Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dipping into the punch bowl

(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Weekend section of the August 27 & 28, 2005 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 4; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space.)

If wedding bells are in the air, at some point you will need to discuss the wedding reception. As a wedding is one of the most festive moments in one’s life, the drinks that will fuel the party can be very important. Indeed, in a sense the alcohol offered can help determine the tone of the occasion. A wonderful tradition, either as the primary libation or as general crowd pleaser, is the proverbial bowl of punch.

Dating back to at least the mid-17th century, punch has a long and varied history. Hailing loosely from South Asia where it was probably concocted by European Colonials and adventurers, punch was the first mixed alcoholic drink to attain international popularity. The name “punch” is said to come from the Hindi word “Panch” or “five,” in reference to the five classical ingredients (spirit, sugar, tea or water, spice and citrus fruit juice). Obviously, things have changed, and today punches can contain more than a dozen ingredients.

Here are some basics to help ensure that the flowing punch bowl you choose to have at your wedding exudes the desired look, tastes good and refreshing, and carries enough vim to your guests to be regarded not just as “punch” but as “punch!”

First, strive for the best ingredients your budget will comfortably allow. Don’t go hog-wild on the wines or spirits, however, as the subtler and more delicate charms of some the most expensive brands would be entirely lost in the mix. In the case of fruit juices, strive to use only fresh fruits, freshly squeezed — there are only a few exceptions, such as pineapple, mango, papaya or cranberry, where commercial juice brands are generally perfectly acceptable for mixed-drink applications.

Second, don’t overdo it on the variety or quantity of booze being poured into the punch bowl. Make certain that the chosen liquors will all go together harmoniously and that the alcoholic strength of the punch will be appropriate to the mix and the occasion. Think of your punch as simply a cocktail with various fruit juices and/or liqueurs that is being made in large quantities — like the cosmopolitan, the margarita, the whisky sour, the daiquiri, the sidecar, the fuzzy naval, the mojito, the mint julep, etc. The recipes will obviously need adjustment for punch application, but the basic idea is the same. Always strive for balance.

Third, for the festivities to stay warm, the punch must stay cold. All ingredients should be pre-chilled. The warmer the punch, the faster the ice will melt and the sooner the mix will taste diluted. Ideally, you should also pre-chill the serving bowl. Use a large, solid block of ice in the punch bowl rather than ice cubes. The ice block will help keep the punch icy cold with a minimum of dilution. Indeed, use the largest block of ice the punch bowl will accommodate. Also, make sure to use only clean ice that is free of any foreign odors or flavors.

If you have trouble obtaining a suitably large and clean block of ice, make one. Thoroughly wash clean a juice or milk carton or cake ring mold, add water and place in the freezer. When ready to serve the punch, simply peel away the sides of the juice or milk carton from the ice block, or slip the block from the mold.

Fourth, a flat punch is a drab punch, so add your carbonated elements, if any, absolutely last, just before service. Obviously, this should also be pre-chilled. If this is the primary ingredient and there is little to make in advance, make sure everything is damned cold before mixing for service.

When the punch is ready to be served, pour the mixture over ice in the punch bowl, and then add the soda and/or Champagne — all of which has been pre-chilled. Stir briefly with the label before and occasionally during the serving, as this will help maintain uniform consistency.

When the punch bowl is nearly empty, have a replacement ready prepared exactly as before, with everything pre-chilled. Otherwise guests will think the party’s over when the bowl runs dry. Generally, each quart of punch will serve four guests, at two 4-ounce cups per guest.

Finally, while presentation isn’t everything, it is truly important to a wedding, so give this some thought. Choose a punch bowl that is practical but appropriate and handsome — crystal, glass, ceramic, whatever fits with the overall schema of your wedding reception. The same is true of the cups or glasses out of which your guests will drink the punch.

Punches invite experimentation, but here is one particularly easy classic to get the ball rolling.

Champagne Punch:

For each bottle of brut Champagne you wish to use add 1 1/2 ounces of brandy, 1 1/2 ounces of Cointreau or Triple Sec, 1 bottle of club soda, the rind of 1 thinly cut orange and just a smidgen, if any, of bar sugar (according to taste). Pour all this into a prechilled punch bowl containing a large block of ice. If you wish, decorate with sliced fresh pineapple and orange and plenty of fresh mint. Many feel that crushed fresh strawberries will “add a gala touch.” As you please.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Whisky recipe -- Baked Trout with Whisky Stuffing

While out food shopping the other day, my wife came across some beautiful looking trout and decided to pick two up for dinner. Having never actually cooked whole trout before, I dipped into my cookery book library to see what recipes I could find. After much perusal, and minimal discussion, we quickly agreed on this delicious recipe from Cooking with Scotch Whisky by Rosalie Gow (Gordon Wright Publishing, Edinburgh, Scotland: 1990). I had to nip out to pick up a couple of items and I made some minor substitutions. Here is my version of the recipe.

Baked Trout with Whisky Stuffing
(Allow one 8oz trout per person; recipe makes enough stuffing for 2 fish)
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons of finely chopped celerey
2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons of finely chopped thyme
The zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 cup Panko bread crumbs (the recipe called for fresh brown breadcrumbs)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
2 healthy tabelspoons of Scotch Whisky (I used 10 year old Springbank single malt)
Pam (olive oil or melted butter would work too)

Preheat the oven to 400F. If the trout is not already gutted and cleaned, glut and clean them. Rinse the trout in cold water and then pat dry with paper towel. I left the heads and tails on, but you can remove them if you like. Place each individual fish in a roughly square foot piece of aluminum foil which has been sprayed with pam or brushed with oil or melted butter (on the matt side).

In a small frying pan, melt the butter and gently fry the onion and celery, just until softened (about 3 minutes). Then shut off the heat and add the remaining ingredients and mix very well, add the salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Stuff each fish cavity, be generous and use all the stuffing up. Parcel up the fish in and foil and place these on a rack in a baking trroasting pan. Bake at 400F for 20 minutes; then unwrap the fish and bake for an additional 5 minutes. When done, it should look something like this:

Then plate and bring to the table :-)

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Glendronach Distillery Has Been Sold!

The rumors and reports about the sale of Glendronach have been circulating in the whisky news world at least since June, with speculations being substantiated higgledy piggledy through early August. The sale is now complete. The Glendronach Distillery was sold by Chivas Brothers, the Scotch whisky and premium gin division of French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, to the The Benriach Distillery Company Ltd., a consortium of businessmen (South Africans Geoff Bell and Wayne Keiswetterled, led by industry veteran Billy Walker). The price: £15 million (or about $30 million).

Glendronach is, unfortunately, not such a well known single malt here in the US. The Glendroach is located in the Forgue Valley in Aberdeenshire’s “castle country” in Huntly. This puts Glendronach just inside the much vaunted Speyside whisky region of Scotland.

Speyside is that blessed region just north of the Cairngorm and Grampian mountains that, roughly, stretches into the Moray Firth from Inverness in the West to Aberdeen in the East. I say "roughly" because the geographical designation is a bit of a conceit really. It is smack dab in the Highland's and outside of the whisky context has no real meaning or historical designation. It is, in other words, a product of marketing. Further, although this region, or subregion, is less than 100 miles wide, it is, nonetheless, generally sub-divided into as many as eight smaller districts by whisky aficionados: Speyside (central), Findhorn, Lossie, Rothes, Dufftown, Strathisla, Deveron, and Livet.

Speyside came into prominence in the 19th century, the railways offered more economical and efficient access to the Scottish Highlands than did shipping. Indeed, most of Scotland's still functioning whisky distilleries are located in Speyside. The region's name comes from the river Spey, and its natural bounties are marked by the rivers Findhorn to the West and Bogie and Deveron to the East. From the Spey flows three all important tributaries: the Fiddich, the Livet and the Avon. This, coupled with the natural beauty of the area, accounts for its pride of place among Scotch whisky devotees.

The Glendronach distillery stands is in the Deveron district of Speyside, and straddles the Dronach Burn (or spring), which supplies the cooling water for the distillery's condensers. The name means “valley of the blackberries (brambles)” in Gaelic. It is thought that the distillery used to be the site of illicit distilling; the distillery is surrounded by tall trees where a long established colony of rooks is said to have provided “good luck” in the form of early warning to the advance of excisemen or strangers.

The distillery was founded in 1826 by the Glendronach Distillery Company, a consortium of farmers and businessmen headed by James Allardes or Allardice or Allardyce (depending on the source). Allardes was a friend of the local laird, the Scottish nobleman, soldier and politician George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon (February 2, 1770 – May 28, 1836; styled Marquess of Huntly until 1827).

Gordon has a special place in the history of Scotch whisky. Deeply troubled by the whisky smuggling and related lawlessness of his Highland compatriots, Gordon thought that the Government could curtail the lawlessness by making it profitable to produce whisky legally and so proposed this in the House of Lords. In short order the Excise Act of 1823 was passed, legalizing the distillation of whisky in return for a license fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by illicit distillers who went legit. The Excise Act of 1823 thus laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry.

With the Duke of Gordon’s public approval, the Glendronach whisky concern became highly successful. In 1837, though, James Allardes’s luck ran out and a major part of the distillery was destroyed by fire. Such troubles were not uncommon in distilleries at the time. Unable to fully recover financially, the Glendronach Distillery Company and its license was eventually sold in 1852 to Walter Scott, the former manager of the Teaninich Distillery.

Scott expanded the distillery and also bred Aberdeen Shorthern cattle on the estate. Scott passed away in 1887 and the distillery was acquired by a consortium from Leith, led by John Somerville & Co. In 1916, the distillery was acquired by the Crown. Then in 1920, the distillery was sold for £9,000 to Captain Charles Grant, the fifth son of the founder of Glenfiddich.

William Teacher & Sons Ltd. bought the distillery in 1960; they added two more stills (for a total of four) between 1966 and 1967, and added a visitor center in 1976. Unusually, the stills were all coal fired (most distilleries switched to “indirect” heating, usually via steam coils) until September 2005. Such changes generally produce substantial changes in the character of the spirit, and so in the character of the whisky.

Coal was also used at Glendronach, until 1996, to dry the malted barley in its own floor maltings (about 15% of the total malted barley used by the distillery was provided onsite). Now, like most every other distillery, the malted barley is bought ready. The distillery used to employ a combination of peat and coal to dry the malted barley (could be up to 14 PPM), the bought in malt is unpeated.

As with most single malt whiskies, the majority of the malt whisky goes towards blending. The Glendronach is a major component in the blends Ballantine's and Teacher's Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky.

[For my fellow whisky nerds out there, the distillery’s mash tun is a traditional cast-iron tun with a copper canopy; the distillery’s eight washbacks are made of Oregon Pine with a unique venting system for the extraction of carbon dioxide; both dunnage and racked warehouses are employed for maturation.]

William Teacher & Sons was taken over in 1976 by Allied Breweries Ltd, which became known as Allied Distillers [the company took over J. Lyons and Company, a food and catering group, and became Allied Lyons in 1978; which in turn took over Pedro Domecq in 1994, resulting in the drinks giant Allied Domecq]. The distillery was mothballed (or taken offline) in 1996, restricting the supply of Glendronach whisky – which is partly why it isn’t so well known in the US.

The distillery was brought back online on May 14th, 2002. At this time the distillery also switched from 100% sherry cask maturation to exclusively using bourbon casks. Then on July 26, 2005 Allied Domecq was acquired by Pernod Ricard, supported by Fortune Brands. Pernod Ricard became the second largest producer of whisky in Scotland with 12 distilleries; Diageo is #1 with 27 distilleries; and William Grant & Sons is #3 with three distilleries (Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie). The distillery currently has capacity to produce 1.4 million liters of whisky a year.

The Glendronach 15 year old single malt was 100% sherry cask matured, and is now, sadly, no longer available anywhere. For the most part, it was a personal favorite of mine over The Macallan (which was the other primary 100% sherry cask aged whisky). Although it was sometimes inconsistent towards the end of the production of the 15 year (the distillery took to vatting whiskies from second, third and fourth refill and so often totally spent sherry casks; E 150 caramel coloring was employed to maintain the sherry cask coloring; this is used now as well for their new “original” 12 year old).

At its best, the nose of the 15 year was nicely sherried and a little fruity, with some pleasing cinnamon and ginger spice notes and hints of smoke. The whisky was full-bodied, creamy and well rounded, with the palate showing caramel, dried fruits, apples, some wonderful spice and smoke, with distinct toasted oak nuances. The finish was creamy, long, warming and delicious with sherry wood notes and more of that spice and mild smoke sensation. Alas…

The flagship 12 year old has undergone many changes. It used to be the "original" and it was very good, then they called it the “Traditional” which was less good, and now they are once again calling it the "original." That is, it is now "The Glendronach Original 12 year old double matured Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky" although it tastes almost nothing like the original "Original", which hasn’t been available for a very long time, but it is better than the "Traditional". Still with me?

The double matured refers to maturation in sherry oak and bourbon oak casks. The nose is very sweet with fruitcake, oak, pears, and vanilla notes, there are also pleasant wafts of smoke. The palate has a pleasant silkiness to it, exhibiting notes of caramel, pecans, dry or bitter marmalade, some distinct sherry oak influence, but the balance is off. The finish is short, offering nuts and honey. The "traditional" release was horribly tainted with sulfur and was even more out of balance.

But then this is now all ancient history. Glendronach was sold off to BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd because Pernod Ricard’s operational and marketing strategies determined that it was excess to requirements. Not surprising, Pernod Ricard is expanding the Glenlivet distillery and re-opening both the Allt-à-Bhainne and Braeval distilleries.

BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd, meanwhile, has announced its intention to re-package and re-launch the Glendronach. I have very high hopes for this and will report back, eventually, as the makeover/relaunch emerges.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

George Washington

So I'm a tad behind on this, but, hey, I only just started this blog the other day.

DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (a national trade association), issued a press release early last month: "For Sale: First Whiskey in 200 Years at George Washington's Distillery." In a nutshell, the Mount Vernon Estate, with generous support from DISCUS and its members, discovered the archeological footprint and remains of George Washington's distillery and rebuilt it for historical education/preservation/heritage celebration purposes; then began distilling rye whiskey to keep it all fun and "educational"; and so now wish to sell it to tourists and other visitors to the historic distillery; the State of Virginia just granted a license to permit this -- actually pretty cool.

In case you are wondering what, exactly, the backstory on all this is, it just so happens that I wrote a piece on it for The Malt Advocate magazine which they have since posted online in their "classics" section of their website. The piece is "George Washington, Whiskey Maker." Partially excerpted here:

History came to life Wednesday, September 28th, 2006, with the official dedication of a freshly reconstructed 18th century whiskey distillery at historic Mount Vernon.

The distillery project was a painstaking and exacting historical effort, based on years of research and archeological excavation, conducted under the auspices of the Mount Vernon Estate and through the generous support of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and its members. On hand for the ribbon cutting was UK’s HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, as well Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s Attorney General, Jim Rees, Mount Vernon Executive Director, Peter Cressy, Distilled Spirits Council president, and assorted names from within the Scottish and American spirits industry.

This $2.1 million George Washington Distillery stands on the footprint of the original distillery, and was reconstructed in accordance with 18th century techniques and materials. It is located adjacent to George Washington’s Gristmill along the banks of the Dogue Run Creek, just three miles down the road from the Mount Vernon Estate mansion in northern Virginia.

This George Washington Distillery is a near-perfect historical recreation—with slight modifications to keep it up to modern fire codes—of George Washington’s original distillery.

Father Of Our Country’s Whiskey

Although it is rarely taught in elementary school textbooks, the Father of our Country, Hero of the Revolution, and First President of these United States was one of the largest commercial producers of rye whiskey. Indeed, Washington made and sold booze from 1797 until his death in 1799, at which time his distillery was known to have produced more than 11,000 gallons of rye. This was much in excess of what anyone else is known to have been producing at the time.

This fact is hardly surprising considering that our Founding Fathers consumed vast amounts of alcohol. Apparently, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages between 1790 and 1840 than at any other period in our nation’s history—nearly a half pint of hard liquor per man each day. Even John Adams, who was often heard striking temperate notes against public taverns, imbibed a tankard of hard cider a day with his breakfast.

Click here to go to the rest of this article on The Malt Advocate website.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A delicious, fast and easy salmon or beef dish in a whisky cream sauce

(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Cooking section of the Wednesday, September 13, 2006 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 33; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space.)

Looking for a quick, delicious, elegant, yet totally easy one-pan recipe for dinner tonight? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it. Well look no further. This peppered steak with whisky cream sauce works brilliantly with either salmon or beef. Not only is clean up a cinch – everything is cooked in one pan – the entire dish, from prep to table, should take no more than about 20 minutes. This is one of those dishes where the sauce is an essential compenent to the dish, and who can resist cream, butter, and scotch whisky.

I adapted this recipe from Scottish Chef Nick Nairn, who developed this originally as a peppered beef dish. Chef Nairn eventually adapted the recipe for chicken, and then turned his eye towards salmon. What can I say, the man is a culinary genius! The recipe is essentially a “steak au poivre” (French for steak with peppercorns) that has been liberally adapted and that makes wonderful use of Scotch whisky.

Peppered Steak (Salmon or Beef) with a Scotch Whisky Cream Sauce
Serves 2

2 6-ounce salmon steaks or 2 (8-ounce) beef fillets (you can use a 16-ounce sirloin steak, and just cut it into two portions)
1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
½ tablespoon crushed white peppercorns
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
freshly ground sea salt
½-ounce salted butter
1 tablespoon whisky
¼-pint double cream (use heavy cream in a pinch)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, plus extra to garnish

Mix your black and white crushed peppercorns together and put to one side. Now spread the dijon mustard all over your steaks and then press the crushed peppercorns into the flesh. Don’t overdo the mustard, you want just enough to give it a nice thin coating. Season with salt as desired.

Heat your frying pan until it is very hot, then add the butter. As as soon as it starts to foam, place your steaks into the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and fry the steaks for about 3 minutes on one side to brown them.

Then turn the heat back up and flip the steaks to the uncooked side. Then pour in the whisky but be careful to not throw it in wildly and create a flambé. Boil this quickly until the whisky has all but disappeared, then pour in the cream. Carefully deglaze your pan (scrape up any bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pan around the steaks), while you bring the cream to a fast bubble.

Now boil this until your sauce starts to thicken (1 to 2 minutes), then taste and, should it need it, season with more crushed black pepper and salt. If using salmon, the fish should be just cooked, if it is too pink, continue to simmer it over a low heat for another minute. If using beef, it should be just about rare, but can be cook to desired doneness.

Once the cooking is finished, stir your chopped chives into the sauce around the steaks and serve immediately. Garnish with the extra chives.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Cooking with Spirit

(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Cooking section of the Wednesday, September 13, 2006 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 33; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space. This was a companion piece to my beef/salmon steak in whisky cream sauce recipe.)

The notion that wine, beer, and sometimes spirits can make for an excellent accompaniment to a fine meal is now fairly common. Yet few folks seem as persuaded about using their tipple in their cooking as an ingredient. This reluctance is unfortunate. Cooking with wines, liqueurs, beers, and spirits is an easy way to add some seriously delicious flavor and complexity to even fairly simple dishes. This is particularly so with Scotch whisky, an otherwise neglected culinary ingredient.

Sauces, marinades and stews all are good candidates for a bit of Scotch whisky to enhance the taste. Whisky will add to the flavor of dishes as varied as fish, meats and desserts.

Cooking is a complex choreography of aromas, flavors, textures and heat producing something very tasty, or very nasty. The devil is in the details – finding the right interplay or balance of aromas and flavors and textures, without mucking up the application of heat (through over or under cooking). Balance is key.

Cooking with whisky shares the same basic principles as cooking with wine, or any other booze, in that boiling down the liquid concentrates the flavors, but only up to a point. The idea is to reduce and concentrate it, not evaporate all the flavor all away. Unlike wine, whisky has a higher alcohol content, the flavors are generally more robust and pronounced, and so usually only a little liquid is needed. Also the hard stuff has a much longer shelf-life than wine, so feel free to reach for that really expensive Scotch you were given years ago but have been afraid to open. Just be sure to stick to flavors that will work in concert with the rest of your dish.

First and foremost, choose your “cooking” booze the way you would your other ingredients, with the emphasis on quality and taste, and with an eye towards how the flavors will work together. Unless you have a particular favorite whisky in mind for a given recipe, I heartily recommend the Famous Grouse Finest Scotch whisky. The Grouse, as it generally known in Scotland where it has consistently been the number one selling whisky since 1980, is a delicious, rounded, mild and elegant blended Scotch whisky, with decidedly appealing aromas and flavors of delicate fruits (ranging from apricot to orange to currant), sherry, soft peat, lavender, young oak wood, caramelized ginger, sweet grain and spice. The Famous Grouse is a great baseline Scotch to work with in general, whether in cooking or cocktails, because it is balanced, inexpensive, easy to find, and utterly delectable on its own.

Do not, however, shy away from cooking with single malt Scotches. As the flavor characteristics involved with single malts are more distinct than blends, the tastes you are working and playing with require a bit more thought in the dish. The trick is to experiment; the more you cook with whisky, the more comfortable you will be in selecting the right Scotch to enhance your gastronomic creations.