Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, MA.
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, MA.
Size isn’t everything; and for craft distillers, small can be mighty. Having enjoyed curated tours of some of the bigger players in US artisinal alcohol, we caught tastes of a few early-stage operations in Texas, Tennessee, and New York en route from our Austin sabbatical chapter.
Silicon Hills tech workers Mike Groener and Charles Cheung founded Genius Liquids in 2011, and brought their signature product, Genius Gin, to market in summer 2013. Sales Manager Mark Toohey—in Austin fashion, also a bandmate from Groener’s pop rock outfit Love at 20—showed us around the south-side industrial shed where they ferment their own cane sugar wine, distill it to neutral spirit (~190 proof), re-distill with a selection of botanicals, and hot-steep with an infusion including juniper and cardamom.
Thanks to Texas Senate Bill 905, passed a few months after their product launch, Genius can now market their wares on-site: a boon to the craft industry, and to us. An experimental Oaked Gin was surprisingly rich, as was the Genius Navy Strength; traditionally, the latter clocked in at 114 proof, intended to protect gunpowder from excess wetting on choppy seas. The Geniuses branched out from gin last summer with their Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, a tequila relative produced from local Dasylirion texanum; we were lucky to taste some, though it had sold out by last fall.
A thousand miles east, nestled in the Smoky Mountains, Darrell Miller opened Bootleggers Distillery in early 2015. This incarnation may be new, but Miller traces his shiner ancestry to William Mullins, a Mayflower passenger reportedly known for his elixirs. Following careers in farming, teaching, and real estate, Miller seized the opportunity when Tennessee—like Texas—substantially loosened small-scale distilling restrictions in 2013 (for which he also claims some credit); he now ferments, distills, and markets small-batch corn moonshine from his own roadside shop. He shared some frank frustrations with his 26-gallon pot still, but the product was remarkably smooth, both in His (100 proof) and Hers (80 proof, with a bit of cane sugar) versions; various flavors are also sold online through the Moonshine International collective.
Another thousand miles north in upstate New York, Dave Bannon, Tony DeSantis, Mike Forcier, and Ken Rohne launched Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery in fall 2014. The four span forty years in age, but connected through a love of home-brewing; New York’s 2012 Farm Distillery Bill, anticipating similar motions in Texas and Tennessee, encouraged them to expand their hooch horizons. Farm operations using >75 % New York agricultural products can now pour a full range of in-State beer, wine, cider, and spirits in their tasting rooms, and can sell their own wares in farmer’s markets, fairs, and stores.
We leveraged some personal connections to talk Forcier, a fellow biochemist, into showing us the ropes on Springbrook’s custom Kothe still through a three-hour rye run—goopy, but gratifying. Like any good experimentalist, Forcier had a catalog of trouble-shooting tales: switching from plastic fermenting barrels to larger steel milk tanks was key, as was optimizing enzymes to break down different grains. The solitary, 265-gallon still is kept free of aromatic oils by steam-distilling pungent elements of their Sly Fox Gin separately, enabling its use for a wider range of products. True to its name, Springbrook’s wheat-based vodka is watered to proof with unprocessed spring water; their tasty Howl at the Apple Moonshine starts from a spicier grain mix including corn, rye, and barley malt, mixed in-still with New York apple cider.
For early-days distillers, the investment of resources and enthusiasm is clearly substantial; yet the dedicated problem-solvers we encountered from Texas to New York clearly reap personal rewards. If nascent operations like Genius, Bootleggers, and Springbrook are representative, craft distilling is taking off nationwide; yet every distillery we’ve visited is instructively unique. We’ll be interested to see—and hopefully sample—the industry’s continuing evolution.
Recent growth in the craft distilling industry is hardly unique to the US, as we’ve witnessed in France and Sweden. On break from our sabbatical work, we joined a few California friends for a week near Puerto Vallarta, and caught a glimpse of Mexico’s own renaissance in local liquor.
Tequila, made exclusively from blue agave (Agave tequilana) in a limited number of Mexican States, has been exported internationally since the late 19th century, and is currently protected through NAFTA. The more loosely regulated mezcal (of which tequila is a specific variety) is distilled from the roasted, fermented heart—called piña for its pineapple-like appearance—of a number of agave subspecies, and has surged in popularity since the early 2000s. Raicilla, a Mexican moonshine made from the Agave lechugilla plentiful in the tropical Puerto Vallarta region, was new to us, but has been gaining its own artisanal name.
Seeking a distillery tour, or at least a tasting, we followed sketchy directions from our rental home host Manuel to the outskirts of colonial San Sebastián del Oeste. Our scrappy Dodge Attitude conquered a bumpy hour along Highway 544 past Ixtapa and Las Palmas to the magical Puente Progreso, where we passed 400 feet above a mist-soaked canyon to Mamá Lucia Distillery.
Regional tequila chain Mamá Lucia acquired its San Sebastián location, one of three in and around Puerto Vallarta, within the past year from family operation Hacienda San Sebastián. Now licensed to produce tequila as well as raicilla, the distillery appears to be expanding into more mainstream markets, and taking advantage of the booze tourism trend. Steep price tags (bottles started around $40) accompanied a personal (free) tour through beautifully labeled roasting, mashing, distilling, and aging facilities from our enlightening host Gilberto. The tequila was flavorful, if unpolished; we opted for a bottle of the more compelling, sweetly floral raicilla.
Up the road in La Estancia de Landeros, several shops sold their own raicillas at a fraction of Mamá Lucia’s prices; while lunching on carnitas, we picked up a second, unlabeled bottle offering similarly distinctive flavor. Neighbor Estancia Distillery offers one of the few raicillas available in the US, currently $36 for 375 mL online at Mash & Grape.
As Fusion.net noted in 2014, a wide chasm of cultural differences continues to separate the rural producers who bottle mezcal and the young urban professionals who drink it. Still, Mexico’s local liquor trade offers alluring economic opportunities to struggling rural communities, and may have industrial applications beyond beverages. We felt lucky to sample one of the industry’s more nascent chapters.
Before leaving the Bay Area, we worked in another distillery tour—this time to Alameda’s St George Spirits, just across from the City on the San Francisco Bay. The skyline view was stunning, as were the gleaming Arnold Holstein stills inside.
Founded by German law prodigy Jörg Rupf in 1982, St George has substantial seniority in craft distilling compared to newcomers like CH or Roslags. In a nod to his heritage—Rupf’s homeland shares the tradition of eau-de-vie (Schnapps in German) we enjoyed this summer in Alsace—he began by making fruit distillates, drawing on the abundant products of local orchards: our tour guide gushed, we [Californians] are agriculturally spoiled. To prepare St George’s All Purpose Vodka, as well as their signature brandy and spiced liqueur, the distillery still takes in regular 20-ton shipments of fragrant Bartlett pears—a distinctive sugar source, albeit with a low yield. By our guide’s account, pears yield only 5–6 % alcohol, in contrast to the 16–17 % achieved from grapes in nearby vineyards; at this rate, a single bottle might contain the equivalent of 30 pounds of pears.
In 2004 the distillery moved to their current, cavernous headquarters, a former airplane hangar of Naval Air Station Alameda. Behind the massive fermenting tanks and golden stills, an industrial-scale processing system dilutes distillates (over 95 % pure ethanol, per regulations, for their All Purpose Vodka) to proof with local carbon-filtered water. The remainder of the warehouse was jammed with oak barrels aging their Single Malt Whiskey, California Reserve Agricole Rum, and a range of experimental tipples, only a few of which have made it to market. The hangar has also been home to a few film scenes, including a car chase in The Matrix Reloaded; a life-sized model shark still swims between rows of barrels, commemorating alternative glory days.
We’ve been fans of St George for some years, particularly their Terroir Gin, boasting botanicals from Northern California’s Mount Tamalpais. Their Absinthe Verte is also something special, and was the first absinthe to market in the United States when the ban lifted in 2007; by the following year Esquire ranked it in the top 5 worldwide. St George also launched Hangar One Vodka, named for their formerly-naval home, though it spun off to a New Jersey distributor in 2010. An unexpected tasting room surprise was the seasonal basil eau-de-vie: we brought a bottle home, where it made a tasty Bloody Mary, as well as the experiment below (meant to evoke pineapple fried rice):
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled glass; garnish with lime. Enjoy…
It’s been a privilege to inhabit many homes during our first few months of sabbatical. On the downside, of course, traveling to new places often means leaving community behind. And our temporary displacement may mirror a more general problem: whether due to professional mobility, technological paralysis, or broader changes in values and lifestyles, studies in the US and abroad report increasing loneliness and isolation, even (or maybe especially) among young adults.
Reid Spice moved to San Francisco on the tail of the dot com boom. Through participation in Burning Man and other intentional communities in the area, he developed a serious talent for nucleating connectivity among like-minded folk, exploring various ways to push back against isolation in our modern world. Oliver has known Reid since the early 90s, and we’ve shared in many of his adventures; we’ve particularly loved his most recent project, Above the Trees: a festival in the woods encompassing art, music, talent and knowledge. As described on the event site:
…the fun twist is that all of this content is provided by you, the community, with every individual contributing on some level to create an amazing participatory experience. whether through classes or decoration or food or games or costumes or volunteering for the event itself, everyone plays a part in sharing something of themselves and being inspired by the awesomeness of those around you. above the trees is a summer camp for adults where everyone’s a camper and a counselor.
For its sophomore run, the late-2015 event at California’s Camp Sylvester included natural sculpture with Nina Madjid, cheese tasting with Leah Wingard, birdhouse building with Andy Turman, Grant Patterson’s art installation Big POV, and a variety of live concerts. We tried something a little different this year, merging our interests in drinks and data.
Asterisked (*) photos credit: Aaron Brodeur
Building on our recent explorations into cocktail culture, we hoped to crowdsource some insights into mixology from this year’s Above the Trees crew. For our event, Beverage Lab 2015, we asked attendees to deduce the ingredients in three cocktails. But as a twist (so to speak), we first offered a chance to taste-test nine mystery ingredients which would later appear in one or more of the drinks. Using numbered plastic tubes and eyedroppers, twenty-seven participants tasted and rated (0–4) how sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory they found each sample. Aside from physiological taste, we also asked how intense and awesome they found each sample—potentially more subjective judgements, but important in appreciating a cocktail. We left space for comments, and some took the opportunity to guess each sample’s identity.
We were interested to see if our testers experienced taste with any measurable consistency. Fortunately, along with provoking strong innate behaviors in most mammals, sweet taste is strongly linked to the binding of sucrose (sugar), which is conveniently quantified on every nutrition label. So as a control, we compared sweet ratings to sugar content. Our results were encouraging: average sweet ratings correlated significantly (p < 0.0001, R² = 0.96) with sugar content, indicating at least some tastes were consistent and predictable in this setting.
Average 0–4 ratings for sweet (left) and bitter (right) tastes, plotted against sugar (g/oz) and alcohol (%) content, respectively. Circles represent mean ratings ± standard error of the mean, with significance vs lowest-rated sample determined by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, analysis of variance (ANOVA), n = 27; *p < 0.05; ***p < 0.001; ****p < 0.0001. Lines represent linear regression fits, with goodness of fit (R²) and nonzero slope significance (p) above left; Aperol (x, italics) not included in righthand fit.
Aside from sugar, we wondered if another important cocktail component—alcohol—might also predict specific tastes. In fact, the only significant correlation for alcohol content was bitter rating, consistent with past reports that most people sense alcohol as strongly bitter. Interestingly, this correlation became insignificant when we included Aperol, an Italian amaro that rated most bitter of all our samples; of course, bitter taste may arise from multiple elements in a cocktail, including but not limited to alcohol.
In the absence of analytical equipment, it was tough to quantify other potential taste stimuli, such as citric acid for sour or glutamate for savory. But rankings confirmed our qualitative predictions, with lime juice rating most sour and mezcal—a smoky agave-based spirit, related to tequila—most savory. All samples rated less than 2 out of 4 for salty, a less common taste in cocktails (barring the Bloody Mary); in contrast, all but cucumber water rated 2 or higher for intense, pointing to the concentrated nature of each ingredient on its own.
Average 0–4 ratings for sour (left) and savory (right) tastes, ordered from highest to lowest. Columns represent mean values ± standard error of the mean, significance vs lowest-rated sample by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, ANOVA, n = 27; *p < 0.05; ***p < 0.001; ****p < 0.0001.
Sample data for four of our nine samples, showing average 0–4 ratings for each of seven taste components. Columns represent mean values ± standard error of the mean, significance vs lowest-rated component by Dunnet’s multiple comparison test, ANOVA, n = 27; **p < 0.01; ****p < 0.0001. Inset (bottom left, gray): distribution of bitter ratings, suggesting a split population. Download complete data here.
When cocktail hour finally arrived, we mixed three drinks, and solicited guesses as to the ingredients in each. We warmed up with the Archangel, a greenish, mellow mixture of gin, Aperol, and cucumber water (complete recipes at bottom). Our second drink, the Hotel Madison—vermouth, lime, and Swedish punsch—was more challenging, as no one else had encountered punsch before. Our final cocktail, Fifty Shades of Maguey, was a brain-buster containing mezcal, Cointreau, Aperol, lime juice, and passion fruit. Poor record-keeping prevents us from congratulating the best guesses here, but you know who you are.
Sadly (though predictably), cocktail hour became a bit unstructured, and we failed to collect empirical data for the actual cocktails. Still, the value of balancing distinct taste elements to create a smooth drink is intuitively obvious, and we wondered if we could still visualize it. Taking the simple—though probably limited—assumption that tastes are additive, we weighted the profile of each ingredient by amount added, and summed the results to create a profile for each cocktail.
However approximate, our results were intriguing. The low ranges of physiological tastes elicited by each mixed drink—0.8–1.9 for the Archangel, 0.9–2.0 for the Hotel Madison, and just 1.2–1.9 for the complex Fifty Shades—were narrower than for any individual ingredient except vermouth: mixing appeared to balance out the strongest elements of the individual samples. For example, Swedish punsch was one of the sweetest ingredients, but scored lower than most for sour and bitter tastes; in the Hotel Madison, lime juice and vermouth diluted the sweetness while building up the missing elements. Anecdotal evidence also indicated some elements—particularly awesome—might be synergistic: for example, the Archangel was well received, despite being dominated by two ingredients (gin, Aperol) rated under 2 for awesome on their own.
Above three figures: Additive profile for each cocktail, showing weighted 0–4 ratings for each of seven taste components. Columns represent sum of mean component values for each ingredient, multiplied by its percent composition in the drink. Top: Archangel, containing 43 % cucumber water (chartreuse), 43 % gin (blue), 14 % Aperol (red). Middle: Hotel Madison, containing 54 % Swedish punsch (yellow), 27 % dry vermouth (azure), 18 % lime juice (green). Bottom: Fifty Shades of Maguey, containing 40 % mezcal (brown), 20 % Cointreau (orange), 7 % Aperol (red), 20 % lime juice (green), 13 % passion fruit syrup (purple).
We look forward to building on our preliminary data in future cocktail-making, and at next year’s Above the Trees…
Ethereal and refreshing
Muddle cucumber in a mixing glass. Add gin and Aperol, then fill ⅔ with ice and stir to chill. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
A 1930s classic featuring our favorite Swedish liqueur
Shake with ice and strain.
50 Shades of Maguey
A fluorescent favorite with flavors of France, Italy, Mexico, and South America
Shake with ice and strain into a lowball. Garnish with a lime wheel.
Top credit: Andy Turman
We took the fortuitous opportunity to visit our Boys, and their Howard family hosts, during the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting in Chicago this year. Our first night in town, we even caught my folks in a guest appearance with Locked Into Vacancy’s vintage radio show.
Fall was magical as always in Chicago, from the patchwork of autumn leaves in my family’s Irving Park neighborhood, to the creeping sunset across the landmarks of Michigan Avenue. I was impressed how Jaume Plensa’s massive installations continue to transform Millennium Park, his newest, 39-foot sculpture Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda casting a dramatic shadow over his multi-media Crown Fountain. It’s hard to believe how different the area was when I left for college just before the millennium.
Chicago proved a prime location to pursue another, newfound fascination. Having toured a few old-world distilleries (Alsace, Sweden) this summer, we were interested to learn more about the craft spirits movement gaining so much traction back in the States. Of course, the City of the Big Shoulders was a major whiskey producer through the early 20th century, sending more liquor tax to the federal government than any other city but Peoria. Recovery was slow after Prohibition, and the first legitimate Illinois distillery didn’t open until 2004; but as of January of this year, Chicagoist identified twelve new operations in the city and surroundings alone. A 2010 State law enabled small-scale distillers to apply for liquor licenses—allowing them to sell their products on-site, and promoting the growth of tasting rooms throughout the region.
So on our last night in town, we made it to the weekly Witness the Science of Alcohol tour at CH Distillery, just northwest of Chicago’s downtown Loop. Distiller/Director Tremaine Atkinson, who co-founded CH in 2013, led twenty-odd explorers through the facility, dressed in a starched white lab coat. The urban operation was densely packed with fermenting tacks and massive, gleaming Carl GmbH stills, the hefty big brothers to Rikk’s back in Norrtälje. The tour finished with a Russian-style vodka tasting, accented with pickles and rye bread.
Marketing itself as Chicago’s first combination distillery and cocktail bar, CH’s still room peeks through pane windows to a warmly lit lounge serving General Manager Cassie Levy-Roseroot’s tempting array of drinks. Due to licensing restrictions, the bar can only serve liquor made in-house, but Atkinson described it as a welcome challenge to keep up with the ever-expanding cocktail menu. Although they remain focused on vodka—made almost entirely from Illinois grain—more recent additions include their own amaro, limoncello, and Fernet derivatives.
A notable theme of both the impressive CH and Norrtälje facilities has been their founders’ financial industry backgrounds, belying the hefty investment of resources and management skill required to get a modern distillery off the ground. We’ll be interested to see how this trend evolves with the increasing demand, and regulatory flexibility, around artisanal alcohol.
On the next leg of our sabbatical tour, we stopped through Chicago for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting. Two recent Skidmore alums, including Tommy from my lab, earned travel awards from the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) to present their research, and it was a privilege to see our relatively young Neuroscience Program represented so strongly. Meeting new FUN faculty and student members while volunteering at the group’s Exhibitor Booth turned out to be another highlight—the kind of service that makes this job much more fun.
SfN is one of the largest scientific conferences in the US (7th in health-related fields as of 2012), and hosted nearly 30,000 attendees this year. The breadth of intersecting disciplines in neuroscience can make for an overwhelming experience. But to focus on a single bright point, Charles Zuker’s Grass Lecture (funded by EEG developers Albert and Ellen Grass) was the kind of skilled, stimulating seminar I always hope to see.
Credit: HHMI: Charles S Zuker, PhD
Zuker’s talk—Receptors, Neurons, and Circuits: The Biology of Mammalian Taste—highlighted the complex, ingrained behaviors linked to the supposed least relevant of the five senses. He outlined extensive evidence that mammals pursue certain tastes (e.g. sweet), but avoid others (e.g. bitter), even at early stages of life—an evidently innate, rather than learned, response. Aversion to bitter taste may be particularly subject to evolutionary pressure: frogs express over fifty bitter receptor genes, possibly to accommodate the wide range of toxins encountered in amphibious life (the homebody chicken, in contrast, has only three). Other tastes, such as salt, are more complex: low levels attract, while higher concentrations repel. Zuker’s group demonstrated in 2013 that high salt activates aversive bitter and sour in addition to salt receptors, a likely survival response to avoid dehydration.
Zuker and others have identified deep brain regions involved in innate taste behaviors, which can be driven by electrical or photostimulation in place of the taste itself. In 2011 his group published a gustotopic map linking specific taste receptors to different regions of the brain. Zuker’s lab is also dissecting neural circuitry underlying thirst, which influences taste in order to balance an organism’s salt and water intake.
Increasing clarity on the neuroscience of taste carries some surprising clinical implications. A unique crowdsourcing study last year linked the supertaster phenomenon to a specific bitter receptor gene (rather than the density of an individual’s taste buds); this year, variations in this gene were shown to predict certain respiratory infections, and could prove to be useful diagnostics.
Chemical signals (such as tumor necrosis factor) associated with infection and inflammation can also increase sensitivity to bitter taste; treating this phenomenon at the molecular level could improve quality of life and longterm outcomes for patients with chronic illness. And receptors for stress hormones have been found in taste cells tuned to sweet, bitter, and umami, suggesting new ways stress may hamper healthy eating and metabolism.
Credit: Livescience.com: Nontaster, supertaster
For me, Zuker’s eloquent lecture tied together several anecdotal experiences of our sabbatical side project: exploring the cocktail culture of each new place we travel. The wide range of preferences in beer, wine, and spirits is particularly intriguing for a substance (alcohol) most people find intrinsically unpalatable—yet learn to enjoy, or even crave, given the right circumstances. And although the neurological basis for drinking will take some time to unravel, a role for environment is clear. One tantalizing example: when we first met, Oliver and I bonded over our shared passion for Bloody Marys—but mostly on planes. It seems our shared penchant was no coincidence, as Cornell food scientists reported this May that loud noises—such as the background roar of an airplane engine—inhibit sweet sensations while augmenting umami, the savory flavor of meat, mushrooms…and tomatoes. Work like Zuker’s could provide a molecular basis for such colloquial, as well as clinical, experiences of taste.
Credit: Vinepair.com: In-flight Bloody Mary
Top credit: FulcrumGallery.com