Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Visit to Twin Valley Distillers

I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has some screwy laws about the sale of alcoholic beverages. How screwy? I once met someone from Tennessee who marveled at how screwy Montgomery County, Maryland, is.

So Montgomery would have been the last county in Maryland I'd expect to have a distillery. And yet, we have one, as of a few months ago. Here's proof:

711 East Gude Drive. Makes you thirsty just looking at it, doesn't it?
Wait, no, that's what you see from the street. But if you trust the little signs with arrows and make your way to the back of the building, you see this, the home of Twin Valley Distillers:

You were expecting a shuttle to the visitor's centre?
The name is a bit fanciful. There's only one distiller, Edgardo Zuniga, who is also the founder, warehouse manager, truck driver, bottle washer, salesman, tour guide, and tasting room operator. "Twin Valley" is the name of the street he lives on, a few miles from the distillery. That's keeping it local.

Edgardo greeted me at the door (he knew from Twitter I'd be stopping by that afternoon), and launched straight into a tour, starting with the 100 gallon still that was pouring out the heads of a run of bourbon.

Next time I'll come when the temp is 195 F.
He apologized that he didn't have both stills going, and showed me the pipes and connectors he'd had made to join the twin stills and collect the distillates at the same time. I nosed some of the heads (coming off at around 185 F at the moment), and it smelled like some whiskeys I've bought.

Across the room, rum was fermenting next to sacks of corn, barley, rye, and wheat. Edgardo is having trouble sourcing local rye, so he may try a wheated bourbon next. (He is trying to source as much as he can, from grain to bottles, within 50 miles. Not a lot of sugar cane is grown in these parts, so the molasses comes from Florida.)

Bubbling away.

The bottling line consists of a machine for filling a single bottle, which in a one-man operation seems to be enough, though if he ever has a bottling party as some small distilleries do it would get pretty crowded on the line. Edgardo said he can produce 360 bottles of vodka, from milled wheat to boxed product, in a week.

Next we toured the bonded storeroom, with about a dozen five gallon barrels being warmed by a space heater. It's about half rum, half bourbon now. He also has some stainless steel tanks with rum and bourbon waiting for empty barrels; they've got oak coils in them to get the aging process started. Gotta start somewhere.
Room to grow.
Then we made our way to the tasting room, where Edgardo not only poured me one of everything, but let me try two batches each of the unaged corn whiskey and the bourbon. The corn whiskey showed a marked improvement with Batch 2, which is no surprise since he knew twice as much when he distilled it. The first bourbon he bottled was aged less than 30 days (that's what small barrels and oak coils can do for you); it was too young, but people were begging him for some bourbon in time for Christmas. He now has some 4 month old bourbon which is more to his liking; it's more to my liking, too, though I see it even more as a promise of things to come.

The proud pappa.
A few quick notes on the Twin Valley line:

  • white rum: sweet on the nose, dry on the palate
  • aged rum: less sweet on the nose, sweeter on the palate
  • wheat whiskey: nice, warming grain flavor (so sue me, Mr. Without-Distinctive-Character)
  • corn whiskey: both white and aged are fairly neutral until a strong corn finish; both a bit sulphury. White Batch 2 noticeably improved over Batch 1. (Didn't taste the aged Batch 2.)
  • bourbon: Batch 1 < 30 days (rushed for Christmas), tastes like too-young whiskey. Batch 2 is about 4 months, tastes like young whiskey. Neither is overly bourbony (i.e., sweet or loaded with vanillins).
Overall, it's a respectable line for a seven month old, one-man distillery. Particularly when that one man was a chef running a restaurant several years back, who got into distilling by way of playing with rum infusions in his kitchen at home.

That makes a good backstory. The sidestory is pretty good too. This is an intentionally local operation, named after a local street (while also evoking something more rural than an industrial park). The vodka is called Norbeck, after a major Rockville road Edgardo takes every day to and from work, and the rum, Seneca Bay, is named after a part of a lake in a local park. The bottles come from Baltimore, the grains are grown by local farmers.

The county government has responded to this very favorably, much to the surprise of a lot of us who buy beer, wine, and spirits here (beer & wine sales licenses are very limited, and all spirits are sold through county-owned stores). Edgardo says they've supported him all along, and they're proud to have a distillery here. The next big question is whether he can get a distributor's license, which would allow him to sell at wholesale directly to restaurants (rather than them having to special order by the case through the county's liquor stores).

Still, backstories and sidestories will only get you so far in business. To have a good futurestory you have to have good sales. People will buy local, but a bottle of liquor can last a long time if you don't reach for it often.

I'm hopeful that Twin Valley will have a good futurestory, for several reasons. I think Edgardo is already making the vodka that he should be making. His not-too-sweet rum may also be a recipe for success, and it will only improve as time and capital allow him to age it better (i.e., longer and in larger barrels). For me, his bourbon is still a work in progress, particularly in how it's aged. But I think the chef in him will keep him going until he gets the recipe, including the barreling, just the way he wants it.

In addition to a steady and improving baseline, he's got plans to grow. Physically, the unprepossessing building housing Twin Valley Distillers has room on either side for, say, a larger bonded warehouse and a larger tasting room. In terms of products, in 2015 he's planning on working on a rye whiskey (if he can line up the local grains) and an infused gin (infused because apparently juniper really gets into your still). A gin should sell well, if the women in my family are any guide.

Edgardo also mentioned that he has some fruit brandy labels -- apple and pear, I think -- ready to go, in case he can get some fruit in. And that excites me, even more than the prospect of a Maryland rye whiskey distilled ten miles from my house, because at one point while we were chatting in the tasting room, he produced a small bottle of brandy made from figs he'd grown in his back yard. Wow, that was good stuff.

Drinking local in 2015.
In the event, I came home with a bottle of the Norbeck vodka and the Seneca Bay aged rum. I'll probably write up some tasting notes on them in the next couple of weeks, on the off chance that would be of any use to anybody. And I will certainly be returning to Twin Valley, to keep an eye on things and to restock as needed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Whiskey Cocktails, by Warren Bobrow

I enjoy drinking whiskey, and I enjoy making cocktails, so when I heard Warren Bobrow (@WarrenBobrow1) had written a book called Whiskey Cocktails, I figured I would enjoy reading it.

I ordered the Kindle version, which I almost immediately regretted, because now, instead of another book for my cocktail book shelf, I have this:
Sorry, no, you can't borrow it.

This of course provides all the information, but isn't really a thing. E-books make financial and organizational sense, which are pretty much the exact senses whiskey as a hobby doesn't make. The enjoyment of whiskey and cocktails arises from the interplay between the intellect and the physical senses, which -- for me, at least -- extends to the physical senses of touch and sight while paging through a book of cocktail recipes.

But enough about my age.

The subtitle of Whiskey Cocktails is "Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World's Most Popular Spirit." The book has eight chapters:
Copy-and-paste table of contents.
Chapter 1 is an introduction to whiskey. Like all introductions to whiskey, it suffers from a subject that's too complex to summarize accurately. Once you get past the tautologies (e.g., Scotch whiksy is made in Scotland) and legalities (bourbon has at least 51% corn in the mashbill), you're left with generalities that almost always have exceptions. Still, it's interesting to see how different writers tackle this obligatory material; Bobrow, for example, says a lot more about French whisky than Canadian whisky, and shifts into hardcore bartender on the subject of ice ("You can also up your ice's wow factor by polishing it with a wet rag that's been soaked in hot water." Dammit, I didn't even know ice had a wow factor, and now I've got to try polishing it.).

Chapters 2 through 7 are the cocktail recipes, sorted by whiskey type:
  • Chapter 2: Tennessee Sipping Whiskey
  • Chapter 3: Craft Whiskey Made from Alternative Grains
  • Chapter 4: White Whiskey
  • Chapter 5: Rye Whiskey
  • Chapter 6: Scotch Whisky
  • Chapter 7: Whiskeys Around the Globe
The final chapter, "Cooking with Whiskey," has recipes for, you know, cooking with whiskey.

We're only up to the table of contents, and there are already surprises. The elephant that's not in the room is bourbon; it's heavily featured in the food recipes, but not in any cocktails. (I checked with the author, who said there wasn't room in the final edit for bourbon cocktails, but he's got recipes planned for future books.) There are several Irish whiskey cocktails in the "Whiskeys Around the Globe" chapter, but Canadian whisky is only mentioned once, in Chapter 1.

On the flip side, entire chapters devoted to white whiskey and alternative grains (including quinoa, wheat, oat, spelt, hopped, millet, and "smoked American whiskey") signals that this isn't just a collection of old standards (though there are a couple of those too).

Even beyond the fanciful cocktail names -- Old Ships of Battle, Professor Meiklejohn's Pinky, Leaves Straining Against Wind (could you guess this one calls for Japanese whisky?) -- the recipes themselves reflect Bobrow's training as a chef. They call for grilled pineapple, Mexican mole bitters, gelato, honey, coconut milk, quince puree ("or store-bought quince paste"). Not all for the same drink, thankfully, but he certainly doesn't limit himself to what's behind the typical bar.

Who is this book for? Professionals, certainly, looking to expand their repertoire or keep an eye on the state of the art. Amateur enthusiasts too, the sort who would say, "I do believe I'll buy [or make!] some curry bitters today." It may be a bit much for the casual drinker who's just looking for a way to kick their Manhattan up a notch or for a new bottle of something to set out for their next party.

Me, I'm somewhere between the casual drinker and the amateur enthusiast, leaning toward the latter. I just might buy some mole bitters, but I don't see me springing for the full Koval line needed to complete Chapter 3 as written.

Still, I have the idea of trying to work through all the whiskey cocktails in Whiskey Cocktails. I don't expect to follow everything to the letter (I'd probably buy a quinoa whiskey before a French whisky), but I'll stick as close to the recipe as reasonable. If nothing else, it will give me something to blog about in 2015.

(I'll probably try a few recipes from Chapter 8 too, because who doesn't like bourbon glaze, but I don't plan to try to try all of them. I might polish an ice cube to see what that's like, but I'm just not a suckling pig cooker.)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I'll have what I'm having

I'm not sure how I feel about the article, "3 Ways to Make Your Bourbon Bartender Love You," on

Well, no, I am sure how I feel about it. "Shut up and pour them what they ordered" about sums it up. What I'm not sure is whether I should feel that way about it.

The three ways, according to Demitrius the Bartender, are:
  1. Don't ask your bartender to destroy a good bourbon.
  2. Don't be afraid to try something new.
  3. Take your time and savor the flavor.
As it happens, I'd offer all three recommendations myself, though I'd phrase #1 more along the lines of, "Don't waste your money on cocktails that would taste just as good with a bourbon half the price."

I suppose what I really object to isn't the advice, but the perspective from which it's offered. Do you really decide what to order and how to drink it so your bartender will love you? Should you? Demitrius writes:
I’m one to keep the bourbon snobbery to a minimum, but I have love for the art and craft of fine whiskey consumption.
Is love for consuming fine whiskey best passed on by declaring that anyone who doesn't drink bourbon the way their bartender wants them to is doing it wrong (ordering the wrong cocktail is "sacrilegious," ordering your old standby is a "faux pax," taking a shot "defeats the purpose of drinking bourbon")? That anyone drinking bourbon wrong will be judged and found wanting by their bartender?

I mean, of course they're doing it wrong, and of course the bartender will judge them for it. But don't tell them! That will just scare them away from bourbon altogether, and their bourbon bartender will become their flavored vodka bartender.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Barrel Experiment #2: Corn Whiskey

Having used a couple of bottles of what was probably some nice malt spirit to soak a lot of nasty ashtray flavors out of my 2 liter barrel, I decided to keep things moving along with some corn whiskey (or, as we call it in my family, "liquid bachelor party"). (Well, I call it "liquid bachelor party." The rest of the family doesn't talk about it at all, and my sister-in-law still gives me dirty looks.)

In any case, three jars of Georgia Moon corn whiskey ("Less than 30 days old") would fill the barrel with half a jar left over for a before-and-after tasting.

I gave it about four months, and it came out looking something like whiskey.

I went through the motions, but this was one tasting that really needed a blindfold to be completely objective.

A blind tasting.
Tasting notes:

A. Not much on the nose; hint of oak. Palate: oak & char, a little sweet. After some minutes, a hint of the wet cardboard. Not much finish, some light charred oak.

B. Nose: damp cardboard, spoiled corn. Palate has a little hint of sweetness, but mostly nothing; fairly smooth drinking, with no real finish. After some air, it became too foul to finish.

Cheese stick didn't help, didn't hurt.

Sample A was the corn whiskey aged in the barrel (can it still be labeled "corn whiskey" if aged in a charred refill?), Sample B was the corn whiskey aged in the half empty jar.

Don't age corn whiskey in a half empty jar.

(For the record, Georgia Moon straight out of a newly opened jar is a little sweet, plenty smooth, and easy if uninteresting to drink.)

Epilogue: The tasting happened in June 2014. I just re-tried a little of the barrel-aged stuff in December 2014, and it's still okay (maybe less char) if you drink it down and don't think too much about it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The unhappy valley

Time was when I could count on a small but steady stream of whiskey bottles with my name on them at Christmas and my birthday. The fanciest looking bottle at the price point I was worth was a simple and reliable choice.

Then something happened. Maybe I nattered on too much, reminded someone once too often that "sour mash" doesn't actually taste sour, got too detailed answering the pleasantry, "So what are you drinking these days?"

In any case, the word went round, "Don't buy him whiskey. His tastes are too refined and obscure for us to fumble toward in a liquor store, and no doubt he already buys everything he wants anyway."
My one whiskey related present this Christmas was a mixing pitcher. It was just what I wanted, but a little whiskey to mix in it would have been well received too.

I find myself now in an unhappy valley of being too well known as a whiskey drinker to get much in the way of whiskey as gifts.

At least, I hope it's a valley, and not a plain running flat to the horizon. I hope at some point people will realize simple and reliable is plenty good enough for me.
The Unhappy Valley.

I was thinking some sort of whiskey gift registry might help re-plant the seed, and even steer gift dollars in a more optimal direction. (Which isn't to say I don't love the free glassware that comes in gift packaging this time of year. I just don't have any room for it. (I don't have any room for another whiskey bottle, either, but I'll work something out.))

A whiskey gift registry might not work too well in practice, though. For one thing, the list of what I don't want is a lot shorter than the list of what I do want. Price varies widely, availability varies wildly, and there aren't too many ways for a gift bottle to reach my house that are, in the strict sense of the word, legal.

So I suppose it's up to me to leave subtle clues, like a blog post, for my family to pick up on. And if it works, I just might celebrate with a toast of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye... if, you know, I happened to have some to toast with.