Monday, January 25, 2010

Cognac Summit

What happens when you bring to Cognac dozens of bartenders from the US, UK, France, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and environs, and turn them loose on recreating the major classic cocktails based on the French brandy? Yes, lots of late nights, lies being told, ego measuring, drinking (Cognac of course, but at day's end, as with winemakers and distillers all over the world, beer at the local bar), but also a concerted effort on the part of the gathered mixologists to bring those cocktails  into the 21st century.

The first bartender Cognac Summit, as it’s grandly called, two years ago yielded a drink of the same name. This year, the challenge was to drag the Side Car, Mint Julep, Cognac Sour/Collins, Stinger, Mojito #3, Alexander and the Blue Blazer into the 21st century. Split into working groups, the bartenders and journalists were assigned by lot; my table was charged with creating a Stinger suitable for the modern palate. When others asked me what my table ended up with, I simply made a sad clown face - to a person, they smiled and said "Stinger?"

The gloom from being selected for the mixological equivalent of parking cars at the drag race made our team start slow, but gradually we  figured out the best route – reduce the sugar, increase the potency, incorporate acid, manage mint – and final result was a surprisingly drinkable after-dinner drink, one I’d serve confidently to any guest looking for a minty after-dinner quaff. The folks in Cognac are expected to release recipes shortly, and I'll post ours soon.

After a day or so of multilingual brainstorming, recipe fiddling, even a few personality fender benders, the new versions of the seven drinks –  – were presented to the local and international press. Best moment: the intro by spirits and wine maven Doug Frost, Southern Wine and Spirits’ Francesco Lafranconi, and Alperin of their “Pimp My Julep.” As soon as the video emerges from the censors, I’ll post, but be sure they rocked the house.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cognac summit 2010 news flash

Bit of news from Cognac - Eric Alperin of LA's The Varnish gets top marks for the best Summit recipe - the Summit was created at the first Cognac Summit two years ago.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Distillers Gone Wild!

Think of the American whiskey business as old-fashioned and home-spun, filled with crusty characters who resist change and stick to the tried and true? Then think again.

Whatever retrograde sensibility clings to American whiskey is more a marketing remnant than a reflection of reality. Today, most distillers making bourbon and rye behave less like rigorous guardians of sour mash wisdom and more like mad scientists, tinkering with some whiskey rules and even smashing them into smithereens. A surging interest in American whiskies in their various flavor profiles, strengths and age expressions has revealed a desire among American drinkers to embrace the unusual, and, building on that whiskey conneiseur market, these tinkerers have broadened and enhanced the range of their wares.

Take what’s going on at Buffalo Trace, for instance, where master distiller Harlan Wheatly currently has dozens of oddities maturing for possible future release, including whiskey now aging in Mongolian, Japanese and Canadian oak. It’s not the only experiment he’s up to - in honor of the Mongolian oak, Wheatley has whipped up some Kentucky style moutai (a traditional Chinese spirit made primarily from sorghum) to age in American oak – turnabout being fair play.

Buffalo Trace each year issues a limited number of cases of their more successful results, the most recent aged 15 years in fine grain barrels from slow-growth oak and coarse grain barrels from fast-growth oaks. (For the record, the fine oak is said to be rich and sweet with a syrupy character, while the coarse grain is said to be dry with smokiness, wood and herbal qualities, heavier and complex.)

More than 1,500 barrels worth of experiments are at rest in the company’s warehouses, and Wheatley now has a micro-distillery of his own to play with. Buffalo Trace may be the most public about their experiments, but other distillers are also hard at work developing new products that take whiskey to its outer limits.

Heaven Hill, for instance, has recently issued two whiskies in styles unheard of as little as ten years ago: Parker’s Heritage Collection Golden Anniversary, marking distiller Parke Beam’s 50th year in the business, made from a marriage of bourbon barrels distilled over five decades, including a tiny amount from the 1960s; and the third and final bottling Rittenhouse Very Rare Single Barrel Rye, a 27 years old, 100 proof powerhouse (3,000 bottles will be shared among the US and select international markets.)

Who else? Wild Turkey has just released Tradition, a limited edition, 14-year-old, 101 proof bourbon, the third in their Master Distiller Selection. (Only 14,000 bottles are available for the U.S., with a suggested retail price of $100.)

Like Russell’s Reserve, Tradition is pulled from what master distiller Jimmy Russell calls the “center cut” of Turkey’s oldest warehouses, but aged longer and in more heavily charred barrels. It’s the first new item from Wild Turkey since Russell crafted Russell’s Reserve Rye two years ago.

Russell, who has particular ideas about whiskies – he prefers those aged eight to 12 years – occasionally locates promising barrels that benefit from being moved around the warehouse to control the aging process. In Tradition, he says, the classic Wild Turkey spiciness and power has been enhanced by more caramel, vanilla, fruit and nut flavors.

Kentucky isn’t the only state pulling its weight in bourbon production. Tennessee, long known as Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel country, is now home to Pritchard’s distillery, and upstate in New York, Tuthilltown Spirits has a portfolio including Hudson Baby Bourbon, a single grain bourbon made from 100% New York corn, the first bourbon to be distilled in the state.

It’s difficult not to be positive about American whiskey today; even in a down market, straight whiskey was up in 2008. The big brands do the heavy lifting - Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam alone account for more than half of the category, with fast grower Evan Williams also topping a million cases a year.

The revival of the cocktail and a growing interest in American made spirits have contributed to the growth, but so did the development nearly twenty years ago of small batch and single barrel whiskies, which brought greater attention to the possibilities of whiskey. As the trend spread, vintage whiskies, like Evan Williams Single Barrel, caught consumer attention. Other variations attracted intense press attention. Now, further spurred on by the resurgence of rye and the growth of micro-distillers, Kentucky is awash with interesting whiskey.

These products are generally difficult and expensive to produce, but that makes them fun in distillery world, says Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve. Response has been gratifying. “It’s very encouraging that the trade and the consumer are looking for new types of products and expressions at a premium price - that’s very healthy,” he says. “The business side of our company supports it, and they actually have created a little pressure to increase these items.”

Woodford Reserve’s annual one-off, the Master’s Selection Seasoned Oak Finish issued in late October, is the fourth, following a sweet mash, a four grain and a whiskey finished in chardonnay barrels. It’s the result of wood research and some good luck; a stash of very old oak turned up in the Brown Forman Cooperage. Most of the oak used to age bourbon is seasoned three to five months, but the staves and heads in the Seasoned Oak Finish reachedup to the ripe age of five.

“All the research shows as wood naturally seasons out of doors and slowly dries as it’s exposed to the elements, certain characteristics are stripped out and simultaneously added, creating wonderful flavors,” said Morris.

“This is a new playground that we in the American whiskey business are playing in, and it’s not lost on us that people are willing to pay a lot of money,” says Larry Kass, director of corporate communications, Heaven Hill. “Quite a few of us are coming out with very limited editions, with very unusual attributes and barrel char to them that tell a story of rarity and exclusivity.”

This sort of experimentation has long existed in the single malt Scotch world, notes Kass, where even casks from shuttered distilleries would be enhanced and sold by private bottlers, and distilleries such as Glenmorangie pioneered finishing whiskies in various used barrels.

“We continue to learn new and interesting information from these experiments, and we only releases the ones that turn out well,” says Wheatley. “We never know how they are going to turn out.”

Most of the whiskey experiments receive little or no marketing attention, no case cards or POS, instead riding the wave of interest and excitement in the category. Those with larger capacity, like the wheat whiskey Bernheim that Heaven Hill introduced six years ago, received marketing support along with simultaneous word of mouth excitement as a whiskey style unknown in modern times.

At Beam, where news of a shortage earlier this year of small batch Knob Creek made headline news, whiskey innovation is once again on the front burner, with rye Ri(1) and Red Stag the first new whiskey introductions since Jim Beam Black in 1996, says Kelly Doss, senior director, U.S. bourbon and whiskey for Beam Global

“We’re actively looking at ways to turn more people on to bourbon. Were really focused on how we can drive innovation in a way that will help consumers understand the bourbon category more. There are a lot of places to go within bourbon, a lot of opportunities and innovation is limited by our own imagination.”

The new products can create an interesting halo around old brands, reviving them in some ways. Old Forrester is an example of a whiskey whose sales staggered as the demographic was aging. “Then we came out with super premium version Birthday Bourbon, and all of sudden markets and consumers who ordinarly wouldn’t consider it in their portfolio of choices wanted that new
type of expression,” says Morris. 

Morris is enthusiastic about the annual Woodford limited editions, and like Wheatley and other distillers, he’s looking at new ways to grow. He’s particularly interested in how a grain recipe he thinks has never been used before to make bourbon will do. And wood finishes really have him excited “We have some dynamic finishes were working with that I promise will blow people away.”

(A slightly different version of this article appears in the January Beverage Media magazines

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