Checking out Tanqueray’s Bloomsbury Limited Release Gin

With the rise of craft spirits, established brands are finding themselves under attack by an army of Lilliputians, all touting their small batch, artisanal, hand-crafted credentials to great effect in influencing the buying public. The big players like Tanqueray aren’t all standing still, however. In addition to their standard lineup (Tanqueray, Tanqueray Rangpur, and Tanqueray 10), they’ve released a string of limited editions over the last three years, the most recent being Tanqueray Bloomsbury, which I received a bottle of for review here.

Continue reading “Checking out Tanqueray’s Bloomsbury Limited Release Gin”

Gin is Big at Seattle’s Captive Spirits

My GPS tells me that I’ve arrived, but I’m not quite sure I believe it. I’m trying to find Captive Spirits, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but I’m clearly on a residential street, and the building in front of me looks like a small, two-story apartment building. Only after I spot the sign hanging off the corner of the building do I know I’m in the right place.

There are no obvious signs of life out front, so I wander around the side of the building. In a long alley/driveway, are a young girl and a dog (“Rosie”), who playfully rushes to greet me. The small girl helpfully points me around to the very back where an open garage door reveals what I’d come to find. Co-owner Holly, whom I’d met a few days earlier, steps outside to say hello.

Captive Spirits is (at the moment at least) all about gin. Not vodka, not whiskey in small barrels waiting to be released. Not fruit infusions, not “moonshine.” Just Gin. Among the major “base” spirits (vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy, etc.), gin is the only spirit whose flavor doesn’t originate from fermenting and distilling an agricultural product—for example, grains, sugar, agave, grapes, potato, and so on. Gin’s distinct flavor is the result of infusing a neutral, high-proof ethanol with a veritable tea of botanicals. Juniper berries, for one, are used in just about every gin –but beyond that, the remaining ingredients are a gin-maker’s secret sauce.

Although not exactly a well-kept secret, it’s not widely known that many gin makers don’t distill their own ethanol as the base for their gins. The economies of scale offered by large industrial distilleries allows gin-makers to purchase less-expensive, high-proof, 95 percent ethyl alcohol in bulk, and then infuse it with their own particular combination of botanicals. Sure, some distilleries like Sound Spirits, also here in Seattle, do distill their own ethanol, but the availability of bulk product allows gin-focused enterprises to step right into adding their own unique value, rather than trying to compete with a mega-distillery in the alcohol production process.

Outsourcing of ethanol production, and focusing on just gin lets Captive Spirits’ Holly Robinson and Ben Capdevielle do very well in a relatively small space, approximately 2,000 square feet. After releasing their well-known Big Gin to positive reviews, the pair recently released Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, the same product but aged in used American oak barrels for six months. One wall of their small office features a floor-to-ceiling blackboard listing all their distributors in numerous states and several foreign countries, including Australia, Italy, and the UK, as well as notes for prospective deals and future trips to be planned. I was a bit surprised seeing how many outlets they’ve already acquired, being such a seemingly small (but apparently very efficient) enterprise.

 
Within their space, small nooks contain an office, kitchen, and tasting area separate from the main work area. Racks of barrels and palettes of Big Gin cartons fill much of the available room. A clever organizational trick:  Upside-down boxes hold new bottles ready to filled, while right-side up boxes hold filled bottles, ready to ship. The barrels, once-used American oak, have previously nurtured whiskey at Heaven Hill in Kentucky. One small nook holds bright blue 55- gallon barrels filled with corn-based, 190 proof ethanol (aka “Everclear,” which some of you may know from your college days) made by Pharmco-Aaper in Kentucky. The desk in the office is literally a door perched atop two of these empty blue barrels.

Near the tasting area, a lone oak barrel rests on the floor. Previously used for whiskey, and then Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, it now ages a new batch of Bradley’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Kina Tonic. Bradley Feather is the head for Sounds Spirits, a few miles down the road (read about it here). The craft spirits community in Washington State is tight knit – Holly is the group’s current Vice President. Next to the Kina Tonic barrel is a large white bag of dried orange peels, a key player in a future gin batch. On nearby shelves are the less botanical tools of the gin trade: large rolls of Big Gin labels, as well as thousands of corks ready to top a Big Gin bottle.

At the very back of the building is the Captive Spirits main work area. Ben, Holly’s husbandand co-owner, has returned from a trip to the hardware store and is busily working at the large bottling table. Two large cylinders hold several hundred gallons of gin, resting for a week or so before bottling. Holly tells me that after distillation, the botanical oils in the gin take a while to fully integrate. Every week there’s a bottling day where Ben, Holly, and several friends form an assembly line for bottling, labeling, and hand-numbering each bottle before boxing them up. Holly says she usually handles the numbering portion. Captive Spirits ships to international locations, some which require 700ml bottles rather than the 750ml bottles we use in North America, so they need to maintain two different bottle and label sets.
Across from the bottling table is the Big Gin Bike, equipped with a bottle of tasty gin in the bottle cage, and a rack on the front, perfectly sized to hold a case of Big Gin.  Close by are more large white bags of juniper berries, the key ingredient in all gins. The juniper smell is strong in the air as Ben grabs a mesh bag roughly the size of a football and explains how they fill the bags with the juniper, orange peels, and other secret botanicals, then drop the bag into the still prior to starting the distillation run—like making a supersized vat of gin tea. When the run completes, they simply fish the bags out, making post-run still clean out much easier.
The big prize of my visit is naturally the pot stills themselves, labeled “Phyllis” and “Jean,” each honoring dear departed grandmothers. The stills are sourced from Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky, one of the biggest players in the still industry. Phyllis and Jean each hold 100 gallons and take 90 minutes from a cold start to the point where gin can be collected. Ben tells me they’re direct-fired, meaning heated by a direct flame rather than a boiler. Circling each still’s base is a brick wall of sorts, to keep the heat where it belongs.

I was particularly curious about what exactly goes into the stills, as I knew that 190 proof ethanol is the starting point; it doesn’t make any sense to “distill” a spirit that’s already as pure as it can get. Ben says that the ethanol is blended with water to bring the mix down to 100 proof. Then the botanical bags are added to the solution and distillation can begin, with the collection phase lasting about ten hours.

 

Just outside the building are plastic tanks filled with water. Holly explained the water cools the still’s condenser unit, causing the vapor coming off the still to condense into liquid that’s collected. Rather than cooling with tap water which is wasteful and incurs added costs, the plastic containers hold harvested rainwater which can be recycled endlessly.

As for the gin itself, I will save a proper review for another time. However, I will say that the Big Gin has a particularly bold flavor relative to other gins, which I love. Ben and Holly both stressed that their target was a traditional gin, emphasizing the juniper, rather than a “New American” style product that merely glances in the general direction of the juniper berries. I asked if there was a particular gin that they admired prior to making their own, and Ben quickly answered, “Beefeater.” Both the regular and Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, bottled at a healthy 94 proof, have won medals at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition. While I enjoy the original Big Gin, the Bourbon Barreled Big Gin is particularly smooth and different than anything else in my collection, I happily took home a bottle for the Wonk bar.

Recent Washington State laws provide tax breaks for small distilleries who produce their spirits using at least 51 percent ingredients from Washington State. Captive Spirits doesn’t qualify for these tax advantages, as the majority of the ingredients come from out of state. However, Ben and Holly are adamant that they make exactly the gin they want, rather than twisting their production process to take advantage of a tax break.

Unlike big distillery tours where a guide leads you from building to building, a visit to Captive Spirits is essentially dropping in on artists in their workshop, where the “art” is delightful gin. It’s a particularly laid-back place, so no need to book online or show up at a particular time. If you find yourself in the Ballard neighborhood, poke your head into the office in front, or follow Rosie the dog to the garage at the very back. Odds are, you’ll find yourself chatting with Ben or Holly about gin, Big and otherwise.

Vodka Cannons, Distillery Cats and more – Visiting Seattle’s Sound Spirits Distillery

Sound Spirits, Seattle, WA
I’m always fascinated by how small distillers have wildly different still setups. Some use a single hand-built still for everything, like the infamous Lost Spirits still. Others, like Lyon Distilling, use a number of identical, manufactured stills. But Seattle’s Sounds Spirits stills are among the craziest setups I’ve seen yet. Among their hand-built stills is a “Vodka cannon”, unlike any other still I’ve ever seen. At first glance it looks like flag pole in a large plastic planter, bent in half after blowing over in a wind storm. A closer look at the top section reveals that’s it’s a finned radiator for heat dissipation – No water cooling for this still! A rotating column inside one of the sections acts like a cement mixer to keep the condensed alcohol circulating, enabling more efficient reflux and optimal ethanol purity.
Vodka cannon at Sound Spirits

Radiator fin cooling for the Vodka cannon at Sound Spirits
Hailing from Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, Sound Spirits is one of Washington State’s first craft distilleries, starting up in 2010, soon after a 2008 law was passed making it easier for smaller distillers to get started and to sell their products. Fun fact: Washington State is now home to 10% of the nation’s distilleries. Sound Spirits makes a number of well-reviewed products which fall into these product lines:
  • Ebb & Flow: Vodka and Gin
  • Sound Spirits: Old Tom Gin and Aquavit
  • Depth: Ginger, Menthe, Cacao, Vow of Silence

The original purpose of my visit was to meet and chat with Bradley Feather, creator of Bradley’s Kina Tonic, a small batch Cinchona syrup for making high-class Gin & Tonics (stay tuned for a future report on Kina Tonic). Bradley works at Sound Spirits, so it was a natural meeting place. Like many small distilleries, the Sounds Spirits’ facility is housed in roughly 3000 square feet of an industrial building along with other businesses.
Bradley Feather working at Sound Spirits
Upon arriving I met Steven Stone, Founder and Master Distiller of Sound Spirits. Steven has a day job as an aerospace engineer and was the original president of the Washington Distillers Guild. Bradley, Steven, and I had a fantastic time chatting about all sorts of spirits topics (spirit safes, anyone?) while I tasted my way through the entire Sound Spirits line. Stephen graciously agreed to show me the back room with the grain, mash tanks, stills, and all that other distillery fun stuff!
Steven Stone and Mr. CHO
Entering the main distillery area with its well-used concrete floors, I was greeted by Mr. CHO, the coal-black distillery cat. CHO is short for C2H6O, aka ethyl alcohol (clever, they are at Sound Spirits). A row of oak barrels runs along one wall. In a corner is a pallet stacked with bags of malted barley from Palouse, a farming region in eastern Washington State. Ebb & Flow vodka is 100 percent made from this barley, as is 50 percent of the Ebb & Flow gin. Mr. CHO seems to enjoy spending time around the grain bags, no surprise there.
Directly in front as you enter is a small, shiny copper still, probably two gallons max. Steven uses it for small scale dilation experiments before committing to full-on production. The eyes are then drawn to a rather odd looking vessel with curved sides and two flat, hinged lids. Formerly a dairy tank, Steven now uses it as the mash tun. Nearby are two square, lidded vessels–the fermenters.
Stripping stills at Sound Spirits
2nd pass stills at Sound Spirits
For non-vodka distillation, the distillery uses four hand built pot stills using kettles from Blichmann Engineering and condensing columns from The Amphora Society. Each sits on a gas-fired stock pot burner. The two leftmost stills are used for the first (“stripping”) distillation run. The two stills to the right are used for the second distillation pass, and slightly differ from each other: One has two condensing columns and is used for gin, while the other is used for all the other non-vodka spirits and has a single condensing column. It’s worth noting here that the Ebb & Flow gin is “pot style” gin, meaning the botanicals are introduced after the stripping run, and go into the kettle itself, rather than into a “gin basket” that the distillate vapors pass through. The end result of pot style gins is more intense flavor.
Bottling area at Sound Spirits
Tucked around in the back of the space is a general purpose area where all the bottling occurs. Given the amount the product that Sound Spirits sells, it surprised me that all the filling is done by a single, hand-fed bottling machine. Filling happens four bottles at a time, and takes about 25 seconds to complete. The middle of the room is dominated by shipping boxes holding the final product. In a corner sits a pallet of empty 750 ML bottles used for the Ebb & Flow products. The reverse printed Ebb & Flow labels are designed to be viewed through the bottle and its contents. The label and the distinctive bottle shape combine to make a product that begs to be held.
Bottling machine at Sound Spirits
Bradley, Steven, and I talked about how some distilleries open with a dream of producing whiskey, but first sell gin, vodka, and other simple spirits that can be produced quickly in order to generate a revenue stream. Sounds Spirits doesn’t seem to be in that camp. They could obviously cut corners, focus on just a few products, and favor profit at the expense of innovative spirit making. However, given the array of somewhat niche products like their Old Tom Gin, Aquavit, and the line of Depth liqueurs, I get the vibe that Steven and Sound Spirits care more about making interesting, high quality offerings rather than just another “me too” lineup.
The ever vigilant Mr. CHO
The Sound Spirits tasting room is open seven days a week. There are no set tour times, there are no tours or tastings till after 4:30 PM on some days. However, it’s a laid back affair: Show up, taste some samples, and odds are you’ll be able to take a spin though the distillation area. Currently the Sound Spirits lineup can be purchased in retail stores all over Washington State. They also have distributors in Illinois and Minnesota, and at least one online store carries some of their products.

A bit of gin history with Tanqueray’s Old Tom gin

Gin is one of those spirits like tequila that invokes strong feelings. When people say they “don’t like gin,” I suspect many just haven’t met the right gin yet. Most people’s experience and perception of gin is based on the London Dry style – Gordon’s, Seagrams, Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, etc… – all London Dry gins with a strong juniper component. The “dry” in the name indicates that little or no sweetening is added. However, London Dry wasn’t always the big dog of gin. In this post I’ll look at Tanqueray Old Tom gin, a new release based on a recipe from 1835, giving us the chance to create pre-prohibition era cocktails closer (in theory) to what they tasted like originally.

Most gin origin stories start with genever, aka jenever, aka “Holland gin.” Genever has a sweet, funky, somewhat malty flavor in addition to the juniper note. (Juniper was originally added as a flavoring to mask the bad flavor results of primitive distilling techniques.) Genever is still made today in the Netherlands, and Mrs. Wonk brought me back several bottles from her recent trip there.  Most genevers come in cylindrical brown clay bottles—easily recognizable on a back bar or in a retail store. In his book Imbibe, David Wondrich points out that genever was likely what was meant by “gin” in the first wave of cocktails that came about in the mid-1800s.

While the Dutch were making genever, UK distillers were making what later became known as “Old Tom” gin. Like genever, it’s juniper flavored and sweet, but nowhere near as malty. The Old Tom name allegedly comes from a picture of black cat — “Tom” –that hung outside a London bar. Imbibers would push coins through a slot in the wall and receive a shot of the gin in return through a pipe connecting the bartender to patrons outside.

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Around 1900, London Dry-style gins began to dominate the gin world. More recently, “New American” or “New Western” style gins have come to the foreground, partially because hundreds of new distilleries have opened in the US in recent years, and gin is a relatively quick and simple spirit to make, leading to sales sooner rather than following the many years of barrel aging often required for other spirits. Looking to distinguish themselves, the wave of small gin distilleries emphasize their own unique flavor profiles, often leaving the juniper in the background. With all the established London Dry gins and all sorts of New Western style gins vying for attention, Old Tom gins weren’t getting much love, at least not here in the United States.

Things took a turn in 2007, when in collaboration with David Wondrich, Hayman’s introduced an Old Tom gin. Since then, a few more Old Toms have popped up – others I’ve had first-hand experience with include Ransom, Sound Spirits, and Jensen. With the recent release of the Tanquery’s Old Tom gin it’s interesting to see a much bigger player enter the market. Let’s see how Tanqueray Old Tom fares.

Coming in at 94.6 proof, the Tanqueray Old Tom is delightfully smooth. It starts out with lime and juniper and ends with a bit of pepper. Compared to the Hayman’s Old Tom that I tasted it side-by-side with, the Tanqueray had more aromatic definition. I could easily sip the Tanqueray with just a big ice cube in a glass. I used it in two classic cocktails known for specifying Old Tom style gin, and both were very enjoyable, not only to myself but Mrs. Wonk (an Old Tom fangirl from her first discovery) and a friend who seeks out good gins.

First up is the Martinez, considered a precursor to the Martini and with strong similarities to a Manhattan. As usual, recipes for the Martinez are all over the map, ratio wise, so I experimented to come up with proportions that provide balance while keeping most of the gin flavors readily discernible:

Martinez

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  • 2 oz Tanqueray Old Tom Gin
  • 1.25 oz Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
  • 0.125 oz maraschino liqueur (e.g. Luxardo)
  • 4 dashes orange bitters (I used Bittercube)

Stir with ice, serve in chilled coupe.

The second recipe is the Casino Cocktail, a very gin-forward drink that despite its miniscule amount of lemon and maraschino, is extremely nice and not gin overkill. The gin sweetness is just enough to balance out the tart lemon, giving the classic sweet/sour combination that doesn’t dominate the base spirit like in so many other cocktails.

Casino Cocktail

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  • 2 oz Tanqueray Old Tom Gin
  • 0.125 oz lemon juice
  • 0.125 oz maraschino liqueur (e.g. Luxardo)
  • 4 dashes orange bitters (I used Bittercube)Shake with ice, strain into chilled coupe.

Tanqueray says their Old Tom is a limited edition, but at 100,000 bottles, I’m not worried it will become scarce anytime soon. The one liter bottle is a nice surprise – Other mainline Tanqueray products come in either 750ml or 1.75L here in the US, and I much prefer the one liter format for its optimal use of shelf space. The bottle is the traditional Tanqueray shape, patterned after a cocktail shaker. Where the normal green Tanqueray bottle has a red insignia seal near the top, the Old Tom’s seal is blue, a small detail, but appreciated.

Below the main front label is a smaller label containing the unique bottle number. Immediately before the number on my bottle was “CC,” which I initially dismissed as some part of a product code. However, while looking online I noticed other bottles had different letters. It turns out they’re the initials of ten cocktails that Tanqueray suggests using the Old Tom gin in. On my bottle, the “CC” is “Casino Cocktail,” while others have initials like “TC” (Tom Collins) and “GD” (Gin Daisy). A bit gimmicky, but fun nonetheless.

Pricewise, the Tanqueray Old Tom goes for between $31 and $35 at my usual U.S. sources. That may seem a little expensive, but that’s for a liter, not the usual 750ml bottle size. It works out to an equivalent of $24 for 750ml, about $4 more than your basic Tanqueray London Dry, but at the bottom end of the price scale compared to other available Old Toms for the same quantity. For a gin I enjoy this much, that’s a bargain.

Disclosure: I was provided a sample bottle for review purposes, but all opinions are strictly my own.

 

Of Sharks, Monkeys, and Barrels – A Visit to St. George Spirits Distillery

Hybrid pot & column still, St. George Spirits
Distillery visits are the Cocktail Wonk’s E-ticket ride. During my recent California visit it was a foregone conclusion that I’d visit the Lost Spirits distillery. However, on our last day, circumstances also allowed a stop at St. George Spirits and a quick visit to Forbidden Island.  Without knowing the St. George Spirits background, you might be tempted to assume they’re just another of the small craft distilleries that have popped up in the past ten years.  The reality is that St. George Spirits has been going for over thirty years and played a crucial role in bringing the craft distillery movement to life. Along the way they’ve gained a reputation for their gins, fruit brandies, absinthe and agricole-style rum. Keep reading for what I learned and saw on the tour.

St. George Spirits
Although St. George Spirits started off small, these days they’re based in a 65,000 sq. ft. hangar at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. Driving to the distillery on a Sunday afternoon, we experienced an eerie feeling driving through a pancake-flat military facility, with streets named after aircraft carriers, yet with no people or cars to be found. It was only in the St. George parking lot, adjacent to the Hangar One Vodka distillery in its own building, that we saw other people–evidence that we weren’t in a military ghost town. From the parking lot you can see ships being loaded in the working harbor, and across the bay, the San Francisco skyline:
View from St. George Spirits parking lot. San Francisco in distance.
Once inside the hangar doors, you’ll see that the tours and tastings are a highly organized endeavor. It’s highly suggested to book your tour online in advance: $15 for “Basic Training,” i.e. tasting, or $20 for “Advanced Training,” comprised of a roughly forty-minute tour, then tasting. Within the entry room, along with the reception desk and store, are two long tasting bars, akin to what you’d find at a large winery. They can serve up to about fifty people, broken up into groups of between four and eight. We opted for the “Advanced Training,” and it wasn’t long before our name was called to join a group of about twenty people.
Stills at St. George Spirits
Stills at St. George Spirits
Upon exiting the entry room we found ourselves in a completely open, high ceiling hangar with all the obvious fixtures you’d expect in a distillery – pot stills, bottling equipment, life-sized animatronic shark, aging barrels … wait, shark? The guide explained that another hangar on the decommissioned base had housed a movie prop house. The prop company had moved elsewhere, but somehow didn’t have room for the shark. The St. George folks struck a deal for storage that eventually ended up with them taking possession of it. Giant meat-eating sea creature notwithstanding, everything about the distillery looks highly organized, polished and photogenic. Lots of gleaming copper and chrome, with nothing obviously out of place.
Shark prop at St. George Spirits
This will soon be crushing pears!
The tour consists of multiple stops, each in front of a particularly photogenic location. At each stop, the guide gives a lively overview of one of the distillery’s products, deftly weaving elements of the current stop into the story about the particular product. The trek starts with the pot and columns stills, all elevated on a platform about three feet above the main floor. This stop focused on the pear brandy, and the guide spun a tale around the many tons of pears soon to be arriving at the very spot we were standing–including how each bottle of pear brandy starts with thirty pounds of fruit.
Holding tanks and bottling line, St. George Spirits
The tour then moves to the proofing area (where the highly distilled spirits, typically above 90 percent alcohol by volume, are diluted to a more drinkable mix), the bottling line, aging barrels, Mako shark, the botanical basket held high above the stills for gin, and an interactive display of various absinthe ingredients, to smell and experience. The walking is minimal — we covered no more than ten percent of the hangar–yet we saw all the critical elements of a working distillery you’d expect to see.
Aging barrels at St. George Spirits
Our guide showing spirits clouding
because of added water
Our guide was very upbeat and informal. Since most people on these sorts of tour are unfamiliar with the spirt-making process, the guide expectedly covered a lot of very basic material about spirits and distillation, intermixed with stories and anecdotes. There were also demonstrations, including adding water to a flask of distillate, demonstrating that it draws out certain oils that turn the distillate cloudy. I found myself wandering off to poke around corners and through the barrels to get more photos, but the stories, including one about the monkey on the Absinthe Verte label pulled me back in. To her credit I didn’t notice her say anything incorrect, a feat made even harder by all the material she covered. Kudos for that!
Gin botanical basket, at top. St. George Spirits
Absinthe ingredients, St. George Spirits
Back in the tasting room after the hangar tour, we broke into small groups of four to six, each being assigned a particular tasting station staffed by a person pouring samples. We tasted a total of six spirits over the course of about thirty minutes. Each spirit was properly introduced, along with a refresher on some the backstory we had heard on the tour. The tasting progresses from the more subtle, sweet spirits toward the more powerful spirits, chosen in this order to preserve your palate. Starting with the pear brandy, we then tasted the rye gin, followed by the NOLA Coffee liqueur). At this point there’s a spot where select one of four possibilities. I selected the Agricole-style Rum to absolutely no-ones surprise. Mrs. Wonk selected the Terroir gin, inspired by the flora that grows on and around Mt. Tam, in Marin County.  Last up was the Absinthe Verte, diluted as you’d expect.
Tasting room, St. George Spirits
The highlights for Mrs. Wonk were the two gins, while the pear brandy and agricole style rum were my favorites. I’m saving a proper write-up of the agricole for a later time, but the short version is that it has a strong funk, in the best way possible. During the tasting, I chatted with the server and mentioned that rum is a personal passion. He shared with me that while the current agricole-style rum isn’t aged, they have been aging some for eventual release. I’m very interested to see how long they choose to age it and if they go at least three years, the minimum for a Martinique AOC agricole rum to be labeled rhum vieux or “old rhum.”
Barrel, St. George Spirits
After the tasting, you can purchase bottles of St. George spirits, although I didn’t see anything you couldn’t find elsewhere (and for a few dollars less). An adjacent counter sells T-shirts, tasting glasses, books, and so on. I grabbed a pair of the somewhat unusual looking tasting glasses, just like the ones we enjoyed using for the tasting.  (Mrs. Wonk noted that the glasses were wrapped for travel in silver ballpark-style hotdog wrappers—a whimsical touch.)
The St. George Spirits distillery is solidly in the middle ground, size-wise, of the distilleries I’ve visited: Enormous in comparison to the hand-built Lost Spirits, but tiny next to giant behemoths like Auchentoshan, near Glasgow, Scotland. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to have one-on-one interaction with the distillers at St. George Spirits like I’ve had elsewhere, I came away very happy with my visit. While you may not see any mash fermenting, barrels being filled, or bottling lines running, if you have any more than a passing interesting in spirits, the up-close view of the equipment, good story about the products, and a generous tasting of their products make this a worthwhile visit.

My, isn’t that a pretty cocktail pattern!

Negroni Variations at Canon

In cooking and baking there are all sorts of pattern for food categories. For instance, most bread recipes share the basic idea of flour, yeast, liquid, and eggs. Within that pattern there is an infinite variety of ways to modify, highlight and improvise: different types and amounts of flour, yeasts, sugars, salts all let you tailor what the bread will be. The same holds true for the category of sauces – Some sort of base, e.g. tomatoes, oil, and herbs/spices. There was a recent influential book, Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman that covers this idea in great detail.
Continue reading “My, isn’t that a pretty cocktail pattern!”

A Basic Spirits Taxonomy

Walk into any halfway-decent bar and glance at the back wall – Chances are there will be more bottles with names you don’t recognize than those you do. Recently I was in Seattle’s Vessel and did a thorough run-through of the cocktail menu – For every scotch or rum listed in a recipe, there was a Salers or pampelmousse that I needed to look up on my phone. For me that’s the fun part of going to a bar- Coming across something new with a good excuse to learn it. However, many people get uneasy and scurry back to the comfort of what they know – “Uhm… Gin and Tonic please?” Seeing as you’re reading this blog, I know you’re not one of those people.

As I’ve learned about spirits and cocktails, I’ve built a basic framework that helps me understand what I’m looking at and gives me a place to place new liqueurs I come across. It turns out Salers is an “amaro”, a class of liqueurs with common characteristics (lots of herbal notes) from the Mediterranean. And pampelmousse is a grapefruit infused liqueur in the same broad category as Grand Marnier, which itself is one of the great “sweeteners” of the cocktail world.

To help you start your own mental framework, let’s start with the basics of how raw organic materials are turned into consumable alcohol. In nearly all cases, yeast and frequently water is added to some plant matter such as wheat, rye, grapes, potatoes, or sugar cane juice. The yeast converts some of the natural sugars in the organic material into alcohol. If you did this with grapes, you’d have wine. If you did it with barley, you’d have beer. Easy, right?

What differentiate “spirits” from beer and wine is the next step – Distillation. I’ll talk about distillation in detail in a subsequent post, but for now it’s enough to know that distillation uses heat to separate and concentrate the various organic compounds in the fermented slurry. For example, if you made beer, it would have roughly 5% alcohol. However, if you took the beer and boiled it, carefully collecting certain parts of the vapor, you’d end up with the starting point for whiskey, including a much higher alcohol content.  

With the science out of the way (whew!), let’s see some specifics. Nearly all alcoholic ingredients used in cocktails fall into one of these categories:

  • Plants which are fermented then distilled. No other flavoring added other than though aging in wood barrels. Not all spirits are aged however.
  • Starting from previously distilled liquor (above), additional flavors are introduced by soaking materials such as fruits or herbs in the distilled spirits.
  • Wines infused with herbal essences.

Into the first category falls spirits including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Bourbon

  • Scotch

  • Whiskey

  • Rum

  • Vodka

  • Tequila

  • Brandy/Cognac

Some folks refer to these as “base” spirits, a useful term I’ll use later in this blog.
Into the second category are infusion-based spirits such as:

  • Gin
  • Campari
  • Grand Marnier
  • Amaros such as Fernet Branca
  • Pick your flavored schnapps variation  – Peach anybody?
  • Lemoncello
Often times you’ll hear these referred to as “liqueur”

The crucial element of an infusion based spirit is that the flavor comes from adding flavorful organic materials such as oranges, herbs, flowers, etc… and letting the alcohol pull the flavor out over time. It turns out that alcohol, being a natural solvent, does an excellent job of extracting flavors from things.

The third category above is commonly known as vermouth, although the broader category would be called “aromatized wine”. Briefly, vermouths is wine in which barks, spices and other tasty things are soaked. Additionally, a bit of distillate, typically brandy, is added. While this blog doesn’t aim to cover wines, the importance of vermouth in cocktails warrants an exception to the focus on distilled spirits in this blog.
Of course, there are spirits that don’t fall neatly into the above categories, but it’s easier to remember them as exceptions to the above. The most clear (and unfortunate) example is the trendy but oh-so-wrong category of flavored vodkas. Whipped-Cream Vodka and Donut vodka are but two of the more execrable examples:

Flavored vodkas, rums, and such frequently get their additional flavor by adding chemical flavor compounds into an existing distilled spirit.  It just seems like cheating – If you want the flavor of grapefruit in your drink, use grapefruit juice, not grapefruit vodka. We shall speak no more of these things.

A Spirits Taxonomy

As I’ve learned about spirits I’ve developed a notational system to distill the essential elements down to consistent, categorical descriptions, free of grandiose marketing stories of monks with flower baskets or ancient recipes with 200 different herbs. The taxonomy uses the key questions that could be answered for any sprit and helps make it very clear how one spirit differs from another. Here’s the basic set of questions I use:

  • What organic material is fermented and then distilled?

  • Is the resulting distillate then aged?

  • Is the distillate infused with some other flavor? If so, what?

  • Is it sweetened?

  • Is there a specific region this spirit comes from?

Before jumping into some examples, a disclaimer: In these categorizations below I’ve made very large generalizations about each type of spirit – There often are legal definitions and they often differ from country to country.  And there are countless exceptions to any attempt to categorize. Instead of trying to be a Wikipedia entry for each type of spirit, I’m aiming at the generally accepted sweet spot of the category for the purpose of introducing the concepts to people who just want to learn.

Scotch
Base organic material: Barley
Aged: Yes – Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Scotland
Bourbon
Base organic material: At least 51% corn, with other grains making the rest
Aged: Yes – Charred Oak barrels
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: United States
There are certain similarities between Scotch and Bourbon – The starting materials are different, and the types of barrels have differences, but they’re similar enough to be categorized under a broader category: Whiskey, which I’ll talk much about in later posts. This is just an intro. Let’s continue:

Rum
Base organic material: Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.


Rhum Agricole

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Yes
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cachaca

Base organic material: Sugar cane juice
Aged: Optional
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No, although predominantly made in Brazil.

It’s easy enough to see that Rum and Rhum Agricole are very similar – It’s really whether the sugar cane juice was processed into molasses before fermentation. And Rhum Agricole and Aged Cachaca are very similar – It’s really just where they were made.

Brandy
Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Cognac

Base organic material: Grapes
Aged: Typically
Infused: No
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: Cognac region of France

It’s easy now to see that Cognac is a subset of brandy – All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. And referring back to the earlier examples, it’s clear that the primary difference between Scotch, Rum, and Brandy is what the starting organic material is. The rest of the production process is very similar.

And two more, just for fun:
Gin:

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes- Juniper and other botanicals
Sweetened: No
Specific Region: No.

Limoncello

Base organic material: Neutral grain Spirit
Aged: Typically not
Infused: Yes – Lemon peels
Sweetened: Yes
Specific Region: No.

Gin and Limoncello couldn’t be further apart to the average drinker. However, initially they start out very similarly. The term “neutral spirit” or “neutral grain spirit” needs some explanation first. The “neutral” part of the name essentially means that during the distillation process, it is distilled to as high a proof as possible. At that level, there should be very little difference between spirits that started out as grapes versus one that started out as wheat. However, for it to be a neutral grain spirit, it had to have started out as a grain – wheat, rye, etc…
So, with a starting point of some very high proof alcohol, you then have a choice of what to put in it. If you add juniper berries and other things (flowers, cucumbers, etc…), you’ll get gin. But if instead you added lemon peels, sugar and water, the end result of limoncello. Obviously in both case the infusions steep for a bit and are then extensively filtered.
The possibility for more examples is endless here but I’ll save them for more targeted columns where I discuss a particular spirit category in more detail. The important thing here is that we’ve established a common lingo for describing spirits in a simple manner.