Checking out Afrohead’s Seven Year Rum

Mrs. Wonk and I spend more than our fair share of time in bars, where one of our pastimes is scanning the backbar and picking out most interesting and worst looking bottle, based solely on appearance. The Afrohead rum is one such bottle that grabs your attention. A recent arrival on US shores, the Afrohead rum line is produced by the Harbor Island Rum Co., out of the Bahamas. There are two bottlings, a seven year as well as a fifteen year “Grand Reserve” edition. The Afrohead rum line first came to my attention when I was provided a bottle of the seven year for review by their PR firm. The Afrohead rums are truly a multi-island affair: In addition to being based in the Bahamas, it incorporates molasses from the Dominican Republic, is distilled in Trinidad, and bottled in Barbados.

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Cocktail Obsession: Remember the Maine

Mrs. Wonk and I have a friend who’s a cook and foodie, and every month or so he spends an evening at Casa Cocktail Wonk. The three of us work collectively on a themed dinner, including several appropriately paired cocktails during preparation. Last time the flavor theme was cherry, so my natural first line of thought was Cherry Heering, the delicious, sweet liqueur from Denmark. Now, our friend isn’t a big fan of sweet drinks, so the obvious Tiki choices were out, and I’d already made a Punchy’s First Strike during a prior visit. The classic Blood and Sand (with corrected ratios) was already on the docket, but I needed another cocktail that made good use of the Cherry Heering. Thanks to Imbibe Magazine’s ever-helpful site, I quickly zeroed in on the Remember the Maine – a drink I’d heard of but had somehow never made.
The Remember the Maine is an interesting twist on the Manhattan. The classic Manhattan, you may recall, is rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The Remember the Maine drops the vermouth ratio down a tad but makes up for it with Cherry Heering, while the kick of the bitters is replaced by the exotic herbal-ness of absinthe. The typical recipe given for it is this:
  • 2 oz rye
  • 0.75 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 teaspoons (1/3 oz) Cherry Heering
  • 0.5 teaspoons (1/12 oz) Absinthe (*)
Stir ingredients over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with a brandied cherry (preferably not cheap nuclear red cherries).
(*) There is disagreement whether to rinse the glass with absinthe, or include it as an ingredient with the others. I advocate rinsing–a little goes a long way in this drink.
The Remember the Maine’s origins harken back to the classic 1939 book The Gentleman’s Companion, by Charles H. Baker. The drink’s name refers to a phrase that became popular in the US during the lead-up to the Spanish-American war of 1898: “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”  The backstory: The USS Maine, an American warship, sank mysteriously in Havana’s harbor, and rumor had it that Spain was responsible.
Much as I enjoy the classic Remember the Maine recipe, it also has solid bones for improvising. While the spicy rye provides a good base, I wanted to also incorporate some rich, full-bodied rum into the mix without giving up the rye completely. As well, my particular affinity for the flavor of Cherry Heering inclined me to bump its proportion but not make the drink substantially sweeter in the process. Dropping down the vermouth portion took care of that. My current recipe:
  • 1 oz rye
  • 1 oz aged, dry rum (*)
  • 0.5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 0.5 oz Cherry Heering
  • 1 dash absinthe, for rinse
Rinse chilled coupe with absinthe, discard excess. Stir remaining ingredients over ice, strain into coupe. Garnish with brandied cherry.
(*) Here, I mean a 5+ year rum, dry on the palate, with little or no added sugar. Barbados rums are a good example, and a dry Cuban style like Brugal could also work. I used El Dorado 5.
Of course, there are endless other variations on this theme. Swap out the rye or rum (or both) with tequila, for instance. And please share in the comments if you have your own interesting spin on this classic cocktail.

Lost Spirits Distillery’s Aging Reactor Could Transform the Craft Spirits Industry

At the American Distilling Institute conference today (4/1/15), Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery is announcing they will be making their unique, patented, hyper-speed aging process available to other spirit makers – providing the equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in a week. No, this isn’t barrel aging with microscopic barrels, and in fact there are no barrels used. The implications of this are profound for the spirits industry. It may sound like an alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold, but Bryan has the science to back up the claim. A companion post to this story goes into the science of spirit flavors and how Lost Spirits backs up their claims, but for this post, it’s sufficient to know that barrel aging is about transforming organic compounds into more pleasant tasting organic compounds

Before jumping into exactly what Lost Spirits is planning, let’s first review what traditional barrel aging is about. Unlike what many people think, the goal of barrel aging isn’t just to impart a woody flavor to spirits. Instead, the wood both contributes organic compounds to the aging spirit and transforms already existing organic compounds into other organic compounds. Typically referred to as esters and aldehydes, these are what give distilled spirits their taste. (For instance, the ethyl butryate ester has the taste of pineapple, while phenethyl acetate has the taste of honey. When spirits emerge from the still, they’re a soup of mostly organic acids and a few esters, which the barrel aging transforms into other (hopefully flavorful) esters, and a lot more of them.

In an earlier post on this blog, I referenced a white paper on the Lost Spirits website showing gas chromatography charts for a 33-year aged demerara rum. In the simplest terms, the location of spikes on the chart’s X-axis shows the presence of specific flavor compounds, and the height of the spike indicates how much of that compound is present. The presence or absence of spikes, along with their relative heights, provides a “fingerprint” for the spirit. Spirits with similar gas chromatography fingerprints will taste very similar, because essentially they are made of the same stuff.

While the aforementioned paper is interesting in a wonky sort of way, it also set the stage for Bryan to demonstrate the effectiveness of his aging process. (We’ll get to the details of that shortly.) Bryan set out to replicate the signature of this 33-year aged demerara rum using his own distillate and a week-long aging process.The gas chromatograph for the Colonial Inspired Rum (below) shows a similar signature to the 33-year demerara, however its peaks are not as high. That is, the same esters are present, and at the same ratios, although in lower concentrations. Bryan says the Colonial Inspired rum contains about 60 percent of the peak ester and aldehyde levels of the 33-year demerara, corresponding to 20 or so years of aging, assuming the barrel’s ester transformation rate is linear. Put another way, if the 33-year rum had instead been pulled from the barrel after 20 years, it should have a similar profile to .  In short, Lost Spirits has turned twenty years of waiting into seven days.

Gas Chromatograph of volatile compounds in a 33 year aged demerara rum and Lost Spirits Colonial Inspired Rum – Image courtesy of Bryan Davis, Lost Spirits Distillery.

While the Colonial Inspired rum was a limited edition, there’s more rum coming from Lost Spirits very soon. While the Colonial Inspired didn’t set out to exactly match the demerara style, the chromatograph strongly suggested it was possible. Thus, Bryan has set his sights on replicating the flavor profile of the 33 year aged demara, down to the touch of caramelized sugar that the graphs suggest is present. The result is the new Lost Spirits Prometheus rum, which will debut at Rum Renaissance in April 2015.

Although the exact details of every step of the Lost Spirits aging process remain a secret, here’s what I can share: Barrels are not used. Instead, charred blocks of wood go into tanks along with the unaged spirit. (Barrels themselves are charred, so charred wood blocks aren’t surprising.) Once the spirit and blocks are in the reactor, the following transformations occur (paraphrasing Bryan):

1) Forced esterification of the volatile carboxylic esters.
2) Polymers in the charred oak blocks are shredded, yielding the same proportionate precursor molecules as the barrel does naturally over decades of aging.

3) Forced the esterification of the wood-derived precursors, which ultimately form into a mix of long-and short-chained esters.

The effect of these three steps is to rapidly cause the same ester transformations that happen in a traditional barrel—but in a literal fraction of the time
The original Lost Spirits rums (Navy Style, Polynesian Inspired, Cuban Inspired) used an early version of this aging process wherein the rum was divided, and each portion went through just one of the steps before all the portions were blended back together. The newer version of the aging process (2.0) runs the entire batch through all three steps in a very specific sequence. The Lost Spirits Colonial Inspired rum, covered here, is the first release to use the 2.0 process. The Prometheus rum will be the second release, although with a different flavor profile, i.e., similar to a 20-year aged demerara.

Given all the crazy equipment and complicated steps necessary to pull off this unique, hyper-speed aging process, how will Lost Spirits lease this technology to other distillers while keeping the critical parts of it a trade secret? Would you believe a “reactor” that condenses the process into a large box, roughly the size of a compact SUV, that’s delivered to the leasing distillery and then wired up for electricity and internet? The power is necessary for the pumps, computers, and other devices within. The internet connection will connect the reactor to Lost Spirit’s computers for control and monitoring. If the reactor can’t talk to the Lost Spirits computer, everything shuts down.  And if you pry open the box to see what’s inside? Don’t even think about it.

With the reactor in play, different aging profiles can be created to emphasize desired characteristics. An on-site iPad will provide a certain degree of control to the local distiller. There will be some level of access to the reactor internals – after all, the wood blocks will need to be changed out. But beyond a few things like that, the distiller adds his unaged spirit, and in a week or so, collects the transformed spirit, ready for bottling.

As for how the leasing works, at least in the beta phase, distilleries will pay an upfront amount to cover equipment costs and then a monthly fee thereafter. While this is obviously an added expense for small distillers, barrel aging is expensive as well. Distillers have their capital tied up in barrels for several years, sometimes decades, and during that time they’re losing product to the angel’s share (spirit that evaporates through the barrel walls). Initially Bryan plans to take just a handful of carefully selected distilleries into his beta process, enabling him to closely monitor the process and make adjustments as necessary. He expects that it will be several months before the first reactor is delivered, making a mid-2015 debut.

I have to admit, from the first moment Bryan told me about this (under NDA) I’ve been filled with, “What about…?” and “What if…?” questions. It’s without a doubt a bold move, filled with risk–not least of which is garnering unfavorable attention from giant spirits entities with a vested interest in the status quo. However, if Lost Spirits is successful in this venture, it opens the possibility of distillers creating higher quality products at price points far less than they could achieve with traditional barrel aging. I really can’t wait to see how this story plays out.

Update: Bryan has published his white paper on the reactor, named the “Model 1” on the Lost Spirits site.

From Alchemy to Science: Esters, Aldehydes, Mass Spectrometers and Hyper-Accelerated Aging

Life as a Cocktail Wonk isn’t all fabulous bars, spirit reviews, and distillery visits. It’s also countless hours on the internet chasing down esoteric details of brand lineage. Even wonkier are the multi-hour phone conversations I have with the likes of Bryan Davis of Lost Spirits Distillery, who fills my head with huge quantities of organic chemistry and distillation science while I struggle to process it into digestible nuggets in real time. Leading up to his announcement that Lost Spirits will lease their new reactor-aging technology to other distilleries, Bryan has started providing evidence that his week-long wood-aging process can replicate the chemical makeup and flavor profile of a 20-year aged spirit.

In my earliest conversation with Bryan, I asked if he was using technologies like gas chromatography to understand what’s in distilled spirits. His answer then was that many organic compounds of interest are difficult to tease apart with the analytical tools available to him. In the intervening year, with better analysis tools and assistance from experts, he has been able to identify critical flavor creation processes that previously eluded analysis. In some cases he’s found evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom about where flavor compounds are introduced.

Bryan has generously worked with me for many hours to share his new insights and help me break them down into the simplified explanations– part primer on the science of spirit flavors, and part explanation of the how Lost Spirits is able to prove that their accelerated aging process works. Charts and chemistry will be bandied about, but I promise to be as gentle as I can without losing the critical elements.

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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.

Checking out Amaro di Angostura with a New Cocktail Recipe – The Gaspar Grande

Even non-cocktailians are aware of Angostura bitters, the ubiquitous bottle in bars everywhere with the oversized white label, which bartenders use like salt and pepper in all sorts of drinks. Recently, the Trinidad-based company took a bold step and released a new spirit — Amaro di Angostura. Unlike the brand’s well known orange and namesake Angostura bitters, the Amaro Di Angostura isn’t intended to be used just few dashes at a time. I was intrigued enough to contact Angostura USA’s PR firm and they graciously sent me a bottle to review.

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