For a week each July, New Orleans becomes the center of the booze universe as thousands of bartenders, distillers and enthusiasts (and your humble spirits columnist) descend upon the Big Easy for the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference. With its nonstop slate of seminars, pop-ups, cocktail dinners and parties, Tales is the best place to take the pulse of the cocktail world, and this year’s edition was no exception.
With that in mind, here are 10 cool things we learned at Tales last month. Now that I’ve recovered from my hangover, I can share them with you.
1. CRAFT SPIRITS ARE EXPLODING IN AUSTRALIA.
Very few of their products are available on our side of the Pacific yet, but craft distilleries are popping up left and right Down Under, almost as quickly as they are here in the US. The Uniquely Australian seminar at Tales presented several new-to-the-U.S. bottles, including Starward Whisky, a single malt made from Australian barley and aged in Aussie fortified-wine barrels; Belgrove Rye Whisky, a super-sustainable spirit made from grain grown on-site and distilled in a still powered by used fish-and-chip oil; and Black Gate, a single-barrel rum distilled in a town of 400 people called Mendooran, New South Wales. However, I was most impressed with Four Pillars, an excellent gin made in the wine country outside of Melbourne using native botanicals including Tasmanian pepperberry and lemon myrtle. Its tasty Rare Dry and Navy Strength gins are now available in California and New York, but you should keep a special eye out for Bloody Shiraz Gin, which macerates shiraz grapes in gin for a sweet, fruity and intense flavor.
2. JAPAN’S FAVORITE SPIRIT IS PUSHING INTO THE U.S.
You might not have ever tried shochu, but it’s the best-selling distilled spirit in Japan, and the category was highly visible during several different events. The Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association was a Tales sponsor for the first time this year, and it’s planning a whole slate of dinners and other events in the U.S. in the coming year. Shochus can be made from a wide variety of bases, but they all share two things: They’re fermented with koji, a special type of mold also used to make sake and soy sauce, and they’re bottled at low proof—typically about 25 percent alcohol (50-proof), putting them halfway between wine and most straight spirits. In Japan, shochu is mostly sipped neat or with water, but it also makes an excellent base for cocktails. Shochu can be distilled from just about anything, and the base used makes a big difference in flavor: rice yields a light and mellow flavor, barley a bright freshness and sweet potato a rich, whiskey-like sweetness. Also, keep an eye out for awamori, a special type of shochu made from rice on the island of Okinawa that has an extra-funky taste.
3. BARREL-AGED GIN IS EVERYWHERE.
Just a couple years ago, barrel-aged gin was an oddity than only a handful of distilleries made. But drinkers love the stuff, and now it seems like practically every craft distiller out there has one in the works, and there were a whole bunch of good new ones at Tales. Keep an eye out for Martin Miller’s 9 Moons, a limited-edition gin that spends nine months in ex-bourbon barrels and will be hitting the US for the holidays; Knickerbocker Barrel Gin, made by the folks behind New Holland Brewing in Michigan; and Yahara Bay Barrel Mellowed, which adds a slightly smoky edge to the Wisconsin distillery’s citrus-and-cucumber-heavy gin. The best way to use aged gins like these is in place of whiskey in a cocktail: A barrel-aged gin Manhattan might just blow your mind.
4. SO ARE AMERICAN RUMS.
Way back in the 1700s, even before American whiskey was a big deal, the Thirteen Colonies made a whole lot of rum. We ceded rum dominance to the Caribbean in the interceding centuries, but today American rum is back on the upswing. A “New American Rum Revolution” seminar hosted by Robert Burr of Rob’s Rum Guide presented several brands, and a craft spirits tasting room put on by the American Distilling Institute was practically dominated by rum. A few good ones to try: Montanya, distilled at 9,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies; Wicked Dolphin, whose Florida Spiced Rum has lovely notes of local oranges and honey; Bayou, made from Louisiana sugar and molasses in the heart of Cajun country (also try its Satsuma Rum Liqueur, flavored with local citrus); and Lyon Distilling of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, whose amazing Overproof Rum clocks in at a powerful 126-proof.
5. YOU’LL FIND SOME TASTY SPIRITS AT THE DMV.
Though you could certainly do some extensive barrel aging while waiting in line to renew your driver’s license, I’m talking about DC, Maryland and Virginia. The area around our nation’s capital has never really been known for booze, but a “Taste of the DMV” tasting room highlighted several great producers from the region, including the aforementioned Lyon Distilling, which makes some very nice rye whiskey in addition to rum. My personal favorite of these was Green Hat Gin, whose spring/summer seasonal gin is quite delicious. Aperitivo and digestivo fans should look to Don Ciccio e Figli, which makes rigorously authentic Italian-style spirits, including amari, limoncello and even a fennel liqueur. And it’s not alcoholic in itself, but True’s cinnamony Authentic Tonic Syrup makes an excellent partner to gin.
6. YOU CAN MAKE VERMOUTH OUT OF SHERRY.
Fortified wines are a big deal in the mixological world of late. These low-proof, high-flavor ingredients include both sherry and vermouth, and they’re all very trendy. Well, sherry maker Gonzalez Byass decided to combine those categories with La Copa Vermouth, which is actually made from a blend of oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherries. The vermouth is rolling out across the US right now, but I was able to get a preview at Tales. It’s got all the cooked-fruit sweetness and oxidized funk you’d expect from sherry, paired with the cocktail-friendly herbal complexity of a vermouth. It’ll be a welcome addition to your next Manhattan or Negroni.
7. PERU HAS AN OFFICIAL COCKTAIL FOR GRAPE-STOMPING PARTIES.
The Trade Commission of Peru in Miami hosted a Spirited Dinner that toured Peru’s many culinary regions, along with several of its top pisco brands. The setting was ideal: the new Catahoula Hotel, whose pisco-obsessed bartender, Nathan Dalton, has created a cocktail menu based entirely on the South American brandy. He introduced the crowd to the Chinguerito, a cocktail traditionally made while stomping grapes for future pisco at harvest parties in Peru. If you’re lucky enough to be attending one, just scoop up some of the grape juice you’re stomping, add pisco and lime, and enjoy. But if not, try Dalton’s muddled-grape version of the recipe here.
8. A SPECIAL SET OF BARRELS CONNECTS SHERRY, RUM, SPAIN AND VENEZUELA.
A solera system is a special method of aging booze in a series of barrels. You harvest liquid for bottling from the last barrel, then fill it back up from the one before it in sequence, fill that from the one before it, and so on, until new spirit or wine goes into the very first barrel. In theory, every bottle contains at least a few molecules of the oldest liquid in the barrels, and soleras can be used for decades at a time. The solera is most often associated with sherry, but Venezuela’s Santa Teresa Rum also ages in one, and to celebrate the method, Lustau Sherry master distiller Fernando Perez teamed up with Santa Teresa master distiller Nestor Ortega for a rum-and-sherry lunch. If you like barrel-aged spirits of any kind, you should look into both brands.
9. BEFORE GIN WAS BRITISH, IT WAS DUTCH.
Ask most anybody which country they most associate with gin, and you’ll probably hear England. The nation’s London dry style has dominated gin for a half-century, but the spirit was invented in Holland, and before Prohibition, sweeter, maltier Dutch gin was the dominant style. Dutch producer Rutte explored this history in a fascinating seminar on the 500-year history of juniper-flavored spirits, including a tasting of genever from the 1940s (it was a bit dulled by oxidation but tasted unmistakably of gin) and a special spirit distilled just for Tales designed to taste like genever did in 1700 (it was like a juniper-flavored moonshine).
10. EGGS AND COCKTAILS ARE INTERTWINED IN MANY WAYS.
You’ve certainly seen egg white used in drinks like the Pisco Sour and Ramos Gin Fizz, and maybe you’ve even sipped a whole egg in a flip, but the connection between eggs and cocktails goes much deeper. A seminar featuring Tullamore DEW U.S. brand ambassador Tim Herlihy, whose family runs a large egg farm in Ireland, explored the incredible, edible food’s many uses. A few tidbits: In Japan, one popular cold remedy (for adults or children) is tamagozake, a mix of sake, sugar and a raw egg, served hot. The proteins in egg whites trap impurities in liquids, enabling them to clarify anything from wine and juice to chicken or beef stock: Just beat in the whites, let sit until the impurities settle to the bottom and pour the clear liquid off the top. Oh, and if you ever eat a hard-boiled egg in a bar, you’re participating in a time-honored tradition: Since the mid-1800s, the “bar egg” has been a “free meal” used to lure in hungry drinkers.
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