The second stop on this year's toddle down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was at the venerable site of the Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg. A few years back, Campari purchased Wild Turkey for well over half a billion dollars. Since then, they have put more than a hundred million dollars into the brand and the site. I was curious to see how much that new international corporate influence I'd perceive on our tour. Those perceptions, good and bad, are all interesting. The first place a visitor sees that money at work in the new visitor center, where tours begin and end. This is a great facility. It is filled with entertaining displays of bourbon and Wild Turkey history, a cathedral of a tasting room with a fabulous view the Kentucky River, and a shop with all manner of entertaining (and/or delicious) inventory on offer. I'll come back to this location when I get to the tasting outlay, but I'll note one cool thing from when we first arrived. An elderly gentleman wandered into the lobby as our tour was getting ready to go. An elderly gentleman named Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey for about as long as I've been alive. The visitor center made no fuss about his appearance, he just ambled in for a few minutes. This left most of the tour group standing around awkwardly, wondering why about five of us were treating this little old man like he was Elvis.... It seems that Jimmy makes this visit often when he is in town, but I wouldn't absolutely count on meeting him. The tours leave on the hour, and from the outset, that new corporate ownership showed. Don't get me wrong. Most all big Kentucky outfits are owned by multi-nationals now. But for virtually all of them, job one is concealing this from visitors' subconscious. History, heritage, and craft are the bywords that other Bourbon Trail distilleries tend to shape their tours to convey, and more importantly, it is what virtually all visitors are looking for. The tour itself at Wild Turkey is industrial. It felt more like I was on the Ford F-150 plant tour as part of a visit to the Henry Ford in Detroit. (Caveat: I love the Rouge plant tour. It makes you proud to be a human being. If you've never been to the Henry Ford, it's worth a trip to Detroit all by itself. The plant tour is only a part of it.) The Wild Turkey tour is a fine industrial tour, and I certainly enjoyed it. Parts of it are extremely well done. But it left me unsatisfied, so let's examine why. The tour commences with a ride on a comfortable bus up to the top of the hill to the new distillery building. The bus thing is the first discordant note. I'm used to walking the entire tour. It makes many of these giant facilities seem almost intimate. I like to wander, but at Wild Turkey, every time I strayed out of a straight line from bus to door, I felt almost naughty. This new facility was actually under construction before the Campari acquisition. (I think. The timeline of the plant expansion and the sale are both a little murky.) The new distillery features all new and up to date stills and fermenting vats. The plant is capable of producing double the old facility—nearly 11 million gallons of whiskey a year. The new still runs at the same rate as the old one. The increase in production comes from the truly vast collection of fermenters that produce enough mash to keep the new still running for much more of the day. Wild Turkey is now a three-shift operation when it is not shut down for Summer maintenance. Upon entering the building, there is a nice little display that demonstrates the grains in Wild Turkey's mash bill. Out of all the distillery tours I've been on, this segment is actually one of the more cogent and educational descriptions of what the raw ingredients of bourbon are, and how they are handled that I've seen. But it takes place in a cinder block room with fluorescent lighting. If you saw this exact display at Makers Mark, they'd have it in an unlit, decrepit shed with dented scrap copper and a wooden plow in the corner.... Next you go up the stairs to the only actively disappointing part of the tour: The big still itself. How on Earth do you make a giant piece of state of the art copper equipment boring? You don't let me into the room with it. You see the still through a set of large plate glass windows—large, slightly dirty, definitely wet windows. [caption id="attachment_11420" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] This lovely picture of the countryside is brought to you by the fact that the view of the new still is so obstructed I couldn't get a single usable photograph of it.[/caption] Of all the quirks of this tour, the wall between us and the still was the only one that I was consciously annoyed by at the time. You can't see the still properly, but worse, you can't hear it. You can't feel its vibrations. (I assume. It wasn't running, due to the calendar.) You can't breathe the same air. There's a condom joke here, but I can't quite nail it down.... After the still room, you do get to walk amongst the truly vast arena of fermenting vats. This room is truly impressive, and you do very much get to breathe the same air here. I can't imagine how glorious (or overpowering) the aroma would be on a hot spring day. It also was the place where I learned my "one new thing" on this tour. I've been on so many distillery tours, I've heard virtually every detail before. But I always get something new, and the one I learned here is a doozy. Whenever you enter a fermenting room, the floor is just a few feet below the top of the giant tubs, and it is always a metal grid or sports widely spaced floorboards. I always assumed this was so you could easily access the top of the vats, but it is really so you don't die. So much CO2 roils out of the fermenters when they are running, it is dangerous. Fortunately, CO2 is heavier than air. The floor is elevated to keep you from literally drowning, and it has lots of room for air flow so that the CO2 can easily sink down where people don't walk during operations. Wild Turkey has huge ventilation systems to clear out the gas from down below. However, our guide said that there are still days when all vats are going that the CO2 levels are so high, they can't even conduct the tours on the elevated floor. After the fermenters, you spend more time in a cinder block stairwell, with a display of Wild Turkey products, past and present. The actual story the guide tells is pretty fun, but again the environment is... stark. After than, it is back on the bus. You ride past the brand new, ultra-modern bottling facility on the way to the rick houses. Note that I say that you ride past. They brag about how awesome it is, and how when bourbon production is down, they run tanker trucks full of Skyy vodka through there. But they don't take you in! I kept expecting them to take us in on the way back, but no dice. The ricks are great. To a certain extent, ricks are ricks, but the house Wild Turkey has chosen to show off is a beaut. The view from it is that bridge picture I petulantly stuck in above. The exteriors have just the right amount of whiskey mold to look cool but not too nasty. Inside, there is good light and great smells. I like the fact that there has been some recent wood replacement right where the tour stops inside, which illustrates very nicely the amount of engineering and maintenance has to go into these expertly designed buildings that look to the casual observer like beat-up old sheds full of barrels. (Caveat: They are beat-up old shed full of barrels. The twin facts that their design makes for some pretty amazing chemical reactions happening within, and that they don't fall down and kill everyone nearby, make for the engineering marvel aspect.) It was a cool bit of chance that as we were entering the rick house, we ran into Jimmy's son Eddie as he was leaving. He had been in there before us, checking on the progress of some unknown number of barrels, and took a few moments to say hello. It was a neat little add-on that reminds you that for all that this is a half-billion dollar operation, it also remains a deeply personal, hands-on one. [caption id="attachment_11426" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Is it just me, or does this man look sheepish to have been observed drinking bourbon right out of the barrel at 11:20 in the morning?[/caption] After we left the rick, we boarded that bus again, and it was back to the visitor center for the best part of the tour: the tasting. And I mean that in all seriousness. I don't just mean the products are good, though the tasting did provide a good reminder that Wild Turkey's products, top to bottom, are a helluva lot better than most people imagine they are. (More on that issue in another post.) But also, the tasting room is a cathedral. [caption id="attachment_11427" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Almost literally.[/caption] The sunlight-drenched tasting room has a view that in a single glance explains why they thought it was a good idea to put the visitor center so far away from the actual heart of the distillery. Inside, the space is dominated by the massive copper form of the old column still Wild Turkey employed for decades before the renovation. I will admit this exhibit does make up a smallamount for that big wall between you and the current still. You can get right up to it, look inside, and get a feel for the scale of the thing. The samples themselves are all quite tasty. As I said, Wild Turkey is a much better product than many people, especially outside their old-line demographic, believe. When was the last time you saw a craft bartender grab a bottle of Wild Turkey to make a drink? That's a shame, really. The only oddity I felt during the tasting was an almost sneer at their own rye product. Or not at their product, but at rye as a category in comparison to bourbon. Wild Turkey was one of the only American distilleries that kept the beacon of rye burning during the category's long sojourn in the wilderness, before its current resurgence. I would expect that they would do more to emphasize both their part in making sure there is rye to drink, and in making such a good rye. We enjoyed the tour, but I can only give a qualified recommendation for a visit to Wild Turkey. If you are a fan of Kickin' Chikin, by all means, go. And for Bourbon Trail veterans, it is a pleasant stop on the way to seeing it all. But for the casual visitor, who might only visit one or two distilleries on an isolated trip to or through Kentucky, there are many better, more entertaining choices for a good time. Simply put, this tour could be so much improved. The bus is unavoidable, given the spread out nature of Wild Turkey's plant. But for goodness sake, take the bean counters out and give them a high colonic with Russell's Reserve. Spend some money on the currently dreary spaces in which the tour spends most of its time. Make it feel like a Kentucky distillery, and not a mall parking garage in Chicago. There are wineries in California who make less wine in a year than Wild Turkey distills in a day, yet have multi-million dollar "chateaus" whose only purpose is to provide visitors with the impression of age and class. All of the Kentucky distilleries, except for Makers Mark, fall a bit short in this regard, but none so starkly as Wild Turkey. Let us get a view inside that high-tech bottling plant, or pretend it doesn't exist. One or the other. A lot of work clearly went into designing this tour, and I'm sorry to say that a lot more is needed to get it right. I know this was a lot less positive post than I usually write, but I have a follow-up coming with a whole lot good and fun to say about Wild Turkey. That one will reference a lot of things in this one, so I hope you stick around to read that one too.abc
I thought it would be interesting to put up a list of what I view as the single best value out there in each of the six great cocktail spirit categories. To be clear, these are hardly the best exemplars of Whiskey (North American), Rum, Gin, Brandy, Tequila, and Vodka, nor are they the cheapest. Far from it in both instances. These hit the sweet spot where the price and quality curves intersect. Prices, of course, will vary wherever you are, and in what mood the bottlers, distributors, and Chet behind the counter are in... These bottles also are Swiss Army Knife products, in that they aren't just good, they work well pretty much across the spectrum of drinks you might make with each. There might be a better gin, price to quality, if you only make Dry Martinis with it, but that gin might not be so great a value in an Alexander or a Pegu. So let's begin.
1. North American WhiskeyIn the whiskey category, I immediately discarded the Scotches and Irish. (It's OK, we Scots-Irish have been discarded for centuries.) I love both, but neither is remotely a common cocktail spirit. I settled on a bourbon simply because of market share. My choice will be familiar to long-time readers: Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The price wobbles a bit, but you can almost always hand over a single Andrew Jackson and get your Yellow Label back with change. I've blogged quite a bit about Four Roses already, and I don't want to do anything like a full review of these six bottles anyway. Suffice to say, you can put a bit of this in a glass with some water, frozen or not, and hand it with confidence to just about anyone and know that if they turn their nose up at it, they are not a connoisseur but an ungrateful jerk. Further, it possesses enough character and polish to feature well in spirit-forward cocktails, but enough fortitude to remind you it's a bourbon drink in more... distracting recipes.
2. GinAmong gins, I'm going with one that I've never blogged. It is also the closest call on this list. Among these six bottles, it's the only one I don't naturally reach for when looking to try a new recipe at home. (Gin is my first cocktail love, and I tend to overspend within the range. Sue me.) At about twelve bucks a bottle, it is damned hard to touch New Amsterdam Gin. New Amsterdam is no sipper. But much as I love gin, if you like to sip gin you either have an unlimited budget, or a drinking problem... quite possibly both. (Sorry Angus, you know I love you.) With in the two main categories of gin today, New Amsterdam was among the initial vanguard of citrus-forward, "New American" gins that have risen with the resurrection of cocktail culture. It is a solid cocktail gin that may fall short for a Martini lover, but be a super entrance drug for your juniperphobe friends. It's consistent, reliable, free from any unpleasant notes... and it is twelve damn dollars.
3. RumYou cannot just say "this is the best rum". It would be a bit like saying "this is the best motor vehicle". Silver, Gold, dark, and Spiced rums all serve different, sometimes extraordinarily different purposes. But the rum I chose to put on this list, Plantation Grand Reserve 5-Year, is obscenely good for the price (about twenty-two bucks) and very versatile. Plantation 5 Year Rum is a Barbadan gold, and as I said, quite versatile. They make great rum on that island as a rule, but this bottle has just a hair more character than most. It also far, far too good on the rocks all by itself for any low-twenties purchase. It pairs well with Jamaican pot-still in a Mai Tai, yet slips easily into a standard Daiquiri as well. It's the baritone of rums.
4. BrandyHere's the thing about basic grape brandy: Americans are only now beginning to grasp what it takes to make it really well. For now, and a while to come, I expect, if you want a brandy to stand up with other world-class products, you go to France. But Courvoisier is in the mid thirties for just a VS, and cognacs tend to go up from there. That's tres cher if you are whipping up a round of Sidecars, or if you are curled up on the couch on a Tuesday night, catching upon NCIS and craving a snifter of something. And then Maison Rouge VSOP entered the State of Ohio, and my life, at just over twenty bucks. I do not understand this product. Yes, the packaging is painfully boring. No, no one in the US has heard of this juice since Hardy spends no money on marketing, as far as I can tell. But it is a perfectly fine sipper for non-special occasions, and it is as good a mixing cognac as you will find. And it clocks in at about two-thirds of the big names' entry offerings, while Maison Rouge is a VSOP. If you can find it, buy some. You are welcome.
5. TequilaChoosing a bottle in the tequila category was easy. Añejos and Extra Añejos, delicious as many are, are mostly too delicate (and too pricey) to mix with. Some of the best tequila cocktails I've been served were made with Reposados, but let's be honest, tequila as a category simply doesn't need wood the way whiskey does to be a legitimate, finished product. Silvers are the most versatile tequila category, as well as the best value. And the price and quality curves are so strong for Olmeca Altos Tequila Plata, I hardly buy much else from the tequila section these days. Is it special? No. Is it unique in some way? No. It is just good. You could sip it, I suppose. You can definitely shoot it, with no need to lunge afterwards for salt or lime. And you can mix the hell out of it. There's a balance in making tequila in commercial quantities between over-reliance on traditional methods, which can add taste elements here and there that can narrow the appeal of a product, and over-indulgence in industrial processing, which usually either sands so many edges off the profile it doesn't feel really like tequila... or just makes it taste like ass. Olmeca seems to have hit the sweet spot, and I hope they stay right there.
6 VodkaThe final great cocktail spirit (the youngest or the oldest, depending on how you look at it) is unique in its place for making cocktails. All the others are crafted to bring certain flavor profiles to the foundation of a cocktail. They are ingredients. Vodka is an accelerant. Yes, yes. I know. There are lots of vodkas out there that are "interesting" in one way or another. But vodka is in a cocktail to wake up and otherwise showcase the flavors of the other ingredients. (Unless the cocktail is a Vodka Martini, in which case, it's just there to get you bombed.) For making cocktails, a vodka should offer the highest purity of ethanol (with the lowest number of other complex molecules) to do its job right. Sobieski vodka does the job beautifully, and at about 12 bucks runs about a third of most vodkas of equivalent purity. Sobieski was one of the very first product samples I was ever sent as a blogger. They still have a link to my eight year old blog post about them, right on their website. I shudder to think how much money I've saved since then, not buying other, more expensive vodkas. (Disclaimer: I've still bought a bunch of other, more expensive vodkas... just not as many as I might have) Sobieski has boring, usually plastic bottles. It's marketing is plain, cheap, and highly intelligent. And it lives in an obscure position down on the bottom shelf, low-rent district of the vodka section of your liquor store. Get some. That's the list. What do you think? I'm always open to better suggestions. abc
The Bar Institute is a new series of annual events around the US, dedicated to many areas of skill development for bar industry types. I have just returned from three days attending the Bar Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. There should be several posts to follow about a number of excellent individual events I attended, but I want to start with an outline of exactly what goes on at a Bar Institute, what it is, and what it is not. I think this is important because the BI's marketing materials give a slick and beautiful idea of what kind of people would benefit from attending, they leave out a lot of detail about what to expect. I think that might leave a lot of people who should go hesitant to do so, and hopefully this may help a few of you decide to take the plunge. Bar Institute is the direct descendant/successor to the education component of Portland Cocktail Week. This is an excellent pedigree, and it is good for the industry to see the program expanded to other geographic areas. This year, there are five regional gatherings, and a national event to culminate the year. The northeast and southwest regionals have already occurred, in Baltimore and Phoenix, and the remaining 2016 cities are Miami, Austin, and Portland, with the national event in New York. The specific content from one city to the next will vary, as will the presenters, but the categories will be the same throughout. The three main categories are:
- Advanced Bartending & Technique. These classes cover subjects ranging from skills and techniques, to the use or creation of specialty ingredients, to customer interaction, with some oddball but useful classes like one on the differences in creating a menu for a large, mature market, versus a smaller one. This last subject came up in several classes I attended, and I mention it here specifically because I think it is an important point of failure for a lot of otherwise promising projects in cities like Columbus where I live.
- Bar Management & Ownership. More classes were offered in this category than any other, which reflects the Bar Institute's underlying focus on the somewhat novel concept that with this much money flowing through this industry, it really ought to be profitable for somebody. The selections here range from nuts and bolts things like costing a menu or reading a cash flow statement, to aspirational stuff like assembling a staff that will make you proud. Each regional BI has a different focus, and many sessions in the southwest event were centered on the design aesthetic from lighting to upon what what you decide to let your customers set their asses.
- Consulting & Ambassadorship. For those professionals who aspire to challenges (and income) beyond crafting drinks, but who don't incline toward the eternal dance with fiscal death that is bar ownership, the modern cocktail industry offers a host of jobs, large and small, to satisfy that urge. The classes in this category focus on these opportunities, with some additional insights on how bar workers and owners can leverage these services as well.
- Proprietors 360. This is a special category of classes, all of which are offered by the principals of Proprietors, LLC, the bar ownership and consultant group behind Death & Co, and many more. These classes cover subjects in all of the first three categories, but offer a cohesive set of real-world examples that ties them all together.
- Electives. Many of these classes focus on professional health and wellness issues for bar professionals. Like athletes, a bartender's body is their livelihood. Other classes hosted discussions about entertainment and work life balance. A session on the increasing opportunities for women in the upper professional ranks turned out to be especially timely....
Beachbum Berry's Total Tiki is simultaneously as expensive a cocktail app as I know of, and the single best value in such apps. And one of the best values in apps in general, as far as I can see. It clocks in at a hefty $9.99, which is way past my two dollar line of demarcation between "I'll just download this," and a considered purchase. It took me all of a few minutes to consider back when I bought Total Tiki almost two years ago. No regrets. Total Tiki is a compilation of over 230 Tiki recipes from the books of modern archaeologist and wet-nurse of the modern Tiki craze, Jeff "Beachbum" Berry. While I own all the Bum's books, and recommend you buy them all (Though Remixed and Sippin' Safari will do to get you started), Total Tiki is massively more convenient and usable when it comes time to actually make some drinks. Since the very first cocktail apps came out, including Jeff's first app, the now defunct Tiki+, it has been very clear that electronic search on name and ingredients is a quantum leap in usability over a shelf of even the very best indexed books. The huge amount of quality content from Jeff's library and the basic functionality advantages inherent to being an app alone would make the price tag of Total Tiki something to swallow, if with difficulty... But there is so much more to Total Tiki that adds huge value over all the first generation cocktail apps on the market. The search and filter functions are incredibly robust, yet easy to use. Want a medium strength cocktail that uses falernum, but not rum? Bam, take your pick of Bourbon Special or Western Sour. Want a strong rum-based drink with lime, from the 1950s, that you don't need a blender for? There are 10 entries. The ability to do a single search that filters the database on ingredients, characteristics, and history, either excluded or required, is... well, it is huge. Once you have found the recipe you like, the entry the app returns is also very full-featured. The itemized recipes are clear and concise (for Tiki drinks). You can set the amounts to be listed in Imperial, Metric, or Gills(?). And every single item, from lime juice to Okolehao, is hyperlinked to a separate page with appropriate information about preparation, history, brands, and potential substitution options. The recipe directions are detailed. The entry finishes with an illustration, usually of what the drink is intended to look like, and some historical information as well as the published source of the recipe. If the cocktail was popular long enough to have multiple accepted versions, you can wheel through them on a timeline atop the entry. A final tremendous feature is the inventory filter. There is a list of every single ingredient called for in all the recipes in the database. There is a toggle beside each, so that you can record whether or not you keep that item in your bar (be it home or business or traveling kit). You can narrow your recipe browsing or your searches to just drinks you can make with things on hand. Many ingredients are specific, for example Mount Gay Eclipse. Other recipes might simply call for gold rum, or perhaps a specific variety such as Barbados gold rum. The app is intelligent enough to realize that if you checked the Eclipse, you can make recipes calling for gold rum. It will also realize that you can also make a recipe that calls for, say, Stroh. The inventory feature is a bit of a double-edged sword, especially with fresh ingredients. If you had clicked "No" on an ingredient like grapefruit juice when you first went through the inventory, you would miss out on a lot of recipes later when playing "what can I make?" I err on the side of usually including ingredients I am likely to have. Be warned that the ingredient database is extensive. It will take you a lot of time to read through it all and mark what you tend to keep on hand. Now we come to the final cool, and new, feature of Total Tiki: inventory sync. MixologyTech makes more than just Total Tiki. They also offer six other themed cocktail apps that all use the same engine as Total Tiki, with the same features. They have now set up a cloud server that allows you to connect your inventory information from one app you own to another. So if you are making a Tiki drink and note that you now have a bottle of apricot liqueur on your inventory in Total Tiki, the next time you open the Punch app, apricot liqueur will show as on-hand there too! This is a huge time saver, and makes the purchase of additional MixologyTech apps that much easier. The other apps available with this engine are:
- Shaken and Stirred: A great beginner collection of recipes from the craft school of cocktails. The killer feature here is that each recipe has embedded the Small Screen Networks tutorial video for that drink. This would be my suggested first purchase for anyone wanting to get serious about drinks for the first time.
- Modern Classics: This app features so-called "modern classics", i.e. drinks invented in the 21st Century for the most part that seem destined to stick around after everyone forgets who invented them. This app only has 99 entries as of this writing, so it takes a ding on the value scale.
- Martin's Cocktails: This is the biggest database of the bunch, with over 2100 recipes, mostly from the pre- and early post-Prohibition eras. It also is the database that is most often updated, I think. The comprehensive nature of the collection does lead to a problem or two. It is hard to find what you want, even with all the engine's awesome filtering capabilities. The recipe quality is decidedly uneven, unlike the other apps. But it is one hell of a resource.
- Wondrich's Index of Punch: Also a small catalog, with less than 70 entries, but with punches, I think this is less of a concern. The search by available ingredients is very important when considering a punch, and for the experienced drink mixer, you are seldom going to follow a recipe slavishly anyway. The Punch app has saved my butt when I found myself with an unanticipatedly large crowd of thirsty guests.
- PDT: This collection of over 400 recipes is a continuously updated listing of every drink, house-devised or classic, that has ever been on the menu at PDT in New York. I have a confession to make. I was underwhelmed when I visited PDT. And I am underwhelmed with the content here. Simply put, the recipes are too esoteric, and too difficult to execute for my taste. But if you want to test your mixing skills, or show them off, the PDT collection is ideal.
- 101 Best New Cocktails: Cocktail Godfather Gaz Regan has maintained a rolling list of the 101 best new drinks on the scene since 2011. This app has all of the nearly 400 recipes that have been on the list at some point in time. While all the recipes are available on line, the collection here is accessed through the wonderful engine of MixologyTech. A lot of these recipes suffer from the problems of the PDT collection, in that they are hard to make, difficult to source, and/or weirdly specific in the kind of taste to which they will appeal. But they come from a vastly wider array of inventors, so if one or another is not to your taste, many others likely will be.
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