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.

What’s the Best Way to Cellar Wine?

So you’re a fan of good wine, and you’ve just acquired a nice bottle. It’s not something you’re going to drink right away, and perhaps you want to put it down for a while and let the passage of time potentially improve what’s inside. If this is your first time cellaring a bottle of wine, it might seem like a confusing task: Where’s the best place to keep your bottles? What about light or temperature? Should a bottle be stored on its side, or standing up? If you’re ready to start a wine cellar of your own, here are some basic instructions for how to get the most out of your bottles.

For temperature, it’s best to keep things cool, but not too cool. In general, people drink reds too warm and whites too cold, and this is extended over to how the bottles are stored, as well. If the temperature in your cellar is too high, the wine will age far too quickly, and the aromas and flavors could be dulled by the heat. Too cold, and the tastes and aromas contained in the bottle won’t evolve much at all. In general, a good cellar keeps a temperature of around 50° to 60° Fahrenheit, which is just right to keep a bottle of wine steadily aging for a long time. Just as important as the ideal temperature is that that temperature remains more or less steady. Obviously most of us can’t afford a perfectly regulated wine cellar, but kept somewhere with a consistent temperature will do bottles good.

Light, or lack thereof, is another important factor in a good wine cellar. Specifically, ultraviolet light can have a detrimental effect on wine, so if complete darkness isn’t a possibility, at least keep the bottles away from the sun. UV light can bleach not only the bottle’s label, but the wine itself, leaving it tasting thin and unpleasant. Light from bulbs carries much less UV than the sun does, and all the better if you’re using incandescent bulbs, which emit almost no UV light at all. But if it’s possible, it’s best to keep your cellar dark when you’re not around; if no light gets in, your bottles are better off.

If you go to a good wine shop, you may notice that the higher-end bottles are stored slanted, or on their side. This is how you should keep your bottles in your own personal cellar, as well. The idea here is that if a bottle is kept on its side, the wine will keep the bottom of the cork moist. A dry cork will get loose and let air in, which will cause the wine within to prematurely oxidize, which will lead to that often awful vinegar taste you get from a bottle past its prime — not to mention it can be a frustrating task trying to extract a dry, brittle cork from a bottle. Obviously, this only matters for bottles with corks, so if you have a nice screw top bottle on hand, it can stand up if you feel the need.

So, light, temperature, and bottle placement are probably the three most important factors in a good wine cellar (if you have some especially old bottles, or some well-aged vintage ports, you’ll also want to make sure your bottles aren’t jostled in any way, as this will disturb any sediment that may collect in the bottle). Of course, not all of us are blessed with spacious basements that fulfill all of the requirements for a perfect cellar. If a cool, dark basement isn’t possible, consider a little-used closet, or a quiet corner of a room that doesn’t get a lot of light. Keep your bottles cool, on their side, and in the dark, and you’ll be able to age your wines comfortably. Happy drinking!

Do Bitters Go Bad?

Reader Sam writes:

“Hi Drinkhacker, love your articles. I have a question maybe you can answer. I’ve had a bottle of bitters on my shelf for a while now, and I was wondering if bitters ever go bad. Thanks for reading and keep up the good work.”

Sam’s question is a good one. If you’re interested in mixology, you likely have a bottle of bitters stashed away for when it’s needed, but it’s not like you use a ton of the stuff when you make drinks; most recipes just call for a few dashes, so that 8-ounce bottle of bitters could last you for a decade or more. Is it a waste of money buying anything more than a little 2-ounce bottle, because the rest will spoil before you can use it?

To start: What exactly are bitters, anyway? Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with various herbs, fruits, bark, spices, seeds, and just about anything else you can think of. In this way, they’re essentially a liqueur, like an amaro or any other bitter spirit. Could you drink a bottle of bitters straight? While we won’t recommend it (it gets the name ‘bitters’ for a reason, drinking it straight is a potent experience reserved for the insane), it’s perfectly safe to just take a swig of bitters, and in fact that was the idea when bitters were first invented: for a long time, bitters (as well as other bitter herbal liqueurs) were actually made as medicines, to be taken as a cure for everything from an upset stomach to gout. There’s evidence that suggests that bitters, or at least a bitters-like liqueur, was the first type of alcohol made: In China, they’ve uncovered evidence of a fermented concoction brewed with bitter hawthorne berries dating back to 7,000 BC, likely used as a medicine.

So now that you know a bitter more about what bitters are, let’s finally get around to answering Sam’s question. The general answer is that bitters don’t go bad, with one exception that we know of. As a liqueur, bitters have a high alcohol content that might surprise you: Angostura, the most famous brand of bitters, has a whopping 45% abv in that little bottle. Because of this, most bitters have a shelf life comparable to any spirit: essentially indefinite. Like all spirits, chemical reactions and evaporation in the bottle will eventually start to change the taste if you keep the same bottle for a decade or more, but none of it will hurt you and the product won’t spoil.

The one exception we have seen are some fruit bitters made by Fee Brothers, because they sometimes dissolve their flavoring ingredients in glycerin instead of ethanol like most liqueurs. Unlike ethanol, glycerin does have a shelf life of about a year or two before it spoils. If you want some fruit bitters and aren’t sure about that bottle of Fee Brothers that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, maybe try buying a different brand, or just learn to infuse your own neutral spirit with a fruit of your choice. It’s easy and fun.

Thanks to Sam for the question, and if any readers have questions about the strange and wonderful world of alcohol, write to me at [email protected], and hopefully we can answer your questions, too!

Does Absinthe Make You Hallucinate?

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

Though absinthe has been legal in the United States for a decade now, in the grand scheme of things it’s still a rather mysterious spirit, one that’s cloaked in superstition. And though the average imbiber might not know what absinthe is made out of or what it tastes like, the one thing everyone knows is the story of the “Green Fairy,” the hallucinations that one is said to get from drinking absinthe, and which has a lot to do why it was banned in the U.S. for about a century (1912-2007). So of course the question must now be asked: Does absinthe really make you hallucinate? If so, why? And if not, what the heck was going on with the ban?

So first off, what is the reason the stories give for absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties? The general consensus has been that wormwood, an herb used as a flavoring agent for the drink, contains thujone, a supposedly psychoactive compound that can cause someone enjoying the drink to see things. However, research shows that that just doesn’t seem to be the case; while wormwood definitely contains thujone, and thujone has been shown to block GABA receptors in the brain and can be toxic when taken in high enough doses, you won’t find any absinthe that contains the levels of thujone necessary for a reaction. (Not to mention that the effect of blocked GABA receptors isn’t trippy visions, but in fact painful convulsions. Not our idea of a good time.) Indeed, due to absinthe’s high alcohol content (typically around 60 to 70% abv), you would likely die of alcohol poisoning long before you ingested enough thujone to have any effect at all, good or ill.

That said, drinking absinthe isn’t a death sentence, either. Like the supposedly headache-inducing sulfites found in wine, thujone is naturally found in all sorts of things we ingest, and you don’t see people keeling over or having wild visions on the streets. The mundane truth is that neither wormwood nor the thujone within cause hallucinations, and the fact that people still fervently believe they do today shows how powerful the absinthe myth is.

But that’s the modern stuff. The absinthe that was available in its golden age was much more potent and psychotropic, right? Not likely. Despite the widespread belief that pre-ban absinthe had a much higher level of thujone in it, according to absinthe expert and Lucid creator Ted Breaux, absinthe never really had any hallucinogenic qualities. Instead, the poets and artists who claimed to see green fairies were likely just overtaken by absinthe’s high alcohol content, plus perhaps the power of suggestion, of course. If you have deep pockets, you can test Breaux’s claims yourself: There are plenty of sealed bottles of pre-ban absinthe on the market, they’re just very expensive.

So what was up with the ban in the first place? Remember that absinthe was banned in most countries in the early 20th century, when temperance movements were strong and had powerful political backing. The United States banned absinthe in 1912, even before Prohibition, while in France luminaries were attacking absinthe as the cause of all of the country’s declining moral values. It’s likely that absinthe, with an alcohol content a third higher than most gin or whiskey, was just a scapegoat for what was generally a bad time for alcohol. It took a lot of lobbying by folks like Breaux (and changing attitudes toward drinking) to finally overturn the ban just 10 years ago.

So that’s the strange, convoluted story of absinthe and its supposed effects. If you’re not going to rush out and break the bank on a pre-ban bottle, try a bottle of Pernod for the traditional experience, Lucid to see what bars are doing with it, or Wild Card for a more contemporary, “craft” absinthe.

What is Fortified Wine and How Is It Made?

“Silver and ermine and red faces full of port wine” – John Betjeman

Fortified wine, that is, wine with a spirit (usually brandy) added to up the alcohol content, is a style that fell out of fashion decades ago. While once enjoyed in the salons of well-off aristocrats throughout Western Europe, these days ports, sherries, and their fellow fortified wines are a much more niche pleasure, a hidden gem for those seeking something more powerful and rich and decadent than they might get otherwise. For a wine aficionado with cellar room to spare, fortified wine’s high alcohol content provides its ability to be aged exceptionally long, with good ports having the potential to be cellared for a century or more. If you want to try something new, follow along and discover the world of four of the most common styles of fortified wine: port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.

Port

Port is the most wide-ranging and approachable of these four wine, and for more detail on the intricacies of its production, check out our Portugal wine travel guide. For now though, know that port comes from and is named after the city of Porto in Portugal, where port wine is still stored and shipped out to other countries. The actual growing and fermenting of the grapes is done along the Douro River in the Northeast of the country, which for centuries was then brought downstream to Porto for sale and distribution in rickety boats. What makes port so complex is that it has many different sub-categories of style within the general umbrella of “port.”

The post famous style of port is known as Vintage Port, and it’s the one that a wine drinker can put down for a few decades to invariably improve; because of the spirits added to the wine, a good vintage port usually won’t go bad within one person’s lifetime, and will continue to improve for 30 years or more. Vintage ports are massive, brooding, and sumptuous with the blackest of black fruit flavors, and ageing them will add endless complexity with notes of brown sugar, nutmeg, butterscotch, and other delights. Vintage port benefits greatly from decanting before drinking, to let the true force of the flavors open up and to eliminate sediment.

Ruby ports and Late Bottled Vintage (or “LBV”) ports on the surface look, smell, and taste like vintage ports, but they are simpler, not made for ageing or decanting. If you are curious about port and don’t want to immediately spend a fortune on a bottle of vintage, an LBV port is a good way to try the style. With an LBV you’ll get notes of dark raisins, black plum, and other rich fruits, without the nuance and complexity of a vintage port, but usually also at a quarter of the price or less.

If you pick up a bottle of Tawny Port, you may notice an age statement (such as “10 years”) and think you’re getting a great deal — but tawny port is really a bit of stage magic on the part of port makers. Tawny ports are aged in small wood barrels to make for a more complex, wood-forward character, and then blended with other tawny ports to approximate the typical flavor of a tawny at that age. As such, tawny ports are nutty and loaded with baking spices, chocolate, and some oxidized notes. Like LBVs, they’re designed to be a good value compared to vintage ports, and are a good way to try out a bottle to see if you like what this style of port has to offer.

Sherry

Other than port, the only other fortified wine with much of a presence these days is Sherry, though finding good sherries can be a more arduous task than finding good ports. Sherry comes from the region of Jerez on the Southern coast of Spain near Gibraltar, right where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge. One of the defining characteristics of sherry is the production of a thick film of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine in the barrel, called flor, which speeds up the process of converting sugar into ethanol, as well as protects it from excess oxidation. While there are many, many styles of sherry, three tend to dominate; the amount of flor that is allowed to interact in the wine determines which style of sherry you’re getting.

The driest of sherries is Fino, which is made when flor converts almost all of the sugar found in the wine to alcohol. Fino is very dry and nutty, with a flinty, mineral quality that can be off-putting to those who aren’t used to it. Like an Italian Pinot Grigio, however (another dry wine loaded with a mineral taste), fino sherry goes great with food, especially salty food. Try a glass of fino with nuts or dried seafood, and its dryness will blend perfectly with the salt on your tongue.

Next up is Amontillado, which begins its life as fino, but the layer of flor doesn’t last in the barrel and the wine partly oxidizes. As such, amontillado has residual sugars which give it a sweeter taste, and the contact with air gives it a rich brown color not unlike tawny port. Compared to fino, amontillado is similarly nutty, but the flinty quality is replaced with a bit of meaty richness, like smoked meat or sauteed mushrooms. A good pairing for amontillado would be pork or duck, something with a little gaminess that would blend well with the wine’s smoky qualities. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories will also recognize amontillado as the object of revenge in his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The last style of sherry we’ll discuss today is Oloroso, the biggest, boldest, and often sweetest of the sherries. While amontillado is made when the sherry’s flor breaks down on its own, with oloroso the cellarmaster destroys the layer of yeast intentionally, which allows the wine to oxidize heavily. Oloroso is often made with the grapes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which make the wine much sweeter than fino or amontillado, a closer taste to port for those not used to sherry. Oloroso will also be a style of interest for Scotch drinkers, since many Speyside Scotches, like Macallan, are often aged or finished in oloroso sherry barrels.

Marsala and Madeira

Port and sherry are by far the most common kinds of fortified wine, but it’s worth mentioning two other kinds: Marsala and Madeira. Both are widely known to consumers these days for use in cooking, but both are fortified wines that can be consumed alone just like any other. Marsala comes to us from Sicily in Italy, and is typically consumed as an aperitif. Its aromas and tastes include vanilla and apricot. Like sherry, it can range in taste from dry to sweet, though it doesn’t have special designations for each style like sherry does.

Madeira gets its name from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Taste-wise, it has the nutty and spiced components of a tawny port, like caramel and hazelnut, as well as a bit of the citrus of a sherry, like peach and orange peel. There are several styles of Madeira, but the main ones are Finest, which is a drier wine aged 3 years, and Rainwater, which is sweet and fruity and is great in cocktails or on its own. Numerous styles of aged Madeiras, made with different grapes to impact the amount of sweetness in them, are also available. (Click the above link for some examples.)

As you can see, there’s a lot to say about fortified wine, and this article only scratches the surface. Let us know what you think in the comments, and maybe an article exclusively on port or sherry is in our future!

What Botanicals Are Used to Make Gin (and Why)?

Our recent martini taste test has lit a juniper-scented fire under us here at Drinkhacker HQ, so we’ve decided to once again explore gin, the most aromatic of spirits. Today we’ll be giving an overview of the different botanicals that go into your favorite gin; unlike wine, which can have aromas and flavors of a variety of different fruits and minerals but only really contains grapes, gin can contain essences of potentially dozens of different botanicals added in during production. While you’ve no doubt heard of some of these, others can be pretty obscure, as distillers search for the perfect blend to make their product stand out from the pack. This won’t be an exhaustive overview of the botanicals used in gin, because you could fill a book with that information. Instead, let’s explore some of the more common seeds, oils, and berries found in gin.

Juniper Berries

We have to start somewhere, and no botanical is more deserving than juniper berries; without them, you’re really not making gin but rather just flavoring vodka. The word “gin” is actually derived from the Dutch jenever and the French genièvre, both of which come from the Latin juniperus, which means juniper, and when most people think of gin they think of the flavor of juniper. Commonly found in Tuscany in Italy, as well as Macedonia near Greece, the juniper plant is actually a relative of the spruce or fir trees that people use as Christmas trees, a relationship that’s borne out by the scents and flavors of pine, lavender, and camphor. The true value in juniper isn’t actually in the flesh of the fruit themselves (which aren’t even really berries, but little fleshy pine cones), but in the essential oils found in the seeds, which give gin its most recognizable flavors and aromas.

Coriander Seeds

The second most important botanical used in gin are coriander seeds. Found in regions as disparate as Morocco and Bulgaria, coriander seeds come from a plant that fans of Indian food might recognize better as cilantro, and in gin coriander imparts a similar profile of tastes and aromas to those found in Indian cuisine: notes of citrus peel, ginger, and sage are all found within the essential oils of the seed, as well as notes of pine and camphor similar to juniper berries. If you’re a fan of curry, keep those in the back of your mind next time you have some gin, and see all of the flavor connections you can make!

Angelica Root

The Angelica plant is grown throughout Northern Europe, and its root compliments the flavors found in the previous two botanicals: like those, it gives the gin a piney character. Being a root, angelica also imparts a bitter, herbal, musky scent, like sitting among the fallen leaves in a vast forest. Angelica is also used in vermouth, which explains why gin and vermouth complement each other so well in martinis. Juniper, angelica, and coriander are probably the most essential botanicals used to make gin, and the tastes and scents of all three blending together make gin what we know it.

Orris Root

Coming from Florence in Italy, the root of the iris flower, known as orris root, is outside of gin mostly used in perfumes. One whiff will tell you why: the root is very bitter and very floral, and serves mostly to fix and enhance the scents of the other botanicals in the gin. The root itself mostly imparts aromas of flowers, but it is ground into such a dense powder that within the context of gin it mostly holds on to the notes and flavors of the other botanicals, and keeps your drink rich and fragrant for longer.

Cardamom Seeds

The last botanical we’ll examine in detail today are the seeds of the cardamom plant. Native to India, cardamom seeds are similar to coriander seeds in their aromatic capacity: citrusy lemon peel and medicinal eucalyptus come to the fore from the oils found in the seeds. Like coriander, cardamom is used to add rich aromas to food from India and Southeast Asia, and its musky tang will be recognizable to fans of those cuisines.

Citrus Peel

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the two main aromas and flavors that you get from a typical gin are evergreen pine and tart citrus. As you can probably guess, the final botanical we’ll cover today gives a big boost to the latter. Grated peel from lemons and/or oranges enhance the bitter citrus bite of the coriander and cardamom seeds, and helps to prevent the gin from just tasting like you’re drinking a pine tree.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the botanicals used in gin: the combinations can be almost endless, and many more herbs, fruits, roots, or peels are used to try and find that perfect balance. In some gins you can also find almonds, licorice, ginger, nutmeg, and many, many others. Nearly anything that can impart a strong aroma can be used to enhance the blend that these essential botanicals offer.

Shaken or Stirred: Which Makes the Best Martini?

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”

-Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

Like a manhattan or an old fashioned, a martini is on its surface a simple drink to make: dry vermouth, gin (traditionally) or vodka (modern), and an olive as garnish. But a martini is something special; it’s lodged in the popular imagination, through no small fault of the man quoted above, Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond. Whether through Fleming’s novels or film adaptations featuring Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, or countless others, if there’s one thing the average person knows about James Bond, it’s his preference of martini: shaken, not stirred.

The question is: Why? Does shaking vs. stirring change the taste of the martini? And if so, which is better? Naturally for this question we decided to hold a tasting to see how a martini fares when shaken or when stirred. For this tasting, we went with two gin martinis, made with Bombay, one shaken and one stirred.

Stirred Martini

Nose: The nose of a martini is a lovely thing, subtle and herbal and bitter. The stirred martini had notes of pine, bitter orange peel, and juniper — not too overpowering. The aroma of the vermouth was almost indistinct, and served mostly to highlight the aromas of the gin.

Palate: The initial taste of the stirred martini was briny, lightly acidic sea salt from the vermouth. Then came the gin, with the promise of the nose being borne out by juniper, bitter citrus peel, and a light Christmas-tree pine. Gin can be a tough thing for an alcohol novice to wrap their heads around, but a martini is a good, aromatic, interesting way to try something new.

Shaken Martini

Nose: The nose of the shaken martini was similar to the stirred martini, if perhaps a bit more piney. The decision of shaking or stirring didn’t seem to factor much into the nose.

Palate: Here’s where things get radically different. To start, the shaken martini was much colder, as a result of the gin being shaken up with the ice. (Many shaken martinis will even have ice chips in the drink, which some drinkers consider offensive.) The chill of the drink translated over to the taste, which was light and very, very subtle, almost to the point of not tasting like much of anything at all. There were slight notes of juniper and peel and pine, but they were buried beneath a watery simplicity. As the martini warmed up, the flavor became a bit stronger, but it was still more jumbled and indistinct than the stirred martini was.

Conclusions

So why did the drinks turn out this way? A lot of it has to do with the cold: Like a glass of white wine, it’s easy to over-chill a martini by shaking it, and the primary result of a too-cold martini is that it becomes much more thin and tasteless. This is compounded by the fact that shaking introduces more water into the drink via melted ice; a stirred martini will be a bit stronger, and thus more flavorful. As well, gin is a sensitive spirit and vigorous shaking has the result of muddling its taste. (There’s much talk of “bruising the vermouth” if you shake a martini, but it’s the gin that has the bigger problem.) All in all: A stirred martini is indeed more interesting and flavorful than a shaken one.

If there’s not much to recommend a shaken martini over a stirred one, then why does James Bond order them? The answer is twofold: first of all, Bond is the ultimate bad boy, and that extends to his choice in drinks. He doesn’t follow our rules, and from his first appearance in Casino Royale back in 1953, he was a man that blazed his own path. If society tells us to stir our martinis, of course Bond is going to be the type of guy who drinks them shaken. The other reason is more mundane. Look at his recipe again. In addition to the gin and vermouth, Bond requests a measure of vodka, making it a drink that he named The Vesper, after that book’s femme fatale. Vodka is a much heartier spirit than gin is, and if you’re drinking a vodka martini, shaking might actually be good for it, since vodka is best when it’s ice cold. Of course, given that Bond is drinking a martini with both gin and vodka in it, perhaps he just prefers a weaker drink with some water in the mix.

So that’s another taste test done, and another curious corner of the history of spirits explored. If you feel like trying this experiment yourself, let us know in the comments which style you prefer, and why!

-->