Much of what I'm posting has been opinion, much of it generalized and is not meant to be thought of as fact.

"I drink to make other people more interesting"
-Ernest Hemingway

Photo Credit: pxfuel, needpix

The Whisky (Whiskey) Lifestyle

Whisky, the drink of the rebel, warrior, and the criminal. Rebellion and innovation.

There's much debate over who first created whiskey, the Irish, the Scots, the Italians, and some even speculate the Chinese. What can't be argued is who mastered the whiskey culture first: the Scottish and the Irish. For the record, the Scots were an Irish tribe, to quote Billy Connolly, a sort of mentally ill Irish tribe. "Come on lads, I know an even rainier place." The Celtic tribes were a famous warrior culture, barbarians who ran into battle naked and screaming. Not to stereotype, but to this very day the Irish and the Scots are known for fighting and roughhousing, from the IRA to your highland games and bar room brawls. The Celtic tribes fought against everyone from Rome to Great Britain. They were rebellious, they refused to be conquered and didn't care much for how they appeared to their enemy, so long as they were scared.

The Irish and Scots began distilling whisky around the beginning of the 15th century, over 600 years ago. This was just the infancy of distillation. In the 18th century, the union was created and a British tax on whisky malt was issued. The Scots weren't one to accept that and they decided to break the law. They were the original moonshiners, hiding the smoke from their illegal stills by distilling at night. When many passionate whiskey makers came to America the same lifestyle continued.

The Scottish and Irish immigrants found the rye fields of Pennsylvania very bountiful and began their old tradition. During the American Revolution, whiskey was used as currency. George Washington ran a distillery, the king of the rebels. Canadian whisky actually came to be slightly popular by dodging taxes and prohibition.

Whisky has always been a mellowed, but still, harsh spirit drank by rebels, fighters, outlaws, and criminals. From the businessman or politician sipping a scotch after a harsh day of cutthroat negotiations, to the moonshiners of today, doing it because they know it's against the law and that it's great fun, whiskey will be a part of a fighting culture for a very long time to come.

This is going to be a part of a series I'm doing about how different spirits appeal to different cultures and personalities. Check out my other posts on Rum, Tequila, Gin, and other liquors and liqueurs. Much of what I'm posting has been opinion, much of it generalized and is not meant to be thought of as fact.

P.S. Here's a little song about whisky, the single malt, and all the horrible things Americans have done to a truly blessed creation.

Photo Credit: pixabay, pickpik