What is a “craft spirit”? Well, according to the American Distilling Institute (ADI), a “Certified Craft Spirit” is the product of an “independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site”.
The distillery also has to be small scale, independently owned (not more than 25% of the distillery can be owned or controlled by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not certified craft distillers), and involve hands-on production.
For the consumer, however, 44Bar founder C.K. Kho reckons that craft spirits are perfect for people looking for something different from what is available from the commercial producers, “Craft spirits have a lot of individuality that a lot of the commercial spirits don’t have,” he said.
In Malaysia, 44Bar probably has the widest range of American craft spirits available currently, including some truly unique gins, rum, vodka, tequila, and whiskey. The problem is, they don’t actually have a proper place to call home right now.
Previously called 44 Pop-up Bar, the bar used to be located at APW Bangsar, but ended their lease there in March. They have currently set up shop temporarily at Taps Beer Bar’s Mont Kiara branch (Ground floor, 1 Mont Kiara Mall, Jalan Kiara, Kuala Lumpur), where they are collaborating with the craft beer purveyors on a series of craft beer and spirit cocktails for the entire month of May.
Before they moved there, however, I managed to catch up with Kho for a sampling of his latest wares. Here are some of the spirits I managed to taste:
Pinckney Bend 3-Grain American Vodka
Vodka is usually the spirit with the least amount of tastes or nuances among the six base spirits (vodka, tequila, gin, rum, whisky and brandy), but this was a surprisingly flavourful tipple. Made by the Pinckney Bend Distillery in Pickney, Missouri, it is a handcrafted vodka made with three different grains – 80% wheat, 15% barley and 5% rye.
On the nose, I detected a very subtle wisp of grain. The surprise came when I took my first sip – I was expecting the usual harsh alcohol bite that many commercial vodkas have when taken neat, but this one was smooth and sweet on the palate, with a very pleasant grainy flavour, and a gentle, grassy note at the very end.
I’ve rarely come across vodkas that can be taken neat, but this was one exception that I wouldn’t mind having more of.
FEW Barrel-Aged Gin
Made by FEW Spirits in Illinois, whose official website claims this is a spirit that “tastes like gin, but has the maturity of a bourbon”.
Aged in charred oak barrels, it has the pleasant bubble-gum nose that continues onto your palate at first, before being overtaken by the gentle tinge of juniper, and subsequently gets more and more complex as you start to detect more and more spices and flavours in your mouth. It truly is an exceptional gin.
New Deal Portland Dry Gin 33
After the complexity of the FEW gin, I decided to move on to something simpler – New Deal Distillery’s unique single-botanical dry gin.
Infused with only one botanical – juniper, which is the basis of all gins – this was an insight into what a gin can taste like when you take away all the frills and fancy botanicals and spices that most gins tend to be infused with. Even with only one botanical, there was still a good mix of subtle flavours in the gin, as the juniper doesn’t overpower the other nuances of the spirit. An eye opening gin indeed.
According to Kho, when you chill this gin before consuming it, it actually tastes almost like a very dry martini. Smooth, simple, and easy to drink, it was surprisingly tasty, plus its clear simplicity proved to be a great contrast to the complex FEW gin.
Produced by Privateer in Ipswich, Massachusetts and aged for about 12 weeks in steel vats, the Privateer Silver Rum was a little rougher than expected on the nose, especially after trying the previous vodka and tequilas, but on the palate, it has a very clean flavour, with grassy hints of the sugarcane molasses and caramel notes that rums usually have.
The Privateer True American Amber Rum was a different matter though. Aged in new oak barrels for up to 18 months before being finished in ex-bourbon, sherry or brandy barrels, it does not have a heavy banana/caramel nose that most aged Carribean rums have, but it does have a soft caramel scent. On the palate, it has a much rounder, richer flavour than the Silver, vanilla and woody notes, and a long spicy finish that is very satisfying.
Catoctin Creek whiskies
One of the spirits to benefit most from the recent rise of craft spirits in the US is rye whiskey. Located in Purcellville, Virginia, Catoctin Creek Distillery’s 100% rye whiskies are aged in new American oak casks and are certified organic products.
The distillery’s flagship rye whiskey is the Roundstone Rye, which is aged just under two years. Though it is a little robust on the nose and initially on the palate, with a few subsequent sips, there is more of a balance of vanilla and spicy notes, with young grain finish.
The second one I tried, Round-stone Rye 92 Proof, was much better. Aged longer than the regular Roundstone Rye (less than four years), it is mellower on the nose, it packs a much creamier, spicier flavour, but is also much more rounded and smoother.
Sparkle Donkey tequila
Produced by Seattle’s Black Rock Spirits in collaboration with a boutique distillery in the town of Tequila, Mexico, Sparkle Donkey is a 100% agave tequila made using traditional techniques.
44Bar stocks two types of Sparkle Donkey tequila – Silver, and Reposado. The Silver Sparkle Horse was excellent – on the nose, the usual grassy herbal notes of tequila is very rounded and balanced, while the spirit itself is smooth on the entry, with sweet grassy notes, and a surprising tinge of hazelnut on the finish.
The Reposado, on the other hand, was even more surprising. Right away, on the nose, there was a strong whiff of toffee and freshly cut grass – very unlike any tequila I had ever tried. It had a sweet grassy taste initially, with hints of coriander and caramel, and a nice long toffee finish.
This tequila came highly recommended by Kho, who says that it makes for a really good Tommy Margarita because of the extra sweet agave notes the tequila has.
Michael Cheang is starting to acquire a taste for craft spirits. Recommend some to him at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy).