Growing rye back in favor in North America

From Grain News 
North American farmers are turning back to a neglected crop, sowing fields with the largest rye crop in years partly as consumers satisfy a growing thirst for whiskey.

Rye, planted in autumn and harvested in mid-summer, fell out of favor during the past decade as other crops produced bigger profits. But, whiskey demand as well as new varieties of rye that offer greater yields have renewed interest.

 U.S. farmers planted 1.76 million acres for the 2016/17 season, the biggest area since 1989 and a 12% year-over-year increase, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Canada, a major rye exporter along with the European Union and Russia, farmers sowed 405,900 acres, the biggest rye area in seven years, Statistics Canada reported.
Go here for the full story.


From rum experiment to 'best new product'

The award winner Looking for a new and quality spirit? So were the judges in the just-completed "Tales of the Cocktail" event in New Orleans, and they declared Plantation Pineapple Stiggins’ Fancy Rum the “Best New Product” at the 2016 Spirited Awards that are part of the festival.

This is the second time a spirit from producer Maison Ferrand has won the award, the only company to do so. In 2012, its Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac was so honored, and in 2013, its Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao was a finalist for the same award.

“These spirits are my life,” says Alexandre Gabriel, owner and cellar master of Maison Ferrand. “Our intense focus is perhaps what sets Pierre Ferrand, Plantation, and Citadelle Gin apart from other spirits. ... Our mission is to amaze and bring pleasure through spirits of excellence and taste."

Plantation Pineapple Stiggins’ Fancy is a rum that resulted from research Gabriel and his small team undertook along with his friend and frequent collaborator David Wondrich. Their aim was to create a pineapple rum similar to the favorite drink of the Reverend Stiggins character in Charles Dickens’ "Pickwick Papers."

It originally was supposed to be a one-off product, but samples passed around at the 2014 "Tales of the Cocktail" event received strong positive reactions, so they went on to manufacture it as a portfolio line.

"We didn’t expect the overwhelming amount of praise from bartenders and aficionados who began to harass us to produce more," Gabriel said. "So, we decided to make another batch and share it with even more friends and the rest is history.”

Plantation Pineapple won “Best in Class” at the Miami Rum Festival 2015. It is made from Queen Victoria pineapples, which have a short season, thus making the rum available only as an annual limited edition item with delivery in April/May and July/August each year. It is bottled at 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof), and carries a suggested retail price of $34.99 per 750ml bottle.

The Plantation Rum portfolio includes rums from Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, and Trinidad.


Ezra Brooks unveils new look, new product

It may at first glance still look a bit like a bottle of Jack Daniel's (go here for the story of that whole lookalike problem), but it actually is the new look for Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

The brand, owned by importer-marketer Luxco, also has expanded its portfolio with the introduction of Ezra Brooks Bourbon Cream.

Luxco, formerly called the David Sherman Company, is headquartered in St. Louis, MO. It owns no distilleries, so its Ezra Brooks brand is distilled, aged, and bottled in Kentucky under contract with Heaven Hill Distilleries.

The new item is a seasonal spirit to be available in fall and winter months when its notes of caramel, nutmeg, and cinnamon may be most welcome. It will be available in 750ml bottles, at a very mild 12.5% alcohol by volume (25 proof) and a suggested retail price of $12.99 to $14.99.

The new look is a corked bottle with a matte finish closure to give it more of a craft feel. Ezra Brooks whiskies are sold in 750ml bottles and ranging in suggested retail prices from $11.99 to $26.99. They include Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, 90 proof; blended whiskey, 80 proof; Old Ezra seven year Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, 101 proof, and the new Bourbon Cream.


A Basic Guide to Mexican Spirits

Ever hear of sangrita? (No, not sangria.) It's tequila's perfect accompaniment. Go to this archival post for details. (Bill Dowd photo)
This Sunday is National Tequila Day. That will mean many people who never experienced the iconic Mexican spirit will do so for the first time. It also means people who had bad experiences with it while drinking cheap versions as raucous college students will hold their noses and shy away, forgetting that they probably also had bad experiences with beer and vodka back in the day but still drink them.

So, what to do? How about sharing some basic information the tequila-curious might find helpful before setting out to actually enjoy the spirit? Here's a basic guide to all things tequila (and its cousins), with a few pronunciation tips thrown in.

Three foundational requirements under Mexican agricultural law:
1. True tequila must be made 100% from the blue agave plant and distilled only in Mexico’s Jalisco (pronounced hah-LIS-ko) state and certain specified adjoining counties.

2. Tequila 100% Agave: Must be made only with the juice of the blue agave plant and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo (ahn-yay-ho).

3.  Tequila: Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. It may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo. 
NOM, the official Mexican product safety requirements, defines four types of tequila:
1. Blanco, or Silver: The traditional tequila. Clear, transparent, fresh from the still. Must be bottled immediately after distillation process. Traditionally served in a cylindrical two-ounce glass called a caballito (kah-bah-yeeto).

2. Oro, or Gold: Modified by adding colorings and flavorings, caramel the most common. Widely preferred for frozen Margaritas.

3. Reposado, or Rested: Kept in white oak casks or vats called pipones (pip-oh-nace) for two to 11 months. Much mellower than blanco or oro, pale in color, gentle bouquet.

4. Añejo, or Aged: Matured in white oak casks for a year or more. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 159 gallons. Amber color, oak notes. 
Then there is Reserva. Like “Extra Añejo” it is not technically a category, but recognized as an Añejo aged in oak up to eight years.

Here’s a quick rundown on the other Mexican spirits:
• Mezcal: The state of Oaxaca (wah-hawk-ah) in south-central Mexico claims this spirit as its own. It’s the result of the fermentation of the native maguey (mag-way) plant by the indigenous people and the distillation techniques introduced by Spaniard conquerors. The unique topography of Oaxaca — at the confluence of three great valleys at an altitude of 6,500 feet — creates a wide variety of growing micro-climates for numerous varieties of the agave variety known as maguey, from the giant pulque (pull-kay) maguey to the maguey tobala from which one of the rarest mezcals is made.

• Bacanora: This traditional liquor, mentioned by the earliest Spanish explorers as a native drink, is made in the state of Sonora, which lies below Arizona. It was illegal until about 20 years ago when rules for its manufacture were put into place. It is made from a variety of the agave plant that grows exclusively in Sonora’s climate and terrain. One of what I refer to as “border spirits.”

• Sotol: Another “border spirit,” made from a shrub that looks like a bouquet of spiny leaves with fringed tips. It grows in deserts, mountains, and on dry rocky slopes. Its powerful fermented juice is the state drink of Chihuahua state, south of New Mexico. Like tequila and mezcal, it was improved by distilling the original fermentation.

• Raicilla: This liquor (pronounced ray-see-yah), widely known as “Mexican moonshine,” now can be found in somewhat more sophisticated varieties as a result of modernization and commercialization. It usually is distilled from a fermented mash made from the roots of the maguey plant. It’s a harsh liquor, 100 proof or higher. Despite its dicey reputation, the tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta thinks enough of it to hold an annual raicilla festival.

• Destilado de agave: This spirit is quite similar to tequila, but is brewed outside the state of Jalisco which has 98% of all legal tequila production. As with tequila, it may or may not be made with 100% agave.
Armed with this information, may I wish you a happy National Tequila Day.


An upbeat drinking-and-driving connection

Workers at the Casa Orendain distillery in Tequila, Mexico, cut and load blue agave plants into
the cookers prior to distillation.
(Bill Dowd photo)
We all know drinking and driving don't mix well. But, that doesn't rule out some sort of symbiotic relationship.

To explain:

The Ford Motor Company is joining forces with the Mexican distiller Jose Cuervo to explore the use of the tequila giant's agave plant byproduct to help develop more sustainable bioplastics for Ford vehicles. Specifically, Ford is looking into whether the properties of the blue agave plant, the basis for tequila, can be used as a greener alternative to traditional plastics, in particular those currently derived from petrochemicals.

The agave pant's fibers are very durable, and are used in a variety of manufacturing processes beyond tequila making. The heart of the plant is what is roasted then used in a distillation mash. The remaining fibers are used for composting, for specialty papermaking, for woven products, and the like.

Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader in Ford's sustainability research department, noted that there are about 400 pounds of palstics used in the typical Ford car. "We are developing new technologies to efficiently employ discarded materials and fibers, while potentially reducing the use of petrochemicals and light-weighting our vehicles for desired fuel economy," she told CTV News in Canada.

First Israeli whiskey arrives in America

David Zibell
Dan Friedman of the Jewish-interest publication The Forward reports:

Israeli whiskey has arrived in America.

The Golan Heights Distillery from the mountains on the Syrian border is younger than Tel Aviv’s Milk and Honey -- its domestic rival -- but its finished product arrived in New York on or around Bastille Day (July 14), about a year ahead of the promised competition (whose three-year aged single malt will be, in fairness, a quite different product). That makes it, as far as I can tell, the first Israeli whiskey ever to go on general sale in America. (Please let me know if you know better.)

The River distributing company imported the first shipment of 600 bottles and made sure the Forward was able to taste bottle 577. Which is, at barely over a year old, surprisingly, quite palatable.

If you don’t care to know the details of how distiller David Zibell (pronounced Zee-bell) was born in France, lived in Israel (in Tzfat) for a couple of years as a child, and then finally made Aliyah to Israel from Montreal in 2014 only to find himself living on top of a hill making a variety of liquors, then you can jump to the tasting notes at the bottom. But it’s quite a tale, and I’ll tell it quickly.

Go here for the rest of Dan's tale, and his tasting notes.


Cachaça returns to the popular consciousness

A sampling of Brazil's 4,000 cachaça brands
I had almost forgotten about cachaça.

I was at a summer cookout the other day at a friend's house when I noticed a bottle of it nestled discreetly among the bottles of whiskey, rum, vodka, and so on sitting on his bar. It reminded me that I kind of liked the sugar cane-based distillation two decades ago when I was introduced to it while judging an international rum competition in Florida. But, as is the case when you're exposed to many, many possibilities, sometimes a few fall by the wayside over the years.

That's what happened with cachaça, perhaps best known as the base for the caipirinha cocktail that so enamored tourists to South America in this century that they demanded it when they returned home. That demand was answered over the years in many of the better cocktail lounges and bars throughout the U.S. And now, cachaça is back in the mainstream drinks scene because of the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil where the vast majority of the spirit is manufactured.

There are as many as 2,000 different names for cachaça (pronounced kah-SHAW-sah) in the vernacular, according to one authoritative Brazilian publication. Many cropped up over the years as illicit distillers sought to call their distilled sugar cane something that would not attract the attention of government tax collectors and regulators back in the days when the spirit was banned, sort of like American moonshine's lineage. But, just as with our moonshine, that led to a lot of plonk -- in other words, garbage spirits, some of them even dangerous to the health of imbibers.

Luckily, in 2000 the U.S. and other countries convinced Brazil to label cachaça "Brazilian rum." That put it into a much more competitive market niche, because cachaça was not specifically recognized by the U.S. before that. (As part of a quid pro quo, in 2012 a U.S.-Brazil agreement pledged the U.S. to recognizing cachaça as a distinctive Brazilian product, and Brazil promised similar recognition for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, each of which has long been manufactured under specific regulations. Inherent in the agreement is that the Brazilian government will be monitoring the quality of the cachaça its distillers export.)

There are two types of cachaça, unaged (referred to as white) and aged (gold). White usually is bottled right after distillation, although some is aged for several months, and usually matures in wood barrels for at least three years. Unlike most rums, the spirit is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice; most rums are distilled from molasses, with only a small percentage using cane juice. The legal definition of cachaça requires sugar cane to be the main ingredient, a strength of 38% to 54% alcohol by volume (76 to 108 proof), and a maximum of 6g of sugar per litre.

To understand the scope of cachaça in the Brazilian economy, it helps to know that as recently as 2013 there were only 5,000 legally registered producers of cachaça in Brazil producing 4,000 brands, but the latest Brazilian census shows the number of producers actually could be higher than 40,000. Apparently, Brazilian moonshine lives.

Although most cachaça is consumed in-country, more than $1 billion worth is sold in the U.S. each year, with another $20 million sold in Germany, Portugal, and France.

If you're interested in trying out a variety of cachaças -- sort of your own Olympic Tasting Games event, here are the four leading legitimate Brazilian distillers:

• Companhia Müller de Bebidas, which owns Pirassununga 51 and has 18% of the market share. 

• Pitú has 15% of the market share, with 6% of it coming from the Caninha da Roça brand. 

• Indústrias Reunidas Tatuzinho Três Fazendas, which owns Velho Barreiro has 8% of the market share 

• Ypióca has 2% of the market share

As the say in Brazil, "Saúde" (pronounced "saw-ooh-de).

Jack Daniel's launches birthday barrel hunt

Countdown to barrel hunt
The Pokémon Go craze is getting the bulk of the media attention these days, but the distiller Jack Daniel's has a hide-and-seek game of its own going on to mark its 150th birthday.

From now through September, 150 handcrafted whiskey barrels are being hidden in historic and cultural sites around the globe, with clues on Jack Daniel's Facebook pages to help guide fans find the secret locations. You can get started on the hunt by clicking here.

Other birthday celebratory items from the Lynchburg, TN, distiller include:

• What master distiller Jeff Arnett calls a "special liquid." The anniversary drink will come in a collectible bottle, available at the distillery and select other locations in September.

• A "Sinatra Century" barrel as an homage to the late singer-actor Frank Sinatra,, well known for his love of Jack Daniel's.


Jack Daniel's now No. 1 whiskey in UK

UK's favorite whiskey is an All-American
UK's favorite whiskey an All-American
The United Kingdom has gotten less European as shown by its recent controversial exit vote from the European Union. Judging by its whiskey sales, it actually has gotten more American.

In fact, the highest-selling brand in the UK is America's own Jack Daniel's, a Tennessee sipping whiskey that is sort of bourbon. (It's made about the same way, although with a bit less corn in the mash than the average bourbon, and then is filtered through maplewood charcoal.)  

The Grocer, an influential UK trade magazine, has just reported that sales of Jack Daniel's in the UK have soared 9.3% in the past year, pushing it past The Famous Grouse as the nation’s most popular whiskey (or "whisky" without the "e" as they insist on spelling it there).

Sales of the six leading blended Scotch whiskies have slumped 4.4% in the same period, with sales of The Famous Grouse alone dropping by 14.9%. Jack Daniel's now is the ninth biggest alcohol brand in Britain, with The Famous Grouse dropping to 13th.

The shift is attributed to a number of factors: younger UK drinkers preferring American products in general; importers and distributors paying more attention to American whiskies which offer them a higher profit margin, and a general drop in prices to the consumer for American whiskies for several years.

And then, of course, there is taste.

Jim Murray, the guru of whiskey rankings around the world, did not put any Scotch on his list of the world’s five best whiskies of 2016, the second consecutive year he has made that decision. He has for a number of years extolled the virtues of American bourbon over Scotch blends, declaring, "The best whisky is coming not from Scotland any more, but from Kentucky.”

Back in 2011, I wrote in my book "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y in Jiggers and Shots" (Sterling Epicure, still available from online book sellers):

"In 2010, Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, the UK top-selling such guide, shocked many people inside and outside the industry by naming 18-year-old Sazerac Rye from Kentucky the world's best whisky/whiskey, elevating it beyond even the UK's beloved Scotches. It topped 3,850 other whiskies that were considered, with Ardbeg Supernova from the Hebridean island of Islay as No. 2 after dominating the awards for the three prior years."

Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of Gunpowder Proof rum

Screen shot 2016-07-13 at 2.25.43 PMFamiliar with overproof rums? Usually, they are rums with an alcohol content of greater than 57.5% alcohol by volume -- 115 proof or more-- usually bottled and labeled as "151."

I mention this because Shaw-Ross International Importers of Miramar, FL, is introducing Pusser’s Gunpowder Proof, a 54.5% abv (109 proof), at the end of the month in July. Rollout to markets in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, California, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina will come in the ensuing months.

Screen shot 2016-07-13 at 2.33.02 PMPusser’s Gunpowder Proof is a blend of rums from Guyana and Trinidad. It is widely regarded as the last rum issued by the British Royal Navy to its enlistees in 1970. The new entry will retail at a suggested $33 to $35 a bottle.

On July 31, 1970, on what was known as "Black Tot Day," the tradition going back some 300 years ended, with British sailors wearing black armbands and conducting mock funerals to bid farewell to the rations. A small supply from E.D. & F. Man & Co, official rum merchants to the Navy since 1784, was stored in wicker-clad stone vessels and went untouched except for state occasions.

In the British Navy, in a practice copied in the days of sailing warships by some other nations, served rum as part of a drink called "grog." The word originally referred to a drink made with water and rum, which British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon introduced into the naval squadron he commanded in the West Indies on August 21, 1740. Vernon wore a coat of grogram cloth and was nicknamed Old Grogram or Old Grog.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which agrees with this story of the word's origin, states that the word "grog" was first used in this sense in 1770, though other sources cite 1749.

The Gunpowder Proof is produced by Pusser's Rum Ltd., headquartered in Charleston, SC.

Brooklyn inspiration, Pennsylvania history in a bottle

Screen shot 2016-07-11 at 3.43.27 PMPennsylvania's distilling history has always been dominated by rye whiskies. Now, thanks to a visit to a New York distillery, that is changing slightly.

Several years ago, Pennsylvania resident Anthony Brichta paid a visit to the Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. What he saw encouraged him to get into the world of craft distilling, and he and his uncle, John Rowe, created County Seat Spirits in a former truck assembling plant in Allentown, PA, about 95 miles west of Brooklyn.

Rather than producing a rye whiskey, aged or otherwise, as their first product, they decided to create a wheat-heavy, no-rye whiskey they call Hidden Copper Bourbon. It was distilled from a mash of Pennsylvania corn, Pennsylvania wheat, and malted barley, then was aged for about a year in small, 15-gallon new charred white oak barrels.

The mash containing more than 50% corn, and the barrels being what they are, satisfied the legal requirements for calling the whiskey a bourbon. Even the bottles are made in Pennsylvania. Hidden Copper Bourbon is bottled at 90 proof (45% abv), and priced at $40 for a 750ml bottle.

The name? The distillers say it is in honor of the historic hiding of the Liberty Bell. On September 23 of that year, the Pennsylvania State House Bell -- which we know as the Liberty Bell -- was taken down to prevent it from being melted down by the British for weapons use during the Revolutionary War. It was hidden in the basement of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, and returned to Philadelphia the following June.

Appleton rums rebranded under J. Wray labels

Screen shot 2016-07-11 at 2.52.37 PM
The former Appleton rums
Attention fans of Appleton Special Jamaica and Appleton White rums:

Do not panic when you no longer see those labels on the shelves of your favorite spirits shop. The parent Campari America company is in the process of rebranding and relauncing them.

Now under the group’s J. Wray Jamaica Rums brand, Appleton Special Jamaica will be sold as J. Wray Jamaica Rum Gold, and the Appleton White as J. Wray Jamaica Rum Silver. Both of the 80 proof (40% abv) spirits will retain their original recipes and pricing (suggested $17 per 750-ml bottle).

Christine Moll, Campari America category marketing director, told the industry publication Shanken Daily News the change helps ensure that “Appleton Estate is viewed as a premium rum offering within the Campari America portfolio,” with J. Wray being positioned as the “standard rum set.”

Sales of the Appleton brand, whose core lineup ranges in suggested retail prices from $22 to $38, were up 6.8% to 220,000 cases in the U.S. last year, according to Impact Databank.

Buffalo Trace's first estate bourbon in the barrel

Screen shot 2016-07-09 at 4.40.20 PMNot merely satisfied with consumer acceptance of their current portfolio, the powers-that-be at Buffalo Trace wanted to try something a little different.

Taking a page from the wine industry, they had a corn crop planted on a piece of land acquired by the company with an eye toward creating an estate product: i.e., a small-batch bourbon made with ingredients entirely sourced from their own grounds.

Now, according to the Franklin, KY, company, that initial corn from that planting has been used to make a new estate bourbon that recently was put into aging barrels. The distillery says the new bourbon was distilled from a non-GMO heirloom corn strain that dates to 1876, around the time the legendary distiller E.H. Taylor was leaving his mark at Buffalo Trace. The strain, it says, “originated from a White Mastodon variety and, through selection techniques in isolation, it became Boone County White, after a farmer named James Riley coined the name.”

The crop had been monitored by master distiller Harlen Wheatley and his staff until last August, after which it was harvested and dried, then fermented and distilled at the end of May. The output was 117 barrels of the Boone County White Corn variety now aging for several years before being bottled and released. Buffalo Trace also has just planted its second crop, a variety known as Japonica Striped Corn. It originally is from Japan, and dates to the 1890s.

The plan is for a different variety of corn to be planted each year so each estate bourbon will be a unique release.

What kind of glasses do you prefer, and why?

Screen shot 2016-07-09 at 3.06.16 PMI must confess that when I drink any beverage, what I drink it from affects how I feel about the contents, or at least the experience.

Even as a college student I didn't enjoy drinking beer from bottles or cans. While I didn't mind drinking a Coke or Orange Crush (remember that?) from the bottle, for some reason I only liked beer from a mug or a pilsner glass.

With wine, the properly shaped glass is important to me, be it the taller, more slender ones for whites or more bowl-shaped style for reds. For non-alcoholic beverages, I prefer a thinner glass that allows the frostiness to reach my hand, Something refreshing about that.

So, I found a recent post on The Chive website about what sorts of glasses people prefer for their beer, and why good reading. It contains some interesting infographics for both beer and wine glasses, complete with explanations for the shape of each. You can access it by clicking here.

New NY law covers more than brunch cocktails

When the New York State Legislature passed a bill last month changing various aspects of beverage control regulations, most of the news media zeroed in on an amendment to one of the cobweb-covered "Blue Laws" left over from the puritanical days of governance.

That changed Sunday alcohol sales for restaurants from a noon to a 10 a.m. start, promoting some people to refer to it as the "Brunch Bill" since the industry made much about wanting to allow restaurants to serve bloody marys, bellinis, etc., with their breakfast fare.

However, here are a few other pertinent things in the bill that got little notice:

• The sales tax on samples of wine, cider, and spirits will be lifted to make them the same as beer sampling which is not taxed.

• Wineries will be allowed to sell wine in reusable "growlers" to be refilled at the winery.

• Tasting room customers will be allowed to take home partially finished bottles of wine, similar to the way they can from restaurants.

• Fees for a solicitor's permit for craft manufacturers, and of a bond requirement for all manufacturers will be eliminated.

• A new application form will allow combining craft manufacturing licenses (e.g., for wine, beer, cider, and spirits production) rather than requiring separate applications for each one.

So, now you know.

Wandering drinks writer returns

After a very lengthy hiatus to work on several other projects, I'm back at the keyboard to bring you the latest on the adult beverage scene.

My thanks to many of you who inquired about the status of my blog(s), and urged me to return as soon as possible. That sort of support makes all the research and writing worthwhile.

And, speaking of research and writing, my book "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y in Jiggers and Shots" (Sterling Epicure, NYC, 224 pages) still is available through most online booksellers.