Sunday, November 7, 2010

Boutique Bar Show

I love booze shows. There's just something festive and delightful about going to a convention for drinking. From the Whisky Lives I've attended to the Indy Spirits Expo, showcasing different alcohol in a professional setting is something that just tickles my fancy. The Boutique Bar Show Edinburgh was no different. A rather extensive list of pours from not just the UK but from all around the world makes it almost like the Epcot of getting shit-house drunk.

Not far from Edinburgh's Royal Mile (just off of Leith Walk), it was a rather picturesque day, in a cloudy way. There was a nice breeze bustling about as I got off the bus on Prince's street and began my trek to the venue, the Mansfield Traquair. Sometimes I drink on a boat. Sometimes I drink in a convention center. This time...

 I drank in a church. Sacrilicious.

This was not lost on me. The Mansfield Traquair, originally built in 1873 and consecrated in 1876, was a Catholic Apostolic church until the death of the last Apostolic priest in 1958. After changing hands several times, it was purchased by the Edinburgh Council and, eventually, by the Mansfield Traquair Trust. Now I'm going to drink in it. Aside from the obvious, this job has some deliciously ironic perks.

Walking in, the potent blast of high proof spirits and Catholic guilt assails the senses. The walls are coated in murals, the ceiling framed in stained glass. It would be awe-inspiring if I wasn't about to wet my pants in glee over what was on the floor. Three rows, maybe ten booths deep, full of delicious beverages. Baby, I was home and read to take me a little bit of communion.

I'm skipping any more of these fancying words. Time to get down to the nitty gritty. Here's what I tried, in the order I tried it. Hold on tight, kids, it's gonna be a bumpy ride:

Fever Tree: I finally got to try some Fever Tree. I've heard from various bartenders that it's a great product to mix with but it's distribution in the US was pretty limited. I think just as I left Rochester, Wegman's got it on their shelves. Either that or it was there before but so ludicrously expensive thanks to mark-up that my Scottish Senses prohibited me from seeing it. Either or, this stuff is pretty delicious. Their ginger ale was nice, if rather plain. It did have a nice clean and fresh ginger taste to it and it was absolutely crisp and refreshing. They use only sugar in their products so the ginger flavor wasn't absolutely destroyed by HFCS. Their ginger beer was absolutely stunning though. Sweet and bubbly on the forefront, the ginger heat only reared after you swallowed; it was a pleasant warming and spicy feeling. Quite different than the fire-water some ginger beers are. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for a Dark and Stormy (you need that gingery aggressiveness for it), it would make a mean Bourbon Highball / Whiskey and Ginger. Their tonic was quite nice as well and would serve as a delicious partner to a lighter floral gin. I think it is too clean and too refined for the heavy juniper bruisers but I may be wrong.

AnCnoc: I was fortunate to try both the 12 and the 16.  The 12 was quite young and fruity tasting with orange peel/marmalade and lemon twist to it. The 16 was much preferred, with a heavy oak, vanilla, and brown sugar clout to it that means it's definitely hibernated in a ex-bourbon barrel for awhile. A touch of dark fruit to it means it was probably blended with some sherry butts as well. I also got to try a AnCnoc-hito which is a riff on a mojito using the AnCnoc 12 year. It was...ok. The sugar syrup, lime, and mint overpowered the spirit a bit too much. The cocktail sought to mask the flavors, not work with them, I think. It was still refreshing though, considering I was thirsty.

J. Wray and Nephews: I got to try a few of the things at their table: the Appleton 8, the Koko Kanu (Jamaican coconut rum) and the Licor 43. The Appleton 8 was pleasant in that pot still-y kind of way, the Koko Kanu wasn't as syrupy sweet as I was assuming it was going to be but the real champion of this table was the Licor 43. It is a predominantly vanilla flavored liqueur with a variety of bittering herbs in it. Only a few know all 43 ingredients in it (hence the name). It is really, really delicious. A very buttery vanilla flavor akin to melted vanilla bean ice cream coupled with the balance of the bittering herbs makes this a delicious drink. If I got a bottle of it, I'd make it into milkshakes or perhaps put it in Sprite. Very good stuff, even for it's almost ludicrous viscosity.

Marblehead: Marblehead is the UK importer for a variety of things but at the show they had Zubrowka and Kraken Rum. Zubrowka is a bison grass flavored vodka that I've heard quite a bit about but it wasn't allowed in the US thanks to the FDA.  It recently broke into the US market after a lot of wrangling but I got to try the actual stuff over here in the far less restrictive Scotland. They had a cool little walk-through for analyzing their spirit:

From left to right it was bison grass extract, plain rye vodka, and the final product. The bison grass extract (which we couldn't drink) was like nothing I'd ever smelled before. It smelled of black tea, granola, vanilla, almond, and cookies. It has this vegetable and baked good smell, almost like someone made zucchini bread with vanilla extract and served it to you with a cup of tea. I wanted to drink it really, really bad but it said not to. The rye was nothing extraordinary: slightly sweet and spicy with a fresh rye loaf and earth flavor. Together though, it made a delicious mix. The Zubrowka had the qualities of both the "neutral" spirit and the extract: it tasted like cut grass, jasmine tea, and vanilla with that scrumptious rye zing. Pretty impressive stuff.

I also got to try the Kraken as well. I say this not because I've never had it (see here) but because the product over here comes in at a different ABV. In the states (as mentioned here) it clocks in at about 43% but the UK import is only 40%. (EDIT: Jesus, it clocks in at 47%. I can't tell what's worse: that I forgot that or my palate has managed to forget a drop of 4% ABV.) For sipping purposes, I think the 40% Kraken works better because, despite my love of cask strength anything, the flavors really are more pronounced. The caramel and black pepper really pops and the cinnamon and cardamom mesh better. But for mixing purposes, stick with the 43%. Either way, everything's gravy, baby.

Babicka Vodka: This may very well have been my favorite product at the show, mainly because it was so damn unique. These days, absinthe is coming back in a big and bad way. With the repeal of the US ban, dozens upon dozens of absinthes are flooding into the market. Some are mass-market offerings which range from poor to good. Then there's the artisan stuff that ranges from okay to "will trade liver for lifetime supply". But everyone (including the FDA) always focuses on one thing: the wormwood. But it's never about the flavor of wormwood, it's always about the supposed effects. Fun fact: hallucinations and shit weren't from wormwood, they were from the copper sulfides and lead based salts used to give fake absinthe the proper color and louching properties. In order to feel anything from thujone, you'd have to drink something like 4x the lethal limit of alcohol.

Here's where Babicka comes in. An extremely simplistic idea: a wormwood vodka. Not playing on the "woo, let's get twisted" avenue of absinthe, they play to the fact that wormwood indeed has a flavor. And this stuff is good. A corn based vodka infused with wormwood, the flavor is almost gin-like. Herbal and sweet (thanks to the corn base), there's notes of orange peel, lemons, a slight welcoming bitterness. It's a great spirit. I want to get a bottle and make martinis with it. 2 oz. of Babicka with dry vermouth and a grapefruit twist would probably blow my shoes straight across the room. I like this stuff and would recommend it. Here's hoping it comes to the US.

Bitter Truth: Yup, you read that right. I got to meet the Bitter Truth guys. I spent an inordinate amount of time pretty much worshiping Stephan Berg, the owner. We chatted about cocktails and he gave me the lo-down on what they're coming out with next. He gave me a taste of the Bitter Truth Elderflower Liqueur, a direct contender to St. Germain (and better). It smacked strongly of honey and elder flower, with this oddly savory/meaty finish to it. Both sweet and slightly sour, it was a pretty fantastic beverage. Definitely a higher quality than St. Germain. He also said that they were coming out with something else but he kept his lips sealed on what it was. I have spent many sleepless nights wondering what it is. He was also pretty interested to hear about the masters program which made me feel pretty good. At least I might be able to get a job somewhere respectable (instead of passed out drunk in a liquor store).

Elements 8: Still flush from their award at the UK Rumfest for their Spiced Rum (best in category), I spent some time chatting with Andreas Redlefsen, the co-founder. I got to try their entire range of St. Lucian rum and we shot the shit about the beverage world while I tasted. Their platinum was extraordinarily fruity for a white rum; almost tasting faintly of Bing cherries. Their Gold had notes of oak and vanilla and, I swear, hints of wasabi. It was no fluke of the palate, I made sure to keep it clean the entire time. It was pretty faint but present. The Spiced was the final one I tried and it was obvious why it won an award. Very strong cinnamon and black pepper with a wallop of clove and molasses. The clove was so strong it actually made the inside of my lips numb. I'll probably be picking up a bottle of it to mix. I want to try it in a Dark and Stormy.

Fentimans: You may never have heard of this stuff despite the fact that it's available in the US. Which is a shame because they produce some of the finest all-sugar beverages in the entire world. When I first came over here 3 years ago, I got a bottle of their ginger beer at the British Library after hours of perusing famous works. I was parched and a ginger beer seemed like just the ticket. What I met was a fiery hell-broth of liquid delicious addiction. It had a potent punch of ginger fire with a deliciously sweet and mellow background. It was the best drink I ever had. Then I tried their bottled shandy. It was even better. So I was absolutely thrilled to see the Fentimans team at the show. But where they showing mixers? Oh no no no. They were showing their newest addition to the line: John Hollows Alcoholic Ginger Beer. Oh heavens it's good. Exactly like the ginger beer I remember from the British library but this time it packs a 4% ABV. An answer to Crabbie's Ginger Beer and it's mysterious ingredient list of dubious natural origins, the John Hollows Superior Alcoholic Ginger Beer is a treat. I will be drinking it regularly, you can count on that. I'm not sure it's even been released yet (I believe the woman I talked to, Amy, said that the packaging had been finalized only a few weeks ago) so it looks like I'll have to wait patiently to buy a few cases and horde it like an apocalypse survivor. Just like what I do with Irn Bru.

Sipsmith: This is actually a fault of mine but I didn't actually try any of the Sipsmith stuff. That would be because I was too busy talking about craft distilling with Sam Galsworthy, co-founder of Sipsmith. It was actually really interesting to hear about the micro-distilling movement in the UK and how it has started to blossom since they got their distilling license. Craft distilling is a personal love of mine (mainly because I like to tinker with recipes and booze). I'm actually doing a paper on the craft distilling movement in the US (which is harder than it sounds thanks to a lack of credible scientific articles) so hearing about the UK branch of it was handy for that. But one of the guys, Bryce, in my program says that they have good stuff so I'll take his word on it until I can get my hands on some.

Amathus Imports: Tried the gamut of spirits here (read: I drank everything on the table). Their tequila was eh but the truly sweet stuff was their stash of genever. In case you've never heard of genever, it's the grandpappy of London Dry Gin. Originating in Holland, it is a malt-based spirit which makes itself apparent in the taste (genever is much sweeter/maltier than London Dry). Also, the usage of pot still distillation left quite a bit of flavor compounds still in it which meant that sweetness (and other flavor compounds) ended up in the distillate as well. This meant that it could have some off flavors and they decided to flavor it with juniper. With the introduction and widespread usage of the column still in England came the birth of the London Dry gin. Since the distillate coming off was so clean (thanks to the column distillation), that malty sweetness was gone and replaced by a more aggressive spice/herbal infusion. They had two genevers at the table: Deooievaar, a 100% rye base genever and A.V. Wees Zuur Oude Genever. The rye genever (not writing that name again) was nice with the traditional rye zest and juniper fragrance but it wasn't what I was looking for in a genever. I thought the rye was a touch too aggressive. The A.V. Wees Zuur Oude was spot on though with a delicious fruity sweetness, some malty flavors, and a pretty low juniper impact which I enjoy. Too much juniper make a little part of me die on the inside.

There ya go, the damage of the night. There's a lot more I have written in my notepad but I'm refraining from using them mainly because I was so drunk my writing was illegible. Despite my state of inebriation, I was able to hold myself to the Bacchanal decorum and hold extremely pleasant and non-offensive conversations with several other reps (sorry, Patron rep). I'd just like to shout out to Ben Mclellan of Inspirit Brands for deciding I was the right person to start doing shots with. I feel kinda bad that I did a shot of Four Roses Single Barrel but it was damn tasty.

Bacchus out.

PS: Have pictures