Saturday, June 13, 2009

MxMo: Ginger

This is my first Mixology Monday, whose theme this time is ginger. It is presently being hosted by Rumdood. Do yourself a favor and check out his site.

The Summit Cocktail

1 wide piece of lime peel
.5 inch long piece of ginger root, sliced thinly into medallions
1.5 oz Cognac
2 oz lemonade, lemon soda, or bitter lemon soda
peel of cucumber for garnish

Muddle the lime peel, ginger, and .75 oz of the Cognac in an old fashioned glass. Fill glass halfway with ice cubes and stir. Add the remaining Cognac and the lemonade. Rub the edge of the glass with the cucumber peel's underside, drop it into the drink, and stir one last time.

At first glance, the Summit doesn't seem like a very special cocktail: the classic combination of lemon and ginger, lime peel just to be different, a spirit, and the increasingly popular cucumber peel garnish.

However, it must be said that the Summit is quite a good drink. The Cognac most definitely plays well with the others, and if your lemonade isn't too sweet, it can be a devastatingly refreshing concoction.

If a decent drink isn't enough for you, the Summit has an interesting story behind it as well. Its origins, however, lie not in some 1908 hotel bar, but in a 2008 marketing boardroom. Cognac's decline in sales during the past few years has caused the industry to look toward the rest of the spirit markets for inspiration. Namely, that cocktails and mixed drinks account for much of the liquor sales nowadays, and that most of these are being drunk by young people. Aware of its image as sipped by smarmy old-timers who actually know the difference between brandy and Cognac, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) figured that it needed to make its products' appeal to younger crowds via cocktails, and ideally, through one specific cocktail which youngsters could request by name (something which Bacardi, for example, has used to full effect with the mojito in the past).

In a move not unlike the "Got Milk?" ads spun by the milk farming industry and with marketing clout as seemingly strong as any, the BNIC summoned a score of top mixologists from around the word to congregate and brainstorm a new and salient cocktail that was delicious, noticeably containing Cognac in flavor and color, and easy to make. What they finally produced was the Summit, a not-unusual cocktail except for the fact that it curiously combines fairly common components with Cognac.

The advertising blitz continues with a website: With beautiful pictures, indy music, and a design so slick that it rivals that of large company websites, it's fairly clear that the Cognac producers mean business (literally).

So, have they succeeded?

At making a delicious drink that looks and tastes like Cognac and is easy to prepare? Yes, yes they did. However, there's one big problem. I think that the drink is still too complicated to make at the vast majority of bars. Have you ever tried to order a mojito at a bar or restaurant that didn't specialize in them? It's usually not a fruitful venture. Most swamped bartenders will scoff at the idea of picking up a muddler, and most bars don't even stock fresh citrus except for the occasional garnish. More bars further won't take the time for a lime peel, and more still do not stock ginger root. Yeah yeah, I know what you're saying, "But really good bars would have all that, including the time and attention to make it." And you're right. But do those bars contain the kind of clientele which Big Cognac seeks to seize? Probably not.

Of course, I'm talking about the bar culture in the United States. I can't speak much to European bars, but I can't imagine that their 20-something rabble hang out in 4-star hotel bars, or alternatively, I can't imagine that their dives' and pubs' bartenders would have the time, patience, or ingredients to make the Summit.

Overall, a great drink, but if anything, I think it might be unveiling a bit of the disconnect between serious mixology and, well, just trying to get a decent drink at your local bar.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Appalachian Single Malt at the Copper Fox Distillery

The Copper Fox Distillery is the home of Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky and Wasmund's Rye Whisky. Neighbor to Virginia's stunning Shenandoah National Park, the distillery rests just a dirt back-road or two from the center of Sperryville, a small charming place that looks just like an Appalachian foothill town should. The whole operation is housed by a wooden building that looks more like a barn than a distillery; only a small sign hanging above the large front doors (with miniature caged peeping door) indicates any enterprise.

Wasmund's intoxication begins with the smell as you walk into their distillery. The walls are imbued with fantastic smells of smoke and grain, and the look and feel of Copper Fox's main visitation area approach that of a dimly-lit Scottish tavern, not a place of industry. This, I imagine, is no surprise; the distillery is lead by a man named Rick Wasmund, a distiller who learned his craft in Scotland before returning across the pond to show us what an American single malt whisky can be. Wasmund is a warm and silly young man who is hard-pressed to take anything seriously except for his craft. His distillery tour is a back and forth of expertise and puns, innovation and anecdotes. His malting room sits near a suit of armor dubbed "Sir Malts-a-lot". Above his stored grain hangs a sign remarking the distance to Scotland's Loch Indaal. Wasmund's good humor reflects his dedication to loving what he does.

Wasmund's products are unique. They're not afraid to fly in the face of tradition in order to forge a new identity for American whiskey. Much tradition is still preserved, however, and the resulting balance yields a fascinating product via a fascinating process. Copper Fox is the only American distillery to malt themselves the same barley that they mash and distill. The barley, just like almost every component of Wasmund's, is locally procured. The barley is smoke-dried in the Scottish style, but say good-bye to peat smoke and hello to fruitwood smoke. Wasmund's barley is smoked only with apple wood and cherry wood from a nearby orchard. It is perhaps this step that imparts the most unique character to Wasmund's whisky.

Wasmund's mash is hydrated with water from deep beneath Sperryville. He remarks that the local water is uncharacteristically rich in calcium, imparting a sweet taste, and perfect for his fruity barley. The mash ferments and distills in a room no larger than a generous garage. Next to the stills is Wasmund's quaint proof-testing table, where he monitors and documents the distillate up to barrel proof for aging.

The aging takes place in American Oak barrels, all in small batches. The overall aging time is quite small, and this is because of Wasmund's chip barrels. He partly ages the whiskey with chips of the very same fruitwood used to smoke-dry the barley. The increased surface area of the chips added with the wood of the barrel produce a surprisingly mature spirit in a small amount of time. With that said, Wasmund's Single Malt, whose age is an average of 9 months, is delicious, yet its viscosity and smoothness won't fool you into thinking you're sipping an 18-year whisky. However, with a dash of water, like Rick Wasmund suggests, you'll find a flavor unlike any other.

Copper Fox is the embodiment of a micro-distillery. Every ingredient consumed is local. Age-old craft traditions are given a new twist. The end product is unique, worth a few extra dollars and a few more miles traveled. Wasmund jokes that not everyone should be able to drink his whisky, and he's ok with that. However, Wasmund's Single Malt can be found in a multitude of stores in the mid-Atlantic and midwest, and Copper Fox's arm of distribution is growing ever longer. If you're in Virginia, ask your store clerk if you're able to special order Wasmund's. You'll be glad you did.