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.

2014-06-24_16-20-03_547

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).

2014-06-22_17-43-02_453

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.

Spicy Spirits: Hangar 1 Chipotle Vodka

It’s baa-aack!

Hangar One chipotle vodka was one of the first spicy spirits to cross my radar screen a couple of years ago.

And then it disappeared off the shelves.

And now…it’s back, though to me it tastes a little different, which I suppose is to be expected with an artisan bottling. This batch has a golden color, and smells fresh, juicy, and lightly tomato-y, not at all smoky. But one sip, and it’s definitely all kinds of spicy, smoky, very lively and lingering. Like fresh chile peppers, the more you sip, the more the heat builds. It also has a quality that I find hard to explain, but can best describe it this way:  There’s something alive and authentic in the flavor….it tastes like something I just infused myself.

The heat level is a bit much for me straight up (which means chileheads will looooove it) but this seems like instant gold for blazing Bloody Marys, and I could see this doing nicely in a sweeter drink. Tempered with say, pineapple juice and ice, this would impart a lovely glow. 

The bottle arrived with a ziploc baggie of leathery brown chipotle peppers:  “Jalapeno peppers smoked by T-Rex Barbecue in Berkeley, California,” the label says. ” This is the most important pepper used in our Chipotle vodka.” The other peppers are (fresh) green jalapenos, red bells, and “Scoville-scale-scorching habaneros.” – all locally sourced through C&L Produce of Oakland, CA. And it’s produced & bottled in Alameda, CA. They make a point of labeling it as California’s Hangar One, as you can see on the colorful box in which the vodka arrived.

Final verdict:  Chileheads need to run out and buy a bottle. Now. However, if you don’t care for spicy, this one is not for you.

Spicy Spirits: Belvedere Bloody Mary

I’m a sucker for hotel bars with history. So of course I couldn’t resist an invitation to a spirits preview event at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, where the Bloody Mary was born — and where 5,000 Bloodies are served each week.

The spirit in question was Belvedere Bloody Mary, which will launch nationwide in April. Truth is, I know of a gazillion Bloody Mary mixes, where the instructions are “just add vodka” (or tequila, or other alcohol of choice). But this is the first spirit I know of where the flavoring is within the vodka, and the instructions are “just add tomato juice.”

Clare Smith, Head of Spirit Creation and Mixology for Belvedere (she was a brand ambassador before the term became ubiquitious) was on hand to explain how the product was made:  each flavored ingredient is distilled separately, and then the flavored vodkas are blended together. So the Bloody Mary includes seven different distillations:  fresh tomato, black pepper, horseradish, bell pepper, chile pepper, lemon, and vinegar.

According to Smith, the bottled blend is “recipe #37,” and over 200 flavor combinations were tried. The winning recipe includes equal parts black pepper and horseradish, and roughly 0.1% vinegar distillate, which “mimicks freshness without the hit of heat Tabasco would bring.”

Some of the flavors that were tried but discarded included habanero peppers, birds-eye chiles, green peppers, garlic, sundried tomato, and onion.

“The onion was nice on the nose, but it tasted awful,” Smith confided. “It was like the taste of onions the day after you’ve eaten them.”  Gross.  Thanks for sparing us that particular flavor. But knowing that all those flavors are in the Belvedere bank, I’m curious as to what blend might be released next.

So how was it? The finished vodka is clear — not red — which was a shrewd decision, since it can be blended into other drinks.  Tasting the vodka straight, it has a distinct black pepper aroma, with warm hint of  fresh tomato essence. On the tongue, it’s sweet, with a sharp, tangy finish (I presume that’s the vinegar/horseradish note), and a soft feel.

I also tried the Belvedere Bloody Mary cocktail (that’s it in the photo above) made with the vodka, tomato juice, Merlot, lemon juice, Tabasco, and a touch of salt. It’s a slam dunk in the drink — as it ought to be — and although I prefer my Bloodies with a bit more heat, the vodka surely should make for idiot-proof Bloody Marys at hangover brunches galore. (“It’s awful that the drink is relegated to one you drink when you feel terrible,” Smith said. I concur.)

I also tried the Belvedere Spiced Island Daiquri (Bloody Mary vodka, fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup, a touch of smoked paprika). Unfortunately, this drink didn’t work as well — the black pepper and an odd vegetal twang come through where you don’t really want it.

Now, here’s the drink I would have preferred to try:  Smith recommended a dirty martini with a lemon twist. I can easily imagine that — super well-chilled, served with a briny/savory snack like smoked salmon on toast. Now that sounds like an appealing drink to me.

Cocktails at EN Japanese Brasserie

Last week, I spent the afternoon at EN Japanese Brasserie. It was a fun afternoon for a journalist:  essentially, I watched from the sidelines as other people did all the heavy lifting on a photo shoot; asked impertinent questions between photos (they were all relevant to the article I’m working on – sorry, can’t tell you more just yet), and finished up by sipping some lovely drinks made by mixologist Gen Yamamoto.

Two special cocktails to share:

The Daikon Cocktail. If you liked the Daikon Green-Tini, this one is for you. Gen (that’s a hard “G,” by the way) makes a refreshing version with muddled daikon, shochu and lots more grated daikon on top.

Still life with Daikon Radish and fennel

Gen in action behind the bar

Daikon Cocktail

Tomato Cocktail: So if a traditional (or non-traditiona) Bloody Mary is more your style, this is closer to that category. However, this is one of the lightest, sweetest versions of a Bloody I’ve ever had. It was also crazy addictive.

Gen makes this drink with a combination of fresh cherry tomatoes and sweetened, house-made tomato preserves, as well as Rain vodka.  He also has a fabulous technique for seasoning the drink:  he rims the glass (but only half of it!) with salt, and then sprinkles finely ground pepper on the surface of the drink. Simple, but elegant and effective.

Tomato Cocktail

Don’t you love the glassware? It’s his own, hand-blown and brought in from home for the photo shoot. I was honored to be allowed to drink from this glass — and to be honest, terrified that I might drop it and break it! I swear it made the drink taste even better, though.

Drink recipe: New Orleans Bloody Mary

 More Bloody Marys to make bloody merry over!  This one is courtesy of “Cockail Guru” Jonathan Pogash, who made the drink on TV over the weekend. (Watch it here )

A few special touches make this version really interesting: 

1. the main spirit used is absinthe, not tequila or vodka, and it’s relatively light on the tomato juice, plus a good dose of lime juice instead of the lemon that brightens most Bloodies. I haven’t yet tried it, but it sounds like  a refreshing twist.

2. this drink is not for instant gratification freaks. Jon adds savory extras like salt & pepper, horseradish, and Tabasco, and then lets it meld for a full 24 hours

3. Then — and only then! — he pours it over ice and garnishes with something smoky and pickled, like okra.

New Orleans Bloody Mary (by Jonathan Pogash)

(serves 1)

1 oz. LUCID Absinthe

2 oz. Tomato juice

1 pinch black pepper

1 pinch horseradish sauce

1 dash Tabasco hot sauce

3 dashes Worcestershire sauce

1 dash kosher salt

1/2 oz. fresh lime juice

Directions: Combine ingredients and marinate for 24 hrs.  Then pour over ice into tall glass.

Garnish: Rick’s Picks “Smokra” pickled okra (or any other pickled vegetable)

Winner of The Bloody Mary Olympics

Mary on the Piste (photo courtesy of thepublican.com)

I’ve been on a Bloody Mary kick lately. Can you blame me? They used to be among my least-favorite drinks on the spicy spectrum, because too often they serve as an un-subtle tomato juice delivery system for booze. But recently they’ve been adopted as a wonderful canvas for exciting flavors and innovation. 

And so it was with great delight that I stumbled upon an account of a Bloody Mary Olympics held in London about a month ago. 

The rules:  entrants were given a dazzling and slightly nutty range of ingredients to work with, such as beetroot juice, Guinness, paprika, wasabi and roast garlic cloves. They were expected to pair the drinks with bar snacks ranging from filo pastry lollipops to popcorn crayfish marinated in vodka to corned beef hash. And each drink had to include a shot of Absolut, the spirits company sponsoring the event (grand prize was a trip to the Absolut Academy in Sweden). 

Here’s the winning drink, which I am translating into Americanized measurements.  (Speaking of translation, I had to look up “on the piste.” It’s a ski slope reference. I was concerned it might be crude menstrual cycle slang, considering the drink category and the British propensity for puns. I’m already sorry that I brought this up. Moving on…)

The cocktail was served with a frozen celery stick dipped in horseradish snow (similar to an ice cream, it melts slowly into the cocktail as you drink it).  And the accompanying snack was corned beef hash cakes and piccalilli (kind of a chopped tomato relish).

Although I don’t see any instructions for making “horseradish snow,” my best guess  is to mix together crushed ice with prepared white horseradish or grated fresh horseradish.

Mary on the piste

3 1/2 ounces tomato juice

1 1/4 ounce Absolut Peppar (or I suggest making your own jalapeno-infused vodka)

1/2 ounce dry sherry

Juice of half a lime

4 dashes of Lea and Perrins

2 dashes of Tabasco

1/2 tsp of Bovril diluted 1/10  (Yanks – try beef bouillion as a substitute)

Celery salt

Freshly ground pepper

Mix together and pour over ice in a 10oz glass. Make horseradish snow & spread on half a celery stick to garnish. (These are frozen & great for summer!) Serve with corned brisket of beef hash cakes with mustard and piccalilli.

Cochon Bloody Mary w/ pork jus

It’s been an afternoon of discoveries. I’m not sure which is most stunning:

1. The fact that a magazine called Garden & Gun actually exists.

2. The fact that despite the backwater-sounding title, it’s a beautiful-looking publication. It’s even an ASME National Magazine Award finalist, going up against the likes of Martha Stewart’s publications and The New Yorker.

3. The fact that it’s featuring one of the most mouth-watering Bloody Mary recipes I’ve ever read, from celebrated New Orleans Cajun haven Cochon. In addition to the usual suspects, it includes pork jus, okra brine, Crystal hot sauce, and a good dose of grainy mustard.  I can’t help myself. Here’s the recipe, as posted on the Garden & Gun “Talk of the South” blog.

photo credit: Chris Granger

Cochon Bloody Mary
(yields 10–12 servings)

1 can V8 (46 oz.)
2 tbsp. finely ground black pepper
2 tbsp. whole grain mustard
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1.5 oz. pork jus
1.5 oz. lime juice
2.5 oz. lemon juice
3.5 oz. hot sauce (preferably Crystal brand)
2 oz. green hot sauce
1.5 oz. red wine vinegar
1 oz. olive juice
1.5 oz. okra juice (the brine from a jar of pickled okra)
vodka of choice

Mix it up: Combine everything in a pitcher—except vodka—and stir. To serve: Fill glass with ice. Add about 2 ounces of vodka. Fill with Bloody Mary mixture. Stir, garnish with pickled okra and a stalk of celery, and serve. The mixture can be made ahead of time and kept in a sealed pitcher for up to a week.

Trend-spotting: Curry Cocktails

Photo credit: Erwin Schoonderwaldt (via Flickr)

The April issue of Bon Appetit magazine arrived over the weekend (I was a Gourmet subscriber – and although I honestly have nothing against Bon App, I still feel a little stab of resentment every time the unasked-for substitute shows up in the mailbox). As I was leafing through, the page serendipitously fell open to a recipe for Curry-Spiced Bloody Marys.

It’s an otherwise standard recipe (tomato juice, vodka, lemon and lime juices, salt and pepper, celery-stick garnish), but it also calls for two unusual ingredients:  balsamic vinegar, and “2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons” of Madras curry powder. (I’ll assume that 3 full tablespoons would have overpowered.)

I seem to be all but stumbling over curry-spiked cocktails lately!  At the Cocktail All-Stars event, I was handed a Delhi Daisy, made with tequila, elderflower, lemon, curry simple syrup, and aromatic bitters. (I later learned it was the brainchild of Misty Kalkofen, of Boston’s Drink).

Just days later, I was sent a press release for AGAINN, in Washington D.C. And tucked in among a number of innovative drinks was The Bare-Knuckle Boxer, described as follows:  “house-blended madras curry powder infused into John L. Sullivan Irish Whisky, R&W Orchard Apricot liqueur, Dolin Dry, and Peychaud’s Bitters.” 

Hmm, I thought:  here’s someone mixing up their own spices, and then infusing them into a base spirit. Very different approach from Misty’s simple syrup approach. But wait…why did it sound so familiar?  And then it hit me:  a few months back, I interviewed Justin Guthrie of Central Michel Richard, also in D.C.  He was all kinds of fired up about a recent experiment utilizing sous-vide technology from the kitchen, which he’d used to concoct a  curry powder “super-infused” bourbon.  The end result:  an exotic whiskey sour

Though I’m not exactly a sous-vide expert, what I do know is that it’s a method of slow-cooking. In other words, not exactly curry in a hurry.

Bloody Mary – our favorite gal

photo credit: Saveur Magazine

All hail Mary — Bloody Mary, that is.  If you haven’t already picked up the January “Saveur 100” issue,   then you missed the blurb on The Versatile Bloody Mary, which extols the virtues of “bloody marys with pickled okra, ones made with beer or tequila instead of the standard vodka, and others with green tomatoes and herbs. Some, spiked with beef stock or studded with raw oysters, taste like a meal. And let’s not forget the delicious classic version, made with lots of horseradish, fresh lemon juice, celery salt, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and just the right balance of vodka and tomato juice.”

I’ll add to that list some of the amazing Bloodies I’ve known and loved- made with cachaca, for example, or golden heirloom tomatoes. Or the stunning “inside-out” Mary made with a frozen tomato cube floating in a sea of clear spirits, or wonderful, edible garnishes like skewered bocconcini-and-cherry tomatoes, pickled stringbeans, or smoked meats.
If you’re a Bloody Mary fan, may I also recommend the “Bloody Merries” blog, supposedly a precursor to a not-yet-birthed book by the same name. Unfortunately, the blog hasn’t been updated in some time, but if you can get past the offputting list of “Bloody Marys That Never Should Have Been” section at the top (“The Chewy Mary” – need I say more?) there’s a wealth of good stuff within, such as a recipe for Bloody Mary Pumpkin Seeds, frozen Bloody Mary slushies, and a fun riff on using meat rubs, lime salt, or even crushed Doritos to rim drinks.