Monday, February 04, 2013

Spirits in the material world

I have never been much of a drinker. The first time I drank seriously was on my 21st birthday in college, when my friends took me out to La Carafe, the oldest bar in Houston where the only thing on the menu was Budweiser. I went through a short phase when rum and Coke was my preferred drink, then an even shorter gin and tonic phase.

These days I'm more likely to order (on the extremely rare occasions when I drink out at a bar) a Long Island Iced Tea or my current favorite, the sidecar. Obviously I'm way out of step with the popular drinks of today.

However, lately I've been amassing quite a collection of interesting spirits at home, starting with the bottle of
Jameson 12-year Distillery Reserve that I brought back with me from Dublin last year and just cracked open last week. The special thing about this Irish Whiskey is that you can only get it at the Old Distillery in Dublin and nowhere else. So once it's gone, I'll have to plan another trip to visit Agnieszka's family to restock.

I've been watching a lot of "How It's Made" and "Ultimate Factories" programs involving spirits because I love knowing the history and stories behind these products. For example, I was fascinated by the manufacture of tequila and how much intensive manual labor it requires to harvest the blue agave hearts, which each weigh up to 100 pounds and must be carried from field to factory by burro. Then they are quartered by ax-wielding workers and cooked in ovens to extract the juice, which is fermented and distilled. My bottle of Herradura Tequila Anejo ("anejo" means "aged") is matured for two full years, twice as long as required to be called anejo tequila.

I also have an interesting aged rum, Dos Maderas P.X. 5+5, that is the product of a triple aging process. First the rum rests for 5 years in the Caribbean where it's made, then it is moved to Spain to age an additional 5 years, first in American oak casks which have previously held sherry, then transferred again to different barrels which have been used to age other spirits at least 20 years old. The result is an extremely complex and smooth rum with notes of chocolate, caramel and blackberries.

I also just bought a bottle of Jack Daniel's Single-Barrel, which is individually hand-selected from, as the name implies, a single barrel that comes from the uppermost floors of the barrelhouses around the Jack Daniel's distillery in Tennessee. Regular Jack Daniel's No. 7 is blended from several barrels to achieve a consistent flavor. But the extremes in temperature these upper floors experience through the year not only causes a significant percentage to be lost to evaporation (the so-called "angels' share") but also yields whiskey of uncommon smoothness, aroma and flavor with notes of vanilla, toasted oak and caramel. Of course, even regular Jack Daniel's is very interesting in how they make their own charcoal to filter their whiskey, and use limestone-filtered underground water from a singular spring at the distillery.

Since I like sidecars, and since I'm currently reading a book called Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit, of course I had to get a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP for my shelf. I haven't opened or tasted it yet, so I can't comment on the taste yet. But I still need to get some orange liqueur to make my own sidecars at home, even if they might not be as fancy as they do them at Bar Centrale ("Visit with Ben" - Sept. 4, 2011).

Even with all this hooch around, I still don't really drink that much. I like to pour a small amount of one into a glass and just smell it for a good long time before I sip it down. My favorite way to use liquor is probably in milkshakes, which seems a bit wasteful with top-shelf products. But it's also nice to have the good stuff around for my movie-night guests who appreciate quality booze.