Spring 18|volume 11|Issue 3

    Raise Your Spirits

    Agrarian Foundations

    Spirits – noun. An alcoholic beverage that is distilled rather than fermented; the liquid containing ethanol and water that is distilled from an alcoholic liquid or mash—often used in plural.

    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    Anywhere you find an agrarian culture you find spirits. Whatever the indigenous crop is in a given region, for some reason the use of that crop evolves into a spirit. Is this fate, or just the natural order of things? As we enter the spring season with thoughts of growth and new life, I thought we might explore how closely the spirits we taste are tied to the circle of life and the agrarian roots of humanity around the world. The grains and fruits from which they are produced are planted and grown in soils from around the world. Every sip is a connection to life itself. Let’s take a journey to the Caribbean, France, and through the United States to explore this connectivity.

    As the sugarcane of the Caribbean is planted in the spring, it is with a view to harvesting the cane a year later to produce sugar. Sugar is a global commodity, but its byproducts are equally important: bagasse, press mud, and molasses. Bagasse is the fiber left over from the pressing of the cane. This fiber can be used for cattle feed and for paper production. Press mud (essentially the scum left over after sugar production) can be converted into nutritious fertilizer. Molasses is my favorite byproduct since it is the source of many rums around the world. The sugars of the molasses are the perfect base for the yeast and resulting fermentation that then leads to the distillation of some of the finest rums in the world (more on rum in a future article). Sugarcane is also grown in Brazil, India, and the U.S. In every region, rum is a lovely halo around the sugar industry.

    Hundreds of miles away from the Caribbean, here in the U.S., rye has been an indigenous crop used since the colonial era. Right here in southwestern Pennsylvania, we boasted the largest rye production in the world in the late 19th century. Of course, once farmers had fed their families and their animals, the remaining grains were used to make rye whiskey. This whiskey became a core part of the frontier economy. Whiskey was essentially a form of currency. Need help building your house? Trade some whiskey for the carpenters’ services. Rye whiskey was a part of the social fabric of that era.

    Today, the strains of rye being grown in various parts of the country are becoming part of the identity of the region. For example, the rye grown here in Pennsylvania has distinct flavor profiles from the rye being grown in New York state. Weatherbury Farms down in Washington County (weatherburyfarm.com) is one example of local farmers continuing in this tradition of supplying the rye to create some of our region’s fine craft whiskies.

    Let’s now jump the pond and explore the often misunderstood world of Armagnac—a brandy from southeastern France. It begins its life as a white grape (grapes are of course a core part of the French agricultural identity). The white wine from these grapes is then distilled and aged in oak barrels. The resulting elixir is amazing and distinctly different from its cousin, Cognac. Even more importantly, Armagnac is a thread that weaves through the Gascony farming community. Traditionally, portable stills were transported from farm to farm to allow farmers to convert their table wines to Armagnac. Each small town within the province has Armagnacs that are unique to them and, in the aggregate, form a core part of the Gascony personality and culture.

    This brief exploration of the connectivity of spirits to the cycle of life just skims the surface of a much broader dialogue about the role of spirits in cultures around the world. I hope, though, that this sparks your curiosity to explore spirits from around the world and appreciate their cultural significance. My plan is to get the patio ready for spring and summer and explore these and other matters with friends over drinks and cigars—so stay tuned for next issue’s guide to spirits and cigar parings.