Dan Smith Will Teach You How To Drink

If you’ve lived in New York for any amount of time, you’re familiar with the fliers posted in every record store and coffee shop promising, “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar.” They’ve been around for at least a decade, possibly longer. So I was gleeful to see that a new East Village restaurant, King Bee, had created a drink with that name when it opened last week, wink-wink all you long-time New York denizens. So gleeful, in fact, that I promptly tweeted:

Sometimes I forget that celebrities have twitter accounts. Even NYC micro-celebrities. So I searched, and lo and behold, there he was.

I was pleasantly surprised when he replied, though he dashed my meta-dreams of trying out his eponymous drink with me:

How many of us have a drink named after us? A little (sincere) flattery seemed in order.

Now, here’s the kicker. I guess the moral of the story is, if your brand ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

A visit to Woody Creek Distillers

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.

Emma Farm, located in Basalt, CO

photo 3

Picking potatoes

photo 2

These are Rio Grande indigenous potatoes. It takes roughly 13 pounds of these potatoes to make one 750-ml bottle of vodka.

photo 4

The potatoes are loaded up here…

photo 3

…and dropped off here. This is Gabe, with the “potato-cleaning contraption” designed by Woody Creek (yep, that’s what they call it). Each bag holds 700 kilos (roughly 1500 pounds); during harvest season, enough potatoes are harvested to fill six or seven bags a day.

photo 1

Inside the distillery. Note the bag of ‘taters behind this gentleman, Mark Kleckner, who is one of the masterminds behind Woody Creek. Seconds before this photo was taken, he snapped that potato in half, “like jicama,” to show the moisture inside. Potatoes can dehydrate within one month, Kleckner explained, so they are digging and distilling vodka now: “By Thanksgiving, we’re done.”

photo 4

This next set of machinery cleans, peels and grinds the potatoes.

woody_4

About 20% of the peel is left on for nutrients and yeast during fermentation.

photo 2

Distillation in the column still.

photo 3

Close-up – I couldn’t believe how much it looked like mashed potatoes.

2014-09-11_11-22-39_62

In addition to the regular Woody Creek vodka, a Reserve (pictured here) also is made at the distillery, from Stobrawa potatoes.

Sophisticated wine drinking (NOT!)

Image

Although I often write about high-end and sophisticated cocktail and spirits experiences, most of my wine-related writing seems to veer to the more…shall we say, whimsical side. 

For example, last week I wrote about the launch of wine in a can, for Slate. 

A few months back, I wrote (also for Slate) about Duck Dynasty Chardonnay and other pop-culture wines.

This also got me thinking about a wine column I used to write for Serious Eats, where they encouraged me to review Hello Kitty wine and riff on the much-maligned “critter wine” genre.

And as long as I’m strolling down memory lane, one of my first published hooch clips was this number, on Halloween candy and wine pairings, for Wine Enthusiast. (Kind of ironic that it’s now the publication for which I cover those high-end whiskies, though they’ve always had a strong anti-snob factor.)

Wine writing gets a bad rap as stuffy and pretentious. Looking back, I’m glad that I’ve managed to find fun and whimsical wine angles — after all, who says cocktail drinkers are the only ones having fun?

Spirited Award finalist! This one is for the bartenders.

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVEROver the Memorial Day weekend, I received some particularly exciting news: Cocktails for a Crowd was named a Spirited Award finalist in the “Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book” category. The awards – part of the Tales of the Cocktail conference held in July – are a very big deal within the drinks industry, honoring bars, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and writers/authors from all over the world.

Though I’ve attended the awards before (this will be my 7th time at Tales!), this is the first time I’ve been been a finalist. And it’s particularly meaningful that the nod is for Cocktails for a Crowd, because the book has its roots at Tales – where I first saw really good drinks being batched in enormous quantities – and incorporates advice and recipes from so many bartenders I’ve met there over the years.

Take a look at the full list of finalists – I’m up against some hard-hitters and winning this is a long shot (although wouldn’t that just be the alcoholic frosting on an already booze-soaked cake?!?).

So I’m going to go ahead and say thank you now to the bartenders who contributed recipes and insight for Cocktails for a Crowd:  Jason Asher, Scott Baird, Corey Bunnewith, Martin Cate, Kevin Diedrich, Tasha Garcia-Gibson, Charles Joly, Ryan Maybee, Jim Meehan, Stephen Savage, Colin Shearn, and Kelley Swenson. Many of these fine folks are up for awards themselves this year, and at the awards ceremony, it’s for them I will be cheering myself most hoarse.

Baijiu: it’s coming for you, America

Image

Front view of the ByeJoe box.

Are Americans ready for baijiu, China’s overproof firewater?

 

No, they are not. But baiju is coming for them anyway.

 

Here’s what’s going on:

 

Baijiu – a clear, rice- or grain-based spirit produced in China – has long been a staple of business culture in China. A friend living in Shanghai explained it to me this way “that’s what Chinese businessmen drink, and if you’re doing business in China, may as well get used to it, because repeated baijiu toasts at long banquets are de rigueur for doing business here.”

 

Usually, it’s distilled at a tongue-numbing 100 proof or higher (by comparison, vodka usually is bottled at 80 proof), and it’s downed as a shot. Matching your host shot-for-baijiu-shot at a banquet is a test of endurance and solidarity. To the Western palate, it “tastes slightly worse than petrol,” my friend insists.

 

But times are changing in China. Younger drinkers in China are favoring Western-style tipples (wine, beer, whiskey, brandy) over traditional baijiu. And most troubling of all: a crackdown on Chinese officials’ lavish spending has affected domestic sales of baijiu, a customary drink at those legendary banquets and a common luxury gift.

 

Uh-oh.

 

So baijiu producers are setting their sights on Western drinkers. Never mind that baijiu is the top-selling liquor in the world (according to International Wine & Spirit Research, baijiu accounts for more than a third of all spirits consumed globally). Outside of Asia, few have heard of baijiu. But by this time next year, that may change.

 

Signs of the times:

 

More baijiu bottlings are coming to the U.S.: The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, often a harbinger of trends in the marketplace, wrapped up a few weeks ago. Of note: increased entries of the Chinese spirit, Baijiu.

 

More producer-led industry education is available: Moutai (a producer of baijiu) has been sponsoring events at conferences (LA cocktail week, Tales of the Cocktail), hiring brand ambassadors to promote the spirit. And Americans seem interested in learning more: at the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, the “Baijiu: Demystified” seminar has already sold out.

 

More English-language information is becoming available: Author Derek Sandhaus has a new English language)book called “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits,” released by Penguin Books Australia.

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to Western palates: London (a particularly adventurous and forward-looking cocktail city), held its first-ever Baijiu Cocktail Week in January (timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year).

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to AMERICAN palates:  In LA, Peking Tavern opened a few months ago, calling itself a “Beijing gastropub.” It’s probably the only place in the US right now where you can sip baijiu cocktails like the “Bloody Mei Lee” (Bloody Mary variation, natch). Peking Coffee (baijiu, coffee and horchata liqueur) or Wong Chiu Punch (baijiu, hibiscus, fresh lemon juice).  My opinion: cocktails are the only hope for getting Americans to drink baijiu.

 

American-made baijius are starting to pop up:  Personally, I think these stand a better chance of gaining traction than Chinese-made versions – they tend to be lower proof, and have packaging that’s more accessible to American buyers. Houston, Texas-based distillery Byejoe USA is importing a baijiu base that is then filtered and sold in the U.S.  (It’s 40% abv, infused with fruity flavors, and tastes like vodka, in my opinion. It’s also packaged in a cutesy-poo box that looks like a Chinese food takeout container.) Meanwhile, Portland, OR-based Vinn Distillery is producing a small-batch artisan baijiu.
baijiu_2

Top of the ByeJoe box.

 

The best whiskey you’re not drinking…yet.

 

Kavalan

At the NoMad, Leo Robitschek mixes Kavalan-spiked cocktails. (Image courtesy Liz Brusca)

Last night, I had the opportunity to quaff a few drams of Kavalan, a whiskey from Taiwan that’s about to launch in the U.S. Guided by master blender Ian Chang and whiskey expert Jim Swan,  we tried out some expressions never seen here before (notably, the delectable Kavalan Fino matured in sherry casks and the fruit-forward Kavalan Vinho Barrique). But this wasn’t my first experience with Kavalan, which I wrote about for Wine Enthusiast a few months back. Here’s an excerpt from that piece, about the pleasures of serendipity (and whiskey). You can also read the full article here.

 

The Best Whiskey You’re Not Drinking

Sixteen glasses of whiskey were lined up, glinting amber in the glass, perfuming the air with delectable aromas of vanilla, caramel and smoke – and lucky me, I get to sample them all. Some people might call this a special occasion, or a potential overindulgence.

As spirits reviewer for Wine Enthusiast, I call this … Tuesday.

But this particular Tuesday, I was in for a big surprise. Among those glasses of whiskey –single malt Scotch whiskey, to be specific, since that was the category up for review – a single malt from Taiwan somehow slipped in. And its score was off-the-charts good.

I was floored:  a single malt whiskey from Taiwan? – not Scotland, home of the most-lauded whiskies in the world. As it turned out, this one was made by Kavalan. It hit all the right flavor notes – fresh fruit, light smoke, mouthwatering butterscotch. In short, it was delicious.

It got me thinking: Why haven’t I been drinking more whiskey from Asia? Why isn’t everyone?

Frankly, Asia’s rising crop of whiskeys are every bit as good as some of the finest Scotches around. Most of them were deliberately made in Scotch whiskey’s image, but twists have been added that give Asia’s whiskies their own distinct identity. For example, the local water sources used to make standout Japanese whiskies are credited for creating that unique silky texture. India’s Amrut uses Indian barley in its mash bill. And the inhospitable heat and humidity in subtropical Asia is said to accelerate aging time, creating bold flavors. It makes perfect sense that whiskey would be shaped by the world around it.

In the end, I’m glad that Kavalan snuck into the Scotch lineup. It was a welcome excuse to forget about the restrictions of provenance and just focus on what’s in the glass. It was a much-needed reminder to be open to surprises and serendipity, whatever the source. And of course, it was a reminder to drink more Asian whiskey.  –Kara Newman

 

Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits

 

Italy

The April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is the annual “Italy issue.” That means a strong focus on Italian wine, food and travel. For me, it meant the opportunity to drill down into Italy-made spirits like never before, ultimately resulting in a feature story, “Beyond Grappa: a regional guide to Italy’s spirits.” And it was an incredible rabbit hole to fall down.

I thought that anyone who is currently learning about spirits (or wine, for that matter — or writing, even), might enjoy a peek behind the process that led to this article, since it’s kind of geeky and completely different from the usual get-out-on-the-road-and-see-what-you-find reporting approach.

It started with the reviews. Here’s what happened: we put out a deliberately wide-ranging call for “Italian spirits” — and I was completely unprepared for the volume of bottles that poured in. The only way to keep from losing my mind was to find a way to organize the spirits.

I started with categories. It was easy enough to identify the familiar bottles: the aperitivo spirits (Aperol, Cynar) the brisk and bitter amaros (Montenegro, Nonino) and even a handful of vermouths made from fortified Italian wines.

After that followed a parade of fragrant anisettes and sambucas. I used to think of Sambuca as a specific brand of anise-flavored liqueur, but no, it’s a rather large category of its own. Sunny limoncellos were segregated into a cheerful yellow pile, made with fruit from sunny Southern Italy. Fiery grappas, mellower aged brandies, and even a vodka distilled from Italy’s famed grapes also factored into the mix. And rounding things out came a pile of digestivos, lovely sticky sweeties flavored with fruit, coffee, chocolate, almonds and even Italy’s beloved biscotti.

This organizational system got me through the reviews, and safely to the other side. It was an exhilarating process.

At the end of it all, I realized there was another way to view all of these spirits:  by region. Since so many of Italy’s spirits are made from the raw materials that grow nearby, they can be categorized by place — just as we do wine. And just like that, a map started to form among the bottles: the roots and herbs that grow in the northern Alpine regions are used to flavor amaros; the grape-growing regions contributed the grape-based aperitif wines, vermouths and brandies; the fruit of sunny Southern Italy are macerated into limoncellos and liqueurs.

I photocopied a map of Italy and started a crude visual system of sticky-note flags to indicate where each of the bottles were produced – at least, those where I could figure out the provenance. Then I removed a bunch, ending up with the map above. That became my feature article about Spirits of Italy, as I then drilled down to learn more about where and how each bottle was made. It also reminded me of previous visits to Italy — during my last trip, I had noticed how every village seemed to have its own very specific, very personal and regional take on pastries. So why wouldn’t spirits have similar regional tales to tell?

I learned a tremendous amount working on this particular issue, and I can’t wait to repeat this with another region. Though maybe next time, instead of backing in from the bottles,  I’ll start by getting out on the road.