Detroit is fortunate to be awash in great cocktails. The passion for craft that has taken root among the bartenders in the city has produced some truly amazing drinking experiences. Bars and restaurants that just a few years back would have been pumping juice out of guns, or crushing bottles of sour mix, are now proudly offering drinks made with quality ingredients. Spirits knowledge is on the rise, and home bartenders everywhere are spreading the gospel to friends and neighbors that mixing proper drinks also happens to be FUN AF. While we love to experiment with the latest trends and techniques in the cocktail kingdom, we thought it would be fun to take a step back and highlight some of the original classics, the drinks that underpin the whole modern craft cocktail movement. They are called classics for a reason.
Detroit’s Hospitality Specialists Discover Why Lot No.40 is So Good
By Bill Scott
Last March, thanks to Lot No.40, the Daily Beast’s Food & Drink Senior Editor Noah Rothbaum was in town rounding up and educating Detroit’s finest hospitality specialists on the complexities of Canadian whisky. Among the group, Sugar House founder Dave Kwiatkowski was invited to indulge in some quality Canadian whisky at the Hiram Walker distillery, in Ontario. They spent the day with the extraordinary Master Blender at Hiram Walker,
Dr. Livermore is one of only two Master Blender’s in the world to hold a PH.D. in his field. He also holds a Bachelor’s in microbiology and a Master’s of Science degree in Brewing and Distilling. With such an expert spearheading their tour, Dave K. was blown away at the knowledge and proficiency that Dr. Livermore presented. In an interview we had with him, recounting what he had learned, Dave K exclaimed,
“The entire process of Canadian Whisky is incredibly different than American whiskey.
He’s absolutely correct. Canadian whisky is unlike anything else in the world. Its distinct characteristics can be mostly attributed to comparatively less regulations regarding the production of spirits. In the rest of the world, you see a pretty consistent requirement for at least a 51% mash bill of a particular grain—such as rye—to allow for it to be legally labeled a “rye whisky”. With Canadian whisky, there is no percentage requirement for that label.
Speaking on this, Dave K. said,
“They basically call everything a “rye”, because rye, as a crop, is extremely hardy and it grows in the north really well. So they pretty much put rye in everything.”
Now, before we get too technical, let’s establish some basic distilling information to help the rest of us understand what all of this means.
Before you begin the process of distilling ethyl alcohol from grains, you need to first have a mash bill. A mash bill is basically the recipe for a kind of beer that is created through a fermentation process. This beer is referred to as the “mash”.
Typically, as with American whiskeys, the mash bill would consist of a combination of corn, wheat, barley and rye. These grains are combined and after they are fermented, we are left with a mash that we can then extract (or distill) alcohol from, through a process of heating and cooling. However, Canadian whisky is not your typical whiskey. This process is largely different than most parts of the world. Concerning this, Dave K. explained,
“The big difference is that they don’t combine grains in the fermenter. They just distill rye, they just distill corn, they just distill barley; some of those are malted, some of them are not. In the end, after they are distilled, they put them in a barrel and age them and they take those and mash them together. That’s how they create their flavor profiles.”
What this means is that they may have a much broader definition of what a ‘mash bill’ is. Moreover, this could be an advantage since they are able to use multiple batches in order to concentrate the exact flavor that they are trying for. Since they use aged spirits as flavoring to be compiled in the end, one might go as far as to consider the entire process (from fermentation to aging) to be considered a kind of ‘batch bill’.
Hiram Walker’s Lot No.40 is a special kind of Canadian whisky in that it is made from 100% rye. Lot No.40 is a double distilled spirit; it is first distilled in a column still, then again distilled in a pot still. As with all whiskeys, after all congeners are stripped, what you are left with is essentially a vodka. It’s an unaged, neutral grain spirit. What makes it a whiskey is the flavor that is added from the wood inside the barrels that it is aged in. Taken from an interview in 2015 with foodrepublic.com, Dr. Don Livermore spoke on the quality of Canadian casks,
“As I discovered in my Ph.D. studies, virgin oak barrels will give you 4-5 times the amount of vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than a once-used American bourbon barrel. In fact, in 60 days of aging in new wood will get more vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than 18 years of ageing in a used barrel. Quality of wood is more important than aging. Sometimes people do not like a wood-forward whisky but a grain-forward whisky, so in Canada we use our barrels over and over again. Barrels act like a sponge. What was in the barrel beforehand will come out into the next whisky. Likewise, port barrels will add a nice fruity texture. All these differences are very cool to play with, and the Canadian whisky category allows for creativity.”
Things have been going very well for Lot No.40 in recent years. In 2015, at the prestigious sixth annual Canadian Whisky Awards, they won the coveted “Canadian Whisky of the Year” award. Something Dr. Livermore referred to as, “like winning the Stanley Cup of whisky.”
Back at the distillery, Dr. Livermore demonstrated a controlled taste test for the group of Detroit hospitality specialists. With that, Dave K. assured us that the success of Lot 40 was validated right before his eyes; he said,
“It used to be 80/20 (rye, to malted rye), and malting helps the fermentation process, but once they started adding enzymes (which is a relatively new thing) they stopped having to malt it. We tasted all these years side-by-side of 100% rye, and 80/20 (rye to malted rye), and it was really phenomenal.”
For a better understanding of what these magical enzymes are and what they do, we turned to the book “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert” by Davin de Kergommeaux. Inside, he explains that the grains used to make whiskey are actually seeds. Each seed contains a tiny embryonic plantlet (a micro-version of the plant). Within the seed, it also contains a starchy endosperm that actually produces food for the plant for when it sprouts. That starchy endosperm is what needs to be converted into sugars in order for it to be fermented. There are already natural enzymes within the seed that convert that starch into sugar, which is the food the plantlet needs when it starts to germinate. However, what Canadian distillers are now doing is using their own microbial enzymes to prematurely activate the starch and convert it into sugars themselves. These sugars are then fed to yeast cells, which is what eats sugar and expels ethanol; this is called fermentation. So, to put it plainly, alcohol is yeast poop.
Before they began this process of using their own enzymes to produce sugars, they had to use a malted grain. Malting is basically tricking the seeds into germinating by using warm water to get those natural enzymes to turn the starch into sugar. Once sugars are present, they dry the seed so it doesn’t actually sprout. Then the fermentation process can begin.
With a side-by-side comparison, contrasting the use of malted rye in Lot No.40 with the use of microbial enzymes, the entire group was in agreement that the new technique was king.
Lot No.40 is a beautiful bright copper color that offers a rich and savory flavor with a hint of spicy and sweet caramel. It has a trace of fruity notes with a touch of cinnamon along with unmistakable rye grain. It finishes off with a pleasingly lingering moderate heat.
Cocktail Jesus, Run Amok in Detroit
By Bill Scott
As it is unmistakably evident, Detroit has been going through a kind of revival in recent years. With that, we have seen Detroit making the ranks on multiple ‘top destinations’ lists from very reputable and popular publications. Most recently, The New York Times published an article ranking Detroit 9th of ‘52 Places to Go in 2017.’ That’s 9th in the world, folks! The article appropriately states, “Detroit’s revitalization, after its 2013 bankruptcy filing, has long been building.”
Albeit, there are many great things that are contributing to the recovery of Detroit. However, the one that is irrefutable is that people have a real yearning for fine food and drink, and Detroit has the talent and diligence to provide it. This incredible turnaround has coined Detroit a new nickname, “America’s Great Comeback City.”
Although Detroit is no Hollywood, it certainly is attracting a distinct kind of celebrity these days. Most easily defined, they are food and drink connoisseurs; or rather, professional drunks. One of these scholars in particular is hailed a cocktail God, among Detroit’s finest hospitality workforce. The man, the legend, David Wondrich, otherwise known as the “Cocktail Jesus” has graced us with his presence.
David Wondrich is probably best known for authoring one of the most influential cocktail books of our time, “Imbibe!” Dave Kwiatkowski, proprietor of Sugar House refers to it as “The Sugar House Bible.” In an interview with Dave K. regarding Wondrich’s visit he said,
“It says a lot that guys of his caliber are coming here to talk about mixology. I think it lends credibility to Detroit, and supports the idea that the big cities are taking note of what we’re doing here.”
Mr. Wondrich is a historian and has a PH.D. in comparative literature. He is described as ‘one of the world’s foremost authorities on cocktails and their history.’ Moreover, he has been a contributor to a number of magazine publications. Notably, he has been a long time contributor to esquire magazine, with articles dating as far back as 2005. This is where many of Sugar House’s 101 classic cocktails were inspired from. Regarding this, Dave K. stated,
“I owe Wondrich a lot because I based our bar program off of his writing. It really helped to identify what it was that I wanted to do here.”
Assuredly, David Wondrich’s visit wasn’t all leisure. We have The Daily Beast and Lot 40 to thank for his presence. Lot 40, a Canadian rye whiskey produced by Hiram Walker, sponsored his trip. The intention was to educate Midwestern professional bartenders and hospitality workers on the complexities of Canadian whiskey. As a historian, Wondrich also spoke on the history of drinking in Detroit. He just couldn’t help himself, he had to dedicate his last words to Detroit’s most famous cocktail…
Wondrich held his presentation at Detroit’s historic ‘Detroit Athletic Club’ (DAC). Keep in mind, it was no mistake that Wondrich held his seminar there. Apart from being a long running private social club, their bar has significant historical cocktail relevance. The DAC has been named the unrefuted creator of one of the best gin concoctions known to man, the Last Word. Dating back to 1916, the Last Word first appeared on a DAC menu, later getting its revival in New York and Seattle. It soon became world-known. It currently reigns as one of Detroit’s most ordered classic cocktails.
Although Wondrich was in town for the seminar, the DAC was not his first, nor his last stop. Dave K. and David Wondrich, along with a host of Midwest’s best and brightest bartenders, spent the day marauding through Detroit’s hospitality district like scholarly savages. The group met up for breakfast at the Whitney before going to the seminar at the DAC. Next, they had to stop at Old Miami because according to Dave K, “Wondrich loves the Old Miami.” Then, Wondrich showed us how to make a proper Blue Blazer at the Sugar House before trotting off to Nancy Whiskey’s for another drink. They finished off the night with dinner (and more drinks) at Cliff Bell’s.
David Wondrich said that he was very impressed with the progress of Detroit. Saying that it’s grown so much since last time he was here, around two years ago. What this says about Detroit is extremely encouraging.
It’s experiences like this that give the Detroit Optimist Society the reassurance in their goal of shaping Detroit to be a capital of culinary convention.