The other day Devon and I took a break from craft beer and headed down to GrandTen Distilling on South Boston's Dorchester Avenue (Dot Ave for you locals). As I type this I can already hear the gasps of horror, but never fear as we're here for beer...and gin. In the shadow of the booming craft beer industry, another younger, but potentially just as large, industry is bubbling up in the U.S. as distillers are taking a lesson from their craft brewer brethren (and sistren) and beginning the boom of craft spirits. If you look around locally, no matter where you are in the country, it's near certain that you can find some locally made quality spirits.
The German made still at GrandTen Distilling. In this picture they are making more Wire Works.
In this case, GrandTen is helmed by Matthew Nuernberger (the business mind) and Spencer McMinn (chemistry Ph.D./distiller). Spencer, or Spence for short, was around to give us the tour and tell us a bit about the operation. But, before we get into that, let me tell you why we're here.
Aside from craft beer, which is obvious, Devon and I both love good spirits. I'm particularly into tequila, we're learning more about whiskey and we both share a devotion to gin. It was a few weeks ago that I was sampling a Vermont-made version of this libation when I had a great idea...what if I paired this with a craft beer? It tasted and smelled like it could take on a big IPA so I cracked one open and was ecstatic with the results. The gin sharpened the hops. The hops accentuated the herbs in the gin. And the malt rounded off that alcohol punch you get from spirits. I thought myself to be a genius, until I took to Google. It turns out that beer with gin is a longstanding Dutch tradition called Kopstootje (pronounced kop-stow-che; read more about it here) that dates back to the 1600's. Oh well, at least now I have an excuse to enjoy this delectable combination: it's traditional!
This brings us to why Devon and I are at the GrandTen Distillery in Southie. Fortuitously, soon after my Koptootje epiphany, I came across a distiller making Drink Craft Beer's favorite spirit not more than a mile from my apartment. We had to go! Local Kopstootje awaited! Lucky for us, Spence was more than happy to host these craft beer lovers with a taste for the historic.
GrandTen itself, much like most craft brewers, has a great story. Founders Matt and Spence are cousins. Matt produced the business plan as a part of his MBA project and recruited his cousin, Chemistry Ph.D. Spence, as the distiller. After raising money anywhere they could they rented some space in an old foundry in South Boston, brought in their fermenters and a still and got down to business...of course they also did several mini test batches on their micro still. Their first product is Wire Works Gin, named after a major product of the foundry they're currently housed in. With a surprising smoothness and almost no alcohol burn, the lemon and clove/pepper spiciness really comes to the forefront. As you sip more, you may note some coriander and juniper (both are a bit obvious since it's gin) in there. But the citrus and floral notes are what you'll really take away. That and the fact that this may be the most sippable gin we've ever tried.
At GrandTen, they pride themselves on using as many local Massachusetts ingredients as possible, but the recipe for Wire Works Gin is a tightly held secret since it's this blend that sets it apart. What Spence would tell us, though, is that it contains Massachusetts cranberries to give the gin some acidity.
Wire Works Gin in the foreground with other experimental liqueurs in the background.
Beyond gin, they've got a smokey, slightly spicy vodka called Fire Puncher (named after Tommy Maguire, a man who fought a fire at the foundry with his fists while awaiting firefighters), Medford Rum that is still sitting in molasses form at the distillery and a number of other things fermented and sitting around. These guys are very much into the experimentation end of distilling. Much of the more out there items stem from Spence's time living in France where he fell in love with the cordials and liqueurs of the region. These include an almond spirit, a liqueur flavored with angelica root and the fermented juice of about 12,000 apples, awaiting distillation, that they crushed one at a time and moved via five gallon buckets into the fermentation tank. The vodka is infused with chipotle and has had smoke bubbled through it, giving it a slow burn and a smokiness that creeps up on you the more you drink it. Of everything we tried, though, there was one central characteristic: smoothness. Everything we tried was totally comfortable to sip, which is rare for many of these styles.
At this point you're probably asking yourself, "Where does the beer come in?" And that's totally fair. It turns out that the guys at GrandTen love their beer almost as much as their distillate. So, when we shot them a message on Twitter, they were stoked to have us by and talk about Kopstootje. We rolled in one night with a cooler full of beer and they broke out bottles of their gin and other spirits and we set to pairing their fantastic gin with some beer...oh yeah, and we sampled a bunch of the experimental liqueur batches as well. Before we left, we came up with two great beer and gin Kopstootje pairings for Wire Works Gin.
Before we start, though, a word on process. Traditionally for Kopstootje you fill a tuliped, stemmed shot glass right to the brim next to your beer. Then you slurp the top of the gin, and sip the beer. Continue on, alternating between both, at your leisure and enjoy.
Jack's Abby Hoponius Union India Pale Lager & Wire Works Gin
When we said that Wire Works had a low apparent alcohol heat, we meant that in relation to other gins. When paired with Hoponius Union, though, it became downright dangerous as any burn was erased! The citrus notes from both liquids blend magnificently, accentuated the lemony taste in each. The gin really serves to bring out the hops while, when you take a second sip of beer, it re-emphasizes the gin somehow. At the very end, the flavors from both really blend into one experience which is delicious and quite different that either alone.
Peak Organic Summer Session & Wire Works Gin
This pairing was very distinct from how the Jack's Abby and Wire Works went together. In this case, the combination provided two very distinct flavors that never melded, just worked wonderfully together. The gin really showcased the brightness of this beer, while everything kept that gin kick at the end. Again, the citrus in both were delightful together, but these two pairings were really studies in how things can pair differently. With the Summer Session, you knew you were drinking gin!
After we left GrandTen, we have an even greater appreciation for fine spirits. Also, we love the idea of Kopstootje and think it can go beyond just gin into other combinations (tradition be damned, isn't that what craft beer is about? Bucking tradition in the name of innovation...while always keeping an eye on the what made the styles great originally). So keep an eye out for more great spirits from Spence and Matt at GrandTen and for more Kopstootje-style pairings from Drink Craft Beer.
What craft beers and spirits do you think would make some good Kopstootje pairings? Let us know in the comments below!