Articles in Spirits
With fall approaching and colder months on the horizon, it’s time to switch from ice cold bottles of beer, glasses of crisp chardonnay, salt-rimmed margaritas and minty mojitos. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York, James Ouderkirk, general manager at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge introduced me to a cocktail he thought perfect to celebrate the change of seasons: a gin cocktail flavored with apricot preserves and burnt orange peel.
Like many cities in the Northeast that prospered during the early part of the 20th century, Syracuse suffered when heavy industries declined in the 1970s. Now enjoying a resurgence, a revitalized downtown centered on Armory Square is home to new restaurants, bars and shops. One of those is Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge.
A trip back in time
The bar’s storefront has served many masters. Once a beauty school and then a cigar store, as Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge the space was transformed into the kind of bar my grandfather would have visited in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The walls are painted bordello red or built out of weathered bricks. Besides the front area, there are several rooms, one filled with overstuffed upholstered sofas and chairs. Another has a pool table. Yet another is filled with arcade style video machines.
With a large plate glass window facing South Clinton Street and a two-story-high ceiling, the main room is focused on a 35-foot wooden bar behind which the floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with an encyclopedic collection of spirits curated locally and from around the world.
A custom cocktail to suit your mood
Unlike many bars serving craft cocktails, Al’s does not have a cocktail menu. According to Ouderkirk, the philosophy of the bar is that patrons should describe how they are feeling and which spirits they enjoy, then the bartender will make a drink that will make them feel better.
On the night we met, I was tired. I very much needed a cocktail that would improve my mood. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to drink. I had one specific request: I wanted him to use a local product.
Discovering hard cider in the Finger Lakes
For the past several days I had been traveling through the Finger Lakes region, visiting orchards that distilled their apples, pears, peaches and plums into spirits.
On the trip, I tasted hard apple ciders with an effervescence as light as champagne at Embark Craft Ciderworks in Williamson and at the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken. At Apple Country Spirits, I sampled brandies made from apples, pears, peaches and plums as good as any eau-de-vie I enjoyed in France and Switzerland. The biggest news for me on the trip was the fact that in the region apples were being used to create premium vodkas and gins.
Local sourcing for gin and other spirits
Tree Vodka is produced from apples grown in the Apple Country Spirits orchards in Wayne County close to Lake Ontario. 1911 Vodka and 1911 Gin are produced from apples grown at Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette. Different from vodka and gin flavored with apples, these distillations are mellow with a clean flavor.
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Ouderkirk suggested he make a cocktail using 1911 Gin. With a portion of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, a splash of soda water and a hint of freshly squeezed lime juice, he quickly mixed the drink. After he placed a piece of burnt orange peel on top, I gave it a taste. The cocktail had a light summer freshness. The aromatic gin anchored the flavors while the apricot preserves and burnt orange peel hinted at the fall.
To accompany the cocktail, Ouderkirk platted a selection of local cheeses and charcuterie. Sitting in the darkened room, sipping my cocktail, half listening to conversations at the bar and sampling Camembert, goat cheeses, cheddar and salami, I forgot entirely how tired I had been after my very long road trip.
1911 Gin, Apricot, Lime and Burnt Orange Peel Cocktail
As with all cocktails, the best and freshest ingredients will yield better results. Use a quality gin, apricot preserve and farmers market citrus.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 3/4 ounce 1911 Gin (or a gin of your choice)
3/4 ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Dash of freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon apricot preserve
Splash unflavored soda water
2-inch-by-1-inch orange peel, unblemished, washed
1. Mix together all the ingredients except the orange peel. Shake well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Hold the orange peel against the flame of a lighter or a gas stove burner until the peel lightly burns but does not blacken.
3. Place the burnt orange peel atop the cocktail and serve icy cold.
Main photo: Gin Cocktail with fresh lime and burnt orange peel at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge, Syracuse, N.Y. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
Ask a New York history buff about Dorothy Parker or Chief Gowanus and you might hear a discourse on the legendary writer and wit or the leader of the Canarsie Native American tribe. Mention these names to a spirits enthusiast and instead you may be sidling up to a bar and sampling gins from the New York Distilling Company. This Brooklyn-based distillery produces both the Dorothy Parker American and Chief Gowanus New-Netherland gins.
Looking at history
Located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the New York Distilling Company is the brainchild of Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter, his son Bill Potter and spirits and cocktails expert Allen Katz. The trio also own the adjacent, 850-square-foot bar and tasting room The Shanty, which overlooks the distillery’s production floor. This full-fledged bar serves mixed drinks made from the New York Distilling Company’s goods as well as other producers’ liquors and beer.
With the New York Distilling Company the men have set out to create exceptional American gins and rye whiskeys. They employ historical recipes for inspiration and the state of New York for their ingredients.
‘Golden era of cocktails’
“Gin and rye are appropriate for the geographic area,” says Bill Potter, master distiller and production manager. He points out that, prior to Prohibition, New York farm distilleries produced these intoxicants from locally grown grains and fruit. He adds, “They are part of the golden era of cocktails, the 1800s.”
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On the 78th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Dec. 5, 2011, the distillery opened and began selling Dorothy Parker, Chief Gowanus and Perry’s Tot gins. Named for Matthew Calbraith Perry, 1840s commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and a founder of its Navy Lyceum, Perry’s Tot is a traditional navy strength gin.
“So much of what we think of as gin is only one type of gin, the London dry gin,” Potter says.
The juniper-driven London dry gin ranges between 40 to 45 percent alcohol by volume or 80 to 90 proof. Navy strength clocks in at 57 percent or 114 proof. Sometimes referred to as overproof, barrel strength or cask strength, this high alcohol gin imparts both balance and intensity to beverages.
Tapping into craft craze
According to Potter, the plan from day one was to release the gins first. By doing so, the rye whiskey could age for at least three years. To bottle it any sooner would mean that they were proffering a lightly aged, rather than straight, rye. This was not the goal for the distillery.
The timing of their gin and whiskey production couldn’t be better. The U.S. craft cocktail movement is in full swing and nowhere more so than in New York City. With its emphasis on handmade beverages featuring fresh and high quality ingredients, the craft cocktail craze has bartenders reaching for artisanal liquors to feature in their libations.
Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye
Craft producers such as the New York Distilling Company can only profit from this desire for artfully prepared and historically rooted drinks.
Harkening back to the pre-Prohibition period is the distillery’s October 2014 release of Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye. This much-anticipated spirit is the first among the New York Distilling Company’s upcoming rye whiskeys.
Historically, American bartenders created rock and rye by mixing rye whiskey with rock candy sugar syrup and the occasional citrus peel or spice. The goal of this late 19th-century combination was to temper the flavor of a young and unpalatable rye. The outcome was a sweet, amber-colored liquor called rock and rye that quickly became the go-to alcohol “for whatever ails you.”
Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye pays homage to this American standard. Yet, with its tang of sour cherries, warmth of cinnamon and hint of citrus, it stands to become a classic in its own right.
Adding straight rye whiskey
At the Shanty, head bartender Nate Dumas showcases Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye in such house creations as Cave Creek and Martini Robbins. The latter drink pairs Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye with the distillery’s Dorothy Parker American Gin and sweet vermouth. A versatile whiskey, Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye can also be enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
In September, Ragtime Rye will join Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye, Dorothy Parker, Chief Gowanus and Perry’s Tot on the roster of New York Distilling Company originals. Aged for more than three years in upstate New York, Ragtime Rye is the distillery’s first straight rye whiskey.
Recipes created by Nate Dumas, bar director, The Shanty at the New York Distilling Company
1¼ ounces Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
1 ounce Glenlivet 12-year-old Scotch whisky
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce Real Grenadine
¼ ounce Campari
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into a collins glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with an lemon twist. Serve with a straw.
The Harper’s Ferry
1 ounce Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye
¾ ounce Pierre Ferrand cognac 1840
½ ounce Botran rum
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
Shake ingredients over ice and fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Lightly garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Main photo: The New York Distilling Company also includes an 850-square-foot bar and tasting room at The Shanty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt
Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.
Flavored vs. infused
You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.
Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.
How long to infuse?
Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.
With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.
When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.
Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.
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Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.
Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.
The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.
Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: a week to a month
Yield: two quarts
3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 quart unflavored vodka
1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.
2. Remove and discard any stems.
3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.
4. Fill with unflavored vodka.
5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.
6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.
7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.
Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile
Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.
After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients
2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 ml unflavored vodka
1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.
7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.
Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
The American craft spirits movement is putting the juniper berry in its place as new distilleries reimagine gin as a stand-alone sipper. Thirteen award-winning distillers reveal the secret ingredients that set their gins apart from the bevvy of new American gins.
Click through the following slideshow to discover the weird and the wonderful that have spirits professionals applauding these exciting new libations.
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Main photo: St. Augustine Distillery prides itself on using freshly ground local herbs and the peels from Florida oranges and lemons in a gin with a base alcohol made from Florida sugar cane for its New World Gin. Credit: Copyright St. Augustine Distillery
I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.
Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.
That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.
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The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.
Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.
In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.
Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.
Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.
Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.
Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.
Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies
Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:
“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”
The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.
Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspons mace
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)
5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)
4 tablespoons rosewater
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.
3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.
4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.
5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.
7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.
9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.
Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy
This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:
“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”
I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”
We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.
Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis
The dogma about sake today is that high-quality versions must be served chilled, but that is a total misconception. In fact, there are many quality sakes that are best enjoyed warmed.
It’s true that sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, was once consumed warmed if its quality was not good enough to be appreciated when chilled. But sake has gone through a dramatic change in quality in Japan in the last 50 years.
In the 1970s, specific yeasts that could produce delicate, sophisticated aromas and flavors in sake were developed. This accelerated the creation of high-grade ginjo sake. Made with highly polished rice, ginjo sake is lower in acidity, more fragrant and possesses elegant flavor. Because of the delicacy of its flavors, it should not be warmed.
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I believe that the development of ginjo sake was hugely influenced by the introduction and growing popularity in Japan of wine from Europe and America. French, European or American meals served on white tablecloths with forks and knives accompanied by wine were seen as sophisticated and modern.
So when the new ginjo sake arrived on the scene, style-conscious drinkers became convinced that all good sake should be consumed cold or chilled.
But some traditional sake lovers shunned ginjo sake because of its lack of acidity and rich flavors. Some sake brewers also went against the trend and focused on producing quality traditional sake, which is high in acidity that is bold and round in flavor. They are known as junmai (100% rice sake), yamahai, kimoto and honjozo (alcohol added) sake. These varieties are well suited to be enjoyed in a different range of serving temperatures.
Five reasons to drink your sake warm
1. Warming sake helps to blossom its natural flavors and fragrance.
2. Warming sake balances its sweetness, acidity and astringency.
3. It is wonderful to consume warmed sake with meals during the cold winter. It’s like mulled wine, but with no added sugar.
4. Warmed sake is absorbed by the body more quickly, so we can “feel” it sooner and control the amount we drink.
5. Without learning how to appreciate warmed sake, we can never say that we have a complete understanding of this wonderful beverage.
Certain groups of sake can be enjoyed at nine different temperatures. This may seem intimidating, but according to Hiroshi Ujita, president of Tamanohikari Brewery in Kyoto, there is no strict rule on warming sake. Each sake lover in Japan has a preferred temperature for a particular sake.
How much to warm the sake is also influenced by the season, the temperature of the dining room and the temperature of the dishes that will be consumed with it. You can find temperature guidance on warming sake in my book “The Sushi Experience,” but here is some guidance on four easy to master-and-understand sake temperature levels that you can use to begin exploring the joys of warmed sake. Consider these levels and try them on your favorite robust flavorful sake: Body temperature (hitohada), 98 F; lukewarm (nurukan), 104 F; warm (jokan), 113 F; hot (atsukan), 122 F.
I suggest that before using real sake, you practice recognizing these temperatures with some warm water and a thermometer. It won’t take you long to distinguish with a touch of liquid on your hand between the four levels I have suggested. If you decide to try warming sake, follow the very basic instructions in the recipe.
Sakes made for warming
Here are some recommended sakes to start on your warmed sake adventure. If you start with this group, you will fall in love with these warmed beverages for the rest of your life. The recommended temperature is only a guideline. As Ujita advises, explore different temperatures to see what you prefer, and have fun with it.
1. Tamanohikari Yamahai: This sake comes from the 342-year-old Tamanohikari Brewery. After the war, a rice shortage forced brewers to produce sake with less rice and added alcohol. In 1964, Tamanohikari Brewery was the first company to revert from its postwar poor sake production method to the original, traditional method using 100% rice-produced sake. Tamanohikari Yamahai has good acidity, umami and round body. Recommended at 98 F.
2. Tengumai Yamahai: This sake comes from the 192-year-old Shata Shuzo Brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. The name Tengumai implies that everyone wants to dance after drinking this sake. Acidity is high with slight astringency and strong aroma. Recommended at 98 F and 113 F.
3. Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo: This sake comes from the 211-year-old Kokuryu Brewery in Fukui Prefecture. The company has been developing robust tasting ginjo sake that has been designed to be consumed warmed, going against the major trend of chilling ginjo sake. Warming Kokuryu Junmai Ginjo enriches the characteristics of sake — roundness, robustness and refined flavor. Recommended at 98 F.
The next time you are dining at your favorite Japanese restaurant, try ordering your sake warmed to your preferred temperature.
How to warm sake like a pro
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 2 to 3 minutes
1. Transfer sake into a flask, filling to 90% of the flask.
2. Add cold water in a medium pot, enough to submerge 80% of the flask, and bring it to a boil.
3. Turn off the heat and add the flask in the center of the pot and leave it until the preferred temperature. It will take about 1 to 2 minutes to heat to 98 F. If you want to warm it a bit more, leave it for an additional minute.
4. Warmed sake should be served in a small sake cup and consumed while it is nice and warm.
- Use a little ceramic or heat-proof glass flask that can hold about 1 cup of sake.
- Use a pot of boiling water to warm the sake; don’t put it in a microwave oven.
- Enjoy warm sake in a small ceramic o-choko cup, or a small heat-proof glass cup.
- As a beginner, follow the temperature guidelines above. Be careful not to overheat the sake; the modestly warm temperatures I have suggested are best.
- Enjoy different temperatures and find the preferred one for your selected sake.
Photo: Bottle of sake with a traditional ceramic carafe and small cups known as o-choko. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo
I’ve always felt that the best wine experiences can be divided into two categories: immersion and transportation.
The former is a sip of Pinot in a dank Burgundian cellar, the barrel sample pulled by a vigneron in must-spattered boots. The latter is any great Burgundy on your table that carries you back to that moment.
Food can do the same: biting into Dungeness crab within the sound of crashing surf on the Oregon Coast, or a perfectly crafted risotto that takes you back to an Italian piazza. These flavors are grounded in geography. They immerse you more deeply into where you are, or they transport you in an instant to a place where you’ve been or someday hope to go.
So for this reason, I’ve always cast a wary eye on cocktails. It might be due to the fact that I came of age in the dark days of Jell-O shots and butterscotch schnapps, long before the current cocktail renaissance. But I’ve also found it difficult to reconcile this notion of immersion and transportation with mixed drinks. Is there a sense of geography in a cocktail when it can be made almost anywhere by a skilled hand and the right ingredients?
I recently set out to explore this question, and was surprised by what I found.
Art Tierce might be the perfect person to ask about cocktails and terroir, that flexible French notion that loosely translates as sense of place. He’s an assistant winemaker at Ransom Wines & Spirits and grew up in wine country in Santa Rosa, California, where the vineyards started just beyond center field of his little league ballpark. But he strayed into the world of bartending with stints in Las Vegas and Portland before joining Ransom in Sheridan, Oregon, to make wine.
When Tierce isn’t manning the pumps or working harvest, he serves as resident mixologist, finding creative ways to showcase Ransom’s artisanal spirits in mixed drinks. When I arrived at the distillery, Tierce was waiting with an upended whiskey barrel arrayed with the gear needed to mix three cocktails evocative of the Northwest in late winter — all of them featuring Ransom’s sweet vermouth, produced with the region’s grapes.
“The trends tend to be darker, heavier, richer flavors in the winter,” said Tierce as he mixed a cocktail he calls “Empty Chamber,” a full-flavored, low-alcohol drink with sherry, vermouth and egg white. “The flavors represent cold winter months, but you’re not going to get this waft of alcohol.”
And indeed, the complexity of the flavors combined with the richness of the mouthfeel and texture evoked the roiling maritime clouds that slip over the Coast Range and hang over the valley for much of the season.
Next up was “New World Voyages,” a rum-based drink that places the spirits up front. “I’ve always found that in the winter, and especially living in Oregon with the dark, cloudy, overcast skies, that I love rum,” Tierce said, shaking a drink that may call winter skies to mind, but also offers a hint of brightness. “I think most people think of rum as their summer beverage.”
His last suggestion, “The Emerald, by Ransom,” is a twist on a classic Manhattan that uses their Irish whiskey, The Emerald 1865. It is a recreation of a recipe from the late 19th century discovered buried in archives. “It historically represents how dense and aromatic the Irish whiskies of the heyday were,” Tierce said of their flagship spirit, stirring a drink that served as a foundation, showcasing the whiskey’s malty notes, and creating something strong enough to stand up to the season.
With the three drinks lined up on a barrel in an Oregon Coast Range distillery, the ornate onion dome of the Ransom still looming overhead like something out of a Jules Verne novel, I certainly started to feel that sense of place as we tasted through Tierce’s creations.
The Human Factor
I carried this question of cocktail terroir to my local mixologist. Michael Monroe tends bar at a cozy college town speakeasy in Corvallis, Oregon. Not even visible from the street, you need to slip through the front door of a restaurant called Magenta and descend a flight of stairs to find SnugBar, where Monroe focuses on cultivating the next generation of cocktail connoisseurs.
At my elbow in the tight quarters, a college-age drinker ordered a whiskey sour. Monroe checked his ID and grew excited. “Hey man, have you always ordered good cocktails?” he asked.
The kid shrugged. After Monroe mixed the drink, he leaned over to me: “That kid turned 21 a few months ago and he just ordered a nine-dollar whiskey sour.” It’s not the price tag that earned Monroe’s enthusiasm. “If I wasn’t striving to make a really good whiskey sour that’s worth the money, they wouldn’t be doing that.”
For Monroe, his aim is to cultivate long-term customers. He’d much rather see them savor a pair of well-crafted drinks and keep coming back for years rather than load up and burn out early on the bar scene. Quality, sustainability and moderation go together.
When I shared my concept of transportation and immersion, Monroe mixed me a Kingston Club from their drink menu, one based on a recipe from Portland bartender and writer Jeffrey Morganthaler. Centered on Drambuie, with the spirit’s malt whiskey, spice and honey conjuring its Scottish roots (hailing from a region that also knows a thing or two about clouds), the drink offsets this heaviness with a hint of tropical fruit to let in a little sunshine. It’s a balancing act. More immersion and transportation at work.
I found that good cocktails do conjure a sense of place. The process is different from food, where it can take months to cultivate a kitchen garden to produce hyper-local produce, or wine, which requires an entire season to capture a year’s worth of weather to store in a barrel and then bottle.
With cocktails, you can even take a DIY approach. “Home mixology is at an all-time high. It’s amazing and it’s fun to be creative,” Tierce said. For those wanting to experiment, he suggests sticking to known recipes and then tweaking one ingredient at a time until you get a feel for what you want to accomplish. He also recommends Morganthaler’s “The Bar Book” as a starting point.
Tierce’s key advice? Use the best ingredients: “You can never fake fresh, ever.”
Emily Mistell, who mixes drinks at Portland, Oregon’s popular Rum Club, underscores the importance of freshness. “We change our menu at the club with the seasons, trying to utilize as many fresh local ingredients as we can,” she said.
As for Mistell’s recommendation for a drink that can send you somewhere else? “My all-time favorite cocktail year round might have to be a drink from Martinique (French Virgin Islands) called the Ti’ Punch.”
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It’s been said that the three key ingredients of terroir are weather, soil and people. With cocktails, the human factor is critical — a person creates a great drink right before your eyes. Cocktails are ephemeral, effervescent. They begin to change as soon as the ice begins to melt and the zest of orange dissipates. But your bartender remains, ready to mix the next drink. It’s all about good ingredients combined with performance art. The terroir isn’t a gravelly hillside or the black loam of Granny’s river bottom garden — it’s the flesh, bone and creativity of your resident mixologist.
Yield: one drink
1.5 ounces Ransom Sweet Vermouth
3/4 ounce oloroso sherry
1/2 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce rich demerara syrup
White of one egg
Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters
Dry shake, then add ice. Shake, strain and garnish with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters dripped on top with a design.
New World Voyages
Yield: one drink
1 ounce Ransom Old Tom Gin
1 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
1 ounce Pampero Aniversario Rum
2 dashes orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange and 1 lemon
Stir over ice, strain into an old-fashioned glass with a big cube of ice. Add zest and peel of an orange and a lemon.
The Emerald, by Ransom
Yield: one drink
2 1/4 ounces Ransom 1865
3/4 ounce Ransom Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Zest and peel of 1 orange
Stir, strain into a coupe, add zest and peel of an orange.
The Kingston Club
Yield: one drink
1 1/2ounces Drambuie
1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
3/4 ounce lime juice
1 teaspoon Fernet Branca
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 ounce soda water
Shake ingredients with ice and finish with 1 ounce soda water. Strain mix over fresh ice into a chilled Collins glass and garnish with an orange twist.
Yield: one drink
2 ounces Rhum agricole (my favorite is Clement Canne Bleue or Neisson)
Fresh sugar cane syrup
Experiment with your own lime and sugar ratios: everyone likes something different. Using ice is optional, but Mistell suggests one large cube.
Recipes: Empty Chamber, New World Voyages and The Emerald, by Ransom courtesy Art Tierce, Ransom Wines & Spirits; Kingston Club courtesy Jeffrey Morganthaler; Ti’Punch courtesy Emily Mistell of the Rum Club
Main photo: Art Tierce, assistant winemaker at Ransom Wine & Spirits, is also a mixologist who specializes in cocktails with rich, evocative flavors. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker
The mizzle had become worse. The combination of velvet mist and silky-soft drizzle was fast turning into a full-fledged downpour. In other words, it was starting to chuck it down in the way it only can in the land of the Romantic Poets, of lakes and mountains, fells and rivers, and of silence and overwhelming natural beauty. No matter. Inside the newly opened Lakes Distillery, we were aglow with The One, the Lake District’s latest gift to mankind.
A unique, artisan blend of four British whiskies — from Scotland, Ulster, Wales and England — the pale amber liquid had a touch of smokiness, a long finish and a nutty, spicy-sweet quality that justified the award of a Silver medal in both the 2014 International Wine and Spirit and the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit competitions.
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Although Scotland will be forever associated with whisky, it is no longer automatically in the pole position. The whiskey list at The Lakes Distillery bistro is a revelation: a premier league roll call from countries as disparate as Japan and Sweden, Tasmania and India. In fact, whiskey can be made anywhere the key conditions can be met, but it is the water used in the distillation process that really gives the spirit its transcendent quality. And water comes no purer than from the fast-flowing River Derwent near Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake District National Park.
Add to that crisp, clean air, high rainfall, peaty foothills and rugged Cumbrian mountains and it is not hard to see why it is prime whiskey-producing country, said Paul Currie, managing director and founder of the Lakes Distillery. Currie, part of a Scotch whisky dynasty and founder of the Arran Distillery, has been joined in this venture by master distiller Chris Anderson.
It has been a dream come true for the pair to create a new whiskey in a part of England just south of the Scottish border.
Saints, sinners and smugglers all play their part in the history of this spectacular region. Illicit whiskey distilling, in particular, was once widespread: The verdant green hills and valleys provided ample cover for smuggling activity to and from the ships docked at Workington, located about 25 miles away. Rivers such as the Derwent acted as the trunk roads of the day, transporting people and goods. Lancelot “Lanty” Slee was a 19th-century local farmer and smuggler who notoriously supplied the local magistrates with moonshine from his “not-quite-legal” stills.
The new distillery is housed in a renovated Victorian model farm that dates to the 1850s and was built to be both beautiful and functional. The main barn houses the mash house and still house dominated by burnished copper stills, and an old cattle shed has been converted into the warehouse where the spirits mature in high quality casks. The company is proud to be a “green” distillery: The process is entirely natural using only grain, yeast and water and emits no damaging effluent. By-products are used for animal feed and soil improvement.
Lakes Distillery spirits
In two years’ time, the first bottles of The Lakes Single Malt will be ready for sipping. Currie promises the spirits will be lightly peated, more similar to the whiskies from the highlands rather than, say, Islay.
Alongside the signature whiskey, they also distill The Lakes Vodka and The Lakes Gin. The latter contains Cumbrian juniper and a mix of traditional gin botanicals as well as bilberry, meadowsweet, hawthorn and heather — all foraged on local fells — plus, of course, the crystal-clear water of the River Derwent.
I wish I could have been present at the branding meeting when they came up with the name The One. It must have been quite a eureka moment. It may be the distillery’s first, but it won’t be the last.
- Increasingly artisan whiskey makers are of the opinion that it is not so much a question of age in a product, but of the quality of the spirit, the skill of the distiller and the nature of the cask in which it is matured.
- Don’t hesitate to add a splash of water or soda to your whiskey. It may have gone out of fashion, but it opens the flavor.
- Try “The One” with game, such as pheasant or venison. It makes a splendid match with Rannoch Smokery’s Pressed Game Terrine, according to Rosemary Moon, a specialist whiskey and food writer.
Main photo: The Lakes Distillery is among the first to use both copper and stainless steel in the distillation process, which they believe helps the malt develop greater character. Credit: The Lakes Distillery