Drinking the 2016 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

FOMO-OSAD was in full effect this past weekend at the AFWF. That would be “fear of missing out¬†-on some amazing drinks” at the “Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.” For those not familiar with the event, the highlights usually come in the numerous learning seminars on Friday and Saturday, where industry savants share wisdom on all manner of topics related to food and drink. The cool thing is, they don’t limit the topics purely to the American South – so things like sotol and raicilla and West Indies rhum agricole easily find their way in to the sessions.

I did my best to hop around in order to squeeze in as much goodness as possible, but I also know I missed quite a bit. That said, here are the 10 most excellent spirits I tasted during the event Рspanning Mexico, Kentucky, and South Carolina, with a touch of Alabama thrown in for good measure:

Clayton Szczech mezcal sotol

I first met¬†Clayton Szczech (that’s Spanish for “educated gringo,” I think) of Experience Tequila¬†during judging for the IWSC Spirits of the Americas competition. To say he knows his stuff is putting it very mildly, and I’m always eager to see what rarities he might have in his bag. This time, it was a trio of artisanal¬†spirits from Mexico – a bacanora, a sotol, and a raicilla, all of which are variations on mezcal, and all of which will play havoc with your spellcheck.¬†Sotol¬†Clande, Marques de Sonora Bacanora, and Don Chalio Raicilla¬†are not likely to be found in the states at all, but they are a good reminder that exploring lesser known¬†Mexican¬†agave spirits is a worthy endeavor. Clayton was nice enough to provide details on each on his tasting mats (below), and I just love all the detail on the Sotol Clande bottle seen above (Grinding………. Axe; Oven………Underground Conical). Without fail, these were nuanced, far-too-drinkable spirits¬†– the Clande sotol being earthy and green, reminiscent of desert brush; the bacanora being incredibly complex, with hints of caramel and white pepper; the raicilla full of intricate spice notes. Love it.

Mezcal

The awesome folks at¬†High Wire Distilling hosted a party in conjunction with BevCon Charleston, at which Atlanta bartender extraordinaire Jerry Slater was pouring a drink including High Wire’s wonderful Southern Amaro. The cocktail was great (of course), but I must admit to enjoying sipping the amaro all by itself even more. Made with¬†regional ingredients like Charleston black tea, foraged yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine, and mint, this amaro is spicy¬†and¬†deep, yet still¬†bright.

High Wire Amaro

I ponied up $100 to attend the “master class” led by chef Sean Brock and featuring Drew Kulsveen of Willett Whiskey¬†fame and Preston Van Winkle of, well, Van Winkle fame. The topic was rare bourbon and rare country ham, so you know it was going to be good – and the $100 entry fee ended up being a bargain. The bourbon lineup included Willett’s new four year old bourbon – bottle 223 of 235 bottles from 4 year old¬†Willett Family Estate Barrel 651, 111 proof – ¬†and one of the rare 23 year old bourbons they’ve been safeguarding for the past eight years. This was bottle 80 of a mere 81 bottles filled from Willett Family Estate “Barrel B60”¬†– that means this 23 year old bourbon had yielded about 70% of its nectar to the angels over the years, since a new bourbon barrel holds about 266 bottles worth. Yes, it was heavenly stuff, especially at the 132 proof barrel strength. And Willett seekers beware, Drew said there are only TEN¬†barrels left of this ultra-aged stock they purchased eight years ago. As for the four year old, this is Willett-distilled, and our bottle came from just the eighth barrel released thus far (all only sold at Willett’s gift shop in Kentucky). It’s impressive for a younger spirit, with a cherry cola profile and a cinnamon-amaro finish.

Willet Single Barrel Bourbon

If you know anything about Sean Brock, you know he loves Pappy Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller lineage. Preston Van Winkle poured us the 10 year old Old Rip Van Winkle, the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot B, and the 15 year old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. These are all wonderful bourbons, and having them all side by side was a¬†good reminder that the seldom seen Lot B remains a knockout bourbon that doesn’t command quite the same stratospheric fanaticism of its older brethren. It’s exactly what a bourbon should be, without the fireworks of its older brothers. The 15 year old? Still one of my favorite bourbons of all time.

Old Rip Van Winkle Pappy

Number 10 on my list? Another one you’re not going to find in a store – which is really the great thing about a festival like the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. This was a “Ham Fat Whisky” from chef David Bancroft of restaurant Acre in Auburn, Alabama. I’m pretty sure it was plain old Maker’s Mark with some 2 year old ham fat thrown in, from that 2 year old Alabama prosciutto in the background, but really it was the combination of 2 year old ham, ham fat whisky, and the remarkable Poirier’s pure cane syrup that proved to be one of the best bites/sips of the festival. Awesome stuff – sweet, salty, fatty, powerful stuff.

Pork Fat Whiskey

There was plenty more – especially all the wonderful cocktails from Nick Detrich of Cane & Table, Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club, Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve, Kellie Thorn of Empire State South, Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House, and the gentlemen from Cure in New Orleans. Plus too much to even remember in the festival’s tasting tents. And I just know that I missed out on just as much amazing stuff – like David Wondrich making Chatham Artillery Punch. Dang. Anyway,¬†in case you’re hungry, here are two¬†more of my favorite¬†pork porn photos from Sean Brock’s session, with a lagniappe of pork cracklin from New Orleans chef Isaac Toups thrown in for good measure:

IMG_0391

Sean Brock Ham

Cracklins

 

Sorghum Meets Whiskey: A Southern Love Story

Sorghum WhiskeyThere are plenty of folks who may disagree, but, among the pantheon of great Southern consumable¬†liquids, surely sorghum syrup and whiskey are among the mightiest. Neither are exclusively Southern, far from it actually, but both have a storied history in our region and an inescapable connection to it still. According to the¬†National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association (the NSSPPA to those in the know), the two U.S. states that lead¬†our sorghum syrup production are Kentucky and Tennessee. And what do you think of when you think of Kentucky and Tennessee? Whiskey. Thank you very much. So when you come upon the surprisingly rare meeting¬†of these two Southern stalwarts –¬†¬†sorghum and whiskey – it is cause for celebration, like a soiree out on the lawn¬†on a moonlit Southern summer night toasting the union of two lovely souls.

Let’s back up, though, and take a longer look at sorghum, which is surely the lesser known partner in this pleasure-powering duo. If you’ve ever driven through rural Tennessee in late summertime, there’s a good chance you’ve seen sorghum out in the fields. And there’s an equally good chance you thought you were looking at corn. Similar stalks, bright tropical green leaves, as high as an elephant’s eye. The sorghum stalks do produce a grain, again not dissimilar from corn (popped sorghum is a thing, and it easily gives popped corn a run for the money in the crunch and flavor department), but sorghum’s greatest gift to humanity is the syrup which comes from pressing those stalks and¬†boiling down the juice. It was a staple on Southern tables in the first half of the 20th¬†century, gracing biscuits daily, but fell out of favor as sugar prices fell and farm labor costs grew. Thankfully, sorghum syrup is seeing a recent rebirth in attention thanks to chefs like Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins¬†around the region who are eager to fully embrace the region’s historic culinary riches.

Despite the fact that sorghum syrup production is down to just 5% of what it was back in the early 1900’s, there are still a handful of sorghum syrup artisans out there making products every bit as delightful as the finest Vermont maple syrup or Tupelo honey. The jug¬†I happen to have on my counter was purchased at Atlanta’s Star Provisions, and comes from Muddy Pond, a Mennonite farm in¬†Tennessee. Mark Guenther and his family have been working their soil since the mid-1960’s, and continue to win raves for their outstanding sorghum syrup. Imagine taking the best¬†qualities of a floral¬†honey, a rich molasses, and a deep maple syrup and you’ll conjure up something like Muddy Pond’s sorghum syrup. While we’re on the topic, to get a better feel for¬†Guenther and his family sorghum farm, please go watch this short from the Southern Foodways Alliance¬†– it’s¬†a far¬†more immersive introduction to sorghum than what these words will provide.

Muddy Pond Sorghum
Now, as we turn our attention from sorghum to¬†whiskey, let’s first think about sorghum as it relates to the world of spirits. Of course, sorghum can be used to replace sugar in cocktails (check out this fine concoction from H. Harper Station’s Jerry Slater, shared over on¬†the Bitter Southerner), but it’s little stretch of the imagination to see that sorghum syrup could also be used in a manner similar to molasses – which is to say, as the basis¬†for¬†rum. Simply put, sorghum syrup has the sugar necessary to convert to alcohol, and the flavor to make it delicious alcohol.

But – you may ask – how do we get from rum back to whiskey, which was the whole point of all this? Well, there’s a bit of semantics here. Rum, by legal definition, must be made from sugar cane. A¬†sorghum-based spirit simply can not legally be called rum. So a spirit made from sorghum must be whiskey, right? Well, the U.S. government says that whiskey¬†must be made from “a fermented mash of grain.” Sorghum does¬†indeed produce a grain, but most of the few sorghum whiskeys on the market in the U.S. (and there are a couple) are made from sorghum syrup (from the cane), not the grain itself. ¬†(Side note:¬†check out more geekery on this topic over on Chuck Cowdery’s blog¬†– and also note that the Chinese have a very popular spirit called baijiu which is actually¬†made from fermented sorghum grain and is reportedly the most-consumed spirit in the world!). But what if the sorghum grain were¬†mashed up alongside the cane to produce the juice that gets boiled down to make the sorghum syrup? Turn’s out, that’s exactly what the good folks at Muddy Pond do out in their sorghum fields.

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey

In Charleston, High Wire Distilling Company has been turning heads since its opening in 2013 with some distinctly Southern spirits. They’ve crafted¬†a watermelon brandy from¬†the juice of 273 heirloom Bradford watermelons from a nearby farm. They’ve also turned¬†fresh-pressed local sugar cane into a purely Carolina take on Caribbean rhum agricole. Owner and head distiller Scott Blackwell seems to always be on the hunt for compelling ingredients to serve as the basis for his spirits, and he struck a small bit of Southern gold when he teamed¬†up with Muddy Pond, the Tennessee¬†farm mentioned above, to source sorghum syrup for his New Southern Revival sorghum whiskey.

I chatted with Ann Marshall, Blackwell’s wife and partner in High Wire, at a recent trade show to get the lowdown on their sorghum whiskey. ¬†Their sole supplier is Muddy Pond, and Marshall notes that “their sorghum syrup is the most unique we have ever encountered, and we have been unable to source anything else quite like it.” High Wire has been buying Muddy Pond’s sorghum by the drum, and has already discovered that there’s not quite enough available to get them through the year. The sorghum harvest comes each September and October, so by the following summer, it’s just about gone. High Wire’s current releases of sorghum whiskey came from last year’s crop, and the whiskey¬†sees four to six months in 15 gallon barrels to provide a bit of aging and character from the wood.

High Wire’s sorghum whiskey tastes like a far older spirit than a mere six month old. More interestingly, it somehow manages to tingle¬†tastebuds with colliding but harmonious notes reminiscent of three other spirits you might be more familiar with – rum, bourbon whiskey, and rhum agricole – each emerging for moments of solo clarity before falling back into the chorus. The rum-like butterscotch tends to hold sway, but grassy notes reminiscent of a good rhum agricole come through, and then whiffs of vanilla and oak that will have you thinking bourbon again. If you tasted it blind, you might have a hard time placing it, but once you know what it is, picking out the distinctly-sorghum sweetness is easy, especially underpinning the long, warm finish. This sorghum whiskey¬†makes for a lovely Manhattan or Old Fashioned, but the sorghum character is better appreciated sipping neat or with a cube of ice.

The biggest¬†problem I have with High Wire’s¬†sorghum whiskey is that there’s so little of it to be found. That said, High Wire does distribute all¬†around their home state of South Carolina, and¬†their products can be found (if you’re lucky) in Atlanta, Savannah, Washington D.C., and New York as well.¬†If you can find it, grab a bottle. Better yet, grab that bottle, some Muddy Pond sorghum, then whip up a batch of¬†biscuits for a bunch of friends and family. There’s a whole lot of Southern love to be found in that little party.

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey
88 Proof, Approx. $60-$70 Retail
Tasting Dates: August 25¬†‚Äď September¬†24, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent 

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:

Wow ‚Äď among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent ‚Äď exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff ‚Äď solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair ‚Äď fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid ‚Äď move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by High Wire Distilling Company.