I have refrained from politics on my blog, but I have a lot of friends asking me what will happen now that Washington (a notoriously strict control state) has passed what is possibly one of the loosest liquor laws in the country.  The following series is my best attempt at a summary.

DISCLAIMER:  I am NOT an expert in either law or the liquor industry.  Anything I write here could be inaccurate, especially due to the varied and changing interpretations of the law as it goes into effect. I will try my best to get things right, and make corrections as need-be, but I make no guarantees as to the accuracy of what I write here.


Initiative Summary:

Initiative 1183 (1183 from here on out) primarily affects liquor distribution, retail and pricing, but it also changes a few rules on wine distribution.  The objective is to maintain the so-called “sin tax” for  2 years at its current level, while taking the state out of the business of sales and placing it firmly into enforcement, thereby allowing a free market system with non-uniform pricing and increased variety based on demand.  Nothing in 1183 should affect beer production, distribution, or sale.

Why You Should Care:

If you live or drink in Washington, you obviously are somewhat vested in this initiative.  If you don’t, you may see similar initiatives to privatize liquor or remove the 3-tier distribution system come to your state soon (thanks to that friendly giant, Costco). Oregon, I’m looking at you.  Here’s what may happen:

  • Prices.  Changing the system to a free market has the potential to increase or decrease prices from store to store.  There may be a change in the distribution system, allowing certain retailers to cut out the middle man, which would create much more affordable hooch.  This means we have the possibility of bargain-bin liquor, but it also means we get to hunt for the best deals.  One-stop-shopping?  Maybe.
  • Tax Revenue.  Our state is already in the red; they’ve depended on the liquor sin tax for years.  Now we’re messing with it, and we could see some serious funding issues crop up as the state tries to find new sources of income.  1183 addresses the tax income to a certain extent, but will it play out well?
  • Selection.  Availability of your favorite liquors may change.  Big box and major grocery chains may not have much incentive to stock more than 20-100 of the major brands, which could make it more difficult to get that Maraschino, Buffalo Trace, or even Dolin vermouth.  (And don’t even ask about amaros like Cynar or Fernet Branca.)  On the flip side, we will probably see private labels pop up.  Costco’s line of Kirkland Select is known for being top-shelf product in cheap 1.75 l bottles.  Kroger tequila anyone?
  • Local Economy – Distillers.  1183 could leave local distillers out in the cold.  While they may be able to directly supply local bars and restaurants, the [recently-legalized] craft distilleries have been highly dependent on exposure and shelf space in state stores for the last few years.  Now they may be required to select highly limiting distributors, which is a considerable risk for a new and vulnerable company.
  • Local Economy – Bars & Restaurants.  No matter how it turns out in the end, we’re up for a rough transition in a bad economy.  For some establishments, this transition could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Good news?  Multiple establishments may be able to form groups to own centralized warehouses and gain access to bulk discounts.
  • Local Economy – Liquor Stores.  I’m pretty sure most Washingtonians know about the 900 jobs lost out of the state-run stores.  (Costco has generously offered to hire them, but I’m skeptical about whether the benefits compare.)  Some store managers will work hard to raise the money to buy their stores and separate liquor on the auction block, but many won’t have access to that kind of scratch.  Meanwhile, anyone that wants to open a store has 6 months to do so.  In all likelihood, grocery stores will be the majority provider for liquor in that time, as they will already have a license to sell.  I don’t expect they’ll be hiring a whole lot of new people to man a rearranged beer and wine section.
  • Internet Sales.  No one I’ve spoken to has any idea what happens here.  It depends a lot on  federal interstate commerce laws, so I have no doubt that the WSLCB has a crack team of lawyers assigned to this one.  We just get to wait until they tell us more.

Next Up:

  • The 3-tier system.
  • How 1183 messes with the 3-tier system.

Stone Fruit Liqueur

June 13, 2011

I love fruit; walking through the produce aisle at the grocery store, I’m as excited as a kid in a candy store.  Of course, the hazard of this is that I tend to buy more than I end up eating.  So what to do with the random bits and pieces that go past their prime?

A little over a year ago, I ran across a strange little recipe for “bachelor’s jam” in the liqueur section of an ancient canning book.  It consisted of random fruits tossed in sugar and vodka and left to sit for about half a year.  So, last year I decided to try it out.  Sure enough, the result was a rather jam-like mess of colorless, toothless fruit and a murky brownish-pinkish liquid.  The recipe did not call for straining, but the thought of even touching the dead fruit made me a bit queasy.  I strained it, and out came an intriguing tourmaline colored liqueur that captures that juicy freshness of summer fruits.

It debuted at Thanksgiving dinner last fall and was a big hit as a simple after-dinner sipper, so now I’m making it again for Christmas gifts for those friends who love alcohol, but don’t make cocktails.  Sadly, my first batch was unrecorded, so I’m starting from scratch again.

Here are the basic guidelines:

Stone Fruit Liqueur

Use summer stone fruits and berries such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, and cherries (even blueberries or pears are good in limited quantities).

Anything that is not entirely spoiled is fair game – a little too squashy to eat, but not brown or moldy?  Trim as needed and toss it in with the appropriate quantities of sugar and vodka.

Feel free to leave the pits in – they provide depth and subtlety.  I just cut the fruit around the circumference so that the soft flesh is more accessible.

Add 1/3 to 1/2 of the fruit weight in sugar.  Today, I added about 15 ounces of fruit, so I put in half a cup of sugar (4 ounces).  This is a little less than a third, but I’ll sweeten the next addition a little more to make up for it.  Make sure not to oversweeten, as you can always add more sugar after straining out the fruit, but you can’t remove it once it’s in there.

Add enough vodka to cover the fruit.  I am actually using Everclear 151 with water in a 2:1 ratio this time since the first batch came out incredibly smooth and flavorful – cheap vodka or Everclear will not affect the quality noticeably.

Allow the fruit to age several months in a cool dark place.  My first batch was aged about seven and a half months from start – probably three or four months after the last addition.  I intend to fill the jar shown on the right all the way to the top in the next month or so, and then let it sit in my closet until November or December.

When it’s thoroughly aged and looks absolutely vile, it’s time to strain.  This is not a fun process, as all the vodka and sugar pull out the natural pectins in the fruit and create a highly viscous fluid.  I would actually recommend several rounds of straining, as it took 2 days to strain through coffee filter paper last year.  My intention this year is to do an initial filter with a medium-fine mesh strainer and use a potato ricer to squeeze any liquid out of the fruit.  After that, I will pass it through cheesecloth to grab most of the pectin, and then do a final slow drip through the coffee filter paper.  There will still be some cloudy material, but this is hard to avoid since we’re adding most (if not all) of the sugar prior to straining.  I feel that it isn’t enough to affect the longevity, flavor, or attractiveness of the final liqueur.

If necessary, add a bit more sugar, and allow the flavors to blend for another week or so.

Calculating the Alcohol Volume:

As I am a bit of a numbers geek, it seems appropriate to determine the proof of the final product.  It is quite simple to get a reasonably accurate number for a liqueur like this.  Simply measure the liquid quantity after straining and adding any final sweetening.  This is your yield.  Now add up how many ounces of vodka you used.  Your alcohol by volume is your vodka a.b.v. (typically 40%) * ounces of vodka / ounces of yield.

Example:  My current jar contains 20 oz 151 Everclear, 10 oz water, and 12 oz sugar.  Assuming I get about the same yield as the current liquid quantity, I will have 20 + 10 + 12/2 = 36 oz.  (Note: the sugar dissolves into the liquid and increases the liquid volume by about half of the sugar volume.)  Of that, 20 oz is 151 proof (75.5% a.b.v.).  So the alcohol by volume is 75.5% * 20/36 = 41.9%.  Obviously, I will need to add more sugar or water, unless I’m looking for a whopper of a liqueur here.  Typically liqueurs are between 15% and 30%, with the exception of a few like Chartreuse.

I would consider this a great beginner’s liqueur, as it has a lot of freedom to it and requires little effort to make.  It is something that can be drunk chilled on its own or in cocktails (try adding a splash of Ramazzotti to a slug of it in soda), much like limoncello.  Best of all, the batch can be any size you want, and you don’t have to buy a ton of materials for it.  (Ever been interrogated by a cashier about the five pounds of lemons in your cart?  I have.)  And of course, the process is not much different for any single fruit liqueur.

Cocktail 2-fer

May 31, 2011

Another night of cleaning out my liquor cabinet, and the result is a tea influenced night.

Dolin Framboise

2 oz Raspberry infused Rittenhouse 100 [house]
1 oz Dolin Blanco vermouth
1/4 oz lime leaf infused gin [house]
splash of lemon juice
Cherry hibiscus bitters (Evan Martin special)
cherry garnish

One of my friends challenged me to use my raspberry rye, as it seemed fitting for the springlike weather tonight. My first thought was that it was not strong enough in the raspberry department, so I went rummaging for syrups; luckily I thought better and grabbed the Dolin Blanco, which is a lovely sweet white vermouth with berry and citrus notes to it. It added a lot of depth and actually pulled out the raspberry notes in my disappointing infusion, though it begged for a touch of lime. And of course, when a touch of lime is called for, I go for my lime leaf infusions, since they are much less strident than the fruit itself. To tie it all together: a dash of lemon juice (who doesn’t think of raspberry lemonade on a hot day?) and some lovely tart, fruity cherry hibiscus bitters courtesy of Evan Martin at Naga. My friend’s remark: it’s like drinking tea, but alcoholic.


4 O’Clock Bracer

2 oz Laird’s Applejack
1 oz buttermilk liqueur
1/2 oz Earl Grey bitters
1/4 oz lemon juice

Since my friend was rocking the tea concept, I decided to up the ante – she challenged me to work with the buttermilk liqueur, which she had in some degree influenced me to make, but I was tired of pairing it with rum. My eyes fell on the Laird’s, and the game was over, though I wasn’t yet working with tea. As I’ve noted before, the buttermilk pairs well with lemon, so that got tossed in, and then, for the hell of it, the earl grey bitters went in, 1/4 oz at first, as the concoction was far too sweet. That didn’t do it, so that solid, manly 1/2 oz of bitters happened, and the drink is pretty much perfect. (Though one could certainly argue to drop the lemon, depending on the night.) Citrusy and floral on the nose, it hits with a taste of apple and tea, finishing with a lovely, but not overwhelming, bitter note. Invigorating and refreshing, yet pretty alcoholic to finish out the day.  So please forgive any errors in phrasing or grammar…


Earl Grey bitters

9 parts Earl Grey infusion (1 tsp Earl Grey aged in 2 oz Plymouth and 2 oz 151 Everclear for 7 days)
1 part black walnut leaf infusion (4 tbsp black walnut leaf aged in 4 oz 151 Everclear for 3 weeks)
1 part milk thistle infusion (1 tbsp milk thistle aged in 1 oz 151 Everclear for 1 month)
1 part fringe tree bark infusion (1 tbsp fringe tree bark aged in 1 oz 151 Everclear for 4 days)

These Earl Grey bitters were based primarily on the tea, as it was a surruptitiously stolen teaspoon of a very nice Earl Grey from the UK.  My tendencies are to shy away from Earl Grey, as I don’t much care for bergamot, but these are lovely and mild and taste mostly of black tea and spice, with just a hint of orange.   Still proper bitters, but not too overwhelming, and in no way a problem in large quantities (though if I ever make them again, I will probably try to concentrate the flavors a bit).

I have decided to embark on a new task – I recently cataloged the homemade portion of my liquor cabinet and I will be trying to make at least one cocktail with every item in there  in an effort to find what is good, what is worth working on, and what will never happen again.  This libation is the first of that series.  Charged with making drinks for the evening, my fellow wanted an old fashioned — an order I’m always happy to comply with — and then he picked a Rainier cherry infusion for me to play with.

I was in an old fashioned mood myself, so I went for a simple riff on it:

1.5 oz Jameson
0.75 oz Rainier cherry infused brandy †
1 tsp 1:1 simple
1 d lavender bitters ††
Garnish with lemon twist

The biggest issue working with the cherry infusion is that Rainier cherries are naturally a very mild and subtle flavor — and more so in a maceration.  I wanted the cherry to come through as an accent, but because the infusion mostly picked up the sweetness, I couldn’t use it as a base.  That dusty green bottle of Jameson tucked away in a corner came through for me here, adding a mild oakiness and some grain to balance out the overwhelming fruit, without beating it into submission.  However, standard Jameson is a whisky that can end up on the boring side if you neglect it, so I had to be sure to pick a lively bitters.  That’s when I remembered my early batch of lavender bitters — floral and astringent with just a hint of wood and citrus.  Just one tiny dash, as it can be pretty overwhelming, and a twist of lemon to tie things together, and voila! a taste of all the hope of spring and growing things, with all the comfort and warmth of a wintery whisky-based drink.

The end result:  a nose of lemon and lavender, which turns to brandy, whisky, and cherry as you sip and then goes back to the lavender and lemon with just a touch of oak on the swallow.  Light and crisp, but still spiritous and simple at heart.

Rainier Cherry Infused Brandy
4.75 oz (weight) of Rainier cherries, unpitted
7 oz brandy (I used Paul Masson VSOP — good depth and spice for an affordable price)
Macerate at room temperature about 2 and a half weeks, then strain with a coffee filter.  The yield is pretty small — 4-5 ounces — but the recipe can obviously be increased as desired.  The cherries may have further use too, if you like booze-drenched fruit.

Lavender Bitters
I didn’t come up with this one.  Go check out the recipe at Blotto, which I found to be pretty painless and well worth the effort.  I do recommend reducing the recipe though – I think I got mine down to 1/4 or  1/8 to save on cabinet space.  The resulting 1-1.5 oz is plenty for my limited use of it.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup may be difficult to find as well, though it’s worth owning as a cocktail sweetener if you do run across it.  If not, substituting agave nectar or a mellow honey would work just fine.

Buttermilk Liqueur

April 24, 2011

Recently I ran across a recipe for milk liqueur. Being intrigued by this as an alternative to cream-based liqueurs such as Baileys, I had to give it a try. However, all I had in the fridge was an excess of buttermilk, so buttermilk liqueur it was. The first batch was disappointing to say the least — poor instructions and too much sugar led to a liqueur that had potential, but was ultimately difficult to use. The second batch, I took charge, and it turned out much better. Here’s the recipe:

Buttermilk Liqueur

  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 cups vodka (I used 8.5 oz Everclear 151 and 7.5 oz water to make a rough 80 proof vodka)
  • 1.5 cups white sugar (or to taste)
Combine the buttermilk and vodka, and age 10 days — no need to refrigerate. Strain out the solids through a coffee filter, then add the sugar. Shake to incorporate the sugar, and allow to sit for a day to finish dissolving any remaining grains. Yields about a fifth of 21% ABV liqueur.

The liqueur is incredibly smooth, with a sweet, milky taste at the tip of the tongue, and an acidic, almost sour finish. The alcohol is excellent at pulling out the essence of the buttermilk, while leaving behind all the fat. The sugar just fills out and smooths the maceration.

So what to make with a buttermilk liqueur? A couple test runs pointed me in the direction of rum; the natural acidic tones made me think of lemon, which would balance out the sweetness and perk it up nicely to pair with a sweet base spirit. The benefit of dairy liqueur is that it can smooth out rougher flavors, so I decided to pull out a favorite — Batavia-Arrack, and go from there.

  • 1.5 oz Batavia-Arrack
  • 1 oz buttermilk liqueur
  • 0.25 oz lemon juice
  • dash of Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters (or other aromatic bitters)
Shake ingredients, then rinse glass with a peaty scotch (I used Lagavulin 16).

This cocktail is citrusy and sweet at the front — the slightly smoky arrack combined with the buttermilk pulls out spice and rose notes, then eases into the peat of the scotch with a smooth transition. This drink is surprisingly subtle, but not boring, and an aftertaste of lemon and smoke is never bad.