Articles in Cocktails

Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.

It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.

In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.

Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita

To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.

Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.

Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?

Sangrita Cóctel

Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.

Ingredients

2 shots tequila

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup tomato juice

Bottled Mexican hot sauce

1 Mexican lime (aka Key)

Sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.

2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!

3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.

Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each.  The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.

Meyer lemons are very thin skinned with a fragrant, almost floral scent. The zest will make any dish pop with flavor. I use it instead of butter on steamed asparagus, sprinkle it into green salads for extra zip, and mix it into both sweet and savory types of dough.

The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.

But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.

Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round.  If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.

The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.

Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style

Makes 2 to 3 quarts

Ingredients

10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed

1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)

2 cups water

1½ to  2 cups raw sugar

1 cup honey

Equipment

1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)

Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)

Directions

1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.

2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.

3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.

4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.

5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.

6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.

7. Turn the flame to low.

8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.

9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.

10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.

11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.

Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called Bishop. Credit: Charles Perry

This is the time of year for hot drinks such as buttered rum. Here’s one from the 18th century that fits right in. The drink called bishop is like mulled wine crossed with sangria with a dash of triple sec and a rich and intriguing flavor we rarely use, baked orange peel. It would move pretty fast at a holiday party, and it could even be served cold in summer.

I don’t really know why it’s called bishop, though some people say it was served when a bishop came to visit, and one Maryland recipe collection reportedly says to add brandy “according to the capacity of the bishop.”

The idea of flavoring wine goes back to the Romans, who liked to put spices and fenugreek leaves in it. From the Middle Ages down to the 17th century, monks and doctors made liqueurs with secret herb mixtures while laypeople were whipping up concoctions with names such as ypocras and metheglin. These were all medicinal beverages, or so people told themselves.

In India, the English finally learned to mix drinks for purely recreational purposes. The toddy, from a Hindi word for palm wine, was essentially whiskey, sugar and hot water. The name punch comes from the Hindi word panch, which means “five,” because it originally had five ingredients. Finally, shrub, which comes from the Arabic word sharab, or “beverage,” seems to have been punch with fewer ingredients.

Most of these punches were basically booze mixed with sugar and lemon or lime juice. In the modern world, punch, apart from children’s birthday punches and the wedding champagne punch, has evolved into a cocktail. Most often it is essentially a miniature, single-serve punch mixed to order. And when making cocktails, bartenders still go through a lot of lime juice and Collins mix. Another thing old-time punches and cocktails had in common was that they were often sprinkled with nutmeg, which doesn’t go on anything but eggnog today.

Once they got the idea, the English started running with it. Negus was essentially strong lemonade mixed with wine, perhaps topped off with some brandy. And then there was bishop, which was wine mixed with orange juice. (When bishop was born, it was a showoffy drink because oranges were expensive imported delicacies.)

I’ve followed the recipe in Mrs. Lettice Bryant’s “The Kentucky Housewife” (1839) except for baking the oranges rather than roasting them before the hearth fire. “Serve either warm or cold,” the recipe says, “in glasses, and grate nutmeg thickly over the tops.” Cheers, reverend sir.

Bishop

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

6 oranges, preferably Valencias

1½ cups sugar

1 bottle red wine, divided

Freshly ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Bake the oranges at 350 F until the peels soften, about 25 minutes. The peels will look a little puffy and shiny and have a piney aroma. Don’t worry about a few browned spots. Let the oranges cool, slice them into a large mixing bowl and stir with the sugar and half of the wine.

2. Cover overnight.

3. At serving time, squeeze the oranges and stir up the mixture to make sure the sugar is dissolved. In a saucepan, heat the rest of the bottle of wine to just under the boiling point and strain the orange-wine mixture into it. Serve sprinkled with nutmeg.

Top photo: Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called bishop. Credit: Charles Perry

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Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Everyone loves reading and drinking, right? Or maybe it’s drinking and reading. So these great books about cocktails would be perfect presents for just about anyone. You might even want to snag a few for yourself, and snuggle up to read them with a drink in hand.

“Cocktails for a Crowd”

This book by Wine Enthusiast Magazine spirits editor Kara Newman is a must-have resource for making punches, pitcher drinks and party-size batches of tiki and tropical beverages. Newman also spells out the way to go on ice, garnishes and other equipment to keep the drinks flowing at your next gathering. Additionally included are classics along the lines of the Bobby Burns (see recipe below), a strong, burly drink invented for Robert Burns Night, celebrating the Scottish poet, on Jan. 25. Newman even explains how to make a bottled version, ideal for serving to a large group. $18.95, Chronicle Books

“Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body”

Alex Ott, an organic chemist and mixologist, has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world. Ott was inspired by his own brush with death in an airplane crash to write this book, which centers on the power of spirited concoctions to combat stress, boost energy, stay young, improve memory, cure hangovers, relax one’s nerves and, of course, act as aphrodisiacs and magic tinctures. Many of the drinks call for fresh fruits, vegetables, botanicals and herbs as well as chamomile, garlic, lemongrass and cinnamon to work their power. $17, Running Press

“The Drunken Botanist”

Written by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart, this is the book to get for the gardeners and cocktail historians in your life. A detailed exploration of the garnishes and flavorings that can naturally accent a good drink, from herbs and spices to berries, flowers and other botanicals, Stewart helps guide both how to grow all these accoutrements as well as how to use them in a range of flavorful cocktails, from The Aviation, made with violet liqueur, to a Negroni with fresh orange peel. $19.95, Algonquin Books

“Savory Cocktails”

Written by Greg Henry, author of “Savory Pies,” this is for those who prefer their drinks herbaceous, smoky and strong — his chapters are broken down by Sour, Spicy, Herbal, Umami, Bitter, Smoky, Rich and Strong categories. Within the inspiring recipes are notes on techniques and primers on how to make your own syrups, bitters, shrubs and infusions. $16.95, Ulysses Press

“Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails”

Katie Loeb, a Philadelphia-based sommelier, restaurant consultant and bartender, believes that anyone who can shop, boil water, measure ingredients and operate basic kitchen equipment can make homegrown cocktails. But just in case, her book includes step-by-step photos of some of the more complicated procedures for those shaky around a shaker. Expect tips on how to make infusions of base spirits, bitters and your own limoncello. $24.99, Quarry Books

“Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender”

Northern California-based bartender Jeff Burkhart likens bartending to both marathon running and psychology. In this book, he takes a look at life from both sides of the bar, providing anecdotes on encounters with George Lucas, Robert Redford and Andre Agassi, as well as useful tips on drinking and making drinks. $15, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

“Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails”

Renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s book is part history, part philosophy, with plenty of recipes for the world’s most widespread — if sometimes maligned — spirit, vodka. Abou-Ganim defends vodka’s complexity and versatility with detailed ideas for cocktails, a primer on pairing with such delicacies as caviar and a list of 58 vodkas with tasting notes and character scores for each. $22.95, Surrey Books

Bobby Burns

Courtesy Kara Newman, “Cocktails for a Crowd”

Serves 8 (about 4 cups)

Ingredients

12 ounces Scotch

12 ounces sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica

5 ounces water

2 ounces Benedictine

8 lemon twists, for garnish

Directions

1. In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine Scotch, vermouth, water and Benedictine and stir well.

2. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-milliliter bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours, until chilled.

3. To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice.

4. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled.

5. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each drink with a lemon twist.

Top photo: Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

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The Bloody Bull. Credit: The Lanesborough Hotel, London

An arranged marriage between vodka and tomato juice, infinitely customizable with an assortment of stalk-like accoutrements, the Bloody Mary is thought to have been created shortly after World War I. An unknown American bartender in Paris usually gets the credit for creatively availing himself of some of the first tins of tomato juice imported from the United States.

The original recipe did not contain booze. Bartender Fernand Petiot at The St. Regis New York’s King Cole Bar in 1934 added vodka to tomato juice and came up with the name. It was apparently inspired by a bar regular named Mary, left waiting for her man while nursing one of Petiot’s tomato cocktails. Bar Mary’s plight was likened to that of England’s Queen Mary I, and thus the Bloody Mary was born.

The name was considered a little racy, so Petiot improvised a new version of the Bloody Mary with gin and called it a Red Snapper. But once Smirnoff vodka took America by storm in the 1960s, making vodka more mainstream, the Bloody Mary roared again.

It has a reputation as a hangover remedy, and the Bloody Mary is abidingly good after a big night out thanks to the richness of the tomato juice, which also provides acidity. Spice comes from the traditional Tabasco, though some bartenders prefer Louisiana hot sauce, horseradish or other concoctions of their own.

Themes on the classic Bloody Mary abound, and in honor of its history, each St. Regis hotel has its own signature Bloody Mary. The luxurious Lanesborough Hotel in London, part of the St. Regis family, makes one with fresh yellow tomato juice and rosemary-infused vodka. In Kauai, the Aloha Mary is a blend of organic Hawaiian vodka, Clamato juice, wasabi, Sriracha and local guava wood-smoked sea salt, garnished with sea asparagus. For this week’s recipe, master barman Tony Abou-Ganim provides a very spicy take on the old classic, the Bloody Bull, thought to have originated in New Orleans.

Bloody Bull

Courtesy Tony Abou-Ganim, “Vodka Distilled”

Serves 1

Ingredients

2 ounces vodka, preferably one made from rye or mixed grain

2 ounces tomato juice

2 ounces beef bouillon

½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 dashes Worcestershire sauce

2 dashes Tabasco sauce

Pinch of kosher salt

Pinch of coarsely ground black pepper

Directions

1. Place all ingredients into a mixing glass.

2. Add ice and roll contents between mixing glass and shaker tin until well mixed.

3. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass.

4. Garnish with a wedge of lemon.

Top photo: The Bloody Bull. Credit: The Lanesborough Hotel, London

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Alaska's Eklutna Lake. Credit: Frank Kovalchek / Flickr

The local food movement, already a difficult undertaking in Alaska, has moved from solids to liquids. An abundance of breweries, a meadery and even a winery spill across the state, but one of the few that uses only local ingredients is Truuli Peak Vodka.

Named for the tallest mountain on south central Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Truuli Peak has only three ingredients: water, barley and honey. These might seem plain, but the raw ingredients are some of the purest you will find. The water is glacial melt from Eklutna Lake; the filtered version is Anchorage’s drinking water.

The honey comes from the Alaska Honey Man, whose bees feed on the wildflowers of the Chugach Mountains. The barley is grown in Delta Junction, 95 miles south of Fairbanks.

Co-founder Jeremy Loyer was committed from the start to crafting a vodka made from local ingredients, but barley was not his original choice. When he and partner Kyle Ryan started Truuli Peak five years ago, they used potatoes from land his parents leased to a spud farmer in Alaska’s fertile Matanuska-Susitna Valley. But after completing an internship with Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., Loyer was persuaded to switch to barely.

“Potatoes only have a 9% yield per pound,” he said. “Plus, they’re big and dirty and they need special equipment to clean and smash them. Barley has a roughly 40% yield per pound and is much easier to work with.”

Using Alaska’s raw resources

Though Loyer and Ryan created Truuli Peak five years ago, they have been selling vodka for less than two years; the first release was in October 2011. Loyer had fortunately secured startup money through an entrepreneurial grant with the University of Alaska, which allowed him and Ryan to develop a strong product.

“Our goal was always to be local,” he said. “The raw products are very important to us.”

Loyer points out that vodka can be made with anything that has a starch content, and some companies even use ethanol.

“Our labels say 95% grain, 5% honey,” he explains. “If you see a label that reads ’100% neutral grain spirits,’ the producers may not even have a still.” The raw ingredients are what make Truuli Peak a premium spirit, and having them locally sourced is really just a bonus.

vodka

Vodka made with locally sourced Alaska ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of Truuli Peak Vodka

Loyer becomes animated when discussing not only what he calls the “mouth feel” of the vodka, but also of the glacier water with which it is made. They originally used filtered water, but the unfiltered version is far superior. The difference is like night and day, Loyer said. The water is collected and trucked to Anchorage in 375-gallon tanks.

Truuli Peak is distinct for its soft floral notes. It is slightly sweeter than other vodkas, and finishes smoothly. There is no need to chill this vodka; Loyer prefers it at room temperature.

The process for creating Truuli Peak Vodka is fairly straightforward. Barley and honey are fed into three large fermenters, where a mash ferments for three days. The results of the fermentation are basically an 8% beer. The 8% alcohol is removed and sent to a still for its first distillation. That product then moves to the rectifying run, which is responsible for purification. In this 24-foot-tall tank, the liquid is cooled to make it hard for the distillate to become vapor. From there it’s on to the mixing tanks, where it is frozen to separate impurities, and finally raised to 60 degrees for optimum bottling.

Currently, Truuli Peak is bottled on site. You can find it across Alaska, Oregon and, most recently, New York.

Top photo: Alaska’s Eklutna Lake. Credit: Frank Kovalchek / Flickr

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Saturn peaches: Credit: Kathy Hunt

Blame it on the cheap, tinny fruit cocktail that my elementary school cafeteria doled out, but until recently, I was a holdout on peaches. As a kid, I knew them as the bland, stringy, yellow cubes that floated in a bowl of cloyingly sweet syrup or that cascaded down a mound of flavorless cottage cheese.

Fresh, sliced peaches proved no better. Fuzzy on the outside, they had a tough, red strip at the center of every piece. Someone had done a lousy paring job, one that had scarred me for quite a while. It took a chance encounter with the flattened, white-fleshed, freestone Saturn to change my mind about this stone fruit.

Saturn peaches have more sugar, less fuzz

Taste, fragrance, texture and ease of eating were what won my heart. Smaller, sweeter and more aromatic than other varieties, the Saturn peach possesses everything that the fruit of my childhood did not: juicy, luscious flesh; an abundance of peachy flavor with just a hint of almond; and a bold, floral scent. Bite into this ambrosial gem and you experience the best that peaches have to offer.

You can, in fact, sink your teeth right into an unpeeled Saturn. Its thin skin has little to no fuzz so you don’t have to remove the outer layer before consuming. If you hate peeling peaches and getting sticky juice all over your hands, arms, clothes and countertop, this is a huge selling point.

Additionally, you won’t need to wrench out or cut around a large pit. Its small, spherical pit doesn’t cling to the flesh and can be removed easily. Just cut the fruit in half, twist the halves to separate and pop out the pit.

Saturn peaches get their name from their bagel-like shape, which many believe resembles the rings of Saturn. Their squashed appearance has also earned them the monikers of doughnut, saucer and galaxy peaches. The pale yellow-fleshed version has been dubbed, fittingly enough, “Sweet Bagel.”

Although its form may be unusual, the origin of its shape is not. It arose out of a natural genetic mutation that produced a flattened, rather than globular, peach. Emerging in South China at least 200 years ago, it was known as pan tao, or “flat peach,” and was reputed to be the preferred fruit of emperors. Centuries later it’s winning fans in the United States.

Saturns thrive at Pennsylvania farm

An hour northwest of Philadelphia, in Boyertown, Pa., family-owned Frecon Farms has been harvesting Saturns for close to 20 years. During that time, these growers have watched customers tentatively sample the traditional, round peaches and then ultimately fall for the extremely sweet, flat variety. Steve Frecon points to the higher brix count of these peaches as a reason for their popularity; brix refers to the amount of sugar present in the fruit.

Although Frecon favors eating Saturns right out of his hand, he also advises using them as a replacement for Mandarin oranges in salads and dressing them with a bit of vinaigrette.

“Because of their low acidity and high sugar count, which burns off during cooking, these peaches aren’t as good for baking or preserving. They are best fresh,” he says. Yellow peaches, he adds, are better for cooking.

Should you opt to feature Saturns in a salad or pair them with other foods, keep in mind that they go nicely with almonds, apricots, honey, pistachios, pork, plums, walnuts, white and red wine, and champagne.

In spite of all its wonders, the Saturn does have its downsides. More fragile than other varieties, it bruises easily. When gathering Saturns at Frecon Farms, the peaches must be placed in shallow, half-bushel containers to prevent indentations in the fruit. Additionally, if they aren’t carefully plucked from the tree limbs, the peaches’ skin may tear at the stem.

Once picked, they should be quickly consumed. These guys don’t have a long shelf life and soon start to over-soften. However, with peaches this delicious, they won’t linger on your kitchen counter for long.

Saturn peaches are in season from July to late August, so gobble them up while you can.

Saturn Bellini

If you can’t track down apricot liqueur, you can always omit it. This will leave you with a classic Bellini.

Makes 2

Ingredients

2 Saturn peaches, pits removed and cut into chunks

1½ ounces apricot liqueur, divided

Chilled champagne

Directions

Place the peach chunks and apricot liqueur in a blender and purée. Pour the mixture into two glasses and top with chilled champagne.

Top photo: Saturn peaches: Credit: Kathy Hunt

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