Thursday, December 19, 2013

This Year's New Holiday Cocktails!

Holiday Cocktails 2013

It's that time of year again when I try to make another twist on the Egg Nog, as well as get creative with holiday cocktails! This year I have a few new ones and a video of an old standard of mine:
First.... 
Rosemary Honey Cream













2 oz Square One Botanical Organic Spirit
1 oz heavy cream
1 egg
1 clover honey syrup*
2x 3” Rosemary sprig

In a mixing glass, de-leaf the rosemary, discarding the stem and muddle the leaves well. Add all other ingredients, fill with large, cold ice and shake gently for 30 seconds. This will make a thick, creamy cocktail without too much dilution. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a slapped sprig of rosemary (this will add to the nose with each sip).

* Clover honey diluted with warm/ hot water at a 1:1 ratio by volume

Use organic ingredients when possible.

Notes:
This modern flip is like a rosemary egg nog and could be prepared like a nog by separating the egg yolk and white, whipping the yolk with the honey and whipping the white into stiff peaks. Then folding them together and gently stirring in the other ingredients. In this case it would be best to prepare a rosemary honey syrup, by first cooking the first sprig of rosemary into the water for 5 minutes before straining the solids and mixing the rosemary tea with the clover honey. All of that is best done in scale to a larger batch.

and Second...
Angie's Dairy Free Egg Nog

4 organic egg yolks
1/3 cup organic sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 pint organic unsweetened almond milk*    
1 cup cooked rolled oats (oatmeal)* 
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 organic egg whites*


In the bowl of a stand mixer (or whatever large bowl you have), beat the egg yolks until they lighten in color (they will actually lose color). Gradually add the 1/3 cup sugar and continue to beat until it is completely dissolved, then add nutmeg and integrate well. In a blender, add the almond milk and oatmeal and blend on high. You want to pulverize the solids as much as possible. When done, pour the almond oatmeal mixture through a fine sieve and mix into the yolk mixture until integrated (discard…or eat…the solids – about a tablespoon). Put the mixture aside and start the egg whites. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a cold metal mixing bowl) and beat to somewhere between fluffed and soft peaks that stand on their own (a bit more work to do by hand). The firmer you beat the whites into, the more air you will notice in your nog. Personally, I like creamier nog, which requires less beating than a fluffier one. With the mixer still running (or your hands still whisking) gradually add the 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat to desired consistency. Gently fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture until you have a consistent color. Bottle, or store in another container, chill and serve. You will probably want to shake the container or stir the batch before serving. Garnish with fresh ground nutmeg.



To make alcoholic, add 2oz of alcohol to 6 ounces of nog. Use a barrel aged spirit or combination thereof. Try mixing two parts of brandy or cognac to 1 part of rum, and the use 2 ounces of that blend per mug. This makes a classic Egg Nog. 

Notes:
I have been working on a rich and creamy version of egg nog with no cow’s milk for several years. My fiancĂ© Angie can’t have milk, but loves egg nog, so I had to figure out a solution! Some recent research with oatmeal based morning beverages lead me to the conclusion that blended, cooked oatmeal was the perfect replacement for heavy cream. Plus the flavor works well with almond milk.

and Third...
Holly Julep Snowcone
1 bunch of mint
4.5oz simple syrup
1 liter bourbon
crushed ice
snow cone cups
pomegranate seeds

In a pitcher, add the leaves of 5 mint sprigs. Muddle well and add the syrup and bourbon. Stir well and let sit for 30 minutes to one hour. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer and into another pitcher or bottle. 

To Make the Snowcone: Fill a snowcone cup with crushed ice, pour the julep mixture over the ice until full. Cap with more ice, garnish with a large mint sprig, some pomegranate seeds and dusting of powdered sugar.

And lastly...
The Irish Chai
To check out the Irish Chai, go see my video on Grokker.com!

This is the first of my new video series, so start you Grokker account today and keep coming back for more!



Irish Chai:
2 oz chai tea concentrate 
5 oz frothed milk
1.5 oz Irish whiskey
.5 oz simple syrup
1 cinnamon stick

Simple Syrup:
1/2 cup of sugar
4 oz room temperature water

Directions:
Simple Syrup
1. Combine equal parts (1:1) sugar and water in a bottle and shake it until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Irish Chai:
1. To make chai tea concentrate, use 2 bags of chai tea and 8 oz of hot water and let steep for five minutes.
2. Froth 5 oz of milk. You can use an espresso machine frothing wand, a portable frother, or simply microwave the milk for ~90 seconds (until you see steam rise) and using a whisker spin between your hands to froth.
3. In a mug, add 2 oz of the chai tea, 1.5 oz whiskey and 0.5 oz simple syrup. Stir and top with the hot milk and freshly grated cinnamon.



Saturday, June 8, 2013

My Old Fashioned Dad

I'm a Harold. Not a lot of people know that (relative to the number of people who know who I am, I guess).   Then again, a lot of people do. And a lot of those people also know that my father was a Harold. And so was his father. That goes back to the late 1800's of Harolds in my family. Somewhere smack dab in the center of that "golden age of cocktails". That time of fanciful mixocological wonderment that created the core formulas and concepts we work with today. But I imagine that for my grandfather, like my father, a lot of that was lost. Not all of it, but a lot of it. Because they were old fashioned, hard working men who drank, but not a lot and nothing fancy.


My Grandfather driving my Grandmother and her sister, mid-1920's (pre-kids)

My mother tells me that I am a lot like the stories she heard about my grandfather (he died in 1949). Gregarious, happy, generous to a fault and a bit scattered. My dad, having lost his dad at 17, quit high school weeks before graduation to join the Korean War effort and put himself through night school after the war, for 8 years. He was more conservative and reserved. My grandfather had been through a wild hey day of parties and fun, but he also weathered financial disaster in the Great Depression and brought up two boys through WWII. They were two different men; two different Harolds. 

Then along comes the third Harold. Born in the summer of 1968 ('twas a good year, they say). A cocktail dead period, mired in hallucinogenic hazes and meandering bass lines. We were all Jersey Boys, with the gradual move from Harold the First in turn of the century NYC, to Harold the Second in Bergen County and finally, Harold the Third, all the way out in the cow town of Montville, Morris County. And I connect pretty deeply with being a Jersey Boy. I connect with both my father's and my grandfather's stories. I would have like to have met my grandfather and had a drink or ten with him. I bet we, as adults, would be good friends. Like many Grandfather/Grandson relationships, it would be based more on fun than responsibility. But alas, I didn't, and won't. 

Harold the Second was a responsible, good father. A hard working, middle class engineer that, like so many of his generation, worked at the same company for 40 years. He had his family and his work, and he was not a drinker. But the thing I learned from my father's moderation with drink, was the slow and focused appreciation of the one or two drinks he would have. As a man of habit, he didn't venture far. He was meat and potatoes (no sauce, nothing fancy). He was spaghetti and meatballs (nothing else in the sauce). An he was Old Fashioneds; Penndenis Club style (though he would not have known that).

My dad probably drank a lot of Old Fashioneds in the 50s and 60s, before he had kids. He and my mom used to actually socialize quite a bit with my grandmother and her generation of our family in the 50s and 60s. They whooped it up in Manhattan and haunts around Bergen County. It sounds like they had a blast together. Like I would have had a blast with them in the same way, had my folks stayed partiers.


Me and my dad, Long Beach Island, NJ, 1969
But they didn't. My grandma would come to our house every two weeks for the weekend and my mom would have the kitchen set up for their little cocktail parties, which usually consisted of Martinis or Scotch Highballs or Scotch on the rocks. That's where I developed an affinity for both. But Dad did not sit at that table. He did not come home and have a drink. He relaxed week after week, after long days of work, on the couch, with his shoes off and the news on. Creature of habit.

But when we went out, he'd order one, maybe two Old Fashioneds. And he'd enjoy them. A lot. I remember watching him look at his drink; the cherry and orange muddled, the way I dislike it. I remember him commenting how nice it was as he twirled the glass in his hand. I remember the look on his face as he debated a second round, and usually decided against it. But mostly, I remember him savoring his Old Fashioneds, like I savored ice cream after a little league game. 

Me and my daughter, Ruby Delilah Mae, May 2013 at home
My dad passed away in 1999, long before I developed my own Old Fashioned habit. Before I really understood the drink and respected it. Before I got to make him one. Before I got to drink one with him. So this Father's Day, my first as a father myself, I will be drinking an Old Fashioned at brunch with my family...enjoying fatherhood, enjoying my father's  and grandfather's memory, and enjoying my Old Fashioned.

The Old Fashioned, as served at Elixir.


2oz Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey
.5oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
stirred with a large ice cube
garnished with an orange twist

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Couple of Easy San Francisco Memorial Day Punches

One thing I've noticed having traveled and lived around a bit, is that the beginning of summer is not celebrated by most people on the calendar date that declares it, but on a momentous occasion in that locale's culture. But no matter how many places I've been, what is ingrained in my mind, and that of many others, is that Memorial Day and Labor Day are the book ends of summer and must be celebrated by partying with your friends and family and enjoying the outdoors. This year, I've decided to do so with a little Elixir staff brunch party at my house followed by an afternoon in Dolores Park, overlooking this great city of ours and enjoying the beginning of "Summer party season".

Me in Dolores Park, 2010

To help you and your friends enjoy some great, easy to make beverages I'm going to post a few batched cocktail recipes. They are based on one 750ml bottle of the base spirit, and I'll tell you how many full size drinks that should make. You can do the math from there to change the batch for your size party. There are also lots of links should you need to find something or look further into some of the terms.



What you'll need:

  • a 1 gallon container for each batched cocktail you plan to make (preferably something that closes up) 
  • 1 measuring cup of some size (at least a cup but whatever size you have will do)
  • a sleeve of 16oz "red cups" (the traditional drinking vessel of outdoor parties)
  • a large cooler of ice

San Francisco Bay Breeze
A botanically-brightened version of a simple recipe that predates the current cocktail boom.
1 bottle of local gin (No. 209, St. George Botanivore or Anchor Junipero)
1 bottle of Square One Basil Organic Vodka
25oz of Cranberry juice
25oz of Pineapple Juice

DIRECTIONS: Pour all of these into your one gallon container and stir or shake to mix. Then just serve over ice (be sure to serve over ice to get the dilution and chill. If you add ice beforehand, it will melt and you'll have some dilution already in the drink when you pour it. This batch is 100oz and will leave some room for ice in a one gallon container (128oz),  if you want to add to it. For party purposes, I would just pour this over ice in a cup and let it dilute as you drink it. In a 16oz party cup this would be considered a double.)  

Pisco Punch
The cocktail that defined San Francisco before Prohibition and is on its way to a major comeback.
This drink can be made lots of ways. The most authentic may be a bit more difficult as you'll have to procure a bottle of Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum syrup, which many local stores do carry now (click the link to see where). It is definitely more tasty that way, in my opinion, but if you can't get a bottle of that, you can make the second version below. (This recipe might be easier to make a double batch, because the SMH Pineapple Gum comes in 17.5oz bottles, so you can balance that with 17.5or so ounces of lemon juice (about 12 lemons) and you'll have a boozy batch...which is what the Pisco Punch is supposed to be!)


  • Traditional Recipe (single batch)

1 bottle of Pisco (Campo de Encanto is a locally, created and owned brand, but Barsol, Porton, Oro, Machu Pisco and Kappa are all great choices - a Quebranta or Acholado is fine, but a little Italia blended in is great as well, lending some beautiful floral notes.)
9.5oz SMH Pineapple Gum Syrup
9.5oz lemon juice (6-7 lemons)

  • Quick and Easy Recipe (single batch)

1 bottle of pisco  
6.25oz pineapple juice
3oz simple syrup (mix 1.5oz of sugar with 1.5oz of warm/hot water until dissolved)
9.5oz lemon juice (6-7 lemons)

DIRECTIONS: same as above...put it all in a gallon pitcher. The double batch is going to give you 80oz in either recipe. stir or shake it up well, as you've got syrup and viscous liquids here. Then serve it over ice. Since one serving of this recipe is only 3.5oz before chill and dilution, putting it in a party cup over ice is going to be like a triple or quadruple, depending on how much ice you use. So be careful! As Thomas W. Knox said in 1872:

"The first glass satisfied me that San Francisco was, and is, a nice place to visit. The second glass was sufficient  and I felt I could face small-pox, all fevers known to the faculty, and the Asiatic cholera, combined, if need be."


Lastly, let's not forget that this is not a "Hallmark holiday" created just to sell more red cups. Memorial Day is about remember those members of the United States Armed Forces that died in service to our country. We are talking about brave men and women who are not here with us to party in the park, but who laid down their lives so that we can enjoy this weekend and every other weekend, in peace. Raise a glass to them and be thankful. I know I will.

Happy Memorial Day! And if you see us in the park, come say hi!



Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tequila For Mother's Day

Your Mom showed you a lot of things, right? She let you go to music classes, learn to ski, join a dance troupe, try out for the basketball team, taught you to cook, and may have even introduced you to Scotch whisky (maybe that was just my Mom). Point is, Mom was always about helping you discover the things you might be interested in that would become part of your arsenal of skills, interests, hobbies, or even your career. So why not introduce your mom to something new this year when you take her our for Mother's Day? This year, teach your mom to enjoy tequila, and bring her by Elixir for some of the finer stuff, including our newly launched Rare Tequila Collection.

I started enjoying good tequila in 1992 while managing a bar and restaurant in Washington DC called Roxanne. On that beautiful rooftop, I would sip El Tesoro all night long with a Pacifico back. These were two products that were new to me and I was in love with them. El Tesoro, produced at the La Altena Distillery in Arandas, Mexico by Carlos Camarena, had only been available in the US since 1989 and was a complete eye opener to me. It changed the way I drank. It changed the way I thought about spirits. And 21 years later, it is still one of my favorite spirits in the world; the benchmark for great tequila. 


But in that time Carlos and his family distillery have produced some other brands that were launched in the US and I am equally a fan of those. Most recently, Marko Karakasevic, of Charbay fame,  has imported the Tapatio brand and even launched a 110 proof version (which is insane and so welcome - bring in more high proof tequila!). But a very cool project of Marko's that launched this recent collaboration was when Marko and his dad Miles produced their own blanco tequila with Carlos and launched Charbay Blanco. I was a there in the La Altena distillery with Julio Bermejo, Enrico Caruso, Nick Strangeway, Naren Young, Aisha Sharp, Duschan Zaric, Gregor DeGruyther (RIP), and a couple dozen other amazing people when Miles was with us, looking at the tanks and the agave fields and I said to myself "What is he up to? I bet he's going to make a tequila!" Sure enough they did and it is delicious and I have a couple of bottles of the very first batch!


Another great project out of that distillery is Tequila Ocho, created with Tomas Estes (whom I also met on that trip) and originally launched in Europe, then brought into the US by Lyons Brown, another great person this product has brought me to). The idea here is single vintage tequilas, all from one particular field of agave and harvested at just the right moment. Each bottling is of a field and a year and it is all stated on the bottle. A game changing brand that highlights terroir in tequila as well as vintage. I have the first bottling of the Anejo, which is now very hard to find.

There are some other greats on the list, like Herradura from before the use of diffusers; Los Abuelos, the original form of the delicious Fortaleza that Guillermo Sauza makes, before someone forced him to change the name; an INCREDIBLE and rare bottle of Chinaco Negro extra anejo; and some old Pueblo Viejo, again before a production change. 

So bring Mom into Elixir, teach her how to drink tequila, about the beautiful culture behind it, about the agriculture and tradition of the regions and about integrity in spirits. OR just order a few copitas and talk about whatever comes up! Happy Mother's Day, to my Mom, my daughter's Mom, and your Mom!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Judging the Judge

Judging spirits competitions over the years has taught me a few things about life. As I head into the San Francisco International Spirits Competition this weekend with 39 of my friends and peers of "expert palates", and then to the American Distilling Institute Conference in Denver next weekend, I thought I might reflect on a few of those.
  1. Life is like a round of 16 blind vodkas samples. There's nothing like starting your day looking down the barrel of a loaded vodka tasting. We usually start these things with vodka,as it is the least flavorful and therefore requires the most concentration without palate disruption from something more powerful tasted before it. Each glass looks basically the same and until you stick your nose in there, you have no idea what to expect. As I sit there in my white lab coat, running through taste descriptors in my head, I'm reminded of college. Staring at the blank page of the inevitable term paper, knowing I have to write 20 pages and make it spectacular. I doubt myself and my abilities (I'm human). Then I remind myself that I've trained long and hard for this, logging years of study and tasting, visiting distilleries around the world and sitting through countless seminars. And then I start thinking about the proposal I didn't get done and needs to be out by Saturday. And the fact that I forgot to call the garage and get that part ordered for my broken trunk latch. Damnit, I have a dentist appointment Tuesday. I look up. "Shit, they're on the fourth glass already!" Damned ADD. And then I dive right in. Another day in the life...
  2. Spitting is key to survival. Everyone always asks me, "How do you drink that many in a day?" In some of these competitions we only do 30-40 tastings in a day, and others upward of 70-90. And it can be most daunting on your palate. One of the first competitions I judged was a rum competition in New Orleans and I had a rough go at it because I didn't really spit. The rums were so good. And I was in New Orleans. Nothing added up to spitting out that delicious juice. But it is a bit like being a bar owner for the first time. All of that booze is yours and so you figure, "I can drink whatever I want, however often I want and not answer to anyone." Well, eventually you answer to someone when there's booze involved. I've had friends kicked off of panels and discredited for not spitting. In the end you realize that to be a pro in this business, you have to earn respect, give respect and maintain respect. Respect for others, yourself, and more than anything, for booze. When life gives you a mouthful of 40% alcohol, with sharp burn and a gag reflex, spit it out, but don't be afraid to spit it out and pick up that next glass. It might just hold a velvety smooth, aromatic morsel of deliciousness. But you'll never know, until you spit out the junk and try it again.
  3. "Drink the first round." All of that being said, we do spit the majority out in a pro judging. But then the judging is done, you've got a room full of professional beverage industry experts from around the country (and the world in some cases), all in the same hotel with a free night or two on their hands.Let's just say we don't sit around and play cards. So the next morning is always a challenge to get started. But again, we're pros, so this is nothing new. The ol' hair of the dog routine works on Sunday morning when you've got a Sunday Funday lined up and no worries, but when you're trying to keep your cool and get through another 70 spirits, giving them all a fair shake for their effort, entry fee and dreams, you've got to take this stuff seriously, pick yourself up by your booze straps and move forward. Another day in the life, as they say. Whether you are a coffee drinker, a yoga buff or a morning jogger, we all have different ways of getting going. When your a professional spirits judge...you do what we do.
  4. Pass the cheese, please. Have you ever said "It left a bad taste in my mouth"? And when you did, what did you do to change that? In the spirits judging world we eat cheese and crackers. You have to "reset your palate" quite often and this is how we do it. Lots of cheese and crackers. And water. And Cheese. And Water. Resetting your palate is one of the most vital skills you have in life, so you have to have a known way to do it for yourself. Things go wrong all of the time and we can't just dwell on it. Great things happen that will live on and on, but the sun rises the next day no matter what and you have to reset your palate. Hopefully that next glass is a perfectly complex XO cognac and not a cloyingly sweet, artificial liqueur. But if you go in to with absinthe on your tongue, the experience just won't be the same.
  5. Subjectivity is the root of all marketing. When I teach my spirits and cocktail classes, no matter the subject matter, I always try to make sure people understand how subjective taste is. Everyone's palate is different and the key to understand your likes and dislikes in the culinary world is understanding your own palate. and no one can tell you are wrong for liking or disliking something. You may be ignorant to something better out there or to understanding what it is your tasting, but you still have an opinion as to whether or not you like it. So be confident in that while pushing yourself to understanding more about why you like it or dislike it. It doesn't mean you have to debate it in public or write about it on Facebook or take a picture and send it from your phone. It just means that you have enhanced your life by knowing what you enjoy and what displeases you. Whether it is politics, economics, or vodka...ultimately, you are the judge.





Friday, February 22, 2013

My 2013 Oscars Cocktail: The Blossom Room


The first Academy Awards were held in 1929 at The Blossom Room of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. Douglas Fairbanks, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and an elegant man, handed out 15 awards in a five minute ceremony in front of 270 guests assembled there for dinner. It was 4 years before Prohibition would be lifted, but it was the beginning of Hollywood’s love affair with glamor and acknowledgement for work in film. The night has come to be wrapped in sophistication and fan fair, and sparkling cocktails reign supreme. 


As it appears today, after restoration.
The Blossom Room, 1929
Though the Blossom Room would go on to serve rum cocktails heavily during the Tiki heyday, this drink pays homage to where the Academy Awards began and the era it came out of. It features gin (representing the easiest spirit to mimic during Prohibition, "bathtub gin"), a floral flavor profile to go with the name and a seasonal winter citrus with floral qualities. This drink is essentially a collins, served up in order to appreciate its texture. Instantly carbonated, slightly dry and floral, it is an elegant drink for an elegant affair.

THE BLOSSOM ROOM COCKTAIL


The Blossom Room Cocktail

1oz Meyer Lemon or Eureka Lemon Juice

.5oz Sonoma Syrups Lavender Syrup

Wide orange twist

Dried or fresh lavender flower on the stem




In a Perlini mixing canister, fine strain the lemon juice, add the gin and syrup and fill with ice. Close and seal, charge with CO2, shake hard, charge again and shake hard again. Allow to sit for 1-2 minutes, open and pour into a champagne flute or wine glass, garnishing with a long, wide orange twist hat has been speared with a  lavender flower on the stem such that the twist is running the length of the glass and the flower starts at the top of the twist

* If you don't have a carbonation system at home, simply shake the drink with ice and strain up into the glass and add 3oz of very cold sparkling water or club soda.The Perlini System comes in personal and professional versions, as you'll see on their website. There are several other carbonation systems out there you could use and adapt this recipe to their use, but be sure to read their directions to get the best results. Also, be sure to fine strain that lemon juice. Having pulp in there will give the bubbles something else to cling to and will make a mess, basically (called "points of nucleation"...look it up!). I highly recommend the Perlini commercial system for any professional bar.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Great Maker’s Marketing Mark of 2013



Drinking Maker's Mark while camping in 2006

Maker’s Mark has decided to decrease the alcohol content of their flagship bourbon by a total of 3% by volume from 45% to 42%, which translates to a reduction from 90 proof to 84 proof. This may leave some people wondering what that actually means, while leaving others furious for a whole array of reasons. The controversy has reactions from those with a very little to a great deal of understanding of the complex issues behind it, but in our social media world it is difficult to sift through those opinions and come out with a true understanding of what it will mean in the long run.


Ultimately this will wash out as a great MBA case study in how to adapt to a changing market, how to execute on an opportunity for growth and how to communicate those changes to your customer base, because those are the three key decisions that were made here. The issues in the public eye include the actual physical change to the whiskey (though they don't use the "e", I do when discussing American whiskey) and how that affects the consumer, how it changes how the whiskey works in a cocktail and how it opens and closes doors of opportunity for the brand. This is what the public is consumed with right now, but behind closed rackhouse doors, the real issues are profit related. This story must be understood from the perspective of the Board of Directors of this private company and what it is they expect to gain. Remember that the sole purpose of a for-profit company (and this one is own by the giant Jim Beam Brands) is to generate profit for its owners. As a business owner fighting the realities of inflation and a tough economy, I can sympathize with them. The decisions they make now will effect where the company will go in the coming years, and that issue is not whether or not it will fail, but exactly how much it will grow via this opportunity. For a venerable brand that created the boutique bourbon business and made a name for itself as a maverick in branding and a slew marketing successes, Maker’s Mark has put itself in line to be the next great marketing case study once again.

To hear my radio interview on KCBS San Francisco where I discussed these issues on 2/15/2013, click here.


From the technical side of the liquid it is important to understand how proofing works and that water is used to dilute all kinds of spirits. Most spirits in the United States hover around 40% ABV (Alcohol By Volume; (“proof” equals twice ABV); however,  in well-distilled spirits we look for higher ABV in order to deliver more inherent flavor of the product (alcohol acts as a flavor amplifier) and to hold up to dilution and other flavors components when making cocktails. As a professional whiskey seller, educator, judge and (some may say) drinker, I prefer higher proof whiskeys in most instances, because it allows me to be in control of whether or not I want to dilute it and by how much. Some of my favorite products are between 50% and 60% ABV and though I sometimes sip them at those levels, I generally manipulate them in one way or another depending on how I am drinking them. When the producer lowers the proof beyond my control they are limiting me to only a few applications, and essentially that is what Maker’s Mark has done to their whiskey from my perspective.  



Years ago, Rob Samuels, the then Director of Global Brand Development and current COO (since his father’s retirement) that initiated this change, told me (while seated in my own bar, Elixir) that Maker’s Mark was about integrity that his grandfather made a commandment. Around that same time I had lunch with then Master Distiller Dave Pickerell who told me they only made one product because it was perfect and they did not want to bastardize that integrity. Well, Dave is gone now, making loads of new whiskey for several distilleries and the next Master Distiller, Kevin Smith, as one of his first acts, created a new product called Maker’s 46. I remember reading an article where he said he wanted to make his mark on the brand, which I saw as arrogant at the time. He’s now gone, as well. And in 2010, the venerable John Hansel of Whiskey Advocate actually called out Maker’s for not being “honest and straight-forward” with their marketing of Maker’s 46. So for a brand that sticks to its marketing guns about integrity and tradition, this is not a sudden about face. It is an unfortunate holding of the company line when it comes to their Public Relations policies. Though they maintain close communications with their most loyal fans via an “Ambassadors” program, it is the Board of Directors that tells the Marketing Department the story they are going to have to spin in order for the profits to be made.



I always introduce Maker’s Mark to customers and students of mine as an “introductory bourbon”, and one of the best at that. By using Red Winter Wheat as the flavoring grain in their bourbon, rather than rye, they allow the sweetness of the corn (the majority ingredient) to come through. Most other bourbons use rye, which is a strong and spicy grain that dominates the corn and takes over. Inexperienced or uneducated whiskey drinkers mistake the powerful rye flavors as alcohol content and declare bourbon “too strong” for them. Makers Mark became the “gateway whiskey” that helped usher in entire generations of new bourbon drinkers. By lowering their proof, they will even further lower the bar to entry and possibly attract new generations, but they will inevitably lose a portion of the newly educated and more experienced drinkers that they helped create. The net effect on their business will be minimal because they are indeed in the catbird seat. After all, a sell-out is a lofty goal of anyone producing anything for a profit.


So the question of how the company will fair is moot. As is the question about how the whiskey will fare. They will continue to make and sell out of a bourbon that has reached the most enviable of sales positions. They sit in the stratosphere of boozy brands like Patron, Grey Goose and Jack Daniels, even if their numbers are not quite the same. Each of these brands has had its growth issues that lead to decisions about production, pricing and quality that they ultimately had to answer to the public for (including Jack Daniels going throw a reduction in proof just under a decade ago). And it seems like they all have had their bouts with brand credibility amongst the bartenders, the consumers and the media. Do you see any of these brands hurting today? Remember that the public forgets quickly. Especially drinkers. 


For now, the Communications majors are already writing their Spring 2013 thesis papers on “the blunders and genius of the Maker’s Mark dilution story”, because in the end, any press is good press. Just ask my friend Jon Basso at The Heart Attack Grill. The Board is happy because they will be able to yield more bottles to sell and a better profit margin (lower proof means less excise tax for the producer to pay, and it is doubtful that Maker’s Mark will pass that savings on to the customer). Millions of people around the world are reading about Makers Mark and if they hadn’t tried the product before they are going to now.  The bartender in me laments the change of a great whiskey, the business man in me is enthralled by the complex issues at hand in this case and the spirits educator in me is thrilled to see the category getting so much attention. I’ll be in Kentucky in a few weeks to judge the American Distilling Institute’s spirits competition. Dave Pickerell will be there and we’ll talk. I’m going to bring this all up in my Craft Distillation panel discussion at Arizona Cocktail Week this coming Monday. Maybe I’ll drop John Hansell a note in the coming days, when his inbox is not so blown up over the topic. And lastly, I’ll try to swing by Maker’s Mark while I’m in Kentucky and ask Rob Samuels to have a drink with me. Maybe he’ll pour me some of the 90 proof from under the table. The stuff they’ll be reserving for VIPs.

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