Life poured generously.
Laphroaig 10 Year was one of the first single malts I tried during my early infatuation with Islay peat. After being both astounded and delighted by the strong peat and elemental flavors of Ardbeg Airrigh Nambeist and Bowmore 18, the Laphraoig 10 Year left me wanting. It was smokey and strong, but it lacked the maturity of Ardbeg that had spoiled me rotten early on. It was easy to discount it out of hand. But, after a request from a reader to review Laphroaig (I strongly suspect this reader works for Laphroaig, so if you read this, send a few free bottles my way and I’ll write more reviews), I decided it was time to revisit the brand that I’d frivolously brushed aside in my neophyte ignorance. So, I asked the guy at Bevmo to unlock the case where they keep the good stuff and get me a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Read more →
Thumb.php vulnerability got this site hacked and my web host scolded me, so I gutted a lot of the files. Good news, though: all of the posts are intact! I’ll be rebuilding the site over the next few months to be stronger, better, faster – like Lee Majors.
“What is the difference between Rye and Bourbon?” Chris Oddo, a local sports writer asked me as we sipped on a Rye Old Fashioned and a Bobby Burns in The Alembic on Haight. Chris’ girlfriend is good friends with my gorgeous and brilliant girlfriend who chose The Alembic because it is a perfect match for my infatuation with brown liquor (second only to my infatuation with her), and I’m grateful to her for always thinking about me (that should earn me some brownie points). Prior to fielding this question, I had done some extensive tasting and research on Scotch, but I hadn’t looked into American whiskeys much, other than gathering a handful of favorites when in bars that don’t have much Scotch. But my two-drinks-deep brain didn’t hesitate to grasp for a couple scraps of fact and fill in the blanks with leaps of muddled logic.
“I don’t know much about American Whiskey, but there are certain strict rules for making Bourbon, like the casks can only be used once for aging and there has to be a certain level of rye and corn and it has to be made in Kentucky and the monks chew the rice and spit it into the mash to start fermentation and pink elephants and yeti…” And, and, and. I should have cut it off after “I don’t know much about American Whiskey”. Now, to assuage the shame at answering Chris’ question with a stream of rambling half truths and speculations, I subject you, dear reader, to more than you ever wanted to know about Rye and Bourbon. And my psyche.
The Standards of Bourbon
Most alcohol regulating bodies around the world agree that Bourbon must be made in the United States (or be a Chinese knockoff thereof). Bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume – yowsers!), bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV), enter the barrel at nor more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV, you get it – divide the proof in half) and age in new, charred oak barrels.
The rules on aging are lenient: it must be aged “at least briefly”. To carry the label Straight Bourbon, the whiskey meeting the above requirements can’t be cut with other spirits, contain added color or flavor and must age for at least two years. If it is aged less than 4 years, the age must be stated on the label. The age refers to the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Blended Bourbon can contain other spirits, colors and flavors, but must contain at least 51% Straight Bourbon. Phew. There are a lot of rules.
Brief Bourbon History
Bourbon ain’t French and the first American whiskeys weren’t distilled in Kentucky. The Scotch-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania were the first distillers in the colonies, but a quarrel over stiff excise taxes on liquor (which helped pay for the Revolutionary War) forced George Washington to offer the distillers incentives to move to Kentucky (then part of Virginia). Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson offered pioneers 60 acres of land in Kentucky to grow corn. I like corn on the cob, popcorn and creamed corn, but after about 20 acres worth, I’d be running out of ideas, and so did the old time Kentuckets. They couldn’t eat it, and they couldn’t store it for a long period of time so they did what any sensible American would: they made liquor out of it. Problems solved. Bourbon County butted up against the Ohio river and its town of Marysville became a primary shipping port out of which to transport the liquor. Viola, whiskey comes from Bourbon County. Bourbon whiskey.
Fabled Reverend Elijah Craig from Bourbon County supposedly invented the Bourbon making process with charred barrel aging but the first true commercial Bourbon distiller was more likely Evan Williams in 1783.
And, by the way, no whiskey is produced in Bourbon County these days. Go figure. (Update 4/4/2011: the Bourbon County, KY website states that indeed no bourbon whiskey is being distilled in Bourbon County today. I’ve contacted to the County offices for further confirmation.)
The Rules of Rye
American Rye whiskey must be made from a mash containing at least 51% rye, distilled to no more than 160 proof, aged in charred, new oak barrels (like bourbon) and must go into those barrels at no more than 125 proof. The whiskey must be aged at least two years to be labeled Straight rye. Other than the predominant ingredient, the rye whiskey process looks very similar to the bourbon process. So why, then, did only a handful of producers of rye survive prohibition?
The answer is: Canada
Or at least, in part. During prohibition, Canadian rye distillers were able to openly continue producing whiskey while American distillers had to work under cover of night. The Canadian rye still had to be smuggled into the country, but when prohibition was repealed, their distilleries were up and running. The American distillers had to rebuild resources and inventory, and never quite got back on their feet. A few rye distilleries popped back up and bourbon distillers produced a modest amount of rye, but the public seemed to lean toward the bourbon that was more readily available. Rye became the drink of the old and the poor, possibly because of the differences in flavor profiles that I will discuss next. As a result of the Canadians’ capacity for producing rye during prohibition, most Canadian whiskey is thought to be rye today, though most Canadian whiskeys are actually comprised of very little rye. How aboot that, eh?
The rye comeback was spurred by Rittenhouse 100 Proof Rye being named “Whiskey of the Year” in 2006 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling (the same Anchor Steam that pioneered the craft brew trend in beer) was ready to capitalize with the Old Portrero Rye they began making in 1996. Now the Old Portrero and Rittenhouse brands have been joined by brands from larger distilleries like Jim Beam’s (Ri)1 as the US clamors for spicier whiskey.
The Bottom Line: The Flavor
The difference you and I are most concerned with is flavor. To put it simply, rye imparts a spicier, fruitier flavor and bourbon gets a smoother, sweeter flavor from its corn and usually longer cask aging. Some have equated rye to Islay scotches which carry more bite, smoke and earthy flavors than Speyside or Highland malts. Though bourbons tend to have better balance, ryes stand up better in cocktails as I found out when making a Boulevardier with bourbon. Many contemporary bartenders prefer rye in the Sazerac, Boulevardier, Old Fashioned and even the kingly Manhattan. In cocktails bourbon, like vodka, is a soothing, comforting presence that allows drinkers to drink as if they were warm in their mothers’ wombs. Rye, like Islay scotch, gives you a little taste of being slapped by a jilted lover. But you just can’t help but go back and beg her for another chance.
So Chris, that, in a much too small nutshell, is how I should have answered on Saturday. I bet you’re glad I didn’t or we’d still be there, and we’d be pretty drunk by now. There’s a lot more to the history and cultural affectations and effects of these two American icons than a blog post or casual conversation can do justice.
To give my girlfriend some peace and quiet from my yapping this weekend so that she could power through a freelance project, I excused myself for a Saturday night on the town, tasting some good liquor. But Harris’ bar was full so I ended up, instead, parked on a barstool directly in front of a curiously shaped tap of Fernet-Branca at Tonic, a few blocks away. The Scotch selection was non-existent, the brandies were run of the mill and the grappa was being used to strip creative Sharpie doodling off of the bathroom walls. Tonic is not that kind of bar – the kind where you go to be a pretentious asshole – but it is a nice little neighborhood place with friendly bartenders and friendly patrons.
Gesturing to the distinctive Fernet-Branca tap, I asked the bartender and the guy to my left (there were only 3 of us in there at 9 PM, but it picked up later when the DJ started up), “what’s the deal with the Fernet? It seems to be pretty popular around here, but I’ve never seen it anywhere outside The City?” Fernet stumbled into my life one afternoon when I was sitting at Bullitt (a block or so away and owned by the same people who own Tonic, I learned) watching football and four plastered frat boys hauled themselves up to the bar next me and Amy and ordered a round of Fernet shots. Most of the murky liquid ended up on the bar or on their shirts, but their order introduced Fernet into my alcohol lexicon under Douchy Drinks (for the record, I like Douchebags, and at least one of them threw up outside the bar a little later). I’m not shuffling behind a walker by any means, but I’ve reached an age where I like to keep most of my liquor from dribbling down my chin so that I can taste it (most of the time).The bartender at Bullitt supplied that the minty Fernet is the bartenders’ drink of choice because the low sugar content and blend of 40 herbs allows them to swig a few while they’re working, maintain composure and wake up without a hangover the next day.
A week later, my girlfriend’s sister and brother in law, in town from the East Coast, were offered a shot of Fernet while sampling the San Francisco bar scene. As John, her brother in law gagged down shot, it became clear that Fernet-Branca makes a less palatable non-minty version as well.
Just as the bartender at Tonic began explaining that Bullitt and Tonic were the only two bars in the city that offered Fernet on tap because “the tap looked classy”, a group of Fernet’s apparent target audience sat down to my right and ordered a round with ginger ale chasers. I asked the mid 20’s group about Fernet’s popularity in The City. They admitted to never having seen the liquor outside the 7×7 square miles of San Francisco, but they didn’t know anything about it being trendy. The guy on my other side even texted a couple of buddies in NYC who he said had their fingers on the pulse of popular bar culture. Neither one had heard of Fernet. He and I both ordered a shot, and traded our thoughts with the group of impromptu drinking buddies.
“It tastes like licorice Listerine.”
“Yeah, like Ben Gay in a glass.”
“Kinda like bark.” I agree with that one. It’s reminiscent of a head first fall in grade school that left you with a mouthful of tan bark. Fernet is not exactly brown liquor; it’s murky, dark and maybe greenish-grey if it has any discernible color at all.
It turns out that Fernet is indeed unique to San Francisco. San Franciscans consume 35% of the world’s supply and more of it is drunk here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Why is it that an obscure Italian liqueur is so much more prevalent here than in its native land or anywhere else for that matter?
The Legend of Fernet
Part of the reason Fernet-Branca is so popular here is the legend of Fernet first being smuggled out of Italy into the San Francisco bar scene inside of specially made, child sized coffins in 1999. How did you get a hold of some Fernet? I know a guy who knows a guy. Not only was it smuggled in, but it cures just about everything: cholera, colicky babies, headaches, upset stomachs, hangovers. The elixir is purported to list ingredients from codeine, to mushrooms to saffron (of which, the Branca family in Italy is the largest buyer…in the world) – all of which could be used to make narcotics. Fernet’s tale reads a little like the mystical Absinthe which was illegal in the US until 2007, when it ignited in the searing trendiness of forbidden fruit but then fizzled. I personally like Absinthe, but as Jason Wilson points out in his entertaining book Boozehound
, Absinthe’s appeal existed mostly in the illicit pleasure of its illegality.
Fernet, though, has maintained its popularity probably because of the very demographic that generally ends old trends and starts new ones: the 20 somethings. Why? My gut tells me it’s the no-hangover thing. But it’s also viewed as accessible class: it’s Italian, it’s a liqueur, it’s affordable, it’s not too disgusting and it doesn’t bump you off your game when you’re chatting up members of the opposite sex who aren’t sure whether to kick you to the curb yet.
Further reading on the Fernet-Branca phenomenon:
Fernetiquette – http://fernetiquette.blogspot.com/search/label/MSPaint%20Skillz
The Myth of Fernet – http://www.sfweekly.com/2005-12-07/news/the-myth-of-fernet/3/
Off the Presses: Fernet Goes to Tap – http://offthepresses.blogspot.com/2010/11/fernet-goes-on-tap-in-san-francisco.html
SF Sets a Trend with Fernet – http://blog.amlex.com/trends/san-francisco-sets-a-trend-with-fernet-branca/
Living social will match your donation to the Red Cross for Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief. Go to:
The Boulevardier is, as I write this, becoming my new cocktail favorite of the moment, which is making typing difficult because I have to put down the glass. The silver lining to Borders closing up shop is that I picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending for cheap, and the Boulevardier popped off the page because I’d ordered it in a restaurant bar once upon a time. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant or any reaction to the Boulevardier. But I’m reacting to it now.
A little tour of the blog circuit turned up an article by Doctor Cocktail (Tim Haigh) from Imbibe that seemed to be referenced by all of the bloggers. (Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that there are other liquor bloggers on Earth.) Dr. Cocktail tells us that the drink was a creation of the famous prohibition era bartender Harry McElhone – seems like a lotta guys were named Harry back then – who was forced overseas to find a legal job. Harry took a Negroni, swapped out gin for American Bourbon and had himself a hit.
2 oz. Bourbon
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Cherry with three drops of cherry juice
I used Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon, but in the future I’d opt for a younger, spicier bourbon to hold its own against the Campari. With the second go around, I backed off on the Campari to 3/4 oz. to let the bourbon step up. I didn’t have any eggs tonight, but I’m planning an addendum to this post for tomorrow with an egg white. I think the beautiful ruby color would be well suited to lightening and softening with the egg white – like a colored Easter egg.
Update: I used half an egg white in the next incarnation of the Boulevardier and shook that baby till I had to peel my frozen hands off of the frosty metal. Nice froth and the color did lighten and soften – but what I imagined looking elegant just turned out looking like a chick drink and tasting like a man drink. So nobody’s happy.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas A. Edison
You’ve seen the videos of burning buildings swept along as fields are engulfed and of cars that look like little Matchbox cars washing into the gutter after the neighborhood bully turned the garden hose on your play day. People are dead, injured or stranded, their homes, their food, their transportation have all been destroyed. Give a little bit to help rebuild the lives of the survivors.
The Time NewsFeed has posted links to 6 reputable charitable organizations mobilizing relief.
I was in Japan during 9/11, and the support of the people everywhere I went was overwhelming. Brown-Liquor.com will be making donations. If you have information on other ways to help, please leave a comment. I will post more ways as I find them.
Nikka, one of Japan’s oldest whisky producers has a distillery in Miyagikyo, Sendai. It’s pretty far inland, but I don’t know yet if it was damaged.
If you’re interested, here is a list of maps illustrating the effects of the earthquake and tsunami.
SF Weekly is putting on a tasting at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco this Saturday, March 12 with 30 different vendors offering tastings and mixing cocktails. The event costs $50 to get in and you can find more details in the new Events section of Brown-Liquor.com. I won’t be able to attend, but if you attend, please let me know what you think of it.
Liquor does a lot of things to a man. And sometimes those things don’t lead to waking up in a hotel parking lot smelling like vanilla and cognac. Sometimes liquor helps you connect with a culture and a lifestyle that’s in your blood, but is not quite your own.
While dining at Perbacco, a fine Italian establishment in San Francisco, I rekindled the romance with my first alcoholic love: Grappa. (First love if you don’t count Natty Light and boxed wine in college.) My girlfriend and I have a nice little two month old tradition of having dinner out in The City with my sister and her husband. It’s fun to eat out with my sister and her husband because 1) I love my sister and 2) her husband Kristyan is an Italian born and trained chef and pizzaiolo – with an accent and everything. He’s like a walking gastronomic encyclopedia.
I nearly went blind with excitement when I opened the wine list and flipped to the back where they list liquors (OK, I’m fibbing – I checked the liquor list out online beforehand like I always do), and saw the nice list of grappas and – Lo! what’s this? A grappa flight?
The Ancestral Grip of Grappa
For those that might not have had the pleasure of tasting grappa, it is what you get when you take the pomace (skins, seeds, stems and other leftovers after pressing) of grapes after making wine, ferment them and distill them. When distilled, these leftover morsels produce a potent liquor that can range in flavor from oaky and complex to something you might fuel your lawnmower with. Some call it a Brandy, but it’s not, truly, because it’s not made with the fruits themselves. My parents told me that my great grandparents used to pour it in everything, from coke, to coffee to orange juice. Apparently, if you weren’t guarding your glass, my great grandmother would slip a slug of grappa in it. Even at breakfast. Maybe she slipped some in my bottle. That could account for my fascination with liquor and my lack of memory of the first few years of my life.
Both of my grandfathers have since told me about providing homemade grappa and wine to the police and other public officials during prohibition. Members of Al Capone’s family even frequented my great grandfather’s ranch on the California coast when Big Al got shipped out to Alcatraz. On a trip to Alcatraz with my parents, my dad divulged that Al’s people would drive cars implicated in crimes up to our relatives’ ranch to bury them in ravines in the coastal mountains, and that he once went with his parents to Capone’s sister’s house near Monterey for a Sunday dinner. That’s cool shit. Anyhow, these stories created a connection with my Italian roots that, 3 generations removed, I was eager to regain, sip by sip. That would prove more difficult than it seemed.
The Boy Becomes a Man
I brought the first bottle of grappa that I ever bought to a get together with friends. It took me 45 minutes to get my nose closer than 6 inches from the glass. And even at that distance, the fumes singed my eyebrows. No one else would even let me pour it for them, but I was determined to choke down at least one searing sip to do my ancestors proud. Before the night was over, I did, and nearly choked it right back up again. I’d never had heartburn before, but that night my entire chest cavity blazed for hours. I casually left that bottle with my hosts. What the eff were my ancestors thinking?!
I didn’t touch the stuff again until my first trip to Italy. I was in a rooftop bar, in Rome, overlooking the Piazza Rotonda where the Pantheon sat in the dark awaiting the next day’s crush of tourists. Maybe because it was my first trip to the motherland, maybe because of the comfort of 2000 year old stone, maybe because if there was anywhere to get good grappa it had to be Italy,or maybe because of the carefree buzz of the wine, but the bottles of grappa lined up over the bar crooned to me that night and I answered. The bartender was more than happy to explain the differences between color and flavor in the different offerings. I selected one and a nicely aged and golden colored liquid was poured in front of me. And, gasp, it didn’t smell like gasoline. I don’t remember how many I tried that night, nor do I remember which ones I tasted or what they tasted like. I simply remember basking in the redemption of my ancestors: this stuff was actually pretty good. I’ve since learned that cask aging mellows the rigid liquor and adds complexity and that true, professional grappa distillers can work magic.
Back to the Near Past
There was one ten year old grappa on the menu at Perbacco that was served with Vahlrona dark chocolate. Then there was the flight of four Jacopo Poli grappas, one of which came highly recommended by my brother in law. That is the Barrique, and I recommend it as well. I like Vahlrona chocolate with liquor.
“Can I order the grappa flight and then just have you bring the Vahlrona chocolate along with it?” I asked the waiter.
“So you want one of these and one of those?”
“No. Just the chocolate, by itself and the grappa flight.” Even I have my limits, and five glasses of grappa definitely exceeds them. For future reference, four exceeds them, too. I didn’t record tasting notes that night. It was purely for enjoyment of the drink and the company. I shared my grappa with the table (lest you think me too much of a lush), and we all had a splendid time.
But the real crux of the evening was that I got to once again visit my great grandmother who poured grappa in everything and my other great grandmother who baked biscotti and fashioned hand made raviolis and to share, for a moment, the times when my grandfathers delivered illegal spirits to police chiefs when they were but young boys. And yes, Al Capone, for better or for worse, your family will forever be intertwined with mine. It was a good night.
Bruichladdich Waves is part of a trilogy of blends packaged in stunning artwork. And the whiskey inside ain’t too bad either. I’ve tried the Peat at Alfred’s Steakhouse, and someday soon I’ll get around to the Rocks. Waves is a blend of vintages matured in both Bourbon and Madeira casks with a lower level of peat than Bruichladdich usually uses.
Medium amber color
Nose – 22
Smoky peat, slight sweet
Mouth – 21
Vanilla, nuts, medium peat, spice, deep oak undertone. A little chocolate and berries. Light brine and sea air.
The peat is light for an Islay single malt.
Finish – 21
Medium finish, smoke and spice fade to a nostalgic
Balance – 22
Well balanced but not overly complex. Medium peat, light sweet and spice mix to warm a windswept coastside.