A Few Words About Jersey Lightning

When I met with cocktail journalist Robert Simonson recently to talk about his new book, The Old-Fashioned, I asked him about how he did his research. One tool that I didn’t realize was so readily available was the archives of the old newspaper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was published from 1841 to 1955 and its entire run is searchable online through the Brooklyn Public Library.

Brooklyn Eagle Nov 1 1901For fun, I started searching for some terms. “Applejack” gave me more than 600 results over the paper’s run. On November 3, 1901, the Eagle ran a short piece that seems to have been reprinted from a Newark paper about applejack, or apple brandy. I’m not sure how many distillers Monmouth County, N.J. had in 1901, but today — and since 1698 — there’s one: Laird’s. The article describes the “old days” when “every farmer who was anybody would have five or ten barrels in his cellar maturing, these being the product of his own apples, distilled for him at the nearest stillhouse.” And of course back then, there was “little or no drunkenness—surely not so much as now, anyhow.”

The piece describes two ways of drinking applejack:

“While its consumption out of the state seems not to have increased much, its quality has not been debased, as anyone can testify who drinks the old Monmouth liquor in company with the usually poor substitute served by so many otherwise first class cafes in this city. The Monmouth man drinks it straight and uses it in place of rye in mixtures, such as cocktails, juleps, highballs, etc. He particularly delights in the Sunset or Jersey Sunset, which is applejack on chipped ice and water, in a long glass, with a swish of lemon peel and a dash of angostura, the latter being allowed to float on top for its sunset hue. The applejack mint julip [sic] is without doubt a delicious concoction. In drinking it the use of a straw is considered profanation. The spearmint, fresh from the garden, is stuck in liberally, so that one’s nose is buried in it by the act of drinking. Then it is that as the nectar gurgles in the throat, giving refreshment and content, one hears the rippling brooklet, the singing of the forest birds, smells the wild flowers and apple blossoms, and wishes for nothing but another.”

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Andy Tauer’s Cologne du Maghreb

As the weather in new York gets hot and humid, the fragrances that have been my mainstays for the cooler months—mostly Eau d’Italie’s Sienne l’Hiver and Bois d’Ombrie—don’t seem as appropriate. I’ve tried some of my lighter colognes, like D.R. Harris’s traditional citrus and neroli Arlington Cologne, but it’s sort of one-dimensional. I was looking for something different.

When Jeffrey Dame of the niche fragrance distributor Hypoluxe contacted me about Andy Tauer’s Cologne du Maghreb, I was excited. It promised the fleeting citrus lightness of an old school cologne with depth and spice.

Tauer Cologne du Maghreb BottleCologne du Maghreb ($85 for 50ml) is a combination of a light traditional European cologne, full of citrus and neroli, and a spicy Middle Eastern-style fragrance. It comes on bright and fresh with a hint of cedar that’s pleasantly cinnamony. Most of the citrus fades within an hour but the cedar lingers close to the skin. When I got my 1.5ml sample in the mail, I forgot this was a true cologne and I dabbed it nervously on my skin, hoping I’d like wearing it as much as I did smelling it on a tester strip. That’s not the way. Spray with abandon, directly and from close range. You’ll be rewarded with a refreshing and complex blast of citrus.

Zurich, Switzerland-based Andy Tauer, a self-taught perfumer, has a cult following among niche fragrance fans and bloggers. His business started in 2005 and has grown to the point where he does it full time. He’s got a PhD in molecular biology but he says it hasn’t actually been useful in his perfumery (“Except from time to time, when dealing with suppliers: Depending on the country and the context a ‘Dr. sc. nat.’ helps.”). One of his very first fragrances, l’Air du Désert Marocain, remains his best seller; it was given a five-star review by Tania Sanchez in Perfumes: The A to Z Guide. That glowing endorsement “helped kickstart my venture,” Tauer admits. I’m partial to his third fragrance, Lonestar Memories, a smoky, leathery scent packed with birchtar.

Tauer first released Cologne du Maghreb in 2011 as a limited edition for the holidays. He’s brought it back for this summer as the first of what he hopes will be an annual series of colognes. I asked him some questions about Cologne du Maghreb via e-mail.

In America, people tend to use the term cologne to mean a men’s fragrance, not a lower concentration (2-5%) of perfume oil. What does cologne mean to you, in the European sense?

From a (middle) European perspective, a cologne is a refreshing citrus-based scent that was invented some good 250 years ago, relying basically on a contrast between fresh citrus notes and a herbaceous contrapunto, invented to complement the heady rich animalic perfumes filling the corridors of palaces and manors back then. A cologne—for me—is always light, easy to wear, and the perfect example of an unisex scent.

How would you describe Cologne du Maghreb’s notes?

Well, that’s an interesting question: For one, the Cologne du Maghreb is a classical cologne, thus we are talking about LOTS of citrus notes, lemon and bergamot being central, grapefruit and litsea extending it, with orange blossom following in (the neroli steam distilled oil as well as orange blossom absolute). There are other floral touches, such as rose, and of course the herbaceous twist by lavender, rosemary and clary sage that add depth and an extra line of contrast. All these notes are complemented by the “oriental notes” of cistus, vetiver, cedar wood from the High Atlas (Morocco).

But that’s me looking at the formula. Let’s try an alternative approach here: The notes of the Cologne are the bright morning sun rising over lush green citrus groves, in fertile valleys, surrounded by verdant and spicy shrubs, running off the mountain ranges forming the High Atlas in Morocco, with its century-old cedar trees and the fresh air soaked with the perfume of warm balsamic woods.

Andy and Colgone du Maghreb

Tell me about the parts of Maghreb make it an Arabic or Middle Eastern scent. Is it the individual ingredients (and their origins) or more the style of scent?

Good question. In my nose, it is the woody, balsamic, sweet resinous and amber base notes that render the Cologne du Maghreb into this territory, that add an oriental screen to a classical Western fragrance. It is an allusion, and not comparable to a full blown oriental fragrance, in eau de parfum concentration maybe, like—just to pick one example—Guerlain’s Shalimar. But the amber note from cistus ladaniferus ranging from woody balsamic to a gentle incense-feel sure adds this oriental touch. By the way: The orange blossom absolute, contrary to the neroli steam distilled oil, also comes with some aspects of dry vibrant woods, supporting the base notes theme in the cologne.

I love the smell of neroli—it’s the quintessential starting point for summery colognes—but it can overpower things, and it’s expensive. How did you make it work here?

I think, neroli is important in a cologne, but first—for me—comes the lemon/bergamot couple that dominates the head notes. The neroli is actually a heart note, lasting longer than lemon oil or bergamot oil. Thus, it extends, with its intrinsic citrus brightness, the lemon-bergamot combo. It does so, by the way, together with petitgrain that comes with some similarities to neroli. When it comes to neroli, there are a couple of important issues: Quality, quality, quality.

You would not believe how large the difference between a well done neroli (done in the sense of: gentle extraction, at the perfect conditions, using the highest quality of botanical starting material…this is a craft by itself) and an average quality neroli can be. In its best quality, neroli is bright, soft, metallic but it won’t hurt your nose, as it remains gentle. Thus, like so often in perfumery, there is a simple answer to your question: Quality of the raw material is what makes the difference.

What notes am I smelling as the fragrance dries down, about two hours after I spray it on?

You are supposed to smell vetiver, cistus, cedar wood and remaining hints of the absolutes: Rose (hard to detect, really), orange blossom. And maybe you will still get a whiff from Litsea cubea (think: long-lasting lemon). But then, each nose is different, each skin is different, and maybe you pick out other notes, maybe you smell the fragrance of dry pine needles in the sun, incense resin drying in the sun? Who knows.

How much of a cologne is in the construction and how much is in the concentration of perfume oils? In other words, what would happen if you increased the perfume oil concentration in Cologne du Maghreb to an eau de toilette or eau de parfum level?

I feel a cologne, a real cologne, should always be both: A citrus-centric formula as mentioned before and a light scent that aims at pleasing and refreshing its wearer in the moment. Thus a cologne contains just a few percent of essential oils. The Cologne du Maghreb, for instance, contains 4% of essential oils. With this, and the added depth by some base notes such as vetiver or cistus ladaniferus oils, it is positioned at the longer lasting end of a classical cologne.

I haven’t tried to go up higher in concentration, but I bet that it would not help, really. The citrus notes, even if concentrated higher, are still not made to last by their volatile nature and overall, the scent would probably fall apart. You know: You cannot just increase a fragrance’s concentration in order to make it last longer. The longevity is built into it by how you constructed it.

How do you wear Cologne du Maghreb? Have you heard how others are wearing it?

I love to spray after a shower. It is wonderful on clean wet skin. A great way to start your day or to end it before going to bed. I know that some love to spritz all day long, like every hour reapplying, to get this freshness kick when they need it. Others, with a very fine and sensitive nose, find the cologne long enough lasting to enjoy for a couple of hours.

Maghreb’s ingredients are all natural—do you often work exclusively with natural ingredients? Why was it important for this fragrance?

Yes, I work a lot with naturals. It is there, in the all-natural world of resins, absolutes, essential oils, that I found my passion for scents and the creation of fragrances. The first two years or so I created only all natural fragrances and explored this natural preciousness. Still today, when composing, I start with the naturals in my formula and dress them with man-made molecules in the process. Why was it important to work all natural for this (and the other colognes that sit in my excel file of upcoming scents)? First, there was no need to work with synthetics there. It did not feel right. Whatever this means…when composing and daydreaming about new creations, I feel and follow my gut and my nose. My nose told me there is no need for synthetics. And then, it felt like going back to the roots, my roots of discovering naturals. It felt good and I am looking forward to composing more colognes. I think it is—as a perfumery theme—very rewarding.

You’re planning on releasing a cologne each summer now, right? Any thoughts for future your colognes?

This is correct—that’s the plan. If I learned one thing in my perfumery life, though, then it is: We have a plan, but things always work out in a different way. Therefore, yes, my plan is to present another cologne in 2015, towards summer, with the working title Vetiver Cologne. Vetiver is just wonderful together with rich citrus notes and it is a logical choice for me. I love vetiver! And for this cologne, I have a particular vetiver, a special quality that is soft, less earthy, more on the green citrus side (if this makes sense), a special distillation product. It is just wonderful, but as I have said: We have a plan…

And finally, I find that perfumers are often spirits and cocktail aficionados. Do you have any favorite drinks?

Yes. Give me a beer (in the evening) and you make me happy. [Editor’s note: Tauer was drinking Erdinger, a Bavarian “weizen” when we first e-mailed.]

A more refined answer: From time to time I love to drink a schnapps from a small producer, a farmer actually, who started his schnapps business a while ago, fermenting his fruits (apple, pear, cherry) and who produces a quality that is outstanding, in somewhat limited quantities. They won a couple of medals. A little glass of his kirsch makes me happy, too.

Tauer Perfumes Cologne Du Maghreb Cologne du Maghreb is available online via Tauer Perfumes, Lucky Scent, and Indie Scents.

It’s also at Scent Bar in L.A., MiN New York, Twisted Lily in Brooklyn, Tiger Lily in San Francisco, The Perfume House in Portland, The Perfume Shoppe in Scottsdale, Buon Naso in Fort Lauderdale, Indigo Perfumery in Cleveland, and The Perfume Shoppe in Vancouver.

Want to read more about Cologne du Maghreb? Tauer lists some of the other bloggers he’s talked to on his own blog.

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Oak Infusing Experiments: Brennivin

I’ve tried aging batches of cocktails in small, one-liter oak barrels — an apple brandy Old Fashioned and a Negroni — but it’s expensive. Those little barrels can cost more than $50 and they can only be used for so long. So I had a thought: what if I could just add the oak to a bottle?

Northern Brewer sells little oak cubes for between $2.50 and $4.00 for a 2 oz. bag. They come in American, French, and Hungarian oak with medium or heavy char. The cubes are around a quarter-inch, which is small enough to fit into the opening of a bottle. I bought three bags (partly just to justify the shipping cost, which rivaled the price of the oak cubes): an American medium, a Hungarian medium, and an American heavy char.

Brennivin and InfusedAfter some conversations with Joe Spiegel about aged Brennivin, the Icelandic aquavit that he’s started importing, I thought I’d found an excellent candidate for my first oak cube infusion experiments.

Northern Brewer’s description of the Hungarian medium char cubes sounded promising for the Brennivin: “Medium-plus toast Hungarian oak cubes impart a full mouthfeel with mild to moderate vanilla and background notes of leather, black pepper, and slight campfire/roast coffee.”

I poured about 12 ounces from my liter bottle into my infusion bottle and dropped in four oak cubes. I wasn’t sure how many I’d need for such a small test batch but Northern Brewer recommended 2.5-3 ounces of cubes for every five gallons of liquid. My entire bag of cubes was only 2 ounces and my test batch would be barely a tenth of a gallon. Four cubes was a guess.

By the end of the first day with the oak cubes the Brennivin, which started crystal clear, was tinted a pale amber. I shook the bottle about once a day when I remembered and tested it after a week. The flavor was odd. The oak seemed to suck up the natural sweetness of the Brennivin and leave the sort of bitter-sweet quality I associate with artificial sweeteners like aspartame. It also dulled the spice of the caraway a bit. Clearly, it needed more time. I wasn’t surprised — I had figured I’d need as many as six weeks — but with my rough guess about how much oak to use, I wasn’t sure.

Glass of Oak Infused Brennivin

By four weeks, all the sweetness and caraway flavor had returned, along with a hint of vanilla. By five weeks when I removed the oak cubes, it was even better, warmer. Brennivin’s natural coppery metallic edge was gone and I could almost imagine some orange and cardamom notes. It really took the oak well.

I tasted the oak-infused Brennivin next to Linie, the Norwegian aquavit that’s aged in barrels on ships that criss-cross the equator. Linie is lighter and slightly minty in comparison (it’s lighter in color, too; Linie has added caramel coloring, which is interesting given its aging). Side by side, I may actually prefer the aged Brennivin — at least for now.

Some conclusions: First, this is ridiculously easy and inexpensive to do. It cost me less than $20 for three bags of oak cubes and almost half of that was shipping. (Each bag has about 40 cubes in it, which is enough to do four bottles by my estimates.) If you have access to a good home-brewing supply shop, you can save the $8 shipping. Second, it was quite rewarding. I’ll be trying this with gin, tequila, and definitely mezcal. Why not just add 10 oak cubes to a whole bottle of something?

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An Introduction to the New American Brandy

Joe and Lesley Heron have a knack for launching the right products at the right time. Their first project was a vitamin soda they ended up selling to Pepsi. Next, they helped revitalize the alcoholic cider category with Crispin, which has since been sold to MillerCoors. Now the Herons have entered the spirits business, and they’ve chosen to tackle brandy. Yes, brandy. And they’re doing it in the middle of bourbon country: Louisville, Kentucky.

Craft DistilledJoe Heron’s rationale is that American brandy is the cider of the spirits business, an under-penetrated, under-appreciated category ripe for a renaissance. And he makes a good case: “Brandy is either traditional and inexpensive or traditional and expensive,” he says. “In our ideal world we would like the mainstream brandy drinker to trade up, the cognac drinker to trade down for similar quality, and most importantly for the bourbon/whiskey drinker to trade in.”

Copper & Kings American Brandy is poised to, as Heron says, “Drive a bus through the middle,” between the cheap California stuff and the more expensive Cognac and small artisan distillers in California with “a modern, sophisticated, super-premium American brandy.”

He’s starting to sell pot-distilled brandy that he’s sourced from around the country while his newly constructed distillery makes and ages brandy. His goal is a uniquely American-style brandy that would be mixed in cocktails and enjoyed in a rocks glass, not a snifter.

The Craft Distilled Brandy ($34.99 for 750ml) is aged in both bourbon barrels and medium-char new American oak barrels. It’s at least two years old and is unadulterated by boise (powdered or shaved oak), caramel coloring, sugar, or filtering. It’s considerably more robust than a Paul Masson or Korbel and not as sweet as a VS or VSOP cognac. It has a hint of spice—like a bourbon—but a smoother finish. Heron calls it a “slightly feisty, rambunctious style.”


The Immature Brandy ($29.99 for 750ml) is unaged. Like the Craft Distilled Brandy, the Immature is unfiltered and sugar-free. It’s bright and floral with some grape notes. It’s good enough to drink straight, but like most unaged spirits, it’s best for mixing. It does very well with sours. Heron suggests using it for Summer Old Fashioneds: two ounces of Immature Brandy, a half ounce of St. Germain, and two dashes of celery bitters.

The grapes used to make the spirits are mostly the traditional brandy varieties, and mostly from California: French Colombard, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. “We are also very interested in indigenous American varietals,” Heron says. “We have pilot distilled Concord and Norton so far, but the results were not satisfactory. We are also interested in Kentucky wine and have had some success so far with Vidal Blanc (a hybrid developed for brandy making using the Seyval and Ugni Blanc grapes). We also make apple brandy. Our wine has been sourced from California (grape) and the Pacific Northwest (apple). We are also having discussions with Michigan growers now for both apple and grape wine. The wine we distill is unfiltered and un-sulfited, typically early pick for relatively high acids and lowish brix (sugar).”

Why did Heron choose to locate his brandy distillery in Louisville? He likes to point out that his distillery is not the first to produce brandy in Kentucky. He says he’s found historical records that show brandy was being distilled there in 1781, 11 years before the Commonwealth was established.

Okay, but why not California, where all the wine is? “The logical answer is West Coast,” he says. “The smart answer is Louisville. Kentucky is the distilling capital of America. So we have access to resources continually: Vendome is three blocks away from us, cooperage is readily available, and access to the specificity of distillery engineering skills is immediate and constant without flying people around. Most importantly there is freight, which is the biggest margin/profit leaker of all time—dollars fall out the back of a truck—Louisville’s unique location enables access to 66% of America at a reasonable cost.”

Copper & Kings Stills

Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the 110-year-old custom still maker, created three alembic copper stills for Copper & Kings: one 1,000-gallon, one 750-gallon, and one 50-gallon for experimental batches. Working with Vendome shows the spirits industry that Copper & Kings is serious about building trust and credentials, Heron says. “It’s about demonstrating that you make stuff with care.”

That care continues with the barrels. “Maturation cannot be short circuited,” he insists. “I don’t buy into small barrels. And brandy is way more delicate than bourbon, by the way. You can’t do a heavy char, small barrel to a brandy. The goal is to retain all the varietal differences in the grapes.” The brandy is aged in a cellar, not a rickhouse like bourbon; the temperature can’t vary as much.


But in the meantime, Copper & Kings is blending its sourced brandy. “There is no ‘MGP’ in brandy,” Heron says, referring to the Indiana distillery that sells spirits to many small whiskey brands. “We have sourced from across the country, and have bought as small as 23 gallons of beautiful brandy. Collecting this brandy, aging it in a focused way, then blending it to our taste profile, is our brandy. It is our baby.”

Heron won’t reveal his sources for brandy. “We will protect the interests of those distillers kind enough to share their distillate. They have their own brands to build and they are protective of that.”

Copper & Kings is bottling some of it and putting some back into bourbon barrels and adding that to the new brandy they distill in-house try to maintain consistency over the years. In about six years, they expect to reach the point where all of it is distilled in-house.

As Copper & Kings gains momentum — the distillery finished construction this spring and began distilling in April — more products will be introduced. Heron sent me samples of both production brandies along with an immature brandy called Red Bird that was cask conditioned in port barrels, which ultimately will not make it into wider production. He has hinted at some fall limited releases that sound like they’ll only be available in the distillery. The next big release is likely to be the apple brandy.

The Copper & Kings brandies are available at bars and liquor stores in Kentucky right now, and distribution for surrounding states will follow soon: Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin—two states that have historically consumed a lot of California brandy. By next year, Heron hopes to branch out further East and West.

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Brennivin: The First New Scandinavian Aquavit to Hit the U.S. in Years

We’re in the beginnings of an American aquavit golden age right now, with three strong domestic regional brands poised for greater distribution: Krogstad in Seattle (now available in NYC); North Shore in Chicago (now selling in California and as far east as Pennsylvania); and Gamle Ode in Minneapolis (in the Midwest and Oregon). With these alone, American-made aquavits were outnumbering their Scandinavian counterparts in this market — and then Denmark’s Aalborg stopped shipping to the U.S. That left just one Scandinavian aquavit available — Norway’s Linie — in a time when aquavit interest in America has never been stronger.

brennivin-eng-dry_on _whiteEnter Brennivin. It’s an Icelandic aquavit flavored only with caraway and it’s had a long cult following among travelers who pass through Iceland on the way to and from Europe.

Part of Brennivin’s appeal for tourists had been its iconic label with the outline of Iceland. This wonderful piece of graphic design was originally created, the story goes, to look generic. Brennivin was distilled by the Icelandic government starting in 1935 after the country’s prohibition was relaxed to allow some alcohol (but notably not beer until 1989).

Brennivin is now available in Wyoming and online via DrinkUp New York, which ships to most U.S. states. It comes in a liter bottle for $32.99.

Compared to Aalborg Taffel aquavit, which has dill as well as caraway notes, Brennivin is sweeter and less dry. It has a viscous mouthfeel, even at room temperature. It’s deliciously complex despite there being only one botanical–caraway–flavoring it. “People are always floored that there is only caraway in the bottle, but it is true,” says importer Joe Spiegel. “And the Icelandic water has a very high pH which adds to the softness of the finish. I do not think it is possible to recreate Brennivin without that water. The interplay of mineral content and pH is the secret, in my opinion.”

Spiegel, an entrepreneur based in the mountain resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, started bringing Brennivin to America early this year. Originally from the East Coast, Spiegel moved to the mountains “for the snowboarding, the crisp air, and the clean water.” On running his business in Wyoming, he told me, “Jackson is a very special place, quite like Iceland in many ways, and Wyoming is amazingly business friendly. Being in a control state has a lot of advantages for a small importer or small producer.”

Spiegel’s spreading the Brennivin all over the bar scene in Jackson Hole and some bartenders are starting to get pretty creative with it. I asked him some questions about the spirit and his plans for it via e-mail, and later met him in person at New York’s only Icelandic restaurant, Skál. We drank Brennivin straight, with Lillet Rose, and with rye in an Old Bay Ridge cocktail.

Joe Spiegel with Marnie, Brennivin America's event co-coordinator.

Joe Spiegel with Marnie, Brennivin America’s event co-coordinator.

How did you get into importing Icelandic spirits?

I discovered Brennivin while traveling back and forth to Europe via Iceland for a previous job in the video game industry. On one trip I decided to take Icelandair up on their offer of a stopover and went to Reykjavik. From there each trip to (or through) Iceland became longer and longer, I really fell in love with the place and with Brennivin.

Many of my friends liked the Brennivin I had brought back, and I thought “Oh, maybe I should look into importing it.” It wasn’t until a few years later that I had an opportunity to meet Andri Thor Gudmundsson the head of the producer, Ölgerðin Egill Skallagrímsson, that it really all came together. We just really hit it off, and after our first meeting had a deal to finally bring Brennivin to the USA.

Brennivin is available in Wyoming and online at DrinkUpNY so far — anywhere else? With limited production in Iceland, how widely will you be able to distribute in the U.S.?

Limited production is absolutely right. Iceland is a country of only 320,000 people. It is simply not possible to support the entire U.S. market. At the same time, given its cult following, Brennivin fans live in all 50 states. That’s why retailers like DrinkUpNY are so important — they can satisfy a lot of far-flung demand.

Of course, we do want Brennivin to be locally available outside of Jackson Hole as well. That’s why Jason Moore, who is heading up West Coast sales just set up our warehouse space in California, and is working to sign up retailers as well as bars and restaurants in San Francisco and L.A.

If I had to guess, after that we’ll start to pop up in more locations in NYC, and our next markets would be Seattle and Boston. There’s a good chance that if Icelandair is serving the city, Brennivin America wants to be there too.

How are people in Jackson Hole drinking it so far?

Jackson attracts a very international, and very adventurous crowd. Much like Iceland actually.

In Jackson Hole, most people have never tried Brennivin before, and it is a taste that can be unfamiliar. At The Rose it is being used in several cocktails: Black Rose, Iced Coffee and Death Star.

The guys at The Bird, have come up with some easy to make fun drinks using Brennivin as a base. The “Arctic Monkey” (think a Brass Monkey + Brennivin Car Bomb) is a favorite there.

And at Eleanor’s, which is the famous bar inside a liquor store in Jackson, it is ice cold shots all the way.

It should always be kept in the freezer before serving. It is perfectly chilled when it has a slightly thicker than water consistency.

I’ve been recommending the “Northern Lights” as a nice introduction to Brennivin for folks. It pairs Brennivin with amaretto, along with grapefruit juice and a splash of soda water. The caraway and almond flavors complement each other very well, and the acidic citrus helps cut the amaretto sweetness.

For those experimenting I’d recommend playing around with grapefruit bitters, and with coffee/espresso flavors. We’ve also had some fun making Tridents with Brennivin.

I read that Brennivin was made from potatoes and flavored with caraway, angelica, cumin and other herbs — is that accurate?

Don’t believe everything on Wikipedia. The Brennivin that we know and love has since 1935 been made only with caraway seeds, which are “cumin” in Icelandic.

A friend of mine, Hordur Sveinsson, has been granted access to the Icelandic government archives and has been researching Brennivin’s history. In the past there have been several other versions of Brennivin made and sold in Iceland.

In the 1950s one was made with the addition of angelica root, Hvannarota Brennivin.

Another, first seen in 1961, Bitter Brennivin, was made with the addition of wormwood. It would be the Icelandic version of a Swedish besk, or a caraway-tinged Malort, only higher proof and without the sugar. Wow!

Last seen in the early 1990s were the two barrel aged Brennivins: Gamalt Brennivin and Odalsbrennivin.

And every year there is a special Christmas Brennivin. This year’s Christmas Brennivin was just placed into sherry casks last Friday (May 2nd). This will be a very limited release. Just 1,000 bottles world-wide.

Hordur believes he has tracked down the last two people who worked at the distillery when the last batches of Gamalt and Odals- were made. The goal is to preserve their knowledge and restart production of these special aged spirits.

And although we do not have anyone with experience making the Bitter and Angelica Brennivins, we do have the recipes. If Brennivin is successful in the U.S., we’ll be able to start re-creating those heritage spirits as well.

Jason, Brennivin America's one man West Coast office; Leifur from Cassette Recordings; Spiegel; and Icelandic musician Sin Fang taking Brennivin shots at the Made In Iceland VII party in L.A. earlier this month.

Jason, Brennivin America’s one-man West Coast office; Leifur from Cassette Recordings; Spiegel; and Icelandic musician Sin Fang taking Brennivin shots at the Made In Iceland VII party in L.A. earlier this month.

What is Brennivin’s history in Iceland? Is it true the label was designed by the government not to stand out to consumers?

The history of Brennivin started when prohibition was partially repealed on the island in 1935 (Full repeal was not until 1989, and even today the government controls all retail sales, and the advertising and promotion of drinking is forbidden). The government had a monopoly on all alcohol production, distribution and sales.

The label was designed to be stark and unappealing, to limit demand, in keeping up with the temperance movement of the times. Obviously, they succeeded in stark, but failed on unappealing and unpopular! Instead, the label ended up becoming one of three great examples of Icelandic design. The Brennivin label is certainly the most internationally recognized symbol of Iceland.

Because of its strength and the stark black label, Brennivin became known colloquially as “svarti dauði” which means “black death.”

Due to U.S. legal requirements the label had to be tweaked a bit for export. The new, updated 2014 label was redesigned by Hjalti Karlsson, an Icelandic designer living in NYC.

He really maintained the spirit of the old label, in many ways making it more like the original, while making it a bit bolder. He also, in a nod to the home market, added the Westman Islands, which had been missing from the previous map used on the bottle.

Is this the first time it’s ever been imported for retail in the U.S.?

Yes it is, although Hordur has uncovered an attempt in the 1980s to make an 83 proof bottling for the U.S. market. It appears these bottles were never sent to the U.S. directly, but were sold at the cold war-era Air Force base in Keflavik.

I’ve read that Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters is a big fan of Brennivin. Have you been in contact with him? Was he importing his own secret stash from Iceland before?

The amazing thing about Dave is that he really truly loves Brennivin, the same with Katie Couric when she brought a bottle of Brennivin to Late Night. Brennivin’s place in pop culture is anchored by its authenticity. These are not paid endorsements, these are real fans of Brennivin.

That being said, we are in touch with Dave Grohl’s PR people, and we did get him a t-shirt with the new, 2014 logo. The rumor is that he was getting his stash through diplomatic channels, but now he can buy it legally.

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Are Bottled Cocktails Worth It?

I love the idea of bottled cocktails but the first time I saw one for sale, I thought it was too expensive to bother with. At $50 for 750ml, High West’s 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan is not an impulse buy. I started doing some quick mental math, figuring I’d be better off aging a batch of Manhattans myself.

And then a friend texted me a photo of a little bottled Saratoga cocktail. “Have you had this?” The Fluid Dynamics barrel-aged line of bottled cocktails from California’s Craft Distillers, the producers of Germain-Robin brandy, aren’t actually any less expensive than High West’s versions—they just offer smaller bottles. But that was all it took to take another look at my math. At $18 to $20 for a 200ml bottle, you get just over 6.5 ounces of cocktail, enough for two generous three-ounce pours. I compare this to going to a good cocktail bar here in NYC where I might pay $12 to $14 per cocktail, perhaps more for a barrel-aged cocktail. So that’s nine or ten bucks each for an excellent drink at home versus an average of $25, plus tip for a great drink out. Why not?

Bottled Saratoga

A couple weeks later, my friend brought over a bottled Saratoga to share. It was excellent, and it reminded me how delicious some of the Manhattan variations can be—the Saratoga is basically a Manhattan with both whiskey and brandy.

Craft Distillers uses Germain-Robin brandy (probably their $50 Craft-Method brandy), Low Gap clear wheat whiskey, and Quady Winery’s Vya sweet vermouth. Notably absent is the bitters. Craft Distillers’ press materials say, “We did not include bitters because they become overpowering in the barrel.” We’re instructed to add a dash ourselves; I didn’t, and it was fantastic anyway: velvety and viscous, very harmonious and a great blending of the brandy’s sweet vanilla notes with the whiskey’s more assertive spice. It’s kind of funny that they use an un-aged whiskey, and then age the whole mixture. It works well.

Bottled Saratoga sideview

Craft Distillers is vague about how long each of the Fluid Dynamics cocktails are aged. The site says “the recipes take months to develop,” but I read that as the creative process, not the aging process. Clearly, it can’t take too long to age or it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. When I’ve aged cocktails myself (I’ve done an apple brandy Old Fashioned and a Negroni), the sweet spot was about 6 weeks for my little one-liter barrel. We also don’t know what size barrels are used here.

The other cocktails in the Fluid Dynamics series are a Brandy Manhattan, The 1850 (a Sazerac variation with brandy and whiskey, plus a bit of the Germain-Robin absinthe), and the St. Nick (brandy with Clear Creek distillery’s Cranberry liqueur). All, including the Saratoga, end up at 32.7% abv. Liter-sized bottles of the cocktails are available, but apparently only for bars.

These bottled cocktails aren’t new, but this is the first time I’ve seen them in New York. David Driscoll at K&L Wines in California introduced them to his customers back in October 2011 and he came to much the same conclusions I did — and the Saratoga was his favorite.

Now, looking back, I’m almost ready to shell out $50 for a High West Barreled Manhattan: that’s eight 3-ounce cocktails at about $6 each, with some left over.

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The First Negroni of the Season

The John Dory

Every spring, I take note of my first negroni of the season — it’s a cocktail I generally reserve for warmer months. This year it was at The John Dory, an oyster bar in the Ace Hotel in New York.

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