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Vieux Carré

January 22, 2014

The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:

“May I offer you a drink, sir?”

[vc] through the sun

That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex,  it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be really, really damn good.

The Story:

As with so many grand Manhattan variations, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré”means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937 — one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition — conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.

Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everything on it literally circles bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of  1 revolution per 15 minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t — in his time it was called the Swan Bar,  and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.

This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Them Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got French cognac and liqueur, rye floated down the Mississippi, and the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink, there’s really only one place it could come from.

[vc] glamour shot

Vieux Carré
1oz Rye whiskey
1oz Cognac
1oz Sweet Vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir for 30 solid seconds (if using Kold Draft, 45 seconds). Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.

Ingredient Notes:

Rye: should be big and spicy. I find Rittenhouse 100 proof does the trick perfectly. Many insist on Sazerac Rye just to hammer in the New Orleans connection (despite the fact that the Louisiana-owned Sazerac Rye has been made in Kentucky for its entire existence), which works great if you can find it. Steer clear of bottles that are too soft or low proof. 45% minimum.

Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye.

Vermouth: I prefer Carpano Antica, because not much else can stand up to the rest of the ingredients while maintaining the complexity we’re looking for.

[vc] grid

Variations:

There’s some reasonable dissent on the sweetness (some say more Bénédictine, which is crazy; many say less, which is not), and whether or not to use a lemon peel (personal choice, though I think it’s begging for it), but I think the most fertile disagreement is whether to make this drink on ice or up.

This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on ice. It was definitely conceived that way, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect.

But it’s not how I like it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 30-45 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.

[vc] shot

The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity— a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness — begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus.

It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?

Trivia!: the Hotel Monteleone apparently offers publications the “official” recipe, which should never be followed by anyone. I’ve found two very similar, equally gross sounding versions:

A la The Georgetowner:                              A la Saveur
0.5oz rye                                                                 0.5oz rye
0.25oz cognac                                                      0.5oz cognac
0.25oz sweet vermouth                                    0.5oz sweet vermouth
0.25oz Bénédictine                                            0.5oz Bénédictine
3 drops Angostura bitters                               dash Angostura
3 drops Peychaud’s bitters                             dash Peychaud’s
Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.                 Build in rocks glass. Lemon peel.
Served, ostensibly, in a thimble.                  Served alongside a shot of insulin.

Syrups, Part 1: Herbs

January 6, 2014
tags: , ,

“What’s your recipe for mint syrup?”

I was asked this the other day, and was embarrassed to realize that I had a passable recipe but never really examined it. This is to say, I knew it was a fine way to infuse mint into sugar, but I didn’t know if it was the ideal way. Which is, I admit, inexcusably lazy.

There are 100 different ways to make an mint syrup — literally any combination of water, sugar, and mint will make one — but the question lingered, because we cocktail people tend get particular about this kind of thing. How can I make it best?

All that follows is a piacular and demonstrative answer to that question.

TL;DR: if you’ve got things to do and just want to know the answer, scroll down or click here.

Herbs

Herb-infused simple syrup is a clean, easy, consistent way to add flavor to otherwise straightforward drinks, particularly when using fresh herbs are inconvenient or otherwise unavailable. If I’m making one mojito, I use mint. If I’m making 100 mojitos, mint syrup starts to look a little better.

With  any syrup, the first thing we do is ask a couple fundamental questions, as herbs need to be treated differently than strawberries or limes or nutmeg:

  1. What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
  2. What is our solvent?
  3. What is our method?

With herbs, what we want are the bright, fragrant oils. Oil transfer won’t happen much in plain water, because they’re non-soluble… you need a solvent, like oil, salt, sugar, or alcohol. What’s more, you probably want some amount of heat to catalyze the exchange, while keeping in mind that the oils are very delicate and should be treated  as such.

For the trails, I used mint because (1) it’s delicious, and (2) it’s delicate enough that the conclusions here can be applied to basil or lemongrass or pretty much anything else.

Let me save you the Google work and tell you the internet is, predictably, all over the place. Some, like Epicurious,  say to muddle the mint in sugar, let the sugar draw out the oil, then add water and dissolve (as with the oleo saccharum). Others, like The Hungry Mouse, say to bring the simple syrup to a boil, remove it from heat, and steep the mint as you would tea. Still others say to cook the mint, sugar, and water all together: see Chow, a different Epicurious recipe, About.com, the Wannabe Chef, the Shiksa, and many more.

So, as with all such situations, the only thing left to do is make one.

Which one?

Everyone Gif

The Experiments

3oz sugar
3oz water
3g mint (10-12 leaves or so)

I ruled out the obvious bad ideas (the “put the ingredients in a bowl and walk away” theory, etc) and made the three most promising syrups:

  1. Muddled: muddled mint in sugar, waited 30min for the naturally oleophilic sugar to leech the oils, then added water, dissolved sugar, and strained solids. No heat.
  2. Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
  3. Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.

[syrups1] procedure

The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.

[syrups1] cooling

Results:

(1) Muddled:

Color is Pale yellow/white, like hay, or sunbleached stone. Nose is faint… a bit too faint, but nice bright mint. A little vegetal. Maybe sat too long on the sugar. Light on the midpalate, with a nice clean minty finish.

This had been my method of choice. Until now, anyway. It’s nice and bright, but not too much flavor. It’s also extremely easy to let it sit too long, at which point the mint begins to smell like mulch.

(2) Boiled:

Color is deep, full yellow, more toward apple juice. Not much of a nose, strangely. Boiled off the aromatics? When tasted, it is as suspected: it’s loud but not bright, with more plant bitterness — there’s only one note, and that’s cooked mint.

Much more extraction here, obviously. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better. One of the chief delights of herbs is their brightness, and this more or less takes that all away.

(3) Steeped:

Color is yellow with light green tints, like medium-strength green tea. Nose is much stronger than the other two — as with the others, there’s still some slight vegetal notes, but it has a much brighter mint flavor than the boiled one and much louder than the muddled one.

Baby bear’s porridge: halfway between not enough and too much. This is both bright and loud. The best and most flavorful syrup, by far.

Verification:

Confirmation/drinking  time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.

Southside
2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.

[syrups1] taste tests

  1. Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
  2. Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
  3. Steeped: The best. By far. Bright mint nose. Mint shows up mid to late palate, almost like a wintergreen sensation. Vegetal-flavors still come through a little, but the overwhelming impression is of fresh, bright, mint.

Conclusions:

Steep the mint.

Herbs are fragile. Heat changes them. So we want to use a small amount of heat to catalyze the oil exchange but not enough to significantly alter the flavor.

How to make the best possible mint syrup: bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat, allow 15-30 seconds for the temperature to come down, then stir in  lots of mint — more than you’d think, about 20-30 leaves/cup, as quantity has a lot to do with volume of the flavor. Cover immediately, and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, strain out solids, bottle, and refrigerate.

Bonus Truth:

Hidden door #4: a Southside with regular simple syrup and actual fresh mint.

The best. Obviously. This brings a brightness that the syrups can’t touch. Front, mid, finish… all mint. Plays a role in all of it. The best by a landslide. So, the conclusion, so clear it could be seen from space: when possible, use fresh mint.

Post Script:

Hey bartender friends! Lemonade aficionados! Syrup junkies! Do you have a better way? Does your mint syrup make my mint syrup look like a little bitch? Leave a comment and tell me about it. Like I said, I want best.

Fernet Branca

August 20, 2013

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.

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

May 10, 2013

“Numerous early-20th century cocktails, none more pleasant to sip than this drink, were named after flowers.”

— Jim Meehan, PDT Cocktail Book

There are more complex cocktails than the Chrysanthemum, there are more inventive drinks and more refreshing drinks, but I can’t think of anything more unrelentingly pleasant than this bizarre little sipping cocktail from 1916.

History:

In bars, the Chrysanthemum is semi-known: ask for one, and you’ll see your bartender try to summon it from a dim echo of memory. Even if he or she knew the recipe at one point, they’re rarely made and never ordered. On the internet, however, seemingly every cocktail blog that has ever existed in the world has written about it in one way or another.

[c] google screenshot

Usually when I see this kind of wall-to-wall, Kardashian-grade coverage of a topic, I just move on. But here’s the thing: I can’t stop telling people about this drink. It’s that fucking good.

It’s sometimes erroneously credited to Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Craddock’s book does include the recipe, but he adapted it from Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks, published some 14 years earlier in New York City. Ensslin, a German immigrant, was head bartender at the Wallick Hotel at the southwest corner of Broadway and 43rd St (an intersection now more or less engulfed by the neon madness of Times Square), and he self-published his cocktail book and sold copies out of his modest home, in what is now Harlem. He wasn’t the celebrity Craddock was, but his talent, told through his drinks, was monumental.

The Chrysanthemum is unusual in that it doesn’t contain any traditional liquor base at all. It’s chiefly dry vermouth, spiced and warmed with the 80 proof liqueur Bénédictine, and spiked with a dash of absinthe. 

Chrysanthemum Cocktail

2oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir over ice for some 20-30 seconds. Serve up, garnished with an orange peel.

[c] glamour shot

The vermouth is a very light spiced wine, whose botanicals stretch and showcase and diffuse the much more pungent Bénédictine very well. We get all of Bénédictine’s warm spice, the cinnamon, saffron, honey and nutmeg, combining with the vermouth to give a curious and alluring bready note. The absinthe spikes up and adds complexity, culminating in a delicate, elegant, beautiful drink.

[c] bottles

Variations:

The only problem with this drink is that it’s a little bit sweet, on par, as Erik at Savoy Stomp points out, with a glass of apple juice. With the sweetness and the absinthe, I’ve had more than one person compare it favorably to a Good & Plenty. It’s not so sweet to be a problem for everyone, but it’s a valid critique. And that’s already toned down: in Ensslin’s 1916 original, it was equal parts (!) Bénédictine and dry vermouth. Craddock improved it in 1930 by making it 2:1, but he still says to shake it, which absolutely no one should ever do. Nonetheless, his 2:1 with a few heavy dashes (~1/8th oz) of absinthe is most-quoted recipe.

If the sweetness is an issue, it might seem obvious to reduce the amount of Bénédictine, but this is a mistake. Bénédictine is the backbone of this drink, and bringing it down to even 0.75oz gives you a watery, effete cocktail. In Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, he lists it as 2oz dry vermouth and 0.75oz Bénédictine, but he comes with a full 0.25oz absinthe. This does succeed in bringing down the sweetness while keeping the overall force of the drink, but for me, the absinthe chases away much of the delicacy.

[c] from the topIf sweetness is a problem for you, my favorite mitigation is to tune up the vermouth a little. My submission:

Chrysanthemum Cocktail (Dry)
2.5oz dry vermouth
1oz Bénédictine
2 or 3 dashes (<0.2oz, about 1tsp) of absinthe
Stir. Up. Orange peel.

It’s worth your time, any way you take it. Cheers.

Tax Stamp Bourbon Tasting

April 17, 2013

** Disclaimer: more whiskey nerd stuff.**

If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself in the whiskey aisle gazing somewhat disdainfully down at the bottom shelf. They’re all labels you’ve seen before – dirt cheap with comically dated graphics, all their names “Old This” or “Ancient That” or “Ye Olde Grandpap’s Straight Old Fashioned Style Very-Old Bourbon.” And if you, like me, wonder why these fiery dinosaurs continue to exist… well, turns out, some of them used to be pretty fucking good.

Southern California Whiskey Club:

Last week, Chris Uhde of the excellent Southern California Whiskey Club made stop down in San Diego to offer us a slice of whiskey fanaticism. Chris is a 7th degree black belt in Liquor Store Archaeology  and makes a hobby of unearthing forgotten, dusty bottles hidden behind armies of Hiram Walker sugar-syrup on crusty aluminum shelves. His ability to host tastings like this one stems exclusively from this ability – he finds them, buys them, and then shares them with us.

Tax Stamps were proof of taxes paid, a thin whitish strip over the cap of bourbon (doubling as a tamper-proof seal), and were federally mandated until 1985. So generally speaking, “Tax Stamp bourbons” are bourbons bottled at least 27 years ago. Whiskey isn’t like wine – it doesn’t change once it’s in the bottle. So these tastings are both rare and valuable, because these bottles are essentially time capsules. How does our bourbon today compare to what they were drinking 30 or 40 years ago?

The Tasting:

I’ll present them as we had them, in pairs of two. The reason for this is because I believe it’s extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to taste things out of context. What something has next to it will greatly inform how that thing tastes, and while one should continue to aspire to objective tasting, I’m not sure it’s possible.

This is also why I’ll occasionally use terms like “tastes like ass.” I find them descriptive.

First Round: Antique (1970s) vs. Yellowstone (1976)

Antique came from the Athertonville distillery, closed in 1980, and seems to have been a pretty good product. Yellowstone was a fantastically popular bourbon in the 60s and 70s, from the Glenmore distillery, which closed in 1991. They continue to produce it at Heaven Hill, but no one cares.

1. Antique 6-year – 80 proof – from 1970s

Nose is heavy caramel and molasses, indicative of a corn-heavy mashbill. Palate confirms: there’s a graininess, a kind of hay-ish grain, and a strong note of maple. Add a few drops of water and the graininess more or less goes away, replaced with a harder maple note, which now evokes French toast and butterscotch.

This is surprisingly good. I like the heavy hitting sweet notes. Long maple finishes are pleasant.

2. Yellowstone 4 year – 86 proof – from 1976

Softer than the Antique, despite higher proof and younger age. A bit fruity with sweet spice. More maple notes, but again, softer. Delicate for such a young product.

Interesting. I can see why this was Kentucky’s best selling bourbon in the 1960s. It’s not terribly mature or complex, but it is hazardously drinkable.

Second Round: Old Crow (1976-1978) vs. Old Crow (2013)

The Old Crow is an interesting story: Old Crow was, at one time, the best selling bourbon in the United States. Something happened in the 60s to alter the recipe – no one really talks about it, but the rumors point to a production mistake that money-hungry owners never cared to fix – and the brand, while still a competitor to Jim Beam, never recovered. So when National Brands unloaded Old Crow in 1987, Jim Beam bought it, and set about to more or less ruin it so Beam would look better by comparison. It is now their bottom shelf, essentially a 3-year old Jim Beam.

3. Old Crow – 80 proof – from 1976-1978

There’s a hot corn punch to the nose, whose volume is turned a little down to on the palate, but not that much. Thick mouthfeel, gives a corn blast on the palate. Like a less-good Buffalo Trace. A few drops of water lead to harder caramel notes but it’s still very dry. Textured and bitter.

This is no prize or anything, but it’s way better than the shit they’re bottling now.

4. Old Crow 3 year – 80 proof – from 2013

Big ugly rye graininess. “A slice of ass,” our table mate posited. A little fruity, a little minty. Raw oak. Young. Hot. This tastes like what it is: a bourbon not good enough to call itself “Jim Beam.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve worse had bourbon than this, but it’s hard to remember when.

Third Round: Old Taylor (1982-1984) vs. Old Taylor (1977)

Old Taylor was sold in 1972 to Jim Beam, who didn’t exactly shit on it the way they did Old Crow, but who turned it into a Beam product. But, it was then, as now, a six-year old bourbon, so bottled in 1977, it would’ve still been Old Taylor distillery juice.

*** EDIT – 5/7/16: Some very informed stranger corrected me in the comments: Old Taylor was distilled at the National Distiller’s Castle Distillery until 1972, at which point the distillery was shuttered (too much fine bourbon, not enough people drinking it. Imagine that.) From here, people disagree: Two people are saying Beam bought Castle Distillery in 1972 and shuttered it (but continued to use warehouse space), while Chuck Cowdry says ND closed it themselves, and didn’t sell it to Beam until 1987. In all such matters it’s best to believe Chuck Cowdry.

So, it appears that National Distillers didn’t sell the brand to Beam until 1987. So while the two Old Taylor’s were different proofs and from different distilleries, they were both National Distillers products I guess. Thanks informed stranger! ***

5. Old Taylor 6-year – 86 proof – from 1982-1984

Rye nose. Smells like a Beam product. On the palate, it’s a little hot, not only with alcohol but with cinnamon as well – hot like Red-Hots. A tangled midpalate and a curious note of raspberries leads to long, maple-sugar finish. With a bit of water, the heat changes, becomes expressiveness.

With a spot of water, this is actually pretty good.

6. Old Taylor 6-year – 80 proof – from 1977.

Similar, but with the volume turned down. The rye is expressive, but the flavors don’t pop – it stops short of the heights. Less amplitude. Caramel spice. Rye. Straight-forward.

A totally acceptable, if a bit uninteresting, bourbon. It clocks in a couple degrees lower than the other Taylor, and it tastes like it could benefit from a bit more heat. I actually prefer the Beam product later product. Imagine my surprise.

Fourth Round: Old Grandad (2013) vs. Old Grandad (1977)

When the Old Grandad distillery closed and the brand was sold to hungry-hungry brand hippo Jim Beam, Beam tried their best to keep everything the same. Same mashbill, same distilling numbers, same entry proof, etc… basically, the exact opposite of what they did to Old Crow. Tasting it, it’s clear they were not successful.

7. Old Grandad – 86 proof – from 2013

On the nose: big rye punch. Rye graininess and almost fruity flavors. This is more or less confirmed on the palate, at least in the front palate: it comes first rye-forward, and then a powerful caramel note I didn’t see coming on the nose takes it all the way home.

Not a bad product, and a good value for the not-very-much money it costs, but I’m still not buying a bottle.

8. Old Grandad – 86 proof – from 1977

Nose: complex. Corn and rye both. Caramel spice, and a strange and alluring note of dried fruit (raisins). Once sipped, the dried fruit becomes more apparent – this tastes a little like rum, or some wonderful mixture of rum and whiskey. The mysterious Rumisky. Vanilla adds to dried fruit. Cognac notes. Tastes like it was rum cask finished.

Wow. Clear winner of the night. I want to drink this all the time.

Fifth Round: Early Times (2013) vs. Early Times (1982)

Early Times uses both new and used barrels, and as such legally prohibited from calling itself a bourbon (bourbon must be only new barrels). It was a bourbon in the 80s though, and so a direct comparison is mildly unfair, but it’s fun to see what it was.

 9. Early Times – 80 proof – from 2013

This smells rubbery, inorganic. Not much else – used barrels give less flavor, and this is evident in the lightness of the final product. Very mild. A little like Seagrams 7 or something, but a little hot. Evokes wet paper.

My thoughts best expressed as a quote from our host, when someone remarked to him that this tastes like hot, dirty water: “What is this — $7.99 a bottle? They’re not selling this to bourbon drinkers. They’re selling this to alcoholics.”

10. Early Times – 80 proof – from 1982

This is a bourbon – it smells rich (especially comparatively so) with corn sweetness. This continues on the palate and is added to by the type of lighter, ethereal flavors a lower proof encourages: coconut; marshmallows; toast.

Comparatively this is the cat’s fucking meow, but I’m not ready to call it great. It’s a solid, entry level bourbon, and more than anything (just like all of these, really), it’s a fun look at the genealogy of the brand.

Lillet

April 8, 2013

The Facts:

Name: Lillet
Category: Aromatized wine — “tonic wine,” or quinquina
Proof: 34 (17% ABV)
Origin: Bordeaux, France — since 1887.
Composition: 85% wine; 15% fruit liqueur
Styles: Lillet Blanc, Lillet Rouge, Lillet Rose

lillet welcome shot

The Story:

In 1872, the brothers Lillet (Paul and Raymond) began distilling and dealing in wine in the town of Pondensac, just south of Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux then, as now, was big business; beyond its formidable wine reputation, the city sits on the Gironde river just in from the Atlantic coast and was a major trading port, so local residents enjoyed access to the kinds of fruits, herbs, and spices they wouldn’t ordinarily see.

The Lillet brothers began making eaux de vie and liqueurs from some of these exotic fruits (sweet oranges from Valencia, green oranges from Morocco/Tunesia, bitter oranges from Haiti), and before long come up with a recipe for an apertif based on the excellent local wine, bucked up with some liqueur and spiked with the antimalarial tonic quinine, from Peruvian cinchona bark.

The product was explosively popular. They called it Kina Lillet — the “Kina” a reference to  quinquina, the French collective term for apertifs infused with quinine — and by the turn of the century they ceased production on all other liquor and began making Kina Lillet exclusively.  Prohibition in America was obviously a hurdle, but it got a couple nods from soon-to-be-classic cocktail along the way — the Corpse Reviver #2 in 1930 was probably the best of these, but the 20th Century (1937) and Casino Royale’s Vesper (1953) helped it along.

Lillet tried to expand the line in 1962 with Lillet Rouge, made from red wine, specifically for American palates. That Lillet Rouge is phenomenally tasty must’ve been kept some kind of secret, because no one bought it. Tastes drifted away from apertifs and sales continued to sag, and in 1985 the brand was sold to Bruno Borie (of the Grand Cru classified Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou) and given a face-lift in 1986 — they dropped the “Kina” from the name and just called it Lillet Blanc. Whether or not they changed the recipe (to make it less bitter) remains an area of some (still quite bitter) dispute. More on this below.

Rounding out the line is the Lillet Rose, a delicate,  mostly-blanc mixture of the two products that hit shelves a couple years ago. And they continue to produce a kind of reserve, Jean de Lillet Blanc, which I’d never even heard of before the tasting the other day.

The Dispute:

Lillet now has competition. The cocktail resurgence has been wonderful for it — sales jumped 20% after Daniel Craig ordered the Vesper cocktail in Casino Royale, and with the resurrection of the Corpse Reviver #2 in particular, every well stocked bar now keeps a bottle of Lillet Blanc. However: the competing and the long awaited Cocchi Americano is now available on American shores. Cocchi is less wine forward, both sweeter and more bitter, and general wisdom says that it’s the closest thing to what Kina Lillet used to taste like, before they changed the recipe. Therefore, this wisdom says, if you’ve got the Cocchi, use it in the aforementioned cocktails.

The company line at Lillet has now become we have never changed the recipe shut up you all are lying shut up. This is a difficult position to take in the face of several competing claims: there is a particularly damning book of Lillet history that leads up until the rebranding, as well as a 3rd-party Bordeaux information site that seems both complete and well informed. From these, we know that the production was modernized in 1986, and that it was rebranded as “fruitier, lighter, and less bitter.” So at first glance, it would seem that Lillet is simply lying, as they have every financial reason to do so.

But as it turns out, it’s not as easy as all that: apparently, there were at one point two different recipes, a “dry export” version and an “extra dry,” in addition to some confusion with a vermouth called Lillet, and blah blah blah. Erik over at Savoy Stomp has made a project of this somewhat tepid controversy, and he explains it in better detail than I ever could or would, if you’re interested, here.

What I know is how it tastes, which is pretty damn good. I don’t really care if they changed it or not.

What we have is two similar but different products, which is not like uncharted territory or anything. Make the drink with both. Whichever one you like better? That’s the one to use.

The Styles & Tastes:

They treat their bottles pretty much the same down the line. Each is 85:15 wine: liqueur, each oak aged for 9 months.

Lillet Blanc
85% white Bordeaux wine (80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadel)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

Very bright, very citrus-forward. The orange combines wonderfully with the white wine, giving sweet orange and a light bitter balance. This is considerably lighter than Cocchi Americano, and distinctly evokes wine (sometimes the wine flavors are infused right out). The brand ambassador suggested we take it on ice with a lemon or orange peel, which sounds like an excellent idea to me.

Lillet Rouge
85% red Bordeaux wine (80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

The rouge was the big shock to me, and my clear favorite of the day (Amanda commented that this is frequently the men’s favorite). The rouge is different from the other two, and should be treated as such: I’d serve it chilled but keep it away from ice. It’s powerful with big red-wine fruit and tannins, which is only intensified by the sweetness. Pungent, powerful, beautiful apertif. I bought a bottle and Vikki and I killed it in like 3 days.  Like the others, it is extremely wine-y, and as such is somewhat difficult to mix — I haven’t yet made something I like better than just sipping it on its own — but taken neat, chilled, with lemon peel or without one, it’s wonderful.

Lillet Rose
85% wine (mixture of all the grapes, but mostly white)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

The youngest child, and the favorite of most people at the tasting. Firm, bright, and textured, the Rose has flavors all its own — strawberries, stone fruit, grapefruit — while remaining not too sweet to be refreshing. Take it as you would the Blanc — on ice, kept light, maybe with bubbles. It’s marvelous on crushed ice. For some reason I want to mix it with watermelon, which sounds mildly redundant but almost inescapably delicious.

Reserve Jean de Lillet (vintage)
Same genealogy to the Blanc

This one is aged in French Oak for 12-16 months compared to 9 for the others. I’ve literally never seen it in the wild (they only make like 1000 bottles or something) but grab one if you see it: it’s oakier, richer, and sweeter. A little oxidized. Tastes like a Sauternes. Delicious.

BONUS TASTING:

Someone at our table asked, “What’s the difference between Dubonnet (another French, red-wine based, quinine-containing apertif) and Lillet Rouge?”

Dubonnet is sweeter and way more oxidized. The Lillet is powerful with tannins and fresh grapes, while Dubonnet evokes port, all dried fruit, figs and raisins, and is textured, a bit more bitter with quinine. And now you know that.

Casa Noble

April 1, 2013

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.