Friday, May 27, 2011

The Zen Art of One Armed Bartending

Radial head fracture - ouch!
Last Friday I broke my arm. To make matters worse I was stone cold sober at the time. Whilst the fracture is minor it has been a severe hindrance to say the least. I’ve had to learn, over the past week, to do everything one handed. 

I’ve had to learn how to shower and groom (according to one colleague something I struggle with already), how to dress, prepare meals, keep writing using voice recognition and, yes, how to whip up a cocktail with only one limb. To be fair, I’ve had a couple weeks off from my bar job, but it has only made it all the more necessary to get up to speed with the Zen art of one armed bartending to keep myself well watered. 

I compiled a quick list of bartending techniques/ activities that are perhaps best avoided when ‘tending with a singular appendage:

  1. An obvious one to begin with – avoid carrying heavy items like boxes and kegs etc. In fact, I find this sound practice even with two working arms.
  2. Fine straining – a technique deplored by some as like having a baby and then killing it – is definitely out the window, though still possible, when bartending with one hand.
  3. Being in charge of cutting the bar’s garnishes before a Friday shift
  4. Blazing drinks a la Jerry Thomas or throwing cocktails like Boadas in Barcelona.  Spirit soaked bandaged limbs burn like flares.
  5. Carrying a tray laden with cocktails – how will you put them down?
  6. Flamed orange zest Dale DeGroff style
  7. Using a jigger – well you could, but you’re slow enough already pal!
Anyone has worked bar with me before might wonder why I’m making such a fuss as they have only ever seen me use one arm behind the bar anyway. Well I guess that is why I’ve been able to adapt so quickly to my current situation- smartarse.

At any rate, I’m not going to natter on for too long, but rather leave you with a one-handed beverage the concocted the other night in honour of having the night off.  

The One Armed Sour

45ml Appleton Estate Extra rum
20ml Pedro Ximenez Sherry
20ml Fresh lemon juice (this was the tricky part with one arm)
One dash of icy cold Fernet Branca straight from the freezer (where else would you keep yours?)
2 dashes of The Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole bitters (good stuff if you have never tried it – now available in Oz through Suntory)
The white of one egg

Add all ingredients into a Parisian, cobbler, or two part tin shaker – perfect for one armed shaking. Crack your egg on the side of your shaker – easy now – and slowly split in one hand to allow egg white but no yolk into the mix. Ice and give the mix the Kiwi Hard Shake™. Strain into a frosty glass and serve with a side of pork scratchings or biltong (I just love that stuff).

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Masterful Ms. Vásquez

Lorena Vasquez at Grandma's, Sydney

A couple of weeks back I had the singular opportunity to interview a grande dame of the rum industry – one Ms. Lorena Vásquez – Master Blender for Ron Zacapa on her first visit to Australian shores. 

Fellow Aussie booze Blogger Mr. Ben Shipley from Everyday Drinking has covered in depth the highly complex ageing process for this famous rum. So I thought rather than cover this well trodden path with Lorena I would enjoy my deliciously fruity, sweet and complex Solera 23 rum and delve more into the curious nature of Zacapa’s use of sugar cane honey. Besides, despite the various Ron Zacapa tutorials I have attended I must admit the subject of solera ageing still gets me thoroughly confused especially after a couple of drams...

It must be said before we commence with the transcript, that Ms. Vasquez is charming, sharp of mind and incredibly passionate about her product. I daresay that even without the help of her translator I would have walked away from this interview inspired with a new love for Zacapa. 

Lorena, how long have you been in the rum industry?

26 ½ years.  It’s not that I’m old are but I started very young.

How many of those years have you being at Ron Zacapa?

I’ve been there all those years with them.

But what is it about rum in particular that attracted you to get involved in this industry?

I have always loved to perceive aromas and flavours.  And within the rum industry, in particular with Zacapa rum, I have the opportunity to do that.  To me more than a job it is a game.

What is your favourite aspect of your job at Zacapa?

What I like the most is to do the final blends. And the fact that I can discover how the rum develops.  I can always find something in the glass of rum. One of the things I like the most about Zacapa rum is that it is not a boring rum. It is a rum that develops and allows you to talk to the rum to discover it.

Ron Zacapa is often credited with being the rum that gentrified the rum category. What is it about Zacapa that makes it so refined?

As far as I’m concerned it is the raw material that we utilise.  Because we use the concentrated juice of the cane which is what we call the virgin sugar cane honey.  We don’t use molasses.  For us the raw material is as important as it is to a chef. Another very important aspect is the ageing where we use all the different casks. As I told you, because I don’t like boring things, what we look for in the rum is more complexity in aromas and flavours and foir more sophisticated. This allows you to enjoy and drink the rum without the need of mixing it. This has changed the perception of rum.

For me rum is about a moment of relaxation and pleasure. A good meal and a good drink; a good rum.

So you have just said that Zacapa is a rum that you can enjoy without mixing, but cocktails are without doubt incredibly popular.  How does Zacapa lend itself to mixing?

For me the use of Zacapa rum in cocktails also allows you to raise the category of the cocktail.  Because this rum has enough personality – even though it is mixed in a cocktail the rum still says I am here.  Although I say that the Zacapa rum can be enjoyed without mixing it is the consumer who ultimately decides how they are going to enjoy the rum.

Specifically what difference does the use of the virgin sugar cane honey make to the final product as oppose to using molasses? 

The virgin sugar cane honey – in order to produce it you cut the sugar cane then we press it to take the juice out then by using heat we evaporate the water out of it to concentrate the sugars.  The sugars in the virgin sugar cane honey are the same sugars that are in the sugar cane plant because we haven’t extracted anything. Molasses on the other hand is a sub product of sugar production.  Therefore when they are producing sugar they are extracting sucrose, sucrose and more sucrose.  In the end the chemical composition of the molasses is totally different from the composition of the virgin sugar cane honey.  This is important because in the process the compounds are going to be formed which depend on the chemical composition of the raw material.  The aromas and flavours that are formed in the fermentation of the virgin sugar cane honey are different than when using molasses.

When using sugar cane honey the resultant rum is sweeter and more fruity with flavours like banana, pineapple, cinnamon, cloves and ginger.  When the molasses is fermented what you get is drier and stronger, rougher.

How long does the fermentation process take for Zacapa?

We have a fermentation that lasts for more than 100 hours.  Because, and this is very important because when you produce a vodka you are not interested in aromas and flavours just the ethyl-alcohol.  So the fermentation is done very quickly 18 to 20 hours.  For Ron Zacapa we’re interested in the many flavours and aromas that can be developed during fermentation.  That’s why we do a slower fermentation so that the yeast is enough time to consume all the sugars from the virgin sugar cane honey and produce all the other compounds which are the ones which give us all those aromas.

Tell us about the yeast you use at Ron Zacapa?

Every time we ferment a new batch of Zacapa rum we use fresh yeast.  This is very important for the cleanliness of the aromas and flavours. 

And is the strain you use one you have isolated?

Yes. Our saccharomyces cerevisiae comes from the pineapple and is our own.  In fermentation it is very important, how can I put it… to have a relationship between the yeast and the raw material that we are using.  And this yeast works very well with the virgin sugar cane honey.  The reason being that fermenting the sugar cane honey is different than working with molasses.

Has Ron Zacapa changed over the years you have been there?

In terms of the production method we have always made the rum in the same way.  But I always say that the process of making a rum is alive.  The production of the sugar cane is affected by climate change, for example.  In the fermentation process the yeast is alive, in the ageing I say that the casks are alive because each barrel is going to give you different aromas and different flavours.

Production methods aside, obviously the company has grown, so how have you managed to maintain the standards of Zacapa with the company growing?

We have been increasing the amount of rum produced and the amount we age for a number of years.  And we have control of what can be produced each year.  What can be produced in a particular year is that quantity and it cannot be exceeded.  We plan each year for growth, but it is a small growth it will never be a massive product.

Are there other rum producers that you respect and admire?

I think the world of rum is like the world of cooking each producer has his own unique style and each producer makes the biggest effort he can within his rum’s style to make the best rum.

Fantastic a very politic answer!  What else apart from rum do you enjoy drinking?

I like red wine.  I like a red wines are the complex.  I don’t like anything that is flat.

Is there much of a red wine industry in Guatemala?

No.  All the wine in Guatemala is imported.  I do really like wines from Mendoza like Malbec.

What I your typical duties at Zacapa?

To evaluate the different rums. [In English] Tasting and tasting!  And to do some administrative control work.

What do you love most about being in this industry?

To put in time, patience, and devotion into a rum that many other people in the world are going to enjoy.

What would you change about this industry if anything?

I think in the world of rum all producers should work together to raise the level of rum.

If you could share a Ron Zacapa with anyone dead or alive who would it be and why?

A tough one.  I can’t come up with one name but whenever I have a Ron Zacapa I hope to share it with someone who can talk about many different and interesting subjects.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Woodford Reserve's Reserve

The other week I received a call from one Mr Dan Woolley. Woolley is the manager at Star City's latest bar venture Rock Lily, but more than that - he's a man who knows his liquor and the biz. He told me he had a very special tasting for me to attend - the first of its kind in Australia no less. The catch? I needed to be ready to taste barrel proof spirits at Star City at 7:45am.

I'm very rarely functioning in any useful capacity before 10am on any given day, but Woolley isn't the sort of man you like to say no to - especially when he's this excited about a project. Fortunately I deemed the early start doable as thankfully I live right across the road from Casinoland

Bleary eyed, and with my usual criminally strong takeaway cup of Joe, I'm escorted through the inner workings of the Star City machine to a brightly lit board room. I was told we'd be doing a live cross with Chris Morris - the Master Distiller from Woodford Reserve Bourbon whiskey and sure enough there he is in his office in Kentucky waving at us from the other side of the world.

The eight barrel proof samples
We take a seat. In front of us lie eight Woodford Reserve full strength barrel samples with the same eight in front of Mr Morris. We are given the task of creating a special Woodford Reserve Private Selection blend for Star City - only the third time this has ever been done in the world with Woodford and an Australian first.

Before we get started Morris gives us an introduction to his Bourbon and warns us about the proof. Each of the samples, from various distillations from the 2004 distilling season, entered the barrels at 110 proof. Unlike Scotch whisky which gradually loses proof from the aging process Bourbon gains a significant amount of alcoholic strength. We're told that the minimum proof would now be at 118 (59% abv) but also go as high as 140. Despite this Morris insists that we avoid adding water at this stage.

"Forget the alcohol," he says. "We want your personal preference. If we add water at this stage you'd start to lose the characteristics that make each barrel unique." 

Thirsty work - cutting down eight samples to our favourite four
As it turns out each sample is worlds apart despite be distilled in exactly the same manner, with the same mash bill, entering the casks at the same strength each with exactly the same char level on the barrel. I'm astounded. The samples vary from marzipan, pecan and walnut dominated tones, to softer honey, tea and star anise like samples through to ballsy, banana and tropical fruit with spicy, chocolate and port like characters abound too.

I can see why Morris said: "Remember too that it's all about flavour and not age. Each barrel is a voice in the choir that is Woodford reserve." These barrels all of similar age have matured in completely different ways - often it's to do with where they're placed in the ageing warehouse. We've certainly got any number of possible harmonies to work with from the samples in front of us - and the first step was to eliminate four.

Samples 3, 4, 5, and 7 make the cut after a round of voting. I'm pleased as sample 4 which displayed loads of interesting characters like pecan pie, maple syrup, tobacco, leather and green nuts was one of my top picks as too was sample 7 - a bold, rich and high octane sample with a rich port, chocolate and a dried fruit like profile. From these four samples we had to create six different blends one of which would become Star City's Woodford Reserve Private Selection.

3 and 4 were both marzipan like samples and together they developed a toasted hazelnut and cookie dough like blend.

3 and 5 (being a the sample which displayed honey tea and star anise) produced a blend with peach and apricot flavours and aromas balanced by leather, tannins and creamy vanilla.

3 and 7 made a blend with almost Cognac-like fruit and spice characters.

4 and 5 developed a delicious combination of pecan, honey, black tea and stone fruit. My favourite blend so far.

4 and 7 offered stewed prunes, and a big chewy spirit with a lick of pipe tobacco.

Our final blend (5 and 7) - and ultimately the winner on the day - showed an interesting combination of rose petal and floral notes with ripe banana, heather and honey - the boldness of the number 7 sample perfectly offset by the more subtle notes of number 5. The decision to go with this sample was unanimous.
Here we are celebrating with our chosen blend
Morris informed us that these two barrels would be married together, proofed, diluted, filtered (through paper not charcoal or chill filtered) bottled and shipped over to Sydney. The last update I received from the Star City team is that this whiskey would be available in about six weeks.

I'm proud that I was able to be a part of creating this blend and will be popping into Rock Lily as soon as it arrives to give it a whirl. I highly recommend you do the same.