If you're looking for Jim Beam, José Cuervo or Captain Morgan, you've come to the wrong place. Those reliable old gents are a bit too plebeian for Micah Olson, the affable wine som, mixologist and co-owner at Bar Crudo.
Olson readily admits to having a small back bar by most standards, but his hand-picked selection of rare and small-batch spirits isn't meant to please the masses. It's designed to appeal to cocktail enthusiasts who appreciate the history and craftsmanship behind the labels he carries.
If the spirits are obscure, how does Olson know what to carry and where to find it? It isn't easy, he says, given that the Arizona market is definitely second-tier in terms of seeing new products first. California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Texas get all the early love, so he reads Imbibe-- an approachable magazine Olson says is "geeky enough for bartenders" -- visits bars around the country and talks to other folks in the business, including Young's corporate mixologist Jason Asher, who played a big part in bringing Ransom Gin into the state.
Ransom, one of Olson's favorite gins, doesn't fit the gin mold but rather looks and tastes like malt whiskey, because it's been aged three to six months. He calls it a bridge between Genever (the juniper-heavy Dutch liquor from which gin evolved) and London Dry (the world's most popular modern gin type). Every bottle shape is different, and each batch (32 so far) is labeled by hand. You won't get that with, say, Gordon's or Tanqueray.
Our conversation raises the obvious question: what does "small-batch" really mean? Apparently, there is no legal definition. Micro-breweries are strictly defined by how much they produce, but so far, the same isn't true for distilleries. Olson says "small-batch" is closer in meaning to "artisan" -- a marketing term that suggests hand-crafted, imbued with character and made in small amounts, not mass-produced.
Small-batch producers don't follow a formula in the same way big distilleries do. As Olson puts it, "Each batch is a child that grows up to be what it wants to be."
On the other hand, just as is true with food, small-batch spirits may be manipulated to some crazy degree. There's a Del Maguey mezcal called Pechuga, for example, that is infused with wild mountain apples, plums, red plaintains, pineapples and chicken breast (yep, you read that right) in its third distillation. The chicken is said to balance the fruit flavors.
Olson doesn't carry that one at the moment, but he swears by Del Maguey's Single Village mezcal called ChiChicapa. He calls it "smoky, peppery agave deliciousness" as well as an expression of its village. As with wine, terroir is everything. Mezcal is still muy picante, but the latest darling of the small-batch set is rye whiskey. Olson says that rye (which is made with rye grain while bourbon is corn-based) has more spice notes and a sharper, more acidic profile. Because it's lighter on the palate than bourbon, it blends well in cocktails. He loves making Sazeracs with rye because rye lets the classic Peychaud's bitters come through. One of his favorites -- Double Rye from High West, a fairly new distillery out of Park City, Utah.
Next, Olson pulls out a bottle of Aviation gin, produced by Ryan Magarian -- a bartender in Seattle before he became a gin-maker in Portland. Being a big fan of the classic Aviation cocktail, Magarian wanted a gin that was lighter on the botanicals, particularly juniper. And so he created a fresh, floral, citrus-y gin with hints of lavender, an elixir so elegant Olson says it's "beautiful on the rocks with spritzer."
Now we take a crack at Batavia-Arrack -- rum's great granddaddy, produced on the island of Java since the 17th Century. This smoky, aromatic spirit was a favorite among sailors back in the day, as well as a base ingredient in Swedish punches, which, Olson says, were precursors to modern-day cocktails.
Like so many other vintage spirits, it languished in obscurity until bartenders with an avid interest in old recipes brought it back to life.
I taste a shockingly strong (114 proof) Smith & Cross traditional Jamaican rum -- left on British docks so that the sea air and salt might properly age it, just as it was first inadvertently done hundreds of years ago.
The last sample is St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, which Olson applies to his fist and asks me to sniff. It's a dazzlingly heady blend of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and pepper, so powerful that Olson keeps it in an atomizer and spritzes it over cocktails as a warm, spicy finish. He has big plans for this one come fall.
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And really, dazzled is the way I feel about the entire experience, an hour and a half of sampling obscure but lovely spirits and listening to Olson's erudite stories. if this is what the cocktail culture has created -- a love of history and quality and delicious treasures, almost lost but now found -- I'm ready for another round.