That Certain Something

The Balvenie 125 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 125
Photo: Ernie Button

Some time ago I posted the intriguing images of Ernie Button, who took photographs of dried whisky at the bottom of glasses.

Button tried taking photos of other spirits at the bottom of glasses, but nothing else offered up quite the imagery of aged whisky.

He turned to a researcher in fluid mechanics, Dr. Howard A. Stone, to gain some insight into the why behind the beauty.

The Balvenie Doublewood 101 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie Doublewood 101
Photo: Ernie Button

Previous work has been done on the science of coffee rings, an issue of particle dispersion.

But while coffee is made of, well, coffee particles and water, whisky is made of two liquids – water and ethyl alcohol, which evaporate at different rates.  And, whisky contains something else – polymers that create the patterns as the liquids evaporate.

The coffee ring effect:

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line. Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line.
Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

What I like about this research is that for the moment is that the molecules responsible for the patterns don’t seem to exist in any of the other spirits or liquids tested. Cognac, for example, creates no such patterns when it dries. Some whiskies work better than others.

The images here are of some of my favorite whiskies, all from The Balvenie.

The Balvenie 140 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 140
Photo: Ernie Button

Researchers have not yet been able to replicate the effect by mixing water, a ethyl alcohol and particles and letting them evaporate.

The scientists and Mr. Button suspect that it is something that occurs during the whisky ageing process, some unidentified molecules that seep in with the time and flavour, that are at the heart of the matter.

I’m sure at some point this puzzle will be solved.

Still, there’s a part of me that hopes whisky will be able to keep some of its secrets.

The Balvenie 129 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 129
Photo: Ernie Button


Simple, Slow, Good

We harvested the last of the mirabelles today under heavy skies and to the sound of rolling thunder, the first raindrops already falling as we packed away the ladder and hurried inside with the last couple of kilos of yellow plums.

There’s something so simple and satisfying about making old-fashioned jams and cordials, a word that has a distinctly Victorian ring to my ears. Or at least, it’s simple and satisfying once the pots have all been put away and the kitchen is clean.

We were in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to one of the fellows behind the bar at The Library in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

A vodka cocktail from The Library.

It’s a dimly lit place of deep leather seats and candles, with thick stacks of books piled up as table supports. The kind of place that invites spending more time than foreseen, and maybe a few unplanned confessions

After we’d tried the first couple of surprising cocktails, I had to go over and see what this guy was up to. I’ve never had such a bright pomegranate vodka martini; the margarita was spiked with unexpected cilantro and green chili.

As it turned out, the countertop looked more like a salad bar than a standard bar for booze. Fresh fruits, everything from pears and pomegranates to bell peppers and chills. Not to mention a wide variety of fresh herbs in bunches. Any juice for a drink is crushed or squeezed on the spot, the herbs mashed with a mortar and pestle.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.

A not-so-great picture, taken in very low light, of a small part of the bar counter.


What I liked even more was the time taken to really pay attention to each concoction, including the strawberry/balsamic vinegar/vodka creation I had (top picture), topped with a foam of elderflower St. Germain liqueur.

Sure, it all takes longer, just like cooking up and straining mirabelles for a couple of liters of sunny golden cordial. Still, so satisfying, a real pleasure.


Golden Bounty

I went for a run in a solid summer rain this afternoon, and returned home to the refreshment of some ripe mirabelle plums, straight off the tree. But the next couple of days will be devoted, at least in part, to picking and processing the plum bounty before the rain ruins them all.DSC02370

The mirabelle plum tree in our garden is small miracle. When we moved here almost 20 years ago, it was a stubby, dead stump. The previous owners told us the ‘peach’ tree that had been on that spot had long since succumbed to old age, they had just never gotten around to pulling up the roots. It was in a quiet corner of the garden, they had planted flowers all around, so the stump was left untended and unnoticed.

The pear tree, the green gage plum tree, the apple trees, the cherry trees, all the redcurrant bushes and raspberry canes: These got all the attention for many years. Then pear tree died one hot summer; the green gage plum tree started dropping large branches like leaves, and the raspberries were too shaded by a large cherry tree to produce. All are gone now.

But the dry stump? It sprouted after a couple of years, and we were curious to see what would happen. What happened was a mirabelle plum tree, the discreet bearer of a few tart, golden plums every year. Until this year, when the tree suddenly thrust out 10 kgs of delicious plums.DSC02378

The mirabelle plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is thought to have been introduced to Europe from Asia Minor and was established in France by the 16th century.

The Lorraine region of the country produces 15,000 tonnes of the fruit annually, 90% of which is made into jam or eau-de-vie. A non-native crop that has, like many other favorite European fruits, thrived in its adopted home.images-PICASA9

My first batch of mirabelle jam, a simple concoction of plum halves macerated overnight in sugar, cooked up into a fine treat.

Today’s jam version will include a few sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden. Tomorrow’s mirabelles will go into making a few batches of different liquors: vodka, brandy, eau-de-vie. All to be aged and served up in winter.

A reminder of the rewards of patience when it comes to small miracles, and of time spent under a golden tree during a warm summer rain.DSC02369

Beach Sandskrit

DSC02349We were walking on Malibu beach yesterday as the tide was going out.

It left behind a long tale of the previous few hours, written in seaweed and flotsam.

I didn’t count how many different types of seaweed left their notes on the sand, but from the number of red lobster shells in the receding water line, I’d say local birds, seals and otters have been feasting. And if there were no lobster claws to be seen, that’s because the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) doesn’t have any in the first place.DSC02351

The high tide of our own past few hours was marked by an evening spent on a warm terrace with a good friend, and the Auchentoshan Triple Wood he pulled out to share with us.Unknown

As the name says, this Lowland whisky is matured in three different kinds of wood: Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks, bourbon casks and Oloroso sherry.

It has a combustibly sweet aroma, with a taste that echoes dark chocolate, applesauce, toffee and rum.

It was a delight, as was the day and the company.

One who knows how to read what's skirt in the seaweed.

One who knows how to read what’s skrit in the seaweed.


Variations on a Theme

Peonies (without flash)

Peonies (without flash)

It’s the season of peonies, one of my favorite flowers. We have several peony bushes out in the garden, but a good friend brought over a bouquet yesterday that included a couple of spectacular blossoms.

I tried to capture the color explosion once without a flash, and once with a flash, using my phone camera.

The flowers are the same, but the flavor of each image is different.

This week the fates conspired to provide me, not only with beautiful flowers, but with a variety of Balvenie whiskies.

We usually have a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old around, so that’s nothing unusual. Over the past week or so, we’ve been traveling, and we picked up two other bottlings in duty-free areas of the airports we passed through.

We have a Balvenie Triple Cask 12 Year Old, as well as a Balvenie 21-Year-Old Portwood Finish.

Peonies (with flash)

Peonies (with flash)

Last night we tried the two next to one another.

We started with the oldest. The Portwood 21 Year Old is pretty special. It’s matured in traditional oak casks, then transferred to port casks for final ageing. This whisky is such a treat, and is really worth savoring. It’s very rich, has a warm but subtle hint of peat and oak, and for me, tasted of tart apple cider with honey, red berries and malt. Luscious.

The Balvenie Triple Cask series has three bottlings: 12, 16 and 25 years. As far as I can tell, all three are only sold as ‘travel exclusives’, i.e. in duty-free shops. The whisky goes through three types of casks:  ‘traditional refill casks’, ‘first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels’, and  ‘first-fill Oloroso sherry butts’.

Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well, because the Triple Cask 12 Year is mellow, smooth, with just a whisper of smoke, dried apricot, sherry, burnt sugar and vanilla.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to try the Portwood first, because the Triple Cask tasted almost simple by comparison. But once we settled into it, the younger whisky was also a delight.

And after those two whiskies, even the water tasted wonderful.

A few other fine variations for Sunday.


The Green Spot

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Not knowing much about Irish whiskies, I took the opportunity to do a bit of exploring during our trip to Ireland last week. The first dram recommended to me by the friendly bartender at the Porterhouse Temple Bar in Dublin turned out to be my favourite.

For all its mild aroma of soft grain and vanilla, Green Spot Single Pot Still was strong – it had a note of mint and oak, and managed to remain smooth and warm. An excellent introduction to the world of Irish whiskey. green-spot-single-pot-still-whiskey

Irish whiskey is unique in that it is almost always triple-distilled, as opposed to the usual double-distillation process of most single malt Scotch whiskies and bourbons. Another distinctive trait is the Irish use of unmalted barley in addition to the malted barley used in single malt Scotch. Unmalted barley contains less sugar, thus adding less sweetness to the final product.

The ‘Single Pot Still‘ style of whiskey, which originates from a single distillery, is defined by these two elements of triple distillation and the barley mix. Whiskey makers began cutting malted barley with green barley in response to high taxes placed on malt during the 18th century, and the practice held over into the 20th century, even as Irish whiskey’s popularity was overshadowed by blended Scotch whiskies.

Because spirits like single malt Scotch, Irish whiskey and American bourbon are so closely with their place of origin,  I’m always interested in where distillers source their grains and just how ‘local’ the overall production really is.

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland Photo: Artflakes

Cistercian Dunbrody Abbey (1182) beyond Barley Field, County Wexford, Ireland
Photo: Artflakes

In the case of Irish whiskey, at least according to Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 90% of the malting barley used in the country is locally produced through a local division of Boortmalt, a large European malting company that is a subsidiary of French agricultural cooperative Axereal.

These days, the tasting experience of a local product that feels entirely bound to a specific place – in my case, the delicious Green Spot I had on a warm spring evening, to the sounds of excellent live local music in a Dublin pub – is often the result of a larger network of industry that extends far beyond national borders.

Green Spot is produced for Mitchell & Son of Dublin, by Irish Distillers at the Midleton DistilleryCorkIreland. As far as I can tell, almost all Irish whiskey is produced in three main distilleries: Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley‘s. However, there are plans to open (or re-open) up to sixteen new distilleries in Ireland over the next few years – Irish whiskey is on the rise.

There’s a nice little video on how Green Spot got made here. My favorite quote? Green Spot “isn’t just a whiskey that you throw around and drink at midday…” Indeed.


Fields near Lough Corrib, Ireland
Photo: PK Read


Whisky Women, Champagne Widows wouldn’t be ChampagneWhisky if it weren’t for women in whisky and champagne. And not just the one sitting here behind the keyboard writing this post.

I’m just going to put up a couple of excerpts today, in honor of International Women’s Day 2014, which has been celebrated for a century on March 8.

“In Whiskey Women: The Untold Story Of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch And Irish Whiskey, US writer Fred Minnick says that despite the drink’s macho image, women played a key role in its history.

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s. Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

A woman places labels on Old Crow bourbon bottles sometime in the early 1900s.
Photo: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History / NPR

“Not only did they invent the first stills, they were involved in bootlegging during the Prohibition era, led the repeal movement and whipped up demand for uisge beatha worldwide.

But it is those Scottish women who not only owned and managed distilleries, but modernised them, increasing their capacity and profile, that Minnick credits with transforming the industry.” (from The Scotsman)

Elizabeth Cumming, who owned the Cardow (Cardhu) distillery in Speyside in the late 19th century, took over the business when her husband died, and successfully expanded it before selling to John Walker & Sons, known these days as Johnnie Walker.

Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig in Islay in the 20th century (due to the death of its original male owner, her boss) is credited with laying the groundwork for the popularity of peaty single malt whisky today.

Veuve Clicquot Source: Wine Sisterhood

Veuve Clicquot
Source: Wine Sisterhood

And, on the bubbly side:

“‘Champagne is the story of widows,’ said Francois Godard, scion of Veuve Godard et Fils Champagne house. ‘Women who lost their husbands, and then outshone the men.’

Widowhood gave these figures an independent social status in France. Unlike other women – who were the property of a father or a husband – only a widow could become a CEO.

‘In the 19th century … if you’re not married you’re dependent on your father, you can’t have a bank account and you can’t pay staff. If you are married you are reliant on your husbands,’ explained Fabienne Moreau, Veuve Clicquot’s archivist. ‘Only a widow can take this position as head of a company.’

Experts say that Champagne was one of the first industries in the modern world that women shaped and in which they enjoyed a prominent role.” (from Daily Mail)

Brut Champagne was invented by the Veuve (‘Widow’) Pommery at the behest of another widow, Queen Victoria, who liked the drink but found it too sweet. The ‘Veuve’ was dropped from the Pommery name at some point, and many other houses established by widowed Champagne women, like Bollinger, no longer carry the signifier.

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger Source: Wine Sisterhood

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it. Unless I’m thirsty.” – Lily Bollinger
Source: Wine Sisterhood

There was a time (1500-1660) when European governments  burned women for distilling liquor, labelling them witches. We are past the outdated marriage customs and property laws when women could only be taken seriously in business if they had been married and then widowed (well, in some countries, anyway), yet somehow the whisky and champagne businesses have still come to be seen as a man’s world again.

So on this day, a clink of the glass to the women of whisky and champagne, and all the women who hold up half the world. centredinternationalwomensdaySome of my fellow whisky women writers:

Rachel MacNeill – Whisky for Girls

Allison Patel – The Whisky Woman

Barley Doors

barley-field-3-lowresWhen one door closes, another door opens, in a quote attributed to Alexander Graham Bell that’s meant to reflect an optimistic perspective on the ebb and flow of opportunity.

In the case of the spring barley intended for Scottish whisky production, a genetic door closing on one pernicious blight unexpectedly led to a door opening on another.

Ramularia effects on leaves Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

Ramularia effects on leaves
Source: Aarhus Institute for Agroecology

For thirty years, the promotion of a specific gene in barley – the mlo gene – has shielded barley crops against what used to be one of the main pests for the crop, powdery mildew fungus, (Blumeria graminis f. sp. hordei). Unfortunately, in recent years it has become apparent that the very same barley gene that works as cell protection also renders barley more vulnerable to a previously minor pest, Ramularia (Ramularia urticae).

Ramularia under the mircroscope

Ramularia under the microscope

Ramularia, a leaf spot blight that damages leaves and makes the plant unable to absorb sunlight, has been responsible for ruining up to ten percent of recent crops.

And so, researchers are heading back to examine older varieties of barley to look for genetic strains that will help increase resistance to Ramularia. After all, barley grown for the whisky industry accounts for over £ 4 billion of the Scottish economy. Shortfalls in local production mean barley is imported for malting.

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

The study that identified the problem with Ramularia was also interesting because it states that it was the very introduction and success of the mlo gene around the world, combined with changes in the climate, that could have contributed to the sudden strength of the new threat.

“It has struck us that plant breeding relying on the successful use of a single major resistance gene can increase susceptibility to another disease,” said R&D breeder Peter Werner from KWS UK.

Through the use of genetic mapping, the research has already pointed the way towards resolving the Ramularia issue. And now, I suppose, it is just a matter of waiting to see which door closes next, and which door opens.



Two Trails


The running path, taken earlier. Looks pretty much like this now – a little less green on the ground, a little less blue in the sky.

A brisk wind is chasing rain across the sky in quick, sharp intervals, strobe lights of sunshine cutting through. Just enough for a good run under a blue sky, between the raindrops.

I had planned to write about spring barley and the malting process that leads to single malt whisky, but before I could even get started, I fell down a rabbit hole of farming information regarding the glut of malting barley being stored from last year’s crop, how storage capacities of Scottish maltsters have been fully reached and what that means for existing barley stocks in terms of germination and export.

Fascinating stuff, the long path that leads up to the malting process itself. At least, to an amateur agricultural nerd and single malt enthusiast.

So, instead, I’ll head into a spot of sun, and leave with the promise of more malting stories to come at a later date, when the running trail isn’t beckoning more than the path of barley.

Next weekend, though, the plan is to introduce a new cocktail of my own invention, the Scaly Anteater, in honor of World Pangolin Day on 15 February.

For now though, a song of neither the whisky trail, nor my running trail here in France, but a trail song of a slightly different nature.

The Hot Koala

Last week, the image of a heat-struck koala in parched Australia inspired a tweet:

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

Original photo: Peter Lorimer/Rex Features

And @Curt_Ames noted that ‘hot koala’ sounded like a good name for a cocktail.

I agree. So I made a Hot Koala. My first version, without the Tabasco sauce or fresh mint, suffered from both a lack of heat and cool.

But I’m happy with this second attempt. It’s got heat, it’s got soft brown-grey colors, it gets doused, and I hope it refreshes.

The Hot Koala

2 parts tequila 1 part Kahlua
1 part single malt whisky (I used Glenfarclas Heritage, because I just would – but bourbon would be fine, too)
1 part cream
Several dashes Tabasco sauce (the heat, obviously)

Shake all above ingredients together with ice, strain into glasses over ice.

Ground cayenne (again, heat)
A sprig of fresh mint to garnish (the douse)
Ground black chocolate on top (the koala nose)

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It turned out pretty well – sweet, with heat and a bite (because I’ve heard that koalas aren’t really as cuddly as they look, especially when they are suffering from the heat).

And voila – my first invented cocktail.

Have a great weekend, and stay cool, or warm, as the case may be.

And apologies for this ridiculous song, but not only is this a koala post, but I’m a Paula, and my family really is from Walla Walla. I couldn’t resist.