Category Archives: Personalities

Review: Tasting Whiskey, by Lew Bryson

On the cover of Lew Bryson’s Tasting Whiskey, there’s a quote from the whiskey writer Charles Cowdery: “I shouldn’t say this is the only whiskey book you need, but it probably is.”

Mr. Cowdery’s reticence is understandable; he writes whiskey books, and he wants to maintain his comfortable lifestyle. I don’t know if I’d go so far as Cowdery. I’ve read some damn fine whiskey books in my years as a tippler, and I’d recommend them all.

Tasting_Whiskey

But I will say this much: this is the book you want and need if you’re just starting out in whiskey.

Bryson maps the major styles of whiskey, from bourbon to rye to Canadian, from Irish to Scotch to Japanese, and from craft to the various world whiskeys (that is, from growing markets such as India and Taiwan). He describes what sets the various styles apart from one another; so, for example, he details the grains that are in each style, the barrels it’s aged in, the climates and warehouses that hold it, and the length of time its aged.

Scotch, for example, is made primarily or exclusively from malted barley; it’s aged in used barrels (normally bourbon, but with some sherry and other wine casks tossed in for additional flavor); it ages in a cooler climate that enables longer aging; and it can age for up to 30 years or more without getting too woody.

Bourbon, conversely, is made primarily from corn, with other grains in the mix to add accent flavors; it ages in new oak barrels that impart more woodiness than do scotch’s used barrels; it ages in a warmer climate that ages it more rapidly than Scotland’s cooler climate; and therefore, it usually reaches its peak at roughly 10-12 years.

Each individual style is different, and Bryson masterfully explains how those differences affect the flavors of the finished product.

Every whiskey drinker starts somewhere. I started with bourbon and moved to scotch and then rye and on to other styles. When I started drinking scotch, I couldn’t begin to understand what made it unique until I started reading books that helped me puzzle it all out. Tasting Whiskey is such a book.

Its other strength is the infographics the book uses to illustrate some rather complicated concepts. I write about whiskey, and so I know that it’s not always easy to describe, in words, the effects of barrel aging, or how barrel placement in a warehouse affects how quickly or slowly the whiskey ages. These infographics, illustrated masterfully by Andrew Heath, demonstrate these concepts concisely and thoroughly.

49_cAndrewHeath_StorageLocation_TastingWhiskey 60_cAndrewHeath_EvolutionofFlavor_TastingWhiskey

Excerpted from Tasting Whiskey (c) Lew Bryson. Illustrations by (c) Andrew Heath. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

After describing the major styles, Bryson then provides advice on how to drink the stuff, in an enjoyable chapter on water, ice, and cocktails. Is it okay to drink your whiskey with a bit of water? Bryson tells you. On the rocks or neat? He has some answers for that as well. Cocktails? Of course! What I enjoyed about this chapter was how conversational and story-oriented it was. No recipes at all, just a description of how to make a damn good Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

I’ve met Bryson in person; we were in Kentucky together earlier this year for Jimmy Russell’s anniversary celebration at Wild Turkey. He impressed me with his approachable and avuncular temperament, and that personality shines through this book.

If you’re new to whiskey, and you need a friendly guide to the topic, Bryson’s book is for you. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll still find this book to be enjoyable and useful. I learned quite a bit from it.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, and Lew Bryson is a personal friend of mine.

A Visit to Wild Turkey

If you ever visit the Wild Turkey distillery, do yourself a favor and arrive from the east. As you approach the distillery, U.S. Route 62 descends a hill through lush green woods, passes over a quarry on the banks of the Kentucky River, and takes a sharp left before riding the Blackburn Bridge over the river. As you approach the bridge, you can see buildings on a ridge in the near distance. These are warehouses and distillery buildings at Wild Turkey. Just beyond the highway bridge stands the remains of a railroad bridge, 283 feet above the river. The rail bridge is now out of service, but it formerly carried freight and passengers on what became the Norfolk Southern Railway, connecting all the Southern states. Passenger traffic ended in the 1930s, and freight stopped traversing the bridge about 50 years later, but for a time, the bridge carried grain into the Wild Turkey plant and finished bourbon back out.

DSC_9368
View of the two bridges, from the visitors’ center at Wild Turkey. (All images are clickable. Make ‘em big!)

I visited a couple of weeks ago. The purpose was twofold. Wild Turkey is opening a beautiful new visitors’ center, with stunning views of the river and its bluffs. The center itself is made of wood and glass, as you’d probably expect from a bourbon distillery. I failed to get a good exterior shot of the building, but it’s described as a cathedral to bourbon, and as you view the soaring ceilings, you’d probably agree.

DSC_9227
Ramp to upper level of the Wild Turkey visitors center.
Soaring ceiling
Soaring ceiling

In the tasting room is a large copper still that spans both floors of the visitors center, pulled out of production when the old distillery was torn down.

Copper still
Copper still
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.
Low quality image of a rectifying plate within the still.

As impressive as all that is, though, the other reason for the visit is even better. 2014 marks master distiller Jimmy Russell’s 60th year at Wild Turkey. Can you imagine spending 60 years in one place? Jimmy can, and even after 60, he has no plans to retire.

Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.
Salt of the earth. Jimmy Russell.

Our visit ended with a cocktail reception, to launch the visitors center and pay homage to Jimmy. Among the VIPs were Kentucky governor Steve Beshear and brand reps and master distillers from other bourbon plants, including Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Woodford. The bourbon industry is pretty tight, and less personally competitive than you’d expect, so a guy like Jimmy has fans at rival distilleries. Jimmy’s family were there. His son Eddie is his right hand at Wild Turkey, even though Eddie only has 33 years tenure there and is still a relative novice compared to Dad. Jimmy’s other offspring were there, along with his grandkids and a few great-grandkids.

I felt honored being among his family and friends on such a great occasion. I’ve always loved Wild Turkey 101; it might be my favorite American whiskey. Being there for this celebration was a real treat.

We took a lengthy tour of the distillery. Those notes and photos will follow in another post.

If you could be any drink?

You might think this question sounds silly:

“If you could be any drink, what would it be?” But I love the way it’s answered here:

I’d be the first sip of a perfect gin and tonic swallowed on the dock of a cottage bay with the July sun setting, kids inside setting up Scrabble and nothing but two weeks of classic WWII spy novels ahead.  To my mind, all other drinks aspire to be this.

A little background. I’ve been reading Drinking Diaries for almost a year now. You might not be familiar with this site; it’s a forum for women to discuss the role of alcohol in their lives, and a place for them to tell stories about drinking, families, and our boozy, boozy culture.

I find the site so compelling because I am a father to an 18-month-old, and we have another child on the way. I am a parent who drinks, which means I am a parent who is modeling drinking behavior for my son. This is something I take seriously, although I have yet to come to any sort of conclusion about how to approach it. Drinking Diaries provides me the kind of perspectives I wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

Help a Brother Out

I have never had the honor of meeting Murray Stenson, the legendary Seattle bartender. I’ve, unfortunately, never been to Seattle. But I can say with all certainty that Murray’s long years behind the stick have influenced every word I’ve written on the topic of spirits and cocktails. You see, I’ve been blogging here since 2006, and writing professionally on this subject since 2009.

Stenson’s influence has been mostly indirect, unfortunately, but it’s certainly here. When I sat at Milk & Honey, in the company of several bartenders and a founder of Martin Miller’s gin, and we tasted a Last Word, Murray Stenson was there with us in a way of speaking. He didn’t create the drink, but he rescued it from oblivion and put it on the menu at Zig Zag. Just a few years later, I sat on the opposite coast and mixed one up myself.

When I wrote extensively about the Diamondback Cocktail, I mentioned its heritage and the fact that it, too, was resurrected and promoted by Mr. Stenson. So here are two excellent drinks that Murray forced out of retirement to trick them out for his guests.

But there’s more to a bartender than technique and recipe, and what truly sets Murray apart is his emphasis on hospitality, remembering his guests (and their previous drink orders) on return visits, and his willingness to share the love of his craft with his guests, with other bartenders, and with writers such as Paul Clarke and Chuck Taggart. The man has a true generosity of spirit, coupled with an open and transparent approach to his work.

But Murray needs some help; he’s got a heart condition that prevents him from working presently, and he’ll need an operation to correct it before he can return to his job. Bartending is a demanding job, physically and emotionally. Not only is bartending a tremendously laborious job, but it requires you to be “on” constantly. A night behind the stick can wreck even a young person, and Murray’s been at this for many years.

Bartending is not normally a job that carries health benefits, and Murray’s among the group without them, so the care he needs is not going to come cheap.

Some of his friends have set up a page where they’re asking for donations. They also have a Facebook page where they’re providing updates on his condition and their fundraising efforts. Do what you can to help, please. Finally, Paul Clarke has more information on Murray’s work and career on his site.

Paul could probably use some help of his own, frankly. Last night, Rachel Maddow tweeted this:

Paul wound up with thousands of visits to his site in just a 20-minute period. I hope his web hosting was up to the traffic. But if you see Paul around, online or in person, offer him a drink.

The Mint Julep

By Charles Fenno Hoffman

Tis said that the gods on Olympus of old
(And who the bright legend profanes with a doubt?)
One night, ’mid their revels, by Bacchus were told
That his last butt of nectar had somehow run out!

But determined to send round the goblet once more,
They sued to the fairer immortals for aid
In composing a draught which, till drinking were o’er,
Should cast every wine ever drank in the shade.

Grave Ceres herself blithely yielded her corn,
And the spirit that lives in each amber-hued grain,
And which first had its birth from the dew of the morn,
Was taught to steal out in bright dewdrops again.

Pomona, whose choicest of fruits on the board
Were scattered profusely in every one’s reach,
When called on a tribute to cull from the hoard,
Expressed the mild juice of the delicate peach.

The liquids were mingled while Venus looked on
With glances so fraught with sweet magical power,
That the honey of Hybla, e’en when they were gone,
Has never been missed in the draught from that hour.

Flora, then, from her bosom of fragrancy, shook,
And with roseate fingers pressed down in the bowl,
All dripping and fresh as it came from the brook,
The herb whose aroma should flavor the whole.

The draught was delicious, and loud the acclaim,
Though something seemed wanting for all to bewail,
But Juleps the drink of immortals became,
When Jove himself added a handful of hail.

No tonic for the body

THE MINT JULEP: The Very Dream of Drinks

by Joshua Soule Smith

Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep—the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

When the Blue Grass begins to shoot its gentle sprays toward the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to Old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demand the wedding. How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar until it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush you mint within it with a spoon—crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away—it is a sacrifice.

Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to col, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed, no stirring is allowed—just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find a taste and odor at one draught.

When it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant, cold and sweet—it is seductive. No maiden’s touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you so in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like Old Bourbon whiskey.

In My Experience …

Writing over at ShakeStir, Paul Clarke has launched a new column called In My Experience. ShakeStir is a relatively new platform for bartenders, meant to provide information and advice about managing their professional interests. Clarke’s column provides a good look at what ShakeStir is all about. He interviews veteran bartenders about work/home balance, managing money, drinking, staying healthy, and generally keeping your sanity while working long shifts in the service industry.

His first two interviews feature a couple of guys who know a thing or two about working behind the stick: Dale DeGroff and Gaz Regan. The questions are smart and the answers incisive and wise. I’m looking forward to future installments.

Incidentally, I have a profile there, if that really matters to anyone.

Gojee Go

The food website Gojee launched its new Drinks site last week, featuring content from a slew of drinks bloggers. For those unfamiliar with Gojee, it offers a unique take on recipe searches. The first thing you notice when you hit the site is the large-scale photography. The site displays a slideshow of yummy looking food and beverages; the recipes are provided by individual food or drink bloggers. If the picture appeals to you, click the screen and a box pops up showing a list of the major ingredients. Click a link in the box, and you’ll be directed to a full recipe on the site of the contributing blogger. You can also search the recipes according to what you have on hand, in your pantry, fridge, or home bar.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute, so you’ll find several of my recipes there, along with drinks by RumDood, Cocktail Chronicles, Cocktail Buzz, and Jacob Grier, among other esteemed collaborators. For teetotalers, drinks aren’t limited to only the alcohol-bearing; Gojee Drinks also contains a number of NA recipes as well. The following images should provide the basic idea behind Gojee’s interface. We’ll start, immodestly, with one of my recipes. Then you’ll see a cocktail from 12 Bottle Bar, and a non-alcoholic limeade from Winnie Abramson.

oudeplein

[Links: Larger image on Flickr | Recipe on Gojee Drinks | Original recipe on my site]

fourthdegree

 [Links: Larger image on Flickr | Recipe on Gojee Drinks | Original recipe on 12 Bottle Bar]

 

limeade

[Links: Larger image on Flickr | Recipe on Gojee Drinks | Original recipe on Healthy Green Kitchen]

DC Stealth

Last week, I made a quick and mostly unpublicized visit to Washington, D.C. The reason for the visit? Simple. I had never been there before. That’s right, I had seen other national capitols, but not my own. We had a little money to spare, and Jen and I talked about sending me down for a couple of days. I started watching airfares, and one day about four weeks ago, I saw one that made my head spin.

JetBlue, as it turns out, has just inaugurated service between Boston’s Logan Airport and DC’s Reagan National. The carrier has been flying between Logan and Dulles for some time now, but only on 11/1 did JB start serving National–seven flights a day, seven days a week. And as JetBlue does, they advertised a special fare: $7 each way.

That’s not a typo. Seven dollars each way. Seventy dimes, seven hundred pennies, etc. So for $14 plus 21 bucks for taxes and fees, I had a round-trip to DC in my hands. (To put this into perspective, my train fare from Providence to Boston cost $7.75 each way. That’s right, I paid more to take the train to South Station than I did to fly to DC.) I kept the trip on the cheap by staying in the Hosteling International hostel on 11th near K St. Yeah, bunk beds, but also? $40 a night, and in a convenient location. For two nights, I won’t complain about bunk beds.

The trip was mostly touristy and mostly in central DC. I saw this …

… and I saw that …

… and this …

The next day, I went here …

Library of Congress

… and I went here …

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

But these days, I can’t travel anywhere without sampling the local imbiberterias. I had alerted my friends Sean-Mike and Marshall, of DC’s superfamous Scofflaw’s Den, to my impending travels, and they agreed to meet Tuesday evening for dinner and drinks.

We started at PS 7’s, where I eventually lost track of my drinking. I met their bar star, Gina Chersevani, who is not only a great bartender but a real sweetheart as well. I started with the oddly named Gnome’s Water–gin, cucumber water, lemon juice, and lavender. Very refreshing and tasty. Then, the Boiler Room–Bourbon, lemon juice, and Allagash White Ale. Delicious. There’s something to these beer cocktails, I think. After that, details fade into the mist, in part because the light got dim and my camera was no longer of much use. I know I tried their delicious cider-bourbon punch. There was a Sazerac done up special for me. And we ended on shots of smoky, smoky mezcal.

Gnome's Water

Boiler Room

We then repaired to the Passenger, and this is even more dim. I couldn’t shoot my drinks at all there, and I no longer had the hand-eye coordination to take notes, so instead, let me play up the vibe of the place. Tuesday evening, not most bars’ busiest night, and thus was also true of the Passenger. Nice sized crowd, though, and very mellow. We sat at the bar, me near a pillar covered in graffiti–much of which from visiting bartenders. I remember seeing Voisey and Meehan’s names there, and I think some wag had scrawled Gary Regan’s name next to a phone number that may or may not actually be his. The bartenders were chatty and attentive, letting me look at bottles I had never seen (High West whiskeys, for example, which aren’t distributed in Rhody or Mass.) and suggesting cocktails we might enjoy. Passenger’s co-owner Tom Brown was absent that evening, but his brother (and fellow co-owner) Derek was on hand, and he offered us a tour of the Columbia Room, which is closed on Tuesdays.

Jake Parrott arrived while we were at the Passenger, and after another round or two, we wound up at ChurchKey, a wonderful beer bar at 14th and Rhode Island. I started with a cask ale called Oliver’s The Darkness. I remember moving on from there to a sour beer, but alas, the name of said sour is lost to the fog of inebriation.