Sip & Tell: Graham Wasilition of Tenneyson Absinthe

Graham Wasilition, right, with David Nathan Maister in front of one of the stills at Distillerie les Fils d' Emile Pernot in Pontarlier, France, where Tenneyson absinthe is distilled and bottled.

“All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.” —Alfred Lord Tennyson

I first met Graham Wasilition during the SXSW conference in Austin last March thanks to an introduction by the Lush Life Productions crew. During an Austin spirits event, Graham let myself and another blogger, Emily Cavalier, try a sample of his then-unreleased new absinthe, Tenneyson Absinthe Royale. I was immediately fond of the product, especially since it was the first absinthe I’ve tried that included a hint of juniper. I also appreciated the mildness of the anise flavor compared to many other absinthes. Emily and I were also impressed that Graham, at 27 years old, was creating his own brand.

Earlier this week, Tenneyson appeared on store shelves at Imperial Wines (First Avenue at 88th Street) on NYC’s Upper East Side. I caught up with Graham online to learn more about the launch.

Q: When did you decide to get in the business of creating absinthe?  

A: After I graduated from Virginia Tech in Materials Science Engineering, I went to Austin to work for an international semi-conductor manufacturer and had eye-opening experiences in global travel, as well as food and drink. This was right around the time when absinthe resurged globally. My commitment to absinthe came when I got in touch with consultant/expert David Nathan-Maister (the author of The Absinthe Encyclopedia and a world-renowned absinthe and ancient spirit historian). There were so many products rushing to the market with false promises, information, and inferior quality. We saw an opportunity to bring together the best available resources and create a product that people could respond to and be excited about. Little did I know how long it would take us, along with Master Distiller Dominique Rousselet, to create a truly unique and high-quality brand that we could consistently deliver. 

Q: How did you find the distillery in France? How did you create the recipe?
A:
After developing a plan with David Nathan-Maister, he became a partner in the Emile Pernot Distillery in Pontarlier, France. This was such an incredible break because this distillery is one of two historic and active distilleries able to produce absinthe in the famed “Absinthe Town” of Pontarlier, France, former home of the most infamous brand in absinthe history, Pernod Fils. It also gave us unprecedented access to some of the highest quality herbs and aromatics available anywhere, and the most authentic to true absinthe history. We wanted to utilize French skills and century-old copper alembics to create a Swiss style juice because it is lesser known than the traditional French style and a little less polarizing. It also is traditionally lower in alcohol and therefore more widely approachable. We went through many, many iterations of the recipe and ended up using a take on a traditional Swiss recipe with a hint of juniper berry and orange peel which gives Tenneyson a New Western twist. We are very happy with the subtle and authentic profile which we finally settled on.

Q: Why the name Tenneyson?
A:
After the creation of the formula, we wanted to try and convey the idea of the brand through the name. The twist of using some slight gin technique by including a little juniper berry and orange peel led us to try and come up with a UK-inspired name that played to the history of our absinthe. The UK poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was a famed absinthe drinker and I came across the spelling TENNEYSON in a British baby name book. I thought the name related closely to the history of absinthe and played on the UK inspiration. I have since found some information that Tenneyson is also a derivative of Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, which also seems quite fitting. We get comments about what a great name we have and I completely agree and am excited that we were lucky enough that no one was already using it.

Q: Is NYC the first city to sell Tenneyson? What is the price point? Which other cities will see it this year?
A:
NYC is the first city in the world where Tenneyson is available. There is a lot of  competition there, but that allows for the quality brands and good values to come out on top. We are working on the availability as we speak and want to be able to provide Tenneyson to as wide of a group as possible. However, we do not want to over-extend ourselves. We want to move into markets that will appreciate Tenneyson and be able to sustain consistent business. We make Tenneyson in small batches and need to manage the introduction with this in mind. It is currently retailing in NYC for around $50 and we will soon be offering it in the hot and up-and-coming markets in Texas. I’m sure we will see it in many more of the major markets across the country this year and even online very soon.

Q: What is your favorite way to drink Tenneyson?
A
: This is kind of a loaded question because the easy answer would be off the coast on a boat with friends and family. When we are talking specific cocktails, I like to drink Tenneyson a few ways. The traditional absinthe drip (sans sugar) works great and is perfectly balanced because the Pontarlier Wormwood is historically a little sweeter than wormwood sourced elsewhere, so I think it is sweet enough. I also think a simple prep is to drink Tenneyson with tonic water. Tonic water is basically the 21st century sugar water and the slight gin notes of Tenneyson Absinthe make an interesting profile. The beautiful louche is also a conversation starter and you can garnish it with an orange to bring a different color. We also do a cocktail with Orangina that tastes kind of like a twist between a mimosa and a screwdriver that is perfect for brunch. You can check our website for a few other cocktails. Many people think that absinthe needs to be prepared only one specific way, but there is no reason that it cannot be enjoyed as flexibly as any other great spirit.

Q: As far as you know, are you one of the youngest founders of a spirit brand?
A: I’m not sure that I am one of the youngest founders of a spirit brand. I have been working on this since my early 20’s, but it is my experience that a lot of innovation and energy comes from the younger generation. I’d also say that my naivete as a young entrepreneur with a head packed with illusions of grandeur actually helped me to keep moving forward when people were negative or professed that things would never work out. As an example, I was told that the name Tenneyson would not be available to trademark, but I followed up and did my research and proved that notion wrong. My age doesn’t normally come into play, but it is kind of fun being able to do “business” until last call and still be able to get up and at ’em early the next day with a clear head and strong conviction.

Q: What hurdles have you had to overcome to import your absinthe?
A:
Well, there are too many to list here. I think that anyone starting a business of any kind will come across roadblock after roadblock, but you have to deal with each one as they come. We have dealt with things from raising money, writing contracts, distillation consistency, sourcing ingredients, securing distribution, shipping logistics, government compliance, currency exchange rates, to things like self-doubt and convincing people that we aren’t crazy. Trying to stay on budget and schedule seem to be the overwhelming pressures while being true to the craft of distillation and the history of absinthe. When in doubt the latter is our priority!

Q: Future plans?
A: To get a good nights sleep! But seriously, I love the industry and the category so I’m in no rush to go anywhere. I would love to grow the brand of Tenneyson and expose consumers (specifically in the U.S.) to the actual history of absinthe and enlighten as many as possible, whether they are drinking my brand or a comparable competitor. It’s fun being in the business and I’m looking forward to future opportunities with respect to Tenneyson and/or anything else that comes along. I’m not very good at being bored and I love having fun and pushing the limits!

Tenneyson Absinthe Royale (retails around $50) hit store shelves in NYC this week.

File Under: New Bottles to Rock

Isn’t it time to add some luster to your liquor cabinet? Whether you’re looking for bottles to spark up your next party, to bring to the holiday dinner table (always a solid move) or to sip on while Aunt Margaret drones on about her latest knitting project, here’s a few new and noteworthy spirits bound to impress:

Banks “5 Island” Rum: This white rum shatters convention with its vegetal, grassy nose, robust ginger spice and dry finish. Composed of rum from five islands–Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Java–each rum is aged between three and 12 years, filtered, and then blended with a touch of arrack. Launched in August, this rum has already earned a 96-point rating from this year’s Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, a 95 from The Tasting Panel and Best White Rum at the 2010 RumFest U.K. Retails for $28 for 750 ml.

The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask: Responding to the appeal of 2008’s limited edition 17 Year Old Rum Cask, The Balvenie’s latest release is a beautifully balanced whisky. Aged for 14 years in oak casks, the whisky is finished in Caribbean rum barrels for a few months, providing notes of honey and toffee.  Retails for $50-60 for 750 ml.

 

Excellia Tequila: And for another twist, how about tequila aged in Cognac casks? Made from 100 percent Blue Agave, Excellia Tequilas are separately aged in Grand Cru Sauternes Casks and Cognac barrels then carefully blended. The grape notes soften the finish, making this tequila an ideal choice for drinking neat. Retails for $55 for the Blanco 750 ml, $60 for the Reposado 750 ml and $70 for the Anejo 750 ml.

Sneak Peek: Beefeater Winter

Beefeater Winter Edition arrives stateside on Dec. 6, retailing for $18.99.

Get ready to kick your winter cocktail game up a notch with Beefeater London Dry’s Winter Edition, coming to the U.S. in late November-early December, with an official launch in NYC on Dec. 6. Following the success of Beefeater’s Summer Edition, Master Distiller Desmond Payne created this holiday-inspired gin featuring notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and pine shoots. Although I haven’t tried it yet, if it’s anything like Beefeater Summer, I know I’m in for a treat.

From the press release, Desmond says, “I wanted to create a gin that would enhance the traditional Beefeater recipe and make it even more suitable for hot punches and cocktails that are popular during the winter months. Beefeater Winter captures the familiar aromas of the season using a balanced combination of botanicals that are synonymous with that particular time of year.”

To get you in the holiday mood, here’s a recipe for Winter Punch:

50ml Beefeater Winter Gin
100ml Madeira
10ml lemon juice
1 tsp honey
1 tsp brown sugar
1 pinch cinnamon (ground)
1 pinch nutmeg (ground)
1 clove
lemon twist
orange twist

In a saucepan, gently heat all ingredients—do not let the mixture boil. Decant into teacups or toddy cups and serve.

Dizzy Recap: Maker’s Mark Distillery Visit

Sipping Maker's Mark at the source in Loretto, Ky.

Just as Bourbon Heritage Month came to a close last month, I was invited* to embark on a trip to Loretto, Ky, to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery–my first-ever visit to a commercial distillery. On a 90-degree September day, I arrived at the Maker’s Mark campus — a sprawling collection of quaint black barn-like buildings with bright red trim — to see firsthand how the iconic red wax-capped Kentucky bourbon is made.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived–after an hourlong ride from the Louisville airport, which featured scenery of vast tobacco farms, Jesse James-era taverns, and one property with an endless collection of lawnmowers–was the sweet and sour aroma of fermenting grain. It’s fitting to compare the smell to baking bread, since the recipe for Maker’s Mark was reinvented in 1953 after Bill Samuels Sr. baked several loaves to experiment with various grain formulas. He settled on the use of winter wheat instead of the traditional, harsher rye, giving Maker’s Mark its signature soft finish.

At the boardroom, I was greeted by Victoria MacRae-Samuels, Director of Operations, and Dave Pudlo, Distillery Education Director.  I learned that the distillery has a long history, along with the Samuels family. Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, Maker’s Mark is the oldest working distillery on its original site, and a National Historic Landmark. A 10-acre spring-fed limestone lake provides pristine, iron-free water for the bourbon. Victoria told me how Bill Samuels Sr., a sixth-generation distiller, purchased the Loretto distillery the same year that he set fire to his 170-year old family recipe and created Maker’s Mark.

After a hearty lunch that included sliced ham with all the trimmings and Derby Pie (a chocolate and walnut tart doused in bourbon sauce) for dessert, Dave led me on an intensive tour of the distillery. I saw how the corn, malted barley and winter wheat are first inspected and then sent through and old-fashioned rollermill, and then the grain is cooked in a massive open cooker. Dave even let me taste the sweet yeast that goes into Maker’s Mark, which uses cultures left over from one batch to the next, meaning that some cultures can be traced back to Pre-Prohibition.

After fermenting in large wooden vats, the mash is double distilled–once in a 16-plate copper column still that reaches through several floors of the distillery, and again in a copper pot still before reaching 130 proof. The white dog is then placed in charred white oak barrels and stored in warehouses (called rack houses or rickhouses) for six to seven years, and the barrels are rotated from top down to ensure temperature variation. Finally, a panel of tasters (who wouldn’t want that job!) select barrels at different stages and balance them for the final bottling at 90 proof.

For more than 50 years, Maker’s Mark has proudly stuck to their one expression of bourbon, but in June of this year, the brand turned heads by releasing something for the next generation of whiskey drinkers–Maker’s 46. Developed by former Master Distiller Kevin Smith ( recently hired as Beam Global Spirits & Wine’s Director of Bourbon and Distillery Operations), the classic Maker’s Mark is aged an additional two months or so in barrels featuring seared French oak staves–not charred, but seared. This wood “recipe” was the 46th variation created by Brad Boswell of the Independent Stave Company, giving the new bottling its name. The result is a more toasted version of Maker’s Mark, featuring bolder spice yet still lots of vanillans and a soft, long finish. Best of all, the 94-proof Maker’s 46 is only about $10 more than the original Maker’s, retailing for about $35.

Maker’s Mark goes to great lengths to retain the level of craftsmanship that started their brand, and this was apparent throughout every step of my visit. It’s why the labels on the bottles feature Marjorie Samuels’ (wife of Bill Samuels Sr.) original lettering and each bottle is hand-dipped in wax. This year, Dave said Maker’s Mark hopes to produce 1 million cases, a company milestone. About 25,000 cases of Maker’s 46 are expected to be released this year.

I want to thank Victoria, Dave, and new Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Greg Davis for showing me such hospitality, and also to Evins Communications for arranging my visit.

If you have the opportunity to visit Maker’s Mark or any other stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,  do it–you’ll experience an American tradition, and best of all, taste the results.

View of the distillery's main operations building.

Mash ferments in large wooden vats for several days.

An open display of the Maker's 46 barrel featuring staves of seared French oak.

At Maker's Mark warehouses, barrels are rotated down six floors for six to eight years.

Shiny copper stills at the distillery.

My tour guide, Dave Pudlo, Distillery Education Director.

*Maker’s Mark paid for my travel and accommodations. I was not compensated in any other way or expected to write a review.

On Tap: NYC Distilleries Now Pouring

 

Brad Estabrooke of Breuckelen Distilling Co. shows off his drinking philosophy.

 “When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”–Al Capone

On Sunday, August 1st, I nearly shed a tear as I witnessed a historic moment in NYC drinking culture–the first spirits distilled here since the days of Prohibition were served to the general public at two Brooklyn locations. Kings County Distillery, the little moonshine makers that could, poured their unaged corn whiskey–which also features malted Scottish barley for added complexity–at UVA Wines & Spirits in Williamsburg, while Breuckelen Distilling Co. flung open its Sunset Park doors to a thirsty crowd for tastings of its wheat-based gin and tours of its small factory centered around a 400-liter German copper still.

I visited both distilleries last month before they opened, and the yeast-scented anticipation hanging in the air was nothing short of infectious. Hard at work on a daily basis since spring, Brad Estabrooke of Breuckelen and Kings County’s Colin Spoelman and David Haskell–all in their early 30s–represent the new generation of distillers pioneering the artisanal spirits renaissance. Recent changes to state law have made microdistilling easier and more affordable. But unlike their rural New York counterparts, these guys face the unique challenges of their urban environs.

“I don’t think there’s any distillery in the country doing what we’re doing,” said Colin, who works by day as an architect before spending up to 8 hours a night at Kings County’s 325 square-foot warehouse in East Williamsburg. “Our stills are 8 gallons each. We’re essentially doing what a home distiller is doing, but times four. It offers certain taste advantages, certain integrity advantages.”

Colin, a Kentucky native, has been a moonshine hobbyist for years, while David, a magazine editor, had a bootlegging great-grandfather. Along with their three apprentices, they continuously monitor the cooking of organic New York corn and malted Scottish barley into their fermented mash before sending it through their small pot stills.

Due to the limited size of the operation, David and Colin bottle their moonshine in 200ml flasks selling for $20. Kings County is also placing its white dog in 5-gallon oak barrels, to eventually be bottled as bourbon. And they recently purchased another space within their building on Meadow Street that will be turned into a tasting room.

With a production output of about three times the size of Kings County’s, Breuckelen Distilling Co. at 77 19th St. is a dream come true for Brad, who came up with the idea to start a distillery with his girlfriend, Liz O’Connell.

“We were sitting around having drinks one day, discussing how we don’t like our jobs,” said Brad, a former bond trader who grew up in Maine. “We thought it would be rewarding to produce something. Then I was reading an in-flight magazine article that mentioned that the federal rules for distilling had changed, and that there was a revolution in micro-distilling. I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do.”

At Breuckelen, organic New York wheat is milled and fermented before going into the 16-foot still with eight plates which can be adjusted to result in a stronger or lighter wheat flavor. Brad then returns the wheat spirit to the still with juniper berries, lemon peel, grapefruit peel, rosemary and ginger to produce his gin. The nutty wheat grounds the botanical notes of the gin, offering a unique product for $35 per 750ml bottle. Brad said he is considering bottling the wheat spirit on its own, and is already planning a winter edition of his gin.

“I think people who are interested in trying different spirits, not just the mass-marketed big brands, will want to try our gin,” said Brad.  “People who appreciate local and artisan crafted, not assembly line.  Anyone who wants to see where and how their spirits are made.”

Kings County’s moonshine can be purchased at UVA and Thirst Wine Merchants in Brooklyn and at Astor Wines & Spirits and Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Manhattan.

And click here for all of the locations to buy Breuckelen Gin in addition to their Sunset Park tasting room.

Kings County Distillery's pot stills.

Corn sourced from upstate New York is the base of the moonshine.

Fermenting corn and malted barley.

200ml flasks of moonshine feature labels made on a typewriter.

Kings County's inaugural tasting day at UVA Wines & Spirit.

Breuckelen Distilling Co. is open for business.

The tasting room at Breuckelen Distilling Co.

Brad Estabrooke leads a tour of his distillery.

This is where the fermenting magic happens.

Elsewhere in the Liquiverse…

Coming to Tales of the Cocktail? New Orleans' own Cowboy Mouth is headlining the Louisiana Coastal Rehab Party hosted by Don Q Rum on July 22 at Tipitina's.

  • In reponse to the Gulf oil spill crisis, The New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society will be selling a limited-edition bar towel during Tales of the Cocktail at the Tales Gift Shop. With a suggested price of $5, 100 percent of proceeds from the sale of this bar towel will go directly to oyster shuckers who have recently been laid off due to the heartbreaking spill.
  • Also in response to the oil spill, Don Q Rum will host the Louisiana Coastal Rehab Benefit Party featuring Cowboy Mouth and ReBirth Brass Band at 10:30 p.m. on July 22 at Tipitina’s in the French Quarter. Tickets are $10 and cocktails will be sold for $4 each, with 100 percent of proceeds going to the Greater New Orleans Foundation Gulf Coast Restoration Fund. Star mixologists are even expected to jump behind the stick!
  • And while we’re on the subject of New Orleans, The Bitter Truth’s Creole bitters ($15) will be arriving on U.S. store shelves soon. Described as bitter, sweet and spicy, the bitters include notes of anise, caraway and fennel. [I can’t wait to try it!]
  • Don’t snuff out those vuvuzelas just yet–the World Cup comes to a hot international climax this Sunday, and you can catch all the action at a massive block party hosted by Brass Monkey. The tri-level bar has secured a permit to take over the block of Little West 12th in front of the bar, where they’ll convert a parking lot into a beer garden with picnic tables, two movie screens, and refrigerated beer trucks filled with 200 kegs of Blue Moon, Coors Light and Spaten for $6 (that’s per cup, not per keg, homeslice). You can also expect a variety of sandwiches and bar fare available for purchase. The outdoor beer-soaked festivities start at 11 a.m. and go ‘til 6 p.m., while inside the bar, flatscreens on both floors plus a screen on the rooftop will keep things kicking ‘til 4 a.m. Brass Monkey, 55 Little West 12th St. (10th Ave. and Washington)
  • New Yorkers looking for plans on Sunday night, look no further–hereby consider yourselves invited to the July edition of LES Salonnieres, a monthly artists’ salon, supperclub and speakeasy held in an abandoned rooftop tenement. In addition to a potluck BBQ, burlesque, live painting, live butchering (and cooking) of a chicken, yours truly will be mixing up cocktails and punches using Maker’s Mark and Bluecoat Gin for $6 a pop. This event, organized by the luminary Adam Aleksander, is not to be missed! The revelry goes from 7 to 11:30 p.m. 124 Ridge St. (Stanton and Rivington Sts.)

Miss Mary Cyn performs burlesque at Sunday night's edition of LES Salonnieres. It's going to be bloody fun!

File Under: Hot Dates

Fourth of July gets gussied up with The Minsky sisters tap dancing at the Liberty Belle Spectacular.

  • File under sipping & swinging: Just a few mere hours left to purchase advance tickets for the Liberty Belle Spectacular, a real treat of a Fourth of July showcase channeling the roaring ’20s–complete with a view of the fireworks. Hosted by Dances of Vice, The Champagne Riot, The Salon, and Wit’s End, the rooftop swing party will feature Brooklyn vaudeville duo Gelber & Manning and the Star Spangled Orchestra, rockabilly ballads, boogies and blues by SIT & Die Co, bugle boy extraordinaire Bob Leive, performances by tap sensations The Minsky Sisters, mesmerizing burlesque by Jezebel Express and Perle Noire with special guests The Rhinestone Follies, cocktails by mixologist Fredo Ceraso from Loungerati, and the dapper MC Dandy Wellington! Hurry, tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. July 4, Empire Hotel Rooftop, 44 W. 63rd St.
  • You have not one, but two upcoming opportunities to taste Maker’s 46, the first new product from Maker’s Mark in more than 50 years, for free: a tasting party from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday at Rye House featuring Maker’s 46 cocktails as well as food, and a more education-oriented session from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday at Louis 649’s Tuesday Night Tastings. To make the 46, original Maker’s Mark ages for several more months in casks lined with seared French oak staves, giving the signature Kentucky bourbon a more prominent toasted spice profile. Rye House, 3 W. 17th St.; Louis 649, 649 E. 9th St.
  • Also on Tuesday, Justin Noel and Martim Ake Smith-Mattsson bring a taste of Jamaica to the Bowery with a night of specially-priced Appleton Estate Rum cocktails from 7 to 10 p.m. Madame Geneva, 4 Bleecker St.
  • Harlem’s 5 & Diamond is joining with Domaine Select Wine Estates to host a summer cocktail tasting from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Expect farm-to-table nibbles from chef David Santos and Jonathan Pogash behind the stick. Five and Diamond, 2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd. (Corner of 112th St. and 8th Ave.)

 

New Yorkers can taste Maker's 46, the first new spirit from Maker's Mark in 50 years, this Monday and Tuesday.