Whiskeys of the World: Cocktail Class at Anvil Bar & Refuge

Categories: Booze

whiskey map.jpg
Whiskey: basically the same as vodka.
"You're not going to like this," says Bobby Heugel, pausing for effect while an expectant crowd giggles semi-nervously. "When it comes down to it, whiskey is the same thing as vodka." The crowd laughs, unsure of exactly what to make of this statement. "And you know how I feel about vodka," Heugel adds.

While potentially confusing, this terse statement gets to the heart of the matter, and does so in a hurry. Whiskey is a spirit distilled from grain, just like vodka. It's what's done to the grain beforehand (malting), and the spirit afterward (aging), that makes the difference. It also provides a good jumping-off point for discussing the differences between different styles of whiskey, as Heugel would go on to do over the next two hours.

While our tasting ranged over wide geographical areas and covered an extremely differing array of spirits, it is interesting to note that we didn't taste a single bourbon, or a single malt Scotch. The point is that the world of whiskey is complex - much more complex than most people realize. Styles change and morph even within styles. It's a testament to the depth, breadth, and quality of today's whiskey market that Heugel was able to hold such a tasting, skipping lightly over the two most widely known and popularly exalted forms of the spirit.

whiskey bottles.jpg
Some of the day's selections.

The first, a clear and slightly musky glass of Death's Door White Whisky, provided insight into the basic nature of whiskey as a spirit. Basically un-aged, Death's Door gets a scant three days in oak barrels, in order to avoid the "Moonshine" label. It tastes almost exclusively of the grain from which it comes.

As Heugel explained, whiskey is unlike vodka in that its fermentable base includes malted grains. This gives the spirit its essential character, and it comes through cleanly in Death's Door. There's a hint of sweetness along with subtle banana and raisin. Cereal qualities, like sticking your nose in a bag of raw flour or oats, come through, along with a subtle and balancing bitterness. It contains hints and elements found in most of the whiskey's I've ever tried. It's not my favorite, flavor wise, but was definitely one of the more intriguing offerings, and an educational drink.

From there we moved on through a discussion about how the different grains and their percentages of the total mash bill affect the finished product. We sampled a Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, which takes its rounded sweetness and thin body from the high percentage of wheat, and limited barrel aging.

The Bernheim, whose bottle design changed recently, replacing a copper medallion with a plastic version, gave Bobby a soap-box for expounding on what to look for to predict declining quality in your spirits. "Anytime they change the packaging, it means that a change in the contents is probably coming, too." When you see a different bottle, expect a different whiskey. Makes sense to me.

The granular study continued with Bulleit 95 percent Rye Whiskey, a much more aggressive spirit with a darker profile. The differences possible by altering the mash bill really stood out in comparing this with the previous glass. Where the former was sweet and mild, this one was aggressive and peppery, with a much more noticeable booziness.

Continuing the whiskey trail, we moved north to Canada, and a no-holds-barred assault on the state of Canadian whiskey. Crown Royal took the full brunt of Heugel's ire, before he put forth the only Canadian whiskey worth buying, Caribou Crossing (produced by Buffalo Trace). As Heugel explained it, Canada's problem is a combination of lax quality standards dating back to Prohibition and loose definitions for whiskey (up to 9 percent "other" ingredients can be added, and there is no stricture on the grains allowed in the mash bill). With no standard for malted grain percentages, Canadian whiskeys tend to be less grain-focused, and don't pick up their character in the barrel, due to the use of used wood, which has already been stripped of most of its flavor.

A domestic single malt (Hudson Valley) brought a discussion of the definition (whiskey made from 100 percent malted barley), which was quickly compared to Irish whiskey (which uses a blend of malted and unmalted barley). The focus of single malts makes them very grain-forward, this one coming closest in base flavor to the Death's Door we'd sampled at the beginning. Redbreast 12 year, on the other hand, was clean, mild, and sweet in comparison, with only a hint of overt grain flavor.

whiskey bottles favorites.jpg
My favorites, from different ends of the spectrum.
My favorite whisky of the day came from the other side of the world, in the form of a Yamazaki 18-year-old single malt. As Heugel explained it, the propensity in Japanese whisky is for complexity as king. Since the majority of Japanese consumers drink their whisky over ice, Japanese spirits tend to have a wide range of flavor and aroma components, in order to stand up to the chill.

A more focused spirit like an American-style Bourbon would lose its character when chilled, tasting flat. The result of this is an amazing bouquet of flavors. I picked up flowers, peaches, pineapple, brandy, a hint of smokiness, acetone, and a grainy duskiness that was its primary link to more traditional single malts. It was delicious.

The day closed with a Sheep Dip vatted malt, a blend of three different single malts. Vatted malts can be an incredible bargain, as they offer the experience of multiple high-quality single malts, at a significantly lower price. This one came across as smoky, leathery and nutty, with just a hint of balancing sweetness.

The goal of the day was to give an understanding of whiskey, applicable to an appreciation of the spirit in all of its forms. Most significant in that experience was the White Whisky, reducing the spirit down to its skeletal structure. Armed with the memory of that spirit, I've begun noticing the subtle and not so subtle differences between types and bottles of whiskey in a much more pronounced fashion. The grains veer from the baseline, tilting the finished product toward sweeter or drier. Wood aging adds complexity of flavor. Blending different whiskeys together allows for a nearly endless array of sensations. In all of these, though, you can taste through to that essential "whiskeyness." Once you know what it is.



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Anvil Bar & Refuge

1424 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Music


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57 comments
SirRon
SirRon

Hey guys! I just got here. What'd I miss?

Guest
Guest

Other than his groupies and himself, no one really cares what Bobby Heugel thinks about whiskey or vodka.

Scott O'Neil
Scott O'Neil

Bobby, Nick: Is this a regular class, or is it part of a series? I'd like to attend!

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Really? Beacause dozens of national magazines have written articles about Anvil and Bobby and what they have done for cocktail culture in the South. But I guess those journalists, their editors and their readers don't really count, huh?

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I do not understand the anti-Anvil/BH sentiment floating around this city. Don't like it/him? Don't go there.

Takes a big man to talk smack anonymously in the comments section. Shows a lot of courage and conviction. (Where's the sarcasm button?)

Bruce R
Bruce R

Speak for yourself, Guest.  It's fine to be critical, but at least state your reasons.  For example, if BH were to have made some technical errors, then by all means nail him to the cross. But there you are, with your dick in your hand and a whole lot of nothing.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

Scott, Anvil holds cocktail classes pretty much monthly, usually on the last Saturday of the month. Each class covers a different topic. The next one, July 30, will cover gin. This was the second one I've been able to attend, and I highly recommend them. Great experience, great education and, most importantly, great drinks.

SirRon
SirRon

This may be off topic, but what is my element?

Bobby_Heugel
Bobby_Heugel

Haha! Thanks Christina! I actually don't  think there's very much anti-Anvil/me sentiment in Houston at all. We get a ton of support, and we are very lucky for it. As a matter of fact, I'm often overwhelmed by how much support we do get - it's remarkable.

I think some people have a problem with this support because it is difficult to explain why others don't get the same attention sometimes. I guess we've gotten better at keeping people informed about what we do at the bar, which generates more press. But, I think there are countless bars and restaurants in Houston that deserve just as much, if not more, acclaim than Anvil.

I understand why it might be frustrating for some who do their best every day and don't get the same attention. I have lots of friends in the industry who deserve far more attention than they get, and I spend a significant amount of time trying to promote them as well as the growing food and beverage scene in the city. I really believe that if we grow as a group and not just individuals, we will all be better for it. I don't think I'm the only one who thinks this way, but perhaps, it is a fresh/younger perspective that some folks in the city haven't recognized or don't support.

There's always going to be "Guest"'s out there, but I generally understand why they exist and don't mind. I actually sympathize with their positions and frustrations because I think they're just advocating giving attention to those who deserve more of it, which I agree with. Hopefully, they will give us a chance if we grow and continue to experience small amounts of success. We've got a different agenda than others that will come out over the next couple of years beyond Anvil, Underbelly, and Hay Merchant. Hopefully, we can show the city that we are one of the good guys.

Thanks again to everyone who keeps believing in us.

zip lock
zip lock

"Guest" makes a valid point. One week the vast majority of you fools are over-paying for Grey Goose, and the next Anvil opens and you're suddenly shunning vodka because BH and a handful of trendy mixologists are calling it useless crap.

Drinking what makes you happy is what's most important. Whether it's vodka or some obscure whiskey that you'll only find at Anvil.

The primary problem that many have with Anvil and BH is an attitude of elitism. It begins behind the bar. Overpriced, weak drinks, waiting far too long for an often disappointing product – all while being made to listen to a lecture from a bartender – yes, BARTENDER!

Question: where were all of you BEFORE Anvil / BH / Beavers? Houston knew nothing of mixology. He has created you. So in many ways you are genuinely his minions. You've been brainwashed. And he's laughing all the way to the bank.

Guest
Guest

Or, a big woman...

Guest
Guest

Houston Press, you should remove the above comment, if mine below was out-of-line.

Guest
Guest

I'd rather have my dick in my hand than Heugel's in my mouth.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

In total agreement about Jeremy Parzen. EoW is lucky to have him on board. As for the rest of your comment, thanks, I guess. (3rd best. . .grumble grumble. . .asshole. . .grumble grumble. . .)

SirRon
SirRon

I hate to derail the discussion, but... NLH, you are one of my favorite writers here. I'm just saying, aside from Shilcutt, you are the reason I hang in there through all the lousy Top 5's. And that wine guy. I don't know what he's doing here... he's too awesome for this site. But behind those guys, you are my dude. Especially now that Kevin Shalin left, which bumped you a spot up my fav's list. Don't be mad at me, Kevin has the same initials as Shilcutt, so he owns the tiebreaker between you two.

I like you, like, 3rd-best NLH. Mostly because of your potty mouth. Cheerz.

Sarah Gabbart
Sarah Gabbart

Don't you think that learning what others enjoy is a good way to find what you enjoy? 

Attending cocktail classes, getting recommendations from bartenders or friends, and reading reviews is a great way to learn more about something you may have not tried otherwise. While some folks do take those specific liquor recs as the gospel, many use them as a springboard for finding other things that they like. Also, so what if people are late to the cocktail game (i.e. where where you guys before Anvil?!?)? Better late than never. 

Sarah Gabbart
Sarah Gabbart

I am printing this quote and framing it - I like people who are agreeable, whether or not they agree with me. Pure genius! 

I think that's what many people miss when the claim to be just dissenting - the respect portion. You don't have to like anything and you can make your strong point until the cows come home, just don't be a jerk. 

zip lock
zip lock

he forgot to mention El Real

Bobby_Heugel
Bobby_Heugel

I'm done after this because I don't usually engage/read these things. I just happened to today because I wanted to show Berheim some love. Nevertheless, I'll definitely take the opportunity to throw out some support for some other spots. I'm just going to type what I can quickly cause I've got to work to do, so forgive me for the stream of consciousness 2 minute list:

-13 Celsius-Catalina Coffee-Greenway Coffee-Haven-Branchwater Tavern-Poison Girl-Grand Prize-The Queen Vic-Under the Volcano-Rudyard's-Hearsay-BRC-The Flying Saucer-The Gingerman-Reef-Vieng Thai-Simone-Max's-BB's-Pondicheri-Kata Robata-Libert Station-The Petrol Station-The London Sizzler-Beavers-Feast-Revival Market-West Alabama Ice House-Poscol

& BOB'S TACO STAND IN ROSENBERG! Anyway, you all have a good one. I've got to go tweak a Vieux Carre recipe for those who like them. Those who don't are cool too. I think it's just nice that we have options for everyone and every mood they may find themselves in.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

The comment you had removed was pretty disagreeable. I'm sure you think you're doing us all a great service, but frankly I've found your attitude pretty condescending. I'm not a person who needs instruction on "how to know what I really like" but you seem to think that people who like Anvil - i.e. me - are in need of just that. I disagree, and find you disagreeable.

Bruce R
Bruce R

 But Guest, you have contributed pretty much nothing of content.  One of the reasons I enjoy EOW is for the exchange of ideas.  I like hearing about new bars, restaurants, foods, drinks, markets, classes, recipes, etc.  At the end of the day I will form my own opinion, but I am willing to listen to those that are more knowledgeable than me or simply may have discovered something I was unaware of.

Guest
Guest

I expressed an opinion with which you disagreed. Nothing more.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

I don't think this article advocates anything other than that. Do you? Seriously?

Guest
Guest

I'm advocating that you drink what YOU want to drink. My opinion on what is good and acceptable shouldn't matter.

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

You got me. Actually, I recently held a party where all the guests brought their non-Anvil-Approved liquor. We used it to build a bonfire in the backyard, over which we burned a composite soviet-block leader in effigy, while chanting the recipe for Swedish Punsch. It was a righteously good time. Did you know Midori burns the color of the Aurora Borealis?

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I like hanging out with people who are agreeable, regardless of whether or not they agree with me on any particular topic. You don't fall into that category.

Guest
Guest

I wouldn't if you only like hanging out with people who agree with you.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

Dear guest,

What do YOU allow?

Love,

Everyone else

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

You strike me as someone I would not want to drink PBRs with next to a campfire.

Guest
Guest

No, you are not right. Knowledge is not power in and of itself. Its power rest solely in what you do with the knowledge you have gained.

Guest
Guest

I hope you don't have that vodka martini dirty, because we both know olives aren't allowed.

zip lock
zip lock

Guest is a genius. A no, he's not Bill Slick. I am (or was). I change my name frequently.

Guest
Guest

Fess up. You went to this class so you would know which whiskeys were approved.

Hugh Ramsey
Hugh Ramsey

We are talking about whiskey education here.

I dont think he was promoting anything.

There is no knowledge that is not power, amirite?

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

I think you're completely missing the point of this article. Whiskey is delicious. There are lots of different types. Understanding what makes whiskey what it is can lead to further enjoyment of whiskey. Now, go bend this dogmatic treatise to the whims of your subjective taste. 

Guest
Guest

When a "leader" or his acolytes think in terms of dogma, subjectivity needs to be promoted.

CMN
CMN

But, I think there are countless bars and restaurants in Houston that deserve just as much, if not more, acclaim than Anvil.

Do share.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

No problem, and I am happy to defend you and your concept because A. you're a nice guy and B. I like your bar and C. I like the drinks you make at your bar but really my objection is to these BH/Anvil critics who think those of us who are Anvil patrons are "brainwashed" or somehow getting scammed by what you do.

I was a bartender for ten years--a Bud-pouring, rum-and-coke mixing, stick-a-lime-in-a-Corona-bottle bartender. I don't need anyone to tell me what I like, or don't like, or why I do or don't like it. Sometimes I'm in the mood for an Anvil cocktail, sometimes I'm in the mood for a cold can of PEEBER, and sometimes I'm all about a (*gasp*) vodka martini. YES, I STILL DRINK VODKA EVEN THOUGH BOBBY HEUGEL HATES IT. I guess the brainwashing hasn't been completed.

I just think these people are ridiculous. Taste is subjective! My new guru is guest, for lavishing us with such incredible, civilization-building ideas.

Guest
Guest

No, I'm promoting the subjectivity of taste.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

I was making my own pre-Prohibiton drinks at home, or slinging fresh juice cocktails at The Volcano. But guess what — I love to cook, but sometimes I was someone else to do the work for me. Same goes for cocktails. Bobby Huegel didn't "make" me. He just opened a bar that serves the kind of drinks I like. But thanks for that Freudian insight into my own psyche.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

"Question: where were all of you BEFORE Anvil / BH / Beavers?"

Answer: Alaska & NY.

Verdict: Sorry, I just like Anvil.

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I don't need a lecture on the subjectivity of taste from an anonymous troll. I am NOT a drink snob and I love Anvil. My favorite beer is PABST BLUE RIBBON for chrissakes, and I'm really sick of people who think that Anvil fans need to be told ridiculous things like "taste is subjective". REALLY? Thanks for the tip.

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