December 3, 2013
Elitzur Eitan has no desire to ever live within pre-1967 Israel. Until 2005, he lived in the Gaza Strip settlement of Gush Katif, which was forcibly evacuated under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Now, he lives deep in the West Bank, where he works at a vineyard on Givat Harel, a tiny settlement overlooking the ruins of ancient Shiloh and the red-roofed houses of the modern settlement that shares its name. “Places like this are where Zionism still lives,” he says.
They are also, surprisingly, places where excellent wines are being made. Gvaot, the boutique winery where Eitan works as a foreman, produces some of the best kosher wines in the world. Gvaot, which was established in 2005, produces and sells roughly 30,000 bottles of kosher wine per year. The medals lining the back wall of Gvaot’s tiny tasting room testify to the quality of its products: a 2006 Double Gold Medal in the Terravino Mediterranean International Wine Challenge for making the best wine in the $27-$36.99 category and a 2008 award in the same contest for “Best Israeli Kosher Wine.”
Gvaot has won over Jonathan Livni, the chief wine critic for the mass-market Yediot Ahronot newspaper, and was also a favorite of Daniel Rogov, a prominent Israeli wine critic who died in 2011. Rogov refused to set foot in the West Bank, but he consistently gave high marks to Gvaot’s reds. Livni, a retired military judge who starred in the documentary The Law in These Parts, is a committed left-winger who believes Israel should withdraw entirely from the West Bank. But he nevertheless describes himself as huge fan of Gvaot and a handful of other West Bank wineries, which he says benefit from the region’s high altitude, rocky soil and dry air, characteristics found nearly nowhere else in Israel. “I think good wine trumps politics,” he says. “And there are a lot of good wines from the occupied territories.”
But the vineyards in places like Shiloh are also among the biggest reasons to doubt that the new round of American-brokered peace talks will go anywhere. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners, but Netanyahu flatly rejected the idea of freezing construction in West Bank settlements like Shiloh or Givat Harel, even though they are so deep into the West Bank that they would almost certainly need to be evacuated as part of any peace deal.
Gvaot’s chief backer is Daniella Weiss, an activist who has spent decades at the helm of pro-settler groups like Gush Emunim and the Women in Green, arguing, loudly, that Jews have the right to live anywhere in the West Bank. “It’s the soil, the wonderful soil,” she said by way of explaining why Gvaot’s wines were so good, in a phone interview from her home in the settlement of Kedumim, a tiny village in an even more remote part of the West Bank than Givat Harel. “That’s what makes the grapes so special and that’s what makes the wines so special.”
Weiss also happens to be the mother-in-law of Shivi Drori, Gvaot’s chief wine maker, who has a doctorate in plant molecular biology from Hebrew University. “For every person who won’t buy wines because of where they come from, three want to buy it precisely because of where it comes from,” Drori said during an interview last month at the winery. Outside, the vineyard’s sloping trellises of grapes swayed gently in the winds rustling down from nearby hills.
Drori, a soft-spoken man who also teaches at a local university, founded Gvaot in 2005. He had begun planting grapes on Givat Harel years earlier with the initial idea of selling them to other wineries. When the first harvest came in, he found himself reluctant to part with the grapes. “I thought, ‘why lose these very good grapes? We should make a winery of our own,’” he recalled. “So we did.”
Weiss and her husband Amnon provided the millions of shekels Drori needed to get the winery off the ground, and it was successful with critics like Rogov almost immediately. “He succeeded in separating his own beliefs from the professional views he gave to the readers,” Dror, 40, said. “Not all of the critics do.”
But Weiss sees the vineyard as another tool for extending Jewish control over Shiloh and other parts of the West Bank. She believes Gvaot can provide much-needed jobs for local settlers, making it easier for them to stay in the region. More fundamentally, she believes that re-establishing Jewish life in and around Shiloh is a religious obligation.
“Everything that we do is about settling more Jews in Israel,” she says. “We have the homes and we have the people. Now we just need to build more of an economy.”
Weiss’s political beliefs permeate every aspect of the winery. Hundreds of American Evangelicals flood into the West Bank during each wine-harvesting season to work as volunteer grape pickers, but the winery refuses on principle to employ workers who aren’t Jewish.
Lior Amihai, a senior analyst for Peace Now, says that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broadly agree future withdrawals would be based on land swaps allowing Israel to annex the areas near the Green Line where most settlers live in exchange for giving the new state of Palestine an equivalent amount of terrain that that is currently part of Israel. The problem, he says, is that Shiloh is so remote that Israel would need to give up an enormous amount of terrain to keep it.
“It’s really, really far from the Green Line,” Amihai says. “Israel doesn’t have enough land to swap. There are settlements whose future fate is known, but Shiloh is not one of them. There are no scenarios for a two-state solution in which Shiloh stays under Israeli sovereignty.”
Weiss says she’s not concerned. More than 340,000 Jews now live in West Bank settlements, and she argues that removing even a fraction of them would be politically and logistically impossible. Weiss doesn’t think the current talks stand much chance of success, a position shared, reluctantly, by Amihai and others on the Israeli left. “I call the Green Line the ‘Obama Line,’” she says. “Everything with him is settlers, everything is occupation. The reality is that we’ve become too big to move.”
Weiss has big plans for the winery, including building a restaurant for the busloads of tourists – including large numbers of religious Americans – who visit the winery and usually leave with bottles of red, whites or rosés. She hopes to begin construction this fall and have it open by the next wine-growing season.
Drori, the winemaker, is equally bullish about Gvaot’s future. Like his mother-in-law, he dismisses the chances for a peace deal that would require abandoning his corner of the West Bank. Drori says that he has good relations with the Palestinians living in nearby villages and insists that they are doing better under Israeli control than they would as citizens of an independent state. “The Palestinians are very happy,” he says. “You can see them walking with baby carriages, you see them with iPhones, you see them with satellite dishes. They’re prospering, and I’m quite happy about it. It’s good for us.”
Sitting in Gvaot’s small tasting room, Drori brings out a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, one of Gvaot’s most expensive wines. He swirls the glass around gently, brings it to his mouth, and takes a long sip. He said it was a favorite of Rogov, the wine critic. Then Drori stands up, shakes hands, and heads for the door. It’s just after 11 AM, and he has a busy day ahead. Drori and the graduate students who work in his lab at a nearby university are trying to identify and ultimately recreate the types of grapes that would have existed in the region during Biblical times. “We will have unique Israeli grapes, some for eating, some for wine-making,” Drori says. “Maybe in 3 to 4 years we can actually sit here and have a glass of true Israeli wine.”
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
November 5, 2013
Highlighted by its distinctive gold-yellow label, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne is hard to ignore. In 2012, it was the second highest selling brand of champagne in the world, with 1,474,000 nine-liter cases sold worldwide. But Veuve Clicquot wasn’t always so successful: if it weren’t for the efforts of a cunning 19th-century business mind, the champagne might never have existed. That remarkable mind belonged to the eponymous Widow (veuve in French0) Clicquot, one of the world’s first international businesswomen, who brought her wine business back from the brink of destruction and created the modern champagne market in the process.
The Widow Clicquot was born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, daughter of an affluent textile industrialist in Reims, France. Born in the years leading up to the French Revolution, Barbe-Nicole’s childhood was heavily influenced by the political leanings of her father, Ponce Jean Nicolas Philippe Ponsardin, which switched from monarchist to Jacobin as the tide of the Revolution turned against the monarchy. Through his shrewd politics, Barbe-Nicole’s family was able to escape the Revolution relatively unscathed, a rarity for an affluent bourgeoisie family.
Next door to Hôtel Ponsardin, the large family estate that Barbe-Nicole grew up on, lived the Clicquot family, under the patriarch Philippe. Philippe Clicquot also ran a successful textile business, making him the chief competitor to Barbe-Nicole’s father. In an attempt to consolidate the power of their two businesses, Mr. Ponsardin and Mr. Clicquot did what any shrewd business owner in the 18th century would have done: married their children. In 1798, when she was 21 years old, Barbe-Nicole married Francois Clicquot, Philippe Clicquot’s only son–the marriage was akin to an arranged marriage, a business deal devised by two industrial leaders in the small town of Reims.
Still, as the two embarked on their life together, a real partnership seemed to grow between them. Francois was a lively young man with large aspirations: instead of taking over his father’s textile industry, as his father wanted him to, Francois was interested in growing his family’s small wine business. Up to that point, the Clicquot’s family’s involvement in the wine industry constituted a minor portion of the family business. Philippe often only sold wine as an afterthought to his large textile business, adding bottles of still or sparkling white wine to orders only to round them out (once a boat had been commissioned and paid for, Philippe wanted to make sure he was getting his money’s worth). Though sparkling wine had been invented, the Champagne region was more famous for its still white wines, which Philippe would buy from wine producers and export on an as-needed basis. Philippe Clicquot had no intention of expanding its wine business to production, but Francois had a different plan.
Francois announced to his father his intention of expanding the family’s wine business, but was met with disapproval. As France plunged into the Napoleonic Wars, Philippe didn’t see wine as a profitable endeavor. Francois dismissed his father’s concerns, and set about learning the wine trade, along with his young wife. While Francois had little knowledge of wine-making, the craft ran in Barbe-Nicole’s family: one of her grandmothers had been part of a wine making operation generations earlier. Still, the two set out to learn the industry from the ground-up together.
Despite their apparent passion for the industry, Philippe Clicquot’s judgement seems to have been correct: their champagne business stalled and looked ready to collapse. In 1805, six years after their marriage, Francois fell suddenly ill with a fever; 12 days later, he was dead. Rumors swirled around the town that his death had been a suicide caused by despair at the failing business, though other accounts attribute his death to an infectious fever such as typhoid. Both Barbe-Nicole and Philippe were devastated by Francois’ death, and Philippe announced that by the end of the year, he would end the wine business.
Barbe-Nicole had other plans, and approached her father-in-law with a bold proposition.
“Barbe-Nicole goes to her father-in-law and says, ‘I’d like to risk my inheritance, I’d like you to invest the equivalent of an extra million dollars in me running this wine business.’ And he says yes,” explains Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot. “It’s surprising that he would let a woman who has no business training take this on, and what it speaks to is that Philippe Clicquot was no fool. He understood how very keenly intelligent his daughter-in-law was.”
Keenly intelligent, perhaps, but at that point, Barbe-Nicole had been unsuccessful in selling champagne wine. So Philippe agreed under one condition: Barbe-Nicole would go through an apprenticeship, after which she would be able to run the business herself–if she proved her abilities. She entered into an apprenticeship with the well-known winemaker Alexandre Fourneaux, and for four years tried to make the dying wine business grow. It didn’t work, and at the end of her apprenticeship, the business was just as broke as before. So Barbe-Nicole went to her father-in-law a second time asking for money, and for a second time, Philippe Clicquot invested in his daughter-in-law’s business.
“That’s the time that comes right at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when she has in her cellars what will become the legendary vintage of 1811, and she’s about ready to go bankrupt,” Mazzeo explains. Facing bankruptcy, Barbe-Nicole took a huge business gamble: she knew that the Russian market, as soon as the Napoleonic Wars ended, would be thirsty for the kind of champagne she was making–an extremely sweet champagne that contained nearly 300 grams of sugar (about double that of today’s sweet dessert wines, like a Sauterne). At this moment in champagne history, the champagne market was fairly small–but Russians were early enthusiasts. If she could appeal to their burgeoning desire for champagne and corner that market, Barbe-Nicole believed that success would be hers.
There was only one problem: the naval blockades that had crippled commercial shipping during the wars. Barbe-Nicole smuggled the vast majority of her best wine out of France as far as Amsterdam, where it waited for peace to be declared. As soon as peace was declared, the shipment made its way to Russia, beating her competitors by weeks. Soon after her champagne debuted in Russia, Tsar Alexander I announced that it was the only kind that he would drink. Word of his preference spread throughout the Russian court, which was essentially ground-zero for international marketing.
“She goes from being a very minor player to a name that everyone knows, and everybody wants her champagne,” Mazzeo says. Suddenly, the demand for her champagne increased so much that she was worried she would not be able to fill all the orders. Champagne making, at that time, was an incredibly tedious and wasteful business, and Barbe-Nicole realized that she would need to improve the process if she was going to keep up with the new demand for her product.
Champagne is made by adding sugar and live yeast to bottles of white wine, creating what is known as secondary fermentation. As the yeast digests the sugar, the bi-products created are alcohol and carbon dioxide, which give the wine its bubbles. There’s only one problem: when the yeast consumes all the sugar, it dies, leaving a winemaker with a sparkling bottle of wine–and dead yeast in the bottom. The dead yeast was more than unappetizing–it left the wine looking cloudy and visually unappealing. The first champagne makers dealt with this by pouring the finished product from one bottle to another in order to rid the wine of its yeast. The process was more than time-consuming and wasteful: it damaged the wine by constantly agitating the bubbles.
Barbe-Nicole knew there had to be a better way. Instead of transferring the wine from bottle to bottle to rid it of its yeast, she devised a method that kept the wine in the same bottle but consolidated the yeast by gently agitating the wine. The bottles were turned upside down and twisted, causing the yeast to gather in the neck of the bottle. This method, known as riddling, is still used by modern champagne makers.
Barbe-Nicole’s innovation was a revolution: not only was her champagne’s quality improved, she was able to produce it much faster. Her new technique was an extreme annoyance to her competitors, especially Jean-Rémy Moët, who could not replicate her method. It wasn’t an easy secret to keep, since Barbe-Nicole employed a large number of workers in her cellars–but no one betrayed her secret, a testament to her workers loyalty, Mazzeo explains. It would be decades before any of them became wise to the method of riddling, giving Barbe-Nicole another advantage over the champagne market.
With the production of champagne increasing, Barbe-Nicole set her sights on building a global empire. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot was exporting champagne to the far reaches of the world, from Lapland to the United States. Veuve Clicquot helped turn champagne from a beverage enjoyed solely by the upper-class to a drink available to almost anyone in the middle-upper class–a seemingly small distinction, but one that vastly increased Barbe-Nicole’s market.
“The invention of riddling allows the mass-production of an artisanal and luxury product, just not at the tiny quantities that they were dealing with before,” Mazzeo explains. “Barbe-Nicole begins exporting wine around the world in large quantities and is known as being one of the great businesswomen of her century.”
In spite of the extent of her champagne empire, Barbe-Nicole never left France during her lifetime: it would have been inappropriate for a woman to travel alone during that time. She also never remarried, though there is evidence of mild flirtations with some of her business associates (“She was rumored to have had a penchant for handsome young men working in her company,” Mazzeo explains). Had she remarried, she would almost certainly have had to relinquish control of her business, an unthinkable act for the first modern businesswoman.
From risking her inheritance on a failing business to gambling her champagne against a naval blockade, Barbe-Nicole built her champagne empire on bold decisions, a business model she never regretted. As she wrote in the later years of her life in a letter to a grandchild: “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”
October 28, 2013
When Bill Owens in Hayward, Calif. first brewed a pumpkin beer in the early 1980s, no one else in modern craft brewing history had done such a clever thing. His project, so it is said, was inspired by historical records indicating that George Washington had used squashes—and possibly pumpkins—in experimental homebrews. Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale became popular over the years and remains so some 30 years after its birth.
But today, that maverick beer stands modestly amid hundreds of others like it. For autumn beers celebrating America’s most iconic squash have become ubiquitous: The summer nears its end, and brewers across the continent get busy in unison adding a blizzard of spices and cooked pumpkin (sometimes fresh, sometimes out of a can) to their tanks of fermenting beer. By October and November, pumpkin brews are as commonplace as jack-o-lanterns, and from a glance at a supermarket beer aisle, one might think that America’s craft brewers had run out of ideas.
Many pumpkin beers taste about the same, brewed with roughly the same flurry of autumn spices–which is fine. Most beers of any given style, after all–whether IPAs, porters or pilsners–have a similar flavor profile. The trouble with pumpkin beers is that they can be hard to handle if too liberally spiced. William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of the forthcoming history of beer and brewing, “The Brewer’s Tale,” notes that the standard potpourri of spices used in pumpkin beer–cinnamon and nutmeg, and usually a few others–can turn “acrid, bitter, and cloying” if they are boiled for too long. Bostwick says he has found the worst of these beers to “taste like allspice soup.”
He points out, too, that pumpkin beers generally don’t taste like pumpkin at all.
“On the whole, these are basically pumpkin pie beers,” Bostwick says. “What you taste is spices. I’m not sure most people even know what pumpkin itself really tastes like.”
Indeed, the flavor of pumpkin is so mild that it can be almost undetectable even in a lightly spiced beer. In Half Moon Bay, California, a town surrounded by pumpkin fields, the local brewery has been making a pumpkin beer every fall for 10 years. But this year, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company toned down the recipe, from eight pounds of nutmeg, clove, allspice, cinnamon and mace in last year’s 500-gallon batch to just one meager pound for the current release.
“I specifically wanted it to taste like pumpkin, not pie,” brewmaster James Costa says. The beer, available only on draft, is decidedly unspicy—so unspicy that one might entirely fail to notice that the reddish hued, creamy topped ale is spiced at all. The pumpkin, meanwhile, is faint, as nature intended this humble squash to be.
Dawn Letner has perhaps never tasted that pumpkin beer. She owns the Chico Home Brew Shop in Chico, Calif., where she frequently sends home customers during October and November with pumpkin beer recipes.
For her, most pumpkin beers are almost intolerable.
“I might buy a bottle now and then, but definitely not a 6-pack,” Letner says. “Do you really want to sit and drink more than one of these spicy cinnamon bombs? For me, the answer is no. If I did want to, I’d just make a spiced tea and add a shot of alcohol.”
Sean Lilly Wilson, owner and founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C., makes a wide array of unusual fruit and vegetable beers to celebrate the autumn–but he has chosen not to make a beer featuring the pumpkin.
“There are enough pumpkin beers in the world,” he says, adding that he doesn’t much care for the style. “They’re often so overly spiced that they’ve lost all nuances. Some of the most celebrated pumpkin beers are just too much for me.”
To make pumpkin beers, some brewers use freshly harvested pumpkins, roasted until the starches turn gooey and sweet. Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, for one, has long used the jumbo pumpkins famous for their hippo-like dimensions, if not their flavor. Half Moon Bay Brewing, on the other hand uses apple-sized sugar pie pumpkins–though Costa concedes that the variety of squash used is probably irrelevant. Other brewers use only pumpkin concentrate, rendered from cooked pumpkins and reduced to a dense, extremely sweet juice and purchased in cans. The pumpkin is added at varying stages of the brewing process, sometimes prior to boiling, other times toward the end of fermentation. Late in the process, too, the spices are added, and another pie-flavored pumpkin beer hits the shelf.
Whether you disdain pumpkin beers, simply tolerate them for a few weeks or wait all summer for them, you must give credit to Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Though the mild chai-tasting beer receives consistently poor reviews on beer rating forums, it was the original of what has become a wildly popular style, with almost countless examples now on the market. As of this writing, Beer Advocate’s online rating forum included no less than 529 pumpkin beers–most, if not all of them, spiced like mulled wine. And at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual fall event in Colorado, pumpkin beers occupy their very own category. Clearly, no matter the scorn felt by some critics, America loves these beers. Geoff Harries, the owner of Buffalo Bill’s since 1994, says demand continues to grow for his pumpkin ale, which is now distributed in 43 states, and he said in an interview that from October to November, the beer-drinking public goes into a state of “hyper-excitement” over pumpkin beers. Come December, though, the interest peters to a stop.
Even if you aren’t hyper-excited about pumpkin beers, it’s worth exploring the category for the oddball renditions some breweries have introduced:
- Oak Jacked, from Uinta Brewing Company, in Salt Lake City, is a sweet, deep brown ale with more than 10 percent alcohol and is aged in whiskey barrels for a creamy, vanilla-Chardonnay finish.
- New Belgium’s pumpkin beer, named Pumpkick, includes cranberry juice and lemongrass for an unusual, tart and zesty interpretation.
- Elysian Brewing Company, in Seattle, makes a well-liked pumpkin beer, too–a copper-colored imperial style named The Great Pumpkin. This brewery, in fact, has held an annual pumpkin beer festival since 2005. The event’s centerpiece is a jumbo pumpkin filled with beer and tapped like a keg.
But of the many off-center pumpkin beers available, a few stand alone as marvels of beer making. Perhaps most extreme of them all is a boozy ale called Rumpkin, from Avery Brewing Company.
“I’m one of the biggest pumpkin beer fans in the world,” says Adam Avery, the man who created this beer. As the founder of the brewery, Avery has garnered a reputation over the years for making some of the most outlandish, aggressive, almost unapproachable beers in the world. “I would drink pumpkin beers every day if I could, and it seemed weird that I had never made one before. So we thought, ‘Let’s make a pumpkin beer, and let’s make it the granddaddy of them all.’”
And unless we overlooked something grander, Rumpkin is it. The dark, cognac-like beer, which tastes of vanilla, coconut and dark chewy fruits, has been aged in rum barrels and weighs in at 18.6-percent alcohol.
Autumn is the season of abundance, diversity and color–not just pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins–and Fullsteam Brewery, at least, seems to recognize this. The small facility, now just three years old, released a persimmon ale this fall named First Frost after the seasonal event which traditionally marks the ripening of the persimmon crop. Wilson, Fullsteam’s owner, is also getting set to brew a fig-chestnut beer, named Fruitcake, and a pawpaw beer, named Pawpaw, while a sweet potato lager, named Carver, is available year round on draft at the brewery.
None of these fall and winter beers are spiced.
“We’re not in the scented candle business,” Wilson quips. “We’re in the craft beer business. We want to let people taste the ingredients we’re using.”
As for those spicy pumpkin beers, Bostwick, for all his skepticism, gets why brewers make them like they do:
“No one wants to buy a pumpkin beer expecting it to taste like pumpkin pie and finding that it tastes like nothing.”
They’d rather, it seems, have it taste like allspice soup.
September 19, 2013
It’s September 19, which means it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, your once-a-year opportunity to embrace linguistic absurdism and greet your friends and colleagues with a cheery “Ahoy, matey!” Started in 1995 by John Baur and Mark Summers, the holiday is celebrated all over the world with the official Talk Like a Pirate Day website offering a vocabulary crash course in English, German and Dutch. But really, what’s a holiday without food to enhance the celebration? While we all have a communal sense of how pirates talked—or how we like to think they talked—our sense of how pirates ate sits, by comparison, in uncharted waters. Pirates had to survive on more than a bottle of rum.
From a food standpoint, a pirate’s life was problematic. Being at sea and without easy access to major seaports meant that there was rarely a steady supply of food and hunger was a regular aspect of day-to-day living. Much of their lives were spent on board a ship, and perpetually damp conditions put normal pantry staples such as flour and dried beans at high risk of mold. Climate also presented preservation problems: if sailing in warmer regions of the world, such as the Caribbean, keeping fresh fruits and meats was near impossible. Fresh water was also difficult to keep during long sea voyages because it could develop algae scum. By contrast, alcohol would never spoil, making beer and rum the preferred preferred beverages. Rum, in addition to being consumed straight up, was used along with cinnamon and other spices to sweeten stagnant water and make grog. Dried meats and hardtack, a relatively shelf-stable biscuit, were regular parts of a pirate’s diet, although the latter was frequently infested with weevils.
With such a bleak dining situation, what’s a pirate to do? For one, they pillaged. For pirates sailing the waters of Spanish America, beef was a hot commodity for pirates as a single head of cattle could go a long way when it came to feeding a hungry crew. In 1666, French pirate François l’Onnais promised to leave the Venezuelan port city of Maracaibo if, among other riches, he was supplied with 500 head of cattle. In 1668, Henry Morgan, the namesake of the rum, invaded Puerto del Principe in Cuba, also demanding a ransom of 500 cattle. And in 1682, Captain Jean Toccard took the Mexican port of Tampico for the sole purpose of slaughtering cows for provisions. In addition to beef, turtle was also a valued source of protein, and ideal in that it was readily found along beaches and could be kept alive and serve as a source of fresh meat when out to sea.
Pirates also had to be resourceful with the staples that they had—especially when it came to making pickled and salted foods palatable. In the West Indies, a popular pirate dish among marauders was salmagundi, a stew of the odds-and-ends of meat and vegetables thrown into a communal pot and heavily seasoned. In his book Pirates and Piracy, author David Reinhardt provides a litany of ingredients one might find in the cauldron and the manner of preparation:
Included might be any of the following: turtle meat, fish, pork, chicken, corned beef, ham, duck and pigeon. The meats would be roasted, chopped into pieces and marinated in spied wine, then mixed with cabbage, anchovies, pickled herring, mangoes, hard-boiled eggs, palm hearts, onions, olives, grapes and any other pickled vegetable available. The entire concoction would then be highly seasoned with garlic, salt, pepper, and mustard seed and soaked with oil and vinegar.
Legend has it that Bartholomew Roberts, whose years of marauding earned him the posthumous Forbes magazine distinction of being one of the highest-earning pirates, was eating salmagundi when he was attacked—and killed—by the Royal Navy ship HMS Swallow.
The historical pirate diet may not appeal to the modern diner. Nevertheless, for those wishing to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day to the hilt by setting an appropriately-themed spread, you have a few options. The New England Pirate Museum has a freeform salmagundi recipe that’ll allow you to make the classic pirate meal, but without all the pickled and salt-cured ingredients. You can also use the day as a personal challenge to raid ye pantry and figure out how you can turn the provisions you have on hand into a hearty stew.
Although grog in its original conception was utilitarian more than anything else, it has since been re-imagined as a cocktail to be enjoyed for its palate-pleasing merits. Check out these three on-the-rocks versions of the cocktail here, with recipes using a variety of rums paired with grapefruit, lime and orange juices. You can also enjoy your grog hot, spiced with cinnamon and brown sugar. If you’re dying to try hardtack, recipes and videos are out there to show you how to make this classic survival food. Personally, I’d dive into a package of Wasa crackers and call it a day.
Breverton, Terry. The Pirate Dictionary. Canada: Pelican, 2004.
Marley, David F. Daily Life of Pirates. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Hamilton, John. A Pirate’s Life. Edina: ABDO Publishing Company, 2007.
September 9, 2013
Whiskey drinkers know that the moment they swirl a bit of the smoky spirit in their mouth, they’re bound to find a world of flavors: some oak, some smoke, a little vanilla, maybe a slight bite from tannin. Brown liquors — from scotch to bourbon and all the whiskeys in between — are complex spirits that lend themselves to purposeful tasting, creating connoisseurs willing to shell out top dollar for the most peaty scotch or their favorite spicy bourbon. When it comes to the magic of whiskey, their complex profiles might be explained by the chemical fingerprints that separate them from one another — and change the way that they taste.
It’s an idea that the aptly-named Tom Collins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, is actively pursuing. “I worked on my Ph.D., and it was a project looking at aroma and flavor chemistry in wine [fermented] in oak barrels,” Collins explains, crediting the barrels with sparking his initial interest in the chemistry of spirits. “It sort of seemed a natural extension to look from the chemistry of wine to the chemistry of whiskeys, because the chemistry of oak barrels play a huge role in what you see in whiskeys of all sorts.”
Collins and researchers at Davis set out to see if they could determine the chemical differences among 60 different whiskeys: 38 straight bourbon whiskeys, 10 rye whiskeys, five Tennessee whiskeys and seven other American whiskeys, varying in age from two-to-15 years old. What they found was a spectacular testament to the spirit’s complex chemistry–over 4,000 different non-volatile compounds across the different samples, results which he presented today at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. “It’s very complex,” Collins says of the chemistry. “There are components that are barrel derived, as we would expect, but there are also things that are related to the grains that are used to make the distillates in the first place—so the corn and wheat and rye and things that are fermented to form the distillate. We see some components that appear to be grain related, and there are also likely to be components that are derived from the yeast that are used do the fermentation.”
Of the thousands of chemical compounds Collins found, there was a fair amount of overlap between the different spirits. But Collins found that each spirit contained unique compounds, or unique concentrations of compounds, that he could use to distinguish a scotch from a bourbon, or a Tennessee whiskey from a bourbon, simply by looking at the liquor’s chemistry. “If you try to make sense of all of the components that are there, it’s essentially overwhelming, but if you filter out the things that are not used in Tennessee whiskeys, or things that are only present in some of the bourbons, you can sort of whittle away down to the things that define what a bourbon is or what a Tennessee whiskey is chemically,” Collins said.
It might be the perfect answer that eternal question of novice whiskey drinkers everywhere: what exactly is the difference between a whiskey and a bourbon?
The confusing answer is that bourbon is always whiskey, but all whiskey isn’t bourbon. This has always been true from a historical and regulatory perspective. Historian Michael Veach spoke with Food and Think in June and dispelled the myths that bourbon has its roots in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and that all bourbons must originate there. “‘People started asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’ Veach says, ‘which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’”
The regulatory distinction presents a slight complication: some Tennessee whiskeys, from a regulatory standpoint, actually qualify as bourbons, but choose not to market themselves as such (Jack Daniels, for example, adamantly markets itself as a Tennessee whiskey, even when it meets regulatory standards for being a bourbon). Natalie Wolchover at Live Science outlines the regulatory standards for bourbon:
While bourbon whiskey has its roots in Kentucky, and continues to be primarily produced there, it is now manufactured in distilleries all over the United States. Manufacturers must meet the following requirements in order to advertise their whiskey product as “bourbon”:
It must be produced in the U.S. from a grain mixture (called “mash”) made up of at least 51 percent corn. It must be distilled to a maximum strength of 160 proof, bottled at a strength of at least 80 proof, and barreled for aging at no more than 125 proof. It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. To qualify as “straight bourbon,” the spirits must meet the above requirements as well as being aged for at least two years and containing no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits.
Many bourbon whiskey distilleries in Kentucky advertise their use of unique water filtered by the limestone shelf in Bourbon County; while this feature may add to the allure of Kentucky bourbon whiskey, the federal trade regulations do not stipulate about what water must be used.
Collins thinks he might have a more chemically elegant answer to the conundrum. As his team discovered, there are 50 to 100 chemical compounds such as fatty acids and tannins that can be used to distinguish a Tennessee whiskey from a bourbon to such an extent that Collins can tell the difference between them without tasting either. Chemically, it’s often a question of concentration–how much of a plant derived compound does a spirit have? How much tannin? “There are, in many cases, certain compounds that are only found in one or the other, but more often, there are compounds that are present in both but at different concentrations. Those are the tannins, the fatty acids, and in some cases, turpentine – compounds that are plant-derived.”
These compounds complicate the matter further–certain chemicals are extracted from the wood barrels during the aging process, which might not be unique to the distillate itself. As Collins notes, barrels are, after all, made from trees–an unarguable plant substance. So how do they discern the unique plant-derived elements in the distillates from the compounds that might come from the barrel? “Some of the ways we get through that is to look at whiskeys that have been freshly distilled, and haven’t been put in barrels yet, so we can see what’s there in the fresh distillate before we put it in oak, and then we can see what changes between the newly distilled spirit and the spirit that has been aged in barrels for some period of time,” Collins explains. “That helps us to understand what the things are that come from the barrels, versus the things that come from the distillate itself.”
Collins and his team have yet to embark on the next step of their experiments–relating the differences in chemical makeup to potential sensory differences in aroma and flavor–but he feels fairly confident that the two are related. “I think–being a chemist–that the sensory differences arise from the chemistry,” Collins admits. Take, for example, the chemical compounds that arise when the spirit is being aged in a charred barrel. “The sensory component that you smell, that you associated with toasted oak, or charred oak, is going to be related to the compounds that are extracted by the whiskey from the wood,” Collins explains.
Understanding the delicate interplay between chemistry and aroma could be a huge help to distillers looking to tweak their whiskey to encapsulate that perfect blend of smoky and spicy. “This could be a tool [distillers] could use to understand if they make a change to their distillation processes, how does that impact the resulting whiskey,” Collins said, noting that the better distillers understand how the process of distillation impacts the final product, the better they can manipulate the process to their advantage. “It’s a tool that can be used by distillers large and small to understand the impact of what they’re doing on the chemistry, and then the sensory.”
It’s research that means that the perfect whiskey–smoky, spicy, or however you want it–might not be so elusive after all.