Whiskey Museum of America project on the clock

Meredith Grelli and the WAM! logo

One of the major decisions George Washington had to make as president of a fledgling nation was how to put down an anti-tax rebellion among whiskey makers in western Pennsylvania.

That region had become a center of distilling by Scots-Irish farmers who had settled in the region after emigrating from their tempestuous homeland in what we now call Northern Ireland.

As I wrote in my book "Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y In Jiggers and Shots" (Sterling Epicure, NYC):

"They were not alone in distilling whiskey, but they were among the feistiest and most productive in the New World. ... They quickly pushed their way to the frontier area ... where they found fertile fields for their grain and plenty of takers for the whiskey they produced from some of it. However, when the Continental Congress put a tax on whiskey production -- the fledgling nation's first excise tax -- they refused to pay, thus touching off the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to 1794. The dispute was about more than simply being taxed. In the minds of a significant number of frontier settlers in the new United States, the government was under control of the eastern elite, and the tax, suggested by Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, to service the national debt created by the War of Independence, was a prime example of unfairness."

Eventually, an armed federal force was sent to the area to put down the insurrection during which a 500-man force of farmers attacked the home of a federal tax collector. Then ...

"Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who had become governor of Virginia, cooked up a deal to break up the concentration of resistance. Jefferson offered sixty acres of land as an incentive for moving to the Kentucky region (then part of Virginia), building a permanent structure, and growing corn."

The transplanted farmers eventually began to use their excess corn to make whiskey and eventually bourbon was born. But, what about back in western Pennsylvania? Plenty of farmers-distillers remained there and created licensed distilling operations that built one of the greatest spirits-producing areas in the new U.S. (Coincidentally, Washington went into distilling in a big way on his Mount Vernon, VA, estate and became the biggest single producer of whiskey in the new country.)

Today, there is a move afoot to create the Whiskey of America Museum (WAM!) in Pittsburgh. It's the brainchild of Meredith Grelli, co-founder and co-owner of Wigle Whiskey, founded in December 2011 as Pittsburgh's first legal distillery since Prohibition. She has put together a group of more than 20 local and regional leaders -- designers, museum staffers and spirits experts -- to help develop "WAM! National Whiskey Museum and Regional Alcohol Emporium."

The museum will serve as the trailhead for an "American Rye Whiskey Trail" that would connect distilleries from Pittsburgh to the Mount Vernon Distillery in Virginia via the Great Allegheny Passage and Cumberland Bike Paths.

Grelli has told local media she estimates the museum will cost $1.1 million, and she already has pledged "six figures" herself. However, she also has set a September 19 deadline for raising at least $35,000 via a Kickstarter campaign or the project may be called off. As of today, she has enlisted 126 backers pledging a total of $11,706.


Annual Parker's Heritage due in September

In most instances, the longer a whiskey ages in wood the better it gets. (Exceptions would be those not well made in the first place.) Two or three years is common, eight is premium, and so on. The 10th annual release of Heaven Hill's Parker’s Heritage Collection is an exception -- on the upside.

The bourbon is named to honor Parker Beam, the distillery’s master distiller emeritus who has been suffering from ALS -- Lou Gherig's disease -- for a number of years. The Heritage Collection is used to raise money for research and patient care for the disease.

The 2016 edition is a 24-year-old, bottled-in-bond bourbon. It features two separate versions, expected to be the oldest bottled-in-bond in the world, according to Heaven Hill. It was produced in the fall of 1990 and spring of 1991 at the Bardstown, KY, distillery that burned down in 1996 along with seven rickhouses and more than 90,000 barrels.

The liquid is bottled by season to retain its bottled-in-bond designation. By federal law, to be labeled bottled-in-bond or bonded, the liquor must be the product of one distillation season (January to December) and one distiller at one distillery, then aged in a federally bonded warehouse at 100 proof (50% abv) for at least four years.

This edition, packaged in the same upscale 750ml bottle as the previous editions, will be released in September and carry a suggested retail price of $250, with $15 of each sale going towards the ALS campaign.


Adirondacks distiller in NYS of mind

gristmillDespite the explosion of craft distilling throughout the nation in recent years, the vast bulk of whiskies still are made in Kentucky and Tennessee and aged in barrels made from white oak harvested in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. That's what makes a fledgling operation in New York State's Adirondacks so interesting.

Talk about a true New York production. Keith Van Sise, founder and jack-of-all-trades at Gristmill Distilling in Keene, Essex County, and his team are using grains grown locally by Adirondack Organic Grains of Essex and apples grown locally by Rulf's Orchards in Peru with charred barrels made at U.S. Barrels in Wilmington from oak wood cut in the Catskills.

The products are branded with names very much enmeshed in Adirondack lore. Black Fly bourbon whiskey is named for the pesky seasonal insect that plagues residents and visitors alike; Rusty Piton moonshine is named for the climbing spike used in High Peaks adventures, and 1892 Forever Wild apple brandy is an homage to the date the state Legislature declared the Adirondacks Forest Preserve forever wild.

Gristmill Distilling's products are available at a variety of retail stores, restaurants and bars, and local farmers markets. The full list is available online.


Flyover tours of Scottish, U.S. distilleries

If you never have had the opportunity to tour some of Scotland's iconic distillery complexes, or even those in the U.S., the website called The Whiskey Wash has something that may be of interest.

It's a set of eight videos from drone flyovers of whiskey complexes that offer views you can't get even if you've been there on the ground. As the editors explain:

"There is something to be said for considering the size of the distillery that makes your favorite mainstream Scotch or bourbon. Most craft whiskey makers aside, a good number of whiskey brands are created on the grounds of rather large facilities which are almost impossible to see from the vantage of the visitor’s center. ... Some [of the videos] are notably scenic, while others are more just about seeing how such distilleries just eat up the landscape around them."

The Scottish venues include Bowmore (shown above), Bruichladdich, and one video covering eight other facilities on the island of Islay, plus Macallan and Old Taylor. The U.S. venues include T.W. Samuels, Old Turkey, and Old Willett, all in Kentucky.


NY Wine & Culinary Center in the gin business

NY Wine & Culinary Center (Bill Dowd photo)
NY Wine & Culinary Center (Bill Dowd photo)
If the New York Wine & Culinary Center continues its present inclination, it may have to modify its name.

The NYWCC facility, located on the shore of Canandaigua Lake in the picturesque Finger Lakes city of Canandaigua, opened 10 years ago as a showcase for New York State wines and foods. Since then, it has maintained a busy wine-centric pace while steadily increasing its involvement with tastings and special events involving New York beers and spirits.

Its latest project is a collaboration with Black Button Distilling of Rochester to launch Garden Gin, a collaboration spirit that will be released next Tuesday at the the center's 4th annual "Garden Party," according to an announcement made Tuesday. It is an herbaceous London Dry-style gin with herbs and licorice notes and a strong juniper nose, according to officials.

Proceeds from the sale of Garden Gin will go to NYWCC’s "Culinary Camps for Kids" program and other educational programming.

“We love what the NYWCC does to bring unique New York products and educational programming to the community,” said Jason Barrett, president and head distiller of Black Button. “This collaboration presented us with an opportunity to develop a ... gin with tastes and inspiration from NYWCC’s garden."

The new product will be available at Black Button Distilling, at NYWCC, and at select retailers.


Dulce Vida expands its tequila portfolio

Dulce Vida tequila flanked by new infusions
Dulce Vida tequila flanked by new infusions
"Infusion" is a key word in the world of adult beverages. In this instance, an infusion of cash from a new owner has resulted in a major expansion of Dulce Vida Spirits' tequila portfolio that now includes infused versions.

The Austin, TX, company this week announced the release of five new versions, including lime- and grapefruit-infused 35% abv (70 proof) tequilas utilizing real fruit and "all natural flavors." They join a new lineup of 40% abv (80 proof) blanco, reposado, and añejo versions to complement the original line of seven 100-proof tequilas. The new reposado is aged from 9 to 11 months and the new añejo up to 24 months in used American white oak barrels. All products are made in Mexico.

Dulce Vida Spirits was recently purchased by a new beverage investor company called Milestone Brands, headed by Eric Dopkins who had been CEO of the Deep Eddy Vodka Distillery in Austin.

“Dulce Vida has seen amazing growth since our acquisition, and we’re thrilled with the launch of these naturally-infused flavors,” Dopkins said. “These cocktail-ready category disruptors continue our standards in providing healthier cocktail solutions and handcrafted products.”


Jameson 'Whiskey Makers Series' debuts in U.S.

Screen shot 2016-08-16 at 1.54.06 PMThe Irish distiller Jameson has just released to the U.S. market The Cooper's Croze, the first of three super-premium Irish whiskies from its "Whiskey Makers Series."

No word yet on when, or whether, the others -- The Blender's Dog and The Distiller's Safe -- will debut in the U.S.

The whiskey’s namesake –- the croze -– is a tool used to make the groove where the head of the barrel is positioned to seal the barrel.

The 86-proof whiskey (43% abv) itself was created by Jameson's fifth-generation head cooper, not head distiller, Ger Buckley to showcase the diversity of barrels at its Midleton, County Cork, facility. He used virgin American white oak charred barrels as well as seasoned bourbon barrels and Iberian sherry barrels to age the non-chill filtered spirit and impart fruit flavors as well as floral and spice notes.

Says Buckley, “I’ve created Jameson The Cooper’s Croze to show the versatility and profound influence barrels have on distinct whiskey flavors. Barrel making transcends generations, as I’ve used the same methods and tools passed down from my grandfather, that’s the beauty of the craft.”

The Cooper's Croze carries a suggested retail price of $69.99.


Steel cans attention-getting whiskey vessels

StillhouseGiven the ever-increasing number of spirits coming to market in the U.S., smart distillers need at least two things for initial success: (1.) prominent retail store placement, and (2.) clever packaging.

Getting consumers to buy your product more than once is, of course, dependent on price and quality. But, scoring that initial purchase often relies on having an eye-catching container that can overcome even poor shelf positioning.

Adult beverages these days can be found in everything from traditionally-shaped bottles to squat little globes to human skull replicas to squared-off glass vessels to ceramic containers to Mason jars. Brad Beckerman, CEO and founder of the Stillhouse Spirits Company of Columbia, TN, decided he wanted to come up with something that would break out of that pack.

I think he has succeeded with how his portfolio of Stillhouse Original liquors is offered -- in 100% stainless steel cans.

The packaging is a creation from Sandstrom Partners, the Portland, OR, firm specializing in strategic brand design. In addition to standing out in the crowd, the deep-red steel container is unbreakable, lighter than glass, and recyclable.

Stillhouse's lineup now has six varieties of whiskey -- the 80-proof Moonshine, and the 69-proof flavored versions Apple Crisp, Peach Tea, Coconut, Mint Chip, and Red Hot. Each is available in 20 states -- including New York -- and Washington, DC, priced at $28 per 750ml can.


Shut up and drink your beets

Beet VodkaOver the many years I've been involved in the world of adult beverages, I've had occasion to write about the immense range of ingredients from which vodka is made.

Not just grains or potatoes as foundational ingredients, but other things such as wild and cultivated grasses, bamboo, sweet potatoes, apples, tree saps, honey ... virtually any organic matter rich in starches or sugars.

And then, there is the dizzying array of flavor infusions that seem to know no end -- fruits both sweet and savory, melons, cocoa, nuts -- and coconuts -- as well as chocolates, coffees, teas, marshmallows, herbs, hops, caramel, elderflowers, cinnamon, ginseng root, root beer ... even candy bars and smoked salmon.

What I hadn't come across until now is beet vodka. A Philadelphia distiller with the unlikely name of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction recently released such a product as part of its "Garden Infusions" series that utilizes various seasonal items. Its earlier offerings were chicory root and sweet potato infusions. (The company's website is worth spending some time reading. Fascinating enterprise.)

While the deep reddish purple color of the final Beet Root Flavored Vodka certainly smacks of beets, it also contains elements of cranberries and apple pomace -- the fibrous remnant left after pressing of the fruit -- as well as honey, salt, and tarragon.

If you can lay hands on the product, here's a recipe for a cocktail to get you started.  

2 ounces AITA Beet Root Vodka 
1 ounce fresh lime juice 
5 blackberries 
1/2 ounce simple syrup 
Splash of club soda 
Lime peel and blackberries for garnish

Muddle the vodka, blackberries, lime juice, and simple syrup together in a cocktail shaker. Then, shake vigorously, Strain over ice into a rocks glass, top off with club soda, and garnish.


This 'Scottish G&T' not just your usual drink

The Scottish G&T kit (Photo by Bill Dowd)
Scottish G&T kit (photo by Bill Dowd)
The current, and I hope brief, cooling off and accompanying rain in my Upstate New York corner of the universe are robbing me of something I cherish in the usual dog days of summer: thirst.

I don't get very excited about gin during most of the year, but when it comes to July and August I begin looking forward to a G&T, as my Brit friends call the drink -- gin and tonic, with a slice of lime in a chilled glass. Simple, direct, thirst quenching, and oh so satisfying.

This summer I've been sticking to what I refer to as a "Scottish G&T" out of deference to the two main ingredients -- Fever Tree Tonic Water made in England but introduced to me in Scotland, and Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin. Over the years, I've tried many types of gins and many types of mixers. These two, superb on their own to my taste, earn even higher accolades as a combination.

In making both gin and tonic water, the portfolio of ingredients is paramount since they use more ingredients than most mixers and most distilled spirits. Many Americans are unfamiliar with both brands. To be honest, I wasn't familiar with Fever Tree mixers until a tavern crawl in Edinburgh, Scotland, some years ago when I found that even the meanest of pubs there looked down on serving anything else. After that experience, I was hooked. Not only on the tonic but on the Bitter Lemon and I'm fascinated by its latest mixer just out, something called Aromatic Tonic Water that expands the line of mixers to seven.

I mentioned the wide variety of ingredients -- marigiold extracts, Tanzanian bitter orange and a half-dozen other botanicals -- sourced from around the globe to make the basic Fever Tree recipe. (That name, incidentally, comes from the nickname for the cinchona tree from which quinine, used to treat malaria but also a key ingredient in tonic, is taken.) Here's Fever Tree's explanation of its newest offering:  

"Aromatic Tonic Water is inspired by a historic recipe Tim [Warrillow], our co-founder [with Charles Rolls of Plymouth Gin fame], discovered whilst researching early references of tonics. Angostura bark was used by Royal Navy surgeons as a fever remedy or 'tonic' in the early 19th Century as a supplement to the long known anti-fever prescription of cinchona bark.

"Fast forward 200 years, and Fever Tree have once again gone to the ends of the Earth to source all-natural ingredients in this 21st Century twist. The highest quality angostura bark sourced from South America is blended with our signature quinine from the Congo as well as aromatic ingredients including cardamom from Guatemala, pimento berries from Jamaica, and ginger from Cochin. With subtle aromas of spice and fresh citrus, Aromatic Tonic offers a uniquely refreshing flavor, designed to be paired with juniper-rich and robust gins."

One such gin is Caorunn (pronounced ka-roon), which like most gins uses a basic assortment of botanicals such as juniper berries, cardamom, lemon and orange citrus peels, anjelica, and cassia bark has quite a different twist on its recipe. Five of its 11 botanicals are sourced not from Africa or Asia or South America, but rather from right around its Balmenach Distillery in Scotland's iconic Speyside region that is home to dozens of distilleries. They are rowan berries (caorunn is the Scots Celtic word for rowan), bog myrtle, dandelion, Coul Blush apple and, of course, heather, that most Scottish of all plants.

Gathering them requires foraging right before a distilling session headed by master distiller Simon Buley because most of those local plants are short-season ones and difficult to store.

Buley, who suggests garnishing a G&T with a slice of Coul Blush apple rather than the traditional lime, says, "In the Scottish Highlands we live in harmony with nature, and Caorunn is a truly Scottish gin. It draws on the heritage, craft, and expertise of local people to harness Scotland's unique natural resources and age-old botanicals."

While Caorunn is a relative newcomer to the world market, the Balmenach Distillery, located at the bottom of the Haughs of Cromdale less than a mile from the River Spey, is no johnny-come-lately. It was founded in 1824 by James McGregor, a local farmer with a family penchant for unlicensed distilling, a heritage shared with many other Speyside families. Today, the distillery is owned by Inver House Distillers Ltd., a company that also owns the Speyburn-Glenlivet, Knockdhu, Balblair, and Old Pulteney distilleries.

Buley worked his way up from starting at Balmenach as a shift operator in 1998. Today, in addition to overseeing Balmenach whisky production, he creates Caorunn gin in the world's only Copper Berry Chamber still that was built nearly 100 years ago. Some competitors use the same vapor/infusion distillation he does, but they also use more traditionally-shaped stills. Buley, by contrast, funnels the vapor to the Berry Chamber, a gimmicky-looking device originally used to extract fusel oils when distilling perfumes.

As Gintime magazine describes it, "It is a round horizontal chamber with a copper frame (copper is used in the distillation of spirits because it removes sulphur and unwanted compounds) and it contains four large horizontally positioned trays. Caorunn’s 11 botanicals are spread on these trays in such a way as to allow the spirit vapor to pick up the broadest range of flavors over the widest possible area. ... It takes four hours to distill 1,000 liters of spirit into gin but, as the old adage goes, good things come to those who wait. Certainly this particular method of distillation allows the aromatic notes of the six classic gin botanicals ... to be deeply imbedded in the spirit. At the same time the more elusive, fragrant notes of the Celtic botanicals ... are captured and held. Those Speyside distillers, they do know what they are doing."

I echo that enthusiasm. As to putting together your "Scottish G&T kit," I'd suggest online ordering of Fever Tree products ($35 for a 24-pack of 6.8-ounce glass bottles via Amazon, for example) because I've been unable to reliably source the brand locally; and, if your favorite liquor store does not stock Caorunn it certainly should be able to custom order you a bottle. A suggestion: order more than one despite the suggested retail price of $42 per 750ml bottle. I doubt you'll be disappointed.


That hangover may be your DNA talking

Screen shot 2016-08-04 at 4.34.54 PM From VinePair.com

Yes. You could blame that savage hangover on the seven tequila shots you did last night. But we have a much better scapegoat. Genetics.

The basic cause of a hangover, of course, is ethanol (the alcohol in our drinks), which causes dehydration and urination and probably some really bad text conversations. But other factors, including diet, blood sugar levels, and even your immune system can play a role, and a recent study shows that genetics might be influencing those factors.

Actually, probably half of your predisposition to a terrible hangover has to do with your genes.

A study of 4,000 Australian twins found that “genetic factors accounted for 45% of the difference in hangover frequency in women and 40% in men.” We’re gonna have to guess that study was really, really fun at first and then got terrible once the hangovers set in, and instead of ordering a greasy breakfast, participants were forced to fill out questionnaires and have those sticky science wires stuck to their throbbing heads.

Go here for more details.


2 new Beam flavors, but just 1 for you

The latest flavored whiskeys from Jim Beam Brands went on sale today. They are the second and third specialty concoctions in the brand’s portfolio. However, only one is available domestically.

• Jim Beam Apple, bottled at 30% abv (60 proof), is Beam’s Kentucky straight bourbon blended with apple liqueur. Beam recommends it be taken on the rocks or with club soda as a highball with a green apple slices as a garnish.

• Jim Beam Citrus Highball RTD (ready to drink) is available only in Japan and Australia. It fuses bourbon with several varieties of grapefruit. The drink, finished at 4.8% abv, and comes in 375ml cans available 6- and 10-packs.

The new products two join Jim Beam Honey in the flavored portfolio.