Midnight Stinger

I have long eyed the “Fernet About It” on The Lion’s Share’s menu and was getting excited about it when the gracious & handsome Has suggested another drink he’s been really enjoying lately, the Midnight Stinger, something he picked up on a recent trip to Death & Co. in New York City.

The Stinger is a classic dessert cocktail with brandy and creme de menthe. It is sweet. So sweet in fact, that this is one of the very few all-booze drinks that one should shake (as opposed to stir) in order to mitigate how cloying it can be… and while this “Midnight” version is also suitable for post-meal drinking, that’s more or less where the similarities end:

Midnight Stinger
1oz Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon
1oz Fernet Branca
0.5oz lemon juice
0.5oz simple syrup
Shake, strain over crushed ice in a double rocks glass; garnish with a bright little mint sprig.


I’m really starting to like these fractioned sours. This cocktail was damn tasty and, to my great surprise, not difficult to drink. You’d think it would be… an ounce of Fernet? It seems a bit rude for mint to RSVP only to have Fernet Branca show up, but as I’ve learned in my life, showing up with bourbon is a good way to be welcomed in the door.

I think it’s the sour template and the crushed ice, but this was a surprisingly easy, herbal drink. It’s a great option for someone who wants some of that peppermint oil in the back of their throat but not a full blast of the Branca’s devil potion. I’d actually give this as an intro drink to anyone curious about Fernet. Great before or after or even during dinner. Delicious.

I’ve still never had any of their menu drinks. I love that place.

Hudson Whiskey

Recently, Gable Erenzo of Hudson Whiskey came to San Diego to offer tasting and education on his products. He was master distiller for a while, and as such was in a position to answer all of my minute and annoying questions, which was great. I got a bunch of nice photographs of this event, which I accidentally deleted because I’m stupid.

The Facts:

Distillery: Tuthilltown Distillery
Location: Gardiner, New York
Owned By: Privately owned
Major Products produced: Spirit of the Hudson Vodka; Hudson Whiskies — Manhattan Rye, Baby Bourbon, Four-Grain Bourbon, Single Malt, New York Corn
Origin: Since 2005


There are, as I see it, two big challenges facing anyone who wants to start making whiskey. And I’m not even talking about start-up capital or navigating permits or how to source malted barley, all of which I’m sure are very difficult. I’m talking fundamentals — the two obstacles that stop, say, me, from seriously thinking about starting a whiskey distillery at this point in my life are (1) time and (2) purpose:

  1. Time: any idiot can, and many idiots do, make vodka. Good vodka is another story, but vodka itself is not hard — it’s what happens when you distill something a bunch of times and then add water and bottle it. It’s what ramen noodles are to cooking. Whiskey, on the other hand, requires finesse, and more importantly, time. In a 53 gallon barrel (standard size), it takes a between 3 and 6 years to even start getting good. You can cheat with smaller barrels, but even in a tiny 3 gallon, you’re still looking at a few months before you can even consider starting to sell it as whiskey. But what if it’s not as tasty as you’d like?  Tweak the recipe, another few months. Maybe it needs a bigger barrel, another 2 years. It’ll drive you mad, or broke, or both.
  2. Purpose: aside from it being super cool, why make whiskey? Even if cost isn’t an issue, which it totally is, there is already a kaleidoscopic array of transcendentally good whiskeys sold for not very much money at pretty much every liquor store. So what do you have to add? What’s so screaming fucking special about your idea that so necessitates its existence?

They’re worthy considerations, and Tuthilltown Spritis and their whiskey label Hudson, since 2005, has tackled these two obstacles better than any new whiskey I can think of.

The Story:

In 2001, Ralph Erenzo bought some land and an 18th-century gristmill in the Hudson Valley, just outside Poughkeepsie some 80 miles north of Manhattan. He had run a successful rock-climbing business in the city for years, and had finally started actualizing a longtime dream, to create a rock climbing ranch/retreat up north. Fortunately for us, it was not to be: his neighbors, as it turns out, were a stodgy group of litigiously-inclined letter-writers who hated the idea of a commercial business in their little bucolic hinterland, and fought with everything they had. The fight nearly bankrupted him, and in the end he had was forced to admit that his rock-climbing ranch would never be built on that property.

One of the pillars on which the neighbor’s case was built was that the land wasn’t zoned commercially, but agriculturally. So he looked for new ideas, at first considering a brewery, but the gristmill’s history — combined with the prospect of being the first bourbon made in New York since prohibition — led him to a distillery.

He found a partner in the mechanically-inclined Brian Lee, and recruited his son Gable. Among them, they had as much experience with distillation as they did with space travel, but forged ahead anyway. After two years of permits, research, navigating archaic statutes and in some cases altering them, getting a still, sourcing grain, and learning what the hell they were doing, they founded Tuthilltown Spirits, released a vodka made from local apples in 2005, and their first effort, a “baby” bourbon in 2006.

The Spirits:

Five different whiskeys carry the Hudson name, and they are indeed different, with four distinct grain recipes. But there are a couple of commonalities that they all share, unusual (and in some cases unique) distillation principles that help Hudson answer those questions in the above obstacle #2.

  • Grains: They use largely heirloom varieties of of their grains, and are all locally grown. So the corn, for example, that goes into their corn whiskey is 40% normal “field” corn, and 60% heirloom, those maize-like multicolored varieties that are always bursting out of cornucopias around November.
  • Fermentation: They use two different types of yeast, one brewers and one distillers.
  • Distillation: There is, to all of their whiskeys, a curious and alluring cereal quality, a sensation of an actual dusty grain mill. Tasting them immediately evokes the actual grains — you can tell where these come from. I had always assumed that they distilled to a very low proof (à la Fortaleza) because you taste so much of the ingredients, but Gable told us that they distill as high as anyone else, that the graininess you taste is because they do a “whole mash” distillation: they keep the grain solids in the liquid all the way through the process. It’s a “fractioning” still (hybrid pot/column), and everything gets two runs, the first to about 40% and the second somewhere just shy of 80%.
  • Small Barrels: Hudson’s answer to the aforementioned obstacle#1: they use tiny little barrels. Between 3 and 14 gallon. Whiskey will get overaged (too woody = pretty gross, believe me) in a 3 gallon barrel by 6 months, and a 14 gallon by 2.5 years. So smaller barrels means that they can make, age, and sell whiskey at a pace untouched by the Kentucky giants.
  • Sonic Maturation: As Gable tells it, someone told them they should rotate their barrels once a month to hasten the aging process. Unthrilled at the idea of physically rolling every single barrel in their inventory, Lee showed up one morning with a trunk full of bass speakers, to agitate the barrels using sound waves. For a time, the whiskey would rattle away to dubstep and Tribe Called Quest, until one day a tour-goer volunteered his skills as a professional audio engineer. After a weekend of measurements and calculations, he returned with a CD, which cycles through different resonant frequencies to shake the different sized barrels. Which, I think you’ll agree, is pretty goddamn cool.

The Products:


This is their white whiskey, an unaged 100% corn spirit. Untempered by oak, the dry grain hits right away. Very agricultural. Deep, rich corn, like buttered popcorn. No sweetness from the oak means the dry graininess is extremely dry. The best white whiskey I’ve ever tasted, but that’s not saying much. Still, surprisingly drinkable. I’d recommend it for mixing, or just to satisfy curiosity.


It used to be that bourbon could be a maximum of 80% corn, but that apparently ended in the 80s. Hudson’s Baby Bourbon is 100% corn, just an aged version of the New York Corn Whiskey. The oak adds sweetness but the size of the barrel also intensifies the bitterness. The corn is blunted by the wood, but still prominent. I found this hot, dry, and astringent, and was my least favorite of the five (though plenty of people around me disagreed).


If bourbon and scotch had a child, it would be this. Like all the best scotch, it’s 100% malted barley. But scotch is usually aged slowly in once-used barrels, and as such takes on much less wood flavor. The Hudson Single Malt is aged in new, charred oak barrels. All of this combines to another unique offering: still very grainy and this time earthy, the barley picks up more on the sweetness from the oak along with some vanilla notes, with a nice acidity and a finish like caramel and honey. Delicious.


One of my two favorites. 100% rye. This, to me, tastes like how rye is supposed to taste. The rye cereal graininess is out front and prominent, balanced with a perfect level of sweetness and spice. Interesting to drink on it’s own, but this makes one of the cooler Old Fashioneds I could imagine.


My other favorite offering of theirs. I don’t know a single other four-grain bourbon on the market right now (“four grain” referring to (1) corn and (2) barley, and then both, where there’s usually only one, of the “flavoring grains,” (3) wheat and (4) rye). I was not expecting this one to be good and it really surprised me. Very complex. Cereal grain, exactly the right amount of sweetness, perfectly balanced. Wonderful.


We tasted with about 20 other bartenders, and in a chatty little reception afterward, everyone discussed tastes and favorites. What was bizarre is that everyone had a different favorite. I found the Baby Bourbon too immature, but my friend Travis thought it was the best. Vikki liked the Single Malt best. This is to say that they are all very different, and all made well.

They all retail around $40 but only come in 375ml bottles (1/2 size), so each is really like an $80 bottle of whiskey. Which is a lot. On the other hand, it’s a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.

One last note about this idea of uniqueness, because it’s important: small barrels means that the spirit doesn’t just age quicker, but also ages in a different way. There’s more color and woodiness but it’s still relatively immature. There is no cheating time in the aging game. A 53 gallon barrel is like a crock-pot, and a 3 gallon barrel is like a frying pan: both achieve the same overall principle, but you simply can’t get the same product out of a small barrel. And this is one of the ways in which Hudson excels, and where they rise above most of the other new “craft” whiskeys being made today.

If you’re trying to make the same bourbon everyone else is making but trying to do it cheaper, then you’re going to get a cheaper version of the same bourbon everyone else is making. You can’t make Buffalo Trace better than Buffalo Trace does. Whether by instinct or education, the people at Hudson know this, so they make whiskey completely differently.

It’s formulated for those smaller barrels. Yes, the spirit is left a bit immature from the shorter time in smaller barrels, but there’s also the two types of yeast, and there’s also the heirloom grains, and there’s also the whole mash distillation, and when added together it’s not a cheaper or faster version of something that already exists. All of their products have struck their own unique balance, all the uncommon and/or bizarre decisions rest on each other and meet at a common point. That’s what’s so great about it. It is something completely new.

Old Fashioned


I remember the exact moment when I learned how to drink.

I was a Jack & Coke kid all through college. Tequila shots, Jameson rocks, Vodka Redbull. I’d get the cheapest single malt on the menu for special occasions. I learned to drink straight whiskey, but mostly because I wanted to be the type of guy who could drink straight whiskey. I once spent an entire night drinking Jäger bombs (never again), and was elated when I discovered that the dueling piano bar sold Long Island Ice Teas by the bucket. I looked down on Miller Light in favor of Bud Light. I believed in the idea of “ultra-premium vodka.” In short, I knew nothing.

It wasn’t until I left Los Angeles for Boston that I had a conversion experience. Winter hit quickly for those of us who’d just spent four years in southern California, and it was already brisk in early October when my sister took me out to the neighborhood bar, Green Street Grille, for a drink. Our bartender was Misty Kalkofan – Misty, half-sleeve tattoo, bellowing infectious laugh, with a M.A. from Harvard Divinity School and one of the best bartenders in the city.

I ask for a Jack and coke, but Misty tells me they don’t have Jack. I ask her what she has. She asks me what I like.

“Spirit forward or more drinkable?” she asks. I revert to my college mentality, one of cool and uncool, and order straight whiskey as if the syllables themselves are laced with pheromones.
“Jameson,” I say, “Neat.”

Bartenders deal with this chest-puffing horseshit all day long, and in hindsight, Misty treated me with a truly profound kindness.

“Have you ever had an Old Fashioned?”

This was pre-Mad Men, though I had heard of it but never tried one, and acquiesced. A couple dashes of those weird bitters things, a sugar cube, orange peel and rye whiskey, and that was it for me. I was sold on cocktails forever. I had never tasted anything like it.

I don’t remember the drink I had before that Old Fashioned, but whatever it was, it was the last time I’d take a drink without thinking about it. Without weighing it’s taste, complexity, and balance. I plainly didn’t realize drinks could be that good.

It’s been more than four years since then. It’s what turned drinks from object to subject, and what changed bartending from a job to a career. It is the drink I have the most respect for, one of the pantheon of cocktails on which, when ordered on the 4-deep, cash waving insanity of a busy Saturday night, I will never cut corners. It is what I order to test knowledge or skill of a new bar or bartender. The Old Fashioned – short for Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail – was, and remains, the best drink I’ve ever had.


When Humphery Bogart died and went to Whiskey Heaven, the bartender greeted him warmly, and slipped an Old Fashioned into his hand.

It is not a classic cocktail, it is the classic cocktail. To explain:

While the term “cocktail” might today refer as equally to a Sazerac as an Appletini, in the beginning, everything had an exact definition. There were Slings (spirit, sugar, and cold water), Toddies (spirit, sugar, and warm water), various citrus Punches and such, but no cocktail. It wouldn’t be until 1806 that the “cock-tail” was defined in print*. Then, it was “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” Those four ingredients made a cocktail. Anything else, tasty as it may be, wasn’t a cocktail.

But over the next 75 years, people kept tweaking the cocktail, hanging ornaments on it. There was the “fancy cocktail,” with curacao. Then the “improved cocktail,” with maraschino liqueur and absinthe. Then “what if we throw some Chartreuse in there?” and “here’s a float of red wine,” and people started using pineapple sticks and raspberry syrup and muddling in fruit slices – what would be referred to, later, as “the garbage.” It’s an enormously malleable template, and can be mangled as many different ways as there are bottles on the back bar… and while it was likely all delicious, it was not a cocktail as it was originally defined.

So when a reference to “old-fashioned cocktails” appears in print in The Chicago Tribune in 1880, it’s not that someone invented a drink that felt quaint and homey, and named it an Old Fashioned. It was a curmudgeon with a healthy dose of grump and thirst to go with it, who wanted a cocktail, the kind he used to get. The Old Fashioned kind. The only change he’d accept from the original 1806 cocktail was ice. All else was heresy.

(It’s worth noting that any claim to have “invented” the Old Fashioned is absurd, seeing as it was being made for at least 75 years, as a “cocktail” before it earned its latter name. But extra bullshit points go to the Pendennis Club of Louisville, who maintain their paternity claim even though they opened their doors in 1881, a full year after it first appeared in print.)

As it was, so it is.

The Old Fashioned (Whiskey Cocktail)
2oz. rye whiskey (or bourbon)
2 dashes angostaura bitters,
1 small sugar cube, muddled or ~1/4oz simple syrup (a hair less for the inherently sweeter bourbon)
Add ice and stir briskly for 30 seconds or so. Express oils from a long strip of orange peel, drop peel in drink. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. Drink. Melt.

It should look like this: (and I’m sorry for the image quality of these pictures… I took them before this blog existed.)

*Nerd stuff: I have recently seen trustworthy evidence put forth by cocktail historian Jared Brown that “cock-tail” appears in print in 1798, a full eight years earlier than we originally thought. It is, alas, not defined, so the 1806 date remains, at least, not wrong.


There is literally nothing old fashioned about Southern California. In Los Angeles, they throw stones at anything older than 35, and San Diego roughly the same. Things don’t last here. Even Old Town feels new.

So it is with the Old Fashioned. With this drink, there are two rival camps, between whom there can be no peace. To garnish with the fruit, or to muddle it. One of them prefers the nuance and subtlety; orange oils accenting the whiskey, a little sweetness to wake it up, and a little bitterness to add spice and complexity, with minute variations in the choice or quantity of ingredients shifting the focus and balance for myriad incarnations. The other one prefers a swamp of pulpy fruit carcasses that add blunting sweetness, fibrous bits to get caught in your teeth, and a mess of trash in the glass. I won’t say which I am.

The good folks at Craft and Commerce know how to do it. Most of their bartenders, when asked for their favorite version, will use the drier, spicier, slightly more challenging rye whiskey, but the house Old Fashioned is with Bourbon. Buffalo Trace, a little bit of cane sugar syrup, angostaura bitters, stirred with both an orange and lemon peel.

At URBN, where I work, we do the same… it was with a single barrel Elmer T. Lee, until we went through about 100 bottles of it and all but ran out. So we, too use Buffalo Trace. Even though we took it off the menu, we still sell dozens of these things a week, and to all kinds of people. It’s something that gives me faith.

Sadly, some of the even very nice bars are muddling fruit. Kitchen 1540, in Del Mar, is one of the nicest restaurants in the area. They serve “craft cocktails” and yet an order for an Old Fashioned returns a very nice bourbon (he used the Van Winkle 12 year, definitely not their standard) and angostura orange bitters (not my taste, but a respectable choice), but sullied with a mashed cherry and dulled with a two-inch-tall hat of soda water.

And I don’t know where this morbid little voice came from, but drinking Haufbrau lager at the splendidly tacky Keiserhoff, in Ocean Beach, a place without computers where they make everyone dress like beer wenches from the German hinterland, something whispered to me that our 60 year old bartender, a consummate professional with more years of experience than I have years of life, that he might, just might, make a mean old fashioned.

I was wrong.

You have to go to a devoted craft cocktail bar to get it the right way. C’est la vie. Always a good excuse to go, I suppose.