[In which I talk about American distilling related issues that I probably don’t know enough about]
In the US, until recent times, there weren’t all that many distilleries making whiskey. A history of Prohibition and draconian state liquor laws mean that not only did they start from a low base number in the 1930s but an increase in the number wasn’t particularly easy. Throw in a decline in the popularity of whiskey in the 1980s and 90s, leading to distillery closures and conglomeration, and you have a market that was ripe for the recent craft distilling boom. However, craft distilling is still in its infancy (or at least toddling years) in the USA and the ‘old’ system of whiskey production is still predominant. It’s a system that doesn’t necessarily link brands to the distilleries where their whiskey is made.
Keeping up with Whisky Squad meetings has been more difficult than usual recently, what with there being one every two weeks since the beginning of June. (Un)fortunately I’ve had an intervention of life and work, much of which was taken up with 5 days of drinking different boozes each day last week, filling all of my waking hours with Stuff and giving me no time to witter about the latest episode in the world of The Squad. However, after a few calming episodes of Babylon 5 (in which Bruce Boxleitner looks uncannily like my father, making me double take at almost every scene) and a glass of absinthe (of which more in a later post – I need to write about something other than whisky soon) my notebook has fallen open to the right page, photos have moved from camera to iPhoto and soothing musics are playing from my computer speakers. It is time to do a bit of ‘writing’.
My favourite cocktail of the moment, and for the last few months of moments, is The Sazerac. It’s a cocktail that I first tried in Match Bar near Oxford Circus a year or so ago (the first drink towards an evening which ended with me smoking out the back of the bar with the staff and ‘helping’ to close up before eventually finding a night bus home and eating a ropey kebab. On a Sunday night) and is generally considered to be one of the first cocktails.
Simply put, it’s a tweak to an old fashioned, using bright red Peychaud’s Bitters, rather than the traditional Angostura, and rye whiskey, all poured into an absinthe washed glass. These days the modern sazerac is rye stirred with ice, sugar (syrup or a cube depending on the stirrer) and Peychaud’s, in some way then joined with absinthe.
While some bartenders add a drop to the mix I prefer to drop back to the recipe I was originally told and coat the glass with absinthe, which doesn’t add much to the flavour of the spirit directly, but adds everything through smell – when you bring the glass to your mouth the sweet aniseed hits you in the face just before you sip the sweetened, spicy whiskey.
I recorded a short video showing how I make them. Please forgive my dirty kitchen…
Mine comes out reminding me of a sweet shop – hints of aniseed overlaid with candy sweetness and spiciness, along with the red colouring of the drink fooling the brain into expecting a boiled sweet flavour all add to the scent of childhood, with an extra brain punching slug of booze.
If you want to know how to do it properly, then have a look at this video. He pretty much agrees with me, but says it much better. His accent is much more authentic than my Sussex sourced tones as well.
It’s become, along with the ‘Wet, slightly dirty Martini’ one of my standard drinks to order in a bar. So far they’ve generally been what I’ve expected, with varying levels of similarity (for good or ill) to the ones I make at home. However the one I had at Maze was both entirely different and also quite nice, which I wouldn’t have expected from the ingredients – Johnny Walker Black Label, Pernod, Angostura Bitters and a sugar cube, all stirred up with some ice. It may be an old cocktail and one not much known these days, but there are still a bunch of variations on the theme, many of them listed in bar bibles as ‘The Original Sazerac’… I still like mine the most.
Partly an excuse to post a picture, shot in my ghetto studio mk2 with my new polarising filter, partly a real news story – it seems that there’s an Angostura bitters shortage on.
I’ve recently heard tales that the company that makes Angostura had gone out of business and as such there would be no more, however it seems that is not true. At least, that’s what the company are saying. According to The Guardian they had to shut down production for a spell due to issues with finances after the company changed hands. However, it seems that shipments have started up again and there may be Angostura appearing on these fair shores again soon.
However, I was over at Vinopolis last night for a whisky tasting and ended up talking to one of the guys at The Whisky Exchange about bitters. He advised me against the Peychaud’s I’d picked up, as he reckoned it wouldn’t go well with the Rittenhouse 100 I’d grabbed at the same time (initially assuming I was going to make Sazeracs [which Peychaud’s is an ingredient of] and offering me a miniature of Absinthe to use as part of that recipe [experiments to follow when I do buy some absinthe], and then shocked that I might use it in whisky old fashioned. He let me buy some when I explained that I would probably use it in rum and brandy Old Fashioneds as well as just for general drink experimentation. I like the guys at The Whisky Exchange) and offered me Fee Brothers Old Fashioned as an alternative to Angostura, which he seemed to think were dead and gone. The Grauniad article is from last November and there is still a definite lack of Angostura on the shelves, so it may be more serious than was initially thought. The US is the main consumer (although at a measley 950k bottles you can see why most people have never bought more than one) and they seem to have supplies resuming, so hopefully the worst is over.
The bottle above has been in my possession for the last 10 years, having been left in my first post-university flat by a house guest, and despite many years of drinking bitters laden cocktails I am still barely half way through it. Long may it continue.
Update: While in Worcester this weekend for a birthday party I found a row of shiny new bottles of Angostura in Tesco. I’d like to think that this means that the shortage is now over rather than Tesco having a stash due to not selling much in Worcester. I still grabbed a bottle, just in case.
I never used to be much of a fan of the cocktail, equating them all with “screwdrivers” in my head – booze and some kind of mixer that had ideas above its station. However, over time I started to realise that there was a bit more to it than that, all thanks to one drink – The Old Fashioned. It was the first cocktail that I actually thought through and decided made sense, and while I’d like to be able to claim that I got it from an aged tome on cocktail making that had been passed through the hands of my family it was actually out of the back of one of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks. It was either written or inspired by Dick Bradsell, who I have heard mentioned many times alongside great cocktail making, so that at least makes me feel slightly better.
Here’s a video of my chubby hands making one:
This is just the most simple version of the drink that I’ve heard of – bitters, sugar syrup, booze, stir with ice. The ice dilutes the booze and the sugar and angostura provide a spicy sweetness to fill in the gap that the watering down process makes. I’ve tried it with various different spirits over the years, but generally stick with whiskey and golden rum – my standard version of this is with Mount Gay rum, although I’m using Buffalo Trace whiskey here (as I had some in the house). After years of having this as the only cocktail that I would drink, and only at home, I ended up in Sosho Match for a friend’s birthday and started chatting with the barman about them – 2 hours later my mate was trashed on Hong Kong Phooey Reloadeds and I was a convert to the way of the cocktail – I had a Manhattan and a Martini in front of me and I wanted to know more.
I’m still quite conservative with my cocktail drinking, sticking to predominantly booze based drinks (such as the aforementioned Manhattans and Martinis, which are really just variations on a theme), but am keen to learn more. My occasional accidental interaction with the staff at cocktail bars (I’m looking at you Match Bar West End – who knew that telling me about Sazeracs could lead to me getting a night bus home on a Sunday..?) continues to aid in this pursuit.
Unfortunately, despite being such a simple drink, and probably in part due to it being so, there are occasional bar tenders who feel the need to spice it up a bit. The addition of an orange peel garnish flamed over the glass is one thing, smashing up some fruit in the glass before mixing is another, but when my drink turns up with a distinctly pinky tone and a shifty looking waiter then finding out that the ‘House Old Fashioned’ includes ‘sweet pomegranate’ make me hang my head. We call that ruining whiskey with grenadine in my house…
Anyways: simple base drink, easy to add things to (orange and cherry seem to the be popular choices, along with tweaking the type of bitters) and good for most sweet-ish booze you have hanging around. My favourite and the start of my cocktail conversion.
I rather like Buffalo Trace. Mainly because it has a buffalo on the bottle, and because they make the finest whiskey in the world (George T Stagg) but also because I quite like the straight bourbon. It takes ice well, which is how I drink my bourbon, unlike JD (which has a rather hollow taste once the boozey hit has been taken away) and Jim Beam (the boozey hit hides the pain of the actual whiskey flavour), and it’s also about the same price as those two supermarket standards. It’s a bit rough for making Manhattans, in my opinion, and probably a bit too rough for making Old Fashioneds, but it’s a good sipping whiskey and I normally have a bottle in my cupboard.