Friday, January 10, 2014

Blithe spirits

Like the tiger below, we will plunge right in -- or rather venture forward moodily, as cats do. It's long past time for our crash course in spirituous liquors. I include photos from the zoo because that's where I've been lately.


Hugh Johnson admits, in the first sentences of his book Vintage: the Story of Wine, "It was not the bouquet of wine, or a lingering aftertaste of violets and raspberries, that first caught the attention of our ancestors. It was its effect. In a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, those who first felt the effects of alcohol believed they were being given a preview of paradise."


This effect of wine and beer, the foretaste of paradise, comes of course from one property in any gallon of the sloshing stuff -- alcohol. If I understand my researches correctly, I can say with confidence that alcohol is a single substance, made by the action of yeasts consuming sugars in any grape juice (wine) or in any grain-and-water mash (beer). Once gallonsful of those two nice drinks are made, the alcohol sits dispersed in them, just as, let us say, the green of chlorophyll sits in any leaf in summer.

A preview of paradise in a gallon of wine or beer is a very fine thing. But how much more efficient it would be -- our ancestors must have thought and rather early, too -- to get that preview in a convenient, easily transportable mini-size.


Distillation was the answer. In antiquity mankind had already learned how to extract fragrant oils from plants,


 and had observed, or at least Aristotle had, that boiling seawater released a fresh water steam.but left salt behind.

In time therefore, though probably not half early enough, mankind also learned that boiling beer or wine released a vapor which, when collected and condensed on a cool surface, gave them a new liquid more wonderfully potent than the original. (This is because alcohol has a lower boiling point than watery mash and juices, and so vaporizes first.) It was its "little water" -- vodka -- its essence, its "spirit."

All the names given it or associated with it reflect man's marveling gratitude. Alcohol, from the Arabic al kohl meaning the essence of anything generally, was also dubbed aqua vitae, eau de vie, and whisky, this last from the Gaelic usquebaugh. Whether Latin, French, or other, it all meant "water of life."


We raved further. Alcohol as a medicine was a "cordial," from the Latin word for heart. Cordial still means both a little drink and to be friendly. Quintessence, signifying the ultimate or perfection of anything, derives from medieval distillers' and physicians' cataloguing of alcohol -- mere condensed droplets on a cool surface -- literally as the fifth element, as vital as fire, earth, water, and air.


Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking tells us that at first, the condensed potency was set aside for the rich (in ancient China) or as medicine (those "cordials"). By the 15th century, in Europe at least, it was "liberated from the pharmacy and drunk for pleasure."

And mankind did not rest content with merely boiling grain-and-water mashes to get the usquebaugh that would become vodka or whisky, or boiling wine to get brandy (from the German brannten Wein, burnt wine). From boiled (fermented and therefore lightly alcoholic) molasses we pulled rum, from (ditto) sugar cane, cachaça. From boiled (fermented, lightly alcoholic) agave mash we draw tequila, from boiled (ditto) hard ciders the apple brandies Calvados or applejack. This is not to speak of the eaux-de-vie or fruit brandies distilled from fresh fruit mashes -- cherries make Kirsch, plums Slivovitz, raspberries Framboise. And so on. Our Mr. McGee tells us there is even a Russian watermelon brandy called Kislav, a decoction which strikes me as unfathomably alien.


The wonderful substance was extracted from every possible source except maybe rocks and then "liberated from the pharmacy and drunk for pleasure" only after dilution, however. Mankind must have had to grasp this small necessity through painful experience I suppose.

You see, so potent and rough is the "spirit" that in order to be drinkable after distillation it must be diluted with water, and quite a bit of it. Pure alcohol is toxic. This explains why 1) fermentation in wine and beer stops naturally, once the yeasts have consumed enough sugar and produced enough alcohol to kill themselves off; and 2) why spirit manufacturers boast, curiously it seems until one understands, about the quality and mystery of their water.

We hear from single-malt whisky makers about Scotch highland streams, from Bourbon distillers about spring-fed, limestone-bed Kentucky lakes, or about pure water from Iceland, as in Martin Miller's specialty gin. Perhaps the ancient Chinese boasted also about the burbling and crystalline perfection of the Yangtze.

One last curious thing we'll learn about alcohol is that, because it is a single substance, any rules about distilling This and calling it That seem to be strangely fuzzy at the process' beginning. No sooner do we complacently sketch out our crash course on what derives from what than we discover, for example, that vodka can be made from grapes and yet not become brandy. Gin can be made from molasses, but not become rum. "Neutral alcohols," made from grain, potatoes, or grapes and needed for the manufacture of things like blended whiskies, are themselves not properly whiskies, vodkas, or brandies. We are even told that a quintessence politely called "vodka" can be extracted from 'leftover material from the oil refining process.' It's the art of the master distillers creating, doctoring, and aging their particular products in traditional ways, that leads to our liquor stores' shelves gleaming with the endless rows of bottles we expect. 


And yes, in a way gin was the first flavored vodka. When people cleverly announce this -- I've heard it twice lately, I suspect it's a fact du jour in the liquor industry -- you can act complacent about it. Assuming we have done our researches correctly, we can agree gin is simply the "little water" extracted from a grain mash (or molasses?) but then fluffed up with juniper berries (jenever, hence gin). It seems one Franz de le Boë, Latnized as Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch professor of medicine circa 1650, believed juniper and alcohol together made an even better cordial than usual.  

There. Our crash course, moodily entered into, is done. Now here is a cocktail. We continue the theme of paradise. 

Bird of Paradise (from Schumann's American Bar
1 and 1/2 ounce (1 jigger) cream
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) white creme de cacao
3/4 ounce (ditto) tequila
1/4 ounce (1 and 1/2 teaspoons) amaretto
Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker, then strain into a cocktail glass.

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