Unusual Drinks (Part 2): Stolen Spirits Smoked Whiskey, Burrough’s Reserve Gin, Underberg, Brennivin “Death Schnapps” and Boardroom Spirits Beet Spirit

Sour beer, white lightning from South America, smoked rum, and liqueur made from the sap of a tree in Greece—those were featured in my first installment of “Unusual Drinks.”

But there is more weirdness to come. Oh so much.

Let us begin with another offering from our friends at Stolen Spirits. They purchased 11-year old American whiskey, and added a smoky flavor by pitching charred, chopped barrel staves into it. (It’s a bit like the technique some vintners use to add flavor to their white wines.) The result is a 92 proof brown booze loaded with vanilla and baking spice flavors. Yum.

Wait, you might object, that’s not all that unusual. Well, how about this: barrel-aged gin? Historically, this white spirit has sluiced straight from the still to the bottle. No more. Folks are aging it. Beefeater, producer of the venerable London dry gin, has introduced a few new products in recent years, including Burrough’s Reserve. This 86-proof gin spends time —how much is not clear— in small oak casks that formerly held red and white Bordeaux wines. This imparts a straw color to the spirit and produces a gin that is softer, less piney, and more herbal. Does it work in a martini? Beats me—I sip it neat.

When a small bottle of Underberg digestif (88 proof) landed on my desk, I was unnerved. It looked like a tincture from the late 19th century—an eye-dropper type bottle wrapped in brownish newspaper, with a label boasting herbs from 43 nations. I nearly looked to see if the label claimed it cured dropsy, pleurisy, and priapism. Nope, but it does exclaim: “TO FEEL BRIGHT AND ALERT.” Five minutes after my first tiny sip of this German medicine the bizarre, intense, bitter flavor afflicted my tongue. It was as if I had licked wood that had been stewed in mint, anise, licorice, clove, and who knows what else.

After Underberg, I thought I was well girded to taste “death schnapps.” I was wrong. Brennivin is an evil booze. It is only 75 proof but unswallowable — it bombs the mouth with caraway and cumin aromas, and sent me to the sink.

Last, but assuredly not least in the unusual drinks queue this time is…. Beet spirit. Yes, a craft distillery in Pennsylvania has made a 90-proof clear spirit from red beets. I take my hat off to the producer, Boardroom Spirits, this liquor is astonishingly smooth. If you like borscht, well, this is the hooch for you. It oozes beet aroma and flavor. Which is very unusual.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010).


Real Clear Books Likes Moonshine: A Global History

Drinks writer Martin Morse Wooster writes at RealClearBooks.com:

“It’s a beverage that deepens the friendships and strengthens the spines of mountain people from the Appalachians to the Urals. Its producers have been discussed and celebrated in books, movies and reality television for decades. It’s also illegal and producing it without a license can result in jail time.

“The product goes by many names—poteen in Ireland, samogon in Russia, “funeral tomorrow at 2 o’clock” in Tanzania. It’s moonshine, an unaged distilled drink that scores of countries produce as a cheap and often nasty way to get blasted. In “Moonshine: A Global History” (Reaktion, 2017), Kevin R. Kosar, a fellow at the R Street Institute, has produced an amiable little book that delves deeply into the culture and history of this ancient beverage….”

Read more at http://www.realclearbooks.com/articles/2017/09/14/hooch_firewater_and_moonshine_110127.html


Pennsylvania’s Stealth Tax On Drinks

Source: Library of Congress

Oh, Pennsylvania. You are wonderful in so many ways. Philadelphia has architectural marvels. Pittsburgh has the endlessly victorious Steelers and Penguins. The Allegheny and Poconos offer gorgeous vistas, and parks like Nockamixon are beatific places to hike and fish. And where else can one find ring bologna?

But your government, well, friends you have a problem. “No taxation without representation” is an age old creed in our nation. Yet, your government has a system that wantonly fleeces anyone who buys drinks.

Despite the 21st century’s arrival, the state maintains a system of government-run drinks shops. Last year, the much-despised Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) was granted flexible pricing by the state legislature. Previously, the PLCB bought drinks from producers at prices determined by a cockamamie formula that produced hefty profits. The new law empowered the government to haggle with drinks-makers for lower prices.

Beverage producers screamed at the prospect that a government monopoly would be empowered to demand low prices or threaten to cut off market access. But the whole package was sold as wonderful for consumers. “It continues to be our intention,” one the PLCB’s board member told legislators last November, “to not broadly increase retail prices on our best-selling items.”

Not one year later, the PLCB announced it was raising prices on 421 products. Its argument for doing so was blunt: legislators demanded PLCB pay $185 million into the state’s budget to cover rising public pension costs and other expenses.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tartly notes:

Though the flexible pricing was expected to generate more tax revenue, the state was also supposed to use its buying power to negotiate lower prices from wholesalers. The state did lower prices on a handful of items last year, but consumers have yet to see any major saving. Especially when compared to prices in New Jersey and Delaware. For example, a bottle of Kendall Jackson chardonnay costs 52 percent more in Pennsylvania (including the 6 percent sales tax) than at the Total Wine stores just over the state line in Delaware.

What a mess.

The state’s elected officials lack the courage to cut costs or raise taxes. Instead of presenting the public with the bill for the goods and services they consume, elected officials are hiding the true cost of government by shifting the burden to consumers of privately produced products. Do alcoholic beverages have anything to do with state pension costs? Nothing, of course.

And make no mistake, these mark-ups are a tax in disguise. Lawmakers delegated their constitutional authority to raise revenues to a bureaucracy, which then packages a tax increase as a mark-up on a consumer good. Which consumers and the state’s hospitality industry only may buy from the state monopoly. And, of course, citizens can’t protest the price increases by voting PLCB authorities out.

A little over two centuries ago, folks living in what became Pennsylvania raised cain when the new government in Washington, D.C. imposed an unprecedented tax on spirits. Perhaps a 21st century whiskey rebellion is overdue, which would demand elected officials end the drinks stealth tax by privatizing drinks sales. Beverages are a product like any other product (food, gas, guns, etc.) If consumers are to be taxed on them, then these taxes should be set by the people’s representatives.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This column previously appeared at the American Spectator.


Dog Tag Brewing Legacy Lager

I saw this in a bargain bin at Ace Beverage in Washington, DC. Tall-boys with a cause—terrific!

Except that it isn’t. This stuff is contract brewed by Pabst, and it is rough. It is bitter in that Oiels or Red, White, and Blue sort of way, with little malt or other flavors. Even a little salt did.not make it o.k. This was a rare instance where I dumped a brew down the drain. (Rating: Not good.)

Read more about Dog Tag Brewing at DogTagBrewing.org.


No, science does not prove whiskey tastes better with water

Source: Björn C. G. Karlsson and Ran Friedman, “Dilution of whisky – the molecular perspective.”

The Internet is a wasteland of “you’re doing it wrong” articles. It’s a popular style of content, but often insufferable, as the author (frequently a 20-something) wags a finger at readers for doing something in a way that is deemed imperfect, be it running, eating apples, or managing your cellphone’s data usage.

So we should not be surprised that this month that bloggers loaded the Inter-webs with stories declaring that we idiots are drinking hooch wrong. Whaaaat, you ask? Well, according to these article, researchers have proven whiskey tastes better with water. So says CNN, Maxim, the Washington Post, the Verge, and innumerable other outlets.

Pretty much everything that is wrong with this “whiskey tastes better with water” blogging can be found in Vice’s,  “’Neat’ Is Not a Good Way to Drink Whiskey, Says Science.”

Start with the title. Science, ah yes, that humbling process by which we progressively test hypotheses in hopes of edging ourselves closer to the truth about some aspect of our universe. That trial and error process which moves by fits and starts and sometimes gets things wrong, like when the lab coated MD’s claimed that consuming salt will put you in the grave with a heart attack. Yes, my dear reader, the righteous spiked mace of “science” now is being swung at you for drinking undeniably wrongly.

As we read the text, things go downhill.

“For all of the grains-and-barrel alchemy of whiskey-making, there is, of course, a more scientific chemical reason why whiskey tastes the way it does—whether it’s from Scotland or Kentucky—and that reason is a molecule called guaiacol….. Turns out that at alcohol concentrations of 45 percent and lower, the guaiacol molecules in whiskey come to the top of the glass, making it smell and taste better, whereas at 59 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), guaiacol gets dispersed throughout the glass, away from the surface, and thus away from the nose and mouth of the drinker….. So, next time you’re drinking, pour one out for Björn C. G. Karlsson and Ran Friedman, whose computer modeling helps us better understand the magic of whiskey. Or, better yet, pour a little water in your bourbon—but only if it’s above 45 percent ABV. Hey, science is cool.”

What a hot mess. The “science” the author cites is a single study, which was conducted via computer modeling, not by actually taking various types of whiskey (bourbon, rye, Irish, Scotch, etc.) and actually testing them. (Which is to say nothing of different brands of any particular sort of whiskey, like Single malt Scotch whisky.) The study also notes that molecules other that guaiacol affect a drinker’s perception of aroma and flavor, but they have no proof (wink) if water dilution affects perceptions of these other yummy molecules. To boot, the scientists further point out that different types of whiskey have different levels of guaiacol in them, and nothing in their research addresses humans’ diverse ability to detect guaiacol’s flavor effects.

This blogger and the many others could have dodged these remedial errors had they bothered to read the study, which is online, and thought a bit.

More broadly, all these blog posts presume that science can dictate what people should like. Which is silly. Palates differ wildly from person to person. Some folks prefer their hooch heavily iced because the chill makes it less intense. Other feel that ice and water make their drinks flaccid and less interesting. I myself take some whiskeys straight, others I dilute with varying amounts of water or ice. Different things taste differently on different days and after or with different foods.

All of which confirms the wisdom of the guys and gals who make the whiskey. Every time I have heard a distiller asked, “How should I drink your liquor?” the answer inevitably is, roughly, “Drink it any way you like.”

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010).


Refreshing Drinks to Beat the August Heat

Everyone who knows me knows I love whiskey. Bourbon, Irish, Scotch, Rye…. It also is welcome to me.

This summer, I enjoyed a great deal of Kentucky classic’s, especially Knob Creek and Harper’s. A liquor store near my office is selling fifths for $25, so can you blame me?

I also enjoyed an odd duck of a bourbon: Sonoma County Distilling Co.’s West of Kentucky Bourbon Whisky No. 1. To the corn and rye mash the distiller added cherrywood smoked malted barley. And it shows — there is a faint cherry aroma to this oily, slightly herbal whisky. They bottled this in August 2016, and made only 300 cases, so if you want to try it, best hurry up and source a bottle.

But it now is August, and the temperature and humidity often is above 90. My Ohio blood is too thick for this weather, and my thirst turns to lighter fare. I won’t say no to a hop-bomb IPA, or a whiskey, for that matter. What really appeals, however, are drinks that are cold and crisp.

A bottle of Proud Pour Sauvignon Blanc ($18) showed up at my door a few months ago, and it well fit the bill. It noses of grapefruit and paired well with salads and roast vegetables. All the more satisfying is that buying a bottle helps fund the growth of more oysters, with which this wine pairs well.

I accidentally made the acquaintance of Zardetto Z Brut recently, which was happy luck. This bargain ($13) prosecco really hit the spot as I sweltered over a grill loaded with dogs and burgers.

I have enjoyed many rosé wines this summer. A decade ago you’d be lucky to find a couple in your local wine shop. Now supermarkets may stock offer a half-dozen or more brands, most of which are priced between $8 and $15. Brands I have tried (and whose names I recall) include Gerard Bertrand, Famille Perrin Reserve, and La Vieille Ferme. In my experience, it is hard to go wrong with rosé — I do not recall once buying a bottle and thinking, “Ugh, this is a disappointment.” (That has happened with plenty of red wines.)

No recitation of hot weather drinks recommendation would be complete without the gin and tonic. A Bombay or Tanqueray and tonic with a slice of lime is a wonderous thing. Those who want to spice up the old G&T have a wealth of options, what with the flood of new gins and the arrival of some really remarkable tonics (e.g., Fever-Tree).

Yes, summer is here, and the heat is on. But who needs water with so many other delicious, refreshing choices?

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at R Street Institute and heads its alcohol policy reform program. He is the author of Moonshine: A Global History (2017) and Whiskey: A Global History (2010). This column previously appeared on the American Spectator.