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Thursday, October 25, 2012

A school day at Portland Cocktail Week

Samples of Jameson Whiskeys await tasting.
At Portland Cocktail Week (PDXCW), your day will normally start with a school bus ride sometime after breakfast.  Cocktail week actives do not tend to start too early in the day (10:30 AM is standard here), but as the week wears on 10:30 AM seems to come earlier and earlier.  The headquarters and venue for many evening parties is the Jupiter Hotel, and that’s where most of the “scholarship” students reside, but the daytime classes and seminars are scheduled for McMenamins Kennedy School Home, a school building that has been converted to a hotel full of meeting rooms, restaurants, and (best of all) bars.

This labyrinthine hotel seems to be short on maps, but the staff is very helpful, so the diligent student can usually find his or her destination.  Cocktail week classes operate on what is known as “bartender time,” which means they start late. My first class on Tuesday was “Modernist Techniques for the Cocktail Bar,” presented by Dave Arnold, Don Lee, and Tristan Willey.  The class ran over two hours and the key message was that these techniques should be used to make cocktails taste and look better and to create a better customer experience, not in an attempt to impress people.  After a discussion of the tools you will need to employ these techniques, along with safety considerations, the presenters wowed the students with the intensity of the flavors they were able to extract from herbs and spices and infuse into the liquors they gave us to sample.

The next class was a tasting of Jameson’s Irish Whiskeys.  Master Distiller Barry Crockett had been scheduled to appear, but had been hospitalized and had to be replaced by Patrick Caulfield, who very ably led us through the tasting.  After a brief history of Irish Whiskey and a discussion on its increasing popularity, Patrick talked about the four whiskeys he had brought for us to taste: Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson Gold Reserve, Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, and Red Breast.  The first two blend pot and column distilled whiskeys, and the last two are both single pot still whiskeys.  The Midleton (~$350) has not yet been released in the US, and the US will only receive 12,000 cases, so Utah may not see much of this excellent whiskey.  We each had four wine glasses, each with about ¾ ounce of one of the whiskeys, and while the normal protocol at a tasting is to just drink a bit, all of mine seemed to disappear by the time it was over.

By now you will have noticed that Cocktail Week school differs from most other schools: they serve cocktails in class… lots of them.  My next class, “It’s not the size of your Barrels, It’s how you use them,” presented by Gable Erenzo, Hudson Whiskey Ambassador, was no exception.  This class was a little more scientific than most; it came with PowerPoint slides of tables and graphs that summarized the research on using smaller barrels to age whiskeys.  The findings were very interesting.  Small barrels greatly accelerate the aging of whiskey.  Rather than checking the barrels yearly and then perhaps monthly, small barrels must be checked monthly and then daily when they approach maturity.  60% of the flavor of a whiskey comes from the barrel, and while whiskeys age faster in small barrels, their taste at maturity will not match that of the same whiskey aged slowly in a larger barrel.  Gable led us through the tasting of four excellent whiskeys, including a white dog corn whiskey that was surprisingly smooth for not being aged.

The school day ended with a ride back to the Jupiter in a school bus where liquor samples were being poured and shared.  It was one of the more raucous school bus rides I have ever had.  When school is out, though, the day is only half over.  On this evening, there were four different extra-curricular activities scheduled.  They will be covered in the next post.

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