Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ADI Conference, Day 2 (Part 2)

After a full day of tours and tastings, we headed back to the Seelbach Hotel for a "free evening." For me, this meant going out to dinner with a group from the conference, and continuing my quest for an interesting drinking experience in Louisville.

First Stop: Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse

This place had been highly recommended to me by some folks from the are
a, so we went there for dinner. The decor is a little overwhelming - see photo. Unfortunately, the cocktail menu was disappointing - everything sounded very sweet, and the one person in my group who was brave enough to order something from it (a mojito) was not able to finish it because it was so sweet. So I sipped on some Booker's neat, and then tried a Kentucky Ale. After all, the master brewer for Kentucky Ale, Chris Bird, was in our group, so the least we could do was try his beer (it was very good, I brought some of the bourbon barrel ale home with me). Although the drink list was disappointing, the dry-aged steaks at Jeff Ruby's were fantastic. All of us had a steak, and everyone loved them (and the asparagus, it was a bit hit too).

Second Stop: Proof on Main

Unfortunately, no one in our group had found any other cocktail bars for us to try, and some in our group had not been to Proof. So we went back. This time, we sat at the bar and talked to the bartenders, Jason and Les. It was pretty quiet, given that it was a Monday night, and they seemed to have fun with our group. I saw some house-made tonic water on the menu, so I tried the tonic water first. It was very light on quinine, with clove, allspice and citrus flavors. With gin, it seemed to liven up a bit, but was still a bit too light on flavor and quinine for me.

Spirit Tastings, Tastings, Tastings

Proof has some really interesting stuff on the bar that you don't see everyday, including some spirits from small distilleries around the U.S. that aren't in Chicago yet. I started by comparing Vermont Gold and Cold River vodkas neat and iced. The differences were striking. Each had a delicate aroma somewhat reminiscent of their base ingredient (Vermont Gold is maple sap, Cold River is potatoes), but the Cold River had much more flavor and texture. Being a fan of grain-based vodka, I liked the Vermont Gold better, but I can see why some folks love the Cold River.

Then I tried a couple of things I've never seen before. First up - Cadenhead's Green Label Rum. This spirit was complex and smooth, with rich caramel notes. Very sippable by itself. According to their website, this is a single-barrel rum, and I've not seen it before or since. Definitely give it a try if you see it, but it might not taste the same as the one I had unless you go to Proof!

Next up, Dumante Pistachio Liqueur. I'm not sure how I feel about nut-flavored liqueurs, although I do have a bottle of crème de noyaux for those rare occasions when someone asks for a Pink Squirrel (actually the only time that's happened was when someone wanted to test me and see if I knew what it was). Dumante was definitely pistachio flavored, very sweet, and had a hint of the "almond extract" flavor I always associate with my mom's cherry pies (which by the way, are the best ones ever).

The gents at Proof didn't really have any cocktails using the Dumante to recommend, so I sipped on it awhile. I'm not a huge fan of very sweet drinks, so I gave up on it eventually. Interestingly enough, I met Paul Paletti, Jr., the fellow who is importing Dumante from Italy, at our conference the next day - he is a well known lawyer in Louisville, also known for his interest in photography (apparently the collection in his firm's offices are quite impressive). Mr. Paletti advised that there were lots of cocktail ideas on their website, and that they were headed to Chicago soon. Perhaps I'll be seeing more of Dumante in the near future.

Spotting the Red Penguins

One of the most whimsical and fun things I've ever seen in a bar is the red penguins at Proof. They show up in different places at different times, yet no one would admit to seeing anyone move them (and no, we weren't just seeing things!). They're all over the attached museum too - keep your eyes peeled if you go.

It was late, so we wandered back to the Old Seelbach Bar, which was now closed. It was off to bed, to rise for another 8 am bus departure for the next day of the conference. More on that soon!

Friday, April 18, 2008

ADI Conference, Day 2 (Part 1)

Monday, April 7th was a very busy day at the ADI conference. We loaded up on buses at 8 am from the Seelbach Hotel and headed out into the country. I'm going to break this day up into two posts, so as to avoid a (bigger) monster post.

First stop: Vendome Copper & Brass

I've been to Vendome before, so I mostly hung out by the coffee. Here are a couple of photos, one from this trip and one from the last time I was there. The people at Vendome are always very gracious when we come for tours. However, when we had tried to contact them about our still a few years ago, no one would get back to us. Right or wrong, we got the impression that they were so tied up with the big bourbon distilleries in the area that our project was too small.

Second Stop: Independent Stave Company
If you've never been inside a cooperage, you are missing out. I've been to two now, and they were similar, but actually more different than I expected. This year, we went to Independent Stave's cooperage in Lebanon, KY. Unfortunately, they did not allow photographs within the cooperage, so all I've got is a couple of shots from the outside and in the cafeteria (where we had a nice box lunch, thanks to ISC).

These places are very loud (they pass out ear & eye protectio
n before you go in). New American oak logs (mostly from Missouri) are cut, and then laid on pallets to season in the sun for a few months. Then they are dried to 10-11% moisture levels in dryers and gigantic kilns. Each board is sanded, filed and shaped by one of their employees using a large sander/cutting machine. Some boards are made into barrel heads, and they have a separate production line for heads. A cooper chooses the staves (the individual boards that go into the barrel) for each barrel and lays them in place by hand. Machines then drop on the first rings, and the barrels continue on their journey.

Future steps involve steaming the barrels to make the pliable enough to shape and force on the other rings. The barrels are then dried, and heads are added. Final step - test for leaks. Interestingly, they had about a 25% failure rate at Independent Stave, and a separate line of folks who take those barrels apart to fix them.
The guys in these jobs are tough, its hard work.

ust for fun, here are a couple shots from the Bluegrass Cooperage, which we toured a couple of years ago - they let us take pictures inside.

Third Stop: Makers Mark Distillery
Makers Mark has a beautiful campus and facility in Loretto, KY, and they do a great job of conveying their story to consumers who come to visit. However, a few things about my experience there were not what I expected. We were given the exact same tour as other (non-industry) visitors, which means we got a very basic lesson in fermentation and distillation that most of us didn't need or want, plus a whole lot of marketing.

If I had counted the number of times our tour guide had used the phrase "quality bourbon" or "we only make a quality product," I think I would have used all my fingers & toes, and maybe someone else's. She also called us "you people" a lot, which for some reason irritated me (I sometimes am amused when things like that actually bug me, not sure why).

Finally, at the end of our tour, we were led through one of the rickhouses, through a door that led directly to the gift shop. All of a sudden, I thought I was at Disneyland or something.

I think the experience would probably be great for the general Makers Mark consumer, but I was annoyed. I did enjoy the tasting, however, and one of their distillers joined us then.

Final Stop on the Tour: Heaven Hill Distillery

We drove onward to Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY. They were ready for us, with some great snacks and several mini-tour options (rickhouses, barrel filling ,etc.). They don't actually distill anything at their facility in Bardstown - apparently the still and its building burned down awhile back and they now do their distilling in Louisville. Spirits are trucked in for barreling and aging in Bardstown. There are many rickhouses, as well as a big visitors center and other facilities.

We got to meet Parker Beam, who guided us in a tasting of the Evan Williams Single Barrel and Bernheim's Wheat Whiskey. He was gracious and answered our many questions about how they make their products.

Unfortunately I missed out on the tour of a rickhouse somehow, but I did get to see the area where they fill barrels.

It was a great day of tours, and we headed back to the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville for a free night. More about that in my next post!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Seen in a Bar: 4.17.08

Late one night recently in Louisville, in the 4th Street tourist area, I found myself sitting at the bar with Joe Corley from Germain-Robin. We were trying some bourbons and having a great time. We started looking at the bottles on the bar (looking for something new), and noticed that a whole bunch of the bottles did not have caps. They were on the top shelf with no caps, no pour spouts, nothing. Hmmm... troubling. Luckily we hadn't ordered any of those, and we made sure not to going forward.

Much later, around 4 am when we were (finally) heading back to the hotel, we walked past that bar again. We hoped to see caps on those bottles, but we didn't. Just think about what might be in those bottles (and what has evaporated)... fruit flies, etc.... yuck!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

American Distilling Institute Conference, Day 1

On Sunday, April 6th, the fifth annual American Distilling Institute conference got underway in Louisville, Kentucky. We gathered at the historic Seelbach Hotel (lobby at right) to taste spirits, see old friends and meet new ones.

This is the third conference I have attended (I went to the 2nd and 3rd, but not the 4th), and this was the largest by far - over 170 attendees.

Like Lance Mayhew's recent recap of his mixology summit, I'm planning a day-by-day summary of the conference. Here's what happened on the short (but eventful) first day:

Pre-event Cocktails
A few of us arrived early for an informal ADI board meeting. Afterward, we visited the legendary Old Seelbach Bar. If you go, try the Speakeasy Select bourbon & rye. Its their house label, and I couldn't find it anywhere else (and believe me, I looked & asked). I wonder if its a rebottling of another product, or if it's custom made for them? If you like champagne cocktails, you should try the Seelbach Cocktail as well.

6 pm - Spirits Tasting and Meet & Greet
In a suite that was far too small for the crowd, this group of craft distilling enthusiasts tasted spirits and talked excitedly about their spirits and distilleries (or planned ones). Here are a couple of shots from the room.

A few observations:
  • The attendees came from all over. Most of the group was from the U.S., from both coasts and everywhere in between. I talked with people from Australia and El Salvador, as well as England, Scotland (a vendor), and Canada.
  • The group had a decent number of established distillers in attendance, which was good (especially for those new to the industry). The list included Jess Graber from Stranahan's, Brian Lee from Tuthilltown, Rick Wasmund from Copper Fox, Scott Bush from Templeton Rye, Ted Huber and Jason Heiligenberg from Huber Starlight, and others.
  • As before, there were very few women (which has the one benefit of meaning no line for the ladies room, even when there was one for the mens - had to appreciate that since it doesn't happen very often)
Informal Dinner
After the tasting, most folks broke into smaller groups to go to dinner. I went with a group of ten, and we were surprised to see how many Louisville restaurants were closed on Sunday. Of course once we arrived in one, we realized why that might be. We ended up at Proof on Main, and we were fortunate to end up there for our first dining & drinking experience in downtown Louisville.

Here's what you see when you first walk into Proof on Main. There art interesting works of art throughout the restaurant, including the sculpture sitting on the bar.

It turns out that sculpture has a name, although I didn't realize this until I came back the next night. Here's the scoop (it's Randy):

I'll write more about drinks at Proof in another post, but on this night we had a fantastic dinner (I had the bison tenderloin, it was excellent). The restaurant is connected to the 21c Museum Hotel, and connecting them is a small art museum (part of the hotel's collection). Its a really interesting space, with some great contemporary art. As you walk to the restrooms, you pass through the gallery.

There are a number of surprises in the gallery. For instance, here's the mensroom from the outside. Its one-way glass (and yes, I got a tour of the inside of the mensroom when there weren't any men in it).

The urinal is directly against the one-way glass, so you can see the people in the hallway while standing at the urinal. The poll was 50/50 on whether men in my group thought they could actually use the urinal.

After dinner at Proof, we returned to the Old Seelbach Bar for a nightcap, and then sought out some sleep before our 8 am bus departure time on Monday.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On the Road Again

Sorry for the lack of posting recently, I am on the road right now and cannot seem to get any of my pictures loaded onto my laptop (and who wants to see a post with no pictures?). I've spent a few days in Louisville, Kentucky for the American Distilling Institute conference, and am now in the Indianapolis area for a week. I've managed to find a few places for a great cocktail, and to spend some quality time with other distillers from around the country. More on these adventures next week once I am back in Chicago!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Chocolate and Cocktail Pairings

Lately, I've been working on a creative cocktail pairing idea. I met a woman here in Chicago who handmakes traditional chocolate truffles, and by happenstance we were at an event together (she was promoting her truffles, I was promoting my distillery). It turned out that one of my cocktails paired perfectly with one of her truffles. It was a classic pairing - each was great on its own, but together, they brought out new flavors in each other and created a different taste experience.

I've heard of wine & chocolate pairings, but only a few people in Chicago are doing anything with cocktails or spirits and any type of food, let alone truffles. It was a fun (and tasty) project, so I kept working with more of her truffles. I came up with some great pairings, and I also made some cocktails that were good on their own, but definitely not with truffles. Here's an update on what I came up with (the good ones, anyway):

Pairing No. 1 - Citrus
  • Truffle: Semisweet chocolate, with lemon, orange, and lime; topped with homemade candied orange peel
  • Cocktail: 2 oz. NS Tahitian vanilla vodka, 1 oz. fresh tangelo juice, splash of fresh lime and dash of ginger liqueur (I used Massenez); served up
  • Notes: The underlying vanilla tones heightened the chocolate, and the citrus notes complemented each other well. Surprisingly, the drink did not drown out the citrus notes in the truffle.
Pairing No. 2 - Nuts & Spices
  • Truffle: Milk chocolate, hazelnut puree, roasted ground hazelnuts
  • Cocktail: 2 oz gin (I used Distiller's Gin No. 6, as you might expect), 1 oz fresh lime juice Juice, 1 oz ginger-infused simple syrup (1:1 ratio); shaken & strained through cinnamon stick resting in cocktail glass
  • Notes: This pairing surprised my new chocolatier friend; the ginger, cinnamon & spices in the gin actually accentuated the nuttiness of the chocolate rather than drowning it out (her fear), and the lime balanced the sweetness.
Pairing No. 3 - Tropical
  • Truffle: Bittersweet chocolate, dark rum, freshly toasted coconut
  • Cocktail: 1 oz NS Vodka, 1/2 oz pineapple juice, 1/2 oz apricot liqueur (Rothman & Winter), and 1/2 oz amaro (Averna); shake, then strain into glass of ice & top with club soda
  • Notes: I wanted to use rum here, but alas we don't make one, and I wanted to stay within our product line. At first I tried using coconut in the drink, but any hint of it destroyed the delicate coconut in the truffle. So I went for other tropical flavors, with the pineapple and apricot, and then the amaro to cut the sweetness and add some depth.
Anyone else have pairing stories with chocolate? Wanna try your any of these or develop your own? You can get the truffles I was using from Katherine-Anne Confections. Chances are, you'll talk to Katherine herself if you order - she literally makes each truffle by hand (and they are fantastic). We had so much fun with this, we're thinking we ought to offer this more broadly as an event or something. We had one trial run so far, and it went great!