Mezcal and more: Favorites from the Independent Spirits Expo | Bleader

Mezcal and more: Favorites from the Independent Spirits Expo

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Del Maguey mezcal
The Independent Spirits Expo Wednesday night was as overwhelming as always this year, with more than 100 spirits producers and several hundred offerings. That's not a complaint, really (though a better program would have made the thing easier to navigate)—it's always nice to have options. Below are some favorites from the evening.

Last year I came across the Del Maguey table later in the evening and wasn't able to try all the mezcal they had brought—they hadn't run out, but I was very close to reaching my alcohol intake limit, and sampling eight mezcals wasn't about to happen. So this year I located the table early on, and was struck all over again by how different from each other the mezcals tasted. Each is made in a single village in Oaxaca, and the various microclimates and soils in which the agave plants grow affect the taste of the finished mezcal tremendously. Among my favorites was Vida, which was smoky, fruity, and very complex—and at $40, it's their least expensive bottle. Another was Pechuga, made with wild apples, plums, plantains, pineapples, almonds, and white rice; a chicken breast is suspended in the still during distillation. It's fruity, slightly salty, and yes, tastes a little like chicken. It's also $200 a bottle, so I won't be tasting it again anytime soon.

I liked all the varieties I tried, though, except for the Crema de Mezcal, which is mezcal combined with agave nectar. It was too sweet for my taste, but could work well in cocktails. Santo Domingo Albarradas, from a village 9,000 feet above sea level, has tropical, citrusy, acidic flavors and is much less smoky than the Vida; it also has a little salinity. Chichicapa is earthy, smoky, chocolatey, and sweet; Minero, from a village where they use clay instead of copper stills, had a distinct minerality in addition to warm flavors of Mexican cinnamon.

Traverse City Whiskey Co. has been around for a little over a year, but has only been available in Chicago for about the last eight months. Their bourbon is slightly smoky but not overwhelmingly so; at 86 proof it's not overly alcoholic, and it's very smooth and easy to drink neat (it's aged for four years, which probably helps with that too). Their cherry bourbon, infused with Traverse City cherries for two weeks, is a new release. It tasted like maraschino cherries to me—which I happen to hate, so I wasn't a fan, but my friend liked the cherry-flavored bourbon a lot.

Great Lakes Distillery had a pumpkin "seasonal spirit" distilled from Lakefront Brewing's pumpkin lager and aged in rum, bourbon, and cabernet sauvignon barrels, as well as new oak barrels. It's not sweet at all, has a pumpkin flavor that's noticeable but not overwhelming, and seems like it would be good in cocktails. I was also impressed by their citrus honey vodka, which is bright, not at all sweet, and tastes like it's made with real fruit (it is).

New Holland Brewing, not surprisingly, also had some beercentric spirits. Their newest, released at the end of last year, is the Beer Barrel Bourbon, which is aged for two years in new oak barrels (a requirement for bourbon) and then finished for three months in barrels that held Dragon's Milk, the brewery's bourbon-barrel stout. (Presumably once the barrels have been used to age bourbon, they can then be refilled with Dragon's Milk, and the process can continue ad infinitum.) I wasn't taking a lot of notes by this point, but I don't remember being able to pick out a distinct beer flavor, though I did like the bourbon. Hatter Royale, a white whiskey steeped with Centennial hops, was more interesting and had a more noticeable hop flavor—though it wasn't bitter the way heavily hopped beer usually is. The guy pouring (whose name I neglected to ask) explained that at lower ABV, hops act as a bittering agent, but at higher proof, like in hard alcohol, it pulls out earthy, funky, vegetal flavors. My favorite of the whiskeys I tried from New Holland was Bill's Michigan Wheat, which has been out for only a couple months now and is incredibly soft and smooth.


Pinckney Bend tonic syrup
Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri, is new to the Chicago market, and had one of the best gins I tried at the expo (I'm not the only one who was impressed; it won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2012). What really stood out to me, though, was the tonic syrup that the distillery makes. Ralph Haynes, one of the founders of Pinckney Bend, claims that it's the only gin on the planet that has a tonic made specifically to match its flavor profile. "Before tonic devolved into bitter bubble water laced with high-fructose corn syrup, it was made in every officer's club when it was genuinely prophylaxis for malaria. And it wasn't just sugar and cinchona bark and club soda. They mixed other stuff in with it, and different barkeeps would have a unique tonic."

The Pinckney Bend tonic syrup is made with sugar, more than a dozen botanicals, dessicated lemon peel, and essence of quinine, Haynes said. He mixed equal parts gin and syrup and added soda water to make the best gin and tonic I've had in a while. It's not yet available in Chicago—they're still getting labels printed and will then have to bottle it—but Haynes says it could be here in about two months.

I had never heard of tonic syrup before, but of course within an hour I came across another one: Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic, which is made with sugar, quinine, lemongrass, and orange peel. I liked it, but not as much as Pinckney Bend's version, which was less sweet and tart and seemed better balanced (or maybe I just got too much of the Jack Rudy syrup in my gin and tonic).

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