Archive for Drinks

Distillery Tour: Blaum Bros

I dig distillery tours.

I’ve been on two now, and while they were very similar, I enjoyed seeing their processes and comparing their business plans, as well as sampling their products. If you pay close attention, it’s an educational opportunity, too. There’s a science lesson in the chemistry and physics of the fermentation, distillation, and aging, yet there’s also a strong sense of craftsmanship in the final product. You learn about their marketing and advertising, from the business plan through the branding and the design of the labels. There’s even a bit of career education as you’re touring an actual workplace and seeing the labor involved.

And of course there are souvenirs

A local friend has visited Galena, Illinois several times, and when he heard I was planning a short trip to the area, he told me about the Blaum Bros distillery. My family had no problem indulging my curiosity, so I hit the Blaum Bros website and snapped up some tickets. (Some distillery tours are free, some charge a modest fee. Blaum Bros will set you back $10 per ticket. It’s worth it.)

The distillery’s on the main drag on the way into town from the south, a small building with a white spire reminiscent of an old, rural city hall. You enter into the gift shop, but they have a nice lounge and bar area with some huge leather chairs and a gorgeous bar.

We were a good twenty minutes early, and I’m not exactly known for my patience, so I ordered an Old Fashioned and chatted up the bartender. I watched him closely as he put it together, as I’m still getting a feel for mixing up my own Old Fashioned cocktails. He served it up with fresh-peeled orange zest, something I may have to add to my Old Fashioned game.

Also, he nailed it. I’d only had a few Old Fashioneds at average bars, but his was easily the best I’d tasted so far. That sold me on a bottle right there.

The tour started in the lounge with a brief history of the company, and the guide confirmed some of the things the bartender already told me: the distillery had been there about three-and-a-half years, so their own bourbon was not quite mature enough for release. However, they blended their initial offerings with spirits distilled in Indiana and they dubbed them Knotter Bourbon and Knotter Rye. Say it quick and you’ll hear it as “not our bourbon.” Once their home-grown product is ready to go, it’ll be released as Galena Bourbon. I look forward to trying it.

The still

We moved into main distillery, where we learned they’d imported the still from Germany. This one was much bigger than the other I’d seen, with extra columns for distilling vodka, and they had juniper and coriander on hand for making gin. As with my last distillery tour, they discussed their mash bills and manufacturing process, and we got to see all of their equipment.

I’m not a vodka or gin guy, but I enjoyed learning how they’re made. Those tall columns in the photo above are used for the vodka distilling, where it’s refined down to a much lower proof and then mixed up to its bottle proof. I half expected there to be sacks of potatoes around for the vodka, but it turns out vodka is mostly distilled from wheat and other grains these days.

Next we moved on to their barrel house, which has more of a simple warehouse feel. Barrel houses are not climate controlled, as the seasonal fluctuation in temperature helps with the aging process. Fortunately we were there on a relatively cool day.

Here we also got to see the distillery is working on some experimental barrels and blends in addition to their planned releases.

A Bloody Butcher barrel

They dubbed one of those blends “Bloody Butcher” and stamped the barrels with a small haunted house logo. Bourbon must have at least 50% corn in its mash bill, and for this one the brothers decided to try red Indian corn. I have to admit, I’m curious if it will turn out to taste any different from regular bourbon.

The tour ended back in the bar with samples. They served up three of their products: the Knotter Bourbon, their gin, and their Hellfyre vodka. As I said, I’m not a gin fan, but I could taste and smell the hint of orange in it. The Hellfyre is made with peppers for easy mixing in a Bloody Mary (or, as the tour guide suggested, in hot chocolate), and I picked up a strong taste of jalapeño. This stuff is hot enough that it has its own dedicated machine for bottling to prevent the peppers from contaminating other products.

I would have chosen to try the rye if given an option, but I decided to take my chances and buy a small bottle of rye. I brought home both the Knotter Bourbon and the Knotter Rye, and my first impressions of both are good. I’ll try to write up some separate reviews in the near future. The Knotter Rye neat is excellent.

I found it interesting to compare the Blaum Bros business plan with that of our local East Peoria distiller, JK Williams. Because bourbon must, by law, be aged for at least two years, it takes some time before a new operation has something to sell. If a business is going to pay the bills and keep the lights on, they need product.

JK Williams solved this problem by releasing some unaged product for mixing, as well as some fruited whiskeys. They also released their “Young Buck Bourbon” which is made the same but simply isn’t aged as long and thus isn’t officially bourbon.

Blaum Bros, on the other hand, expanded into vodka and gin in addition to the Knotter Bourbon and Rye made with someone else’s spirits. I thought that was a good approach, as it gives a sense of the taste the brothers might be looking for in their own product.

Overall, it was well worth the hour or so we spent there. Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast or are just looking for something to do in the area, drop in and check it out.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Booze and a Book: Bourbon and Bikers

The Booze: Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

I’d heard a lot of good things about Michter’s, so I snagged a bottle while I was at a local shop picking up a cigar for a friend. I cracked it open shortly before writing this, and I quite enjoyed the sweet smell. First little taste, neat, carried a similar creamy vanilla sweetness.

On ice it changed a bit, as if the cold dulled much of the sweetness. It’s still pretty great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not getting the same unique flavor. I’m going to come back to this one neat sometime before passing judgement.

The Book: Freedom: Credos from the Road by Sonny Barger

This is another one I read a few chapters at a time between other books. I bought it partly out of curiosity, partly for inspiration while noodling on some characters in Lucifer’s Swords from The Pack and possible spin-offs.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable book. Barger shares a lot of insight and life lessons, and the biographical side is interesting reading. His perspective of The System and The Man may be skewed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that need to be addressed. He even shares a bit of advice and philosophy, usually conveyed through riding metaphors.

On the down side, Barger—like way too many people today—has a very selfish idea of freedom. There’s a lot of my freedom is more important than your freedom, and if yours doesn’t jive, then to hell with you. He demonstrates patriotism for an American ideal, but also some entitlement. Essentially, “I served my country, I should be able to do what I want”. It tends to fall somewhere between Libertarianism and anarchy, with a healthy dash of might makes right. Brotherhood over law, freedom over justice.

It all sounds good until one realizes the mightiest won’t remain so forever. When the top dog ignores others’ freedoms for his own, and someone within a brotherhood divides its loyalties, it’s only a matter of time before that top dog hits rock bottom.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Smoke Blog: Rocky Patel Strada

It’s National Bourbon Day. Cheers! #bourbon #whiskey #straightedge #cigar #rockypatel #strada #nationalbourbonday

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It’s National Bourbon Day, so I’m sitting here enjoying a tasty glass of Straight Edge bourbon, enjoying a mild thunderstorm and a break in the heat, and hoping this cigar will match its quality.

I usually like the Rocky Patel labels, but never have I had a more uneven box of cigars than the Strada. I’ll come back to flavor in a moment, as the quality is where they suffer the most. One cigar will burn fine, but the next will have burn issues and either fizzle out or burn unevenly. Two of them spat and sputtered, as if burning into pockets of moisture, and one popped a few times and sprayed small bits of burning ash onto my table. I thought it might be a problem with my humidor, but none of my other cigars have had these problems.

The Strada is billed as a medium-body smoke, but I would rate it closer to full. The draw gives up pleasant hints of pepper, but the finish is leathery. Those that burned well, I mostly enjoyed. Those that did not left a very dry, ashy finish on the palate that required a strong drink for balance. Avoid sweet cocktails; that’ll just be a mess.

Construction varied as well. None unraveled during smoking, nor did any break or crack during cutting. The ash was often brittle, however, making them a messy cigar and a bit of a gamble to smoke while getting some work done at a laptop. Even a short ash might break off while puffing, which has happened to me twice while typing this post.

Like most of my sticks, they were on sale. Where I lucked out with the Gurkha Legend, the Rocky Patel Strada is a good reminder that in most cases I get what I pay for and I should probably stash away some extra pennies and stick to my favorites.

But hey, at least the Straight Edge is still killer, as I’ve previously written.

On to the next batch.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Booze and a Book: Scotch and Zen

The Booze: Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whisky

Scotch has been very hit and miss for me, with mostly misses. Some of them are overwhelmed by that smokey, peaty flavor Scotch is known for, and it generally turns me off. Fortunately that note is mellowed in Monkey Shoulder, allowing the malt and a bourbon-y sweetness to come through. It makes this whisky a mellower, more soothing drink.

Monkey Shoulder goes down smooth and easy, too, and I enjoy it both straight or on the rocks. I’m going to recommend larger cubes or whiskey stones for this one, though, as the melting ice waters it down quick.

At the moment I’m enjoying Monkey Shoulder with the last of my Gurkha Legends, and neither is overwhelming the other. Good times.

The Book: The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

“The Dude abides.” The classic The Big Lebowski character is a starting point in the conversations of life and Zen philosophy between actor Jeff Bridges and Zen master Bernie Glassman. In fact, the book is simply a transcript rather than a standard narrative.

I first ran into this book sitting at a friend’s basement bar. I was waiting for him to finish something upstairs, so I picked it up and read the first chapter, and I enjoyed it. A few days later, I saw several copies sitting on a remainder pile for around five bucks at our local Barnes & Noble, so I snapped up a copy for myself.

That was over a year go. It’s been sitting on my nightstand ever since, buried under my Kindle and a handful of martial arts-related books. I felt a bit angry and down the other night, so I pulled The Dude and the Zen Master out of the stack, dusted it off, and started reading.

In true Zen fashion, it was just what I needed, exactly when I needed it. It made me reexamine a few things and look at them in a new light, and it made me feel a hell of a lot better. A hundred pages later, I forced myself to put it down so I could get at least a little bit of sleep before my alarm went off later that morning.

I’ve harbored a minor interest in Zen philosophy while I’ve been involved in the martial arts these past ten years or so, but not so much its religious trappings. What I like about this book is it’s not preachy at all, and while Bridges & Glassman discuss meditation on occasion, they’re not telling the reader he must do this or that to reach enlightenment. It’s simply two guys discussing how they’ve found their paths and the things they’ve encountered in their lives, with a little sprinkling of The Dude for flavor.

Good stuff, and I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman on cigars in “The Dude and the Zen Master.” Word. #quote #cigars #books #zen

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About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Why Whiskey?

Short answer: Why not?

Thirst in Amber

The long answer: It turns out, in addition to my other food allergies, I’m allergic to barley. All those times I had heartburn after drinking a few beers with friends? That was the allergy kicking me in the guts. I can do ciders, wheat beer, or even sorghum beer, but no more standard barley beers for me.

The good news is, though, if you distill the stuff, it’s harmless. For years I’d only dabbled with some of the well whiskeys and bourbons if people bought me a shot, but then a friend turned me on to Jameson Irish Whiskey, and another friend turned me on to Woodford Reserve, and pretty soon I realized there was a whole new world out there to explore. Add cocktails to the mix and that world becomes even bigger.

I’ve enjoyed reading up on regional blends and flavors, and learning the differences in their histories and what makes a bourbon a bourbon and a Scotch a Scotch. I’m sure I’ll flirt with a few other liquors as well (I’ve had some really good tequilas), but for the moment I’ve barely put a dent in the bourbon selection.

Favorites right now include Four Roses Small Batch, Woodford Reserve, and, from right here in East Peoria, Illinois, J.K.’s Straight Bourbon. The bar where I enjoy my cigars has Knob Creek, which I like okay, but they’ve jacked up the price on it, which sucks.

It’s also given me a good excuse to do the Booze and a Book thing. Look for another entry next week.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Booze and a Book: Cocktail and Comics

The Booze: An Old Fashioned cocktail

I mixed this one up with Redemption bourbon, simple syrup, and spiced orange bitters from Beehive Bitters. The Old Fashioned has quickly become my go-to cocktail because it softens even the harshest of bourbons without completely killing the flavor. It’s also a great way to enhance a a low-grade bourbon and make it more enjoyable.

I rather like the Redemption bourbon straight or in a cocktail. It has a 21% rye mash, so it has just a bit of a spicy kick to make it stand out from some other bourbons.

A traditional Old Fashioned calls for Angostura bitters, but I won a small bottle of the Beehive Bitters through an online offer and it’s a much better flavor. I’ve been nursing the bottle along, and I’m sure I’ll buy one or two of their other flavors when this bottle is done.

The Book: Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner

I first read Mage back in high school when two clerks at my local comic shop told me how much they loved it. It was already done and collected in three volumes by then, so I purchased the first one. Before the end of the week, I’d returned for the second two.

I’ve loved this book since. It’s a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend, and it’s just a very clever, beautiful book. It’s been ages since I’ve read it myself, so I’m long overdue for a reread. My sons have both read it, and if you look carefully you can see some of the pages have fallen out because they even re-read it a time or two. I may have to order a new volume.

The second series, Mage: The Hero Defined, is boxed up in single issues somewhere in my longbox collection. I kind of expected the boys to go looking for it, but they never did. I may have to pick up a collected edition of that, too.

The main reason I chose this book this week, though, is because it’s finally been announced that the final series, Mage: The Hero Denied, will be published at last. It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since Defined was published. I can’t wait!

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Booze and a Book: Karate & Rye

The Booze: Templeton Rye (4 year)

I dig bourbon, but I’ve started to flirt with ryes and rye blends and Templeton makes some good stuff. It’s sweet, with notes of caramel and just a bit of a burn when it goes down neat. I’ve tried the six year as well, and my only regret is not trying them side by side.

This is also the first time I brought out one of the Glencairn whiskey glasses I got for Christmas. They claim the shape of the glass concentrates the aroma, and they weren’t wrong. Would I use them every time? Probably not, but I’ll definitely run a few more drinks through them to get a better sense of their nose.

The Book: Dynamic Karate by Masatoshi Nakayama

One of my students was a Shotokan practitioner twenty years or so back, and he loaned me this book. I have a shorter, sort of companion book by the same author, Best Karate Volume 1: Comprehensive. Both books deal with basics and fundamentals, and another student asked why I’d need to read it if I already knew most of what’s in them. The rest, he felt, would probably be specific to Shotokan or at least be handled differently in our style.

I told him that’s not exactly true. Sure, the basic techniques—the punches, kicks, blocks, and stances—are effectively identical, but fundamentals are always important and I’ve already picked up a few differences in language and a few nuances that might help explain techniques to students having trouble picking things up.

In short, even if it doesn’t enhance my own training or karate knowledge, it will at least help my instruction, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.

I tell my students, “The day you stop learning is the day you stop living.” Practice is important, but studying is also important, especially for advanced students. It applies to more than just the martial arts, too. Writers, for example, should be studying their craft and learning from others. I have friends in their 30s and 40s going back to school and taking new career paths.

It’s never too late.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Dig: Local Bourbon

Ever since I tried their Young Buck Bourbon, I’ve been wanting to visit the JK Williams distillery, a craft distiller out of nearby East Peoria, Illinois. Schedule conflicts and inclement weather made it tough, and the JK Williams line continued to grow. Finally, the Rugrats were out of town this past Sunday, and the Wife and I were looking for something to do.

Perfect time for a visit. We called another couple and the four of us made the trip.

The distillery is a small place, easy to miss on a frontage road in a row of small businesses and offices. They offer hourly tours on weekends, and though it was 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, their lobby (and bar counter) was fairly crowded with a group who just finished a tour and another group waiting to take one.

Kassi Williams started our tour with a history lesson of both the company and the whiskey business in Peoria. I knew Peoria was once the whiskey capital of the world prior to Prohibition, but the JK Williams crew, particularly the ladies, put together a nice timeline of historic photos and filled in some details I wasn’t aware of.

Then it was on to the still. I knew they were a small operation, but I didn’t realize they only had the one still. We got to see where they cooked up their mash, we smelled the results of the distillation process every step of the way, and Kassi explained the different mixes and mashes that make up their various products.

Something I really respect about them as a craft distiller is they source as much as they can locally. Their corn is local, and the fruit they use in their fruited liquors are picked by adults with special needs who work with the Tazewell County Resource Center. Way cool.

Then we got to see the aging room.

This room and the barrels were a lot smaller than I expected, too, but their output is still quite high for a four-person operation with only one full-time employee.

JK Williams called their first bourbon Young Buck because it was too young to be legally called a bourbon (bourbon must be aged at least two years). One of the owners, Jon, told me at a tasting that they used special barrels to “age the bourbon faster,” and we got to see one of those barrels: they simply drill several holes on the inside of the barrel staves to increase the surface area the whiskey is exposed to. I liked the Young Buck, but I remember finding it a bit strong to drink neat.

After seeing the aging room, we returned to the lobby bar and were invited to try a quarter ounce of up to four different products, free of charge. (Score! Cocktails were available for purchase, too.) I was eager to finally try their fully-matured bourbon and rye. Unfortunately their High Rye wasn’t available just yet; it’s due this Fall.

The ladies went straight for the fruit drinks: the Peach Whiskey, the Blackberry Whiskey, Smitty’s Apple Pie, and the new Pineapple Whiskey. A bottle of the Pineapple Whiskey came home with my wife.

I went for two of their unaged products, JK’s Corn Whiskey and JK’s Naked Rye, the Straight bourbon, and one I wasn’t aware of, JK’s Select Bourbon.

The Corn Whiskey was sweet as promised, and the Naked Rye had a spicy burn. Jesse and Kassi served up the drinks and advised mixers for both, but I’m kinda dumb and wanted to see what the whiskeys were like solo. It doesn’t make a lot of business sense to have barrels and barrels of product sitting in a warehouse doing nothing, so these products, as well as the Young Buck, give them something to market while the rest of the line matures.

The Bourbon Select, if I understood correctly, comes from a barrel chosen by the distiller, Jesse, and this one was aged 17 months. The Straight had a full two years in the barrel. I rather liked both, though it was hard to get a full sense of the flavors with just a quarter ounce sip. Just the same, I found them both pleasant, with a bit more of a burn on the Select’s finish.

In the end I opted for a bottle of JK’s Straight Bourbon and a shiny new JK Williams whiskey glass (about time I added one of those to my collection). When I got home later that night, I didn’t waste time getting it onto some ice and then mixing up an Old Fashioned.

Let me tell you, this is good stuff. I found it smooth and sweet on ice, with those wonderful, subtle hints of caramel and vanilla. Maybe I finally nailed my Old Fashioned recipe, but I was very pleased with that, too. I’m hoping to set up a tasting for myself soon to compare it to the Woodford Reserve and Four Roses Small Batch that I have on hand.

JK’s stock is appearing in several local stores, and the Young Buck is in Costco. It’s probably worth talking to your liquor store to see if they can get their hands on it. Myself, I’ll just stop on back to the distillery for another tour when the High Rye is released.

Looking for something to do in Peoria? Passing through on I-74, or willing to take a small side trip from I-39? Drop on in and check it out. The tours are open on the weekend and they’re free. If you’re at all interested in whiskey, it’s well worth the trip.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.