What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Twitter: @waynecurtis

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Craft spirits shelf scramble “rattling the markets”

Pernod-Ricard announced some less than stellar financial results this week  — net profits dropped 14 percent in the past year. As a result, the company will lay off 900 employees. CEO Pierre Pringuet told journalists that part of the reason behind the bleak report was the rise of craft spirits.

Not that the Lilliputians were preventing Gulliver from doing what he does well (Pernod Ricard makes Absolut, Jameson, and Beefeater, among many others). But Pringuet noted that shelf space in bars and liquor stores is a limited commodity, and the sheer number of new brands is posing a challenge to the real estate normally claimed by legacy brands. The arrival of the little people has done much to “rattle the market,” he said, as reported by Andy Morton on

Pernod-Richard has been thinking about what to do about this craft spirits encroachment for a while. (See this Feburary 2013 story in by Becky Paskin in The Spirits Business.)  A few months ago, Pernod's “black ops team” came out with Our/Vodka — the idea being that the global giant will pair with local distilleries to produce local vodka. (From the Our/Vodka website: “It’s a global vodka made by local partners in cities around the world.”) All will have share DNA, and will be sold in bottles that like a craft brich beer from a Brooklyn loft. Each claims a subtle local variation to reflect the city of origin. Our/Berlin was released first; Our/Detroit rolled out a couple of weeks ago. I haven't tried either, so I'm not sure how Berlin tastes compared to Detroit. Up next: Our/Seattle (October) followed by Our/New York and Our/Los Angeles in 2015.

Pernod-Ricard hit it big with Abosolut years ago when global brands were the thing. It’s now betting that local will trump global — or if not trump it, at least give a run for the shelf space. So Gulliver is doing something new: making Lilliputians.


What, no Skittles? Liquor migrates from nursery to rumpus room at WSWA

A man in a tailored suit stepped into the elevator, saw my media badge, then immediately reached into his pocket to brandish a sealed, single-serving drink he described as a “super-premium shot.”

It resembled a transparent Keurig pod filled with a clear liquid. What type of liquid and what flavor I failed to learn because, well… have you ever been in a plummeting elevator with a stranger waving a plastic shot of something in your face while excitably repeating “the next big thing”? Fight or flight kicked in, big time.

I was at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas this week for the massive annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America convention. I’ve attended several times in the past, and each time I felt as if I’ve suddenly stepped into a colorful, Oz-like land  — one populated with vacantly smiling Amazonian models in slinky black cocktail dresses always proffering colorful drinks (except for the vacantly smiling models dressed in storm-trooper leather proffering rum shots). Also: guys in suits either hawking the next big thing, or in steely-eyed search for it.

The focus here has rarely been on the quality or authenticity or story behind the spirits, but on who has best arranged a forced marriage between alcohol and flavors of childhood. (It was here I was first introduced to Adult Chocolate Milk and Skittles-inspired flavored vodka. And cake-flavored vodka. Lots of cake-flavored vodka.)  

Yet, despite my elevator encounter, my sense was that the annual gathering was starting to grow up. There were fewer cake and candy flavors, and a lot more flavors trending toward exotic and interesting.

Danny Brager, a senior-vice president at Nielsen, a firm that takes an unseemly interest in what you drink and why, said at one panel discussion a “broader revolution around generational changes” was underway. He suggested that Millenials are focused more on what’s local and what’s authentic. Essentially, they’re looking for the Etsy of liquor, he said — they’re drawn to smaller brands with a story and a handcrafted touch. Big Liquor doesn’t interest them so much.

Not that bro-booze, you-go-girlfriend! ready-to-drink cocktails, and cake and candy vodka flavors will disappear. (And don’t even ask me about Vodquila.) But in roaming the expo and getting lost in endless hospitality suites, I sensed that the industry was starting to recalibrate somewhat.

“There’s an overlap between what craft spirits offer and what Millenials are looking for,” said Tom Mooney, the president of new American Craft Distillers Association and a CEO of House Spirits in Oregon, at the panel. ”This is a fortuitous circumstance of Millenials coming of age and craft sprits coming of age, and hopefully they’ll stay together for life.”

I tasted more intriguing, challenging products here than in the past. That included Black Balsam, a Latvian-based fernet with a recipe dating to 1752 that’s now stepping up its efforts in the U.S. after lackluster distribution in the past.

And a new, complex two-year aged wheat whiskey coming off Germain-Robin’s antique copper pot still. And an exceedingly tasty barrel strength rye sourced by Redemption — with six years in wood and bottled at just over at 120 proof.

Even when flavors were involved, they seemed to venture beyond the nursery. I liked the Selveray Cacao Rum, an aged Panamanian rum with sophisticated dark-chocolate notes. Even the Stolen rum flavored with tobacco and coffee — which isn’t wholly original; remember Ivanabitch Vodka’s tobacco and menthol flavors? — had a challenging, slightly sulfurous bite that could do well paired up with a dense vermouth and offsetting bitters.

And the bottled cocktails I sampled stuck me as better and far more natural tasting than in the past. The Miami Cocktail Co. had bottled drinks (mojito, sweat tea, pina colada) made with all natural ingredients which managed to avoid the metallic taste of the New Jersey turnpike flavor-industrial complex. Even better were the three bottled cocktails created by Charles Joly for Crafthouse (Moscow mule, paloma, south side). At my first sip of the Southside, I thought, whoa, someone finally figured out how to preserve the crisp taste of freshly squeezed lime in a bottle. That’s no mean feat.    

I didn’t see the Ivanabitch folks this year, nor the Skittles-inspired vodka. It seemed as if the party had been moved from the toddler’s nursery to the tween’s rumpus room.

Carving out a space in the liquor world demands a deft touch. If you’re just staring out, it’s not enough to copy a successful mainstream liquor, like Bulleit Bourbon or Appleton Rum. New producers will always lose the distribution and advertising wars, not to mention economies of scale. But neither can they jump the shark too audaciously, because that triggers ridicule.

This year, I didn’t notice as many sharks circling nor guys in suits jumping. The space between too-familiar and too-fatuous seemed to be growing a little more populated, a little more inclusive, a lot more interesting.

Still, be alert when you’re in the elevators. 


Jack v. George? Follow the barrel

A bill was introduced into the Tennessee state legislature recently in which the devil is very much in the details.

The bill defines “Tennessee whisky,” and the devil has three letters. It’s the word “new.” The present bill is essentially a revision to a bill passed last year. Under last year's law, backed by Jack Daniel's, to be labeled as Tennessee whisky, white dog must be aged in “new, charred oak barrels.” The new bill, introduced at the prodding of George Dickel, requires only that white dog sit only in “charred oak barrels.” (Chuck Cowdery has posted both new and old bills here.)

The bill’s revision puts Jack at odds with George. That sounds pretty homespun and all Hatfield vs. McCoyish, but of course this is a heat-butting between two industry giants: Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels) vs. Diageo (George Dickel).

Diageo is in favor of allowing used oak barrels, and has recruited some craft distillers to its side. It claims, not very believably, that it’s interested in defending the rights of the little guy to choose what barrel it wants.  (The legislator who sponsored the new bill said of Brown-Forman, “They are a big bully picking on all the little guys.” Very rich, given that Diageo posted $17 billion in sales last year, vs. $3 billion for Brown-Forman.)

But what’s really behind this?

My suggestion: Follow the barrels.

It’s quite hard to source new oak barrels today, for a variety of reasons that I won’t delve into here. But getting enough new barrels to age bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is becoming a problem.

And it’s especially becoming a problem for Diageo, which has to compete with other big-time distillers for a dwindling supply, along with a booming wine and craft spirits industry, all of whom are clamoring for increasingly scarce barrels. (One craft distiller I spoke with two weeks ago told me that Independent Stave Company, the nation’s largest cooperage, told him to call back in nine to twelve months, as they had no barrels at this time.)

Why doesn’t Brown-Forman have the same sourcing problem? Because they run their own cooperage in Louisville. And in two months, they’re slated to open a second cooperage in northern Alabama. This will do little to relieve the national shortage of barrels, as the new place is being built solely to supply Jack Daniels.

Diageo, foreseeing difficulties in getting enough new oak to meet the legal definition of “Tennessee Whisky,” is simply following a time-honored path: it’s working to change the law. If they don’t need to use new barrels, they can simply re-use the old ones.

One word, three letters, problem solved.

As I’ve written before, barrels matter. Industry people say that barrels provide anywhere between fifty and eighty percent of the taste of bourbon, which by law must be aged in new barrels. A once-used barrel doesn’t impart much in the way color (one hundred precent of the color of bourbon comes from the barrel), nor nearly as much flavor — the barrel has had much of its oaky goodness leached out during the first round of aging. It’s like using fresh herbs in a preparing a meal, or dried herbs that have been sitting in the back of your cupboard for three years. There’s a noted difference.

How does the proposed bill affect the consumer? By changing the law to eliminate word “new”, the state legislature essentially moots the definition of Tennessee whisky. Pick a bottle up in the store, and you might get full-bodied whisky aged in new barrels. Or you might get a thin whisky aged in thrice-used barrels and carmel-colored for consistency.

Those in favor of a more expansive definition of Tennessee whiskey grouse that, under last year's law, all Tennessee whiskey will end up tasting like Jack Daniels. That’s patent nonsense, of course. It’s the same as saying under federal law, all bourbon tastes the same. Yet, bourbon come in many varieties, with wide pricing differences that reflect that. 

I’d like to see last year’s definition maintained, and the “new” kept in the “charred oak barrels.” As a consumer, that gives me a baseline of what to expect when I pick up a bottle labeled “Tennessee whisky.” Diageo is looking for an easy way out of the barrel squeeze.

Don’t let it.


Field Trip: Hunt + Alpine Club, Portland, Maine

For all its exalted stature in the foodie press, Portland, Maine, has never had a dedicated craft cocktail bar. You can always get a solidly made drink at one of the better restaurants (Fore Street, The Front Room), but bar-wise it’s always been more of beer town.

Happily, that's changed. Andrew Volk swapped Portlands a couple of years back — Oregon for Maine. (He worked with Jeffery Morgenthaler at Clyde Common). Then this past summer he opened the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, right in the middle of the quaint and tidy Old Port. Yes, it’s got an ironic Brooklynesque name given the distance from any place to actually hunt or ski (see: Union Pool, Bushwick Country Club), but Volk carries it off well — it’s irony without the air quotes. The space is beautiful, bright and welcoming.

Volk tends bar along with craft cocktail pioneer John Myers, who moved from the Grill Room just across the park. Myers started out behind the stick in Washington, D.C., and moved to Maine in 2001. He’s a more or less a classicist when it comes to drink, which is good since in Maine the range of liquors is limited by the state-decreed nanny-distribution system. If you buy me a drink, I’ll tell you about the time Myers came out to my house when I lived on Peaks Island to help me drain bottles that were less than half full prior to my move to New Orleans. It was a long night; I took Myers to three ferries to send him home, one of which we missed and two of which evidently never existed. I believe we got rid of more liquor in the coffee the next morning.

The cocktail list will keep both strict cocktail constructionists and the general public slaked and entertained. Classics are well represented (Clover Club, El Presidente, La Louisiane, Tommy’s Margarita), but so too are modern adaptations, like Volk’s own gin and tonic variation made with Cocchi and quinine syrup. Fernet Branca is spread around the menu like lobster buoys around a harbor.

A private lodge exists within the lounge here — it’s reserved for lodge “members” (buffalo horns optional) who pony up $2,500 (which includes a $2,000 bar tab and access to the private space, which is sort of like a ski hut come to the city for a little urban getaway). Nobody was in residence when I visited, but it seems like it would be a good place to entertain friends and clients.

Food is second to the drink here but well considered. It’s vaguely Nordic in inspiration, with options like gravlax and pickled beet salad.

If I still lived in Portland — and I lived here for nearly twenty years, or as I remember it, twenty winters — this would be my regular haunt. I have fond memories of spending long winter days at another (now gone) bar a few blocks away, sitting at a corner table that was flooded with late afternoon sunlight. Add a handful of friends, a Scrabble board, popcorn with Siracha, and endless pints of beer, and the stage was set for lazy afternoons punctuated by physical altercations, game board over-flipping, and out-storming following arguments of how to pluralize certain obscure nouns.

I already have a table picked out at Portland Hunt + Alpine for winter afternoons. Now I just need a plane ticket and a new Scrabble board. Well that, and getting over lingering frostbite-related PTSD from walking home into knifing wind after getting off the ferry near midnight on February nights.

Or maybe I'll just go back next summer.

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, 75 Market St., Portland, ME. 207-747-4754.


Press releases I didn't finish reading

"Pumpkin Face Rum, a line of ultra premium rum imported from Dominican Republic, was introduced last year to rave reviews. As a result of a successful launch and high demand worldwide, Itsko Imports of Beverly Hills, California has expanded its Pumpkin Face line to include an ultra premium Cream liqueur..."

[Editor's note: Umm.. Pumpkin Face Cream Liqueur? Sorry. I only drink Neutrogena Visibly Firm Night Cream Liqueur.]


Press releases I didn't finish reading

“Peligroso Tequila, known for its dangerously exceptional juice, is heating up the market yet again with the launch of the newest member of its premium tequila family—Peligroso Cinnamon. The world’s first 84 proof cinnamon-flavored tequila is infused with 100% pure cinnamon and a blend of secret ingredients...”


LQQK! For sale: 2 bottles Maker’s Mark 42% bourbon, MINT!!!!!

Maker’s Mark reports that a “relatively small amount” of its now-famous Ooops!-Never-Mind Wheated Bourbon has made it to store shelves. It’s labeled 42 percent instead of 45 percent, reflecting a short-lived belief that Maker’s fans wouldn’t really notice if they were charged the same for water as for whiskey.

The company reversed course pretty quickly, but not quickly enough to intercept trucks headed to market. MSN reports that people — and by “people” I assume they are referring to those folks who earlier traded in Beanie Babies and Transformers — are voraciously hunting it down. Empty bottles of it are cropping up on eBay for $30. The niche-within-a-niche website Maker's Mark Bottles has even started a tracker service, so collectors can report when and where they’ve found the rare bottles.

New Orleans was on the receiving end of at least one shipment. I know this because I stumbled upon seven bottles of Makers 42% on the shelf in a store yesterday. I bought two, because, well, frankly, retirement is elusive when you’re a freelancer. My plan is to sit on these beautiful golden eggs for a while, and then cash in when I’m ready to hatch them.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m ready. I’d be happy to live out my days in dim bars not worrying about deadlines, starting, say, tomorrow. So they're available — while they last! — at $500,000 for one, or two for $999,999. (Save a dollar.)You think waking up with a hangover is bad? Imagine waking up with a lifelong regret that you failed to nab these bad boys.

Contact me via the comments section.


Press releases I didn't finish reading

Phillips Distilling Company (Phillips) today unveils the world’s first candy bar flavored vodka, UV Candy Bar. Infused with all-natural milk chocolate, velvety caramel and peanut butter flavors, UV Candy Bar is a sippable sweet indulgence.”


Two Northeast whiskeys I'm demolishing, glass by glass

I've been putting the hurt on a couple of new mico-distillery whiskeys of late, one from Boston and one from upstate New York. Both are creditable and tasty and make me happy.

Bully Boy American Striaght Whiskey ($40) is produced by a couple of brothers in a frayed, industrial part of Boston — the first to produce liquor in Boston in years. They're also making rum, vodka, and white dog. Their aged whiskey was just released late last year and is made in a 150-gallon Kothe still with a mashbill of 45% corn, 45% rye and 10% barley. Then it went for two years in new American oak barrels with a heavy char.

Given the high rye, it's a surprisingly big and round whiskey, with hints of corn candy and only the slghtest hint of white-doggish funk, reflecting the honorable amount of time it spent in standard sized barrels. "It's kind of ppular to age stuff in small barrels, to get stuff to market faster," Will Willis told me, "but we just weren't psyched about it – it was a little too woody." I thought it shared a nicely harmonizing note or two with rum – there's a lovely, lingering sweetness.

I'm glad they gave this some time to relax instead of rushing to market. Thanks to time, Bully Boy makes for a perfectly fine sipping rum – not as complex as some longer-aged bourbons coming out of Kentucky, but still a welcome companion on a persistent winter night.

Hilllrock, located a little more than two hours north of New York City near where New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut converge, is all about the time. It claims the first approved solera-system for aging bourbon, an arrrangement whereby the whiskey starts in barrels that are later drawn down partway and used to top off older barrels and so on, until the whiskey at the bottom of the process is bottled. (This is a prety simple technology; what's more of a feat is that they it managed to find their way through the federal regulatory maze and still call this bourbon. My assumpton is that the juice has to be aged in new oak barrels for a time before it makes its way into the solera.)

It's a new distillery, so they're starting with "seed bourbon" – some aged product sourced from another distillery that mirrors the taste profile they're seeking. Distiller Dave Pickerell was at Maker's Mark for quite a run, and he knows where a lot of good stuff is hidden around the U.S. and Canada, and has the connections to acquire it. (He did much the same with the remarkable Whistlepig Rye.) The newly made whiskey at the upstate N.Y. the distillery first aged in smaller, new barrels, then blended with the seed bourbon, and then re-aged, solera-style. They claim an average age of six years.

It's quite good, and has an elegant custom bottle. There's a pleasing flinty minerality to it, with and nice spicnees on the finish, which is likely attributable to the aggressive 37 percent rye in the mashbill.Then it's all complicated with cherry notes. Is it worth $88? Well...  I prefer some of the Willett's at half that price, but this is still an excellent sipping whiskey and should occupy a place of pride at any bar.

Neither of these were as complex as some of the longer-aged whiskeys I've been sucking down lately, but both have sufficient richness – far better than the one-note of bottom-shelf whiskey, and they run circles around a lot of the thin, one-note stuff coming out of other micro-distilleries. I say: check 'em out.


Elbow patch & rye: History, liquor get jiggy, sort of 

I love attending academic conferences where there’s talk of booze served with a side of ponderous throat clearing, a saucer of elbow patch, and a raising of eyebrow. So serious!

I dropped in on a few sessions at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting this week, and learned a lot about New Orleans, a lot about what profession not to pursue if you want security and income, and a lot about where the journalist and popular historian fit into the academe. (Way off to the side, it turns out, where they’re fixed with squinty stares from tenured professors who simultaneously look down on them for their lack of rigor and envy them for their wider readership.)

People joked about sessions where panelists outnumbered the audience, but that wasn’t actually a joke at the session I attended yesterday afternoon — four panelists, and three of us in the audience.

This involved three intriguing papers on various aspects of alcohol in the early 20th century France. (Mostly wine; I would have liked more than a chaser of distilled spirits.)    

But I learned about connections I wouldn’t normally have made, such as between scrap metal and wine during World War II. Chad Denton of Yonsei University (Korea) spoke of how once the global embargo put the pinch on Germany and Vichy France, a drive was launched to get the citizenry to donate their chandeliers and grandmother’s tea kettles and whatever else to the cause. But the cause wasn’t the war, at least not according to the propaganda — it was the saving of the wine crop! Scrap metals were needed to make copper sulfate to spray the vines to kill the phylloxera aphids! To make the connection, posters and leaflets promised those who brought in their copper bottles of wine in return. Of course, the metal went not to the crop but to Germany which went into bombs that fell on London. Call it blood wine.

Another connection: between breathalyzers and the centralization of power. Joseph Bohling, University of California, Berkeley, presented a paper on the shift of control from the provinces to the capital. Until the 1950s, the local constabulary in France decided if you were drunk by observing you. But with the appearance of roadside alcohol detecting technology in the late 1950s, who was drunk could be decided by Paris — taking away local decisions about whether someone was in control of their faculties to drive. (The devices got a lot of push back from the public, who understood that context mattered.) I haven't yet read a social history of the breathalyzer in the U.S., but I'm guessing it's out there it would be worth tracking down. (A few days at this conference convinced me that every topic and subject has been researched exhaustively by someone.)

Where the connection between drinking and history was not made was in conference scheduling. Today (Sunday) there are no fewer than 35 simultaneous panels, talks, and presentations scheduled at four downtown hotels. At 8:30 in the morning. In New Orleans. I suspect history will show that three people in attendence will be considered a good run.