Tag: whiskey

Russian Bee

Julia Ioffe’s profile of Russian chef/culinary historian Maksim Syrnikov includes a wonderful segment on distilling samogon, a kind of rye whiskey, with a very Russian-seeming stove-top still, half built by a professional dairy engineer, half jury rigged with a bath towel, nail, and empty desk drawer. A “degustation” sipped from the still, Ioffe writes, “was still warm and smelled of freshly risen dough.” Rowanberry samogon sounds even better, made with frozen fruit plucked after the first frost.

Then there’s myod. Alcohol runs deep through Russian history, but not the kind we think. Tastelesssoulless — vodka is a late-nineteenth-century invention; before that, folks drank “bread wine” like Syrnikov’s samogon, often infused with foraged herbs and berries. Before that, though, they drank mead. In 1476, when Ambrosio Contarini visited from Venice, distilled spirits were rare. “They have no wines,” he wrote home, “but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.”

The Blend Is Near

Nothing is sacred, not even beer. Prove it: order a pint of the latest over-hopped, over-hyped IPA, down half, and top it off with a simple pale. See? It gets better.

I wrote about mixing beer in this month’s GQ, but it’s been going on for ages. In eighteenth-century England, savvy drinkers ordered half-and-halfs or three threads: old, stale beer livened up with some fresh from the brewery. (Porter started out as one of these mixes.) Flemish brewers carbonate their gueuze the same way, adding a bit of new beer to a flat batch of sour lambic to wake up the old yeast. Beer aged in barrels is almost always blended because each cask ferments a little differently. When a smoked beer by Boulder’s Avery Brewing Company lost its edge after sitting too long in a rum barrel, they made an extra-smoky batch to mix it with. Germans—lest you think them Reinheitsgebot-thumping purists—mix their beers with Coke and banana nectar.

Beer cocktails are getting common, but beer blends are still underground. “We hide our blends on the other side of the menu,” Avery’s taproom manager Phil Vaughn says. “Not recommended, but not discouraged,” according to North Coast’s vice president Doug Moody. “Don’t tell the brewers,” warns an anonymous source at Cleveland’s Great Lakes. Fine, we get it: Craft beer is perfect straight up, but a little alchemy can go a long way.

Some blends to try:

Belgian Strong Golden + Pilsner
Wheat + Scotch Ale (or just Scotch)
IPA + English Pale Ale
Russian Stout + Pale Ale
Saison + Mescal
IPA + Rye Whiskey
Wheat + Lemonade
Brown Ale + Port
IPA + Espresso (We learned about this at Founders in Grand Rapids, where our Midwestern favorite MadCap Coffee made just such a blend.)

Stoaked

When we drove from Brooklyn to California, we took the essentials: brew kettle, fermenters, grains, beer books, a raincoat. Everything else we left in a storage unit. We were just in New York for a week of book promotion, and we visited our unit, flung open the door, and felt that strange relief you feel when absolutely nothing has changed. More specifically: when your barrel of beer hasn’t exploded over all your belongings.

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Big Beers, Small Barrels

Texan homebrewers don’t mess around. While we were there we heard about a homebrew made with bacon-infused Scotch, and tried a smoky barleywine that tasted like meat and leather and was so delicious we licked off our fingers when we accidentally spilled a drop. Fort Worth’s Cap and Hare homebrewing club is hosting the biggest homebrew competition in the country this month — Bluebonnet Brew-Off — and we’d be going, and entering, (and probably losing), if we didn’t have to run the Craft Brewers Conference gauntlet that same week.

Even Rahr shares the homebrew spirit. They host Cap and Hare meetings sometimes, and a homebrew contest called Iron Mash. We saw some little, 2- or 3-gallon barrels in their barrel room — just like the ones we have from Tuthilltown. One of Rahr’s brewers, Jason Lyon, told us the little barrels are good for experimenting because they have a better ratio of volume to surface area (less beer touching more wood), so they age beer faster than regular, 53-gallon barrels. Not everything’s bigger in Texas.

SF Beer Week: Shots

Life was like a Portlandia episode inside Elixir on Friday. The conversation moved from coffee (Stumptown vs. Sightglass) to coffee (Aeropress vs. French press vs. my personal technique, pour-over into a Mason jar and aged on the kitchen counter all afternoon). We talked about coffee shops and coffee blogs, and then, for a change of pace, pickles. Elixir was serving pickle-backs, which the group two bar stools down ordered by the half-dozen. Novelty demands overindulgence.

But we were there for the shot-and-a-beer combos. They were pouring it from bottles, but the bartender told me they buy Buffalo Trace bourbon “by the barrel.” It’s one of my favorite bourbons—rich and buttery—and they were pairing it with an interesting beer, Magnolia’s Cole Porter, aged in those very same barrels. They also had an English-style house IPA, Snake Oil, paired with a candy apple-y cognac and Sierra Nevada pale paired with mezcal. The mezcal was the star: smokey and bittersweet, like barbecued peaches, or charred coconut. The Sierra—a great beer on its own—kind of dumbed it down. The Cole Porter, too, wasn’t as good as the bourbon, and the pairing suffered for it. In fact, the beer seemed to have lost some of its roasted edge after the two months it spent in that barrel. So I waited until the bartender wasn’t looking and dumped the rest of my shot into the pint glass to try and even things out.

Alembic did the mixing for us. Their menu was illegible and this led to some confusion over what was actually in each drink, and what they were called. The two standouts were the Harlot of Babylon and the Golden Lamp Stand, maybe. The first, we think, had Moonlight’s Death and Taxes, creme de cacao, and Tabasco and tasted like Mexican hot chocolate. The second had Magnolia’s kolsch, ginger, and bitters, and tasted like grown-up orange juice. We munched on duck hearts and our waitress told us she eats them every day, with hot cocoa, like some Aztec Marie Antoinette. Would that be a heart-back? Or just heart burn.

SF Beer Week: Hammered

Pi Bar opens at 3:14 every day. That’s dedication to the name. By the time I arrived at four, People were already in the weeds. The beer app on a new friend’s iPhone was telling him to “take it easy.” These drinkers had started from the bottom of the Deschutes tap list instead of the top. Beer before liquor—fine, but no old saying sings the dangers of imperial stouts before hefeweizens.

We love Deschutes, especially their Black Butte porter. This version, XXI, was partially aged in Stranahan’s whiskey barrels and topped off with Theo’s cocoa nibs. They gave the beer some sharp, roasted flavors and a little bit of oily sweetness. That, mixed with the woody vanilla of the barrels, made the whole thing taste kind of like balsamic vinegar. That’s a lot to say about one beer. The others were not as remarkable, but no one noticed.

Heart is a stuck-up wine bar down the street. They were tapping a half dozen firkins (old-school kegs that dispense beer via gravity, not CO2) and I came in, mid-tap, to a spray of foam and a soaked bartender. He posed with his heavy-looking, firkin-tapping wooden mallet for some cell-phone pictures, taken by the only employee of 6 or 7 there wearing an apron. Apron guy and his camera had avoided the spray.

I tried the Black and Blue, a dark beer from Linden Street brewed with Blue Bottle coffee. We like Blue Bottle, but it’s too expensive. It’s also usually acidic, but in this beer it tasted charred and very old. It was not good. Most people there were drinking the Ballast Point Sculpin, an IPA that one guy told me smelled like apricots. Instead of ordering another, I went back to Pi Bar. Apricot guy did too.