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Shrubs: An old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times by Michael Dietsch

Posted on by Eric Burke

A few years ago, as I was first exploring the fine world of bitters, infusions, tinctures, cocktails and ultimately flavors, I ran across a reference to a colonial era drink called a shrub. The site described it as: “drinking vinegar.”

The history geek in me teamed up with the cook in me to decide that this was certainly something that we would all be trying to make. I liked vinegar well enough. Normally in something or on something. Sometimes that something was oil with bread sometimes it was green leafy spinach. In either case, vinegar was something that made other things taste good. But these recipes made it seem like the star of the show. What would that be like?

Terrible. That’s what it was like. I’d never been more nervous to try something and yet had those expectations be so completely optimistic. I was sad, but resigned myself to keep an eye on this thing figuring I must have done something wrong.

A couple months ago, I ran across a book by Michael Dietsch called Shrubs: An old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times. I’d been seeing articles in the cocktail blogs I follow mention shrubs. I’d seen small outfits actually sell them. I’d never seen a book solely about them before. I resolved to set my previous shruby experience behind and buy the book. 

I wasn’t disappointed. The book gives you a brief history of shrubs, the evolution of the name, etc. It points out that a shrub was kind of just the name for stuff you drank. Be it alcoholic or not. Then it gives recipes. Oh, so many recipes. Both alcohol and vinegar based recipes. I was in heaven. If there is one thing I like more than a history book it’s a cookbook. And if the final product is drink related, even better. 

I figured the only real way to review this book was to try a couple of the recipes. I went for one alcoholic and one not. For the alcoholic version I chose the Country Gentleman’s Brandy Shrub from page 74. And for the non-alcoholic I tried the Cranberry-Apple Shrub from page 97. Both were basically chosen at random with an eye on ingredients I had in the house.

Country Gentleman’s Brandy Shrub

Nose: Perfumy in a lemon sort of way. Kind of like a gentle furniture polish.

Mouth: Thick. Lemonheads candy is the best way to explain it. Lemony. Sweet, yet tart at the same time. Hint of spice.

Finish: Slight lingering warmth, more lemon.

Thoughts: This is an amazing liqueur and one that not only gives me a use for the handles of brandy my dad keeps giving me, but that might make go buy one if I run out. I may need to make sure this is kept on hand.

Cranberry-Apple Shrub

Nose: Strong Apple Cider Vinegar. (To be expected, I only bottled it up a couple days ago)

Mouth: Thick. Tart and vinegary, but not overwhelmingly so. Vinegar balanced by the apple and cranberry.

Finish: Not Applicable.

Thoughts: This isn’t bad by itself. I wouldn’t seek it out that way, but I could choke it down. Where this shines is as a cocktail ingredient. I used it in place of vermouth in a manhattan and it was fabulous. It mixed with the Very Old Barton and bitters exquisitely. I’m very impressed.

If you are into flavor, the way I am, you owe it to yourself to buy this book. If you want something that will help you impress foodie friends, buy this book. Looking for cocktail ingredients that you haven’t had before? Buy the book. 

You get the picture. I thought it was great.

A familiar redhead: Maker's Mark

Posted on by Eric Burke

You’re on the road. Traveling. Maybe for work, maybe for pleasure. You’re staying in a hotel. Or maybe visiting a local tavern at the end of a long day. 

Looking behind the bar you see a very thin selection. There are a couple of taps that contain Bud Light and some Miller product. But all you really want is a good bourbon. Jim, Jack and a few others are there. But not much else. What do you do? 

I’d say in a case like that you look for a familiar redhead. One that, even though it may not be the wildest one out there, has never let you down. I’d look for the nearly ubiquitous Maker’s Mark.

Maker’s Mark

Purchase info: I got this handle as a gift from my daughter but it would run about $40-$50 here in the Twin cities.

Details: 45% ABV

Nose: Honeydew Melon, Peaches. Maple Syrup on French Toast and hints of baking spices.

Mouth: Soft mouthfeel. Melon, dusty oak, caramel/vanilla

Finish: The finish sneaks up on you. Seems soft at first but then settles in your chest for a little while. Notes of melon and a lingering bitterness.

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Thoughts: There are people out there who overlook things because they are accessible and popular with the non-geek. In this case, that’s a mistake. This is a great whiskey. It’s soft and fruity. Tasty as hell and you can get it at even the most dive of dive bars. If you can’t trust that the tap lines are clean, get a Maker’s.

"Baby Saz" Sazerac Rye

Posted on by Eric Burke

That is one pretty bottle, isn’t it? Reminds you of the cut glass and etched lettering of those old decanters you find in antique stores or on Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men. It really is nice looking. It’d look nice on your shelf, looking old and sophisticated. 

But what if I told you, you couldn’t have this? That there were going to be places and times when this wouldn’t be available. If you were smart, you’d probably grab a Rittenhouse Rye or maybe a Bulliet. If you were a human on the internet, you’d probably run all around the city you live in and a few of the surrounding ones to go hunting for one. 

Well it’s true, it can be hard to find. 

WAIT! Don’t go running out to the car or bus yet! Because here is the thing. It depends on where you live and when you are looking. In Minnesota, at this particular point in time, it’s on most store shelves. I recently heard from a guy in Florida that said it was hard to find there. So wait a bit, or look online. Do NOT pay exorbitant sums for this just because it is rare where you live right now. Because, and I’m going to level with you, it’s a good rye but it isn’t a great-ohmygod-I-need-to-get-it-right-now rye. 

Here’s a little info. Sazerac Rye is a rye whiskey is produced by, you might have guessed it, the Sazerac Company. It is a non-age stated bottling. (Though if you look on the Sazerac website it’s still listed as six years. Which, while not legally binding, might be close. It is labeled as Straight and doesn’t have an age statement so it’s at least four.) The internet tells me that it is a barely legal rye with a mashbill including 51% rye or thereabouts. 

Sazerac Rye

Purchase info: $32.99 at Ace Spirits, Hopkins, MN

Details: 45% ABV

Nose: Soapy. Mint. Dried Grass. Cedar underneath.

Mouth: Thin Mouthfeel. Black pepper. Cedar. Mint. Banana candy

Finish: More Cedar and banana that fade to a lingering bitterness

Thoughts: Weird. Banana. This is passable when neat in a Glencairn glass. OK, nothing more. In a rocks glass, I find it better. Still just good, not great. I’ve used it to make a very tasty Sazerac cocktail. Which though it was spicier than with Rittenhouse, wasn’t actually better. If this were around $25 like it was when I first started buying it, I’d recommend it. But after creeping up to about $35, I’m not sure that you wouldn’t be just as happy grabbing one of the more readily available ryes out there. Maybe try one of those Canadian 100% Rye ones. I like it, but not enough to miss it if I can't get it.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish, Pinot Noir Barrel

Posted on by Eric Burke

I tend to like bourbons that have been finished in some way. Cognac barrel? Port barrel? Yes and yes. Beer barrel? Sure. Second barrels that never contained anything else? Indeed! Staves of other types of wood? Yes sir! Bourbon where they just poured some brandy in? Not bad at all. Not that they are my favorites, but I tend to like them.

Contrary to many opinions out there, I also tend to like Woodford Reserve. It was one of the first bourbons I bought and the first major distillery I visited. It’s pricier than I like, but occasionally I go back to it as I have a bit of a soft spot for it. I especially like to see what they are doing with their yearly Master’s Collection experiments. Even if they aren’t always that good, it’s nice to see people try things. 

Based on the above, I was pretty stoked to hear about this year’s version of the Master’s Collection. Pinot Noir casks. At first, it sounded weird to me. Then I noticed the Angel’s Envy in my glass at that very moment. It’s a port (fortified wine) finished bourbon. I remembered that sherry and port are used in finishing many types of whisky all over the world. It seemed less weird after thinking about it. And It had to be better than the Malt whiskeys they released last year…right?

RIGHT?

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, Sonoma-Cutrer finish, Pinot Noir Barrel

Purchase Info: $84.99 for a 750 mL at Zipps Liquor, Minneapolis, MN

Details: 45.2% ABV, Bourbon finished in Pinot Noir wine barrels

Nose: An earthy funk, herbal with a hint of smoke, dates and corn silage.

Mouth: Warm. Brown sugar sweetness with an earthy funk that follows the nose by bringing herbal flavors and a hint of corn.

Finish: Some warmth that fades fairly quickly and is replaced by oak and sour cherries.

Thoughts: I’m not a fan. Unlike some of the finished bourbons I’ve had where you barely know they’ve been finished, the wine certainly shows its influence here. The problem is that it basically takes over. There is very little bourbon influence other than heat and proof. It’s interesting, but I wish I had purchased a glass of it instead of a bottle.

As an experiment to minimize the wine influence, I mixed it half and half with some of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I had on the shelf. I’d have tried a Regular Woodford or a Double Oaked, but I didn’t have any on hand. It brought back some of the bourbon influence and actually made an enjoyable drink. On a whim, I also tried it half and half with some cheap brandy. This was also better than the Woodford straight, bringing body and sweetness to what was otherwise a brandy that tasted heavily of raisins. In other words, if the Kentucky Bourbon industry wasn’t so afraid of the word blend, they might have been able to release a drinkable product. As it is, I’ll probably buy a bottle of Old Forester Signature and use that $20 bottle to “fix” the $85 one. 

Adding Water to Your Bourbon: Exploring Dilution

Posted on by Eric Burke

It feels like there are so many proof chasers out there. You always hear things like: “this would be great if there was just a little more proof on it.” Obviously things that are too diluted are less than tasty. But I propose that too high of a proof can be just as bad too. Especially in this era of “I only drink things neat” that many new whiskey drinkers seem to think is cool. 

The old timers like to say that a higher proof whiskey is better because then you can water it down as much as you like. I like that. I’ve always seem to prefer things that are in the goldilocks zone. Not too high, not too low. 

But being a blogger, I need to put my money where my mouth is. And coincidentally it just so happens that the final two pours of my attempt at blending a barrel proof Four Roses Yellow Label were slated for removal (drinking down after reaching 1/4 full to free up shelf space and prevent hoarding). I thought they were amazing, spicy and complex. They were also barrel proof. So what’s a poor blogger to do but water them down in the name of science?

Using math (and water), I diluted the initial 56.24% ABV sample down to 50%, 45% and 40% ABV. I let them sit for a while to incorporate and then my wife and I tasted them together. 

40% ABV sample 

Nose: Bubble gum, oak, thick caramel and a hint of mint.

Mouth: thick mouthfeel, odd for an 80 proofer. sharp ginger, sweet caramel

Finish: lingering spice and warmth. 

Thoughts: Like a spicy cookie. There is ginger and caramel, but not much more. Tasty though.

45% ABV sample

Nose: A bit soapy at first. Juicyfruit gum, caramel and oak.

Mouth: Sweet and spicy again. There is a nice roundness to the mouthfeel. Baking spices, cayenne, caramel and vanilla.

Finish: Warm, but mellow (this lives up to the Four Roses marketing even if they didn’t blend it). A slight lingering sharpness that transistions to dark chocolate.

Thoughts: This makes me wish for a slightly older Yellow Label with just a bit less water in it. This is delicious and a vast improvement over the 80 proofer. It’s sweeter and the spice is more complex and less sharp. The mouthfeel was round and pleasant. I enjoyed this very much.

50% ABV sample

Nose: Rich. Buttery brown sugar, cinamon spice, mint.

Mouth: Sugery sweet on entry, sharp oak flavors as it moves back.

Finish: Tannic. Baking spices and lingering warmth. 

Thoughts: The higher proof on this one shows the oak a little too much. It’s tasty, but a bit hot and sharp compared to the others. 

Comparison Thoughts:

All of the single barrels that went into this belnd were at least 8-9 years old with some edging into the 11 year range. As such, it is quite a bit older than what I assume to be in the regular Yellow Label Four Roses. It is just about perfect at 90 proof. 

I’m struck by how different each of these are considering they were all poured out of the same bottle at the same time. Water is an amazing addition to whiskey. I agree with the old timers here, the main benefit to buying whiskey that is of a higher proof is so you can water it down to where you feel it’s best. Even if that is barrel proof. 

(And yes, I do really want an older and higher proof yellow label…)