Eggnog: A Holiday Cocktail History

It’s that time of year again: holiday joy, holiday cheer, and of course, holiday cocktails. One drink that can make your nights a little more merry and bright is eggnog, that love-it-or-hate-it egg-and-alcohol combination that goes great with turkey and figgy pudding and whatever other holiday treats you want to indulge in before swearing them all off forever on New Year’s Day. But what really is eggnog, where does it come from? Can this heavy holiday drink have an interesting history behind it? Read on.

Like many alcoholic treats, eggnog can be traced back to those pious brewers supreme, medieval monks. We have writings from the 13th century that describe British monks whipping up an egg drink spiked with ale, called posset, as a cold and flu remedy. The ale was later swapped out for sherry and the drink was appropriated by British aristocrats, who used it as a status symbol, eggs and sherry being expensive treats mostly reserved for the affluent. At this point, the egg-and-alcohol drink wasn’t specifically a yuletide tradition. It was consumed year-round at aristocratic gatherings.

Posset was introduced to the New World by the 17th century, and here is where it began to take on the characteristics we might recognize. Colonial America was a land of farms and plantations, and so things the colonists had in abundance included milk, eggs, and rum, which became the prime alcoholic ingredient over English sherry, an expensive import. George Washington was fond of entertaining guests at Mount Vernon with a nog-like drink made of eggs and milk with sherry, rum, and rye whiskey; needless to say, this would have kept one pretty warm at Valley Forge. America was also where eggnog acquired its status as a holiday drink, a tradition that continues to this day. While the drink is enjoyed during the winter season in other countries as well these days (Canada and Australia both have a fondness for the stuff), nog as a holiday treat will always be an American tradition.

After all this time, the basic recipe for eggnog hasn’t changed all that much: British monks made posset with milk, eggs, cream, sugar, and alcohol, and that’s pretty much all it takes these days as well. Of course, there are plenty of variations; the easiest swap to make is in the alcohol. Nowadays, eggnog is most often made with brandy, but rum and whiskey are both popular additions as well. In Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago you can drink a glass of ponche crema, eggnog made with lemon rind, in Puerto Rico they make coquito, eggnog with coconut juice or milk instead of eggs, and in Mexico they make it with Mexican cinnamon and vanilla and call it rompope. Eggnog can be an acquired taste, but a warm glass on a cold winter night can be an experience without parallel. Just be careful; not only can the alcohol can be high (especially if you try the Washington special) but all that cream and eggs mean that it’s a highly caloric drink as well. One too many glasses and you can end up looking like Santa.

And now for a treat, here’s George Washington’s eggnog recipe, straight from the pen of the first president himself. He doesn’t record the number of eggs in the recipe, but as this is an industrial-sized batch, about a dozen are typically used.

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

How to Make Conditum Paradoxum, Ancient Roman Spiced Holiday Wine

December is the month of many holidays, but one winter celebration that’s been lost to time is the ancient Roman tradition of Saturnalia, a festival that lasted from December 17th to December 23rd. The Saturnalia was dedicated to the Roman God Saturn, and involved banquets, gift-giving, and a flipping of social norms such as slaves being waited on by their masters.

One of the crown jewels of the season was a spiced wine called conditum paradoxum, which loosely translates to something like “surprise wine.” Conditum was so prized by the Romans that it’s the very first recipe in the Apicius, one of the oldest cookbooks in the world. Since we have the Apicius recipe readily available, and since the Saturnalia is as good a time as any to try, we’ve attempted to recreate this ancient alcohol. Follow along, and if you make a bottle for your own December celebrations, remember the Roman toast: Salus!

Conditum Paradoxum

“Put six sextarii of honey into a bronze jar containing two sextarii of wine, so that the wine will be boiled off as you cook the honey.  Heat this over a slow fire of dry wood, stirring with a wooden rod as it boils.  If it boils over, add some cold wine. Take off the heat and allow to cool.  When it does cool, light another fire underneath it.  Do this a second and a third time and only then remove it from the brazier and skim it.  Next, add 4 ounces of pepper, 3 scruples of mastic, a dragma of bay leaf and saffron, 5 date stones and then the dates themselves.  Finally, add 18 sextarii of light wine.  Charcoal will correct any bitter taste.” – Apicius, 1.1

750 ml bottle of white wine
1 cup honey
1 date
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp fennel seeds or mastic gum
2 bay leaves
pinch saffron

Put the cup of honey, 75 ml of wine, and the date in a saucepan and bring to a boil, make sure the honey dissolves completely.

Once the honey-wine mixture is boiling, lower the heat to simmer and add the remaining ingredients. Cover the pan and let simmer for 10 minutes, giving the spices time to infuse.

Strain the mixture into a pitcher with a fine strainer and a coffee filter. If any of the spices make it into the pitcher you can pour back into the saucepan and re-strain as many times as you’d like. Add the rest of the wine into the pitcher and stir. Use a funnel to pour the wine back into the bottle if desired. Either way, put the wine into the fridge and chill. 

Makes one bottle.

Adapting the Recipe

The first revelation when making conditum was that the unit used in Apicius, the sextarius, is about 550 ml; the author of Apicius must have been cooking for a big group because this is a huge amount of wine, several liters. All of the measurements used in the recipe are shrunk accordingly to just make one 750 ml bottle of conditum. The original recipe called for mastic, which is something we had never even heard of before attempting this; it’s apparently a gum made from the sap of trees found only on a single island in Greece called Chios and, if Amazon is anything to go off of, costs a fortune to import. Mastic apparently tastes piney and licoricey, so instead our recipe uses fennel seeds as an inexpensive substitute. Apicius calls for the initial honey-and-wine mixture to be heated and cooled several times, likely to make a kind of reduction out of it; if you’re looking for the authentic experience you can heat the mixture to boiling and let it cool 3 times, but considering you’re adding so much wine to it after the fact it’s not necessary. As for the wine itself, Apicius doesn’t specify. Since you’re adding so much to it, a light, dry white wine would be best, we used an inexpensive Italian pinot grigio for that Roman touch. Finally, Apicius calls for the wine to be filtered through charcoal. You can find charcoal that is used for alcohol of course, as many vodkas for instance are charcoal filtered, but for a modern Roman on a budget, a strainer and coffee filters should do just fine.

So How Is It?

So you’ve made a bottle of conditum, now how about a taste test? Our wine is rich yellow-gold, a much fuller-bodied color than the initial pinot grigio. It’s also a bit cloudy, which is perhaps something that the charcoal filtering could have taken care of. The honey is strong on the nose, but the pepper pushes its way through, giving it a strong and sharp backbone. The other scents are more muted, mostly just a general melange of spice in the background.

And the taste? Very, very sweet! When the wine initially touches your tongue it’s a strong honey rush, somewhat like moscato. The rest of the spices don’t register much until the finish, which is lightly warming on the tongue and the roof of the mouth. The Romans drank conditum chilled, but this might actually be pretty nice warmed, like a mulled wine. It could probably do with some time in the bottle as well; the first taste test we did was after about a half hour of chilling and it was pure dessert-wine sweetness. The second glass, tried about 10 hours later, had more nuance to it, with a little more bite from the spices. The pepper is stronger, much like it was on the nose, with the fennel seeds giving a light anise-like bitterness under the taste of the honey and date. It’s definitely a more unique wine than it first seemed. It’s still a bit sweet, but if you’re a fan of dessert wines it could definitely be worth a try, and the peppery spices might warm your belly on a cold winter night.

* * *

So what do you think, Drinkhackers? Did you try making a batch of conditum yourself? Anybody throwing any Saturnalia celebrations? Should we tackle Apicius again someday? Let us know what you think in the comments!

How to Make the Perfect Sazerac Cocktail

So you’ve mastered mixing the manhattan, the old fashioned is old news, and you can recite the difference between a gin martini and a vodka martini in your sleep. And yet, that classic cocktail itch is still there. Well read on, because today we’re going to explore another simple, early cocktail, one that isn’t as well-known as the others. If you want to impress your whiskey cocktail-loving friends, try to mix up a Sazerac and see what they think.

The story of the Sazerac goes back to New Orleans in the 1830s, where apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychuad began providing Cognac toddies using a bitters of his own design. The toddies became such a local sensation that a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House began buying his bitters to use in their own cocktail, mixing Cognac with absinthe, bitters, and sugar to make the Sazerac, which is claimed to be the first-ever ‘branded’ cocktail (the old fashioned was around at the time, but was generally just referred to as a ‘cocktail’). Eventually, the Sazerac Coffee House simply bought the rights to Peychaud’s bitters entirely, and when an insect epidemic destroyed French vineyards used to make cognac, the heart of the drink was switched to rye whiskey. In a big blow for Sazerac lovers, absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and for the next hundred years Sazeracs generally used an anise-flavored liquor called Herbsaint in its place, though in these enlightened days absinthe is freely available again. Now that you know the history, let’s gather our materials and see what we can do with NOLA’s historic (and official) drink.

The ingredients for a Sazerac might sound familiar if you make a lot of classic cocktails: a sugar cube or sugar syrup, 1.5 ounces of rye whiskey (bourbon if you’re a modernist; Cognac if you’re feeling really old school), a quarter ounce of Herbsaint or absinthe, three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and a lemon peel for garish. The Sazerac company, no longer a meager bar but now an enormous multinational corporation most well-known for owning Buffalo Trace, of course recommends its own Sazerac brand rye for the job, which is a solid, spicy, and fairly inexpensive choice. We here at Drinkhacker are always fans of Utah-based rye wizards High West, or for a rounder drink you can try Old Grand-Dad’s rye-heavy bourbon. For bitters, there’s only one choice: the Sazerac was built around Peychaud’s bitters, and without it, it’s hardly a Sazerac at all. Peychaud’s is lighter and more floral than the more commonly-used Angostura bitters, and will highlight different aspects of the rye in the glass. The choice of absinthe isn’t quite as vital as the choice of rye, since as you’ll see you really use a very small amount of it, but Lucid is a perennial favorite in our Sazeracs. Just like with an old fashioned, sugar syrup works just as well as a sugar cube and requires much less work, but if you’re serving for guests and want to go through the whole ritual, muddling a sugar cube will add to the mystique.

Now that you have your materials, let’s start making the drink! First, pack an old fashioned glass with ice, and in a second glass mix the sugar with the bitters. If you’re using a sugar cube, pour the bitters on top of it before muddling; if you’re using syrup, just make sure it’s well-mixed with the bitters. Add the 1.5 ounces of whiskey to the glass with the sugar and bitters and stir well — don’t shake. Now that your first glass is sufficiently chilled, dump the ice and add the absinthe. You’re really just using the absinthe to coat the glass, swirl it around good and get it on as much of the inside surface as you can, and then discard the remainder. Finally, add the contents of the second glass to the old fashioned glass with the absinthe rinse. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel, and enjoy!

The Sazerac might sound a lot like an old fashioned, but the change in bitters and the addition of the absinthe both show that little things can have a big impact on our cocktails, in this case giving the drink a more complex, herbal character. It’s a unique treat for fans of classic cocktails, and is sure to impress at your next gathering. Try it out and let us know what you think in the comments, and as always, if there are things you’ve always wondered about in the world of alcohol but have been afraid to ask, send us an e-mail to [email protected]

NaNoWriMo Special: Great Authors’ Great Cocktails

It’s that time again. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where authors of all ages and experience levels challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in a mere 30 days. Whether you’re already hard at work on your next opus, or you’re getting things ready for an attempt next year, get those creative juices flowing with a look at four great Jazz-age authors and the cocktails they loved.

Ernest Hemingway

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

Notable works: The Old Man & The Sea, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway is one of the literary titans of the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ writers who were prolific after World War I, a group of bitter young souls who crafted dark, nihilistic prose to strike out against a dark, nihilistic world. Hemingway was almost as famous for his drinking habits as he was for his literary work; this is a man who had a granddaughter named after the French Bordeaux wine Château Margaux. There is enough brainpower put behind Hemingway’s drink of choice that there are debates about which he truly loved the most: was it the mojito, invented in his home-away-from-home in Havana, Cuba? Or the daiquiri, supposedly sipped while he wrote The Old Man & The Sea? We’ll put both drinks down here and the reader can decide which one is more effective as a source of inspiration.

Mojito

1 1/2 oz white rum, 1 oz lime juice, 2 tsp sugar, 6 mint leaves, soda water.

Muddle mint, lime juice, and sugar in a glass of ice. Add rum and top off with soda. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Daiquiri

1 1/2 oz white rum, 1/2 oz simple syrup, 1 oz lime juice.

Pour all ingredients into a shaker full of ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Truman Capote

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”

Notable works: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood

Truman Capote perfected the art of the literary celebrity, by using his fame from writing pioneering nonfiction works such as In Cold Blood and his larger-than-life force of personality to get adoration from the people around him. A gay man who refused to let himself be ignored by society, Capote took many lovers, hosted massive gala events, partied with Andy Warhol in the ’70s, and remained a dear friend to Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote’s drink of choice was the screwdriver, a simple drink with a taste as big and flashy as Capote himself.

Screwdriver

1 3/4 oz vodka, 3 1/2 oz orange juice.

Mix all ingredients in a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with a thin orange slice.

Dorothy Parker

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Notable works: Enough Rope, A Star is Born

While Dorothy Parker doesn’t have a work that stands up to In Cold Blood or The Sun Also Rises, the New York-based poet and essayist had a fiery wit that endures to this day. Parker wrote for Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker, and countless other famous magazines, and eventually parlayed that success into a time screenwriting for Hollywood, where she was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for A Star is Born. Parker had a known love of the whiskey sour, and she wrote of the effects of too much drink in many acerbic poems.

Whiskey Sour

1 1/2 oz whiskey, 1 oz lemon juice, 1/2 oz simple syrup.

Pour all ingredients into a shaker full of ice. Shake gently and strain into an ice-filled old fashioned glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Raymond Chandler

“As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where its going out of style.”

Notable works: The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye

Next to Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler is the most influential author on the world of mystery fiction, with every good mystery novel written since the 1939 publication of The Big Sleep at least partially influenced by Chandler’s novel, and his protagonist Philip Marlowe. Like Capote and Parker, Chandler also dabbled in screenwriting, best known for working on the script to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Chandler, like Ian Fleming with James Bond, used his literary creation to popularize a drink of choice; Philip Marlowe was fond of gimlets in The Long Goodbye, and the detective’s preference for the drink led to the gimlet really catching on in America.

Gimlet

2 oz gin, 2/3 oz sweetened lime juice (Chandler specified Rose’s Lime Juice).

Mix all ingredients into a mixing glass full of ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

* * *

Are you braving NaNoWriMo this month? Do you have a favorite boozy author that didn’t make the list? Let us know in the comments!

Understanding the Different Styles of Tequila

Like rum, tequila is a versatile spirit: it can be consumed straight or mixed into a wide variety of cocktails, it can make sweet drinks or savory, it’s appropriate for a night on the town or curled up by the fire at home. But there are so many different styles of tequila, it can get overwhelming. Which style is best for making a sweet mixed drink? Which is best for slow sipping? And what do words like “Reposado” or “Extra Añejo” mean, anyway? Follow along while we break down the categories of tequila and see what you can learn about Mexico’s famed spirit.

To start: What, exactly, is tequila? It’s not a distillate of grains — like whisky — or molasses — like rum. Instead, tequila is made from the juice of the agave plant, a Mexican succulent closely related to the yucca. Liquor called mezcal made from distilled agave is produced in many areas of Mexico, but as Cognac is to brandy, to be called tequila, mezcal must be produced in and around the town of Tequila in Mexico’s Jalisco province. During production, tequila is aged for different amounts of time, and that is what will get us the most basic styles of the spirit.

First up is blanco, also sometimes called silver or plata. Blanco tequila is unaged, bottled soon after distillation to prevent changing, and is the most typical tequila used for drinking as a shot and for mixing. Without the barrel influence, blanco tequila represents the pure taste of the agave plant, and the imbiber will get notes of citrus, pepper, light vegetal sweetness, and some heat, which allows the spirit to hold its own in any cocktails you might use it with. Some tequila producers, notably Don Julio, will store their blanco in stainless steel tanks for a month or two, which will cut down on the burn while still keeping the spirit unaged; if a shot of typical blanco is too harsh, you might find a shot of Julio to be a bit more mellow, with a strong grapefruit taste.

Feeling a bit burned out on fiery blanco shots? The next step in the tequila aging process might be just what you’re looking for. With reposado, or “rested,” tequila, the spirit is aged oak barrels (almost always used bourbon barrels) for at least two months and at most a year. This specific aging timetable gives the reposado time to mellow out and pick up some aromas and flavors from the barrel, while still retaining just enough of blanco’s youthful kick. This means you’ll get caramel and honey notes from the barrel, and the citrus and pepper qualities of the tequila will round out and allow flavors of cinnamon and vanilla to mingle in the glass. Reposado tequila is still burly enough for cocktails, but can also be sipped over ice if that’s more what you’re looking for. As such, reposado often has something to offer everyone, and if you’re only used to fiery blanco, it’s a great new place to explore.

If a distiller keeps its tequila in the barrel for longer than a year and up to three years, it’s classified as añejo, or “aged.” These are the tequilas for the whisky drinker looking for something new, as all that time in the barrel makes for a sumptuous spirit, with almost none of the youthful exuberance found in a bottle of blanco. Instead, añejo tequila provides a deep complexity of aroma and flavor, often showing notes of coffee, dark chocolate, and honey. While one certainly can take a shot of añejo, or make a mixed drink with it, you’ll miss some of the nuances of taste, and considering that a bottle of añejo is typically far more expensive than a bottle of blanco, it would seem like a waste of money for something that you won’t fully appreciate. Instead, añejo tequila is best sipped slowly, usually neat, like a glass of fine whisky. In fact, you can get out all your nice whisky glassware to improve the taste even further.

What happens if a batch of tequila is kept in the barrel for more than three years? That’s when you start seeing phrases on the bottle like extra añejo, or occasionally “ultra-aged.” Extra añejo has only been a classification since 2006, so it’s not as widespread as the other styles, but a bottle of extra añejo can be a rare treat when you come across one. As you might guess, everything that makes a Tequila añejo is even more pronounced in extra añejo: the caramel, coffee, and honey notes are all still present, with an even stronger vanilla influence from the barrels. Extra añejo tequilas unsurprisingly fetch top-dollar prices, but if you’re looking for that perfect gift for someone who prefers a well-aged single malt Scotch, extra añejo can be a unique way to go.

The last major category of Tequila is mixto, though it is often classified as “gold,” “oro,” or “joven.” Unlike the previous four styles, mixto tequila does not have a specific requirement for aging, and it usually is not aged at all. Any color in a mixto is often artificial: Cuervo Gold being the most favous of the bunch. Mixto tequila is made with a base of at least 51% blanco tequila, to which other spirits, flavorings, sugar, and color can be added. Most drinkers consider mixto tequila to be little more than rotgut, and not worth drinking at all. That said, in a frozen margarita, those same drinkers often don’t notice what they’re downing.

So those are the five primary categories of tequila; what else is out there? Plenty! There are dozens of tequila liqueurs, like Patron’s XO Cafe blending of tequila and coffee, or Agavero’s blend of tequila with damiana, a flower indigenous to the Jalisco province. Don Julio and Herradura, among others, make clear añejo Tequilas, produced by filtering their añejo Tequila more than a half-dozen times to scrub out all the color added by barrel aging. These clear añejos are more of a talking point than anything else, tasting like (and priced as) a rich extra añejo while having the appearance of an unaged blanco. Flavors abound, too: La Pinta makes a pomegranate tequila, and Tanteo makes a jalapeño tequila, which both go great in cocktails.

How do you prefer your tequila? Let us know in the comments!

What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)

You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.

Barley

The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.

Corn

Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.

Wheat

Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot  be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.

Rye

Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.

Other Grains

The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.

As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!

What’s the Difference Between a Pot Still and a Column Still?

If you’re a shrewd imbiber, you may notice that some bottles of liquor — for instance, Irish whiskey like Redbreast — advertise a particular kind of still used to produce the spirit, in this case “single pot still.” Elsewhere, you may notice other bottles — like Japanese whisky Nikka — instead touting something called a Coffey still used to make their wares. If you delve deeper into these phrases, you might find that there appears to be a whole host of different kinds of stills: in addition to those above, you can find column stills, alembic stills, continuous stills, patent stills, and many others. What do all these terms mean, and how do they effect what you get in your bottle?

The pot still is what most of us think of when we think of a still: the stereotypical still design, made of copper, with a wide, bulbous bottom and a long, thin, tapered neck. There is evidence that pot stills made of terracotta were used as early as the 400s BCE, but the name you’ll see most attached to its invention is Arab alchemist Al-Jabir around 790 CE. At the time, Al-Jabir wasn’t looking to get tipsy; he was looking to bring out greater purity in his liquid materials to try and find the secret of eternal life. However, once it was discovered that water and alcohol have different boiling points, the pot still — also called an “alembic,” which is an alchemical term — starting being used to instead increase the purity of alcohol such as wine.

The way a pot still works is simple: the contents of the large lower chamber, called the pot, are heated until the alcohol vaporizes. The vapor travels up the long neck, where it is cooled down by cold water. Once cool enough, the vapors condense back into liquid, where it is collected in a separate chamber. Thus, you now have a product that has a much higher alcohol content, since most of the water in it got left behind in the pot. In the olden days, a pot was heated simply by lighting a fire under it; these days, vaporization is usually achieved with superheated steam, which is easier to control and fine-tune than fire, and which allows distillers to better guide their product. That said, the pot still is still fairly inefficient in terms of energy expended. Not all of the alcohol makes it into the collection chamber, and due to the fact that pot stills have to be batch operated — that is, that in-between batches, they have to be emptied, cleaned, and refilled — using a pot still is a laborious task.

Great men spent ages trying to increase the speed and efficiency of pot stills, and in 1831 Irishman Aenas Coffey patented his “Coffey still,” based on the use of two vertical columns instead of a single pot. Also known as a patent or continuous still, but best known these days as a column still, Coffey’s still behaves like a series of pot stills all linked together, stacked on top of each other. The liquid to be distilled falls through each chamber from the top of the column, while superheated steam comes up from the bottom. The steam vaporizes the alcohol, while the leftover “wash” with its alcohol removed falls down to the bottom chamber, where it is turned into steam and is used to vaporize the next batch. The vaporized alcohol floats up through each chamber of the column, and since each chamber has a lower temperature than the last, more and more impurities in the alcohol get left behind. The alcohol, with its low boiling point, gets vaporized and thus a purer concentration of alcohol is left behind in each chamber. The more chambers a column still has, the purer the concentration will end up.

Lest you start visualizing a column still the size of a skyscraper, know that a column still with an abundance of chambers will be made up of several interlinked columns; the alcohol will reach the top of one, and then get filtered into the bottom of the next, where the temperature is yet still a little cooler. This allows a column still to have an end product of 95% pure alcohol, as opposed to the 60% to 80% alcohol a pot still can end up with. (This doesn’t mean you’ll get a higher abv in the bottle of course, this is just the initial concentration. Alcohol from both pot and column stills are further watered down before bottling.)

So if column stills are so much more efficient and produce such a pure product, why would anyone make liquor in a pot still these days? The same reason why audiophiles might prefer a vinyl LP to a CD or MP3: those impurities in the distillate are what give the spirit its flavor, and a pot still allows its spirits a warmth and depth that the cold efficiency of a column still can’t match. A whisky or Cognac made in a pot still has the reputation of a private, personal, hand-made treat; sure it’s more labor-intensive, but that only means that you’re getting a superior product than something made in a detached, aloof column still, right? Many people certainly think this way. In general, the more rich and flavorful liquors — single-malt Scotch, Cognac, high-end rum, mezcal — are made in pot stills, while crisp clear spirits — vodka, white rum, gin — are made in column stills that can reach high abvs. The big exception to the rule is bourbon and rye whiskey, which are usually made in column stills, but often in a slower, more hands-on style like one might find with a pot still. Of course, exceptions to all of these rules of thumb abound.

Both pot and column stills have a permanent place in the history of spirits, and neither are going anywhere anytime soon. But at least now you know what each one is used for, and why.

-->