Iconic Spirits by Mark Spivak


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The Iconic Spirits Blog

Licor 43

October 2, 2013

Tags: licor 43

Everyone loves a good story; in fact, if the tale is good enough, few people really care if it’s true. Consider this:

In 209 B.C., the Roman legions conquered the city of Quart Hadas (now Cartagena, Spain), presumably to acquire a strategic outpost in the Mediterranean. Once they got settled in, they discovered an exotic liquor flavored with local herbs and citrus fruit. The image of this liquor was a bit too exotic, however, and the Romans soon banned its production. (more…)

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit

September 18, 2013

Tags: wild turkey kentucky spirit, jimmy russell

Wild Turkey is one of the great Kentucky Bourbon distilleries, and is all the more appealing to some people because of its bad boy image. Take a whiff of 101, the signature whiskey, and it seems to conjure up visions of bikers and Hunter S. Thompson. In fact, the brand is big business, and has expanded considerably under four decades of corporate ownership---first by Pernod Ricard, and since 2009 by the Campari Group. The enormous facility in Lawrenceburg is a testimonial to its success. (more…)

Koval Distillery

September 11, 2013

Tags: koval distillery, robert and sonat birnecker

In Yiddish, the word Koval means blacksmith, but it has another connotation---that of a black sheep, a person who strays outside boundaries and sometimes does the unconventional. Robert and Sonat Birnecker, the husband and wife team who run Koval Distillery, chose the name because it reminded them of their ancestors. Sonat’s great-grandfather emigrated to Chicago from Vienna soon after the turn of the 20th century; Robert learned the art of distilling from his Austrian grandfather, Robert Schmid (Schmid means “smith” in German). Thus, Koval seemed like the perfect name for the distillery the Birneckers founded in 2008.

On the face of it, it seemed an unlikely venture for the couple. Sonat, with degrees from Oxford and the University of London, was teaching at a university in Baltimore. Robert was the Deputy Press Secretary at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Of course, he came from a family with a century of background in spirits, and also held certificates from Austria’s leading university program in distilling technology, but the spirits business seemed to be an unreachable continent away. Then Sonat’s mother gave them an article on Tuthilltown Spirits and the phenomenon of the exploding American craft distilling industry, and it sparked their imaginations. (more…)

Battling ALS With Bourbon

September 4, 2013

Tags: parker beam, parker's heritage collection

Parker Beam is a remarkable man. A sixth-generation distiller, he has worked at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Kentucky, since 1960, and has been the Master Distiller there for 25 years. He is a member of Kentucky’s first family of Bourbon---his grandfather was the brother of James Beauregard Beam, otherwise known as Jim Beam. If that’s not enough, he’s a true gentleman: modest, gracious, self-effacing and a pleasure to spend time with. (more…)

Not Just Any Tequila

August 21, 2013

Tags: hornots tequila, sauza hornitos

America is a media-driven market economy, and we sometimes tend to remember a well-made commercial before even recalling the product it advertises. This is perfectly fine with those who create the commercials, of course, as well as the manufacturers of the products they depict. There just might be as many viewers who watch the Super Bowl for the commercials as there are diehard football fans.

The latest TV ad for Hornitos Tequila, titled “Not Just Any Tequila,” is on its way to the commercial hall of fame. Four guys walk into a bar and order tequila shots. When the bartender asks them if they want a specific brand, they reply: “It doesn’t matter---any tequila.” The ad then morphs into a series of fantasies. The quartet are standing in a barber shop, saying “It doesn’t matter---any haircut,” followed by a shot of four badly butchered mohawks. After saying “It doesn’t matter---any tattoo,” they end up with facial ink depicting butterflies and happy faces. In a travel agency, they say “It doesn’t matter---anyplace,” and ride a bus filled with octogenarians singing, “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes.” In the final shot, they relent and say: “You know what---make it Hornitos Tequila.” (more…)

Bols Natural Yoghurt Liqueur

August 14, 2013

Tags: bols natural yoghurt liqueur

About six weeks ago I did a post on bizarre beverages, and made the observation that yesterday’s strange beverage is today’s commonplace quaff. Yoghurt liqueur is a good example. Ten years ago it would have made most Top Ten Bizarre lists, but today seems almost pedestrian compared to bacon vodka, reptile-infused wine and Mamma Mia Pizza Stout.

The concept of a yoghurt liqueur is not only tame stuff in 2013, but the first one on the market is being made by one of the world’s oldest and most respected spirits companies. The Bols family established a distillery shortly after their arrival in Amsterdam in 1575. By the early 17th century the operation had become the dominant player in the manufacture of both flavored liqueurs and genever, the Dutch juniper-infused libation from which modern gin evolved. The last family member died in 1813, and over the next two centuries the company went through numerous phases of ownership, including joint ventures with Diageo and Remy Cointreau. Today it remains what it has been for a very long time: the leading creator and marketer of liqueurs, with a current portfolio of 38 different flavors. (more…)

Hirsch Bourbon

August 7, 2013

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In the world of distilled spirits, there are many products and people that are difficult to pin down, but few are as elusive as Adolph H. Hirsch and his legendary Bourbon. Here’s what we know: Hirsch was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1908, and came to the U.S. in 1926. On and off, he was a Schenley executive for most of his life. In 1942, Hirsch and three partners bought the Pennsylvania Distilling company (Pennco), which eventually became the Schaefferstown distillery. Pennco was a contract distiller with a spotty history that primarily produced Bourbon.

In 1974, Hirsch commissioned a run of 400 barrels of Bourbon at Pennco. The distillery went out of business shortly afterward, and was purchased and renamed Michter’s. It stayed in business until 1989, when it closed for good; there’s no connection between that operation and another modern brand of whiskey also called Michter’s (confused yet?). When Michter’s folded, Hirsch’s 400 barrels of Bourbon---which he had forgotten about---were sold to Gordon Hue. Hue moved them to a distillery in Cincinnati, where he began bottling the contents and selling it as A. H. Hirsch Bourbon. Those remaining bottles of the 16 Year-Old are extremely rare; one is likely to set you back $1400, if you can find it. (more…)

Classic American Bars: The Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale

July 31, 2013

Tags: mai-kai

The massive and phantasmagoric Mai-Kai pays homage to the Polynesian craze that swept America during the post-World War II era. It is the Taj Mahal of the tiki culture, an improbable place that somehow hangs together and exercises a timeless appeal. One of the current members of the management team referred to it as “an escape from everyday life,” which is similar to saying that a private jet or a stretch limousine is a transportation vehicle.

The Mai-Kai was opened in December 1956 by the Thornton brothers, Bob and Jack, on a stretch of Federal Highway that was then deserted. The famous Polynesian Revue made its debut in 1962. Mireille Thornton showed up shortly thereafter, auditioned to become a dancer, and eventually became Jack’s wife. Jack Thornton sold his interest in the restaurant in 1969 and Bob passed on two decades later, but Mireille still runs the place and choreographs the show. (more…)

Papa's Pilar Rums

July 24, 2013

Tags: pap's pilar rums, ernest hemingway

The Hemingway industry is alive and flourishing in many places, but most of all in Florida. The number of bars in the Sunshine State in which Papa allegedly drank is only exceeded by the New England stopovers in which George Washington supposedly slept. Unlike Washington, of course, Hemingway was actually photographed in most of these joints.

Chronologically speaking, Hemingway’s Key West period was sandwiched between Paris (which he left in the late 1920s) and Havana, where he spent the majority of his later years. Visitors to the island can still tour the Hemingway Home and Museum, the sprawling Spanish Colonial house the author purchased in 1931. It was here that he met Charles Thompson, who introduced him to the sport of big game fishing; in 1934, Hemingway ordered the hand-built, 38-foot boat that became known as the Pilar. (more…)

Spirits of the Laundry

July 17, 2013

Tags: the french laundry

For years (if not for decades), The French Laundry in Yountville, California has been regarded as America’s best restaurant. It is also universally viewed as one of the toughest reservations to get, as well as one of the most expensive restaurant meals in the country---not the most expensive, since that accolade is usually given to Chef Thomas Keller’s other restaurant, Per Se, in Manhattan.

Dinner at The French Laundry, if you can get in, isn’t for paupers. The menu is a multi-course tasting extravaganza that comes in at $270 per person, service included. Of course, the 15 or so courses take roughly 5-6 hours to consume, virtually insuring the consumption of several bottles of wine. The restaurant’s wine list is extensive and elaborate, but not cheap either; figure $800-1000 per couple before you’re through.

Now The French Laundry has come up with a new profit center: a spirits list. Without much fanfare, the restaurant acquired its liquor license back in September, and head sommelier Dennis Kelly quietly went about sourcing a selection of the finest and rarest distilled spirits on the planet. (more…)