Monday, November 30, 2015

The Chamber Still Is Reborn

Now that you know all about rectification, a mid-to-late 19th century phenomenon, let's go a little earlier in the century. As Chris Middleton pointed out in his comment, there were multiple transitional technologies along the way to the continuous still as we know it today in bourbon-making. Although the earliest form of still, the alembic, is still in wide use these transitional designs mostly died out as the modern continuous still emerged.

A conversation here about one of the most important transitional forms started a year and a half ago with a post about how Leopold Brothers Distillery in Colorado was trying to recreate the distinctive Maryland ryes of legend. One characteristic of these early ryes, made in and around Baltimore and also Philadelphia, was the chamber still.

We heard from David Wondrich, Chris Middleton, Todd Leopold, Thomas McKenzie, and others on the subject. We learned that chamber stills were made of copper but also sometimes wood. There is an explanation of how such a still works here. We were all over it that June.

Now we return to Leopold Brothers and Todd Leopold, who has -- along with the folks at Louisville's Vendome Copper and Brass -- designed and built a production scale chamber still. It is copper, not wood, stands about 20 feet high, and has four chambers.

Innovation like this, by the way, is what it means to be a craft distiller.

As in a column still, steam is introduced at the bottom and mash enters at the top. Gravity is used to move the mash through the system, but unlike in a column, steam and mash can 'work' in each chamber as long as the distiller wants.

The first chamber, the highest, is a pre-heater, which brings the mash nearly to boiling before it enters the first distillation chamber. Mash is held in the first chamber as steam bubbles through it. When that chamber has done all it can the mash is dropped into the next chamber, which is hotter because it is closer to the steam source. The third and final chamber is the hottest.

Because different alcohols and congeners boil at different temperatures, sending mash through three heat 'zones' effectively frees the alcohol, concentrates good congeners, and eliminates bad ones.

As each batch moves from chamber to chamber, another batch is on its heels. The process is continuous, but in a batch sort of way.

The chamber still is a particularly American solution because it allows distilling on the grain, which has always been practiced in America. In Scotland and Ireland, whiskey is distilled on a wash, from which all solids have been removed. This allows them to use large but relatively simple alembic stills.

Leopold became fixated on the chamber still because it figures so prominently in the early history of rye whiskey. It also solves a production dilemma for Leopold Brothers. They need more whiskey production than their pot and pot hybrid stills alone can deliver, but they don't want the huge output of a full-on column still. They already have one for making neutral spirits but for whiskey, "a column still is a volume instrument," says Leopold. "It doesn't make sense to buy one if you aren't going to run an awful lot of mash through it around the clock." A three-chamber still is a nice, happy medium.

"We have no interest in becoming a large distillery," he says. "That's not our path."

The difference between a continuous still and a chamber still is like the difference between an espresso machine and a French press coffee maker. In the former, steam is forced through the grounds in seconds. In the latter, grounds linger and steep in the hot water to taste. The results are both coffee, but very different.

For most continuous bourbon stills, mash is inside the still in contact with steam for about three minutes. In the three-chamber still it's more like an hour. Both technologies extract all of the alcohol from the mash, but the chamber still extracts more flavor.

It isn't just the unique still. At Leopold's request, a Colorado farmer has planted 100 acres of an heirloom rye strain that was used by distillers in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and also by bakers in the Carolinas. Its difference, compared to modern strains, is starch content. Modern cereals are bred for high starch content. Starch becomes alcohol, so more starch means more yield, but starch content increases at the expense of flavor.

Modern rye strains are about 70 percent starch but the one Leopold is using is about 64 percent. "It has a much richer, nutty and floral flavor," says Leopold.

You can see where this is going. Both the still and the grain variety are less efficient but produce a more flavorful spirit.

"We are trying to recreate the flavors of those original ryes simply because they are lost to time," says Leopold. "It would be a shame to let such a glorious tradition of American whiskey production that was all but wiped out by Prohibition stay wiped out."

From the still's thumper, the distillate goes into the barrel with no additional rectification. A lot of work has gone into this recreation but now comes the hardest part; waiting while it ages.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

It's Use It or Lose It Time for Turkey Leftovers

And that means it's time for the Hot Brown, a Kentucky favorite.

The Hot Brown is a turkey-based, open face sandwich specifically made for topping off a stomach full of bourbon. Chef Fred K. Schmidt created it at Louisville's Brown Hotel in 1926 as a breakfast dish to be served before the previous night's revelers finally went home, or upstairs, to bed.

Today it's usually served for lunch or brunch, sometimes for dinner. It's easily scalable and can be anything from a light snack to a hearty main course. It is on the menu at hundreds of Kentucky restaurants.

This is the original recipe, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal. There are many variations. Some people say the Hot Brown itself is based on Turkey Mornay, which is similar but uses gruy√®re cheese instead of the Hot Brown's cheddar and parmesan blend.

Hot Brown (4 servings)

4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices toast, with crusts cut off
Turkey breast slices
Crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
Mushroom slices, sauteed

Saute onion in butter until transparent; add flour and combine. Add milk, salt and pepper and whisk until smooth. Cook on medium heat until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Add cheese and continue heating until they blend. Remove from heat.

Put one slice of toast in each of four oven-proof individual serving dishes. Top each piece of toast with slices of turkey. Cut remaining toast slices diagonally and place on sides of sandwiches. Ladle cheese sauce over sandwiches. Place sandwiches under broiler until sauce begins to bubble. Garnish with crumbled bacon and sauteed mushroom slices and serve immediately.

There are many variations. Most places don’t crumble the bacon, and there are many substitutes for the mushrooms, including grilled tomato slices and asparagus spears. Some simply forgo vegetables altogether. Parsley can be added for color.

At buffet tables around Kentucky you may encounter the Hot Brown Casserole, whose creation the Brown Hotel also claims. That brings us close to Turkey Noodle Casserole, leftover turkey's last resort. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

You're welcome.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Let Me Rectify That for You

Historically, rectification was the process of redistilling whiskey to strip out some or all of the whiskey flavor elements. Taken all the way, redistillation transforms whiskey into grain neutral spirit, i.e., vodka (GNS). Historical rectifiers also used filtering, through charcoal or bone dust, and blending. They added coloring and flavoring, some of it dangerous.

The dictionary definition of ‘rectify’ is ‘to fix.’ Rectifiers chose that name and justified their practices as ‘fixing’ poorly made whiskey, to make it more palatable and marketable.

Today ‘rectification’ is synonymous with blending. A rectifier mixes a little straight whiskey (e.g., straight bourbon) with a much larger percentage of GNS, plus flavoring and coloring, to produce blended whiskey. By U.S. law, at least 20 percent of the blend must be 100° proof straight whiskey.

This is American blended whiskey we’re talking about. The rules for blended scotch whiskey and Canadian blended whiskey are different.

Rectifiers also make vodka, gin, and liqueurs. By definition, vodka is GNS and GNS is vodka, although most vodkas producers filter the GNS in some way before bottling. Rectifiers also receive their GNS at more than 190° proof (>95% ABV), so they add water to reduce it to 80° proof. Rectifiers make gin by mixing vodka with a gin flavoring concentrate. This is known as ‘compound gin.’

Making liqueurs requires a slightly more complicated blending process. In addition to combining GNS with a flavor concentrate, liqueurs (aka cordial, aperitif, schnapps, etc.) typically add a boatload of sugar. Most liqueurs have GNS as their base but a few use whiskey. Many of today’s so-called ‘flavored whiskeys’ are actually liqueurs. (Check the label.) As such, they may contain more GNS than whiskey.

Rectified whiskey was virtually unknown before 1831. It took the introduction of the continuous still (pictured) to make redistillation, especially to or near neutrality, practical. After its introduction its popularity grew steadily. Rectified whiskey was most popular in the decades just prior to Prohibition, when 75 to 90 percent of all spirit consumed in the U.S. was rectified whiskey.

The flavor of rectified whiskey was generally lighter and less harsh than straight whiskey and because little if any of the typical blend was actually aged whiskey, rectified whiskeys were much less expensive. Rectified whiskey was also more consistent from batch to batch than all but the finest straight whiskey.

From the beginning, the makers, sellers and consumers of straight whiskey considered the rectification process disreputable.

Most rectifiers were distributors who purchased whiskey from distillers for resale to taverns, restaurants and other retailers. Their suppliers were the hundreds of small country distilleries that dotted the landscape across Kentucky and other states.

In those days, the quality of whiskey ‘at the still’ varied widely, not just between distilleries, but also from run to run within a given distillery. The quality depended on the skill of the distiller and his workers, the weather, and many other factors, probably dumb luck most of all. Even after Dr. Crow introduced the sour mash process, consistency and quality remained problems.

Not surprisingly, the best runs were retained for personal use or sold to neighbors. The rest was sold to distributors. To even out the quality and make what little good, aged whiskey they did obtain go further, distributors became rectifiers. The worst whiskey was rectified into neutral spirits, then blended with good, aged whiskey (maybe) and flavorings like sugar and prune juice. Glycerine was added for body. Acid was added to give it a good ‘burn’ going down. Some of the recipes were unhealthy and dangerous.

Bourbon purists thought the rectifiers were barbarians, but the argument generally revolved around labeling, specifically what should and should not be called whiskey. Rectifiers could and did make all sorts of false claims for their products, including false age claims. Though the claims were untrue, they were not against the law as there were no 'truth in labeling' laws like we have today.

The dispute came to a head when it was proposed that whiskey labels be regulated by the Federal Government under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. At first, the Act was interpreted to require that rectified products could not use the word whiskey without a modifier such as ‘imitation,’ ‘compounded,’ or ‘blended.’ Rectifiers were to be barred from using the term ‘bourbon,’ making age claims, or duplicating the labels of famous brands such as Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad, all of which were common practices.

The rectifiers were understandably appalled by this interpretation and attacked the bourbon interests for selling dangerous, unwholesome ‘fusel oil whiskey.’ Lengthy and rancorous hearings were held in the U.S. Congress, where whiskey quality was by no means an abstract concept.

This so-called 'Whiskey War' raged until 1909, when President William Howard Taft issued the ‘Taft Decision.’ Henceforth, rectified goods would be called ‘blended whiskey’ and the traditional product would be called "straight whiskey," but both had an equal right to the name ‘whiskey.’ Later, even more precise definitions were written for ‘bourbon,’ ‘rye,’ and other types.

Blended whiskeys were popular after Prohibition and again right after World War II, in both cases because straight, fully aged whiskey was in short supply. When more straight whiskey became available, the ratio shifted in straight whiskey’s favor. Blends are still sold today, of course. Seagram’s Seven Crown is the best-selling brand. Most blends are very inexpensive, found on the bottom shelf in 1.75 L plastic bottles. Blends have not benefited from the current whiskey boom.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Remembering Buffalo Springs Distillery

Stamping Ground is a small town in Kentucky's Scott County. It was so named by its first settlers, who observed herds of bison trampling the grasses around a fruitful spring. Not long after the buffalo departed, the spring was turned to the production of whiskey. There was a distillery on the site for about 100 years.

The one known as Buffalo Springs Distillery was constructed early in the 20th century. It produced several bourbon brands including Boots and Saddle. It came back and was substantially rebuilt after Prohibition. Otis Beam, one of the seven master distiller sons of Joseph L. Beam, was the distiller. Eventually purchased by Seagram, it ceased production for good in the 1960s and stood vacant for many years thereafter.

Buffalo Springs was typical of the many small town distilleries that once abounded in the region. It generally operated from late fall until early spring, employing local farmers for the period between harvest and planting. As one of the few sources of non-farm employment, it dominated the local economy and was a powerful part of the town’s consciousness.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

All Hail the Tuffy's Toasted Roll

From time to time I like to write about local and regional food specialties. I was born and raised in Ohio and attended Miami University there from 1969 to 1973. Ohio has many favorite foods, some statewide, some very local. This is a very local one.

Tuffy's was a little basement sandwich shop and hangout. It was a private business but virtually on campus. I don't remember what the classes were, but I remember having two classes with a one-period break between them. I usually spent that period at Tuffy's with friends.

Tuffy's was on the northwest corner of Bishop and High. You know the type of place, a few steps down in a basement. A counter at one end with a flat top behind it, wooden tables and plain wooden booths. Very austere, no decor to speak of. The sort of place only a college student could love. I guess they sold sandwiches but mostly they sold toasted rolls and coffee. At least that is mostly what they sold to me.

So what is a toasted roll? Imagine a large cinnamon roll, like 4" x 6". Cut it lengthwise. Slather the two cut sides with butter and throw them on the flat top until they brown. Remove from heat, dust the two grilled sides with powdered sugar, close it up, and dust the top with powdered sugar. Eat with a fork.

You could also get ice cream sandwiched between the two grilled sides, which was a 'toasted roll a la mode,' or in the sublime wit of college students, a 'roasted mole on the commode.'

The student union also served toasted rolls in deference to Tuffy's. It still does.

I must always have sat in the same booth, at least that's what is indelibly etched in my memory, a view of the whole place from a very specific seat, the counter and griddle in front of me, the entrance to my left.

I have one permanent memory of Tuffy's, a scar on my right hand from where I brushed it against the brick wall one day on my way out. It has faded with time but it's not gone entirely.

UPDATE: (10/19/23) I have been informed that the student union recently dropped the toasted roll from its menu.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is a Bourbon Tour Appropriate for Children?

Most people have no desire to see where their toaster was made, or their clothing, or where their food was grown. Yet tours of breweries, wineries, and distilleries are popular all over the world. In addition to seeing whiskey being made, visitors to Kentucky's bourbon country can see whiskey barrels being made, and whiskey candy, whiskey soy sauce, even whiskey cigars. They can stay in a self-described whiskey-themed hotel. They can eat food with whiskey in it. They can buy tons of souvenirs emblazoned with whiskey brand names.

More and more people visit Kentucky every year to see a distillery or other whiskey attraction. Tennessee too. Jack Daniel's alone receives 250,000 visitors annually.

Many bring their children.

Children may not participate in tastings, of course, but they are welcome on all of the tours. Here is how the Kentucky Bourbon Trail addresses it on their 'frequently asked questions' page:

Are people under 21 allowed to take tours?

All distilleries require you to be at least 21 to sample their products if they offer tastings, but anyone is welcome to tour the distilleries. You must be 21 to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Passport Program. 

If you visit the distilleries, you will see many families with children. You will see children of all ages, from babies in strollers to teenagers.

All of the content on these tours is about how whiskey is made, about the families who make it, and about the history. There is very little about drinking it.

Whiskey, however, is an adult product. We try to keep it away from kids, both as parents and as a society. It takes a village, you know. Some people believe advertising for alcohol should be banned because it makes children want to drink. If that's true, then what will visiting a distillery do to them?

The many people who would never dream of visiting a distillery themselves probably don't think children should be allowed, but if you think like that why are you even reading this? You're in a very whiskey-friendly space right now, in case you haven't noticed.

Planning a family vacation is hard. It can be a challenge to find something that appeals to everyone. Maybe that's why so many families default to Disney. The distilleries allow parents to bring their children along on tours, but they don't say whether or not they think it is a good idea. That decision is left up to the judgment of the parents. That's where it belongs.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Real Bourbon County

It is often pointed out that no bourbon whiskey is made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. That is true today, but it was not always the case.

Bourbon County was established in 1786, while Kentucky was still part of Virginia. It covered a vast portion of what today is northeastern Kentucky. Virtually everything north and east of Lexington was Bourbon County. It was during that period and shortly thereafter that corn-based whiskey made in the region came to be called ‘Bourbon County whiskey’ and, ultimately, just ‘bourbon.’

The much smaller, modern Bourbon County, a sliver of the original, is adjacent to Lexington’s Fayette County. The county seat of modern Bourbon County is Paris. (It was originally named Hopewell.) When all of these places were named we loved the French for helping us wrap up the Revolution. They, by the way, had not yet had their revolution, so the French folk we liked were the aristocrats and royal family who then ran the place. The surname of France’s royal family at
the time was Bourbon.

There were at least twelve distilleries in Bourbon County during the second half of the 19th century. Only a few made it into the 20th and none came back after Prohibition.

Some of the bourbon brands that originated in Bourbon County are Peacock, Sam Clay, Paris Club, Old Cabin, Kentucky Belle, Daniel Boone, Old Pugh and Old Barton.

The Shawhan family had a long distilling history in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. They established their first Kentucky distillery in Bourbon County in 1788. The family and distillery are long gone but the name remains on a little town alongside the railroad tracks close to the Harrison County border.

The Bourbon County distillery that seems to have lasted longest was just outside Paris and known as the Paris Distillery (RD #77). Established in 1860 it had many owners, eventually selling out to the Whiskey Trust which gave it the Julius Kessler name. That name lives on as a brand of American blended whiskey.

The Paris Distillery closed for good in 1913. Today Bourbon County is home to about 20,000 souls, most of them in or around Paris. One of the oldest remaining buildings, from 1788, is the Duncan Tavern. Unfortunately no longer a tavern, it houses the state headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Downtown Paris is quaint and has many well-kept 19th century buildings. Like most of the area around Lexington, the big attraction is horse farms, of which there are about 100 in Bourbon County. Horse breeding is the county’s biggest industry. Kentucky’s horse farms primarily raise thoroughbreds for racing.

Antique shops are another popular attraction.

You may have read that Bourbon County is dry, as are about half of Kentucky's 120 counties. It is not and never has been. Soon it may no longer be true that bourbon isn't made there. A micro-distillery, Hartfield & Co., recently opened in Paris.