Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Scoreboard: Angel's Share 2, DJ 1

It's that time again. I opened the spigot and drained the grape spirit out of my little aging barrel. The liquid had been in there for a little over 4 months.

If you recall, this time around I had "brandy" sitting in the barrel. In reality, it was actually a mixture of two spirits; in order to not ultimately have over-aged brandy on my hands, I originally mixed an aged Cognac with a young pisco and poured it in to age and mingle a bit more. What I had in the barrel was essentially a composite grape spirit.

The good news is that my "desperate swipe" at the Angel's Share was effective. And I don't know why. Before the aging, I topped off my grape spirit mixture in the barrel with a generous pour of high proof grain alcohol. I'm not sure why... perhaps I thought that upping the proof of the overall mixture would somehow slow the evaporation. Well, it seems to have worked. While I only aged the stuff for about 15% less time than I usually do, I ended up with over 150% of the expected end volume. Can someone explain this to me?

Well, the spirit's time in the barrel has yielded something for which I was thoroughly unprepared. The character of the end product is entirely different than anything that's been in the barrel previously. This is why aging at home is so fun and riveting. Here is a picture of the stuff housed in a beautiful re-used bottle from Tommy Bahama rum. I have another 750mL bottle that's half-filled with the rest of it.

Composite grape spirit, at-home aged


Its aroma didn't surprise me. It manages to have what is apparently my barrel's signature smell; it smells of wood and wood only. In fact, by its aroma, I could have mistaken this for the rum that was previously aged in this barrel. I had to ask myself "What bearing will this trend have on the development of the spirit's flavor?"


(The answer to the above question is "None at all.")

The spirit falls onto the tongue very dry, much like the previous products of this barrel. It's a characteristic dry/sweet combo that this wood has been known to develop. It spreads across to coat the tongue. Next I taste an ever-so-slight twinge of vanilla wafting up to my palate, if I concentrate hard enough.

Despite the fact that most of this product (in terms of volume) consists of Cognac, the mouth feel of the stuff is decidedly of a young spirit, like the pisco. (Perhaps because the Cognac used was on the bright and fruity side.) Despite the initial woodiness on the tongue, wood is absent from the rest of the tasting, instead replaced by a biting grassiness and spiciness. The swallow is peppery, as if it's refusing to be ignored, and I sense the slightest cinnamon aftertaste.


I'm at a loss for words as to what this "brandy" has become.

When spirits of all types are initially distilled and still clear and young, they often have flavor descriptors such as: spicy, pungent, peppery, grassy, rough, fiery, earthy, etc. The concept of aging spirits in barrels was designed to mellow these traits in spirits, while also building more complex flavors from the wood and evaporation. Well, it seems that in this case, the opposite was achieved.

Into the barrel was put a combination of fairly smooth, sweet, and fruity grape spirits and out of it has come something spicy, earthy, and more rough than before. This time around, the barrel imparted little to no flavor into its contents, but rather coaxed out completely different flavors that may have been hiding there all along. Fascinating.

I'm dying to see what's going to happen to the next barrel batch...

Into the barrel now is going a mixture of apple brandy. Yes, you could consider this a "seasonal" aging since the clock just struck "autumn", but don't forget that spirits keep almost indefinitely! The word "seasonal" has no power here!

Anyway, most of this new mix is comprised of Captain Applejack and Laird's Straight Apple Brandy, both 750mL, both bottled in bond, and both 100 proof. Frankly, it's my shoddy understanding that Captain Applejack is simply a Laird's product under a different label. In fact, they have the same bottling plant code in the fine print on the back of their bottles. Regardless, they are actually different products. The straight apple brandy is through-and-through an aged eau de vie of apples. The applejack is a combination of straight apple brandy and neutral spirit (vodka) distilled from apples. Their characters are different, and I wanted both in the barrel.

I topped the contents off with two more things: the grain alcohol that was so useful in combating the Angel's Share, and about 200mL of Chateau O'Brien apple wine, produced right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The wine is at the same time intensely sweet and intensely tart, and should liven up the other spirits.

After the grape spirit experiment, I have absolutely no clue what to expect on how the character of this apple spirit will change. Will its flavor get darker and deeper or will the barrel once again reveal some more feisty flavors? Will any wood flavors be imparted? Has the little barrel finally lost its ability to traditionally "age" spirits inside it? I'll let you know in a few months.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MxMo: Lime

(This post won't gain me any friends.)

Once again, it's Mixology Monday, and this time around Doug Winship of the Pegu Blog (one of my favorites) is hosting. Doug named his blog after his favorite cocktail, the Pegu Club, an old mainstay that has gin and lime juice, among other things. Accordingly, he has chosen lime as this month's theme. Well, I have brashly decided to use this theme as a flimsy soapbox on which I shall preach and rant. (Winship and the guy, please forgive me.)

You can find the Round-Up for this MxMo here!

Today I'm not talking about lime per se, but rather a product that uses it: Rose's Lime Juice. Rose's Lime Juice is a cordial, which essentially means that it's a sweet fruit-flavored liquid that's meant to be diluted with something. In this case, Rose's Lime Juice is really only used in one popular alcoholic drink: the Gimlet cocktail (A simple combination of Rose's and gin).

Rose's Lime Juice is a controversial product, which I'll address in a second. The stuff is old; it was originally created to prevent scurvy in the British Royal Navy. The recipe has basically been left unchanged over the years (although the modern American version of it uses high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar... this sounds like it would taste worse, but strangely, I came across some British Rose's made with sugar a few years ago, and the stuff was so overwhelmingly sweet that it was essentially unusable in a Gimlet). Its taste is somewhere between a natural lime flavor and those green lolipops you were given as a child. Some say that the sweetness is cloying, that the flavor is of chemicals, and that it's an overall inferior product.

Many people have maligned the Gimlet over the years because of this distaste for Rose's Lime Juice. I'm not going to point fingers, but a simple web search for Gimlet (blog) articles can reveal this opinion. As a result, many people choose to forego the cordial and substitute lime juice and sugar syrup. And that's fine. But please, if you do, don't call it a Gimlet; it may taste delicious, but it doesn't taste like a Gimlet should. Some people (and bartenders), however, choose to make the drink without Rose's and give it the same name, in an attempt to expunge the cordial from modern mixology. Regardless of your politics, THAT is what's called "rewriting history".

There are a few sources which I consider authorities on cocktail recipes, and the Internet Cocktail Database, Robert Hess, and even the Savoy Cocktail book and David Wondrich all call for Rose's in the Gimlet recipe. Hell, even the Mixoloseum, run by a group which consists of some of the most prolific booze bloggers, including Doug Winship himself, calls for Rose's.

This brings to mind a blog post by Matt Hamlin, a blogger here in DC who I've personally met. (Great guy!) Here, he details how good a Gimlet can be with another brand of lime cordial called Employees Only. Matt remarks how "sticklers" insist that a cocktail without Rose's can't be a Gimlet, but also remarks how his taste for Rose's has waned, having liked it previously. As I type this, there is only one comment to Matt's blog post, but it's a poignant one. Arctic Wolf's final sentence in his comment reads: "if I have been making my Gimlets wrong [with lime juice and simple syrup] for all these years…can I really call them Gimlets?"

Recently there have been controversies concerning both the legality and appropriateness of building certain cocktails using only a specific brand of spirit, but the Gimlet's case is not quite the same. (Incidentally, Doug Winship has touched upon that subject here and here.) This isn't really an issue of promoting a specific brand in a recipe that would otherwise be perfectly comparable with substitutes. This is much more akin to the tiki "sticklers" who insist that the elusive (and presently discontinued) Lemon Hart 151 rum can not be substituted without keeping the spirit/character of any recipe that uses it. The same is true here with Rose's. I'll admit, however, that the game changes quite a bit in cases of discontinuation, like Lemon Hart. The recurring problem of discontinuation is a scourge that's touched every corner of the cocktail world and its history. Ultimately, this rant is to preserve history and tradition.

Bottom line: Rose's Lime Juice is an old and unique ingredient on which the Gimlet is based. Its long-standing tradition and singularity are such that if you substitute it for something else in a Gimlet, it's not a Gimlet. Your distaste for Rose's Lime Juice does not give you the right to change the Gimlet. If you make a drink with fresh lime juice, sugar, and gin, please give it a different name... it could be something as simple as the Fresh Gimlet, Natural Gimlet, or even something cheeky like the Improved Gimlet or The One and Only Gimlet. But if your drink does not have Rose's, your drink is not a Gimlet.

Gimlet (on the rocks)*

2 oz gin
.75 oz Rose's Lime Juice*

Combine ingredients in a glass and stir vigorously with ice. Serve.

*I prefer a Gimlet on the rocks. The Gimlet is not a drink that suffers from dilution.
**The key to enjoying a Gimlet is knowing how much Rose's Lime Juice that you prefer. Recipes vary this amount, but if it's undrinkable for you, then what's the point? Even a dash of Rose's in a glass of gin is closer to the spirit of the Gimlet than fresh lime juice. Find an amount that suits your tastes

Friday, September 3, 2010

Weird is not Bad

There is a man named Phronk, and he runs a blog that documents his experiences with putting weird things in coffee. More accurately, he mixes weird things in coffee, dunks weird things in coffee, and even brews weird things with coffee grounds, all because he loves coffee so much that he tests the bounds of coffee's deliciousness beyond society's arbitrarily established conventions. Some of my favorite posts of his are coffee with Hollandaise and curry.

Well, Phronk has finally put on his mixologic hat, and has decided to create the Mojijoe: a mojito with hot coffee instead of seltzer! The verdict? Find out for yourself right here.

Note: Phronk is a snobby Canadian who chooses to flaunt his Cuban Havana Club rum in my rum-loving American face. I performed a persuasive speech in high school over the futility of the Cuban Embargo... I just didn't realize it was for a reason that I would find much more engaging 10 years later!