Saturday, March 29, 2014

The drinks of FORGOTTEN DRINKS

There are about four dozen drink recipes in Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer. (Here's the first part of my review, on the historical survey that makes up the bulk of the book.) Some are traditional drinks of the sort that colonists would actually have made and drunk (give or take some ice). Others are modern adaptations, using ingredients not available to colonists, possibly because they hadn't been invented yet.

At first, I thought including modern recipes was a bit of a cheat, a way of padding out what would otherwise be a rather thin collection. But they seem like pretty decent cocktails, even the ones that don't appear to have anything to do with either colonial times or New England.

And, quite frankly, a little traditional drink recipe goes a long way. There are only so many ways I need to be told to combine rum, sugar, and water before I have the hang of it.

Still, I'm looking forward to trying a Stone-Fence (1 1/2 oz rum added to hard cider), and maybe laying up a bottle of Cider Royal (1/2 cup apple brandy in a bottle of cider for 3-6 months). I went through a flip phase a few winters back, and Forgotten Drinks includes a couple of flip recipes I might try when it gets cold again (which better not be till November).

Oh, and yes, some day I will make a Rattle-Skull. (I'm more interested in trying the traditional recipe than the modern one. Several other drinks also feature traditional and modern versions.)

Syllabub? Posset? Sangaree? Yeah, I can see taking a whack at these. Switchel? No. I've already discovered the hard way that I'm just not a shrub man, and switchels sound a bit too much like shrubs. Spruce beer? Say it with me, people:

Pine Trees Aren't People Food.

There are also a few traditional traditional recipes -- like Martha Washington's own recipe for cherry bounce:
Extract the juice of 20 pounds well ripend Morrella [aka sour] cherrys. Add to this 10 quarts of old french brandy and sweeten it with White sugar to your taste. To 5 gallons of this mixture add one ounce of spice such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs of each an Equal quantity slightly bruis’d and a pint and half of cherry kirnels that have been gently broken in a mortar. After the liquor has fermented let it stand close-stoped for a month or six weeks then bottle it, remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.
I'm not sure what I would do with five gallons of cherry bounce -- more importantly, I'm not sure how I'd hide five gallons of cherry bounce from my wife while figuring out what to do with it -- but the point of these recipes is less to make them at home than to get a sense of how drinks were made back then. You didn't need a half-ounce jigger when you were laying up stores for the winter. (And if you really want to make cherry bounce, you can always just ask the Internet.)

Overall, Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England works as both a short and informal reference book on alcoholic drinks in colonial times (including a glossary and several pages of sources) and a short cocktail recipe book (though, yes, a lot of the drinks predate the creation of the cocktail). I'll keep my copy with my other recipe books, and pull it out occasionally to see if there's something I feel like trying. (The paperback is $19.99; it's also available as a Kindle edition for $9.99. As I mentioned in the first post, I got a review copy free in the mail, so I'm not going to try to tell you whether it's worth it to you to buy it, but I hope I gave you enough information to help you decide.)

Book Review: FORGOTTEN DRINKS OF COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND

When I was ten or eleven, I found out you could make soup. At home. From scratch. Without opening a can.

I promptly put some chopped vegetables in water on the stove and went outside to play, setting the pattern of curiosity, creativity, and carelessness that I've applied to my hobbies ever since. I have, for example, tried a number of things with alcoholic drinks over the years, not all of which could be fairly described as seeming like a good idea even at the time. A few of these I've chronicled on this blog.

So of course I was keen to read Corin Hirsch's Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips & Rattle-Skulls to Switchel & Spruce Beer and pleased when a review copy arrived in the mail.

I was expecting a cocktail recipe book, with some colorful backstories thrown in. And there are indeed about four dozen recipes, and lots of backstories. But about two thirds of the book is a historical survey of the role of alcoholic drinks in the lives and culture of colonial New England, and England's American colonies in general. It's a fascinating and complicated story, with subplots on beer, cider, rum, and even wine.

On colonial beer, Hirsch contrasts the Swedish Lutheran minister Israel Acrelius's opinion of the beer drunk by the common people as "brown, thick, and unpalatable" to French immigrant Hector Crevecoeur's description of his use of "pine chips, pine buds, hemlock, fir leaves, roasted corn, dried apple-skins, sassafras roots, and bran... to which we add some hops and a little malt [to] compose a sort of beverage that's very pleasant." I don't know how brown or thick Crevecouer's sort of beverage was, but it sure sounds unpalatable to me.

Cider became more popular than beer in colonial New England.
By the mid-1770s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week, putting up dozens of barrels for the winter...By 1775, one out of every ten New England farms had its own cider mill.

Hirsch says cider's popularity was due in part because it was cheaper and easier to make than beer, but I'd bet not having pine trees in it must have helped. It seems like they did get the taste right; Brillat-Savarin of The Physiology of Taste fame reported an encounter with a Connecticut cider "so excellent that I could have gone on drinking it forever."

As for rum, I knew it was the spirit of choice in colonial New England, but I didn't realize quite how often they chose it.143 New England distilleries produced five million gallons of rum in 1765, and at some point the output accounted for 80 percent of all exports from the colonies. As for the rum that wasn't exported, the colonists
drank it straight (a dram); watered down (grog and sling); blended with pepper (pepper rum), cider (Stone-Fence), ale and cream (flip) or brandy (Rattle-Skull); or glugged into a bowl with citrus juices and sugar (punch). By the time Increase [Mather]'s son, Cotton, railed, "Would it not be a surprise to hear of a Country destroy'd by a Bottle of RUM?" his countrymen were fairly soaked in the stuff.
If you haven't heard of the delightful wines made in the colonies... well, neither did the Englishmen who spent a great deal of money trying to make delightful wines in the colonies.

As for whiskey, that was more of a post-colonial phenomenon, led by the Scotch-Irish settling the western frontier and helped by a strong hit to the rum industry during the War when the supply of molasses was largely cut off.

There were definitely social consequences of the ubiquity of alcoholic beverages at the time; even children might drink a low-alcohol ciderkin (drinking water was looked on with suspicion, for good reason in the days of dumping sewage into rivers). Hirsch quotes a passage from Benjamin Franklin (writing as Silence Dogood in 1720), indicating the creativity of language sparked by all the drinking:
They are seldom known to be drunk, tho' they are very often boozey, cogey, tipsey, fox'd, merry, mellow, fuddl'd, groatable, Confoundedly cut, See two Moons, are Among the Philistines, In a very good Humour, See the Sun, or, The Sun has shone upon them; they Clip the King's English, are Almost froze, Feavourish, In their Altitudes, Pretty well enter'd, &c. In short, every Day produces some new Word or Phrase which might be added to the Vocabulary of the Tiplers.
There were also economic and political consequences -- a lot of the taxation without representation that was going on in those days involved alcoholic beverages and their ingredients.

Corin Hirsch writes about all these things in an instructive but light voice. The first line of the introduction -- quoting someone who overhears a conversation about colonial drinking -- gives an idea of her take on the subject, as an amateur who's done the studying for the rest of us: "'Did they really drink that much?'"

The book doesn't give a scholarly answer -- there's not much attention to chronology or orderly presentation of data, and the social commentaries are essentially anecdotal. I noticed a few errors of fact -- it's uisce beatha, not uisce breatha, and it doesn't mean "breath of life," nor is perry pear brandy. And it could have benefited from one more editorial pass to sand down some of the writing tics; Hirsch is perhaps too fond of drinks being "swilled" and hot places being "sticky."

Still, I learned a lot about colonial drinks and the colonists who drank them, and I still haven't said anything about the recipes. Given the length of this post, I think I'll make that part 2.

Glass envy

A few more thoughts about the difference between how whiskey tastes and how we taste whiskey:

First, the better you understand why you're tasting this whiskey, the better you can adjust the experience to meet your end, and the better experience you'll have. If you're simply after enjoyment of this whiskey right here in this glass, then it would seem you'd want to think it's a highly valued whiskey. Best, perhaps, to drink it with someone who really likes it, since their enthusiasm will add to yours.

Blind tastings, on the other hand, are ill-suited to maximizing the pleasure of drinking a particular dram. They can, though, help you think about what you do and don't like, apart from the opinions of everyone not tasting along with you. They're also pretty good at humbling you.1

Understanding why you're tasting this whiskey might include the realization that the reason you're tasting this whiskey is dumb. More than one enthusiast has discovered that his hobby has become a chore, an obligation to chase after the latest whiskey because it... well, because it's the latest whiskey, and if you haven't tasted this latest whiskey then you aren't on the cutting edge of whiskey tasting and you'll lose the respect of, you know, those weirdos down at the worm store.2

Even worse, perhaps, than chasing after a whiskey because it's new! is chasing after it because everyone else is chasing after it. I might be able to keep up with the Jones' whiskey collection, but there's no way I can keep up with the Internet's whiskey collection.

Nor would it make any sense for me to try. Here's where I remind myself, not only of the difference between envy -- which is wanting someone else to lose something good that they have, preferably to you -- and zeal -- which is wanting something good that someone else has, without them losing it as well -- but of the difference between healthy and unhealthy zeal. Unhealthy zeal is when you adopt someone else's zeal for something good simply on the basis of the zeal, not on whether the thing they're zealous for would actually be any good for you.

A final thought: While knowing that a whiskey is highly thought of may improve the experience of tasting it, that doesn't mean it makes sense for me to taste the most highly thought of whiskey I prudently can. Like the old Standford marshmallow experiment trick, the experience of tasting the really good stuff will be much better if I delay it until I know more about whiskey3, and my palate, and what makes really good stuff really good. Sure, I can try it both now and later, but if the cost is the same and the delayed enjoyment greater, why not save the cost of the lesser enjoyment now? (With "save the cost," I kid, of course. Nothing would be saved, it would merely be spent more efficiently.)


1. I should say that I have not ever done a blind tasting myself. I'm incompetent at sighted tasting, so there wouldn't be much value added. That said, it wasn't too long ago that I ordered a new-to-me Irish whiskey at a bar, which I thought was quite nice, and didn't find out until I ordered a second one that the server had misheard me the first time and what I'd drunk was a Macallan 12. Scotch, Irish, what the hell do I know?

2. In the Simpson's episode, "The War of the Simpsons," Homer explains to Marge why it's so important he catch General Sherman, the legendary catfish of a local lake. " If I catch this fish, I'll be a hero, respected and admired for years!"
Marge asks, "By whom?"
Homer answers, "Those weirdos down at the worm store!"
How much, O Man, is done in your life for just this reason!

3. Like, for instance, the difference between Scotch and Irish whiskey.

Lies my brain told me about whiskey

Adam of the Los Angeles Whiskey Society (LAWS) pulled the old slip-a-legend-into-a-blind-tasting trick, in this instance including Black Bowmore 1964 1st Edition in a lineup with a bunch of nobodies like Macallan 28yr Douglas Laing Premier Barrel and Bunnahabhain 1978 DL Platinum. And, as seems to always happen when this trick is pulled, the legend didn't particularly stand out:
Nobody jumped out of their chairs. Nobody even made much of a fuss. A few eyebrows raised, but nothing crazy. Most thought it was "pretty good," a couple "great." Some weren't terribly impressed. Nobody guessed it was Bowmore, nor did anyone seem to think it was anything super-special. These are all guys who know whisky, most of whom are serious, hardcore single malt veterans.
His explanation?
Any "legendary" whisky is good-to-excellent, but mind-blowing is impossible. Whisky can only get so good, and the rest is added in your head. Really.

When you're told something is excellent, expensive, rare, and revered, it's going to taste a lot better. It's a proven physical and psychological fact. And that's fine, it's part of the experience.

Which means that, at a certain point, the reason to spend more money, or more effort, to get a particular whiskey can't be based on the taste of the whiskey alone:
This is purely notional, of course. The curves are atan(x) and atan'(x).
If only whiskey pricing made as much sense as trigonometry.
This gets into the distinction between the taste of the whiskey and our experience of the taste of the whiskey. Or, if you prefer, it gets into the question of whether it even makes sense to talk of taste apart from the experience of taste.

Our experience depends on the context in which we interpret the sense data we receive from nosing and drinking, and that context includes not only what we know (or have been told) about what we are drinking, but also all the other circumstances -- the who, what, when, where, why, way, and means -- involved.

As Adam mentioned, one of the circumstances that improves our experience of the taste of the whiskey is the belief that other people value it highly. This effect occurs in experts as well as novices (which, I've read, is why some famous wine experts won't do blind tastings).

If you live only for pleasure, the scientific conclusion is clear: You're not spending enough on whiskey.

I'll assume without evidence that this effect dampens out at some point, that even the snobbiest orbitofrontal cortex doesn't insist that a $10,000 ounce of whiskey tastes fifty bucks better than a $9,950 ounce. If that gives too much credit to snobs, we can at least cap our pleasure in tasting increasingly expensive whiskeys by the increasing financial ruin that accompanies the experience.

The good news is that, while every possible experience of the taste of whiskey can't be known in this life, plenty of very pleasant experiences remain possible, even when balanced against all of life's non-whiskey-related experiences. As I've said before, if you can afford to drink whiskey, you can afford to drink good whiskey, and if you look after all the other things that affect your experience of that whiskey, drinking that good whiskey can make for a very pleasant hobby indeed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lies my whiskey told me make things worse

A good number of the posts on this blog touch, one way or another, on the topic of truthfulness and whiskey. I'm interested in the question of truthfulness generally, and I'm learning more all the time about the conventions of whiskeyspeak and the schools of thought about what is and isn't legitimate.1

My own opinion is that, generally speaking, we have too weak an understanding of truthfulness. We tend, I think, to look at truthfulness pragmatically, as simply the absence of lying. We don't value truthfulness in itself; rather, we estimate the harm a particular instance of lying cause, and if the harm doesn't seem all that bad, we excuse the lie (particularly when we personally benefit, from either the lie or the excusing of the lie).

I'd suggest, though, that truthfulness isn't just the condition of not lying when asked a question, it's the positive virtue -- the good habit -- of telling other people true things they would benefit from knowing. Members of a truthful society learn things from others that can help them, in less time and with less trouble and doubt than they would otherwise. Truthfulness is a necessary condition for members of a society to thrive.

From this perspective, it isn't just flat-out lying that's contrary to truthfulness. There are all sorts of ways we might overstate and understate, dissemble, dissimulate, distract, and deceive. If we do so in order to prevent someone from learning something that they should know -- or to get them to think they've learned something that's isn't so -- then we've acted against the virtue of truthfulness, whether or not we have a clever argument that what we said was not quite entirely unlike the truth broadly considered.

Okay, so whiskey?

So a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse.

The people who are subjected to the untruths are worse off for not knowing things they could benefit from knowing, and even worser off if they wind up thinking they know something that isn't actually true. And as they move about acting in ways they wouldn't choose if they knew what they should have been told, the negative effects of their erring choices spread out throughout society. (An honest micro-distillery, for example, might lose a sale, intended by the customer to support a local distillery, to Eustace Q. Hornswoggle's Backwoods Whiskeyworks' bottling of the six MGP barrels closest to the door.)

Moreover, the people in a whiskey company who are themselves untruthful -- and of course companies don't have virtues or vices, except in a manner of speaking as they derive from the virtues and vices of the individuals acting on behalf of the companies -- are worse off, both because they are cultivating their own vices2 and because they are also members of a society in which there is less truthfulness than there ought to be.

If a whiskey company that isn't truthful makes society worse, then we should not lightly dismiss their habit as an inconsequential circumstance of the whiskey they sell.



1. Let me just say I'm not really interested in the question of what is legal. That's a more or less objective question on a subject about which I know essentially nothing. I assume that everything companies do or say in public is legal, even if, say, I can't figure out how to square it with a casual reading of the Code of Federal Regulations. And, of course, just because something is legal doesn't mean it's right. Or vice versa.

2. Vice is, after all, its own punishment, as unsatisfying a thought as that it when considering the vices of others.

Friday, March 21, 2014

So you want to be an NDP

MGP helpfully lists all their products on their website. Here's a table of the mashbills for the whiskeys they offer.

Whiskey Product% Corn% Barley Malt% Rye% Wheat
Bourbon (45% Wheat)514045
Bourbon (49% Barley Malt)514900
Bourbon (21% Rye)754210
Bourbon (36% Rye)604360
Bourbon (99% Corn)99100
Corn Whiskey (15% Rye)814150
Light Whiskey (99% Corn)99100
Malt Whiskey (100% Barley Malt)010000
Rye Whiskey (49% Barley Malt)049510
51% Rye Whiskey454510
95% Rye Whiskey05950
95% Wheat Whiskey05095

You can see how a blender who knew what they were doing might do some interesting things. Want a rye whiskey that's a blend of 70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% barley malt? Try 12.4% of the 49% barley malt rye whiskey, 44.4% of the 45% corn rye whiskey, and 43.2% of the 95% rye whiskey. If you weren't concerned about calling it a straight whiskey, you could probably bottle pretty close to any combination of the four grains listed.

Or you could set up like Whisky Blender, stock up on a few barrels of each, and let your customers design their own blends on a per-bottle basis. I expect most of the results would be uninspired, and I don't know what you'd do with all that light whiskey you bought just in case, but it might be fun.