December 31, 2016

∴ Cirrus Vodka

Cirrus vodka 750ml

One bottle in a handful of potato vodkas that have slowly made their way into my collection is the Virginia-made Cirrus from Parched Group LLC, Richmond, Virginia. 80-proof, $27.99/750ml (Virginia ABC). It’s been all the rage among my friends this past year, so much so that one of them was kind enough to gift me this bottle. Thanks, Neal.

On the occasion of the final Friday of 2016 I retired to our bar to prepare my warm-weather end-of-week cocktail, the Vesper. It’s also my drink of choice for auditioning new gins and vodkas, and since I’d planned to give Cirrus a go I made an exception for the season.

Before beginning preparation, though, I poured a one-ounce shot for an unadulterated taste. This bottle had been resting in our basement beer fridge for a few months, so it was well-chilled.

While vodkas are regarded as “neutral” spirits, those that begin life as potatoes bear a noticeably earthy flavor. They are not neutral. For reference, try a sip or two of Boyd & Blair, from Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, LLC. 80-proof, $35.39 (Virginia ABC), my go-to potato vodka. Close your eyes and you might imagine the scent of freshly tilled soil, or the taste of a moonshine let to rest for a few months in glass, in a root cellar. With that quality in mind, I expect a potato vodka to stand up in a Vesper, and not be overwhelmed by the gin.

For neutral flavor try most any grain vodka, or the corn-based, 6-time distilled Tito’s from Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Austin, Texas. 80-proof, $21.99/750ml (Virginia ABC). Tito’s Handmade distills almost every bit of flavor out of the spirit leaving a very mild, ever-so-slightly sweet product. You’d never guess it emerged from the second run of the still differing in no way from a 100% corn whiskey.

The all-time winner for neutral vodkas, though, has to be Divine Clarity from Murlarkey Distilled Spirits LLC, Bristow, Virginia. 80-proof, $28.59/750ml (Virginia ABC). Murlarkey’s claim to fame on this spirit is their 16-place column still which, after filling, heating and observing the initial output runs pretty much on autopilot. In goes a fermented potato mash, out comes a spirit so devoid of unique flavor it could be used in anything requiring an alcohol boost. A recent distillery tour left me with this question: why use a more expensive potato-based process when you’re going to boil the living hell out of the product16 times? That much distilling leaves absolutely no flavor. None. Nothing can survive that.

Back to Cirrus’ audition. In a nut, Cirrus comes up a little short on flavor. As a potato vodka I’d rate it three stars out of five. It’s not a bad vodka - a vodka you might delight in if you’re not looking to challenge your taste buds much. Tito’s lovers may find Cirrus a nice change of pace. Anyone looking for an earthy, flavorful potato vodka will keep looking. I’d place Cirrus’ flavor somewhere between a top-shelf grain vodka and a top-notch potato vodka.

I’ll give Cirrus another rating, though, among all vodkas as a group. In that crowd it rates a solid four stars out of five, because we’re talking mildly flavorful vs. largely flavorless from most of the rest, including the usual top-shelf names.

Stirring an ounce of Cirrus with three ounces of Watershed Gin from Catoctin Creek Distilling Company LLC, Purcellville, Virginia, 80-proof, $34.29/750ml (Virginia ABC) and one-third ounce Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif wine, I strained the result into a chilled coupe and garnished with a wide, thin, twisted slice of lemon peel, which I first used to rim the glass. Here’s where Cirrus stands above many other vodkas. Its mildly earthy flavor adds complexity to the drink, without drowning Cocchi’s slightly bitter contribution. This cocktail variation provided an enjoyable repast for the end of the week, the month, and what has become a year to forget. A couple more Vespers and perhaps I could.

In summary, Cirrus proved a drinkable, if not remarkable vodka adding mild complexity to white liquor drinks. Vodka Martini fans should give it a try as an entrée to fuller flavored potato vodkas.

#cocktail #cirrus #vodka #mixology #watershed #gin #vesper #cocchi

December 30, 2016

Britain, Edging Toward Trump, Scolds Kerry Over Israel

The backlash from a conservative UK Prime Minister was predictable (Reuters):

Britain scolded U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for describing the Israeli government as the most right-wing in Israeli history, a move that aligns Prime Minister Theresa May more closely with President-elect Donald Trump.

Don’t be confused by the political rhetoric. Kerry, and President Obama, are correct. Israel, and PM May, are not. The core of the issue is buried two paragraphs down:

Amid one of the United States' sharpest confrontations with Israel since the 1956 Suez crisis, Kerry said in a speech that Israel jeopardizeds hopes of peace in the Middle East by building settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The truth is two-fold. First, Israeli settlers in the West Bank have been as big an impediment to the peace process as Palestinian (read: Hamas) suicide bombers, if not as massively violent, and second, the UK is toadying up to Donald Trump with this statement more than they are calling Secretary Kerry a liar.

Kerry is right, the settlers are part of the problem, and Israel has been unwilling or unable to do anything about moving them out for decades. The UK PM is the tail wagging the dog.

December 24, 2016

iOS 10.2 ate my Battery

I updated my iPhone to iOS version 10.2 this past week. While I usually hold off updating to newly released OS versions, a point release update is usually a safe move. Not this time!

My first clue came on my way to town later in the same day. I looked at the phone as I put it in my pocket and found the battery level down to 9% after little activity. 9%. I don’t normally hit that level until late in the evening, if then. This phone is only seven months old, after all.

I charged the phone in the car, reaching 40% by the time I arrived. That should have been enough for a three-mile walk and light texting. By the time I finished those activities, though, I was down to 19%. Shortly after I was into single digits. Clearly something was wrong.

A quick reboot and recharge brought the battery up into the sixties, but not long later the phone was back to single digits. That’s when I went looking online for other users having problems.

Google “iOS 10.2 battery” to see what I found. Short version: iOS 10.2 has a battery issue for some users. Unfortunately Apple has stopped code signing the last sub-version of iOS 10.1, so there’s no going back without restoring from backup.

So, two options: fall back to my latest nightly backup, or jump into the next beta release. The beta was mentioned online as improving the situation.

I don’t recommend beta software use for most users, but if you’re in the battery hole with 10.2’s problem, this update fixed it for me. Go here to sign up for the public beta. Accept the terms and install the beta tester profile, then reboot. On the phone go to Settings-General-Software Update. You’ll find 10.2.1 beta (or later by the time you read this) available for download. Do so, and reboot again.

Battery life is back to normal.

#iphone #ios #10.2 #battery #drain

December 23, 2016

Rogue One (no plot spoilers)

I saw the new Star Wars film last evening. More about its billing as “: A Star Wars Story” rather than simply Rogue One, later.

The film’s screenwriting is its strongest aspect, holding up well throughout. It incorporates cameos by a handful of original characters and fills in details not explained in the first three stories. This is an eminently watchable, moderately engrossing film. I recall just a couple of watch-checking moments.

Some movies are carried by star-power, others by effects. For this one it was story from start to finish. It played like a good book, read.

Fitting between the end of the third prequel and the original Star Wars film of 1977, Rogue One tells the tale of how the Death Star was conceived and how its plans wind up in Princess Leia’s hands. A CGI-assisted scene of a young Carrie Fisher holding the plans in her hands ends the film.

Rogue One falls down somewhat in the midst of its two-hour, fourteen-minute run time. In particular, the main battle scenes should have been compressed. It’s a minor quibble, as the scenery chewed by the characters here was spectacular. Let’s say knocking off fourteen minutes and bringing it in at a maximum two-hours would have improved the experience. I’ll blame the director, Gareth Edwards, for letting the writers go on a wee too long describing the action. His otherwise well-paced story lagged in the second act.

The film’s acting is debatable. Is it the writing, or the actors that make the atmosphere grim? Felicity Jones is convincing as Jyn Erso, if a little on the flat-affect side. Diego Luna is more convincing as the rebellion head of intelligence, Cassian Andor. These are the lead female and male actors. Of all the characters in the story, though, the most interesting and amusing might be the re-programmed Empire droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk. (Tudyk played Wash in the Firefly series and the follow-on film Serenity.) The character provides much-needed comedy relief in otherwise oppressive scenes. Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen, is another. Yen is a martial artist, and his training is strongly reflected in the character’s battle scenes. That his character is also blind makes the scenes that much more engrossing. Unresolved is whether Îmwe is, indeed, a Jedi as speculated.

We’ve come to expect more swashbuckle from Star Wars films, though. There was little of that here. It’s a grim tale of resistance against an authoritarian government and that, perhaps, informed the actors’ portrayals. If you’re expecting the fun of, say, Star Wars: The Force Awakens you’ll be disappointed with Rogue One. Go into this film with no expectations and you’ll be rewarded.

The scenery, though largely matte- and CGI-based, is first-rate believable. One exception: the main battle scenes feature rebels storming a beach, D-Day style, with incongruous palm trees swaying in the breeze. Part Saving Private Ryan, part Apocalypse Now, the scenery actually distracted me from the action.

Aside from a brief bit of Darth Vader’s Theme as that character made his first appearance, the soundtrack was unremarkable.

Overall it was an enjoyable film, especially if you’re into the Star Wars universe and continuing saga.

One final point about the film’s naming convention. This film’s title revolves around the problem with numbering films, only to later realize there is missing story that needs telling (and selling). This story fits neatly between Anakin’s not-quite demise at the end of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and his full embodiment as Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. How to fit a name between “Episode III” and “Episode IV?” Along those lines Rogue One would be Star Wars: Episode 3.5 - Rogue One. The filmmaker resolves this by subtitling the new film “A Star Wars Story.”

I get it. It’s a story set in the Star Wars universe. It’s a clunky way to resolve the title of a story that fills in a crack, though less clunky than “Movie Title colon Episode Number dash Subtitle.” That scheme takes the prize for awkward titling, so much so that it was dispensed with for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. George Lucas was going for the serial nature of the pulp comic books of his youth. Better still that they drop the scheme altogether and just give us a title: Rogue One, full stop. The audience can figure out what the story is about.

#rogueone #starwars #lucasfilm

Donald J. Who?

Sure he’ll be president January 20, but if Barack Obama had pulled stunts like these eight years ago when he was president-elect, yet still a private citizen, there’d have been a loud noise from the political right who claim the mantle of conservative order (@realDonaldTrump):

Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!

I guess this is an example of what we’re to take seriously, but not literally. Is he trying to be the hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now? And why is the president-elect acting out a Dark Knight quote?

Putting aside the F-18’s lack of stealth and decades-old design, what are we talking about here? Money alone? Since when is that the criteria for national defense?

I don’t know what’s more frightening: Trump’s lack of subject knowledge, or his ignorance of presidential behavior. Words have consequences, just as elections do. The world is listening, Donald.

#trump #shyster #fraud #gop #politics

December 22, 2016

How to Turn Yourself Into a Pretzel, or, How Newt is Willing to Debase Himself for Donald

Vice this. Keep writing, Newt. Donald has you playing the fool for as long as you will:

I goofed. Draining the swamp is in, @realDonaldTrump is going to do it, and the alligators should be worried. #DTS 

If you’d like to watch. I actually felt a very slight twinge of embarrassment for Gingrich. I’m not a fan of his politics, but he’s a smart guy and (should be) better than this. Apparently not.

December 21, 2016

Trump Disclaims Campaign Promise to "Drain the Swamp"

Matt Shuham (TPM):

“I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore,” Gingrich said, referring to the phrase. “I'd written what I thought was a very cute tweet about ‘the alligators are complaining,’ and somebody wrote back and said they were tired of hearing this stuff.”

Later, Gingrich added: “I personally, as a sense of humor, like the alligator and swamp language, and I think it vividly illustrates the problem, because all the people in this city who are the alligators are going to hate the swamp being drained. And there's going to be constant fighting over it. But, you know, he is my leader and if he decides to drop the swamp and the alligator I will drop the swamp and the alligator.”

Emphasis mine. Gingrich, a cynical inside operator with few scruples has no trouble with cognitive dissonance.

Coming so soon after re-assurance on this very issue (RedState):

Draining the swamp is an integral part of Trump’s Contract With the American Voter — his plan for the first hundred days of his presidency. The contract includes four items related to draining the swamp, or as Conway put it today, ending the corruption gravy train.

one can only advise that Trump’s supporters check the fine print on his “Contract With the American Voter.” It’s probably becoming yet another contract Trump welches on. His past is littered with contractors left without compensation. The election is his greatest deception to date.

There’s a word for people who believed anything Trump promised in his campaign. Sucker. For Trump himself, I prefer “shyster."

#trump #uselection #politics #trumplies #gop #gingrich #deceit

December 19, 2016

It's Over

The Electoral College has acted as expected, electing Donald Trump our next president of the United States.

Maybe this is the shake-up so many have wanted for so long. I’ve no doubt he’ll shake things up, nor any doubt that unlike any president before him Donald Trump has only his own best interests at heart. Give me George W. Bush over this guy. And that’s saying a lot, because W's foray into Iraq was close to an impeachable offense.

If you supported Trump, congratulations. You got your man. And you own this. Generations hence may herald you. Until then the rest of us will hold you accountable as the full reality of your choice dawns upon you.

#trump #elections #uspolitics #president

How Republics End

Paul Krugman (The NYT):

One thing all of this makes clear is that the sickness of American politics didn’t begin with Donald Trump, any more than the sickness of the Roman Republic began with Caesar. The erosion of democratic foundations has been underway for decades, and there’s no guarantee that we will ever be able to recover.

But if there is any hope of redemption, it will have to begin with a clear recognition of how bad things are. American democracy is very much on the edge.

What was held out of sight is now, as in the state of North Carolina, overt. Democratic institutions are under direct assault. The office of Governor there has been stripped of many* of its state constitutional powers. There is nothing but a naked power grab to justify this.

What are you doing as our Rome burns?

* correction: several, and none obviously outside the bounds of the NC constitution. That recognized, the move to consolidate power within one party even as the electorate chose a different way smacks not of democracy, but second-rate dictatorship.

Hunker Down, and pay no Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

The man behind the curtain is the Electoral College, and you should pay it no mind, because it will only affirm today what was reported in the wee hours of November 9. There will be no change, no sudden submission to the public will, no more than there was in 2000.

Place no hope in the Electors growing a conscience and bolting their party-directed duties. Electors are, after all, party hacks appointed or elected by the two major parties to do one thing only: vote for their party’s nominated candidate who stood for election the previous November. The states where the GOP candidate won the majority of the popular vote will send only GOP Electors, and the same holds true for the sates where the Democratic candidate took the majority. Only Maine and Nebraska send a proportion of Electors equal to the popular vote ratio.

Only one Elector has publicly stated recently that he’ll decline to follow through and vote for his state’s majority pick. Politically, today was over even before it began.

December 18, 2016

I'll Bet You Never Thought About it This Way

Muslim registry, Jewish registry, immigrant registry, already imperfectly yet effectively in place.

I called it a cesspool. It’s worse than that (jwz):

But if you think that Facebook is not already a Muslim registry, you have really not been paying attention:

Facebook, of course, already asks for and retains sensitive information about the race, religion, and location of its users and allows advertisers to target narrow segments of people based on that personal information. Government officials here and abroad already use the social network to track activists and dissidents.

“We would never create a registry” sounds a little less convincing when phrased as “we would never run that particular SQL query on our existing database”, doesn’t it?



Interesting Observation

John Fugelsang (@JohnFugelsang):

Nixon was evil but he wasn’t ignorant.

W was ignorant but he wasn’t evil.

The incoming combo is #unpresidented

The Clearest Photograph of Mercury Ever Taken

Clearest photo of Mercury

This is beautiful.

December 17, 2016

A Blueprint for Activism

I’ve been teetering between anger and depression lately, because there’s no use in bargaining with the fact of a fascist-backed megalomaniac winning the US presidential election, and acceptance is just not in the cards for me. Then I stumbled upon a post by Wil Wheaton (yes, that Wil Wheaton) that encapsulated not only my anger:

It’s got to feel really great to know that even if only 25% of the country agrees with you, you still get to have your guy in the White House, and you make life miserable for the majority. Everyone gets a trophy, but your trophy is even bigger than the one that was earned by the actual winner. Congratulations!


It’s really easy for those of us who see through Trump, who care about the integrity of our elections, who believe scientists and experts on everything from climate change to public health policy, to feel despondent. I mean, I move through the stages of grief on a daily basis and today I’m clearly doing anger. I’m sure that the deplorables are loving that we feel this way, and why shouldn’t they? If something happened to make a neonazi unhappy, I’d feel pretty great about that.

but included a means of rebuttal and resistance, as well: this document, “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.”

If you are aggrieved by the November election results, insulted by what it means for our culture and republic, or flat-out can’t stomach the notion of a shyster inhabiting the Oval Office, read it. Re-post it. Act on it. The Tea Party was a small group of cranks, eventually funded by the Koch brothers, who changed the course of history. We can surely do no less.

I Want You to Think About This

An op-ed in the New York Times expressed as I could not the depth of our failure in this past November’s election, the result of which was nothing short of the moral equivalent of child abuse. We have, collectively, strangled the baby in the crib.

My press, my opinion. Write something you believe in response. Make it worthy of someone else’s time, as this op-ed author did. And don’t waste your effort doing it on Facebook, because nobody’s reading that cesspool, anyway.

December 16, 2016

When are you Going to get Angry?

A four-point challenge by John Podesta, past chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign for president of the US. The crux (The NYT):

Comparing the FBI’s massive response to the overblown email scandal with the seemingly lackadaisical response to the very real Russian plot to subvert a national election shows that something is deeply broken at the FBI.

There’s not only something very wrong at the FBI. There’s something very wrong with Americans’ acquiescence in the face of outright tampering in our election. Regardless of who you supported in the November election it should infuriate that a former agent of the Cold War KGB, now installed as “leader” of the largest of the former Soviet Union’s republics, evidently worked to orchestrate the very outcome we have.

∴ I Dumped Yahoo Today

I’ve had a Yahoo account since forever. At points I was using it for successive fantasy football leagues,  but mostly it was an early stop on the way to finding something else. I can’t say I ever hung out there. The emergence of Google fairly well killed its usefulness for me; for most, I imagine. Yahoo’s aggregated content was always a collection of things I could better find on other sites, or more recently on an iPhone app.

This week’s revelation of a billion accounts hacked in 2013 tops their previous report of a half-billion hacked a year later. We’re only finding out about it now because Yahoo lacks the data integrity, security, and continual penetration testing required by major online players. They weren’t even aware they’d been breached until recently. Even then, reports indicate their resistance to the news.

Sure, I changed my password when early word broke. I enabled two-factor authentication, too, as I’ve done on every other service where I could, and so should you. What didn’t happen after the breach makes those efforts pointless in the case of Yahoo.

Think about it: one billion accounts. At the time the hack occurred, that was one-sixth the world’s total population. Not the internet-using population, but everyone. To have been penetrated to that degree is bad enough. To have resisted acknowledging it is unforgivable.

At what point did my data become public knowledge? If I’d actually used my Yahoo email account for anything, how much of my private conversations became fodder for the dark web’s data mining efforts? What did they glean, and how has it affected me and those with whom I communicate? I can’t know that, because it all happened an eon ago in internet time. Who knows what I said or did back then?

Here’s what happened when a security firm, having acquired what was being hawked on the dark web, approached the company (The NYT):

InfoArmor did not go to Yahoo directly, Mr. Komarov said, because the internet giant was dismissive of the security firm when approached by an intermediary. He also said he did not trust Yahoo to thoroughly investigate the breach since it could threaten the sale to Verizon.

The value of their users as product did not justify the cost of revealing the breach, it would seem.

I suspect this latest bit of news will lead to Yahoo’s end. Verizon is looking to get into the content business, rather than being relegated to the role to which they’re best suited: provider of dumb pipes in the internet’s plumbing. How much liability is Verizon assuming with their prospective purchase, though? Unlike Google or Apple or Microsoft, who have yet to suffer a major breach, Yahoo just isn’t very good at data security. How much value does the one billion-strong user base represent? Are these current users, or are they one-time users with zombie accounts lying dormant?

Yahoo’s been irrelevant for a long while, Marissa Mayer’s efforts notwithstanding. That they simply can’t be trusted to keep their users (it’s a free service, so users are rightly labeled “products”) safe from, or at least aware of private data loss is the final straw. Yahoo needs to go away. They’ve already been replaced. Here’s how you can take care of yourself.

I can vote my dissatisfaction with dollars by spending them elsewhere, but when I’m on a free service and relegated to the role of eyeballs-on-advertisers the only thing I hold sway over is my attention. I’ve not been present on Yahoo for a while, and with the click of a mouse and deletion of my account I never again will be. I wonder where else my data is leaking?

Facebook, I’m looking at you. Maybe you’re next.

December 4, 2016

∴ Silent Night

2 parts Rittenhouse rye whiskey

¼ part ancho chili liqueur

½ part dark cherry syrup or Cherry Heering, to taste

2 dashes chocolate mole bitters


stir, serve up in a chilled, absinthe-rinsed coupe.

Mahogany in color, cinnamon on the nose (alchemy, I guess), sweet & anise on the palate, mild ancho burn all the way down. Let’s call it “Silent Night.”

You’re welcome.

October 14, 2016

Doctoring While Black

Apparently Tamika Cross got caught in the cross-hairs.

And here.

And here.

Systemic. Racism. In. America.

Don’t think so? Re-read this. Nothing, repeat *nothing* has changed.


The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump - Rolling Stone

Matt Taibbi writes the epitaph early:

The scene couldn’t have been more poignant. Duped for a generation by a party that kowtowed to the wealthy while offering scraps to voters, then egged on to a doomed rebellion by a third-rate con man who wilted under pressure and was finally incinerated in a fireball of his own stupidity, people like this found themselves, in the end, represented by literally no one.

An interesting read - there were nuggets in here that I’ve heard and seen from friends and family on both ends of the US political spectrum. It’s worth your time if you give but a wee damn about our governance and culture, not only for the rundown of Trump’s rise, but for the truths it speaks about contemporary American politics, the value of critical thinking and our current deficit thereof, and again to pose the question to his supporters: where, now, will you turn?

The Atlantic: Trump's Fans Have More To Lose Than Trump Himself

Michelle Cottle, in The Atlantic:

once the finger wagging is done, non-Trump America will return to their regular lives, leaving disappointed Trump devotees to stew in the resentments and anxieties he, among others, has nurtured.

Interesting and likely question posed in this short article: Where do Trump’s supporters go to regain their lost dignity after the campaign is over? All the ugliness on display today is going to have long-lasting effect.

September 19, 2016

∴ A Four-way Gin-off

Four gins lined up on the bar

Our tasting includes:

Organic Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distillery, Purcellville, Virginia. 92-proof, $34.29/750ml (Virginia ABC). A clean, well-defined juniper-forward gin with a floral scent. Though additional herbal flavors are present in this spirit, they’re subdued and enhance the product’s allure without overpowering my palate. Its above-average proof conveys Watershed’s flavor all the better.

This is a versatile, tasty product that enhances any cocktail. Try it alongside The Botanist or Bombay Sapphire gins to see how it shines.

Watershed has become my go-to for gin Martinis and Vespers, the latter of which being my benchmark for tasting new gins and vodkas. Watershed also serves as a baseline for the other three gins here.

MurLarkey ImaGINation Gin, MurLarkey Distilled Spirits LLC, Bristow, Virginia. 80-proof, $29.99/750ml (distillery MSRP). A juniper-forward gin at first blush, but its flavor fades when hand-warmed. That’s a little trick I use when I can’t decide between two alcohol products, in this case Watershed and ImaGINation. Though they express very similar flavors on my palate at room temperature, hand-warming, which should bring out more nuance in the product, in fact diminishes this gin’s flavor. A faint, funky aroma lurks in the background, evident after a mouthful and another sniff or two have enveloped my taste/smell receptors in evaporating alcohol. Overall I’d call this the mildest of the four, and one of the mildest juniper-forward gins I’ve tried.

That’s not a knock. Some palates don’t enjoy a bold-flavored gin - if not yours, this is worth a try in your next gin Martini. Also mixes well into a Vesper, but is easily overwhelmed by potato vodkas. If mildness is on your mind, try this and Tito’s Vodka with a lemon garnish in your next Vesper. I think you’ll be pleased.

Also noted by the distiller, this gin is gluten-free. I have no idea whether gluten is a component of other gins, as it comes from rye, wheat and barley. Those are more typically precursor grains for whiskey, vodka and beer. If you’re gluten intolerant, but can enjoy liquor drinks without compromising your GI health, you sacrifice nothing by employing this gin.

Battle Standard 142 Standard Strength Gin, KO Distilling, Manassas, Virginia. 90-proof, $29.99/750ml (distillery MSRP). Intensely herbal, in fact, all of the other herbs appear at similar concentration to the juniper. Accordingly I can’t call this a juniper-forward gin; it’s an herb-forward gin with nothing held back. The above-average proof doesn’t add burn so much as amplify the intensity of the herbal flavor. I had trouble divining whether there’s mint or menthol at the bottom of the flavor profile. I’m still undecided - the confusion of herbs on my palate makes it impossible for me to know and, really, to care. There’s just too much here.

Battle Standard made for a surprisingly awful, cloyingly sweet Vesper in the right proportion with a good potato vodka and Cocchi Americano. Undrinkable. I didn’t go back for a second try with a grain vodka. My take is the herbs picked up Cocchi’s inherent mild sweetness and amplified it, making the drink the exact opposite of what it should be: dry and slightly bitter.

A gin Martini served up with olives

A gin Martini stirred with a proper dry vermouth, though, made for a sturdy, even bracing cocktail. This drink will WAKE. YOU. UP. A little bold for my palate, but interesting none-the-less.

Success with the Martini redeemed my utter failure with this gin in a Vesper. If you’re fond of over-hopped beers, big, bold wines, or hot-hot food this gin may be right up your alley.

Battle Standard 142 Navy Strength Gin, KO Distilling, Manassas, Virginia. 114-proof, $34.99 (distillery MSRP). “Navy strength” is to gin what “imperial” is to beer: a code word for higher alcohol. Similar to their 90-proof expression, but with a higher alcohol content that more readily carries the intense herbal flavor to my palate, this is an intense spirit. Cut this gin with spring water (as they do the 90-proof expression at the distillery) and the flavors come out the same. Navy strength gins are often used in cocktail recipes where competing flavors from fruit or savory ingredients might overwhelm a lower-proof expression.

UnderTheLabel lists the ingredients for this gin, and presumably KO’s Standard Strength expression, as juniper, angelica root, orange peel, coriander seed, orris root, cinnamon, and cardamom. Though I sampled this and Standard Strength repeatedly I was unable to divine which of these ingredients left a menthol aftertaste. My foodee wife tells me it was the cardamom.

The take-away: of these four, Watershed remains my gold standard. Of the newcomers I’d say MurLarkey more closely matches my palate, while KO’s products simply overwhelm it. If you’re making something quite pungent that calls for gin, Battle Standard might make for an interesting experiment. And as mentioned, if gin’s not your usual thing you might find enjoyment with MurLarkey in your glass.

September 2, 2016

∴ Cultures Devolve, too

I was staring straight ahead during my morning commute, paying little attention to the world beyond the back of the car ahead of me this morning when something caught my eye. On that car’s bumper was a rectangular white sticker bearing the word “douche” in blue letters, and the letter “o” was the logo from the second Obama campaign for president, seen here:

Obama campaign logo

I sat at a traffic light, at a loss for words or thought. After a few seconds, a thought occurred to me. “What is wrong with you?”

A bumper sticker like that is akin to those t-shirts you might’ve seen bearing the phrase “I hate the Dallas Cowboys.” Public expression of petty hatred. I’ve long wondered about the people who would wear something like that, too.

You can disagree with a politician’s policies and politics, you can dislike your favorite team’s arch-rivals, but does any of that need rise to the level of hatred? And if your thoughts or feelings do rise that high, shouldn’t you ask yourself why?

Why are you carrying such hatred in your mind? What’s gone wrong that you feel it not only acceptable, but pleasurable to stick a thumb in the eye of everyone whose politics or sports affinity differs with yours?

And finally, isn’t that what’s really at work in America today? Fear and hatred of other’s opinions and likes driving a vilification of them, of what they believe, and the willingness of some to debase themselves and their humanity by putting that hatred on public display.

Maybe these folks are so filled with self-loathing over their boorish opinions they just can’t help but let it spill over into the public forum. Sound familiar? Think about it. 

August 22, 2016

DROPOUTJEEP: Apple's Achilles Heels, Exploited

And just like that, all of us Apple fans see our pricey toys fall like so many tinker toy Windows boxes.

Like the hacking tools, the catalog used similar codenames. Among the tools targeting Apple was one codenamed DROPOUTJEEP, which gives NSA total control of iPhones. “A software implant for the Apple iPhone,” says the ANT catalog, “includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device. SMS retrieval, contact-list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell-tower location, etc.” 


Note, however, they don’t mention Messages traffic. Unlike standard SMS data, Messages traffic should be, by virtue of its end-to-end Public Key Infrastructure underpinnings, bullet-proof for now.

A remaining question for Messages users is, how long would it take the NSA to decrypt a Messages note if they threw an acre of supercomputing at it? They sure have the capability.

Is your traffic worth that investment of computing time?

August 21, 2016

∴ A Triple-header Tasting: Vodkas

Three vodkas

I usually skip the vodkas at our local ABC store. Mostly of grain-based origin and bearing only a hint of flavor diversity amid the overpriced top shelves, this liquor doesn’t so much go with everything as need something for cocktail flavor. The only bottles of interest I’ve found to date have all been potato vodkas, those descendants of the mythical, original vodkas of yore, drank by fur-clad Russians and hardy Poles.

Here, though, are three vodkas worthy of a taste. Not grain-based, nor potato-based, these are interesting on the palate and, in my opinion, worth their price. There’s not a stinker among them. I think you’ll find at least one worth experimentation in your favorite vodka cocktail.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Fifth Generation, Inc., Austin, Texas. 80-proof, $22/750ml (Virginia ABC). This is my control against which I’ve compared and contrasted the other two. Well-regarded and amply available, Tito’s has graduated from small batch obscurity to eponymous must-have. It smells slightly sweet, betraying its 100%-corn origins. After 6-time pot-distillation and carbon filtration it’s surprising any corn sweetness makes it through. The flavor is also sweet, though not so much as, say, a bourbon, and is very soft on the palate. Think the exact opposite of Jack Daniels’ cutting sharpness. This soft sweetness in combination with a good dry vermouth lends itself to a fine, if mild vodka Martini. Low quality or old vermouth shines through Titos’ softness, though, so be forewarned: don’t go cheap. Tito’s aftertaste remains pleasant as it fades.

If Martinis pique your curiosity, but the thought of near-straight liquor puts you off, a Tito’s Martini with a lemon twist may be your entrée.

(Worth the short read, Tito Beveridge’s story about how he got into the vodka business kinda makes you proud to enjoy his product.)

Kopper Kettle Vodka, Belmont Farms of Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia. 80-proof, $20/750ml (Virginia ABC). Distilling doesn’t get any more local for me. These folks are just down the road a stretch. Another 100%-corn vodka, I knew I had to put it up against Tito’s as soon as I saw it on the shelf. Its scent is sweeter yet than Tito’s, though not off-puttingly so. The flavor is more corn-forward on my palate, and slightly more harsh, though still sippable. This one would make a more interesting vodka Martini than Tito’s. (A blander affair than its sibling the gin Martini, a Martini using this vodka will give you something to savor without resorting to olive brine for interest.) There’s no mention of how many times the spirit is run through a pot still, and their filtration method is a “secret,” but my guess is one to three fewer rides through than Tito’s. The aftertaste is also slightly more harsh than Tito’s, not surprising for fewer distillations. It matches the initial flavor. Their filtration could also lend to this difference. Though less soft and mild than Tito’s, Kopper Kettle is pleasant and more memorable and, as mentioned, a worthwhile mixer.

I used Kopper Kettle’s vodka to mix a Vesper, my go-to Friday evening reward. My first reaction was, “oh, my.” In my opinion there’s no substitute for a good potato vodka in a Vesper. It stands up to a juniper-forward gin. Tito’s, like grain vodkas, falls down in this respect. And yet Kopper Kettle’s liquor ably stood up. What a pleasant surprise.

Also worthy of note, Kopper Kettle distills what they’ve trademarked as “Virginia Whiskey.” Resting first on charred Virginia oak and applewood, then on traditional charred American oak, this whiskey has a unique, pleasant flavor and can be enjoyed neat or with a few drops of water. I keep a bottle in my repeat collection of bourbons and ryes. Recommended.

Jens Vodka

Jen’s Vodka, Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards, Church Hill, Maryland. 80-proof, $30/750ml (distillery MSRP). Triple-distilled from 100%-grapes and carbon filtered, this vodka brings to mind its fruit origin. In a blind test we could pick this vodka from among the three by scent alone. Sweeter than either Tito’s or Kopper Kettle, it’s not quite as soft on the palate as Tito’s. I’d call it about the same in this way as Kopper Kettle, but its flavor and aftertaste keep those plump grapes in mind until well after it’s in my belly. If I had to put a word to this liquor, it’d be “juicy.”

I’ve already made a handful of Vespers with Jen’s and good local gin, MurLarkey ImaGination from MurLarkey Distillery in Manassas, Virginia, and its sweetness neatly balances that gin’s juniper-forward flavor. This vodka makes for a nice sipper as well as a good citizen in your favorite cocktail, as long as its sweetness is kept in mind and balanced. Also of note is its beautiful Art Deco bottle art. Unique. (Click the image for a larger view.)

Of these three I’d recommend Jen’s for straight sipping. Keep a bottle in the freezer and pour just a couple ounces at a time, and enjoy. It’s very smooth, with enough interest of flavor to make it memorable. Or mix it into a cocktail and see what happens. Ditto Kopper Kettle’s vodka.

Jen’s caught my palate by surprise, and I’ve had my eye and mind on it ever since. My pal David gifted me this bottle and I need to thank him again for the experience. It’s always a pleasure to try something new and find it to my liking.

August 13, 2016

Donald Trump Is Making America Meaner - The New York Times

Nick Kristof, NYT:

We need not be apocalyptic about it. This is not Kristallnacht. But Trump’s harsh rhetoric tears away the veneer of civility and betrays our national motto of ‘e pluribus unum.’ He has unleashed a beast and fed its hunger, and long after this campaign is over we will be struggling to corral it again.

How fine a point do we need put on it? Hatred spreads downward, from politician to voter, from pundit to viewer, from parent to child.

Read that whole article to see where the hatred is spreading. Is it a local thing? Is this only bringing out what was already there, waiting for its opportunity to arise? Or is this the death rattle of a dying breed?

I prefer to believe it’s the latter. Believe what you will. Another couple of generations and there will be far less of this callous hatred for our fellow human. What are you doing to derail it today?

July 29, 2016

∴ Progress, Culture, Pride


Last night’s speech by Hillary Clinton has resonated with me all day. Her passion flared when she spoke of her dearest issue: social justice. But she spoke eloquently on other issues dear to Americans: economic justice, jobs, inclusiveness, America’s place in the world and how we’re seen by others, leadership.


I’ve come to believe that electing a woman president in November will be more consequential to our culture than electing a man of color.

I write this as a supporter of most, though not all of what president Obama has attempted and accomplished. Although electing (and re-electing) him was a milestone in American progress, he joined a long line of men stretching back to George Washington.

November is our first chance to bring the worldview and problem solving skills of a woman into the Oval Office. Whether she were from the right or left of American politics, the mere fact is a hockey stick on a hockey stick. My geek friends will understand that; we’re seeing an exponential change upon an exponential change.

Consider how American cultural change has accelerated since the election of Barack Obama. Marriage equality was upheld by the Supreme Court. Health care was extended to another twenty million Americans, and more will surely follow. LGBT issues are on the front burner as one of the last remaining prejudices not precluded by law. Awareness of systemic racism has skyrocketed. And to borrow a line from the Hillary Clinton of 1995, “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Or, put bluntly, keep your hands and your laws off women's bodies.

In November we have the opportunity to take one giant further step toward the equality we inherited from our Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps I put the cart before the horse. There are three months of annoying campaign ads and speeches and grandstanding ahead of us. But I believe Americans will reject the politics of fear and once again vote for hope, progress, and inclusion this fall.

More-so than in 2008 and 2012, I’m looking forward to it. Despite my cynicism, I’m downright excited by it.


July 25, 2016

DNC Apologizes To Sanders For 'Inexcusable Remarks' In Hacked Emails


On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email,’ the statement read. ‘These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not — and will not — tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates.

Bluntly: party organizations exist as marketing vehicles for candidates. They pick and choose among candidates, favoring those most likely to win in order to extend their brand.

Bernie’s World is a place in which many would like to live, except for the inconvenient question of how to pay for it all. It would require nothing short of re-wiring the US economy WHILE IN MOTION.

In short, Bernie’s nomination was a non-starter from the word go. It exists to exert a leftward pull on Hillary Clinton, who had this nomination all but sewed-up when she declared. (Last year.) The only question was, who would she face? The answer is, an empty suit.

Translated, the DNC’s remarks: ‘we’re going to make ourselves look as neutral as possible given the revelatory emails that shine a light on our true purpose and method. And Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is our fall-guy. Kiss off.'

July 23, 2016

What Do You Stand For, and What Do You Want For Our Country and Our Culture?

Now that both party’s nominees (or presumptive nominee, in Hillary Clinton’s case) have selected running mates, and firmly established their platforms through months of campaigning (auditioning) for votes, we’re presented with a clear answer to that question.

From seventeen early candidates, the GOP has chosen to represent itself with Donald Trump. From six early candidates, the Democrats will all but certainly choose Hillary Clinton as their nominee next week.

Hillary Clinton will become our next president in November by a significant margin of the popular vote.

It’s not Clinton’s positions on the issues or her past experience, or Trump’s abject buffoonery or his voicing of “angry white” sentiment, or even my party affinity (I have none) that informs this opinion. It’s the vision each candidate has expressed for our future. One candidate tells us what she is for, the other tells us what he is against. One inspires, the other angers and provokes fear. In that sense the 2016 election will be a replay of the 2012 election.

A winning candidate tells us of their hopes, their aspirations for a better, more just and more inclusive America. Describes how they’re going to work to effect change. Lifts our spirit with positive ideas rather than feed distrust, anger, and resentment with self-serving fear mongering.

The GOP of 2012 put forward an otherwise likable, successful and well-intentioned Mitt Romney, who promptly told us what he and the small tent wing of the party feared: people who “take” from those who “make.” That’s a losing argument.

The candidate who raises voter’s hopes and bolsters national and cultural unity is the candidate who wins the presidency. Remember Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” v. Jimmy Carter’s “feeling of malaise?”

Romney veered off into the weeds, dividing us in order to appease the lunatic fringe and wealthy elites who wanted a boot kept on the neck of the poor, the needy, the brown, the undereducated. Barack Obama once and again told us what better he wanted for America. Voters responded as expected.

So will it be this November.

SpaceX, preparing for Falcon Heavy, asks for more landing pads

Ars Technica:

With a number of successful Falcon booster landings behind it, SpaceX is getting ready to try something likely to be a bit more challenging: three nearly simultaneous landings. This doesn’t mean SpaceX is upping its launch schedule; instead, the three boosters will all be part of the planned Falcon Heavy vehicle.

Essentially three standard Falcons strapped together, the big rocket will be capable of lifting 54 metric tons into orbit.

54 metric tons. Think of what a half-dozen launches per year atop these re-usable Falcon boosters could put into orbit. A shipyard for building and re-plenishing a Mars transfer vehicle, perhaps?

Consider that the simplest and most crew-friendly way to get to and from Mars is a large, well-provisioned craft that never need enter or leave an atmosphere or gravity well. Without the need of an aerodynamic shape or structural strength beyond what can hold together in a low-Earth and low-Mars orbit (think International Space Station), a craft could be arbitrarily large and capable of attaching multiple cargo and fuel modules. The only limiting factor is the point of diminishing returns, where you’re just hauling more fuel to transport the mass of more fuel.

Said vehicle would orbit Earth as it’s built, outfitted, tested and, eventually, fueled. A de-orbit burn puts into elliptical orbit from which it slingshots out to Mars, where an equivalent burn tucks it into orbit there. Cargo modules may be de-orbited to future human landing sites. Human-capable modules may be de-orbited to bring us to the surface for habitat construction and ascent back to the transfer vehicle. The transfer vehicle itself is never more than a large, modular and comfortable bus for the commute back and forth between planets.

Just spitballing here. An idea like this no doubt exists somewhere. Execution begins with heavy-lift rocketry, and that becomes affordable with re-usable launchers. We already have those.

May 9, 2016

∴ A Gin-off: Locals and One From Far, Far Away

2016 05 08 17 13 41

This was perhaps the most difficult head-to-head taste-off I’ve enjoyed. Left to right: Strange Monkey Gin, Silverback Distillery, Afton, Virginia; The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, Bruichladdich Distillery, Islay, Scotland; Watershed Gin, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, Purcellville, Virginia.
The Botanist has been a go-to gin for the Vesper, a favorite warm-weather cocktail, for a while. Moderately floral with a juniper-forward flavor, it blends well with just about anything. Add a dash of bitters and it melds with anything else. The Botanist’s bright, clean flavor, devoid of aftertaste, sets it apart as a prime ingredient in any gin cocktail. Top of the top shelf.
Watershed Gin was the surprise local upstart a year or two back, earning a prime spot in my line-up with its clean flavor. More floral with slightly sweeter aftertaste than The Botanist, I’m hard-pressed to favor either. Watershed compares favorably with Bombay Sapphire. Tie-breaker goes to local origin - Watershed. Priced similarly to The Botanist, you won’t find better ingredients for your cocktails.
Enter our latest discovery, found on a mead-buying, cider-sampling run to Afton, Virginia last weekend. On a lark Neal and I stopped in at Silverback Distillery for a tasting, after hearing a positive mention from Kristin at Blue Toad cidery.

Silverback offered two liquors for sampling. Their Blackback White liquor was, as expected, a novelty not appealing for purchase by the bottle (same goes for Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek). White liquor is what you get right out of the still before re-distilling for vodka or dispensing into barrels for maturation into whiskey. It’s an interesting bit of distilling education, and maybe one could concoct a cocktail of it, but I wouldn’t. Too raw.
Blackback is for sale now, but a portion of the output goes into barrels, eventually becoming Silverback’s bourbon. There’ll be a multi-year wait for maturation, hence the sale of Blackback today. Whiskeys are an investment; white liquors are cash flow. Made of corn, winter wheat and barley, Blackback will produce a wheated bourbon. “Wheaters,” as they’re known, are softer and rounder in flavor than regular bourbons.

Silverback’s gin, though, was intriguing. Again made with winter wheat, Strange Monkey provided a juniper flavor that finished uniquely sweet. Not your usual gin experience. Seeing my interest piqued, Neal kindly gifted me with a bottle for experimentation, which led to this work. After an afternoon of yard work in Virginia’s warm, delayed spring wind, the sky full of sun for the first full day in nearly two weeks, and after a recovery loaf on the floor with my girls it was time for a taste-off.
Strange Monkey is also floral, though not as much as Watershed, and its juniper is less forward than that of The Botanist. On those counts you could call this a flavorful, pleasant gin similar to the other two.
After sipping among the three, comparing and contrasting, the only negative I found in Strange Monkey was its unique sweetness. Strange Monkey won two competition awards in 2015, so I’m compelled to add that this is obviously a matter of personal taste. Others find its sweetness endearing. It’s a minor quibble that left me puzzled - every sip began with enjoyment of the floral, juniper flavor and ended with a question mark over the aftertaste.
Watershed possesses a very minor degree of this sweetness, too, though The Botanist, clean as the wind-swept Hebrides from which it emerges, is devoid of it. The hint of Watershed’s sweetness is what makes it a treat for use in cocktails. So it comes down to how much of this sweetness you’ll enjoy before finding it off-putting.
I needed a more complex sampling to understand how Strange Money played with other flavors, so I incorporated it into both a Vesper, at 3-1-¼ with Tito’s vodka and Cocchi Americano, and a Martini at about 7:1 with dry vermouth. I’d normally use a potato vodka in the Vesper for its earthy flavor, but I wanted no interference with the gin flavor for this tasting. Both cocktails were stirred over ice in a mixing glass to simultaneously reach optimal temperature and dilution. A few sips of each and a conclusion was reached.
The Botanist stands alone in its stark sharpness. Go here for fine gin flavor, full stop.
Watershed Gin remains my sentimental and flavorful favorite by a hair, though. As with a favored warm bourbon, this gin will grace my Vespers and Martinis for a long while. (I should sneak it into my pals’ cocktails just to see their unknowing enjoyment.) Not as crisp as The Botanist, Watershed more than succeeds with its floral scent and flavor. A head-to-head against Bombay Sapphire would be fun with this one.
Either way you win with these two. Experiment. Maybe you’ll take one over the other. Write about it if you do - I’d like to learn why.
Strange Monkey remains an experimental ingredient. Though initially bright and flavorful, I’m undecided on its use due to the underlying and lasting sweetness. I wouldn’t use this gin in a Vesper any more than I would Hendrick’s, though I like the latter very much. And though I’ll always relish a Hendrick’s Martini, I don’t think I care for Strange Monkey in a Martini, either. I’d say this one will mix well into a sour such as a Gimlet, its sweetness offsetting some of the grapefruit sourness and making for a yummy cocktail. Another day’s entertainment.
So: Watershed, The Botanist, Strange Monkey, in that order. Add Bombay Safire between the first two just for the hell of it.
Yeah, I love Virginia. We have a surprising number of breweries, distilleries, meaderies and cideries, with more on the way. Another few open every month, it seems. And I like a good gin. Somewhere, an old friend is smiling. “Think of a pine forest.”

March 11, 2016

∴ A Contest of Wills

Or, a contest of flavors. Never underestimate your palate’s capability to discern more.

The Manhattan is a simple cocktail. Two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a couple dashes of bitters. A classic.

Turn up the volume. Let’s say the whiskey must be rye, with all of the bold spiciness it imparts. And let’s say the vermouth must be something that elbows its way onto your palate no matter what it’s mixed with, no matter the ratio: Carpano Antica Formula.

Now tweak the bitters. One dash Angostura aromatic tying the whiskey and vermouth together, one dash orange to play with the whiskey. Rye is sharp vs. the corn sweetness of bourbon, so add one dash cherry bark vanilla bitters to give back a mild sweetness.

Now stir. No shaker needed, only a mixing glass, a bar spoon and a fistful of ice. Keep the back of the spoon on the inside of the glass and circulate the liquids among the ice until the cubes soften. Say, twenty back-and-forth rotations. Sample with a cocktail straw - this is a “stirred and boozy” cocktail, it should taste just so. Expect a jungle of flavors, none overwhelming the others.

Serve up, with a Bing cherry garnish. Sublime.

February 23, 2016

∴ Pandora Finally Earns a Place

I played around with Pandora years ago, but I couldn’t create a channel that didn’t lose my interest within a few hours. Terrific resource for someone, someone not me.

Toying with the Pandora app on my Comcast DVR last weekend, I was about to listen to the Arcade Fire channel I’d created last year, when I stopped short. I had a thought to create a new channel based on a group whose music and vocals I’ve loved for a quarter-century. (I’m 50, I get to reference time spans in centuries. Perks of the game.)

Enter the Cocteau Twins channel. And a door opened to the music of my younger self:
New Order
Roxy Music
Tears For Fears
Mazzy Star
The Cure
Cocteau Twins (duh)
A Flock of Seagulls
Simple Minds
Psych Furs
Eurythmics (Annie Lennox is among the top three female vocalists of the late 20th)
Siouxsie and The Banshees (yeah, wow)
The Smiths
Cindy Lauper
Naked Eyes

This is the first time I’ve built a channel that’s consistently entertaining. Pandora is worth something to me now.

If you’ve not yet found a use for Pandora, try creating a channel based on some obscure musician or group whom you never told anyone about. You’ll know it when you’ve found it.

February 13, 2016

∴ Quick Take: Rittenhouse 100 Rye Whiskey vs. Bulleit Rye Whiskey

Bulleit and Rittenhouse rye whiskeys

We paid a quick visit to our local Virginia ABC shop this afternoon. A group of friends is gathering to plan our upcoming vacation tomorrow, and our hostess is making cocktails to go with lunch. We’re to bring one of the ingredients. I’ll say only that when the drinks are of the frozen type, it matters not what hue the Triple Sec imbues.

Anyhow, my bar is running low on rye whiskey, so I perused the whiskey aisle while Kelly went in search of tomorrow’s ingredient.

I’m partial to Rittenhouse 100 Rye for my Manhattans, but our state ABC appears to have lost interest in carrying it. That’s a shame, because its bottled-in-bond stamp ensures a sturdy, well-aged product, and Heaven Hill, distiller of Rittenhouse, steps squarely to the plate and knocks this whiskey out of the park. Rich, flavorful for its high ABV, and bargain priced in the high twenties, Rittenhouse is a smart buy. But not today. It’s a mail order item anymore.

I’ve enjoyed a Manhattan made with Bulleit Rye at one of our better local restaurants, though, and every liquor store seems to stock it. Hmm. With a third of a bottle of the Rittenhouse left, I could wait, or i could bring home the Bulleit and do a head-to-head tasting.

Cutting to the chase: both exhibit a rich, spicy rye flavor. There’s a bit of sweetness to both, almost a bourbon-like corn flavor, though there’s no corn in the Bulleit product. Rittenhouse’s new formula includes 37% corn in the mash bill, while Bulleit’s MGP pedigree includes 95% rye, 5% barley - no corn at all. I was hard-pressed to taste a difference, though, aside from the 10% ABV difference in alcohol content.

If you’re a Rittenhouse fan and have a hard time finding it, or want to branch out to something new without straying to far afield, Bulleit is a good choice. I’ll be using it in my Manhattans for a while, and for a new cocktail I’ll be playing with: the Black Manhattan. The Virginia ABC stocks Averna amaro, so this cocktail is next on my experimentation list.


February 8, 2016

∴ The Forgotten Ingredient

One of the three classic cocktail styles, the sour, includes an ingredient added almost as an afterthought: sweetener. Acting as a balance to lemon, lime or other sour flavoring, this component is most often simple syrup, a 1:1 mix of water and granular table sugar, or sucrose.

But “simple” can be a wee too neutral. I used to employ simple in my Lemon Drop cocktails, but changed sweeteners to agave syrup because it imparts a strong richness amid its sweetness. That richness stands up well to the Lemon Drop’s Cointreau and lemon juice components, adding depth to the drink. No small task against pungent flavors.

This weekend, though, I began experimenting with a classic cocktail, the Daiquiri. The original version (which involves no ice outside of a shaker tin) was around long before Hemingway made it his drink of choice. Simply made of two parts white rum, one part fresh-squeezed lime juice, and three-quarters part sweetener (more on this to follow), this cocktail is said to demonstrate much about a bartender’s skills.

  • Measurement of all ingredients is the key to a well-made cocktail, and there are not only three to this drink, but one is measured from a fruit press. Whether you use a two-handled model or a tried-and-true countertop twist-style, you’re not pouring from a bottle for this one.
  • Fruit preparation is important here. Either style press will give you proper juice, but giving your limes a roll on the cutting block while pressing down with moderate force will begin breaking down the pulp structure, helping release more juice. One medium lime should provide an ounce of juice, maybe a little more. Measure it to be sure.
  • Too much leverage on a one- or two-handled press will release oil from the rind, resulting in an overly sour drink. Knowing when to stop squeezing is make-or-break.
  • Shaking technique is all about combining ingredients while chilling to the right temperature, and diluting the ingredients with just enough melt water. It’s said that 20% of a properly made cocktail is water from the shake or stir. The more practice made at getting that dilution, the easier it is to know when it’s reached. For this drink, shaken, the ice should just begin to sound soft. You’ll know it when you hear it.

These are the details that make for a fine cocktail. Attending to them, out pours one of the simplest cocktails in the book. But not so fast: I found ¾ part simple syrup left the drink a bit sharp on first sip. A guest might pull up short on such a sip - removing that hesitation is why I switched my Lemon Drops to agave syrup. But agave is far too rich for the delicate flavor of a fine white rum. Something else is needed.

The Daiquiri calls for cane sugar syrup. Made by stirring two parts evaporated cane juice sugar into one part water warming on the stove, this sweetener adds a depth of flavor absent in simple syrup, yet less imposing than that of agave syrup. It preserves the delicate flavors of white rum while taking the edge off fresh lime juice. It is the perfect correction to that sharp first sip.

I performed a direct comparison between two sweeteners today, shaking two Daiquiris identical in composition save for the syrups. Into one tin went ¾ part simple syrup, and into the other went ½ part cane sugar syrup. I tried the simple syrup-laced cocktail first, noting the sharpness of the lime juice first, which then gave way to the rum flavors. The sugar cane syrup-laced drink blended, where no one flavor overshadowed the others. The sweetener, so minor a player in this ensemble of ingredients, turned out to be a key player.

(Take a sip of the cane sugar syrup-laced version first if you try this for yourself. The initial tartness of the simple syrup-laced version threw off my palate, and it wasn’t until I walked away from the two for a few minutes and came back to a slightly warmer, and more flavorful-for-it drink that I noticed the difference.)

The beauty of cane sugar syrup is that it may be used anywhere simple syrup is called for, and will provide an additional dimension to your cocktail. Though its sweetness is the same as table sugar, in my view, go a little lighter when subbing in for simple syrup. Cane’s depth of flavor, though subtle, adds to its sweetness. Use ½ part cane sugar syrup for ¾ part simple in a Daiquiri, for example. Play with it to find your “sweet spot.”

So what’s the difference between common table sugar and cane sugar? Table sugar is fully refined from raw, brownish, milled sugarcane. I’ve never given it much thought; I’ve just grabbed the bag from my wife’s baking supply and mixed in an equal part to make simple syrup. Evaporated cane juice is made by removing moisture from milled, pressed sugar cane; it’s partially refined, and that leaves in enough molasses to enhance its flavor.

Finding evaporated cane juice sugar is not a straightforward task. Skip the baking aisle of your local grocery and go instead to the organics section. I found a number of sweeteners there, including two labeled “organic cane sugar.” Only one listed evaporated cane juice as its sole ingredient. Caveat emptor, and have a good look at the nutrition label before buying.

I titled this article The Forgotten Ingredient, because few think about the sweetener when building a cocktail. It’s usually last into the shaker, and one’s mind is on buttoning up and shaking - but don’t be hasty in your preparation: the right sweetener can make all the difference.

* I found this interesting passage in the Wikipedia entry for sugar:

Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

All that for (by?) a simple, organic compound. Wow.