As a younger bartender, I became captivated by the history, myths, and mystique of the finer and quirkier sides of mixology. I clearly remember one of my mentors telling me that I should know everything that I can about everything behind my bar. (Little did I know that that Jack in a Box contained oddities like Zirbenz and rarities like Black Tot Rum.) Research began, technique-driven consciousness developed, and I became more and more passionate about my craft. Grapes and grain, the bases for all things spiritous, became my favorite ingredients, and what followed was long nights chasing the perfect cocktail and therapy for bar regulars.
Now, the fields and vineyards have been harvested and put to rest for the season. The grapes that will make your wine have been processed and the grain that’ll make your beer has been milled, transforming them into wine and beer. Traditionally, it was during the winter months that tanks of grape and grain would go one step further: The fresh, frothy beer and the complex, earthy vino changed into smooth, crisp, and clean distillates.
The switch from low-proof alcohol to higher proof spirit is part chemistry part alchemy part art lecture. The distilling process involves kettles, swan necks, and boiling points (among other things), but in a nutshell, you take beer or wine, then boil them to catch the steam. Finally, it’s cut and bottled or put into wooden barrels to transform over time.
How about circumstance? How about the ingenuity to produce an amazing product from a “machine” that was used to produce medicines and perfumes? It starts there. It begins with smelling better and feeling better. The bases of perfumes are spirits, the primary ingredients for aromatherapies. The base of many medicines in the western world and beyond is also spirits. Stomach upset? Sip some amari. Sore throat? Honey, bourbon, and hot water will do the trick.
The French were the first to double distill. (They built the infamous Charentais stills that are used to this very day.) They were one of the first cultures to blend aged spirits from different barrels. So many firsts that one could claim cognac (of French origin), or brandy, as whisky’s mother. But the Dutch played a role, too. They’re responsible for turning the very prized French wines into “brandewijn,” a.k.a. brandy, for safe ocean voyage.
Fast-forward to the late 1800s. A voracious louse, phylloxera, wiped out the majority of all vineyards in France, and brandy and cognac ceased to exist for decades. Boom! The spread of Whisk(e)y begins! Rye, Scotch, Irish, blended, bourbon, oh my! Classic cocktails that were originally made with grape spirits started to turn up as rye- and whiskey-based drinks. Tipples like the sazerac and the julep began to use grain spirits such as bourbon and rye. It’s to be noted that these may, in my eyes, have been improvements to the original.
So, do we credit a louse? The Scots? Our pioneers, barmaids, and barkeeps? Our pharmacists? It seems all are responsible for the design of this ardent spirit. And so I’ll raise my glass to those who have, through time, given us so many ways to transport such beloved elixirs into our vessels. Be it the aforementioned juleps and sazeracs or the crustas and sidecars, you can’t really go wrong in how you deliver them.