Friday, December 16, 2011

Holiday Gift Guide for the Whiskey Enthusiast

Earlier this week I posted this to the online forum (in the Paraphernalia section), and was encouraged by someone (who shall remain nameless and therefore blameless) to repost it here. (as its called by its members) has an active membership that's over 99% male, and the original version of this was formulated for that population. For the blog I felt I should make at least a nominal effort to make it gender-neutral, so I dug out my Ronco® PC-O-Matic and started stuffing the post into the feed hopper. It started to run a little rough while on the third item, and seized up completely on item #4, requiring complete disassembly and cleaning with powerful and highly caustic solvents.

Anyway, here it is, and hopefully not rendered too banal.

Your friends and relations want to know what you want, and you really need to come up with a list. After all, you've already received enough "whiskey stones" to repave your driveway, and enough Jack Daniels BBQ sauce to cover a blue whale.

Well, we at Epicureans in Whiskeyland (located just south of the North Pole, on decidedly thin ice) are here to help. Our crack team of webcrawlers spent an entire morning (except for ten minutes when he had to help a pesky client) plugging improbable combinations into Google and reviewing the results. We think we've come up with some selections that should please even the most jaded whiskeyphile.

Half a Bottle of Whiskey Bumper Sticker 
$5 from Cafe Press

Nothing perks up a vehicle more than an amusing bumper sticker (not to mention enhancing the resale value) and this one is bound to elicit friendly responses from fellow motorists. In fact, that one behind you is flashing festive red and blue lights...oh wait...better pull over...hopefully he won't spot your...

Got Bourbon? Tote Bag - $18 from Cafe Press

He's not going to take your word that it's just groceries, so you'll just have to let him examine the contents. After he's found nothing but Fruit Loops, Twizzlers and liter sized bottles of YooHoo, he'll probably still want to see your driver's license, so you'll need to reach for your...

"Let's Get Hammered" Wallet
$34.50 from Cafe Press

If he hasn't already decided to give you a breathalyzer test, he will now!

Bourbon Thong Panties - $12.50 from Cafe Press

Just the thing for the little lady in your life! (or for you, if you're a lady)(and, in case she/you isn't/aren't so little, available up to Size 12). The question is: how do you eat bourbon? Add mass quantities of Sure Gel? The only way this will make any sense is if you can convince her/yourself to start referring to her/your, um, special place as her/your "bourbon".  For you guys, good luck with that. For you ladies, tell your man this while modeling these for him. If he looks confused, ask him, "Well, you're a Real Man, aren't you?" If he still looks confused (let me guess - he's a global warming skeptic, isn't he?) then maybe it's time to trade him in on a less clueless model.

Scotch Whisky Aroma Kit - $150 from

You say you just don't get Scotch. Don't pick up any of those subtle aromas described by John Hansell or Jim Murray? Then this is the sure cure for your malt-challenged proboscis. Those with a particular interest in Islay malts will be pleased to learn that included are "Rotting Seaweed", "Rancid Iodine", "Dead Mackerel" and "Seagull Poop".

Fee's Pickle Brine - $6.95 from

You're a hip urban sophisticate, so you already know that the "pickleback" is all the rage. You want to be able to have 'em at home, but it's such a pain having to buy all those jars of pickles just to get the brine (and what to do with all the pickles?). Fee's Brothers has the solution! Keep this 4/5 pint (huh?) bottle handy and you'll always have a ready chaser for that shot of 20 year old Pappy van Winkle.

Whiskey the Clown mask - $37.95 from Costumes4less

Now you're all set for your neighbor's big annual holiday costume ball. Of course, if they greet you with, "Oh, you came as yourself," then it's probably time to call the local AA chapter and inquire about the next meeting.

Scotch & Water Pet Dish - $20 from Cafe Press

Getting tired of Old Blue's annoying habit of barking at his reflection in that stainless steel bowl? Chuck that chunk of scrap metal and get him one of these. Fill it with water, add a few drops of yellow food coloring, and your guests will be wondering. Could that really be Scotch? Is it single malt? If not, should we report him to the SPCA? If so, I wonder if I could sneak a sip? Is anyone watching?

Irish Whiskey Cheese - $21.99 (was $29.99) from Figi's

Mmmmm..."delightfully enhanced with the finest single malt Kilbeggan Whiskey". Having just read a post from someone who'd just tried some Kilbeggan and reported "this bottle might end up down the drain," I have to wonder if this represents an effort to get rid of a bad batch, as in, "Oh what'll we do with this, now? Ah, we'll be mixing it with cheese and selling it to the Americans! They'll buy anything, they will!"

Flashing Whiskey Glass - $4.75 from Amazon

Bourbon is brown and, let's face it, brown is so...beige. Get a set of these and you've got a party in your glass! Multicolored LEDs add a visual element to the aroma and taste of your favorite whiskey. Who needs a Christmas tree when you've got this?

Jack Daniels Gumball Machine - $98.50 from Amazon

A stylish addition to any room of the house, and functional too. Fill with Koppers Chocolate Whiskey Cordials and you're set. Just the thing for guests with children; they'll form memory associations that will guide them well in adulthood. It's a Good Thing.

Carpe Bourbon Yard Sign - $19 from Cafe Press

Put one of these in your front yard and the whole neighborhood will be talking! Maybe they'll even forget about you being on the Sex Offenders Registry.

So, if you've been Nice this year perhaps you'll find a number of these items under the tree. Christmas evening you could be sitting in your easy chair, with a couple of flashing whiskey glasses on the end table by your side, one filled with 20 year old Pappy van Winkle and the other with Fee's Pickle Brine. Curled up next to you is your Significant Other, and one of you is wearing item #4 (or maybe even both of you). Through the front window comes a joyful noise and a warm glow...yes, it's the Home Owners Association setting fire to your Bourbon sign.

Truly, could it get any better?

Happy Holidays!

Two Books on Wine

I recently completed reading a couple of books and decided to post my thoughts on each.

The first is Thomas Pinney's A History of Wine In America - From Prohibition to the Present. This is a massive (532 page) scholarly (136 pages are footnotes and source citations) work, and is directed at those whose interest goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of wine itself. Pinney presents a high level view (as in, you're in the International Space Station and equipped with a 60 power telescope) of the American wine industry from the onset of Prohibition up to 2005 (the book's publication date). It's pages are replete with statistics, details of legislation and enforcement, descriptions of industry association efforts, corporate activities, and marketing trends, and those hoping for information about the early histories of their favorite California, Oregon and Washington wineries will be sorely disappointed. Illustrative of this is that because, prior to 1965, the majority of wine produced in the USA was inexpensive sweet wine, the existence of a handful of wineries making quality table wine is mentioned only in casual passing.

So it's not a book for the neophyte wine lover, or even for people who consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject but whose interests lie in the production, procurement and enjoyment of contemporary wines. Instead, this is a book for those oenophiles who have an independent love of history, and is thus able to satisfy both passions. I'm in that category, and am hoping to read Pinney's previous work, A History of Wine In America - From the Beginnings to Prohibition (pub 1989) (rumor has it that there's a copy under the Christmas tree). In fact, my only criticism of the book is that it devotes too much space (two chapters) to contemporary wine production efforts in states east of the Rockies (where the winters are too cold or the summers too wet to grow Vitis vinifera, the only species that can produce truly excellent wine), and not enough to Washington and Oregon (13 and 10 pages respectively). I'm sure this is due to an effort to be as encompassing and comprehensive as possible, but it just seems wrong to devote page space to wine production in Iowa at the expense of a proper treatment of a region (the Willamette Valley) that is producing Pinot Noir that's the peer of anything coming out of Burgundy. I don't think that this is a case of bias on my part; I suspect anyone who loves good wine would feel the same way...even if they live in Iowa.

In an entirely different genre is Natalie MacLean's red, white and drunk all over (2006). This book is written in a humorous, self-effacing style, and keeps the wine geek jargon to a minimum. It's easy and fun to read, not the least bit intimidating, and a good choice for someone just getting into wine. Those with more extensive knowledge will also find interesting content, such as Ms. MacLean's visits and interviews with winemakers (both Old World and New), critics, and other industry professionals. While reading her account of her evolution from neophyte to expert, I frequently found myself reminiscing about my own journey along that same path, and I expect others who've been into wine for a while will have a similar experience.

Toward the end of the book Ms. MacLean puts in a plug for her web site, At that time it was free, but nowadays it's $25 per year to get "full" access. I decided to signup for it, mostly to see how it compared in value to Robert Parker's site (, $100 per year). As it turns out, for one quarter the cost, MacLean's site offers considerably less than one quarter the content, but I suppose it's a good alternative for those who aren't quite ready to pony up the cash for the Parker site. One thing that limits the usefulness of MacLean's site is that she lives in Canada (Toronto I believe) and the selection and prices in the state stores (operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) vary from those here in the USA, particularly for those of us on the west coast.

Nonetheless I highly recommend the book, particularly for beginners. It's educational without being snooty, and lacks the stigma associated with Wine for Dummies or The Idiot's Guide to Wine. It being now five years after publication, you can get it for only $9.58 from Amazon, and at that price it's a bargain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Arriving in Corvallis at the beginning of 2007, my first priority was to find a place to live. I found a decent rental house and had myself moved in by midday Saturday January 6th, and went out to buy a good Oregon Pinot Noir to celebrate. My first stop was Avalon, but the less-than-friendly reception I got from the (now departed) salesperson led me back out the door in search of an alternative. Two blocks away, at the Water Street Market building on the NW corner of Monroe and 1st, I discovered Wineopolis.

I found the proprietor, Jerry Larson, to be both friendly and knowledgeable, and I purchased two bottles of 2004 Pinot Noir, each from a local winery. Since then I've been a frequent customer.

Jerry has been active in the Corvallis culinary scene for a long time. He operated the Tower of London restaurant from 1980-1985 (the site is now the McMenamins at Harrison and 3rd), and put together the wine program for the First Alternative coop in 1989-90. He opened Wineopolis in June of 2005.

The store favors wines from producers (both domestic and foreign) that can be characterized as "agricultural" rather than "industrial".  These are small-to-medium sized wineries whose products convey a sense of place (roughly equivalent to the French term terroir), rather than trying to conform to a modern style proselytized by contemporary critics such as Robert Parker (who favors wines that are highly extracted, high in alcohol, and low in acid; these can be great by themselves but often do not pair well with food).

Although there are a few wines in the $50-60 range (typically vineyard-designated Oregon Pinot Noir), most wines in the store are priced between $10 and $20. Jerry has tasted every one of them and can vouch for them all, the result of good relationships with local winery owners, distributors and Portland-based direct importers. Every Saturday a white and a red are available for tasting; these are usually in the $10-12 range.

Jerry believes in educated consumers, and will give you a good bit of information about any bottle you're considering. Most people appreciate this, but there are exceptions. I've met a one-time-only customer who complained that he was simply not interested in all the details, and just wanted a good recommendation. His view was that "it's the salesman's job to be the expert, and all I want is to rely on his expertise." There is nothing wrong with this perspective, and I suggest to Jerry that he should consider it a compliment when encountering a customer who wants his recommendation but not all the supporting data.

Jerry is also very good at recommending food and wine pairings. I know from personal experience that he's an excellent cook, and have come to rely on his advice when looking for wines to match a menu.

The store currently carries about 500 different wines, mostly from Oregon, Italy, France, California and Washington, with a small number from Spain and Portugal. Jerry has phased out Australian offerings; "No one seems to have noticed or cared." Over the next month, preparing for the holidays, he'll be increasing the selection and inventory.

There may be greater selections at some places in town (e.g., Market of Choice), but you won't get the personal attention you'll get at Wineopolis. There is no substitute for that, and your chances of getting a good wine are a lot better.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hard Times Distillery - Update

Some of you may recollect that one of my first posts was about Hard Times Distillery in Monroe. Since the time I posted that article it's been a rough road for the owners, Dudley Clark and James Stegall. Difficulties with funding, with getting parts for their custom stills, and other obstacles kept them from attaining production status until last autumn.

As I originally reported, it had been their plan to make vodka from rye. Insufficient funds prevented the acquisition of some equipment needed for that, so they fell back on a simpler solution: sugar. They describe their product as being based on "an old moonshine recipe" a statement which is, in fact, completely accurate.

There's a lot of confusion about the term "moonshine". There are a number of small distilleries around the US that are selling unaged whiskey as "moonshine". These are corn whiskies, or ones that use a bourbon mashbill of corn with rye and barley malt. These are not really moonshine for two reasons. The first is that "moonshine", strictly defined, is any illegally produced spirit. So if they produced it legally, it's not moonshine.

The second reason is that most modern moonshine is not produced from grain but from sugar. Why? Because the easiest and cheapest way to make alcohol is with sugar, warm water and yeast, and if your goal is to make money, this is what you do. The extra bother of converting starch to sugar is viewed as an unnecessary expense by most moonshiners. Some will add a measure of converted hog chow (85% corn meal and 15% ground soybeans) to impart some "corn whiskey" character, but the soybeans add a rather funky element to that. While still living in Florida, I sampled some sugar/hog chow moonshine and it was, frankly, pretty wretched stuff.

Most moonshine is produced in simple pot stills, which are capable of producing spirit no stronger than about 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). That which is made from sugar is known as "sugar jack" and it smells and tastes more like rum than anything else.

Hard Times Distillery is equipped with a column still and their "Sugar Momma" vodka is, like all vodka, distilled at 95% ABV. At this level of distillation it's usually the case that very little of the aroma and taste of the original fermented product survives the process. For example, although I'm pretty attuned to the aroma of rye (being a fan of rye whiskey), I can just barely smell the rye in Sobieski vodka.

So when I finally sampled some "Sugar Momma" I wasn't expecting much in the way of aroma or flavor. Man, was I in for a surprise. The stuff exudes a distinct bouquet of brown sugar, similar to a lot of rums. Although it lacks the additional exotic aromas of finer rums, it also lacks the medicinal alcohol character of the not-so-fine ones. On the palate it's extraordinarily smooth, and has a richness uncharacteristic of vodka. Seriously, if you're a rum fan, this is your vodka. When the weather warms up a bit more, I'm going to try this in a Mojito.

Sold only in Oregon, for $14.95, it's already developed a following in Eugene and Corvallis. Dudley tells me that they "can't keep it on the shelves." Indeed, when I recently visited Big Y Liquors in Eugene I noticed it was sold out.

Hard Times is working to increase production, and if it continues to do well, the profits can be plowed back in to the business and we will, hopefully, see rye whiskey being produced before the end of the year.

"Sugar Momma" is sold here in Corvallis at the liquor store on Washington Avenue, and served at Block 15.