Kikusui Funaguchi: Can Do Sake


Ahhhh, sake. I’ll be honest – I know next to nothing about the stuff, other than the fact that I need to get to know it better. That said, one sake I’ve really been blown away by every time I’ve had over the past few years has been the canned sake from Japanese brewer Kikusui (interesting how the craft-sake-in-cans thing in Japan parallels the craft-beer-in-cans thing here in the states). Their most commonly found version – the yellow can – is the base Kikusui Funaguchi Honjozo Nama-sake. It’s joined by a longer-aged and more “refined” version in red; plus a once-a-year, freshly-harvested version in green. They’re all pretty spectacular – with a common backbone of lush, floral, tropical fruit – but there are enough distinctions among the three to make a side by side tasting really interesting. If you’re lucky enough to come across a can(s), these Kikusuis are a great way to explore distinctive sake at a low tariff – they’re typically $6-$10 retail depending on the type, and each can (at 19% alcohol) makes a nice serving for two people.

Kikusui Funaguchi SakeKikusui dates back to 1881 in the sake business – which makes them a youngster among Japan’s many historic sake brewers. The name Funaguchi is, as far as I can tell,  a trademarked name meant to communicate “raw sake on tap”- reinforcing the fact that this is a nama-sake – unpasteurized. Honjozo is a term that specifies level of refinement – typically 30% of the rice polished away (whereas more refined ginjo has at least 40% polished away, and the daiginjo at least 50%). The fresh harvest green can gets the designation shinmai, and the red (aged one year) is actually a ginjo rather than a honjozo, but still a nama-sake. Got all that?

Actually, Kikusui has some good detail on their website that helps explain each of these three varieties. First, though, here’s what they have to say about what makes their sake special:

The KIKUSUI brewery is located in Shibata City towards the northern end of Niigata. One defining characteristic of this area is the abundance of groundwater sources carring the clear, pristine water from the melted snow. The snow that falls on the Iide mountain range, which rise over 2,000 meters above sea level becomes perfect soft water. One of the key ingredients for Sake brewing is water and here there is an abundance of pure soft water. We at KIKUSUI feel blessed to be in an area so ideally suited for Sake brewing.

Niigata Prefecture is one of Japan’s largest food producers. In particular, “Koshihikari”, a brand of premium rice grown in Niigata, has been Japan’s most popular brand of rice for many years. Each grain is round and plump and when cooked is sticky with a pleasant texture. It has a delicate sweetness and fragrance when freshly cooked and is well known for its pleasant flavor after it has cooled. The flavor of this rice, like Sake, stems from the abundance of pristine water from the mountain snowmelt.

Kikusui FunaguchiSounds good to me, and there’s no doubt that the water and rice Kikusui use come together to make a beautiful drink. Let’s start with yellow, which, according to Kikusui was “Japan’s first nama-sake over 40 years ago.” Like Kikusui’s notes say, the stuff is full bodied, lush in both taste and feel. There are notes of mango and papaya, and a general funkiness that hints at yeast and grain. Remarkable stuff. And at 19% alcohol (Kikusui calls it “un-diluted” as opposed to other sakes that typically clock in at 15%), this sake packs a punch. And, yes, be sure to serve it cold. I like it straight out of the can – which may be sacrilege, I have no idea – but it just feels right.

Kikusui Funaguchi SakeAs for the aged version, in the distinctive red can, you can tell right away when you open this up that there is something different going on. The nose is both more smoothed out but also more intense, and when you taste it, you get a similar blend of smoothness and depth. The fruit is a bit darker – more plum than papaya – with a musky, honey undertone. The grain, too, comes through more strongly, more toasty. It’s hard to know exactly what the aging contributes vs. the more refined rice, and the family resemblance to the yellow can is unmistakable, but the aged version definitely kicks things up a notch.

Kikusui Funaguchi Shinmai Sake Green CanIn the opposite direction, the shinmai “sake nouveau” (groan, did they actually just call it that?? kinda 1990’s, no?), also bears that family resemblance, though with more of a unique twist. It’s frankly a bit harsher at first, the alcohol less integrated. The fruit is crisper – think green apple and honeydew (is the green can subliminally putting those thoughts into my mind? I don’t think so… but maybe). You do get the grain and the yeast still, and the body is still full and fairly lush, but it’s more settled underneath the fresh, crisp fruit. The shinmai only comes out once a year, so it’s a bit harder to find. Here in Atlanta, it hit in spring, using the rice that was harvested last fall. Frankly, it’s my least favorite of the three given the more prominent alcohol notes, but it’s still a fascinating drink, especially side by side with the other Kikusui cans.

Luckily, Kikusui in general is not that hard to find. In Atlanta, I’ve found it at Hop City, Le Caveau, and Buford Highway Farmers Market, and it very well may be at several of the top liquor stores as well. Next time you see a can, pick one up – it’s sure to get you in the mood to learn more about sake.

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The Warhorse and all the coffee in Atlanta

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

Inside the Warhorse

The Atlanta coffee scene is in hyperdrive, especially on the west side. There, in the course of roughly half a mile, you can already hit five dedicated coffee shops (Chattahoochee Coffee Company, Star Provisions, Octane, Urban Grind, and the Warhorse Coffee Joint), plus Amelie’s and  West Egg, who both pay careful attention to their coffee programs. A new Revelator Coffee will be opening right across from Star Provisions later this year (next to Cooks & Soldiers), as will Brash Coffee just over the footbridge. Hot damn, that’s a lot of coffee – nine spots in a half mile stretch? But maybe that’s a good thing – the more good coffee, the more good coffee drinkers?

The west side is not unique in this regard. Nearby, Atlantic Station is set to get a branch of Land of a Thousand Hills coffee. Buckhead now has an Octane outpost in the Atlanta Tech Village, and the new Corso in Buckhead Atlanta (after being a good-coffee desert for years). Ponce City Market, already blessed with Dancing Goats, is also set for a coffee counter from Hugh Acheson, dubbed Spiller Park. Even downtown is making waves, with a new Condesa Coffee outpost, Jittery Joe’s inside the Ritz Carlton, and the recently announced Western & Atlantic (a “members only” coffee shop that will be part of the Switchyards development, in partnership with the folks from Octane) soon to join Ébrìk Coffee Room as good-coffee destinations.

Can Atlanta actually support all these new coffee shops? I certainly hope so, but surely there’s a point where the saturation becomes too much and supply exceeds demand. Then again, maybe not, since Starbucks pioneered the idea of putting in so many locations that they actually increased demand by their mere presence. We shall see.

Meanwhile… on a recent Saturday, I managed to gulp down two coffees, a cortado, and an ice coffee over the course of a few caffeinated hours spanning several shops on the west side. My favorite of the day was the cold-brewed ice coffee. I’m hesitant to tell you this for two reasons. First, I really don’t want to tip off this very special place to the masses (not really a problem – since masses are not heading to Thirsty South to find out where to get their coffee). Second, when I found out where the beans came from to make the ice coffee, my eyes grew wide with surprise. The beans were sourced from a little boutique coffee seller named… Kroger. It wasn’t the source of the beans, though, that made the coffee great – it was the setting. (And, yes, the cold brewed Kroger ice coffee was also delicious).

To find that extra special  ice coffee, my wife and I had to wind our way through the old buildings and walkways of the Goat Farm to locate the Warhorse Coffee Joint. There, David Stewart greeted us kindly, then kept us company before we headed off to snap a few iPhone photos of the ever-picturesque Goat Farm surroundings. While the beans for the ice coffee were a supermarket special, most of the Warhorse’s coffee comes in green, then gets roasted in small batches. But like I said, it’s less about the specifics of the coffee (no espresso served) than it is the feel of the place. This is not a coffee business. This is not really a coffee shop. This is a place, a space, where people happen to meet, and coffee happens to be served, and all sorts of strange and unusual things just might happen. The Warhorse is not in competition with nearby Chattahoochee Coffee Company or Star Provisions – it’s not in any competition at all.

And back to the Warhorse’s setting… to say the Goat Farm Arts Center is special is an understatement. It is one of the driving forces behind Atlanta’s independent arts scene. And it’s just plain cool and soaked in history. As is the Warhorse. The feel of the place is a bit like that of the wondrous library of a crazy uncle – piano at the ready, books a plenty, strange artifacts and contraptions all around, intriguingly mis-matched vintage furniture.  The coffee and tea are on the house. Really. But you’ll gladly tip generously, I’m sure of it. The Warhorse is the kind of place that makes you want to sit and think, to linger, and linger on. Then wander, and wander on. It’s the kind of place that makes you happy to be in Atlanta.

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

The Goat Farm Warhorse Coffee

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Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

Stranahans Colorado Whiskey My bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, like every other bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, arrived with a tin cup over the cork on top. But unlike other bottles of Stranahan’s, my tin cup wouldn’t come off. It was stuck, and I wanted it off.

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyI pulled, I pried, I yanked. I tried (gently) using knives and shivs and needle-nose pliers. And then I tried again (not-so-gently). Nothing worked. That cup was like a musclebound security guard protecting the treasure within the bottle. And I hated him for it. I wanted the good stuff inside.

Luckily, the folks at Stranahan’s were very kind – they sent me a replacement bottle and had me ship back the impenetrable one. They said, “We run into this issue from time to time, seems to be slight differences in the bottle/cap manufacturing.” Fair enough. As long as I finally got to open a bottle of Stranahan’s.

Stranahan’s is made in Colorado – you can visit them on South Kalamath Sreet in Denver. They started distilling back in 2004, and released their first bottles in 2006, eventually becoming one of the most well-known craft whiskies out there. In 2009, they won Whisky Advocate’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year award. Not bad, right? In 2010, they could be found in 38 states, but then made a sudden shift back to focus on supplying their home state of Colorado, plus letting supply (low) catch up to demand (high). They ramped down distribution, and ramped up production, and in late 2014, they went national again. I’m guessing those four years allowed them to build a bit of a whiskey cushion.

Stranahan’s describes their whiskey as such: “Born in the fires of George Stranahan’s old barn, our whiskey has always been hand-crafted exclusively with Colorado grains and Rocky Mountain spring water. Straight, rugged, and strong… double-distilled in small batches from our proprietary blend of four barleys, and then aged in virgin-charred American white-oak barrels.” (I can just picture the virgins charring that white American oak.) The important thing here, at least to me, is the four barleys (“primarily from locally sourced Colorado malted barley”). This is not bourbon – which is predominantly corn with barley and rye or wheat mixed in. And this is clearly not Scotch – which is, well, made in Scotland from malted barley and typically aged in used barrels. But Stranahan’s shares characteristics with each of those two great pillars of the whiskey world. The all-barley mash like a single malt Scotch, the new charred oak like an American bourbon. And it makes for an intriguing marriage.

As for the aging, on the bottle, Stranahan’s simply states a “distilled on” date, which does a bit of a disservice to the whiskey inside since it corresponds just to the youngest portion in the mix. I had heard it was a batch of different ages, but reached out to Stranahan’s to get a bit more detail. Head distiller Rob Dietrich shared that, indeed, “each batch is comprised of 2 year, 3 year, 4  year and 5 year old barrels for greater complexity and quality.” They use a #3 char on those white oak barrels then “cut the finished whiskey to 94 proof using local Eldorado Springs water, sourced from Rocky Mountain snowmelt in Eldorado Springs, Colorado.” Mmmmm, melted snow.

In any case, the combination of the malted barleys and the Colorado water and the American oak makes for a damn fine whiskey, one of the most simply enjoyable whiskies I’ve opened up in a long time. On to the notes…

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyStranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
94 Proof
Approx. $55-$60 Retail
Tasting Dates: January 4 – 25, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

Take off that tin cup cap, and pour some Stranahan’s in. Take a whiff. It’s kinda subtle, reminds me of… cereal. Ever have Quaker Brown Sugar Oat Squares? That’s what this is, with alcohol (no milk required). There’s a bit of warm wood, cedar even. But mostly sweet toasty grain.

Now have a sip from that tin cup cap. Slow burn. Smooth burn. Balanced burn. Red hot and a touch of honey, not too strong, not too sweet. There’s an austerity to it compared to most bourbon. That’s the barley (I presume). There’s also a fine dustiness – not the kind of woody sawdust that older bourbon gets, but something like the fine powder of sugar and grain at the bottom of a used-up cereal box. A few more sips and something nutty comes out – pine nuts? Almond paste? Pine nuts, I think. Nuts. It’s just intriguing and fleeting and flirting around.

A cube of ice brings out some port-like notes on the nose, plummy red wine. More clove-spiced fruit, apples and oranges on the tongue. It gets denser and deeper. But less…  Colorado. Less… out west and away from Kentucky.

All I can say is, damn, this is lovely stuff. Once I got that tin cup cap off, the whiskey practically flew out of the bottle. Faster and flightier than any bottle I’ve opened in recent memory. The 94 proof is right on, no need for water, no need for ice. Don’t mix this into cocktails. Really. Just enjoy. I wish it were a touch less than the $55 or so I see around town. But, then again, it’s worth it.


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Stranahan’s.
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Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun #whiskey

Jack Daniels and Evan WilliamsI posted this on Instagram the other day – having a little fun with the names of these two whiskeys and the fact that they’re both single barrel selections – “Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun.” These were the two bottles I picked out to take with me on holiday. Both fun whiskeys. Both single barrel offerings.

The Jack was a single barrel selection I helped choose myself, a real “honey barrel” (AKA hitting the sweet spot of where this particular whiskey can go) if I must says myself. The Evan was one of a handful of bottles I picked up four years ago, in what I thought was a particularly good year (2010 release of bourbon put in the barrel in 2000) for the annual Evan Williams Single Barrel release.

The past couple nights, I’ve been tasting these side by side. And, dang, they are neck and neck in my book. Both great sips (I like them both with a single ice cube, but they do well neat, too). The Jack is indeed a touch mellower, with that charcoal filtering and all. The Evan is indeed a bit richer, a bit more toasty oak, a bit more brown sugar. (It’s worth pointing out that the Jack was roughly six years old, vs. ten years on the Evan Williams.)

But these are differences at the very edge of two fine whiskeys. I can’t help but think that, yes, despite all the madness around chasing rare releases – the Pappys and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collections and the this and that… we are blessed with a bounty of fine whiskey in the US of A, sitting on a shelf near you. Whether it comes from Tennessee or Kentucky, or maybe even somewhere else.

Happy holidays, and a happy new year.

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Copper & Kings, American Craft Brandy

Copper and Kings Brandy

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had brandy. Cognac? Great. Armagnac? That too.

Now how about in the past year? Yes?

Now keep your hand raised if you’ve had American brandy in the last year? Laird’s Apple Brandy? Excellent.

OK, now keep your hand up if you’ve had an American brandy in the last year that was made from grapes, not apples. Still with me? Paul Masson? E&J Gallo? Korbel? OK, I’m not judging!

Now lastly, who’s had an American craft brandy made from grapes? Germain-Robin? Awesome! And congratulations – you are among a select few drinkers out there, willing to forego the popular in search of something different.

American grape-based brandy seems an afterthought in today’s craft spirits world. French brands like Pierre Ferrand get all the attention behind fancy cocktail bars, and even Laird’s Apple Brandy, an American institution (since 1780!), has gotten a well-deserved warm embrace from cocktail enthusiasts. But American brandy pales in comparison to its foreign cousins and grain-based brethren (like bourbon!) in terms of popularity. Which is kinda sad. I asked one of my favorite liquor shops in Atlanta if they sold much American brandy. The response? “American brandy, other than Laird’s, is non-existent.”

But it mustn’t be that way. Just ask the folks in Cognac – brandy can be among the most amazing spirits you will ever taste, and Cognac still sells quite well, especially at the high end. Over here in America, high end producer Germain-Robin may be without peer in the brandy game, but it’s nice to see some up and coming brandy brands trying to make a splash and bring brandy back into bars. Which brings us to Copper & Kings.

Copper and Kings BrandyHere’s the way they describe themselves: “Founded by beverage entrepreneurs Lesley and Joe Heron, Copper & Kings produces non-chill filtered, unadulterated copper pot-distilled American brandy aged in bourbon barrels with no added boise, sugar or caramel coloring… The forward-thinking spirits distillery began producing modern brandy in a state-of-the-art facility earlier this year and celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in October.”

Copper & Kings operates out of the Butchertown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. I was intrigued from the get go, and when I read on and learned a bit more about brandy’s history in the heart of bourbon country, my interest was piqued even more. From the company’s website, “distillation of brandy is as old as the Commonwealth Of Kentucky. Historical records show brandy being produced and regulated in Kentucky as early as 1781… (before) the Commonwealth of Kentucky was founded in 1792.” Turns out, even today, much of the mass-produced American brandy is aged and bottled in Kentucky. I did not know that.

Copper & Kings’ head distiller, Brandon O’Daniel, is described as “a Kentucky distilling thoroughbred with a bloodline that goes back four generations.” His family has roots in bootlegging and winemaking, and O’Daniel himself has spent years as a vintner, which certainly helps with understanding the potential for grape-based spirits.

While Copper & Kings is a young company, they are already offering two takes on brandy – an un-aged “immature” brandy, and an aged “craft” brandy, which is older than the company itself. Of course, this means they have found some stock to purchase and age and bottle that fit a certain profile they were looking for. I checked in with owner, Joe Heron (who also founded Crispin Cider), to get the scoop on their craft brandy:

We have brandy aged from 4 to 13 years in the bottle. We’ve found our sweet spot is around 7 or 8 years. We purchased aged pot-distilled brandy from many distilleries … (and) this was blended into our “DNA base” in Louisville. The DNA base is bottled, or aged further in bourbon barrels, or blended into our “new make” distilled in Butchertown – so three different uses. We will start to see our own distillate (as part of a blend with DNA base) reach the market in 3 to 4 years, and expect to be 100% distilled at the Butchertown distillery in around 6 years.

As for the immature brandy, Heron noted:

We are focused on classic brandy varietals – Muscat, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc. These are all Californian. We are fortunate in the USA to be able to distill and blend wonderful assertive aromatic grape varietals, giving us our own distinctive style. Muscat is the specific grape varietal used for both the immature brandy and absinthe (which Copper & Kings also produces and sells). Brandy distillate is always about varietal nuance. Restraint within the distilling process is incredibly important to maintain the nuance, to highlight the unique aromatics that are specific to individual varietals.

I asked him what he hoped to achieve for American brandy, and Heron wasn’t shy with his ambitions:

We aspire to add to Kentucky’s distilling heritage. Our ambition is to make American brandy as respected and admired as American whiskey / bourbon. We aim to make American brandy as highly regarded as Cognac and Armagnac.

Currently available in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (or online at places like Ezra’s), these are fascinating sips for anyone interested in learning about brandy. The craft brandy, in particular, will make many a bourbon fan happy, and hopefully lead a few Kentuckians to consider other spirits bottled on their home soil. On to the tasting notes…

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Craft Distilled Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $35 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

OK, bourbon lovers – this looks like your favorite sip. It smells a good bit like your favorite sip – vanilla and light caramel from that time in the barrel, a good dose of crisp apple and pear, floral notes emerging if you sniff it over ice, even a bit of cotton candy sweetness. And you get a sense right away that this is going to be smoooooth.

I would not be surprised if many a drinker mistakes this for a fruit-forward bourbon. The entry is, as noted, smooooth, then some cinnamon spice and heat kick in – a brief moment of harshness there in the middle – then on into a long but pleasantly lingering burn. A cube of ice brings out a more lush feel, a touch more caramel, and some chewy grape gummy fruit. This is a pleasant sipper, especially on the rocks, but I wouldn’t call it overly complex.

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Immature Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $30 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Fair – Good Stuff*

Now this will not be confused with bourbon. Or moonshine. Or whatever you like to call white whiskey. Clear as day, this un-aged brandy is admittedly better as a base for cocktails than it is as a standalone sipper.

The nose is heavily floral, loads of tropical fruit, highly aromatic. There’s ripe peach and mango, passionfruit – ever have that POG juice that was popular in the 90’s? That’s what this smells like. There’s also a background petrol-like note that may remind some wine geeks of German Riesling. Let this sit with ice and the nose becomes practically explosive – but it’s also a bit out of balance. To misappropriate that song on the radio, it’s all about that treble, bout that treble, no bass.

Sipped neat or over ice, the immature brandy is full and crisp, a bit tart, plenty fruity. But  it screams out for some other ingredients to play with in a cocktail setting (I feel the same way about most un-aged whiskeys – and I totally get why a new distillery needs to churn out un-aged products to grow their business). As it chills with ice, a yeasty character comes out a bit, like berry jam on a yeasty roll. The finish stays crisp, and goes on surprisingly long. You can find a number of suggested cocktail recipes on the Copper & Kings website, and I’d recommend that as the best way to explore this particular new American brandy.

For more about brandy and American brandy, check out The Serious Eats Guide to Brandy


* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Copper & Kings.
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