Uisce Beatha Eireannach Goes Legit!

Dunguaire Castle, County Galway

Dunguaire Castle, County Galway

Ok, for the record, Uisce Beatha Eireannach – Irish whiskey – has always been legit! However, soon, the legal standards that regulate the spirit will be greatly expanded and enhanced.

As every good CSS student knows, Irish whiskey has been defined and regulated since 1980 by the Irish Whiskey Act.

The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 is a fairly concise document – no more than one page long – and states that Irish whiskey must:

  • Be distilled in Ireland from a mash of cereal grains
  • Be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% alcohol by volume (189.6 proof)
  • Be distilled in such a way so that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used
  • Contain no additives except for water and caramel coloring
  • Be stored in wooden casks in Ireland for no less than three years

The act further goes on to define blended Irish whiskey as a spirit which must be comprised of at least two different distillates. And that’s it!

However…as of October 30, 2015, a new set of technical standards will be implemented in accordance with the European Union requirements for the PGI status of Irish whiskey.

These standards expand upon the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 and include the following regulations:

  • Irish whiskey must be bottled in Ireland or, if not bottled in Ireland, it must be shipped off the island in inert bulk containers and subject to company controls and strict verification to ensure the safety and integrity of the product.
  • Irish whiskey is not allowed to be exported from Ireland in any type of wooden container.


These new regulations also provide definitions for the following types of Irish whiskey: 

Irish Malt Whiskey: Irish malt whiskey must be made from 100% malted barley. The wort is separated from the solids before fermentation. Irish malt whiskey must be distilled in pot stills. The traditional practice is to use smaller pot stills in order to encourage complex flavors and a full, oily texture, however, there are no requirements as to the size of the still.  Irish malt whiskey is traditionally triple-distilled, although double distillation may be used.

Irish Grain Whiskey: Irish grain whiskey is produced from a mash containing a maximum of 30% malted barley. The remainder is made up of unmalted cereal grains – typically maize, wheat, or barley. The mash typically does not undergo any separation of the solids from the liquids before distillation. This type of whiskey is continuously distilled using column stills.  Irish grain whiskey may have either a light or a full flavor profile, depending on the cut points and other techniques employed by the distiller.

Irish Pot Still Whiskey:  Irish pot still whiskey is required to be produced using a mash containing a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley. The remainder of the mash may be either malted or unmalted barley, and may include up to 5% other unmalted cereal grains (usually oats or rye). The wort is separated from the solids before fermentation. This type of whiskey must be batch distilled in pot stills. The traditional practice is triple-distillation in large pot stills, although double distillation may also be employed and there are no requirements as to the size of the still. 



Blended Irish Whiskey: Blended Irish whiskey is a blend of two or more different whiskey types, which must be made in accordance with the standards stated above, and which may include Irish malt whiskey, Irish grain whiskey, and/or Irish pot still whiskey. The whiskeys that make up the blend may also be chosen from different distilleries, ages, types of cask finish, and flavor profiles in order to achieve the desired flavor and consistency.  Blended Irish whiskey tends to be smooth and mellow with a range of flavors, and a light, silky mouth feel.

So on October 30, 2015 (and maybe every other day of the year), raise a glass – of Jameson, Tullamore DEW, Kilbeggan, or whatever you choose – and toast your friends “Sláinte mhaith!”

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your blog administrator

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Congratulations to our First Class of Certified Spirits Educators!

During our 2015 conference in New Orleans, the Society of Wine Educators administered the first ever Certified Spirits Educator exam to a group of leading industry professionals.  Six candidates successfully demonstrated superior theoretical knowledge through multiple choice and essay questions, tasting acumen through accurate blind identifications and rationales, presentation skills to a targeted audience, and proof of responsible beverage service.  For more information on the rigors of this exam click here.

Please, meet and congratulate the first group of official Certified Spirits Educators!



Hoke Harden, CSW, CSE, B.N.I.C. Certified Cognac Educator, and French Wine ScholarAn enthusiastic lover of wine and spirits, Mr. Harden left a career in academia to follow his other muse for the last 27 years, trekking around the world to the great producing regions. Recently referred to as a veritable walking omnibus of wine and spirits knowledge, he has experienced every possible facet of the world of wine and spirits as a retailer, restaurateur, bartender, buyer, wholesaler, supplier, marketer, critic, writer, competition judge and an educator. He is currently with Elixir Vitae Wine & Spirits Consultants, a member of the Society of Wine Educators, Wine & Spirits Instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, and a Master Instructor with the French Wine Academy.

Hoke on the CSE Exam: The new Certified Spirits Educator program is a highly complex self-study program offered to professional spirits educators and industry professionals; the equivalent to the Society’s highly acclaimed Certified Wine Educator. Other programs dabble in spirits or include ancillary courses in the basics; the CSE focuses singularly on the world of spirits.

daubenmire, experts photos shoot, 2014

daubenmire, experts photos shoot, 2014

Linda Pettine, CWE, CSELinda Pettine is an Associate Professor for the College of Culinary Arts, Providence Campus, Johnson & Wales University. She has been at Johnson & Wales University since 2000, where she teaches in the Beverage & Dining Service Department. She was recognized for her teaching skills with the Beverage & Dining Services Department Service Award in 2001 and Teacher of the Year in 2007.  With over 20 years of industry experience, Ms. Pettine operated and managed fine dining restaurants in the south suburbs of Boston before joining the faculty at Johnson & Wales. Prior to that, she was a sales associate at Branded Liquors in Westwood, Mass. Linda is an active member of the Society of Wine Educators, Women Chef’s & Restaurateurs, and the USBG. She is a Certified Wine Educator, Certified Specialist of Spirits, and a Certified Hospitality Educator. Pettine recently became a Certified Cognac Educator and is certified through the Ėcole du Vin as an international Bordeaux educator. She holds degrees from Massachusetts Bay Community College, North Adams State College, and Johnson & Wales University.

Linda on the CSE Exam: I am fortunate in my like that I have had the opportunity to pursue my passions, “wine and spirits”.  The time and effort studying for the CSE exam was rigorous and demanding utilizing a variety of study techniques and tasting formats.  However, when you are passionate about the subject, it seems less like work and more like a journey.  I am thrilled to have arrived at my destination!



Lisa Graziano CSW, CSELisa Graziano grew up with a German father and Irish-American mother in Los Angeles, California. An education in beer, wine and spirits came with this upbringing. She has pursued the study of wine and spirits seriously for the past eight years, earning both Certified Specialist of Wine and Spirits from the Society of Wine Educators, and currently works as a retail hand seller for Gallo Fine Wines and consults for Bottle Shop 33 in Denver. Her current passion is craft spirits and educating people about them – and she’s obviously great at it!

Lisa on the CSE Exam: The CSE exam was certainly challenging!  I ate, slept, studied and tasted spirits intensely for three months to prepare.  The SWE online Spirits Academy was a helpful tool in preparing for the exam as was the list of iconic spirits and suggested reading list. 



Harriet Lembeck, CWE, CSEHarriet Lembeck is a prominent wine and spirits educator and writer. She is President of the Wine & Spirits Program, headquartered in New York City, and was the Director of The New School Wine Classes for their 18-year duration. She has revised and updated the textbook “Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers, and Spirits”, is a favorite speaker on wine and spirits at SWE Conferences, and is a contributing editor to Beverage Dynamics Magazine.

Harriet on the CSE exam: I think that the Certified Spirits Credential is very important for those who teach spirits as well as wine, and for those who already have the Certified Wine Educator credential, it completes the picture. The test was very comprehensive. Multiple choice questions (not as easy as one might think), writing an essay, and then completing two differently-styled tastings made for a long day, but each element was necessary for a candidate to illustrate familiarity with the subject of spirits.



Ira Norof, CWE, CSEIn 1976 Ira’s wine & spirits career began in a retail wine shop.   As his knowledge and passion for the product grew, he eventually became a Sommelier in a Beverly Hills Restaurant.   In 1983, he was hired by Southern Wine & Spirits of California, and in 1996 he was named the Director of Education.  His illustrious career has taken him to visit most of the major wine regions in Europe and the Americas.  He attained the CWE (Certified Wine Educator credential) in 1999.  He holds a diploma from the Bordeaux Wine School and is a certified International Bordeaux Educator, as well as a certified Cognac Educator as ordained by le Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. He is a guest lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona’s School of Hospitality each semester. Ira served as the President of the Society of Wine Educators from 2010 – 2013 and has been on the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIWF and was a member of the Bon Appetit Tasting Panel.  Ira remains actively involved in many wine-related charity events throughout the country.

Ira on the CSE exam: I am privileged to have been part of the first CSE exam and will continue to mentor within our California organization on both wine and spirits education. We have over 200 CSW and/or CSS certified employees in the state as well as 4 CWEs. I look forward to help increase those numbers in the coming months.



Jane A. Nickles, CWE, CSE, MBA – “Miss Jane” is the Director of Education for the Society of Wine Educators and in charge of all educational materials such as study guides, workbooks and online courses as well as exams and certification instruments.  In the past two years, she has introduced SWEbinars, ebooks, online prep classes, our blog, and computer-based testing to SWE.  Before working for SWE, she  created and taught wine classes for 20 years at Le Cordon Bleu Colleges, was the 2012 Banfi award winner for best score on the CWE exam, won the 2008 WOSA wine essay award (the prize for which was a 2-week tour of the winelands of South Africa), and has published countless textbooks and journals, including the latest editions of the SWE Study Guides.

Miss Jane on the CSE exam: Over the past few years, the CSS program has grown rapidly, and we have received an increasing number of requests for more in-depth programs and a higher level certification in spirits. One could even say the CSE was created due to popular demand!

Congratulations to our new CSEs! Now…who will be next?

A New PGI – Ratafia de Champagne!


photo via: http://www.champagne-courtillier.com

Quick! If you are a CSW, tell me – what is Pineau des Charentes? If you are a CSS, answer me this: What is Pommeau de Normandie?

The answer to both questions is: a sweet, fortified, wine-based beverage, typically referred to in the European Union as a Vin de Liqueur.*

Now, here’s my next question: What is Ratafia de Champagne?

Answer: A Vin de Liqueur, produced in the Champagne region that – after an 800-year history of production – just received its first-even PGI status as of August 27, 2015. Bottles of Ratafia de Champagne, alternatively known as Ratafia Champenois, will be eligible for PGI status as of the 2016 release.

The new PGI is actually part of a larger project, begun back in June of 2014 when a group representing distillers, wine growers, and wine producers in the Champagne region created an organization known as the “Association of Producers of Spirits of the Champagne Geographical Indication” (Boissons Spiritueuses Champenoises). Among the goals of the group was to obtain PGI status for Marc de Champagne, Fine de Champagne, and Ratafia de Champagne. PGI status was obtained for Marc de Champagne in January 2015; the PGI for Fine de Champagne was approved in February 2015.

The regulations for Ratafia de Champagne PGI specify that the product is produced using the three main grapes of the Champagne region – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The juice that will be fortified and made into Ratafia is pressed after the juice to be used in the area’s famous sparkling wine is pressed – during the first part of the final – or rebèche – pressing.  The juice is then fortified with grape-based brandy of the region, which is also produced from the rebèche juice.  Production of Ratafia de Champagne will be limited to 15 million bottles – about 6% of the total output of the AOC – per year.

*More specifically, Pineau des Charentes is a Vin de Liqueur produced in the Cognac (Charentes) region of France, from must freshly pressed from the allowed grapes of the region. The must is fortified with Cognac, and the resulting beverage – at 16–22% alcohol by volume – is aged for at least 18 months, with a minimum of 12 in oak.  Being produced from unfermented must, Pineau des Charentes can also be classified as a mistelle.

*Pommeau, also technically a mistelle, is made in the Calvados region with unfermented apple juice, fortified with one-year-old Calvados. The resulting mixture, which has 16-18% alcohol by volume, is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 14 months.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles – your blog administrator!


The Vodka War

Vodka and red caviarPlease don’t throw sour grapes at me for saying this: it is merely a quote. But here goes, “Would the French like Champagne to be distilled from plums, and would the British accept whisky from apricots?”

The answer is “obviously not” – but the question was asked in earnest by Richard Henry Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament representing Poland. The time was 2007, and the occasion was the end of a heated debate in what is now known as “The Vodka War.”

Vodka has, for centuries, been produced and consumed by the countries of the “vodka belt” – Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia; the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania; and the Nordic states of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland – many of whom are now members of the EU. These vodkas are traditionally made from grains or potatoes, with the majority made from a mix of grains; and some of the finest examples are made from potatoes – particularly Poland’s unique, high-starch Stobrawa  variety.

Then along came Cîroc – a unique French beverage distilled from grapes, produced in a neutral style, and branded as vodka. In response, the European Union proposed to revise their regulations on distilled spirits, and split the vodka product group into several categories based on raw materials and in some cases, flavor.

European ParliamentThis did not go over well with some members, and on February 20, 2006, Poland – with the backing of the EU vodka belt countries and Germany – demanded that the EU definition of “vodka” be restricted to those spirits produced from grains, potatoes, or sugar beets.  Vodka, they claimed, was entitled to the same protections as to base ingredients and manufacturing processes as those awarded whiskies and brandies, and as such, should be granted the same assurances as to the quality and originality of the product.

Alas, this was not met without resistance, and the other EU producers of vodka, such as France and the UK, not to mention the non-traditional vodka producers of the rest of the world, countered with an argument that said that such restrictions would dissuade innovation and competition, and could be seen as an attempt to monopolize the vodka market by the Vodka Belt countries. The United States even threatened a trade war via the World Trade Organization.

Horst Schenllhardt, MEP from Germany, suggested a compromise: the EU definition of vodka could be written so as to include those products distilled from (1) cereals and/or potatoes, and/or those produced from (2) “other agricultural raw materials.” Those vodkas produced from “other agricultural raw materials” – such as grapes, carrots, or onions – must be labeled with a statement “produced from grapes” (or whatever the raw material may be). This proposal, referred to as the “The Schnellhardt Compromise,” passed, and is the law of the European Union today.

The Vodka Belt

The Vodka Belt

Poland, however, is not appeased and has responded by forming the Polish Vodka Association. The PVA, under the leadership of President Andrzej Szumowski, vows to protect the legacy of Polish Vodka. As of January 13th, 2013, a Polish law was passed defining Polish vodka as a product made exclusively in Poland, from Polish-grown grains or potatoes. Bottles meeting these criteria will be able to display a “Polska Wódka/Polish Vodka” symbol on their labels, as well as the official PGI for Polish Vodka.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CWE, CSS – your blog administrator.

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Shrubs and Switchels!

Shrub CherryShrubs and Switchels! It sounds more like a project for an arborist than a “new discovery” for mixologists. However, mixologists have “discovered” the two, and are quickly realizing that what was ancient can be new and exciting in the modern era of mixology.

Shrubs and switchels have a rich history with accounts of “drinking vinegars” dating back to 15th century England’s use as medicinal cordials.  Shrubs are an intriguing blend of fruit, sugar, and vinegar created to preserve fruit long after harvest.  Recipes and methods for making shrubs may vary, but the result is a delightful liquid that captures the essence of fresh fruit.  A proper shrub has a flavor that’s both tart and sweet, so it stimulates the appetite while quenching thirst.

Switchels are a blend of molasses (honey or maple syrup), water, vinegar, and usually ginger.  In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book The Long Winter, there is reference to a switchel-like drink claiming how it quenched the thirst without upsetting the stomach after hot work making hay.

Using shrubs and switchels to create refreshing beverages is truly an American story that came about in the 18th century.  A 19th century magazine noted, “When the thermometer ranges among the nineties, it is not so much a question of what we shall eat as what we shall drink.”  (Surely, SWE members would agree!)

Physicians cautioned that ice water, which was difficult to obtain and maintain, was a “very grim and deleterious beverage, every glass of which should be labeled with skull and crossbones.” Too much ice water, they believed, could cause indigestion, bloating and other more serious problems.  Shrubs and switchels provided an acceptable alternative, especially as these drinks would “cheer, but not inebriate.”  It was not long after, with shrubs 3further American ingenuity, they were served with whiskey and brandy.  In 1862 when Jerry Thomas’ groundbreaking book The Bar-Tender’s Guide was published, shrubs had become so ingrained in our cocktail culture that several were featured.

Fast forward to today and you will find a collection of mixologists across the country reaching back through history to reclaim vinegar’s more palatable past.  According to Tony Abou-Ganim, superstar bartender and author of The Modern Mixologist, “Skilled mixologists construct cocktails not from set recipes, but from building blocks of base spirit, modifiers and accents. The key is to balance between the flavors of alcohol, sweet, acid and bitter” Shrubs and switchels offer an alternative to lemons and limes for adding that acidity.

A number of shrubs are now available commercially, but they are also easy to make.  Just mix fresh fruit, sugar and vinegar together and let them steep until the flavors blend and balance to your taste.  Essentially any fruit from berries to melons and apples to rhubarb can be made into a shrub.  A good rule of thumb is one part fruit, one part sugar, and one part vinegar.  You can then adjust to taste.

There are two basic methods to create shrubs; hot or cold.

The hot method: This method is faster, but creates a jammy result.  This method works best in preserving harder fruits like apples and rhubarb.  Add equal parts sugar and water to saucepan, heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.  Add fruit and cook on low heat until the fruit juice blends into the syrup. Let the mixture cool, strain and then add vinegar to the syrup.  Bottle and let rest in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks to further integrate.

The cold method: This method takes longer, but gives a fresher fruitier result.  This method works best in preserving delicate fruits and berries.  Steep the fruit in sugar for 24 hours (or longer) in a covered container in the refrigerator.  After a day or two, your fruit should be swimming in juice and syrup.  The longer it sits, the more flavorful the shrub will be.  Add vinegar and let the mixture sit again for 24 hours.  Strain the syrup from the solids and bottle the shrub.   Shake the bottle well before using as some sugar may settle to the bottom.

shrubs 2Regardless of the method all shrubs mellow with time.  The tartness and sweetness remain, but they start to harmonize after a few weeks in the fridge.

In addition to the choice of fruits, experimentation can be made with the type of sugar and vinegar used.  White sugar is most versatile, but brown, raw, honey and molasses can have some interesting results.  Apple cider vinegar is most commonly used, but others have had success with white wine, red wine, and even balsamic vinegar.

Shrubs can add depth and complexity to a cocktail, but be careful.  Since they are already acidic, they don’t always play well with citrus juice.  Use a light hand and taste as you’re building your ingredients.

I have experimented with substituting shrubs in place of the acid component in my cocktails.  I use a base spirit, a shrub, a complementary liqueur or cordial, and bitters to create my concoctions.  While not all have been successful, the creative process has been fun!  Two cocktails that stood out as triumphs were one made with rum, blackberry shrub, ginger liqueur and lime bitters and another made with brandy, lemon shrub, orange liqueur and orange bitters.  I look forward to my continued research in this “new discovery” of ancient “drinking vinegars”.

What are some of your uses for shrubs and switchels?  Please share your experiments and recipes as we dabble with history.

Post authored by Brenda Audino, CWE. After a long career as a wine buyer with Twin Liquors in Austin, Texas, Brenda has recently moved to Napa, California (lucky!) where she runs the Spirited Grape wine consultancy business. Brenda is a long-time member of SWE and has attended many conferences – be sure to say “hi” at this year’s conference in NOLA!

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Bitters and Bittered

bittersCocktail bitters reside in a class by themselves. Essentially, cocktail bitters are aromatics and flavoring extracts that have been macerated in neutral spirits. Cocktail bitters are so intensely concentrated as not to be considered potable on their own—or, as the official phrasing has it, “Not for singular consumption.”


Most cocktail bitters are botanicals in a neutral spirit base, although, while uncommon, it is possible to produce bitters with a glycerin base. In the United States, cocktail bitters are considered “food extracts” and are therefore regulated by the Food and Drug Administration rather than by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) or other alcohol-regulating agencies. Thus, they have wider distribution than wines and spirits, including in most food and grocery stores.


Cocktail bitters began, much like many other spirit groups, as medicinal and restorative tonics created by infusing botanicals in alcohol in order to extract their (presumed or actual) health benefits. One of the most prevalent forms of bittering agents used was Peruvian cinchona bark, also called quinine, which became popular as part of the potions used to treat malaria and tropical fevers. Other common bittering botanicals were used as well, and many are still in use today, such as caffeine, hops, gentian, and burdock root, as well as many other forms of herbs, roots, leaves, barks, and spices.


Flowering Gentian

Flowering Gentian

Some of these medicinal elixirs were favored as refreshing beverages, while others remained in highly concentrated form as tonics. In many cases, the tonics came to be used to flavor other beverages, as in the gin and tonic, pink gins, and other such drinks, where a dash of bittering agents was called for to liven the drink. Bitters were so much a part of beverage culture that the earliest definition of a cocktail included a bittering agent. To be exact, the definition, formulated in 1806, listed “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitter.”


Outside of FDA regulations regarding use of certain approved foodstuffs, there is no limit or regulation on what may constitute a recipe for cocktail bitters; thus, much is left up to the discretion and whim of the creator. Cocktail bitters have found a new popularity, and there are many unique, creative products on the market today. Two of the most “classic” brands are Angostura Bitters and Peychaud’s Bitters: 


Angostura Bitters: The most well-known of the cocktail bitters began with the House of Angostura. Angostura Bitters were created as a medical concoction in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, a doctor in Simón Bolivar’s Venezuelan army. It was named after the town of Angostura (later, Ciudad Bolivar), although, oddly enough, the recipe did not contain the local angostura bark as an ingredient, even though other bitters did. The House of Angostura later relocated to Port of Spain

Photo of “Angostura bitters 003" by Gryffindor

Photo of “Angostura bitters 003″ by Gryffindor

in Trinidad, where it resides today. The company also owns and operates rum distilleries on the island, both for the Angostura brand and by general contract for several others. Readily recognizable with its bright yellow cap and oversize paper label, Angostura is easily the world’s dominant brand of bitters.


Peychaud’s Bitters: Peychaud’s Bitters were invented by the Haitian Creole Antoine Amédée

Peychaud in his apothecary shop in New Orleans, circa 1830. The concoction was originally designed to go in his powerful spirit libations said to be served in dainty eggcups known by the French term coquetiers (a possible explanation for the origin of our term “cocktail”). This is a savory, exotic style of bitters with highly lifted aromatics. Peychaud’s Bitters are an integral part of the original recipe for the Sazerac cocktail.


As a pleasant side effect of the current cocktail renaissance, the bitters market is exploding with

artisan and local versions of cocktail bitters, with more entering the market each day. Fee Brothers, Regan’s #6 Orange Bitters, Bittermen’s, the Bitter Truth, Bittercube, Basement Bitters, and Bar Keep Bitters are among the many artisan-produced bitters available today. A plethora of flavors are also being produced; one can find bitters based on fennel, lavender, grapefruit, rhubarb, dandelion, molé, pineapple, apple, curry, and Jamaican jerk seasoning.


The creativity for bitters, it seems, knows no bounds.

Cocktail bitters, bittered spirits, vermouth, quinquinas, and Americanos are all topics that receive new and expanded coverage in our 2015 edition of the Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide…due out by January!

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The Bartender’s Handshake

Fig 10-7 different brands of fernetThe beverage world abounds with spirit amari (bittered spirits), which may be classified as aperitifs, which are generally served in diluted forms as cocktails to stimulate the appetite, or as digestifs, which are often served in more concentrated forms to enhance digestion after a meal.

These amari contain botanicals with carminative properties intended to lessen gastric discomfort after rich meals. Just ask a bartender, a wine student, or a serious foodie you will hear them tell you its true: they work! Botanicals known for their carminative properties include angelica, aniseed, basil, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, ginger, hops, nutmeg, parsley, and sage.

One of the most popular Spirit amari is Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca was invented in Milan in 1845 by Bernardino Branca. It soon became famous worldwide and led to the founding of the Fratelli Branca Distillery.

Archives of the Boston Public Library

Archives of the Boston Public Library

Fernet has recently become quite popular in the United States as both a beverage and a hangover cure, but its popularity long precedes the craft cocktail scene. So popular is it among industry professionals that a shot of Fernet Branca has been called the “bartender’s handshake.”

In Prohibition-era San Francisco, fernet was legally consumed on the grounds of being “medicinal.” San Franciscans still drink it—over 30% of the fernet consumed throughout the entire United States is consumed in San Francisco.

Argentina consumes more fernet than any other nation. The beverage’s popularity is reflected in the fact that a leading  Cuarteto (an upbeat, popular dance-hall music genre) song is “Fernet con Cola.” 

The secret recipe for Fernet Branca is reportedly known by only one person, Niccolò Branca, the current president of the Fratelli Branca Distillery. It is said that Niccolò personally measures out the flavorings for each production run.

Fernet ValleyThe Branca brand, while definitely one of the better-known, is not the only producer of fernet. Fernet is actually a type of herbal-based bitter that is made by other producers, as well. Many Italian companies, including Luxardo, Cinzano, and Martini & Rossi, produce fernet. Fernet is produced internationally, as well, such as in Mexico, where the popular Fernet-Vallet is made.

Each brand of fernet has its own secret combination of herbs and botanicals. However, a good fernet is likely to include myrrh and saffron, both known for their “disgestivo” and antioxidant properties. Other ingredients rumored to be included are linden, galangal, peppermint oil, sage, bay leaves, gentian root, St. John’s wort, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and bitter orange.

Fernet Branca, as well as other versions of Italian spirit armai, French spirit amer, and various types of vermouth, quinquina, and americano that will be covered in the new 2015 edition of the Certified Specialist of Spirits study guide…to be released in January, 2015!

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CSS, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator: jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

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“For everything good, Mezcal…for everything bad, the same”

Agave Americana

Agave Americana

Technically, tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

As any good student of spirits should know, tequila is a specific type of mezcal, produced according the the strict rules of the Norma Oficial Mexicana (“Official Standard of Mexico,” often abbreviated as “NOM”), from the aguamiel of the blue agave plant (agave tequilana weber). Production of tequila centers around the Mexican state of Jalisco, put portions of the nearby states of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Michoacán are approved for the production of tequila as well.

But we were speaking of mezcal…

The production of products bottled as mezcal is centered around the state of Oaxaca. The state of Oaxaca is a prime growing area for the preferred base material for mezcal – a variety of agave known as agave americana, often referred to as maguey. In addition to maguey, twenty-eight other varieties of agave may be used in the production of mezcal, with the most common being agave potatorum and agave salmiana.

Oaxacans love their mezcal, as they should. A popular saying in the region is “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (“For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same”)

Mezcal derives its name from a Nahuatl Indian word, mexcalmetl, which loosely translates as “agave plant.” Mezcal often has a “smokier” or “earthier” aroma than tequila, in part because of the varieties of agave used, but also because of the tradition of cooking the piñas in earth-covered pits. Grinding methods vary, and mezcal producers commonly use agave fibers in the fermentation must to add character.

Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca

Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca

While most mezcals are produced using 100% agave, the distiller may also add various fruits and herbs to the must during the fermentation process. Thus, mezcal is produced in an almost infinite number of local variations. Mezcal may be labeled reposado or añejo, depending on the length of time it spends in cask, but many are bottled without cask aging. There is also a variant of mezcal called mezcal de olla. In this type, the must is distilled in a clay pot, called an olla, with a vapor-condensing coil attached to the cover.

While many people think they have bought or seen a bottle of tequila with a worm in it, they are mistaken, as the “worm in the bottle” is instead found only in some variations of mezcal, specifically those produced in the state of Oaxaca. The origin of the worm in the bottle is considered an old-fashioned way of certifying the strength of alcohol: if the worm decayed there was too little alcohol to preserve it; if the worm stayed intact there was sufficient alcohol for drinking.

The mezcal worm is actually the larva of one of the two moths that live on the agave plant. There are two types of worms: the red, gusano rojo, which thrives in the root of the plant, and the white or gold, gusano de oro, which is found on the leaves. Today, the worms are bred commercially for inclusion in mezcal. Although the worm is used as a marketing strategy, top-quality mezcal is generally not bottled with a worm.

A shot of mezcal with sal de gusano

A shot of mezcal with sal de gusano

The traditional way to drink mezcal is straight, sipped slowly and savored. Mezcal is sometimes accompanied by orange slices and “sal de gusano,” a Oaxacan salt blended with the ground larva of those famous gusano (worms). While it is difficult (and somewhat risky) to generalize about such things, the following flavors are often detected in mezcal: light smoke, nutty, caramel/brown sugar, floral, citrus, pumpkin, tropical fruit, dried fruit, green vegetal/celery, leathery/earthy.

As with many traditional beverages, mezcal has become part of the “craft cocktail culture,” and modern bartenders are creating smoky-yet-refreshing cocktail recipes using mezcal. Click here for a recipe, created by Scott Baird of Comal in Berkeley. Called The Palomaesque, this mezcal-based version of the classic Mexican cocktail, The Paloma, uses mezcal, grapefruit juice, lime juice, honey, and Cocchi Americano. Having just tried it myself, I can guarantee that it is delicious!

Guest Post: The Romance of Scotch Whisky

FiveToday we have a guest post from Spirits Educator Russ Kempton, CSS. Russ shares with  us some of what he learned about Scotch whisky during his five trips to Scotland!

Impersonal – that’s how I would describe most of the distilleries in the world.  However, the opposite is true for the distilleries located in Scotland. Do other regions and countries have long and just as distinguished history in producing distilled spirits? – Yes; but I feel that for the romance and the mythology, there are none like the Scotch whisky distilleries.

Rugged, rustic, and remote outposts describe most of Scotland’s distilleries in operation today, not one alike and all unique. Scotland’s unique, complicated, eco-system produces exceptional, tradition-rich whiskies. Due to this environment, Scotch whisky is among the most diverse spirits in the world.

Since the mid 1800’s, the debate among whisky drinkers has been which type of Scotch whisky is the complete spirit – single malts or blends? Single malts epitomize the distilleries signature as to what can be produced at a single distillery, while the blended whiskies style come from the vision of the Blending Houses.

OneTo be classified as a single malt Scotch, these requirements must be met; distilled from 100% malted barley, a product of one distillery, produced exclusively in Scotland, aged a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels, and placed into the bottle at no less than 80 proof or 40 alcohol by volume. Single Malt Scotch has three basic ingredients; malted barley, water and yeast with the color coming from the oak during maturation.

Blended Scotch will come from whisky produced at many distilleries with the majority (average 60%) being distilled from various grains such as unmalted barley, maize, and wheat. The grain whisky in the blend must be aged a minimum of three years and aged to the label year, if the blend carries an age. The remainder of the blend will contain, on average, approximately 35 to 40 single malts.

Blended Scotch of higher quality and price will carry a higher concentration of single malts in the blend. Blends on the opposite end of the scale will carry more grain bringing the quality and price down. The blender wants their whisky to be consistent for their loyal consumers. For this reason, they strive to produce a whisky which has a distinguishable quality and characteristic.

FourMany Scotch whisky distilleries are located in the mountains or glens, near rivers, lochs, or along the coast. The four seasons and weather in the areas will affect the barley, fermentation, distillation, and maturation at the distillery. During maturation the oak barrels and casks “breathe” the local air simply because the barrels are watertight but not air tight. For example, whisky aged in warehouses by the sea will pick up definite maritime qualities, therefore affecting the finished whisky and giving it the signature from that specific region.

There are five steps to a finished product: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

MALTING: Barley is germinated during this step, converting the starches into fermentable sugars. It is then arrested by drying the barley in a kiln, usually over a peat fire, for 24 – 36 hours.  The longer in the kiln, the more smoke influence in the finished product. Peat is simply decomposed plant life, usually heather. Before being used in the kiln, the peat is pressed and dried.

MASHING: The dried grain, now known as malt, is milled into a coarse flour called grist. The grist is then mixed with hot water in a mash-tun where the conversion of starch into sugar is completed. This sugary liquid is now known as wort. The wort is next transferred into huge vats (washbacks) for fermentation.

FthreeERMENTATION: Yeast (unique to each distillery) is added to wort.  The sugars in the wort are converted into a low-proof alcohol known as wash.  This process takes 48 – 72 hours (average), some distilleries fermentation cycles are lower or higher.

DISTILLATION: The Wash is put in copper pot stills and distilled twice. The first distillation is the wash still with the spirit vaporizing, condensing to produce low wines. The second distillation in the spirit still consists of three cuts; only the middle- the heart- of the run is pure enough for maturation. The usable spirit is called “new make spirit” and sent on for maturation.

MATURATION: The new make spirit is aged in oak barrels or casks for a minimum of three years and starts to pick up its color and flavor profile. A ten-year maturation or longer period is typical for single malts of high quality. During aging, 1% – 3% of the spirit will evaporate each year; this is simply known as the “angel’s share”. Oak barrels or casks play a significant role during maturation; as much as 60% of the whisky’s flavor comes from the wood influence. Some distilleries use only sherry casks in their maturation process; however the vast majority will use used bourbon or Tennessee whiskey barrels since bourbon and Tennessee whiskey can only be produced in new charred oak barrels.

TwoThe Scots in the whisky industry are highly dedicated to their heritage, passionate about quality and committed to excellence.  All of this magic is fused from three basic ingredients, time, place, and environment.

Slainte Mhath! (pronounced Slan-Je-Va) – meaning “good health to yours” in Gaelic.

Russ Kempton, CSS, is a Distilled Spirits Educator conducting spirits education, training, seminars, tastings, events, dinners, and consulting throughout the United States. He also holds the Certificate of Expertise in the Sales & Service of Scotch Whisky, received in Edinburgh on one of his 5 journeys to Scotland.

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Guest Post: Traveling in time at Château De Laubade Armagnac

IMG_0241Today we have a guest post from Hoke Harden, CSS, CWE. Hoke is well-known to SWE members as one of the contributors to the original CSS Study Guide and a popular (and highly-rated) conference speaker. Hoke invites us to travel back in time with a visit to Château de Laubade in Armagnac, and taste France’s oldest brandy, made by time-honored traditions now codified into law.

Located in the departement of Gers in the Gascogne region of south-west France, situated in the verdant rolling foothills of the Midi-Pyrénées, Armagnac hews to the old ways to make a unique rustic and earthy brandy celebrated the world over.

Brandy began here on the many small family farms dotted across the landscape. Thrifty landholders naturally cultivated wine grapes amongst their other crops so good, basic drinking wine could grace their tables. Eventually, the wine found its way into brandy—although most of the farms were too modest to have their own distillery and each year they waited until a local distiller could hitch up his portable still and take it to each farm for custom distillation.

Thus custom and tradition created an agreement on basic methods of brandy production, but allowed, even encouraged, a fiercely independent style by each small-batch producer, since most of the brandy would remain for family consumption, unlike its famous northern neighbor, Cognac, which was focused primarily on commercial exports. Today, the commercial houses of Armagnac remain fairly small concerns, with each having its own way of doing things, but all bound by the officiating body of the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Armagnac.

IMG_0242Château De Laubade, located in the tiny village of Sorbets in the Bas-Armagnac AOC, is a storybook picture of a place, with its gated entrance, sturdy round tower and ancient mottled brick buildings leading to a fanciful Normandy-style chateau from 1870 perched on a hill to view the sweeping expanse of vineyards in the valley below.

These well-tended vineyards are essential, for only they are used for Château De Laubade’s Armagnacs. After the upheavals of phylloxera and oidium that devastated French vineyards, Armagnac recovered and settled in with several approved varieties, but at Laubade, only the four key varieties are allowed: Ugni Blanc, known in Italy as Trebbiano, a workhorse grape;  Folle Blanche, a delicate and floral variety that is susceptible to rot and difficult to farm; Baco Blanc, a French-American hybrid cross between Folle Blanche and Noah intended to give the character of Folle Blanche without the problems; and Columbard, which in this terroir provides impressively spicy and herbal characters to the blend.

Each year the varieties are harvested, fermented, distilled and barreled individually, to be aged and blended by the master distiller into the various Armagnacs the estate produces.

Originally, all distillation in Armagnac was done in a pot-and-column continuous copper still , an alembic Armagnacais, so only one distillation was required to gain sufficient alcohol strength and clarity. Today, any type of distillation is permissible; most distillers use the traditional method, others use the alembic double-distillation approach, depending upon style preferences.

IMG_0240Another traditional touch comes in with the choice of barrel. The Armagnacais traditionally prefer initial aging, from six months to a year, in a local black oak heavy in tannin from the nearby forest of Monlezun, then transferring the eau-de-vie to lighter, finer-grained, and older, more subtle toasted oak barrels from such sources as Limousin and Tronçais for continued but more elegant development.

The minimum aging to be designated Armagnac is one year, but most are blends of much, much older brandies to create the various VSOP, Reserve, XO, Hors d’Age and other well-matured designations.  Armagnac has also continued the tradition of maintaining single-vintage and single-variety releases, with the proviso that any single-vintage must be a minimum of ten years in barrel prior to release.

To maintain blending stocks, and to retard the loss of precious alcohol through evaporation in barrel, when a brandy has gained all it can from the barrel, it is racked into large bulbular glass demi-johns, which are then placed in the most revered cellar location, referred to as Le Paradis—Paradise.  These will be doled out in miniscule amounts and used judiciously to enhance new blends with added depth and nuance.

In one of the more remarkable tastings I have been fortunate enough to enjoy, a master distiller at Chateau de Laubade took me through three levels of sampling.

IMG_0246First, he provided four samples of eau-de-vie from the 2013 vintage which had received no barrel treatment: Ugni Blanc, Baco Blanc, Folle Blanche and Columbard. The differences among the ‘naked’ eau-de-vies were immediate, impressive and actually somewhat startling. The Ugni Blanc was lean, tight, mineral, and tartly, astringently acidic. The Baco was the reverse of that coin, rich, earthy, full in the mouth and expansive. The Folle Blanche was wonderfully floral, light, and bright and lively.  And the Columbard was impressively spicy and tangy and strong with herbal coriander-seed aromas.  Even from this rough and undeveloped primal state, one could easily see the wide range of possibilities a blending could take in the hands of a master.

For the second step, the master distiller brought out four more wines—again, the four basic varieties, but this time they were individually barrel-aged samples: an Ugni Blanc and Baco Blanc from the 1994 Vintage, a Columbard from the 1995 vintage, and a Folle Blanche from 2001.

Again, the differences were immediate and amazing. The mature Ugni Blanc had become forceful and deeply colored, but had maintained that almost steely intensity and structure it showed originally. The Baco, on the other hand, had become even richer, more rounded, and significantly more earthy, with an umami-mushroom undertone. The Columbard had deepened and strengthened its herbal-spice focus, tightened its structure, and had become one of the most singularly expressive Columbards I had ever experienced. And the Folle Blanche had developed a lacy, fruit-floral elegance and airiness that was lovely to linger over.  Again, one could consider the infinite possibilities of mingling these creatures into a master blend.

IMG_0258For the last stage of the tasting we strolled over to the chateau and in the midst of the lavishly decorated sitting room, overlooking the vineyards, I was offered my choices of a dazzling array of bottles from the offerings of Château De Laubade.  While wishing I had the fortitude to taste each and every one of these precious mahogany brandies, I restrained myself—with difficulty–to only a few select choices:  an XO with 15 to 25 years of age; an XO l”Intemporel No. 5 with 25-50 years; a vintage 1990; a vintage 1983; and as a finale, a vintage 1942, a brandy I simply could not resist.

The import of the previous tastings varietal tastings became evident , for with these armagnacs I could discern the contribution of the varietal characters as well as the resonance and depth that maturity brought to the marriage.  The firm linear structure of Ugni Blanc was enhanced by Baco’s warm, earthy richness, with the spice-lash of Columbard coming up from below and the lacy aromatics of Folle Blanche wafting above, and all coming together in the center with four made one and sum magnificently greater than parts.

In the two XO’s, differences of age showed clearly. The younger  XO was lighter, brighter, with more citrus and flower and orchard fruit shining clearly, only beginning to show the tinges of oncoming maturity along the edges. The older No. 5 Intemporel, with obvious and welcome richness from Baco, was profoundly deep and brooding, redolent of dried orange peel, savory mince, and prunes vying with old leather, cocoa, and baking spices, and lingered for the longest time.

IMG_0257The 1990 Laubade, a worthy reminder of the worldwide excellence of that vintage, was still bright and lively with apricot fruit, laced with firm acids, and showing the ability to age gracefully for many, many years.  Again, the striking elements of structure, earthiness, spice and flower were all present. Think of the 1990 as an Audrey Hepburn Armagnac: always young, always charming, teasing, enticing and never out of style.

The 1983 Laubade was more abundant, with more heft and weight and substance, with the feeling it was just now beginning to hit its prime. The foundation of Ugni and Baco were clearly there, with the Baco deepening and mellowing, yet, oddly enough, allowing more room for the spicy-herbal Columbard and faint floral perfume of Folle Blanche to “fill in the spaces” seamlessly, showing the pure mastery of the blender’s art coupled with the seasoning of age.

The 1942 Laubade was a quiet work of art, a gentle, soft, round, warm delight. Initially a bit tentative, it warmed and expanded in the mouth, and the post-nasal aromatics effulgently stimulated the senses. There is something profound in a brandy that bridges the years, that connects you to a time before you were born and like an old film or photo album calls up glimpses of things you never experienced.

In 1942 France had been ignominiously conquered by archenemy Germany, had the heart of its country occupied, with the pitiful remainder shoved into Vichy. The devastating war was flaring even higher, spreading all over the world.  Times were still difficult in Gascony but the land endured, as did the people, and there was even guarded optimism for a brighter future. Grapes still had to be harvested, wine made, brandy distilled.

IMG_0262This Armagnac was a sign of that future; made in hard times, perhaps it would be consumed in far better times. Such is the cloaked power of a well-made brandy, made reverent with age.  And such is the power of Château De Laubade Armagnac that 70 years later the brandy remained vibrant and alive – while the distant past was only dull regret and faded memory.

About the author: An enthusiastic lover of wine and spirits, Mr. Harden left a career in academia to follow his other muse for the last 27 years, trekking around the world to the great producing regions. Recently referred to as a veritable walking omnibus of wine and spirits knowledge, he has experienced every possible facet of the world of wine and spirits as a retailer, restaurateur, bartender, buyer, wholesaler, supplier, marketer, critic, writer, competition judge and an educator. He is currently with Elixir Vitae Wine & Spirits Consultants, a member of the Society of Wine Educators, Wine & Spirits Instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, and a Master Instructor with the French Wine Academy.

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