EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

One Simple Way to Keep Your Vermouth Fresh

Vermouth is an aromatized  and fortified wine which can be drunk neat, on the rocks with a twist or in a cocktail. Aromatize refers to the fact that herbs and botanicals are added to the wine to enhance its flavor, aroma and color; fortified refers to the fact that neutral spirit, usually from grape brandy is added to increase the alcohol content which makes the vermouth more stable and last longer. However, since vermouth is based on wine, an open bottle has a shorter lifespan than say an open bottle of whiskey.

In the last few years I have grown to appreciate quite a few cocktails that call for vermouth and so I have bought a bottle from time to time. However, since I usually drink spirits neat, I've run into the problem that my open bottle of vermouth goes off before I've used it up. Because I hate to be wasteful, I've mostly given up on buying vermouth.

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In the lead up to 2016 Negroni Week I wanted to buy some vermouth to make my negronis and I didn't want it to bad after the week was over and I was done making cocktails for a while. That's when it hit me. I came up with the idea to buy four 250ml swing-top bottles from The Container Store, decant the vermouth into the smaller bottles and put them into the refrigerator. I used the first 250mls during the week making cocktails and the remaining bottles sat in the back of my refrigerator. Now, four months into this experiment I am happy to say that when I opened another small bottle, the vermouth was still fresh. Both the cold refrigerator and having little to no headspace in the smaller bottled worked together to extend the life of the vermouth that otherwise would have gone bad in that amount of time. 

I figured that every time I pour vermouth from a regular bottle some amount of oxygen gets mixed into the liquid that remains. Each time you do that, the more the vermouth sloshes around and the more oxygen gets into it. Now, if I drank vermouth or made cocktails more often this would be a problem. However, this simple and inexpensive trick of decanting full size vermouth bottles (which are less expensive per ounce) into smaller bottles has made it possible for me keep vermouth on hand at all times, waiting for me when a cocktail mood strikes. If you are like me and it has killed you to pour out bad vermouth because you were too slow to finish the bottle, give this little trick a shot.

Review: Dead Distillers

Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits, (New York: Abrams Image, 2016), 224 pages, $24.95. ISBN: 9781419720215

Colin Spoelman and David Haskell are cofounders of Kings County Distillery and co-authors of now two books. Spoelman, the head distiller of Kings County Distillery, grew up in the dry Harlan County of eastern Kentucky and only began experimenting with distilling after moving to New York. When Spoelman met Haskell, an editor of New York magazine and the great-grandson of a former New York bootlegger, the idea for Kings County Distillery was born. Since 2010, Kings County Distillery has won a number of medals for its spirits, and most recently it was named 2016 Distillery of the Year by ADI.

An employee of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery inspired Spoelman and Haskell to write their newest book after organizing a tour of the graves of distillers interred there. As they looked at cemeteries around the country, they realized that the buried distillers all had intriguing stories to tell that were uniquely American. The book retells shortened biographies of 76 distillers who ranged the gamut from slaves and outlaws to successful businessmen and U.S. presidents. The stories are arranged by the distillers’ death dates, and are interspersed with newspaper clippings of distillery accidents that have lamentably taken the lives of workers, neighbors and rescue personnel for the past 400 years.

Dead Distillers is an excellent book that pays tribute to and humanizes those whose stories are included. For the average consumer, spirits named after dead distillers are seen as marketing depicting them as whiskey gods in an American pantheon. However, Dead Distillers succeeds at honoring real people who led fascinating and complicated lives with their biographies and two fantastic infographics. While most infographics try to simplify data to the point that it is immediately digestible in a single glance, the two included in the book are more akin to topographical maps that only reveal the depth of their content through close inspection. And finally, while Spoelman and Haskell wrote the book for anyone interested in distilling, it offers living distillers a memorial as real as any graveyard headstone that they can visit and remember both the successes and failures of those who came before them.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016):  145

Review: Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari

Mark Bitterman, Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari: 500 Bitter, 50 Amari, 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), 216 pages, $25.00. ISBN: 9781449470692

Mark Bitterman is the author of Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari: 500 Bitter, 50 Amari, 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters and the owner of two bitters emporiums called the The Meadow in Portland, Oregon and New York City. Bitterman has lectured at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. He has has also written two other books, Salted (2010), which won a James Beard Award, and Salt Block Cooking (2013). Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari is organized into six chapters. The introduction covers some of the basics of bitters, including their history. The second chapter covers the basics how bitters are created, and Bitterman describes in good detail the bittering and flavor characteristics of over 50 botanicals. In the second half of chapter two, Bitterman offers 13 sample recipes for homemade bitters that run the gamut from traditional to exotic. Chapters three and four include recipes for bitters-forward cocktails and recipes that incorporate bitters into cooking. Bitterman concludes the book with descriptions and tasting notes for hundreds of non-potable bitters and more than 50 amari.

Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari is a very well-written and beautifully photographed book. While the book was clearly written with the home cocktail enthusiast in mind, it is an excellent resource for professional distillers interested in creating their own concoctions. The recipes included map out the building blocks for creating well-structured and creative bitters. The tasting notes in chapters five and six create a framework on how to think about and describe these products. Distillers interested in entering this segment of the market can ask themselves: How bitter, sweet, or aromatic should this bitter or amari be and what flavors or colors should stand out? A small number of distilleries have successfully started making bitters as a compliment to their spirits portfolio. Producing bitters and amari offers inspiration to be creative and can jump-start collaborations with bartenders and chefs, who often have great senses for how flavors commingle.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016):  145

Blind Tasting Bourbon Less Than $50

A while ago I organized a blind tasting of bourbons that cost less than $50. I was inspired to put this together after a small group of friends and I did a blind tasting of whiskeys under $20. That tasting was both a lot of fun and introduced me to a couple of bourbons that I really love. Wanting to repeat this process I put together a game plan. First, I wanted to focus the tasting only on bourbons between $20 and $50. I picked this price point for two reasons: one, my expectation was the overall quality would be a little higher than the under $20 bracket; and two, because it falls in the range that I and many of my friends would feel comfortable spending on a bottle to drink at home from time to time without feeling like its so expensive or exceptional we'd have to save it for some sort of special occasion. Second,  I only wanted bourbons that I knew were sold by the distillery i.e. no Non-Distiller Producer bourbons like Bulleit or Black Maple Hill. Third, I didn't want any single barrel products because by nature their flavor profile can change from barrel to barrel and I wanted to help people find a bourbon that they would like and be able to return to and have it taste the same as it was at the party.  With these criteria in mind I went about finding bourbons that fit.

I found over dozen bourbons that matched my criteria however, 12 samples of bourbons even at 1/4 oz each starts to add up. I wanted to be sure that people could get home safely so I limited the field to nine. As I spread the word among my friends I was able to find about 25 people who committed to coming and who were willing to chip in to cover the costs of the whiskey.

Now, because I also wanted to participate in the tasting, the trick was figuring out how to set things up so the tasting was blind for me as well. The solution I settled on was I would mark nine brown paper lunch bags with the planetary symbols, Mars ♂, Venus ♀ etc. and then my wife bagged the bottles. For a couple of the bottles that were more easy to identify we decanted the bourbon into clean wine bottles.

The tasting was hosted at a friend's house and I placed three bottles of bourbon in the kitchen, the living room and a spare bedroom. The reason for this was that it forced people to move around and not just all congregate in one room of the house. I wasn't concerned about the order in which people tasted the bourbons so it worked fine. In a more formal tasting, flight order is important but for our purposes it was an easy sacrifice.

After a few hours or tasting and eating snacks, I collected the score sheets that I handed out the to tasters. They rated each bourbon from 1-10 based on what they liked. When I tallied the results, one of the first things that stood out was there were no bad bourbons in the batch.  While people liked some bourbons more than others there were no clear winners or losers. In the tasting under $20 it was very obvious that there were a couple of whiskeys that everyone liked and a couple that everyone didn't like, but not this time. This was an encouraging result because what it said to me was if you are going to buy a bourbon in the $20-$50 price range, you can be sure that it is a quality product though you can't guarantee the it will be your favorite.

After tallying the scores here were the results from our group of tasters:

  1. Russel's Reserve 10 Year Old 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled by the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  2. Henry DuYore's Straight Bourbon 91.3 Proof (45.65% ABV) Distilled by Ransom Spirits in Sheridan, OR. (This was the only craft bourbon and the only bourbon not from Kentucky in the tasting.)

  3. John E. Fitzgerald Larceny 92 Proof (46% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond 100 Proof (50% ABV) Distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

  5. Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 90.4 Proof (45.2% ABV) Distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY and owned by Brown-Forman.

  6. Elijah Craig 12 Year Old 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  7. Four Roses Small Batch 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  8. Basil Hayden 80 Proof (40% ABV) Distilled at Jim Beam's Clermont and Frankfort distilleries in KY.

  9. Maker's 46 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY.

From my personal score sheet my highest rating went to Colonel Taylor which was something I had never tried before and I was happy to find a new bourbon  that I really enjoyed. The other interesting thing was I gave my lowest rating to Maker's 46 which didn't surprise me since I'm not a huge fan of Makers Mark. It was reassuring to see that my taste buds are pretty reliable both when I know what I'm drinking and when I tasting things blind. In the end, this was a really fun event to organize and it was a blast getting a house full of people drinking and discovering some really good bourbon.

Hawaiian Shochu Company: Blending Japanese Tradition with Aloha

The Hawaiian Shochu Company makes Namihana Shochu. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. Photo ©Ken Hirata

For more than 200 years the histories of Japan and Hawaii have been intertwined. On May 5, 1806, the first Japanese people ever recorded to have set foot in Hawaii arrived as survivors of the cargo ship Inawaka-maru, which was carried into the Pacific Ocean by a severe storm and left adrift for two months. The eight survivors were rescued by an American ship and left in the care of King Kamehameha I. Since then, the Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, who make up the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii, have helped to shape the physical and cultural landscape of the islands. Today, the Hawaiian Shochu Company, founded by Ken and Yumiko Hirata, is continuing this long history of Japanese and Hawaiian cross-cultural pollination.

The Hiratas have been distilling and selling their shochu, a traditional Japanese distilled spirit, made from rice and sweet potatoes, on Oahu’s North Shore for the past three years. Getting to this point was a long and circuitous road. Years ago, while Hirata was visiting his parents, who had moved to Honolulu from Osaka, he sampled poi, a traditional Hawaiian staple. (Poi is a mash made from baked or steamed taro root, often the consistency of pudding.) As Hirata ate the poi, it occurred to him that poi could make an interesting shochu. However, that thought receded to the back of his mind as Hirata returned to Hong Kong and his job brokering U.S. Financial instruments.

From there Hirata moved to Osaka and worked with artists who made traditional Japanese ceramics and textiles. But after developing a skin condition, Hirata and his wife moved, this time to Australia. It was during this time in Australia that the idea of making traditional shochu began to take shape.

Around 2005, the Hiratas moved to Kagoshima, Japan, the epicenter of shochu production for the past 500 years. Ken Hirata determined that he wanted to apprentice with Toshihiro Manzen, a master distiller with more than 30 years of experience. Hirata described the process by which he approached Manzen for an apprenticeship as a kung fu film. Manzen’s distillery is tucked away in a remote valley outside Kagoshima, surrounded by forests and planted near a stream. Hirata wrote Manzen numerous letters and visited the distillery again and again, each time being turned down until Manzen finally relented and agreed to take Hirata on as an apprentice. Hirata spent three years there learning how to make a very traditional style of imo shochu distilled from rice and sweet potatoes.

Photo ©Ken Hirata

In 2008, Manzen sent Hirata off to start his own distillery. Driven by his passion and training to create shochu from sweet potatoes, Ken and Yumiko returned to Hawaii. Besides its sheer beauty and relaxed pace of life, more than 20 varieties of sweet potato are grown on Oahu, including the white-skinned and purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato. Ken Hirata believed that the Okinawan sweet potato would give him the aromas and flavors he was looking for. Slowly the Hawaiian Shochu Company arose from the red dirt of Oahu’s North Shore with Hirata performing much of the work himself. Surrounded by the wild grasses of an old cane field, the Hiratas’ distillery is tucked away on a quiet road in the town of Haleiwa. While Honolulu is a bustling city that sees millions of tourists flock to Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Waikiki, Haleiwa, on the other side of the mountain, has a slower pace that feels much more relaxed.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company officially began production in 2013, making a traditional sweet potato shochu using methods and equipment that are hundreds of years old. Since the mid-sixteenth century the Japanese have been making shochu by distilling a fermented mash of rice or rice and other starches such as barley, sweet potato or buckwheat. However, rice and sweet potatoes need an external agent to break down their starches into sugar. While traditional distillers in the West have relied on malted barley to provide the diastatic power necessary to convert starches into fermentable sugars, Japanese distillers have relied on koji mold. This particular strain of mold is very well adapted to creating the enzymes necessary for starch conversion. Hirata sprinkles the mold over steamed white rice which has been spread out into shallow wooden boxes and left to be propagated in a specially designed room called the koji room. The koji room is designed to hold the temperature and humidity at the ideal levels for the mold to flourish. During this propagation phase, which takes about three or four days, Hirata, with his years of training, checks the temperature and moisture content of the rice with his hands.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

However, neither the koji nor the rice Hirata uses are cultivated in Hawaii, which means he has to import them. He orders the koji direct from Japan, but instead of importing Japanese rice, Hirata uses an heirloom variety of rice grown in California by a Japanese American family.

After about three days, the koji mold has propagated throughout the steamed rice and Hirata is ready to begin the fermentation phase. When Hirata left to start his distillery, Manzen gifted him 15 handmade ceramic fermentors that range in age from 100 to 150 years old and which hold between 550 and 650 liters. The vats are about four feet tall and buried in the ground up to their shoulders, which helps stabilize the temperature of the fermenting mash. Hirata adds the inoculated rice, water and yeast to his vats and lets the fermentation begin. After a day or so, Hirata steams his Hawaiian-grown sweet potatoes and adds them to the fermentors. The enzymes present in the fermenting rice slurry break down the sweet potato starches into sugar, which is then quickly consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

About a week into the fermentation, Hirata checks the aromas and flavor of the mash, which should be approximately 12% alcohol, to see if it’s ready to be distilled. Hirata uses a 1,700-liter steam-injected wooden still made from Japanese cypress. The mash of fermented rice and sweet potato is distilled in one pass and he collects the hearts in a large glass-lined steel holding tank. Hirata and his wife repeat this process for two months until the holding tank is full. The shochu rests in the holding tank at 40% ABV for up to six months before it is bottled. What comes out of the still is slightly harsh and bitter, but mellows during this rest period into a lightly sweet and wonderfully aromatic spirit.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

Once the shochu has finished its rest period, it is ready to be bottled. Ken Hirata proofs the shochu down to 30% ABV and he is able to fill about 3,000 bottles per batch. Once the bottling begins, Yumiko Hirata starts the process of labeling every bottle of their shochu by hand. The name Namihana is written in both English and Japanese, which serves both their American and Japanese customers. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. This name suits their shochu well because it has a strong character with lots of floral aromas. Their batch #2, which was made with sweet potatoes grown on Molokai, had a very fruity nose with notes of ripe pear and Fuji apple. On the palate, the shochu started slightly sweet with fruity and floral notes and finished dry with no heat from the alcohol. Overall the spirit is light, elegant and simply wonderful to drink.

Because of their two-month production cycle and the six-month rest period, the Hiratas are only able to produce and bottle two batches of shochu per year. While using traditional methods to make shochu limits their total output, they are solely focused on the quality of the spirit. The results have been very well received, and even though they produce about 6,000 bottles per year they quickly sell out of each batch they make. A few cases go to local restaurants and hotels on Oahu and the rest is sold directly to customers who visit the distillery.

Visitors who make their way to the Hawaiian Shochu Company are greeted at the gate with wooden signs written both in English and Japanese. This is useful because many of the people who come to taste Hirata and Yumiko’s shochu are Japanese tourists who have heard about their national spirit being made in Haleiwa. After parking in the dirt field next to the distillery, a friendly little dog name Imo (Japanese for sweet potato) greets visitors at the door. The guests are asked to remove their shoes and given slippers to wear inside the distillery, most of which are sized for people with smaller feet. Once inside, the distillery has a simple open floor plan, which allows visitors to see almost the entire production area from the entryway. Near the door, the Hiratas have a six-foot table with a few chairs where they sit with their visitors, pour samples and describe how they make shochu.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company is a perfect blend of a traditional Japanese distillery with the Hawaiian spirit of aloha. Hirata and Yumiko are exacting in the production and packaging of their shochu as well as relaxed, generous and welcoming. Hirata, who is an avid surfer, is not just making a shochu in Hawaii, but a Hawaiian shochu that represents the terroir of the islands in a way that has never been explored. Finally, any trip to Oahu should include a drive over the mountain to visit Ken, Yumiko and Imo.

Originally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016): 64-71.