Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New York State Of Mind - Tuthilltown Distillery at Scratch Restaurant, Mountain View, CA

The blog has been a little dark lately which is reflective of how things have been going. In dire need of a distraction a group of close friends and I hooked up at my favorite local eatery for another whiskey tasting meal last week. The folks at Scratch are really beginning to endear themselves to Mountain View. I’m in there usually once a week at least and I’ve noticed that the bar is consistently very active and the dinning room is as well.

This whiskey tasting was hosted by Tuthilltown Spirits of Gardiner, NY. This small, Hudson Valley distillery produces the first distilled spirits made in NY State since the ratification of the 21st Amendment. They produce a variety of small batch, “artisan” aged and un-aged whiskeys and two different apple based Vodka’s. They operate out of a 220 year old Gristmill and now as in the past the material brought to the mill is local. All of the grains used in Tuthilltown’s whiskeys are sourced from farms within a 10mi radius of the mill/distillery which contributes a terroir to the whiskey that is exclusive to their offerings. It’s worthy of note to state that the “heirloom” grain varieties that they use have roughly 30% of the yield of modern, genetically engineered “McGrain’s” that some distillers use. It would be more cost effective for them to use commercial seed from Monsanto or similar, but the contribution to flavor would be diminished and the practice would be far less sustainable as these commercial grains tend to strip nutrient from the soil at a higher rate requiring more chemical soil enhancement. Not something I’d like to have in my whiskey.

Just like the previous tasting (chronicled here) Sean Eastwood, Scratch’s Executive Chef, paired each of the whiskeys with an original creation not found on their daily menu.

I should note here that I am by no means an authority on whiskey. My point here is simply to identify what I do and don't care for. I'm sure that my uneducated palate missed certain elements and nuances that a more experienced person might have picked up on and there might be bits that I as a novice don't appreciate as much as another might.

The first course was a Foie Gras Parfait. Served with a black Mission Fig jam, Cornichon, Black Pepper and Asiago Brioche and a Micro-Herb Salad. The Foie was rich, buttery and absolutely melted on the tongue filling the mouth with flavor. The house made brioche were good enough to eat alone but were a perfect compliment. One of my friends had never had Foie before (not sure why we were friends before this) and he was gobsmacked by it. His statement, “Oh my god, it’s as good as bacon, and it can fly!”

The Foie was paired with Tuthilltown’s “Baby Bourbon”. The grain bill is 100% corn grown within 10 miles of the distillery and the open distilling used allows unique local airborne yeasts into the mix contributing to the exclusive flavor profile of the spirit. The spirit is  aged in their own, custom made ¼-cask barrels. These 12ga new oak barrels allow for more spirit-oak surface area contact per-gallon. I found the “Baby Bourbon” to be quite smoky along with the aromas of nectarine and caramel. There was a brief initial “bite” similar to a rye but overall, the flavors were delicate and smooth including an initial hit of orange peel and finishes with a smooth vanilla flavor. I find most Bourbon to be a bit too sweet for my liking, think Makers Mark here, and I honestly don’t know enough about this to tell you why, but I found the “Baby Bourbon” to be far less syrupy-sweet and much more pleasing when served neat. I’d happily consume it as such, and with a few drops of water it was quite good as well.

The second course of the evening was a Lapsang Souchong Tea Cured Salmon served with a Warm Wholegrain Mustard & Dill Potato Salad and a Spearmint-Fennel Salad. This was by far the best dish of the meal. The salmon was among the best fish dishes I’ve ever had and I’m not normally a huge fan of salmon. It was so moist as to defy the assertion that it had actually been cooked at all and the balance between the high fat content fish with the acidity of the mustard in the potato salad was absolutely perfect. I’d love to see this dish as a weekly special at Scratch. I just hope they let me know what day of the week it’ll be offered.

The Salmon was paired with Tuthilltown’s “Manhattan Rye”.  Rye whiskey is among the most classic of American spirits and was a pre-prohibition staple in New York. So much so that it inspired the famous “Manhattan” cocktail now enjoyed the world over. Sadly, Rye itself hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity and the cocktail is usually made with cheap bourbon rather than the spirit it was originally created around. The aromas are dominated by the smell of wood ash and baking bread and after adding a few drops of water I picked up on some vanilla, macaroons and just a bit of citrus zest. In regard to flavor, most Rye’s have an initial sweetness with a finish highlighted by a touch of bitterness. It may have been due to the meal it was paired with but I found the reverse to be the case here. The rye started slightly bitter tasting of hard spices like nutmeg or maybe allspice backed up by some pepper and it finished with flavors of vanilla, nuts, honey and cinnamon. This was among the most complex Rye spirits I’ve had and by virtue of the flip-flopped taste pattern and distinct flavors it certainly offered a very unique tasting experience.

The third offering of the meal was a Blackened Beef featuring an Aged Prime Strip Steak over a Dark Mole Poblano with a Sweet Potato Spoon Bread, Texas Caviar and Smoked Chocolate “Earth”. Each individual component of the dish was really quite good and the beef was perfectly cooked and very flavorful but I found that there was a bit too much of the Mole in my serving and it was a bit difficult to get a bite without a slightly overpowering portion of Mole. Still a very successful creation I do think that if served with 1/3 the amount of the Mole it would have been really amazing.

The course was paired with Tuthilltown’s “Single Malt”. This spirit is made in the fashion of a single malt scotch, but can’t be named such because the barley is “non-peated” and of course because it doesn’t hail from Scotland. Simple and pure, it’s made entirely from a whole ground malted barley and that’s it. Most “scotch” is aged in re-used barrels which previously held wine, sherry and other whiskeys. Tuthilltown though uses charred new-oak barrels for a mere 6-10 months which contributes a slightly different collection of aroma and flavor to the spirit. The “Single Malt” is a red/copper color and the aromas I picked up on included a heavy hit of the oak not unlike walking into a winery stuffed to the gills with barrels of chardonnay. The wood aroma was augmented with some sweet elements as well including cake & maple and I think I picked up the smell of newspaper as well. Very interesting! The flavors were equally compelling and dominated by the taste of winter vegetables, malt, hay and bread. I didn’t find this spirit to be exceptionally smooth. Perhaps due to it’s “youth” given it’s brief barrel aging or perhaps because I went in expecting a “traditional” scotch experience it struck me as just a bit raw. I’d imagine that over time this spirit will mellow out and round off its rougher edges.

The penultimate dish was a Maytag Blue Cheese Beignet served with a Peach & Blueberry Chutney, La Querica Proscuitto, a Port Wine Syrup and sprinkled with a Blue Cheese Powder. These were absolute little nuggets of joy. I find that cheese is at its absolute best when about 15min from being dangerous to eat. The process employed in making these Beignet brought the Maytag Blue right to that precipice and when you combine borderline dangerous cheese with the La Querica Proscuitto you enter the realm of awesomeness. Cheese & Proscuitto & Port Wine OH MY!  This dish was bloody spectacular and honestly, it could have been the desert course. Upon cutting into the Beignet I was met with a rivulet of molten blue cheese and using my fork to collect ½ of the little pastry, a bit of the cheese a bit of the prosciutto and a swipe of port wine syrup and OH BOY! What a spectacular combination of flavors and texture. Amazingly good.

The Beignet was paired with Tuthillton’s “New York Corn”. This is an un-aged, adjunct-free corn whiskey at 92 proof. There are a number of more commonly used terms for a spirit such as this that you may be more familiar with, among them “White Lightening” or “Moonshine”. Yep….moonshine. If all you know about ‘shine is what you’ve learned from colorful caricatures of Appalachia, stories of bootleggers turned stock-car drivers and the Dukes of Hazard you haven’t scratched the surface. The ‘shine you know of comes in a fruit jar and causes big strong men to spit out their “chaw”, wince, wretch, cough and choke out the word, “smOOOth” and some ‘shine is just that. But in reality, all corn based whiskey is ‘shine after it’s distilled and before it’s placed in barrels for aging. This “young” corn whiskey is sometimes referred to as “white dog” and it is argued that one cannot make a good whiskey out of a bad dog however a good dog can be turned into a great whiskey…..and a great dog…well you might as well bottle it and drink it NOW!

I’ve begun to develop a real affinity for ‘shine for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the historical reference that it represents. It’s a touchstone to a time when farmers produced a bit of their own whiskey from the crops grown on their own land, to times when our Government in it’s infinite absence of wisdom overstepped it’s bounds and reached too far into the daily lives of Americans, to a time when my own Great Grandfather made and shared wine and ‘shine with his neighbors. Secondarily, I find I am drawn to it based on the compelling simplicity of it in comparison to the “Whiskey” we are accustomed to. It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s rustic and it’s uniquely American.

Tuthilltown’s “New Corn Whiskey” is significantly less sweet than some other ‘shine. Almost savory rather than sweet the aromas consist mostly of ethanol (duh!) but you might be surprised to detect the scent of berries, the roasty smell of corn bread and buttered popcorn. Upon tasting I found the flavors of acidic fruit like pineapple and maybe mango combined with more corn bread, but the flavor was more reminiscent of the caramelized brown crust rather than the yellow bread. There is a uniformity in the mouth feel, it doesn’t start “x” and finish “y”, it’s the same light feel all the way through to the finish. It finishes very clean with a little lingering sweetness. I really like this stuff!

The desert course for the evening was a take on “S’mores” that featured a Toasted Pistachio Praline, Raspberry, Valrhona Dark Chocolate Mousse and a Toasted Meringue. The dish looked like cake, but tasted like Cub Scout Summer Camp. The praline posed as the graham cracker and fairly melted in the mouth waiting to be joined by the mousse and meringue. A really playful and fun desert that worked exceptionally well with the whiskey it was paired with.

The desert was accompanied by Tuthilltown’s “Four Grain Bourbon”. Made of 51% corn (as are all Bourbon) combined with a mixture of equal parts rye, wheat and barley again, all grown within 10 miles of the distillery. The ferment is double distilled before aging in their trademark new oak barrels. This was my favorite spirit of the evening. It’s a rich amber color and the aroma is mainly sweet corn but I also picked up the scent of roasted chili and tart berries. As to the flavors, it starts out a bit sweet and quite smooth as a result of the corn dominance, but without the syrupy sweetness that many Bourbons tend to have. That is followed up by a spice note from the rye, again roasted chili but a savory and not sweet one. It finishes with full rich and earthy flavors like blueberry and a dark heavy bread as a result of the barley & wheat. It finishes slightly sweet but very light without any sort of off flavors, astringency or chemical notes. Really delightful, very worthy of drinking absolutely neat but if you prefer, the fruit tones seem to be magnified by the addition of a bit of water.

I must take this moment to thank the Tuthilltown Spirits family for sharing their passion with us. I prefer my food local, sustainable, organic and made using traditional process and ingredients, and I like my spirits made the same way. These folks get it and I can’t thank them enough for sharing it with us. Again, a spectacular show put on by Chef Sean Eastwood the fine folks at Scratch. Huge thanks to all of them. 

14 Gristmill Lane
Gardiner, NY 12525

401 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA, 94041
650-237-3131 or 650-237-3132

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