Tag Archives: spirits

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

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Picking potatoes

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

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The potatoes are loaded up here…

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…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.

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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.”

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

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

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Distillation in the column still.

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

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

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It’s Slivovitz season!

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

A Saturday stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket reminded me that plum season is back. Every stall seemed to have luscious plums in shades of yellow, red, deep purple. And to me, plums = Slivovitz.

Earlier this year, I wrote for Tablet Magazine about my newfound affection for Slivovitz, the sometimes-fiery brandy distilled from plums, and my very recent discovery that sliv can be a spirit worth seeking out:

When I complained about firewater slivs to Angus MacDonald of the Coppersea Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, he scolded me—and then gave me a sample of his first batch of locally-made sliv.

“Slivovitz is rough by nature; it’s meant to be,” MacDonald insisted. “It’s old-country grappa, and the people who drank it were tough-ass mo-fos.” But he also assured me that if made right, it can be more drinkable. And sure enough, his version was delicate and pure, more eau-de-vie than paint thinner.

…Clearly, the time is right for giving slivovitz a second chance. Plum brandies—good ones!—are making their way to the U.S. marketplace.

Want to try some of those plum brandies? Head to the 10th annual Slivovitz Festival. coming up on Sept 20, in Glenn Dale, Maryland. Prefer to DIY? Take a look at this article on how to make your own Slivovitz, written by Cathy Barrow for the Washington Post a couple of years back. Either way, now is the time to give Sliv a chance.

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10 new Scotch whiskies coming to the U.S.

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.

AuriverdesArdbeg 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.

 

MortlachMortlach – 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

 

BracklaCraigellachie 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.

 

NadurraThe Glenlivet Nadurra. Nadurra means “natural.” No age statement. This is an umbrella name for small parcels of whiskies, so the flavor profile may change from batch to batch.

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).

 

 

HaigHaig Club (Diageo). It’s a blended Scotch, and is a partnership with soccer player and British celebrity David Beckham.

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

 

 

CardeasLaphroaig 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

 

Naked GrouseThe 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.
Coming: “soon.”

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In my glass: Barrel-Aged Gin

Barrel_Aged_Gin

One of the spirits trends I’m most excited about now is barrel-aged gin. YES:  gin aged in casks that previously held whiskey or wine (or even rum!), giving the finished product a golden hue, a luscious wash of vanilla and surprising versatility in bridging the seasons between cold- and hot-weather drinking since it incorporates aspects of wintry whiskey and summer-friendly gin.

In fact: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that barrel-aged gin may be the ultimate spirit for spring.

The reason barrel-aged gin is so firmly on my radar screen is because I wrote about it for the July issue of Wine Enthusiast. Let me clarify:  I started out writing about gin, period — the unaged stuff. But then a few barrel-aged beauties came in during the review session, and knocked my socks off. I’m already a gin girl, but (like most of us), I drink it in cocktails, not straight. But barrel-aged gin is nuanced and interesting enough to sip straight. And I couldn’t believe how different each of the bottlings were.

Among the most creative and enticing takes I’ve tried:

St. George Dry Rye Reposado Gin (St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA). An unusual rosy gin “rested” for 18 months in casks that previously held Syrah and Grenache wines. The end result is crazily hoppy and malty and oaky, with a fleeting dark-fruit quality on the finish.

Corsair Distillery’s Barrel-Aged Gin (Nashville, TN): Aging their gin in twice-used Corsair Spiced Rum barrels gives a pumpkin-spice effect, with distinct cinnamon and nutmeg notes.

Smooth Ambler’s Aged Gin (Maxwelton, West Virginia): It’s rested in used bourbon casks. Though it’s bottled at a striking 99 proof, it still retains a sprightly botanical nose, vanilla/burnt orange notes plus an intriguingly buttery feel.

Treaty Oak Distilling Co. (Austin, TX): Their bold & gutsy Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin has a burnished-copper hue and a deep, molasses-like aroma. On the palate, it veers closer to brown sugar, finishing with dry notes of chamomile tea, cedar and clove. It makes a dynamite variation on a Manhattan, too.

Downslope Distilling Ould Tom Citrus Flavored Gin (Downslope Distilling, Centennial, CO). Perfect for cocktail history buffs. It’s made in the lightly sweetened Old Tom style, distilled from cane and barrel aged for three months, for a golden gin that features honey and pear notes.

Notice anything a little wacky about those picks? Usually, gin is a Brit’s game. And of course the British did it first:  Burrough’s is probably the best-known and most widely-distributed barrel-aged gin.

But the crazy Americans are changing the game. Craft distillers in particular are innovating in what has become one of the most exciting categories around. This is only a handful of the barrel-aged gin offerings out there — I fully expect more to come, and in my opinion, the sooner the better. I’d be delighted to see barrel-aged gin become more than just an offbeat niche category.

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Baijiu: it’s coming for you, America

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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.
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Top of the ByeJoe box.

 

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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

 

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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.

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