Over a Barrel

How home barreling of spirits changes everything

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It all started earlier this summer when I read a blog posting from my friend, Al Milukas. Al publishes a blog called Live the Live and I follow it avidly. It’s a great source of information on all matters of food and drink. This story, in particular, called Aging Spirits in Oak Barrels at Home, caught my eye and interest.

The next thing I know, I am the proud owner of a one-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and spent the next few months experimenting and aging liquor. But first, let’s talk a bit about barreling and aging spirits.

Wood, Time and Magic

Among the websites I visited about the effects of barrel aging included this with an article on the Science of Barrel Aging. As they simply put it, “Aging softens the ‘burn’ of the ethanol while smoothing out flavours and adding even more pleasant ones. The question is: what exactly is happening inside that barrel?”

They go on to talk about the effects of time, air, temperature, the role of different types of barrels (especially oak), barrel char, and humidity.

To be totally candid, I know very little about the science of barreling. Hey, I barely got through high school chemistry, so if you want to know more, I suggest you either look it up or talk to someone who knows. All I care about is the impact on my favorite libations.

Meet Red Head Oak Barrels

red-head-logo-sign

Following the advice of my friend Al Milukas, I ordered a 1-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and went to work.

The company is owned by Steve Mayes who was born in Baton Rouge, LA and now lives and works in the Dallas area. After playing around with the barrel and doing some experimenting (more about that in a moment), I gave Steve a call to learn more about him and his company. He started the company in 2013, is a Navy veteran, has a background in Internet marketing, and knows a good idea when he sees one. He’s also a very nice guy and could teach most major companies about customer service.

Here’s an example. In addition to my nonscientific knowledge, I’m also world renowned in my lack of mechanical and manual dexterity skills. (Just ask my wife who often calls the building’s handymen to change a light bulb.) Anyhow, I had some difficulty  assembling the barrel (putting in the spigot) and contacted Read Head Oak Barrels for some help. The problem was solved immediately. I was struck by how they handled and resolved my minor issue.

When I talked to Steve we spoke about his customer service philosophy and he told me they believe in “lagniappe,” an expression in Louisiana that means “a little extra.” It’s his way of saying that they specialize in over delivering and delighting their customers. There are many companies out there selling barrels, and in fact, some are resellers using Red Head’s barrels. But, I doubt if any have Steve Mayes’ attitude and business practice.

I had the barrel I bought engraved with the Booze Business logo (of course). It arrived shortly after I ordered it with very detailed instructions and appropriate paraphernalia.

The idea behind home barrel aging is pretty clear. Distilleries usually use large 53-gallon oak barrels to age their products because they need the large volume to satisfy their customers. But for home use, you need much smaller sizes. In fact, home barrels come in 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 or 20 liters and age the product inside much faster. That’s because of the ratio of wood to liquid is greater in a smaller barrel so it takes less time. That also means the taste and flavor is enhanced more quickly.

2-liter KY Bourbon kit
2-liter KY Bourbon kit

And now, the results of my experiments

I started simply and poured some mid-price rye whiskey into the barrel, waited two weeks and it was the smoothest, most flavorable rye I’ve had in a long time. Hmm, what would happen if I used an inexpensive rye? So, Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey went in next for about ten days and I could have made a fortune betting my friends what they were tasting was 10-year-old rye.

Gin followed and I ended up with batch after batch of outstanding barrel aged gin whose taste, color and smoothness was unbelievable. In effect, I had a barrel with complex flavors of rye, gin, and even rum.

But the coup de grace was a gin cocktail – my new favorite – the Negroni.

Last year my wife and I spent a long weekend in Santa Barbara and had dinner at the Stonehouse restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch. We ordered Negronis before dinner and were asked if we would like a barrel-aged version. It was unbelievable.

That idea became my favorite experiment. I mixed a liter’s worth of Negroni (with Koval gin, a decent vermouth and Campari, of course), aged it for a little more than a week, removed it from the barrel into a bottle (to stop the aging) and it was great. I’ve since played with the recipe, brand of vermouth, and time in the barrel. It gets better and better.

My do-it-yourself barreled gin
My do-it-yourself barreled gin

*        *        *

I could end this post with any number of clichés about barrels. But I won’t. After all, I covered the subject lock, stock and barrel.

Please stop groaning.

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Hella Company

You Oughta Know Bitter…

That’s the tagline of a fascinating company that has entered the bitters business and is claiming a stake in the cocktail culture and beyond.

The Hella lineup.
The Hella lineup.

It is also the story of three friends with entrepreneurial skills and passion who, with the help of Kickstarter, started a business and making quite an impact. Just like the bitters they make, their diverse and eclectic backgrounds merge very nicely to create an outstanding product and a company with vision and values.

I met the team at the suggestion of my friend Sean O’Rourke from Fedway Distributors in NJ. Sean is the Craft Category Manager, a rising star at Fedway, and someone with first hand knowledge about craft and startup ventures. With his recommendation in mind I set off to Long Island City, Queens to meet the owners.

The Team

Jomaree Pinkard is the CEO, a Wharton MBA with over a decade of experience in the consulting and financial industries. Eddie Simeon is the CMO, a senior digital strategist and former Adweek executive with experience in commercial media development. Tobin Ludwig is the COO and an F&B industry veteran, a James Beard House featured craft bartender, educator and beverage consultant.

Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin
Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin

The partners came together at various times in their lives as friends and business associates. Among other things, they shared a passion for food and do-it-yourself culinary efforts, including making their own bitters as a hobby. So, they made a batch of bitters, and friends and family loved it. So much so, that to meet the demand they went on Kickstarter and raised two and a half times what they had wanted.

Bitters

Let’s spend a minute on the topic of bitters. Here is a succinct history.

To cut to the chase, as they say, bitters have been around for centuries and ultimately found their way to become various types of medicines derived from plants or other types of natural resources. By the 19th century, the British and Colonial Americans added bitters to Canary wine (wines from the Canary Islands). From there they went to cocktails and to oblivion, thanks to prohibition. By the beginning of this century, they were back with a vengeance, and have become the backbone of most, if not all, cocktails. (See an earlier post on Gary Regan and his Orange Bitters No. 6.)

Why do I admire these guys?

Simple. They’re smart business people who understand that, in the craft world, “build it and they will come” just doesn’t work. They understand growth constraints, have developed business plans and strategies, and are outstanding marketers.

Bitters are a slow usage category with only a few drops used in a cocktail. My bottles of Angostura and Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters have been in my pantry since Methuselah was a teenager. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an old expression.) So if you’re manufacturing bitters, there are limits to your growth and expansion.

What the Hella guys have done is produce a line of bitters—orange, aromatic, ginger, smoked chili, and ginger lemon. In addition, they recognize that bitters are of appeal to home chefs and do-it-yourselfers so they produced a Craft Your Own Bitters Kit. (I’m a proud owner of one of those kits and as you read this, my first batch of grapefruit bitters is aging.)

Other Products

Let’s start with cocktail syrups. These are also syrups used by many home bar chefs designed to help make cocktail mixing at home effortless and fun. These syrups make it easy to produce drinks at home that taste on par with what you will find in fancy cocktail bars. Hella makes three—hibiscus, cola, and tonic.

Here’s how they describe it:

Hella Cocktail Syrups are different than what you’re used to, and that’s just the way we like it. We wanted them to embody everything that Hella stands for so we made sure to use only the best all-natural ingredients, combined with just the right amount of cane sugar. Our 72-hour infusion of bark, fruit peel, and whole spices result in not too sweet and perfectly bitter syrups that make an excellent dry soda or a light and refreshing mixed drink or cocktail.

Another line of products includes Hella cocktail mixers—five in all, including Bloody Mary, Margarita, and Moscow Mule. I haven’t had a chance to try them as yet, but friends who have rave about them and think they’re among the best on the market.

Distribution and Sales

Here’s the part I really love.

While bitters generally contain high levels of alcohol, often 90°, in many states they are not considered an alcohol product, so you can buy them in grocery stores. They are also available in liquor stores. So distributors and retailers in both worlds are available to them.

In fact, check out the list ’A’ of retailers (in NYC): Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, Chelsea Market, Whisk, Astor Wine and Spirits, to name a few.

Where to next?

They are not saying, so I feel free to speculate and perhaps offer an idea or two.

Based on the quality of their products, the commitment to excellence, and their entrepreneurial savvy, I hope they move from the margins of the booze business into the mainstream. My instinct tells me that if they were to add spirits to their mixers, the result would be a top shelf pre-mixed cocktail. Or, if they applied their creativity, they might come up with a proprietary spirits product that would make for an excellent cocktail.

But then again, these folks are smart. They know that focus is the key ingredient for an entrepreneurial success.

Incidentally, the name Hella comes from a popular expression—hella—as in a slang term meaning “very” or “extreme.”  So Hella products can mean hella awesome or hella great. In old school slang, we used the term “helluva,” as in they make “helluva bitters.” Either way the term is appropriate for their products.

By the way, I’ll let you know how my do-it-yourself bitters product turns out. Check the Booze Business Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/boozebusiness/

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F. Paul Pacult

The Whiskey Authority—In More Ways Than One.

I first met Paul Pacult in the early 90s when I was running marketing for Seagram Americas. He and Gary Regan whiskey-authority1invited me on their radio show to discuss Single Malts and The Glenlivet. Over the years I’ve come to admire his passion for the spirits and wine industries.

I consider him to be among the top experts in the business. Consequently it’s not a surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to attend his first The Whiskey Authority (TWA) session in New York. Before I go into that, for those of you who don’t know him or of him, here’s a brief background.

Writer, educator, journalist, consultant, and more

In a 2006 article, Forbes described him as “America’s foremost spirits authority.”  His F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal (which I read avidly) is considered a top notch and independent source of reviews and ratings. He has also been a journalist writing for such publications as The New York Times and scores of magazines.

F-Paul-Pacult-256x300What I find most interesting is his consulting and educational training practice. In fact, when I was managing the introduction of a Mongolian vodka a few years ago, I turned to Paul for an evaluation of the brand’s taste profile and its strengths and weaknesses versus competition. What I learned was extremely helpful.

While there are many wine and spirits tasting competitions out there (I often think too many), Paul’s Ultimate Spirits Challenge and Ultimate Wine Challenge, are, in my view, the best and most meaningful. (Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago about the spirits competition.)

A number of years ago, Paul launched The Rum Authority, described as “a series of seminars dedicated to demonstrating Rum’s universal appeal to both the novice and expert alike.” Which brings me to his newest endeavor, The Whiskey Authority (TWA).

The Whiskey Authority sessions

The inaugural session I attended was fascinating and well worthwhile. Here I am with none-of-your-business number of years in the industry, worked for the biggest and best (as an employee or consultant), and “been there

The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC
The session at Keens Steakhouse in NYC

and done that” knowledge and understanding of booze. Well, I’m not embarrassed to tell you that I learned a great deal in the few hours I spent at the seminar.

First and foremost, Paul is an outstanding speaker/lecturer and very entertaining as he educates his audience about a serious and often confusing subject. The audience at the seminar is primarily bartenders (the critical consumer influencer these days) with a smattering of distributor sales reps and (ahem) one or two bloggers.

The session begins with a fun-filled and informative talk about whiskey including the critical elements and their role, all laced with amusing and engaging stories based on Paul’s 30+ years in the industry. Each of the products presented were first given the “nose test” then two blind taste tests. It was particularly fun to try and guess which brand was being tasted, before Paul revealed the brand.

Brand members support TWA and there were 12 brands to taste. Sue Woodley, Paul’s wife/partner, told me they had more than 15 wanting to participate but they felt that was too many for one session.

The session had whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. I asked Paul why he did that rather than concentrate on one particular country. His answer makes good sense to me:

“The guiding mission of TWA is to erase the conflicting and confusing information about whiskey categories, so Fiveit’s necessary to showcase whiskeys from around the world. In this case in 2016, we feature whiskeys from three nations in various subcategories to draw explicit differences. In the future we hope to have whiskeys from Canada, Japan, India, etc.”

I also asked Paul about the sponsors and why they participate. His answers were not surprising. TWA provides an opportunity for brand’s to have their story told to leading bartenders in important markets; to have their brand blind taste tested on “a level playing field” to highlight their virtues in a friendly environment; and, to be part of a program that’s purely educational.

I think it’s more than that. It’s all about Paul Pacult, an acknowledged and unbiased expert, who gives the presentation greater seriousness and credibility.

The brands that participated included Chivas, Michter’s, Highspire, Aberlour, Johnnie Walker, Redbreast (the one I fell in love with), among others.

* * *

In addition to the session in NYC, there was one in DC and one coming up on June 20th in San Francisco. Three more are in the planning stage for this year. But, they are by invitation only.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a showcase and opportunity that should not be missed by either large or small brands.

Hey Paul, where were you when I needed you? I would have had as many Seagram brands as you could accommodate at your sessions.

Yours Truly hard at work
Yours Truly hard at work
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