It’s a Gas! Preserving Your Expensive Spirits Collection

We all know that the finer things in life require a bit of care and upkeep from time to time. Got a nice car? You’re probably keeping it under cover, having it waxed, and changing the oil regularly. Love rare vinyl? You’re probably keeping those records carefully sleeved and in a spot that that’s not too warm or too chilly. Even something as basic as your iPhone gets protected by a case and screen film. In each of these scenarios, exposure to the elements has a negative effect over time.

If your experience with spirits is just buying a few bottles for mixing in cocktails, and regularly replacing a bottle when you’ve emptied it, this article might have little to offer. However, if you’re wonky enough about spirits to have a nice collection of whisk(e)y, rum, or mezcal that’s growing faster than you can reasonably (or healthfully) consume it, read on!

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Checking out Mavenhal’s Bar Back bag

One result of my Instagram photos featuring my latest cocktail shenanigans is that when Mrs. Wonk and I are invited to social gatherings, I often get tasked with bringing cocktails, rather than the traditional, say, bottle of wine or dessert. And I’m certainly not one to slack off with something simple like a Dark & Stormy – the Cocktail Wonk must represent! Sometimes a punch I’ve make in advance is the ticket. But I also enjoy rising to the challenge and making the same cocktails I’d make at home, but on the road. A batch of 1944 Mai Tais for eight? No problem!

As you might imagine, bartending away from your home set-up requires a bit of pre-planning and toting lots of equipment with me. For the aforementioned Mai Tais, for example, I’d need the following:

  • Two bottles of rum
  • Bottle of dry curacao
  • Bottle of orgeat
  • Bottle of simple syrup
  • Shaker
  • Limes
  • Knife to cut the limes
  • Handheld lime squeezer
  • Lewis bag and mallet for crushed ice
  • Straws

And depending on the location, perhaps even bags of ice from ice maker or cocktail glasses. That’s a lot of equipment to bring! Suddenly a pie seems a lot easier.

My trusty workhorse for hauling bottles and tools around has been the crafty use of a soft-sided picnic cooler with a shoulder strap. With strategic packing I can wedge in the bottles so that they don’t jostle around too much, but for taller bottles this means laying them on their side, leading to potential spillage. My shaker doubles as a hard-sided container for smaller items like straws, knives, bitters bottles, etc. By the time it’s fully loaded, the cooler is heavy and uncomfortable to lug around by the shoulder strap. I often thought there had to be a better way to do this, but my trusty cooler was free so I didn’t pay much attention to improving my situation.

A little over a year ago I saw a Kickstarter effort for a new a new bartender’s bag from Seattle-based Mavenhal (they launched under the name Barkeeper & Co.).  Their waxed canvas bags in the form factor of a duffle bag are designed for bartenders by a professional bartender. Looking at the photos online, I was impressed by the features and attention to detail. All that said, the Kickstarter was a bit more money than I wanted to drop at that particular time. If I worked as a bartender or brand ambassador, I wouldn’t have blinked, however– a well-designed, task-specific bag that you use every day is worth its weight in gold. The Kickstarter was successful, and soon I saw customized Mavenhal bags pop up in the social media feeds of various bar industry luminaries.

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Checking out the Barbarian Bar Tool

A while ago on Instagram I noticed a rather aggressive looking multi-function bar tool from @barbarianbartools in my feed. Essentially a hand citrus press with a number of additional useful bartending tools such as knives and zesters attached to it. With its matte black finish and multi-winged prow giving it a mace-like appearance, it certainly looks imposing, even more so when all the tools are extended. (Not that you’d use it that way, of course.) The other thing I noticed from the photos was the background scenes, which I recognized as Seattle and nearby environs.
Eventually JC Davis, the man behind Barbarian Bar Tools and I met up in person. JC is definitely a builder-type, always tinkering with things and looking for ways to improve them. Although not a bartender, JC became fascinated with the concept of a multi-functional bar tool several years ago and has spent a ton of time evolving a design and soliciting feedback along the way.
As an advanced home bartender, I’m always interested to see innovative new tools. Barbarian actually has two tools. The “Simple tool” is a thin, rectangular blade style tool with zesters and bottle openers, while the “Barbarian” is the much larger citrus-press tool. JC was kind enough to lend me his near final prototypes of the Barbarian for me to evaluate and provide feedback on.
The Barbarian has these tools:
  • Citrus press
  • Jigger (measuring cup)
  • Corkscrew & lever
  • Bottle opener
  • Zester (small and large)
  • Channel knife
  • Bottle opener
  • Can lance
  • Knives (2)

The knives and can opener tuck neatly into the upper handle, much like the blades in a pocket knife. With one exception, it’s obvious what each tool is and how to use it. The jigger function isn’t obvious at first. The bowl on the upper handle has several rings indicating fill levels of 0.75, 1, and 1.5 ounces. Notched depression on the side of the bowl aid in pouring the contents out.
As a citrus press the Barbarian is about as ergonomic to use as other hand citrus, and it feels sturdy under load. Using the other tools is a bit more unwieldy as you’re moving around a lot more mass than with a dedicated tool such as a knife or zester. As a home bartender with a full set of tools already, the Barbarian won’t replace any of my dedicated tools while I’m at home.
Where the Barbarian can shine is on the road, away from a dedicated bar environment. Think camping, picnics, boating, summer cabin and so on. I’m frequently asked to bring classy drinks to small gatherings. Rather than just pouring Rum and Cokes, I assemble a small, portable bartender’s bag that includes spirits, citrus, glassware and tools. Being able to grab the Barbarian is a great advantage here, especially since it’s easy to forget something like a zester in the rush to prepare.
Some feedback that I gave to JC is that a way to lock the Barbarian in the closed position would be nice. Also, the knives in my prototype weren’t particularly sharp, however JC tells me that this is improved in the final versions.
JC has a U.S. patent for the Barbarian and has recently started a Kickstarter campaign. The Simple tool cost $15 for early birds, and should be available in March, while the Barbarian goes for $45 for early birds and should be available in April.

In Today’s Bad Idea file: Whiskey Elements – Better whiskey in 24 hours via wooden combs

So this popped up on my radar today. “Whiskey Elements” is a Kickstarter project claiming to be a radical new product that “filters” your whiskey in 24 hours, making your cheap bottle of whiskey as good as a $100 bottle. The product pitch includes a hand-drawn whiteboard video, teaching you how whiskey is made, why your inexpensive whiskey gives you hangovers, and how Whiskey Elements fixes it, all while folksy music plays behind the narrator.
What Whiskey Elements appears to be is strips of wood, cut with a series of notches, then charred. Different strips impart different flavors, e.g. smokey, vanilla, maple, peaty, allowing you to add “..your own personality to the whiskey.” Drop one or more strips in your inexpensive bottle of whiskey, wait 24 hours (ok, you’re advised to agitate occasionally) and voila – a much better tasting whiskey, free of all those nasty hangover inducing chemicals like you find in rat crap. 
Or so the claim goes… Here’s the problem: Barrel aging isn’t about filtering – the bad stuff you shouldn’t consume needs to come out during distillation. Beyond that, liquor is aged in wood for two primary reasons:
  • Converting shorter chained fruity esters into longer chained esters with notes like honey and spice.
  • Extracting flavor and color from the wood

I covered the first point in some detail in an earlier post about Lost Spirits and the science behind their rums.

The practice of accelerating aging via the addition of charred wood chips and barrel staves is a frequently used and occasionally controversial technique used by many distillers in many types of spirits. There’s even a US patent for “Accelerated Aging of Wines and Spirits” via “…finely pulverized wood of less than 1 mm size and in such quantity to achieve equivalent aging in one-tenth to one-hundredth of the time required for traditional barrel aging….” In other words, there’s tons of prior art here. And if it’s really this easy, wouldn’t the distillers of “well whiskey,”  as it’s called in the video, simply take an extra 24 hours to do this themselves?
This isn’t to say that Whiskey Elements won’t affect the taste of your whiskey, Scotch or Bourbon. I guarantee you, if you dunk some charred wood in whiskey, the solvent properties of the alcohol will pick up some amount of wood flavor. But 24 hours isn’t much time to do so. More importantly, in 24 hours you’ll get barely any short to long chain ester conversion. Long chain esters are a big part of what makes your high end whiskey (or rum, or brandy, or….) taste great. And that takes time.
Whiskey Elements isn’t a radically new idea, and it won’t give you anywhere near the effects of actual barrel aging that they claim. The only real innovation here (I use that term loosely,) is notching the wood stick to increase the surface area. The science they espouse sounds awesome, but I suspect you’ll be radically underwhelmed by the results.

Update (2/18/2015): Here’s one expert’s take on Whiskey Elements. 

Power Tools for the Home Bar Wonk

I’ve realized recently that within the mixology world there are two tribes: The professionals who work at a bar and passionate amateurs, the “home bartenders”. Most experience with spirits and technique are shared by both tribes. I’m firmly on the home bartender side but I can converse with expert bartenders about many topics. When it comes to creating drinks at scale however, thinks are very different. A professional bartender needs to quickly make many drinks quickly, so the bar is set up for that. Ice is an arm’s length away, ingredients such as fresh lime juice are prepped beforehand and in easy-pour bottles, and dedicated rinsing devices speed up the turnaround time on each cocktail.

When I watch my professional friends behind the bar I wish I had those sort of conveniences. However, without dedicating a fairly large amount of space and money, I know it’s not feasible in my home bar. The space I have is roughly six feet by five feet, but I’ve packed in a few essential “power tools” which raise my cocktail making ability several notches above the guy with an ice cube tray, a lime and a couple of tumblers. Here are my essential power tools:

Ice Crusher

Many types of drinks, especially Tiki work best with fresh ice. The ice melts faster and provides more dilution in stronger drinks. Plus crushed ice just looks cool and inviting. Who doesn’t love cocktails where the crushed ice tempts you as it rises just a bit above the top of the glass? If you really crave the old-school ways you could use a Lewis Bag and a mallet, which is fun exactly once. We recently spent a week at a cottage in Hawaii, and while I was able to procure the basic Tiki recipe essentials, my crushed ice came from a kitchen towel that I beat senseless with a wooden spoon. I longed for my ice crusher all week.

There are a number of inexpensive home ice crusher options including hand cranked versions. I recommend spending just a tiny bit more (about $80) to get the Waring Pro Ice Crusher. It’s somewhat large but because it’s tall and relatively narrow it doesn’t take up a big footprint on your bar counter. I can make enough ice for four Tiki drinks in about a minute. The hopper design is great because I can fill it with several scoops of ice and let it grind away while I do other things. The opening at the bottom of the shoot where ice funnels through is a little narrow so sometimes it stops up, but a quick poke with my scoop handle gets things moving again. Bonus points because guests love to feed the ice crusher so I don’t have to monitor it.

Citrus Juicer
If I’m just making cocktails for Mrs. Cocktail Wonk and myself I’ll just use a hand press for my lemons/limes/grapefruit. On occasion I’ve deputized guests as “bar-back” to squeeze citrus but that trick only works a few times. If I know I’ll be needing more than four or five limes pressed over the course of an evening, or if I’m making punch or cocktail batches, I go to my motorized juicer.

There’s a huge number of juicer choices, some as little as $20. However for $40 the Epica Citrus juicer gets good reviews and has a 70 watt motor, substantially more than most of cheaper models. It also has two separate reamers – A smaller one for limes, and a larger one for lemons and grapefruits. Once cut in half, I can squeeze both side of a lime in 15 seconds or less. While there’s a coarse strainer in the juicer to keep out seeds and larger pulp, I still run the final batch of juice through a fine strainer. Cleanup is fairly easy with the Epica as everything but the base pops off to be hand washed or run though the dishwasher.

Numerous cocktail recipes call for egg white, which adds a nice texture to the drink and often creates a fun foamy effect, such as obtained when pouring soda water into a Ramos Gin Fizz. The challenge of using egg whites effectively is that it requires intense shaking for a minute or more. Enter the battery powered frother – Throw your egg whites in the mixing tin and go to it with the frother. Given enough time you can practically make a meringue out of the whites, although not generally advised.

Important note – Get the right frother. I have the BonJour Battery-Powered Cafe Latte Frother. I first came across the BonJour at Knee High Stocking Company in Seattle where they use it numerou times per night to make their Cup of Awesome, a personal favorite which I’ve written about previously. This isn’t one of those $5 with the tiny spiral whisk. No, the BonJour has a solid milkshake maker blade and powered is powered by four AA batteries. There are smaller versions but they’ll only bring sadness. At $15-$20 the BonJour is a steal. You need as much power as possible to keep a high speed while working through thick egg whites.

Label Maker

OK, a label maker is a stretch to call a power tool, but it is battery powered and has a small motor. If you’ve read this far, you’re likely serious about making cocktails at home and that often means making your own ingredients like shrubs, infusions, falernum, and so forth. I use mason jars to hold my homemade ingredients and after a while it can get hard to keep them straight, so I whip out a quick label for them. Sure, I could use masking tape and hand write a label, but the label maker is quick and it just looks much more professional, especially if you keep your jars where guests can see them. I have the Brother PT-D200, about $25 at Amazon. It runs off 6 AAA batteries so it’s portable.