Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Black Button Distilling: Bourbon Cream to Canned Cocktails

Last Friday, shares of Boston Beer dropped by 26%, largely because of a significantly decreased demand for Hard Seltzer. One of the reason for this reduced demand is the presence of Ready to Drink cocktails (RTDs), which have seen a huge boom in recent years. In 2019, RTD sales increased by about 43% and in 2020, they increased again by about 43%. I recently enjoyed a RTD new to the Massachusetts market, and was quite impressed with it.   

I participated in a media Zoom call, having received review samples of spirits, with Jason Barrett, the founder of Black Button Distilling in Rochester, New York. This distillery, which was founded in 2012, is the first grain-to-glass farm distillery in Rochester since Prohibition. At age 24, Jason quit his job to produce whiskey, a bold move but Jason's business appears to becoming successful. 

What is the meaning of the name of the distillery? Since 1922, Jason's family has been involved in the business of making buttons for men's suits. His mother still owns the company, and the distillery's office is located next to the button office. Jason is color blind so there was a long standing family joke that if Jason made buttons, he could only produce black buttons. So, that joke was adopted for the name of his distillery. 

As Jason stated, "Distillation is concentrating your ingredients." As preparation for his new venture, Jason learned double pass distillation but unknowingly ordered a single pass machine. So, he had to adjust his distillation process, noting that only 5% of these stills are capable of doing what Jason does with his still. However, it also takes twice as long, and can only work for a two hour span. This all helps the uniqueness of his spirits/ 

All of the grains they use are sourced from within 45 minutes of their location. They produce about 6,500 bottles of spirits each week, and four of their products account for about 85% of their income. Their products, the top four selling ones, are available in about 14 states, and just started becoming available in Massachusetts, distributed by Martignetti Companies. These include their Four Grain Straight Bourbon, Bespoke Bourbon Cream, Citrus Forward Gin, and CanBee Cocktails

The Citrus Forward Gin ($34.99), their #3 best seller, is made in an American New Age Style, produced with Cascade Hops and navel oranges. As it's fruit forward, it works best in cocktails with fruit components, and doesn't work as well in a cocktail like a Martini. There is a pleasant blend of botanicals, although there's a bit too much juniper for my personal taste (like 90% of all gins), but the addition of the citrus provides a nice balance. This is definitely a gin that works well in fruity cocktails, and which I could enjoy that way. 

The Four Grain Straight Bourbon ($59.99) is small-batch made, with 100% New York state grown grains including 60% corn, 20% wheat, 9% rye, and 11% malted barley. It's been aged for about 3 1/2 years in new charred American white oak barrels. The color is 100% from the barrels but only 30% of the taste is from the barrels. By the end of the year, their bourbon will be sold in cardboard tubes, to protect it from UV light which can hurt the whiskey. The bourbon has a pleasant flavor, a nice blend of vanilla, caramel, and baking spices, and would probably work best in cocktails. This is their #4 best seller.

The distillery also make a Rye (which I'd love to taste) as well as a Lilac Whiskey. As Rochester is known as the Lilac City, the distillery decided to make a special whiskey to reflect it. They only make the Lilac Whiskey one day a year, but it's a huge seller.

Their #1 best seller is their Bespoke Bourbon Cream ($34.99), and its creation was a fortuitous accident. Jason's father, a mechanical engineer, retired about 6 weeks after Jason started his distillery. So, his father sometimes worked at the distillery. However, his father rarely drank alcohol, except for Irish Cream, and he was also a very literal man. So, he couldn't tell customers that he enjoyed drinking any of the distillery's products. His father thus asked Jason to make something that he would enjoy to drink, that he could praise to customers.

At a meeting of local farmers, Jason fortunately ran into a man who had the machinery to make Irish Cream, one of only four such machines in the U.S. The man offered his machinery and fresh farm cream to combine with Jason's bourbon. A little caramel was also added to the drink. It quickly became extremely popular, and now they produce about 500,000 bottles annually, selling mostly in New York.

After tasting it, its easy to understand its popularity as it's absolutely delicious, with a rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious and complex notes of cream, caramel, vanilla and spices. It has a nice freshness to it that some other cream liqueurs lack. This Bourbon Cream is going to appeal to many people, and is perfect on its own, although you could make cocktails with it as well. Highly recommended!

Their first RTD cocktail, produced under the brand of CanBee Cocktails, is Bee's Knees, and it's now their #2 best seller. The original Bee's Knees cocktail was likely invented during Prohibition, and is a blend of gin, lemon juice and honey. The CanBee Bee's Knees debuted in 2021, and is produced from their own Citrus-Forward Gun, real lemon juice, and farm-fresh honey (made from their own bees), without any artificial flavors or colors. It's available in 12 ounce cans, usually in 4-packs for $14.99, with an 8% ABV, 

Jason's sister has a Phd on bee neurology, which also intrigued Jason about bees so that they now have six beehives on their farm, using the honey for this canned cocktail. When they first made this cocktail, it was close to a 18% ABV, so they needed to lower that, including the use of additional botanicals. Another challenge was that when lemon juice is pasteurized, it acquires a greater potency, becoming super sour, so they had to significantly cut back the amount of lemon juice they used. As an aside, Jason mentioned that grapefruit doesn't distill well. Finally, they work with a local brewery to can these cocktails for them. 

I found this canned cocktail to be light, refreshing and tasty. It wasn't overly sweet or sour, but possessed a nice balance of flavors, citrus and botanicals. And with its lower alcohol, you can enjoy a few on a nice summer day, at the beach, on a boat, etc. There's a light effervescence to the cocktail, and it would work well with food too, especially seafood. And the can is portable and without the worry of glass breakage. Highly recommended! 

They are working on two additional cocktails, a Strawberry Mint Vodka and a Bourbon with Honey, Lemon & Coffee. Jason stated he generally doesn't like coffee but this Bourbon cocktail is supposed to taste more like Tiramisu. 

Plus, and importantly, "CanBee Cocktails aim to bring awareness to essential bee conservation efforts that preserve their vital presence within our delicate ecosystem by supporting the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program, the largest pollinator conservation program in the world."  They can't legally say how much money from the sale of each can goes to saving the bees, but Jason would say that the sale of every can saves about 10 honeybees. 

Check the shelves of your favorite liquor store to seek out Black Button products, from their Bespoke Bourbon Cream to the CanBee Bee's Knees.  Jason was personable and down-to-earth, very honest about his distillery and spirits. Its great to support more local distilleries, which are clearly driven by passion.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Rant: Wrong Vintage? How Do You Handle It?

Recently, while dining out at a local restaurant, I ordered a bottle of wine with dinner. I knew little about the wine but was intrigued by what I did know. It's also a restaurant which I know has an excellent wine list, so I felt relatively secure in choosing a wine unfamiliar to myself. 

When the bottle was presented at my table, I examined the label, which I generally do, to ensure it was the correct wine. It's rare to receive the wrong wine at a restaurant, but it has happened to me in the past so I always check, just in case. Do you examine the wine label when it is brought to your table?

In this case, everything was correct except for the vintage. Instead of the 2018, listed on their menu, I was brought the 2017. I mentioned this to the server, who simply said that this was the wine they had, and wasn't aware that the wine on the menu had a different vintage.

What should you do if you receive the wrong vintage wine? Does the vintage even matter? Would you ask the server the differences in the vintages? Should the restaurant charge you more or less because it is a different vintage? What should the restaurant's response be if they offer you a different vintage?

In general, I don't make a big deal about the matter and will usually just accept the different vintage However, vintage can definitely matter so it can be a significant issue to receive a different vintage. It helps if you know the wine and how it differs with various vintages. For the wine I ordered, I didn't know anything about differences between the vintages. However, when I did some later research, I found there was actually a major difference between the 2017 and 2018 vintages. 

The producer instituted some major changes to their fermentation protocols in 2018, which greatly changed the style of the wine. So, the 2017 and 2018 vintages are much different wines. If you ordered the 2018 from the menu, and understood which style it represented, what would you do if you received the 2017 instead? You might refuse the wine at that point, as it wasn't what you desired and expected. 

How do you handle receiving the wrong vintage wine at a restaurant? 

Friday, July 23, 2021

New Sampan Article: An Early History of Chinese Herbalists in Boston

"The most interesting feature of Chinese life to me was that on board their boats, or sampans, as they are called....Upon these boats live whole families of three and even four generations."
--The Fall River Daily Herald, November 20, 1888

As I've mentioned previously, I've a new writing gig, contributing to Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. I've previously written twenty-five articles for Sampan, including:

My newest article, An Early History of Chinese Herbalists in Boston, is now available in the new issue of Sampan. Within two years of the establishment of Boston’s Chinatown, there was a Chinese herbal doctor in the community. In the early newspapers, the importance of such herbalists was very evident, and they’re still vital in Chinatown today. Learn some of the fascinating history of the early herbalists, from their use of pulse diagnosis to the herbal blends they used. 

What is a "sampan?" The newspaper's site states, "A sampan is a popular river boat in traditional China. This small but useful vessel, by transporting cargo from large boats to the village ports, creates a channel of communication among villages." And like that type of boat, Sampan delivers news and information all across New England, and "acts a bridge between Asian American community organizations and individuals in the Greater Boston area."

Sampan, which was founded in 1972, is published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, "The newspaper covers topics that are usually overlooked by the mainstream press, such as key immigration legislation, civil rights, housing, education, day-care services and union activities. These issues are crucial to the well-being of Asian immigrants, refugees, low-income families as well as individuals who are not proficient in the English language."

There is plenty of interest in Sampan which will appeal to all types of readers, from restaurant reviews to historical articles, from vital news stories to travel items. In these current days when racism and prejudice against Asians and their restaurants is high, it's more important than ever that accurate information about the Asian community is disseminated and promoted. We need to combat the irrational prejudices that some possess, and support our Asian communities just as we would support any other element of our overall community. We are all important aspects of a whole, and we need to stand together.

Support Sampan!

Monday, July 19, 2021

Rant: The Easiest Way To Buy Delicious, Inexpensive Wine

What's the easiest way to find a delicious value wine, with character, under $15? I have a simple piece of advice: Buy Portuguese wine! 

This recently came to my mind, once again, as I've been tasting a number of Portuguese wines, finding some excellent value wines. It wasn't a surprise to me, but reminded me that more people should embrace the delights of inexpensive Portuguese wine. You could buy cheap bottles of Yellow Tail, Barefoot, or similar brands, but they aren't going to impress anyone. However, inexpensive Portuguese wines can and do impress. 

Every year, imports of Portuguese wines to the U.S. grow, which is also currently Portugal's second largest market. About 50% of those imports are Vinho Verde, commonly white wines with a touch of effervescence that are perfect for the summer and are excellent food wines too. You can find plenty of tasty Vinho Verde wines for under $15. Portugal also offers numerous Red and Rosé wines, many produced from indigenous grapes, priced under $15. You'll find plenty of diversity at this low price point.

As I've said before, there is probably no other wine region in the world where you can find as many good wines under $15 than Portugal. You can find some in other wine regions, but they are far less common, and you'll have to seek much harder to locate them. Chances are that if you purchase a Portuguese wine costing $15 or less, you'll find a tasty wine, much better than similarly priced wines from most other regions. 

Even Portuguese wines under $10 can impress. I previously held a private wine tasting event, with six wines from different countries. The overall favorite wine, which most impressed the guests and earned hearty raves, was a $6 Portuguese Vinho Verde! At that price, it would be easy to pick up a case to ensure you always have a bottle on hand. 

Portugal is certainly a champion of wines under $15. And I shouldn't fail to mention that Portugal makes some fascinating high-end wines as well. They aren't just a country of inexpensive wine, but rather a diverse country of wine of all types and price points. 

As summer approaches, and you want to stock up on inexpensive wines for your parties, BBQs, and gatherings, then you should seek out Portuguese wines.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food and drink events. I hope everyone dines out safely and tips well. ******************************************************

1) Greco, one of my favorite spots for Gyros and Loukoumas, has debuted their third location on the street level at One Milk Street in downtown Boston. Greco is a tGreek modern eatery from Owners Demetri Tsolakis and Stefanos Ougrinis, who also own and operate Krasi Meze + Wine

We are so honored to have our third Greco concept located in the midst of Boston history,” said Owner Demetri Tsolakis. “Greco Milk Street blends our signature Truly Greek experience with the rich history of the building. This location has a very distinct energy that is all its own and cannot be felt anywhere else in the city and we are very excited to meet and connect with so many new people.”

Greco’s new location is modern, airy and bright with 24 seats, including a communal table and banquette window seating. The space features raw materials from Greece such as marble from Mt. Pentelli and lime which are utilized in ancient Greek architecture. 

From gyros filled with the highest quality, free range chicken, beef and pork to soups and salads made with local vegetables, the chefs prepare Greek fare fast – with no compromise on fresh. The menu at Greco showcases a bountiful mix of customizable pita wraps, plates, salads, homemade sauces, soups, sides and legendary loukoumades. Greco’s Truly Greek coffee program includes Freddo Espresso, Freddo Cappuccino and the classic and popular Greek iced coffee known as Frappe. Carefully selected Greek pantry staples such as Merenda, Kyknos Greek Canning Company tomato paste, Pappadopoulos Caprice, Kalas sea salt, and Greco’s private label extra virgin olive oil from Crete are also available for retail.

Greco Milk Street is open Monday through Saturday from 11a.m.-8p.m. The hours of operation will extend in the fall to include Sunday. Greco is available for pre-order via their custom app, delivery via Chownow and also offers catering.

Greco also announces the debut of Agora by Greco on Monday, July 19. Agora by Greco is a new concept at the Pier 4 Seaport location. In ancient Greece, the Agora was an open space used for public markets and as a meeting place. Agora by Greco is a re-defined modern market with exclusive products from Greece. Since opening Greco, the team has been carefully sourcing from small, independent and boutique purveyors throughout Greece. 

Agora features an in-house cheese shop with various styles of PDO cheeses such as graviera, ladotyri, mastelo and manouri. The olive oil is from trees that are harvested exclusively for Greco. Provisions such as charcuterie, imported pasta, baked goods, nuts, honey and seasonal signature Greek treats are plentiful. For the first time, Greco’s signature sauces such as tzatziki, spicy feta and charred eggplant are also available for retail. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Origin of Fried Chicken & Waffles

Crispy fried chicken atop a crisp, hot waffle. You might want to top it with butter, syrup, or hot sauce. It's a good choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. Delicious comfort food and some restaurants have put their own spin on this classic dish. I'm a huge fan of fried chicken & waffles, so it's only natural I decided to research its history. 

What's the origin of Fried Chicken & Waffles

Fried chicken was probably first known in the U.S. in the early 19th century while waffles extend back to the first half of the 17th century. A combination of Chicken and Waffles was first introduced in the 17th century, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, although the chicken wasn't fried, but was instead more of a pulled chicken in gravy. 

The most commonly cited legend of the invention of Fried Chicken and Waffles was that it was created in 1938 at the Wells Supper Club in Harlem, New York. Wells was a famed spot for jazz musicians, who often desired to eat something after their gigs. As it was too late for dinner, and too early for breakfast, they ended up dining on fried chicken and waffles, a combo of dinner and breakfast. This dish quickly became very popular in Harlem, with other restaurants serving the dish as well. 

However, this legend isn't true. Wells Supper Club didn't invent Fried Chicken & Waffles, although they may have played a role in helping to promote it. Documentary evidence exists of pairings of fried chicken and waffles going back to at least 1870, with other newspaper articles claiming it existed sometime prior to the Civil War. A number of the early newspaper references, prior to 1920, claimed that it was a dish of Southern origins. And it's probably not surprising that it was also a popular dish in Pennsylvania. 

There's an obstacle to pursuing the origins of fried chicken and waffles as the phrase "chicken and waffles" is somewhat generic, and doesn't differentiate between the various types of chicken preparation, such as the pulled chicken & gravy or broiled chicken. So, for this article, I'm concentrating only on the definitive mentions of "fried chicken & waffles" and not the more generic mentions of "chicken & waffles."

The first few mentions of fried chicken & waffles were in fictional stories in various magazines and newspapers. The first reference was in Peterson’s Magazine, November 1870, in a short tale which briefly mentioned, “... he had a keen remembrance of her fried chicken and waffles.” This is 58 years prior to its alleged invention by Wells Supper Club. 

There was another short story in the Cincinnati Weekly Times (OH), March 14, 1878, which mentioned, “... the hostess gave him fried chicken, waffles, honey, Charlotte Russe, pound cake, and coffee with cream.” The Osage Mission Journal (KS), August 7, 1878, also had what appears to be a short story about an inn in West Virginia where a man ordered a private supper. “There was part of a haunch of venison cooked with wine and jelly, and flanked with stakes (sic) done to a turn; there were boiled and fried chickens, waffles, white flakey biscuits and hot corn bread, while the fragrant coffee sent forth its delicious steam.

And the Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (WI), October 13, 1881, also presented another apparent short story which stated,“He had sat down to daily suppers of fried chickens and waffles, until his stomach began to rebel, and to insist on rest or a change of diet.”

The Charlotte Democrat (NC), August 4, 1882, discussed the doctor who tended to Andrew Jackson, and noted that the doctor “... left to partake of a supper of fried chicken, waffles, tea and other creature comforts,…

It was apparently popular in Pennsylvania, as referenced in a Massachusetts newspaper. The Fall River Daily Herald (MA), October 19, 1882, wrote, “Who ever heard of a man getting a divorce from a Pennsylvania girl—one who knows the mysteries of fried chickens and waffles?” It continued, “Fried chickens and waffles and hot corn bread will drive a man to the grave soon enough, liberally partaken of, even if they do not drive him to the divorce court.”

From Pennsylvania to Kansas, the dish was known across the country. The Grenola Greeting & Chief (KS), December 26, 1885, mentioned, “The ‘quilting’ as it was called was an affair of some importance, at which the minister was always invited in time for supper; and such suppers as we used to have. There was always fried chicken and waffles, with ham and fritters, and as many kinds of preserves and pickles as the table would hold.”

Southern origins? The Saint Paul Globe (MN), May 3, 1886, in an article about the differences of Northern and Southern cooking, printed, “Miss Parloa, the famous exponent of common sense cookery, has been making a tour of the South. As a result of her investigations she declares that the women of the South are better cooks than their Northern sisters. If the lady has allowed her judgment to become prejudiced under the seductive influence of the fried chicken and waffles which form the most complete expression of Southern culinary skill, she is perhaps excusable for her evidently biased statement."

Fried Chicken & Waffles extending back to the 1840s? The Altoona Times (PA), May 1, 1888, provided what might be the oldest reference to this dish, In an article titled, “An Adventure of Judge S. Jerry Black with a Bedford Stage Driver in 1842”, the Hon. William M. Hall provided a reminiscence of the early days of Judge Jeremiah S. Black and a stage driver, Samuel Baglet. The article mentioned, “.. the grand old times of stage-coaching and the excellent meals of fried chicken and waffles and hot coffee at the wayside inn, where the arrival of the stage was the great event of the day.” 

If this is accurate, then it's possible that fried chicken and waffles could have originated in Pennsylvania. The dish certainly receives lots of Pennsylvania newspaper references during the later 19th century and start of the 20th century.  

Fried chicken & waffles across the country. The Evening Star (D.C.), August 17, 1889, had a brief advertisement for “Fried Chicken and Waffles at the Highland country club for breakfast Sunday; try it.” The Kansas City Times (MO), October 22, 1889, mentioned, “Tuesday evening fried chicken and waffles at Barto hall.”

Back to Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Daily Post (PA), June 28, 1890, printed an article about Fayette County as a recommended vacation spot, noting about one place, “But that supper! Fried chicken and waffles, rich milk and honey, big, blackberries floating in real cream! Ho! This is a supper for the gods!

The Critic (D.C.), September 13, 1890, stated that President Harrison had stayed at Cresson Springs, Pennsylvania, in an inn owned by an elderly woman who “.. was thoroughly familiar with the art if preparing a good meal of fried chicken and waffles, and last night he (Harrison) recommended the repast to some friends.” 

The Union Leader (PA), January 2, 1891, noted that “All seemed headed for one destination, however, and that was Dallas—famous for its fried chicken and waffles.” Dallas was located at Raub’s hostelry. 

Another older reference to fried chicken & waffles prior to 1870. The Boston Evening Transcript (MA), October 15, 1892, presented the memories of a former Confederate soldier, who had lived in Alabama, about the time before the Civil War. He mentioned that he had been, “..regaled with such a dinner as was only known in those gold old times consisting of fried chicken, waffles, every known compound of bread, hot cake and biscuit, and such quail on toast as makes eyes and mouth water to think about.” This is a bit more evidence of the age of fried chicken & waffles, and also that it was a Southern dish. 

Maryland! The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 26, 1893, wrote that after a wedding, the people enjoyed “... a genuine Marylnd breakfast of fried chicken, waffles, coffee, peaches and cream, fruits, etc…” And Delaware! The Evening Journal (DE), August 21, 1893, printed, “She surprised the cook by ordering tea, fried chicken, waffles, fried potatoes, cream toast, etc.” This order was for an evening dinner.  

The Times (PA), October 1, 1893, mentioned that for the third course of a breakfast, they "... Maryland fried chicken, hot waffles and baked potatoes,..”

Louisiana! The Times-Picayune (LA), March 25, 1894, posted an ad for an Easter Menu, suggesting for supper, Fried Chicken and Waffles, Stuffed Potatoes, Sliced Tomatoes, Sardines, and Fruit.

Iowa! The Gazette (IA), January 8, 1895, had a short article about a woman who hosted a musical quartet at her home, and provided a dinner of fried chicken and waffles, which everyone "quickly devoured." 

Fried chicken and waffles before the Civl War. The Intelligencer (SC), June 5, 1895, reprinted an article from the New York Sun, about the arrest of a Baptist preacher, who lived in North Carolina, for illegal producing and selling moonshine. The article also mentioned that prior to the Civil War, in the Carolinas, you could enjoy a breakfast of fried chicken and waffles.

Montana! The Independent-Record (Montana), August 5, 1895, detailed an event which had offered a breakfast of “...watermelon, fried chicken, Saratoga potatoes, waffles and strawberry preserves.”

How much for fried chicken & Waffles? The Pittsburgh Press (PA), February 8, 1896, discussed that at Randall farm, “where they serve the delicious fried chicken for supper, with a steaming plate of hot waffles, French fried potatoes and coffee,”it only cost you 25 cents. 

Sylvan parties were a fad described in The Times (PA), May 30, 1897. For the location, you needed a “lonely old country mansion” and then to hire a “thrifty farmer’s wife” to cook dinner. “The country woman, who knows how to cook her country dishes to perfection, has a huge plate of fried chicken and limitless waffles and pigoons that have fed from her hand all winter,..

Washington! The Spokesman-Review (WA), September 12, 1897, briefly noted, “The Cosmos dining room will open for breakfast this morning with fried spring chicken and waffles.” Ohio! The Times Recorder (OH), October 10, 1897, also briefly mentioned a supper of fried chicken and waffles. 

Texas! The Houston Post (TX), July 13, 1899, had a  breakfast menu with fried spring chicken and waffles. Nevada! The Reno Gazette-Journal (NV), November 7, 1899, mentioned that when local soldiers returned from the Philippines, they were feted with a breakfast that included fried chicken and waffles.  

Fried Rabbit? The Daily Republican (PA), November 18, 1899, very briefly mentioned, “Fried rabbit, fried chicken and hot waffles at Sutman’s.” Fried rabbit & waffles would certainly be a tasty variation on this dish. 

The Buffalo Evening News (NY), June 19, 1901, reprinted an interesting article from Harper’s Bazaar, which was reprinted in a number of other newspapers as well. “The Southern breakfast of fried chicken and waffles is not to be indulged in frequently by this generation under penalty of indigestion, but for once in a summer it is delicious. Waffles are considered difficult to prepare, yet really they are as simple as possible. The recipe calls for one pint of milk, two eggs, two teaspoonfuls of baking powder and butter the size of an egg, with flour to a thin batter. These waffles, with maple syrup, may be unwholesome, but they are good enough to tempt any one to gastronomic sin.” 

This is more support that fried chicken & waffles is a Southern dish, and a recipe for waffles was provided, although not one for fried chicken. It also claims that waffles are "unwholesome", which has been essentially repeated in other newspapers too. 

Hawaii? The Hawaii Herald (HI), March 6, 1902, published an article that stated the need for more cafes/restaurants to serve items like chicken and waffles. It stated, “... the man who gives you fried chicken and waffles is the one who will get the business if he is within driving distance of town.”

The Poultry Gazette (KS), April 1, 1904, discussed the upcoming World’s Fair in St. Louis, which would have a Model Poultry Farm, opening on May 1. The Farm would also have a restaurant, serving various poultry dishes, including Southern fried chicken & waffles. 

More evidence of fried chicken and waffles being older than 1870. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat (MO), September 11, 1904, presented a story of the Civil War, discussing a woman whose daughter asked her why they didn't have fried chicken and waffles like they used to have. The daughter was born in 1860, so is probably recalling a time maybe when she was 5-6 years old. 

The Buffalo Sunday Morning-News (NY), December 4, 1904, provided some cooking advice. “It you’re afraid of attempting foreign cookery, try your own country’s. Give the family a true Southern dinner one day of fried chicken and waffles…”  The Pittsburgh Press (PA), August 10, 1905, stated, “A typical southern breakfast of fried chicken, waffles, and hot biscuits…”  And the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), October 29, 1905, also mentioned, “The breakfast included the typical Southern dishes of fried chicken, hot waffles and the like.” 

It certainly seems a number of sources claim that fried chicken & waffles was a southern Sish.

New York! The Star-Gazette (NY), March 1, 1906, advertised the Windmill Hotel, Pine City, New York, whose March menu included fried chicken and waffles. Connecticut! The Record-Journal (CT), May 15, 1906, briefly mentioned a breakfast menu with fried chicken and waffles. Vermont! The St. Albans Daily Messenger (VT), August 25, 1906, also briefly mentioned a breakfast menu with fried chicken and waffles.

The first fried chicken & waffles recipe. The Evening Star (D.C.), May 5, 1907, published the first newspaper recipe for Fried Chicken & Waffles, a luncheon dish, although the recipe only told people how to make the chicken, and not the waffles.  

Hawaii! The Evening Bulletin (HI), February 17, 1909, had a brief ad for the Haleiwa Hotel, which served Fried Chicken & Waffles.  

Waffle recipe. The Sacramento Bee (CA), November 26, 1909, discussed a fried chicken & waffles dinner event, providing a recipe for Raised Waffles, pictured above. 

Fired chicken & waffles as a punitive measure? The Tribune (OH), July 24, 1913, probably an intriguing article about Warden Thomas, who presided over a penitentiary in Columbus, and had “devised a new plan of increasing the terror of solitary confinement at the penitentiary."  He lamented that 10-30 days in solitary was “practically the only rigorous punishment now meted out at the pen,..” Usually,  solitary prisoners only received bread and water, but the Warden found that 30 days of this was actually not that stiff a punishment.

What happened was that after 2-3 days, the prisoner's stomach would cease to crave other food and the bread furnished sufficient nourishment. To overcome this, solitary prisoners would now received fried chicken & waffles every third day of their imprisonment. So, just after the prisoner got used to the bread and water, they would receive a real meal, and their hunger would be “renewed three fold tantalizing by the full meal.” As the article said, “Through this system they are kept ravenously hungry all the time.”

The article continued, “Solitary confinement is usually used to ‘bring to time’ recalcitrant prisoners who refuse to work. Under the old plan they would hold out for weeks.” The warden said, “Now after they have been in three days, and got good and hungry, and are again put on bread and water after a full dinner they can’t stand it and go to work as meekly as little lambs.”

I'll note that newspapers during the first twenty years of the 20th century contained a number of other references to Fried Chicken & Waffles, although I have chosen not to include every reference here, as many are merely duplicative, adding nothing of significance to the discussion. It was clear though that fried chicken & waffles was available all across the country. 

It is very clear that fried chicken & waffles were not invented by the Wells Supper Club in 1938. We can see that fried chicken & waffles existed at least as far back as 1870, and possibly as far back as the 1840s. It was most likely of Southern origin, although Pennsylvania has a strong nexus to this dish as well. The dish existed all across the country, even as far west as Hawaii. 

Which restaurant serves your favorite Chicken & Waffles dish?

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food and drink events. I hope everyone dines out safely and tips well.

1) Encore Boston Harbor is excited to kick off its Garden Champagne Brunch Series this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Taking place every Sunday (July 11, 18, & 25, from 10am-2pm) throughout the rest of July, guests are invited to enjoy a delicious, unlimited brunch alongside live music and lawn games on Encore's beautifully manicured, waterfront South Lawn

Starting at $55 per person, guests will be treated to a wide variety of buffet stations including breakfast breads, bacon carving, eggs Benedict and mini desserts, as well as a la carte items such as yogurt parfaits, mini white chocolate brioche French toast, cinnamon rolls and more. Patrons 21 years of age or older can purchase mimosa and margarita flights, wine, beer or enjoy a Bloody Mary bar.

To reserve your spot for an upcoming brunch, please visit: https://www.encorebostonharbor.com/experiences/garden-champagne-brunch.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Stray Dog Wild Gin: A Treasure of Greek Botanicals

At Committee Ouzeri+ Bar, you can find a variety of Greek spirits, such as Ouzo, Tsipouro, and Mastiha, some of which have recently been used in cocktails. On my most recent visit there, I made a new discovery, a Greek gin called Stray Dog Wild Gin

I'm very selective as to gin, but the Stray Dog thoroughly impressed so I had to seek out a bottle, to sample at home, to experiment with cocktails. Fortunately, I was able to get a couple bottles ($32 each) at the Malden Center Fine Wines

Let's begin with a little background on Gin. 

What is Gin? Under the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 27: Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, Part 5--Labeling and Advertising of Distilled Products, in Subpart C--Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, section 5.22(c), it states: “Gin” is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof."

Juniper, a crucial ingredient in Gin, has been revered for at least two thousand years for medicinal purposes. Around the 16th century, it would be the Dutch who would finally distill a juniper-flavored alcohol, which they called Genever, creating a spirit that was intended to be something other than a medicine. Around the 1690s, Genever began to be exported to England and it quickly become the most popular spirit, especially with the lower classes, and it was renamed gin.

However, besides juniper, the regulations are very loose as to what other botanicals and ingredients can be added to Gin. This gives much leeway to producers to create their own unique gin blends, and also allows for producers to use more local ingredients, giving a sense of place to their gin. This can help anchor certain types of gins to specific locations.

I'm not a fan of those gins with an overly strong juniper taste, far too piney for my preferences. I feel that the other botanicals get lost in those gins, vastly dominated by the juniper. I much prefer gin which has a more balanced melange of botanicals, and more and more of those styles of gin are being created. 

Not many distilleries in Greece are currently producing gin, but that is likely to grow with time. So, it will be very difficult to find Greek gin in the U.S., as only a few have been exported. The only Greek gin I've ever tasted is the Stray Dog, and it is certainly a fine example of a well-balanced gin.  

The idea for Stray Dog Wild Gin originated in 2017, when Johnny Livanos was on a hike in the Crete. Livanos, who lives in New York, is part of the famed Livanos Restaurant Group. During the hike, they were drinking Tsipouro, and Johnny decided to pick some wild herbs and add them to the spirit. After an hour or so, he tasted the Tsipouro again and savored its taste with the herbs. He saw an opportunity there, to create a new Greek spirit made with numerous botanicals.  

Livanos eventually met master distiller Dimitris Melissanidis, in Aridea, Greece, a 3rd generation distillery whose family has long produced traditional Greek spirits. Melissanidis had actually been experimenting with gin, as well as collecting wild herbs in the mountains of northern Greece. They hit it off, and eventually created the Stray Dog Wild Gin. 

The gin is made with a number of wild-foraged botanicals as well as other ingredients, including sage, fennel seed, rosemary, mastiha, bay leaf, lemon, orange, cardamom, juniper, and coriander. They also use mountain spring water. It is also hand-crafted in small batches using traditional copper pot stills. Livanos' objective was to create a taste of Greece through their gin, 

On the nose, there are definite notes of juniper, although it's more subdued than many other gins. You'll also find other herbal notes mixing with the juniper. On the palate, it's a smooth and compelling gin, with a wonderful melange of herbal and citrus flavors, where the juniper is but one aspect of the whole. It is well-balanced, with all of the ingredients working harmoniously together. Each sip seems to bring something different to your mouth, and it's easy to slowly sip a glass and savor its complexity. 

This is certainly a gin which you can enjoy on its own, maybe just over some ice. An excellent drink for the summer. I also made my first cocktail with it, simply adding some Jalapeño Limeade to the gin. I very much enjoyed the drink, the slight spicy heat of the japalpeno enhancing the herbal notes. This is a versatile gin, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of cocktails you can make with this fine gin. Highly recommended!

I'll end by noting that Stray Dog Wild Gin is also a supporter of animal welfare, and a portion of all their sales is donated to organizations and shelters in Greece that provide food, veterinary care and homes for stray animals. As an animal lover, that certainly makes the Stray Dog Wild Gin even more appealing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

2019 Ritoša Malvazija Istarska: Complex, Compelling & Croatian

June 25 was the first official celebration of National Croatian Wine Day, a day founded by Anna Micic Viducic to celebrate the compelling wines from this country. The date has special meaning for Croatia as it was also the 30th Anniversary of Croatia's declaration of independence from the Republic of Yugoslavia. 

In collaboration with Croatian Premium Wine Exports, a couple of online tasting events, for the media and the public, were held to celebrate this wine day. I attended both events, sampling several Croatian wines, some already familiar to me, including a couple Whites, a couple Rosés, and a Red. From Pošip to Plavac Mali, intriguing indigenous grapes. 

I've previously written numerous articles about Croatia, having traveled to the country and sampled many of their wines, along with plenty of delicious Croatian cuisine. It's a beautiful country, with friendly people, and their wines definitely are worthy of much more attention. Fortunately, a number of their wines are available in the U.S. due to the efforts of Croatian Premium Wine Exports.

For me, the stand-out of the online tastings for National Croatian Wine Day was the 2019 Ritoša Malvazija Istarska ($22), which captivated me from the first sip. 

During the media event, Ana Ritoša, winemaker at the Ritoša Winery, was present, discussing her winery and this wine. Ana's grandfather once grew a small amount of vines, making wine just for the family. In 2005, Vili Ritosa, Ana's father, purchased about three acres of land near the village of Radmani, in the municipality of Poreč, in the western side of Istria. It's located about 10 kilometers from the sea. 

As a brief aside, Istria is a Croatian region that has some Italian influences and which is well known for its truffles and olive oil. Plus, Istria is known for vampires! Who would have suspected that connection?

Vili's original plan was to establish a ranch, to raise animals and grow vegetables. However, he found the land had more stones than soil, and he felt he needed to revise his plans. As Ana was studying wine at school, Vili decided instead to establish a vineyard, planting grapes in 2006, and their first commercial harvest was in 2008. 

Their soil, typical of Western Istria, is a red clay with some limestone, and the clay is rich in iron. The vineyard grows five varieties, Malvazija Istriana, Teran, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Red & Yellow Muscat. The winery currently produces 10 different wines, and they might be the only Croatian winery that is "suitable for vegans" as they don't use any animal products at all in the wine making process. Annually, they produce about 24,000 liters of wine, and their first U.S. exports have been through Croatian Premium Wine Exports 

The 2019 Ritoša Malvazija Istarska is made from 100% Malvazija Istarska, which is a very different grape from Italian Malvasia. It's a very common grape in the Istria region, the second most planted variety in Croatia after Grasevina, and has thought to have been grown in the area for centuries. The wine has a 13% ABV, and most Istrian wines have an ABV from 12.5%-13.5%. 

The wine was very aromatic, pleasant floral and spice notes, and my first sip brought a smile to my face. It was complex and compelling, with a wonderful melange of harmonious flavors. It was fresh and crisp, refreshing and satisfying with a moderately lengthy finish. On the palate, it was fruity (especially peach and pear) and floral, spicy and with a nice minerality. There was so much going on in this wine, and all of it was delicious. 

I could easily sip this on its own, relaxing outside on a warm summer day, but it would also be a fine accompaniment with seafood, light chicken dishes, and cheese. This is the type of wine that you should buy by the case, and I suspect all of your friends would enjoy this wine as much as you. Highly recommended!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Moonshine? A History of Sotol in the U.S. (A New Edition)

"More than 75% of the population of Mexico may be illiterate. Educational methods in Mexico follow more closely cock-fighting, sotol drinking, and the bull ring rather than the "three R's."
--Omaha Daily Bee, March 26, 1914: A letter to the editor written by Wood B. Wright

This racist comment is interesting for one aspect, that it mentions Sotol drinking rather than Mezcal or Tequila. Today, when discussing Mexico, most people would first mention Tequila and then maybe Mezcal. Very few people though would mention or even know about Sotol. However, back in the early 20th century, Sotol was apparently much more dominant in the northern region of Mexico and Americans on the borders were more familiar with it. Sotol has since been eclipsed by Tequila and Mezcal, but it's starting to make a comeback and you should learn more about it.

The Sotol plant (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as the Desert Spoon, derives its name from the Nahuatl word “Tzotolin,” which basically translates as “palm with long and thin leaves.” It was once thought to be a type of Agave but it was eventually discovered that it actually is a succulent that belongs in the Nolinaceae family. Both the Agave and Nolinaceae families fall under the same plant order, Asparagales, so they are related to a degree. Sotol grows in northern Mexico and ranges into the U.S., primarily in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Indigenous peoples have been using the Sotol plant for thousands of years, for a number of different purposes. They use the strong fibers of the leaves to make cords and weave baskets. The base of the leaf has been used to make a spoon-like utensil, which led to the Sotol being called the Desert Spoon. The core of the plant has been used as a food source, and some peoples also fermented the plant to make alcohol.

Once distillation was introduced to Mexico, people began to distill the Sotol plant, creating an alcoholic spirit that also was named Sotol. Sotol is primarily produced in the northern Mexican regions of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, though it can be found in other Mexican regions as well. In 2004, Mexico granted Sotol a Designation of Origin (DO) and formed a Consejo Mexicano de Sotol to regulate its production. Legally, Sotol can only be produced in the states of ChihuahuaCoahuila and Durango.  Generally the producers uses wild Sotol plants, which commonly take about fifteen years to mature, and it is said that one plant can produce a single bottle of Sotol.

In Texas, a new Sotol distillery, Desert Door, has opened to the public, raising the issue of whether there is a history of Sotol distillation in the U.S. There appears to be some anecdotal evidence, stories passed down from family members, that Sotol might have been illegally distilled, a form of moonshine, in Texas. It certainly seems plausible that it might have occurred but it would be even more interesting if we could find some documentary evidence to support the belief. In addition, there is the question as to whether Sotol was ever commercially produced in the U.S. or not.

A year ago, my continued research found some historic evidence of Texans illegally producing "moonshine" using Sotol. In addition, I've found a legal rationale for why the commercial production of Sotol, as a spirit for consumption, was illegal and thus apparently never occurred in Texas or any other part of the U.S. in the past. The laws were eventually revised, allowing Sotol production to now occur, but during the 19th and much of the 20th century, it was prohibited.

However, additional research has indicated there actually was a single legal distillery in El Paso, Texas, which commercially produced Sotol. The distillery lasted for only a couple years, closing a short time before the start of Prohibition in Texas. There are still questions about this distillery, especially how it was allowed to legally produce Sotol when the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue had previously declared Sotol and Mezcal production to be illegal

One of the earliest documents I found, with substantial information on Sotol, was in The American Naturalist Vol. 15, No. 11, Nov., 1881, an article titled "Sotol" by Dr. V. Harvard, a U.S. Army Surgeon who was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota. Dr. Harvard noted that the production of Sotol "... is carried on mostly in the Mexican States of Chihuahua, Cohuihuila and Sonora, and sotol mescal is the ordinary alcoholic beverage of the native population. It is precluded in Texas by the high duties laid on this class of industry." Dr. Harvard doesn't indicate that any "sotol mescal" is produced in Texas, or elsewhere in the U.S.

Dr. Harvard then goes into a detailed explanation of "sotol mescal," from its harvest to a description of the heads, noting harvesting is suspended only during the rainy reason, from June to September. He also notes how the heads are baked in circular pits, which are about ten feet deep, before they are pounded into a pulp. This sounds similar in some respects to the production of Mezcal. However, the pulp is then thrown into vats for fermentation, and for a few days, men tread upon the pulp with their feet. That foot-treading generally doesn't occur when making Mezcal. Once fermentation is complete, it is then placed into a still. "The first liquor obtained, being richer in alcohol and possessing to a higher degree the peculiar aroma of sotol mescal, is considered of better quality."

Dr. Harvard provides some information on the pricing of "sotol mescal" too. "A vinata in good running order will turn out a Mexican barrel a day (about twenty-eight gallons), sold at an average price of fifteen dollars, and retailing for thirty or forty centsaquart." He also is appreciative of its taste, "Sotol mescal is a pure, wholesome alcoholic drink; if the best brand be kept long enough to lose its sharp edge, it compares favorably with good whisky;.." And another benefit is "On account of its cheapness and characteristic taste, mescal is very seldom adulterated." This is a fascinating article and you should read it for even more information on Sotol.

In some subsequent written references, Sotol in Texas and New Mexico is mentioned as animal feed, with no reference to distillation. A Colorado newspaper, Walsenburg World, June 12, 1892 wrote that in the Pacos river valley of Texas, they are using a "peculiar" sheep feed called Sotol, noting that men with axes must first cut open the Sotol heads and that the sheep are quite fond of the Sotol.

The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, April 02, 1895, in an article titled "Live Stock Interests," wrote "Attention is now being directed to the nutritive and fattening qualities of sotol, a vegetable growth of the cacti species. Sotol is said by stockmen, who have closely studied its virtues as a stock food, to furnish both feed and water, as it contains sufficient moisture supply stock for long periods without water. Sheep readily fatten on it while cattle and horses take to it as they do to grain. It is not available for sheep unless burst open with an ax." So we see Sotol being used as feed for sheep, cattle and horses, but there isn't any mention that anyone locally is distilling it into alcohol.

There are a number of other newspaper articles during this time frame which discuss feeding sotol to animals, especially sheep, and I haven't added many of them as the information would be duplicative of what I've already mentioned. In none of those articles will you find references to Texans distilling Sotol alcohol.

Mezcal distilleries in Texas? The Laredo Times, May 5, 1903, published an article, Mezcal And This Country, subtitled Why It Can Not Be Distilled In The United States. The article was in response to a question as why no one had ever started a Mezcal distillery, using the abundant maguey that grew in the U.S. Beyond its connection of Mezcal, the answer to this question has important ramifications concernng the production of Sotol, providing a definitive explanation for why no one could commercially produce Sotol liquor at that time.

The answer was provided by the law, in two related statutes. Section 3248 of the Revised Statutes of the U.S. defined "distilled spirits" as "spirits, alcohol, and alcoholic spirit, to be that substance known as ethyl alcohol, hydrated oxide of ethyl, or spirit of wine, which is produced by the fermentation of grain, starch, molasses or sugar, including all dilutions and mixtures of this substance." Section 3255 of the Revised Statutes then allowed the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue to exempt a specific list of fruits, including apples, peaches, grapes, pears, pineapples, oranges, apricots, berries, prunes, figs, and cherries, used to make brandy, from the regulations of the manufacturing of spirits.

Based on these two Sections, the Commissioner had ruled that "the articles and fruits mentioned in the statues above quoted are the only ones which can be used for the purpose of distilling alcoholic liquors..." Because Sotol and Maguey were not specifically mentioned in these statues, then neither could be legally distilled to produce alcohol. Thus, no one could operate a legal Sotol distillery in Texas, or anywhere else in the U.S. Quite a definitive answer.

I've been unable to find any information that the Commissioner of the IRS changed his decision prior to Prohibition. 

The article also briefly mentioned that about two years ago, a man established an illegal distillery in West Texas, and had produced about 600 gallons of "mezcal" from Sotol. However, the government somehow learned of the operation, and subsequently seized and destroyed the still and illegal Sotol "moonshine." So, we also see evidence of illegal distillation in Texas.

Subsequent references to Sotol being distilled for alcohol aren't quite what you think. The Brownsville Daily Herald, October 12, 1906, in an article titled "And Ozona Is Advertised," reports that: "Another gold mine has been discovered in Texas, namely, the vast quantities of alcohol contained in the sotol bush. At Ozone, in Crockett county, the light and ice company is making its own fuel from the sotol and this same company proposes to supply fuel for power to all the surrounding country from its distilling plant." Again, there is no mention that anyone in Texas was distilling Sotol for alcohol consumption.

There were additional references to the plans to use Sotol for fuel. The Jimplecute, October 13, 1906 mentions "San Antonio: John Young of Ozona, who is at the head of the company that proposes to distill denatured alcohol known at (sic) "sotol," is in this city and has shed some new light on the proposed enterprise. He says that sotol plant has somewhat the appearance of a cabbage and grows in great abundance all over West Texas. For many years the Mexicans have manufactured mescal from the plant, producing a good grade of alcohol." Though it mentions Mexicans making alcohol from Sotol, there continued to be a lack of mention of any Texans doing the same.

The San Angelo Press, October 18, 1906 added more detail, stating that the denatured alcohol would replace fuel oil in machinery plants, also stating that: "Other good uses have been made of sotol, however. Sheepmen in the sotol section have long utilized it as the chief food during the winter for their flocks." And once again, despite referencing other uses for Sotol, there wasn't any mention of Texans making alcohol from Sotol.

Another such reference was in the El Paso Herald, June 18, 1907. which printed that "Within six months there will be completed and in operation in El Paso a plant for the extraction of alcohol, ether and fiber from all forms of the cactus plant. This concern will be known as the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Works..." The plant, which was planned to be in an adobe building, would cost $20,000 and have a capacity of 20 gallons a day. "The alcohol will be denatured alcohol, therefore usable for fuel." Though the article claimed this would be the first plant of its kind in the U.S., the earlier references provided here seemed to indicate there was at least one other plant prior to this planned El Paso plant.

As for the continued use of Sotol as feed, the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, July 03, 1907 published an article, Alfalfa versus Sotol for Cattle, discussing a report prepared by a New Mexico agricultural experiment station that conducted a study of the use of Alfalfa vs Sotol. Though they found that Sotol was generally cheaper than Alfalfa, commonly by as much as half, they also concluded that Alfalfa was generally better nutritionally for the animals unless additional ingredients were added to the Sotol feed. In the end, it came down to how inexpensive a farmer could obtain Sotol and the other ingredients as compared to Alfalfa.

Returning to the El Paso plant, the El Paso Herald, August 12, 1907, indicated the factory would be constructed on three blocks in the Grandview Addition. The plans for the building hadn't been completed yet and construction wouldn't begin until those plans were complete. There was a follow-up in the El Paso Herald, October 30, 1907, indicating that the main building, the distillery, was nearly completed. A four-room cottage and stable had also been completed, and they were still working on finishing the fiber building and a bonded warehouse. The plant was supposed to begin operation on January 1, 1908, with a capacity of 1,000 gallons of alcohol, far greater than originally planned.

Plans didn't work out as expected. The El Paso Herald, May 1, 1908, reported that the factory hadn't opened yet, awaiting government authorization for their alcohol distillery, but would open their fiber factory on May 4. Then, the El Paso Herald, July 29, 1908, discussed the imminent start of the distillery, noting that they had already conducted a test run. 

A few changes were made to the process due to findings from that test. They also learned that the "heart of the cactus...after the fibrous blades had been cut off, was a juicy pulp easily converted into alcohol of a very superior quality." In addition, they decided that they would produce only about 500 gallons per day, finding it more beneficial than trying to reach 1,000 gallons. On August 26, 1908, it was announced that the plant needed up to another two weeks before it could finally start production.

Some general information about Sotol, and a short bit about the proposed El Paso plant, was provided in The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, Sept. 27, 1908The article first mentioned how there are millions of acres of Sotol plants in the mountainous area of Western Texas, and that it's said not to grow anywhere else in the U.S. Second, it stated that the Sotol plant can yield a percentage of alcohol greater than any other plant. Third, it mentioned how Congress authorized the construction of a plant to produce denatured alcohol from Sotol, which refers to the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Company.

Fourth, and most interesting, there was a brief historical item, mentioning that when the Spanish came to this area, they found that the "Pueblo and other Indian tribes" already knew of the alcoholic potential of Sotol. They were already using primitive stills to distill a "fiery white liquor." It was also mentioned that Sotol was still a favorite drink of the Mexicans, and that "American cowboys" on the border ranches were familiar with Sotol as well. For example, drinking Sotol was considered one part of the initiation rituals for "tenderfoots" on these ranches. However, there wasn't any mention that anyone in Texas was distilling Sotol.

There were more problems at the El Paso plant in October. The El Paso Herald, October 12, 1908, reported that there had been difficulty in getting alcohol from the product, although they weren't having any problems getting tequila. They wanted to bring in a master distiller for assistance. The November 16, 1908 issue noted the company was still having problems getting denatured alcohol from the yucca plant and they would run the plant for 90 days under the auspices of a distillery expert. Obviously, the plant had significant problems and The Houston Post, October 1909, noted the El Paso Chemical company had gone into receivership. It apparently never commercially produced Sotol for drinking purposes, and even had extreme difficulty in making denatured alcohol for fuel.

The Bulletin of Agricultural Experiment Station, New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Issues 72, August 1909, printed an extended article about denatured alcohol, as well as discussing the El Paso Chemical plant. "In this investigation we will also include a study of the alcohol obtainable from the sotol and lechuguilla, the two plants that the El Paso Chemical and Fiber Company made an unsuccessful attempt to ferment for alcohol production. About a year ago this company erected a factory in El Paso. Texas, at a cost of something over $40,000 for the production of denatured alcohol, but for very evident reasons the plant was in operation only a short time."

The article continued, "El Paso plant was able to produce small quantities of fermentable sugar, would seem to indicate that the high steam pressure of the autoclave must have hydrolyzed some sugars without the presence of any mineral acid. It was not sufficient, however, to place the production of alcohol from these plants on an economical basis, and the factory soon closed its doors." It is clear this distillery was only trying to produce denatured alcohol, and even that was ultimately unsuccessful.

During this time period, smuggling Sotol across the border, from Mexico into the U.S., was a problem and there were multiple references in various newspapers about people being caught smuggling. For example, in the El Paso Herald, August 04, 1910, there was a report of a Mexican smuggler trying to discard his contraband Sotol, "the Mexican booze," before he was apprehended by the border authorities. In none of these references was there any indication that Americans were distilling their own Sotol.

In the Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, May 08, 1911 there was a brief mention of Sotol: "Then there are the sotol and the maguey and other desert plants, which the Mexican well knows how to convert into either food or drink." Once again, Sotol distillation seemed restricted to Mexico and there was no mention of it occurring in the U.S.

Some companies were starting to use Maguey and Sotol to produce alcohol, although not for comsumption. The News Journal (DE), December 20, 1913, reported that the Cactus Alcohol Co., incorporated in Delaware with a capital stock of $250,000, was formed to engage in the extraction or distillation of alcohol and other products from cactus.

As a follow-up, the El Paso Herald Post (TX), March 16, 1914, indicated, “The Cactus Alcohol company will be in operation in El Paso in 60 days, tuning out denatured and the regular kind of alcohol, and fiber articles of various kinds.Dr. Frank T. Thatcher, of El Paso, was the president and general manager while L.M. Stiles, also of El Paso, was the vice-president and treasurer. Some of the other investors in this corporation were from outside of El Paso, although no other details on them was provided.

The Cactus Alcohol Co. didn't do well, so it was reorganized, becoming a different company, with the objective of producing spirits for public consumption. The Austin American-Statesman (TX), April 22, 1916, reported that the Cactus Fiber and Reduction Company of El Paso has been incorporated, with a capital stock of $18,500. The incorporators included: Gunther R. Lessing, Oscar L. Bowen, and Jose D. Madero. And then the San Antonio Light, November 10, 1916, noted the corporation had increased its capital from $18,500 to $30,000.

The company seems to have started selling their spirits in early 1917, and the first advertisement I found for it was in the El Paso Times (TX), February 9, 1917. The ad mentioned it was for "Cactus Mezcal," distilled in El Paso under Government inspection. It also mentioned that Mezcal is "a preventative and remedy for tuberculosis and kidney troubles." In addition, the ad stated it was "Genuine Mexican Mezcal." The company's office was at 511 East San Antonio Street and that the distillery was located at the Grandview Addition, Blocks 112-114. Based on this ad, it would seem the company was only producing Mezcal from agave, but that turned out not to be the case.

The Spanish edition of the El Paso Times (TX), February 9, 1917, presented a similar advertisement, except there were some intriguing differences as well. Rather than a heading of Cactus Mezcal, this ad was headed by Mezcales Mexicanos. The ad also indicated they had managed to produce for the first time in the U.S. a Mexican Mezcal. Curiously, their first label was "Sotol Fino," which was said to have an exquisite taste, delicate aroma, and unbeatable quality and purity. 

However, there appears to be some confusion as to whether Mezcal and Sotol were two different spirits. Were they actually making Mezcal or Sotol? With the Sotol plant on the label, and the words "Sotol Fino" on the bottle neck, it seems that they were producing Sotol and not Mezcal. Why didn't the English advertisement mention Sotol?  

Finally, the Spanish ad mentioned that in the future, the company would be producing Tequila and Bacanora, but they would be importing the maguey from Mexico. 

A better photograph of the bottle and labels can be found in El Paso Prescription Bottles, the Drug Stores That Used Them and Other Non-Beverage Bottles (2015) by Bill Lockhart, a privately published work. In Chapter 8, p.191, there is a color photograph of the labels from an Ebay listing. It clearly shows a Sotol plant in the lower right of the main label, along with a Mexican flag, eagle and medal. The top label states, "Sotol Fino."

The El Paso Times (TX), March 6, 1917, presented a brief ad for the company, stating: “America First. Try ‘Mezcal Mexicano.’ Not Mexican stuff, but real, genuine ‘Mezcal,’ manufactured in America. Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co., El Paso, Tex.”

The El Paso Times (TX), March 6, 1917, also had another ad, where the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co., offered to Cattlemen to clean their pastures and grazing fields of all "Agane Cactus (Maguey)," which gives them no benefit and can hurt their cattle. So, if the company was acquiring all this Maguey, were they then also making Mezcal, and not just Sotol?  

There was another ad in the El Paso Times (TX), March 8, 1917, which referred to the product as "new American Brandy. Bottled under bond in America." It also stated it was available in hotels, cafes and "in the better places." The Spanish edition of this issue was similar, but noted it was produced from the finest Sotol.

A Spanish ad in the La Prensa, April 3, 1917, noted that the Mezcal Mexicano was the "salvation" of those afflicted with tuberculosis. The first ad of the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co. had also mentioned how it helped against this disease. The ad also stated, “Este elixir de la vida aleja para siempre la turberculosis, los resfrios, toses, etc" which can be translated as "This elixir of life forever drives away turberculosis, colds, coughs, etc." We also see that this spirit had ranged beyond El Paso and was now available in San Antonio as well.

Sotol cocktails? The El Paso Times (TX), May 6, 1917, had an ad for Mezcal Fizz, sold at all saloons, and using the spirit from Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co. Even though it's called a Mezcal Fizz, it would actually be a Sotol Fizz. And this might be the first reference to a Sotol cocktail in the U.S.  

Another Sotol cocktail. In El Paso Times (TX), May 13, 1917,  there was a similar ad but for a Mezcal Rickey, which again is really a Sotol Rickey.  

The La Prensa (TX), May 27, 1917, printed another advertisement, from J.F. Lozano & Co., the exclusive agent for the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co., which was said to be the only Mexican Mezcal distillery in the U.S.

These advertisements continued to appear in the newspapers through June 1917, but vanished after that month. Did the company stop selling their Sotol? The company was apparently still in business as there were a couple mentions of it in August 1917. The El Paso Herald, August 2, 1917, briefly noted that the Cactus Fiber and Reduction Co. had been granted a petition for a sewer connection. The El Paso Herald, August 23, 1917, had a Help Wanted ad for an “Expert boiler erector” for the Cactus Fiber Co.

The El Paso Times, November 13, 1918, then reported that the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co. would "shortly liquidate its business” and offer for sale its location and factory.  

The resolution of the fate of the company was detailed in the El Paso Times, November 21, 1920. The article stated that “.., the plant once built in El Paso for extracting the sap of the cactus for commercial purposes is being moved back to its native land—Mexico.” When the Cactus Alcohol company was reorganized, becoming the Cactus Fiber & Reduction company, Francisco Arredondo Cepada of Mexico became one of its vice presidents. It was noted that, “With Mexican initiative and exclusive knowledge of vintage and its processes of manufacture, the industry has persistently failed to pay dividends in El Paso, so that Cepada is having the machinery shipped to his properties in Cuetro Cienegas, Coahuila.” In Mexico, they planned to use the machinery to distill their own maguey spirits.  

An article in The Houston Post, March 26, 1917, discussed moonshine operations in Texas. "Of course there have been in Texas the moonshine distilleries which were so common in more eastern states...Be that as it may, distilleries, legal or illegal, have never been a success in this state." This section only mentioned Texan's difficulties in making whiskey from corn.

The article then printed, "At this time only one distillery of any kind, so far as known to the officials, is operating in Texas. This prosperous concern is located in El Paso. It supplies to the Mexicans of that city and contiguous territory their natural drink, mescal, which is distilled from sotol." This distillery was not named, and no other identifying information was provided. 

Previously, I thought this article might have been in error, but the additional research clearly indicates they had to be referring to the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co. However, it doesn't seem the company was actually prosperous, but this article seems to make it clear they were producing sotol, although it was also referred to as mescal still. 

Back to Sotol as animal feed. The use of Sotol for animal feed took a technological step forward as reported in El Paso Herald, July 04, 1917. A new company was formed in El Paso, Sotol Products, to produce feed for livestock derived form the Sotol plant. The company had a new patented process which produced a nutritious Sotol molasses. This molasses was then combined with the pith of the Sotol as well as some Alfalfa or other vegetable material. This livestock feed could be sold at "an extraordinary low price."

In a follow-up, in El Paso Herald, July 27, 1918, there was an advertisement for this new Sotol animal feed. The "Sotol Molasses Mixed Feed" contained a blend of 25% Alfalfa Meal, 25% Ground Sotol Plant, and 40% Sotol Molasses. There was then a breakdown touching on the feed's Fats, Protein, Nitrogen Free Extract & Crude Fiber and comparing them to beet pulp, showing that the molasses mixed feed was better for livestock. And the advertisement also stressed the low cost of this product.

Finally, I've heard some claim that there might have been a Sotol distillery in New Mexico, but that seems to be based on an incomplete information. The El Paso Times, September 24, 1923, detailed an account of a couple murders, and some other news accounts of this incident were much less detailed. Those shorter reports seemed to indicate one of the bodies was found near a Sotol distillery south of Columbus, New Mexico. That is factual, except that actually it was far enough south that it occurred in Mexico, not New Mexico.

The El Paso article noted that Holly Herring's body was found in a hollow near a Sotol distillery, but the article stated it was located on the south side of the Ojo Federico ranch, which is in Mexico. This was confirmed as the authorities in the U.S. had to obtain the permission of Mexico to retrieve the body and then it to the U.S. The Sotol distillery was thus located in the Chihuahua region of Mexico, and not in New Mexico.

There is limited evidence of Texans making illegal Sotol "moonshine," as well as smuggling over the border.  Sotol was used to produce denatured alcohol for fuel, though even that production was relatively small, as the companies ran into an assortment of problems producing it. There was also a single legal Sotol distillery in El Paso, which primarily produced Sotol during 1917. How it got around the law making Mezcal and Sotol distilleries illegal in the U.S. remains a mystery. Maybe new research will one day resolve that matter. 

As more Mexican Sotol becomes available in the U.S. market, I recommend you seek it out. You'll find some local Mexican restaurants may carry one or two Sotol. Be adventurous and enjoy a new spirit!

"There is some resemblance between the cabbage and sotol, but there is no reason to conclude that cabbage beer is anything like mescal, one drop of which, it has been said, will make a rabbit go out and hunt a fight with a bulldog."
--Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, August 26, 1911

(Please be advised that my original article on Sotol was first published in 2017, but has since been revised and expanded a few times, due to additional research. This latest edition owes a big debt of gratitude to Steve Swinnea for pointing me toward the Cactus Fiber & Reduction Co., a legal distillery in Texas which produced Sotol.)