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Wednesday
Feb052014

Rum Super Geekdom

Talking to Bryan Davis about spirits can sometimes be like an episode of NOVA or The Big Bang Theory. Not only is he incredibly passionate about his craft, he's also eager to share everything he knows about making spirits. To give you an example, look at this response to an email I wrote him earlier this week, asking about the production specs of his new Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum.

Hey David,

Everyone wants to talk about age, but in truth the barrel should only represent the final step that catalyzes a chain of chemical reactions and brings all the work together from each step of the spirit production process. 

To understand how I approach spirits is as follows.

Success =

Hgh density of long chained esters. + Benzaldehyde (a chemical that does not come out of the oak in quantity for a very long time under normal cellaring conditions). 

Failure =

- High density of free acids (hot spirits, that need to age longer to convert the acids to esters)

- Low density of acids or esters (light and boring spirits)

- High density of short-chained esters (smooth but only half finished with heavy solvent / paint thinner notes).

The beauty of making spirits is that each step presents an opportunity to intensify the density along the way. 

Basic distilled spirit chemistry 101:

- Esters (the aromas of fruits, flowers, and spices) are made from chemically bonding alcohols to acids.

- Short chained esters are made from chemically bonding one acid and one alcohol together.  They smell solvent like in high concentrations and fruity in low concentrations.  These are intermediaries in the spirit maturation process.  They will eventually form long chained esters in the cask. 

- Long chained esters (our goal) are made by bonding multiple acids of different types and alcohols together. 

To make esters you need acids and alcohols.  Since we are making distilled spirits alcohol is a given.  So where do the acids come from? 

There are two types of acids in distilled spirits:  Carboxylic acids and Phenolic acids and they can come from many places in the production process. 

- Yeast produce carboxylic acids during fermentation.  Primarily acetic acid but depending on strain many other acids are possible.  

- Bacteria produce carboxylic acids during fermentation, varying wildly depending on stain employed.    

- Toasted, burned, caramelized Lignin (a common polymer in all plant life) yields phenolic acids when burned (charred/toasted oak is a major source of this, but there are other sources in the process)

- Toasted, burned, caramelized Hemicellulose (the other common polymer in plant life) yields carboxylic acids and plant sugars (charred/toasted oak is a major source of this, but there are other sources in the process).

Now that we have covered the basics, it is time to being dissecting the entire process and trying to optimize each step to produce, first, the highest density of acids possible, then use our oak to both add new acids as well as catalyze the esterification process and convert all those acids into delicious long chained esters.

Step One… The Raw Material

Raw materials present an opportunity to gain precursor acids.  Burnt, caramelized, smoked, or toasted raw materials contain free acids which can do chemistry.  All the raw materials contain lignin and hemicellulose.  When the lignin or hemicellulose is burned it breaks down into free acids.  When the molasses are caramelized they release phenolic acids from the lignin in the sugar cane.  Toasting grains, roasting coffee, roasting nuts, all function on the same principal. 

Unlike roasting foods, in distilled spirits making we take things a big step forward and take the chemical products of the roasting and then put them back together in a new order that suits our desires (barrel aging). 

By choosing / making raw materials that have the right aromatic acids in them from the start we boost our overall end ester count in the process.  For the rum this means finding molasses that had a maximum amount of free phenolic acids without other bad tasting things that might pass through the still.

The key, for me, is not the terroir of the sugar cane, the key is the cooking process and the amount and characteristics of the phenolic compounds generated. 

Step Two… Dunder

Dunder is a mysterious substance added to the fermentation in high ester rum production.  Dunder is sometimes made from overripe fruits, rotten fruits, and sometimes a special soup of decomposing bats, and waste from the last distillation. 

Dunder is made in pits or caldrons and is sometimes ripened for up to a year before use.  Though it may sound like voodoo there is actually a good reason for this substance.  When the fruit, molasses waste, or bats undergo bacterial fermentation the bacteria produce carboxylic acids as a byproduct.  These acids are responsible for the "rotting smell" but remember we are going to chemically bond them to acids later to make esters.  The final esters will smell and taste completely different from the acids they are made from. 

A carefully made “dunder” can yield more carboxylic acid than many years in a barrel.  In my case this means overripe bananas which are a component of the yeast starter.   

Fermentation

Yeast make carboxylic acids.  Yeast also make short-chained esters from free acids present in our raw materials and “dunder.” 

Yeast make acids to inhibit bacteria growth.  It is a defense mechanism for them.  If you want them to make more acid than usual you need to first select a yeast strain that makes more acids than normal.  You can also stimulate the process by stressing the yeast into a defense posture.  This can be accomplished by introducing controlled amounts of bacteria (see dudnder).  This is also done, by manipulating the biochemistry of the yeast.  In my case depriving them of nitrogen to create weak cell walls (another way of stressing them).   

Getting the yeast to then convert those acids, and the dunder acids into esters is a clever trick.  The yeast make esters as a means of removing alcohol from the solution.  It’s a defense mechanism to prevent them from dying of alcohol poisoning.  Again under the right stress conditions we can force them to convert a significant portion of the free acids into esters.  properly managed the yeast can produce as many short chained esters as the first few years in a cask.

Optimizing the fermentation is not about mimicking the cask aging process.  It is about going into the cask with a big dose of the carboxylic acids and esters.  The logic works like this, if you have a big dose of acids and esters going into the cask you don’t have to wait from them to leach out of the oak.  Furthermore, you can control which esters your making far more carefully through fermentation and raw materials selection, than you can by charing oak and waiting to see what the wood gives you.

When you approach spirits making this way, the time on oak is mostly about transforming the short-chained esters from the fermentation into complex esters.  

Distillation

There are two approaches to distillation.  The more common approach, called high rectification, is to ferment with a lot of bad stuff in the mix and then use the still to clean the booze up.  Some people also choose to ferment very neutral booze and rely on the barrel to do all the work.  This is the bubble plate pot / column strategy. 

The other strategy is to manage the fermentation carefully so that you can distill without plates and capture as much of the fermentation character as possible.  This is a low rectification pot still strategy, and it is the one I favor because I have tight control over my fermentation and raw material selection.   

If we had the right yeast, and the perfect dunder, and a perfect fermentation, it would all be ruined by excessive rectification.  Our goal is to distill as much of the good stuff into the resulting spirit, with the alcohol, through low rectification.

Oak

It is all about the char.  Oak on its own is chemically stable.  It is only through the charring / toasting process that the lignin and hemicellulose in the oak become unstable yielding carboxylic acids, wood sugars, and phenolic acids.  The acids coming from the oak are not only adding building blocks for ester making, they are also catalysts triggering the ester formation in the barrel. 

Furthermore as the cask grows very old the lignin begins to decompose into the spirit yielding the all important holy grail of benzoic acid and benzaldehyde.  These compounds are responsible for the sweet, "wet wood" character of the very oldest spirits. 

We use a controlled charring process incorporating heat, flame, and even special frequencies of light to break the compounds we want out fast.          

After that it is about manipulating the environment to make the catalyst from the oak do its job.  I won't disclose all my secrets but in truth the aging process should be seen as the last step in a long line of process decisions that create a given spirit. 

While it is true that you need the aging to complete the reactions and make the long-chained esters.  Honestly, in the industry, far too much attention is paid to this final step, and not enough attention is paid to all the decisions that lead up to the aging as a final columniation.  

P.S. The oak is Oloroso sherry seasoned New American Oak. 

I think that clears it up, Bryan! Thanks for the detailed response!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb042014

A Big Month Ahead

Just thinking about all the stuff I have to get done this month has been giving me a mild panic attack lately. This is going to be a gigantic few weeks for the spirits department at K&L.

What's going on in February, you ask? What do you need to prepare for? Let me help you ready your calendar for what's coming:

- Two new K&L casks of Buffalo Trace (barrels #43 and #45)

- Two new K&L casks of Kilchoman peated single malt

- Three casks of distillery-direct Bladnoch (a young, super-peated expression, a 12 year, and a 21 year)

- All six of the Faultline pre-arrivals, as well as the three Douglas Laing Islay releases (now sold out)

- Two inexpensive surprises: a new Faultline blended whisky and a young 58% Talisker cask

- A very special Redwood City in-store tasting of Glenmorangie Companta with Dr. Bill Lumsden on Thursday, February 20th at 5 PM

- A trip to Guyana on February 16th to source rum directly from Demerara Distillers and their three ancient stills (with live blogging all week from the distillery)

- A new 16 year distillery-direct cask from Arran

- A super-tasty 8 year old Glenrothes single cask from Douglas Laing

It doesn't get any easier in March either. That's when the first casks of Russell's Reserve from the Kentucky trip arrive, along with our cask of distillery-direct Glen Garioch. We'll also be releasing the casks we found at Heaven Hill, right before we take off for Scotland and France and continue the live blog from the European continent. This brief summary, of course, excludes any possible new releases from other distilleries that I've either forgotten or haven't yet been informed about.

I hope we don't overload you. It's going to be a fun time for our customers.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb042014

From Laphroaig to Lachirioag

Much like peated whisky recently experienced its renaissance, mezcal is slowly beginning to carve out a larger niche in the world of agave spirits. Always playing second fiddle to Jalisco, the spirits from Oaxaca present spirit fans with saltier, smokier, and tangier profiles than one would normally find in the average tequila expression -- offering aficionados a broader spectrum of flavors than what they're used to from Mexico. More importantly, mezcal's moment is happening without any corporate presence whatsoever; many of the most interesting selections are being self-imported by the producers themselves and distributed by smaller companies that specialize in boutique spirits. Much like the whiskies from Islay, the mezcales from Oaxaca represent a key economic source of revenue for a remote area that hasn't seen much industrialization. However, while Islay has largely been taken over by Diageo, Suntory, and Remy Martin, mezcal production in the villages of Oaxaca is still completely in the hands of the farmers themselves.

But with many young Oaxacan men heading north of the border for employment opportunities, can a mezcal explosion revive a sparse mountainous region and create new opportunities for the locals? That's what Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina and his cousin -- both natives of San Cristobal Lachirioag -- are hoping to achieve with their new brand: Tosba mezcal.

We've been carrying Tosba since early December here at K&L, but the demands of the holiday season kept us from giving it its proper push. Our lack of presentation didn't matter, however, because this NPR interview with the boys aired last week and completely gutted our supply; we sold out within minutes. I'm meeting with Elisandro later today to discuss more opportunities for the public to taste and perhaps organize a few events here at the store. We'll also be back soon with a full write-up on each of the Tosba selections as soon as our order shows up later this week.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Feb022014

Tribute

My favorite living actor was found dead today. This is my tribute: one of my favorite scenes in any movie of all time. All of us in the UCSD film department were obsessed with this sequence.

RIP Mr. Hoffman.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan312014

New Benriach Whiskies

It’s no secret that Glendronach is becoming one of the most respected single malts on the market, with more and more consumers becoming aware of its fantastic quality. What many people have seemed to miss, however, is that the other distillery owned by Glendronach (that would be Benriach) is releasing whisky every bit as good as Glendronach, if not better much of the time. While I love me some sherry, there’s not a distillery in Scotland that can compete with Benriach when it comes to value, flavor, and diversity combined. You can get light, heathery whisky. Dark, rich, sherry-laden whisky. Oily, smoky, Islay style whisky, too. And they’re all fantastic.

Check out what just landed…..

BenRiach 12 Year Old Horizons Triple Distilled Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - This lovely, round and supple, triple-distilled malt from Benriach is rich with barrel spice and vanilla, but soft with stonefruit on the finish before the sherry kicks in.  It's a lovely new addition to their already stellar line-up. Finished in Oloroso butts, it has a chewier, more savory ending that more resembles its sister distillery Glendronach, than what we're used to tasting from Benriach. A fantastic whisky with nice little a bump up to 100 proof.

BenRiach 17 Year Old Septendecim Single Malt Whisky $84.99 - Straight-forward peated whisky from a Bourbon cask, this is a lighter, classic Highland-style whisky with a healthy dollup of peat on the back end. An oily, resinous note marks the finish. It's well-balanced and tasty from front to back and really adds to the Benriach portolio, which is becoming one of the strongest and most-impressive in the industry.

BenRiach 17 Year Old Solstice 2nd Edition Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - This peated, port-finished malt from Benriach is an absolute home run. It's got rich, dark-fruited flavor and blast of campfire smoke on the finish. It's a straight-up challenge to Lagavulin 16 in style, with both the richness and the peat--and it's better executed. Really good stuff. This is what I wished the Laphroaig Cairdeas would have tasted like!

Oh…and if you missed out on the Cairdeas, David OG just got another 60 bottles in Hollywood

BenRiach 25 Year Old Authenticus Single Malt Whisky $279.99 - The Authenticus is a mature, peated malt from Benriach that offers more wood than the 17 year expression and a softer touch of peat. It's serious whisky and really calls into question some of the higher priced competitors who are offering similar styles of whisky for much higher prices. Benriach really dialed it in with this whisky.

We also have a peated cask on the way just for K&L. Good times ahead.

-David Driscoll