EZdrinking

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.

Review: Skip Rock Distillers Nocino Walnut Liqueur

Skip Rock Nocino Walnut Liqueur is distilled by Skip Rock Distillers and bottled at 33% ABV

Price Range:$50-$60 (for 750ml)

Skip Rock Distillers was founded in 2009 by Ryan and Julie Hembree in Snohomish, Washington. In addition to their nocino they make a number of rums, whiskeys, vodkas and three other liqueurs. 

In 2014 when I began the process of making my own nocino, I mentioned it to Ryan in an email. While I picked my unripe English Walnuts from Bill Owen's tree on June 24th, the Feast day of St. John the Baptist (the traditional Italian harvest day for making nocino) in California, Ryan's walnuts weren't ready to harvest until mid July, due I assume to the higher latitude of Snohomish. Most of the unripe walnuts that go into Skip Rock's nocino are grown less than five miles from the distillery and some of them are grown right on Ryan's property.

Once the walnuts are harvested, Ryan crushes them with a hammer mill and puts them in a 300 gallon tank to macerated in a high proof distillate they make just for the nocino. After a couple of months they drain off the infused walnut spirit and begin the process of adding spices and cane sugar which over the next couple of months becomes nocino. Once the all of the spices and sugar has been added, Ryan begins the process of slowly adding purified water to bring the liqueur down to bottling proof. 

Now fresh nocino is very bitter despite the added sugar and spices because of all the tannins that get extracted from the green walnuts. However, over time those tannins breakdown and soften. While most traditional nocino recipes say to let it rest for a year after making it so that it has time to mellow. Ryan has gone a step beyond. The most recent bottling of the Skip Rock Nocino has been resting for two whole years while Ryan brought the proof down. In that time, all of the bitterness has dissipated and the flavors from walnuts and spices have melded together into an incredible harmony. 

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose is beautiful and fragrant, full of lemon and vanilla with an underlying aromas of nutmeg, toffee and cola. There is just a slight hint of alcohol but just enough to carry the aroma upward. 

Palate: Initially the taste is sweet but not over powering or cloying in any way. The nocino sits coolly on the tip of the tongue with a very pleasant acidity. As you begin to swallow and the nocino moves through your mouth the spirit awakes and becomes warm on the palate with notes of clove and nutmeg. Immediately after swallowing the flavor changes to chocolate. 

Finish: The finish lingers and is like semi-sweet chocolate, lightly sweet and slightly dry at the same time. The nocino made my mouth water which is a good sign for liqueur traditionally drunk to aid digestion after a meal. 

Conclusion: Ryan's nocino can be drunk neat as an after a meal and it works nicely as a substitute for sweet vermouth in cocktails. A Midnight Manhattan with Evan Williams, Ryan's nocino and a dash of Aged Citrus Bitters from 5 by 5 Tonics Co. makes a really great drink that is perfect for the cold winter nights. I also used the nocino in a Negroni Umbria, made from equal parts nocino, gin and Campari with an orange twist. The nocino and Campari work really well together and the drink taste vaguely like one of those chocolate oranges you see around Christmas time. 

While the $55 price tag may seem steep for a liqueur, I don't know of any American Craft Liqueur that lets their product rest for two years before bottling! Which makes this latest bottling of Skip Rock Distillers Nocino a gem and an incredible treat. And, if you'd like to pick up your own bottle you can find it in liquor stores through out Washington state or you can buy it directly through their online store.

Review: Old Weller Antique Straight Bourbon

Owned by Sazerac Company, Old Weller Antique Kentucky Straight Bourbon is distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery and bottled at 53.5% ABV.

Price Range: Normally $20-$25 however, limited allocation has caused retail prices to skyrocket to $48 for a bottle.

Old Weller Antique is a "wheated" Kentucky Straight Bourbon which means it uses wheat as its secondary flavoring grain as appose to rye. While neither Sazerac nor Buffalo Trace disclose their mashbills it is thought the wheat portion ranges between 10-20%. 

In 2009 Old Weller Antique dropped its 7 Year ages statement which did not seem to hurt the quality of the juice in the bottle. However, as the craze for Pappy Van Winkle reached a fever pitch, word began to spread that Pappy shared the same exact mashbill as the Weller line of bourbons and that they were considerably less expensive. Three years ago when I organized a blind tasting of whiskey's $20 and under, you could still find Weller Special Reserve and Old Weller Antique even though the Weller 12 Year Old had virtually disappear from retails shelves and stores were put on a strict allocation. Not so any more. While one is more likely to find a bottle of Weller Special Reserve, Old Weller Antique had become increasingly harder to find and as a result the retailers who do carry it have started charging a lot more. The day after I finished the last drops of my bottle of Old Weller Antique I was elated to see a local grocery store had two bottles for sale. Now however, instead of costing around $20, the store was charging $48 per bottler. That's more than a 200% price increase in just three years!

My hope is that in a few more years when the increased kentucky bourbon production begins to age out and be bottled that both prices and supply will stabilize. But, in the near term it seems likely that scarcity and price increases will continue.

TASTING NOTES

Nose: In the glass Weller Antique smells of caramel, sweet cherries, candied apple, vanilla, cinnamon, and varnished wood. While the alcohol is noticeable (at 107 proof one would expect that) on the nose it isn't over powering.

Palate: The palate is rich and smooth with no heat on the tongue but it does warms up your chest. The bourbon is sweet up front with notes of caramel and vanilla which are balanced with oak. Mid palate is full of baking spice and dried cherries with a slight bitterness from the oak tannins on the back end.

Finish: The finish is long. Oak tannins and dryness linger with notes of cigar tobacco and sweet corn.

Conclusion: Old Weller Antique is a very well balanced wheated bourbon and a great value at $20. From the first time I drank this bourbon quickly became my favorite wheated bourbon beating out both Makers Mark and Larceny. That being said the for my tastes, the bitterness that comes through from the oak makes it hard for me plunk down $50 to get a new bottle in the current environment. However, if and when Weller Antique returns to a more sane price, I will definitely grab a bottle.

 

One Simple Way to Keep Your Vermouth Fresh

Vermouth is an aromatized  and fortified wine which can be drunk neat, on the rocks with a twist or in a cocktail. Aromatize refers to the fact that herbs and botanicals are added to the wine to enhance its flavor, aroma and color; fortified refers to the fact that neutral spirit, usually from grape brandy is added to increase the alcohol content which makes the vermouth more stable and last longer. However, since vermouth is based on wine, an open bottle has a shorter lifespan than say an open bottle of whiskey.

In the last few years I have grown to appreciate quite a few cocktails that call for vermouth and so I have bought a bottle from time to time. However, since I usually drink spirits neat, I've run into the problem that my open bottle of vermouth goes off before I've used it up. Because I hate to be wasteful, I've mostly given up on buying vermouth.

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In the lead up to 2016 Negroni Week I wanted to buy some vermouth to make my negronis and I didn't want it to bad after the week was over and I was done making cocktails for a while. That's when it hit me. I came up with the idea to buy four 250ml swing-top bottles from The Container Store, decant the vermouth into the smaller bottles and put them into the refrigerator. I used the first 250mls during the week making cocktails and the remaining bottles sat in the back of my refrigerator. Now, four months into this experiment I am happy to say that when I opened another small bottle, the vermouth was still fresh. Both the cold refrigerator and having little to no headspace in the smaller bottled worked together to extend the life of the vermouth that otherwise would have gone bad in that amount of time. 

I figured that every time I pour vermouth from a regular bottle some amount of oxygen gets mixed into the liquid that remains. Each time you do that, the more the vermouth sloshes around and the more oxygen gets into it. Now, if I drank vermouth or made cocktails more often this would be a problem. However, this simple and inexpensive trick of decanting full size vermouth bottles (which are less expensive per ounce) into smaller bottles has made it possible for me keep vermouth on hand at all times, waiting for me when a cocktail mood strikes. If you are like me and it has killed you to pour out bad vermouth because you were too slow to finish the bottle, give this little trick a shot.

Review: Dead Distillers

Colin Spoelman and David Haskell, Dead Distillers: A History of the Upstarts and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits, (New York: Abrams Image, 2016), 224 pages, $24.95. ISBN: 9781419720215

Colin Spoelman and David Haskell are cofounders of Kings County Distillery and co-authors of now two books. Spoelman, the head distiller of Kings County Distillery, grew up in the dry Harlan County of eastern Kentucky and only began experimenting with distilling after moving to New York. When Spoelman met Haskell, an editor of New York magazine and the great-grandson of a former New York bootlegger, the idea for Kings County Distillery was born. Since 2010, Kings County Distillery has won a number of medals for its spirits, and most recently it was named 2016 Distillery of the Year by ADI.

An employee of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery inspired Spoelman and Haskell to write their newest book after organizing a tour of the graves of distillers interred there. As they looked at cemeteries around the country, they realized that the buried distillers all had intriguing stories to tell that were uniquely American. The book retells shortened biographies of 76 distillers who ranged the gamut from slaves and outlaws to successful businessmen and U.S. presidents. The stories are arranged by the distillers’ death dates, and are interspersed with newspaper clippings of distillery accidents that have lamentably taken the lives of workers, neighbors and rescue personnel for the past 400 years.

Dead Distillers is an excellent book that pays tribute to and humanizes those whose stories are included. For the average consumer, spirits named after dead distillers are seen as marketing depicting them as whiskey gods in an American pantheon. However, Dead Distillers succeeds at honoring real people who led fascinating and complicated lives with their biographies and two fantastic infographics. While most infographics try to simplify data to the point that it is immediately digestible in a single glance, the two included in the book are more akin to topographical maps that only reveal the depth of their content through close inspection. And finally, while Spoelman and Haskell wrote the book for anyone interested in distilling, it offers living distillers a memorial as real as any graveyard headstone that they can visit and remember both the successes and failures of those who came before them.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016):  145

Review: Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari

Mark Bitterman, Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari: 500 Bitter, 50 Amari, 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters, (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015), 216 pages, $25.00. ISBN: 9781449470692

Mark Bitterman is the author of Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari: 500 Bitter, 50 Amari, 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters and the owner of two bitters emporiums called the The Meadow in Portland, Oregon and New York City. Bitterman has lectured at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. He has has also written two other books, Salted (2010), which won a James Beard Award, and Salt Block Cooking (2013). Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari is organized into six chapters. The introduction covers some of the basics of bitters, including their history. The second chapter covers the basics how bitters are created, and Bitterman describes in good detail the bittering and flavor characteristics of over 50 botanicals. In the second half of chapter two, Bitterman offers 13 sample recipes for homemade bitters that run the gamut from traditional to exotic. Chapters three and four include recipes for bitters-forward cocktails and recipes that incorporate bitters into cooking. Bitterman concludes the book with descriptions and tasting notes for hundreds of non-potable bitters and more than 50 amari.

Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters and Amari is a very well-written and beautifully photographed book. While the book was clearly written with the home cocktail enthusiast in mind, it is an excellent resource for professional distillers interested in creating their own concoctions. The recipes included map out the building blocks for creating well-structured and creative bitters. The tasting notes in chapters five and six create a framework on how to think about and describe these products. Distillers interested in entering this segment of the market can ask themselves: How bitter, sweet, or aromatic should this bitter or amari be and what flavors or colors should stand out? A small number of distilleries have successfully started making bitters as a compliment to their spirits portfolio. Producing bitters and amari offers inspiration to be creative and can jump-start collaborations with bartenders and chefs, who often have great senses for how flavors commingle.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2016):  145