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Speaking with Rob Dietrich, Head Distiller of Stranahan’s Whiskey and Combat Veteran

Spirits

Rob Dietrich

With Veteran’s Day right around the corner, we couldn’t think of a better time to reach out to some of the military veterans now serving in the beverage industry and take a look back at where they’ve been and where they’re at now. We connected with Rob Dietrich, Head Distiller of Stranahan’s Whiskey and former member of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division to talk about his service and how he found his entry into the whiskey scene.

What compelled you to join the military?
In the late eighties/early nineties, I was in the Denver punk scene and not really going anywhere in a positive direction. I looked into the military as a way to get a good direction, good education, discipline and some solid adventure to start the rest of my life with.

What branch did you serve with and what did you do?
I served in the U.S. Army, 10th Mountain Division, 10th T.A.D. (Target Acquisition Detachment). We specialized in locating primary enemy locations through radar or forward observation and taking out those locations. We were primarily snow and mountaineering trained as Quick Reactionary Forces (QRF) and I served two combat tours in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1992-1994 during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident, and one tour in Haiti as security forces in 1994 during the Haitian political uprising.

Do you have any memorable beverage related experience during your service?
I have a few that aren’t entirely appropriate to relate here, however I would say most of my beverage-related experiences in the military were memorable. One story in particular is when I was on leave in Mombasa, Kenya during my tour in Somalia. We had all our combat pay saved up and were spending it like kings, and had some catching up to do on the drinking front as we were not allowed to drink in Somalia for obvious reasons.

We had been drinking for most of the day and were waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to a rock quarry nightclub in downtown Mombasa. When the bus arrived, we were well into our cups and the sun was just setting and it was a beautiful night; a warm breeze and mischief in the air as we were happily primed up with Tusker Kenyan Beer and Jose Cuervo Tequila. There was a luggage rack on top of the bus and I bribed the driver to let us climb up and sit on the top of the bus. However, before we climbed up, I adamantly convinced the entire bus of German, Japanese and Dutch tourists to climb up with us. I think we scared the bejezus out of some them, drunk, crazy soldiers that we were, and the rest were having the time of their lives. We careened through the streets of Mombasa, a whole roof-top pile of us, getting swatted by palm leaves, whooping it up and loving every minute of it. That was a great beginning of quite an adventurous evening! The end of that night was us bribing a taxi driver to drive as fast as his car could go through a military check-point and losing the one pursuer. Priorities and fun are a different variety when you are surviving in a combat zone…

Did you always have an interest in fermentation, distillation, and whiskey while you served?
I certainly was interested in the whiskey aspect, but fermentation and distillation were as of yet not on my radar. We did attempt to make wine out of Koolaid packets from our MRE’s in Somalia, with horrible results. I had much to learn in the area of fermentation!

As you prepared to transition out of the military, did you plan to get into the whiskey business?
I actually got into the music business when I got out of the Army, living in a bus and working shows all over the country, before settling back in Denver for a decade-long career that netted me some great memories and some memorable tours with the likes of James Brown and Lone Star, which was probably a good segue into the spirits beverage industry. I learned how to manage crews and manage large-scale production, which has helped immensely in my career in whiskey production.

How did you end up at Stranahan’s, and what has it been like working your way up to Head Distiller?
I met the original Head Distiller over a mutual love of music and vintage motorcycles. I was fascinated by the distillation and whiskey-making process, and at the time was working on a diesel motorcycle that could run on vegetable oil. We started working on a bike that ran on the spent whiskey heads and created a great friendship. I became one of the first night distillers in 2006 and spent my nights making and barreling whiskey, while wrenching on my motorcycle in front of the still. I worked my way up to the barrel house manager and did a lot of the maintenance on equipment and systems around the facility before working my way up to the Head Distiller position and managing all aspects of whiskey production from grain to bottle.

Who have been influential in your career as a distiller?
There are many, but I would say Jesse Graber is definitely my hero when it comes to pure Colorado guts and determination. I most certainly would not have a job if it wasn’t for him and his tenacity for making the finest quality Colorado whiskey. I’m also a big fan of Rob Masters and Todd Leopold, both Head Distillers in the Denver area. They have been great friends and great teachers in their own right.

Any advice for service members preparing to transition out of the military that may be looking for a job in the beverage industry?
Study what you love, and leave no stone unturned. Buy every book on the subject you can, ask questions, visit forums and buy products that interest you. Challenge your palate and practice, practice, practice. Legally, of course.



The State of Agave

Spirits

Jalisco Agave Fields

A well-made margarita is the most challenging cocktail riddle for any bar that prioritizes serving quality drinks. Yesterday, at our little mezcaleria in Houston, The Pastry War, I served around 400 margaritas. With skyrocketing agave prices, the current lime crisis, and increasing agave syrup demands, each of those liquid darlings represent one more ice-cold step towards the edge of sustainability’s cliff and bar margins that seemingly get thinner every day. Unfortunately, unlike droning on and on about historically accurate Aviation specs, bartenders around the globe seem content to simply complain about the unwillingness of ingredients to arrive perfectly at their bar doors.

Limes grow on trees, subject to weather, and they are traded by people, subject to political disputes and cartel activity. The idea that perfect, cost-effective limes should be available whenever we want them isn’t only reflective of a relatively new era of globalization, it demonstrates widespread ignorance about these issues within our industry. I get it. Most of us fell under the irreverent bar siren’s call and fell in love with hospitality, avoiding hypercritical discussions of agriculture, global trade or other real issues outside of the walls of our very comfortable bars. Nevertheless, it isn’t acceptable for those who represent themselves as leaders of our industry to ignore the thousands of lives our bars impact every year through the products we choose to pour at bars—juice and otherwise. No, it isn’t an easy discussion, but I like to think that the persistent claim that “this industry is all about taking care of people” applies to the people we have never met that make the products we serve as well. See the full post »



Renowned Cognac Auction, La Part des Anges, Sets New Sales Record

Beverage NewsSpirits

La Part des Anges

The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the trade board responsible for promoting Cognac and its producers, recently held their annual La Part des Anges (The Angel’s Share) auction, raising a large amount of money for charity while auctioning off some world class Cognac to discerning buyers. In its 9th year, Cognac connoisseurs, retailers, trade, and members of the media from around the world congregated at the beautiful Abbaye de Bassac in the Charente region of France. The Abbey, founded in the 11th century, provided a stunning backdrop for the auction and one that would be fit for a queen. Or, perhaps, Sarah, Duchess of York, who was in attendance as her charity Children in Crisis was one of the two beneficiaries for the night’s auction lots. The other was Restaurants du Cœur (Restaurants of Love), which works to provide meals for the needy.

Each lot included just one bottle, aside from a select few like the lot from Prince Hubert de Polignac, which was a demi-john’s worth of late 1800’s Cognac that would fill 12 bottles. 25 unique and incredibly limited Cognac lots were offered, many coming in one-of-a-kind Baccarat and Lalique decanters and could leave home with anyone so long as they were the lucky high bidder. See the full post »



Cocktail Friday: Citizen Orange

Spirits

Citizen Orange

It’s Friday and you know what that means, it is time to put away those TPS reports and belly up to the bar for a cocktail. For some of you, that means breaking out your Hawthorne strainer, a jigger, and Mutineer Magazine’s Cocktail Friday.

This week we have a recipe for the Citizen Orange cocktail which highlights NOLET’S Silver gin and was created by Mark Drew, VP of Hospitality and Brand Development for Critical Mass, a cocktail, hospitality, and strategy consulting firm out of New York City.

“Originally we created the cocktail to celebrate The Netherlands participation in the World Cup,” said Mark. “Orange being the national team’s color we wanted to incorporate orange in both the taste and the look. As the quintessential Dutch Gin we decided to base our ingredients around the fruit forward and floral elements of NOLET’S Silver and combine them with fresh orange oils and zest.”

Check out these exciting ingredients and jumpstart your liquor locker on this Cocktail Friday.

Citizen Orange
Created by Critical Mass cocktails for CitizenM Hotels

2 oz. NOLET’S Silver Gin
.5 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
.5 oz. Boiron Passion Fruit Puree
.5 oz. Monin Vanilla Syrup
2 orange wedges
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Club Soda to top

Muddle orange wedges in shaker. Add remaining ingredients, shake with ice and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with soda and garnish with an orange zest.



Chicago Bar Makes Cocktail With Pig’s Blood

Spirits

WEREWOLVES OF LONDON Cocktail

One Chicago bar is really getting behind Halloween this year. We introduce to you, the Werewolves of London cocktail that utilizes pig’s blood as a cocktail component. Pig’s blood isn’t some newfangled hipster liqueur, bitters, or tincture. We’re talking about blood. Like, erythrocytes … from a pig.

When asked about the cocktail, Kinmont’s bartender and creator of the drink Jason Brown, said this: “In an industry that’s so creative, we all need to continually push the envelope and strive to be more unique. I’ve wanted to create a cocktail using blood for some time now, and when I recently re-heard the [Werewolves of London] lyric about a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s, it was the spark of inspiration I needed to make a tropical drink with a nod to the bloodthirsty nature of these creatures.”

WEREWOLVES OF LONDON
1.5 ounce of Bombay Gin
.5 ounce of Pimms No. 1
2 ounce of house-made coconut syrup
1.5 ounce of fresh, house-squeezed pineapple juice
.5 ounce of pig’s blood

Appearance on the menu each night is dependent on pig’s blood sourcing availability and will be available through Fall.



New Spirit Releases to be on the Lookout For

Spirits

New Spirits This Fall

Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Year Old
Matured exclusively in American Oak Bourbon casks for a minimum of 26 years, Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Year Old is the first single malt from the Speyside distiller to use Bourbon casks throughout the entire maturation process to become a permanent addition to this premium line. Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Year Old will be available nationally at fine wine and spirits retailers starting fall 2014 for a suggested retail price of $499.99 / 750ml (43% ABV).

Chopin SINGLE Potato 2012
This limited edition, once-distilled spirit is made entirely from Zuzanna and Hinga potatoes harvested at the peak of their starch content. While many vodka are distilled multiple times, this is distilled just once in order to retain its unique flavor and character. Other expressions in the SINGLE line include Young Potato, Rye, and Wheat.

Penny Blue XO Rum
Named after the Mauritian Penny Blue stamp, one of the rarest stamps in the world, this single estate Mauritian rum is distilled at Medine, the island’s oldest operational distillery first opened in 1926. Penny Blue is a small-batch vatted rum, natural in color and non-chill-filtered, that is entirely produced on a single estate – from growing the sugar cane, to distillation, maturation and bottling. Imported by Anchor Distilling Company, only 7,000 individually numbered bottles of Penny Blue XO Batch #002 will be sold in the United States and Europe with 3,000 bottles currently allocated for the U.S. See the full post »



Classic Cocktails with Robert Hess: The Ramos Gin Fizz

Spirits

Ramos Gin Fizz

Photo by Andy Norsen

As far back as the early 1700s, there has been a strong drinking ethos surrounding New Orleans. In those early days there were simple and straight forward drinks being served. Then in the 1800s various “Coffee Houses” opened up, and it was from these times that the ever classic Sazerac was born. Our modern times however have ushered in the almost frat-house revelries which surround Bourbon Street and the high-octane frozen daiquiri machines which seem to be on each corner. Let us forget that for the moment, and instead look back to a time just prior to American prohibition.

The Ramos Gin Fizz is one New Orleans drink which you may have heard of, but perhaps haven’t had the opportunity to try. It dates from the 1880s, when it was created by Henry C. Ramos, a famed bar owner of the day. He had what might seem to be a unique, and perhaps even contrary position in regards to how he ran his bar. Oddly enough, it is said that he embraced the popular notion of temperance, or drinking only in moderation. A drunkard horrified him, and if one of his customers was known to be drinking too much, he would be asked to stay away from the bar until he was able to get himself under better control. And unlike many bars, Mr. Ramos shut his doors promptly at 8pm so his customers could spend a proper evening at home with their families. While he would also have preferred to remain closed on Sundays, it was only due to his customer’s insistence that he reluctantly ended up opening. His Sunday hours however were for only one hour in the late morning, and one hour in the early evening, any more than that he felt, would be inappropriate. When Prohibition was passed in 1919, like all bars Henry Ramos shut his doors. But unlike many establishments, he refused to even consider a speakeasy or other form of underground operation. Prohibition was the law of the land, and Mr. Ramos would never go against that. See the full post »



What is Authentic Shōchū?

Spirits

Shōchū

Saké is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. So what is shōchū? It all started in the Middle East with an ancient spirit called arak. This traditional beverage is distilled from grapes and infused with aniseed. Arak served as a base beverage concept that evolved as it spread around the world. It was brought over to Asia where it transformed into lao lao in Thailand. When it arrived in Okinawa, Japan, the crafts of distillation and rice kōji-making combined to form awamori. The art of making spirits arrived to mainland Japan in Kagoshima about 500 years ago. Local ingredients were combined with the ancient craft, and shōchū was born!

The use of kōji mold is what separates shōchū from other spirits. Yellow kōji produces the flavors, fermentable sugars and lactic acid in saké. Shōchū production uses black kōji which is a strain indigenous to Okinawa. Black kōji also produces fermentable sugars, but with a different set of flavors and citrus acid. When spirit production arrived in Japan, with it came black kōji. Long grain rice used for Okinawan awamori was replaced with Japanese short grain rice. Kagoshima’s famous sweet potatoes and other starchy grains like barley are also used as the main ingredient.

Just like saké, shōchū quality suffered during World War II. The idea was to produce the maximum amount of alcohol with the minimum amount of ingredients. Column stills were used to produce high proof alcohol that would be diluted down to produce cheap flavorless shōchū. This vodka-like shōchū is still made today in automated factories and used as a cocktail base. See the full post »



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