Bruichladdich back with a 184-proof bang

Most Scotch distilleries have been working on ways to smooth out the peaty aromas and tastes of the popular whisky to broaden its market appeal. Virtually no one is trying to make it have more kick.

Except the Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay, off Scotland's west coast. It is reviving a centuries-old recipe for a 184 proof whisky -- which means an astounding 92 percent alcohol.

Why?, you may ask. Me, too.

Well, Bruichladdich Managing Director Mark Reynier is very straightforward about that: “We are only doing this because we have this ancient recipe and because we can. Our team can only get involved in the fun of recreating truly historic malts because we are independent -– and we can.”

The run began this week -- Monday, Feb. 27, at 11:30 a.m., to be precise -- and only 12 barrels of the quadruple-distilled single malt will be produced, with master distiller Jim McEwan doing the honors.

Martin Martin, a 17th Century travel writer of some renown, mentioned this particular whisky in his book, "The Western Islands of Scotland."

" … The first taste affects all the members of the body: two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; and if any man should exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life.”

McEwan, a distiller of four decades' experience, said, "The whisky first ran at 92%, which will make an average of 90%. It is very similar to the whisky tasted by Martin all those years ago. It’s very floral, but most importantly it most certainly takes your breath away!”

Bruichladdich (pronounced "Brook-Laddie," Gaelic for a raised beach) was built in 1881 by William Harvey and his brothers. It was closed in 1994 by its then-owner, Jim Beam Brands. It was purchased in 2000 by Mark Reynier, a wine merchant who headed a group of investors and, after a spruce-up of the original Victorian equipment, resumed distilling on May 29, 2001.

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Return of a 'killer' drink

As his charcoal stick danced across the cloth napkin, capturing the slants and curves of the nightclub dancers and their lusty followers, the little man in the bowler hat began working faster and faster.

His vivid portraits of freewheeling cafe life leapt off the impromptu canvas, at once bold and graceful, revealing and enigmatic, acting as a guide for his later versions done in colorful oils.

A body of work fueled by a creative fire, of course, but perhaps just as much by frequent sips of the pale green liquid ever present on his table.

Such is the legend of the tragic 19th century artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (above), portrayed as a brilliant artist but a tortured alcoholic in several "Moulin Rouge" films and countless biographies.

While the work of Lautrec (1864-1901) lives on, his drink of choice -- absinthe -- receded into dim memory after it was banned throughout much of Europe and the United States around the time of World War I.

Absinthe, an herb-infused alcohol that began as a medicine, had been blamed for bad judgment, poor health, even outright madness. Nevertheless, it was the drink beloved of 19th century Parisian cafe society, enjoyed by such writers and artists as Baudelaire, Lautrec, Picasso, Degas and Manet. In fact, in those times the cocktail hour was referred to as l'heure verte -- the green hour -- in honor of absinthe.

There are those who theorize that the anti-absinthe forces were funded by the wine industry, which was losing ground in the marketplace to the "Green Fairy," as the drink was known. Any link, no matter how tenuous, between evildoers and absinthe was loudly proclaimed until enough of the public grew fearful of its continued availability to demand a ban.

Absinthe began its comeback several years ago in England, where entrepreneurs discovered no legal ban remained in effect prohibiting sale or consumption of absinthe. Its availability has spread to neighboring countries and even to the U.S., although consumption here is limited by the federal government's guidelines against the original-strength version.

Ted Breaux, a New Orleans chemist and microbiologist, has replicated the recipe used by Edouard Pernod for the premier absinthe of that Parisian heyday. According to the chemistry newsletter from England's Oxford University, "Breaux has spent seven years studying absinthe ... (He) owns two bottles of century-old premium Pernod's, which greatly facilitated his efforts. Breaux's absinthe, soon to be commercialized outside of the U.S., is believed by many to be the finest the world has seen since 1915."

Absinthe is made by steeping dried herbs in ethyl alcohol, then distilling the liquor. The main herbs are nothing unusual … anise and star anise, peppermint, wormwood, fennel, perhaps a few others, depending upon which recipe one prefers. Wormwood is the catalyst for a chemical change during the process that, combined with the very high alcohol content (usually in excess of 150 proof, or 75 percent), gives the drink its potency through release of the chemical thujone.

Absinthe today is manufactured primarily in Spain, the Czech Republic and France, the latter on a very limited basis. (It also is a popular bootleg product in Switzerland, with an estimated 15,000 gallons turned out annually, virtually all for domestic consumption.)

Hill's Absinthe, Deva Absenta and Pernod-Ricard -- the great-granddaddy of them all -- are the major brands. Although technically above the permissible U.S. strength, they are not impossible to buy domestically in very limited quantities. If you can't find them locally, you can always try ordering them through your favorite liquor store, or through an online source.

A no-strings-attached modern American version of absinthe is Absente, priced at about $40 and testing out at a comparatively moderate -- by absinthe standards -- 110 proof. It's also referred to as "petite absinthe" because of its lowered potency.

The federal government frowns on the original strength absinthe because it contains a high level of thujone. Thujone is believed to be the culprit in the bad things one hears about absinthe, although historically much of the mayhem and madness blamed on it doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Wormwood itself is not inherently bad. It has been used as a medicine for stomach ailments and as an herbal dietary supplement. Its medicinal uses crop up regularly in the Bible. The problem comes with the concentration ingested.
The Absente brand maintains the distinctive flavor by using the milder southern wormwood, which has a much lower thujone content than the 10 parts per million maximum dictated by federal law. In its heyday, original-style absinthe measured in the range of 30 or more.

Whether excessive consumption of absinthe produces murderous rages, melancholy ruminations or just a mild dysphoria remains up for debate. Even one of its most ardent admirers, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was ambivalent on the subject. As he wrote on two different occasions:

"A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?"


"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

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'Washington's whiskey' on the comeback trail

Back in the dark ages of my occasionally misspent youth, when the legal drinking age in New York was 18 and minimum wage was less than a buck an hour, 30 cents would buy you a nice highball. Really.

Highball. Then a common term for a simple mixed cocktail, now a quaint, anachronistic word. The highball of choice for my untrained young palate was rye and ginger. Four ounces of ginger ale and a shot of whatever rye the bartender poured into it. I wasn't into labels in those days. Even for the ginger ale.

Nowadays, worldly sophisticate that I am, rye rarely comes to mind. Which seems to be a rather common thing in the whiskey world. Rye -- a whiskey distilled from rye or rye and malt -- is far down the list of brown beverages, peering up longingly at the lofty perches occupied by a sea of bourbons, an ocean of scotches. That isn't stopping every rye distiller, however. After all, vodka wasn't always wildly popular. Bourbon had its down periods. So, there's hope for a rye rebound.

Such star bourbon makers as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Van Winkle have their ryes. Old Potrero, lesser known but a must-have with rye aficionadoes, has several styles. What all these brands have in common is a strong alcohol nose at first, followed by a spicy richness, then varying degrees of lingering warmth.

Another distiller putting a lot of its marbles on a rye comeback is Michter's American Whiskey Co., and mention of it becomes very topical in this month of presidential holidays.

Michter's is arguably the nation's oldest existing rye name despite a gap in its lineage. Most historians think it supplied George Washington's Continental Army during its bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge, PA. Although Michter's distillery today is located in Bardstown, KY, then it was in Schaefferstown, PA.

(Washington's own fondness for whiskey made on his Mt. Vernon, VA, farm has been the creative spark behind resurrecting the process on those very premises, as shown in the photo above with period-costumed distillers using Washington's original recipe. Visitors can see it all happen as part of the American Whiskey Trail tour.)

Michter's history can be traced to 1753, when a Swiss Mennonite immigrant named John Shenk began making whiskey in Schaefferstown, located in a triangle of Pennsylvania Dutch country defined by Harrisburg, Lancaster and Reading.

Christopher Carlson of Spirits Review notes that even though the Michter's name now is owned by the Kentucky distiller which is producing the rye there, the original distillery was designated a historic landmark but was partially scrapped. It is ... being restored by the present owner."

Despite Bardstown being in the heart of an area that produces 90% of the world's bourbon, Michter's now has a line of very nice ryes to complement its bourbon: Michter's Small Batch US 1 Unblended American Whiskey (83.4 proof), a grain alcohol that can be lumped into the rye category, aged in bourbon- soaked white oak barrels (suggested retail price $34.99); Michter's Single Barrel US 1 Straight Rye (84.8 proof), aged at least 36 months in charred white oak barrels (SRP $42.99), and Michter's Single Barrel Straight Rye (92.8 proof), aged 10 years in charred white oak (SRP $57.99).

I don't find, as a matter of course, that a higher alcohol content automatically means a better liquor. Usually quite the opposite, since many distllers tend to let alcohol's kick substitute for distillation subtlety. However, in the case of Michter's ryes, the higher the proof, the smoother and more complex the taste.

I particularly recommend the 10-year-old single barrel. It's excellent when smoothed out with an ice cube or two, or a few drops of cool water that help open its nose and afternotes.

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Cane Spirits Festival In Tampa

Wine festivals and beer festivals are available in abundance all across the country. But if you want to try something different, jot down March 22-25 and Tampa, FL. That's when the International Cane Spirits Festival will take over Tampa's Ybor City area.

For those not quite sure what "cane spirits" means, think cachaca (pronounced kah-SAH-shah) from Brazil, guaro from Costa Rica and rum from many countries. Anything made by starting with cane sugar. Even P51 from Sazerac in New Orleans. That's shorthand for its full name, pirassununga.

The competition, part of a four-day festival of ethnic-oriented activities that include food, drink and music, is being run by Edward Hamilton, author of several books on rum and whose Web site, the Ministry of Rum, is key to the event. I'll be among the judges in the event, with tastings scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

Among some of the brands that may be new to consumers will be Beleza Pura Super Premium Cachaca, Guapiara & "Guap" Lemon Cachacas, and Australia's Inner Circle Rums.

Ybor City, which at one time was a separate entity until being annexed by Tampa, was a cigar-making center for several generations. Much of it has been restored and serves as a Hispanic cultural tourism area, replete with shops, restaurants and performance areas. The Florida Cuban Heritage Trail, a statewide route created to increase awareness of connections between Florida and Cuba, includes Ybor City.

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The high cost of keeping up

The rapidly escalating prices of cocktails and some whiskies has been well documented on this site and elsewhere, but it's getting difficult to keep up with the pricing gimmicks.

The last eye-popper is the Juber Cocktail at $3,000 a pop.

It's the new signature cocktail at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. The concoction uses Bombay Sapphire gin, Blue Curacao, dry vermouth and a blue-sugar coating on the rim of the martini glass.

Well, what you may ask, makes it worth $3,000? Especially considering that no drink on the casino's cocktail menu goes for more than $9, and many are just $7.

I forgot to mention that a pair of custom-made blue sapphire and diamond earrings, set in a sterling silver pick, comes with the drink that made its debut over the weekend at the casino's new Mezz Ultra Lounge.

What is it about all these gimmick drinks that are pushing establishments to become more and more creative as well as pricier?

"I think people are willing to spend more to have a premium experience so they're buying less but they're buying higher quality. It obviously makes a statement about status and the ability to afford it but I think it's also a spontaneous, celebratory thing," Brett Anderson said in an interview with Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. He is senior vice president and editorial director for the Robb Report, the luxury lifestyle magazine.

Location certainly will be paramount for good sales. The presence of high-rollwers at the casino might help, but we're now in Year 2 of the Diamond Martini offered at the Blue Bar in New York's legendary Algonquin Hotel -- $10,000 gets you the drink and a diamond from the hotel jeweler -- but only two have been sold.

Anderson is no stranger to high price gimmick cocktails. The Robb Cocktail created for the Robb Report in 2003 at the Rivoli Bar in London's Ritz Hotel, cost $87,600 then. It's no longer available, and the hotel is mum on how many sold, if any. But, at the time it was offered the cocktail was made with 22-carat gold leaf Eskalony vodka, Grand Marnier, peach liqueur and Ritz private label champagne. A 13.66 carat yellow diamond swizzle stick that doubled as a bracelet was plopped in it before serving.

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Hindu wrath over Southern Comfort poster

While thousands of Muslims the world over legitimately protested unflattering caricatures of the prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper -- and thousands more used it as an excuse to pillage, loot and riot -- a controversy over the use of the Hindu goddess Durga was resolved in a much more civilized manner.

Durga was used in posters (seen here) displayed at the Balon Oriental Disco Bar in Athens, Greece, to promote Southern Comfort whiskey. Hindus throughout Europe have been up in arms about the frivolous and insulting nature of the posters and demanded satisfaction.

Durga is the Hindu manifestation of supreme beauty and deadly power. Her name is synonymous with the triumph of good over evil. The Indian community in Athens tried unsuccessfuly for three months to have the posters removed as well as sending letters to Brown-Forman, the American manufacturer of Southern Comfort.

Finally, a Southern Comfort representative reacted after an intervention by the Greek Embassy in Delhi. The Southern Comfort vice president for media communications sent a letter saying, in part, "On behalf of Brown-Forman and Southern Comfort, I extend our sincerest apologies for the inappropriate use of the image of the Hindu Goddess Durga. I also promise that we will do everything in our power to prevent any reoccurrence of this offence in the future.

"Brown-Forman's marketing, advertising and promotional policy prohibits the use of any religious imagery in the promotion of our beverage alcohol brands. The use of Goddess Durga was in violation of that policy. This violation occurred because of human error -- our employees responsible for approving the promotion simply didn't know that the image was, in fact, a Hindu deity. We have already taken steps to amend our review process to ensure we don't make this mistake again.

"The offensive use of the image of Durga was used in one bar in Athens, Greece. The image was removed on Monday night, February 13. We took this action within hours of first learning about the complaints against the use of the image. ... We will make every effort to ensure that the offending display is burned instead of thrown away."

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Brits banning smoking in pubs, elsewhere

If you're a smoker headed for England, enjoy lighting up in a pub, restaurant or any other public place for now. That activity will be banned in a year or less.

Parliament has voted, 384 to 184, for a total ban on smoking in indoor public places, something that will end the tradition of the smoky British pub.

Neighbor Ireland instituted the same ban in March 2004. The same will occur in Scotland and Northern Ireland over the next year, and factions in Wales are debating the issue.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had supported a partial ban that still would have allowed smoking in private members' clubs and pubs that do not serve food.

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Russians crank up the stills again

The Russian vodka shortage I reported on earlier is about to end.

Major Russian distilleries began vodka production again today after a forced shutdown caused by a bureaucratic foulup that kept the tax stamps necessary to remain in operation from being distributed.

Kommersant, Russia's online daily, said such distilleries as Veda, Russian Alcohol and OST Group have confirmed that they have refired the stills. However, industry leader Kristall and majors Liviz and Ladoga have not yet resumed production, pending further paperwork.

The national tax service began supplying vodka producers with stamps first because vodka accounts for more than half the alcoholic beverages produced in Russia. Wine producers will have to wait until closer to spring to receive stamps, because their product is less popular in Russia in the winter, Kommersant noted.

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Sticker shock in the Big Apple

It was just a few years ago that the price of a Jim Beam Manhattan hit $14 in New York City. Shocking enough to make me call home from a comfy chair in the Library Bar at the trendy Hudson hotel on West 58th Street to share the astounding development with my wife.

Admittedly, it was a great Manhattan, but $14 seemed very steep even for New York.

Since then cocktail prices -- and even beer and wine prices in some places -- have been skyrocketing. Absurdly so, in the opinions of many.

The iconoclastic Village Voice newspaper has launched a campaign to out the overchargers, asking for anecdotes from readers. Even people from other publications are writing in. The latest roundup of outrage makes for excellent reading -- as well as being a good consumer guide.

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