Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – April 2015
by Margaret Swaine
In my constant travels around the globe, I often come across hot new trends in drinking. Sometimes the connection with the place seems natural such as the prohibition style bars (a password required to enter) in North America and the growing farm to shaker movement among mixologists in the hip hoods in America. Other trends are head-scratchers.
How did the mania for Gin-Tonic bars in Spain start? England surely has top claims to that drink – but no. Spain is now the world’s biggest gin consumer per capita, with demand increasing at an average of 18 percent over the past five years. (The Philippines consume the largest volume of gin: the local Ginebra San Miguel celebrates its 181 birthday this year.) I’ll write more about this trend when we finally head into warmer weather.
In Charleston when I saw a flight of Grand Marnier on the drink menu in Belmond hotel’s Charleston Grill, I got curious. Grand Marnier, a cognac based orange liqueur first created in 1880, is a fine French tipple but to offer three versions of it in a flight is unusual.
Locals informed me that Charleston has such a craze for Grand Marnier that the city is the number one consumer of it per capita in the world. They call it GrandMa and mostly drink it like a shooter. I tracked down this trend to an odd law and a chef.
A South Carolina law restricted bars and restaurants to serving liquor from mini-bottles until 2005. Chef Bob Carter, at the helm of the highly popular Peninsula Grill in the late nineties (until 2011) used to show up at events with minis of GrandMa and cajole colleagues into taking shots with him. He started a mania that is only now beginning to slow.
Fireball, a Canadian whisky punched up with a strong hit of cinnamon, is fast becoming the shooter of choice not only in Charleston but throughout North America: it’s one of the most successful liquor brands in decades. Sales have reached the million cases level and it all started in Canada.
It began as a Dr. McGillicuddy’s brand but really took off when it was renamed Fireball. It’s now owned by Sazerac North America Inc which also owns well-loved bourbons such as Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare and “1792” Ridgemont Reserve. I’ve met recently with the master distillers and blenders in the company and tasted through a lot of their products, but no one presented Fireball to me at that time. Now having just tasted it – I can see why. It’s so powerfully cinnamon with a burning finale it would kill the palate for their more “subtle” whiskies.
As to the Kentucky whiskies, Buffalo Trace’s first official registration of still 113 was in 1787 though it’s very likely they were distilling before then. By the mid 1800’s there were over 300 registered stills in Kentucky. Almost all were forced to cease during Prohibition between 1919 and 1933. Only four, including Buffalo Trace, were allowed to continue distilling for medicinal purposes. People must have been mighty sick at the time. Over six million prescriptions were written during Prohibition entitling the bearer to a pint of whiskey.
Buffalo Trace gets its name from the pathway taken by buffalo on their ancient Westerly migratory route. The company claims to be the only producer using five recipes for whiskey products: three rye recipe bourbons, one barley and one wheat bourbon. These five recipes create a matrix under which the individual brands are made.
For example Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg all are made according to Buffalo Trace rye recipe #1, the key difference is length of time in wood which changes the balance and flavour profile of them. Buffalo Trace rye recipe #2 is used to make Elmer T. Lee, Hancocks Reserve and Rock Hill.
The wheat bourbon recipe make W.L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle. The wheat gives a mellower, softer profile which softens the wood effect allowing Pappy to be aged more than 20 years without being overly oaky. The straight rye recipe, a spicy, peppery brew, is used for Sazerac and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old.
Master Blender at Buffalo Trace, Drew Mayville (a Canadian who started at Seagram’s in Waterloo about 34 years ago) told me the key to the success of the company is innovation. They continually try out new ways to make whiskey to come up with an ever better product. One example is a “cured oak” whiskey aged in barrels made from oak staves that have been aged (seasoned) outdoors for 13 months instead of their average of six. They have micro-distilleries to try out for example brown rice bourbon recipes and the like.
Ken Pierce, Director of Distillation at Barton, said that the Sazerac Company has a good eight to nine ideas to innovate the Canadian whiskey category. I doubt that will mean more Fireball type recipes, despite that liquor’s runaway success. We can only bid our time like a barrel in a warehouse until the big reveal.
To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
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