On Craft: Finger Lakes Distilling

finger lakes distillery whiskey whisky barrel aged seneca lake rickhouse warehouse storage

Craft spirits, while for some instantaneously synonymous with “quality,” can sometimes get a bad rap among whisky aficionados. Even though prevailing wisdom suggests that small batches,  local materials, and “handmade” (or at least small-scale and hands-on, rather than industrial and fully-mechanized) techniques  make for better product, the truth is that a lot of distillers laying claim to these principles turn out mediocre—and occasionally downright terrible—spirit. And some “craft producers” (yes, Michter’s included) are circumspect—even cagey—about the fact that they source their aged whisky. (While sourcing isn’t something to be ashamed of, a lack of clarity in brand messaging can confuse the non-savvy. To really know the provenance of a whisky, you have to read the label. For quick reference on particular brands, Sku’s Recent Eats provides a comprehensive list of American whiskey distilleries and brands, including those who source.)

For uninformed consumers who want to patronize independent, local, or small-scale whisky brands but aren’t sure which bottles are worth the price point, it can be intimidating to figure out where to start, especially considering that words like “craft,” “small-batch,” and even “single barrel” are essentially undefined (or inconsistently defined) in a legal sense—meaning, therefore, that anyone can define for themselves what is and is not considered “craft.” Even though I run with the whisky nerds, there are so many new “craft” brands appearing lately that it’s darn near impossible to keep up. Sifting through the marketing noise of folksy backstories and snappy packaging to find whisky that actually tastes good can turn an enjoyable hobby into a chore.

bar tasting room distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling bottles whisky whiskey spirits

Tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling

I rely heavily on the trusted recommendations (and warnings) of fellow whisky lovers when seeking out and trying brands that are new to me. So a few weeks ago, when a friend with an excellent palate and serious whisky chops praised Finger Lakes Distilling as the only craft distiller he doesn’t “avoid like the plague,” my interest was piqued. This distillery flies under the radar, bottling their whiskies under the name McKenzie, and I hadn’t heard of it up to that point. Serendipitously, I had a weekend in the Finger Lakes planned, so I got in touch with the distiller, Thomas McKenzie, to arrange a quick visit.

I could tell right away that Thomas is a man who respects and enjoys whisky as, indeed, a craft—something to tinker with, develop over time, and (perhaps someday) perfect just as an artist would a sculpture or painting or eventual magnum opus. The office space of the distillery is lined with shelves of whisky bottles, many of them old and rare, that Thomas tastes not just for pleasure but research, comparing his own products with whiskies of the past.

old whisky whiskey bottle rare dusty

Thomas McKenzie’s shelves of dusty whiskey.

Thomas and his partner, Brian McKenzie (no relation, oddly enough) opened Finger Lakes Distilling about five years ago. The distillery itself has a very modest footprint, with a teeny column still (only 25 feet tall) and thumper, and equally wee (350 gallons) pot still and rectifier. They have a small warehouse for on-site barrel storage and bottling, with plans for a larger rickhouse someday. Most of Finger Lakes’ whisky is sour mash; they use 50% setback (rather than the more standard 25%). Amazingly, they grow their own yeast—a rarity even among so-called craft distilleries these days.

continuous column still copper thumper distillery whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

25-foot continuous still

Finger Lakes barrels spirit at an unusually low 100 proof, which brings out a different spectrum of flavors in the finished whisky than might appear with a more standard proof of 125 or above. Using 53-gallon barrels, they put only 50 gallons in them to age because, Thomas says, the headspace allows the spirit to begin maturing immediately. The angels’ share is surprisingly high—about 13% annually—and, because the warehouse is quite dry, whisky comes out of the barrels at a higher proof than when it went in, about 104.

grain silo storage whisky whiskey distillery microdistillery Finger Lakes Distilling

Grain storage

Considering the distillery’s young age, I was surprised at the variety of aged expressions it offers. Besides brandy and grappa (a natural fit, with grapevines and vineyards surrounding the distillery site), vodka, gin, white dog, and liqueurs, Finger Lakes sells bourbon, wheat whiskey, rye, and an Irish-style pot still whisky. They’ll soon have a wheated bourbon for sale—and, having tasted a bit, I am desperate for a bottle. It’s astonishingly good.

Frankly, all their aged expressions are good—I’d say very good. The whiskies, which show their young age with a pleasant heat, all have a thick sweetness offset by the wood character which lends a surprising freshness. Bourbon, rye, and wheat whiskey are bottled at 91 proof. Even young as they are, Finger Lakes’ whiskies show remarkable complexity that continues developing in the glass. I’m guessing (hoping!) that in future years there will be older, even more interesting expressions to try.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits

Barrel storage. As you can see, more space is needed.

This distillery exemplifies “craft” as I understand it. One brief visit, followed by a tasting, handily bore out my belief that true craft is about the process as much as the result. Finger Lakes Distilling thoughtfully makes spirit using well-tested and proven (some might call it traditional) equipment and methods, constantly refining their process. (For example, while they used to age some spirit in 10-gallon barrels, they’re phasing them out in favor of larger barrels which produce the desired flavors, even though the whiskey might be ready sooner in the smaller ones.) The people at Finger Lakes—from Thomas and Brian to the meticulous assistant distiller to the friendly guy pouring in the tasting room—all genuinely care about the products. There is no marketing speak, no backstory hokum. Just an airy room overlooking the distilling equipment, open for everyone to see, and a whole lot of bottles that need no introduction.

barrel cask whisky whiskey Finger Lakes Distillery wooden oak aged spirits tasting room

The tasting room, overlooking production

Finger Lakes Distilling backs up its craftsmanship credentials with a solid local footing—despite being around for only five years, it’s clearly a beloved institution already. As a licensed New York farm distillery, Finger Lakes sources the majority of its ingredients from within the state. (The law requires at least 75%, but Finger Lakes gets closer to 90% of its grain and other materials from New York.) The company seems to have not only an awareness of the economic impact it has on its neighbors, but a real investment in the mutual benefit of both the distillery and the people, land, and businesses—especially agricultural businesses—around it. Obviously, this was part of the reason New York state created its farm distilling license to begin with (which Brian worked to make happen). But it goes beyond financial gains. Together with the care that it puts into making spirit, the strength of Finger Lakes Distilling rests on its connection to the community—by purchasing locally-sourced ingredients and materials; employing more than a dozen area residents; and acting as a tourist attraction in its own right.

I would recommend any of the Finger Lakes whiskies, but am only providing tasting notes for those that I’ve been able to drink multiple times. If you get the chance to travel to the area, make time to swing by the distillery and taste a few of their other offerings, chat with the staff, and watch the magic happen from their beautiful tasting room.

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey Rye Whisky Finger Lakes Distilling microdistillery

McKenzie Wheat Whiskey
A beautiful sweet nose starts off  right off the bat, with butterscotch, vanilla, and brown sugar underscored by a hint of cantaloupe. The mouth-watering palate is rich with molasses, vanilla, and black cherries, and lingers on a sweet, spicy finish. Give it time to develop in the glass but don’t add water—it mutes some of the more subtle flavors.

McKenzie Rye Whiskey
Baking spices, thyme and butterscotch on the nose meld with a surprising undertone of watermelon. The palate is all fresh-baked bread, caramel, cherry cough syrup, and a bit of caraway, with a current of old-fashioned hoarhound candy. Adding water enhances the spicy-sweetness without dimming the intense warmth, so enjoy it either way.

Thanks to Thomas McKenzie, Brian McKenzie, and the staff of Finger Lakes Distilling for showing me around, answering my endless questions, and providing the bottle of McKenzie Rye.

Musings on Michter’s

bourbon whiskey rye whisky Michter's single barrel American

Whisky drinkers can get pretty sentimental about their drams. We bemoan the loss of distilleries closed when whisky wasn’t selling; we decry the trend of whiskies with no age statement (NAS); we question the industrialization of traditional processes and ingredients. Most of all, we tear our hair and gnash our teeth at the soaring prices for whiskies aimed at collectors or “investors”—a trend which has driven up prices across the board. Looking back at the whisky of years gone by, we have a tendency to view it not only as cheaper (which it was), but as more pure—untainted by computerized processes, slick marketing, and gimmicky packaging—and therefore superior to today’s product.

Many of these criticisms have merit. The closing of any distillery making good whisky is a great loss indeed, and the trend of NAS whiskies is damaging to the industry overall, present and future. Naturally, every serious drinker feels frustration with people who buy whisky not to enjoy but to look at on a shelf or to re-sell later at a profit. But we should also look critically at our instinct to prize something just because it’s old or traditional or historic. Although there are numerous examples of great whisky from the past, there was certainly plenty of terrible whisky made throughout history, too. (And I bet much of it hasn’t survived because of that fact.)

I’ve been considering this question lately with regards to a few different whiskies, especially after some fascinating conversations with Joshua Feldman, aka the Coopered Tot, who has made an academic pursuit of tracking down and tasting old dusty bottles. We recently tasted a whole bunch of Michter’s together, a brand made in Pennsylvania from the mid-2oth century and affiliated with a distillery in Schaefferstown, PA that traces back to Revolutionary era. When Michter’s went bankrupt in 1989, thousands of gallons of unsold spirit remained in its warehouse. The Michter’s “jug house” and visitor center was a popular Pennsylvania landmark up to that point and probably for that reason the brand has remained associated with positive memories for many. (Read about Michter’s complicated history, along with some fond reminiscences, here, here, and here.)

In 1996, Chatham Imports registered the Michter’s trademark, which was then in the public domain. They began selling whisky under the Michter’s name that had been sourced from an undisclosed distiller. They also used language in their marketing and labels that implied an extension of the Schaefferstown distilling legacy (although a recent press release acknowledges the bankruptcy and subsequent revival of the brand in a more straightforward way). Since the mid-2000s, Michter’s has been “like a cook in someone else’s kitchen,” making their own spirit on another distillery’s equipment and aging it in their own barrels in rented rickhouse space. The earliest runs have been bottled as Michter’s US*1 range, while older Michter’s expressions continue to come from an unnamed source or sources.

whiskey whisky Michter's sour mash original old 1970s

Michter’s Original Sour Mash Whiskey from the 1970s/80s

Even though it’s difficult to find old Michter’s to compare with the new, it appears highly likely that what is labeled Michter’s today far surpasses the Michter’s of the 1970s and 80s in quality. The two can’t be compared at all, really, since the new stuff shares nothing with historic Michter’s but its name. Today’s Michter’s offers a range that includes bourbon, rye, and sour mash whisky at various ages while the Michter’s of yesteryear focused on sour mash whisky more or less exclusively, aging it for around six years. I can appreciate the emotional attachment some folks have to the old Michter’s site—and by extension to the brand name—but it seems the spirit itself wasn’t very good (corroborating opinion here). (In fairness, Ethan Smith’s post on the Whisky Advocate blog quotes the old Michter’s Master Distiller, Dick Stoll, as saying that the whiskey was “good stuff”—make of that what you will.)

I enjoyed tasting the current Michter’s range and am encouraged that Chatham is already making its own spirit. In fact, Michter’s now has a licensed distillery in Shively, KY and since December 2012 has operated two test stills there. In July of this year, they’ll install a full column still and will eventually be bottling only their own whisky. With this move (plus an additional micro-distillery and tourist facility in downtown Louisville), I look forward to the future of the brand, especially tasting it over the next several years to see how well they can transition from sourced to own-made whiskey. Having spoken quite candidly with Joseph Magliocco, Michter’s President, I am convinced that he is invested in making great whisky, both in financial terms and in bringing in the right equipment, processes, and people to make it happen.

Michter's Joseph Magliocco distillery micro-distillery Louisville Kentucky bourbon rye whiskey

Joseph Magliocco shows off a mock-up of Michter’s planned Louisville micro-distillery and tourist center.

Magliocco also has not hidden his ambition to elevate American whisky to levels that are currently more common in the Scotch market. Last year’s Celebration release, priced at $4,000 a bottle, points to what will likely become a trend among American distillers, as they test the market’s taste for it, just as it is now an accepted part of the Scotch industry. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to make money off their product, especially when it’s a genuinely excellent whiskey, and I think there are American whiskies every bit as deserving as Scotch of “premium” and “luxury” designations. And of course as drinkers get priced out of the premium Scotch market, they’ll turn to alternatives, thus igniting the economic cycle of increased demand and higher prices among domestic whiskies. But selfishly—because I’m not in a position to purchase a $500 bottle of 25-year-old rye, no matter how much I desire it—I wish we could keep the American whisky market where it is, where I can afford, without too much sacrifice, an amazing bottle like Four Roses 125th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch ($90).

As far as Michter’s is concerned, marketing itself as an extension of the historic distillery is not, in my opinion, necessary. Although they are trying to play on the cachet of history and its associations with better quality, many people (well, many whisky geeks) have been turned off by what they see as deceptive language and “cashing in” on a legacy which the brand, with its undisclosed sources and location in Kentucky rather than Pennsylvania, hasn’t continued. Maybe these people aren’t a significant part of Michter’s target market; I’m sure the brand knows what it’s doing. But I think the whisky can stand on its own without any attempts to relate it to a backstory that is, at best, fanciful and, at worst, deliberately misleading.

Going forward—especially now that they’re making their own spirit—I think Michter’s should gently honor the legacy of their name and let their whisky do the rest of the talking. The stuff they’ve bottled well deserves to be appreciated on its own merits, without taking the old Michter’s into account. Even setting aside all the sourced whisky, just tasting the Michter’s US*1 range that has been made by the brand shows that they’re off to a good start. With a few more years’ time, I anticipate the whisky made in Michter’s own distillery will prove itself genuinely good and even great in its own right.

In the meantime, while we wait for the new Michter’s to come of age, let’s acknowledge that we can enjoy sourced whisky if for no other reason than it tastes good. And let’s support the ambitions of a brand that wants to make other good-tasting whisky to sell to us—hopefully at prices we can afford. 

Tasting Notes
Rather than sourcing, Michter’s currently makes these expressions itself using another distillery’s equipment. They retail for $40-45 in most states.

Michter’s US*1 Bourbon
Aged around eight and a half years, it has a floral and citrusy nose with light herbaceous notes. The palate is grapefruit, spun sugar, lavender, and chicory—a lovely, spicy, lingering dram.

Michter’s US*1 Rye
With roses, vanilla sugar, coconut, and toffee on the nose, it has a comfortably rounded palate—spicy, chocolatey, gingery, with a hint of arugula—and lingers well. It’s about six years old and one of the best entry-level ryes I’ve had.

Michter’s US*1 Sour Mash Whiskey
Neither a bourbon nor a rye, this whisky offers something to love from both ends. It has a beautiful nose of cotton candy, caramel, and spearmint, with more mint on the palate mingling with walnuts, fruit, and floral notes. At about six years old, it shows lovely complexity. (Note that this whisky, while not meant to replicate the original Michter’s sour mash, is a sort of hat-tip to it.)

Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey
This whisky is a free-for-all, both in terms of how the distiller can make it and what it smells and tastes like. The nose has interesting notes of coffee and kettle corn—sweet and a little woody. I taste mint chocolate and orange peel with strong wood influence and a honeyed sweetness that reminds me of Bit O’ Honey candy. The finish is all cherry cough syrup—not unpleasant, but very unlike the other expressions.

Turnips Gratinée (aka Cheesy Neeps)

cheesy neeps turnips au gratin gratinée with cheese Gruyère French Burns Night Scottish

If you live in a northerly place, trying to eat seasonally in winter can sometimes feel like a chore. With the exception of expensive (and often impossible to find) greenhouse-grown fruits and veggies, most local produce is limited to roots, squash, and hardy “storage vegetables” (usually more roots and squash).

Now, I love beets and cabbage and sweet potatoes as much as the next person. But after awhile even the most dedicated locavore feels worn down by the endless line of hard, knobby root vegetables. How many times can you roast the same tray of cubed veg tossed in herbs before going crazy?

When I’m feeling particularly depressed about eating the same old-same old for what feels like the millionth week, I turn to the one food culture that can make anything, no matter how run-of-the-mill or tired, feel elegant and gourmet—the French. This recipe combines nearly all the best parts of French cooking: butter, cream, mustard, and cheese. The only thing missing is wine, and you can easily add that in by enjoying a glass while the dish bakes!

white turnips peeler peeled gratin gratinée neeps

I used a mandoline slicer to get my turnips to an even thinness, but don’t fret if all you have is a sharp kitchen knife—that’ll do fine. If you’re concerned about cholesterol or calories, well, this dish is probably not for you, but feel free to substitute light cream or half and half if you wish.

In French, one might call this dish navets au gratin or navets gratinés but in the spirit of Burns Night (tonight, January 25!), I’ve dubbed it “cheesy neeps” (turnips = neeps in Scots-speak). If at all possible, use white turnips rather than yellow turnips (also known as swede or rutabaga)—they slice easier and cook faster. If you are using yellow turnips, you may want to increase the cooking time under foil to a full hour.

Cheesy Neeps (Turnips Gratinée)

Ingredients:
5 small white turnips (~5 cups’ worth)
3/4 cup of heavy cream
2 Tbs. whole-grain Dijon mustard, such as Maille
1/2 – 3/4 cup coarsely-grated Gruyère cheese (if unavailable, substitute Emmenthaler or Swiss)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. butter

Directions: 
1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Rub the butter around the bottom and inside edges of a glass pie plate or round casserole dish.
2. Peel turnips and slice 1/8″ thick using a mandoline or sharp knife.
3. Whisk cream, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Dredge turnip slices thoroughly, and layer in the round dish, scooping up plenty of liquid with each slice. Pour any remaining cream on the top layer.
4. Sprinkle generously with cheese, and cover with aluminum foil. Bake covered for 45 minutes; then uncover and bake a further 20 minutes until the cheese is brown and cream is bubbly.

Cocktail Experiments with the Owl’s Brew

owl's brew tea-based cocktail mixer the classic coco-lada

As this blog makes evident, my drink of choice is whisky. It’s what I save up for, what I enjoy sharing with others, what I savor at the end of the day. But I like drinking other stuff too: beer while I’m cooking, a bottle of wine for lingering over a meal, and cocktails—glorious cocktails!—when a creative mood strikes or when I hit up a particularly great bar.

Sometimes I’m not in a creative mood and I still want a cocktail. In those situations, I usually turn to trusty stand-bys, like a Botanist gin and tonic or rum and pineapple juice. But even my tried-and-true favorites occasionally get old and, lacking the energy or some special ingredient needed to create a more exciting drink, I give up and regretfully settle for whatever’s closest at hand, mixed or not.

Now I have another option for staving off cocktail burnout: the Owl’s Brew, tea-based cocktail mixers that suit a variety of booze and just about any effort level. If you’re feeling lazy or uninspired, mix two parts of the Owl’s Brew to one part of your chosen hooch. If you’d rather play around, use the Brew as you would any non-alcoholic juice or flavored liquid and make it one component of a more complex recipe.

If you’re not normally a tea-drinker, don’t let that turn you off. The tea taste is pretty subtle and, besides that, the Owl’s Brew blends spices, herbs, and fruit with agave, making the end result a well-balanced mixer that doesn’t overwhelm with sweetness or fake flavors. Frankly, I’d drink this by itself at breakfast or for a post-workout energy boost, because it’s really tasty. And, unlike a lot of other pre-made mixers, it’s decidedly more wholesome with no high fructose corn syrup or scary dyes.

Brew and Basil cocktail gin the owl's brew the classic tea-based cocktail mixer

I tried two of the three current Owl’s Brew varieties: the Classic and the Coco-Lada. Earthy, slightly tart and delightfully easy to drink, the Classic worked well in every drink I concocted, and I was disappointed to blow through the bottle quickly. The Coco-Lada proved a little more challenging for me since coconut water features prominently as one ingredient. Despite the prevailing trend, I really can’t stand coconut water, so I struggled to come up with a recipe that complemented the Coco-Lada’s flavor profile but didn’t make my nose wrinkle. Fortunately, the other ingredients (pineapple, ginger, chai spices) balanced out the coconut water and supported vigorous experimentation.

As I tried various combinations, I found that—unsurprisingly—herbs and spices worked really well with these mixers. Even the first recipe, composed of only the Owl’s Brew and booze, features an herbal note in the vodka thanks to its delicate grass infusion. It would make sense to try this with Becherovka, Chartreuse, in a Pimm’s Cup, or in combination with any herbal liqueur you like.

If you enjoy a cocktail of an evening but don’t consider yourself much of a mixologist, keeping a bottle of the Owl’s Brew on hand is one way to ensure you never have to resort to desperate measures. And if you like more complicated beverages, blending a little here or there can provide depth and complexity without a lot of extraneous ingredients. I could see this featuring in a large-scale punch or as part of a brunch cocktail. You could even throw it in your green juice sans alcohol if you need a little extra sumpin-sumpin. Even if you’re dubious, grab a small bottle and give it a try, if for no other reason than it’s different, and tasty, and you might be surprised at how much you like it.

The Bison’s Brew
1.5 oz Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka
3 oz The Classic
Grapefruit twist

Shake or stir vodka and Owl’s Brew with ice. Serve in a rocks glass with a twist of grapefruit. 

Brew & Basil
1.5 oz London dry gin, such as Tanqueray
3 oz The Classic
1/4 oz fresh lime juice
2 sprigs sweet basil

Shake gin, Owl’s Brew, lime juice, and one sprig of basil vigorously with ice. Strain into a cocktail or rocks glass and garnish with the remaining sprig of basil.

Maple-Lada
1.5 oz white rum
3 oz Coco-Lada
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2-3/4 tsp maple syrup
2 pieces of star anise

Shake rum, Coco-Lada, lime juice, maple syrup, and one piece of star anise with ice; strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with remaining star anise.

Spend this Holiday Season at the #CaptainsTable

pork tenderloin apple sweet potato brussels sprout Captain Morgan glaze Hugh Acheson

This Thursday, millions of Americans will spend hours peeling potatoes, whipping cream, basting turkeys, rolling dough, and whisking gravy to prepare and share a meal with loved ones. They’ll go to great lengths to over-feed guests, impress the in-laws, and relish copious leftovers. Thanksgiving has become for many the only day each year that we make a great effort to prepare an elaborate feast—and to enjoy it with gratitude.

But millions of other Americans—the 14.7 million households who at some point have struggled to put food on the table—will find their Thanksgiving spreads a little more sparse. And they won’t have enough leftovers to enjoy for days afterward—many won’t have enough food to see out the week. Even with government assistance and the generosity of soup kitchens and food pantries, some of our neighbors still worry about where their next meal will come from.

hunger charity celebrity chef Hugh Acheson Captain Morgan rum

The non-profit organization WhyHunger aims to end poverty and hunger (not just in the US, but everywhere) “by connecting people to nutritious, affordable food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.” Their multi-faceted work encompasses a variety of efforts to ensure all people have access to nutritious food. At the moment, they’re partnering with Captain Morgan (yes, of the spiced rum) and chef Hugh Acheson (you know him from Top Chef) to raise funds throughout the holiday season. Until February 2014, any tweet, Instagram, or Pinterest post with the hashtag #CaptainsTable garners a $1 donation to WhyHunger from Captain Morgan.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Strategy

Cape Corsair—recipe below
Photo courtesy of Taylor Strategy

A recent press launch for the campaign featured seasonal Captain Morgan cocktails and boozy bites—perfect for getting into the Thanksgiving mood and the spirit of the campaign. As I enjoyed Acheson’s charcuterie and an excellent cranberry cocktail, I was fully aware of the privileged position I occupy—not just at a fun party, but every day. I have no worries about being able to eat, and eat well. Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if that were the case.

But I have lived in so-called “food deserts” and neighborhoods where the majority of the residents need government assistance. I’ve shopped at the grocery stores where most food comes in cans or boxes and where junk food is far cheaper than fresh. Eating well with those limited resources is possible, sure, but it sucks. You eat the same things over and over because there’s never any variety at the store. Plus, preparing meals from whole foods takes a lot longer than reheating a frozen pizza, and when you work two jobs, time is short. And, frankly, junk food tastes better than what a lot of people—with limited cooking skills, resources, and time—are able to prepare.

So I fully support Chef Acheson and Captain Morgan in their campaign for WhyHunger. And even though I hope they’d donate the money whether or not people use the hashtag #CaptainsTable, I’ll set my usual cynicism aside and join in. It’s Thanksgiving time—and I have so much, and so much for which to be thankful.

To learn more about WhyHunger and issues of food insecurity, visit whyhunger.org. For every #CaptainsTable hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, Captain Morgan will donate $1 to the charity.

Cape Corsair
Recipe courtesy of Captain Morgan

Ingredients:
12 fresh whole cranberries
1 inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
½ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes orange Bitters
1 ¼ oz. Captain Morgan® Black Spiced Rum
1 oz. cranberry juice
½ oz. lime juice
lime peel to garnish

Directions:
In mixing glass, muddle the cranberries, ginger, and simple syrup. Add the bitters and Captain Morgan® Black Spiced Rum, cranberry and lime juices and shake with ice. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, ice and all, smash style. Garnish with an expressed lime peel.

A Whisky Woman on “Whiskey Women”

Book cover of Whisky Women

Photo courtesy of fredminnick.com

For the last few years among whisky and bourbon brands, there’s been a concerted effort to market to women. Some of this has materialized in the form of flavored whisky offerings (which, according to at least one master distiller, are more popular with men than women). Other times, companies have created campaigns, like Campari’s Women & Whiskies, to give women a “safe space” in which to explore the spirit. As a female who drinks whisky—and who loves evangelizing about it—most of the time I view outreach to women in a positive light.

But make no mistake—women drinking whisky is not a new thing. And throughout history, women weren’t drinking whisky because of targeted marketing campaigns or special added flavors. They were drinking whisky because it is good, and because you don’t have to be a certain gender to appreciate things that taste good.

Noted journalist Fred Minnick has just published a book that proves just that. Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey should cause quite a splash among whisky professionals and enthusiasts alike as an exhaustive, and often surprising, history of women’s relationships to whisky and vice versa.

Minnick starts his narrative in the realm of the obscure and somewhat mystical, describing Mesopotamian brewing deities and the Egyptian woman who invented the first alembic still, Maria Hebraea. He charts in great detail the laws and customs that surrounded brewing and distilling, noting that “women faced the same regulations as the men.” Drawing the thread through the centuries, Minnick’s writing weaves a tapestry of women, usually anonymous, who made spirits for a living—often as the only option to feed their families.

How about the women who “saved” bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whiskey? The examples are numerous—wives and daughters of established distillers who inherited or took over and kept the companies going; women who made and used whiskey as medicine during wars and on the American frontier; and of course female moonshiners whose manufacture of whiskey during Prohibition helped preserve important knowledge and distilling culture during that dry period.

Minnick presents a scholarly and even-handed point of view, discussing temperance women alongside female bootleggers. He doesn’t gloss over the tension that existed between these groups up until the mid-20th century. Instead, he treats both sides of the story with care and respect, although of necessity giving more attention to the bootleggers (this is about whiskey women, after all).

When discussing the whisky industry’s position toward women in the latter half of the 20th century, the terrain begins to feel more familiar. Noting that the industry had welcomed female participation in whisky production in the 19th and early 20th century, Minnick points out a few examples of notable women in the mid-century and then declares the 1970s and 80s as “lost decades” for women in whisky. The last couple of chapters he devotes to modern women who are making their mark as blenders, distillers, and producers of whisky.

I found this section most interesting because Minnick acknowledges plainly that “despite women running two major whiskey companies and making significant decisions at every level, women whiskey executives face the same ‘Oh, wait, you’re a woman stigma'” that occurred in the 1960s. Having done his homework and interviewed women all over the world about their experiences in the whisky industry, Minnick can back up his claim.

And, I have to say, I’m not at all surprised that these attitudes still prevail, both within professional circles as well as among plain old imbibers. I’ve encountered such attitudes myself—from men and women. At times I’ve chalked up dismissive treatment to my age, but at least part of the time I think people underestimate or discount my knowledge of whisky due to my gender.

Minnick questions why the whisky industry has not yet recognized its strong female heritage. For example, plenty of brands are named after men—Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, the numerous expressions named for master distillers—so why not an expression named for a woman whose work contributed to the distillery’s success? His question is valid, and I look forward to seeing the industry’s response to it.

tl; dr

Whiskey Women is a game-changer—a serious, scholarly text that details how women have impacted the whisky industry and why that matters. It rightfully lauds the industry for its progressive past treatment of women while pointedly calling out what it can do further. Don’t look for tasting notes here. Read it for an entertaining, often-surprising narrative of strong, interesting people making, distributing, and drinking whisky—people who all just happen to be women.

Boozy Desserts: Glen Grant Five Decades + Whisky Bread Pudding

bread pudding whisky scotch single malt recipe Glen Grant

Part of my aim in writing this blog is to bring good food and whisky together. When asked to review a new expression from Glen Grant, I took it as an opportunity to engage in one of my favorite kitchen pastimes: boozy baking. And since I had most of an unwanted loaf of Italian bread going stale, I decided to whip up a whisky bread pudding. With whisky sauce. To enjoy with more whisky.

Now, I did NOT use the lovely Glen Grant sample in this recipe. I never use “real” whisky (e.g. a nice single malt) in cooking, Brenne-infused mulled wine notwithstanding. I used what I had on hand, which was Grants, but you can use any cheap blended whisky or, heck, any dark spirit you want. Bourbon, brandy, rum—go wild! But please, please don’t use your good stuff. Save that to enjoy with the food.

whisky whiskey bread pudding recipe

Bread pudding is ridiculously easy to make. Bread, sugar, eggs, cream. Throw in some vanilla, baking spices, nuts, raisins or other fruit, chocolate chips, whatever—you can’t mess it up. It’s a great dessert for company, too, because you can make a whole pan (or portion into little ramekins) and feed a crowd. Plus, you get to serve it with hard sauce, which is butter, sugar, and booze, and tastes like the topping at Cinnabon only way better, because booze.

Glen Grant’s new Five Decades expression pairs nicely with bread pudding, complementing it with a light creaminess, notes of nutmeg, and sweet raisiny undertones. In fact, next time I might add raisins or currants to further draw out the dried fruit in the malt.

Glen Grant V Decades - Image courtesy of Exposure

Glen Grant Five Decades
Nose: Sweet with strong vanilla and honey with icing sugar and an undertone of stone fruits, especially fresh cherries, and a hint of nutmeg.

Palate: Gentle at first, with a creamy sweetness that progressed to warm spiciness and finished with toasted, buttered nuts and lingering spice. As the dram opened up, I got notes of minerals, birch bark, and cherry syrup, plus some orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. It was very easy drinking, and more complex than the nose suggested.

Glen Grant just released this whisky as a celebration of their Master Distiller, Dennis Malcolm, who began his career at their cooperage in 1963. Malcolm selected casks from each of the last five decades to create the limited-edition expression priced around $250.

whisky whiskey bread pudding recipe

Whisky Bread Pudding
Ingredients:
– 1 loaf Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes and allowed to go stale
– 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
– 4 large eggs
– 1 cup white sugar
– 1/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
– 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
– 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
– 2 tsp. vanilla extract
– 3 Tbs. whisky (e.g. Grants)
– 1 cup heavy cream
– 3 cups half and half
– 1/2 cup raisins or currants (optional)

Directions: 
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F (175° C). Grease a 9″x13″ glass baking dish. Melt the butter and toss with the bread, coating thoroughly.

2. Beat eggs and both sugars until well blended. Add spices, vanilla, and whisky. Blend in cream and half and half until thoroughly mixed. Gently mix in raisins, if using.

3. Toss bread chunks with cream mixture and pour into baking dish, ensuring each chunk is well saturated. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until liquid has set. (It will still be bubbling, though.) Serve warm with butterscotch or hard sauce.

Thanks to Nick at Exposure for the sample of Glen Grant Five Decades.

Umami-Packed Fried Green Tomatoes

green tomatoes tomato slices fried

While the warm weather is officially winding down, and I’ve already busted out the soup pot for a batch of this soul-warming goodness, there’s still one juicy way to hang on to summer a little longer. Sure, it’s a bit tart and perhaps not as versatile as its more mature brethren, but the green tomato makes a lip-smacking treat that rivals all other fried foods.

Seriously, have you tried them? You will not be able to stop eating them.

fried green tomatoes southern fried umami

Don’t resist.

A batter would be too heavy, but a nice triple-dip in dry-wet-dry ensures that every slice is well-crusted and remains so during the pan frying. I’ve seen recipes that call for just flour and others for just cornmeal, but here I combine them, with well-beaten egg, to achieve a satisfying chewy-crunchy ratio without overpowering the fruit.

The key to this recipe, however, is the first dip in Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. The punch of umami imparted by the sauce ensures that the finished tomatoes need no adornment (although if you’re partial to ranch dressing or perhaps remoulade, go for it). And if you have any sauce left after the initial dip, try blending it into the beaten egg for an extra-strong flavor.

If you have a low spice tolerance, adjust the Tabasco accordingly. And feel free to use any other brand of hot sauce you like. To make the recipe ovo-vegetarian, find a fish-free Worcestershire sauce or substitute dark soy sauce.

fried green tomatoes southern fried umami cast iron skillet

Fried Green Tomatoes

Ingredients: 
2 medium green (unripe) tomatoes
3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp – 1 Tbs. Tabasco (to taste)
1 large egg and 2 Tbs water, well beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 cup medium or finely ground yellow cornmeal
corn or vegetable oil for frying

Directions:
1. Combine Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco in a shallow bowl. Combine flour and cornmeal in another shallow bowl. Add beaten egg to a third shallow bowl. Line them up in that order.

2. Slice tomatoes in ~1/4 inch slices and arrange in a single layer on a large tray or cookie sheet. Working one by one, dip each slice into the sauce mixture and make sure it is well coated. Then, dredge in the flour-cornmeal mixture and put back onto the tray. Repeat with all tomato slices until finished.

3. Again working one by one, dip each slice in the egg mixture until well coated. (For an extra-flavorful egg dip, mix in any sauce leftover after step 2.) Then, dredge once again in the flour-cornmeal mixture and put back onto the tray. (If you need to top up the flour-cornmeal mixture, make sure it is in a ~ 1:2 ratio.)

4. In a heavy cast iron skillet, heat 1/4″ oil over medium-high heat until it is smoking hot (about 330° F), then immediately turn the heat down to medium. Working in batches so as not to overcrowd, fry tomato slices, turning over, until dark brown on both sides. Add more oil between batches as necessary, allowing it to heat up before cooking tomatoes. Drain tomatoes in a single layer on several paper towels.

Serve hot. If there are any leftovers, keep them in a tightly-sealed container in the refrigerator with paper towels between each layer. Reheat in the oven or toaster oven, or just eat them cold. They make a great substitute for regular tomatoes in a BLT.

Tasting the Range: Balcones

Balcones Baby Blue True Blue Texas Whisky Whiskey Bottles

Last week, I went drinking on a school night. (And by school night I mean a night before work, obvs.) When I make choices like these, I usually face regret the next day and vow never to do it again. And yet, rarely do I choose to go out and drink through the entire line of one of America’s finest craft distilleries.

When that happens, there are NO regrets.

I trekked all the way to Hell Gate Social in my old hood, Astoria, for a tasting of Balcones whiskies led by Chip Tate, the bearded genius who founded the Waco, Texas distillery. His presentation ranked among the best I’ve ever gotten from an actual distiller, overpowering not by volume but by sheer gentle magnetism the noise of the backyard BBQ going on around us. He put the small crowd at ease immediately by chatting like we were all old friends and displaying the kind of understated hospitality that the best Southerners are known for.

Chip Tate Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey distillery

Chip holds forth on his whisky

Plus, the whiskies were out-of-control AWESOME. I’d had some Balcones before, but never the opportunity to taste them all in one sitting, from the Texas Single Malt to the Brimstone with some special treats besides. Chip says he tries “to obey the flavor rules and not just do something weird to do something weird,” a refreshing position at a time when many craft distillers resort to gimmicks to distinguish themselves. Chip seeks to create a flavor profile that is unique and uniquely Texan, and boy, does he ever succeed. It was easy to connect the dots between the pours, and yet each expression stood on its own. Even if Balcones made only one of these spirits, the name would command same the respect and admiration as its full line of seven expressions.

Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey glass

Examining my whisky

Chip’s “brand of whisky science” is that you have to start with quality to get quality. So he uses ingredients, like Hopi blue corn, and processes, like rigorous wood management and even building his own stills (he sported burn marks from recent welding), that he has tested and vetted and found to result in an excellent product. I think almost every distiller would claim the same philosophy, but when Chip says it, he can genuinely back it up. He’s turned down investors who wanted to increase production but on terms Chip didn’t agree with. Luckily, some investors came along who see the wisdom of letting the man behind the magic do things his way, and Balcones is building a new facility in Waco’s downtown that will increase production without sacrificing quality (hence the newly-welded stills).

Balcones Texas whisky whiskey craft

Josh is excited about the many bottles of Balcones

The evening passed too quickly, with excellent company and superb spirits. I can’t write about everything we tried, but I can hint that Balcones is releasing something pretty special in a few months’ time. Aw, heck, they’re all special, but this one will really catch people’s attention. I’d be mad that it’s not yet available, but Chip made us promise we wouldn’t be angry at him for pouring us things we can’t get.

Here are a few brief notes from the lineup. The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to my style of drawn out, thoughtful tasting, but I look forward to revisiting each of these drams again to discover new pleasures.

Balcones Texas Single Malt (53% ABV)
Sweet nose of caramel and brown sugar, with a hint of mocha. Sweet (cherry, jelly sweets, bubblegum), nutty and oaky palate with well-balanced spice (cinnamon, nutmeg).

Balcones Rumble (47%)
Note: this is not a whisky. It’s made with figs, honey and sugar. The nose is sugary and floral, the palate all molasses, honey, candied violets, and layered spice. In Chip’s words, it “came from years of sauce-making.” And indeed, it tastes like something I’d gladly spoon over my roast pork tenderloin.

Balcones Baby Blue (46%)
Nose of vanilla, mint, and toasted marshmallows. Palate of leather, sugar, tropical fruits, vanilla, and a slight smokiness. Chip called this the “reposado tequila of the corn whisky world”.

Balcones True Blue (50%)
A vegetal and smoky nose—like grilled steak over dark greens. The palate holds incredible mint and spice flavors, reminding me of certain Indian chutneys. It is so sweet, dark, vegetal, meaty, and benefits well from a few drops of water.

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength (58.3%)
The nose is pure maple syrup with a hint of tobacco; the palate also has maple, vanilla, lemon, and wood notes. A gut-punchingly good dram.

Balcones Fifth Anniversary Bourbon (64.2%)
This thing is so rich you could pour it on pancakes (but please don’t). I tasted it for the first time at WhiskyLive last spring, and you can hear my reaction here. Needless to say, this is one of the bottles you’ll have a hard time finding in stores and I am exceptionally pleased to have had it twice.

Balcones Brimstone (53%)
Chip says this whisky creates a psychosocial reaction in most folks, bringing back old memories, usually of something very primal from early childhood. It certainly reminds me of camping trips when I was a kid—it’s pure steak cooked over a mesquite fire, with sweet vanilla, mango, brown sugar, coriander penetrating the dense meatiness. This whisky might remind scotch drinkers of peated expressions, but unlike with Scotch malt whisky, where the barley is dried over fire for that smoky flavor, Brimstone—the spirit itself—is smoked through some secret, mystical hoodoo. Josh, the Coopered Tot, compares it to “bubbling through like bong water”. I’m going to just leave that there.

Balcones Brimstone Resurrection (59.2%)
The whisky that was “snatched from the jaws of hell” (i.e. corn burnt to a crisp, chiseled out of the bottom of a still and re-processed into something drinkable, then bottled after three years—see what they did there?) blew me out of the water. If I had to choose a favorite from the evening, I think this would be it. The nose is more subtle than the Brimstone—much less meat, much more fruit. The palate is one big WOW of honey, butterscotch, cardamom, and Fun Dip (yup, Fun Dip) riding beneath the smoky goodness. I could see myself drinking this for a week straight and still coming up with new revelations (wordplay!) with each sip. Too bad it’s another of those hard-to-find bottlings, created to celebrate Balcones’s fifth anniversary.

The only regret I woke up with was that the evening didn’t last longer. I think Chip and I could have had some interesting theological conversations to rival the complexity of his whiskies. Maybe next time. Have no doubt, I’ll disregard any school night for Balcones.

Find more whisky in Astoria at the Astoria Whiskey Society.

Peach-Pineapple Salsa

peaches pineapple salsa mint lime juice tortilla chips fruit recipe

With the arrival of Labor Day, summer is “offically” over. Kids are heading back to school (if they’re not there already), beach house rental prices have plummeted, and the pumpkin spice flavored goodies are out in full force.

I’m as excited about the start of fall as anyone—the first pumpkin beers of the season are chilling in my fridge right now—but with 80-degree days still forecast for at least a couple more weeks, I can’t switch off summer mode yet. Especially when it comes to making the most of summer fruit, still in full, bounteous swing.

Since just eating a piece of fruit gets a little boring, I decided to make a fruit salsa to jazz up my five-a-day. Fresh pineapple, now at the end of its season, mint and lime juice rounded out some just-ripe peaches to make a flavorful, refreshing treat. I call this a salsa but really, it’s a diced fruit salad, so feel free to eat it with a spoon, tortilla chips, on top of ice cream or yogurt, or however you like it.

peaches pineapple mint lime hot pepper fruit salsa recipe

Peach-Pineapple Salsa

Ingredients:
3 large or 4-5 small peaches, peeled, cut in 1/2″ dice (yields ~3 cups)
2 cups of fresh pineapple, cut in 1/4″ dice (if substituting canned pineapple, use the kind stored in its juices, not in syrup)
1/2 cup tightly packed fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
juice of two limes (about 1/3 cup)
2 green cayenne peppers, finely minced (can substitute other hot peppers to taste or eliminate entirely)

Directions:
Mix all ingredients well, cover tightly, and let sit in the refrigerator for several hours. (This step is important as it mellows the vegetal mint and allows all the flavors to blend.) Serve over ice cream, as a topping for tacos, with tortilla chips, or plain. Keeps up to three days in the fridge.