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Chris Hennes

"Craft brewers" have a go at spirits

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Today's CIA SmartBrief included a link to an article in the Chicago Tribune about brewers adding some harder stuff to their repertoires.

Rogue Ales is known for crafting outlandish beers like Chipotle Ale, an American amber spiced with smoked jalapeno peppers, and HazelNut Brown Nectar, a syrupy brown ale with rich hazelnut and chocolate notes, which turn traditional beer styles on end.

Now the Newport, Ore.-based Rogue is applying the same approach to distill distinct spirits such as its Spruce Gin, whose 14 ingredients include cucumber, lemon and orange peel and tangerine. It's bold with strong cucumber, coriander and tangerine notes.

The article goes on to highlight a number of different brewers who are moving beyond their beers to include a few specialty gins, whiskeys, etc. I haven't exactly been on the lookout, but I haven't noticed any on the shelves at the local state store. Has anyone tried any of them? Are they worth seeking out?

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Looking through the article, I picked out quite a list of stuff that I've yet to see. Some of it sounds interesting (though "Freshwater Rum" just seems wrong).

I have seen Spruce, priced at $40 (rather than the $35 that it seems to get in Chicago). Nothing about it seemed special enough to command that price. Pretty much every decent gin on the market uses a wide range of botanicals and anyone willing to drop $35 - $40 on a bottle gin probably knows it. They'll have to make a more compelling case, at least to me -- or someone around here needs to try it and report.

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I meant to add that I think it's a clever move on the part of craft brewers, and I'm all for interesting new stuff.

It also reminds me of running into the head of Cognac Ferrand (in a liquor store, of course). He talked me into buying their Citadelle gin, and told me the story of how they got into spirits besides cognac and armagnac. By law, you can only distill cognac for a brief period each year, meaning that all their very expensive copper pot stills sat idle for nine months out of twelve. So they looked around at what else they could make, and settled on gin (I think they make vodka in them now, too).

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I haven't seen anything like this here yet but would be very interested when it becomes available. Rogue has made beer that is far superior to most, I would trust they could take spirits to the same level.

Some of the Rogue recipes are nothing new, just better. If they want to try making gin, I want to try it.

For decades we have all drank beer from the same few breweries and have recently found that there is better product out there, why wouldn't the same hold true for liquor?

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Producing a distilled spirit (especially an aged one) that is better and more interesting than the established brands, and that is anywhere near competitive on price is a lot more difficult than brewing beer. Other than Anchor Distilling, I'm not aware of too many of these places that are turning out superior product. Other than Junipero, for example, I have yet to taste an American small-batch gin that I thought was in a similar league with Tanqueray.

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Why is it more difficult than brewing beer?

There are plenty of horrible to mediocre microbrews.

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i suspect competive pricing is the biggest hurdle... distilling like so many things probably benefits from some large economies of scale. how much you enjoy something is often relative to what you pay for it.

these start up distillers would probably do best producing gins because a good part of it is the ingenuity of the botanical formula... craft brewers might be the most qualified people to create a modern gin because they are used to being really analytical and can handle countless variables and their nuance. brown liquor and wine seem to be more agronomical relative to craft beer and gin...

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You hit the nail on the head. Small batches of whiskey can be frighteningly expensive but craft brewers have been making whiskey for a good decade now, trying out recipes and techniques and not always with proper permits. Among the guys I've met, cost is a secondary concern: right now, it's all about learning how to make good whiskey. Making it profitable seems to be a "down the road" project.

From what I hear and see, many of the same people who were brewing beer in the 1980's have transitioned to whiskeys (see, for example, Bill Owens of Pumpkin Ale fame, now publishing American Distiller). Expect to see a lot more of it in the next several years.

Charbay, makers of those somewhat pricey flavored vodkas, entered the fray with their Charbay Whiskey, "a craft whiskey made from hand-distilling great-tasting bottle-ready beer." More here. At $350 a bottle, however, I haven't tried it and may wait a bit before stocking up.

Also right on the bit about gin. For a new distillery that needs to see cash right away or go bust, producing vodka or gin is often the first step. Mike McCaw over at the Amphora Society consults with startup distilleries around the world and tells me that exactly where most of them begin.

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$350 a bottle?

Only used beer from a "secret" Northern Californian Micro?

A Pilsner?

Even given the relative "rarity" that these distillers are "required" to use some sort of microbrew to distill their quality liquor.... that doesn't make it any harder than brewing beer.

Doing anything well, (fermented beverage-wise), is going to take a roughly equivalent amount of skill. Sure, there might be some difficulties for distilled beverages in terms of getting a liscense, or gaining a share of the market in the face of so many macro brands.... but microbrews face the same world. Hundreds to thousands of breweries can brew beer better than X local micro.

Basically... they're both very tough. I'm against beer being slammed as some "simple" drink, or "easier" to create. Anything of quality is going to require love and skill. The fact that whiskey is basically distilled "beer" is of little to no consequence. Heating "beer" into a copper coil and filtering it isn't an indication of significantly more difficulty to create.

There are immovable titans in both fields. Budweiser/milller/coors in beer, Smirnoff/JD/Seagrams/whoever in liquor.

Craft is craft. Nothing is actually harder or easier.


Edited by theisenm85 (log)

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Oh, I'm not advocating running out to buy a bottle, and—being in advertising myself—I take a lot of ad copy with a box of salt. Just saying: there it is.

Having brewed a fair amount of beer in my day of all different kinds, I'm also opposed to saying it's "easier" than whiskey—both may be flubbed easily, but truly delicious stuff either way may be made by fairly low-tech means with careful attention. In fact, given the number of micro- and contract-breweries around that occasionally make beers that don't quite hit their target flavor profiles, I'm surprised we're not seeing more whiskeys from small brewers: dumping those beers into stills seems a no-brainer, even if it means selling the wash to a third party with a license to distill (in fact, I'm wondering if that was the case with this whiskey—I don't know, just wondering). Plus, with distilling imperfect beer, you don't have to worry about seasonality of grapes, apples, or other produce which can mean long idle stretches for expensive copper stills that ought to be paying for themselves somehow...

Making whiskey is easy enough, but making something you'd want to share can be a challenge in both cases (see David Wondrich's piece Dangerous Knowledge: Bootleggin'! wherein a case of Budweiser is reduced to 10 ounces of gin. He writes, in part:

For the true booze enthusiast, there's only one place left to go (besides AA, that is): the world of home distilling. There are, we admit, a couple of things that might hold one back from this practice. For one thing, it's illegal, however, truth be told, those laws are rarely enforced on the home-hobbyist level. It's also expensive, although not compared with all that fancy Scotch. But what seems to be holding most booze geeks back is the one thing it isn't: difficult.

No, whiskey is not harder than beer. Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up...

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No, whiskey is not harder than beer. Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up...

i'd still say gin is pretty difficult to make... something good anyhow... you have to come up with a botanical blend worth drinking and nuancing...

i'd say vermouth is the hardest to make and one of the greatest things that can be expressed with beverage... its like an automatic chronometer with a couple movements. to some an automatic chronometer represents the sumation of man's engineering knowledge... vermouth is like the sumation of our agricultural knowledge and knowledge of our own selves (taste)

"vermouth" has wine, something distilled, and botanicals with some serious organoleptic properties...

things i've made and called vermouth (because i used wormwood) were basically equivelant to amer picon in sophistication... so much fun to make, drink, and mix but not exactly a chronometer...

i guess if it was your medium you could take gin pretty far... some gins are chronometers, and some are simple timexes... and i doubt many people notice the difference...

but the point is that i bet a craft brewer would have as good a shot as anyone at taking some of these mediums as far as they could go...

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i just bought a bottle of hitachino's "kiuchi no shizuku"...

from the label: "grain alcohol distilled with hops, orange peel and coriander"

43% alc sold in a 200ml for $21

this product is supposedly made from distilling their white ale, infusing it with the botanicals while mellowing it in oak, then redistilling with more beer and, mellowing it some more...

its beautiful stuff. all three botanicals are easily evident on the nose with a great sense of balance... on the palate there is a nice hop greenness with out being too bitter... and the alcohol is rather smooth...

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Sounds really intriguing. I've got houseguests this weekend, so there will be flanken-cut sticky ribs which entail a trip to the local 99 Ranch Market, a huge pan-Asian grocer here in San Diego with a great selection of hard-to-find Japanese/Korean potables. Oh, and obscenely expensive Scotch and cognac. The technique of distilling, aging, then redistilling is unusual enough to make me want to snag a bottle (well, doing the steps intentionally, that is, rather than collecting beer feints from multiple runs as an incidental part of running a pot still or a cold-weather fractional distillation).

Thanks for the lead...

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i just bought a bottle of hitachino's "kiuchi no shizuku"...

You inspired me to look into it, and my bottle just arrived today. Thanks for bringing this up, it's really lovely stuff.

I guess this is a big booze day for me, since as I write this I'm listening to the drip drip drip of my Nocino as it's being filtered (but, of course, that's a subject for another thread).

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i'm down to my last bottle and still looking for more. i'd love to hear of how you mixed it. the last drink i had was a simple lime sour with an egg white and some bitters. i really thought the lime flavor would contrast the hops well but it didn't at all... now i don't want to squander it until i find more...

i posted about this drink on my blog but this was my favorite cocktail with the hitachino so far...

1.5 oz. hitachino’s “kiuchi no shizuku” distilled white ale

.5 oz. plymouth sloe gin

.5 oz. yellow chartreuse

1 oz. lemon juice

dash angostura

if any spirit producers made a readily available hopped gin as opposed to juniper, they would probably do quite well for themselves... but that means it will probably never happen.

cheers!

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I got it online from Wine Specialist, but I'm going to ask the manager of a local wine and spirits shop if he can get it (he already thinks of me as 'the guy who asks for all the hard to find stuff') so I don't get hit for shipping.

I haven't experimented with it yet, but I'll give your drink a whirl. Sounds fantastic.

I was thinking about trying it in a Pegu Club, but now I'm not so sure since you said that you don't think it plays well with lime.

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