Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

Brad Thomas Parsons is no stranger to bitter herbal liqueurs. He took the craft cocktail scene by storm with his 2011 book Bitters: A Spirited History Of A Classic Cure All, and taught the common drinker how to properly use those little brown bottles behind the bar. Not happy with showing only one side of the spectrum, he now delves into drinkable bitters in his new book Amaro: A Spirited History Of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. It is a guide to the complex area of aperitifs, fernets, and herbal based spirits that explains how these once medicinal tonics have become some of the most consumed alcoholic beverages around the world.

Parsons first explores the origins of these pungent beverages, which can be traced back to the medieval age where monks and friars were experimenting with the restorative powers of herbs and other botanicals. In preparation for the large list of examples in the book,  a short course on how to appreciate the various styles goes over the many ways one can drink them. The list itself is broken into sub-categories for ease of reference, and includes plenty of tasting notes, exploratory histories, and information about ingredients and recipes.

A large section of the book focuses on the vast amount of cocktails being made with these restorative tonics around the world. The negroni and other classic amaro-based drinks are covered, as well as a whole series of modern-day concoctions that include spirits such as mezcal and single malt whisky. Parsons also injects his own musings and stories into the descriptions of the 91 individual recipes that explain the inspiration behind many of them.

The book ends with a do it yourself section that explains the finer points of making your own amaro at home, and a how to guide for using herbal liqueurs in the kitchen. The DIY portion offers four seasonally inspired recipes that are easy to follow, and mimic different styles of amari. Parsons walks the reader through some of the uncommon ingredients and the best way to acquire them, and discusses the materials you will need and some different techniques to use. The kitchen section offers several amaro-based recipes that focus on dessert items, which plays towards the digestif aspect of these liqueurs and shows the versatility their flavors have to offer. Many of the ingredients are easy to find, and the instructions are simple to follow, which allows the reader to play around with different styles of amari.

Overall, this book is a wonderful introduction to the world of herbal liqueurs. Parsons guides the reader through a dizzying amount of information that demystifies the complex world of amaro, and describes the best ways to enjoy them. He also provides a human element throughout the book that pulls the reader into the lives of those that make and enjoy these eclectic beverages, and sets it apart from a typical cocktail recipe guide.

A / $26 / BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON

A Field Guide to the Agave Used For Mezcal

Agave angustifolia (Espadin)

A. karwinskii (Madrecuixe)

Mezcal is the precursor spirit to modern day tequila; it has been produced since the mid 16th century, and many distillers still use ancient techniques for much of it’s production. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from the Weber blue species of agave, mezcal is produced with multiple species that are either cultivated or foraged from the wild. Each individual species varies in flavor and aroma complexities depending on their specific region of growth, which are spread between the eight mezcal producing regions of Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.

A. capreata (Paplometl)

The laws that regulate the production of mezcal, known as NORMA, designate five species of agave that are used for its creation: Agave angustifolia (espadin), A. asperrima (maguey de cerro), A. weberi (maguey de mezcal), A. petatorum (tobala), and A. salmiana (maguey verde o mezcalero) — but it also states that any agave with the proper sugar content that grows within the eight regions of production can be used as well. There are over 200 known species of agave that grow within Mexico, and around 30 to 50 of them are believed to be used to produce mezcal.

A. marmorata (Tepextate)

The dominant species that is used is the A. angustifolia (espadin) species that makes up 90% of mezcal production. It is the genetic parent of the A. tequilana (weber blue) species that is used for tequila, and it shares some of the floral and tropical flavors of its offspring, which can vary depending on its region of growth. It is harvested at around nine years old, and it is both cultivated and grows wild throughout Mexico.

The more elusive bottlings of mezcal use wild species that fall into a category many producers are calling “vino de mezcal.” Most of these agaves that are used usually grow in hard to reach places or are semi-cultivated within certain regions. These agaves are also harvested much later in their growing cycle and can be up to 25 years old. As a result, they tend to be more complex in flavor and aroma. Some examples of these species are the A. marmorata (tepextate) that has tropical, floral, and spicy notes, the A. karwinskii (madrecuixe) that is vegetal, fruity, and herbaceous, and the A. capreata (paplometl) that is earthy, fruity, and meaty.

A. petatorum (Tobala)

A more easily found example of the wild species in the A. petatorum (tobala). Know to many as the “king of mezcals,” the tobala is described as being vibrant and complex with earthy, tropical, sweet, and spicy characteristics. This species grows at higher elevations (around 5000 ft), and prefers rocky canyons that have plenty of shade. It is much smaller in size than traditional agaves at a ratio of eight tobala to one normal sized agave, and it is harder to procure because it does not produce offspring on its own. Instead, this species relies on animals to spread its seeds, which makes its placement sporadic throughout each region.

There are many other wild agaves that are used in mezcal production, but a complete list doesn’t really exist. Some experts and connoisseurs have taken it upon themselves to try an create such a thing, but information is scarce. On the plus side, there is an increasing interest in mezcal here in the states, and we are now seeing more producers that use the wilder species taking the time to educate the drinker on what specific agave species are used and where they comes from.

With more than 1000 distilleries making mezcal throughout Mexico, you’ll find plenty of wonderful examples of espadin mezcal available, and companies such as Del Maguey, Wahaka, Mezcal Mayalen, Ilegal, El Jolgorio, Real Minero, Mezcales De Leyenda, and Mezcal Vago also have wonderful portfolios that include many of the wild growing species. Most of these producers can be found around the U.S., but be warned that the rarer the species, the higher the price tag.

All photos courtesy of Del Maguey and Sazerac.

Book Review: Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, And Unanswered Questions

From the scientist that studies rats with hangovers to the bar patron who wonders why anyone would want a raw egg in their drink, there have always been those who question the how’s and why’s of what we imbibe. Over the years, large amounts of research has been compiled to explain why fermented and distilled beverages entice the senses, and to explore the physical and psychological experiences that occur when we consume them. Brian D. Hoefling’s own research into these quandaries provided him the opportunity to pen his new book Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions.

Within the book Hoefling provides an intermediate study of the sciences involved in the production, preparation, and consumption of alcohol, and includes explanations for many rumors and theories along the way. Everything from fermentation to hangovers is fully explained in an easily accessible fashion that allows any novice to quickly understand the material. Plenty of detailed scientific data is included, which should satisfy the experts as well. There are also many interesting and amusing graphs, illustrations, and research studies to support the text, furnishing the reader with a fuller understanding of the more complex details around booze.

Explanations of several major myths surrounding alcohol show up within each section, and are either debunked or upheld by Hoefling’s explanations and scientific research. These include many common tales and theories that most of us have heard at one time of another, but he also includes some lesser-known rumors, such as how grapefruit may affect the potency of alcohol, to keep things interesting. Likewise, there is plenty of humor injected into his scrutinization of this folklore, which helps to keep a light-hearted attitude throughout the book.

Overall the book is successful in supplying an organized guide to the science behind alcohol. It has similar content to other books written on the subject such as Proof, but its merit lies in the easily understandable nature of the presented materials, updated content, and simplification of detailed information. The book dutifully explores the reactions we experience before and after we consume alcohol and is a solid jumping off point for anyone who wants to further their own understanding of the field.

B+ / $15 / [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]

From Barrel To Bottle: How Wood Aging Impacts Whiskey

When you contemplate any barrel-aged spirit there are many flavors and aromas that will confuse and astound your palate. Look at any review of these products and you will get my point. A lot of the characteristics you experience come from the internal chemical and biological attributes of the wood itself. Many distillers attribute around 40% to 80% of the overall characteristics experienced in whiskies, provided it hasn’t been influenced by other means, are produced by the interaction of the spirit with the wood. To understand how the wood does this, you have to delve into the inner workings of the tree.

The main structure of a barrel is composed of multiple staves that are cut from the heartwood of a tree. There are two internal structures inside the plant’s cell wall known as hemicellulose and lignin that influence the character of the spirit. Hemicellulose is made up of organic compounds and numerous sugars that are soluble in alcohol, and with the application of heat will produce color and caramel notes. Lignin is a source of Methoxy phenols, such as vanillin and syringol. These are naturally occurring organic compounds and they change with the help of heat and acidity, creating the smoky vanilla flavors and aromas in the spirit.

Throughout the wood, there are four broad components that further influence the spirit; tannins, lactones/trans-lactones, phenolics, and acids. Tannins produce an astringent, mouth drying characteristic that creates structure. Lactones/trans-lactones create coconut, clove, and butterscotch flavors and aromas. Phenolics and acids create over 400 different flavor and aromatic compounds including Ethyl syringate (tobacco and fig), Ethyl ferulate (spice and cinnamon), Ethyl vanillate (burnt, smoky and vanilla), and Methyl salicylate, which gives off minty wintergreen notes. These components also help to create the aromatic differences found in various wood varietals. Some examples include American white oak (Quercus alba), which has aromas of vanilla, coconut, pine, cherry, and spice. European oak (Quercus robur) has aromas of dried fruit, clove, raisin, and orange peel, and Japanese oak (Quercus mongolica) has intense, perfumed notes of spice and sandalwood. All of these properties are enriched and balanced during a curing process, where the cut oak is seasoned in the elements for 1 to 3 years before use. This helps with reducing astringency in the tannins, and allows for airborne bacteria and fungi to collect and grow. These organisms help breakdown complex carbohydrates in the wood, making it easier for further chemical reactions to take place inside the barrel.

After the curing process, the wood is shaped into staves and the main body of the barrel is built, from there it is toasted and charred. This application of heat effectively changes the outer structure of the staves, and chemically changes the sugars in the wood. Toasting affects the wood in two ways; oak tannins are degraded, giving color to the spirit, and the lignin degrades, producing vanilla flavor and aroma. Charring changes things a bit further, the hemicellulose is broken down into ten simple sugars, which then caramelize into what’s known as the “red layer,” creating flavors and aromas of caramel and chocolate.

Once the spirit is in the barrel, chemical and environmental reactions begin to shape the final product. Fluctuations in temperature expand and contract the barrel, forcing the alcohol in and out of the wood, extracting flavor congeners and sweetness. During this time the alcohol passes through a thin carbon filter on the inner surface of the barrel created during the charring process, this smooths out the spirit by absorbing aldehydes and sulfur compounds. As the temperature reaches higher levels it causes the evaporation of around 3% to 10% of the liquid yearly — the famous “angel’s share.” Humidity levels during this process influence the loss of liquid and effect the alcohol percentage. Higher humidity causes alcohol to evaporate more readily than water, and decreases the level of alcohol over time. In lower humidity the water is first to evaporate, causing an increase in alcohol percentage.

After evaporation has occurred the headspace created in the barrel is replaced by oxygen. This enters the barrel through pores in the wood and dissolves into solution with the spirit, this forms esters, aldehydes and acids that create fruity, nutty and vanilla flavors. At this point in maturation the flavors and aromas continue to concentrate in the reduced volume of spirit. During this period the spirit’s natural characteristics start to diminish, and the complex flavors and aromas of the wood start to take over; this is controlled by the length of maturation, climate and the size of the barrel. Typically, you will see barrels that range from the standard american 53 gallon barrel, all the way up to the 132 gallon sherry butt. The spirits matured in these larger barrels tend to take longer to appreciate in complexity because of the higher volume of liquid and the larger vessel. Aging in smaller barrels allows for more play between spirit and wood, due to an increased surface to volume ratio. In these small barrels, characteristics of the wood such as a darker color and oaky vanilla flavor and aroma are more readily infused in a shorter period, but the uptake of other components such as tannins which can quickly overpower the spirit is also accelerated.

The use of smaller barrels has been popularized within craft distillation because of their ability to produce a richly flavored and colorful product in a shorter period. A lot of these products can be quite vibrant and complex, yet some experts argue against their ability to create a well aged spirit. They propose that the longer periods of maturation are integral to the formation of flavor and aromatic compounds. While there is some validity in that statement, many aged craft spirits on the market today have shown great promise and continue to gain in popularity.

The act of aging spirits in wooden barrels has been a tradition for a long time, and has inspired some of the most sought after bottles in the history of alcohol production. The complexities brought forth from the interaction between spirit and wood will continue to astound and perplex the senses, creating a want for more experimentation. We are now seeing a multitude of new techniques being applied in wood aging: Different types of wood, re-use of barrels, and experimental maturation processes continue to create varied and expressive end products. Because of this, it is essential to educate yourself on the inner workings of wood, allowing for a greater understanding of what you are experiencing. Although this only scratches the surface of how wood influences alcohol, I hope it makes things a little easier the next time you pour a dram.