Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Yes, I know this post is a long way behind the actual visit, but traveling takes up a lot of time. Besides, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and really taste their booze until now. So here it is, a post on our second distillery visit in the Upper Midwest!
On our second-to-last day in Madison, Wisconsin, we headed to the northeastern part of downtown, the old industrial section occupied by low-rise factory buildings and warehouses. Hidden among the old brick buildings is the Old Sugar Distillery. Walking past the patio furniture and umbrellas on the sidewalk, you enter into the cool, dark interior with (of course) exposed bricks walls, dark ceilings (to hide all those steel web trusses) and a classic polished wood bar, the bartop being made from reclaimed wood (from Canada, I believe). Yes, there’s a bar: it’s the distillery’s second income. Off to your left is the large copper pot still, the mixing station for the liqueurs’ second-stage ingredients, and the oak casks. The tour here mainly consists of sitting behind the bar chatting with the one or two distillers present at the moment, as well as the bartender they’ve brought in starting at mid-day. The still itself was crafted in Arkansas (think Ozarks moonshine) and shipped north. Also on display is a batch of their Ameriknaki Ouzo, with piles of seed and star anise sitting with the liquor in a massive multi-gallon glass jug (“What is that stuff?” asks my cousin Katie). We had a few free samples (well, I did) and headed out after chatting with the crew, though quite a few patrons had shown up around noon to sample some cocktails and a few offerings on the rocks. Stop by if you’re in town!
Anyway, I figured I’d attempt a tasting of all three of their products, though I am by no means an expert at this (don’t expect silly saying like, “holds the promise of youthfulness”). I roughly followed David Embury’s guidelines on tasting, those being: 1) Pour into a snifter or similar glass, 2) Sniff, 3) Sip, just a little, and hold on your tongue, then swallow, 4) Take a good sip after a few minutes, and 5) Let stand for a few more minutes, then finish it off.
First up: the Honey Liqueur. It clocks in at 80 proof (40% alcohol), double that of most liqueurs. The initial distilled product is made from beet sugar, aged in oak barrels, and finished with a good dose of Wisconsin honey. The nose consist mainly of new oak, with a slight amount of honey, and a fair amount of alcoholic burn in the nostrils. When sipped, honey is the predominant taste, though it’s certainly different from any Tupelo or orange blossom honey I’ve had, and there’s a hint of brown sugar. There’s no lingering wood or metal taste, which by Embury’s standards makes it a decent product. Overall, roughest on the nose. I could see mixing this with a bourbon or rye. The distillery recommends it with lime, ginger beer, or bitters…I’ll have to try those!
Second: Cane & Abe Freshwater Rum. Named for both its primary ingredient (domestic cane sugar) and Old Abe (not the president, but the Wisconsin 8th Infantry’s bald eagle mascot), this a great gold rum, able to hold up to strong flavors found in some faux-tropical drinks. It does not have as much alcohol on the nose as the OSF Honey Liqueur, and on the first sip, it comes off as very sweet and smooth, much sweeter than I’m used to tasting in rums, but I like it. The cane sugar taste is definitely predominant. After sitting a few minutes, it develops a cognac-like nose, minus the chocolate notes that I typically taste in brandies. I tried this a while back in a second Tiki-Ti Five-0, and it was spectacular: even better than the initial version using Mount Gay Extra Old, which isn’t one of my favorite aged rums, anyway, but a good one. I’d say the Cane & Abe is similar to a gold Jamaican rum, with some of the funkiness of Smith & Cross, but not the depth of flavor of the extra-aged rums. Check out Proof66.com’s “garage band rum” article and review of the rum for more info.
Third and finally: Americanaki Ouzo. I know, some of you are thinking, “Wait, isn’t that Greek?” and “Oh, God, that horrible stuff…I remember one time I had that and…” etc. Set aside your past experiences with ouzo and, if you’re an ouzo lover, try this one. Trust me! I’m not a huge fan of anise-flavored liquors and liqueurs (absinthe, Pernod, Herbsaint, ouzo, sambuca, and half the local liquors in Eastern and Mediterranean Europe), much like the majority of Americans, but this one might just change my mind. For those who might not know, anise infusion results in a licorice-like taste, often combined with carroway in most absinthes and their substitutes. The Old Sugar Distillery uses beet sugar to create the initial liquor, infuses it with star and seed anise, re-distills it, then adds more star anise and sugar prior to bottling. The result is all anise and licorice on the nose, and pure anise and sugar on the frist sip. The 90-proof ouzo is very smooth. I’d sip this all day, rather than Pernod, which has a cloying sweetness I just don’t enjoy. I’d be interested to use this as a substitute for absinthe in a number of cocktails. I tried mixing the Americanaki with some ice water, as well, which resulted in a slight, milky louche, a cloudiness that results from the essential oils in the anise separating from the solution.
So, if you’re ever in Madison, Wisconsin, swing by The Old Sugar Distillery on 931 East Main Street and sample some of their products (currently in the works is a sorghum whiskey). The Freshwater Rum and Americanaki Ouzo are my picks.
Check out The Heavy Table’s article on the distillery for great photos and comments from the owner, 29-year old Nathan Greenawalt. Square, connected to Madison’s official site, also ran an article, as did a few local sites:The Eaten Path and Midwest Man.
Photo by IJL.