Why, yes Bob, I’ll take obscure Agave Spirits for $100…

Ciejo Rojo Bacanora Blanco $42.99 – SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS! My wife’s family is from Sonora, Mexico and this is the first time we’ve been able to get one in the U.S. I’ve been drinking this for years because my mother-in-law brings it back whenever she visits. It’s like a cross between mezcal and tequila from the north. Cielo Rojo is made from the exquisite and rare Silvestre Agave, which is harvested in the wild arid deserts of Sonora. These elusive plants grow on the steep canyons of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and after labor-intensive hand harvesting they’re packed out on burro. This wild agave is then roasted in ovens carved out of the clay and rock soils of the Sonoran desert. After roasting, a slow fermentation is achieved with exclusively wild yeast before small batch distillation in small alembic pot stills. Bacanora spent the better part of the last century as contraband, but its tradition dates back centuries. Somewhere between Mescal and Tequila, Bacanora has truly its own style and Cielo Rojo is the finest available. Soft smoke mingles enticingly with this herbaceous spice. It’s all held together by this forward agave fruit, which just begs you to take another sip. Certainly a must have for any agave lover, but smooth enough for any spirits drinker to appreciate.

David Driscoll

K&L Spirits Buyer

Well, who can resist a story like that? Anytime you have your Mother-in-Law acting as a Spirits Mule, I’m in!

Low Gap American Craft Whiskey

I don’t know if you have any friends in bands.

Some times, even though they are perfectly great people who you like to hang out with, their idea of music just may not jive with yours.

You go to see them the first few times they play, determine your perspective on their art, and in the future make vague excuses regarding family obligations and other important tasks.

You might still buy their records, but, really? Klezmer crossed with Al Di Meola Style Jazz Fusion? Who wants to sit through that more than a couple times?

We’re still good friends, but some times there are things friends don’t talk about.

Anyway, when Crispin Cain told me he was going to make and market an unaged Whiskey, I was a little worried. I really like his Absinthe and his Rose Liqueur.

But jumping into the unaged Whiskey business?

To be honest, a lot of the people I talk to are pretty unenthused about unaged whiskey.

Ok, it’s kind of a funny idea. Maybe a novelty, at best, and a way to get some sort of product to market during the lean years while you age your proper whiskey. A lot of companies will do something similar, marketing another unaged product like Vodka or Gin. However, at worst, where some companies are neither aging nor distilling their own products, it seems like a bit of a scam to charge more than $30 for something that is not really all that different from Industrial Ethanol.

To paraphrase another friend, there’s kind of a reason barrel aging has developed as the most common way to use grain distillate… Oh wait, the number one spirit in the world is an unaged grain distillate: Vodka

Well, let’s face it, in a lot of cases, that’s what these unaged whiskey producers are selling: Dirty Vodka.

I think back to Alton Brown’s Good Eats episode about Bourbon. After hearing the Maker’s Mark Master Distiller describe the process he exclaimed, “So, really, what you are making is a solvent to extract flavor from wood.” The Master Distiller went on to say he preferred to think of the process more akin to alchemy, extracting Gold from Lead, but he had to admit, from a technical point of view, Alton was right.

And a lot of what is being sold as Unaged Whiskey or, shudder, “Moonshine” just isn’t that nice.

So I was a little worried when Crispin told me he was going to sell his American Craft Whiskey as a clear spirit. Would we have uncomfortable silences in our next interaction?

However, when I saw the Low Gap Clear American Craft Whiskey on the shelf at the San Francisco Wine Trading Company a couple months ago, I knew I had to at least give it the old college try.

So, what’s the low down with this product?

Crispin, (and it is just him, his wife and one of his sons making all of their products,) buys malted Bavarian Wheat. Brews an unhopped beer from the wheat, spiking it with a yeast normally used for Wine or Brandy production. When the proper alcohol (around 8.8 ABV) and degree of acidity is reached, he distills it twice on Germain-Robin’s antique Cognac still (pictured on their website). First to get it to 23-30% ABV (brouillis is the French term) and again to take it to 65-80% ABV (or an Eau-de-Vie).

While this sort of production is normal for Cognac or Brandy, it is more than a bit unusual for Whiskey. Even among the so-called “Micro-Distillers”, very few are fermenting their own wash and almost no one is distilling literal “small batch” Whiskey in a true Cognac-Style still. I mean, it is a 16 hectolitre still, if that isn’t “small batch”, nothing is.

What you get is something amazingly aromatic, yet at the same time incredibly clean. There are great aromas, one friend described it as sticking your head in a flour bag or breaking open a loaf a bread, but the spirit is so well distilled that it makes you forget that it is completely unaged.

Crispin is aging this wheat spirit in a number of interesting ways, but what about this new product, the “Clear” version of Low Gap American Craft Whiskey?

Well, thinking about it, while barrel aging is awesome, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. The idea of a 10 year old whiskey would have been crazy talk to someone like Jerry Thomas. In the 19th Century, and before, almost all spirits were bottled new make and then shipped to bars in barrels. If a bar wanted to buy and age a barrel of spirits, that was their prerogative, but most whiskey was served much younger than ever would be contemplated today.

So maybe I should make a 19th Century style cocktail with a 19th Century style unaged Whiskey? How about Jerry Thomas’ 1887 recipe for the Manhattan Cocktail?

Manhattan Cocktail.
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 2 dashes of Curacoa or Maraschino.
1 pony of rye whiskey.
1 wine-glass of vermouth.
3 dashes of Boker’s bitters.
2 small lumps of ice.

Shake up well, and strain into a claret glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the customer prefers it very sweet use also two dashes of gum syrup.

Right, well, I’m going to simplify this slightly, because The Underhill Lounge is a classy joint, (note the awesome glassware!)

Old School Manhattan

Long Pour Chilled Red Vermouth
Short Pour Low Gap American Craft Whiskey
Short Pour Amaro Ciociaro
Chilled Soda Water

Combine Vermouth, Whiskey, and Amaro in a glass. Stir to combine. Top up with soda.

Ahem, oops, this is about all I’ve been drinking in February, (when I don’t leave the booze out altogether,) I like it so much.

I did try this with the Perucchi Red Vermouth, which was OK. However, it is tons, and I mean TONS, better with Carpano Antica Italian Vermouth. There is just a very nice synergy between the malted flavors of the Low Gap Clear Whiskey and the sweet vanilla notes of the Carpano Antica. The amazing thing for me is how clearly the flavor and scent of the Whiskey comes through in this, even though in volume terms it is a bit player in the cocktail. The Whiskey also seems to act as a sort of amplifier, raising the character of the other elements.

Not bad, Crispin, not bad at all.

So sometimes, it turns out your friends bands are surprisingly good, or even excellent. Like my friend who is maybe the best Theremin player I have ever seen (Project Pimento), or another who transforms the tropes of 1960s chamber rock into cool modern music (Scrabbel), Crispin has pulled this one out.

I can’t wait to see how this whiskey turns out with some age on it.

Agricole Libre (Part One)

There are things that I like to think I do well on the blog.

Generally: research, photography, and content creation

There are things I do pretty badly.

These things include: posting timely journalistic content and spirits reviews or comparisons

So no real surprise that the photos for this post were taken in April and the post has been sitting in my “Drafts” bin for most of that time.

One day I was hanging out in the Mixoloseum Bar when Camper English mentioned that he had been invited to a launch party for the new R(h)um from St. George Spirits. Being that it was in Alameda, and he doesn’t have a car, he was trying to figure out some way to get to the party that wouldn’t involve a half day on public transit. Oddly, I had the care of the Flannestad car that day. Hm. Free Booze, check. Free Food, check. Cool people, check. Visit distillery, check. It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that I should give Camper a ride over to Alameda, if he could figure some way to get me in.

Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to convince them, and a short time later, we were both sampling Cuba Libres made with St. George’s Agua Libre!

A few Craft Distillers make Rums, but just about everyone in the US makes their Rums from some form of Sugar or Molasses.

The people at St. George decided to take a different tack and make an “Agricole-Style” R(h)um from fresh pressed Sugar Cane Juice.

They did something similar when they made their Agave Spirit, sourcing freshly roasted Agave Pinas from Mexico, fermenting and distilling them.

However, when they investigated the Farming and Agriculture rules for Sugar Cane, they discovered it was Illegal to import “live” sugar cane into California. It would have to be cooked or something, which wouldn’t work for making an Agricole style Rum from fresh cane juice.

This meant they would have to find a Sugar Cane farmer in California.

A few years ago, as part of a plan to increase productivity from his Sugar Beet farms Carson Kalin, of Kalin Farms, had started planting a few varieties of Sugar Cane. Sugar Beets are only harvested once a year, so much of the year, his Sugar Refining facility sits idle. He thought, if he was able to get sufficient interest, he could use his refinery during the idle part of the year for processing sugar cane into sugar, and maybe even use the cane byproducts (bagasse) for Ethanol production.

Unfortunately, he never found sufficient investors to bring that idea to fruition, and has simply had a few experimental plots of Sugar Cane growing on his farm.

When Lance Winters of St. George Spirits called, asking about purchasing Sugar Cane for Rum, I imagine he was pretty thrilled, maybe even incredulous.

The thing about Sugar Cane, is it must be juiced very soon after harvest. St. George purchased the mill above for crushing cane. You push a cane stalk in one side, and cane juice and fiber come out the other. But even then, while not as challenging as the Agave Debacle, it was a difficult enterprise due to the variety in diameter of the cane, from an inch to a few inches. Well, it wouldn’t be a St. George product, if there weren’t some threat of death, or at least life threatening injury, during the production.

Once they have the cane juice, they inoculate it with yeast and start the fermentation process, racing the wild bacteria and yeast, which would love to turn it into Cane Vinegar. While we were there, they were just distilling a new batch, and so, had a big container full of “Cane Wine”. Dave Smith was more than happy, overjoyed perhaps, to tap a taste of it for us. Let me just say, “Wine,” is kind of a stretch, and vinegar isn’t far off. I was really surprised how sour the “wine” was. Not something you’re going to see on tap in a bar near you any time soon.

As I mentioned, this was something of an exhibit, celebrating the release of the original batch of Agua Libre, now 2 1/2 years old, along with the distillation of a new batch made from cane from the same producer. A number of bartenders and local press in attendence, we were given a fair bit of attention from the producers, including samples of some of their more obscure experiments, like this Carrot Eau-de-Vie…

…and the mysterious young Corn based Whiskey below, fresh from a very attractive graduated beaker, cigar optional.  Not to mention some product involving Foie Gras and Vodka… What did they call it, Foiedka?  The whiskey and carrot eau-de-vie were tasty. Not so sure about meat flavored vodka.

But, for me, the star of the show was the fresh R(h)um coming off the still. I’d never tasted the fermented product and distillate together before. It amazed me how much of the flavor, scent, and character of the “Cane Wine” was captured in the R(h)um. It had such and interesting vegetal and complex taste. Descriptors like grass, green beans, and ripe olives seemed appropriate.

As the flavor haunted me over the next couple weeks, I wondered how close the current unaged spirit was similar to that which they had been serving, so I sent a note to Lance Winters asking about how similar the spirits were before aging.

He replied:

As for the rum, the character of the barrel aged was almost identical to this one as a new make spirit. It’s going to calm down dramatically as it sits, even out of wood. You should come by and taste it as it ages.

To which I replied, “I may just take you up on that offer, but for now, I just kind of want to make a Ti Punch with it as it is…”

Ar(r)a(c)k Disambiguation

Danger! Spirits Geekery Ahead!

There are at least three different spirits that share a similarly spelled name, Ar(r)a(c)k.

The reason for this is that the Arabic word for something that means, more or less, “booze,” sounds like Arak. Well, actually, according to Wikipedia, it means sweat or juice, and seems to refer to way the droplets of alcohol collect and drip from a still.

The first, and likely most common, of these you’ll run across is usually called Arak. It comes from Lebanon and is a distilled spirit flavored with Anise (a.k.a. Pimpinella anisum). It is a fine and historic liquor in the continuum of anise flavored Mediterranean liquors including, moving Westward, Greek Ouzo, Italian Sambuca, French Anisette, Absinthe, Spanish Anis, and Portuguese Anis Escharchado. Lebenese Arak is traditionally made on a wine base, so is a flavored brandy. Post distillation it is often aged for a period in clay jars, mellowing it a bit. Many Absinthe fanciers feel, in the absence of real Absinthe, because it is often only lightly sweetened, Lebanese Arak it is the best substitute. In Lebanon it usually drunk, diluted with 3 or 4 parts water, to accompany a celebration or party. Some good brands are Razzouk and Sannine.

The second type of Arrack, which you are actually quite unlikely to run across, is Sri Lankan Arrack. It is also sometimes called “Palm Brandy”. It is made by hacking off the blossom bud of a coconut palm tree, and then collecting the syrup which accumulates there. Interestingly, this substance spontaneously ferments extremely quickly, becoming palm wine. It can pretty much be distilled the moment after it is tapped to produce Arrack. As a note, in Sri Lanka the term “Arrack” doesn’t always refer to Coco Palm Arrack. It can be used to refer to pretty much any old home distilled moonshine-like substance. Darcy has some good tasting notes regarding the flavor of Sri Lankan Coco Palm Arrack in his article. It tastes a bit like a cross between rum and whiskey, with some other odd flavors hanging around.

The third type of Arrack is Batavia Arrack. This is made in Indonesia. The base is sugar cane, like rum, but the fermentation is jump started with the addition of fermented red rice. The importance of the fermented red rice in the flavor of the final product cannot be understated. It gives it an unusual taste that initially often puts people off. However, in small doses, it’s an amazing flavor enhancer and has a character that seems to directly appeal to some portion of the brain. In fact for the last 30-40 years Batavia Arrack’s primary use has been in the Chocolate Industry and Pastry Kitchens. Adding that little extra hook to an already addictive substances. But prior to that it was used in Punches and other complex alcoholic libations, including a lost cocktail ingredient called “Swedish Punsch.”

For years, Batavia Arrack was only available as a mail order item from obscure German Language websites. However, recently a US Company based in Minnesota began importing obscure spirits and liqueurs. Instead of basing it’s business model on pushing what it thinks cocktail enthusiasts and Food and Beverage professionals want, Haus Alpenz has chosen the odd tact of asking us for our opinions and sometimes giving us what we want. Pimento Dram, Violet Liqueur, Apricot Liqueur, and Batavia Arrack were all more or less lost to the US market until the company Haus Alpenz realized they could base a business on selling these highly desired commodities to cocktail enthusiasts and bars attempting to find lost flavors and use them as a base for new creations.

Should you decide to chance a purchase of Batavia Arrack, be warned it usually clocks in over 100 Proof, making it a bit on the dangerous side for straight consumption. Instead give the Swedish Punch recipe below a try, and then whip yourself up a Biffy Cocktail.

Flannestad Swedish (wait, maybe this should be Norwegian!) Punch
(Adapted from Jerry Thomas)

1/2 Cup Batavia Arrack
1 Cup Amber Rum
2 Lemons, Sliced Thin

1 Cup black, or other, tea made by steeping 2 teaspoons of tea in 1 cup hot water
1 Cup Sugar (Raw or Demerara is nice)

Combine lemons, Rum, and Arrack. Steep covered for 12 hours. Add sugar to hot tea, cool to room temperature, and chill in the fridge. The next day, pour rum off of lemons, not crushing out lemon juice. Discard lemon slices, or squeeze out liquored juice for another use. Combine with Sweetened tea mixture, rest a day, strain through a coffee filter or layers of clean cheesecloth. Enjoy chilled or when Swedish punch is called for. Makes about 375 ml.