The Malted Grain Goodness of Old Potrero Rye: Diatribe With Dave
Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
All photos by Dave Mau The sweet, sweet stuff
"If, as they say, God spanked the
town for being over-frisky.
Why did He burn His churches down,
and save Hotaling's whiskey"
-Charles Kellogg Field, Associate Editor, Sunset Magazine, 1907
Two things I care about deeply survived the Great Quake of 1906 that rocked San Francisco to its core: my grandmother Lola and whiskey. More specifically, the whiskey stored at one Mister A .P. Hotaling's warehouse. On Lola's end, I heard she was saved when a large painting slid down a wall and fell across her crib, sparing her from being crushed by debris falling from the ceiling of her bedroom. This was, of course, prior to the Aaron Brothers flimsy-framing era, back when paintings were more substantial. Note to self --buy quality artwork.
As for Mr. Hotaling, he had a warehouse on Jackson Street that housed the largest repository of precious, precious whiskey on the entire West Coast. After the earthquake, the United States Army showed up intent on destroying the structure in order to save a government building next door. Upon learning of the critical contents on hand, they decided to help move the whiskey and save the building. During the two days of struggle against the inferno they even resorted to using wine pumps to spray sewer water from flooded basements into the flames. The motivation for the epic struggle is obvious and if I was standing between a burning church and a burning whiskey warehouse holding a bucket of water I know which way I'd throw it! You can always rebuild a church, right? But whiskey..... well, that could take YEARS to replace!
Onwards to the Anchor Brewing story. What does bleu cheese, a great American appliance, Gordon Jump's post-WKRP In Cincinnati career and a flagship brewery all have in common? That would be the Maytag family of course! Their collective achievements gave us much, much more than the aforementioned. The Maytag legacy gave us an astounding rye whiskey, one of which bears the Hotaling name.
The Maytag Washing Machine Company was founded in 1893 by businessman Frederick Maytag. His son, Frederick Maytag II decided to open a dairy farm to provide products for his family and company. He teamed with the University of Iowa to develop a process to make bleu cheese from cow's milk instead of sheep's--thus Maytag bleu cheese was born. His son, Frederick "Fritz" Maytag was the savior of a grand brewery and two distinctly American brews.
Anchor's roots run deep, going back to 1871, opening originally as a beer and billiards hall. In 1896 a German brewer named Ernst Baruth bought the location and renamed it Anchor. 1906 was a rough year, between the earthquake and death of Mr. Baruth. New ownership and a new location came along in 1907 and saved the day, until that blight called prohibition came along. So what did Anchor do? It's up to speculation but there is no record either way and they were the only ones making a steam beer after prohibition ended so draw your own conclusions. By the mid 1940's, mass-produced "American adjunct lager" (aka Budweiser, Coors, Pabst and the like) became all the rage and was being shipped across country, sidelining smaller, local breweries. Anchor was failing fast by the 1960's and, just as it was darkest, along came Fritz Maytag.
There's probably not much debate about whether or not Anchor should be credited as the nucleus of independent American brewing, because it should. Some (including me) credit them for laying the groundwork for the entire craft brew revolution itself. In fact, Fritz Maytag lent his expertise to help launch Sierra Nevada back in the '80's. He bought Anchor in 1969, cleaned up the building, raised the bar on brewing quality and instituted flash pasteurizing so their products could be shipped nationwide. A singular West Coast brew, Steam Beer, named for the rooftop cooling technique, was saved in the process. 1975 saw their first Christmas ale offering and the 1984 Anchor summer brew was the first American wheat beer since prohibition. In fact, Fritz must have been able to peer into the future like Nostradamus in order to not only predict the bloom of American independent brewing but the current rye whiskey revival as well. He started making their rye for friends and family, wanting to create a "Valley Forge" type of whiskey. This was after he came to the realization that there was not a true pot-distilled rye being made anywhere.
Anchor makes Old Potrero under the auspices of a separate company, Anchor Distilling, with its own address and wet floor. It is distilled from rye malt, aged in once-used charred oak barrels and creates a liquor of the finest caliber. To my unrefined palette it reads more like a cognac, especially the 11 year Old Hotaling's. Quite simply put, I think the finest whiskey made, and I've tried a heroic amount. It's also basically impossible to find on any store shelf anywhere. Costa Mesa's very own High Times got five cases of the even rarer Hotaling's by mistake recently, selling a fair share of it before everyone realized what had happened. And I missed out.
I asked Alejandro Parejo, an employee at High Times, about the mix-up and he didn't want to comment. He did, however chime in about what he thinks about the various Old Potrero offerings.
"It's like a rye eau de vie. Subtle oak. Rye spiciness up front with cereal grain maltiness following behind. A little fruitiness in there too. The oak was kind of nutty and toasty."
He agreed with me on the similarity to cognac-
"A huge factor in that is the fact that 99.9% of rye whiskey out there is made with unmalted rye, usually column distilled and aged in charred oak barrels. Whereas old Potrero is malted rye and pot distilled (like a cognac or scotch). Rye is near impossible to malt but they were a brewery first and foremost so they've got the malt thing down."
If you're looking for it, I certainly wish you the best of luck. We get an occasional bottle or two at Memphis and it disappears before you can say "Where'd all that whiskey go?". I, of course, have a stash at my pad hidden away under lock and key. So if you're on my good side I'll see you over the holiday season for a quick pop.
Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.comfor the latest!