Episode 090 - WTF is Clairin?

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What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

This week, we’ve got for a crowd-sourced mailbag episode, where we take some of the best questions from our audience over the past several months and share them with you (along with our answers) so that you can learn from the kinds of questions that home bartenders out there are asking us on a weekly basis.

If you can’t tell from my voice, I’m a little under the weather, so I pushed back this week’s interview to avoid contaminating any of our valued guests. But a lot of these listener questions have been burning a hole in my pocket for several months now, so I thought this would be the perfect time for us to learn together while I recover from the cold that launched a thousand tissues.

Featured Cocktail: The Auld Alliance

This week’s featured cocktail is the Auld Alliance, and this is an extremely fitting time for me to share this cocktail with you because I discovered it a couple years ago--the last time I got sick like this.

So, my nose was running like a faucet, and I figured - screw it, if I’m gonna be miserable, I’m at least gonna have a cocktail. So to justify it, I looked up something like “medicinal cocktails,” and on some listicle inhabiting some poorly-lit corner of the internet, I found the Auld Alliance.

To make it, you’ll need:

Hello Chartruese, my old friend…

Hello Chartruese, my old friend…

  • 1 oz Scotch (blended is common, but single malt is also good)

  • 1 oz Green Chartreuse

  • 1 bar spoon of Benedictine (which, like Chartreuse, is a French herbal liqueur)

  • 1 bar spoon Grand Marnier

This is a boozy, stirred drink, so you combine all these ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, stir until well chilled and diluted, and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Sometimes, I use the added touch of a nice lemon twist garnish, depending on what kind of Scotch I’ve got setting the tone, but this is optional and completely up to your own taste.

This would be the point in time where I state that I’m not a doctor, and that cocktails can’t cure your cold. As a person, I kinda straddle the line between modern medicine and traditional remedies. I certainly don’t think everything needs to be solved with a pill, but on the other hand, I also take a great deal of comfort in having trained professionals and scientific studies dictating serious medical treatment for myself or my loved ones.

THAT BEING SAID.

When once I got about half-way through this cocktail, my nose stopped running for a good 30-40 minutes. It was like turning off a faucet. And I know - anybody out there with a science degree is probably screaming bloody placebo effect right now. But before we write it off, consider this:

Green Chartreuse contains over 120 herbs and spices, many of which have been used for millennia in homeopathic and herbal healing traditions around the world. And Benedictine might not boast as wide a botanical profile, but it inhabits that same quasi-medicinal tradition. These products were effectively the Nyquil of their day.

The last thing to mention about this cocktail is that it’s kind of a cool historical reference. The word Auld in “Auld Alliance” is spelled with an “AU” in the Scottish tradition (As in, “Auld Lang Syne” - the song that gets resurrected every New Year’s Eve). And this is appropriate, right? Because we’ve got Scotch in the cocktail. But the alliance that’s being referenced is a partnership between the Jacobite Scots and the French, which explains all those French ingredients--the Chartreuse, Benedictine, and Grand Marnier.

This is only a mild form of spoiler alert, but if you happen to be a fan of the popular Starz show Outlander, you might take a bit of plot-driven amusement in this cocktail - so feel free to incorporate it into your next time-traveling Scottish highland fantasy.

So, now that many of you are seriously questioning what kind of TV I watch, let’s turn our attention to those mailbag questions before I embarrass myself.

A Moonshine Mystery

First up, we’ve got a question from Sofia M., from Houston, Texas. She writes:

Hi Modern Bar Cart,

Recently listened to your rum episode, and really enjoyed it. I consider myself an amateur rum aficionado, but the other day I came across something kind of strange.

I was at my friend’s housewarming party, and one of her cousins from the DR [I’m guessing that’s the Dominican Republic] pulled out this unlabeled glass bottle and started pouring shots. She said it was “rum moonshine,” but she was already tipsy and my Spanish is a little rusty. It tasted sort of like white rum I’ve had before, but there was also something a little different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Have you ever come across something like this? Is it legit, or do you think I was drinking straight moonshine?

Let me know what you think!

-Sofia

Well, Sofia - I gotta say, that’s an interesting question, and while we here at Modern Bar Cart can’t really officially advocate drinking booze out of unlabeled bottles for safety reasons, I think we can still shine a little light on this question.

One of the things that immediately jumped out at me from your email is that your friend’s cousin was from the Dominican Republic, located in the Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the nation of Haiti. And that’s when things started clicking for me.

Even though I didn’t get to taste this “moonshine” like you did, if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it was likely Clairin, which is a traditional, rustic Haitian moonshine made using sugar cane. This effectively makes it a rum, but as you picked up on during your tasting, there are some interesting nuances.

I’ve recently been doing some research on Clairin because it’s one of a few dying breeds of traditional spirits out there -- namely, wild-fermented, minimally processed, inherently small-batch spirits. Others like it include Irish Poitin, Mexican Mezcal, and American Moonshine, and all of those have both legal and illegal variants.

Haiti’s Agricultural Distilling Tradition

Now, Haiti is a really interesting country in the historical sweep of the Western Hemisphere. It’s the only Caribbean nation to exist as the result of a successful slave revolution, which reveals both its people’s independent streak and its origins in the sugar trade. As we know, where there’s sugar, there’s rum - so it’s really no surprise that we’re dealing with a sugar cane-based spirit, but Haiti’s circumstances in the greater world stage have played a large role in creating a distilling culture that some would say is almost “frozen in time.”

What do I mean by that?

Well, in most larger countries, we’re pretty content to have our state-regulated liquor systems with three-tiered distribution and government controlled labeling rules and hefty taxes on the alcohol itself. These things keep us safe and let us know what to expect when we pick up a bottle at the liquor store. But in places where bureaucratic structure breaks down, it’s still possible to come across distilling practices that are more traditional and more tied to the land. Affluent hipsters here in the U.S. would call them “more authentic.”

This is the situation in the nation of Haiti, which most of us are familiar with only because of recent natural disasters. Due to the lack of infrastructure, a lot of the people there make their living by farming, and much like the early farmers in the United States, these folks distill their excess crops in order to earn a little extra income. Clairin is fermented out in the fields, distilled using technology much less sophisticated than what you’d find in a modern distillery, and it can often be found for sale on the side of the road in unlabeled jugs.

So, Sofia, that’s why I’m guessing you got the chance to taste some Clairin.

The Future of Clairin

Before we move on to another question, I want to elaborate on a couple other aspects of this traditional spirit.

First: why do wild fermentation and traditional distilling practices matter?

Well, if you remember back to our Intro to Terroir episode, you’ll recall that regional differences in microbiome and human processing can have a major impact on the flavor of a spirit. And if there’s on thing that booze geeks like, it’s nuance -- finding spirits with unique production methods and flavor profiles. Clairin is a great category for this because each distiller is going to have a slightly different yeast profile and distilling equipment from the next one, making for a category with almost unlimited complexity at the local level.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because the Mezcal landscape was much the same about 15-20 years ago. Just a bunch of farmers making their hooch and drinking it with friends and family. Then some gringos showed up with a lot of paper, and suddenly a whole slew of new pressures are introduced into the distilling landscape. Currently, Mezcal is in the midst of a true tragedy of the commons, with demand for the spirit completely outstripping the capacity for high-quality agave cultivation and authentic small batch production. This is why I don’t anticipate Mezcal prices going down at any point in the next 30 years.

All of this seems like a bit of a downer, but Clairin has one significant advantage over Mezcal. Whereas many agave strains can take 5-10 years to mature (and some significantly longer), sugar cane can be harvested yearly. Also, as you might imagine, the sugar output for literal sugar cane is a bit higher than what you can get from a roasted agave pina, so the potential alcohol output is greater with much less input.

So here’s the grand finale of my Clairin rant - and I apologize to Sofia, who just wanted to know what she was drinking - but this is actually pretty darn important for spirits and cocktail culture in the next decade.

I believe that Clairin is set to be one of the next big spirits on the international market, which has some serious potential benefits for the impoverished nation of Haiti. Not often do market forces lay a golden egg in your lap like this. Of course, this is likely going to be abused. Big spirits conglomerates are already on the ground scouting out who they’re going to buy out and scale to massive industrial proportions. I think the best we can hope for is that we’ll find some balance between enough regulation to import this stuff to the U.S. and enough respect for tradition to keep it wild fermented and traditionally distilled. But the fact remains, it’s much more sustainable than agave, which has me optimistic for a positive outcome.

The Anatomy of an Old Fashioned Bar

Whooh! Sorry for that - I’m just super jazzed about Clairin. Now let’s move on to our next question which is from our listener Andy in Eugene, Oregon, who writes:

Hello Eric,

Long-time listener, first time writer. I’ve been put in charge of the drinks for my soon-to-be brother-in-law’s bachelor party, and I wanted to see if you had any ideas about putting together an Old Fashioned Bar for 15-20 people. I think it would be really cool, but I’m not sure how to pull it off. Any tips?

Thanks,
Andy

I love this question because it combines my love for old fashioneds with my love for scaling cocktail experiences for a decently large group of people. The way I usually do this is by batching cocktails, but the allure of the Old Fashioned is that it’s one of those cocktails you build in the glass by hand.

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So, instead of going with one or two large-format, batched cocktails, I’d recommend a simple and elegant buffet approach, where you offer multiple variations of different ingredients and let your guests pick their own adventure. I’m pretty sure this is what Andy means when he says an “Old Fashioned Bar,” but I wanted to clarify for all you listeners out there.

Now how to execute this. Well...let’s see what you can offer.

Obviously, you should have a couple different types of whiskey. For 20 people, I’d recommend about 4 25 oz bottles, which is going to put you at around 5 oz of spirits per person, which will get you buzzed, but not completely obliterate you before other festivities. For variation, I might recommend a wheated bourbon and a high rye bourbon, and then you can get creative. Maybe some Irish Whiskey, a nice aged rum, a straight up bottle of classic rye whiskey, or even a bottle of scotch if you’ve got some scotch drinkers in the room.

Once you’ve got your bottles picked out, see if you can get your hands on a couple different types of bitters. Some different aromatic bitters are always appropriate but also think about mixing it up with some orange or chocolate bitters, which always go over well in Old Fashioneds.

For sweeteners, I’d definitely go simple syrup here because you don’t want 20 non-sober people trying to muddle sugar cubes. Cut that step out of the process. If you wanna get fancy, you can offer a few different types of syrups. Maybe throw in some Amaretto so people can make a riff on the godfather cocktail if they’re Sopranos fans.

Then finally, you want a nice bowl of oranges and a couple peelers available for garnishes.

The place where I see this being a little tricky is the ice situation. If you’re in a hotel, you’ll definitely want to check your icemaker status and proximity. And if you’re not, I’d definitely recommend getting a nice big cooler filled with a couple bags of nice clear ice. This isn’t the time to go fancy on ice, but you do want to make sure you’ve got plenty of it.

For 20 people, glassware is tricky - you’re almost at the point where real glass is feasible, so once you’ve taken care of all the other stuff on this list, figure out if you’re in a place where glassware is available, or if you’d just prefer to keep it simple and order some disposable stuff and be done with it.

Definitely snap a pic and tag us @modernbarcart of Instagram and Facebook when you put together your Old Fashioned Bar, Andy. And from us here at Modern Bar Cart, cheers to you for putting together a super classy bachelor party.  

Milk Punch for the Lactose Intolerant

This next question is from Jenee in Massachusetts, who writes:

After listening to your milk punch episode, I wanted to make some myself, but my boyfriend is lactose intolerant. Does clarifying the milk punch make it safe to drink for people with lactose sensitivities?

Fingers crossed!

Well, Jenee, this is an excellent question. There are a ton of different dietary and nutritional concerns you need to look out for when making cocktails, and lactose intolerance is a big one, particularly when we’re talking milk punch.

The short answer to your question is: no. Clarified milk punch is no good for the lactose intolerant among us. Lactose is a water soluble sugar, which means it gets left behind when you strain the curds out of a clarified milk punch. This is one of the reasons why a milk punch can still have that dairy character without looking like milk at all. The proteins are gone, but the sugars and some of the fats remain.

If you’re looking for something in the milk punch world that IS safe for lactose free folks to consume, I’d recommend using a really nice almond milk or oat milk in a New Orleans-style milk punch, which isn’t clarified. Check out that recipe over on our Milk Punch Episode show notes page.

Muddler Design School

Next up, we’ve got a hardware question from Brian in Arizona, who ask:

Hey Eric,

Huge fan of the podcast. Hoping you can give me some advice on muddlers.

I want to get a really good muddler for my home bar setup. I’ve been using the back end of a wooden spoon for a while now, and it’s time for an upgrade. When I look online I see muddlers with smooth heads and textured heads. Which of these would you recommend for someone who makes a lot of old Fashioneds?

Thanks for your help.

Well, if you think about it, Brian. A muddler with a textured head is going to work a bit differently that one with a smooth head. It’s more suited to tearing than it is for grinding.

In the cocktail world, you’re normally muddling one of three things:

  • Sugar

  • Herbs

  • Fruit

The Mojito Exception

The only cocktail out there that can really benefit from a muddler with a textured head is the mojito. Some people really like to tear up that mint when they muddle it with the sugar. Normally, when you’re muddling herbs, you don’t want to break the leaves because that releases some of the more bitter notes, as opposed to the essential oils that are released when you lightly bruise them. But in a Mojito, you’re adding lime and soda water, which is really going to minimize the impact of that bitterness, so it’s okay to really tear things up.

Now, you mention that you make a lot of Old Fashioneds, which is a perfect use case for a muddler with a smooth head because it maximizes contact with the sugar without you having to worry about it getting caught in the grooves of a muddler with a textured head.

So all around, for your purposes, I think a muddler with a flat or slightly rounded, smooth head is going to be the winner.

One last thing I’ll add is that I prefer wood over stainless steel or aluminum in a home bar setting because it makes it way less likely that you’ll accidentally chip a glass when you’re muddling.

For more info, check out our MUDDLER EPISODE.

Independent Scotch Bottlings: Are They Worth It?

Next up, we’ve got a deep dive on Scotch courtesy of Philippe in sunny San Diego, who writes:

I’ve been really getting into Single Malt Scotch over the past few years.  Although I’m certainly not an expert,I think I know more than the average person. But one area where I’m kind of lost is with so-called “Independent Bottlings.” How are these different from other Scotches, and are they worth the money?

Hoping you can shed some light!

Good question, Philippe. And honestly it’s not one we’ve spent much time talking about on this podcast, so this is a great time to start.

Basically, the difference between an independent bottling and a regular single malt offering is that a regular 10 or 12 or 18 year old single malt aims for consistency within a brand. So if you walk up to a bottle of Laphroaig 10 year from 1990, you can expect it to taste fairly similar to a bottle from 2019. That’s what master blenders shoot for. But that’s not how barrel ageing works.

In other words, the barrels don’t care what we humans are trying to do. So depending on the weather or the temperature fluctuations within the aging facility, or the moisture levels, or any number of other factors, you’re going to have some barrels that turn out very different than the rest.

So, what these independent bottlers do is they go around to various barrel facilities and taste through casks from well known Scotch distillers. They may then end up purchasing one or more casks that they really like and then bottling them under their own label. It’s kind of like a creme de la creme of Scotch nerd-dom.

Now, the details can get complicated. Sometimes they purchase new make spirit and age it in their own facility, which is the case with Duncan Taylor, one of the largest independent bottling operations out there. And there are also times when you can or can’t do things like put an age statement on the bottle, or list the name of the distillery that actually produced the spirit.

Like I said, it gets complicated fast, but I recently came across a great resource from the Spirit Guide Society Podcast out in LA, who interviewed Jason Johnstone-Yellin from Single Cask Nation, which is a membership-based independent bottling operation.

Jason really breaks down what it means to be an independent bottler, so I think instead of listening to me talk about it, you should just head on over to the show notes page where we’ll link to that episode, which will really give you a good sense of the landscape.

Before we get to our last question, I will make one comment on the price of independent bottlings, though. They tend to be mucho dinero. And this isn’t because the ingredients or barrels or aging practices are any better than other Scotch out there. It’s just because someone has decided that this small bit of whiskey is particularly good, which drives up the demand on an inherently limited supply. So you’re not paying for packaging, or more years in a barrel, necessarily. You’re paying for the privilege to be one of the few folks who can own a rare and unique whisky expression that the world will never see again.

Red, Yellow, and Blue Cocktails

Rounding out our mailbag episode, we’ve got a cool little cocktail party scenario from friend of the pod Greg Azorsky out in Kansas City.

We’ve done giveaways with some of his cocktail artwork in the past, and he actually got in touch a few weeks back with a question about cocktails for an art gallery opening.

He wrote:

I’m having a solo exhibition of my artwork at a gallery here starting soon, and my wife and I are hosting a little cocktail party at the gallery for our friends to come see my work. A lot of it uses primary colors so I was thinking of trying to tie the cocktail selection into the artwork by maybe having 3 drinks, a red one, a blue one and a yellow one.  For the red one I was thinking a Negroni, but I’m having trouble thinking of something for the blue and the yellow that would be simple to batch. We are having a bartender but I thought batching them in advance would be the way to go. Any suggestions?

I loved this question because it’s such a creative set of inputs. A red, blue, and yellow cocktail? Absolutely fantastic. So I figured what I’d do is share my initial response to Greg and then give you an update on what he ended up serving to his guests. This is a great example of the type of creative back-and-forth that goes into making even a small cocktail menu, and we’ve also got some pictures on the show notes page of the gallery opening and the drinks.

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Eric’s response:

Hi Greg,

For yellow drinks, I usually recommend Suze. It's a bitter gentian liqueur from France that goes well with gin, but if you want a more sessionable drink, you could just serve Suze & Tonic with a squeeze of lemon. For blue, it's tricky. Butterfly pea flowers can be made into a nice deep blue syrup, but it'll change color to pink in the presence of acidity - so watch out for that. You can pick up butterfly pea flowers on Amazon - they’re pretty neat. Your other two options would be Magellan gin, which uses iris petals, and Blue Curacao, which I think is just nonsense.

What if you did a riff on a Kir Royale with butterfly pea syrup added to sparkling white wine? That way, it's cheap and easy. I really like that lineup: Negroni (boozy, classic), Suze & tonic (light, citrusy), Bleu Royale (sparkling wine for art gallery opening? no brainer).

Best of luck and let me know how it goes!

In the end, Greg ended up going with a Negroni, a bluish margarita (for a the citrus forward option) and a yellow summer brew. According to him, the cocktails were a hit and the gallery event was a success.

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We love helping folks workshop cocktail menus, so please don’t be shy about blowing us up on email or social media. All of the questions today were sent to us sometime over the past few months at podcast[at]modernbarcart.com. So if you have a cocktail or spirit related query that’s burning a hole in your liquor cabinet, please send it our way.