The author talks about writing, his ties to the region and literacy advocacy.
Whether you prefer a bourbon neat, a trendy bitter aperitif or the most potent shooter behind the bar, the world of alcohol offers something for even the most adventurous palate. Before booze hits the bar, brewers and distillers rely on centuries of science — from fermentation to distillation to aging — to produce the iconic flavors we expect from our favorite cocktails. Kojo learns about the history and challenges behind making this finicky social lubricant.
- Adam Rogers Editor, Wired; Author, "Proof: The Science of Booze"
- Michael Lowe Distiller and Co-owner, New Columbia Distillers.
Featured Recipe: Summer Rickey
New Columbia Distillers’ co-owner Mike Lowe recommends this Summer Rickey as the weather gets warmer. It’s important to use a lighter, citrus and floral gin—such as the Green Hat Spring/Summer Seasonal—to complement the berry flavors.
Credit: New Columbia Distillers. (See more recipes here.)
-Spring/Summer Gin (2 oz)
-Leopolds Tart Cherry (1 oz) OR St.George Raspberry (1 oz) or similar liqueur
-Sparkling Mineral Water
1)Squeeze half lime into high ball glass, drop lime in
2)Add gin and Raspberry or cherry liqueur
4)Top with Sparkling Mineral Water, stir, and enjoy!
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from PROOF: THE SCIENCE OF BOOZE, © 2014 by Adam Rogers. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. What will you have? It's a pretty common question with a world of colorful answers when you slip on to a bar stool. But whether you prefer a bourbon neat, a trendy bitter aperitif, or the most potent shooter behind the bar, chances are your beverage of choice started in much the same way, with a centuries old scientific process that starts with fermentation, then distillation, and finally the fun part when aging aromatics and herbs go to work, infusing booze with the rich flavors that keep us coming back for more.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut it's a finicky process where one wrong move or even bad weather can ruin your drink and a distiller's balance sheet to boot. So how did your beverage of choice become so, well, intoxicating? And just what's behind the perfect buzz? Joining us in studio to talk about this is Adam Rogers. He is editor of Wired magazine and author of "Proof: The Science of Booze." Adam Rogers, thank you for joining us.
MR. ADAM ROGERSThank you for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Michael Lowe, distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers, which makes D.C.'s own Green Hat Gin. Michael, good to see you again.
ROGERSWell, thank you, Kojo. I'm very happy to be back.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. What do you drink? Or why do you drink it? Do you enjoy the flavors of cocktails? Do you pay close attention to how your drinks are made? Do you know the science behind them or not? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIAdam, we've spent a lot of time on Wednesdays talking to top chefs about the science and creativity that goes into a good meal. But bartenders don't tend to get the same kind of attention. You say that great bartenders should also be great alchemists, that -- so how do we order from and appreciate a truly good bartender? Are most of us doing it the wrong way?
ROGERSWell, I'll say my own approach to sitting down on a bar stool and talking to a bartender has definitely changed even over the course of reporting and writing the book. It used to be, I think, that people would -- if you were really into bars, you'd maybe have, like, a drink that you'd try to sort of test a bartender. You might play a little stump the bartender, see how they make a Manhattan. That's sort of a classic. But in talking to Dave Arnold who's a -- calling him a bartender is not quite accurate anymore. He runs a place called Booker and Dax in New York, and he's a technologist.
ROGERSHe's an engineer, an inventor, makes a lot of gadgets, does a lot of clarifying of spirits, makes his own stuff. And he said, you know, it used to be you could walk into a restaurant, and you would just order anything. You would order off menu, and the chef was expected to know how to make everything. But we don't do that anymore.
ROGERSWe expect to know what the chef wants to make, to -- whatever the person in that kitchen thinks is freshest and best and will show off his or her skills. And now I think that about bartenders, too. I tend to order from the menu now. I want to know what the person who runs the bar thinks is the best thing that they can make. I'll say, that's what you think you can make, that's what you think is the best, that's what had the best ingredients? Let's have a sip of that.
NNAMDINote to self, when in New York, frequent Booker and Dax.
ROGERSIt's a wonderful place. It's terrific.
NNAMDISaturday Night Live has spoofed NPR for tackling topics like this, but in your book, you wax poetic about yeast. For most of us, yeast is the thing that bakes our bread, brews our beer. But the discovery and cultivation of this organism is an amazing study. Can you wax poetic a little more about yeast and tell us why you call the fermentation of it one of the most important chemical reactions, like, ever?
ROGERSSure. I -- and I appreciate you saying wax poetic instead of wax annoying. I do think that I have become perhaps the most annoying person in the world to have a drink with because I start in on this stuff. And it's not necessarily what everybody goes to the bar for. But the thing that I love about the story of yeast is that human beings have -- fermentation is hundreds of millions of years old, right? It's something that yeast have been doing since they first evolved on Earth, 150 million years.
ROGERSThey were doing it since before they were fruiting and flowering plants. You don't need people around to have fermentation, to have yeast turn sugar into ethanol. Human beings kind of come into the picture and domesticate that process. We tamed the yeast, and they kind of tamed us to give them sugar about 10,000 years ago. And we do it without knowing what they are, right?
ROGERSHuman beings do that without knowing anything about what the causes are. They don't -- not only do they not understand enzymes or understand respiration. They don't even have any idea that they're invisible organisms they can't see but that do something that are alive. People don't figure that out until the late 1800s. It's the discovery that Louis Pasteur makes his bones with, is figuring out that it's actually those little things you see under the microscope. They might be doing this. You know, the...
NNAMDILouis Pasteur, the man who discovered the rabies vaccine among many other accomplishments.
ROGERSExactly so. He goes on and has this amazing career that he's justifiably famous for. But the thing that gets him on the map essentially is making this assertion that -- or confirming -- other people kind of thought it -- confirming something like, yeah, no, it's the yeast, man. That's the thing that's making it possible for us to make beer, for us to make wine. He goes on and writes a lot about that. And, you know, I love the idea that there is this process out there that, without understanding what it does, that we can still make use of it, that it's the thing that makes us want to settle down.
ROGERSDepending on what anthropologists or ethnologist you talk to, the reason that human beings started planted grain in rows and staying in one place instead of hunting and gathering was that we wanted to make beer. They wanted to take this natural process and harness it. And in the process of doing that, in harnessing that and harnessing fermentation, that's what, I'm arguing, with only a little bit of intentional hyperbole, is what changed us from being just homo sapiens into people, into civilized people.
NNAMDIWell, in preparing for this show, I also discovered the existence of the NCYC. You visited the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, NCYC, in England.
ROGERSIt was great. Yeah.
NNAMDIIt's home to hundreds of samples of yeast. Tell us about it. It sounds like a fascinating place and how it serves brewers around the world.
ROGERSIt is fascinating. And there are a couple of other places that -- I guess Stanford has a big yeast collection. UC Davis has one. And partially that's because yeast, in addition to being central to fermentation and to baking, is also -- it's one of the classic model organisms in a lab. So same species but different strains, it'll do different things. It's what cell biologists, biochemists, folks like that study. So the whole scientific community relies on yeast in ways as the underpinning for a lot of what we know about cells, about us.
ROGERSSo what the NCYC does is it preserves samples. And some of that is for researchers, but they also have this collection of brewing yeasts. And every strain of yeast will do a slightly different thing. So in addition to eating sugar and making ethanol and carbon dioxide, there's also a lot of other stuff going on in their respiration. They're making a lot of other things, a lot of other chemicals that'll show in a final product.
ROGERSAnd what the NCYC does is preserve -- they have this side business in preserving the specific strain of yeast that a brewery will use. It's a big deal in England, especially with what they call real ale, right? It's their homegrown kind of beer. And it's regional. It's unique. It's important. They've done a lot of work to preserve it. And so the story that I tell in the book is of a brewery that, after a spectacular flood, loses its yeast strain.
ROGERSAnd all of the machinery that goes into making the beer, they can replace. But without the yeast, they wouldn't be making the same beer. And the only thing that lets them go back into business is that they had this stuff essentially backed up. They've got a backup copy somewhere, and they can restore that, grow up the yeast again, and start making the same beer they were making before the flood.
NNAMDIMichael, that story that starts off the book when the brewer saw her yeast floating in floodwater, she thought, we're dead. Would you have that same reaction if your yeast was flooded? How important is the care and cultivation of yeast at your distillery?
MR. MICHAEL LOWEWell, the selection of yeast is extremely important. I mean, as Adam mentions in the book, there are hundreds and hundreds of different yeast strains used for brewing beers, making wines. You know, there are yeast strains that are happiest when they're with -- in agave syrup. And they all contribute different things to the final product. In our case, our final product, at least at this point, is gin. And the kind of gin we make has a very clean base to it. So we want a yeast that doesn't talk past our botanicals.
LOWEOkay? We want a yeast that doesn't add a lot of additional flavor. So the yeast we use is a commercially available yeast. We don't have to have a sort of separate special copy kept. But it's a yeast derived from champagne yeasts. So it's very alcohol tolerant which is good for a distiller because the more alcohol, the more final bottles you produce out of that batch of grain you started with. And it's also one that spins off as little additional flavors possible. If you imagine, you know, a fine champagne, you've got some very nice delicate grape flavors that you don't want to mask.
LOWESo you want a yeast that doesn't contribute a lot itself.
NNAMDIMichael Lowe is distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers which makes Green Hat Gin, D.C.'s own. He joins us in studio along with Adam Rogers, editor of Wired magazine and author of the book, "Proof: The Science of Booze." We are in fact discussing the science of booze and inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. What's your idea of the perfect drink? Do you pay close attention to how it's made? Do you know the science behind it? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Michael, I know you're preparing to introduce your own whiskey to the market in a few years. How do you work with yeast to get the alcohol and flavor profiles you need for whiskey?
LOWEWell, simple answer to that is experimentation. We -- there are a number of processes involved in making whiskey. And they each have dozens of variables associated with them. In theory, we could do a thousand test batches with all the permutations that are possible on different grains, different proportions of grains, different yeast strains, different ways of getting, you know, temperatures for the fermentations, and different ways of handling the whiskey at the still. So we have to kind of narrow it down a bit in order to actually create a product at some commercially relevant time.
LOWESo we first have developed our grain bill, the mix of grains that we're going to use for the rye whiskey we're going to make. And now we're at the stage where we're going to select five or six different yeasts, a couple of ale yeasts, a couple of different whiskey yeasts, and run that same grain bill through -- all the way through the process up to the point where we would start aging, and taste the white whiskey that we get out of that process, so we can differentiate the results that we get out of the different -- the several yeasts that we've selected sort of on a -- not a random basis, but kind of an educated guess basis to select a few we'd like to try.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean about introducing it at some commercially, well, viable time?
LOWEWell, a relevant -- I mean, as I say, we could keep experimenting forever and never make any whiskey. And we don't want to do that. So we want to try to go into production on whiskey here within the next couple of months if we can. But that's just part of the process. Making the whiskey, it then has to go into a barrel, a wooden barrel to age for a while, as Adam's book discusses.
NNAMDIOh, we'll talk about that in a little while.
LOWEAnd, you know, it sort of depends on how that develops.
ROGERSThe thing I love about this, too, is that even if you -- so at Michael's place, they'll go through all these experiments and isolate...
NNAMDIYou had a tour this morning.
ROGERSI did. I went over and saw -- beautiful distilleries and laboratories are two of my favorite places to be, so I'm very happy to be there. And so you could take the same ingredients, the same yeasts, and the substrates, the same grain bill, a different distiller with a different setup, a different still, a different shaped still or a different -- with the plumbing different essentially, would produce a different whiskey than what Michael's going to produce.
ROGERSThe -- every one of those conditions is a -- is fundamental, is critical. There's no -- there's nothing that you can afford to ignore if you're trying to make something people are going to want to drink three years from now.
NNAMDIThis seems to be a pretty fortuitous time to be making whiskey because we're hearing a lot about a whiskey crisis looming over the country. What's going on with this market?
ROGERSWell, they're -- in addition to a lot of places making a lot of very good brown liquor these days, both at the craft scale and the large scale, the big kind of transnational scale, like a place like Beam would do or Heaven Hill, I suppose, you know, a big Kentucky bourbon maker -- In addition to having a lot of really good product around, it's very popular.
ROGERSAnd so there are some faddish chasing after particular brands that people think are great or sometimes just rare. And so, you know, people get into a little bit of a bubble thinking about like, oh I got to get this one or that one. I've got to get Pappy Van Winkle, you know, 75,000 year old or whatever. And, you know, some of that is actually some removed from how good objectively, subjectively as opposed to...
NNAMDISome of it is, in other words, faddish, yes.
ROGERSYeah, I think that's right. One thing that is going on, it's true, is that whiskey's expanding its market internationally. So whiskey's popular in Asia now in a huge scale in ways that it never was before. So a lot of makers -- this is especially true of the single malt folks, are sending it to more places. And that means that they're cutting into their aging -- cutting into their warehouses, sending out stuff maybe earlier than they would or selling the older stuff before they would expect to. I hope that's a finite problem.
NNAMDIOn to Steven in Washington, D.C. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENWell, thank you very much. One of your panelists was talking about the grainville which I assume is the mix of grains that go into whatever product you're distilling. And, you know, I'm cursed by a small amount of knowledge...
ROGERSI have that curse. I know that curse.
STEVENBut I would think that even if you define the grains, you know, grains can vary from farm to farm, from region to region. How do you maintain the consistency for your mix?
LOWEWell, you maintain it in the first instance by going back to the same source. As I say -- I mean, we are a new distillery. We've been in production for less than two years. If we had been around for 100 years, we may have developed, you know, with, you know, some farmers in a particular region, a particular strain of grain. Right now we're taking sort of off-the-shelf grains from a local farmer for our wheat, but also some commercially available grains that are particular strains.
LOWEAnd we'll work with those. And, you know, if in 20 years we've discovered that there are, you know, particular strains that we should be trying as well, we'll do that. But consistency comes from going back to the same place.
ROGERSCan I just add too...
ROGERS...the -- at scale if you're at a much larger scale than the craft distillery that Michael's working at, to some extent the grains become commodities. So if you're going to pull in truck load after truck load of corn, right, if you're making bourbon and you want the -- you want to make sure that there's nothing wrong with it, there's no obvious faults or that it's infected by some, you know, crop disease or something, and you want to make sure that -- they'll say too they don't want GMO corn. A lot of corn is but they want that too because they want to be able to sell internationally and other reasons too.
ROGERSBut I did talk to, in Scotland, one of the folks who's responsible for procuring the barley that they use to make Macallan, a single malt whiskey. And he was talking about the travails that that industry will go through to figure out what the next strain of barley was going to be. And they were looking for characteristics not so much involving what the flavors would ultimately be, but like when you could harvest it and how well it stood up to storms and whether -- how many barley corns each plant would have.
ROGERSAnd the issues of efficiency, essentially like, can we get a lot of yield off of it. Because fundamentally what a distiller, again, at scale really wants to is to make sure that they have enough sugar to give to the yeast, right. They want to make sure that they have a starch source or a sugar source where they can pay sort of as little as possible for as much sugar as possible because that's how you get as much ethanol as possible. And that's in the grossest sense, right. That's not the artistry of it. That's the economics of it.
ROGERSAnd they're trying to figure out strains of a grain, what are we going to use next here? Which grain are we going to use -- which barley can we use next year that'll give us the yields that we need?
NNAMDISteven, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. It's a Food Wednesday conversation on the science of booze. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. And there you will also find a recipe for Greenhat Gin's Summer Ricky. It features cherry or raspberry liquor, lime and gin. You can also read an excerpt of Adam's book. It's called "Proof: The Science of Booze" at our website. But if you'd like to get in touch with us really quickly, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the science of booze with Adam Rogers, editor of Wired magazine and author of the book "Proof: The Science of Booze." And Michael Lowe, distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers which makes D.C.'s own Greenhat gin. 800-433-8850, what's your idea of the perfect drink? When you go to the bar, what makes the difference for you between a good drink and a great drink? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. We will go to Sly in Silver Spring, Md. Sly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Sly.
SLYFirst of all, let me say, I think the Michelle and Kojo Show would be a good thing to put on AMU.
NNAMDII'll call Michelle.
SLYOther than that, for the best drink you just get a bottle of grain alcohol. You can mix it with anything, makes a perfect drink, ice cream, fruit, coffee, what have you. Mutual grain spirits. Talk about that.
NNAMDII'll have the experts talk about that. Michael Lowe.
LOWEWell, sort of to each his own taste.
NNAMDIThat's what I say.
LOWENeutral grain spirits are called neutral because they are designed -- they're distilled to have no flavor. They're basically as close to just ethanol and water and mostly just ethanol that a distillation process can give you. And of course you can make a drink with that with fruit juices, whatever but, you know, in my opinion I think you might be missing some of the wonderful things that can come out of the distillation process if you start with just tasteless alcohol.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought up the question of starting because this question we got from John in Alexandria, Adam, "I'm mostly a wine and beer drinker but I'd like to become more comfortable ordering the hard stuff at the bar. Can you recommend a good drink for a beginner to learn to appreciate?"
ROGERSI will, but I will also say -- and this is relevant to the previous question too about G and S.
ROGERSThat one of the things that I struggle mightily with, as somebody who now writes about booze, is wanting to make sure that I never look askance at anybody else's drink choice. I fail at that all the time. I'm the judgiest guy ever but I know that I'm wrong to be judgy. You're not supposed to. What you want to do is enjoy that convivially with other people.
ROGERSAnd so, oh I know I shouldn't -- I know, you probably look down on this chocolate martini right. And my response it like, well, I do, yes, but I shouldn't. If that's what you like, that's what you should be getting. If you want to have a drink, you should be drinking something that you'll enjoy. You shouldn't be trying to force it.
ROGERSNow I will say, for a wine and beer drinker probably depends on the circumstances under which -- but like after dinner, an eau de vie, a fruit brandy which are designed to be -- to evoke the spirit of the fruit, like a good apricot eau de vie, a good apricot fruit brandy is supposed to taste more like an apricot than an apricot. If the person has made it and done it right it's like the best apricot you've ever eaten. And it settles your tummy a little bit after a nice meal. It's a way to sit still and linger over maybe an espresso next to it.
ROGERSYou know, that's a -- to me that's a nice thing. They can be strong so if the alcohol taste by itself is a thing that is going to be -- you know, is the off-putting part then, you know, maybe it's not that. But I might say also, like, as a step forward, some of the fortified ones like a port if you're a wine drinker, you know, a port perhaps because they're very tasty and they have a lot of complexity but they're sort of sweet.
ROGERSI also -- I really started liking...
NNAMDIHe's written about the science but he also understands the pleasure of booze.
ROGERSWell, I think that's -- I think it's a way to appreciate the stuff that we drink even more is to understand where it comes from, is what I would hope. Anyway there are things out there that is like -- because you want to say, well, what's that stuff on the higher shelves in the bar? What do you have over there, you know? It's a good time to -- good way to strike up a conversation with the bartender too and ask, what's in that pretty bottle? Maybe I can have some of that.
NNAMDIMichael, the supply of whiskey may be short but we're also hearing about a shortage of oak barrels for the aging process. How is that affecting you?
LOWEIt's actually a bit of a problem. As a new distiller -- a new distillery it's hard for us to sort of elbow our way into line with Beam and Diageo who are fighting over a nationwide shortage of oak barrels for aging whiskeys. And so as a result we're starting off our whiskeys in used barrels. Now, that's not ideal but it's also got some substantial tradition to it. The Scots, for example, are smart enough not to have any regulations that require them to use more expensive new barrels. And basically all Scotch in used barrels, either used bourbon barrels or used sherry barrels or Madera barrels.
LOWESo there's something to be gained from a used barrel but in any event you'd like to have the option of also using some new barrels. And right now we're having a hard time getting them.
NNAMDIAdam, who figured out that aging booze in wood makes it taste better?
ROGERSIt is a -- if you could answer that question you'd have a great history booze book. I mean, that is controversial to the booze history.
NNAMDIYou wouldn't think that wood would be the most airtight way to store liquor.
ROGERSWell, it's interesting. I mean, one of the historians who I talked to pointed out that if you have a culture that knows how to make ships, they know how to make barrels because that's the same technology. One keeps water out, the other one keeps water in, right? Probably most wine, especially was stored not in barrels but in ceramic, in clay, right. And you might store it sort of underground to keep it cool. And you still undergo some aging process there. You get some oxidation. If there's any air in it, you get some esterification. The molecules in there mix together overtime and change flavors.
ROGERSAnd there were some very old Roman wines, for example. They liked some age on their wine. But the story that they will tell now is that the flavors coming off of wood, oak particularly, probably came from when you were trying to ship it someplace, right. So if you ordered a whiskey in the United States in the mid 1800s, you would get something that would be anywhere from basically new make, you know, would be a green whiskey they would've called it then, it'd be clear, through something like, hey it spent two years getting from wherever they made it to wherever you are. And so it got some age on it from the barrel. It got some brown on it from the barrel.
ROGERSIt wasn't until really the kind of 1840s that various places started codifying how long something had to sit in a barrel before you were allowed to call it scotch or allowed to call it bourbon. So before that it was almost happenstance. At some point somebody had to figure out, hey this actually tastes better after it's been sitting for a long time. But, of course, that is economic consequences too. There's an opportunity cost to making something and then not being able to sell it for five years, right.
NNAMDIA number of distilleries have announced plans over the past two years to raise prices and reduce proofs as their reserves drop. Is diluting your product sacrilege for spirits makers, Michael?
LOWEWell, it's not really. I think it's more of a marketing issue. I mean, most spirits in this country have to be at 80 proof or higher. And frankly, most American-made spirits are at 80 proof, but it can be higher. And the companies that have run into some issues are ones that traditionally bottled their juice at a higher proof, say 90 proof.
LOWEAnd then with this whiskey shortage have been tempted to change their own recipe or their own product to dilute it a little bit more to a level that's still acceptable. And there's still lots of others out there but they're aficionados. You know, their adherence aren't used to it and so they might very well get upset.
ROGERSAnd to an extent these places are getting hoisted by their own marketing, right, because especially in this country, brown spirits tend to be marketed based heavily on tradition and history, right, and the notion of, you know, deriving from these guys who go into the back woods with their still and come out with some wonderful product. And that's still what they -- what even a giant company will still kind of say that's where we're coming from. That's our DNA, they would say, right.
ROGERSSo as soon as you start to acknowledge that you're tinkering with the chemistry of a product, that puts the lie to that marketing. That's maybe too strong. That marketing has the benefit of being true but the fact is these places are really impressive technological achievements but that's not what's celebrated. What's celebrated is this product that has all this tradition. And as soon as you start tinkering with tradition, then you're going to run into problems with the people who are fans of that tradition.
NNAMDISpeaking of celebration, Michael, we keep saying a few years, but when can we expect whiskey from your distillery? I want a date, a date on which this celebration will occur. Like a birthday.
LOWEWell, I think my best guess would be middle of 2016.
NNAMDIOkay. June 30, 2016 for your whiskey.
ROGERSComing back on the show, I think.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're discussing the science of booze. What, in your view, can ruin a perfectly good drink? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you pay close attention to how your drinks are made? Do you understand the science behind them? You can also shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. No matter where you are in the world, Adam, people find all kinds of ways to make alcohol from beets to honey to pumpkins, apples. But what is it about the grape that makes it so easy to make good alcohol?
ROGERSWell, I'd say a few things about it. One is, very basic level, yeast like to live on grapes and the amount of simple sugar in grapes, which is to say that versions of the sugar molecule that are not complicated. So only one subunit or two subunits, the kinds of sugars that yeast like to eat as opposed to starch, let's say, which is a bigger more complicated sugar molecule in effect that yeast can't consume. And grapes can have up to 25 percent of that -- of their guts can be that simple sugar. So they're a really good substrate.
ROGERSAlso, grapes have the added benefit of a particular species of grape that is vinifera which is what all wine is made from -- no matter what color or species or what the name says, it's all that one species -- seems to have survived some climate change really well and made it through to be really common around the fertile crescent, the Caucasian mountain area sort of what's Turkey and Iraq right now right about when civilization was developing. And it's a plant that lends itself to messing with, if you're an agronomist. If you're an early farmer you can make it grow in different ways and breed it to taste different things.
ROGERSAnd it wants to grow and it grows these long tendrils that you can string on other stuff and make it easy to keep. So there are a lot of advantages to having grapes around. And because of that high sugar content and because of that affinity that yeast have for them, they sort of fermented without us. It's kind of hard not to have grape juice from it.
ROGERSNow I did have one scientist who I talked to for the book say, you know, but if humanity had kind of settled and become civilized on a Pacific island someplace, we'd have hundreds of different strains of coconut, you know. And we'd be saying the same thing about the coconut and grapes would be the exotic thing that you, you know, get at a street fair instead.
ROGERSAnd he said that he'd gone into -- his name is Sean Myles. He's a researcher at Dalhousie now and he was a great geneticist. He went into the field to try to come up with new strains of grapes in the same way that we'll come up with new strains of other fruits. And he said that he found a lot of resistance from the winemakers because what the winemakers want, you can tell them, this grape will have good flavor. It'll be more disease resistant. It'll have a higher yield.
ROGERSBut they wanted those strains that people have heard of, the sort of dozen strains that we know. I was like, oh I'm going to get a Pinot noir or a cabernet. He called that grape racism and it led him to get out of the game. He now works on apples.
NNAMDIDidn't want to -- they don't want to have to reeducate their consumers. Here's Steve in Manassas, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEWell, I wanted to put in a plug for rye whiskey, which was the whiskey of choice in the mid-Atlantic 100 years ago. A hundred years ago, hundreds of farmers in Frederick County had distilleries going. And I wanted to mention one in particular, a commercial distillery actually, the (unintelligible) distillery in which put its rye whiskey in oak casks, took them to Baltimore, loaded them up. They went out to sea for a couple of years. They came back to Baltimore where they were unloaded and then marketed as having been seasoned and improved by their journey.
ROGERSThere's a recent bourbon company that's done much the same thing. The idea is that if you put the casks on a boat that the sloshing around exposes more of the liquid to the inner surface of the wood and you get an accelerated or a different aging process. And also may be pulling in some of that salty briny air as the contents of the cask evaporated. You know, it's a good tale.
LOWEWell, there's actually a bit of a tradition in Scandinavia with akvavit, which is sort of the white spirit kind of equivalent of gin using a different set of botanicals, you know, from northern Europe and Scandinavia. And several of the akvavit makers still do that. And you can find, you know, on the back of the bottle they'll actually have a little map of where their akvavit barrel crossed the Equator at least twice before coming back.
NNAMDIAnd we got Sonny from Gaithersburg who could not stay on the line who is curious about your thoughts on Hendrick's Gin.
LOWEHendrick's is a very nice gin. Hendrick's is actually one of the first gins, at least that, you know, is well known to deviate from the traditional London dry style of gin. And what I mean by that style is a gin that is, you know, very dry, no sweetness to it, but that is very heavily juniper and some citrus, and the other botanicals in between fairly quiet. Whereas Hendrick's decided to let's try something different. Let's add some different flavors. And so they had some cucumber and some rose flowers in their gin, which give it a distinctive flavor. It's a wonderful gin for cocktails and you can almost never mistake Hendrick's for something else.
ROGERSAnd, Kojo, you were talking about educating a consumer. Hendrick's was really important in teaching people that there could be a different flavor profile in these gins, that they didn't all taste the same, that you should go out and -- if you -- like, oh you like gin, and you drink that one, you should try that one, right. It was a way to -- it expanded a market in a way that people I don't think expected that you -- it's like, well gin is just gin, right? Like, well no.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about the malting process. But if you have called, stay on the line, Nikki. The number's 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation about the science of booze. We're talking with Michael Lowe. He is distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers which makes D.C.'s own Greenhat gin. Also joining us in studio is Adam Rogers who is author of the book "Proof: The Science of Booze." Adam is an editor with Wired magazine. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Nikki in College Park. Nikki, your turn.
NIKKIHi, fellas. I'm originally from Louisville, you know, the Bourbon Down, and my uncle worked at Old Forester. And it was very funny because he couldn't drink beer. He was allergic to hops. And so he would have his bourbon and coke highball and my aunt would have her beers every night, every night sitting on the porch. And we were allowed to drink young, which, you know, it can be an issue.
NIKKIBut my question is please, bourbon and water, it's just fine with me. And I'll fix some when I'm having dinner. Give me something to sip while I'm making dinner. However, do you have some suggestions for -- to portions? Usually I just pour it in and add an ice cube or two. But what would you suggest is a better proportion? And my second question is about gin. There's so many gins and so many tonics and I only have so much room in my pantry. Any comments or suggestions?
NNAMDII've got to tell you, Michael may have some good news for you about what you can drink Greenhat gin with as the answer to your second question. Michael, you already have it.
NIKKIAll right. Sweet.
LOWEWell, yes. As far as gins, well Greenhat makes -- right now we've got two gins on the market. We've got our year around gin which is a savory gin. And we've got our spring summer gin which is a floral and citrusy gin. If you wanted to have a couple other bottles on your shelf, as an earlier caller had asked about, I would recommend a bottle of Hendrick's. And if you want a really nice traditional London dry style, even though it's not made in London, I would go with Plymouth.
NNAMDIBut instead of drinking it with tonic...
NIKKISo if you think savory, think of it dry.
NNAMDI...instead of drinking it with tonic, she can drink her Greenhat gin with the same thing she drinks her bourbon with, water.
LOWEYou can. You certainly can. But I think a good tonic -- not a -- you know, not the grocery store brand tonic. Don't -- you know, stay away from that.
NIKKIThere are so many kinds of tonic, oh my gosh.
LOWEWell, I would try Fever Tree.
ROGERSThat's what I was going to say.
NIKKIFever Tree is lovely. Oh, they're so good.
ROGERSI might even make a pitch -- I don't know if you can get it here. There's a company called Small Hand Foods, a woman named Jennifer Colliau runs it. She's a bartender in San Francisco and she makes a tonic syrup that you can buy as well. And there are some of those syrups now too. You can get those and you sort of mix it with your own seltzer at home, club soda, whatever region we're in calling that. And then -- so you can vary the proportions of that too just to make your pantry shelf and your proportional concerns that much more disconcerting.
ROGERSI also think probably if I was that -- those proportions of water and ice in bourbon probably vary depending on which bourbon you are using and what proof it is, depending on where you want to get it. But that -- I tend to drink my bourbon with ice too and so I'm always worried that I've put one too many cubes in it.
NNAMDII know that feeling. Thank you for your call, Nikki. Here's Peter in Washington, D.C. Peter, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Peter.
NNAMDIYou're on the air, Peter. Go ahead.
PETERI had to step out for a moment. I grew up in the Netherlands. And in the Netherlands, we have a whole number of jenevers -- they call it jenever, which is basically a gin, you know, based on juniper berries. But there is old jenever, new jenever. I was wondering whether you gentlemen knew about those. And then my second part of the question...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have them answer one at a time because we're running out of time. But here's Adam.
ROGERSI love those. Yeah, the difference in those, that's as distinct from a London dry style. They tend to be a little bit sweeter but the malt in the -- as a substrate is coming through as much more forward. And I think that those can be delicious. The folks at Anchor Distilling used to make one of those that I drank all of.
NNAMDISecond part of your question, Peter.
PETERWell, quickly, also in Holland there are several different companies, one of them being Bols B-O-L-S. and will have, I would say, 30, 40, 50 types of liqueurs. Now they used to be really popular back in probably the '60s and '70s. But they're still being sold a lot, especially in the Netherlands. Do you know anything about those?
ROGERSI don't know those specifically. I mean, you know, certainly there are a lot of drinks that get made and not exported from Europe that when I've been lucky enough to travel there it's always -- it's nice to see a shelf with, you know, everything on it that I don't recognize. I do like some of the traditional herbal liqueurs that you can get here, one of the things I think is the coolest about, something like a chartreuse, let's say. It's very close to what those earliest distilled herbal drinks were like in the middle ages when people first started drinking distilled spirits like that.
ROGERSI like to think that if you have a glass of green chartreuse that it's close to thinking about what somebody in the 1200s was drinking. It's a neat historical connection.
LOWEAs a medicine.
NNAMDIAs a medicine. Peter, thank you very much for your call. We got a question from Tara in D.C. who says, "I understand Michael was a lawyer before starting his distillery. How sharp was the science learning curve for him in getting started?"
LOWEWell, it took a little while. At this point I'm still learning the science slowly as we go along. But I do have the comfort that a lot of the science has been developed in the last 20 or 30 years. And people have been making good spirits for a long, long time. So the science certainly helps but it's not essential for the art to actually produce some good product.
NNAMDIAdam, you spent a lot of time at distilleries learning about the malting process, which seems like complicated hard work. Remind us of what malting is and why it remains the best way to make beer and booze?
ROGERSWell, so I mentioned a couple of times now that yeast like to eat simple sugars, right. And if you're starting with a substrate, starting with a fruit or something that has a lot of those simple sugars than you're good to go. You have apples or grapes or honey, something like that. But if your main (word?) product, right, if your main plant product is like a grain let's say, it's storing its energy as not a simple sugar but a complex one, as a starch. So if you want to turn that into -- if you want to add value to that, if you want to turn that into something that's fermented or that you can distill, you have to have a way to get that starch turned into a sugar that yeast can eat.
ROGERSIn the west the way we do that primarily is with malting. What it really is is letting one of those barley corns -- it's usually barley -- germinate a little bit. You let a little -- you let it start to grow. You make it think that it's in the ground growing. Because what those barley corns are, they're little bombs of life. They're eggs. There's an embryo and there's food for that embryo in that seed. And you want to convince the biochemistry that sets that life in motion that now's the time. You're in dirt. It's time to grow because that's when it starts making the enzymes that convert that starch into sugar.
ROGERSHuman beings, we do that with -- start that process with saliva. We have amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch in our saliva. Plants do it with a bunch of other enzymes. There's a particular layer in the seed that do it. So at a big malting facility, like the one that I visited in the north of Scotland, they'll get, you know, eight trucks full of barley a day and they put it through this process where they convince it that it's time to grow. It starts to produce the enzymes and then they rest the process. So now they have a lot of those enzymes. And you can mix that with other grains. And now the enzymes are there to turn starches into sugars that yeast can eat.
ROGERSAnd it's core to the process. If you don't do that, if you're not going to use malted barley in your process then you basically have to buy the enzymes that come from the process and use those enzymes to do the same thing in your own shop.
NNAMDIYou found out about an entrepreneurial Japanese scientist who tried to speed up the malting process. He was never really successful?
ROGERSYeah, so this is one of my favorite stories from the annals of unsung almost heroes of alcohol. So I mentioned that malting is the way we do that in the west. But if you're making something from rice, if you're in the east, if you're making sake for example, they don't do malting. In fact, they get rid of all the layers that make those enzymes as part of the polishing process. That's rice brand, if you're looking at rice. They just want the white to make sake. And then they infect it with another fungus. So yeast is a fungus.
ROGERSThey have another fungus called koji that they infect the rice with. And that koji makes amylase and protease, makes the enzymes that break down those starches. And it's a thousands-of-years-old process. It's what comes from China. Koji is the basis for most of the things that we would associate with Japanese food for soy sauce, for vinegar, for tofu and for sake.
ROGERSAnd so in the late 1800s there was a chemist whose job it was -- his name was Jokichi Takamine. And Takamine's job was to try to commercialize Japanese industrial processes for export. And he tried to take the process of using koji rice and poured it over the barley. He became ma partner with the Whiskey Trust, which was the world's biggest distiller at the time. It was pre-prohibition in America, the people who made all the booze. And they tried to make a whiskey from it.
ROGERSAnd he came close. He actually did make a product that sold. He ran into some problems, depending on who you believe. One of his facilities burned down under slightly mysterious circumstances. He ended up in a legal battle. It didn’t quite work out but he went on, used some of the same techniques he learned. And his willingness to patent his processes he had the first English language biotechnology patent in that koji process. Ended up using that same process to make a lot of money to make an Alka-Seltzer analogue, and then got hired by Park Davis to figure out how to isolate -- learn how to isolate the enzyme that made koji work.
ROGERSHe learned how to isolate another what was then considered to be a wonder drug called epinephrine. He named it adrenaline, patented that process, got very, very rich.
NNAMDIThe rest, as they say, is history.
NNAMDIHere's Kathy in Boise, Va. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHYHi. I was hearing part of your show before and you were talking about how they came to use wooden barrels in the aging process. I'm an ex -- I was a bourbon barrel -- a used bourbon barrel broker for about 20 years and have now retired. But the story that I always got down in Louisville and a few other places was that they used to ship -- the English wanted their cod and they would -- or their various kinds of salted fish that they couldn't seem to live without, even though they were over here in the Caribbean with lots of fish -- they used to ship the cod and the various fish salted in brand new oak barrels. Because at that point Scotland had a lot of oak.
KATHYAnd when they got the stuff to the Caribbean they didn't want to just throw the barrels away. So what could they do with them? So they burned them out, which is now -- they're all charred barrels. They burned out the inside to get rid of the whole salt fish thing. And then they put their rum in it and shipped it back over to England and Scotland. And that's where that whole process, especially of the charring of the barrels, was to get rid of the fish and the salt flavor in the wood.
NNAMDISounds credible to you, Adam?
ROGERSWell, I heard a similar story. I heard a similar story where it was pickles instead of salt cod and that it was also in the shipping of whiskey that came from that bourbon county that it made its way to New Orleans eventually. And people would start to ask for that bourbon whiskey because it had that lovely brown oak lactones, making it taste like it had been in wood.
ROGERSBut I have read some histories, Chuck Cowdery's history of bourbon for example that talks about looking at bills of lading that would talk about aged spirits, not whiskeys but like brandies, that they'd be charging more for a brandy that had spent, you know, some years in a barrel that made its way over to the continental United States for example. So there's some evidence -- historical evidence that they were aging other spirits, not the American whiskeys but a brandy, let's say, from France, that when it got to the states -- I'm looking for -- there's a couple more bourbon books coming up soon. I'm hoping those guys can untangle it. I certainly couldn't.
NNAMDIOur time is winding down. Kathy, thank you very much for your call. But Michael, what do you order when you go to a good bar?
LOWEWell, actually I was smiling earlier in the hour when Adam was describing his approach to a cocktail establishment. I do much the same. I really like to see what the artisans behind the bar have come up with. I've gained a great deal of respect for creative bartenders. And, you know, they will often, you know, pay a lot of attention to what they're doing. I'll try one of their best recommendations.
NNAMDIAnd when I talk to Dave Arnold at Booker and Dax, what should I ask for?
ROGERSYou should say, give me something weird and see what he puts in front of you. That's my recommendation because he'll have it. And it'll be spectacular.
NNAMDIAdam Rogers. He is an editor at Wired magazine and author of the book "Proof: The Science of Booze." Adam, thank you for joining us.
ROGERSThank you for having me. It was great.
NNAMDIMichael Lowe is distiller and co-owner of New Columbia Distillers which makes D.C.'s own Greenhat gin. We're looking forward to your whiskey in June 30, 2016. Michael, thank you very much for joining us.
LOWEOh, you're certainly welcome, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores how much input the public should have in public art projects and how that squares with the visions of the artists who do the work.
The Arlington County Board halted two long-planned, but long-controversial streetcar projects, saying voters had spoken this month against moving forward. We examine the implications of the decision.
Kojo talks with James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock about how he's using heritage foods to revive and redefine country cooking.