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.

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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

Review: The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits

Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, Translated by Paul Lehmann, The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits: Small-Scale Production of Brandies, Schnapps & Liquors, (Austin: Spikehorn Press, 2015), 200 pages, $29.95.

The authors of The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits, Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, both have doctorates in technical sciences and chemical engineering. In 1998, they designed their first still and began teaching workshops on distilling in Austria. In 2003, they published a book, based on their experiments in distilling a variety of fruit brandies and infusing liquors, called Schnaps brennen als Hobby. Since then, they have also written two books about making essential oils and vinegar.

The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits is an introductory work on distilling, primarily written for non-professional distillers. In the German-speaking countries of Europe, home distilling is permissible with certain licenses and under certain circumstances. Because of this, Malle and Schmickl’s description of distilling, its history and practice are very basic and not well-suited to professionals or even would-be professionals.

The book does not engage deeply with traditional distillation practices, and in some cases the authors make unorthodox claims regarding production techniques that, despite their technical backgrounds, they do not go on to substantiate with science. For this reason the book largely comes across as a reaction to bad home-distilling practices. If Malle and Schmickl had used their expertise to explain why certain traditional techniques work, or made a better case for why their methods produced superior spirits, perhaps all distillers could have benefited.

Ultimately, The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits does not fully acknowledge that the best distilled spirits are the result of both artistry and chemistry. The goal of the book is to help its readers make better spirits and to understand some of the chemical processes involved, but at 200 pages, the book is too short to be a thorough technical description of how to craft excellent spirits. Because Malle and Schmickl ignore many of the tried-and-true techniques of traditional distillation and seem to believe that making excellent spirits is instead a matter of following a recipe, Crafting Distilled Spirits is not recommended reading for the professional.

Review: Distilled Stories

Edited by Capra Press, Distilled Stories: California Artisans Behind the Spirits, (San Francisco: Capra Press, 2016), 256 pages, $20.00.

Distilled Stories: California Artisans Behind the Spirits recounts the stories of 32 California distillers and how they came to make distilling their profession. Distilled Stories was born out of a desire to better understand the spirits renaissance that is currently sweeping much of the world. After a chance meeting with Arthur Hartunian, the editors of the book decided to seek out and interview members of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild to hear their stories and record for posterity what inspired their passion for distilling and drove them to make it their life’s work. Distilled Stories is introduced by Wayne Curtis with a brief history of the U.S. spirits industry, which sets the distillers’ stories into their proper historical context.

In Wayne Curtis’ introduction, he likens the growth and increased variety of high-quality spirits available to consumers to a child’s coloring box which once only held six colors but now contains 128. Similarly, each distiller’s story represents the addition of a new hue to the spirits world that is making it more rich and vibrant than ever before. Distilled Stories is a fascinating and interesting read because each distiller’s story is unique and varied. Some of the distillers come from long family traditions that span hundreds of years, while others are completely new to the industry. Despite these variations in background, each distiller’s story illustrates the drive and passion it takes to create unique spirits that they and their families can be proud of. Each story also represents a part of the vanguard of California’s burgeoning artisan distilling movement. While it is certain that the number of California distilleries will continue to grow, Distilled Stories will serve as an important artifact for spirit lovers and inspiration for future generations of distillers.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine Summer 2016

Review: Tequila - A Natural and Cultural History

Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan, Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History, (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2003), 113 pages, $14.95.

Ana Valenzuela is the world's leading authority on agave plants, their cultivation and their use in making distilled Spirits. Valenzuela grew up in the heart of tequila country and she received her doctorate in biology from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon Mexico. She has written extensively on the biology of agave as well as its traditional and contemporary cultivation. Her newest book A Indicación Geográfica Tequila: Lecciones de la Primera denominación de Origen Mexicana (2014) focuses on the use of sustainable agricultural practices in agave cultivation. Her co-author Gary Paul Nabhan is an ethnobotanist who has been studying the use of agave in the Americas for over four decades. Both Valenzuela and Nabhan were students of the late Dr. Howard Scott Gentry, a pioneer in agave botany and taxonomy.

Tequila: A Natural and Cultural History is not your typical book on tequila. Like the title suggests, the book focuses on the large number of agave varieties, some of the defining traits of the most commonly cultivated varieties and the process of cultivation for distilling tequila. Valenzuela and Nabhan also go into depth about the traditional knowledge and practices that sprung up around tequila production. One of the most interesting claims they make is that tequila is an inherently Mexican product not because of where it is made or because it uses agave, but because it is a mestizo spirit. The majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mix of indio (indigenous) and criollo (American born Spaniards) ancestry and culture. Similarly, tequila was born from the combination of pulque (a pre-columbian fermented agave beverage) and European distillation technology. Traditional tequila production incorporated indigenous cultivation and fermentation practices learned centuries before the arrival of Europeans, with Old World technology.

The emphasis on agave taxonomy can at times seem overwhelming for those coming to the book primarily out of interest for tequila. However, this sets the stage for Valenzuela and Nebhan's discussion how the growing popularity and global demand for tequila have slowly created new methods of production agave cultivation. Large tequila distilleries buy their blue agave from campesinos (farmers) who plant and grow clones of clones of the blue agave in tight mono-cropped fields. While this is more efficient and cost effective, this practice has created a plant that lacks the genetic diversity to resists new threats from pests and disease. In 1998, forty million agave plants, or about one fifth of all agave in Jalisco were struck by a disease that rotted the agaves from the inside out. While Valenzuela and Nebhan found that blue agave fields that were inter-cropped with other varieties of agave or legumes lost fewer plants during this plague, large tequila producers still favor agave farms that are at the greatest risk for future plagues. Valenzuela and Nebhan close their book commenting on the remarkable growth of tequila in general and premium tequila in particular and they express a hope for continuation of the tequila industry because of its significant economic benefit to people in the industry. However, their primary concern is that the reliance on mono-cropping and the cloning of blue agave puts the whole industry at risk for future distribution if a new pathogen wreaks havoc in the genetically uniform fields of Jalisco.

Valenzuela and Nebhan's book is a unique and important book for any tequila aficionado. Now that the book is over ten years old, its information is by no means revolutionary or completely novel, but that does not mean it is outdated. Valenzuela and Nebhan bring a scientific perspective to agave and tequila that is uncommon in most of the literature. Most other books on tequila are written by bartenders, drink writers and others in the alcohol or service industry. While other books contain information on the scientific aspects of agave cultivation and the potential dangers of mono-cropping and cloning, Valenzuela and Nebhan offer credible a solution to this problem. Their suggestion to reincorporate traditional cultivation practices are not born out of a Luddites nostalgia for the past but a scientific understanding of best practices that will promote the continued health of blue agave and its genetic resistance to new pathogens. This in the end will ensure that tequila will be able to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Two New Spirit Book Reviews


Spirit writer, Michael Dietsch has written a great book on the long and complex history of a category of drinks called shrubs. While shrubs can have many variations, the most common is a cocktail made for spirits, sugar, water and some sort of fruit vinegar. When executed well, the result is a slightly tart, slightly sweet and completely refreshing drink. My review can be read in the Summer 2015 issue of Distiller Magazine

The book, Shurbs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, can be purchased on Amazon

How the Gringos Stole Tequila

How the Gringos Stole Tequila is a bit like Waiting for Godot, not in its literary excellence but in how the main subject of the title (almost) never shows up. While Chantal Martineau does eventually address the idea of how US consumer influence has affected tequila, it comes at the end of a well written and well researched book on the history and production of tequila. In the end it is a good book that would be better served by a less provocative title. My review can be read in the Summer 2015 issue of Distiller Magazine

The book, How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit, can be purchased on Amazon