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5 Pressing Booze Questions, Answered

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Whether you tend bar professionally or are just a home mixologist, at some point, someone will want to play a round of "Stump the Bartender" to test your knowledge. As craft cocktail culture has evolved, the questions have gotten a little more … interesting. To supplement your cocktail knowledge, we’ve put together a list of questions often lobbed at bartenders.

1. IS VODKA MADE FROM POTATOES?

Yes and no. Potato vodka only makes up between one and five percent of what’s on the market. Most of the rest is made from grains like wheat, but some distill from grapes, corn, sugar, or even milk. The potato wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 1500s, but the word “vodka” first appears in print in 1405, as part of a medicinal recipe. Early vodka was made from grain, just as it is today. The potato connection is thought to have sprung up in the 1700s or so, and by the early 1800s it was the dominant base for the spirit.

2. HOW MANY GRAPES GO INTO ONE BOTTLE OF WINE?

In a nutshell, the number is around 600-800 individual grapes, or about 10 grocery store-sized clusters. What you can buy in the produce section typically contains three clusters, so, in theory, you could make a bottle of wine out of three bags. So why is some wine so expensive? Just as organic produce is more expensive to produce, grapes that are dry farmed (made without irrigation) or organically or biodynamically produced cost more to grow. Their yields are also usually smaller, so the wine that those vineyards produce is more expensive.

3) BOURBON HAS TO BE MADE IN KENTUCKY, RIGHT?

Although 95 percent of bourbon was produced in Kentucky as of 2013, bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S.A. That is, as long as it’s distilled from a mixture of grains that’s at least 51 percent corn, contains no additives other than water, and is aged in new oak barrels. There’s not a minimum age requirement to be called bourbon, but to be labeled as a “straight bourbon,” it must spend at least two years in oak barrels. 

However, if it’s aged for less than three years, there’s a possibility that it might not be legal to label it as whiskey. Some countries, including Canada and the EU, require that a spirit age for three years to be called whiskey. As a result, some bourbon is labeled as “bourbon,” but not “whiskey,” overseas.

4) WHY CAN ALL CANADIAN WHISKY BE LABELED AS RYE?

Under Canadian law, all whisky produced there can be labeled as “rye whisky,” “Canadian rye whisky,” or “Canadian whisky.” More than two centuries ago, Canadian whisky makers started using a bit of rye to add spice and depth to their booze. Consumers who wanted this more complex style would ask for the “rye whiskey,” and it stuck. More interestingly, this slang was in use more than 150 years before the U.S. passed regulations requiring that “rye whiskey” must be made from 51 percent rye. The Canadian Food and Drug Regulations is a little different. To be labeled rye, the whisky must “possess the aroma, taste, and character of Canadian whisky.”

5) WHAT DOES A DECANTER DO?

Put simply, decanting whiskey or wine is done by pouring a bottle into another vessel before serving it. For wine, decanting does two things. First, it separates the liquid from the sediments that might have settled in the bottle. Second, it forces oxygen into the wine itself, which can “open up the wine” to release more complex flavor and aromatic compounds. For whiskey, it’s mostly for show. Oxidization reactions happen much more slowly for distilled spirits, meaning that any changes in the appearance or taste will happen over a much longer period of time.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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