Right now, everyone is up in arms about so-called “craft distillers” that don’t actually distill. But some spirits producers are getting it right. For example, last week I got a closer look at Woody Creek Distillers, located in Aspen, Colorado. Right now, it’s prime season for harvesting potatoes, which then are made into Woody Creek’s flagship vodka.
If you’re headed to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans next week, please come say hello! Here’s where you’ll find me — that is, when I’m not tippling at one of NOLA’s many amazing bars:
Wednesday, July 16, 1:00-2:30 PM: Innovation: Pathbreaker or Abomination? seminar
We’ll be talking about “the good, the bad and the ugly of innovation” — including the thought process behind creating innovative new spirits and other products; when does innovation enhance the industry and when does it harm it?; the difference between how consumers and the trade perceive innovation; and what journalists look for when deciding whether to write about innovative new products.
Panel participants include Avery Glasser of Bittermens; William Grant brand ambassador and self-described “cheeky monkey” Freddy May; Derek Elefson, a veteran of the flavor industry, and me. Audrey Fort of Domaine Select is moderating the panel.
This panel is intended for “the industry” — bartenders, spirits producers and the like — but if you’re an interested civilian I’d strongly encourage you to attend for one simple reason: a crazy-innovative cocktail will be served. And it’s something you can’t get anywhere else. I can’t reveal what it is (yet), but when Audrey told me what it was I stopped and said….”Wait. You can DO that?!?”
Friday, July 18, 2:30-3:00 PM: Cocktails for a Crowd book signing
I’ll be in the lobby of the Monteleone signing copies of my book about big-batch cocktails. Drop by and pick up a personalized copy to find punches, pitchers and bottled cocktails to make for your next summer soiree, or to give as a gift for your favorite host or hostess.
See you in New Orleans!
Just returned from a trip to Scotland to visit distilleries. Though I’m still processing it all, one thing that struck me is how many new Scotch bottlings are poised to come to the U.S. in the next few months. Here’s a quick overview of what’s newly-released and coming soon down the line, arranged by approximate order of release.
Ardbeg Auriverdes. This was a new release for “Ardbeg Day” (May 31) so it’s already here – and in some cases already sold out. This limited edition was aged in first-fill American oak barrels, with the ends of the barrels taken off and heat-treated “for more vanilla, coffee notes.” abv: 49.9%.
Tasting notes: light maple aroma, Very spicy finish. Light smoke on front, then vanilla, then spice; lots of black pepper and cayenne on the tip of the tongue. I didn’t detect coffee, but I liked what I did detect.
Coming: Ardbeg Day 2014 – so it already arrived on May 31
Auchentoshan American Oak. Made with 100% bourbon barrels. It’s been launched in press previews over the past couple of months and it’s already available in some U.S. outlets. It will be a permanent part of the Auchentoshan portfolio, so it may be hard to get right away, but eventually it should be relatively easy to acquire a bottle.
Tasting notes: Caramel, creme brulee, oak. Light and smooth.
Coming: Newly available in U.S. – recently launched.
Mortlach – Rare Old. Visiting this non-airbrushed distillery was a treat – it’s owned by Diageo and historically Mortlach has been used as a blend (in Johnnie Walker primarily but not exclusively) rather than broken out as a single malt. They’re planning to release four different Mortlach bottlings, and this one should be out of the gate first. It has no age statement, and it’s made with a mix of whiskies aged in new and old casks. It’s an homage to an early 1900s private client bottling that sold at Macy’s Department Store. 43.4% abv.
Tasting Notes: Pineapple and vanilla aroma. Notes of banana, creme brulee, oily feel. It was described to us as “meaty,” with a flavor resembling “venison.” I didn’t quite agree with the venison tasting note. But this is surely robust and something different that Scotch-lovers will get excited about.
Coming: July/Aug 2014
Mortlach 18. This bottling probably will be released around the same time. It’s 18 years old, made with “moderate first-fill sherry casks” to avoid overpowering and refill whiskey casks. They describe it as an “after dinner dram.” 43.4% abv.
Tasting notes: Sherried spice cake aroma, chocolate note, mouth-coating. It’s very bold and explosive in the mouth – it expands on the finish in a way I haven’t experienced before.
Coming: August 2014
Craigellachie 23-year-old: This is from the Royal Brackla distillery, which is owned by Bacardi/Dewars and is one of the “secret ingredient” single malts inside the Dewar’s and other blended Scotches. Piers Adam is bottling it – he owns Mahiki, an exclusive London nightclub, and I assume it’s already available there. Two more Royal Brackla single malts also will be released around the same time, Deveron 12-year-old and Aultmore 12-year-old. But this was the one that made me stop and take note. 46% abv.
Tasting Notes: Craigellachie means “fiery crag,” and it’s indeed fiery. I detected baked apple and a rubbery note that they described as “meaty.” (Note: Some of my other tasting notes for this bottling, jotted down about 10 minutes and two samples later, also say things like “sherry” and “mint-chocolate” and “smoky finish.” I may have had a dram or so too many at this point, so my tasting notes mayyyy not be the most reliable.)
Coming: Bottling in July, coming in August.
Tasting notes: The flavor may change slightly from bottle to bottle, but the one we tried was light, with tons of vanilla, lemon cream pie, spice finish. It was described to us as a “Christmas cake smoothie.”
Coming: Sept/Oct 2014. It’s already available in duty-free shops, in a 1-liter size bottled at 48% abv. When it comes to the U.S., it will be 750ml, and bottled at cask strength (57-58% abv).
Tasting notes: I didn’t get to try it. We all know perfectly well it’s going to fly off the shelves based on Becks and what I think of it isn’t going to matter anyway.
Coming: Autumn 2014
Laphroaig Cardeas 2014 bottling. It’s the 3rd bottling tested through Friends of Laphroaig (the previous two were QuarterCask and Select). Cardeas means “Friendship.” The whisky is “double-matured,” meaning it’s first aged in bourbon (Jim Beam) casks, then finished in amontillado sherry cask-finished. Pricing: $120, approx. 52.4% abv.
Tasting notes: Maple up front, smoke in back. Long finish reminded me of long cigarette exhalation, which sounds awful, I know, yet this was one of the few drams I finished.
Coming: mid-year 2015
The Naked Grouse (Famous Grouse). Intended for a craft niche. Bottle has no label (“we dialed up the naked,” we were told, meaning that they stripped back the packaging.) When the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge visited the distillery, this was Kate Middleton’s favorite of the line-up. It was mine too. It’s The Famous Grouse blend, aged in first-fill sherry casks.
Tasting notes: lots of sherry-like dried fruit notes, warm & rounded.
Coming: “in a couple of years.”
The MaCallan Sienna (Famous Grouse): 100% ex-sherry casks, first fill. Part of range that emphasizes natural colors (Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby).
Tasting notes: dried raisins, spice. An easy pairing with chocolate.
I just returned from Spain, including a visit to sherry producer Tio Pepe in Jerez. They have a lovely tradition there, encouraging important visitors to sign the barrels (which are painted a chalkboard-like black to highlight any leaks). I took a few quick snaps of the signatures, which span celebrities (Lana Turner, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles), artists (Picasso – the only one to sign in color), wine personalities (Hugh Johnson) and political figures (Margaret Thatcher, Chelsea Clinton), as well as musicians, athletes and many others. Scroll through and see how many you recognize.
In many ways, Ella Brennan is the Forrest Gump of N’awlins: if something notable in the world of hooch happened, she was there. During Prohibition, she helped her uncle make bathtub gin. Trader Vic squired her around California during tiki’s heyday; she sipped daiquiris at El Floridita in Cuba when Hemingway probably crouched just a few barstools down. And her family built, piece by piece, the bars and restaurants that are now treasured pieces of New Orleans history, from the Absinthe House to Commander’s Palace.
And I got to meet her. Hell, I got to drink with her. 87 years old, and “Miss Ella,” as everyone calls her, still has an Old Fashioned brought to her living room by the staff at Commander’s Palace. I think I want to be her when I grow up.
I wrote about our conversation for Wine Enthusiast, conducted in said living room over said Old Fashioneds. But it’s only part of the story.
The women below also are an important part of the New Orleans arc. On the right, that’s Lally Brennan and (far right) Ti Adelaide Martin, aka “Miss Ella’s” daughter. The two are cousins and co-proprietors of the legendary Commander’s Palace, Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and cocktail bar SoBou.
And the three women on the left are the “bar chefs” for the Brennan’s empire. (Yes, it’s just a coincidence that a woman helms the beverage operations at each, though it brings a certain neat symmetry to the story, from Miss Ella on down to the next generation of bartenders.) How is a “bar chef” different from a bartender? Abigail explained it this way: Chef = chief. “A bartender is about the hospitality aspect,” she said. ” A mixologist is about ingredients and technique. A bar chef is all of that. Like Ginger Rogers, you do it all backwards and in heels.”
If you don’t recognize where they’re seated, it’s Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, named for Adelaide Brennan – big sister to “Miss Ella,” and aunt to Lally and Ti. The Swizzle Stick Bar was named for Adelaide’s necklace, Ti explained: “It would dangle in her decollete – a gold swizzle stock would pop out of her necklace and she would lean over and swizzle her Champagne.”
Just as Ella Brennan learned to make cocktails as a child (Eight years old was old enough to learn, she said. “Before that, you let them put the ice in the glass.”) Adelaide passed that tradition down too, Ti reminisced.
“We learned how to make cocktails at a very early age. Adelaide didn’t wake up too early and was never on time. It was always part of our life.”
After paying my respects at Adelaide’s, we headed over to Commander’s Palace, in NOLA’s grand Garden District, where I enjoyed La Louisienne (equal parts Sazerac rye – natch, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s for good measure, two more NOLA products). Although Ferrel wasn’t behind the bar, she had mentioned earlier that she had started out as a hostess at Commander’s Palace, while “a grumpy Italian guy worked behind the bar.” Ti knew immediately who that was:
“Mr. Leroy!” she exclaimed. “He was the head bartender at Commander’s Palace forever. We have a Manhattan riff named after him. With rhubarb. Sweet vs. bitters, and super strong.” She even remembered him growing up:
“It’s the south, and we were little girls. He was Mr. Leroy. She was Miss Ella. To everyone.”
Drink consumed, it was time to head across the courtyard to meet “Miss Ella.” A uniformed server soon followed, bearing Old Fashioneds on a silver tray: “An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella.”
Most of what we talked about that July evening is encapsulated in the Wine Enthusiast Q&A. But good stuff always gets lost on the cutting room floor, right? For example, Ella’s fond memory of the Absinthe House, which her brother Owen owned. Although their mother was scandalized that anyone would try to start a business in the nasty French Quarter, her brother helped gentrify the area. Ella called it “sophisticated” – Owen would wear a black suit in the winter, a white suit in the summer.
“The Absinthe House,” she said, dreamily. “That’s where you’d go to have an Absinthe Frappe, and Absinthe Suisesse, at least four different absinthe drinks.” (Modern-day tipplers, try to reconcile this with your current beer-sticky experience at the Absinthe House – I dare you.) She had a job purchasing whiskey for the Absinthe House, although it was done on the down-low. “Women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street yet,” she said.
“Dummies,” I heard Ti snarl, sotto voce.
Frankly, I can’t fault her for that sentiment. After all, just look at her legacy now.
This Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC, signing books from 2-3:30 PM at one of the most beautiful housewares stores I’ve ever seen: Salt & Sundry, inside Union Market. I already have my eye on some new glassware.
We’ll also be sampling cocktails from the book and bites provided by The Red Hen. Mark your calendar now!
This good-lookin’ crew was my panel from Tales of the Cocktail. We had assembled to talk about “Low Octane Libations” — and although I’ve long been a fan of lower-alcohol cocktails, there’s nothing like hearing the gospel straight from the bartenders. In retrospect, I think this topic hit a sweet spot, sandwiched among seminars and tasting events that focused on vermouth, sherry and other lower alcohol options, and I’ve been tickled to see post-Tales roundups listing “lower alcohol” as a trend in the making.
Although I was preoccupied with moderating the panel, I did manage to scribble down some insightful comments from the panelists. Highlights included:
- Amanda Boccato, brand ambassador from Lillet, noted that “historical cocktails can be reinvented using lower proof spirits as the base, such as a Lillet Julep.” Unprompted, later on in the session Joaquin Simo of Pouring Ribbons noted that he had tried out a Lillet Julep spiked with Green Chartreuse. “It was so good,” he said.
- This comment, from Greg Best of Holeman and Finch: “As stewards of cocktail culture, we’re obligated to define cocktail culture endlessly. No one ever said it has to be boozy with bitters – there’s no rule.” Then he paused to define what cocktails are: “Balanced libations that bring people together to celebrate life.” The audience applauded!
- Joaquin Simo on the rising phenomenon of Bartender’s Choice cocktails: “It’s an opportunity to bring out that coffee-infused vermouth – not Red Stag. If [guests] are giving you that much latitude, let’s not abuse it.”
- Kirk Estopinal’s Pineau de Charentes Cobbler. All the cocktails were top-notch (and props to our Cocktail Apprentice leader, Christopher George and his team for making that so), but I especially loved how he defined the garnish: as “good snacks on top.” His cobbler was topped with a quarter-wheel of lemon, sprinkled with bitters and then sugar. How to get more guests at bars drinking cobblers? Here’s Simo’s idea: “Tell them the Cobbler was the Cosmo of the 1800s.”