Irish Coffee

Originally published March 18, 2012.

Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.

-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee

 

Irish Coffee with Floated Cream

The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top.  The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.

Let’s discuss ingredients.

The Coffee – Use good coffee.  Brew it strong.

The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste.  I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.

The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast.  It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar.  I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar.  In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream.  The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home?  Maybe twice a year.  Use the good whiskey.

Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.”  In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.”  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat.  I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids.  I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.

Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB.  You can buy their milk at Planet Organic.  The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted.  They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat.  Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.”  If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour.  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.  Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose.  Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.

Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.”  In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits.  All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk.  The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.

These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post.  Sorry.

Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass.  Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.

Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee.  Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee.  If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.

Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug.  If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.

A complete recipe, if you’re interested:

 

Irish Coffee (for four)

Ingredients

  • 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
  • 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
  • 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
  • 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)

Procedure

  1. Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee.  Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
  3. Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
  4. Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.

 

Sampling a glass of Irish coffee

A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee.  Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.

Dunking oatmeal poundcake into Irish coffee

Blood and Sand Cocktail

The ingredients and equipment needed to make an interesting twist on the classic Blood and Sand cocktail.This is the tedious origin story of a cocktail, or rather my version of a cocktail.

I’ll start apologetically and admit that I don’t know very much about cocktails.  I read one book about them last year (Imbibe!), and then started mixing them at home.  Probably no book has had such a deleterious effect on my liver and general health.  Anyways, I think the drink described in this post is delicious, but I acknowledge that it’s a bit over the top.  I have absolutely no idea how it would play in the real world with real bartenders and patrons.

Blood and Sand is a classic cocktail, typically composed of equal parts blended scotch, orange juice (often blood orange juice), cherry liqueur (usually Cherry Heering), and sweet vermouth.  The standard version is delicious, but through a variety of circumstances I have developed a unique take on the drink.

Last year we hosted a private dinner at Little Brick.  The organizer wanted a custom cocktail served to welcome the diners, and she knew that the guest of honour loved big, peaty Scotch.  I racked my brain, and then the internet, to try and find a list of components for the drink whimsically called “For Peat’s Sake”, one of the signature cocktails served at Three Boars in years past.  Naturally, I wanted to copy it and pass it off as my own, under a different pun-name.  My brief, private brainstorm session for a new name was pretty embarrassing.  “Peat Sampras” was the best I came up with, which doesn’t even really make sense.

Unable to find a recipe or think of a clever name, I pondered the classic scotch-based cocktails.  I could think of only two: the Rusty Nail (Scotch and Drambuie…. an acquired taste) and The Godfather (Scotch and Amaretto).  Nate knew of a third: Blood and Sand, which sounded ten times sexier than the others, so I set out to make a Blood and Sand using a smoky Scotch, instead of the usual blended Scotch.

Most of the components were pre-determined by what we had on hand: Ardbeg (very smoky), a homemade cherry liqueur which would take the place of the usual Cherry Heering, Carpano Vermouth, and a bag of navel oranges. That was the form the drink took for the event at Little Brick, and really all that made it unique was that we used an Islay peat-bomb for the Scotch, and the cherry liqueur was homemade, with local cherries.  Otherwise, it was just a Blood and Sand.

Several months later I tasted a cocktail conjured up by Nich Box at District Café.  It was called Flatbush, and one of the ingredients listed on the menu was “saline”.  In other words, a salt solution.

I don’t know why, but this absolutely blew my mind.  It’s not so weird to put salt in a cocktail, now that I’ve had time to think about it.  After all, I’ve had margaritas with salted rims, and Caesars with Clamato and Worcestershire.  Salt in a cocktail, in and of itself, is not revolutionary.  But dissolving the salt right into the drink in such a measured, purposeful way, so that the drinker can’t dance around the salt as one might do with a salt rim…  it was an epiphany, and I really really liked it.

To Make Saline.  One part kosher salt and five parts water by volume.  Heat on the stove until the salt dissolves.  This is just about the most concentrated salt solution you can make by this method.  The 1:1 and 2:1 ratios common for sugar syrup are quite impossible with salt.  I might have learned this in a grade eight science class.  I had to relearn it when making saline.

The first drink that I tried at home with a touch of saline was the Blood and Sand.  Now, most people find the campfire-smoke flavour of Ardbeg too much to begin with, so by adding something as distinctive and unusual as salt, this is admittedly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

The drink tastes of salty, smoky cherries.  If you’ve ever had the salty preserved plums at a Chinese grocery store, you can imagine what this tastes like.  It’s peculiar, but delicious.  And I especially love that the hint of salinity puts the “blood” into the Blood and Sand.

Certainly not something that I would drink everyday, but still, a synthesis of which I’m rather proud.  In fact, I keep having this daydream in which I am a barkeep and maybe have tatoos, and someone comes in and asks for something that tastes utterly unique and unlike anything they’ve had before.  This is what I serve them in that fantasy.

 

Blood and Sand Cocktail, Button Soup-Style

Ingredients

  • 1 oz Ardbeg Scotch (or another suitably smoky Scotch from an Islay producer)
  • 1 oz Carpano Vermouth (or another suitably prestigious sweet, red vermouth)
  • 1 oz homemade cherry liqueur, preferably made from Evans cherries (or Cherry Herring, or another suitably delicious cherry liqueur)
  • 1 oz Navel orange juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/4 tsp saline solution (see description above)

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients on ice.  Stir swiftly until thoroughly chilled, about 20 seconds.
  2. This is where I might belie my ignorance of the cocktail craft.  I think the Blood and Sand is usually served “up”, ie. without ice.  I almost always take all of my cocktails, event classic “uppers” like a Manhattan, on ice.  Likewise for this number.
  3. Garnish with orange peel and sour cherry.

 

River City Kir

cider_cherry_liqueur_2.JPGSparkling hard apple cider with a splash of cherry liqueur: something so simple shouldn’t need a complicated origin story.

[Pauses awkwardly, before rapidly relating a complicated origin story]

A Kir is a French cocktail, a glass of white wine with a bit of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).  There are a number of common variations.  The Kir Royal, for instance, uses Champagne instead of still white wine.  The Kir Breton uses hard cider.  So this most recent invention was inspired by the Kir Breton.

I’ve tentatively titled this drink the River City Kir.  I’m open to other suggestions.  This is the first cocktail I tried with my homemade cherry liqueur.  It’s a knockout.  My cider is bone dry, and quite tart, so it takes the sweetness of the liqueur beautifully.  And the colour is fantastic.

I can see the River City Kir becoming my house apéritif for the summer months.

Aperitivo

Mise en place for Italian aperitivo.Aperitivo is the Italian word for aperitif.  Ostensibly it is a drink taken before dinner.

In practice it is both drink and food.  The fundamental idea of Italian aperitivo is that you order a drink and receive complimentary food.  That food may be a fistful  of olives, or it may be a no-kidding smorgasbord.  Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s talk about drinks, then about food.

A Simple Bar for Aperitivo

Amari.  If you can buy only one bottle of liqueur for aperitivo, it should be Campari.  Campari is a bitter liqueur of about 25% ABV, flavoured with obscure herbs and fruit (eg chinotto, the myrtle-leaved orange tree).  It was invented in Novara, Piedmont, by Gaspare Campari.  It was first produced en masse outside Milan, and has become affiliated with that city.

Campari is a bright, cherry red.  Slightly viscous.  It has an intense, smoky bitterness, and is syrupy-sweet.

Campari can be taken on the rocks, diluted with soda or fruit juice, or mixed into proper cocktails.

Vermouth.  Vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying plants.  It can be bone dry or quite sweet.  I think the most common brand is Cinzano (chin-ZAHN-o), especially their sweet, red (“Rosso”) vermouth.

Cinzano Rosso is 15% ABV and has a medium red colour with a russet hue.  It has a medium-intense aroma of herbs.  It is sweet with a bright, balancing acidity.

The bitter-sweet clash of Campari and Cinzano Rosso is the basis of several classic cocktails.  The Americano, for instance is one part each Campari, Cinzano Rosso, and soda water.  If you substitute the soda for gin, you have my favourite aperitivo, the Negroni.

negroni_2Negroni.  The apocryphal origin story of the Negroni has Count Camillo Negroni seated at the bar in Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919.  He asks the barkeep to stiffen his Americano by subbing soda with gin.

I feel like a real hack just re-typing stuff that I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, but there is a fantastic quip about the Negroni by Orson Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you.  They balance each other.”

Returning to original content: The most memorable cocktail I’ve ever had was a Negroni from Mr. Brown’s in Trastevere, Rome.  Unfortunately it’s memorable for the lurid conditions in which it was procured, not any nuance of flavour or composition.  Lisa and I were walking back to our apartment after a late dinner, and we finally encountered the raucous, lively Trastevere we had heard about.  Drinkers were overflowing from the bars and pouring onto the streets and campi.  The street was particularly congested in front of a placed called Mr. Brown’s, advertizing 5 Euro “to go” cocktails.  We pushed our way in and stood by the bar to get the lay of the land.  5 Euros didn’t seem especially cheap, until we watched the bartender mix a drink.  Bottles of liquor were inverted and held over plastic cups for 3-5 seconds.  The drinks were enormous and contained several ounces of liquor.  And it seemed you weren’t limited to hi-balls: you could order what ever you want.  Tequila Sunrise?  Sure.  Spritz?  The barkeep opened a new bottle Prosecco, projecting the cork through the air and striking a large bell hung over the bar.  Mojito?  He muddled fresh mint.  I ordered a Negroni.  My 5 Euros got me about 4 fluid ounces each of gin, Campari, and Vermouth.  Actually the drink was so large and purchased so late in the evening that I couldn’t finish it.  I put it in the little fridge in our apartment, and the next day I poured it into a glass of Prosecco, thus inventing the Negroni Spritz.

Tangent: If you replace the gin in a Negroni with bourbon, you have a Boulevardier.

 

aperol_spritzAperol Spritz.  While Campari and Cinzano Rosso are a delicious, versatile power couple, I think that the Aperol Spritz is actually the most common aperitivo in Italy.  I have no official statistics on this, but a short walk through any northern Italian city in the early evening will confirm my hypothesis.

Aperol is from Padua, in Veneto, and is flavoured with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other stuff.  It is 11% ABV, sweet, orange in colour, and faintly bitter, much less so than Campari.  It smells almost exactly like orange Triaminic.[1]  If you are unfamiliar with the sweet nectar that is orange Triaminic, think orange Kool-Aid-flavoured cough syrup.

The Aperol Spritz originated in the province of Veneto, supposedly during the Hapsburg occupation of the region.  (“Spritz” is the German word for fizz).  It is a mixture of Prosecco, Aperol, and soda water poured over ice and garnished with an orange.  According to the Aperol website the classic ratio for the Spritz is 3-2-1 Prosecco, Aperol, and soda.

 

Food at Aperitivo

When ordering a drink for aperitivo you can expect at the very least a small bowl of olives and potato chips.  You might also receive finger sandwiches, little pizzas, or cured meat and cheese.

Occasionally the food is set out on a buffet.  Maybe some crostini with a variety of spreads, or a large bowl of pasta.

Some advice for students looking to use aperitivo as a meal-replacement: look for starch.  Pasta, toast, whole-grain salads, these starches have sustained most of humanity for most of history, and they will sustain you.

 

Cicheti

Aperitivo plays out a bit differently in Venice.  You can get the usual cocktails, but it is more common to drink an ombre, a small glass of wine.  And instead of receiving complimentary food you can purchase small one- or two-bite cicheti (chi-KEH-tee).  Cicheti can be simple and elemental (roast bell peppers, cheese, olives, et c) or full-on composed hors d’oeuvres (octopus carpaccio and olive spread on a crostino).  Escaping the hideous tourist maze to enjoy a plastic cup of Valpolicella and a bite of food is one of the best ways to enjoy Venice.

 

Footnotes

1. Well before Lil’ Wayne and other southern rappers made it cool, I had my first experience abusing cough syrup.  I was three years old, and the story has become a Suddaby family legend.  When I was a toddler my mom kept a few bottles of Triaminic on hand.  Red Triaminic was for a cough.  Orange for a runny nose.  The red one was disgusting so I was always careful to stifle my coughs.  The orange one was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted.  Like ever.  It was candy that you could drink.  It tasted kind of like McDonald’s orange drink concentrate.  So one day I climbed onto the counter and reached into the medicine cabinet, opened the bottle, and put it to my mouth.  The exact amount I drank varies depending on who tells the tale.  Mother caught me mid-act, tore the bottle from my tiny hand, and immediately called poison control.  They said that I would get drowsy, then fall asleep.  Mother only needed to jostle me every so often make sure that I was still able to wake up.  If I didn’t wake up she should call 911.  (That’s actually the advice they gave.)  As I remember we went to the park that afternoon and I fell asleep on the tire swing.  I think everything worked out all right, though.

Rye Whisky

Rye whiskey makes the band sound better,
Makes your baby cuter,
Makes itself taste sweeter.  Oh, boy!

-The Punch Brothers

 

I have friends that get mad when I say this, but Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye.  Unlike, for instance, Bourbon, which has very specific requirements for the grain bill (at least 51% corn), Canadian whisky is not highly regulated.  Actually you can read everything that the Food and Drug Regulations have to say about Canadian whisky in about 90 seconds, here.  Basically to be called Canadian whisky the drink needs to be made of cereal grain (no mention of specific types like barley or rye), it needs to be at least 40% alcohol, and it needs to be aged in small wood for at least 3 years.  That’s it.

That being said, many of the common Canadian whisky brands (Royal Reserve, Alberta Premium, Crown Royal, et c) contain rye.  But since “rye” isn’t a regulated term, it’s hard to know how much is really in there.  50%? 10%?  The truth is that the main ingredient in most Canadian “rye” is corn and wheat.[1]

Producers rarely specify exactly what grains they use and in what proportions, and they almost never make mention of what non-cereal ingredients are contained in their whisky.  Caramel, for instance, is such a common additive that the Food and Drug Regulations mention it explicitly as a permitted ingredient in Canadian whisky.

One notable exception is Alberta Premium Rye, which says right on the label is made with 100% rye.  For most of my drinking life I never gave this whisky much thought: the 750 mL size comes in a cheap, dated cut-glass bottle, and retails for about $20.  Then one day I was listening to CBC radio while driving and heard Englishman Jim Murray, author The Whisky Bible, say that he considers Alberta Premium one of the best whiskies in the world.  I nearly drove off the rode.  His words exactly: “One of the top six whiskies in the world.”  You can listen to the interview here.

I’ve always grouped those cheap Canadian whiskies together: Crown Royal, Royal Reserve, Canadian Club… Could Alberta Premium really be so much different than the others?

I designed a blind tasting.  Well, not really a blind tasting: maybe a myopic tasting.  I bought a bottle of Alberta Premium and a bottle of Royal Reserve.  I put tape on the bottom of two glasses and labelled one AP and one RR.  I poured the whiskies into their respective glasses, then closed my eyes and hummed Uptown Funk while shuffling the glasses back and forth.

When I opened my eyes I had two glasses of whisky in front of me.  I knew one was AP and one was RR, but I didn’t know which was which.  I tasted each and came up with this:

Whisky 1:

  • very pale, bronzy-gold, lustrous
  • on the nose: medium-intense aroma, loads of butterscotch, butter, light brown sugar
  • on the palate: medium weight, medium burn, slight sweetness leaving palate, a lingering tingling burn

Whisky 2:

  • colour almost identical to first, maybe a hair darker, more brown
  • on the nose: some butterscotch, but more grassy, with spices like black pepper, bay, and vanilla
  • medium-full mouthfeel, slightly oily, low-medium burn – less lingering burn than first

Conclusion

  • These two whiskies are not radically different.  They both exhibit typical aromas of caramel.  Whisky 2 is arguably more complex, with some spice notes.

Then I looked at the tape on the bottom of the glass to see the identity of each: Whisky 1 was RR and Whisky 2 was AP.

A rye revival has definitely been afoot the last several years, and there are many craft sipping and mixing ryes coming out of the US, labels like Pendleton and Masterson’s.  The hilarious, unfortunate fact is that many of these are actually made from rye whisky that is distilled in Canada and exported in large quantities to be bottled elsewhere.[2]  I’m not saying that our cheapest Canadian whiskies deserve the solemn admiration accorded single-malt Scotch, but I do think that our low estimation of these products has a lot to do with packaging and marketing (or lack thereof).

For some shockingly thorough info and tasting notes on Canadian whisky, I highly recommend this site: www.canadianwhisky.org.

A bottle of Alberta Premium Rye Whisky

 

Rye whiskey makes the sun set faster,
makes the spirit more willing,
but the body weaker.

-again, Punch Brothers

 

Way up on Clinch Mountain I wander alone,
I’m as drunk as the devil, oh let me alone.
You may boast of your knowledge an’ brag of your sense,
‘Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence.
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, you’re no friend to me.
You killed my poor daddy, God damn you, try me.

-Tex Ritter

 

1. This fascinating article from The Globe and Mail.
2. Ibid.

On Spirits

brettosSpirits are distilled beverages, made by concentrating alcohol and other volatile, aromatic compounds to make heady, shelf-stable drinks.

The sheer number of different types of spirits available in most liquor stores can be confusing.  What, for instance, is the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?  Or tequila and mezcal?  Why is all Cognac brandy, but not all brandy Cognac?  These questions can be answered by knowing a few things about how liquor is made.

All spirits can be classified using the following four pieces of information:

  • region of production;
  • ingredients, including the base fermentable material and any other flavourings like spices or caramel;
  • distillation details, including type of still used, number of distillations, and other nuances; and finally
  • aging method, if any.

Region of production.  Some spirits must be made within defined geographical boundaries to carry a certain name on the label.  The most famous examples are Scotch (which must be from Scotland…) and Cognac and Armagnac (from the areas around the French towns of the same name).  The argument for the protection of regional designations is that subtleties in the water, ingredients, even the air, give the product a distinct character.  Regional designations are always accompanied by specifications on the ingredients and processes using in production.  For instance, Cognac must be from the Cognac region, must be made from grapes, must be aged for a certain period of time, and so on.

Ingredients.  All spirits begin as some sort of food that has sugar in it, whether fruit like grapes and apples, grains like barley and rye, or even sugar itself, in the form of cane juice or molasses.  The first step in converting these foods to spirits is to turn them into a fermentable liquid.  This is self-explanatory for grapes: you crush them to make juice, and there is in fact already yeast on the skins that will start to metabolize the natural sugars.  The process is a bit more complicated for grains: generally you need to malt, kiln, grind, and mash them, just like when making beer.

Interestingly, the base fermentable is not always important in categorizing the spirit.  Vodka, for instance, can be made from rye, or potatoes, or a number of other diverse ingredients.  Some spirits are categorized not by the base fermentable, but by how it is flavoured.  Gin can be made from any type of grain, but must be flavoured with juniper and other aromatics.

Regardless of the ingredients, yeast is added to the base fermentable liquid, and over the course of a week or two it metabolizes the sugars, creating ethanol as a byproduct.

After fermentation the mixture (now called wash) is relatively low in alcohol, somewhere around 5-15% alcohol by volume (ABV).  ABV is determined by the quantity of fermentable sugar in the original liquid.  There is, however, a ceiling on alcohol content with natural fermentation.  Even if we were to pour a bag of sugar into our grape juice or barley mash, we could only ever get an ABV of at most 17%.  Alcohol is a toxin, and fatal to yeast in such a high concentration.  We must concentrate the alcohol and aromatics by distilling the liquid.

Details of Distillation.  Distillation makes use of the different boiling points of the different components of a liquid.  Water boils at 100°C at sea level, and ethanol at about 78°C.  By heating a mixture of water and ethanol to a temperature between these two, then capturing and condensing the vapour, the distillate will have a much higher ethanol concentration than the original liquid.  The ethanol, being easily evaporated, is called a volatile component.  Often used to describe someone who flies off the handle, in the present context it means easily evaporated.  Non-volatile compounds, including sugar and pigments, are left behind.  All pure distillates are therefore dry (not sweet at all) and colourless.

What makes distilling challenging and interesting is that there are thousands of volatile components in fermented liquids besides ethanol.  Some are more volatile than alcohol and boil off at lower temperatures.  These are called heads, or foreshots, and are always undesirable in finished spirits.  They include methanol, acetone, and are generally nasty and toxic.  Other compounds are less volatile than ethanol, boiling off at higher temperatures.  They tend to be long, fat-like hyrdrocarbon chains, and are called tails, or feints.  They contribute harsh flavours that are desirable in small amounts in some styles of spirit, notably whisky.  They also contribute to mouthfeel, producing the oily texture of some spirits.  Tails are also known as fusel oils, and include butyl and amyl alcohol.

The art of the distiller is inviting the right volatiles to the party, while keeping out the undesirables.  The guest list depends on the style of liquor they are making.  Vodka, for instance, is a very neutral spirit, prized for it’s clean flavour.  (One of the first Smirnoff ad campaigns in North America was: “No taste. No smell.”)  Eau-de-vie and schnapps, on the other hand, are prized for their strong aromas of fresh fruit.

There are countless types of stills, but there are three important, classic styles used in commercial distilling.

Pot still.  A large pot that holds the wash is heated.  Vapours rise from the pot into a vertical pipe called a gooseneck, or swan neck.  This pipe then narrows and bends towards the horizontal in a section called the lyne arm.  Vapour then descends into a condenser.

The first liquid that dribbles out of the condenser contains the heads, which are discarded.  Next the happy hearts are dispensed.  Finally the tails, which may or may not be desirable in small quantities.  The distiller evaluates the spirit to separate the heads, hearts, and tails depending on the style of spirit being made.

Charentais Alembic Still.  Most associated with Continental, aromatic spirits based on fruit, such as brandy and eau-de-vie.  Important features include the “helmet,” a bulbous top on the boiler functions as an expansion chamber, which holds back the heavier volatiles, and lets the lighter fruit aromatics through.

Usually the vapour passes by a pre-heater, containing the wash for the next batch.

Like a pot still, heads, hearts, and tails come out of the condenser one after the other, and have to be separated at the distiller’s discretion.

A sketch of a Charentais alembic still

Continuous still.  Most associated with industrial distillation of neutral spirits.  As the name suggests, this still does not operate batch by batch, but with a continuous input of wash.

The cool wash descends and is heated by the rising vapour.  Instead of heads-heart-tails differentiation being a function of time, as with batch stills, here it is a function of height.  The more-volatile heads come out the top of the still, and the less-volatile tails out the bottom.  The spirit is taken out somewhere partway up the still.

A sketch of a continuous still

The number of passes through the still is also important.  Scotch, for instance, is generally twice-distilled, while most Irish whiskey is thrice-distilled.

Aging method, if any.  The most important question here: is the spirit aged in wooden barrels?  All distillates are clear and colourless when they first come out of the still.  The colour of brown spirits like whisky and brandy develops during barrel-aging.  Besides changing the colour of the spirit, aging in wood makes the drink smoother, and can lend distinct aromas and flavours, notably the vanilla and caramel notes found in bourbon.

Based on the four points discussed above, we can now simply and accurately define every major style of spirit.  A super-quick survey:

Whisky

  • Region of Production: There are no controls on the term whisky, but its most famous sub-varieties are regional designation: Bourbon is from the US, Scotch from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, and Canadian whisky from Canada.
  • Base Fermentable: Whisky is always made from grain, but the exact ingredients vary widely.  Bourbon is based on corn, and Scotch on barley, for instance.
  • Distillation Details: Traditionally made in a pot still that allows certain tails through.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.
  • Contrary to popular thought, Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye whiskey, though it does generally contain a good does of rye.  It pains me to admit, but Canada is the least regulated of the four classic whisky regions, and therefore the least distinct of the group.

Vodka

  • Region of Production: There are no regional controls for vodka, but its homeland is Russia.
  • Base fermentable: Any number of base fermentables can be used.  Basically the cheapest source of calories available.  Rye is the most common, but potatoes and wheat are also used.
  • Distillation Details: Most commercial varieties are made in a column still, but pot stills can also be used.  Often distilled several times for clean flavour.
  • Aging: Not aged, or aged very briefly, but never in wooden barrels.  Vodka is always clear.

Brandy

  • Region of Production: “Brandy” itself can be made anywhere, but it is understandably most common in wine regions, and certain types of brandy are regional designations (Cognac, Armagnac).
  • Base Fermentable: Grapes are fermented into a mediocre wine that is later distilled.  The term “brandy” is also broadly applied to other distillates based on fruit.  For instance, while the Normans have a word for apple cider distillate (“Calvados”, see below), but the English do not, so we often call it “apple brandy.”  This is perfectly acceptable.  Imagine if the English language did not have the word “cider,” and we had to call fermented apple juice “apple beer.”
  • Distillation Details: Premium brandies like Cognac are made in Alembic Charentais stills.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Calvados

  • Region of Production: Specific parts of Normandy and Brittany, in France.
  • Base Fermentable: Apples, or sometimes pears.
  • Distillation Details: Alembic still
  • Aging Methodl: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.

Gin

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from Holland and adopted with enthusiasm by the British.
  • Ingredients: Usually a neutral grain spirit that has been flavoured with juniper and other exotic aromatics like grains of paradise.
  • Aging Method: Almost never aged in wood.  Almost always clear.  (There are some exceptions by craft producers like Victoria Spirits.)

Rum

  • Regional of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from the Caribbean and other cane-growing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Sugar cane juice, or molasses, or a blend of the two.  Often caramelized sugar is back-added to the distillate for sweetness, colour, and body.
  • Aging Method: Large commercial brands of rum are not usually aged.  The best rums in the world (like this one) are always aged in wooden barrels.

Eau-de-Vie and Schnapps (true schnapps)

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term.  Schnapps is common in German-speaking regions such as Germany and Austria.  Most French regions, notably Alsace, use the term eau-de-vie.  Switzerland can go either way.  Etter is a self-described eau-de-vie, even though it is made in the largely German-speaking Swiss town of Zug.
  • Base fermentable: Any manner of fruit, including apple, pear, apricot, plum, and cherry.
  • Distillation Details:  The best examples use an Alembic still to capture the aroma of the fresh fruit.
  • Aging Method: Not aged in wood barrels.  A clear spirit.

Mezcal

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but confined almost entirely to Mexico.
  • Base Fermentable: Agave, specifically the swollen, central bulb of a mature agave plant that has had its flower stalk snipped.  The bulb is cooked, then crushed and shredded to extract a sweet liquid.
  • Distillation Details: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging Method:  Some mezcal is aged on wood, some is not.  It is partly a stylistic decision.  Cheap industrially-produced mezcal usually gets its colour from caramel, while very fine examples are aged in wood.

Tequila

  • Tequila is a kind of mezcal produced in certain delimited areas of Mexico, using only blue agave.
  • Tequila has different classifications based on aging method.  Blanco is un-aged, or aged very briefly in stainless steel tanks.  Gold tequila gets its colour from caramel.  Reposado and añejo tequilas are aged in wooden barrels.

Grappa, Marc, and other Pomace Spirits

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but most common in wine-producing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Grape pomace (the skins and seeds left-over after pressing grapes to make wine).  Really cheap examples will use true pomace mixed with a bit of water and sugar.  Really fine examples will actually use grape juice, but from later pressings.
  • Distillation: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging: Most often a clear spirit.  The Cretain pomace spirit raki is often aged on wood.  And there are some amazing Grappa di Barolo that are barrel-aged.
  • In Greece the most common word for pomace spirit is tsipouro.
  • Other notes: Grappa is often a little rough around the edges, but quality examples like Nonino Grappa showcase the natural aromas of the grapes from which it is made.  Nonino Grappa di Moscato, for instance, has the distinct lemon balm aroma of the moscato grape.

Hot Toddy

A hot toddy make with The GlenlivetToddy, or hot toddy, is a Scots drink of whisky, sugar, and hot water.

I’ve read that the name refers to Tod’s Well, an ancient spring that once gave Edinburgh its water.[1]  In other words it is yet another instance of the charming tradition of referring to whisky as water.[2]

Ancestral wisdom tells us that taking a mug of toddy in bed before sleep will cure many ailments.

The traditional toddy recipe I have calls for equal parts whisky and water.  Modern recipes are more likely 2 parts whisky to 3 parts or more of water.  They also typically use citrus and spices.  Though not traditional, the citrus is important, as the sweet, boozy cocktail absolutely requires acidity to remain balanced.

I debated for some time whether it was sinful to use single malt Scotch in a drink like this.  Blended Scotch is the norm, but I think you choose your whisky for a toddy the same way you choose your whisky on any other night.  Is it a Tuesday?  Then Famous Grouse is just fine.  Is it a long, dark January night, with no chance of friends calling?  Maybe something a bit peaty.

Here is a “recipe”.  I absolutely refuse to give any quantities.

A Hot Toddy

Ingredients

  • water
  • dark brown sugar
  • lemon slice
  • clove
  • fine Scotch whisky.  If it is before December, consider a Speyside Scotch.  If it is below -15°C, you might consider something from the islands.  Below -25°C and that island should be Islay.
  • orange slice

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, dark brown sugar, lemon slices, and clove in a heavy pot.  Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
  2. Pour a shot of whisky into a warmed mug.  Pour the water-sugar-spice mixture over top to desired strength.  Garnish with orange.

 

Notes.  Important Notes.

  1. Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when the boys go to a Harvard bar and Will calls out that douche-bag for plagiarizing something to impress a girl?  Well, the same thing just happened to me, sort of.  To prepare for writing this post I thought I’d have a cursory glance at the Wikipedia “Hot Toddy” page to make sure I wasn’t missing some salient piece of information on the drink.  I started reading, and I got to a long passage that I recognized.  Whoever wrote the Wikipedia page on hot toddies ripped a large section of text from The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian MacNeill without referencing it at all.  The only difference between what just happened to me and what happened in Good Will Hunting is that the plagiarist wasn’t around for me to castigate, and there weren’t any girls around to admire me.
  2. I can’t remember if I’ve written this before on Button Soup, but “whisky” is an Anglicization of the Celtic words for “water of life”.

 

Eggnog

Some jarred nog, agingHow to Incorporate the Eggs.  There are several different ways to put the “egg” into “eggnog.”  For a few years I used this method:

  • whisk egg yolks with some sugar until pale and foamy
  • whisk egg whites with some sugar until soft peaks form
  • fold the two egg foams together and stir into milk and cream
  • add rum and nutmeg

The problem with this method, first of all, is that if it sits for even five minutes, the eggy foams separate from the milk and cream. I wouldn’t mind a bit of head on the nog, but the foams make up about 90% of the volume.  Even during the brief moments in which all the ingredients are properly incorporated, the light and airy texture of the nog doesn’t seem appropriately robust and nourishing.

Out of sheer curiosity I tried cooking out a mixture of milk, cream, and yolks, à la crème anglaise.  It was a bit thick, even once thinned with rum, but before repeating the process with a lower yolk content I decided that the cooked-egg taste is also inappropriate to the ideal nog.

I’ve finally settled on just adding whole eggs with the milk and cream, and blitzing thoroughly with a stick blender.  The white make a nice little foam on top.  Sometimes it will separate a bit if it sits in the fridge, but you can just blend it again before serving.

Rum Content.  The recipe below uses one part rum for three parts dairy.  To some drinkers it will seem out of balance, but to me nog can pull off wonky booziness that would be completely inappropriate in most drinks.  Egg nog should warm you up.

Aging.  Another important piece of information I came across was that properly boozed nog can be made well, well before consumption, and aged in the fridge.  Michael Ruhlman has successfully aged eggnog for two years, if you can believe it.  I’ve been making mine about one month in advance.  The drink mellows and blends somewhat, but doesn’t develop any of the funky flavours of true, long-aged nog.  It makes preparation for parties easier.

If you intend on aging your nog I’d recommend doubling the quantity of rum in the recipe below.

Foam.  Very much a matter of personal taste, but I usually like a bit of eggy foam on top of my nog.  I like the flavour of the egg whites, and it creates textural contrast.

If you want lots of foam, you could separate the yolks and whites.  Use only the yolks in the recipe below, then right before serving whisk the whites with a pinch of sugar.  In terms of how stiff the whites should be whisked, I think they should be even softer than the classical “soft-peak” stage.  Once they reach soft peaks, the foam doesn’t flow over the surface of the liquid, and when drinking the nog it’s difficult to incorporate both foam and drink into each sip.

Nutmeg.  I used to incorporate the nutmeg at the blending stage, but I found that it always sank to the bottom.  Grating over the drink just before consumption ensures that you get the full aroma of the spice as it happily floats on the surface.  Just my preference.

 

Eggnog

Ingredients

  • 12 oz whole eggs (6 large eggs)
  • 8 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 very small pinch kosher salt
  • 24 fl oz whole milk
  • 8 fl oz heavy cream
  • 8 fl oz golden or spiced rum, I use Sailor Jerry
  • nutmeg to taste

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients and blend with an immersion blender.
  2. Can be stored in the fridge for a week before serving.
  3. To serve, blend thoroughly to develop of bit of foam.  Ladle into mugs and grate nutmeg on top to taste.

Irish Cream

Homemade Irish creamThere are two drinks that we go through in unholy quantities this time of year.  The first without question is rum, as it is used in all kinds of preserves, baking, and cocktails.  The second is Irish cream, consumed on its own, or diluted with a bit of milk or coffee.

For years my standby has been Bailey’s, but this year I decided to make my own.

Irish cream is comprised of cream, sugar, and Irish whiskey, usually but not always flavoured with coffee.  It is around 20% alcohol by volume, and has a rich, viscous mouthfeel.  It’s basically an Irish coffee with the ingredients in different proportions.

If you plan on consuming Irish cream in coffee, there’s probably not much point in flavouring it with coffee.  I’m after a drink to be enjoyed on its own, so I’ve included strong coffee in my recipe.

I’ve come across some recipes online that use condensed milk to approximate the thickness of commercial brands.  The truth is that it’s not the thickness of condensed milk that gives the final drink a rich mouthfeel, it’s the sugar content.  Sugary liquids have a high specific gravity and give the impression of viscosity on the palate.  Granulated sugar and cream therefore work just as well as condensed milk.

The following recipe is a reasonable facsimile of commercial brands, though with a more distinct coffee flavour.  Obviously you can adjust the whiskey content to suit your taste.

Irish Cream

Ingredients

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 70 g granulated sugar
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 70 mL strong, high quality coffee, chilled
  • 70 mL heavy cream
  • 140 mL Irish whiskey, preferably Jameson
  • 1.25 mL vanilla extract

Procedure

  1. Whisk the sugar and salt into the egg yolks.
  2. Whisk in the remaining ingredients.  Let stand in the fridge overnight.

Yard of Flannel (a het pint…)

Yard of flannel is hot ale, laced with rum and spices, and thickened with egg.

Though there’s a surprising number of beer and cocktail blogs that have tried out old recipes of yard of flannel, there’s very little information on the history of this drink available online.

I’ve found no documented link between these two drinks, but yard of flannel is nearly identical in recipe and preparation to an old Scots cocktail called het pint (literally “hot pint”).  The only difference is that the Scots version typically uses whiskey instead of rum.

Het pint was once an important part of Scottish celebrations, especially Hogmanay, the Scots New Year.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, public houses made het pint on New Year’s eve, and villagers would buy a copper-kettle’s-worth to take home for the festivities.

Kettles of het pint would also be carried through the streets by “first-footers.”  The first person to enter a house on New Year’s day was said to be a foretoken of the prosperity of the coming year.  The first-foot was ideally “a man, tall with dark hair… carrying gifts, including whisky, tea, coal, or salt, symbols of good health, good fortune, good luck, a warm home, and a full larder.”[1]  In some traditions the first person to cross the threshold is a more or less random event.  In others young men would travel from house to house with gifts.  These first-footers often carried pots of het pint with them as they walked through the town, offering the drink to passers-by.

Het pint was consumed at many other celebrations, notably rural weddings on Orkney.[2]

A frothy yard of flannelNot only are recipes for het pint and yard of flannel consistenty nearly identical, they both use the same technique to develop a tall foamy head on the drink.  When agitated, the egg proteins develop a head that is much more stable than that of beer alone (think: meringue).  The head on het pint and yard of flannel is traditionally produced by pouring the drink back and forth between two mugs in a tall cascade.

Ale makes up the bulk of the drink, so the choice of ale to be used is the most important decision made by the cook.  Nowadays “ale” refers to a beverage that undergoes a warm fermentation with a top-fermenting strain of yeast, typically producing an aromatic, fruity, floral beer.  It’s counterpart, “lager,” goes through a colder, longer fermentation with a bottom-fermenting strain of yeast, resulting in a cleaner, crisper drink.

Until atleast the nineteenth century, in Great Britain the word “beer” referred exclusively to hopped beers (a Bavarian invention), while “ale” was reserved for the traditional, unhopped, British drink.  Therefore the “ale” called for in old het pint recipes refers to this ancient style of British beer.  Many contemporary beers made in the UK are reminiscent of these older styles, though they do contain some hops.  Here’s a description of modern Scottish ale:

Scottish Ales traditionally go through a long boil in the kettle for a caramelization of the wort. This produces a deep copper to brown… brew and a higher level of unfermentable sugars which create a rich mouthfeel and malty flavors and aromas. Overall hop character is low, light floral or herbal, allowing its signature malt profile to be the highlight.[3]

This style of beer makes perfect sense for het pint, as the malt and caramel flavours compliment the rum or whisky.  The pronounced hops flavour of most contemporary beers would probably be out of place.

I’ve hear that the “yard” in yard of flannel refers to the yard-long glasses in which the drink was once served, and the “flannel” refers to the rich, soft mouthfeel developed by the heated eggs.  I can’t find a reliable source for that information.

I don’t imagine this drink will be everyone’s cup of tea, as the modern man doesn’t like the thought of drinking hot eggs, but I have to say it’s a well-balanced cocktail with a fantastic mouthfeel.

Yard of Flannel (a het pint…)
adapted from Back to Basics

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/6 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • fresh grated nutmeg to taste
  • 341 mL your favourite English pale ale, Scottish ale, or possibly brown ale
  • 1/6 cup golden rum

Procedure

  1. Whisk together egg, sugar, and salt.
  2. Gently heat ale and nutmeg in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Do not let the ale boil.
  3. Once the ale mixture is starting to steam, slowly pour it into the egg while whisking.  Adding the ale too quickly may curdle the egg, which would be bad.
  4. If you’re a stickler for tradition, you can develop the head by pouring the mixture back and forth between two mugs.  As you can probably imagine, this quickly cools down the drink.  You can get just as good a head by whisking vigorously while the flannel is still in the bowl.

 

References

1. Duncan, Dorothy. Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations. ©2010 Dorothy Duncan. Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON. Page 313.
2.  McNeill, F. Marian.  The Scots Kitchen.  ©2010 The Estate of F. Marian McNeill.  Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.  Page 309.
3.  Beer Advocate.com