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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Craft Distillers Fuel American Whiskey Renaissance

Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., is one of hundreds craft distillers that have opened up in recent years. (jdparker/Flickr)

Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., is one of hundreds of craft distillers that have begun production in recent years. (jdparker/Flickr)

American whiskey is experiencing a renaissance. Production used to be dominated by a handful of companies, but in recent years, craft distillers have come into the market, bringing with them an openness to experimentation and innovation.

Although the growth in the American whiskey market has come mostly from super premium brands, the price tag doesn’t necessarily correspond to quality.

“You can have a great bourbon for $15,” Clay Risen, the author of “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit,” told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Michter’s, which is a bottler based in Louisville, just announced a $4,000 bottle of bourbon, which they are releasing right now, and it’s selling very well.”

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director of Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., believes the future is in the craft distilleries.

“There’s a thought that craft distillers can’t necessarily make as fine of a product as some of the more famous houses,” Gonzales said. “And where it’s true that the craft distiller’s movement is a little bit behind schedule, it’s more of a resource issue, rather than an ability.”

To help us understand, Gonzales takes Jeremy Hobson through a tasting of three different whiskies from craft distillers in different regions: Dry Fly’s Washington Wheat Whiskey (based in Washington state), St. George’s Single-Malt Whiskey (based in California) and Prichard’s Double Barrel Bourbon (based in the heart of bourbon country, Tennessee).

Gonzales also shares two recipes: “Riffing With Ben” and “Momma Rita Likes Whiskey (the Whiskarita).”

Riffing With Ben

Benjamin Prichard is the great-great grandfather of Phil Prichard, who founded Prichard’s Distillery in 1997. This particular drink is a play on the Manhattan. Because the whiskey has a higher proof and a richer flavor, the drink focuses on the aromatics of the spirit rather then it’s inherent sweetness. Spirit-based drinks should not be shaken, as it dilutes the complexities of the drink’s flavor profile.

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director at Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., in Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director at Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., at the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Ingredients:
1 1/2 oz Prichard’s Bourbon
3/4 Dolin Sweet Vermouth (this is herbal and light, which is a good match for a sweeter and richer bourbon)
1/2 oz Cynar (a slight bittersweet liqueur made with artichokes)
1/4 oz Gran Classico (a more herbaceous bitter like campari, with a little more sweetness and less bite)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes of absinthe

Instructions:
Add all your ingredients in a mixing glass that is filled with ice. Stir your mixture and strain it into a small rocks glass. Squeeze some oil of an orange over the drink, and add one large ice cube.

Note from Manny: To extract the oil of an orange, take a pairing knife and slice a sliver of orange skin (as little of the pith as possible). If you choose to use a rye instead of a bourbon, replace the Dolin Sweet Vermouth with Carpano Antica Vermouth. 

Momma Rita Likes Whiskey (the Whiskarita)

The "Whiskarita" (Courtesy of Manny Gonzales)

The “Whiskarita” (Courtesy of Manny Gonzales)

Ingredients:
8 mint leaves
1/2 oz clear Curacao (Cointreau or triple sec will also do)
2 oz Jim Beam Bourbon
2/3 oz honey
1 oz lemon

Instructions:
In a mixing glass, muddle the mint leaves and the Curacao. Then add the bourbon, honey and lemon. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon wheel.

Sour drinks like this should always be shaken to dilute the bitterness of the lemon and focus on the sweet, floral smells of the fruits and spirits.

Note from Manny: This is a very simple drink a non-whiskey drinker will appreciate. The lemon adds a brightness, the mint plays of the aromas and the honey adds viscosity for the more straight forward and lighter Jim Beam. 

Guests

  • Clay Risen, an editor at The New York Times and the author of “American Whiskey, Rye & Bourbon.” He tweets @risenc.
  • Manny Gonzales, beverage director of Saloon in Somerville, Mass. His blog is Life by the Drop.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

One of the biggest names in American whiskey will no longer be owned by an American company. Beam Inc., the company behind brands like Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, has been bought by the Japanese company Suntory in a deal worth $16 billion. Suntory is probably most familiar to Americans as the brand Bill Murray's character was selling in the movie "Lost in Translation."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOST IN TRANSLATION")

BILL MURRAY: (As Bob Harris) For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

HOBSON: Well, Suntory's acquisition comes as the popularity of American whiskey is increasing overseas, especially in Asia. Joining us to talk about American whiskey is Clay Risen, the author of "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye." Welcome, Clay.

CLAY RISEN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, first, tell us the difference between whiskey, bourbon and rye.

RISEN: Well, American whiskey is really just a catch-all category. It includes anything made from a grain. Bourbon is made according to very specific standards, primarily that it has been made mostly of corn, but also in new oak barrels, and it has to be put in the barrel at a certain proof and distilled with a certain proof. Rye works according to the same standards except that it's rye instead of bourbon. But then you have all sorts of other kinds of whiskey. You have - people make quinoa whiskey. They make wheat whiskey. They make millet whiskey.

HOBSON: What is millet whiskey?

RISEN: It's - it is whiskey made with 51 percent or more millet.

HOBSON: Sorry. I guess I should be more specific. What is millet?

(LAUGHTER)

RISEN: Right. I didn't know until I - it's a grain that's traditionally, you know, its fairly common in Eastern Europe, Central Europe. Parts of the, you know, sort of Middle East, they use millet. It's a grain just like, you know, wheat or rye but not all that common here in the States.

HOBSON: Well, what makes American whiskey special and different than Irish whiskey?

RISEN: Well, American whiskey obviously, it's made in the United States. It's primarily made with corn, whereas Irish whiskey or pretty much all other whiskey in the world is made with malted barley. So right away, it's something that's unique, something that has a unique quality to it. It's also made typically in charred barrels, so it has a freshness and a power to it that a lot of other whiskeys don't. And it's traditionally made in fairly warm climate so it ages faster than, say, Scotch. So it has that youthful vibrancy that you might miss in some other whiskeys.

HOBSON: You say warm climate. Of course, we think of the capital of bourbon certainly as Kentucky, which is warmer than some parts of the country, but not as warm as others.

RISEN: Well, sure. Although in Kentucky, it can get up to a hundred degrees during the summertime. The important thing is that it also gets down to freezing in the wintertime. And what that does is it allows the barrels to breathe so that - and contract and expand. And that makes the aging process go a little faster than it might in a place where it's colder and also fairly regular throughout the year, somewhere like Scotland.

HOBSON: How do you like your whiskey?

RISEN: I like my whiskey if it's not too high in proof, just neat. If it's a strong, you know, high-alcohol whiskey, I'll put a few drops of water in it. But I tell everybody, look, drink it the way you like it. There is absolutely nothing against an ice cube, a cocktail. It's whatever tastes good because that's what it's there for.

HOBSON: Well, Clay Risen, author of "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit," thanks so much for joining us.

RISEN: Well, thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: OK. Well, now that we have learned about American whiskey, let's go to taste some. We're going to walk down the hall here at the studios. Down the hall, a couple of rooms and into this room where we have Manny Gonzales - he is the beverage director of Saloon, that is a whiskey bar in Somerville, Massachusetts - and a tableful of whiskeys. So tell me what we have here in front of us.

MANNY GONZALES: So we have - today we have three different craft distillers. We have Dry Fly out of Washington State. We also have St. George's in California, circa They 1982. And Prichard's, which is in Kelso, neighbor to the more famous Jack Daniel's.

HOBSON: And three different glasses, three different colors, really. If you look at them, some are darker than others.

GONZALES: Correct. So with the first one we have here, the Dry Fly, this is distilled with wheat. And everything they do is locally sourced. So it's all winter wheat, which grows in abundance in Washington State. They use local wood for the barrels. Such a cool farm to bottle distillery. It's only aged for about a year and a half in barrel.

HOBSON: Hmm. So the longer it is aged in a barrel, the darker it's going to be?

GONZALES: Typically, yeah. It depends on the type of barrel. They use a lot of char in bourbon, and so that brings a lot of flavor, a lot of the caramel color to it.

HOBSON: OK. Well, let me take a sip of this as you do. Cheers.

GONZALES: Cheers.

HOBSON: Now you took a sniff of that first.

GONZALES: I sure did. You know, about 90 percent of what we taste is in our nose. And so to have a little smell of whether it's wine or beer or even food, it makes such a huge difference.

HOBSON: It really does taste like a Scotch, that one.

GONZALES: Yeah. Yeah. It's really soft, really delicate. You know, it's low proof. It's only 40 percent alcohol, so it's a nice introduction to craft spirit, small batch. Batch number 57, it says on the bottle there. Makes a really good cocktail, but, personally with whiskeys like this, I just like to (unintelligible).

HOBSON: Straight up.

GONZALES: Yeah.

HOBSON: OK. Let's go to number two here, the single malt whiskey.

GONZALES: Sure. So number two, this is St. George. St. George started, as I said, in 1982. So this is un-peated malted barley. It's aged in or between four to 13 years in barrel. But all those barrels are used, and this is what makes Scotch whiskey very different.

HOBSON: So I have to say my first thought after just taking a sip of that is it actually tastes sort of like moonshine.

GONZALES: Like moonshine to you?

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: Yes. Am I wrong about that? It's sweeter, for sure, than the first one.

GONZALES: It definitely has a lot of the sweeter, sweeter notes to it, and that's from the barley. So you get more of a cocoa sweetness to it. So with the aging, the older the oak, the less oak notes are imparted in the finished product. So when we take something - the next one we have, which is Prichard's double barrel, this is about five to six years in barrel, and then it's watered down to about 95 proof. And then from there, they reintroduced that in the barrel and then let some of the proof mellow out a little bit to (unintelligible).

HOBSON: That's why it's called double barrel.

GONZALES: Correct. That second aging of the barrel, it really masks some of the watery edged to it. With every whiskey, when you go from barrel to bottle, you always water down. And that definitely changes some of the flavors. It also can make it a little harsher. So putting it back in the barrel will smooth it out. It'll round it out as well.

HOBSON: Now that - yeah. That is a bourbon in my mind. This definitely tastes like something that you probably would only want to get from either Tennessee or Kentucky.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALES: I mean, all over the country, anywhere you can get good corn, you can make good whiskey. You know, there's a thought that craft distillers can't necessarily make as fine of a product as some of the more famous houses. And where it's true that the craft distillers movement is a little bit behind schedule, it's more of a resource issue rather than an ability. Prichard's is honestly, I would say, one of the best bourbons on the market.

HOBSON: So when you tell me all of these things that go into making these whiskeys, I have to wonder whether it's even acceptable to put them into a mixed drink. Should you only have them in their raw form, right out of the bottle?

GONZALES: Oh, it really depends on - and I guess it's a preference. It depends also on the style of whiskey that it is. I mean, some of them need to be mixed. And some of them are better for Manhattans. If I was going to make a cocktail with any of these, it would be kind of more of a Manhattan style.

HOBSON: A little cherry in there.

GONZALES: Yeah. I mean, if you're doing with something like Jim Beam, which, you know, don't get me wrong, Jim Beam makes a good whiskey and Jack Daniel's makes a good whiskey, I wouldn't have Jim Beam as a Manhattan. I would throw in some sour, some mints, some honey or some simple syrup. If you make a margarita using whiskey, you're going to...

HOBSON: Do people do that?

GONZALES: Absolutely.

HOBSON: Margaritas using whiskey?

GONZALES: Why not?

HOBSON: A whiskerita?

GONZALES: A whiskerita. Why not?

HOBSON: All right. Manny Gonzales is the beverage director of Saloon. That's a whiskey bar in Somerville, Massachusetts. Manny, thanks so much for coming in and giving us this tasting.

GONZALES: Absolutely. My pleasure.

HOBSON: And I'm going to go ahead, and rather than go back to the studio, just end the show from right here. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Recipes at hereandnow.org. And from the sober wing of the program, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • S David H de Lorge

    Millet is most associated with Africa, extending to N. Africa and thence the Middle East. I was unaware of a major association with Eastern Europe.

    Is it telling that you guys didn’t recognize it?

    What are the effects of the oak tannins on physiology?

    Why does the type of grain make a difference? When distilled, the primary remaining substance should be ethanol. Congeners are minor products of fermentation, often toxic enough to induce hangovers. Distilling finely enough to remove congeners would remove most aromatic sources of flavor beyond the negligible taste of (chemically described as tasteless, odorless) ethanol itself. Why different Vodkas taste different remains unknown to me, but it seems less dependent on whether potatoes or grains are fermented and distilled than on how the distillers handle it.

    Bourbon is often corn whiskey (legal moonshine) because corn is common and cheap, while bragging of “made from grain” sounds better than made from a carload of sugar, isn’t it? Its first-use charred oak barrels contribute lots of sugars for its distinctive flavor. Scotch uses second-use charred oak barrels bought from bourbon makers, and is usually distilled from the distinctive northern grain of oats. It’s also “twice distilled,” eliminating more congeners and hangovers (and oak derivatives).

    Who cares that I happen to have acquired this knowledge? Not me, except that it enabled me to feel dissatisfied with this story today:

    If I compared corn whiskey to oat whiskey to rye whiskey to rice whiskey to vodka as soon as it concentrated out of the distilling steam, and before it went into barrels, what differences might I taste? Different vodkas seem sometimes to have a sweet attribute, while others seem harsh. What is “smoothness” other than an absence of congeners removed by more painstaking distillation? What would vodka, if aged in a charred oak barrel, taste like? Why does flavorless ethanol acquire a sweetness and some aromatics when presented as drinking alcohol? Do congeners include a bit of stuff like methanol, which you wouldn’t want very much of?

    Why don’t I know any more about this after this story, instead of just another rendition of facts for social climbers who want to know about the good stuff when they enter exalted company?

    • clayrisen

      Hey, David — Clay Risen here. You’re right, most of the world’s millet is grown across Africa. But as a grain for distilling, it is most common in Eastern Europe. Apologies for not being more specific.

      As for why it matters which grain is used, well, taste a glass of four-year-old rye against a four-year-old bourbon (ie, the only difference is the grain). You’ll notice a distinct difference. And that’s because, unlike vodka, whiskey is distilled at a lower proof, and only twice, so that many of the congeners remain. You can taste those differences out of the still, as well as after they sit in the barrel. Put it this way, I promise that “rye” and “bourbon” and “wheat whiskey” are actual signifiers of actual differences, and not just marketing. And they certainly all taste different from sugarjack. Yuck.

      • S David H de Lorge

        Thanks. I’d been wondering.

  • S David H de Lorge

    Cool! Most thanks. Pretty much just what I’ve been wondering. So aromatics specific to the fermented substance get condensed in the distillate (depending on how fastidiously it’s distilled), and alter its flavor. Strictly speaking, they aren’t ethanol, but accompany the ethanol.

    Now, which of them are toxic enough to induce more hangover and which benign enough to induce less? Decades ago, an anthropology/literature prof told me that bush rum and single malt scotch were the spirits which were least likely to give you a hangover due to the care with which they’ve been distilled. In recent years, I laid off the cheap rotgut and started springing for the double/triple/sextuple distilled spirits. I do believe that I have been spared hangovers as a result. Checking back with the cheap stuff started the hanging over again (even when prophylactically treated with prudent water intake and so forth), so I think more costly distillation takes some nastiness out.

    Meanwhile, as to potato vodka vs “grain” vodka? Vs. “Everclear” 95% alcohol? Not to crowd your time, but any more enlightenment you might give in those things?

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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