Dan Crowell, The World-Herald’s newest guest columnist, will write about spirits and cocktails every other week in his column “The Still Life.” The column will alternate with guest columnist and certified sommelier Jesse Becker, who writes “Wine Press.” Crowell, an Omaha native, is a bona fide cocktail expert who works with nearly every bar in the city as a sales manager with Sterling Distribution.
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Any ongoing exploration of spirits and cocktails should probably begin by providing those embarking on the exploration with, among other things, some definitions pertinent to the topic, a frame of reference and a statement of intent. Let’s tackle that last one first.
“The Still Life” will, hopefully, take readers on a journey of “investigative imbibement.” That is, a guided tour of the many fascinating paths you may take toward a greater understanding of how spirits and cocktails can be incorporated into your life.
I think wine is terrific, and for that matter so is beer. There is an ever-expanding universe of wines and beers available to those inclined to pursue them, but in the end, these products are what they are.
Wine presents itself to the consumer as a complete thought. All the aesthetic decisions of significance have been made by the winemaker and by nature — choice of grape varietals, location of the vineyards, soil composition, climate conditions, rainfall, maturation specifications and so on. Beer presents itself in much the same way, as a complete expression of the brewmaster’s vision.
The real difference when it comes to spirits is that they call out “What if?”
This is the ethos of the cocktail. With a cocktail, the maker gets to determine its combination of spirits and modifying ingredients and therefore what it tastes like. Wine and beer are welcome at that party of experimentation, of course, but spirits were there when the party started, which was well before the term “cocktail” was first defined in print in 1806.
Spirits and cocktails share the same basic relationship as silk purses and sows’ ears. It’s extremely difficult to create a truly great cocktail from sub-par spirits. Does this mean that you must spend a fortune on your spirits in order to achieve your lofty cocktail aspirations? Not necessarily. Although obscenely priced options certainly exist and most are well worth the price, there are some terrific spirits out there that can be had for a downright reasonable sum.
And, while you’re considering price, bear in mind that distilled spirits are far less perishable than their fermented cousins, beer and wine, are once opened, and that a standard 750 ml bottle of spirits contains enough to produce 15 cocktails.
Whatever you do, spring for the good stuff. With a few exceptions, it is worth the extra money, and there is some sinister stuff lurking in the bargain versions that will seal the fate of your cocktail before you’ve even begun. Life really is too short for that sort of thing.
Now, on to definitions. What are “spirits,” anyway? Distilled spirits generally tend to be quantified, categorized and then left to do their respective jobs without much more thought given. To me, this is a lost opportunity. I want to know not just that a particular spirit exists, but why and how it came to be, in what forms it exists currently, how these differ from one another and how these differences can be employed to blow my mind in 15 different ways.
For example, gin didn’t just happen. It has a fascinating back story, an evolutionary history, many forms and derivations and an infinite number of cocktail applications. The same is true for every spirits category. Every bottle has a story to tell, and an understanding of these stories can thoroughly enhance one’s enjoyment of the liquid inside.
Spirits are closely related to wines and beers. They all share common origins. When yeast consumes sugar, alcohol is formed. In the case of wines and beers, the story basically ends there. Yeast dies when it gets too hot, when it runs out of food, or when its environment has become too concentrated with the alcohol it has produced.
That last reason is why you don’t see many fermented beverages with an alcohol content of over 15 percent by volume, or 30 proof. (In the U.S., “proof” is figured as percent of alcohol by volume, or ABV, times two.)
So how do you get from 30 proof to 80 proof or higher? The answer is “distillation,” or the isolating and concentrating of the alcohol content of a fermented liquid.
Fortunately for mankind, alcohol both freezes and boils at a lower temperature than water. This means that it’s possible to separate the two relatively easily. The simplest form of distillation is freeze distillation. If you left your barrel of wine outside in the winter, the water content would begin to freeze but the alcohol content would not. If you were to remove the crystallized water content, the remaining liquid would have a higher ABV by definition.
On the opposite end of the temperature spectrum lies heat distillation. This is the modern method for producing distilled spirits. Simply put, a fermented liquid is heated in an enclosed container until the alcohol vaporizes. That vapor is captured and condensed back into a liquid that is much higher in alcohol content. Our journey begins next time with a closer look at this process, and where, how and why it is done.