Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Barrel Giveth, and the Barrel Taketh Away

[Originally published on the Huffington Post Food]

Years ago, my wife and I sat down in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, to taste some bourbon with Joe Castro, who was the chef at the time. At one point he grinned mischievously, excused himself, and returned with a small flask of white dog from a major distiller tucked under his arm. White dog is what distillers call whiskey when it comes off the still, but before it goes into the barrel. It is, in other words, raw whiskey, without the mellow flavors and rich hue that the barrel brings. It is as clear as water and if it is destined for the barrel, as opposed to the bottle, is strong. I’d toured a few distilleries, and I’d had the occasional sip off the production line, but I’d never tasted professionally distilled white whiskey in a glass, side by side with what it would eventually become.
What I saw was the progression from the raw spirit to the cooked. The charred oak of the barrels gives flavor--vanilla, caramel--and takes away the hotter flavors, but at the core of whiskey remains the flavor of the white dog.
I named my book about moonshine and small scale distilling Chasing the White Dog. It came out in February 2010, and I think my timing was good: It’s been 200 years since this much white dog has been on the shelf. White dog is hot.
I’d have thought that the big market for white whiskey would be the whiskey enthusiasts, that anyone with a subscription to Malt Advocate was going to want the unadulterated cereal grain flavors that are the framework of the spirit they adore. I’m not sure if that’s what’s happened. I think that whiskey folks probably are exploring white dogs, but the real enthusiasm seems to come from the cocktail side of the drinks world. (It should go without saying that these crowds are far from mutually exclusive.)
At the fantastic Sorrento Hotel in Seattle, I poured drinks with Christian Krogstad, one of the owners of House Spirits. (In all fairness, he did most of shaking and pouring and I did most of the speechifying and joking around behind the bar.) We made a version of the white manhattan which we called the Willis. It was simple: House Spirits Rye White Dog, blanc vermouth, and a blend of Fees and Regan’s orange bitters. At Nopa in San Francisco, Neyah White uses Death’s Door white whiskey and adds a little Benedictine. In the Columbia Room in Washington D.C., Derek Brown uses white rye from Copper Fox, replaces the Benedictine with apricot brandy, and adds a dash of Laphroaig. They are all delicious.
The white manhattan has been mentioned quite a bit in the press, and has become the de facto white whiskey drink. As the mercury climbed for the first time this year my thoughts turned to bubbles and citrus and tall, refreshing, icy drinks like the Tom Collins. I remembered that we also poured a drink we called the Jack Collins, made with white whiskey.

This cocktail highlights the flavor profile of white whiskey in a very special way. I love a whiskey sour, for instance, but there’s often a strange clash between the round, vanilla and caramel flavors of the oaked whiskey and the sharp, clean zing of the sugary citrus. White whiskey plays along perfectly.
Luckily, I’d recently acquired a bottle of Buffalo Trace white dog -- the same white dog that goes into a barrel and eventually becomes George T. Stagg bourbon. Perfect. Buffalo Trace’s white dog is from Mash #1, a corn heavy bourbon mash. It is surprising, brilliant, and clean. In the cocktail the corn sweetness came through, and the grainy character remained. At 125 proof, it’s very strong. It’s surprisingly drinkable even at full strength, but be forewarned and pour lightly if it’s the white whiskey you choose for your cocktails.

The Jack Collins

2 oz White Whiskey
1 oz Lemon Juice, freshly squeezed
1 t superfine sugar
soda water
optional garnishes: brandy macerated cherry, orange slice.

Shake white whiskey, lemon juice, and sugar in an iced cocktail shaker and strain into a tall glass filled with ice. Top with soda water, stir once. Garnish, if you like.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How to be a Criminal: Bonus track #2

There's a steady stream of criminal silliness out there.

This guy is an addendum to last week's entry, I suppose, that drugs & drink, despite what you'd think, don't mix. I think it goes without saying that criminals like to drink, and they like to get high, but it reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Pineapple Express. Saul (the protagonist drug dealer) suggests that he and Dale (Seth Rogen) smoke a joint before they attempt to overcome the next obstacle, and Seth Rogen's character says: "In case you haven't noticed - which you haven't, 'cause from what I can tell, you don't notice anything ever - we are not very functional when we're high."

This guy couldn't make it until Miller time, and cracked a jar while he was delivering the 'shine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

This is your brain

"Collusion relies upon good memory. Stoners make horrible con men." This is from the pages of the White Dog, and leads us to item two in our series on How to Be a Criminal.

How to Be a Criminal, Item 2:
Surprisingly, drugs and crime don’t mix. Stoners will forget what they have to remember, crackheads are unreliable, meth heads are crazy. Even drunks—they’ll either get pulled over for driving drunk or they’ll get in a fight.

The issue, at the time, was a certain individual's inability to remember previous conversations, but everywhere I went I learned stories. Why were the Stanley brothers pulled over with 473 gallons of moonshine in the back of the Econoline? Because they were driving erratically, due to their BAC. Why did the cops search the van? Because of the reefer smoke.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Meals on wheels

I was attempting to follow up and see what happened to the couple who were caught last summer -- I'm sorry: "set up." That's not right either, is it. Allegedly set up. There we go. They were allegedly set up and subsequently caught with a few gallons of moonshine inside a daycare center.

Read the original bust of the couple that ran the North Carolina Daycare here.

Here's a picture that was snapped at the bust:

The blue capped jars (the ones next to the sawed off shotgun on top of the beer which is holding up the milk jugs of moonshine?) are Courvoisier and a jug of Seagrams gin. You can see that more clearly in another shot, which also details revolvers and fanned out bills.

Among the comments on this story I found someone suggesting that "the perfect front" for a bootlegger would be to "drive a regular Meals on Wheels route." Which sounds a lot like the old ice cream truck drug dealer thing.

The thing is: it's not as if the cops busted in and found some guy upstairs drinking moonshine with a shotgun in the dresser drawer to protect his house. These people were selling booze out of a daycare center. The Meals on Wheels/Ice Cream Truck facade may, in fact, be a great cover. This one is not.

This didn't make it into the book. Had it happened earlier, I'd have been tempted to go down and follow their case. But these two definitely deserve a spot in the How to be a Criminal series.

How to be a Criminal, Bonus item #1: Keep the general standards of society in mind. Don't sell drugs at the playground. Don't run your nip joint in day care center.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to be a Criminal -- a series

I heard a lot of stories from the wrong side of the law over the last four or five years, and almost without exception, I was surprised by how badly the crimes attempted were conceived and executed. Clearly, movie crime is overblown. I know that what I saw in The Italian Job never happens. But it has become obvious why D.B. Cooper deserves top spot in the criminal hall of fame.

Most crime is conceived by morons and carried out with breathtaking stupidity. I actually heard, for instance, of some guys who had grown enough marijuana to fill a big rig. They didn’t want to haul it right away, so they hired a guy to watch it over night. The guy they hired was a crack head.

So, in Chasing the White Dog, I decided to gather some tidbits along the way and present them as a series titled How to be a Criminal.

Here’s the first one:

How to be a Criminal, Item 1: Do not, while on probation or having recently come to the attention of the law, engage in large scale felonies with strangers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled

Everyone remembers the line from The Usual Suspects; the greatest trick was convincing the world he didn't exist. Spacey said it with a twinkle in his eye, as I recall. My friend Matt Rowley (check the awesome present he gave to William S. Burroughs) was the first to use the line in reference to the modern moonshine business.

Over the last few years, I've tracked moonshine busts with much more than a cursory interest. One of the arresting officers says, almost without fail, that either they never see any moonshine any more, or that this bust is the largest one they can remember. My clipping file holds 265 articles (obviously some are repeats, and some aren't all that recent, but I doubt many go any farther back than the 90s). My online bookmarks number 129.

Clearly there's a disconnect, or a short term memory problem, or something. 300-odd busts in the last few years might not register in comparison to how many people have been arrested for assault or possession of a controlled substance, but it's hardly non-existent. And yet, when they busted Roger Lee Nance in North Wilkesboro with 929 gallons of moonshine a few days ago, the lead read: "in one of the largest liquor seizures in recent memory."

I'll give it to them this time, that's a lot of hooch to have on hand.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gun, the Blackberry, and Seven Pounds of Pulled Pork

Last week, I received an e-mail with this picture:

The text of the e-mail couldn’t have been more straightforward. My friend -- who had just shot these birds -- typed “Smoker?”

You’ve got to love a Blackberry put to good use.

Pheasants aren’t very big. They’d certainly feed us, but they’d look a little lonely in the smoker. Just a few days before I had tended to a small square of pork belly all alone on the rack, and throughout the cooking my joy was underscored by a sense of opportunity lost. All that smoke, all that good peach wood burned, just for a small square of belly. I should have planned better. I should have put a shoulder on, a couple of chickens, some sausage, whatever.

 I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. The pheasants would go on next to a seven-and-a-half pound butt. For reasons of timing and convenience that aren’t particularly germane to this, I decided to reverse my process. Most barbecue folks agree that after about four hours, you aren’t getting any more smoke flavor into meat. You’re still cooking it, but maximum penetration has been achieved. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I have cooked many times as if it were, and I like the end product. So my technique -- or what was my technique -- involved a few days. Rub and Smoke the meat on day one. Then slow roast it in a wet environment on day two. Pull it and heat it on the stove on day three. It’s a fun way to get pulled pork, and it allows for lots of adjustment of seasoning, and lots of snacking.

This time, however, I started the meat in the oven. First, I rubbed it. I change my rub all the time. This one had a little rubbed sage, some coriander, a lot of red & black pepper, and salt.

In the bottom of a roasting pan went apple cider, apricot vinegar, half a beer, and a sliced onion. Tinfoiled the top. Slid it into the oven, which was at a mellow 250 degrees.

I took it out seven hours later, peeled back the tinfoil veil, and plucked off a piece of juicy, melting pork. Then I ate another. This was already a very serious piece of pig. It was sweet and spicy. The vinegar had steamed into the meat. It was so tender that it ran a pretty serious risk of falling through the roasting rack.

Standing at the cutting board, I muttered a nonplussed “Huh . . .”

How could I get it in the smoker?

The tinfoil that had been on top of the pan was right there next to it, looking an awful lot like a bowl. I tried to keep the chunks large. Here’s what I got:

I sprinkled some more rub on the meat and into the smoker it went. Here it is about half way through, looking good:

I have made hundreds of pounds of bbq in my life. And this may have been the best. The open surfaces picked up the smoke flavor very nicely. The jagged edges turned to crispy bits of pork goodness. It cooled, I tore it up, and I’ve been eating it and giving it away for a week.

The pheasants? They were delicious.