What is Whiskey Exactly?

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When I’ve got a chance to teach a group about whiskey, I keep in mind a rhetorical question that Colin Spoelman and David Haskell posit in the introduction to their book, Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey: “How can you know so little about something you do so often?”

They’re talking about drinking whiskey, of course. Despite the pointedness of their question, Spoelman and Haskell are quite understanding and sympathetic about our lack of knowledge about this grain-based distilate. They acknowledge that here in America, where our “native spirits” are bourbon and rye, there isn’t a lot of knowledge about this category. Often not even the bartender from you’ve ordered your bourbon knows. They also acknowledge that we, now as drinking adults, don’t want to face the discomfort of looking like a fool by asking, What exactly Is whiskey? As a result, almost nobody knows what whiskey is and what spirits fall into the category.

I had the pleasure to answer this question when Justin invited Night Owl to make his boys’ weekend special. Justin was hosting an annual gathering of a tight-knit group of college buddies who consider themselves more like brothers than friends. I came up the idea of doing a whiskey tasting, along with a hands-on cocktail making session with the whiskey. What guided me in creating programming for the evening was that question, How can you know so little about something you do so often?: I knew from Justin that his four friends drank whiskey, and on my own I assumed that they probably didn’t entirely understand the category that they enjoyed so much, and that they probably were like most Americans and too proud or apprehensive to ask, What exactly is whiskey?

This was my chance. Actually, this was their chance, since rarely does the opportunity arise to find out something you were too apprehension to ask. That night, around Justin’s kitchen table, I got straight to the heart of the issues by asking the guys directly if they can explain what whiskey is. No one among Justin’s friends could answer correctly. They were stymied and thus a bit embarrassed. Sensing this, I assure them that no one really knows, and that after the class, they will.

I next explain that whiskey is an umbrella category, just as rum, brandy, and mezcal are. As a visual, I flash the international sign for category which is putting both hands above my head, like a roof sheltering me from rain. I learned it from Diane Wade, who used to lead the tours at New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn.

Flowing down from this category are subcategories: scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey, etc. What unites all these different expressions is that they fall under this umbrella category (I’ve still got my special visual going on) and what places them under this roof is that all of them are distilled from a fermented grain mash, whether it be barley, corn, rye, wheat, quinoa, oats, or whatever. What all whiskies are at the end of the day, more or less, is distilled beer.

By now, the five friends have had enough of my flashing the international sign for umbrella category and it’s now time to drink some actual whiskey. Poured into a Glencairn glass are three different types: bourbon, rye, and single malt scotch. Comparative tasting is the best way to learn; listening to me yammer on is not.

So, bourbon, rye and scotch are all whiskies, but what makes them fall into their specific subcategories? Bourbon has to be distilled anywhere in the U.S. from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no requirement on aging time, but to be called “straight” it has to be aged at least two years. Rye has to be distilled in the U.S. as well, and from a mash bill of at least 51 percent rye (what a surprise) and aged in new, charred oak barrels. For a single malt scotch, the “single” refers to the requirement that the distillate comes from a single distillery; the “malt” means that the “beer” is fermented from 100 malted barley; and “scotch” means it has to be distilled, naturally, in Scotland.

It’s all still rather confusing. Even after repeating the information, the guys were still confused. Same thing happens at our month whiskey club, The Asbury Park Whisky Club. And that’s ok. What I really hope to convey is that bourbon, rye, and scotch all belong to the same family (whiskey) and that it’s ok not to know what distinguishes them, and that’s ok to ask, if you don’t know. Just keep drinking whiskey and asking.

It’s time that you know something about something you do so often.

Craft Cocktail Crawl in the City

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When you live as close as we do to New York City, ground zero for the craft cocktail renaissance on the East Coast, it’s almost a duty to go visit bars there. Actually, it is a duty. It’s what budding chefs do (visiting highly acclaimed restaurants, that is, not bars necessarily), and it’s what young mixologists should do too. Drink and learn from the best. Drinking in situ, to speak, is no match for on-line videos and blogs.

But that doesn’t mean these trips happens with regularity or ease, as it’s not inexpensive to get into the city and then there’s the question of where to spend the night, unless you want to punish yourself with a two-hour, lights-blazing train ride home after a fine evening of being out on the town.

And there’s what I also call suburban inertia, which requires a powerful escape velocity to break through. To muster this energy, fixing a date in the calendar, instead of just talking about it, can be most helpful, and this is what we did.

On a scheduled Monday evening in early April, Paul, Laura, and I of Night Owl Hospitality met up in the city to visit well-established craft cocktail bars. Our chief goal that evening was just to do it, to go on a cocktail crawl, as we had been talking about it for years, and our tactic was to keep the crawl localized so that we could walk from place to place.

Familiarity was behind our meeting spot. Dear Irving is near where I have a pied-à-terre, and both Paul and Laura used to work with a woman who used to bartend there. Since it was a Monday, it was a bit quiet at this Gramercy bar, but that meant we could focus more on the design and decor and notice for the first time how the bar is divided into two very different styles. Clever! And so are the drinks. The clear winner was Paul’s highball, fresh and lively.

Where to next? I really wanted to go back to Existing Conditions since it’s one of the newest bars in the city and it’s doing something totally new and rad. In addition, I have been long following the career of one of the bartenders there, ever since Garrett and I sat next to each other at a seminar at the very first Manhattan Cocktail Classic in 2010. The spin there is modern tiki—the flourish of tiki pared down and focused, with the help of Dave Arnold’s technical wizardry such as the centrifuge. I was craving a drink made this way, rum and pineapple. Laura decided to go big and get one of the more pricey drinks on the menu, Tropical Storm, which was so fresh and delicious.

We let Garrett pick the next stop, Katana Kitten, where he sends many folks after they close, which is on the early side for Manhattan, at midnight. Again, it was quiet here, but this meant we got the full attention of the bartender. I went with one of their “coldest balls in the city,” the Toki Highball.

How can you not go to Employees Only when it’s right across the street. Paul had never been and neither had Laura. It presented itself like no other way that I had previously seen it—off the walls at 2am on Monday. Paul and Laura loved their drink so much they ordered a second round, so deep was their appreciation. But this, of course, leads to what all things lead to, even if you are on a professional drinking tour—late night pizza which doesn’t always end well. But it all did end well: we actually went toured craft cocktail bars together and have another date on the calendar.

Tips for doing your own craft cocktail bar crawl: Do some research ahead of time so you can hit the places you should be hitting. Talk to the bartender not just about what she’s making and how she’s doing it. Get her suggestion about where to go next and then go there. This is usually choice info. To keep things moving and to minimize the chance of over consuming, just drink one drink at each place. Know that you won’t hit every spot, so plan to come back another time. And put it in your calendar.

Cocktail School: Shaken or Stirred?

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A lovely guy hired Night Owl Hospitality as a Valentine’s Day present for his wife. What he had in mind was that we would conduct an at-home cocktail-making class for the two of them and a small group of their friends around their kitchen island on a Saturday night. We love educating folks about craft cocktails, and we thus love doing events like this.

He and I conferred on how to structure the class, and we decided upon offering a welcome cocktail and then I would demo for the group a shaken cocktail, a stirred one, and a shaken one with egg whites. Once we decided this, there was a bit of back and forth via email about which cocktails to select for each category, but ultimately we figured out the various drinks pretty quickly—a French 75 for the welcome cocktail; a Lavender Bees Knees for the shaken cocktail; and a Hibiscus Whiskey Sour for the shaken one with eggs (see below for recipes)—except for the stirred offering.

In the back-and-forth of emails, it became evident that he and his wife weren’t clear on what what a stirred cocktails is. Once I explained it, they were then afraid that they were too boozy and that the women wouldn’t like them.

Even when he and his wife kept suggesting shaken cocktails for the evening, thinking that they were stirred ones, or maybe because of this, I wouldn’t back down from including a stirred cocktail in the line-up. After all, at least one-third of all the cocktail recipes out there in the world, are stirred ones, and so if I were to skip this part of their cocktail education, I would be denying them a whole, big category of drinks. I wouldn’t be preforming my cocktail duty!

Of all the stirred cocktail that I suggested for the evening (and there were a lot of them! Vesper; Martini; Negroni; (Spicy) tequila old fashioned; Boulevardier; Martinez, Sazerac, Diamondback, Alaska, Bijou, Tuxedo) we ultimately went with the Martinez. Well, actually, I had to insist on it, and what made me go with it is that even though it’s “booze-forward,” it has a pleasing, approachable sweetness and it was an opportunity to explain dry gin vs Old Tom gin.

After all their resistance toward a stirred drink, the Martinez ended up being one of the favorite drinks of the evening, even for the women—a potable, revelation. The merry group, who were very good students, eager to learn more about the history of alcohol and cocktails, loved the term “spirit forward,” an expression, which will help them to decode on a cocktail menu, which drinks are stirred and which are shaken.

So, when are drinks shaken and when are they stirred? I must confess that when I was first getting into cocktails, almost 15 years ago, I didn’t even know, and I felt so ashamed when a bartender at Dutch Kills in Queens, NYC, which was admired for hand-carving its own ice, had to school me on the differences in preparation.

Enough of me. Back to the question: When to shake and when to stir? Basically when a drink recipes calls for juice, dairy, or eggs, the drink is shaken to forcibly mix together the different ingredients and to incorporate air which leads to a frothy, light texture. If the ingredients are just booze (this includes from spirits to vermouth to bitters) and sugar, it’s stirred so that the drink isn’t aerated and the resulting mouthfeel is seductively velvety. If you were to shake a martini, for example, it would get cold more quickly than by stirring, but its appearance would be all off. The air introduced by shaking will turn the drink cloudy, not at all what you want for your martini, the delight of which is crystal clarity. Let James Bond have that.

RECIPES

Welcome Cocktail: French 75

1 oz Gin
.5 oz Lemon juice
.5-.75 oz Simple syrup (depending on sweetness of sparkling wine)
2-3 oz Sparkling wine, chilled

Combine all ingredients, except sparkling wine, in a shaker tin, add ice, and shake for 10 seconds. Strain into a champagne flute. Top with chilled sparkling wine.
Garnish with a lemon twist.

Shaken 1: Lavender Bee's Knees
2 oz. Gin
.75 oz. Lemon juice
.75 oz. Lavender honey syrup*

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin, add ice, and shake for 10 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass or a chilled coupe.
Garnish with a lemon twist or lemon wheel/wedge.

*Lavender Honey Syrup
6 oz. Honey
3 oz. Hot water
5 tsp Dried lavender
Stir the dried lavender into the hot water and let steep for three minutes. Mix honey into the hot lavender water until the honey is fully dissolved.  Strain and let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month. Makes 9 ounces.


Stirred 1: Martinez
2 oz. Old Tom gin
1 oz. Sweet vermouth
1 tsp Maraschino liqueur
1 dash Orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and add ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled coupe/Nick and Nora glass.Garnish with an orange twist.


Shaken 2: Hibiscus Sour
1.5 oz. Bourbon
.5 oz. Lime juice
.25 oz. Lemon juice
.75 oz. Hibiscus syrup**
.5 oz or 1 small Egg white (optional)Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. If using egg white, first shake without ice for 10 seconds (a "dry shake") and then add ice and shake for 10 more seconds.  Strain into a rocks glass.
Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon.


**Hibiscus Syrup:
8 oz. Organic cane sugar
8 oz. Hot water
3-4 tsp Dried hibiscus flowers/tea
Combine the hot water, dried hibiscus and cane sugar in a saucepan.  Stir over medium heat until sugar is fully dissolved, and tea is fully steeped (about 10 minutes).  Strain and let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.  
Makes about 12 ounces.


"Simple" & Seasonal Mixology on the Homestead

 
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When Paul and I were asked by Dutch Hill Homestead to collaborate on a introductory mixology class at their suburban farm, complete with eight laying hens and a small herd of adorably active Nigerian dwarf goats, we knew that we wanted to incorporate fresh eggs into the drinks for the evening. But, acknowledging that eggs can be off-putting for some folks (What are eggs doing in my drink? Are they safe?), we also wanted to offer a simple approach to cocktail making.

And what is more simple than simple syrups?

The focus, then, of our class at DHH, on a Friday evening in early spring, was simple syrups and the ways that you can get seasonally creative with them to jazz up your favorite cocktails. That evening we demonstrated how to make a hibiscus syrup for a whiskey sour; a jalapeno agave syrup for a naturally spicy margarita, and a lavender honey syrup, with DHH’s own dried lavender, for a floral Bee’s Knee. See below for recipes, and for inspiration about making your own flavors of simple syrups—thyme, rosemary, rose, celery, or whatever’s in season and you enjoy.

In the spirit of keeping things simple: What are simple syrups and how do cocktails benefit from them. At its most basic, a simple syrup is a sugar dissolved in water. As a liquid, the sugar is more easily incorporated into a drink; there are no crystals lying sadly unused and crunchy at the bottom of the glass. By definition, all cocktails will have a measure of sugar, to help offset the alcoholic burn of spirits; add a desirable mouthfeel to the drink; and to meld the disparate ingredients.

By making your own simple syrups, instead of buying them premade, you not only save money but you also get to decide the type of sugar to use (e.g., refined, raw, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, demerara etc—all with distinctive taste and consistency and potential health benefits) and how much. For most of our drinks we use an organic cane sugar, since it offers a more complex flavor than white sugar but not too complex, in a proportion of 1:1 (simple syrup) or 2:1 (rich syrup) but we do certainly mix it up with agave syrup, usually for tequila drinks, and honey.

Most recipes for making simple syrups call for adding water and the sugar to a pot and heating them at the stove, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. That’s a fine way to do it, but not the best or most efficient. The drawbacks of this method are that you’ve got another pot to clean and the water can evaporate while heating, thereby throwing off the proportion of water to sugar. We instead opt for putting the sugar into a mason jar or some other container and adding the required amount of hot water. Either stir or shake the contents until the sugar is dissolved, and once the syrup is room temperature, seal the container and put it in the fridge, where it will last about two weeks.

If you want to add other ingredients to flavor, make a “tea” with the ingredient by adding it to the hot water. Once the desired intensity of flavor is reached and while the water is still warm, drain the solids and add the sugar (whatever kind you want) and stir or shake until the sugar is dissolved.

Here are some recipes for simple syrups to inspire you and some cocktail recipes which use them:

Lavender Bee's Knees:
2 oz Gin
.75 oz Lemon juice
.75 oz Lavender honey syrup (see below)
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin, add ice, shake for 10 seconds, and strain into a rocks glass.
Garnish with a lemon twist.

Lavender Honey Syrup:
6 oz. Honey
3 oz. Hot water
5 tsp Dried lavender
Stir the dried lavender into the hot water and let steep for three minutes. Mix honey into the hot lavender water until the honey is fully dissolved.  Strain and let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.  
Makes 9 ounces.

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Spicy Margarita:
2 oz. Tequila
.75 oz Lime juice
.75 oz. Jalapeno-infused agave syrup (see below)
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin, add ice, shake for 10 seconds, strain into a rocks glass.
Garnish with a lime wedge.

Jalapeno Agave Syrup:
6 oz. Agave syrup
3 oz. Hot water
2 Fresh jalapenos
Dice the jalapenos, retaining all the seeds, and steep in the hot water for 3 minutes. Taste the mixture to ensure that the spice level is to your taste.  Allow them to steep longer for a spicier end product. Strain out the jalapenos and stir the agave into the jalapeno-infused water until it's fully integrated.  Let the syrup cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.
Makes 9 ounces.


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Hibiscus Sour:
1.5 oz. Bourbon
.5 oz. Lime juice
.25 oz Lemon juice
.75 oz. Hibiscus syrup (see below)
1 Egg white (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. If using egg white, first shake without ice for 10 seconds (a "dry shake") and then add ice and shake for 10 more seconds.  Strain into a rocks glass.
Garnish with freshly grated cinnamon.

Hibiscus Syrup:
8 oz. Organic cane sugar
8 oz. Hot water
3-4 tsp Dried hibiscus flowers/tea
Combine the hot water, dried hibiscus and cane sugar in a saucepan.  Stir over medium heat until sugar is fully dissolved, and tea is fully steeped (about 10 minutes).  Strain and let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.  
Makes about 12 ounces.


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Spiced Rum Flip
(Here's what you can do with that leftover egg yolk from the Hibiscus Sour)
2 oz Dark rum
1 Egg yolk
1 oz Heavy cream
.25 oz Spiced simple syrup (see below)
Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin and shake without ice for 10 seconds (a "dry shake") and then add ice and shake for 10 more seconds.  Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Spiced Simple Syrup
1 cup Organic cane sugar
1 cup Water
.5 tsp Ground star anise
.25 tsp each Ground allspice; Ground cloves; Grated nutmeg; Ground cinnamon
Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat; do not boil. Add the spices and slowly stir to dissolve the sugar.  When the syrup has thickened, remove from the heat. Strain and let the syrup cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.  
Makes about 12 ounces.

Cheers!

Diana & Paul