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.

Filtering by Tag: Brandy

Review: Calvados - The Spirit of Normandy

Charles Neal, Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy, (San Francisco: Board and Bench Publishing, 2011), 700 pages, $60.00. ISBN: 9780615446400

Charles Neal is the owner of Charles Neal Selections, an importer and distributor based in San Francisco, CA and the author of Armagnac:The Definitive Guide to France's Premier Brandy. Neal's most recent book is Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy. During the course of his research, Neal traveled extensively throughout France and conducted over 200 interviews with calvados producers in Normandy. This experience as well as his work writing Armagnac and import business makes Neal one the country's top proponents and experts on French spirits.

At over 700 pages Calvados is not just a thorough catalog of calvados producers, but an attempt to understand calvados by contextualizing it in the place that it comes from. Neal begins the book with a social and ecological history of Normandy, a survey of how calvados is made, how to read calvados labels and age statements. From there, Neal divides his producer profiles into three major sections: agricultural producers, who are farm distillers who manage their own orchards, ferments his own cider and distills it; Industrial Producers, who are incorporated businesses that by in large purchase the majority of their fruit from other growers and distill and blend the majority of their own distillate; and, Negociants, who purchase 100% of their distillate from other producers, but age, blend and bottle the calvados in house.

For a variety of market reasons, American drinkers are beginning to show more interest in drinking brandy whether neat or in a cocktail. Neal's Calvados can be an instructive guide for both consumers and for US distillers who are interested in learning how some of the world's best apple brandy is made. Neal outlines a variety of techniques that craft distillers can emulate though there are some disadvantages that will not be overcome quickly. Because of a lack of demand, US apple grower have largely torn out the old varieties of cider apples that once filled American orchards. Like with non-GMO and heirloom varieties or grain, craft distillers can partner with local growers to replant the cider varieties needed to make complex, flavorful and interesting apple brandy that can withstand the test of time.

First appeared in Distiller (Winter 2017/18): 175

Review: The Maturation of Distilled Spirits

Hubert Germain-Robin, The Maturation of Distilled Spirits: Vision & Patience (Hayward: White Mule Press, 2016), 146 pages, $35.00. ISBN: 9780996827706

Hubert Germain-Robin comes from a long line of Cognac producers in France. But after years of training in traditional methods of distillation and maturation he moved to California to explore new possibilities. Free of the strict laws and traditions of Cognac, Germain-Robin was able to experiment and take chances in some areas while keeping the most effective traditional methods of making brandy. What resulted were some of the finest American brandies ever produced.

Germain-Robin’s newest book The Maturation of Distilled Spirits: Vision & Patience, is the follow up to Traditional Distillation: Art & Passion. In the new book Germain-Robin walks the reader through the entirety of the maturation process, from the oak that goes into the barrels, cellaring, proofing, blending and bottling the finished spirit all focused on the central theme of vision and patience. However, at 146 pages this book is more akin to a seminar than years of apprenticeship. To fully capture the wealth of knowledge that Germain-Robin learned over his lifetime of work would probably be near impossible, but the purpose of the book is to invite the reader into thinking about the active role the cellar master takes in guiding the maturation of the spirit as it sits in barrels for years or even decades.

The Maturation of Distilled Spirits is a good place to start for any distiller who wants to explore and employ traditional methods of maturation. Each chapter offers a brief explanation of a variety of maturation techniques, some of which are common in Cognac but completely novel for American whiskey. Following the theme of vision and patience, Germain-Robin explains the important role of the cellar master and how their choices and decisions serve both themselves and future generations. While creating a spirit that can age for 70-plus years is an obvious skill, so too is the patience and ability to know when to allow barrels to keep aging, when to transfer them to glass demijohns, and when to blend and bottle these older spirits.

Germain-Robin is a proponent of what some are calling “Slow Distillation,” a movement that looks to encourage the production of great spirits made from high quality ingredients with traditional techniques. U.S. craft distillers can learn much from masters like Germain-Robin and develop new traditions that will allow future generations to reap the benefits of their vision and patience.

Originally published in Distiller (Winter 2016): 151

Review: The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits

Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, Translated by Paul Lehmann, The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits: Small-Scale Production of Brandies, Schnapps & Liquors, (Austin: Spikehorn Press, 2015), 200 pages, $29.95.

The authors of The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits, Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, both have doctorates in technical sciences and chemical engineering. In 1998, they designed their first still and began teaching workshops on distilling in Austria. In 2003, they published a book, based on their experiments in distilling a variety of fruit brandies and infusing liquors, called Schnaps brennen als Hobby. Since then, they have also written two books about making essential oils and vinegar.

The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits is an introductory work on distilling, primarily written for non-professional distillers. In the German-speaking countries of Europe, home distilling is permissible with certain licenses and under certain circumstances. Because of this, Malle and Schmickl’s description of distilling, its history and practice are very basic and not well-suited to professionals or even would-be professionals.

The book does not engage deeply with traditional distillation practices, and in some cases the authors make unorthodox claims regarding production techniques that, despite their technical backgrounds, they do not go on to substantiate with science. For this reason the book largely comes across as a reaction to bad home-distilling practices. If Malle and Schmickl had used their expertise to explain why certain traditional techniques work, or made a better case for why their methods produced superior spirits, perhaps all distillers could have benefited.

Ultimately, The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits does not fully acknowledge that the best distilled spirits are the result of both artistry and chemistry. The goal of the book is to help its readers make better spirits and to understand some of the chemical processes involved, but at 200 pages, the book is too short to be a thorough technical description of how to craft excellent spirits. Because Malle and Schmickl ignore many of the tried-and-true techniques of traditional distillation and seem to believe that making excellent spirits is instead a matter of following a recipe, Crafting Distilled Spirits is not recommended reading for the professional.

Nocino Cocktails

In my last post I described how I began the process of making my own nocino. But for those who are less interested in making their own, or are curious to try nocino before making a batch, there are a number of great commercial versions for sale. I particularly like the Black Walnut Liqueur made by Davorin Kuchan of Old World Spirits in Belmont, CA and the Nocino made by Ryan Hembree of Skip Rock Distillers in Snohomish, WA.

Once you have a bottle of nocino at home, using it in cocktail is a great way to enjoy its complex flavors. Nocico pairs very nicely with brown spirits like whiskey, Scotch or brandy, and it can be used as a creative substitute for sweet vermouths like Carpano Antica. Below are a couple of nocino cocktail idea that are quite tasty and fun to try.

Black Walnut Old Fashioned
(from Liberty Bar, Seattle)
Black Walnut bitters
Angostura bitters
Served on a large ice cube.

Midnight Manhattan
2 oz Bourbon
1 oz Nocino
Dash of orange bitters
Stirred with ice
Served up with brandied cherry garnish.

(Absinthe, San Francisco)
1 oz Nocino
1 oz Bourbon
Splash of almond syrup
Stirred with ice Served in chilled Martini glass with freshly grated cinnamon floater.

The Boutonniere 
(The Alembic, San Francisco
Dash of orange bitters 
Served up

The Italian Sidecar
1.5 oz Brandy
3/4 oz Nocino
1/2 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz Lemon juice
Served up with a lemon wheel garnish.

Negroni Umbria
(from Angele, Napa
1oz Nocino
1oz Gin
1 oz Campari 
Stirred with ice 
Served up or on rocks with orange twist.