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About this Blog

Welcome to Po'Nutrition Fax! This blog is about alcohol - it has nothing to do with health or wellness, and the only relationship between this and Edgar Allen Poe is that he was an alcoholic.

I used to work in a liquor store and developed a taste for all different types of booze. As my collection grew, I felt the need to share my knowledge of, interest in, and experiences with my purchases - from the standards (e.g. whisk(e)y, gin) to the less-than-standard (e.g. kirschwasser, raki). You'll also find a lot on beer (another love of mine).

This is not about how much I can drink nor do I promote over-excess of alcohol. As with most blogs, there is some self-reflection included with most of the reviews. The point is to encourage everyone to reflect on what they drink.

Leave comments or ask questions! Also, "follow" me if you like what you read - I am not making money from this blog but if I see more interest in this and hear some feedback, it will encourage me to write more.

Cheers!
Mike

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Buffalo Trace Bourbon


In the Fall of 2006, the wine store I used to work for sent myself and a few other bourbon drinkers down to Kentucky to tour a couple of distilleries. However, the main point of the trip was to select barrels of bourbon to be bottled and sold exclusively at the store. The bourbons we had to choose were Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. So at 9:00 A.M., after a night of wining and dining, I drank bourbon straight out of the barrel at the Buffalo Trace distillery...

I had only been working at the store for about a year-and-a-half so I was surprised when I was invited to come along. I had learned a lot about whisk(e)y in my short time there, so it wasn't like they were sending a "babe in the woods," but it was my first "business trip" - and it was to a distillery! Plus, my objective was "drink bourbon"!

Bourbon is an official alcoholic beverage of the United States (along with Tennessee Whiskey). It is defined by the Title 27, Section 5.22 of U.S. Code of Federal Regulations as:
  1. Made from a fermented mash with a minimum of 51% and a maximum of 79% corn
  2. Distilled at less than 80% alcohol/volume (160 proof)
  3. Stored in a new, charred, white oak barrel at a maximum of 62.5% alcohol/volume (125 proof) for at least 2 years
  4. The original color and flavor of the whiskey can not be filtered or altered in any way
  5. Must be produced and stored (for at least one year of the aging) in Kentucky to be called Kentucky Bourbon

It can only be made in the U.S. and this designation is recognized worldwide (similar to the fact that the brandy called Cognac can only come from the Cognac region of France). Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. but it can't be called Kentucky Bourbon unless it meets the final criteria. Bourbon has been going through a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. We can probably credit the popularity of single malt scotch as the motivation for bourbon distillers to offer a higher-end product. One would think that the above restrictions would limit the creativity of the distillers to offer a wide variety of products, but this is not the case. They can play with the other ingredients in the mash bill (between the 51% and 79% corn restriction), the length of time the whiskey rests in the barrel, the location of the barrel in the warehouse, the char level (1-4) of the barrel etc. Some even do what scotch makers do and finish the bourbon in barrels previously used to age other spirits/wine. Buffalo Trace happens to be one of these more creative distilleries.

However, their flagship product is a fantastic bourbon. It does not have an age statement on the bottle but it is, from what I remember them saying at the distillery, at least 8 years old. Like all good bourbons, there is a buttered-popcorn taste and aroma. This is the influence of the barrel on the bourbon as it ages. As whisk(e)y ages, it "breathes" in the barrel. In the warmer months, the barrel inhales and expands into the staves of the barrel. When it exhales in the cooler months, it contracts and draws in the caramelized saps (from the charred oak inside the barrel) to mellow in the alcohol. This barrel influence is what makes bourbon so unique. The comparatively warmer weather in the Southeastern U.S. causes the whiskey to expand and contract more intensely in the barrel than it would in the British Isles. Unfortunately, this increases the loses associated with aging whiskey (e.g. absorption, evaporation) but the barrel itself becomes much more integral to influencing the final product in bourbon than in other whiskies.

Consequently, you will get a lot of vanillin and other oak influences in the flavor and aroma of bourbon (as compared to other whiskies - except Tennessee whiskey). However, the thing I like about Buffalo Trace is there is a lot of rye in the mash bill. This makes the whiskey very "spicy" in addition to the "sweetness" from the corn and oak. It is well-rounded bourbon - and it makes a great Manhattan too.

There is plenty more to say about bourbon but I'll leave that for another time. Until then, buy a bottle of this for yourself. Make sure to keep in mind that hard-working people, like myself, had to get up really early in the morning, hungover, and drink a lot of "fresh" bourbon in order to bring you the best.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Canadian Club 12-Year "Old Fashioned"

Using the last of my Canadian whisky for an Old Fashioned - is this justifiable homicide?...

A few years back, I wrote a letter to Malt Advocate magazine with a very general question about Canadian whisky. I knew very little about it and was wondering whether they planned on devoting an article to Canadian Whisky - which I (regrettably) referred to as "brown vodka." They ended up publishing my question and then answered my question a few issues later. The author of the answer article wrote to me personally too. I took this as an opportunity to learn about Canadian Whisky myself.

Since Canadian whiskies fall under my New World categorization, it's no surprise that the chief grain used is corn/maize. However, blending seems to be much more important to creating the final product in Canada than it is for whiskies made in the United States - perhaps due to the proportionally larger Scottish heritage in Canada than the U.S.

All distillers have a master blender. Why blend? If you have flagship product (which carries your brand's name) you'll want it to be consistently good - emphasis on consistent. To deliver a large quantity of this product to your customers, you have to then blend a lot of barrels together. However, every whisk(e)y barrel ages differently. This depends on the age of the barrel it's in, the inborn qualities of the barrel (i.e. thickness of caramelized-sap layer), location in warehouse - among other factors. On my trip to Buffalo Trace Distillery, I tasted bourbon directly from the barrel. I tried bourbon from seven different barrels - three of Eagle Rare and four of Buffalo Trace. Even though all barrels were roughly the same age, they all were distinctly different - even those made from the same mash bill (Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace). The master blender's responsibility is to use four distinctly different barrels (in this example) of Buffalo Trace whiskey to create one blend that would match as closely as possibly to the previous bottling of Buffalo Trace. As a distillery's portfolio expands, this responsibility for the master blender also expands as they try to keep the product consistent.

The single-barrel phenomenon has really taken off in the bourbon industry. Perhaps this is to give it the same distinction and notoriety that Single Malt scotch has. Consequently, with each single-barrel bourbon having it's own unique characteristics, it puts less pressure on the master blender to deliver consistency on the higher end of the product line. Despite this new uniqueness of the single-barrel, the continued popularity of scotch in both its blended and "single malt" forms has put the blender in Scotch production in a brighter limelight a bit longer than some other whisk(e)y blenders. Following my idea that Canadian whisky distillers follow in the footsteps of Scotch distillers (and not only in spelling), given the lack of choices in the total Canadian Whisky product line it is important to deliver a consistent product - hence, the importance of the blender. Obviously, there is a lot more to Canadian Whisky distillation then just blending, there is plenty of history (especially as part of the British Empire and its role in the supply chain during Prohibition in the United States) so I don't mean to simplify it this much. However, when speaking in broad generalizations (as most do in blog posts) it is just easier to focus on the simpler idea of blending in both Scotch and Canadian whisky distillation and production.

Not surprisingly, I've had mixed success with Canadian Whiskies. Nothing has been bad but there have been very few stellar examples either. Forty Creek (just outside of Niagara-On-The-Lake) makes some really good whisky. However, most claim Crown Royal to be the best. I don't disagree that it is a very good Canadian Whisky but I rarely see someone buying two-fingers of Crown Royal to enjoy - it's usually only purchased for slamming down shots. Consequently, I have trouble divorcing that image from the whisky. I've had the high-end Crown Royal too (XR and Cask No. 16), which are both very good, but because of the brand name you pay a brand premium too. Bang-for-buck, the best I've had (thus far) is the Canadian Club 15-Year. Unfortunately, this whisky is only available in limited release now. Therefore I had to buy the Canadian Club 12-Year one New Year's Eve (a few years back) in order to make Manhattans.

Manhattans? Yes, Manhattans. Had I found the 15-Year Canadian Club, I would not have used it to make them but the 12-Year is a big step down in quality from the 15-Year. This goes back to two points I made already: 1) consistency among Canadian whiskies and 2) Canadian whisky is "brown vodka." Since there are only so many Canadian whiskies available, very few stand out while the rest are fairly interchangeable. That being said, most can be used for mixing when a whisk(e)y is called for in a mixed drink. Again, I don't mean to speak down to Canadian whiskies - as I said, there are notable examples. Nevertheless, there are few that I have had that I have said to myself "Wow, I'd like another bottle of this."

Tonight, I decided to finish the last of my Canadian Club 12-Year by making an Old Fashioned. Although I didn't have the lemon peel to throw in for garnish, I did have the other necessary ingredients:

1 tsp of sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
dash of Angostura bitters
1 tsp of water
1 oz of whisk(e)y
lemon peel (garnish)
-Muddle sugar in bitters and water. When the sugar is dissolved, add whisk(e)y and ice cubes (and lemon peel... if you've got it)

Given the wider portfolio of other types whisk(e)y, it is difficult to motivate myself to try new Canadian whiskies (especially given the history of let-downs I've had). However, there is now a new open space on my drink cart for some new whisk(e)y - maybe I'll get adventurous and look to the "Great White North"? Whatever I choose, you'll be sure to read about it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale


The colder, darker days that herald the end of the year also herald the release of some of my favorite beers. The end of summer means Octoberfest beers are around the corner and the end of daylight savings means Christmas beers will soon follow. I could spend a whole post on Octoberfest beers (and will at some point) but the ever-approaching horror known as Christmas has invaded my life again so I will post about Christmas seasonals.

Before Halloween had ended, Christmas movies appeared on T.V. and Christmas displays were built in grocery stores. As much as I disapprove of this consumption-focused expansion of the holiday season, I do not disapprove of the Christmas beer introductions. Most Christmas beers tend to be heavier, maltier and spiced with a variety of mulling spices. From this family of beers, I especially enjoy the Anchor Christmas Beer. Of notable mention is Great Lakes Christmas Ale. However, one can only drink so many spiced beers in one sitting. Obviously, I enjoy this style of beer very much and don't mean to imply that I get sick of these beers. However, it can be difficult to pair these spiced beers with a meal. Furthermore, I like a beer that challenges the status quo a bit. This is how we get to one of my favorite seasonal releases - the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. How is this different from other Christmas beers? While it is also bigger and maltier, rather than using some subset of mulling spices it uses a lot of hops instead - it's really a Christmas IPA (India Pale Ale). Hoppier beers, rather than spiced ones, are easier to enjoy with most meals. In addition, while the IPA is popular it is not a Christmas-style beer - it doesn't stand out as a beer itself, it stands out among the other seasonal releases. However, I must note that I recently tried Santa's Private Reserve again (since it had been awhile and this post inspired me to do so) and it too is a very hoppy beer. However, it is maltier and heavier so it isn't as easy to drink as the Celebration. Nevertheless, these factors make the Celebration Ale one beer I look forward to all year. This amber gift to myself, floating in a pint glass helps to make this season "merry and bright"... even if we haven't quite reached Thanksgiving.

If you are at the grocery store and find yourself shaking your head at the sea of red and green to the voices of Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby - keep in mind there will be at least one Christmas display to keep an eye out for.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hard Cider

Autumn is my favorite season. Although I do really enjoy the summer, with its warmer weather and longer days, it doesn't have the same gustatory excitement that autumn does. Autumn in the Northeastern U.S. means apples and squash are in abundance. It means the release of Octoberfest-style beers. Best of all, the colder weather of autumn allows for the return of cooking indoors. I only say this because we do not have a grill at our place so cooking indoors isn't fun in 80+ degree (Fahrenheit) weather - this also inhibits kitchen creativity . This is not to say that food and drink in summer aren't delicious; I do miss the fresh peaches, blueberries, and tomatoes - plus gin and tonics, mint julips, and caipirinhas are refreshing on hot summer days. However, with all the distractions of summer it's hard to sit and enjoy what can be delicious about it. Very rarely is there a day in the summer when you want to sit around and eat or drink - and even if you do, you feel guilty about it... at least I do.

However this blog is not about cooking, it's about drinking. Autumn, with it's aforementioned apple abundance means an abundance of apple cider too. Cider is, essentially, fresh apple juice. It has not been clarified nor have excess sugars been added. Depending on the apples used, it can have a very tart flavor too. In addition, it may or may not be pasteurized - the latter turning into booze if you don't drink it quickly. Keep in mind, if there are added preservative, it won't ferment. Hard Cider, whether it's carbonated or "still" (not bubbly) is good, but gets better if it is mulled.

Before this year, I had never really mulled cider. In previous years, I would occasionally buy cider, drink half the container, it would ferment, and I'd discard. Not wanting to waste it this year, I decided to mull the last bit. Mulling, for those of you who are unaware, involves heating and spicing your drink (can be done with wine too). This first time, I used a cinnamon stick, some whole cloves, and freshly grated nutmeg. You have to heat the cider on low heat or the pectin in the cider beings to coagulate. This is not bad but it is less pleasing to the eye to have these pectin chunks floating around. Since my first mulling experience, I am now going through about a gallon of cider a week just so I can try different mulling spice combinations. The next step is to mull my hard cider.

When Martha and I went on vacation to Ithaca, NY we stopped at this cidery on the way home. Although there are many Finger Lakes wineries to check out, I wanted to try something different. This place had just opened for the day and freshly mulled some of their cider. The style they mulled was their Liberty Spy:



This was a pretty basic sparkling hard cider. I don't mean to imply that it was bland but it tasted like what one expects out of a hard cider - sweet and tart with a dry finish. However, the mulled version was fantastic. It's made from a blend of Liberty and Northern Spy apples - hence the name "Liberty Spy." I bought a couple of bottles of this along with one called "Heritage" which was a still, crab-apple cider done in a more traditional style.

Similar to mulling non-alcoholic cider, hard cider has to be heated at a low temperature. However, this is not for coagulation concerns but to make sure most of the alcohol doesn't evaporate (since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water).

My preferred mulling spice combo is (per three cups of cider):

1 3-4" cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp whole cloves
2 star anise
1/4 tsp of black peppercorns
freshly grated nutmeg

If you want you can use cardamom pods or allspice berries instead of star anise. Just throw the spices in but remember to strain them out - or just a cheesecloth or "tea ball." Simmer for about 15-20 minutes until a fog hovers over the cider and the aromas waft out of the kitchen.

Unfortunately, while this mulling spice combination makes for a delicious non-alcoholic mulled cider it was not fitting for a hard cider. However, I blame myself for not considering a few things before I wasted a bottle of hard cider on this mulling experiment. Most notably, I didn't consider how the alcohol and spices would interact with one another. If you've ever had a kräuter liquor (you probably have: Jagermeister), they are traditionally made by infusing herbs and spices in alcohol to draw the medicinal properties out of these various ingredients. There are other medicinal liquors made in the same style to the kräuter - I just mention the kräuter because they are the most famous and will help you understand what I am talking about. Regardless, the end result tends to be bitter and, not surprisingly, medicinal tasting. Consequently, the same thing happened when using the whole spice to mull hard cider - the final product had a medicinal and bitter quality to it. In this case, the star anise and peppercorns were overpowering so I wouldn't suggest using those to mull hard cider. Stick with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (maybe allspice berries and cardamom pods too).

In addition, because most of the sugar is converted into alcohol there is little sweetness to a mulled hard cider. I suggest adding either a couple tablespoons of honey or brown sugar as it heats to help sweeten this drink too. This helps cut the bitter/medicinal taste as well.

Get creative with your own spices but make sure to sit and enjoy it - without feeling guilty.