Thursday, April 30, 2020

Some Disturbing News in the Rush to Produce Sanitizer Products

ERC Midwest delivering 110 gallons of Koval's hand sanitizer to Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago.
One of the upbeat, people-helping-people stories of the coronavirus crisis is the many distilleries, large and small, that have been making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products, typically donating them to first responders and other needy groups. Koval, a Chicago craft distillery in my neighborhood, is one of them.

Koval makes whiskey but it also makes neutral spirits, i.e., vodka, so they are using their own distillate to make sanitizer. This most recent batch was distilled from 15,000 gallons of beer donated by local craft breweries such as Metropolitan and Begyle. Most craft distilleries aren't equipped to distill out at a high enough proof so they are making sanitizer from ethanol they have acquired from industrial ethanol producers. I wrote about this here a couple weeks ago.

Some problems are emerging. On April 15, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued limits on certain chemicals permitted in alcohol-based sanitizer, updating a temporary guidance it adopted last month as the health crisis deepened and more manufacturers registered to produce sanitizing products. The FDA has notified several ethanol companies that their product does not meet safety standards, forcing them to halt production and cancel supply agreements. In one case, the FDA said it found significant levels of the carcinogen acetaldehyde in ethanol supplied by a company for use in hand sanitizer.

The problem appears to be with producers who have switched from making ethanol for fuel, which is going begging, to making it for sanitizer. It may not be food grade, which is what distilleries typically buy. As FDA says in its guidance, "because of the potential for the presence of potentially harmful impurities due to the processing approach, fuel or technical grade ethanol should only be used if it meets USP or FCC grade requirements and the ethanol has been screened for any other potentially harmful impurities not specified in the USP or FCC requirements."

As the producer, it is up to you to do the due diligence. Don't trust the manufacturer's word. A midwestern craft distiller I know (not Koval) told me this:

"We get a dozen calls/emails a day from ethanol plants and dealers trying to sell us tankers at a great price. Not a single one has provided a COA (Certificate of Analysis) or SDS (Safety Data Sheet) that shows their levels of methanol and acetaldehyde are within the allowable amounts. Stop falling for it, folks. Follow the guidelines from the FDA and use beverage grade and USP-certified stuff before you hurt someone or give us all a bad name."

The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) both have great resources available on this topic, and both recommend getting independent certification before you use. If you can’t certify, don’t use.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Grandma Schwartz's Kuchen Recipe

A strawberry kuchen, made today by my cousin John.
Lots of people are baking during the quarantine. Sourdough bread is popular. Here is something a bit different: fruit kuchen.

"Kuchen" is simply the German word for "cake," but it usually refers to a coffee cake. In my family, kuchen was the specialty of my great grandma Schwartz.

About Grandma Schwartz:

Celia Chrysenthia (Kinkelaar) Schwartz was my maternal great-grandmother, born in 1883 in Cleveland. I grew up with her and was well into adulthood when she passed at 101 in 1984. (We drank Wild Turkey 101 in her honor at the wake.)

She was, as you can imagine, a tough old bird. She was a big fan of the Cleveland Indians and was older than the franchise. She preferred to listen to games on the radio rather than watch them on television, only in part because of her failing eyesight. She just liked it better. Being frugal, she would often listen in the dark, sitting very close to the radio because her hearing wasn't that great either. When we went to visit her, we often had to peer through the windows to see if she was home because she couldn't hear the doorbell. I would look for the little red light on the radio.

In 1967 she was 84 and the last member of the family still living in Cleveland. Her closest living relation was her eldest daughter, Edna, my grandmother. She and her rather large family, which included me, lived in Mansfield, which is about 60 miles south of Cleveland. That year, we moved Grandma Schwartz from Cleveland to Mansfield. Literally, about 20 of us (including we kids who were old enough) drove up there, loaded a truck and several cars, and brought her and her belongings down to Mansfield.

There she had her own apartment close enough to church for her to walk there, which she did daily for mass. She also volunteered in the school cafeteria. Her family all chipped in to pay her rent and other expenses. In return, she baked.

She insisted on doing it, and one did not argue with Grandma Schwartz.

For years, she kept each family well supplied with her kuchen and occasionally cookies. Some of the kuchen was conventional cinnamon coffee cake, but she also made fruit kuchen, which was baked in a pie pan and custard-like. It was unique. I never had anything quite like it before or since. Her other specialty was hot German potato salad.

About this recipe:

This is not grandma's recipe. It was inspired by my memory of her kuchens. It is based on a recipe for plum clafouti. I tried it because I had some plums to use and was surprised by how much it resembled Grandma’s fruit kuchen. Just about any baking fruit will work. Grandma usually used apples and occasionally cherries. She used pitted cherries but doing some research I learned that there is a cherry clafouti tradition in France that leaves the pits in, which I prefer. You just have to eat carefully. Apples should be peeled and sliced thin. Plums cut into quarters or eighths, depending on size. Likewise strawberries.

We always had it for breakfast but it is also suitable for dessert. You can dust the finished kuchen with powdered sugar if you’d like, but Grandma Schwartz did not.


Fruit (e.g., applies, cherries, plums, blueberries, etc.), enough for one layer
5 tbsp sugar
4 eggs
½ cup milk
Pinch salt
Pinch cinnamon
¼ tsp vanilla
½ cup flour


Pre-heat the oven to 375°. Grease a pie pan and sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar on the bottom. Add the fruit, spreading evenly. Sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar on the fruit. In a bowl, combine the remaining sugar, eggs, milk, salt, cinnamon, vanilla, and flour. Beat well and pour into the pan. The batter should not quite cover the fruit. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Infinity Bottles, from Order to Anarchy

The so called "infinity bottle" started out as a way to consolidate the last little bit of multiple open bottles into a single container, to reduce the number of open bottles in your collection. The idea was that you would then put that bottle into your rotation, drink from it from time to time, and add to it whenever you again had a bottle with just a little bit left. That's how it started, but what has it become?

In his January 2017 "Punch" article, Aaron Goldfarb called the infinity bottle "a phenomenon among whiskey nerds." He traced its formal origins to a Ralfy Mitchell video from 2012, although Mitchell used the term 'solera bottle,' a reference to the way sherry is produced. Already the dichotomy was set. A solera is a very deliberate system, a form of fractional blending that results in a product made up of liquids that have spent different amounts of time in wood. An infinity bottle may be made that way, or it may be a random thing, essentially a housekeeping exercise, a product created entirely by chance.

People can do whatever they want, of course, but if you want to call it an infinity bottle, it probably should have something infinite about it. it's not an infinity bottle unless you are constantly drinking from and adding to it. Which means it's constantly changing.

Then the question becomes, do you try to control those changes, or just let them happen? For some people, order simply comes in the form of logging the additions, so you know what the bottle contains. This can be especially useful if the bottle seems to go south on you suddenly, you'll want to know what was the last thing you added.

Some people religiously add the last few ounces of every bottle they finish. Still others contribute the first few ounces of every bottle they open. Others just let it happen and don't fuss about it too much.

As with Ralfy's solera bottle, you can also try your hand at blending, using the same techniques professional blenders use. That's a house blend, not an infinity bottle, but people are going to use terms they like to describe the things they want to do, and 'infinity bottle' seems to be a popular term right now even if it is being used to describe projects that vary widely.

Do I have an infinity bottle? Sort of. My travel flask is a kind of infinity bottle. If I don't finish it on a trip, the next time I go somewhere I top it off with something I have open. It is what it is. For the most part, if everything you put in is something you like, then the mixture probably will be likable too. I haven't been disappointed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Why Are We So Dumb About Alcohol and Sex?

It's hard to say exactly when the bourbon boom began, but the year 2000 is as good a marker as any. The revival that began in Japan and other overseas markets had reached America and the sales needle, moribund for more than two decades, began to move in a solidly positive direction.

With the growth in bourbon sales came a growth in interest in the subject itself. People wanted to learn more about bourbon. I published my first book, Bourbon, Straight, in 2004. A few people, like Gary Regan, preceded me. A whole bunch of people followed. Although there are a few clunkers, most of the books are pretty good. Publications such as Whisky Advocate, Whisky Magazine, Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Imbibe, and others, also provide generally reliable information. Suffice it to say that today anyone seeking bourbon knowledge does not want for resources.

Yet misinformation persists. You don't need to spend much time on any bourbon-centric social media site to see it on display. People ask basic questions they could easily answer with a Google search. Instead they ask their community, which responds with cascades of wrongness. It's not every time or everywhere, but there is an awful lot of it. And this is among people who identify as bourbon enthusiasts.

It is so widespread I often think I have accomplished nothing in my 30 years of writing and speaking about this subject. Why has so little of it sunk in? I have concluded that some of it is inherent in the subject matter, as I wrote in the introduction to Bourbon, Straight. (Which is still available, by the way, either here or from Amazon.)

"Like sex, alcohol is one of those subjects where much of what people think they know is wrong. The similarities do not end there. Both subjects are laden with taboos, not least of which is their unsuitability for children. Perhaps that is the reason for such wide-spread ignorance about both. We don’t learn much about them as children and as adults, we don’t learn anything very well.

"What we do learn about both subjects growing up often is contradictory. Our parents and teachers tell us one thing, our peers tell us something else. Sex education, fortunately, has improved a lot in recent decades. Alcohol education not so much."

Now I would sum it up more succinctly. Sex and alcohol are subjects we mostly learn about informally, on the street, not in school. And most of what we think we know about both subjects is wrong.

So the fact that so many people believe so many wrong things about American whiskey, and alcoholic beverages in general, used to frustrate me. Then I realized that there continue to be people who seek the knowledge, who will buy the books, who want to learn, and I can contribute to that. If the overall state of knowledge continues to be poor, we're doing all we can. Focus on the people who seek the knowledge, not those who don't. (hint, hint.)

I can also say, with confidence, that the more you know, the more fun it is, with alcohol and sex.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

What Does 'Making' Mean When It Comes to Sanitizer?

Sanitizer product made at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
All across America, distilleries large and small are making hand sanitizer and other sanitizing products that use alcohol to kill germs. But as with the beverages these companies normally produce, 'make' doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does.

There is nothing underhanded here. What the liquor companies are doing is commendable. Most are giving away their sanitizer products to medical institutions and first responders, such as police and fire/EMS. Many are supporting the Covid-19 fight in other ways too. Brown-Forman, for example, has repurposed the kitchens of its corporate cafeteria to make meals they're donating. Most companies also are participating in efforts to assist hospitality industry workers sidelined by the pandemic.

To be effective at killing germs, sanitizer products have to be at least 60% alcohol, or what in the beverage world would be 120° proof. Some are higher. The Beam product shown above is 80%.

This means these products start with grain neutral spirit (GNS), the nearest thing you can get to 'pure' ethanol at 95% alcohol by volume (ABV). That's 190° proof. If you ever made 'jungle juice' in college, you probably started with Everclear or another equivalent 190° proof brand. That's what we're talking about here. By contrast, vodka is a neutral spirit but typically is 80° proof, which is 40% ABV. That won't kill anything except, perhaps, brain cells.

Virtually all of the big liquor companies, and many of the small ones, sell vodka, gin, blended whiskey, and other products that start with a neutral spirit base. Very few actually make, as in distill from scratch, the neutral spirit they use. They buy it in tanker quantities from companies that specialize in that, then they filter, dilute and bottle it. In addition to vodka and gin, most liqueurs have a GNS base. Your typical American blended whiskey is 80% GNS and just 20% whiskey. The big liquor companies buy and use a lot of GNS.

You might think the big guys would be more likely to make their own GNS than the small guys, but it's just the opposite. Hardly any of the big guys do. Some of the little guys do, some don't. Some who say they distill actually just redistill GNS they buy. They do this more for marketing purposes than anything else.

Even a company as big as Beam Suntory doesn't distill its own neutral spirit. It's just not practical. So when they 'make' sanitizer, they're using neutral spirit they bought from someone else. They mix in the other ingredients, which they also don't make, and bottle it. In a way, that makes what they're doing even more commendable, since all the ingredients are an out-of-pocket expense.

Why don't they make it themselves? After all, they have stills and all the other necessary equipment, such as grain mills, mash cookers and fermenters, but American whiskey stills typically produce a spirit that is no more than 80% ABV. They can be modified to produce neutral spirit, but it's not as simple as flicking a switch. Basically, you can't make neutral spirit in a whiskey still.

A few of the big distilleries have the necessary equipment to make neutral spirit from scratch. One of them is Sazerac, which has made vodka at Buffalo Trace using a repurposed light whiskey still. Light whiskey is just a point or two below neutrality, so that's an easy modification. Barton 1792 also has a light whiskey still but I don't know if they have fired it up since they stopped making light whiskey a few years back.

Sazerac won't say if they're distilling the neutral spirit they're using for sanitizer, or using neutral spirit they would normally use for their vodka, etc. It doesn't matter, but it's curious that they won't say.

Grain whiskey distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, as well as all Canadian whiskey distilleries, make a nearly-neutral spirit so they may be using house-made spirit for sanitizer, but most U.S. distilleries are not.

So who does make GNS? There is one big company that makes both GNS and whiskey. That's MGP. They make some GNS at their distillery in Indiana, where they also make whiskey. They make most of it at their facilities in Kansas. Some of the other big GNS makers are ADM (Peoria, Illinois) and GPC (Muscatine, Iowa). Most GNS is made from corn so the big GNS distilleries are where the corn is. The same companies make ethanol for fuel and other non-beverage uses. It's all the same stuff.

So why am I telling you this? Because it struck me as interesting, that's all. It's hard to know what to write about in these crazy times.