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Three Cherries – Maraschino, Michigan, and Moonshine

Three Cherries – Maraschino, Michigan, and Moonshine

While many folks obsess over which rye whiskey and which sweet vermouth make the most magical Manhattan, not enough attention is paid to the lowly cocktail cherry. I say “lowly” because, unfortunately, what passes for a cocktail cherry in the vast majority of bars around America is a pale imitation of its ancestral archetype. The modern American cocktail cherry is akin to an evil incarnation of all that is wrong with today’s overprocessed food world. Of course, in a truly great cocktail bar, you hopefully won’t find that neon-red, waxed-up and shiny Corvette-paint-job of a cherry that might belong on an ice cream sundae or even in a Shirley Temple, but definitely not in a Manhattan. What you will likely find is either a housemade version or a jar of Luxardo Maraschino cherries. These Luxardo cherries are the real deal, from Italy, since 1821, made with real Marasca cherries, real Marasca cherry juice, real Maraschino liqueur. They are a deep black cherry red. They speak to reality rather than saccarine fantasy.

I love cherries. I really do. Especially the ones you can buy on the side of the road in the heat of summer, in places where they actually grow cherry trees. There’s nothing quite like the joy of spitting out cherry seeds at sixty miles an hour as you cruise down a country highway – except maybe the joy of reaching the end of a good Manhattan and finding a perfectly delicious Maraschino cherry waiting for you at the bottom of the glass. In the name of cocktail science, I undertook a taste test of three different cherries – the classic Luxardo Maraschino, an American take on this classic by H&F Bottle Shop in Atlanta (but using Balaton cherries from Michigan), and a Southern-fried “moonshine” version from Ole Smoky Distillery in Tennessee.

Let’s start with the original, Luxardo. The ingredient list surprises with a few more entries than one might expect – Marasca cherries, Marasca cherry juice, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, sugar, but then also flavors, natural color, glucose, citric acid. Nothing wrong there, but interesting to see all that goes in to making the classic Maraschino cherry. In the jar, these cherries bear a dark black tint with just a hint of purplish red. The syrup is thick and, yes,  syrupy, with an equally deep dark cherry red color to it. When you bite into one, a base sour note kicks in first, followed by a rich dark cherry flavor surrounded by subtle nutty and earthy notes. There’s a slightly petrified crispness to the texture of the cherries, maybe slightly more than I care for, that lets you know they’ve been hanging out in sugar and liqueur for a while. In a Manhattan, they deliver a satisfying range of bitter to sweet fruit that comes on strong at the end. There is a reason this is the standard bearer, as the bitter and sweet fruit accents a cocktail incredibly well. 12.7oz for $16 or so

On to a modern rendition, from H&F Bottle Shop. (If it seems I have a penchant for this particular purveyor, it’s true – after all, who else is in the South is selling housemade cocktail cherries and Bloody Mary mix alongside a killer wine and spirits selection?) So, first, there are the Balaton cherries, which are “harvested once a year” in Michigan and “may be the best sour cherries grown in the States” (according to none other than H&F Bottle Shop!). Then, H&F uses a combination of cranberry juice, sugar, and Maraschino liqueur to pack the cherries and create a nice light syrup. The color here verges to a purple Kalamata olive territory, decidedly lighter than the Luxardos but still dark on the way to black. The syrup is relatively thin and tart, thanks to that cranberry juice. The taste is a little sour, a little sweet, and very natural, much closer to what you expect from a fresh cherry than something out of a factory. In a Manhattan, these deliver a balanced flavor that is tremendously complementary to the rye and vermouth. And the texture is not too soft, not too crisp, really just right. Big props to H&F for finding a way to better Luxardo, at least in my book. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? I think so, at least for a special treat every once in a while. 5oz for $16.

As for Ole Smoky, you can see right away that this jar of cherries is closer to that jar of cherries that is found in too many bars around America – bright red like cherry flavored candy. Visually appealing? Absolutely, like candy to a baby. Tasty? We’ll see… These cherries don’t sit in syrup, but rather in 100 proof grain neutral spirits with flavor added – AKA “moonshine” (?). The taste? Well, my notes said, “ouch, horrible, high alcohol, not much fruit.” I should probably stop there. In a Manhattan, my note simply read, “egad.” I’ll definitely stop there. 750 ml for $24 or so

What have we learned here? Well, first off, ditch that whole notion of cocktail cherries being “cherry red” and opt for something closer to midnight black. Grab some Luxardo if you can find them, call up H&F Bottle Shop if you’re eager for a more artisanal approach, or wait until summer and make up a batch of your own from fresh cherries. That is, if you can stop yourself from eating them first.

Between the Mountains and the Masses: Tennessee’s Ole Smoky Distillery

Between the Mountains and the Masses: Tennessee’s Ole Smoky Distillery

sign

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a town best known for its fudge shoppes, pancake houses, ski slopes, wax museums, and hillbilly golf. Oh, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just down the road, a true national treasure. But somewhere between the beauty of those Smoky Mountains and the tourist wasteland that is Pigeon Forge (just down the road in the OTHER direction), glimpses of the rural roots of eastern Tennessee can be found. The misty hills of eastern Tennessee have produced such wondrous yet disparate things as Benton’s bacon and Dollywood, Blackberry Farm and Fannie Farkle’s Family Fun Parlor. No matter how you look at it, each of these things somehow point to the genius and ingenuity of the Tennessee mountain spirit. And no product better symbolizes that mountain spirit than the legendary moonshine that sprang forth from these mountains and the foothills of the Smokies. And so it seems rather perfect that smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, settled not among the trees but among the wax museums and pancake houses, sits a fully functioning moonshine still. A “legal moonshine” distillery – the Ole Smoky Distillery, home of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine. Now, “legal moonshine” is indeed a bit of an oxymoron, but let’s forgive the name and take a closer look at Ole Smoky.

distiller

Ole Smoky Distillery has been around only since July (2010), but they’ve managed to capture the spirit that has imbued this region for centuries. From the “100 year old family recipe” that is the basis for their unaged corn whiskey, to the simple but gorgeous mason jars and 1900-era letterpress labels that hold their products, to the way that they manage to fit in on the Gatlinburg strip while still somehow maintaining an air of unblemished authenticity, Ole Smoky is doing things right. Every jar of their moonshine is every bit as much a product of local culture and spirit as it is a 100 proof spirit.

jars

On a recent trip through the mountains, we stopped in at Ole Smoky and chatted with one of their proprietors, Tony Breeden, and one of the distillers, Jason King. Their distillery and tasting room (and gift shop and liquor store all in one) is indeed smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg, and everything is out in the open – the whiskey is fermented and distilled right there before your very eyes, with descriptive signs to help explain what’s going on and how they do it. The in-your-face openness is just about as far away as you can get from that other stuff known as moonshine that has been hidden away and whispered about for centuries. But they clearly aim to capture that spirit, as Tony said, “we set out for authenticity, let’s do this as authentic as possible so people around here will be proud of it.”

Their still is a souped up version of a backyard moonshiner’s still, custom built by Kentucky’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the revered engine that helps most of bourbon’s great distilleries run. Each batch starts with locally grown and milled corn, which turns into 400 gallons of mash, which then produces about 40 gallons of corn whiskey. All right in front of your very eyes. Jason gave us a brief walk through their process, which is clearly a mixture of local tradition and contemporary know-how. Likewise, that 100 year old family recipe works at this scale thanks in part to the advice of Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, who consulted on scaling up the Ole Smoky recipe to fit their new equipment and batch size.

After viewing the corn whiskey being made, visitors can move on to a free sampling of Ole Smoky’s products – right now, they have a 100-proof “White Lightnin” that is distilled six times to reach a near-vodka character, the 100-proof “Original Unaged Corn Whiskey” which is their true take on moonshine, and jars of beautiful moonshine-soaked maraschino cherries. They also hand out a recipe for “Apple Pie moonshine” with each jar of White Lightnin’, and sampled a batch of that as well at the distillery.

corn

For us, the star of the show was clearly the unaged corn whiskey, crystal clear, full of fresh corn notes, a pleasant slightly-syrupy mouthfeel, some crisp floral notes and hints of butter throughout. (Full tasting notes here) The White Lightnin’ may be good for mixing, but the multiple distillings take away the corn character, the moonshine-iness of it. And those cherries – delicious, beautiful, a great gift or cocktail garnish.

cherry

So what’s ahead for Ole Smoky? As of this week, they’ve reach seven states, including Georgia (which is literally hitting the shelves right now). They should be in 15 states within three months, plan on doubling their space in Gatlinburg next year and possibly milling corn on site, and continue to play with new products, both food and spirits, that reflect the local culture. They’ll surely be walking that line between the mountains and the masses, the authentic and the commercial, the “legal” and the “moonshine.”

Please check out our visits to the other great Tennessee distilleries. And we’ll leave you with a few more photos of Ole Smoky, smack dab in the middle of Gatlinbug, Tennessee:

gatlinburg

openjar

vendome

works

fermentation

lightnin

If It’s Legal, Is It Still “Moonshine”??

If It’s Legal, Is It Still “Moonshine”??

Moonshine. What images come to mind when you hear that word? Old Chevys racing down dirt roads? Hidden shacks in the woods? Long beard hillbillies in overalls? A mason jar full of kick-your-butt in liquid form? Moonshine is basically its own brand – authentic, slightly exotic, filled with risk, worth seeking out – so it’s no wonder that distilleries, legal ones, are popping up and trying to leverage the “Moonshine brand.”

Anyone who has ever heard of Popcorn Sutton knows something of the magic of moonshine (and if you haven’t heard of Popcorn and his brilliant but tragic life, do some research and check this out and this and definitely buy a copy of Chasing the White Dog to read). And anyone who has tasted the real thing, the good stuff, not some throwaway bathtub mockery of the real thing, likely has a fondness in their heart for the magic of moonshine. These folks, I’m guessing, will not be jumping on the “legal moonshine” bandwagon. For there is no way that a mason jar bought at the local liquor store can replicate the magic of honest-to-goodness, backwoods, quality moonshine. The product may be great, the packaging may be beautiful, but the soul, the shared risk, is simply not there. And then there’s the semantics of calling a legal product “moonshine” – a moniker that has its roots in the very illegality of that product. Can a store-bought whiskey really be “moonshine”?

Despite our quibbles with the pre-empting of the moonshine brand by legal distilleries, we don’t want to disparage the products of these new distilleries that are marketing “legal moonshine.” For example, there’s no doubt that the folks behind Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine have a true reverence for the history of moonshine in Tennessee and will do their best to do that legacy justice. From their website…”When Tennessee state law recently changed to allow the distillation of spirits, we saw an opportunity to showcase the art of superior mountain-made moonshine. The Ole Smoky recipes are the product of the hard work and experience of local families who have made moonshine in the mountains for the last two hundred years.” They are simply working hard to take that brand, the “Moonshine brand,” and commercialize it. And it looks like they are on their way to success. The esteemed (and very expensive) Blackberry Farm in Tennessee has featured Ole Smoky’s “Moonshine” and “Moonshine Cherries” in a cocktail recipe (called The Hillbilly & Tonic) sent out to their many fans. Ole Smoky’s products are popping up in stores across the South. They may even convince some of the folks who have experienced the “real thing” to try the “legal moonshine.” Hey, we even look forward to trying them. But, in our minds, “legal moonshine” is simply an oxymoron. Call it unaged whiskey, call it white lightnin’, call it “kick ass stuff,” but, in our book, it’s not Moonshine.

Update: check out our visit to Ole Smoky and tasting notes on their moonshine.