Infused Spirits 101: Featuring Belle Isle Craft Spirits

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by: Amy Ciarametaro

Rise and shine, folks! Today we’re going to discuss the topic of infused spirits and the value of authentic infusions versus chemical-compound infusions. I recently sat down with few of Virginia and Washington, D.C.’s most talented bartenders to get the facts straight, and to hear their take on the topic. I also chatted with the fellas at Belle Isle Craft Spirits to learn more about their approach to making artisanal infusions with their premium moonshines. But before I delve into that, let’s do a little infusion 101.

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LESSON 1: Artisanal Infusions vs. Commercial Infusions
Artisan infusions can be made using a vast array of base spirits and production methods; though the majority are produced using vodka. Adding flavoring to vodka (or other spirits) is not new. In fact, most of the earliest vodkas were flavored, and hundreds of old recipes for flavored vodka still exist today. Some of those early flavors included fresh honey, cherries and many other fruits and spices. One of my personal favorites is Zubrowka, which is flavored with aromatic bison grass. Don’t knock it till you try it; spirits made in this fashion utilize natural ingredients, and the best examples maintain this tradition today.

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Belle Isle Craft Spirits Honey Habanero Premium Moonshine production

Nearly every commercial vodka brand now has one or more flavored versions of their vodkas. These spirits are not made with an eye towards craftsmanship nor traditional heritage, and are often only a faint memory of the actual ingredients they purportedly use. Fruit is the most common flavoring used, but there is no limit to the possibilities: vanilla, caramel, and cucumber, to name a few. The key takeaway is that natural ingredients are not used. Instead, you’re drinking “nature-identical” flavorings, which is a very PC way of saying your spirit was produced in what likely resembles an oil refinery. Sadly, the spirits market is awash in these sorts of products from big brands that are poor representations of what infused spirits should be.

LESSON 2: DIY vs. Store-bought
In addition to store-bought options for infusions, there’s also the DIY method, for both professional and at-home bartenders alike. “There are both advantages and disadvantages to buying infused spirits as opposed to making the infusion yourself,” says Alec Spidalieri, Bar Manager for The Local and soon-to-open Junction, both in Charlottesville. “The most obvious advantage for DIY is that any flavor combination you can dream up is probably possible. The amount of ingredients you use for the infusion, how much time the spirit actually sits infusing; all the factors are up to you and you can taste along the way until you’re happy with what you’ve got.”

Now before you go and quit your day jobs to make at-home infusions 24/7, know there are lots of high-quality, affordable, store-bought options for infusions (e.g., Belle Isle Craft Spirits) that utilize natural ingredients, are made with integrity, and best of all, require zero work on your part (aside from a quick trip to your local Virginia ABC store).

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Belle Isle Craft Spirits Cold Brew Coffee being bottled

Another benefit to store-bought infusions is consistency, which is a message I heard repeatedly from my friends in the beverage community. Alec further explains, “store-bought infusions lend themselves to being much ‘cleaner’ products. There’s no strange, unwanted textures or colors in your drink that DIY can sometimes lead to, due to lack of filtration.”

LESSON 3: What’s the big deal with infusions?
They have their place in the modern bartender’s arsenal,” explains Paul Trahan Taylor of Washington, D.C.-based Southern Efficiency & Eat the Rich. “For me, they provide an interesting canvas to layer other flavors on; and in addition, they afford bartenders the ability to add additional flavors to a cocktail without adding sugar by way of a syrup or cordials.” Michael Hanbury from Comfort Richmond chimes in, “Artisan infusions are great because they extract flavors from fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables, lending additional depth and complexity to cocktails for both novices and connoisseurs alike.”

Seeking further infusion enlightenment, I recently met with the guys from Belle Isle Craft Spirits. They just released their highly sought-after Cold Brew Coffee Moonshine, one of several moonshine infusions they produce. Who better to get the 411 from?!

‘Rise And Shine’ mural by Sure Hand Signs at Belle Isle Craft Spirits soon-to-open (2017) tasting room & production facility

‘Rise And Shine’ mural by Sure Hand Signs at Belle Isle Craft Spirits soon-to-open (2017) tasting room & production facility

Upon arriving at their new production facility in the Manchester District of Richmond, I was greeted with a sense of excitement that was palatable in every way; from the people, the place, and most importantly the product.

First thing’s first, I asked Vince Riggi, co-founder of Belle Isle Craft Spirits, “Why moonshine, versus vodka or other spirits for your infusions?” Vince explained, “Here at Belle Isle, we take a sense of pride in our local heritage.” For those that don’t already know, the Belle Isle name comes from the 540-acre island located in Richmond’s James River. Vince further elaborated, “From the early 1800s, the island was home to a number of companies manufacturing everything from nails to railroad equipment to copper kettles used by soldiers during the Civil War. Equipped with Belle Isle-made copper kettles and an abundance of corn, resourceful soldiers distilled their own spirits; corn being the primary raw material used.”

To further explain this, vodka’s raw materials are typically composed of cereal grains, corn, potatoes and other starches (or pretty much anything that can be converted to sugar). Moonshine is almost always made from corn. There’s always exceptions to these rules, but it’s safe to say these are the norm for both. In doing so, Belle Isle moonshines are made from 100% organic corn, with the addition of purified water from the James River and quadruple carbon filtering create a remarkably smooth, sippable spirit that pays a gentle nod to moonshine’s rich history in Virginia, while keeping an eye on the palate of the modern drinker.

The guys at Belle Isle produce five moonshines in total, three of which are infused (Honey Habanero, Ruby Red Grapefruit, and their new darling, Cold Brew Coffee) with local ingredients. The other two are pure expressions of moonshine which can be enjoyed neat or used for DIY home infusions.

Moonshine, white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, homebrew, and white whiskey are all terms that are traditionally used to describe high-proof distilled spirits, often with the connotation of being considered illicit. Belle Isle’s moonshine spirits are handmade in small batches and their infused moonshines are lower in proof than commercially infused vodkas (which are almost always 80° proof, or 40% alcohol). Belle Isle’s infused moonshines are roughly 70° proof (or 35% alcohol). Their Premium Moonshine is 80° proof.

Gregg Brooks, Production Manager for Belle Isle, talks about how they source ingredients for their infusions: “We focus on using local ingredients from local businesses, like Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company’s freshly roasted coffee beans for our Cold Brew Coffee Moonshine.” The Belle Isle guys are attuned to the fact that they are a part of a collective community, by way of businesses in the City of Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth. Gregg says, “We are building a reputation for Virginia together, and supporting other local businesses is a huge part of that.

Greg Brooks, Production Manager for Belle Isle Craft Spirits

Greg Brooks, Production Manager for Belle Isle Craft Spirits

Gregg has been a big fan of Blanchard’s Coffee for quite some time. Formerly, the Richmond business was located only a few blocks away from Belle Isle’s production facility in Manchester, so Gregg decided to pay them a visit last year to discuss the concept. There’s only one other coffee-infused moonshine in the world, so Gregg’s brilliant idea when first presented was considered a little unorthodox. However, the folks at Blanchard’s liked the idea of being part of the country’s first coffee-moonshine concoction; the rest, as they say, is history!

I asked Gregg why Blanchard’s coffee beans were selected as the key ingredient for their newest infusion. “A simple cup of joe is not so simple anymore. Today’s coffee options are much like their vinous sister, or spirits, where they can offer a cerebral experience through aromatic and flavor compounds that have complexity, body, balance and more.”

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While the coffee beans used are obviously not local, the art of roasting is. The beans used come from an estate called Santa Rose in Honduras, in union with Blanchard ‘Hair of the Dog Cold Brew’ component, which utilizes coffee from one of their partner farms in El Obraje, Colombia. This, combined with a touch of honey from Waynesboro, Virginia, renders aromas of rich chocolate caramel, along with citrus and herbal complexities. “Just like all of our other products, everything in this bottle is real. The spirit is made from organic corn, coffee and honey. Nothing else. Period. No artificial flavor or colors or extracts, just real ingredients,” says Gregg.

Whether by itself as a little pick-me-up or used in a cocktail, it’s a really well put together spirit that elegantly showcases the quality coffee that it is made with,” says Mattias Hägglund, beverage maestro for Richmond’s venerable Heritage restaurant. “It works nicely in all of the common after-dinner drinks you may think of too, but I think that its suggested mixer, tonic water, will be a revelation to many.”

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Thomas Leggett, Bar Manager for Richmond’s The Roosevelt remarks, “The Cold Brew Coffee Moonshine is great because it offers authentic coffee flavor and isn’t super sweet like most coffee liqueurs,” which as Gregg Brooks will tell you is due to the use of honey in production over other sweeteners. “I initially didn’t think we’d use honey as a sweetener, but it mixed so well and adds just the right amount of sweetness to offset the bitterness from the coffee.”

I’ll wrap up with a common theme expressed by all the bartenders interviewed for this feature, which is just how wonderful the guys from Belle Isle are; both as industry comrades and as friends. I was skeptical until I met them, but guess what? They’re awesome! They’re young, driven, have high energy, and support their local community. And fun fact: Gregg is also the drummer for Richmond’s very own yacht rock band Three Sheets to the Wind (immediately starts humming Hall & Oates Private Eyes softly to self). Michael Hanbury from Comfort adds, “If you haven’t had the good fortune of meeting the Belle Isle team out and about (they will be the guys laughing and generally looking like they are having a great day), then you’ll have to stop by their soon-to-be-completed tasting room in Manchester to sample their products and enjoy a few laughs soon.”

Until the tasting room opens sometime next year, you can find Belle Isle Craft Spirits at most Virginia ABC’s stores / website, or at other fine retailers in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

Find out more about Belle Isle Craft Spirits’ wonderful infusions and moonshine by visiting their website or following them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Belle Isle Moonshine Product Tasting Notes:

Premium Moonshine
Belle Isle Premium Moonshine honors the traditions of America’s first distillers. Their moonshine boasts aromas of sweet corn with a smooth, bright finish.

PRODUCT FEATURES
• Proudly bottled in Richmond, Virginia
• 100% organic corn
• Gluten-free
• Aromas: Sweet corn, sugarcane, molasses
• Finish: Candy corn, pepper

Cold Brew Coffee
Belle Isle Moonshine’s first collaborative infusion combines Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company’s cold brew coffee and fresh roasted beans, their award-winning Premium Moonshine, and a hint of real honey for a truly eye-opening craft spirit.

PRODUCT FEATURES
• Proudly bottled in Richmond, VA
• 100% organic corn
• Gluten-free
• Featuring Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company’s fair trade organic Honduran beans and cold brew coffee
• Sweetened with local honey from Waynesboro, VA
• Aromas: Coffee, caramel, chocolate
• Finish: Sweet, rich

Ruby Red Grapefruit
With a crisp, bright flavor that balances sweet and tart, Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit is an exciting way to infuse your cocktails with a burst of fresh citrus flavor.

PRODUCT FEATURES
• Proudly bottled in Richmond, Virginia
• Gold Medal Winner, 2016 SIP Awards
• 100% organic corn
• Gluten-free
• Fresh ruby red grapefruits
• No artificial flavors or color
• Aromas: Citrus, sweet corn
• Finish: Tart, sweet

Honey Habanero
Belle Isle infused their award-winning Premium Moonshine with carefully sourced habaneros and honey to create a truly unique spirit that blends subtle sweetness with a burn.

PRODUCT FEATURES
• Proudly bottled in Richmond, Virginia
• Organic habaneros
• Real Virginia honey
• Gluten-free
• Aromas: Honey, habanero, corn
• Finish: Heat, sweet

100 Proof
A higher alcohol content gives Belle Isle 100 Proof Premium Moonshine a slight boozy burn on top of sweet corn and caramel flavors, making it a favorite of mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts everywhere.

PRODUCT FEATURES
• Proudly bottled in Richmond, Virginia
• 100% organic corn
• Gluten-free
• Easy drinkability for a higher proof spirit
• Perfect for cocktails, infusion, tinctures, and liqueurs
• Aroma: Mild heat, sweet corn, sugarcane
• Finish: Candy corn, caramel, pepper