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.

8 articles I’m glad I wrote in 2014

One of my goals for 2014 was to write more narrative-driven pieces, particularly those with a personal connection. Here are a few I’m particularly proud of – I hope you enjoy reading them. See you in 2015.

Drink This Now: Excellent Rums with a Cuban Connection (Bloomberg) Yes, it’s a particularly ironic twist of fate that an easing of the Cuban-U.S. trade embargo was announced barely a week after this ran. (It had been in place for 50+ years!!! Couldn’t you have waited one more month, President Obama?) But I still had a blast chasing down Havana Club and other rums, so sorry/not sorry.

Humble Pie On the Rocks (Wine Enthusiast) I’ve loved how many people have responded to this essay about blundering my way through a cocktail competition.

Gonzo Vodka: Drinking a Bit of Hunter S. Thompson (PUNCH) I went to Woody Creek, Colorado, an enclave of leftist hippies and the home of late Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Now it has its own distillery making vodka, which, in a crazy way, is about the closest thing you’ll get to having a drink with HST.

Drink This Now: Meaty Mezcals Distilled With Chicken, Pork and Rabbit (Bloomberg) This slightly racy article yielded one of my favorite compliments of all time: “I have never been so hungry, thirsty and turned on all at the same time.”

In Praise of the White Russian (Saveur) Because I’ve always wanted to write about the time I knocked back a bunch of them with my Nana at a bat mitzvah, culminating in a Rockettes-style family kickline. There’s video footage of that moment somewhere. Don’t judge.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again, and Fall Again) of NYC’s Tiki Scene (Thrillist) This piece took a LOT of reporting: interviews, outings to various tiki nights (I know, poor me), tracking down old newspaper articles. But I felt like it let me connect the dots between various waves of tiki culture, and give me insight into why New York Tiki refuses to die.

In Praise of Slivovitz (Tablet) Plum brandy or paint thinner? My ode to the spirit we love to hate. After this and the White Russian story, I’m declaring a moratorium on titling anything “In Praise of…” in 2015.

Whiskey & History (Edible Manhattan) This profile was two years in the making – after meeting the producers quite a few times and sampling on the fly, I finally got to spend some quality time at their Hudson Valley and witness first-hand Coppersea’s unusual approach to “heritage distilling.”

Is Havana Club rum coming your way soon?

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Well, THAT was fast.

Last Thursday, my article on questing for Havana Club rum went up on Bloomberg’s site. In short, it’s about the fact that the 50-year-old trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba means that you can’t get Cuban rum — at least, not through most legitimate channels (although I found a loophole, and some worthwhile rum alternatives.)

And then yesterday came this surprise in breaking news: the U.S. is expected to normalize relations with Cuba. And that includes access to Cuban rum.

But wait — does that mean a bottle of Havana Club on every bar? Not exactly. Provisions include this little tidbit:

Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

$100 in alcohol isn’t a lot. And since retail outlets (and presumably, importers that sell direct to bars and restaurants) won’t have access yet, this effectively limits imports to private citizens who are bringing a few bottles at a time back from Cuba or duty-free in other areas. And it may not even be called Havana Club: according to rum maven Robert Burr, it may be re-labeled as Havanista.

What’s actually changing is that Cuban rum just moved out of the realm of “illicit alcoholic beverage.” That great thumping sound you hear? That’s bartenders across America pulling their contraband bottles of Havana Club out from under the counter and plunking them down on the bar in plain sight.

I’m glad I had the chance to search for my “holy grail” of rum. Now that it’s (slightly) easier to find, it’s your turn. Get out there and order your Havana Club; I’d love to hear where you find it and what you think of the rum.

10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2015

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It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2014 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2015:

1. Bars become more casualSpeakeasies aren’t going away, but they are no longer the center of the cocktail universe — they are not just one option among many. As many of the old-school cocktail dens celebrate the decade mark (hello, Employees Only), the new entrants to the bar scene are more casual (Boilermaker, the Happiest Hour, Midnight Rambler, Pastry Wars, etc.) and less overtly theme-driven compared to 2014. There’s still a LOT of effort going on behind the scenes – but the overall effect is a whole lot breezier now.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I think I was too early with this one last year. I’m (still) waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass, but Scandinavian food is still ramping in the food world, plus I’m grooving on Baska Snaps lately. Call me when IKEA opens a pop-up bar, okay?

3. We’ll drink lots and lots and lots of shots. To be clear: I’m resisting this trend with every fiber of my being, because I think shots are about getting drunk fast, not about enjoying a cocktail experience. But I see it coming anyway, in the form of upscaled boilermakers (a drink with a shot dumped in it) and “backs” (beer + a shot on the side) and miniaturized cocktails served as “shots.”

4. Bartenders and budtenders will collide. That’s right: cannabis cocktails are in the offing. Considering the growing number of states legalizing and de-criminalizing marijuana and chef-driven experiments with gourmet edibles and potables, I’m expecting to hear more about weed-laced libations in 2015. Oh, and can we talk about the “marijuana-inspired” vodka that just landed on my desk?

5. Single-grain Scotch will attract attention. That’s single grain vs. single malt, not whiskey made from a single type of grain. New entrants to the field include Haig Club (that David Beckham-backed brand from Diageo), and Girvan (William Grant). Irish whiskey already has plenty of single grain options, but we haven’t heard much about single-grain Scotches to date. That will change in the year ahead.

6. Jetsons-style cocktails will come to life. Between flashy robot bartenders on cruise ships, Monsieur the “robotic bartender,” and Keurig-style “automated craft cocktail machines,” technology will complete its takeover of the world, one cocktail at a time. OK, I’m exaggerating. But just a little.

7. More flavored whiskey, less flavored vodka. This seems true of both unaged “moonshine” as well as the brown stuff. Can’t wait to see some of the over-the-top flavors. Speaking of which, I’m going to leave these press releases for Butterscotch Moonshine and pecan pie-flavored whiskey liqueur right here.

8. We’ll spring for cocktail accoutrements. The cocktail revolution has finally matured — and so has a generation that came of age during the craft cocktail movement. Think about all the now 30-somethings (yes, including “older Millennials,” for those of you obsessed with marketing to that demographic) that now have mortgages and babies, and now entertain at home instead of hanging around for last call. They’re the ones making nests (and wedding registries) that include coupe glasses and fancy bar carts. 

9. “Outlaw gin” will be in. I’m excited about the direction that gin seems to be taking. There seems to be more experimentation, more expression, more outliers. Not just the barrel-aged stuff, either (which I suspect has peaked, by the way). But I’ve had a quite a few “I didn’t know you could DO that” moments with gin lately:  gin made with extra juniper, with almost no juniper; no citrus; gin from sugar cane; from Yerba Mate; savory gin, sweet gin, gin from all corners of the globe, even one with an AOC. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. These gins defy the usual categories and I’m very excited about them.

10. Japanese whisky will skyrocket. Asia’s whiskies already were on the ascent in 2014, as Taiwan’s Kavalan and Japan’s super-smooth whiskies came to the forefront. But then, whiskey guru Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as his top-rated pick in the latest edition of the World Whiskey Bible, catapulting it above even Scotch whiskies. This category will be unstoppable in the year ahead, and Suntory and Nikka will be flooding Western markets with plenty of good stuff. Enjoy it – by 2016, we’ll be declaring Japanese whiskey as “over.”

It’s Cyber Monday! Order Cocktails for a Crowd

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVERTaking advantage of all those Cyber Monday deals? Good for you. Now’s the time to order Cocktails for a Crowd  – whether it’s a gift for a friend who loves to entertain, the party’s at your home and you’re seeking drink inspiration, or you’re celebrating elsewhere and need a host/hostess gift.  Throw in a bottle of booze or bitters, and you’re officially the best gifter in the world.

–>Order “Cocktails for a Crowd” from Amazon

Book Cover

–>As long as you’re browsing online, you can also buy a copy of my other book,  The Secret Financial Life of Food: from commodities markets to supermarkets, for the history-minded foodies on your gift list. New this holiday season: it’s also available in paperback format!

–>Order “The Secret Financial Life of Food” from Amazon

Many thanks and happy holidays!

Celebrating a new book with the Redeeming Spirits cocktail

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

My always-inspiring friend Monica Bhide has a new book out, The Devil in Us. Although Monica usually writes thoughtful musings about food and her Indian heritage (with good reason, her work frequently is featured in the annual “Best Food Writing” compilations), this is her fiction debut, a collection of short stories.

I was honored when Monica asked me to create a spicy cocktail to celebrate the new book — and here it is, perfect for sipping while you read. There’s a non-alcoholic version too, at Monica’s request. Enjoy!

Redeeming Spirits 

A variation on the classic Moscow Mule, this drink is powered by the heat of pepper-infused vodka. Choose a good commercial brand (I like Oola, from Washington State), or marinate a sliced fresh jalapeno in one cup of unflavored vodka for a couple of hours. Note – a traditional Mule uses ginger beer; here the sweetness of ginger ale should help balance out the jalapeno spice.

1 1/2 ounces chile pepper-infused vodka

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

4 ounces ginger ale

Jalapeno slice (to garnish)

In a tall glass, pour in the vodka and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass, and add a scoop of ice. Add ginger ale to fill the glass and stir.

 

NON ALCOHOLIC VERSION:

4-6 ounces spicy ginger beer

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

In a tall glass, pour in the ginger beer and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass. Scoop in ice and stir to chill.