Locavores and Disruptive Technologies

A recent exchange with woman whisky writer Rachel MacNeill last week about whiskies produced in Austria was based on a misunderstanding. I thought she had been to a tasting of Austrian-produced whiskies, when actually she had been holding a whisky tasting in Austria.

The moment between miscommunication and clarification, though, got me thinking that whisky is the latest Chardonnay, i.e. that popular alcohol known mainly from France that gained enough cachet to become a popular marketing target for development all over the world.

The global demand for whisky has expanded over the past few years, so it’s natural that other people besides the traditionally known producers would want to get involved, driven by passion or business, or both.

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009) Source: Master Of Malt

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009)
Source: Master Of Malt

In this age of globalization when we often can’t follow the long comet tail of a product’s origins, there’s a cachet to buying locally. New small-batch whisky producers have been springing up around the world over the last few years, many placing a heavy emphasis on their local roots.

Whisky has an image of slow production. It’s bottled time, something to be savored. Mind you, I’m talking about aged sipping whisky here, not the rough stuff meant for doing shots, or destined for mixed drinks.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me – although this says more about my naivete than whisky production – that there are new whisky producers who have aimed to speed the production process along a faster than the usual multi-year start-up time required of a whisky distillery.

Some small batch distilleries use the straightforward method of using smaller oak casks to increase the surface area of whisky against the oak surface.

One distillery uses a sort of pressure cooker combined with oak wood cuttings to process unaged whiskey bought elsewhere (getting back to the quick Chardonnay trend again), another company has developed a technique of oxidation and ultrasonic waves to process product.

TerrePure by Terressentia Image: Gizmodo

TerrePure by Terressentia
Image: Gizmodo

A couple of quotes from a New York Times article:

“In a matter of weeks, if not less, we have product coming out that rivals 10- to 12-year-olds.”

“Twelve to 18 hours will completely clean 250 gallons of whiskey in a way that is far better than barrel aging.”

So, what is whisky? If it’s simply a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash at less than 190 proof, with the defining characteristic of being stored in wooden containers for some length of time, than whisky is as versatile in its manifestations as beer.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I like trying local stuff, and when I travel, I always try to get a taste of something I can’t get anywhere else. So I would definitely try local whiskies even if they’ve been rushed with what has been called ‘disruptive technologies’. And I am big fan of buying local and supporting small businesses.

But in the end, time rushes by so quickly all on its own without rushing an ageing process. Comparing these fast-forward methods with traditional ageing might persuade newcomers, but I don’t anticipate many long-term whisky fans will be swayed beyond the appeal of trying something novel.

Origin doesn’t matter as much to me if the whisky is good. But in the long run, I’ll probably be sticking with the whiskies that have captured a bit of time in a bottle.

Mortlach 70 Year Old Image: Decanter.com

Mortlach 70 Year Old
Image: Decanter.com

*On a side note, I found this, the Austrian Whisky Association, a group of fourteen distilleries making whisky in Austria. I’m not sure whether they export at all.

Tunnel of Local Food Love

Smoked sturgeon under glass

Smoked sturgeon under glass

One aspect of travel important to me, regardless of destination or the reason for the trip, is to find something that is utterly local to try. In particular, I like finding food that is completely of a given place. In France, we live in a relatively rural area that prides itself on local production, in particular of dairy products and poultry, and what’s on the plate carries with it a deep sense of place and home. Across France during a week in October, an annual Semaine du Gout highlights and promotes the history, value and context of food and dining, with a focus on teaching the value of good food to children in primary school. The mayor of our small town, a professional chef himself, used to invite the entire local school to the local community center for a day of cooking good, locally produced food and eating together as a part of their primary education.

Visiting friends in New York this weekend, a place where you can get pretty much anything, from anywhere, at almost any time of the day, I was happy to see the same devotion to local food and traditions. From the market on Union Square selling produce from the immediate surrounding region – all winter crops, a rainbow of potatoes, parsnips, carrots and a couple of stands with apples – to the restaurant I was fortunate to experience, Eleven Madison Square.

The sturgeon revealed

The sturgeon revealed

The meal at Eleven Madison Square took the words ‘local’ and ‘historical’ to new heights. Most of the produce and food was from within two hours of the city, and each one of the 15 (!) courses celebrated some aspect of the city itself. There were miniature egg creams, a variation on the American milkshake made of syrup, milk and soda water that is a hallmark of Brooklyn. There was smoked sturgeon served on a crumble of an Everything Bagel (a bagel with “everything”, something as ubiquitous in NYC as the croissant is in France,  and also serves as a self-congratulatory superlative).

Sure, it was over-the-top, an extreme menu that left us gasping, but a sense of being overwhelmed is as much a part of the city as the egg creams and bagels.

Smoked sturgeon sabayon with chive oil, served in a precision-cut egg shell

Smoked sturgeon sabayon with chive oil, served in a precision-cut egg shell

If dinner as theater is not your egg cup of creamed fish foam, this is not the place for you. But from the duck-fat enriched butter to the little chocolates hidden in a secret compartment beneath our final dessert course, we thought it was such a treat!

DSC00138

Fresh carrot ‘tartar’ with an doll’s dish array of possible flavor additions

So thanks, Corwin, who was our waiter, for walking us through each course, thanks to my friends who were kind enough to take me with along with them through an extreme dining Tunnel of Love, and thanks to the restaurant for creating a real altar to the Local.

Note on the photos: The restaurant permits photography, but only without a flash. The place is not dimly lit, and the food is not universally tinged with amber shadows.