“To make a barrel, it’s not very difficult, but it’s so many steps. If you make one mistake, at the end, it’s not a barrel. It’s a box.”
-Francis Durand, Master Cooper for Tonnellerie Radoux
2014 has been a rough year for Bourbon. First we hear that there is an impending Bourbon shortage. Then we hear that the shortage is in large part due to the fact that the vast majority of all Bourbon brands are actually made by very few distilleries and are simply fancy labels on other people’s whiskey. All this amid rumblings of American oak barrels disappearing faster than they can be made and a worldwide surge in demand has collectors hoarding their favorite bottles.
These revelations weren’t surprising to those of us who work in the industry. And most of us don’t necessarily agree with much of the overreaction to them. But it does make me eager to point something out: there are small distilleries popping up all over the USA making good Bourbon from scratch, and as the biggest producers run dry these little guys will be getting better. I’ve been a big fan of Watershed Bourbon since part-owner Dave Rigo came to New York to help introduce it to this new market. Oola’s Waitsburg Bourbon is another new-to-NYC whiskey that I’m thrilled to have in the catalog I oversee. RoughStock’s Montana Bourbon is third excellent riff on this classic. None of these brands have the big buzz yet, but they’re all excellent and the lack of hype makes them all great value buys. For now…
So it’s the perfect time to get out of your brand comfort zone and start exploring the new wave of Bourbons. Find your new favorite while you ween off your old stand-by and you’ll weather the storm until the next “crisis”.
In light of New York Cider Week which just passed, it’s time for me to discuss cider. Not only was it the original everyman’s drink of the new world (long forgotten thanks in part to immigration, industrialization and prohibition) but it was also a crucial component of early American exportation trade. And today, it’s one of the most misunderstood drinks around. So many people look at hard cider as solely a beer substitute, all too often suggested to women with the demeaning thought that girls can’t handle beer. But in truth it’s much closer to apple wine than apple beer, especially when made in one of the many traditional styles from around the world. The Basque version is nearly still and has so little residual sugar that it’s sharply tart. In Normandy the cider is sparkling like Champagne and has a beautiful sweetness balanced by yeast like the sparkling wine, too. And farmhouses from rural England through their colonies in the New World produced gorgeous ciders from a wide variety of apples which produced a range of flavors and textures that very much suggest the range of wine styles.
In the last several years- and in conjunction with the movements to go back to traditional farming techniques and to revive heirloom produce- cideries have been popping up all over the USA to rekindle the drink that was such an important part of American history. Some have carefully cultivated nearly-extinct varietals to faithfully recreate old recipes. Others have taken to foraging forests and abandoned homesteads to find forgotten fruit that has been allowed to propagate naturally and creates wild flavors once fermented. And like wine, some take a “natural” approach favoring minimal manipulation and native yeasts while others use specific yeast strains and occasional additions of fresh juice to control the texture, carbonation and residual sugar content. With cider lists popping up on menus all over New York City, it’s a great time to learn to love this perfect expression of the apple which was at one time even more American than apple pie.
It’s always been a thrill for me to “discover” a new drink that blows my mind. Especially when it’s in a category that isn’t already super saturated with choices. So I have a couple of new obsessions I’m giddy over:
1) Don Ciccio & Figli Finocchietto- Francesco Amodeo (who grew up on the Amalfi Coast of Italy but makes his liqueurs in Washington, DC) makes an entire line of traditional liqueurs. His family made these same liqueurs for well over 100 years and he has the old recipe book (which he couldn’t get until the family considered him serious enough). I’m specifically crazy about the Finocchietto, neutral spirits infused with hand-picked wild fennel, fennel seeds, aniseeds, and dill with just enough sugar to raise the viscosity. It has an amazing fennel flavor, closer to the grassy fresh bulbs than the more licorice-like seeds. But fans of anything on the anise scale should love this.
2) Lost Spirits Distillery Navy Strength Rum- Bryan Alexander Davis and Joanne Haruta made some spectacular tiny run whiskeys until a mishap caused them to bulldoze their outdoor still and start over from scratch. Now their focus is rum and this one is a stunner. 68% alcohol by volume and hugely flavorful, but so tasty you can (almost) sip it straight. He takes a page out of ancient rum distilling and uses dunder to start fermentation which creates serious esters that add unusual depth of flavor. I’ll sip mine on the rocks but it’s a fantastic option for any cocktail calling for dark rum.
Yes I’m selling them at Mouth, but this isn’t a sales pitch. It’s a nod to a couple of the inspiring new spirits that are suddenly propagating all over the country. Getting to be among the first in New York to taste spirits like these makes me realize how lucky I am to do what I do.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here thanks to the amount of work I’ve put into my new job. So it’s with great excitement that I announce that the Mouth Indie Spirits + Wine Gallery is open at 192 Water Street in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn, and you can find our selection of spirits & wine on our website at Mouth.com. We have a terrific range of spirits from small American craft distilleries, plus a small but fun group of wines featuring some amazing natural winemakers and a couple of great versions of more standard wines. I think you’ll see that the world of independent production in the United States has reached a point where the quality & flavors are fantastic, while the inventiveness of some of the more maverick producers will entertain as well as delight. And all signs point to more and better things to come.
While the focus of the project I’m working on for Mouth is definitely spirits, we are putting together a terrific small wine selection. And it’s been a great excuse for me to focus on American wineries that are pushing the envelope with techniques and flavors rather than playing it safe and making the kinds of wines that make me turn to the old world all too often.
Yountville Sémillon made by Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery is a perfect example. Sémillon is rarely grown in the US. And this one was fermented both on it’s skins for 2 weeks before splitting into a steel tank and into a mix of American and French oak casks, and without the skins in a “concrete egg”. The wines are blended just before bottling to produce a cloudy and bone-dry white wine with an earthy acidity. It’s crisp but fascinating and an amazing display of the kind of wine making going on in select pockets of California today.
While I am the first to admit that the conglomeration of brands into huge distilling corporations hasn’t been as disastrous as some people say, I still love when an independent distiller makes a name for itself in the middle of a traditional distilling hub that has all been bought out. For example Town Branch Bourbon from the folks at Kentucky Ales in Lexington, KY. They’re the only independent distillery on the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail & their Bourbon is classically fantastic without being painfully expensive. A very neat trick to pull off in an era when whiskey is going extreme in both flavor & price. I have a feeling I’ll be recommending this bottle a lot once Mouth Spirits is fully-operational.
It’s only day 3 of my new job and I’ve already got to sample some very fun spirits. Today’s tasting featuring the Leatherbee Distillers line was a nice highlight. Especially their Malort: a craft version of Chicago’s infamously challenging dive bar cheap shot of choice. It’s spicy, herbal and generally odd good fun. I’d drink it as a digestivo but I could see folks trying it in a bunch of cocktails. And it will definitely be thrown down in shots at some of the decidedly non-divey bars which can their hands on some bottles.
I’ve accepted a position with Mouth.com to work in the spirits and wine division and the brick-and-mortar store they are opening. This is an amazing and exciting opportunity to help build something new while working with some really talented and passionate people. The bad news is this means I will not be able to take any new consulting work. However I will likely continue to teach the classes I have already booked at ICE and 92Y, and there might be more classes coming up as part of my work with Mouth.
As always, I will post up-to-date information here and I look forward to helping even more people connect with their perfect drink.
Dave Herman is a Certified Specialist of Spirits and the General Manager of Spirits & Wine at Mouth.com. He also teaches classes on alcoholic beverages and the foods that pair well with them, and has consulted on beverage programs for bars and restaurants.