Vermouth is quietly making a big comeback. There are quite a few small producers making gorgeously complex and flavorful vermouths, both in its ancestral European homelands and in the Americas, reminiscent of days long gone. My hometown of New York City alone has Uncouth and Atsby which are two of my favorites. But I have a problem with this movement: they’re too closely tied to cocktails!
Before the modern cocktail movement vermouths were prized for sipping on their own (or on the rocks) as aperitifs or digestifs. In fact the primary botanicals that flavor these fortified wines were medicinal herbs, barks and roots that were specifically aimed at settling upset stomachs making them a natural digestion aid. Bust most importantly, these excellent new vermouths are so bold and delicious that they deserve to have the glass all to themselves.
I’m all for cocktails with vermouth as an ingredient and there are a handful of brands that have long been the choice for many great mixologists, simpler subtler vermouths specifically designed for blending with spirits in tins and shakers. And I know for marketing purposes the best way to sell anything tied with spirits is to tell people to make cocktails with it. But to really get the full benefit of great vermouth, pour a short wine pour into your favorite stemware and try slowly sipping it straight. It’s my drink of choice for lazy summer afternoons.
Just don’t forget that vermouth is not a spirit: it’s a fortified wine and it behaves much more like wine. This means that it will deteriorate after opening and should be kept chilled, preferably with the air removed from the bottle with a vacuum pump, to ensure that it retains as much of it’s flavor with a minimum of spoilage.
The spirits world is buzzing over the announcement from Lost Spirits and resident agitator Bryan Davis that they have created a chemical reactor that can duplicate the aging process of up to 20 years in oak barrels in less than a week. I’ve been a fan of their spirits for a while, starting with their whiskeys for which they would never tell the age (only saying “less than 1 year”) and more recently their potent and complex rums. What I never knew is that I had been drinking the test runs of this reactor process. And enjoying them immensely.
I had scheduled a trip to San Francisco, which is not far from the distillery, and started chatting with Bryan’s partner Joanne about visiting while I was there. She was a bit cryptic about not being able to promise to accommodate me, but she said she’d try. Then two weeks before I got there the announcement came out so I thought there was no chance. Until I got a call from her early on a Sunday afternoon asking if I could run down in a few hours. How could I say no?
Their distillery and small house/office are surrounded by artichoke fields in a rural area. The still is outdoors and made up of a few artfully crafted components famously including a steam vent in the shape of an ornate dragon’s head. The kiln where they smoked their whiskey malts over peat fires is nearby under a pagoda. From the outside it looks more like the classic eccentric suburban neighbor’s place than anything else. Inside the house there is a beautiful tiny bar next to the seemingly unused kitchen and living room set up for discussion and demonstration. Through an unmarked door is their secret laboratory. Or so I guessed. Frankly I have no clue and there was no evidence of the kind of B-movie foundry I was expecting to see.
I have to say that Bryan and Joanne are two of the most genuinely friendly people I’ve ever met. With virtually no sleep for weeks and insane demands on their time that will only get crazier, they were terrific hosts. Truly enthusiastic to chat, show off their creations and take care of us. I’ve never felt more welcome visiting a distillery and they made more time for the occasion than I would have expected even if they hadn’t just shocked the distilling community.
After a quick tour of the still outside, we went in to the bar where Bryan poured generous glasses of their Colonial Style Rum which is the only one of their commercially produced rums I hadn’t tasted yet. It is magnificent, and it’s sadly nearly impossible to find (even their own tiny stock is already committed to a conference). Then we took our drinks to the living room where Bryan gave us the presentation he delivered to announce his invention. Not many people can make molecular science entertaining, but Bryan can. The rum helped. And afterwards they encouraged us to taste the other three rums and hang out for a bit. I was far too polite to refuse.
While the presentation was fascinating and the science seemed sound to my untrained mind, the important thing is the results. I thought their series of whiskeys were all amazing, but often more interesting than delicious (although a few of the releases were both). The four rums are all fantastic, with the Colonial Style my favorite by far. They share a depth of flavor that I would have sworn could only come from patient aging in large barrels if I hadn’t been told in detail how they all undergo this short, intense process instead.
So what does the future hold for them and their reactor? They already have a long waiting list of small distilleries hoping to purchase reactors. Bigger distilling corporations are already sniffing around. No doubt there will be attempts to knock them off, and/or set up legal hurdles, and/or buy them out. But if they persevere and can reliably produce reactors and train people to use them they might have created the first real innovation in aging spirits since they were first put into wooden barrels. I can’t wait to see what’s next for them and I’ll be rooting for them to succeed.
“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.
Dave Herman is a Certified Specialist of Spirits and avid fan of all things fermented and distilled. He teaches classes on alcoholic beverages and the foods that pair well with them, and has consulted on beverage programs for bars, restaurants and nationally acclaimed retail stores.