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.

Casa Noble

The Facts:

Distillery: Cofradía
NOM: 1137
Origin: Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, since 1996
ABV: 40% for their standard offerings, some cask-strength (51%+) special releases
Distinguishing characteristics: dusty/sweet chocolate; vanilla; cinnamon; pepper; baked agave

The Preamble:

There are too many tequila brands in this world.

While it’s certainly not unprecedented for a single distillery to put out more than one brand, no one’s run away with it quite like they have in Mexico. There are roughly 140 active distilleries in Mexico putting out, as of March 19th, 1633 different brands, most of which come in a set of blanco, reposado, and añejo, and a weighty proportion of which are bad. There’s an embarrassing amount of celebrity brands, there are the slickly marketed giants and the bottom scraping mixtos and a bewildering array of products that come in oversized glass firearms… so the question, “what makes this bottle special?,” for tequila, can be a particularly difficult one.

I say that to say this: one of the nice things about Casa Noble, out of the Cofradía distillery just outside the town of Tequila, is that they make that question extremely easy to answer.

The Story:

Casa Noble has history stretching back to the 1770s, but has existed in its current form since 1996. Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo’s family has been in the tequila business for seven generations and affiliated with Cofradía for 70 years — it’s all a bit vague as to exactly what and who and how — but what’s important is that almost 20 years ago he co-founded Casa Noble as we know it today.

Whether in response to the colorful homogeneity of the tequila aisle or in anticipation of it, Casa Noble takes great care to set themselves apart, claiming not one but five unusual or unique distinctions:  it is a (1) triple distilled, (2) kosher (3) organic tequila that’s been (4) certified Green by the Mexican government, and (5) aged in new French oak.

Points #1, #3, and #5 have significant flavor ramifications, #4 is just cool, and #2 doesn’t matter at all. But let’s unpack it:

(1) triple distillation:

Most tequila is only double distilled, which is, for the most part, a good thing. Very generally speaking, the more distillations, the higher alcohol proof, and the more flavor is stripped out of the product. So the designation of triple distillation is a strange one because it is simultaneously attracts novices and repels aficionados.  However. The speed and quality of the distillations is exponentially more important than their number, and Casa Noble’s three passes take the spirit only up to 57% or so, which is industry standard. They take three runs to get to where most people get in two.

(2) kosher:

The kosher rules for spirits are predictably silly but don’t dictate any big change in their methodology. I think they have something to do with the lunar cycle, but the “this is stupid” voice in my head actually drowned out Dave’s explanation, and I lost the salient details. What it really means is that production in the entire Cofradía distillery has to shut down and wait for rabbis to come poke around and give it their OK.

(3) organic:

Casa Noble began pursuing an organic certification about 10 years ago, and finally got it in 2009. They are one of only a few organic tequilas, and this is more significant than it may at first seem. They court USDA certification through the stringent California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization, which includes all the normal rules in addition to a tedious litany of their own (your fields must be >1km away from major highways, lest an errant inorganic seed fly off a truck and plant itself in your land, etc.). Why does this matter? Because of the care they are forced to take with their fields. When you can’t apply the hammer of modern biochemical science, you really need to look after your plants. The agaves are stressed and the yield is smaller, but Casa Noble believes this makes a more complex, dynamic spirit.

(4) certified green by the Mexican government

This doesn’t mean so much for flavor, but it gives an indication of where their priorities are: they have a modern water treatment plant on the grounds, so all the waste water from distillation, all the otherwise toxic fusel alcohols, and all the compost agave fibers get treated and returned safe to the land. Which is… you know… nice.

(5) aged in new French oak

Almost all tequila, when aged, is aged in used bourbon barrels, because the bourbon industry gluts the market. Bourbon, by law, must be aged in a brand new white oak barrel each and every time, which is wasteful on a uniquely American scale, but has a fringe benefit in that tequila, scotch, rum, and everyone else gets once-used barrels at absurdly low prices (think somewhere around $50, compared to somewhere around $1000 for new French oak). French “Limosin” oak is toasted instead of charred and has a tighter wood grain, and after time, this expresses itself through the tequila with flavors of bitter chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla. While I generally prefer the reposado of most brands, Casa Noble is one of the few tequilas I think, for the most part, gets better as it gets older.

The Process:

Agaves:

Casa Noble is all estate grown, from some 6500 acres hosting about a million plants. Their land is in Uzeta reigon of Nayarit, right on the border of Jalisco, and agaves are harvested between 10 and 14 years for peak ripeness, on the long side of standard (though possibly because of that no-chemical approach).

Baking & Crushing:

Cofradía keeps 5 brick ovens, where they steam-cook the agaves for about 36 hours to release all the juices. There’s a drain in the oven as well, so to not lose any of the precious “oven-honey” that sags out of the hearts when they’re cooked.

Piñas may keep the precious sugary nectar but they are still essentially wood, so they need to be crushed. Casa Noble has an unusual crusher, a long narrow 800rpm combination screw/spike – the agaves are broken apart with the screw, then fibers separated by the small narrow fan-like blades, which was designed to extract the juice without pulverizing the wood grains. Less overall violence means less methanol, which means less blindness.

Left to right, top to bottom: (1) the agave crusher, (2) fermentation tanks, (3) stills, (4) their combination barrel room/tequila church.

Fermentation & Distillation:

They keep eighteen 18,000L fermentation tanks, and like almost everyone else, they ferment using a proprietary yeast. It takes some five days before the low-alcohol agave brew shipped to the stills.

Cofradía has five total stills but only Casa Noble is only distilled in three passes – the first run through what they charmingly refer to as “the destroyers” gets the spirit up to somewhere around 25%, then the second pass and third pass on smaller stills, ultimately capping out around 57% ABV. Again, not only is it unusual for a tequila to be distilled three times, it’s unusual for a triple distilled product to only be distilled to 56% — usually people distill higher than that, as the whole idea is to further purify (read: remove flavor from) the spirit.

I’d be intensely interested to taste a twice-distilled Casa Noble, but we don’t get everything we want.

Aging & Tasting:

The blanco – they call it “Crystal,” because they know how to market as well as anyone – is unaged. There’s some vanilla, but most sweetness is distinctly baked agave sweetness. Mint and herbs (thyme?) and a stronger note of black pepper. It’s not very showy and my least favorite of the lot — a great (if expensive) mixing tequila, it’s certainly not bad, but I get the sense that it was built to be aged.

The reposado is aged 364 days, exactly one day short of it being a technical añejo, in some of their used barrels. The French oak influence sets itself apart here – you get bitter chocolate, baking cinnamon and faint vanilla notes to compliment the sweet baked agave flavor. The reposado is phenomenal.

The añejo sleeps two years in brand new French oak barrels, and is both sweeter and darker/richer than the reposado. Here, it’s bittersweet chocolate that shifts beneath firm oak presence. The wood mutes it a bit, turns the volume down: it coaxes more vegetal notes out of the agave. Bitter cinnamon. Not much left of the vanilla, but it’s there. Long chocolate finish.

The five-year añejo is a single barrel, extra aged gem. Mine was the barrel selected by Hi-Time liquors in Costa Mesa, and it’s utterly decadent. The bitter chocolate turns sweet, along with rich, buttery oak and vanilla flavors weaving in and out. Rich rich rich, like buttery 80 proof agave chocolate. Remarkable.

And bonus: Casa Noble Joven, *EDIT*: a blanco aged for a scant 8 weeks in French oak (thanks, Dave, for correcting me on this point): 51% ABV. The heat helps the overall intensity of flavor. Chocolate and earth. Grassy spice, mace and maybe nutmeg. Sensation is a very dry, herbal chocolate.

This was my second time visiting Casa Noble, and the hospitality they showed us I can only describe as legendary. Thank God they make such a good product. It would be very difficult to be unkind to them.

[cn] hospitality

Thanks again.

The Balvenie

I was recently invited to a four-course Balvenie tasting/dinner at Gabardine, in Point Loma. The big surprise of the night was the food, which, despite my cynical expectations, was completely delicious. I wasn’t as surprised by the scotch. I already knew the scotch was delicious.

Background

It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about scotch on this blog, which is disheartening as it means I haven’t been drinking nearly enough of it. I’d love to do a history and taxonomy of Scotch whiskey, but that’s not for now. For our immediate purposes, there are just a couple basic things you need to know —

While Scotland claims five scotch regions, many people (including me) think that insofar as regional differences are descriptive of flavor, there are really only two: coastal and inland.

Coastal: Islay, Jura, Orkney, Arran, Skye, Mull, and Campbeltown(ish).
Inland: Highland, Speyside, Lowland, and Campbeltown(ish).

If your scotch is coastal, it’s going to have more briny, salty, smoky, and/or peaty notes. If it’s inland, it’s going to be more smooth, rich sweetness.

Now, this is a grotesque oversimplification, but a momentarily useful one. Because what you need to know about The Balvenie is that it’s from Speyside (inland), and as such we know we can expect smooth & sweet, and use it as a launching point.

Also — though I’m sure you don’t give one single fuck about this — I have to make a couple very quick linguistic points:

  1. I’m told the definite article “The” in front of “The Balvenie” is important, but no one ever seems to say why and I feel like an idiot typing it, so I’m going to ignore it from now on. If anyone has an answer for me, I welcome corrections on this point (Lorne & Andrew, I’m looking at you…).
  2. I realize that in Scotland, whiskey is spelled “whisky.” I think this, too, is stupid and will always spell it with the “e,” because “whiskey” is a more attractive word. You’ll notice sometimes spirit writers will hedge their bets with “whisk(e)y,” which evokes Pascal’s wager and is equivocation of the worst sort. You have to stand for something in this world.

Balvenie — Grain to Bottle:

GRAIN:

Like all single malts, Balvenie uses 100% malted barley. Unlike almost any of the single malts anymore, Balvenie grows a healthy portion of their own malt on Balvenie Mains, the 1000 acre farm they’ve owned since the first drop of whiskey came off the stills on May 1, 1893.

MALTING & MASH:

To turn barley into malt (n.), you need to malt (v.) it, which is done by soaking it in water for a couple days and laying it out on the floor to sprout. This process produces the enzymes that converts the starches in the barley to fermentable sugars.

Almost all Scotch whiskey distilleries used to do this themselves, and have since outsourced it to massive commercial malting houses, but Balvenie is one of the very few who still do their own malting by a team of four malt men on a traditional malting floor (sorry). I’m told this DIY business isn’t all too much more expensive, though it is a pain in the ass. The reason they do it is to maintain complete control over their whiskey from grain to bottle, a level of control that one begins to notice they’re a bit anal about.

They want the barley to germinate, they don’t want it to actually turn into a plant. So when the moment’s exactly right, they stop the germination with heat via an enormous kiln, fueled by anthracite and a little bit of peat (if you’re ever wondering where the smoked peat quality of some scotches comes from, it’s this process).

FERMENTATION AND DISTILLATION:

The dried malt is now ground into a fine powder, cooked with spring water to make essentially a sugary barley soup, and then pumped to the fermenters with yeast to turn that soup into beer. Fermentation takes about three days and yields a brew somewhere around 8% ABV.

Like most single malts, Balvenie is twice distilled in copper pot stills. The law says they can distill it all the way up to 94.8% and still call it scotch, which is crazy and practically vodka at that point. Balvenie obviously doesn’t do that and only goes up to 70%, and is diluted to 63.5% before it goes into the barrel.

One thing that doesn’t really matter but is pretty cool is that they keep a dedicated coppersmith on staff to look after the stills. Copper is essential. It actually interacts with the distillate, precipitating some of the uglier compounds so they don’t get into the final product. That reaction, however, takes a tiny (like, molecular tiny) layer of the copper with it every run. A little part of the stills die with every distillation, donating themselves to the greater cause. Thus, coppersmith.

AGING:

Scotch is almost never aged in new casks (compared to bourbon, where all casks legally must be brand new… and yes, avid and curious reader, most bourbon distilleries ship forests of used barrels to Scotland). This means that it gets less oaky tannins from the wood, and more flavors from what the barrel was last used for.

But Balvenie doesn’t just trust anyone to make their barrels, oh no. Remember control? A team of seven coopers make all Balvenie’s barrels, making sure they all are exactly how they want them. Some are then sent to America to age bourbon, some to rum, some to sherry. Then they come back, age scotch, and finish the process.

And now, thank god, we finally get to drink.

Balvenie Single Malt Scotch:

Balvenie Doublewood 12:
Paired with an oyster, with green apple and mint foam.

Aged for 12 years in used bourbon casks, then between 3 and 9 months in used Sherry casks, this one is their entry-level whiskey. Some distilleries go the whole way in sherry casks and get a strong fruity, nutty character to them, but here it’s just a whisper. Balvenie is called the most honeyed of malts, and here’s why: strong honey, very light peat and fruit.

The Doublewood is a solid, entry level single malt, perfectly sweet and smooth. Maybe a bit too smooth. This is my only problem with it actually, that it’s well rounded but not stark… it doesn’t stake a claim, it’s just tasty, and as such I’m often surprised to find that I’ve finished my glass. That kind of problem. A great value for the money, good but not attention-drawingly so.

Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14:
Paired with 16-hour sous-vide beets, aerated goat cheese and pumpernickel “dirt” (a.k.a. crumbs).

This one is pretty cool, created as a permanent offering after the success of their amazing but limited 17-year rum cask. Unwilling to trust the rum people with their casks, Balvenie buys rum, brings it to Scotland, ages it in their own barrels for 9 months, then sells the rum back and BAM: rum casks.

It’s got rum flavors for sure, full of oak, vanilla, and spice to complement the signature honey sweetness. Caramel notes heavy on a long finish. Smooth as eggs, with a bit more complexity to help solve that hole-in-the-glass problem I had with the 12.

Balvenie Single Barrel 15:
Paired with short rib smoked with scotch-soaked applewood, and barley risotto.

As you may already know, every cask of whiskey is different, even if it’s the identical whiskey that goes into (seemingly) identical casks. It’s Chaos Theory’s contribution to the whiskey game: grains of wood, ambient temperature, air circulation and molecular structure are just a few of the endless amount of variables that simply cannot be controlled. So when you buy a single-barrel whiskey, you’re buying the Malt Master’s sensibilities: this guy literally just goes around tasting a bunch of barrels, and picks the ones he thinks are cool enough to sell as individuals.

The 15 was the stand-out of the night for me. Huge complexity, really fascinating: honey of course, but also heather, brown sugar, wood, leather, peat… great whiskey. At something like $70, it’s a steal.

Balvenie Portwood 21:
Paired with espresso and chocolate layer cake.

Finished in Port barrels, this was an excellent with the chocolate cake, the best pairing of the night. Goes wonderfully with delicate chocolate desserts. It is, in fact, an excellent whiskey, replete with honey, nutty flavors, getting a bit of dried fruit from the port casks. I remember it being silky and pungent, best opened with a couple drops of water.

This bottle retails at $200, and I’ll say these two things about that: (1) the Balvenie Portwood 21 is a profound whiskey, and (2) in my life, I have not yet found a bottle of inland single malt scotch that I’d pay $200 for. Take that for what you will.

BONUS!:

Probably the coolest pronunciation guide you’ll ever find. What would you do if you had a bunch of money, a huge reach, and a readership curious about the finer things?

Esquire, you’re doing it right:

Bellini

In this business you hear a lot of origin stories about classic cocktails, but rarely get to experience them. That is to say, you rarely get to (1) actually go to the room in which it was invented, and (2) get one that is as good if not better than it is anywhere else. But if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Venice and have that special mixture of historical reverence and financial irreverence, well, then you get to go to Harry’s Bar and drink a Bellini.

HARRY’S BAR

On Calle Vallaresso, a block west of the Piazza San Marco at the mouth of the Grand Canal sits Harry’s Bar, much as it has since the 1931. A small bit has changed since then — they’ve expanded upstairs, and international fame has driven their prices into the ionosphere — but such is, we’re told, the cost of history:

In the 1930s, Venice was a favorite destination of the cream of European society, and Harry’s Bar thrived under the hospitality of owner and barman Giuseppe Cipriani. It also didn’t hurt that its name attracted anglophiles, and was extremely — though coincidentally — similar to another world-famous bar of the time, the unconnected Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. But no matter: it had the staying power of quality, and was a favorite among rich locals and well-to-do tourists, then of visiting movie stars and other such celebrities. Once Hemingway chose it as his favorite spot in 1949, Harry’s officially became legendary. Which I guess is what makes it ok for them to charge €10 for eight ounces of Coca-Cola.

THE BELLINI

Sometime in the late 30s, Cipriani was stuck with a glut of seasonal white peaches and no good way to store them. After what must’ve been a whisper from the muses, he whipped up a puree and added it to some prosecco, and the world’s greatest sparkling wine cocktail was born. His drink, popular though it was, went unnamed for almost a decade. It wasn’t until 1948 when Cipriani christened it the Bellini, after he saw the drink’s pink hue echoed in a painting by the homonymous Renaissance artist.

From Harry’s own website:

When making a Bellini, everything (the glasses, Prosecco and white peach puree) should be as cold as possible. The general rule is to use one part white peach puree to three parts Prosecco. Use fresh frozen white peach puree when you can, but when making your own puree, never use a food processor because it aerates the fruit. (Maurice Graham Henry often uses a cheese shredder, shredding the peaches and using a strainer to collect the maximum amount of juice.) Add a bit of sugar or some simple syrup if the puree is too tart or a tad sour.

Bellini
6oz Prosecco
2oz White peach puree
Mix together in separate mixing tin or glass, stir with a spoon; then pour into flute, wine glass, or really whatever you’d like [coffee mug, dog bowl, etc.]. Serve without garnish.

Though each 7oz glass cost $21 (seriously), this is without doubt the best Bellini I’ve ever had. I find Mimosas boring and best prefixed with “endless,” but a Bellini is a elegant, classic drink. Gary Regan calls it “perhaps the most sophisticated Italian drink,” and while I don’t agree at all (against the Negroni? Is he kidding?), it is incredibly good. Bright, full, and harmonious. I sometimes find sparkling wine cocktails to be too thin and effervescent, but the 3:1 prosecco/puree mix hits perfectly.

A note on ingredients: don’t use champagne, get the prosecco. It’s a bit sweeter, which helps, and besides — this is a very Italian drink. If you live in a submarine or something and can’t get prosecco, then use a sweeter champagne than brut, something sec or demi-sec.

Oh, and never use yellow peaches. A pox on you if you use yellow peaches. They’re nowhere near as good.

The Bourbon Trail (6 of 6): Heaven Hill

Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.

The Facts:

Distillery: Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.
Location: Louisville, Kentucky and Bardstown, Kentucky
Owned By:  Privately owned by the Shapira Family.
Major Products produced: Elijah Craig; Evan Williams; Rittenhouse Rye; Bernheim; Parker’s Heritage; Fighting Cock; Old Fitzgerald; Henry McKenna
Origin: Since 1935

The Tour:

Everybody’s owned by somebody. For all their talk about heritage and old bricks and father’s fathers, pretty much every major bourbon distillery is now owned by some massive, international corporation: Wild Turkey by the Italian Gruppo Campari, Buffalo Trace and 1792 Barton by Louisiana’s Sazerac, Four Roses by Kirin in Japan, etc., etc. So when I was doing research on Heaven Hill and found that they are “America’s Largest Independent Family Owned and Operated Distilled Spirits Company,” I was excited to see how that might change the experience.

Heaven Hill are also the only people who offer an in-depth tour to the general public, a $25, 3 hour “behind the scenes” experience. As someone who flew to Kentucky for semi-professional reasons, I was sincerely excited about this as well. Three hours! Family owned! We built the whole day around our Heaven Hill appointment, as I assumed it would be the most interesting, the most hands-on and educational.

As it turns out, it was none of those things. Which I’ll explain, but first, a quick aside about the alcohol business: warehouses can hold about 20,000 53 gallon barrels, which due to evaporation have various levels of fullness. But even if the warehouses were only half full of barrels, and each barrel was only half full of spirit, that’s still 2.5 million pounds of insanely flammable liquid. Fires happen. And when they do, they’re not minor.

So while Heaven Hill is based in Bardstown, KY, it has been fermented and distilled in Louisville since 1996, ever since their Bardstown Plant was ravaged by fire and burned to the ground.

What does that mean for your average bourbon tourist? It means that if you do a three-hour tour, you get a three-hour tour of a dumping & bottling plant. We learned almost nothing about bourbon; instead, we learned about the bourbon industry, the nuts and bolts of how such a massive production can be achieved, which is interesting in the way that patent law is interesting. It is conceptually interesting.

Actually immersing oneself in it for several hours, however, is a slightly different story.

MASH, FERMENTATION, and DISTILLATION

We were told that they use 78% corn and 11% each of rye and barley, but it may be 75/10/15 according to a strange little case off the factory floor (pictured above). I know it’s fermented in stainless steel, then it’s distilled via column to 138 proof before being trucked to Bardstown for barreling. And that is everything I know about production.

AGING:

It may be “family owned,” but it’s not like the tour goes through someone’s kitchen. Heaven Hill is, in fact, the biggest distillery of the six we saw, and the second biggest in the state. They have a standing inventory of some 800,000 barrels and are distilling about 15 million gallons each year (or about 280,000 new barrels), which they keep in 49 aging warehouses that stand like monuments out on the open plains.

Notice how far apart they are? This is because fire is contagious.

BARRELING:

This was one cool thing we didn’t see anywhere else: how exactly does the whiskey get into barrel? Behold:

A giant series of tubes sucks the new spirit out of its holding tanks and impregnates the charred oak barrels with it, and then another machine taps the cork — or “bung” (seriously) — securely in. They filled 283,000 barrels in this manner last year, which is a whole lot of barrels. If these machines had been running 24 hours a day (they’re not), that would be more than one barrel every two minutes, nonstop for a year. Which, again, is a whole lot of barrels.

These giant tubes are a relatively new system — apparently, this room used to employ eight people, and the new machines have cut that to three. Our tour guide seemed strangely proud of this fact.

TESTING:

With such an expansive stock, they need to make sure nothing goes wrong. So they have a full-time laboratory on-site, where every single batch gets tested. Each batch (truck-full of barrels) is about 8000-9000 gallons, and before bottled, each one is rigorously tested for proof, chemical levels, etc. They answer directly to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB), which as it turns out is the ATF’s successor. The ATF doesn’t exist anymore. No more ATF. Huh.

LABELS:

We were taken to a  room the size of a high-school gymnasium and shown the label binders, where they keep master copies of every label for every size of every bottle they make. All 1400 of them. The actual labels to be fed into the hungry machines are stacked 15 feet high on row after row of industrial shelving.

The label room is representative of the larger tour for three main reasons: (1) it had nothing whatsoever to do with what’s inside the bottle, (2) it’s a side of the whole business that we didn’t see anywhere else, and (3) it was oppressively fucking dull.

BOTTLING PLANT:

Their bottling operation is truly enormous. There is an entire capacious warehouse where they just make and store nips, the little 50ml airplane bottles. They were churning out pink-limonade flavored vodka ones while we were there. There are a series of 25-foot tall hydraulic claws to stack pallets, in a room designated just to deal with empty bottles waiting to be filled. On the belts, they’ve got high-speed digital cameras which quality-check the bottles for fullness, label straightness, etc, that can scan 400 bottles per minute for 12 different quality points, automatically discarding flawed ones. It is loud and busy and hopelessly complex, thousands of things going in all different directions of 3-dimensional space, and going there very quickly.

The overall impression is of an operation so big, no one could possibly know everything about it. We never did get to find out of that was true, because after more than an hour of our guide pointing proudly at machinery, it was time for a drink.

TASTING:

We tried two single barrel offerings, The Evan Williams 12 and the Elijah Craig 18. I will say this about Heaven Hill: for all their size and relative tedium, they can make a good whiskey.

  • The Evan Williams 12-year was recently inducted as one of now eight total spirits in F. Paul Pecault’s “Hall of Fame,” which is a not-insignificant honor. It is delicious — bright and almost fruity, very full bodied with oak and age mixing perfectly, and at $25 is a hell of a deal.
  • The Elijah Craig is a bit less complex, but it’s gift is age: there’s something distinctly inimitable about long-aged bourbon. It gets a full richness to the oak that can’t be simulated by aging in smaller barrels or under more extreme conditions, and the Elijah Craig 18 hits that note hard. That’s more or less all there is to it, actually… which is an overstatement, but not a big one. It’s been recently discontinued but is still around, and at $40/bottle, it’s the cheapest fix for lovers of old whiskey.
  • Rittenhouse Rye: we didn’t taste the Rittenhouse that day, but this is the only other product out of Heaven Hill that I have extensive experience with, and note it here because it is noteworthy. Rittenhouse is 100 proof, big and spicy, and at $20 is a steal. I personally don’t like to sip it, but it’s my go-to for Manhattans, even compared to bottles three times its price. A marvelous cocktail rye.

The Bourbon Trail (5 of 6): Maker’s Mark

Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.

The Facts:

Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Location: Loretto, Kentucky
Owned By: Beam, Inc. (formerly Fortune Brands), since 2005
Major Products produced: Maker’s Mark; Maker’s 46.
Origin: Since 1954

The Tour:

The Maker’s Mark distillery sits in Loretto, Kentucky, a town generously described as “remote,” which means that there’s a 30-minute layer of Nothing insulating it on every direction. While Bardstown and Frankfort aren’t exactly cosmopolitan, one could at least find, say, a cup of coffee at noon on a Wednesday.  Not so much in Loretto, population 662. Loretto’s the kind of place you have to pack for.

All the same, Maker’s Mark is a tremendously popular destination, and practically a necessity for anyone on a serious bourbon pilgrimage. I don’t have any special fondness for their bourbon, but we decided early that we had to go, for two reasons: (1) they have been singularly successful in carving out a status as a “premium” spirit, and it’s equally interesting and informative to see how they represent themselves, and (2) it’s big, and people call for it, and as a professional I want to know how it’s made.

On paper, they draw a number of comparisons with Woodford Reserve. Both put out essentially one product (both with one barrel finished product newly debuted), both ferment in cypress wood tanks instead of stainless steel, both are relatively small and yet both are owned by titanic corporations. Both have a similar price point and are direct competitors with one another. And yet everything about them, from the tour to the bourbon itself, couldn’t be more different. While Woodford keeps the cold sterility of a museum, Maker’s Mark affects a manufactured charm, a bit gaudy in it’s quaintness, and as such reminds one of some kind of Bourbon Disneyland.

That being said, the tour was one of the best we had, in part because we had a kickass tour guide, and in part because as it turns out, Maker’s Mark isn’t just a pretty face. While it may not be my personal taste, no one could say it’s not well made. If for no other reason, I’m glad I went because I left considerably more impressed with their product than I was when I arrived.

MASH:

Maker’s is a “wheated” bourbon. To explain: pretty much all bourbon will have 3 grains — corn, a bit of malted barley, and a third, “flavoring” grain. Most distillers will use rye for its drying spice, but a few (W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, the whole Van Winkle line, and Maker’s Mark) use the smoother, sweeter wheat, yielding a smoother, sweeter product. Personally, I feel like the lack of spice makes Maker’s Mark a bit flat, but for people who think that smoothness equals quality (and have only had Jim Beam), it must taste like deliverance.

In any event, the good people at Maker’s Mark are more than happy to tell you their mashbill: 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, 14% barley. While most distilleries grind these into a fine powder with a hammer mill, Maker’s uses something called a roller mill, which grinds to a coarser grain, the type usually used by breweries rather than distilleries. This is more difficult to extract the sugars, but they believe not pulverizing the grain yields a smoother product.

They cook the corn at boiling temperatures, then lower the heat to 160° and add the wheat, then lower again to 150° before adding the barley. All told, cooking takes about 3 hours before it’s shipped off to the fermentation tanks.

FERMENTATION:

They ferment their thick cereal mash to 10% ABV over about 3 days. They too roll with a handsome set of six cypress wood tanks, cypress used for its inert, water resistant grains. These tanks are relatively small, about 9600 gallons — again surprising me by actually earning the “artisan” title their marketing department tries so hard to claim.

In close detail, not only does it look like a living cerebal cortex (which is awesome), but you can actually see the coarse grains percolating in the foam. Obviously you can’t tell in still frame, but the surface is constantly teeming and crawling while the yeast works its beautiful magic.

DISTILLATION:

Pretty much everything happens under one smallish roof, and the distillation room doubles as the foyer of what feels like a gilded bourbon cabin. From their 10% distiller’s beer, they first pump it through a copper column still up to 120 proof, then into a pot “doubler”  still to 130 proof, which is, in terms of proof, on the medium-low side. To their credit, they don’t distill as high as they are legally allowed (159 proof), missing an opportunity for smoothness but keeping more flavor instead.

Lower left, the maker’s mark of Maker’s Mark: S for Samuels, the last name of the founder Bill Samuels Sr., and IV for being the 4th generation to distill whiskey.

Their spirit safe (where the whiskey is held) is a couple of large copper tubs. They’ll get about 1000 gallons of alcohol out of each fermentation tank, which they water down to 110 proof (also lower than the legal maximum of 125, for reasons that were never explained) and rolled into the aging warehouses.

AGING:

We were hungry, and didn’t care to see our 5th aging warehouse in something like 28 hours, mostly because they all look exactly the same. They have 26 warehouses. Enough said.

To not be robbed of the chance to genuflect at wooden circles, we were shown to a barrel full of staves (below), in order to illustrate the story of Maker’s 46. Both products, apparently, start exactly the same. Both are aged in a heavily charred barrel (#3 char) for at least 5 years and 9 months, at which point they’re tasted for the first time. The late bloomers might need as long as 9 years, and if a whiskey is aging too slowly, or too quickly for that matter, they’ll shuffle barrels around on different floors, a process that happens once every three years. Once it’s ready — if it’s going to be Maker’s Mark — that’s it. It’s batched and bottled.

Maker’s 46 takes a slightly more circuitous path to bottle. The mature whiskey is kept in the barrel, to which are added are 10 barrel staves of new, seared French oak.  It gets an extra 2.5 to 3 months of what’s called “finishing” like this before bottling.

As for the name. It does not, as I had previously believed, refer to the alcohol percentage, as Maker’s 46 is actually 47% alcohol. The number 46 refers to the 46th page of the experiment notebook, where they finally figured out how to get the flavor they were after. A ha.

BOTTLING:

The bottling line is like a relief sculpture: one long, linear process with a worn groove on the floor denoting the path for their 100,000 yearly visitors. It’s mostly women on the line, with the expressionless efficiency of workers who’ve long ago accepted that getting photographed by total strangers, once an hour, every single fucking day, is just another annoying thing about their job.

As for the famous wax, every bottle really is hand dipped. They dip, then twist, then put back on the line as the wax drips down. The bottles are then immediately conveyed just past dipper #2, out of frame left, into a little enclosure that looks like an expensive doll house, a cooling hut where the wax solidifies. I have no excuse for missing a picture of this. Forgive me.

EDIT 8/8/12: The talented Alex Scott just did the tour and sent me a picture of the cooling hut. Thanks!:

OVERALL:

Like I said, Maker’s Mark has never been my taste. I’m not against wheated bourbons, it’s just something about Maker’s in particular that tastes flat to me. Its got spice on the nose but the taste is sweet smoothness, a hint of caramel and butterscotch, and not a terribly long finish.

I was however pleasantly surprised by the Maker’s 46; it’s their first new product in 50 years and you can tell why they chose it. Apparently, Rob Samuels had an idea of how he wanted his new product to go, and tried a bunch of things until it hit. The barrel staves introduce much more spice and color; the nose is all butterscotch and that’s confirmed in taste along with some of that missing spice and some interesting heat before moving back into that familiar sweetness. More oak means more spice but also more sweetness, and it does risk being too sweet… but all the same, I’d take Maker’s 46 over Maker’s Mark 9 times out of 10.

The Bourbon Trail (4 of 6): Barton 1792

Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.

The Facts:

Distillery: Barton 1792
Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Owned By: Sazerac, since 2009
Major Products produced: Very Old Barton; 1792 Ridgemont Reserve
Origin: Since 1879; current factory rebuilt in 1946; rechristened Barton 1792 in 2009.

The Tour:

Our loose itenerary called for three distilleries per day. This seems modest in theory, but is actually a bit manic in practice considering  that (1) most only run tours on the hour, (2) they keep the hours of a credit union, and (3) that these places are spread thin across the sprawling Kentucky farmscape. Our second day was to begin at the Barton 1792 distillery in Bardstown, and penciled in next to the schedule is a note: “motivation permitting.”

This shrug is exactly how I felt about Barton 1792 going in. Their products aren’t particularly celebrated or even carried by many. I know Very Old Barton is a bourbon and I remember I think once trying the 1792, but I personally had little experience or connection with anything they do. We ended up going because of this last point — the less I know going in, the more likely that I’ll learn something. This proved true in an unexpected way: the tour itself was fairly useless, but as it turns out, the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve bourbon is pretty damn good.

The useless of the tour wasn’t our guide’s fault, not that he really helped at all. Most distilleries shut down for about two months in the summer, when temperatures get too hot for efficient fermentation. Sazerac bought the distillery in 2009 — “for our warehouse space,” our tour guide grumbled — and the suits down in New Orleans decreed that they would shut down for the summer a bit early. Which apparently, this year, meant late March.

So by the time we got there, they had already been shut down for two weeks. No sights, no smells, everything dark and gray, our footsteps echoing in places where just last month we’d have to shout to be heard. And it was rainy and overcast and generally unpleasant, a sensation enhanced by the bitterness of our tour guide, who spoke of Sazerac a little like the way Ukrainians speak of Stalin. All the same, we did learn how the bourbon is made, and after tasting it, that information became dramatically more interesting.

MASH:

Like the others, they wouldn’t tell us the mashbill. He did say, however, that they’ll go through about 300,000 lbs of corn, 70,000 of rye and 30,000 of barley (in proportion is 75% corn, 17.5% rye, and 7.5% barley) which makes sense: 17.5% is a relatively high percentage of rye, which comes through in the taste.

But they also cook it differently; after milling (up to 400lbs/minute in hammer mills), most people cook the corn first and for longer, but Barton 1792 cook the rye and corn together, at 200° for about 9 minutes, before bringing it down to 186° and adding the barley malt. This means that there’s no special emphasis on the corn sugars, and where one would usually get a chord of caramel and corn flavors in the front palate, 1792 is tempered at the gate by the rye.

Also interesting is that while most people add the sour mash to the fermenters, the Barton folks add a whole bunch of it (up to 20%, or roughly 10x more than Buffalo Trace) to the mash as it cooks. In addition to catalyzing fermentation and ensuring regularity, the sour mash ensures against too much sweetness, and part of 1792’s intriguing character comes from this decision.

FERMENTATION:

At their peak, the’ll run all 18 of their 50,000 gallon stainless steel fermenters/week. It’s a 3-5 day fermentation up to about 9 or 10%.

I have nothing else for this; we didn’t see them, because they’re currently big empty drums.

DISTILLATION:

Their column still is 6′ around and 50′ tall, steel lined with copper. Of the 50,000 gallons of distiller’s beer, they’ll get about 10,000g of proof whiskey, which they double distill to a pot-ish still that everyone down there calls a “doubler” up to 135 proof, before watering down to 125 and putting into barrel.

AGING:

They keep 28 aging warehouses, holding 20,000 barrels each for more than 460,000 barrel capacity. Which is, if you’re wondering about relative size, a fuckload of barrels, as they’re the 3rd largest producer of bourbon whiskey in the state.

All bourbon barrels have to be new, charred oak, but the level of char is up to the distiller. Light to heavy is ranked from 0-4, which all seems a little abstract but for the helpful display case in the warehouse (right).  Barton’s new oak barrels get a 3.5 (or very heavy) char, before getting filled and sent to the warehouses for detention. The 1792 Ridgemont Reserve will stay in warehouse Z (their best warehouse, or so they say) for at least 8 years before being small batched with maybe 100 other barrels, then bottled at 93.7 proof.

Note: see the string hanging between the beams in the upper left picture? It’s to make sure the building doesn’t fall down. A full barrel is about 500lbs, so these old wooden buildings have to support up to 10 million pounds of cargo. These weighted strings are the canaries in the coal mine, placed strategically to show warehouse managers if the building is tilting too much to one side.

OVERALL:

The distillery itself is large and engaging. They run their own coal-fired power plant on site, and all the buildings are a unadorned dark red brick, evoking the late-40s, postwar determination to quit messing around and get back to work. They make bourbon there, but run a massive bottling plant of more than 300 different brands, with modern conveyor belts whipping a galaxy of fifth-tier labels I’ve never heard of into bottles into cases into pallets.

It’s an often-overlooked distillery and is worth the stop, though I’d highly recommend going when they’re in production. It’s the only distillery we visited that wasn’t making bourbon at the time, and I can’t help but wonder how much more we would’ve gotten out of it.

TASTING:

The 1792 Ridgemont Reserve has all the trappings of a gimmick. 1792 is the year Kentucky became a state, and predates any distilling on that site by almost 90 years. Additionally, it was originally 1792 Ridgeford Reserve, but they were sued by Woodford Reserve, and not without cause. It’s like how Captain Morgan’s Rum gets popular, then all of a sudden pops up a low class rival called Admiral Nelson – we’ve been trained as consumers to appraise these posers as low-rent horseshit and move on, so imagine my surprise when tasting 1792 Ridgemont Reserve to find that it was delicious.

The nose is incredible, full oak and very balanced rye. Drinking leads to slight burn, oak, and a mighty rye note that persists throughout the entire experience, with an extremely dry finish and lingering cinnamon and woody notes. It’s not the best bourbon I’ve ever had, but it’s a solid entry (particularly for the price) and has earned a semi-permanent place on my shelves.