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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Entries in distilleries (9)


Growing pains, of sorts, at Balcones

As craft distilling grows and the pot of dollars gets bigger, disputes seem to get nastier

Like this one at Balcones Distilling. According to a report in the Waco Tribune, there's substantial ill will between president Chip Tate, and his board, and the dispute which may threaten future opeations. Balcones is one of the nation's outstanding craft spirits producers, willing to challenge traditional distillers by using innovative variations on grain, like the blue corn bourbon.

The board has taken Tate to court, accusing him of "acts harmful to Balcones" and “unconscionable and reprehensible” behavior. A hearing is set for September 18.

Members of the board accurse Tate of threatening ("I should have put two in his chest,” Tate said, according to court documents), and it also charges that he made some allusions to the many flammable products in the distillery, and essentailly, that it wold be a shame if something hapened... if the board didn't let him continue on. On August 22, a state district judge issues a temporary restraining order prohibiting Tate from entering the distillery.

Tate's side was't presented in the story. Stay tuned.


Road trip: Four Roses by any other name

I detoured a bit out of my way yesterday to see the new Four Roses Visitors Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. I was envisioning a big and bold center, like their single-barrel whiskey — perhaps a scaled-down version of the Jack Daniels facility, which is loud and modern but informed by tradition.

The Four Roses “campus” is one of the most beautiful I’ve visited — it’s set down a narrow rural road, and features several Mission-style structures — arriving here is like coming upon a lost compound built by Spanish missionaries, albeit missionaries endowed with a deep understanding of industrial equipment. The structures are uniformly painted the trademark Four Roses yellow, like the label of its best known product.

The new visitor center opened last month as part of a $2.9 million expansion. It’s on a rise above the old visitor center, in a new building that’s also Spanish Mission style.

Sort of. But I wonder: when did we lose the knowledge of how to recreate mission style architecture? The new building lacks the élan and the proper proportioning of the earlier buildings on the grounds. And it’s made with a sort of cheap stucco cladding atop a faux granite plinth, which makes it look like a building from a new mall in an outer suburb. There's also a parade of small shrubberies in front, lending the impression of a waiting line for small shrubbery convention. And it’s weird because none of the other buildings have any design elements like this.

Ooops. My bad. For a moment, I thought this was an architecture blog.

But inside, the center was equally undistinguished - I was hoping for a more of a museum with artifacts of the company’s history. But it’s mostly a swag shop, with tee-shirts and refrigerator magnets, all emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. The new center brought to mind the lobby of a La Quinta hotel. Not a crappy La Quinta, mind you, but one of the good, well-maintained ones in a big city. One with a swimming pool.

Happily, you can buy bourbon in the shop. Unhappily, there was nothing I couldn’t find on my supermarket’s shelves beck home. I asked about the special limited edition bourbon that was bottled to celebrate the opening of the new center, and was available only at the distillery. Sadly, it sold out about two weeks after it went on the market in September. “And you just missed the cask strength limited release bourbon,” the clerk told me, making a frowny face. “That sold out maybe three days ago.”

Don’t get me wrong  — it’s a very nice visitor center, and a great gateway for those who know nothing about bourbon and are just starting to learn. It meshes well with the other Bourbon Trail distilleries, a fine remote campuses for teaching Bourbon 101. But for those looking to expand on an existing base — or pick up some otherwise unavailable expressions — it’s probably not worth the detour. Insert frowny face here.


Benédictine, then and now

I returned two days ago from an arduous 10-day research trip to France, mostly in the region around Cognac. I’ll be reporting more on this over time — a little bit on this blog, but mostly in magazine pieces that I’ll link to when they eventually appear.

I started out, without sleep and packed in the swaddling of jet lag, by immediately heading to the Benédictine Distillery in Fécamp, France, on the Normandy Coast. The distillery is mid-19th century interpretation of a architecturally confused 16th century castle (think: Gothic and Renaissance mash-up). It had a great atmosphere -- the infusing and blending rooms look as if they should be run by short, silent, hunched men in brown robes. In truth, no one was around — but perhaps only because I was there on a Saturday.

A couple of discoveries: Benédictine  — which I’ve always liked, being a fan of the herbal and slightly medicinal — also sells Benédictine Single Cask, a product that takes traditional Benédictine and cranks it up to 11. It’s available only at the plant, and is essentially the same stuff — the same 27 ingredients and aged four months in oak casks — but bottled slightly higher proof (43 versus 40 percent). Somehow, it contains significantly more concentrated and potent flavors. I imagine you will consider this either good news or bad news, depending on your view of Benédictine. For me, it was very good news.

Another discovery: Benédictine mixed with fresh grapefruit juice and ice is just shy of awesome. I’d never had this combo before — and, in fact, it would never had occurred to me to mix them. I see online that others have — including a drink that also features gin and called the Antibes.(Jason Wilson mentioned it last year here.)

It's an odd combination but one that generates small magic. In fact, it tasted like medicinal Gothic and fresh-fruit Renaissance mash-up. And that works for me. 

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Field Trip: Smooth Ambler Spirits, West Virginia

Smooth Ambler Spirits fired up for the first time in April 2010, and had three white spirits on the shelves by June 2010. That’s not an uncommon trajectory for start-up microdistillers: get the white spirits out the door to generate cash-flow and brand awareness. Meantime,  put up some of the higher quality stuff in barrels for aging. Smooth Ambler has done that as well, and the first of aged products are about to roll out.

I visited the distillery in Maxwelton, W.V., earlier this month. It’s got a staff of four, headed up by master distiller and co-founder John Little, who was kind enough to show me around with John Foster, the director of sales.

Their white spirits include Whitewater Vodka, Greenbrier Gin and Exceptional White Whiskey. The vodka’s made from corn and malted barley and was slightly buttery and river-stone smooth. The gin, made from the vodka redistilled with seven botanicals, had a pleasing sort of lilac flavor, and a hint of juniper in the background.

The white whiskey is distilled twice and bottled at 100 proof. It’s based on a bourbon mashbill, with corn, barley and wheat. Little says he hopes to distance their brand from moonshine, the idea of which clings to West Virginia like lime to tonic. “We're more in line with the farmer-distiller,” he says.

The Smooth Ambler name was inspired by a type of horse — “horses are a big deal around here,” Little says — that has a particular gait that’s not a walk and not a run, but something in between. “It reflects what we like about living here,” Little says. “We’re not hicks, but we don’t wear Bluetooth earpieces in the barn like we’re expecting some call from the President.”

Following in the tiny footsteps of Tuthilltown’s Baby Bourbon, Little was getting ready to release his Yearling Bourbon, aged in 15-gallon new oak barrels for, well, a year. It’s a wheated bourbon, with the mashbill at 68 percent corn, 16 percent malted barley, and 16 percent wheat. It’s very good — with a slightly creamy taste and texture, underlaid with a pleasing gingery sharpness. It retails for about $42 for 750ml. Look for it in July.

I also got an advance sip of the triple malt bourbon, made with 60 percent corn, and the rest a blend of wheat, rye and barley malts. I sampled some barreled just two months ago at 120 proof in a five gallon barrel. Not surprisingly, it had a raw wood aroma, which will no doubt mellow with age, but the taste was full and nicely pungent, with a trace of acrid tobacco, and — as yet — none of the barrel's mellowing caramel notes. It still had a shaggy, white-dog aggressiveness about it, but it give it time. I’m guessing it will be worth paying attention to. Limited quantities possibly available as early as September.

A rye may also be on the horizon, but Little is concerned that the party may be over by the time they show up. That’s a justifiable concern given all the scrambling underway to fulfill demand for traditional ryes.

For a young start-up, the distillery, in a new building in a rural industrial park next to an airport, looks pretty settled. They operate a Christian Carl pot still with two columns, and a Vendome pot still. They’d just erected a new outbuilding for storage and aging a few days before I’d arrived, and they report they’re growing faster than they’d anticipated. They appear to be managing growth well. The distillery is open for tours, tastings and retail sales.

Look for Smooth Ambler in a dozen states to date: West Virginia, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, and D.C.
Smooth Ambler Spirits,, Maxwelton, WV, (304) 497-3123


Roll in the barrels

The man to the left is Yvon Marie-Louise, the in-house cooper at the St. James rum distillery on Martinique, where I traveled last month on assignment. This trip involved touring rum distilleries and consuming unhealthy amounts of ‘ti punch, and, yes, you’re already on my list to notify when the position of research assistant opens up.

Yvon loves working on barrels. The only problem: He’s 85 years old. He told me he’s been trying to retire for about 25 years now. He announces he’s leaving, he goes home, and sooner than later the company knocks on his door with hat in hand and asks him to come back.  “There’s nobody to take over,” he says. “Nobody wants to work. They want the easy money.”

The nature of the cooper’s job has changed here as everywhere — St. James used get barrels that had been broken down into staves, heads, and hoops, and the in-house coopers would reassemble them. No longer — now they’re brought in intact in cargo containers, and Yvon is on hand for repairs and more minor jobs. He says barrels are essentially of the same quality today as they were 70 years ago when he started working with them.

I’ve long been fascinated by barrels, the people that make them, and the strange and occult effect they perform on spirits stored within them. That's probably doesn't mark me as a very hip person, but there you have it.

Most spirits experts agree that barrels play a massive role in the final flavor of aged spirits, but hardly anybody knows what goes on inside. You might as well tell people that the barrels contain elves that methodically rearrange molecules.

Well, at Tales of the Cocktail this year a few of us are hoping to bust open the barrel, or at least pry off a stave or two and peer in. The seminar is called Timber! It’s History and Sensory Analysis, and it’s hosted by Eric Seed, a magician in his own right, and the man behind the revival of many once-lost spirits. I’ll be offering up a brief history of barrels and their role in the spirits trade. Doug Frost will be tell you what exactly you're smelling and tasting when wood comes knocking. And Derek Brown, bartender par excellence at The Passenger in Washington D.C., will speak about how to use the complex flavors gained from wood to grand effect in cocktails.

The seminar will be at 10:30am on Friday July 22. We hope to see you there.  


Big Booze vs. Little Booze Smackdown

In last week's Dining section of the New York Times, Toby Cecchini published a fine overview of some of the efforts underway involving microdistilling in and around New York City. His piece was in large part a celebration of being small, of having the freedom to experiment and try things never before tried, of crafting something by hand that's both unique and elegant.

Though more labor-intensive, these more faithfully capture the essence of fruit and grain, and let a distiller precisely select what part of the distilling run to use to create the most nuanced styles and flavors.

“These smaller products are necessarily more expensive, and they may lack some refinement,” said Chris Gerling, an associate of enology at the Cornell Extension in Geneva, N.Y., who runs its increasingly popular introductory seminars on distilling. “But people get that they’re all handmade, local, often organic. That’s the tradeoff. They can show some rough edges and be more appealing for it.”

This morning, Clay Risen at The Atlantic's website reports that he's not buying it in a post entitled "The Microdistilling Myth." While he admits that it's "hard not to love people who spend their free time making alcoholic beverages," he insists "there's a difference between praising their efforts and lauding the outcomes." And he insists that big is often better when it comes to spirits.

Liquor, Risen says, isn't like beer or processed meat. When the smaller producers are aquired by the larger conglomerates in those commodity industry, quality suffers as profits are squeezed. But, he says, not so with liquor. He cites Jim Beam, whose parent company also makes golf equipment: "I have yet to sample a craft whiskey that comes close even to Jim Beam's most basic offering, the four-year-old White Label, let alone its small-batch bourbons like Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, or Booker's." He continues:

Brewing is a young man's game: It's relatively easy to master the basic techniques involved. The key is to be industrious (you've got to make a lot of beer) and exceedingly, constantly creative. Distilling and aging whiskey, on the other hand, takes decades to master—which is why Four Roses's Jim Rutledge and Heaven Hill's Parker Beam, two of the greatest whiskey distillers alive, are both quite long in the tooth.

Let me go way out on a limb here and say that I agree with both Toby and Clay.

I love much of the output from microdistilleries. (Prichard's White Rum — yum!) And I love much of the liquor churned out by the big producers (Buffalo Trace Bourbon — yum!). So this is something of a straw man debate here — what tastes good tastes good, whether produced by small or large distillers. Toby's correct that the prevalence of pot stills among smaller producers adds something to the market. And Clay's correct that over the decades producers like Beam have figured out how to mass produce quality.

But what's worth celebrating in my mind is something else: it's the wildly increasing diversity and choice on the liquor store shelves — big, little, good, bad, whatever, it's way more interesting now than a decade ago. Last week I sampled ryes made by WhistlePig, Templeton, Redemption, Sazerac (Buffalo Trace), Rittenhouse and Bulleit (coming out in March). Some were great, some a little off. But five years ago, my sampling would have been limited to Old Overholt. I love the swelling options in spirits, and I thank the microdistillers for much of this — they're getting attention and keeping the big guys on their toes.

So wherever you come down on the snoozy Big Booze vs. Small Booze debate, I think we can all agree on one point: More Booze is always best of all.


Does everything look better in moonshine?

In the April issue of The Atlantic I take a (very brief) tour through modern moonshining. (Article here.) I liked the taste of some of the moonshine I encountered during my research. But other moonshine, not so much.

But I always liked the simple, Steampunkish aesthetic of the homemade, cobbled-together, backroom stills. They brought back fond memories of high school chemistry classes — as a teenager, I always liked the look and feel of laboratory equipment, stuff that seemed filled with huge potential. It could be used to do something truly wonderful and groundbreaking, or something really foolish and dangerous involving sudden explosions and trips to the eye-washing station. And it didn't really matter which.   

Among my favorites were these two:


Potato vodka from Superfly Distilling Co, Oregon

When I first read the name "Superfly Distilling," I thought, well, it's about time microdistilling made it to the inner city. The theme song from Shaft started thumping in my head, and, fight as I might, the image of bottles wrapped in fur-collared coats appeared in my head

But, no... it's named after a fishing fly. You know, of the sort used in fly fishing, a wholesome outdoor activity. Oregon, and all that.

The company started up last spring, and has a small still Brookings, Ore., on the coast just north of the California state line. Superfly starting shipping its first product, a potato vodka, in mid-September. It's being distributed only in Oregon to date. Next on the line: a spiced rum, a whiskey and a gin.

I haven't tried any Superfly yet, but I'm looking forward to correcting this.

For more info, visit Superfly Distilling.


Nashoba Valley Single Malt Whiskey and Murphy’s Law

Five years ago, shortly after getting the first farmer-distiller’s license in Massachusetts, Rich Pelletier told his wife he was planning to tie up about $100,000 worth of inventory by putting up single malt distillate in barrels to age. If everything worked out, he figured, they just might be able to make some money someday.

But things go wrong, as Pelletier learned this month as he was just getting ready to bottle his Nashoba Single Malt — one of the few American single malts produced.

Not fatally wrong, but wrong.

A little background: apple wine has been made at this sprawling orchard thirty miles west of Boston since 1983. When Pelletier bought the 90-acre farm in the early 1990s, he continued with the wine, but wanted to see what else he could do. In particular, he figured he should be able to do something with all the apples that fell to the ground to rot — like, maybe, ferment them and make vodka. So he successfully pushed the state legislature to create a farm-distillery license, and began producing a popular apple-based vodka.

Since then, he’s continued to expand his line, producing apple, peach, and pear brandies, plus a gin and several fine liqueurs. Foggy Bog — a cranberry liqueur is his top seller, and he’s also done well with Northern Comfort, a surprisingly delicate maple liqueur. (A full list of Nashoba spirits may be found here.)

So you’ve never heard of Nashoba Valley liquor? There’s a good reason. Pelletier doesn’t sell through distributors or stores or even in Massachusetts bars. (Why sell wholesale, he figured, if he can retail it and keep the lion’s share?) So if you want to buy Nashoba products, you pretty much have to drive to Pelletier’s farm. Think of it as a local farmstand selling legal hooch. (There’s also limited mail order; see below.)

Back to the whiskey. In 2004 Pelletier started with two barrels of single malt (made from Canadian barley), aging it in old peach and wine barrels. He dipped the thief in now and again. And earlier this year he decided it was time to bottle the barrels.

As good fortune would have it, I happened to stop by in September, just two weeks before bottling was scheduled. I tasted. And I found his whiskey strikingly good, with a fruitiness that was ethereal, light and not unwelcome, just teasing the midpalate before vanishing. (The first year’s run was unpeated; future years will have a seven percent peated barley malt in the grain bill.)

Pelletier planned to bottle some 600 bottles from his freshmen effort — some 280 had already been presold when I was there. (A bottle cost $49 before September 1, and $59 after.) He put five barrels up the second year and has been expanding gradually since. He’s planning to hold back some future barrels, and eventually sell 10-year and some older expressions.

The bottles he’s using are from Italy and are quite attractive — heavy glass polygons, like rectangles that  knocked slightly askew in a bar fight. And I thought this was a nice touch: he’s sawn up the barrels in which the whiskey aged, and attached a two-inch block of stave on each cork, so you get a souvenir of whence the whiskey came.

So what went wrong? Well, when the bottles were delivered last month, they stunk. I mean, really stunk, of something foul and toxic — he had to move the pallets outside the building. They were not, in short, not something into which you wanted to decant a delicate, five-year-old whiskey.

Pelletier investigated. One clue — the trucking company that had delivered the bottles had a “Hazardous Materials” sign on it. Turned out, the previous load had been liquid sytrene. “In my 15 years of being in this business and having bottles shipped to us from all over the world,” Pelletier wrote on his website, “I have never had this experience as every trucker that I have dealt with had the intelligence to understand that bottles are akin to any food product and that they need to be handled in the same fashion in order to insure safety and quality.”

The expense of cleaning and testing the bottles was deemed prohibitive. So Pelletier ordered a whole new batch of bottles from Italy. The initial early fall bottling has been pushed back again, now into late fall. Expect a November 2009 release of the Nashoba Five-Year Single Malt. 

Nashoba Valley Winery. 100 Wattaquadock Hill Road, Bolton MA. 978.779.5521 Pelletier reports that he can ship many of his products (although not all) to 23 states that have agreements with Massachusetts. (They’re listed here.)