Sunday, July 30, 2017

:: from dunder to wonder ::

Thursday morning of Tales of the Cocktail, I attended a rum talk called "From Dunder to Wonder" moderated by Don Lee (Cocktail Kingdom, etc.). In the panel to discuss what is rum funk and where does it stem from in the process were Arielle Johnson Ph.D. (flavor expert at MIT's Media Lab), Joy Spencer (Appleton Rum's master distiller), and Jim Romdall (brand manager Novo Fogo Cachaça, prev. manager of Rumba). Don started his quest by figuring out how science could assist this process, so he contacted Arielle to help him write this seminar proposal.

Arielle decided on doing sensory analysis paired with quantitative descriptive chemical analysis. For the chemical analysis, she analyzed rums for potential flavor molecules using gas chromatography followed by mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Gas chromatography works by separating lighter flavor molecules from heavier and stickier ones, and the molecules can be read out in a spread via the spectrometry. Don pointed out that GC-MS can help to figure out what molecules are in the rum, but it cannot tell which are providing the funky notes. Moreover, doubling of a molecule's concentration might not double the intensity of funk since perception is often logarithmic (but not the same log scale for each molecule). In addition, while color is controlled by 3 genes, the nose utilizes over 14,000 genes to do its detecting. Arielle joined in on that by saying there can be positive or negative interference in mixtures; this synergy or dampening means that the human aspect is not just due to the chemistry.

Jim expounded on the process by explaining how rum is hard to categorize since it is one of the most diverse spirits being produced. There are not a lot of rules in the making of the spirits such as the use of column and/or pot stills, cane and/or molasses, funky or not, and flavor and/or sugar added. Joy narrowed down the countries to Jamaica which is well known for full bodied rums with complex flavors. The rums there are categorized by ester concentration with Plummer being in the mid-range and Wedderburn style being at the mid-high range, and the two of them are the components of the funky Smith & Cross Rum. While there are rum styles with ester concentrations below that, the ones above it are being utilized for perfume or flavor. Jamaican rum production rules require fermentation and distillation in Jamaica, filtered limestone water, use of molasses, integrity of age statement signifying the youngest rum in the blend, and the use of no additives. While Jamaica was home to over a hundred rum distilleries in the early 19th century, that number is down to 6 today. While some have column stills, it is the pot still that gives the funk note to the rum. Joy also explained that Appleton has its own special yeast that pairs well with the still design to give Appleton its orange peel note. Moreover, each distillery has its own wild yeast indigenous to the distillery that can get into the ferment besides their chosen house yeast strain, and molasses can contain its own natural yeasts that vary by where it is imported from.

Arielle continued on explaining how funk molecularly is a black box since we do not know which molecules are funky. Some of the opportunities to create funk include the chemical transformations of proteins attaching to sugars during the cooking process to make molasses, the ferment such as what yeast, what temperature, how long, and what strength of the finished product, and which method of distillation with the pot still providing more compounds and the column giving higher purity. Aging in oak and the oak's toast level can add, subtract, and transform, and there are definitely esters being generated in the barrel as well as in the heat of the still.

Some known funk esters are ethyl acetate (fruity nail polish), ethyl butyrate (pineapple), ethyl hexanoate (green banana, pineapple), and isoamyl acetate (ripe banana, pear). But many of the other molecules are not known. We do know what flavors are used when we talk about funk, and these include grassy & fatty, game-y, fruity & beany, sulfurous/gunpower, and aged meat. The last is where the term hogo stems from -- it is derived from the French term haut gout which can be defined as the slight taint of decay especially in wild game meat that was once considered desirable. Also, it is known that dead yeast can generate some of the fatty acids that transform into esters.

When the topic of dunder pits came up, Joy described how not all Jamaican distilleries have dunder pits, but that is often associated with the high ester ones. Dunder is the waste of distillation, and Appleton utilizes it for fertilizer whereas other distilleries add it back into the process. So it is not just the dunder pit where these funky esters stem from. Jim followed up by explaining that producers repeat techniques to maintain the flavor without knowing what specifically that part of the process does to the end result, and Don pointed out the problem of causation versus correlation. Yes, dunder pits can generate flavor but is that the single source reason?

While the presenters were talking, the audience tasted 8 rums and rated them with a variety of perception scales that Arielle could later correlate with her GC-MS data, but the talk moved on to rum funk in cocktails. Jim is a proponent that all rum cocktails ought to have a bit of funk, and he often challenges people to name a drink that does not taste better with a 1/4 oz of Wray & Nephew. When I tweeted that, someone suggested the El Presidente (although the book Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars: 1903-1933 suggests that Cuban rums of that era such as Bacardi would have been closer to funky agricoles given their use of skimmings than the clean Spanish style of today). Indeed, Jim declared funk to be the seasoning of rum cocktails, and without it, it is "white people chicken." Jim is also a fan of aged rum in Daiquiris, and he had one of his Daiquiri recipes made up for us:
Funky Daiquiri
• 1 1/2 oz Appleton Reserve Rum
• 1/2 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum
• 3/4 oz Lime Juice
• 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
One of the reasons that rums are blended in cocktails as opposed to the use of two or more gins or American whiskeys is that each rum carries its own unique funk character. This character can also be utilized in split base spirit drinks such as rum with whiskey, brandy, or apple brandy. Just like the late 19th century had the dash of absinthe that got incorporated into the "Improved" cocktail, perhaps there could be a term for adding a dash of funk. Previous, Jim was known for topping drinks with Ardbeg for its funky smoke, and someone convinced him to run with the Twitter handle @ardbegfloat for a while, so his fascination with high intensity accents is not new.

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