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A One-Month Manhattan

Posted on by Eric Burke

My father tried to get me something I really like for Christmas this year. He went out and bought me a big bottle of his favorite brandy. He was off a bit, but as we are both from Wisconsin, a bottle of Korbel brandy is not a bad guess if you can’t remember exactly which brown spirit is in someone’s glass and I appreciated the gesture. But no matter how much I appreciated the gesture, the sad fact of the matter was that I had 1.75 liters of a spirit that I didn’t really care for on hand and no idea what to do with it.

Fast forward to about a month or so ago. I had an idea: I wanted a Manhattan. This is not an unusual idea for me. If I’m not drinking my whiskey neat, this is the other way I drink it most often. The unusual part was that I wanted to try it with home made ingredients. I wanted to try making my own vermouth and my own bitters to see if it was worth the effort. I’ve been itching to try making my own bitters for a few years now and the vermouth? Well, the recipes I saw online called for brandy. So if this worked out, I’d have a use for that big bottle as well.

I found a recipe for a DIY vermouth on Serious Eats. It sounded easy enough to do, and it was. The only change I made was to add a bit of lemon zest to the mix because I thought it would pair nicely with the wine I was using and it did. The one thing that wine didn’t do though? Pair nicely with bourbon. Even with a high heat, low sweet bourbon, it made a Manhattan that was flabby and not tasty enough to be worth the effort. Unlike almost every other fortified wine I’ve tried though, I’d drink this one on it’s own. So there’s that. But as a use to get rid of that giant bottle? I’d be better off waiting for dad to visit.

I had a thought as I was making the vermouth. Sherry (one of the ingredients of the vermouth recipe I tried) is also a fortified wine. What if I put all the herbs, fruit peels and bittering agents into some sherry and let it sit in the fridge for a month or so? The answer, you get a very bitter, spicy sherry with hints of orange. But what if you then used a warm infusing technique to infuse more orange peel into more sherry and add that to the mix along with a little brandy? Well you get something very close to store bought. If you have a bunch of sherry on hand and don’t know what else to do with it, try this. The issue: it is so much like the store bought, that it seems a waste of sherry. You could make some fantastic sherry potatoes or even a sherry cake with that stuff. I mean Noilly Prat vermouth is only like six bucks here in Minnesota.

A little over a year ago, I bought a book on bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, titled appropriately enough: Bitters. It’s a fantastic book, but I held off on making any of them because I wasn’t sure what I’d use them for. I have a bunch of bitters in my cabinet and I basically use the Angostura and the Angostura Orange. But this was a great excuse...err…opportunity to finally try one. Because I enjoy my manhattans with orange bitters, I chose to make the orange. The only change I made was in my choice of base spirit. The recipe called for high proof vodka. I knew this was going in manhattans, so I went with Old Granddad 114. Good call, it makes a fantastic bitters. The manhattan made with the Brad Thomas Parsons recipe was consistently chosen over the manhattan made using the Angostura Orange in a head to head match-up we had here at the house. And it didn’t matter what vermouth we used. It’s a little spicier and added a bit more definition to the drink. This recipe is a win. 

So two of these worked out, one didn’t. One was worth the time and effort, two were not. What’s the take away? Have fun trying things. If I’d have tweaked an ingredient here or there in the vermouths, they may have been fantastic. If I’d have used a different sherry or a wine that paired with bourbon better, it could have made all the difference. We don’t experiment because what’s out there is bad, we experiment because it is fun and the fun is it’s own reward. And heck, sometimes, like in the case of the orange bitters, you get the fun of making and something that is better than what you already had. There’s the dream. 

It may have taken almost a month to make these manhattans, but I now have a pint of orange bitters to use in manhattans for the next year, a spiced and fortified wine to drink over the next month or so and a way to use up excess sherry. That’s not so bad.

New Retailer: Ace Spirits in Hopkins, MN

Posted on by Eric Burke

A couple of weeks ago, a twitter follower brought Ace Spirits to my attention, wondering if I had heard about the store. I hadn't, so I looked online to see what it might be. Right on the front page:  “every whiskey available in the state.” Color me intrigued.

Since that time, I’ve been to Ace a couple of times. It’s not hard to find, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might drive past it, never noticing it’s there. On my first visit, I wondered if I was in the correct spot or if my phone had led me astray. I was in the parking lot of a small strip mall and there was no sign that said “Ace Spirits be here.” There was a large sign above one of the doors that simply said: “BEER & WHISKEY, “ which was enough for me to decide that even if I wasn’t in the correct place, it was the place I really wanted to be anyway. As I walked up to the store, I wondered if it was open. Unlike most of the liquor stores in the area, there was a definite lack of light spilling out. But above the slightly mirrored door, there was a small sign that said something about cold beer. And it was lit, so I wandered in. 

I was immediately welcomed upon entering. Which was a nice change from many of the stores I visit. It was dark, but comfortably so. It’s a small area, but not crowded. The shelves were dark wood and two walls were covered floor to ceiling with whiskey bottles. If you put my computer desk and a small tv in there, it would be exactly how I imagine my man-cave to be. 

To learn more, I reached out to Louis Dachis, proprietor of Ace Spirits. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

So what's the Ace Spirits story?

Ace Spirits has been an idea percolating for a few years. I had been getting very interested in beer and whiskey of all types and I found what were once wine trips were turning into brewery and distillery tours. I had been operating three Merwin Liquors stores in the cities and the amount of space dedicated to beer and whiskey was expanding as I got more and more into it and the customers responded to the increasing selection. My gal, Sara and I visited the Whiskey Shop in Brooklyn and we really loved the idea of a small and focused space. Craft beer was already exploding and we were watching dedicated whiskey bars open in the cities and menus at existing places expand to include more whiskey and better beer. 

The idea was to create an experience surrounding the purchase. A place to talk about these things we love in a comfortable space. The entire setup was to be very intentional from layout, stocking, fixtures and lighting. It would have been easy to buy Lazier shelving and slap some paper signs over the windows, but that's not what we were going after. We've blocked all sunlight from the outside with walls and window film to prevent skunking. All lights in the store, with the exception of the three above the register are narrow-band LED's and we keep the temps in the store on the chilly side to aid with the freshness goal. The build out still isn't done and we will probably always consider it a work in progress.

Your website claims to carry every whiskey available in Minnesota. And since I saw things that I haven't found elsewhere, I believe you. But why? And why do you think the competitors aren't?

Why not? It's our focus. We love the stuff. And it's funny, you can have just as long and passionate discussion with someone about the merits of Old Overholt as you can about Balvenie 40. There's a lot to be said for that. We all like different stuff and it's very true that certain items lend themselves best to certain experiences. I really enjoy it all and love to hear from the people that produce it as well as those that love to drink it. Others don't do it because there are a lot that don't sell. It's that simple. But it's sort of like being open 24 hours- you don't stay open because you do a ton of business between the hours of 3 and 4am, you do it because everyone knows that no matter when they swing by, you will be there. This is a similar concept. If you love whiskey, you know we will have it.

After visiting the website, it's not hard to see that you are doing things a little differently than most stores. Many local whiskey fans have been involved in drawings to win a chance to purchase rare spirits. Your contest is just to win the whiskeys. Free. 

I like the word "Free". It gets people's attention. Especially when it comes to these items. I wanted to let people know who we are and what we were all about. It's not much more complex than that.

Not that I'm complaining since you are basically on my way home from work, but why Hopkins? Why not Minneapolis or St. Paul?

I would love to have opened in Minneapolis, but state law prevents me from having more than one license in any given municipality. I grew up in Hopkins and love the Western Suburbs. Four Firkins covers the edge of the city, but there wasn't anything out this way. Being as close as it is to Highway 7, 494, and the new thoroughfare that Shady Oak is to become for EP, I thought this was a great spot. The bones of the space were good and because this is to be a destination, the location wasn't quite as critical. There was a store a block away that closed recently which allowed us to move in. This store did OK, and I'm hoping the neighborhood welcomes us and affords us similar success in addition to those that may come to visit from further away. So far, the response has been very encouraging.

I’d like to thank Louis again for taking the time to answer some questions. You can learn more about The Great Whiskey Giveaway at AceSpirits.com or engage with them on Twitter (@acespirits) or Facebook.com/AceSpirits. This place is not your typical Minnesota liquor store. That’s a very good thing. I have a feeling I’ll be here more often than my wife would like.

Book Review: Twin Cities Prohibition—Minnesota’s Blind Pigs & Bootleggers

Posted on by Eric Burke

Before it closed, I visited the exhibit: American Spirits, the rise and fall of Prohibition at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. I found it to be a very nice exhibit. Informative, entertaining. I saw a lot of cool artifacts and even learned a thing or two. If it comes to your area, I highly recommend it. 

After exiting the exhibit, I decided to visit the book store to see if I might find a book on the subject to pick up. I surely did. There was, of course, Last Call by Daniel Okrent. A book that while informative, had me giggling at the lengths people went to get a drink. I’d read it before and loved it. Right next to it was another promising sounding book. The title? Twin Cities Prohibition: Minnesota’s Blind Pigs & Bootleggers by Elizabeth Johanneck. This sounded perfect. A local slant on what I’d read about in other books. It was twenty dollars and short, but since I’m guessing the purchase goes to help the History Center I figured, what the heck? 

I should have kept looking. 

This title is very misleading. This is a collection of rambling, second or third-hand stories that relate the dirtier side of Minnesota in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In and of itself, this would be fine as you could see how that could be organized under a Prohibition theme. Before. During. Legacy. This is not how it is organized. Or if it is, there are no sign posts along the way. 

The subtitle claims stories about Minnesota’s Blind Pigs and Bootleggers, but spends more time on the crooked politicians and businessmen. The “Masters of the Universe” as the author calls them. The only mention of the illicit liquor dispensaries were chatty blog post-like descriptions of her visits to the modern-day businesses that happen to be in the same buildings. 

In it’s short 160 page length, I learned that the man who built the Foshay Tower was crooked, but that it now houses the swank W Minneapolis Hotel. I learned that the governor during prohibition was dirty, but also considered one of the greatest governors the state has known. That there were a bunch of robberies and murders in the first half of the Twentieth Century. And I learned that the author has an almost religious hatred of the Federal Reserve. I learned very little about Prohibition in the Twin Cities, the speakeasies or the bootleggers. 

I did learn to read the reviews before impulse buying a book though. I started out really wanting to like this. I mean, Prohibition is one of my favorite American History topics. But now? Now I just want my lunch breaks back for the week I spent reading this.

Bottom Shelf Bourbon Brackets: The Championship Rounds

Posted on by Eric Burke

It’s here, Championship Monday. We’ve made it through the opening rounds and tonight we find out who graduates to the Fancy Shelf. 

At the beginning of this tournament, if you had asked me if I would have found a gem in the field, I would have guessed yes. I mean, that was kind of the point of the exercise. But, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that out of the entire field, there was only one bourbon that I wouldn’t want to drink again. Some were certainly mediocre, but only one was downright bad. Heck, many of them I’d be happy with neat, or with an icecube or two. 

In the interest of not being influenced by my memories of the product from the opening rounds, I did the next two rounds using my typical double-blind format where I poured into glasses 1 and 2 and my wife moved them to spots A and B. I knew what bourbon was which number and my wife knew which number coresponded to which letter, but neither of us knew which bourbon coresponded to which letter. These were not formal tasting notes, just impressions to let us decide which one we liked better.

Round 2: Down to Four

Division 1: Old Charter 8 year vs Ezra Brooks

Nose A: Trends more vegetal or medicinal/chemical

Nose B: Caramel covered fruit

Mouth A: spicier and warmer, but still more vegetal

Mouth B: gentle, sweet and floral

Finish A: Nice, but unremarkable

Finish B: Perfumy and slightly offputting

Thoughts: A’s vegetalness made it less enjoyable head to head. Whereas B’s gentleness made it feel more watery in comparison. That said, I enjoyed both of these on their own during the past two weeks. 

Winner: B, but only just. The main thing it was missing was kick so it’s no surprise that B was the lower proof Old Charter 8 year old.

Division 2: Old Crow Reserve vs JW Dant Bottled in Bond

Nose A: A slightly medicinal Juicyfruit gum

Nose B: Fruitier, but with hints of cinnamon. Also more caramel sweetness

Mouth A: lots of caramel here

Mouth B: sharp, medicinal

Finish A: hot, but in a good way

Finish B: warm bitterness

Thoughts: B has a much nicer nose. More complex and it makes me anticipate a tasty dram. The problem is that once it get’s in the mouth it falls apart. It goes sharp and medicinal when compared with A. Classic overpromise, underdeliver. 

Winner: A wins this hands down. Honestly, it wasn’t even close after the nose. I was surprised Old Crow Reserve didn’t put up more of a fight after all the people I talk to that are enjoying it, but the clear winner is JW Dant Bottled in Bond.

Fancy Shelf Championship

Old Charter 8 year vs JW Dant Bottled in Bond

Nose A: Typical bourbonness, caramel sweetness with some spice

Nose B: A bit more burn. Almost chocolate chip cookie.

Mouth A: very sweet with just a hint of sharpness

Mouth B: Warm and not very sweet, kinda sharp

Finish A: gentle and sweet

Finish B: wow! great finish. Nice warmth that lasts.

Thoughts: This was a very close one. My wife and I both enjoyed each of these a lot. In fact, it was so close that we each picked a different winner. I chose B on the strength of it’s finish. My wife chose A. 

Winner: That said, it’s my blog so the Fancy Shelf Champion is: B, JW Dant Bottled in Bond.

It’s crazy to me that three of the top four are bourbons that I would be perfectly happy pouring for myself neat or with a bit of ice. Two weeks ago, my wife drove to New Orleans to visit a friend, I liked the Old Charter 8 year enough to have her grab me a handle of it on her way back since they don’t sell it in Minnesota. I do wish it had a little more proof and so I hope to check out the NAS Charter 101 next time I travel to a state it’s sold in. Ezra Brooks is nice for those days I want a little spicy kick, but don’t feel like having anything special. Card-playing bourbon I like to call that. Dant Bonded isn’t quite as good as it’s higher priced brother Evan Williams Bonded, but it’s almost there and it’s well under $20 per liter here in MN where EW is a little over that at my normal shop. Old Crow got a lucky draw in the first round. I’d put off deciding how I felt about it, but can say now that it’s mediocre at best. I’ll use it for mixing or cooking and be pleased with the purchase.

Old Crow Reserve vs. Rebel Yell, Round 1, Bottom Shelf Bourbon Brackets

Posted on by Eric Burke

Round 1d of the Bottom Shelf Bourbon Brackets features a couple of old names that have fallen on a few hard times. The number 2 seed of division 2: Old Crow Reserve is facing off against number 3 seed: Rebel Yell. 

Old Crow Reserve. I’ve been curious about Old Crow ever since I went back home to the backwoods of Wisconsin and saw it was the only bourbon in the bar. I’d have gone beer, but this particular dance hall had three kinds of Miller on tap and the keg of Old Style that the groom’s family had purchased for the guests to drink. Not only did I not want any of those, but I wasn’t quite sure when the last time the lines were cleaned since this particular place is mostly used for weddings. So I went with the Old Crow. I ordered it neat, because I didn’t really trust the cocktail skills of the bartender. She didn’t now what neat meant so I was probably correct there. But, I didn’t hate it. In fact I liked it better than the Beam White I found later in the evening by wandering across the street to a liquor store that was sadly lacking in 50mL minis that I could sneak back in.

The only thing I’d heard about Rebel Yell was the statement “I hear the Reserve isn’t bad.” I’d hear that statement every time I mentioned that I’d slated it for inclusion in this tournament. No one knew anything else. And it seemed no one had tasted either the Reserve or the regular release. So, I read the bottle and by reading the label I learned that it is a wheater and that it is: “Unique. Commanding. Unforgettable.” After a bit of internet searching, I learned this is an old brand once produced by Pappy Van Winkle himself. The forum posters claim that if you find old bottles of it, it’s kinda one-note, but not bad. These days it’s a sold by Luxco out of St. Louis. No one mentions what it’s like now.

Old Crow Reserve

Purchase Info: Haskell’s Wine & Spirits, Burnsville, MN $16.99 for a 1L

Stated Age: Four years

ABV: 43%

Produced by: Jim Beam

Nose: Rubbing alcohol right at first. But that dissipates: fresh sawn lumber. Dry with just a hint of caramel, mint and orange peel.

Mouth: Maple syrup and black pepper. Hints of vegetal and soapy flavors.

Finish: Some heat. Spiced honey. Transitions to bitterness. 

Thoughts: Not one I feel like I’d grab first. If I was in a bar that had it, I’d pick it over Beam White and not feel too bad about the selection. But I might ask for it on the rocks.  

Rebel Yell

Purchase Info: Blue Max, Burnsville, MN $11.78 for a 750 mL

Stated Age: NAS 

ABV: 40%

Sourced/Sold by: Luxco

Nose: Dried Corn, Orange Peel, Caramel 

Mouth: Watery mouthfeel. Dried corn. Hints of vinegar. Unpleasant.

Finish: Decent but not overpowering burn. Grain and a nice bitterness.

Thoughts: I have no idea what I will do with this bottle, but I certainly won’t be drinking it. The finish is nice, but the taste and nose are not pleasant at all. My wife has been bugging me to give her bourbon to use in a homemade bug repellant recipe. This might be fine for that. 

Winner: Old Crow Reserve doesn’t win this one quite as much as Rebel Yell loses it. To say it was a favorable matchup is being nice. Rebel Yell might give Town Branch a run for the title of worst bourbon I’ve tasted. It lives up to the “Unique” and the “Unforgettable” that the label promised. But not in a good way. So by process of elimination Old Crow Reserve wins. We’ll see how it does in the next round before I say if I like it or not.