Sunday, February 15, 2015

Know Your Poisons: Gin

Ah, gin; that delicious clear spirit flavored with juniper berries and botanicals. The neutral spirit base of gin is primarily grain (usually wheat or rye), which results in a light-bodied spirit perfectly amenable to the addition of varied herbs and spices.

The Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius is often credited with the invention of gin in the mid 17th century, although the existence of its predecessor, a beverage called genever, is confirmed as early as 1623, when Dr. Sylvius would have been but nine years of age. It is further claimed that British soldiers who provided support in Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585, during the Eighty Years' War for Dutch independence, were already drinking genever for its calming effects before battle, from which the term Dutch Courage is believed to have originated.

Genever is made primarily from "malt wine" (a mixture of malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye), which produces a fuller-bodied spirit similar to raw malt whiskey. A small number of genevers in Holland and Belgium are distilled directly from fermented juniper berries, producing a particularly intensely flavored spirit.
The chief flavoring agent in both gin and genever is the highly aromatic blue-green berry of the juniper, a low-slung evergreen bush that is commercially grown in northern Italy, Croatia, the United States and Canada. Additional botanicals can include anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, and cassia bark. All gin makers have their own secret combination of botanicals, the number of which can range from as few as four to as many as fifteen.

By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch distillers (some 400 in Amsterdam alone by 1663) had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or malt wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, etc., which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. Gin emerged in England in varying forms as of the early 17th century, and at the time of the Restoration, enjoyed a brief resurgence. 

When William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch Republic, occupied the British throne with his wife Mary in what has become known as the Glorious Revolution in 1689, gin became vastly more popular, particularly in crude, inferior forms, where it was more likely to be flavored with turpentine as an alternative to juniper. 

Whoa, Wingman. Turpentine?
Seriously, turpentine. 

"There was a good chance in the 18th Century that the gins being drunk in London were genever-style," says Gary Regan, author of the Bartender's Gin Compendium. "A lot of it was probably really terrible. People were distilling in their houses."

Of course, the genever being drunk by William III and his successors was not easy to replicate in a bathtub in a basement.(You’ve heard the term “bathtub gin”?) The eager entrepreneurs reached for just about any additive they could in an effort to make the drink even vaguely palatable. Hence, turpentine, to generate resinous woody notes in addition to the juniper. Ugh.

Another common variation was to distil in the presence of sulfuric acid. Although the acid itself does not distil, it imparts the additional aroma of diethyl ether to the resulting gin. Sulfuric acid subtracts one water molecule from two ethanol molecules to create diethyl ether, which also forms an azeotrope with ethanol, and therefore distils with it. The result is a sweeter spirit, and one that may have possessed additional analgesic/intoxicating effects.

Gin drinking in England rose significantly after the Government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits. This created a market for poor-quality grain that was unfit for brewing beer, and thousands of gin-shops sprang up throughout England, a period known as the Gin Craze. Because of the relative price of gin, when compared with other drinks available at the same time and in the same geographic location, gin began to be consumed regularly by the poor who aspired to drink like the King. 

Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, not including coffee shops and cafes, over half were gin shops. Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink the brewed ale than unclean plain water. Gin, though, was blamed for various social problems, and it may have been a factor in the higher death rates which stabilized London's previously growing population. Seriously, guys; gin was the crack cocaine or crystal meth of its day. The reputation of gin was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751), described by the BBC as "arguably the most potent anti-drug poster ever conceived." The negative reputation of gin survives today in the English language, in terms like "gin mills" or the American phrase "gin joints" to describe disreputable bars or "gin-soaked" to refer to drunks, and in the phrase "mother's ruin", a common British name for gin.

Some of the points illustrated in the Hogarth Gin Lane engraving:
The Hanged Man: A barber has taken his life in the attic of his own house; his death is unnoticed by the drunken mass of people below.
The Pawnbroker: The pawnbroker’s sign hangs symbolically over the spire of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury. Below it, the bewigged pawnbroker is a rare prosperous person.

Impaled baby: A man with a child impaled on a spike hits himself over the head with a pair of bellows while a distraught woman chases him.

Baby fed gin: On the left a woman feeds gin to a man in a wheelbarrow while on the right a baby receives the same treatment.

Syphilis sores: The bare-breasted woman, who has dropped her baby, has syphilis sores on her legs.

The Pamphlet Seller: The pamphlet seller, warning of the dangers of drink, appears to have died of starvation, but still has an emptied cup.

Drunk for a penny: The cellar sign says: Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for twopence, Clean straw for nothing. This symbolizes the underground nature of so many gin houses and how one could drink cheaply in large quantity.

The Gin Act 1736 imposed high taxes on retailers and led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful, however; It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates. Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today. Need a refresher on pot stills and column stills? Go here.

Most Gin is initially distilled in column stills. The resulting spirit is high-proof, light-bodied, and clean with a minimal amount of congeners and flavoring agents. Genever is distilled in  pot stills, which results in a lower-proof, more flavorful spirit.

Low-quality "compound" gins are made by simply mixing the base spirit with juniper and botanical extracts. Mass-market gins are produced by soaking juniper berries and botanicals in the base spirit and then redistilling the mixture.

Top-quality gins are flavored in a unique manner. After one or more distillations the base spirit is redistilled one last time. During this final distillation the alcohol vapor wafts through a chamber in which the dried juniper berries and botanicals are suspended. The vapor gently extracts aromatic and flavoring oils and compounds from the berries and spices as it travels through the chamber on its way to the condenser. The resulting flavored spirit has a noticeable degree of complexity.

Tanqueray Rangpur, made with rare Rangpur limes from India

Classifications of Gin
London Dry Gin is the dominant English style of gin. As a style it lends itself particularly well to mixing. London Dry Gin is the dominant Gin style in the United Kingdom, former British colonies, the United States, and Spain.

Plymouth Gin is relatively full-bodied (when compared to London Dry Gin). It is clear, slightly fruity, and very aromatic. Originally the local Gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, modern Plymouth Gin is nowadays made only by one distillery in Plymouth, Coates & Co., which also controls the right to the term Plymouth Gin.

Old Tom Gin is the last remaining example of the original lightly sweetened gins that were so popular in 18th-century England. The name comes from what may be the first example of a beverage vending machine. In the 1700s some pubs in England would have a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an "Old Tom") mounted on the outside wall. Thirsty passersby would deposit a penny in the cat’s mouth and place their lips around a small tube between the cat’s paws. The bartender inside would then pour a shot of gin through the tube and into the customer’s waiting mouth. Until fairly recently limited quantities of Old Tom-style Gin were still being made by a few British distillers, but they were, at best, curiosity items. Noted high-end gin maker Tanqueray recently introduced their own Old Tom.

Genever (or Hollands) is the Dutch style of gin, distilled from a malted grain mash similar to that used for whisky. Oude ("old") Genever is the original style. It is straw-hued, relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge ("young") Genever has a drier palate and lighter body. Some genevers are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Genevers tend to be lower proof than English gins (72-80 proof or 36-40% ABV is typical). They are traditionally sold in a cylindrical stoneware crock and usually served straight up and chilled. The classic accompaniment to a shot of Genever is a dried green herring. Genever-style gins are produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany.

Mmmmmmmmm, botanicals

Many people don’t like the taste of gin due to the juniper. I guess it’s an acquired taste for some, and I must have acquired it quickly, because lads, your Wingman very much enjoys his gin and tonics. It was actually my first adult cocktail choice. I’d just been posted to Germany in the Army, and I wasn’t even a month past my 19th birthday. I went to a club with a guy from my platoon, and he went to the bar & returned with a pair of G&T’s. I loved it from the first sip. Crisp, light, refreshing, with an interesting bite. I felt like a sophisticated grownup manly man with a cool-ass cocktail without the harshness of a martini. My own personal tastes demand that I make cocktails with a mixer of juice or soda instead of just straight alcohol. Your tastes might be different.  And another kick-ass property of a G&T? It glows in the dark under a black light. In my club days that was awesome.

The Gin and Tonic is just as timeless a classic as the Martini. The cocktail was introduced by the British army in India. In India and other tropical regions, malaria was a persistent problem.

In the 17th century, the Spanish had discovered that indigenous peoples in what is now Peru used a kind of bark to address various “fevers.” Stripped from the cinchona tree, the bark seemed to work well for malaria. The “Jesuit’s bark,” as it was known, quickly became a favored treatment for malaria in Europe. Eventually it became clear that cinchona bark could be used not only to treat malaria, but also to prevent it. The bark—and its active ingredient, quinine powder—was a powerful medicine. 

In the 1700s it was discovered that quinine could be used to prevent and treat malaria, although the bitter taste was unpleasant. British officers in India in the early 19th century took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine in order to make the drink more palatable. Soldiers in India were already given a gin ration, and the sweet concoction made sense. Since it is no longer used as an antimalarial, tonic water today contains much less quinine, is usually sweetened, and is consequently much less bitter. No less an authority on imperial power than Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

The Perfect Gin and Tonic
4 to 5 tonic water ice cubes
3 ounces gin
4 ounces tonic water
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish
Place the ice cubes in a tall, narrow, chilled glass (the cubes should come near the top.) Add the gin, then the tonic water, then the lime juice, stirring well. Garnish with lime wedge, and serve immediately.
Note: To make the ice cubes, simply fill an empty ice cube tray with tonic water, and let the cubes freeze. It takes just a few hours.

The Classic Dry Gin Martini
2 ounces dry gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
Olives or a twist of lemon, for garnish
If you prefer a martini with only vodka and the barest suggestion of vermouth, avert your eyes. Assertive gin and a healthy dose of vermouth mix here for a smooth version of the classic. If an olive takes up too much room in your cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon twist.
Place a cocktail glass in the freezer to chill.
Combine the gin and vermouth in a shaker, fill it halfway with ice, and stir vigorously until well chilled, about 20 seconds. Strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with either olives or a twist of lemon. (If using a twist, be sure to run the slice over the glass’s rim.)

The Joy Division
2 oz  London Dry Gin
1 oz Dry Vermouth
.5 oz Cointreau
3 dashes Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

 And I leave you with this quote from the TV show M*A*S*H*, from the first season, (March 18, 1973 episode #23 "Ceasefrire".)  "I'll stick with gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody."-- Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce

Who's got your back? I do.

UPDATE 6-13-2015: The Wall Street Journal just released THIS ARTICLE about upgrading your gin and tonic with some new recipes and drink suggestions.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Know Your Poisons: The Demon Rum

 Rum is a distillation made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oak barrels. Rum is often described in Spanish as being ron viejo ("old rum") and ron añejo ("aged rum"). 

The history of rum is rooted in the sugar trade. When sugar plantations in the Caribbean found that when the molasses leftovers from cane processing was mixed with water and left in the sun it fermented (duh) and we all know that what ferments can most often be turned into hootch. By the 1650s what was once a waste product was being distilled into the signature spirit of the region and became a staple on sailing ships. In the English colonies it was called Kill Devil or rumbullion, later shortened to rum.

The classic rum & cola
Within the Caribbean, each island or production area has a unique style. For the most part, these styles can be grouped by the language traditionally spoken on the island. Due to the overwhelming influence of Puerto Rican rum, most rum consumed in the United States is produced in the 'Spanish-speaking' style.

English-speaking islands and countries are known for darker rums with a fuller taste that retains a greater amount of the underlying molasses flavor. Rums from Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, St.Lucia, Belize, Bermuda, Saint Kitts, Jamaica, and the Demerara region of Guyana are typical of this style.

The Wingman's rum of choice is Kraken.
French-speaking islands are best known for their agricultural rums (rhum agricole). These rums, being produced exclusively from sugar cane juice, retain a greater amount of the original flavor of the sugar cane and are generally more expensive than molasses-based rums. Rums from Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique are typical of this style.

Spanish-speaking islands and countries traditionally produce añejo rums with a fairly smooth taste. Rums from Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela are typical of this style. Rum from the U.S. Virgin Islands is also of this style. The Canary Islands produces honey rum known as ron miel de Canarias and carries a geographical designation.

Cachaça is a spirit similar to rum that is produced in Brazil. (Some countries, including the United States, classify cachaça as a type of rum.) Seco, from Panama, is also a spirit similar to rum, but also similar to vodka since it is triple distilled.


Unlike some other spirits, rum has no defined production methods. Instead, rum production is based on traditional styles that vary between locations and distillers.

Sugarcane is harvested to make sugarcane juice and molasses. Most rum produced is made from molasses and in the Caribbean region much of this molasses is from Brazil. A notable exception is the French-speaking islands, where sugarcane juice is the preferred base ingredient. In Brazil itself, the distilled alcoholic beverage derived from cane juice is distinguished from rum and called cachaça.

Yeast and water are added to the base ingredient to start the fermentation process. While some rum producers allow wild yeasts to perform the fermentation, most use specific strains of yeast to help provide a consistent taste and predictable fermentation time. Dunder, the yeast-rich foam from previous fermentations, is the traditional yeast source in Jamaica. Distillers who make lighter rums, such as Bacardi, prefer to use faster-working yeasts. The use of slower-working yeasts causes more esters to accumulate during fermentation, allowing for a more fuller-tasting rum.

As with all other aspects of rum production, no standard method is used for distillation, either. While some producers work in batches using pot stills, most rum production is done using column still distillation. Pot still output contains more congeners than the output from column stills, so produces fuller-tasting rums. 

Whoa…Wait a minute, Wingman. Pot stills? Column Stills? Congeners? 

With pot distillation, you put a batch of fermented liquid called mash into a copper pot. You cap and seal the pot and heat it. As the liquid heats up, the alcohol in the liquid boils first (because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does) and turns to vapor. The alcohol vapors rise up into the head of the still; then they're drawn off into an arm and then to a coil. The coil is submerged in cool water, which condenses the alcohol back into liquid. The liquid alcohol, called neutral spirits, runs out of the coil and into a collection vessel.

Now, the vapors that rise are never purely ethanol. If they were, every batch of liquor, whether you’re distilling vodka, rum, tequila, gin, whiskey, or brandy, would taste like Everclear. The vapors are a mix of alcohol and congeners and other compounds that provide flavor and aroma. Congeners are substances other than alcohol produced during fermentation. Congeners are responsible for most of the taste and aroma of distilled alcoholic beverages and many believe that these substances contribute to the symptoms of a hangover. The more times a spirit is distilled, the more impurities and excess congeners are removed.
A pot still allows a distiller to make only one batch of spirits at a time, and so the still needs to be emptied out and cleaned up before the next batch can begin. Also, pot stills can only distill to a certain level of purity: usually between 60 and 80 percent alcohol by volume.

In a column still, imagine a tall column filled with pot still upon pot still upon pot still. A column still has partitions, or perforated plates, that set up chambers within the still. The mash enters near the top of the still and immediately starts to sink. The mash, at this point, is still low in alcohol.

The still is constantly heated from the bottom. Usually this entails pumping steam in to the bottom of the still and letting it rise. The top of the column is the coolest part, so as the mash enters, it sinks toward the bottom. As the liquid interacts with the steam, the heat vaporizes the mash and forces the alcohol and other volatile molecules up the still. (Water and grain solids in the mash fall back to the bottom of the still.)

Each time the vapors hit a plate, they start to condense again, and as they condense, the heavier stuff (such as the congeners) stays behind in the condensation. As the vapors rise from chamber to chamber, and from plate to plate, they shed more of the stuff that isn't ethanol and keep more of the stuff that is ethanol.

The alcohol vapor is diverted out of the top of the still and into a condenser, where it condenses out into liquid again. In some cases, the spirit is then redistilled at least once, sometimes in a pot still, sometimes in another column still. 

Pot stills are made of copper. Column stills are sometimes made from copper, sometimes from stainless steel, or sometimes from a mix. Of you might find an all-stainless still with copper elements inside it. Why all the copper? Copper strips most of the sulfur that arises naturally during fermentation. It lends a sour taste to spirits, so it's best to remove it. Sulfur reacts with copper to form copper sulfate, which separates from the distillate, removing the rotten egg sulfur aromas from the final product.

Thus endeth the lesson in distilling alcohol. Now, back to the rum.

This is a real product, aged 7 years in Panama by a master Cuban-born rum maker.
Many countries require rum to be aged for at least one year. This aging is commonly performed in used bourbon casks, but may also be performed in other types of wooden casks or stainless steel tanks. The aging process determines the color of the rum. When aged in oak casks, it becomes dark, whereas rum aged in stainless steel tanks remains virtually colorless.

Due to the tropical climate common to most rum-producing areas, rum matures at a much higher rate than is typical for whiskey or brandy. An indication of this higher rate is the “angels' share”, or amount of product lost to evaporation. While products aged in France or Scotland see about 2% loss each year, tropical rum producers may see as much as 10%. The opposite of the Angels’ Share is the Devil’s Cut, or essences of the aged liquors that remain trapped in the wood of the aging casks. More on that when we get to whiskies.

After aging, rum is normally blended to ensure a consistent flavor. Blending is the final step in the rum-making process. In fact, blending is common in many distilling operations, especially in Scotch and other whiskies. 
As part of this blending process, light rums may be filtered to remove any color gained during aging. For darker rums, caramel may be added to adjust the color of the final product.

The grades and variations used to describe rum depend on the location where a rum was produced. Despite these variations, the following terms are frequently used to describe various types of rum:

Dark rums, also known by their particular color, such as brown, black, or red rums, are classed as a grade darker than gold rums. They are usually made from caramelized sugar or molasses. They are generally aged longer, in heavily-charred barrels, giving them much stronger flavors than either light or gold rums, and hints of spices can be detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone. They commonly provide substance in rum drinks, as well as color. In addition, dark rum is the type most commonly used in cooking.

Flavored rums are infused with flavors of fruits, such as banana, mango, orange, citrus, coconut, starfruit or lime. These are generally less than 80 proof. They mostly serve to flavor similarly-themed tropical drinks but are also often drunk neat or with ice.

Gold rums, also called "amber" rums, are medium-bodied rums that are generally aged. These gain their dark color from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred, white oak barrels that are the byproduct of Bourbon whiskey). They have more flavor and are stronger-tasting than light rum, and can be considered midway between light rum and the darker varieties.

Light rums, also referred to as "silver" or "white" rums, in general, have very little flavor aside from a general sweetness. Light rums are sometimes filtered after aging to remove any color. Brazilian cachaça is generally this type, but some varieties are more akin to "gold rums". The majority of light rums come from Puerto Rico. Their milder flavors make them popular for use in mixed drinks, as opposed to drinking them straight.

 Overproof rums are much higher than the standard 80 proof, with many as high as 150 proof to 160 proof available. They are usually used in mixed drinks. The prime example of an overproof is Bacardi 151. 

Oh, c'mon...who among us hasn't?
Premium rums, as with other sipping spirits such as Cognac and Scotch, are in a special market category. These are generally from boutique brands that sell carefully produced and aged rums. They have more character and flavor than their "mixing" counterparts and are generally consumed straight.

Dude, that's a $240 bottle of rum.
Spiced rums obtain their flavors through the addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in color, and based on gold rums. Some are significantly darker, while many cheaper brands are made from inexpensive white rums and darkened with caramel color. Among the spices added are cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, or pepper.

We've all partied with The Captain. Don't lie.
Okay, gents. Now you know all about rum. Go forth and drink responsibly and intelligently. And while we’re at it, have a recipe or two.

Hot Buttered Caramel Rum

    2 Tbsp Unsalted butter, softened
    2 Tbsp Brown sugar
    2 Tbsp Honey
    1 tsp Ground cinnamon
    .5 tsp Ground cloves
    .5 tsp Ground nutmeg
    3 oz aged rum
    1 oz caramel vodka
    1 cup hot water, plus more if desired

In a mug, stir together the butter, brown sugar, honey and spices until they’ve formed a batter. Add the remaining ingredients and stir vigorously until the batter is fully dissolved. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.

                                                             The Dark & Stormy

                                                       1.5 oz Gosling's Black Seal Rum
                                  Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer (not ginger ale. Know the difference)

                              In a highball glass filled with ice add 4 - 5 oz of Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer 
                                    and top with Gosling's Black Seal Rum. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Who's got your back? I do

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

New Series: Know Your Poisons

This is the first in a new series of articles designed to educate you on alcohol. The more you know, the better, sayeth The Wingman. The more you know, the more you’ll appreciate what it is you’re drinking. Any dipshit can guzzle rotgut swill. If you appreciate and respect your libation, you’ll tend to drink more sophisticated drinks and higher quality drinks, within your budgetary constraints of course. And just because something is expensive that doesn’t always mean it’s good; I’ve had a $75.00 bottle of wine that tasted like monkey piss and a $5.00 Rioja Tempranillo that was heavenly. 

As with all things I encourage you to experiment and find your taste, and execute with taste, and execute in tasteful moderation. No one likes a drunk, and from experience it is far more fun to catch a light buzz and then watch the sloppy drunks make asses of themselves. But sip and taste and imbibe and find what suits your palate best. What I like isn’t necessarily what you’ll like. Personally, I don’t like tequila (too much cheap tequila shots in the Army) and while I like the malty bitterness of stout, I dislike the hoppy bitterness of IPA.

I hope to teach you a bit about the popular varieties of liquors and then move on to beers and then wines. I haven’t decided yet if I will get into cordials. We shall see. I likely will, since most of you are probably unfamiliar with the term, and the only cordial you’d recognize is Jaegermeister. And The Wingman is pretty sure you’re drinking that all wrong to the point where Germans laugh at you. But we’ll get to that later.

Trust me; this is not what you think it is.
 Since time began, man has imbibed alcohol. Why? For practical reasons at first, and then for the impractical. In Them Olden Days, alcohol was safer to drink than the water. Water was untreated and unclean. It contained icky microbes and other fell stuff. The water supply was peed in, crapped in, things were washed in it if washed at all, bodies may be dumped in it...just nasty. Alcohol killed the toxic stuff in the water. In the case of beer, it provided needed carbs for fortification during religious fasting. Trust me; this is why the best beers were developed by monks. And brewing and distilling ensured that crop overages would not rot and go to waste after the harvest. What wasn't milled into flour or consumed at the table was turned into liquor or wine or beer. And look, think of how dreary it was 300 years ago with no electricity, no entertainment, no toilet paper, no shaving of legs and armpits on the ladies, no deodorant, no shampoo, no toothpaste....hell, I'd get drunk to escape the misery of life too.

In this series we’ll cover the main varieties of liquor, from rum to vodka to gin to tequila. When we get to whiskies, I’m going to split it up a bit and cover Scotch as its own topic. These core liquors form the well around which all bars are set up. Know your liquors and you'll go far.

 Who's got your back? I do.