Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Blind Tasting Bourbon Less Than $50

A while ago I organized a blind tasting of bourbons that cost less than $50. I was inspired to put this together after a small group of friends and I did a blind tasting of whiskeys under $20. That tasting was both a lot of fun and introduced me to a couple of bourbons that I really love. Wanting to repeat this process I put together a game plan. First, I wanted to focus the tasting only on bourbons between $20 and $50. I picked this price point for two reasons: one, my expectation was the overall quality would be a little higher than the under $20 bracket; and two, because it falls in the range that I and many of my friends would feel comfortable spending on a bottle to drink at home from time to time without feeling like its so expensive or exceptional we'd have to save it for some sort of special occasion. Second,  I only wanted bourbons that I knew were sold by the distillery i.e. no Non-Distiller Producer bourbons like Bulleit or Black Maple Hill. Third, I didn't want any single barrel products because by nature their flavor profile can change from barrel to barrel and I wanted to help people find a bourbon that they would like and be able to return to and have it taste the same as it was at the party.  With these criteria in mind I went about finding bourbons that fit.

I found over dozen bourbons that matched my criteria however, 12 samples of bourbons even at 1/4 oz each starts to add up. I wanted to be sure that people could get home safely so I limited the field to nine. As I spread the word among my friends I was able to find about 25 people who committed to coming and who were willing to chip in to cover the costs of the whiskey.

Now, because I also wanted to participate in the tasting, the trick was figuring out how to set things up so the tasting was blind for me as well. The solution I settled on was I would mark nine brown paper lunch bags with the planetary symbols, Mars ♂, Venus ♀ etc. and then my wife bagged the bottles. For a couple of the bottles that were more easy to identify we decanted the bourbon into clean wine bottles.

The tasting was hosted at a friend's house and I placed three bottles of bourbon in the kitchen, the living room and a spare bedroom. The reason for this was that it forced people to move around and not just all congregate in one room of the house. I wasn't concerned about the order in which people tasted the bourbons so it worked fine. In a more formal tasting, flight order is important but for our purposes it was an easy sacrifice.

After a few hours or tasting and eating snacks, I collected the score sheets that I handed out the to tasters. They rated each bourbon from 1-10 based on what they liked. When I tallied the results, one of the first things that stood out was there were no bad bourbons in the batch.  While people liked some bourbons more than others there were no clear winners or losers. In the tasting under $20 it was very obvious that there were a couple of whiskeys that everyone liked and a couple that everyone didn't like, but not this time. This was an encouraging result because what it said to me was if you are going to buy a bourbon in the $20-$50 price range, you can be sure that it is a quality product though you can't guarantee the it will be your favorite.

After tallying the scores here were the results from our group of tasters:

  1. Russel's Reserve 10 Year Old 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled by the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  2. Henry DuYore's Straight Bourbon 91.3 Proof (45.65% ABV) Distilled by Ransom Spirits in Sheridan, OR. (This was the only craft bourbon and the only bourbon not from Kentucky in the tasting.)

  3. John E. Fitzgerald Larceny 92 Proof (46% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond 100 Proof (50% ABV) Distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

  5. Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 90.4 Proof (45.2% ABV) Distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY and owned by Brown-Forman.

  6. Elijah Craig 12 Year Old 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  7. Four Roses Small Batch 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  8. Basil Hayden 80 Proof (40% ABV) Distilled at Jim Beam's Clermont and Frankfort distilleries in KY.

  9. Maker's 46 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY.

From my personal score sheet my highest rating went to Colonel Taylor which was something I had never tried before and I was happy to find a new bourbon  that I really enjoyed. The other interesting thing was I gave my lowest rating to Maker's 46 which didn't surprise me since I'm not a huge fan of Makers Mark. It was reassuring to see that my taste buds are pretty reliable both when I know what I'm drinking and when I tasting things blind. In the end, this was a really fun event to organize and it was a blast getting a house full of people drinking and discovering some really good bourbon.

Hawaiian Shochu Company: Blending Japanese Tradition with Aloha

The Hawaiian Shochu Company makes Namihana Shochu. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. Photo ©Ken Hirata

For more than 200 years the histories of Japan and Hawaii have been intertwined. On May 5, 1806, the first Japanese people ever recorded to have set foot in Hawaii arrived as survivors of the cargo ship Inawaka-maru, which was carried into the Pacific Ocean by a severe storm and left adrift for two months. The eight survivors were rescued by an American ship and left in the care of King Kamehameha I. Since then, the Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent, who make up the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii, have helped to shape the physical and cultural landscape of the islands. Today, the Hawaiian Shochu Company, founded by Ken and Yumiko Hirata, is continuing this long history of Japanese and Hawaiian cross-cultural pollination.

The Hiratas have been distilling and selling their shochu, a traditional Japanese distilled spirit, made from rice and sweet potatoes, on Oahu’s North Shore for the past three years. Getting to this point was a long and circuitous road. Years ago, while Hirata was visiting his parents, who had moved to Honolulu from Osaka, he sampled poi, a traditional Hawaiian staple. (Poi is a mash made from baked or steamed taro root, often the consistency of pudding.) As Hirata ate the poi, it occurred to him that poi could make an interesting shochu. However, that thought receded to the back of his mind as Hirata returned to Hong Kong and his job brokering U.S. Financial instruments.

From there Hirata moved to Osaka and worked with artists who made traditional Japanese ceramics and textiles. But after developing a skin condition, Hirata and his wife moved, this time to Australia. It was during this time in Australia that the idea of making traditional shochu began to take shape.

Around 2005, the Hiratas moved to Kagoshima, Japan, the epicenter of shochu production for the past 500 years. Ken Hirata determined that he wanted to apprentice with Toshihiro Manzen, a master distiller with more than 30 years of experience. Hirata described the process by which he approached Manzen for an apprenticeship as a kung fu film. Manzen’s distillery is tucked away in a remote valley outside Kagoshima, surrounded by forests and planted near a stream. Hirata wrote Manzen numerous letters and visited the distillery again and again, each time being turned down until Manzen finally relented and agreed to take Hirata on as an apprentice. Hirata spent three years there learning how to make a very traditional style of imo shochu distilled from rice and sweet potatoes.

Photo ©Ken Hirata

In 2008, Manzen sent Hirata off to start his own distillery. Driven by his passion and training to create shochu from sweet potatoes, Ken and Yumiko returned to Hawaii. Besides its sheer beauty and relaxed pace of life, more than 20 varieties of sweet potato are grown on Oahu, including the white-skinned and purple-fleshed Okinawan sweet potato. Ken Hirata believed that the Okinawan sweet potato would give him the aromas and flavors he was looking for. Slowly the Hawaiian Shochu Company arose from the red dirt of Oahu’s North Shore with Hirata performing much of the work himself. Surrounded by the wild grasses of an old cane field, the Hiratas’ distillery is tucked away on a quiet road in the town of Haleiwa. While Honolulu is a bustling city that sees millions of tourists flock to Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Waikiki, Haleiwa, on the other side of the mountain, has a slower pace that feels much more relaxed.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company officially began production in 2013, making a traditional sweet potato shochu using methods and equipment that are hundreds of years old. Since the mid-sixteenth century the Japanese have been making shochu by distilling a fermented mash of rice or rice and other starches such as barley, sweet potato or buckwheat. However, rice and sweet potatoes need an external agent to break down their starches into sugar. While traditional distillers in the West have relied on malted barley to provide the diastatic power necessary to convert starches into fermentable sugars, Japanese distillers have relied on koji mold. This particular strain of mold is very well adapted to creating the enzymes necessary for starch conversion. Hirata sprinkles the mold over steamed white rice which has been spread out into shallow wooden boxes and left to be propagated in a specially designed room called the koji room. The koji room is designed to hold the temperature and humidity at the ideal levels for the mold to flourish. During this propagation phase, which takes about three or four days, Hirata, with his years of training, checks the temperature and moisture content of the rice with his hands.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

However, neither the koji nor the rice Hirata uses are cultivated in Hawaii, which means he has to import them. He orders the koji direct from Japan, but instead of importing Japanese rice, Hirata uses an heirloom variety of rice grown in California by a Japanese American family.

After about three days, the koji mold has propagated throughout the steamed rice and Hirata is ready to begin the fermentation phase. When Hirata left to start his distillery, Manzen gifted him 15 handmade ceramic fermentors that range in age from 100 to 150 years old and which hold between 550 and 650 liters. The vats are about four feet tall and buried in the ground up to their shoulders, which helps stabilize the temperature of the fermenting mash. Hirata adds the inoculated rice, water and yeast to his vats and lets the fermentation begin. After a day or so, Hirata steams his Hawaiian-grown sweet potatoes and adds them to the fermentors. The enzymes present in the fermenting rice slurry break down the sweet potato starches into sugar, which is then quickly consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

About a week into the fermentation, Hirata checks the aromas and flavor of the mash, which should be approximately 12% alcohol, to see if it’s ready to be distilled. Hirata uses a 1,700-liter steam-injected wooden still made from Japanese cypress. The mash of fermented rice and sweet potato is distilled in one pass and he collects the hearts in a large glass-lined steel holding tank. Hirata and his wife repeat this process for two months until the holding tank is full. The shochu rests in the holding tank at 40% ABV for up to six months before it is bottled. What comes out of the still is slightly harsh and bitter, but mellows during this rest period into a lightly sweet and wonderfully aromatic spirit.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

Once the shochu has finished its rest period, it is ready to be bottled. Ken Hirata proofs the shochu down to 30% ABV and he is able to fill about 3,000 bottles per batch. Once the bottling begins, Yumiko Hirata starts the process of labeling every bottle of their shochu by hand. The name Namihana is written in both English and Japanese, which serves both their American and Japanese customers. In Japanese, Nami means waves and Hana means flowers. This name suits their shochu well because it has a strong character with lots of floral aromas. Their batch #2, which was made with sweet potatoes grown on Molokai, had a very fruity nose with notes of ripe pear and Fuji apple. On the palate, the shochu started slightly sweet with fruity and floral notes and finished dry with no heat from the alcohol. Overall the spirit is light, elegant and simply wonderful to drink.

Because of their two-month production cycle and the six-month rest period, the Hiratas are only able to produce and bottle two batches of shochu per year. While using traditional methods to make shochu limits their total output, they are solely focused on the quality of the spirit. The results have been very well received, and even though they produce about 6,000 bottles per year they quickly sell out of each batch they make. A few cases go to local restaurants and hotels on Oahu and the rest is sold directly to customers who visit the distillery.

Visitors who make their way to the Hawaiian Shochu Company are greeted at the gate with wooden signs written both in English and Japanese. This is useful because many of the people who come to taste Hirata and Yumiko’s shochu are Japanese tourists who have heard about their national spirit being made in Haleiwa. After parking in the dirt field next to the distillery, a friendly little dog name Imo (Japanese for sweet potato) greets visitors at the door. The guests are asked to remove their shoes and given slippers to wear inside the distillery, most of which are sized for people with smaller feet. Once inside, the distillery has a simple open floor plan, which allows visitors to see almost the entire production area from the entryway. Near the door, the Hiratas have a six-foot table with a few chairs where they sit with their visitors, pour samples and describe how they make shochu.

Photo ©Eric Zandona

The Hawaiian Shochu Company is a perfect blend of a traditional Japanese distillery with the Hawaiian spirit of aloha. Hirata and Yumiko are exacting in the production and packaging of their shochu as well as relaxed, generous and welcoming. Hirata, who is an avid surfer, is not just making a shochu in Hawaii, but a Hawaiian shochu that represents the terroir of the islands in a way that has never been explored. Finally, any trip to Oahu should include a drive over the mountain to visit Ken, Yumiko and Imo.

Originally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016): 64-71.

What's Going on with Rum?

Designed by Annabel Emery

Rum is an interesting class of spirits.  Rum is a distilled spirit made from any sugar cane byproduct (fresh cane juice, molasses or refined sugar) and it can be made anywhere in  the world. For a number of years now, rum has been the third largest selling class of distilled spirits in the US (12% market share in 2014) behind Vodka (34%) and Whiskey (24%) yet I almost never hear regular people talk about it. Many of the of the social media accounts and drinks writers I follow hardly ever post about rum. In terms of its overall market share, rum shrank 1% since 2012. So it begs the question, what's going on with rum?

While it is certain that the craft cocktail movement has largely been stoked by a renewed interest in whiskey and gin; rum is an incredibly important base for cocktails and it has a very rich history. During the US Colonial era, huge amounts of rum were produced in New England and consumed throughout the colonies. And while most domestic whiskey production was outlawed during National Prohibition, rum from the caribbean became very popular and inspired a number of phrases such as "rum runner" and "the real McCoy." Lastly, the Tiki movement which began at the end of Prohibition, created a number of complex and delicious cocktails that centered around rum. 

Two years ago I edited a book called the Distiller's Guide to Rum, and ever since then small US rum distillers that I've talked to want to know, when is rum going to have its moment? When will be the Summer of Rum? Whiskey gets a huge amount of press and gin has an incredibly passionate fan base, but rum rarely gets mentioned outside discussions of Tiki drinks. 

It is possible that rum's lower profile might be in part due to the fact that 80% of the rum market in the United States is dominated by 10 brands with the two largest being Bacardi and Captain Morgan (Beverage Information Group Handbook Advance 2013). The remaining 20% of the rum market is filled with hundreds of brands from around the world, many of which have amazing aromas and flavors you just can't get in whiskey. At a recent industry event a retail spirit buyer made the comment that in his experience Bacardi drinkers are often not rum drinkers. He explained that for these people if Bacardi isn't available they are more likely to turn to vodka as their next choice rather than another brand of rum. While this statement was purely anecdotal it rings true in my experience. In contrast, if a bourbon drinker's favorite brand isn't at the bar I think there's a better chance they will try another bourbon rather than get something completely different.

However, there are a couple of encouraging signs for rum. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago The Rum Lab which put on the California Rum Festival also sponsors a couple of other rum festivals around the country. Both the California and the Midwest festivals are only in their second year but like many festivals, if the quality stays high, the number of attendees will likely continue to grow and increase the number of people who become more familiar with the vastness that rum has to offer. Similarly to whisk(e)y in the mid-90s there is some incredible value in the market as long as drinkers aren't obsessed with extra aged rums like they seem to be with whiskey. The second encouraging sign was the publication of Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki written by Martin & Rebecca Cate. This fantastic book has helped to spread the deep love and passion for rum and tiki culture outside the confines of the country's few tiki bars. While I want to see rum move beyond the overly sweet and kitschy drinks that mask the beauty of the spirit, for many people this is their entry point and bars like Smuggler's Cove and False Idol know how to move people from zero to a deeper appreciation of rum.

The rum market like others spirits is veering towards premiumization. While some aspects of this trend are misguided (more expensive does not always mean higher quality), there  is an incredibly strong demand for quality and transparency. Hopefully rum producers will embrace this trend which I hope will be be a boon for the entire industry. All in all, while rum took a slight dip in market share I am hopeful about its future. And, in the end as the hula girl above suggests, keep calm and drink rum. Because the time for rum has arrived and is yet to come.


A New Texas Bourbon on the Horizon

Last year I wrote an article for Distiller Magazine called "From Bark to Bourbon," about the effort that Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. went through to find the right wild yeast for their bourbon. At the time of my visit the oldest bourbon had been in barrels for about three years with no definite plans of when to bottle. However that may be changing. Recently I was looking at the TTB's Public COLA Registry which allows the public to view beer, wine, and spirit labels approved by the Federal Government. While I was looking I came across the approved label for FRDC's Straight Bourbon.

Stylistically this label matches there current whiskey TX Blended Whiskey which they have making from purchased whiskeys they blend together. I appreciate their honesty and transparency about their process  while they've been waiting for the bourbon to come of age.

There are a couple of things that we learn from the label. First and in no particular order, they have decided to bottle at 45% ABV or 90 proof. This is a very common bottling strength for bourbon and a good sign they are focused on the flavor more than how many bottles they can squeeze out of the barrel. Second, they have decided to bottle this as a "Straight Bourbon" which legally means that the whiskey in the bottle is at minimum two years old and it has nothing added to it accept water to proof it down from barrel strength. Third, there is no age statement on the label which indicates that the youngest bourbon in the bottle is a minimum of four years old. This is a funny quirk in the labeling laws but what it means for American whiskey is that anything younger than four years old must state the age of the whiskey in years, months, days etc. while anything four years and older is not required to state the age. Lastly, the production statement on the back label is clear that they distilled, aged and bottled this bourbon which is the clearest way of saying they are the one's who made it. Unfortunately the labeling laws are a little strange in this regard because anything labeled, produced, made, or even handmade could mean that the spirit in the bottle was distilled by someone else. Their label makes it clear that the bourbon in the bottle from from FRDC.

Now what does this mean? Well it doesn't mean that it will be hitting store shelves anytime soon. The label approval process can sometime take months so distillers will submit a label for approval well before they are ready to bring the spirit to market. However, it is an exciting indication that we are getting closer to tasting what I expect will be a fantastic Texas bourbon.

Review: Appleton Estate Signature Blend Jamaica Rum

Owned by Gruppo Campari, Appleton Estate Signature Blend Jamaica Rum is distilled and blended by Appleton Estate and bottled at 40% ABV.

Price Range: $16-$22 as of 10/2016

Located on an 11,000-acre estate in the Nassau Valley of Jamaica, Appleton began producing rum in 1749. The estate sits atop a limestone formation known as a Cockpit Karst that provides great soils and water for the sugar cane. Appleton, Like other Jamaican rums, makes theirs from a fermented molasses mash. 

Appleton Estate Signature Blend is a blend of 15 different rums, aged between 5 and 10 years in used oak casks. And according to Matt Robold, Appleton gets their once used barrels from Jack Daniel's. Once the blend is created the rum is put into new barrels and allowed to marry for a few months before bottling. Campari recently redesigned the labels for the Appleton Estate lineup while keeping the blends for each bottles the same. The Appleton Estate Signature Blend was once bottled as Appleton Estate V/X.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose has bright fruity notes of guava, pineapple and passion fruit balanced against deeper aromas of sweet brown sugar, molasses, vanilla and caramel.

Palate: The palate is sweet and slightly saline like salted caramel with notes of oak and light dry tannins. The mouthfeel has a smooth velvety texture and a little bit of heat.

Finish: The finish is dry though notes of salted caramel, molasses and oak continues to linger on the finish. The sweet and saltiness holds on like a foggy day at the ocean.

Conclusion: Appleton Estate Signature Blend is a great example of a pot distilled Jamaican rum that is smooth and has a bold flavor profile. The fruity esters indicative of a warmer fermentation are well balanced against the barrel notes of vanilla, caramel and oak. While it has a little heat at 40% this actually works well when used for mixing. It's great in a simple rum and coke, cutting through intense sweetness of the soda. One of my favorite uses of the Signature Blend is in my annual Christmas egg nog. The bigger ester profile pairs fantastically with eggs, cream, and nutmeg. Any way you cut it, Appleton Signature Blend is a great rum made even more appealing at its $20 price point. If you are like me and enjoy rums with more flavor than say Bacardi and that isn't over oaked then you need to check this out.