Friday, March 2, 2012

Musings On A Couple Of Recent Posts.

Reading back through some recent posts, I had a few thoughts that seemed to be worth sharing.

On the subject of the Old Fashioned, I know what I'm about to say is blasphemy, but whiskey and Sprite, with a few dashes of bitters, is a reasonably authentic shortcut for an Old Fashioned. The only really inauthentic thing is the carbonation. After all, the drink is whiskey, water, bitters, sugar, and citrus. To keep it, again, reasonably authentic, you have to use a light hand with the soda. A ratio of about one-to-one seems to work pretty well, and I'm also generous with the bitters.

Most recipes that call for bitters call for a 'dash.' Gaz Regan taught me to disregard that. Watching him make a Manhattan once, I counted 14 dashes. The folks who have looked into this sort of thing say bitters are essential, both in the drinks that traditionally call for them, and in many that don't. I find the bitterness is what gives the drink its sophistication.

On the subject of 'legal moonshine,' I did notice since I made that post that Short Mountain's label describes a spirit made at least in part from sugar, which I've seen in a couple of other labels and label applications, but have never actually seen on the street as a product.

Several of my critics say I'm behind the times. That people want a legal moonshine product and thus they shall have one. The problem remains, however, that there is no agreement about what moonshine is as a spirit type. Most real moonshine is made using 100% table sugar as the fermentable substrate. This has been true for as long as cane sugar has been plentiful and cheap.

Remember, moonshine isn't about 'craft' or 'quality.' It's about making money, which means making spirit as quickly and easily as possible without getting caught.

One hears about corn being added in some recipes but unless there is cooking involved, and the introduction of enzymes, the corn is just for show. You need to cook corn to get the starch to dissolve, then you need to add enzymes to convert the liquified starch into sugar. If you don't, the corn is just a prop. It has no effect on the final product.

Most of the products that have made it to market labeled as moonshine, such as Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, from Piedmont Distillers, are either vodka or corn whiskey. Midnight Moon is vodka, distilled from corn. Georgia Moon, a venerable product made by Heaven Hill, is corn whiskey.

Short Mountain isn't the only micro-distiller toying with the 'real' moonshine (i.e., sugarjack) idea, but unless they distill it out to something like vodka, it's probably going to taste awful. That's what people expect from moonshine, they think (mistakenly) that the bad taste means it's strong. (It doesn't, it just means it tastes bad.) It remains to be seen if people will actually buy a true sugarjack product and, most importantly, buy it again.

Under the rules, a distilled spirit made from cane sugar is rum. If it's not 100% cane sugar, then you probably have to call it a 'distilled spirit specialty,' which is a catchall category for products that don't fit any of the established types.

It should be noted that no product made from cane sugar, nor any product distilled above 95% ABV (i.e., vodka) is whiskey. Even the Piedmont product, which is made mostly from corn, is not whiskey because they distill it to vodka alcohol levels and, in fact, it is classified as vodka; which it says, in very small type, on the label.

And, as vodka goes, it's not bad.

But it's not whiskey, and it's not moonshine.

That's another thing that has been going on with the mirco-distillery movement, people griping that they want to call things whatever they want to call them and that the rules should be changed so they can. People have always wanted to do this, and that's precisely why the rules (laws, actually) exist.

I hasten to add that not all micro-distillers are this way. There are some terrific people running small distilleries, people who do things the right way, who are steeped in both the science and the history, and who work their asses off. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know many of them. The poseurs, we reassure ourselves, will surely wash out and go away in time.

It can't happen soon enough.


sku said...

Limestone Branch, which you wrote about yesterday, has a "sugar shine" listed on their website. Do you know if that's an attempt to replicate a sugar jack? Do they classify it as rum?

Joshua Feldman said...

Awesome post, Chuck. I'm loving your spirited defense of whiskey as a category that actually means something. This insidious inroad of white spirit into the category of whiskey via the backdoor of "moonshine" is an assault on everything I hold dear about whiskey. Keep it up.

And yet, you iconoclastically level a torpedo amidships to the Old Fashioned recipe with your suggestion that Sprite and bitters makes a fine Old Fashioned. I'm a purist - but I'm also a time challenged man with way too many opened bottles of whiskey to consume and a quick and dirty Old Fashioned that works sounds like aces - so I'm going to try it. I'll post back here with whether I concur or not. I'm suspicious but hopeful...

ad said...

While I'm sure Sprite or 7-Up in an Old Fashioned is not textbook authentic, it is the way every single person I know in Wisconsin--where the Old Fashioned has remained the whiskey cocktail of choice for decades, not just a recent trend--makes it. That also seems to include the numerous bars and supper clubs I've frequented in Northern Wisconsin.

Todd said...

As far as the old fashioned goes. I think the argument really comes down to how much the whiskey is watered down. As spirits have come back into their own, people are looking for cocktails that are spirit forward and enhance the spirit instead of covering it up. This argument is a product of the times. In my mind adding more than just a splash of Sprite would hide the whiskey more than I like. But hell, Mr. Cowdery, drink what you like.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I agree with you, Todd. Last night, after several nights of drinking the Sprite version, I made one like this: About 1 tsp of simple syrup in a glass, add five or six dashes of bitters, stir. Add a generous pour of new Knob Creek Rye, stir. Add ice and a dash of lemon juice (no peel handy). It's a much richer and more whiskey-forward drink. Henceforth we will refer to the Sprite version as 'Wisconsin-style.'

Tim Dellinger said...

Is it really a problem that there's no legal definition of moonshine as a spirit type?

In the music industry, there's no legal definition of a blues band, and we seem to have found a way to proceed without one.

In the end, both are examples of an aesthetic experience, and they either make customers happy, or they don't. It's not like moonshine is a word imbued with notions of purity and high standards of quality that require legal protection against fly by night scoundrels.

M Lange said...

+1 ad on the Wisconsin thing. That was how I learned to make it, with Korbel brandy as the spirit. If one orders an "Old Fashioned" at a typical joint (i.e. not a "craft cocktail bar") that is what they will be served: Korbel, sprite, agnostura, on the rocks, with a cherry, maybe a slice of orange. Whiskey needs to be specified by the orderer.
The fist time I was served an Old Fashioned without any fizz in it I was shocked, though I will say that I now prefer the "classic" version. I'll have to try it with more than one or two dashes of bitters as you suggest.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Tim, I think you know the answer. What bands call themselves isn't regulated by the federal government. What distilled spirits products call themselves is. The TTB (i.e., the feds) doesn't recognize moonshine as a category, nor is there any consensus in the trade, nor among consumers, as to what constitutes 'legal moonshine.' Is this a problem? I wouldn't put it that way. What I object to is businesses that use and perpetuate marketplace confusion to sell their product. As an oxymoron, the term 'legal moonshine' is inherently misleading. As a general proposition, I'm opposed to businesses deliberately misleading the public. That's all.

Don M. said...

The labeling laws need to evolve with the times. As with any industry, startup distilleries have to innovate to compete. We have to differentiate ourselves from the already established brands somehow. Sometimes it means making a higher quality version of an established product. Often it means innovating new and unique products and methods, or bringing back traditional products and methods no longer available in a market dominated by industrialized manufacturing. There is nothing inherently wrong with either approach. In fact, I argue the diversity it brings is great for the market overall.

So if the small distilleries are doing cool things, why should they not be able to tell consumers about it on the label? Why should they have to dumb down their marketing and terminology to the point where they cannot distinguish themselves and their efforts are for naught?

For the record, I am all for label protection of names like "bourbon" et al, and believe that such terms have special meaning that should be protected. And I do find terminology like "legal moonshine" comical, since the defining characteristic of moonshine is its illegal production. But that should not mean the terminology established by the TTB today should not reasonably evolve. If today's terminology is inadequate for the innovation in the marketplace, evolve the terminology. Don't shake your fist in the air about "poseurs."

So how about a path forward, Chuck? You rightly point out that there is lack of consensus about what should, for instance, be called "moonshine"/"sugarjack." These waters are only going to get muddier as new distilleries continue to bring products to market that do not conveniently fit a TTB category.

In other industries in which I have worked, regulatory and standards-based evolution happens when industry thought leaders put forth an idea and start trying to build consensus around it. Reasonably found consensus can be presented to regulatory bodies for legal change or standards bodies for commercial change. Often this is done through industry associations...but unfortunately for the spirited beverage industry, nearly all of those associations are dominated by entities heavily invested in the status quo.

You've rightly pointed out where producers are being disingenuous on the labels. You have shown where producers have conformed their labeling to the detriment of accurate description of their product. So how about putting forth a suggestion about what would be right, and sparking the debate? After all, you are the thought leader on this forum; and a well known name in the industry. How about some thoughts about what changes would be right instead of complaints about what is wrong?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Don't dismiss the trade associations and don't assume the major producers aren't interested in regulatory reform. I agree that the associations are where that effort must take place. The historic trade groups (DISCUS, KDA) have been incredibly welcoming to the new, small producers and small producers also have their own, exclusive, group, the ADI. It's up to the producers, not me, to make reform happen.

Despite what some people think, the TTB doesn't prevent anyone from making anything they want to make, they just have some standards about what you can call it. Maybe some rules need to change, and maybe some people need to learn how to follow rules.

BFerguson said...

Chuck, absolutely nothing wrong with some whiskey, bitters and a splash of some lemon lime soda, that was practically my college staple drink.

As for Moonshine, for what some charge for a bottle, I certainly think they are making money off of it! I know their relative costs per volume must be higher, since they can't compete with the bigs guys on bulk purchasing power, but still, much of it does seem overpriced for what it is.

Thaddeus McCheese said...

Piedmont is intentionally pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting customers who think they are buying an example of moonshine, when what they are really buying is vodka in a jar. But whatever you do, don't go to the Midnight Moon Facebook page and point that out, or they'll delete your post and ban you from making any more. They're dirty stinking liars who should be prosecuted for false advertising and outright fraud.