Saturday, November 23, 2019

Whisky 202: Scotch, What's the difference?

There are two main things to look at when reading a scotch label. The first is whether or not the whiskey is a blend or a single malt. The second is what region the whiskey was made in. In some blends, this will be less relevant but if it's listed it can tell you a lot about the whisky.

Single Malt Scotch is pretty simple, albeit strict in terms of production standards. Single Malt Scotch is a scotch whisky that is made at a single distillery and made of malted barley and no other grains. It does also have to follow the legal standards of being a Scotch, of course. Strict and to the point. Grain Whisky is very similar to single malt whisky, except it uses a grain other than barley, typically wheat or corn. Blended Malt Whisky is a whisky made of at least two different single malt whiskies mixed together. Blended Scotch is a blend of any number of single malt and grain whiskies. 

Some people think that scotch has to be smokey due to the common use of peat smoke being used to dry the barley, but it not required, and is really more of a regional preference within Scotland. Trace amounts of caramel coloring are allowed. One thing worth noting is that age statements on any scotch, single malt or blended, must reflect the youngest whisky in the bottle. you could have a 4 year scotch blended with a 60 year scotch and the bottle would have to read "4 Year Old".

Scotch whiskey production is broken down into 6 regions. Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay, and the Islands. The islands are something of a new designation but are widely accepted to be a distinct region. 

The Highlands is the largest region and thus the most diverse. It has over 25 distilleries, the most famous being Glenmorangie and Dalmore. Some people even divide the highland region into north, south, east, and west. The north has more full-bodied whiskies, lighter fruitier styles are found in the east and south. the west is a bit bigger and peatier with more coastal influences. It's hard to draw an accurate determination of taste if a whisky just says highlands. 

The Speyside region, while smaller than the highlands, has over 60 distilleries. The most famous being Macallan, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich. Typically they are a bit softer and sweeter with little to no smokey peat flavor. Some can even bear a light salty flavor depending on their proximity to the coast. Over 60% of single malt scotch comes from this relatively small area

The Lowlands are the second biggest region, but only houses 5 distilleries, the most famous being Auchentoshan. These whiskies also tend to be lighter, with no peatiness and are occasionally triple distilled. They sometimes have a grassy or honeysuckle note.

Campbeltown is one of the most historic regions but is now down to just 3 distilleries. This region's whiskies are dry, briny, and sometimes pungent but can be fuller or lighter in body. Springbank is probably the best-known brand.

Islay (pronounced eye-luh) is the smallest region but probably the most famous and most beautiful. Housing less than 10 distilleries, this area produces peaty smokey single malts like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. They often bring notes of smoked fish or seaweed. These whiskies are often too aggressive for beginner scotch drinkers.

The Islands are not recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association but are widely agreed to be their own region. They are naturally very varied in style and taste. There are over 800 islands off the coast of Scotland but very few are inhabited. Some of the most famous island whiskies are Highland Park from Orkney and Talisker coming from the Isle of Skye.

"I love too sing, and I love to drink scotch. Most people would rather hear me drink scotch."
- George Burns

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Gin 402: Dissecting a Cocktail: 101 ways to Martini

Someone walks into your bar and asks for a martini. What do you make them? The following are 12 examples of the classic drink. this showcase should run the gamut of what this drink can be. There are a couple variables that aren't directly measured like how many olives do you want in your dirty martini but pish. P.s. Please don't drink all of these in one sitting. It's actually a lot of fun to batch them all up and do 6 1/2 ounce pours of them to really learn your own palette and tastes.

50/50 Martini
1.5oz. Plymouth Gin, 1.5oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth, 1 dash Orange Bitters, Garnish: Lemon Twist
Add these ingredients to a mixing glass. Stir until well chilled (about 30 seconds). Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and garnish with a twist of lemon.
This cocktail is actually much closer to the historical Martini recipe than any other drink on this list. The others are substantially more alcohol forward, which became a bit of a trend in the 60s, nearly a century after its likely invention. This recipe showcases how vermouth can add beautiful delicate flavors to the cocktail and let you enjoy yourself without getting too plastered. Finding a balanced ratio between the two main ingredients is truly a matter of personal preference. Some people go classic with a 2:1 ratio of gin:vermouth. Others like 5:1, 8:1, or even 1:2, with more vermouth than gin. Nothing is set in stone.

Churchill Martini
2.5oz. Beefeater London Dry Gin, Garnish: Olive
Stir gin with ice while glancing at an unopened bottle of dry vermouth. Olive garnish
This was indeed how the legendary British Prime Minister ordered his cocktail. He kept it purely British, no French or Italian spirits tainting his gin. Boozy for sure. Fun fact: also how Eggsy took his Martini in the film Kingsman: The Secret Service. A simple riff on this recipe is the In-and-Out Martini. No, not the west coast burger joint. Simply rinse a chilled martini glass with around a quarter ounce of vermouth, coating the glass. Then dump it out. Strain in your chilled gin (or vodka), and bang, gin with essence of vermouth.

Vodka Martini, Shaken not Stirred
2.5oz. Vodka (I recommend Ketel One), 0.5oz. Martini Dry Vermouth, Garnish: Olive
Add your ingredient to a three-piece shaker with ice. shake until chilled (8-10 seconds). strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with an olive on a pick. 
Yes, we're going the James Bond route. Well, rather the Sean Connery route. There's some debate as to how this drink became so popular. This was how bond ordered it in the 6th book "Doctor No", which was the first Sean Connery film. But Bond had invented and drank countless other drinks throughout the many books. I'm sure someone has counted them. This drink is unnecessarily watered down and likely has air bubbles and ice shards floating around in it. Perhaps the weaker drink allowed Bond to retain his composure for longer while on the job. This texture is desirable to some but rather uncommon in spirit-forward drinks which could be stirred allowing for a silky clean feel. Some people think that it does make it colder and easier to drink quickly. Up to you, my father likes them.

Diamond Martini
2.5oz. Vodka (I recommend Ardent Union), 1 dash Martini Dry Vermouth, Garnish: Lemon Twist
Batch up these ingredients together. Store them in the freezer until it's as cold as possible. Pour into a chilled martini glass when ready. Garnish with a lemon twist. 
This is the exact opposite of the last Martini. It's all booze, chilled down cold as possible and served with no dilution. It feels like booze. Dilution is a crucial component of every cocktail. Eliminating the water that naturally mixes with the drink creates an imbalance. Feel free to use a 100 proof vodka to really drill the extremes of this example. Or just stick a bottle of Everclear in the freezer. Some people genuinely do just like drinking cold vodka without dilution or mixer, but I find that is a fairly regional preference.

Dirty Martini
2.5oz. gin, 0.5oz. Dry Vermouth, 0.5oz. Spanish Olive Brine, Garnish: Bleu Cheese Stuffed Olive
Add these ingredients to a mixing glass. Stir until well chilled (about 30 seconds). Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and garnish with a bleu cheese olive on a pick.
There is a lot of debate about when people started garnishing the martini with olives rather than a twist. According to a story on NPR, a Syrian bar owner in Paris wanted to show off the fruit of his homeland and started sticking them in drinks and it caught on. the added salt and vinegar which was used to store and preserve the fruit created an amazing depth to the otherwise fairly light flavor. I prefer bleu cheese olives personally but it's common to find olives stuffed with garlic, pimento, or other peppers to add some different spice character to the drink. Some people will also use olive juice in place of brine, or even run olives through a centrifuge to extract the essential oils (please make sure these are food safe before purchasing/ingesting).

2oz. Tanqueray Gin, 0.5oz. Noilly Prat Dry, 0.5oz. Noilly Prat Sweet, Garnish: Lemon Twist
Add these ingredients to a mixing glass. Stir until well chilled (about 30 seconds). Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe and garnish with a twist of lemon.
This is a sort of step in between the Martini and the Martinez. The drink calls for sweet and dry vermouth. It injects a lot more fruit character into the drink. I don't like an overly complicated and botanical gin for this drink. Tanqueray is famous for having only 4 botanicals which make it less likely to have a clash with any of the ingredients in the vermouth you're using. Feel free to mix and match your ingredients for this one, and all of the other cocktails as well. 

This should have given you a full understanding of what the martini can be in every respect. No two people like their martini's the exact same way. Though obviously, not everyone has had a martini every way you can possibly make it. At least none who have survived. A martini is a very personal thing. Have a conversation with your guest. What spirit? What brand? If they want any vermouth, and how much? What garnish? Ordering a martini means you have to talk to your bartender, eventually they will learn your tastes and make it your way every time. Even then, it's still fun to try new ingredients and ratios to see how your tastes change over time. I would never make the martini I make for myself at home for a random guest at a bar. Who knows? Maybe one of you can make me a drink even better than how I make them for myself. Two people have done it for me so far and it made my life all the better. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Bar Knives

For the purposes of cutting fruit for garnishes, just about any well taken care of knife will do the job. I've used oyster knives, serrated steak knives, 8-inch chef's knives, and weirder. A butterfly knife worked really well for me for years. A dollar store paring knife will do the job but it will dull or even break fairly quickly. Spend at least $10 on a good piece of stainless steel. Here's a guide of the pros and cons of different knife types. 

In terms of material make your choice wisely. Carbon steel is sensitive to citrus so avoid that. Some people prefer non-stick silicon-coated knives, which usually come in a variety of pretty colors. The coating allows the knife to be cleaned easier but constant use and sharpening removes the protective outer layer. Most are affordable enough to replace as needed. Compared to carbon steel, ceramics are actually wonderful. They will hold an edge longer, they don't rust, and are typically cleaner. They can't cut overly dense materials though, like anything frozen. Steel remains the most versatile. If you take the craft seriously and enjoy the ritual of maintaining your tools get something solid. If you're just keeping it casual, silicone coating or ceramic work fine. 

Length and shape are just as important. They are important with regards to most things. 3.5 inches is a standard for a fruit paring knife, but that is sometimes too small and makes cutting anything the size of an orange or larger rather tricky. It'd require multiple sawing cuts, which leads to a higher chance for error. Not the end of the world, but I go for 4 inches, it's still easy enough to finely maneuver. The purchasing of larger knives may be necessary for pineapples and whatever other custom needs you may come across. Go on, get a machete if you are doing coconuts. Just, please be careful and watch your fingers. 

Unless you were a professional chef at an Asian restaurant focusing in soba noodles in a past life, get a standard double-edged blade. With training, these can be handy for ice carving, but that's another conversation. And avoid serration to assure clean cuts with no stringy bits hanging off. 

The shape and curve of the blade are where things really get subjective. A nice point is necessary for detailed work. Get a good spear point and you can cut designs as if you were using a pen. The choice between a classic curved, Sheeps Foot (straight/flat edge), or Bird's Beak style are fairly subjective. Bird's Beaks are weird, you're not a French chef carving potatoes. Sheep's foot knives allow you to cut all the way straight down and have the blade be totally flush with the cutting board. These square-edged knives are typically beautifully sharp. They are unfortunately typically fairly small, expensive, and harder to find. Santoku edges are not perfectly straight but are very close. They are widely available in all materials and sizes. Rounded edges are common but are designed more for fine chopping and mincing in the kitchen.

Handles are another matter. The common chef knife handle material is wood, but you widely see plastics and synthetics used, occasionally metal. Naturally, when wood gets water or acidic components or what have you on it, it can corrode. They are widely agreed to be more comfortable though. Just don't put them in the washing machine. With synthetics, you can be more careless with their caring and maintenance and it will retain its durability. 

Regarding ice cutting knives, get dense folded steel. You'll need a smaller size for hand carving spheres or diamonds. Spend at least $70 and you will feel like you're cutting bits off a potato chip rather than a piece of brick ice. Cutting down large block ice into workable chunks is trickier. A decent bread knife will work to break down large blocks with the help of a mallet, roughly. We'll talk more about this in our ice section. My choice at home for detail work is here

Take care of your knives. So many of our bar tools are based solely on feel and really don't develop appreciable wear and tear. Knifes dull. Knives need care. Caring for your knives is a very meditative thing. Enjoy it. Appreciate your craft. 

- "A knife is not a weapon, a knife is not a toy; a knife is a tool and who uses a knife as a weapon, or a toy; is a fool."