27 June 2012

Flavour of the Week: Tonka Beans

The flavour of the week comes from the  "cumaru" or "kumaru", species of tree that is native to northern South America and the Brazilian rainforest. Its seeds are known as Tonka Beans. Their appearance is black and wrinkled with a smooth brown interior. Their fragrance and flavour is delicious; redolent of vanilla, cinnamon, cherries, and cloves. Tonka Beans can be used in food, cocktails, perfumery, and to flavour candies and chocolates. Tonka beans are most often grated to release their aroma and flavour.
The Tonka seed contains the chemical coumarin, which is responsible for its sweet aroma and flavour but also has been shown to create liver toxicity in lab rats. The chemical occurs in small amounts in the plant, however, and has not been shown to cause any damage in humans. Because of these inconclusive studies the ingredient is banned in many countries, including the USA. France however, is wild for the stuff, and uses it in everything from desserts to cocktails to flavouring tobacco.
Tonka Beans also have enjoyed a long history as a medicinal ingredient in the Amazon. They are purported to be effective in treating cough, colds, asthma, snakebites, and have been used as an antispasmodic. It is also purported to be an aphrodisiac.  Kumaru trees can live to be over 1,000 years old.

26 June 2012

Markus Blattner: Zurich's Own Whisky Master

The Widder Bar in Zurich is a world class bar and would be remarkable in any of the more cosmopolitan cities on the globe. In the utterly charming, (if small and not quite totally cocktail savvy), city of Zurich, Switzerland, it is a revelation. Boasting over 1000 bottles of fine spirits and a dizzyingly long and comprehensive cocktail list, this old school bar has hosted some of the finest jazz musicians in Europe. But there’s more. Markus Blattner, the bar manager for over 12 years has a passion for and knowledge of whiskies that is truly remarkable. There are over 250 bottles of rare single malts lining the library-like shelves of the back bar. And he knows about each one. A lot about each one, in fact, since most of them he has researched and bought at auction himself. Here Markus shares a bit about his passion for whisky, bartending, and some excellent advice for new bartenders starting out in the careers.

How long have you worked at your bar?

Close to 14 years now. I started my career as a “commis de bar” and waiter at the Widder Bar in 1996. Then from 1998 till 2000 I worked on cruise liners as bartender/bar manager. Mostly on expedition liners from the Arctic to Antarctica. Late 2000 I got the job offer as “chef de bar” or bar manager at the Widder Bar. I’ve been here ever since.

How do you go about finding all your rare whiskies?

Like a hunter. Mostly while travelling and of course through the internet and industry publications such as whisky mag, mixology mag, class mag….and by talking to my dear customers.

What was the first drink/spirit you ever tasted and what was your reaction?

I can’t hardly remember. Probably the hidden sips of my father’s brandy and coke when he wasn’t looking. But it was really more about the Coke which was always a treat since we only had it once or twice a week! I soon then discovered beer which was obviously a drink which didn’t harm you too much and widely accepted even in younger years.

What is the first cocktail you ever made?

You really don’t want to know. But it was definitely with some Dutch sweet coloured liqueur.  

What was the first drink/spirit you really fell in love with and why?

Whisky and Rum. Balvenie 12 year old Double Wood opened my heart for whiskies. The smooth delicate slightly honeyish and sweet character impressed me and still does. Even after having tasted probably more than a thousand whiskies still always a great dram. Rum at the beginning of my career but rather as mixer but after a hardcore period of Rum and Coke I neglected this spirit for a while.

What is a whisky that you have discovered recently that people might not know about?

The Nikka 70th anniversary selection, a limited collection of a Yoichi 12years, a Miyagikyo 12years, a Coffey still grain whisky 12years and a 12 year old blended whisky of the three. All of them at cask strength 58%. A superb quartet and a very interesting ideology. Further and the longer the more old blended Scotch whiskies preferably from the 50th, 60th, as an White Heather 5years from the 60th (can’t get any better!!!). An unfortunately or luckily unknown and in the whisky branch never mentioned Italian independent bottling company –
Samaroli./Moon. Their bottlings till 2000 were and still are, outstanding.

Do you see the bar scene in Switzerland changing in the next couple of years?

I hope so! There are a few geeks. The Swiss bar scene suffers a little bit from lack of attention since there are not too many attractions as in other major cities. Having the choice between London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna ….understandable. Nevertheless Zurich and Switzerland in general is a great place to live and spend a few days on your way to….!

If you were to have a conversation with a particular whisky (and presuming it could talk back and tell you its past) what would it be?

I would be probably more interested about its future. Being kept away for decades and just letting the angels share your soul is quite lofty, but maybe kept away after that for another decade in a collector’s cupboard doesn’t sound really exciting. Not letting people taste your body and soul and not to be able to reveal your innermost being seems extremely sad.

If you could pass just one thing on to a young bartender what would it be?

“Carpe Diem”, life is not always about being a mixologist. And not everybody is supposed to be a bartender. It’s far more important that you find what you really love to do. And then it doesn’t matter where and what you are. As a mentor I always try to push my young employees to question themselves. Until they are thirty the world is open and they should try as much as possible to find what they were looking for before deciding.

Do you have any crazy stories from whisky auctions you care to share?

There are not too many stories on auctions since I always bid on the internet. But buying a totally unknown old bottle of anything for nothing is thrilling. You never know what you get. But it is by far one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done and will ever do.

What’s the best whisky to have with fondue?

Presumably a Laphroaig 10years old, a Bruichladdich X4 Quadruple (new spirit) or and probably even better a new spirit of any whisky.

You can find Markus behind the bar most nights at The Widder. Do yourself a favour and if you decide to have a whiskey, ask for a recommendation. This fellow knows what he is talking about.

15 June 2012

What is exactly is terroir? It’s a word that you might have heard thrown about out of the mouths of your oenophile friends. Maybe a sommelier insisted that this Mosel Riesling had an excellent sense of terroir, and that’s why you ended up drinking a wine that tasted like eating peaches on a tire swing in the dead of summer, suspended above a dazzlingly white flint quarry. Maybe you thought it was someone mispronouncing the word terrier…Well, what is terrior, exactly?
Terroir, from the French word terre, meaning "land" is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon particular thing made in that region, such as wine. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in the certain characteristic qualities that things like soil and mineral composition have on something like a wine. The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine system, appellation d'origine contrôlée(AOC) that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region. So what does that mean?
It means a wine grown on chalky soils will taste different than a wine grown on slate. Limestone will give a different set of characteristics than basalt. Though the reason for this is not yet totally understood, it is widely accepted that when the vines bring up nutrients from the soil they bring infinitesimal particles of the minerals and soil up the root systems, into the fruit, and ultimately into your glass. That’s why you can taste scorched earth in a good Coté Rotie.  It literally means, “Roasted Slope”, and the impression of the sun-drenched soil the grapes are grown in can be sensed in your glass.  Kimmeridgian clay, an ancient seabed that now forms the soil under some of the most celebrated vineyard sites in the world, (Burgundy and Champagne, to name two), is a limestone heavy with nutrients from the fossils of shellfish from eons ago. A great deal of the complex characteristics of these wines is attributed to the soil they are grown in.
 You can’t really make a world-class wine without something intriguing going on under the ground. Terroir- in so many words, is that intrigue.
For some considerable time at Drinkfactory, the word terroir has become synonymous with obsession.
“ Terroir, and how to give the impression of terroir, of sensations normally only associated with wine, has really occupying us at the lab for a while now.” said Tony Conigliaro. “I’m interested in terroir- things like flint, clay, chalk, and different types of soils, because very clearly we can identify when they are present- say in wine- but we can’t necessarily actually register them as tastes. There is no such thing as a definable flavour of flint, but we have made the most incredible flint vodka using flint stones in the Rotovapor. When you taste it there is an incredible sensation, almost like licking a wet stone.  The flavour is there, but it’s actually not, and believe it or not the sensation is actually quite pleasant. Working from that point we have started to experiment with other things, like clay to see what effects they bring with them when treated in various ways in the lab. Some of the effects are stunning.”
He then continued, “ Our goal in this is to bring a lot of the complexity you find in really good wines and apply it to cocktails. It already works well in our pink peppercorn and flint vodka drink (The Sirocco, a drink that has been on the 69 menu for about a year), but we just want to push the envelope and see what else we can do. We’ve been given soil samples from Champagne houses and we’ve been playing around with that. Different types of rocks, soil, you name it- we’ve tasted it. Imagine something that tastes like wine, but has no wine in it. Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
He chuckles, “Well you can see why we all are a little obsessed around here right now.”
Make sure to look back to the blog to find out what the lab is doing next regarding terroir. For now pour yourself a glass of Chablis and see if you can taste the limestone. Then get prepared to do the same with a cocktail sometime soon.

13 June 2012

Flavour of the Week

Mabolo, more Commonly known as Velvet Apple
is a plant of the genus of ebony trees and closely related to persimmons. The Velvet Apple is an edible fruit that has a skin covered in a fine, velvety fur which is usually reddish-brown, and soft, creamy, pink flesh, with a taste and aroma strangely akin to fruit cream cheese, with underpinnings of apples and bananas. The aroma of the outside of the fruit is unpleasant, most often compared to rotten cheese or cat feces. In fact, in French speaking islands where it grows it is known by names like the "Caca de Chat"- literally, “Cat Shit”. It is native to the Philippines, where kamagong usually refers to the entire tree, and mabolo is applied to the fruit. Velvet apple trees are rarely found in Sri Lanka too.
Fun Fact! True ebony wood comes from trees like the Velvet Apple, which is used in fine musical instrument parts like violin fingerboards, tailpieces and chinrests.

Calling all US Bartenders! If you are going to be at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans this July then you must enter the Merlet Spirits Sidecar Cocktail Competition. Five finalists will compete for a trip to Cognac to learn how to make Cognac with the Merlet family, then spend 2 days in lovely Paris, France! All the details are on the fliers above. Bonne Chance!

06 June 2012

Milk, Food Colouring, and Soap Experiment

Drink Factory would like to present an incredible video illustrating the effect of surface tension changes and turbulence as illustrated by 3 simple things: milk, dish soap, and food colouring.  When the dish soap comes into contact with the milk and food colouring it causes the colours to swirl and creates fantastic movement and patterns.
So what exactly is happening here?
Milk is mostly water but it also contains vitamins, minerals, proteins, and tiny droplets of fat suspended in solution. Fats and proteins are sensitive to changes in the surrounding solution (the milk).
When you add soap, the weak chemical bonds that hold the proteins in solution are altered. The molecules of protein and fat bend, roll, twist, and contort in all directions. The food colour molecules are bumped and shoved everywhere along with them, providing an easy way to observe all the invisible activity. At the same time, soap molecules combine to form a micelle, or cluster of soap molecules. These micelles distribute the fat in the milk. This rapidly mixing fat and soap causes swirling and churning where a micelle meets a fat droplet. When there are micelles and fat droplets everywhere the motion stops.

The other thing that is happening is the disruption of surface tension. Since milk is mostly water, it has surface tension like water. The drops of food colouring floating on the surface tend to stay put on top of the surface tension. Liquid soap wrecks the surface tension by breaking the cohesive bonds between water molecules and allowing the colours to zing throughout the milk.

Though a drink made with dish soap isn’t a real possibility it is interesting to think of utilizing a process similar to this with drinks in the future. Imagine being served a drink with another secret ingredient on the side. When you drop it into your drink it becomes a colour explosion!