10 puzzling new liquor products seen at WSWA

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) conference in Orlando, FL. It was my first time attending, and it was an eye-opener, to be sure.

I’d been warned ahead of time:  “It’s not a craft cocktail conference;” and “It’s not Tales of the Cocktail.” Which is is code for, “hey, liquor snob, don’t expect anyone to debate the merits of which vermouth is best in a Negroni.” Which is fine by me:  there’s a whole world out there beyond the speakeasy set.

But I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the products I’d find on the WSWA conference floor. Some have me outright baffled — why is there a need for cognac-flavored moonshine? and others have me scratching my head, but I can see the market. Take a look:

Penthouse flavored vodkas.

Penthouse-branded cherry-flavored vodkas infused with herbs intended to enhance libido, “for him” and “for her.” I learned later that the magazine has nothing to do with the product, by the way, it’s just a licensed brand.

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Sinfully THINN whiskey: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the media about how this is being marketed as a “diet whiskey” and isn’t that just awful. I have to be honest, no one said a peep to me about diet anything. Rather, they harped about how this is “light whiskey,” which is a new category no one has ever tried before. (C’mon, I can’t be the only one who remembers Kansas whiskey.) “It’s like white dog and we clean it up,” chirped the marketing rep. It tasted like vodka.

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Chilled Dills pickle flavored vodka! I liked this one – had me thinking Bloody Marys and Picklebacks.

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Jevo: Described as a “Keurig for jello shots.” It’s created by someone who has a background in technology rather than the hospitality industry. It has a big old electronic ad slapped on the front and they were already marketing this as a vehicle for Pinnacle flavored vodka. I suspect this is going to do very well. You can watch it in action here.

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It’s alcohol butterscotch pudding. IN A POUCH. “It’s like Go-Gurt for grown-ups,” I was told. 

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These are BuzzBallz. Premixed cocktails in ball-shaped cans. The container floats. The juice wasn’t bad, if a little sweet – they do both wine- and liquor-based versions. I can see this doing very well.

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Vodka, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Tequila, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don't understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don’t understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

Cocktail batching horror stories

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Batched & bottled Negronis from yesterday’s event at Grape & Grain.

This past weekend, I visited with the Jacksonville, FL chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). The game plan was to talk about Cocktails for a Crowd — but although much of the book is informed by advice from bartenders, I was worried:  what could I possibly tell these USBG pros that they didn’t already know?

So I prepped for the event by turning to other bartenders, asking them for their craziest stories about batching cocktails. Here’s what they told me (names removed to protect the innocent & lightly edited). In general, I learned three lessons in particular:

Lesson #1: CLEARLY LABEL AND, IF NECESSARY, LOCK UP YOUR STUFF.

“We were batching cocktails for an event once for the Kentucky Derby in a hallway outside the main venue, and had about 35 gallons of cocktails picked up and locked in a closet by a janitor because he thought it was paint left out. We went for sandwiches before the event started. We came back and thought someone took them all. Had to come up with something on the fly. Found out a couple of days later what happened.” –Louisville, KY-based bartender.

“Spent a couple of days figuring out how to clarify lime juice for a pre-batched Moscow Mule.

Ended up making about a half gallon of clarified lime only for it to be thrown out because someone wanted the cambro to make ice-tea. [NOTE FROM KARA: A Cambro is a plastic storage container, aka. “restaurant size Tupperware.”] Two days work literally down the drain right before a busy weekend where the drink was supposed to be featured.

For awhile we would tape down the lids of the cambro with descriptions, dates, and death threats.”  – Oakland, CA-based bartender

Lesson #2: IF YOU’RE OFF SITE – IF POSSIBLE, BATCH AHEAD & BRING IT TO THE EVENT

“A former boss hired me to come to his 10-year college reunion & make drinks & give a talk. About 500 people where scheduled to be there. I got the specs, the menu, and prepared a talk related to historical drinks to the school.

I planned to make 60 gallons of cocktail. I got there at 1PM, the event started at 8PM. I showed up, and the prep kitchen is a porch. There’s one electrical outlet, and it’s as close to the floor as you can get. And the juicer is a $20 Black & Decker for grannies to make juice in the morning.

I made three to four gallons of citrus juice squatting down in a catcher’s stance, then standing up and emptying the container. By the end of the experience, the juicer was broken.

During the event, out of 500 people, maybe 12 had drinks. 98% of the drinks were thrown away. There were maybe 10 people listening to my talk. But one turned out to be one of my best regulars. So I’d say it was 100% worth it.” –NYC-based bartender

Lesson #3: BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

“I watched a large frozen spider fall into my punch (frozen inside a large chunk of ice). Out in Arizona when I worked at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel as a chef… Spiders would make their way in from the desert just outside because it was cool inside. they would eventually get into the ice block machine and end up quite frozen.” –MA-based author

About a decade ago I ran a Tequila bar. It was a busy joint so I used to make large batches of the many *flavored* house margaritas.

One day while I was doing the deed I had two batching containers on the floor with tops on them. I had a drink in my hand *quality control* when I decided to step over both buckets. My foot got caught on one of the lids which popped it open– my foot fell into the large vessel with a giant splash!

I reflexively threw my hands in the air from shock/surprise throwing my full drink into my face!

Thankfully there were only a few people at the bar to see one of my proudest moments. I proceeded to work the rest of that evening with a red stain up to my right knee.” — New Orleans, LA-based bartender

“I was helping prep for a major consumer event in Chicago and had to squeeze about three cases of limes. The hotel we were staying in was nice enough to let me use their professional juicer – otherwise it would have to be done by hand! – and I was set up in a corner of the kitchen with my cases. Even so it took a few hours, and ran into dinner service. As the kitchen was getting busier and busier, a chef walked by and accidentally bumped into the nozzle where the lime juice was being collected. A slow drip of lime juice started falling on the floor. Luckily we caught it after a few minutes, but still, sad.” –NYC-based PR rep

“Friend of mine dropped her new iPhone in a batch of Bloody Marys — wet and corrosive. Got her a case that is waterproof down to 7 feet, No problems so far anymore.”— New York state-based spirits blogger

Pictorial: What’s your still’s name?

“Hi, my name is ___.” Go ahead and introduce yourself, because some stills have names too.

What kind of distiller names their still? I can only imagine it’s the same kind of person who names their car, boat or musical instrument. After all, many distillers spend as much time with their beloved hooch-making apparatus as they do with their loved ones. So why not refer to “George” vs. “Still No. 2”?

Of course, this tradition doesn’t apply to everyone. When I asked Brian Lee of Tuthilltown whether he named his still, he seemed taken aback. “Never!” he cried. “These stills need to be repaired and replaced pretty often. If I named one, I’d get too attached to get rid of it.”

Meet a few stills, below.

This is Old George, pictured with bartender Shawn Soole, at Fermentorium Distilling in Victoria, BC. Old George primarily makes Stump Gin. Where did the name come from? “It’s British,” Soole shrugged. “It’s old.” (It’s a 1920s copper still.)
IMG_0838Below, meet Mary, at A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, VA, pictured with master distiller Brian Prewitt.  She’s an enormous 30-foot-tall copper still, installed in 1991 and named after Mary Hite Bowman, who was the mother of the Bowman brothers who founded the distillery. When I visited the distillery in December, Prewitt (who refers to the still as “my good friend Mary,”) told me he would be getting a much smaller (8 foot) still in a couple of weeks for making gin. And it will be named for Mary’s husband, George.IMG_0790IMG_0792This is a photo of George, who I understand has arrived at Bowman since my visit.IMG_0793

Meanwhile, Ugly Betty is the name of the still at Bruichladdich that makes gin, not Scotch. Designed in 1955, it’s described as a cross between a pot still and a column still; key to the design is an ugly, thick column-like neck with three extra removable sections for flexibility – sort of a Frankenstein’s monster approach. I’ve been told that it’s more common for gin stills to have names than whiskey stills, though I don’t know why.

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Finally, meet Wee Witchie, at Scotland’s Mortlach distillery. The smallest still at Mortlach was given its name in the 1960s by then distillery manager John Winton thanks to its unique shape: fat and rounded at the bottom and pointy at the top, resembling a pointy witch’s hat. At least one run of spirit from the Wee Witchie still is included in every bottling of Mortlach (a single malt Scotch starting to make inroads in the U.S. this year).

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In the photo below, Wee Witchie is the small still at the far end of the line-up.2014-06-22_17-26-25_994If you know of other stills that have been given names, I’d love to know — I’m sure there are plenty more out there!

Added 2/16: How could I forget about Ethel the Still, at North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff, IL? Unlike the stills above, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making Ethel’s acquaintance in person. However, Ethel is probably the only still to have a Twitter account — so appropriately, she reached out to me via Twitter to remind me of her presence. Thanks, @StillEthel.

Pictorial: Malting Floors, USA

While Scotland has plenty of malting floors in its whiskey distilleries — literally, floors upon which barley is spread to germinate — the United States has exactly five. I’ve managed to visit four of ’em (still need to get to Rogue Distillery in Oregon). Each looks a little different, and has its own personality – take a look for yourself.

Copper Fox (Sperryville, VA)

Wasmund_2Wasmund_1At Copper Fox, the malting room actually has two malting spaces. Above, that’s Rick Wasmund standing in between the two, puckishly noting the two malting floors, North and South. “At night, they re-enact Civil War battles,” he deadpanned. “It’s a mess in morning.”

Leopold Brothers (Denver, CO)

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This is their new distillery, which opened in 2014. I’m not sure if their old distillery had a malting floor. They weren’t malting when I visited – but they use their malted barley for gin and vodka, not just whiskey. It’s definitely the most spacious malting floor I’ve seen.

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Check out the malting shovels – a local furniture designer made them, using oak from former whiskey barrels and bolts – no glue.

Coppersea Distillery (West Park, NY)

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The photo above was taken by Scott Gordon Bleicher, for an Edible Manhattan feature I wrote about Coppersea. When I visited, they weren’t malting that day. It’s less exciting to see without the malt spread out – it just looks like an empty garage (see Leopold Brothers, above).

You can’t really see it in this photo, but they use a jagged-tooth malting rake; Christopher Williams (the gent dragging the rake above) commissioned it from a local metalsmith, using an old engraving as the prototype.

Hillrock Distillery (Ancram, NY)

hillrock_EHVPhoto credit: Edible Hudson Valley. The malting floor looks more like a room in a quaint B&B than a working distillery, doesn’t it?

Rogue Spirits (Ashland, OR)

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Photo credit: Rogue Spirits. Here’s hoping I get to Oregon in 2015 to see this in person and round out the collection.

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.

Where to find me at Tales of the Cocktail

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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!

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.”