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April 2018

May 2018

Canadian Whisky (the book, not the booze)

Whisky drinkers frequently and mistakenly overlook Canada's contributions to the global whisky portfolio.  I was one of those people until I read Canadian Whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux.  After speaking with him at Tales on Tour in Edinburgh (he was a presenter at the seminar that led to Tales of Grain and Suggestion), he provided me with a free copy of his new book.  What you're reading now is a first in the Den -- a book review.

As a sign of respect to de Kergommeaux and my northern neighbor's distilleries, I will spell whisky the way he does. To paraphrase the famous line William Shakespeare penned in Hamlet, to e or not to e, that is the question.

Canadian Whisky final cover copySometimes non-fiction books get so hung up on minutiae they turn off readers who are either casually acquainted with the subject, or not at all.  That's not a problem with Canadian Whisky. De Kergommeaux deftly provides enough detail to satisfy whisky neophytes and aficionados, but not so much that it becomes exhausting to all but obsessed whisky geeks. His writing style is neither too simple nor too intellectual.

The first quarter of the book focuses more on science.  On a very basic level, Canadian whisky must contain some rye and age for at least three years in oak barrels. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. The chapters on whisky components and the production process take what could be really boring subjects (particularly for people like me who aren't into science) and make them really interesting. De Kergommeaux's discussion about the science behind flavors, aroma, and taste is equally interesting. Even though he presents it in the context of Canadian whisky, one particular observation from de Kergommeaux resonates with me because it applies to all sorts of things, including cocktails -- the fun is in the nuance.

The rest of the book focuses on the history and evolution of the Canadian whisky industry.  Fortunately de Kergommeaux largely eschews what could be a mind numbing recitation of facts, and he paints evocative pictures of some of the people who made the industry what it is today. To his credit, de Kergommeaux makes a point of separating myth from fact, such as with the section about Sam Bronfman (who made Seagrams a powerhouse in the 20th century). In addition, de Kergommeaux is clear eyed about some unsavory aspects of Canadian whisky history.  For example, I had no idea lawlessness associated with frontier whisky trading led to the establishment of what is now the Mounties (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). 

I appreciate the breadth and depth of de Kergommeaux's research. Don't let the possibility of information fatigue dissuade you.  Canadian Whisky is a fascinating, valuable, and informative resource. Those who love whisky and those who want to learn more about it should thank de Kergommeaux for his work about this underappreciated spirit.

Writing about Canadian whisky has made me thirsty, so I'm going to get a bottle or two ... and conveniently, the book has tasting notes for many Canadian whiskies.


A Cocktail Of Valor -- The Don't Give Up The Ship

You're outnumbered, outgunned, and dying.  What do you do?  If you were Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, you give one final order -- don't give up the ship. This episode during the War of 1812 became a rallying cry for the United States Navy.  While the history behind the phrase is clear, the history of the drink is not.  It first appeared in a 1941 cocktail guide, then remained dormant until it resurfaced on the Seattle and New York City cocktail scenes more than 60 years later. 

Don't Give Up The Ship 21.5 ounces gin (I like the Botanist)
.5 ounces Cointreau
.5 ounces sweet vermouth (hello Carpano Antica)
.5 ounces Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (I like Embitterment)

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the steely determination of a true leader, and strain into a chilled glass. Orange peel garnish optional.

All of the flavors in the Don't Give Up The Ship, which sort of expands on a Hanky Panky, work really well together. Even though it's all alcohol, it's not overpowering. Use Cointreau (my favorite triple sec) because it has a cleaner orange taste. There are a few versions of the Don't Give Up The Ship, but I like this one for a couple of reasons.  First, the proportions are pretty easy to remember. Second, the result is a well balanced cocktail -- a little sweet, a little sharp, and definitely unforgettable.

If you're going to give up some of your liver cells ... just Don't Give Up The Ship.


Tales of Grain and Suggestion

Grain and suggestion are not words you usually see in the same sentence. They were the subjects of an interesting seminar Ms. Cocktail Den and I attended during our fabulous time at the recent Tales on Tour in Edinburgh. The presenters at the seminar, titled "Against The Grain," were Davin de Kergommeaux, an acclaimed Canadian whiskey expert and author, and Kevin Vollebregt, the senior brand ambassador for Libbey, a glassware company. Our conversations with them after the seminar exemplified some of the nice features of Tales of the Cocktail and the global cocktail community in general -- they were very approachable and more than happy to share their knowledge.

It's all the same whiskey ... or is it?
This whiskey all tastes the same ... or does it?

Some of the seminar focused on the science of grains and how they become whiskey. Even someone as science-challenged as me was able to follow along and retain some facts. For example, each of the four grains used in whiskies (corn, barley, rye, wheat) have different primary flavors (creamy, nutty, salty, bread), and pulling whiskey off a still at high proof causes it to lose a lot of its flavors. If you want to read more about the whiskey making process, you can go to past posts such as What's In Your Bourbon?, as well as numerous other resources.

Courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.
Image courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and Kevin Vollebregt.

The fascinating part of the seminar pertained to the power of suggestion. Illustrating their point, Davin and Kevin had everyone taste the same whiskies in different glasses. Did they taste the same? No. Your brain activity will be a huge influence on your drinking experiences. You're not just tasting a drink with your mouth and nose.  You're combining all of your senses, your past memories and experiences, and other variables.

I know this stuff sounds basic, but did you ever really stop and think about it?  For example, if you recoil at the mere mention of a classic cocktail such as a Whiskey Sour or a Margarita, ask yourself why.  Was it too strong, too sweet, too sour? Maybe it was.  Or was it the context surrounding the drink, e.g. the glass in which it was served, your mood, etc.?

For me the important takeaway from Davin and Kevin's seminar is simple -- open your mind. Be receptive to new flavors, new experiences, and new influences. Consider reframing and reclaiming your past bad cocktail experiences. Whether it's the proportions of the drink, the glass in which you drink it, or the music that's playing in the background, the resulting experience could be profoundly different and positive. Cheers!


Drinking Like Jersey Boys and Girls -- The Newark

I've never been to Newark (only through it), but I've repeatedly heard it is not one of New Jersey's highlights.  That didn't stop Jim Meehan and John Deragon at PDT in New York City from creating a cocktail in its honor. The Newark is not far removed from a Manhattan or a Brooklyn.  Tony Soprano would like the Newark because most or all of its ingredients come from New Jersey and Italy.  Am I good with that?  Fuggedaboudit.

Newark2 ounces Laird's apple brandy or applejack
1 ounce sweet vermouth
.25 ounces Fernet Branca
.25 ounces Luxardo maraschino liqueur

Combine in a shaker with ice, stir with the resoluteness of being Jersey tough, and strain into a chilled glass (preferably a coupe).

Laird's, which originated in New Jersey, makes apple brandy and applejack.  The two spirits aren't very different.  When you compare apples to apples, it's about exploiting different boiling and freezing points. In modern times Laird's applejack is a mix of apple brandy and other spirits. Add the sweet vermouth (most of which comes from Italy) and the Fernet Branca and Luxardo maraschino liqueur (both of which come from Italy), and you have one great cocktail. Want some accompanying music from some real Jersey boys?  I suggest Frank Sinatra (you might associate him with New York, but he was born and raised in New Jersey) or Bon Jovi.

As anyone who's seen the musical or movie Jersey Boys would tell you, big girls (and boys) don't cry.  They drink Newarks.