Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tasting Notes - Eagle Rare 10 Year Single Barrel

(This is where the magic happens.)
Have you ever had a whiskey orgasm? It seems like a humorous question, perhaps. Quite some time ago, I had a friend who introduced me to the term "tastegasm". It's an interesting word, and it invokes a certain urgency to communicate that "This tastes REALLY damn good."

And that is the case with Eagle Rare's 10 year single barrel.

SEE ALSO: Tasting Notes - Don Julio Reposado

I've been waiting to try Eagle Rare for quite some time. I've been fairly hesitant to taste it at my favourite bars (or even less than favourite) due in part to the fact that its fairly pricy, and secondarily because I don't want to mess up my first impressions, as I did with my first taste of Buffalo Trace.

(Buffalo Trace, of the famed Buffalo Trace Distillery; owners of the Eagle Rare brand.)
So in the nature of keeping an authentic first impression, I'm writing this article after having consumed a fair amount of 'The Eagle' for the first time. If my adjectival use of poetic-ly ending words weren't hinting enough, here it is; I've drunk Eagle Rare for the first time tonight, and it was great.
On the nose, hints of a vanilla dessert are prominent. Anise creeps up as it usually does, and the smell of buttered toast is omnipresent. The toast may be charred oak, depending on your frame of mind at the time.

Before it hits the palette, a recognizable taste rushes past my lips. I taste honey but there's something else I can't put my finger on. Vanilla, chocolate and grain complement the palette, and the finish is a medium bodied vanilla and baked bread aroma. After my first rinse of the mouth I take small sips of the bourbon, trying to place the flavour that is so familiar. Not until well after the tasting do I realize what the recognizable flavour is.

But before that, I try the spirit as an Old Fashioned. It's sweet, like a desert shot, or digestif. But it's not too sweet. It tastes like banana bread, with honey spread. I move on to try it as a Manhattan, but am disappointed. It's too sweet, and may work better with dry vermouth.

SEE ALSO: Old Fashioned, New Fashioned and Out of Fashion

I smell the empty glass and still note the nostalgic odour. After some time, I realize its maple syrup. But not just any maple syrup. It's warm maple syrup toffee that's been poured over the fresh snow of my home village; New Denmark, New Brunswick. The reason it took me so long to place it was because I'd only tasted that toffee once, and fourteen years ago at that.

In short, Eagle Rare 10 year is the best bourbon I've had so far. In less short, it invoked feelings of nostalgia, joy and warmth. I want to try the 17 year old, but I'll have to wait....

Eagle Rare 10 Year Single Barrel Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on June 29. Maple, vanilla, oak and like desert. The end of all things average is here! This is the bourbon I've been looking for! After experiencing the godliness that is Buffalo Trace, I have been eyeing up Eagle Rare for some time, and that time has now come! Rating: 5

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What are natural ingredients, and do they matter?

(These sure seem to be natural ingredients...)
The title of this article poses a couple of hypothetical (rhetorical, to some) questions about the nature of natural ingredients. Perhaps the real underlying question behind the former - "what are natural ingredients?" - is "what does the word 'natural' mean?"

SEE ALSO: Flavored vodka

The definition of natural is not an entirely obvious one. In standard use, or on the shelves of grocery stores, natural refers to anything that does not exist solely because of human ingenuity. The standard definition is broken, however. If you consider that bananas and corn only exist in their current forms because of thousands of years of human cultivation, you realize that almost everything on the shelves does not fit our popular definition of natural. The next definition you might consider is the technical one. Anything that exists, is natural; anything that does not is unnatural. This is also, a definition which I am particularly biased towards; nevertheless, I intend to reveal it's shortcomings. This use of natural is fairly weak in describing anything, since it describes... well... everything.

(A whole bunch of crap that I keep on hand for using as natural ingredients.)
Where does this lack of a strong definition leave us, then? Perhaps, somewhere in the middle. For the sake of simplicity, could we agree that there could be a gradation of how natural something appears to be, based on how much human interference is required to create it? For example, a watermelon would be more natural than watermelon flavored syrup. Despite that the watermelon was cultivated, and genetically modified by humans, the syrup may not have flavoring from a real watermelon in it at all. Perhaps looking at the unclear gradation of "naturality" can add some conciseness to the idea that we're trying to think of, when asking these questions? To recap of what a natural ingredient is; the more processing or tampering that is involved with the original product, the less natural it is.

But does it matter? Well... yes and no.

SEE ALSO: Bitter me this, bitter me that

The reason why it matters is because authentic flavors should not be replaced with artificial flavors, wherever possible. While, it is true that cost is always a concern, I believe that as long as the cost is reasonable, then the authentic flavors should always be more favorable than the artificial ones. To return to the example above, with the watermelon versus the watermelon syrup, I would always prefer to get the flavor of watermelon by pureeing real watermelon, rather than by using a syrup that is flavored like watermelon. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that if the syrup were infused with real watermelon, it would not change my position; I would still prefer to puree my own watermelon in order to obtain that flavor.

(This is what the bitters making process is like. Is it TOO processed? What is the point where too much human ingenuity would be considered less natural?)
I also mentioned that part of the debate doesn't matter, though. It doesn't matter because, well, the importance of natural versus artificial is a cultural construct. The true definition of natural still stands, despite my wishes to find a compromise. Natural is natural, and if it can exist, it's natural. Similarly, all foods are organic because they all contain carbon. For this reason, using the labels of natural, or organic, are redundant and nonsensical. 
A conclusion is needed, however, and my opinion is as stands: when something is said to be flavored with watermelon, then it should contain watermelon. If on the other hand, it contains watermelon syrup, then it should specifically be advertised as containing watermelon syrup; anything else, I believe, is dishonest and hence false advertising. At the same time, I would not want to restrict products by having them label something as being artificially flavored, or confounding the situation by urging them to label their products as natural, or organic. Specificity and accuracy, are much more important.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The "Horned Melon" - Kiwano Martini

(The Kiwano Martini. It looks, and tastes, somewhat strange.)
This past week I got a little bit creative in my home kitchen, and put together a Kiwano Martini. It was a fairly difficult task, to say the least, considering I didn't know the best way to extract the juice from the Kiwano, or to separate the flesh from the seeds. I did manage to put something together, however.

Speaking of Kiwano, let's address five of the W's (okay, four W's and one H); what is it, where is it from, why bother, who named it, and how do you use it?

(This is a Kiwano. Shocking, isn't it?)
Starting with 'what'. The Kiwano is a fruit, related to the cucumber. It looks quite a bit different though. It has waxy orange skin covered in horns. Don't worry though, the horns are not sharp. As for 'where', the Kiwano is an African fruit. It's fairly interesting, being that it's the only source of water during the dry seasons in the Kalahari desert. "Why bother"? Well, why bother with anything? It's different! Not the most typical of ingredients to be used in cocktailing. But... "who" named it? It doesn't exactly have an African name, does it? The African name actually translates to 'horned melon' or 'horned cucumber' (cucumber is related to melons, don't you know!) The Kiwis (people from New Zealand) and Australians gave it this name. At some point they decided to start growing it in their own Oceanic part of the world, and the result was a name change to something that sounds a bit more like it's from that part of the world. "How" do you use it? That's a tough one actually... I haven't quite figured that one out yet. It's quite difficult to extract juice from the flesh. I tried squeezing it, and while that got most of the seeds out, some still remained, and I was still stuck with a gel-like flesh. One may try steaming it to extract the juice; I'm sure I'll give that a try eventually, as my hand squeezing method only extracted one ounce of juice from a half of a Kiwano. Another somewhat obvious solution may be to puree it.

So here's the recipe I concocted

  • 1 oz of Zu Bison Grass Vodka
  • 1 oz of Kiwano Juice
  • 3 drops of Lemon Juice
  • 2 dashes of Lavender Bitters
  • A pinch of cracked or muddled Rosemary
  • 1 triangle shaped peel of Kiwano skin
  1. Mix all ingredients (except peel) in a shaker full of ice.
  2. Shake or stir (I prefer stirred).
  3. Pour in a chilled Martini glass.
  4. Garnish with Kiwano peel.
The recipe is fairly good. The vodka taste is noticeable, as well as wheat-like Bison Grass taste in the Zu. The vodka is the prominent flavor, but the taste of cucumber is obvious as well; the few drops of lemon help lift and complement the neutral flavor of cucumber. It has a floral, garden-like aroma, thanks to the mix of bitters, bison grass, rosemary and Kiwano. It's not sweet at all; bitter-sour is the taste combination you'll be expecting with this one. If you're not one to enjoy the taste of spirits then feel free to add a bit of simple syrup.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tasting Notes - Sauza Gold Tequila

(This is the place where most bad nights full of regret begin...)
Wa-wow-wee-wah! Tasting Notes, Tequila edition is back! This time, a Sauza Gold review delivered to you from the porcelain throne. The verdict? Not too bad....
See Also: Tasting Notes - Don Julio Reposado

Sauza Gold is the first gold Tequila I ever tried. And well, it's probably the gold Tequila I've had the most! I've had a lot of bad experiences with Tequila, but now that my taste buds have become accustomed to the spirit, how do I feel about Sauza Gold? The truth is, it's not half bad, and memories of an instant gag reflex seem to be a thing of the past. It's super oaky, and tastes kind of like apple juice. And of course, who could forget that agave flavor? It IS Tequila after all.

Sauza Gold Tequila Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on June 8. Oak, apple juice, and agave notes. A cheap Tequila like no other! Well... actually that's not that far from the truth. It's fairly enjoyable, and not half bad... that is to say, it's about 35% bad, but the rest is good. Rating: 3

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tasting Notes - Pinnacle Whipped Vodka

(Don't be deceived, vodka purists. Novelty flavored vodkas aren't all crappy ideas!)
There's not much that I can say about Pinnacle Whipped Vodka that you can't gather from the name of the product on it's own. But, I'm certainly going to try!

See Also: Flavored vodka

So Pinnacle Whipped Vodka is, as the name would suggest, a Whipped Cream flavored vodka. Its quite sweet, as one would expect. It tastes like good old fashioned whipped cream, and has a vanilla ice cream quality that is... well, unsurprisingly delicious. As far as flavored vodkas go, this is probably one of the better products I've had. It's easy on the pallet, with no associated burn. Mixes great as a hi-ball with a few soda's, such as Orange Crush or root beer, but I'm not sure how much diversity you can expect from a whipped cream flavored vodka.

There's no subtlety here. It's a desert spirit, for sure. BUT, I challenge you to make a non-desert cocktail with this stuff. (If I had a large bottle, I might consider it.) As far as a rating goes, I would give this a solid 80%, or four star rating. As mentioned earlier, it's delicious, so that scores it huge points.

Pinnacle Whipped Vodka Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on June 5 . Whipped cream flavor, ice cream notes. Pinnacle Whipped is a whipped cream flavored vodka. It mixes well with soda such as Orange Crush and root beer. Would be good as a shot, or sipping dessert spirit. Also good for dessert cocktails. Rating: 4

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Old Fashioned, New Fashioned and Out of Fashion

(This is a good starting point for making an Old Fashioned that doesn't taste like crap.)
Making an Old Fashioned is a fairly simple task, and yet, over the years, it has been bastardized in oh-so-many ways. If you want to know all there is to know about crafting an Old Fashioned I'd recommend starting with Old Fashioned 101. For the more condense version, along with some a few extra Old Fashioned details.

See Also: Flavored vodka

There was a time when every cocktail was an Old Fashioned. In fact, what we now call the Old Fashioned, was the original 'cock tail' - hence the named Old Fashioned. In short, it consists of whiskey, dissolved sugar, and bitters. The world of cocktails (if that can even be called a thing) have also accepted the addition of the lemon zest or ice to the Old Fashioned, but a few additions haven't been so lucky; I'll be getting to those later.

(A Bourbon Old Fashioned, sans ice.)
In essence, you either want to dissolve a small amount of granulated sugar in water by stirring it around with a spoon for a bit, or you can simply use simple syrup. It's simpler, but by being slightly more efficient it loses a small amount of it's class. The classic way may have involved a sugar cube, but nevertheless, it's the same damn thing. Just make sure you completely dissolve the sugar before adding your spirits and bitters.

See Also: Classy cocktails

As I mentioned, you can spice it up a bit by adding ice and lemon zest to your concoction. I like it this way, just because it was the first way I learned to make a 'proper' Old Fashioned, but to be honest, I have no bias in either direction as to whether ice and zest improve the mixture or not. But as you can imagine, a few things over the years have been added to the Old Fashioned which simply take away from the spirit. Or rather, from the spirits (the whiskey).

(This is what a Cognac Old Fashioned Looks like. Kind of like a regular Old Fashioned, right!?)
Somewhere during the hi-ball revolution of adding soda to everything, people thought it would be a good idea to add soda to the Old Fashioned. Because what's a cocktail without soda, right? So it's not uncommon to find cocktail books such as the good old handy Mulligan's who totally recommend adding every citrus fruit you can imagine, and topping with soda. Old Fashioned 101 explains this phenomena as the 'disaster in a glass' that you would find common from the 80's on. To relative newcomers such as myself who enjoy the craft revolution and throwbacks to the Prohibition era, and earlier, it's sacrilege, and well, it should be sacrilege to everyone. So here's the gist: don't stray from the formula, don't create your own spin on the Old Fashioned, don't add unnecessary complication. It's an Old Fashioned because it's simple, elegant and delicious, and complication does a disservice to the hardworking people who created the delicious spirits in the first place.

See Also: My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

The spirit of the old fashioned is, well, about the spirits. From time to time I make blog posts like these, suggesting whats unacceptable, versus what is. Keeping in mind the spirit of this timeless classic, don't be afraid to try it with any other category of spirits. I'm partial to cognac, or aged tequila as a substitute in many classic whiskey cocktails, but have also had the pleasure of a dark rum Old Fashioned; it was surprisingly good considering dark rum is not my regular cup of tea.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tasting Notes - Don Julio Reposado

(In case you're unfamiliar, this is what deliciousness in a bottle looks like.)
It's been awhile since I've uploaded anything, hasn't it? Apologies for that folks. I've been beyond sick for the past couple of weeks. But, on the bright side, the illness finally seems to be lifting. Now that I'm starting to feel better, I've edited and uploaded a Tasting Notes video of Don Julio Reposado.

Setting the stage; Don Julio is my favorite brand of Blanco Tequila - at least, my favorite so far. I'm not very well versed in aged Tequilas, but the Reposado definitely holds up to the expectations implied with the Don Julio name. The Reposado is barrel aged for 8 to 11 months in American bourbon barrels. Tequila s a premium Mezcal, but in recent years it's separated itself from Mezcal as a category of spirits. To be considered Tequila, a Mezcal must be 100% fermented from Blue Agave, and produced in the state of Tequila, Mexico.

In appearance Don Julio Reposado is amber, and has a syrup-like texture. On the nose is vanilla, with various spices and a baked cake like quality. On the palette, maple, black pepper, licorice, smoke.  The black pepper is not pungent, and the smoke builds over time. There is a hint of chives in the aftertaste, as well as an earthy aroma; I would not say that the chive smell is a high point, considering the dessert-like quality during the rest of the tasting.

Don Julio Reposado Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on Apr 16 . Dessert-like, vanilla, maple. Don Julio Reposado is an aged Tequila, aged in American bourbon barrels for 8 to 11 months. On the nose is vanilla and other spices giving a baked caked aroma. The barrel aging has imparted a palette of maple, licorice, and smoke. There are also Blanco Tequila qualities such as black pepper, earthiness, and chives. The smoke builds over time and the black pepper is not pungent. Rating: 5

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Whistler vac-away; brought to you by Kokanee and Snowbus

(The only better start to a day, would be a full bottle of Lagavulin... Okay, okay. A lot of other
full bottles of whiskey would suffice as well.)
This past Saturday, I was fortunate to score two tickets to a Kokanee apres-series party at Whistler. The package included free transport to and from the event, lift tickets, discount cards for various restaurants in the village, and access to a VIP party. The interesting part, was of course the party.

See Also: Craft of the Everyman drink

Don't get me wrong though. We had an awesome morning in and around Whistler, and though we didn't put our lift tickets to much use - we left our snowboards at home, opting for a less active vacaway - we did take full advantage of discounted food in the village. We started at Longhorn, where we ingested some breakfast; but more importantly, we ordered our drinks. The waitress suggested a Bailey's Coffee and a Mimosa. While the girlfriend went with the Mimosa, I bravely (or not so bravely) opted for an Irish Coffee. Our drinks arrived, and while the Irish Coffee was more or less what you'd expect, I was pleasantly surprised to see my girlfriend's Mimosa come as a small bottle of Henkell Trocken and a side of OJ. Nice!

(Even an anti-smile spirits obsessor such as myself could not keep from smiling if I were in this same position.)
After browsing the various shops of Whistler village, and stopping into Starbucks, we continued on the theme of drinking the finest of what Whistler had to offer on this fine Saturday morni--- oh, wait, at this point it was afternoon.
Anyway, we made our way to Brewhouse where the lady ordered a Lifty Lager, while I went for something seasonal; a fortified ale served in a large snifter. The lager tasted a bit wheaty, and reminiscent of Whistler Brewery's Powder Mountain Lager, while the fortified ale was quite sweet, and boilermaker like. I like both the Powder lager and boilermakers, so both of these beers hit a note with me. We played pool while we drank, and discussed moving on to Crystal Lounge, where we had drank several times on our last trip to Whistler, and liked one of the waitresses, so thought we'd pop our head's in to say hello.

(This is basically what the entire party looked like.)
The waitress wasn't there when we arrived, but her shift started shortly after. In the mean time, my better half ordered a caesar - having not had one since we first started dating two years ago - and I stuck with the beer theme, ordering a personal favorite and special of the day at Crystal Lounge: the maple cream ale. We played Jenga while sipping on our drinks, and discussing the party to come. We were surprised to see the waitress from our last Whistler trip arrive, and give us a few eye glances that said "I know you", but when she awkwardly approached our table her look turned into a "I think I know you, but I don't know if I know you" glance. We laughed about it afterward, but finished up at the Crystal Lounge so that we could ascend the mountain for the party that awaited.

See Also: Coffee may disappear

The ride up the gondola was what you'd expect from a gondola ride. It was beautiful. On top of the mountain, we entered the roundhouse and took our seats in the Kokanee party. We got plenty of free beer, and listened to a local band play a bunch of oldies. It was fun, and some rowdier party-goers were dancing. I can't really say much more than that. A Kokanee party is more or less what you would expect it to be. A Kokanee party! The biggest upside to the party was that I won a free lift ticket in the random grand prize draw, which I'm fairly sure was the best prize that you could win in the draw. It felt like justice from all of the non-wins of Tim Hortin's Roll Up the Rim contest.

(A lonesome bottle of Kokanee.)
After the party, we took the gondola back down and got on the bus to return home. The bus ride was terrible as there were about four random party goers who were feeling rowdy - in the most annoying way possible. The lady working for the bus had to talk to them several times. I felt embarrassed for them, as it reminded me of when I used to take school bus rides on field trips while growing up. I felt even more embarrassed for them when I heard them ranting about how they were from Surrey. It somehow irks me to have stereotypes such as the Surrey Boys fall exactly where they are, but there you have it; another unfair stereotype with some grain of truth.

See Also: The Bottle Opener: "The Beer Details"

Luckily, looking back on it a few days later, the event as a whole was awesome, and in hindsight palm-faced Surrey Boys leave me with a somewhat comical story. Their chants of "Party! Party! Party!" and "Deaner! Deaner! Deaner!" (one of the "crew's" nickname) reminded me of larger than life teen and frat party movies. Of course, the reality is that they're a few drunk kids on a bus ride with a bunch of sleeping adults. Nevertheless! It's one of those things that I've already laughed over with my girlfriend, and suspect many "Remember the time when..." stories to follow.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Coffee may disappear

(Coffee is a key ingredient in a lot of alcoholic beverages.)

I recently watched a two and a half hour long podcast on coffee. The podcast was the Joe Rogan Experience, with guest Paul Giuliano. It was very enlightening and I suggest you watch it if you have any interest in coffee at all.

See Also: Whistler episode of 'The Bottle Opener'

One of the topics Joe's guest brought up several times was the diversity of the coffee plant. Now in an episode of The Bottle Opener I briefly explained that coffee was from the Middle East. This is wrong. Coffee originates from Ethiopia, but centuries ago humans brought it across the Red Sea to Yemen, where it was shipped out to the rest of the world from the port of Mocha. Virtually all mainstream coffee is a derivative of these plants from Mocha, and make up one or two percent of the total diversity of the coffee plant.

(I predict that Sony Vaios and independent coffee shops will be the hipster's new Macbook and Starbucks.)
So where is the rest of the coffee? Well, its in Ethiopia of course. Each area of Ethiopia is said to have its own varieties of coffee which make up a piece of that town's cultural identity. The coffee is incredibly diverse, with Paul explaining on the podcast that he has brought coffee from Irgachefe, which has a noticeable lemon-like odour. Lemon isn't exactly a quality that you'd normally associate with coffee, and yet there it is; a real thing.

See Also: Sciue Melville

The incredible diversity of this incredibly important plant is something that we may lose some day. There's an ongoing effort to conserve these plants, like many other at risk plants. The reality is that coffee is at risk of disappearing in future generations because of global warming and deforestation. Ethiopia is a tropical country, in which coffee evolved as a shrub living under the canopies of much larger trees. As the world heats up and loses more forests,  the coffee plant loses more of its natural habitat. With up to ninety nine percent of the genetic diversity in one small area of a country, the remaining coffee plants could be devastated by just one bad virus.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Canada, and craft spirits

(Inside The Liberty Distillery tasting room on Granville Island, Vancouver.)
Last December, I came across a job opportunity in Singapore, which tuned me into the world of craft spirits in a big way. Having already been a big fan of the craft beer movement, and being a fan of spirits in general, craft spirits were an obvious bridge between the two. While I know a considerable amount about the microdistilleries and their products in my own city, not having the wider knowledge of the craft spirits world outside of Vancouver may have been my biggest shortcoming. Tyler and Howard, the owners of the Secret Mermaid have help tuned me into that world in a big way.

See Also: Flavored Vodka

The craft spirits revolution really seemed to have hit Vancouver in 2013, taking steam near the end of the year, and into the New Year as several microdistilleries began popping up. The trend has existed in the states for considerably longer, however, and as well most of my readers are American. It's one of those things that the culture just seems to be responding to a bit slower here, but in all fairness this is a place where its more common to find people immediately washing shots of Patron down with Coca-cola chasers, than opting to enjoy the taste of the - rather expensive - premium product, neat.  I internally sigh each time it happens, but I can't blame them. Being brought up on bad spirits culture has done Canadians a disservice, and even the days of Canadians having special world renowned microbrews is being overshadowed by the craft beer movement (not that there aren't still amazing beers in Canada - it just seems to be less of an accomplishment than it once was). In a previous article I lamented my own preference for hi-balls in years past

(Buffalo Trace is one of the higher quality American spirits that you can easily buy in Canada.)
Those drinking whiskey neat in my earlier days behind the wood, always ordered with the suffixes "and coke" or "and ginger". Rye and coke neat, or perhaps pressed, seemed like the classiest way to drink Canadian Whiskey, and it possibly took me years of bartending before I heard of my first neat Crown. In my mind, this seemed like something for Scotch culture, or alcoholics. My own obsession with Manhattans eventually became the breaking point.

See Also: My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

Since my humble beginnings as no-nothing Maritime Canadian who drinks Alpine, I've managed to familiarize myself with many of the popular names in craft spirits produced by my neighbours to the south. The unfortunate truth is that it can still be quite difficult to get most of these products in Canada.This is only further testament for why craft spirits are moving much slower here than in the south. It's a very niche community, giving heed to the small population and population density of Canada. We're simply producing a smaller fraction of craft spirits compared to the United States, and on top of that, there's the fact that spirits and wine don't carry all of the same social significance here compared to the States. Beer isn't only the drink of the Everyman here, but it also identifies our culture as Canadians; our most popular beer is even called Canadian. Perhaps being Canadian needs to be encapsulated somehow in spirits, the same way as in beer.

(Canada has a plethora of awesome microbreweries, like Bowen Island.)
There does seen to be an end to the untouchable rainbow, though. The niche community I'm part of seems to be growing, at least from my perspective. The obvious consequence of this is that spirits culture will grow as well.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Flavoured vodka

(A Russian Standard Martini. The Russian Standard for vodka, is absolutely no flavour.)
Vodka, in theory, is supposed to be flavourless (whether a flavourless vodka is even possible is arguable). Yet not too long ago we saw familiar brands such as Smirnoff, Absolut, and Stoli's put out a broad range of flavoured vodkas. You can find pretty much any flavour of vodka you can imagine. And it works because of an  easy excuse; the vodka we started with is still flavourless, but we added a flavour on top. This ridiculous notion is perhaps the first nail in the coffin for the idea of vodkas being flavourless.

See Also: State of the legal definition of vodka

Fast forward to the craft spirit movement, and you have a whole other beast. These spirits are somehow imagined to be different. They have complex aromas, which make them characteristically more like a gin. Yet that unmistakable vodka taste is still there - another clue that perhaps vodka does have taste, and odour. Several craft microdistilleries have also emulated the flavoured vodkas of the big brands, but producing more obscure flavours such as salmon. Predictably, long established brands even deep in the vodka belt, such as Chopin,  have also drawn inspiration from the craft movement. They've produced a broad line of different vodkas using methods such as less distillations and filtering steps. The products they've created are supposed to have a wide range of flavour outcomes. Even products from the same initial distillation batches can be grossly different depending on something as simple as how many times its been filtered.

(The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, Vancouver, produces
Truth vodka with flavour qualities reminiscent of gin.)
In the midst of all this, there is somewhat of a differentiation between the craft and big brands here in North America. Yet, when I look at the wider scope of things, its much different in my mind than what the craft world has done with bourbon. While I myself am not a fan of the 'added flavour' vodkas of the big brands, I can't say that what they're doing is much different than the microdistilleries. On the same token, I find that the craft vodkas are more approachable, creative and classy. My perspective of large brand flavourings is that they're somewhere in the same boat with flavoured jelly beans. They're just supposed to be plain old fun.

That is, they don't seem to be about what the spirit is, but more about the candy coating.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Craft of the Everyman drink

(Part of the allure of the Craft world, is finding new undiscovered gems.)
A good cold bottle of beer is quite possibly the most refreshing thing in the world, after a hard day's work. Heck, even a lot of bad beers can be refreshing after a hard day's work. This image of beer as the drink of the Everyman has been interwoven into our cultural identity.

See Also: Tasting Notes - Mill St Organic Lager

Not so long ago, every beer drinker could have given you a list of most and least favourite domestic and imported beers. And for the most part, we all knew what beer they were talking about. But of course, those little craft micro breweries were hiding in the shadows, waiting I reveal their might.

(It costs a little more, but craft products are a process of trying new things.)
Fast forward to the present day, and craft beer is making a dent in the beer market. With it, comes an expansive list of ales, which do battle with the pale lager heavyweights of the past century. Any serious beer drinker has likely rethought the "list" they created a decade or more ago, and are in a constant quest to find new beers to add to the new ever changing list.
The age of the pale lager giants seems to be giving way to a plethora of mystical ales (well, to be fair, there are a lot I craft lagers too). These new beers come in a variety if flavours, and don't have the slight nuances that separate the nearly indistinguishable mainstream beers. The craft revolution means a few somethings; individuality, character and identity. These romantic words are what propel beer buyers in this brave new market. 

(So, I don't actually know if this is a Craft beer, but it's not exactly common around these parts.)
The solidarity and created by the oh-so familiar Canadians, Budweisers and Blues doesn't hold that illusion of camaraderie that it used to. The commercials used to preach that everyone drinking the same beer used to use a good time. At one time Molson even made fun of all the different micro-lagers, in their own way. But as it turns out the camaraderie had little to do with the brand of beer. In my mind, at least, the craft revolution has just solidified beer as the drink of the Everyman.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Classy cocktails

(This is a Martini - the way God intended it to be when he created all of the classic cocktails from the prohibition era.)
Classic cocktails are somewhat of a personal forte. I enjoy making them, and put a lot of thought and effort into making sure that I can produce them to the best of my ability. I like to think about the proportion of spirits, and mixing agents, and what the final product should taste like. I like to think about what they should looks like; rocks, glassware and garnish are all things I have an internal conflict over. I like to produce both iconic and recognizable cocktails, as well as giving the classics a new spin from time to time.
You may have also noticed that I criticize overtly complex cocktails, or cocktails whose purpose is to hide the spirit below the taste of various purées, juices and syrups. The sweet and sour mixture can work quite well in small doses but as is the case with many cocktails, it gets taken too far. Blended cocktails whose juice and sugar content is several times more than the amount of alcohol are an obvious choice of criticism. Firstly, their calorie count is deceptively high, but secondly, you usually wouldn't even know that there's even any alcohol in the drink. Next are the would-be Martinis and Cosmos; cocktails that are only those things in name. I've already written about my grief concerning those drinks. There's more though. Beer cocktails that aren't really cocktails, but instead some kind of shandy. Punch without spirits, or sangrias without wine. The list goes on.

(Not a classic cocktail, but definitely a classy cocktail - courtesy of Taylor
from The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, Vancouver.) 
This leaves me in a troubling dilemma though. If all of these things are off limits, then what pray tell are the drinks I approve of? Well, classic cocktails have been recounted several times. But I also approve of sours. That is, sour cocktails such as the margarita, whiskey sour, cosmopolitan and mojito. And as far as those high juice content cocktails; those too are acceptable, as long as they contain at least two ounces of alcohol, and no more than three ounces of mix - they should also be crafted with an intent other than to mask the quality of the spirit. Beer cocktails can't be called a cocktail if only juice has been added, much in the same way a sangria needs wine and punch needs a spike of some sort. And then of course there are shooters; fun and inventive in their own right, and as such are acceptable. But there are many more acceptable cocktails, so long as the goal isn't to undermine the distilleries that provided that most important ingredient.

See Also: My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

What I'd like to share from this article is that drink crafting is no less an art than cooking, composing or painting (all of which I also do!) Drinks should be considered in their entirety, to the point that every ingredient is working toward the goal - and the goal can never be to cover up the spirit, but instead to add dimension. As a bartender, the ultimate goal should be to provide a drink whose taste and aromas create an experience. Whose appearance helps carry that experience. And whose experience leaves the drinker intrigued, contemplative and satisfied.

(Despite all my words against fruity cocktails, I actually do make them myself!
This cocktail is a double, mixed with less than two ounces of non-alc.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tasting Notes - Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine

(This is where it all starts.)
I sat down last night to record yet another episode of Tasting Notes. This time, I gave Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine "White Lightning". This stuff comes in a mason jar, and... well it's quite difficult to open the container!

Once you break through the shield generator, it starts to get a whole lot more interesting!

The immediate thing you may notice on giving the ole 'shine a good sniff is that it's got a quite strong smell of ethanol. It's good for your sinuses, and if you can get past that, you may notice some spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The texture is almost syrup-like in viscosity, and has a buttery or slick feel to it, as well as notes of butter on the palette. On more consideration, you may notice popcorn.

My original rating for this spirit was 3.5 out of 5 stars, but after trying to consume it for several minutes, I lowered my rating to 3... In all honesty, it's just not my kind of thing. There are a few things about it I enjoy quite a bit, and I see a lot of potential for this in practical or mixological terms, but again, it just ain't my cup o' tea.

THAT said, I do think it's worthwhile if you're serious about making brave new cocktails.

Ole Smoky Moonshine Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on Mar 26 . Buttery, hints of spice, popcorn finish! Ole Smoky Moonshine is a high proof Moonshine hailing from Appalachia. You won't go blind, drinking it, but it might clear up your nose. Light smoke, spicy on the nose, butter and syrup on the palette. Lots of burn. Rating: 3.5

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It's all in a smile

(This is more or less the expression I have all the time.)
A smile can go a long way, but likewise, not smiling can go a long way too. It's an all too common thing - forgetting to smile. I'm particularly bad for it, although I've been aboe to change my habits so that at the very least I smile at guest whenever I make eye contact. But if you work behind a bar, I'm sure that you can relate to the idea that sometimes it difficult to smile while your mind is elsewhere.

See Also: Tasting Notes - The Kraken Black Spiced Rum

As I mentioned, I have been able to improve my bad habit of carrying a staunch grimace while interacting with people, but its still a problem that I've tried to find solutions for when I just can't seem to concentrate enough to keep smiling. It leaves a bad impression, sometimes. I'd received a guest complaint not too long ago where the guest had felt alienated by my blank face. They had suggested that I should try to pretend that I enjoyed my job. It's a disappointing thing to hear, especially for someone like myself, who lives bartending to the point of bringing their job home with them, blogging, researching and experimenting with whatever they can to experience even more of what it means to be a bartender.

(Look at this grim-faced dive bar pro! Oh wait... that's me.)
I really could kick myself regarding the situation above. So easily avoidable, and yet it wasn't avoided. I try to keep a mantra of not taking things personally once they're out of my control, but it can obviously be difficult to put aside something like a miscommunication.
I have back up plans for when I'm having trouble interacting with the guests at the bar - something that can happen rather easily when the restaurant is high volume. I usually start doing using whatever working flair routines I have, or talk about their drinks as I'm making them. It's not hard to get a smile from the guests, or inquisitive responses when I'm doing what I do best.

As for the smiling thing... It's a work in progress. I've gotten much better at remembering to smile, although clearly, there are still times when I need to try harder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

(The Rusty Nail is kind of like the Manhattan of Scotch.)
I've been on the whiskey train for awhile now, and you may have noticed that's extended to the Rusty Nail - if my recent article wasn't clue enough. The Manhattan is of course, MY drink. I'd also like to share that I'd never gotten a chance to give Buffalo Trace the go around. Until fairly recently, that is. Now, before you get really into this article, I should offer you fair warning: this is yet another opinion piece.

With that said....

I was quite excited to sit down at a favorite local speakeasy style pub, to start skimming the whiskey section of their hefty drink list. Being that - as mentioned earlier - I'm on the most Rusted of Nails, I started off looking at their blends. I was disinterested in their limited selection, so moved onto the much longer single malt section. I had all but chosen my Scotch for the evening when I noticed a fairly priced Buffalo Trace straight bourbon, and decided to tuck away my plans for a tetanus shot. Rubbing my hands together, I ordered my Manhattan, with Buffalo Trace; stirred. Because who wants a shaken Manhattan, really?

(Buffalo Trace! Yours is a love I have not yet known!)
The drink arrived with the familiar red hue, and I took a sip at which point I was met with an overwhelming sensation of Martini Rosso. I'm not really sure what the ratio of whiskey to vermouth was in this case, but I suspect it was closer to one and one than the cocktail's standard. Perhaps my taste is off because I'm having hay fever, or perhaps I just don't know whiskey like I thought I did. Despite that I went to the washroom just to blow my nose for a solid minute or two, but I'm going to give them benefit of the doubt here and say that perhaps I was having an off night. Perhaps the two Rusty Nails I had earlier (Talisker, and then Johnnie Walker Red) have smoked out my senses.

See Also: Bitter me this, bitter me that

Whatever the case, I gave an unofficial promise to myself, and my readers, that I would never give a bad review to an establishment or a product, so I'm not going to name the premises where this happened. What I will say, is that I have gotten good Manhattans all over the city - including this establishment, which I like to frequent for a reason. By and large, I think its a fairly universally understood cocktail. But just to be sure that my own favourite cocktail isn't being misunderstood by myself, and all the other bartenders I've watched make one, I googled it, and verified that indeed the standard is an ounce and a half of rye or bourbon, half an ounce of sweet vermouth and a few dashes of bitter ye olde Angostura. Though, I wouldn't blame anyone for making it even a five to one ratio.

(Beware! This non-Manhattan is deceptively good looking!)
It's not the first time I've gotten a bad Manhattan though. It's the second. The first time, I ordered one of my own favourites, the JD Manhattan (JD Single Barrel is actually my top rated Manhattan). I'm not sure what it was, in that case, but it was just wrong; not terribly wrong though. It was still paletteable.

I still had to give the bartender the benefit of the doubt though, so I started googling reviews of Buffalo Trace (despite that I had already known it was a highly rated Bourbon - from some sources, the best). I was met by ratings such as 92/100, and several four out of five stars. Furthermore, I read descriptions of the palette which simply fell short of my experience.

See Also: The Manhattan returns to The Bottle Opener

The worst part of it all is, I almost knew that the drink was going to be botched as soon as I ordered it. The body language, the response to my order, everything was sending me bad signals. I really, really wanted to keep specifying my expectations after "stirred, not shaken", but I had to give my fellow bartender the benefit of the doubt. The why of it is, I'm apathetic. A lot of the time I go out and feel like I'm the difficult customer that's asking people to dust off the part of their short term memory they never use. Another thing is, I don't specifically like walking them through the way I make it for myself. Sometimes they do it differently, and even though its not what I expect, it's usually a slightly different version of the same thing. And I like it!

(Some of this might have helped out a bit...)
Which is part of the reason I keep coming back to the same establishments. When I sit at the bar and order my Manhattan, its somewhat comforting to hear them ask what kind of glass, bitters, or garnish I want. Sometimes it relaxes me enough that I feel safe to walk them through the Brooklyn, another personal Bourbon favourite.

I sat at the bar, consuming my subpar beverage, considering whether I should give Buffalo Trace another go in an old fashioned. The bartender returned to ask me what I'd like. Old fashioned just isn't my drink. So I hesitated for a few moments before saying I'll settle up. The bill somehow came back as over 23 dollars. Not quite what I was expecting either.

It wasn't worth it.
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