Monday 14 January 2013

Bootlegger white grain spirit

The utilitarian bottle and deliberately ragged label

It was at the London Boutique Bar Show last year that I first encountered Bootlegger. All their branding screams “Prohibition”—the utilitarian bottles and rough labels, the logo depicting a home still, and the “packing crate” style wooden presentation boxes. What with my involvement with the Candlelight Club I was inevitably curious.

Bootlegger is a spirit designed to evoke the unaged “moonshine” whiskey produced illicitly during Prohibition. There has actually been something of a trend towards bottling such “white dog” whiskies. Georgia Moon (actually made in Kentucky by Heaven Hill) comes in a large jam jar and proudly boasts it is no more than 30 days old. Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark have all bottled white versions of the spirits that usually go on to make their aged products, and in October Jack Daniel’s announced the launch of an unaged rye-heavy “white” whiskey. While there are many artisanal, crafted white dogs being made in the US, apparently very creditably, there is nevertheless a reason why most whiskey is aged in wood, at great expense, for a number of years. I’ve not actually tasted Georgia Moon—because the smell of the eye-watering fumes coming off it when the jam jar lid was unscrewed put me off. And the unaged bottlings of mainstream whiskeys are often presented more as experimental, “educational” products, to illustrate the journey that the “proper” products make towards their final matured form.

Note the rather pleasing indentations in the sides of the
bottle, giving your shaking fingers a good grip
So I didn’t have very high hopes when I tasted Bootlegger at the bar show—and I was pleasantly surprised. There is a whiff of vanilla and caramel on the nose (which reminds me a bit of Bailey’s) plus a warmth of dry grain spirit underneath. There is plenty of pepper on the palate but it is actually pretty smooth, again with vanilla, caramel and a chocolate finish, maybe with a hint of dry oatmeal. They are so confident of the palatability of their product that the preferred serve is actually sipped neat.

Given all the Prohibition associations, I was surprised to discover that Bootlegger is actually made in the UK for Halewood International. And it’s made entirely from wheat, not an obvious American whiskey grain. (There are wheated blends—Buffalo Trace have bottled a wheated white dog which normally goes on to make Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller—but even here the wheat is part of a mix of grains.) “I did quite a bit of research,” says Halewood's Peter Eaton, whose brainchild Bootlegger was, “and they made moonshine out of pretty much anything that was to hand. We tried loads of different grains—and to be honest some of them, when I tasted the finished spirit, nearly burned my tongue off—but what we landed up with was a precise combination of English and French winter wheats, which produced the smoothest liquid.”

Bootlegger is entirely unaged, but has an “oak tincture” added, which gives that woody vanilla element, along with a slight yellow colour, to mimic the effect of the barrels that would have been used to transport moonshine—what Peter calls the “transportation flavour”. (House Spirit White Dog, another brand, is barrel aged for precisely three hours to achieve the same effect.) So in practice Bootlegger is arguably more like a moonshine-flavoured vodka. The wheat spirit undergoes a “multiple distillation process which results in a liquid of exceptional purity”—very much the way premium vodkas sell themselves. So you end up with something with the illicit associations of moonshine, and an appealing vanilla woody whiskeyness, yet with none of the searing roughness that can so easily characterise unaged whiskey, the mellowness coming in this case from the wheat grain and the multiple distillation rather than barrel ageing.

The label is all about Prohibition
Despite the emphasis on serving Bootlegger neat (their slogan is “Made for sippin’ while the moon shines”) it also makes a useful cocktail base, being relatively neutral with that light vanilla character. We based our Christmas Candlelight Club event around Bootlegger and served their signature cocktail, the Al Capone:

Al Capone
1½ shots Bootlegger
½ shot Grand Marnier
½ shot sugar syrup
½ shot lemon juice
2 dashes of bitters
Champagne to top
Raspberry to garnish
     Shake Bootlegger, Grand Marnier, bitters, lemon juice and sugar syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a cocktail glass or coupette. Top with Champagne and garnish with a raspberry.

An Al Capone cocktail
Not dissimilar to Dale de Groff’s Ritz cocktail, this is a dangerously agreeable tipple, with orange and lemon backed by spirit warmth and the Champagne drying it slightly and adding a sparkling shimmer. It’s hard to imagine Al Capone drinking one, but if you ask the Internet what Al’s favourite tipple was, the only answer that comes back is Templeton Rye, made in the Iowa town of Templeton; evidently the townsfolk managed to keep producing throughout Prohibition, helped by Capone’s fondness for the stuff. And on the Templeton Rye website today is a cocktail called the Capone, essentially the same as this one but without the lemon and sugar. It’s not a Prohibition era drink, though—there is a YouTube video in which brand manager Michael Killmer says that he invented it himself.

Because it was a Christmas Ball, we threw in a cocktail of our own, invented for the Candlelight Club by Will Sprunt. Originally using gin as its base, it also works very well with Bootlegger, the vanilla element partnering well with cherry. The rosemary sounds unlikely, but what is fascinating about this drink is how well cherry and rosemary go together.

Cherry Christmas
2 shots Bootlegger
¾ shot cherry brandy
½ shot sugar syrup
¼ shot rosemary tincture
Dash of cherry bitters
Top with cranberry juice
     Shake everything but the cranberry with ice and strain into an ice-filled highball. Top with the juice and stir briefly. The rosemary tincture is created by adding fresh rosemary to vodka (maybe four sprigs per bottle, bruised a bit if possible) and leaving it to soak for about 24 hours.

If you’re curious to try Bootlegger, we’ll also be serving it to sip or a cocktail at our next Candlelight Club party, on 25th and 26th January…

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