What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?

[soda] round 1

We’re here to talk about sparkling water in cocktails. But first:

My Obsessive Nature, a.k.a. A Briefish, Seemingly Unrelated Disclaimer on Why Its Hard to Buy Things

I like research.

Before I buy something, for example, I tend to comb through reviews. This can be important, like finding the right hotel for a vacation. This can also be shatteringly unimportant, like when I suddenly realize I’ve wasted 90 minutes on a Tuesday morning comparing customer reviews and build specifications between a bunch of $12 can openers. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.

I say that to say this: what follows is an article about what carbonated water is best for your cocktails. My conclusions have changed my thinking about soda water (a little). But even at its most dramatic, we’re talking about a flavor difference of 20% maximum, and usually closer to 5%. Which is my way of acknowledging that what follows is esoteric and largely insignificant, and if you ignore my conclusions regarding sodium content vis-a-vie effervescent cocktails, I assure you that your life won’t be any worse for it.

Anyway.

Carbonated Water & Its Many Forms

[soda] the lineup

Carbonated water is what happens when carbon dioxide and water are hanging out together under pressure. Sometimes it’s natural: mineral-laden water, bubbling up through limestone in underground springs, finds some trapped underground CO2 and self-carbonates. People used to find these special places, and drink/soak there as a medicine. When they’re constantly traveling to Bath to “take the waters” in Jane Austen novels? This is what they’re doing.

Some of the carbonated water you can buy is natural, and while others are imitations of the natural minerals, or the natural carbonation, or both. All in all, you can break down bubble water into 4 different categories.

Four Categories

•  Carbonated Water or Seltzer Water or Sparkling Water: pure water, artificially carbonated.
•  Soda Water or Club Soda: water, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of added sodium salt and/or potassium salt.
•  Mineral Water: naturally carbonated water from a protected underground spring, containing more than 250 parts per million (ppm) dissolved minerals/salts, like  sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc.
•  Spring Water: water from a protected underground spring, containing less than 250ppm dissolved minerals/salts.

This alone is fairly simple, but it’s only the very beginning, because each individual brand of sparkling water needs to be evaluated on three traits. And these three traits aren’t in any way predictable from the four categories, because waters within the same category swing wildly from one extreme to the other.

Three Traits:

(1) How carbonated is it?

This is vital, and the only unconditional trait you need in your carbonated water. You want big, ripping carbonation. In something like a Tom Collins, carbonated water is only about 1/3 of the liquid in the final drink, and has to carry twice its own weight in effervescence. The more carbonation, the brighter and more alive your drink will be.

(2) How does it taste?

Carbonating water is like hitting it with a spotlight — bad tasting water tastes even worse carbonated.

[soda] jarritos(3) How does the mineral composition affect the experience of flavor?

As affirmed by Dave Arnold and explained well by Kevin Liu here, a very small amount of salt can make flavors “pop,” even if it’s not enough to actually perceive any salt at all (known as subthreshhold saltiness).

To compound that, we know a small amount of salt is incredibly effective at reducing bitterness, so in the case of bitter sparkling drinks like Americanos or Campari & Soda, it might give the the other flavors a boost.

The Experiments:

I picked up a couple bottles of every brand of sparkling water I could find. Which is, by the way, a good way to look insane in the check-out aisle.

[soda] cost difference supermarket

I got a couple rain-cheap grocery store brands, a few world-famous mineral waters, two ludicrously expensive artisanal mixing waters straight from an advertisement in Imbibe, some super basic carbonated distilled water, and capped off by a gift: the elusive and broadly-revered Topo Chico, courtesy of the excellent Carlos Ochoa.

12 waters in all, and a decently representative sample:

[soda] grid

San Pellegrino and Crystal Geyser were immediately disqualified for insufficient carbonation, and Crystal Geyser doubly because it sucks (In my notes is one line, a cryptic, but damning, “this is shit and the people who make it are shit and I hate them.”).

Then, we did tests. Lots of tests.

[soda] tons of rounds

All in all, I blind tasted all of them, 6 at a time, shuffled randomly:

— 2 rounds all the way through, just water alone
— 6 rounds as Americanos
— 3 rounds as Lillet + Sodas
— 2 rounds as Tequila + Sodas
— 1 round as Gin + Sodas
— 1 round as Vodka + Sodas
— 1 round of Tom Collins’

The round of vodka sodas was particularly difficult.

The round of vodka sodas took an especially severe toll on our tasting panel.

So why did I do this so many times? Because the results were incredibly subtle, and maddeningly inconsistent. I’ve never experienced anything like this. One round of Americanos, Fever Tree is the best. A few more rounds it hovers around 2nd or 3rd place, and then once it drops to last. Mineragua was 3rd place for the first Lillet + Soda test, but then the next time it drops to last. La Croix is an underperformer at Americanos but it makes the 2nd best Lillet + Soda. My homemade soda + a crack of salt made the best tequila soda, but when bittersness came in, it was only 4th best at an Americano. Why is Refreshe Seltzer better than Refreshe Soda? WHY?

I mean really. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?

Conclusions:

I did it so many times that, yes, I managed to find patterns and draw conclusions:

 

(1) The biggest factor is the amount of carbonation. If you taste the water, hold it in your mouth before you swallow. CO2 in liquids forms carbonic acid, and it should burn. If you can pleasantly hold it in your mouth for 5 seconds, it’s not carbonated enough. San Pellegrino is nice for lunch, but it’s nowhere near bubbly enough for your cocktails.

(2) We’re really only talking about simple Americanos or spirit/wine + bubbles. In the round of Tom Collins’, which introduces sweetness and tartness, I literally couldn’t tell the difference between the 3 or 4 best versions. Just bring enough carbonation, and it’s fine.

(3) The more bitter your cocktail, the saltier your water. Q Soda and Mineragua in particular are salty as hell, but in bitter drinks they make the flavors pop because of that salt + bitterness thing we mentioned earlier. And the top performers, as far as I could tell, just had sea salt. Sodium citrate, an industrial salt in the Refreshe Soda, was not as beneficial.

(4) Enjoying a water alone and its performance in cocktails are two very different things. Both Q and Mineragua, for example, are too salty for me alone, but added to bitter sweetness in an Americano, that ceases to be a problem. Likewise, Fever Tree is the king of sipping waters in my house, but it doesn’t come close to dominating the competition the way I thought it would.

(5) We’re not talking about a big flavor difference here. This ain’t different vermouths, or even different gins. We’re talking about water. For most of these we’re dealing with shades of carbonation and shades of salt. The subjective difference between 1st and 4th in the conclusions could very well have been due to what I ate last.

(6) Water costs money. More on this in a second.

What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?:

Q Club Soda.

[soda] q winner

Big carbonation, nice and salty, and well flavored, Q was the best all around competitor, with Fever Tree, Refreshe Seltzer, Topo Chico,  Mineragua, and my homemade water (carbonation technique nicked from Liquid Intelligence) coming in as respectable runner ups.

[soda] winners circle

But.

If I didn’t have my own, would I be buying Q Club for home? No, I would not. I would be buying Refreshe Seltzer and adding a pinch of salt (or Topo Chico, if I could find it). Because of the final column, cost, that I left off earlier.

[soda] grid w prices

If I were in some kind of competition, I’d bring Q Club. But it’s not significant enough of a difference for me to buy boutique imported water at nearly $0.20 a fucking ounce. Q was best, and Refreshe Seltzer is somewhere around 3rd. But Q is 7.5x the cost of Refreshe, and only like 5% better.  And I’m not living that life.

In other words, did I just make you read 1500 words on carbonated water just to tell you it doesn’t matter all that much? Yeah, I did. Sorry. I tried to warn you.

SUPPLIMENTAL CAVEAT: There’s still so much I don’t know about these waters. Sodium, in miligrams, is available on the back. But what about potassium? Or calcium, or magnesium, or fluoride, or nitrates? All that stuff can show up in mineral water, and it tastes like something,  and I don’t have the tools to identify them. And honestly, what tools I could’ve bought (pH strips, etc) I opted against buying when I realized how difficult it is to draw conclusions from such scattered, subtle results in the first place.

TRIVIA #1!: Why is salted water even a thing at all? This is already much too long, but the history of artificial carbonation is pretty awesome, so I’ll just leave this superb article here if you want to know more.

TRIVIA #2!: If you’re wondering if the English town of Bath was named Bath because people bathed in the natural hot springs, the answer is yes.

Chartreuse

“Some say the first bottle of ____ was brought to the court of Charlemagne by a captured Druid mystic, who proclaimed it the greatest potion in all the blah blah blah blah lies.”
— Every Liqueur Marketing Team Ever

Preface:

I generally council people to just ignore the stories behind brands, because (1) they don’t matter and (2) they’re usually untrue. Made-up historical relevance is the herpes of the liquor industry, an embarrassing but manageable stain that we learn to tolerate because there is no cure. Examples are too numerous to list and range from minor exaggeration to outright lies, but as a rule, when the story begins 200+ years ago, I don’t even want to hear it.

This is true for all liquor, across the board, everywhere. Except Chartreuse.

[chartreuse] shadows

Facts:

Name: Chartreuse — Yellow, Green, V.E.P., Elexir Vegetal, etc.
Category: Liqueur — Herbal
ABV: 55% for the Green; 40% for the Yellow; 69% for the Elixir
Origin: France, at least since 1737, allegedly dating to 1605 (or earlier).
Characteristics: Intense and pungent; beguiling; very herbal; sweet, strong, and full; vegetal flavors, anise, saffron, honey, mint, and about 130 others.

The Order:

A quick word about the Carthusian monks:

[chartreuse] coat of armsIn 1084, St. Bruno founded a spin-off of the Catholic church he called the Carthusian Order, after the Chartreuse mountains in France where he chose to live. The motto of the Carthusians is “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” Latin for “The cross is steady while the world is turning,” and indeed, for the last 931 turns of the world, the Carthusian monks still live almost exactly as they always have.

It is one of the most ascetic orders of Christianity in existence, and is all about finding God through contemplation, solitude, silence, and prayer. They literally don’t talk all day. They barely see each other. Technology obviously is non-existent. It’s all stone and wood. Their whole charterhouse is built so one monk can bring a meal and spin it through a hatch so the feeder and the feedee don’t have to interact. It’s broadly misunderstood that they’ve taken some kind of vow of silence, but this is not strictly speaking true. It’s more that their lives are built around the rhythm of stillness, solitude and silence, and because speech breaks that, it is reserved for certain ritual occasions. And they also make Chartreuse, as they have since 1737.

[chartreuse] intro

History:

Here’s what we’re told:

In 1605, some Carthusian monks just outside Paris were met by Francois Hannibal d’ Estrées, Marshal of King Henri IV artillery, who gave them a recipe for the Elixir of Long Life. The recipe was hopelessly complex and the initial recipients couldn’t figure it out, so after 100 or so years the recipe was sent to the mother order, Grande Chartreuse, in the French alps near Grenoble. The monks there studied the recipe intently and ultimately cracked it, and in 1737, the Carthusian monks produced the very first Chartreuse, a vivid green from 132 different herbs, roots, and spices harvested not only at specific times of year but specific times of day. Part of the magic is that the color is natural: it somehow doesn’t turn brown like every other chlorophyll infusion in the world.

It was 71% alcohol and, like most liqueurs back then, used as medicine. But people liked to drink it as well, so in 1764, a milder version was developed at 55% alcohol, what we now know as Green Chartreuse (praising Green Chartreuse for its mildness is like praising a forest fire for its subtlety, but I suppose it’s all relative). In 1838, they made an actually mild version at 40%, Yellow Chartreuse, which uses about 80 plants, and is colored mostly by saffron.

There have been interruptions over the last 278 years. As one might imagine. The monks were forced from the country after the French Revolution in 1793, and again in 1903 when the government nationalized the distillery. In 1810 Napoleon demanded all secret recipes turned over to the state, but his scientists couldn’t make sense of it. It was made in exile for a time. In the 1930s, the distillery was destroyed by a landslide. All these obstacles, all this mystery, and still, these men who in 2015 still wear white robes in stone rooms and don’t speak and pray all day, they still produce one of the most beguiling, tastiest, inimitable liqueurs in the world.

This fucking guy.

This fucking guy.

Here’s what is indisputably true:

It’s made by Carthusian monks, in France, according to a secret recipe. It’s been made since the mid 1700s. It is one of the few bottles behind the bar that matures as it ages. And many of us regard it as the greatest liqueur ever made.

Here’s what I sincerely believe is true, despite our lack of proof:

All of it. I believe all of it. That there are 132 ingredients. That ingredients are harvested at specific hours to get the right chlorophyll levels. That the color is natural at all.

Everyone repeats these endlessly, but we have no proof. All the same, I choose to believe. It tastes true.

Here’s what let’s just say is true because who cares:

That 1605 business. Why not? Everything else about it seems true, so why not this? Whether the recipe was from 1605 or 1737 couldn’t possibly matter less, so whatever. I’ll tell that story.

[chartreuse] detail

Production:

For a while I was ready to call shenanigans on the whole thing, because how could these monks who probably still use a damn abacus make enough of this stuff for the million or so bottles bought every year? But they do. As with the recipe itself, you can figure things out when you have nothing but time on your hands.

IMG_0322

Photo credit: The likewise inimitable Adam Stemmler

It goes like this: there are only two monks who know the recipe, Dom Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques, and they aren’t allowed to do things like ride in a car together. Every year, a total of some 18 tons of the various 130+ berries, roots, herbs, barks, and leaves are delivered in secret numbered sacks to the herb room, where only those two monks dry, grind, and combine them into new sacks, which are then themselves numbered and sent to the distillery.

Even the distillery is off-limits to most, but there they have help — two “laymen” who help physically run the stills. Each sack is macerated for it’s certain amount of hours in neutral spirit, and then distilled for about 8 hours. It is then macerated again for color and flavor, sweetened with sugar and honey, then sent to age in large neutral oak casks for couple years until it’s ready.

There’s Green and Yellow, of course. In Europe they sell the original “Elixir,” at 69% ABV. There’s also the Green and Yellow versions of the V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), a more expensive, extra-aged version that is devastatingly tasty.

[chartreuse] vep

Uses:

For many of us, Green Chartreuse is inseparable from the Last Word cocktail. Invented at the Detroit Athletic Club in 1916, it twiddled in cocktail purgatory until being resurrected by the legendary Murray Stenson, at the Zig Zag cafe, somewhere around 2005. It shouldn’t work but it does, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it. It’s gone around the world and everyone knows it now. Ask for one next time you’re at a cocktail bar. And get the original. No, you don’t want to try their house variation with tarragon-infused Aquavit or whatever instead of gin. You want a Last Word.

The Last Word
0.75oz gin
0.75oz Green Chartreuse
0.75oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
0.75oz lime juice
Add all ingredients to tin and shake well. Strain into chilled cocktail class, and garnish with a real maraschino cherry. If you have no cherries, or only have the shit cherries the color of a clown’s nose, just leave it naked.

Beyond that, there a classic called a Bijou, which is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Green Chartreuse, and which I admit I’ve never liked. Yellow Chartreuse makes one of my favorite Manhattan variations, the painfully delicious Greenpoint. There’s the fantastic tiki-d out Chartreuse Swizzle by Marco Dionysos up at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. I’ve also had great fun with the Silent Order, a Green Chartreuse-based drink I enjoy pulling out of my mental weird shit folder when such a thing is called for.

More Chartreuse cocktails here.

TRIVIA!: Interior decorators among you will know Chartreuse already as a the name of a color. There are in fact two colors, chartreuse green and chartreuse yellow, and they are named after the liqueurs. Or, as Quentin Tarantino says, fumbling in front of the camera in Deathproof, “the only liquor so good they named a color after it.”

Further reading:

  • This is a nice little article by Sean Kenyon that goes slightly more into history (and some first hand impressions).
  • The uncommonly informative official website.
  • Some fascinating information on the Carthusian monks, from their own website.
  • For those who are seriously interested in the life of these monks, there is a nearly 3 hour documentary called Into Great Silence. Be warned: there is nothing about the liqueur in the film. There are no words. It’s just a camera on the wall, no explanation, just a witness to the strangely admirable silent rhythms of these men who give up their entire lives in search of peace. Trailer on youtube.

Campari: The Red Mistress

There’s nothing quite as cool as old school Italian class. I don’t know where I’m getting this image, Fellini or something probably, but I see a mid-century man in a perfect suit. Wayfairers, scarves, and Alpha Romeros zipping along the coast. He’s definitely smoking a cigarette. And he’s drinking Campari, probably with soda. Has to be. There’s no other way.

[campari] intro

Name: Campari
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
ABV: 24% ABV, in the U.S. anyway.
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1860.
Nose: Herbal, like chinese medicine. Orange and rhubarb. Wood chips. Lightly floral.
Taste: Floral into orange sweetness, with a slow building bitterness that crescendos after you swallow and lingers for a minute+, leaving you either (1) begging for more, or (2) wondering why anyone would ever do that to themselves twice.

The History:

In 1860, a 32 year old bartender and salesman named Gaspare Campari finalized the recipe for a bitter liqueur he’d been working on. He had other liquers — fruit and cream cordials, mostly — but this bitter red business was propelled by an unusual tastiness. As its fame increased, he soon earned the money to move from the suburbs to the center of Milan and opened a cafe in the newly built Galleria Vittorio Emanuele across the street from the Duomo, making his booze in the basement and serving it in the afternoon to the Milanese intelligentsia.

Caffe Campari was the place to be. If there were movies back then, movie stars would’ve hung out there, and when Gaspare died his obituary ran on the front page of the Milanese daily. His son Davide took over, built a production plant in 1904, and stopped making almost all other products in 1926, focusing heavily on the eponymous apertif.

It is Davide Campari’s name wrapped around the neck of every bottle, not his fathers’. Davide is the one who took Campari from a popular local phenomenon and put it on the road to what it is today, which is multinational leviathan selling 3 million cases a year across 190 countries. Which, if you’re wondering, is a whole hell of a lot.

[campari] detail bottle

The Product:

Of all the aggressively bitter Italian liqueurs, and there are many, Campari is by far the most pervasive. Speakeasy or sportsbar, towny dive or rooftop club, it’s one of the few bottles you can find in pretty much any bar. Which is nice, because it is also amazing.

It is an aperitivo — the aperitivo, really, as it is widely credited with inventing the category — and is sharply bitter, more rust than dirt, one of those things that you’ll hate the first time you have it but grows on you over time. This aperitivo business suggests that you drink it before meals: the acute bitterness, they say, rouses your body’s digestive enzymes from their twixt-meal slumber and prepares you for eating. Italians are big on that kind of thing (there are also digestivos, which is even more bitter liquor, for after the meal).

As for the product itself, we don’t know what’s in it. Oranges for sure, with rhubarb, ginseng (maybe), plenty of herbs and roots as well as the unmistakable bitter gentian and Red #40, but beyond that, Campari seems to take a dickish pleasure in their own secrecy. “Many have guessed simply at the number of ingredients,” they say on their website, toothy smile implied, “some say there are 20 or 60, but others list the ingredients at 80.” There are only three living humans who know the recipe, and no one even knows who those three humans are. So ok: you don’t tell people. Got it.

Regardless, Campari is one of those bottles that is somehow more than its ingredients. Their secrecy doesn’t frustrate me, because a list of herbs would only tell half the story. It’s like Angostura bitters. Yes, there are similar products, in some cases very similar, but all Campari’s peers lack whatever ethereal magic it possesses that makes it sublime and absolutely indispensable. It is at once bitter and sweet, aggressive and subtle, and has that most charming of ingredient characteristics, which is to elevate whatever drink it is mixed in — specifically and especially its three brilliant, canonical cocktails:

(1) Campari & Soda, which is so popular in Italy that an adorable little 3oz version has been pre-bottled and sold since 1932, and which holds the noble purpose of being the one real drink you can get in almost any bar in the world that the bartender literally cannot fuck up.

(2) Americano, a Campari & Soda with sweet vermouth. The greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made, and which more or less defines the category of aperitivo. Still near impossible to fuck up, though some particularly incompetent bartenders have risen to the challenge. Some have also returned with an espresso and hot water, which is less a fuck up than a hilarious misunderstanding.

(3) Negroni, equal measures Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. It deserves its own post, and will get one shortly. Bitter, sweet, strong and seductive, the Negroni is good before dinner, after dinner, before bed, in a mountain lodge, at the bottom of the sea, or really anywhere, at anytime at all. I’m not being hyperbolic about Campari as indispensable: a world without Campari is a world without Negronis, and in that case we should all just kill ourselves immediately.

[campari] drinking

Trivia #1: Campari has historically not been a vegetarian product. The brilliant red color was, from 1860-2006, the crimson dye carmine, which is created by collecting a bunch of cactus-feeding cochineal insects in a bowl and grinding them up with a pestle. For reasons either compassionate or capitalistic, they changed in 2006 to artificial color.

Trivia #2: Campari was initially called Bitter all’Uso d’Olanda, which translates to “Bitter – the Use of Holland,” or Holland-style bitter. There is, of course, nothing whatsoever Dutch about it, just that Gaspare wanted to tie in something exotic and the Dutch have long been at the center of the spice trade (just like the Branca people did with their imaginary Dr. Fernet). But as “Bitter – the Use of Holland” is an extremely stupid name, they changed it.

 

86 Co. Spirits

In late 2012, a few guys named Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric, and Jason Kosmas launched a booze line under the banner 86 Company Spirits. For those of you who don’t know, 86 is restaurant slang for either we’ve run out (“86 lobster, we’re subbing shrimp”) or we threw someone out (“Guy on 22 was drooling like a basset hound and tried to pay in nickels, so we 86’d him.”)

All three of these guys come from the bar, and wanted to create a spirits company specifically accommodating to bartenders. So in this case, the 86 refers to “86 the bullshit.” As in, we are going to tell you exactly what is in our products, exactly how we made it, in what proportions and in what amount of time. No apocryphal yellowing recipes, no arbitrary ties to great men of history, no juju magic. Here is what we make, here is how, here is why.

[86] Full Line

That why is important. The transparency alone would be enough, but the fact that each of these products has a why — a real reason to exist — is what makes them so special.

There are way too many craft distillers making vodka and gin and shitty white whiskey and 9 month old bourbon just to do it, and their products neither taste better, nor are meaningfully different, than what is already abundantly available. This is why so many of them attempt to tie themselves to Napoleon or Hemingway for no reason at all, and why so many of them claim that their recipe dates to the 18th century, even though they’ve only been making it for 9 fucking months. And this is why the 86 Co. products are so refreshing. Each stands on its own merits, and each one (save, of course, for the vodka) is made to satisfy a cocktail need that had, up until now, been unmet.

If you’ve ever stood within earshot of the cyclonic bloviations of liquor marketing you’ll know that almost everyone says their products are designed “specifically for cocktails,” but in this case, it is fundamentally true: when creating them, the Ford and Zaric let the needs of the cocktail shape the spirit, not the other way around.

I’m not going to write everything about them. They have been extensively reviewed all over the web, to say nothing of fact that every production detail about them can be found on the website, or, handily, on the labels themselves. But a couple weeks ago, Dushan himself came to Kettner Exchange to give us a little training on their wonderful line, and there are a few interesting things that are worthy of special note.

[86] Montage

Caña Brava Rum

First things first: daiquiris (rum + lime juice + sugar) are amazing. In the desperate yearning heart of every 2oz of rum is the unspoken desire to be turned into a daiquiri. Yes, rum is mixed with other stuff sometimes, but it never really wants to be. It wants to be a daiquiri. Because daiquiris are amazing.

So, the goal with Caña Brava was to create an authentic, prohibition-era Cuban style light rum, a robust, dry spirit bottled at higher proof so to shine in daiquiris. They went to Don Poncho Fernandez, who was the master blender of Havana Club for decades and is now in Panama (making him, let’s just say, a Panamaniac), and together created Caña Brava. Apparently Dushan showed up to the distillery with sacks of limes and boxes of sugar, and made daiquiris with each rum sample until they nailed it.

It is extremely dry, allowing you to manage your own sweetness. It’s bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, providing cocktail infrastructure, and it has a mid-palate explosion, the point in the tasting experience where most drinks suffer. It makes a brilliant daiquiri, and is, therefore, an enormous success.

Note: Loyal readers will recall I once wrote something similar about Banks 5 Rum, and indeed, these two products aspire to the same thing. The difference, then, is in how they try to get there: Banks blends in Indonesian Arrack for a dynamic and wholly original flavor profile, while Caña Brava aims at recreating the Cuban style straight through distillation. They’re almost too different to compare, but I can say that the two products make daiquiris that taste nothing alike and yet are both enormously tasty.

[86] pouring

Ford’s Gin

Made at the Thames distillery in London, Ford’s aims to be the ultimate cocktail gin: to be good for Tom Collins’, good for Negronis, good for Martinis, and to work with both lemon and lime. I admit, this education was the first I’d ever heard of this lemon vs. lime business — apparently some gins work better with lemon and some with lime, which through some deficit of palate or experience, I’ve never encountered (it’s also always possible that’s not a real thing, but honestly, I’m inclined to trust Dushan’s palate over my own).

In any event, they experimented with oil extraction and botanical steep time until they got it just right, at 15hrs. Its viscosity and balance is ideal for martinis (it was the best London Dry Gin in the Great Martini Experiements). Like the rum, it has a mid-palate explosion of flavor. Because gin is all about specific tastes at specific strengths, much of it falls to personal preference. What I will say is that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its legendary peers, which is, for a London Dry Gin, the biggest compliment I have to give.

Tequila Cabeza

[86] cabeza detailThe tequila is bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, which in and of itself gives it broad shoulders. But more than that, they wanted a tequila that could present a bold agave flavor even when mixed. The agave is the most delicate flavor and the first to get drowned out, Dushan complained, and too often you’ll have a margarita that has all the pepper and vegetal notes and creaminess of the tequila, but no agave.

They went to El Ranchito distillery in the highlands, NOM1414, and worked with the distiller to craft the product. They found the tequila can only be made in the winter, interestingly, when the temperature is lower and fermentation can happen more slowly, because only a long fermentation can give the flavors they wanted. So after about 10 days of fermentation, it’s distilled to industry standard 55%, cut back to 43%, and bottled.

Taken neat, it’s a bit rougher than it’s peers, probably because of those proof points. But those are what makes it pop in cocktails, with a giant mid-palate agave sweetness, a bit of bitterness from the extra booze, and a nice creamy texture. Very cool, utterly unique.

Aylesbury Duck Vodka

… is vodka. I don’t know. It’s good vodka. It’s well priced and well made and it’s not hurting anyone. Plus, the label is funny.

____________________________________________

Trivia: I had always assumed the term 86 was some antiquated computer code or something, but apparently it’s at least 70 years old and no one actually knows how it came about. There are several competing theories, and they are all equally unsatisfying.

More Trivia: I wrote “juju magic” up there because it felt right in the sentence, then got nervous because I wasn’t sure if it was some kind of slur.  In the process of looking into that, my googling took me to The Racial Slur Database, an organization that for some bizarre reason categorizes these things. They have a search bar, or you can just browse by ethnic group. They have a homepage feature, “Racial Slur of the Day.” In the submission section, they take pains to remind you that only racial slurs will be accepted, and gender and sexuality slurs are strictly prohibited.

I have nothing more to report on this, just that it exists and I find that fact endlessly amusing.

 

Highland Park Scotch Whiskey

“It’s not easy. It’s not simple. And there’s no way to make it faster or better.” — Martin Daraz, of Highland Park Distillery

[hp] wood brand

The Facts:

Distillery: Highland Park distillery
Location: Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Owned By: Edrington Group (also owns Famous Grouse, Macallan, and a couple others)
Origin: Allegedly founded in 1798. Actually founded in 1826.

A Sense of Place:

No matter which way you’re headed, the Highland Park distillery, on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, is out of your way. From Glasgow, you would head 300 miles north to the seaside port of Scrabster, the northernmost port on mainland Britain, and somewhere that sounds, to me, like a place where you could get punched just for having a full set of teeth. There, you catch the 2 hour Northlink ferry to the tempestuously named Stromness, on an island known as “Mainland,” head east for half an hour, and there you find Highland Park, waiting to reward your journey.

Orkney is an archipelago of some 70 islands off the northernmost tip of Scotland. In terms of latitudinal brothers, we’re talking about Oslo, St. Petersberg, Stockholm, and Juneau, Alaska — historically not whisky hotspots, but the fact that it’s an island tempers the seasons: winter temperatures range tightly between 34°F-45°F, and summer average high stretches to a giddy 61°F. It’s the northernmost distillery in Scotland, and everyone who goes — from the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas to travel writers today — say to be in Orkney feels like the edge of the world.

[hp] map

The Story:

Highland Park was allegedly founded in 1798 by a butcher, church-official, and secret distiller/smuggler named Magnus Eunson, about whom there are plenty of charming and roguish stories that, in the grand tradition of liquor, are likely all between 50 and 100% untrue. Nonetheless, the story goes, he was distilling on that spot in Kirkwall, and finding amusing and blasphemous ways to hide the liquor from the taxmen until they finally arrested him.

In 1818, a straw-plaiter named Robert Bordwick felt like a legitimate distillery could succeed as a business, and together with his son-in-law John Robertson (Eunson’s arresting officer, as it turns out) bought Eunson’s land on High Park and officially founded Highland Park. They built what is still the current distillery, received their license in 1826, and have been distilling more or less continuously since then. In the last 188 years the company has passed through more sets of hands than I care to list, and has since 1999 been owned by the medium-sized Edringer Group, who also own Macallan.

[hp] tasting

The Whisky:

There’s a little variation among the individual bottlings, but what they all have in common is that they’re all (1) peated, and they (2) use sherry-seasoned casks for aging. This is not a terribly common combination, and one that has me personally coming back to Highland Park again and again:

Air dry that shit.

Air dry that shit.

Spanish Sherry-seasoned Oak: they source all their oak, at least for the standard line, from Northern Spain (the limited edition 15 is American oak). The staves are air-dried as opposed to kiln dried (like our friends at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky), as air-dried wood is universally agreed to be better — it gives the harsh tannic quality in the wood a chance to mellow out. They then make barrels and fill them with dry Oloroso sherry for 2-3 years. By the time they’re emptied, some 11 liters of sherry have saturated the wood, waiting to add spice and dried fruit richness to the scotch.

Local Peat: Highland Park is one of the few distilleries who still malt a proportion of their own barley (about 20%), which they then kiln dry with local Orcadian peat. Because of the climate, their peat is all moss and grass, and gives a distinctive heathery floral note to the finished spirit. They smoke it to about 20 phenol parts-per-million (ppm) over 16 hours, before mixing it with unpeated malt they contract from one of the malting houses on the mainland. This lowers their total peat levels to about 4-6ppm once bottled, which is very low, and it’s kind of amazing that the flavor translates so well.

Also, for what it’s worth: Michael Jackson (the legendary beer and whiskey writer, not the legendary pop singer) wrote of Highland Park that it’s “the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky.” In Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the 12 and 25 won best single malt in their respective categories for 2014, and F. Paul Pacult of Spirit Journal  has retired the Highland Park 18 from competition, calling it “the best spirit in the world.” So there’s that.

[hp] 30

Tasting:

Highland Park 12: It has a pronounced sweetness like salted caramel that gets a little bit stone-fruity, and a nice lingering peat smoke with a little depth. All in all, somewhat light. Vanilla. Not at all bad, but especially tasting it next to older versions I’d be very happy to put it back in the barrel for a few more years.
Cost: ~$45
Would I buy it?: Yeah, but there are 12 year olds I like more.

Highland Park 15: No longer available outside U.S. Being phased out. This is made in American wood as opposed to Spanish wood, 35% first fill sherry barrels. Creamy, vanilla. There’s no sign of that leather I get a little of in the 12 and a lot of in the 18. Cinnamon spicy, like red hots, but also has a cool grassy element. This was the favorite of many at the tasting.
Cost: ~$80, if you can find it
Would I buy it?: Yes, if only because it won’t be around anymore.

Highland Park 18: My definite favorite of the Seven Grand tasting. It’s got a really nice raisiny sweetness from the sherry, but enough leathery depth to keep me coming back. Floral heather mixes with enough peat smoke to make me take notice. I can’t get enough of that dark leathery oak and smoke, like sinking into a comfortable chair in a dim cigar lounge. This, to me, tastes like whisky should taste.
Cost: $100
Would I buy it?: Absolutely. One of the best $100 you can spend on whiskey.

Highland Park Freya: Part of their “Valhalla Collection” limited bottlings. 51.2%, 15 years in bourbon casks. Sweetness is more candied, almost like gum (this comment invited mockery from the brand ambassador, but I swear it tastes like Juicyfruit). Strong fruity spice.  Peat is a bit subdued and the texture is a bit waxy. A surprise from the others. No dark elements at all. Tasty. Interesting.
Cost: ~$250
Would I buy it?: Absolutely not. Way too much money.

Highland Park 30: Bonus! I went home and had a small glass of this while the others were fresh in my head. All that time in sherry barrels gives it a stronger dried fruit nose, but on the palate it’s all peat, leather, and caramel. Texture is concentrated, a little  buttery. After a minute the caramel becomes a little raisinated. New elements keep popping into the mingling of sweetness and peat and oak. It’s not really fair to compare, but this is my favorite. Obvi.
Cost: A lot.
Would I Buy It?: Only on the most special of occasions, to be enjoyed with close friends.

Bushmills: The Other Irish Whiskey

Distillery: Old Bushmills Distilling
Location: Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Owned By: Diageo
Major Products produced: Bushmills, Black Bush, Bushmills Single Malt 10, —16, and —21
Origin: Founded in 1784. Distilling off and on since then.

[bushmills] opener

A Quick Word:

If there were a single misapprehension I could correct in the average drinker, it’s the naïve and somewhat touching belief that the most popular thing is the most popular because it is the best. It’s sweet, really, this inclination toward justice, but the world of liquor is not a meritocracy. Not even close.

I say that to say this: there is one big reason that everyone thinks Jameson is the Irish Whiskey, and everything else is just a cheap echo thereof. And while Jameson does make some tasty products, that reason has nothing to do with either the quality or the flavor of the whiskey itself.

That Reason:

[bushmills] 1608The year 1608 proudly adorns every bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, sitting like a foundation stone above the brand name itself, implicitly suggesting that Bushmills has been around since 1608. This is false — weirdly, brazenly false. While someone in Northern Ireland got a distillation license in 1608, it wasn’t Bushmills. The Bushmills company wouldn’t be even founded until 1784, a 176 years later. Just to clear that up.

(Seriously, they could’ve been founded seventy-six years earlier, and they’d still miss the 1608 date by a hundred fucking years. Once again, please ignore all historical claims from liquor companies. The ones that aren’t half-truths are outright lies, and it has no bearing whatsoever on what the liquor actually tastes like.)

Here’s the history that actually matters: in the beginning of the 20th century Irish whiskey was terrifically popular, with 20+ distilleries operating at full bore. But the twin punches of Prohibition and WWII left the industry bloodied and meager, and by the mid ’60s there were just a handful of distilleries left. To weather the times, Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilling companies merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, and set about consolidating resources. In 1972, they acquired Bushmills, making Irish Distillers the only whiskey company in Ireland, a total monopoly that would last some 15 years, and a near-monopoly that would last 15 more.

So why is Bushmills overlooked? Because by the time Irish Distillers scooped up Bushmills, they had already chosen their favorite son: they built a new Jameson distillery next to the old one, opened it in 1975, and put their resources behind it. Even more, once French liquor giant Pernod Ricard took over Irish Distillers in 1988, they jumped on Jameson — the lightest of the whiskies — and marketed it toward vodka drinkers. “Take it as a shot! Try it with some apple pucker!” Jameson got all the attention and popularity, and Bushmills got a black hoodie and an eating disorder.

In 2005, Pernod Ricard unloaded Bushmills on their archnemesis Diageo, who haven’t pushed it much. But apparently, they’re beginning to start, because they recently sent a couple guys to San Diego to talk to us about it.

[bushmills] event snaps

Irish Whiskey:

People who love Irish whiskey call it “smooth” and “mild.” People who don’t call it “boring” and “effete.” And they’re both right, because they’re describing precisely the same thing. Generally, people who like their barley-based spirits lighter will go Irish. Heavier, they’ll go scotch.

Bushmills aims to bridge that gap, by offering higher malt, fuller flavored whiskeys that still retain their essential Irish smoothness. All their products are distilled three times in pot stills, ultimately to between 58.5%-60.5%, and all are aged in some mixture of used bourbon and used Olorosso sherry casks (the mixture varies for each product).

Bushmills Original || Aged 5 years minimum. 

Light and fruity at first. A little buttery with spice. There’s an essential grainy lightness that is distractingly light/mild. Like there should be something there. A pear flavor takes over toward the end, a long-ish finish of spiced pear.

Overall: not bad at all, if mild for my taste. The fruit could use some richness to back it up.

Black Bush || Aged 7 years minimum. Unusually high percentage of malt whiskeys(80% malt, 20% grain.)

[bushmills] black bushThis fills in nicely that hole I tasted in the Bushmills Original. This is the product they’re pushing hard, and you can taste why — a one-time favorite of mine, back when I used to drink more Irish whiskey. More sherry influence, with apricot and apple backed up by a slight — slight — richness.

Overall: this is one of the better Irish whiskies out there, especially for the price. As a malt/grain blend, I’d put this at a respectable 2nd place behind Redbreast.

Bushmills 10 Pure Malt || Aged 10 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 

Here’s where we start getting to Bushmills real strength, their 100% malt whiskey. This has no light grain blended in, and it shows — it’s got the same essential flavors, just more robust. Cooked apples. Honey. Melon. Tingly spice. My notes say “apple-y as fuck.” Pear. That fruit really comes through.

Overall: this is my favorite of the lot, and the one that best showcases the strength of this particular distillery. Recommended.

Bushmills 16 Pure Malt || Aged 16 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey. 6-9 months in Port wine casks.

The port shows itself here, along with more alcohol heat. Raisins & honey, oak and heat were the dominant flavors. These are rich flavors but without much richness in the whiskey itself, it didn’t land for me. “Not much force,” I wrote.

Overall: a different set of flavors to be sure, but this one missed the mark for me… though I should say that it was the favorite of many at the tasting, so take that for what it’s worth.

The difference a little bit in a port cask makes.

Bushmills 21 Pure Malt || Aged 21 years minimum, 100% malt whiskey.

Finally, here we have some richness, more from the wood I’m sure than the malt. That same signature fruit/spice is familiar, but with much more presence. Darker, richer, and more textured. Honey, almond, spice. The sherry influence itself is surprisingly subtle, perhaps muted by the wood. Cinnamon redhots finish (light).

Overall: tasty to be sure, a great choice for Irish whiskey fans who also happen to be hedge-fund managers. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine spending $120 on this. Good though.

Fernet Branca

The Prelude:

Devil Fernet. My old friend.

My first taste of Fernet Branca was forced upon me at Green Street Grille in Boston. I think the bartender’s name was Andy, but we called him Copatude, in honor of ‘tudes he would so invariably cop. He mentioned Fernet, and then incredulous of our vacant expressions, asked (with raging ‘tude), “how have you never had Fernet?!,” and poured us some. I smelled it, and looked up at him to see if this was some kind of prank. “Dude,” he said, “trust me. This is the business.”

It tasted like boiled woodchips. It tasted like some hideous pre-Hippocratic Chinese remedy, or maybe the kind of after-dinner mint they’d offer in hell. It tasted not so much bad as unlikable, and I nope’d my way through every subsequent Fernet offering for at least a year. After a while, curious that so many people around me claimed to like it, I tried it again, and was surprised to find it tolerable. Six months later, I had it and I actually liked it. Then, the cravings began, the inexplicable desire for that sharp bitter complexity, a need for which nothing else would do. It was all I wanted to drink. “Mysteriously satisfying,” they say, one of the only lines in alcohol marketing that I completely affirm. That was probably three or four years ago, and it hasn’t stopped since.

This is how it goes for everyone, and Fernet Branca is, thus, the shibboleth of the cocktail world: when someone asks for a shot of Fernet, I usually ask them where they work. It is the bartender’s handshake, a way to recognize each other, as acquired a taste as you’ll ever find behind the bar. In fact, it’s so vile to the uninitiated that it works — more than any bar tool or tattoo or mustache — to distinguish between cocktail people and non-cocktail people. The perennial us and them.

This may all sound insufferably pretentious to you, and I’m not here to say you’re wrong. All I will say in our defense is that it’s not an affectation: we really, sincerely do love it.

[fernet] antique

The Facts:

Name: Fernet Branca (Fur-net, not Fair-nay)
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
Subcategory: A digestive, and the first and most popular of the subcategory of Fernet
Proof: 78° (39% ABV)
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1845.
Nose: pine; menthol; sharply herbal
Taste: layered throughout with peppermint oil, menthol, resiny pine, aloe, saffron, a little coffee, cooling mint, deep mid-palate bitterness, and a lingering, peppery minty finish that reminds me of the spots you blink out of the darkness after a firework show.

The Story:

Italians, as a people, are somewhat preoccupied with digestion. As such, they view eating and drinking as two arms of one culinary experience, meant to be enjoyed concurrently: before a meal, an apertivo/apertif has bitter herbs to stimulate the appetite; wine comes during the meal to compliment the food; and after, the bitter herbs in a digestivo/digestif allegedly (see Trivia, at bottom) hasten digestion and stimulate enzyme production while the carminative herbs relieve some of the gaseous effects of overeating. It’s not that they drink any less than we do. They just have a more convincing pretense.

So what is Fernet Branca? It is a digestive made by the Branca company, and the first and most popular of the subclass of amari (bitter liqueurs) called Fernet. So even though everyone always calls it “Fernet,” there are in fact many different Fernets — Branca has just managed to become synonymous with the category. So much so, in fact, that even bartenders are frequently surprised to hear that other Fernets exist. At the Branca distillery, they have an enormous case of these imitators (below), in a kind of “isn’t that cute” magnanimity.

[fernet] imitators

Fernet Branca was marketed initially as a home remedy. In 1845, Bernardino Branca (or his herbalist daughter-in-law Maria Scala) created the elixir in Milan and named it after Doctor Fernet, a Swedish centenarian who, they claimed, attested to the liquor’s health benefits and who, we know now, never actually existed. Despite his rather glaring ontological disadvantage, the imaginary Swede was very convincing, and together with Scala’s no-less-dubious claim that it relieves menstrual cramps, the brand took off.

One funny thing about Branca is that they’re unusually proud of their advertising prowess, a subject most brands allergically avoid. Most liquor companies don’t want their populace-manipulation tools to be scrutinized, but Branca has a whole section on their website about it, and a solid hour of their distillery tour is literally just showing you advertisements from the last 165 years. Funny or not, they were early to the idea that alcohol is a field especially susceptible to marketing, and this knowledge continues to serve them well.

[fernet] advertisements

Italians have it after dinner, or sometimes as a hangover cure, spiked in a bit of espresso. Fernet and coke is the national drink of Argentina, Fernet with a ginger back is the civic drink of San Francisco, and as I said, Fernet shots are the unofficial liquid mascot of the craft cocktail world.

The Product:

[fernet] flavor wheel

They tell people it’s made from 27 herbs, some of which are secret. The real number is closer to 40, seeing as there is actually an enormous flavor wheel at the Branca distillery that shows you 29 raw ingredients. It may be 27 herbs and 14 roots, or whatever, but the point is that there’s a lot. Here’s what they’ll tell you is in it:

Orris, colombo root, coffee, laurel leaf, myrrh, cardamom, aloe, small centaury, mace, bitter orange, juniper, zedoary, chamomile, tea, anise, cocoa, musk yarrow, linden, peppermint, marjoram, white agaric, Chinese rhubarb, bitter orange ring, gentian, cinnamon, chinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and what my notes seem to say is “Green Perding,” which is not a real thing but I embarrassingly can’t read my own handwriting.

They infuse these in (secret) batches according to their (secret) recipe on a backbone of overproof neutral spirit they buy by the railroad car. It’s aged in their cavernous cellar in 10ft tall, 20,000-30,000 liter Slovenian oak barrels for a year before bottling.

[fernet] caves

One of the things that marks Fernet Branca is that it’s exceptionally dry — there is very little, if any, sugar added, and is therefore not a liqueur, by definition or otherwise: liqueurs are sweet and soft and simple, meant to facilitate introductions between spirit and drinker, like Fredo Corleone sent to Vegas to meet Moe Green and establish the family. Fernet is more like Sonny, who can barely spend 10 full minutes in a room before either (1) fucking someone or (2) beating the shit out of them.

The Uses:

I’m of the opinion that alcohol is never healthy — there are smart people who swear by that digestivo business, but I personally have never experienced it. I will say that a shot of Fernet is the greatest short-term hangover cure ever created (long term being, of course, cheeseburgers and action movies). It’s great to shoot and nice to sip, once you’ve acclimated. It goes well with ginger ale or ginger beer, and the South Americans will insist on pouring coca-cola into it, and… you know… fine.

In cocktails, you rarely see it more than a half-ounce at a time. It’s an uphill battle getting it to play nice with other ingredients, and the best Fernet cocktails I’ve had use between 0.25oz and 0.5oz for a lingering peppermint finish. Online searches will give you the Toronto and the Hanky Panky, but the best Fernet cocktail I’ve had is either the Autumn Negroni or the Don’t Give Up The Ship.

Full list of Fernet Branca cocktails here.

TRIVIA #1: Allegedly. Digestivos allegedly aid digestion. This article is written taking this claim at face value, but I’ll save you the Google work and tell you there is no reputable scientific evidence for these claims, or at least none that I could find. In fact, every single time the emotionless light of science has been shined on this particular issue, it finds the opposite: alcohol hinders digestion considerably more than any herbs in the alcohol would help it. As a mild anaestetic and vasodialator, alcohol may relieve some of the experience of overeating, but hasten digestion it don’t.

TRIVIA #2: The inclination to pronounce it “fair-nay” is understandable, as it actually is a French word. It’s a surname originating (as best as I can tell) around Burgundy. The Brancas probably chose it for their fictional 100 year old Swede because it was exotic. Nonetheless, as Fernet Branca is an Italian product, we pronounce it the Italian way, and Italians — like almost every other language using the classical Latin alphabet — think a silent T is fucking stupid.