Articles in Spirits
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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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.
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
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
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)
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
Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.
The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.
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Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.
After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.
According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.
Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.
Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers
Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.
While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.
The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.
Look for small, local providers
However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.
Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.
And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.
Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye
When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.
Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.
Finding warmth in Ireland
Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.
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About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.
When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.
Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.
Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.
Christmas in Dublin
By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.
By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.
Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison
Back in 2011, in a piece on mountain rums, I briefly provided some context to explain how Colorado had managed to become such a liquor mecca — not just the beer capital it’s best known as, but also a distilling hub. (Granted, my state’s wine industry is still fledgling, but it’s got potential.)
That discussion really hit home just the other day, when I attended the fourth annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. It surely will again when I hit the Great American Beer Festival — more on that in another story. As a mining settlement turned ski resort, Breckenridge was born to be a hard-drinking town. There were already 18 saloons here in the late 19th century, including the Gold Pan, established in 1879 and still going strong. The city’s Heritage Alliance even conducts a tour on the subject. No wonder, then, that it’s proving the perfect place to showcase local distilleries, welcoming more than 20 of them, along with 600 guests, to the Riverwalk Center this year (compared with eight producers and 100 attendees at its inauguration, according to Ken Nelson, president of the Breckenridge Restaurant Association).
Some of the names may already be familiar to outsiders, including Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, which sources from neighboring orchards and wineries to make fruit brandies, eaux-de-vie and grappa, among other things; the pioneering Denver-based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey; and Montanya Distillers, whose rums are available far beyond its home base of Crested Butte. Others were new even to me — but if quality alone guaranteed distribution, products like the following would be everywhere.
Golden Moon Crème de Violette
Many present-day spirits producers talk the talk of ancient recipes and Old World methods, but few walk the walk quite so boldly as Stephen Gould’s Golden Moon Distillery (based, of course, in Golden). A “trained saucier” and former brewer, he got interested in collecting old, rare bottles a decade ago. Upon “stumbling across a case of 1950 Spanish absenta and really enjoying it,” he says, “I started doing a little digging — and now I own, I’m told, one of the largest collections in private hands of books on distilling in North America.”
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His wonderfully evocative crème de violette, for instance, is a true distillate of the namesake flower. He hit upon the recipe for it after “studying how French perfumers worked with violet to keep it stable.” The result is higher in alcohol (at 30% ABV) and lower in sugar than any that I could find. Sadly, I couldn’t sample his take on the legendary orange bitters Amer Picon, which he calls Amer Dit Picon, because he’s awaiting label approval. In any case, his version replicates not the current but the original recipe, “with the exception of one ingredient, calamus root, that the FDA has forbidden.” Although there are substitutes on the domestic market for the otherwise unavailable French liqueur, Gould says they’re much less complex than the 100-year-old bottles he’s had occasion to try, compared to which “ours is a little more peppery and a little harder — but then, after a century of aging, it’s natural that they’d have mellowed. I think we’ve come about as close as possible.”
Feisty Spirits Elementals
Unless it’s specified as bourbon, rye, etc., “whiskey can technically be made from any grain. Only four or five are generally used, but there are hundreds out there; why not try them?”
So wondered Jamie Gulden, co-founder of Feisty Spirits in Fort Collins, when he and his partner, head distiller David Monahan, set about experimenting with cereals beyond the blue corn, oats
and rye they use for their single-barrel bottlings. Not all of them worked, he admits — amaranth, for one, “isn’t something you’d want to drink straight” — but four others now compose Feisty’s single-grain line, Elementals: Kamut (aka Khorasan wheat), Millet, Triticale and Quinoa. I liked the roasty, toasty qualities of the Kamut; as for the Quinoa, which wasn’t on offer at the festival, Gulden calls it “a polarizing whiskey: some people really love its grassiness mixed with nuttiness, some don’t.” It may be awhile before non-Coloradans can judge it for themselves; Feisty’s distribution, after only a year in business, remains limited to the Front Range.
Santa Fe Single-Malt Whiskey
Speaking of whiskey, I have to give a nod to one of the festival’s few non-local exhibitors. Santa Fe Spirits is rolling out a single malt in which the barley is smoked not over peat à la Islay Scotch, but rather mesquite. Perhaps I’m swayed by fond memories of Christmas in New Mexico, but its tangy notes of wood smoke yet surprisingly mellow character immediately won me over. (Availability is slowly expanding from the Southwest to the West Coast.)
Dancing Pines Black Walnut Bourbon Liqueur
I first met ex-paramedic firefighter Kristian Naslund a couple of years ago, not long after he’d launched Dancing Pines Distillery in Loveland. Offered samples of his chai, caramel and cherry liqueurs, I was thoroughly skeptical — they sounded like just so much commercial cough syrup. But boy, I was wrong; though certainly sweet, they lacked any trace of sharp artificiality, their profiles warm yet clear. So it is with this newer release, which begs for a fireside armchair; Naslund and crew do distribute out of state.
Billed as the world’s highest-altitude spirits producer (the facility sits at 9,600 feet), Breckenridge Distillery likewise enjoys some presence on the national market, primarily thanks to its well-received bourbon. Its strikingly heather-honeyed small-batch bitters are built on the discovery by master distiller Jordan Via, while hiking close to home, of some plants that turned out to be related to those used in génépi, an Alpine liqueur. Along with the brand’s own vodka, they serve as the foundation for a blend whose 10 other proprietary botanicals make for a smoother, gentler, more rounded variation of the European model — neither quite as bitter nor quite so intensely sweet.
Top photo: Feisty Spirits was one of several Colorado distilleries to showcase its products at the Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival. Credit: Jessie Unruh
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.
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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.
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
Derek Sandhaus is the author of “300 Shots at Greatness: A race to the bottom of the bottle,” a blog detailing his adventures learning to drink baijiu, the infamous Chinese distilled grain alcohol.
Meaning “white alcohol” in Chinese, it is often feared by foreigners who have smelled its noxious fumes, tasted its burning sensation, and felt the violent drunkenness and lasting hangovers it induces, yours truly included. Sandhaus, alternately, committed himself to “drink 300 shots of baijiu or die trying.”
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While drinking toward the supposed threshold it takes to learn to appreciate this “singularly repellent spirit,” Sandhaus became somewhat of an expert on China’s most popular spirit. He has begun organizing baijiu tastings and lectures and has a book forthcoming on Chinese alcohol. When not drinking or teaching about drinking, he is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Here, my Q&A with him gives some insights into the appeal of baijiu and how we ignorant foreigners may learn to appreciate it better.
What is baijiu made of?
Baijiu is the Chinese word for all traditional spirits, so it’s a wide net, but it breaks down as follows. The vast majority of baijiu is distilled from sorghum, but rice (usually long-grain rice) baijiu is the next-most popular and is distilled primarily in the southeast. Some strong-aroma baijius are also distilled from a mixture of sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. Buckwheat, barley, millet and peas are sometimes used, but more often as secondary ingredients to assist with fermentation.
What originally sparked your interest in baijiu and pursuing it with such interest?
I got interested after a blow-out banquet a few years ago. I had a lot to drink and it was not a good experience. It’s the most popular spirit in the world and China produces a ton of it, and I was wondering: “What am I missing?”
I was working in publishing and [at that time] we were trying to understand popular subjects in China: art, music etc. The real challenge for me was to take a topic that a vast majority of Westerners don’t understand and try to explain it and bridge the [cultural] gap. There’s a lot of people who say they’re into Chinese culture, but they mean tea, or movies, or something else easily accessible. That was the challenge for me [with baijiu] and it pushed me outside my comfort zone, especially at the mercy of some pretty rowdy Chinese drunks.
What is the perception most foreigners have about baijiu? Why is that the case?
The knowledge gap is directly related to Westerners’ misunderstanding of baijiu. It’s not a specific type of alcohol, but a category of alcohols. … As soon as I realized that, I began to appreciate it.
Also, there’s a real lack of knowledge and writing in English that explains which of the baijius are good or not so good. So, most of the time if somebody doesn’t speak Chinese and goes into a liquor store in china, they’re shooting blind. They only know which [options] are cheap or expensive, which is not a good indicator of the liquid inside the bottle.
What role does baijiu play in Chinese culture?
Baijiu and alcohol more generally play a central role. Originally, it was important politically and religiously, as a way of showing respect to rulers and ancestors. Today, it’s related to business and holidays with families. At a Chinese dinner or banquet, by making a toast to somebody, it shows respect and welcomes guests if you’re a host; and you show you’re happy to attend or thanks to the host.
All this helps to grease the wheels of business and grow relationships. If you want to do business with somebody, drinking gets them to let their guard down a bit and to perhaps show their motivations and build trust so that later on you can do business [together] and be more honest [with each other].
Do you have a theory on why Chinese like drinking baijiu?
There are those who drink it as a social expectation, but others truly do like to drink it. There are several reasons they like to drink it: they like the taste, they like the more social aspect of it, and one can have a wild, carefree, freewheeling time at a banquet.
I can’t quantify the intoxication aspect [of drinking baijiu], because mostly when I experience it I’m not in my best state to record thoughts and feelings. That said, the baijiu drunk is a qualitatively different experience than, say, [feeling drunk on] whiskey.
Also, the way that Chinese get intoxicated is different from, let’s say, a bar in America. That’s the biggest difference: in the experience.
What is your favorite thing about the experience of drinking baijiu?
Going out with a group of people you don’t know or just met, [one can] feel guarded and [thus it's] not so easy to talk to [others]. But as the meal goes on and you have more shots, people let their hair down.
People in China are careful and cautious with strangers, they don’t warm up right away. Yet eventually there’s a great deal of warmth and humor. After you go out and drink a lot of baijiu with somebody, they’re much more willing to go out on a limb for you.
In business it’s hard to get people to help you. … But after a few drinks we’re friends for life and they’re happy to help.
What is your least favorite aspect of drinking baijiu?
It’s never really a casual drinking experience. Once the bottle is open and you’ve had a shot, you’re pretty much in for whatever happens. The “ganbei” [bottom's up] culture … it forces you to drink beyond your healthy point. … It’s OK to just stop and deal with the fallout later. Don’t drink in an unsafe way.
From a less serious perspective, a lot of times baijiu has a way of coming out gradually from your system. You burp the next day and sweat and you can still smell it — it’s quite unpleasant. It won’t be a nasty hangover, as long as you are not mixing with other alcohols, but it leaks out gradually.
For recommendations on what baijiu brands to try, check out Sandhaus’ recommendation page.
Top photo: Baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus. Credit: Mike Tsang
Your backyard garden is a treasure trove of inspiration for creative cocktails that don’t take hours of infusing or scouring for obscure ingredients known last to pre-Prohibition times.
More on Zester Daily:
The Royalton’s drinks include the Down and Dirty Rosie, a mix of rosemary-infused Absolut vodka, spicy pickle brine and sriracha bitters served in a coupe and garnished with a house-pickled cornichon.
To get started you need only a few items — fresh fruit, herbs, limes, a muddler and Cointreau, a fantastic summer alternative to rum or vodka. Cointreau works well as a base spirit for your garden cocktails, as it adds a balanced amount of sweetness and its natural orange flavor is a smooth complement to the fruits and herbs found in your summer garden.
Cointreau cocktail and spirits expert Kyle Ford has many other ideas for what to do with the elixir, including the Cucumber-Mint Rickey featured below.
Courtesy of Kyle Ford, Ford Mixology Lab
2 ounces Cointreau
1 ounce fresh lime juice
3 to 4 ounces club soda
4 slices cucumber
5 mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish
1. Muddle 3 slices of cucumber and the mint leaves in the bottom of a highball glass.
2. Add the remaining ingredients with ice.
3. Stir briefly.
4. Garnish with a slice of cucumber and mint sprig.
Top photo: Cucumber-Mint Rickey. Courtesy of Couintreau