Call him the Sherlock of scotch, the Poirot of pisco or the Marlowe of malt whiskey. Jason Wilson, who writes the spirits column for The Washington Post, constantly hunts down obscure liquors and wild cocktails. His debut book, “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” ($23, Ten Speed Press), finds him sleuthing spirits around the world. Traveling (and tippling) from the French Alps to Jalisco, Mexico, and Wolfenbuttel, Germany, and many points in between, Wilson quaffed some of the strongest, strangest boozy options out there. Along the way, he looks back at his long-standing love affair with powerfully proofed drinks and shares some of his favorite cocktail recipes.
What were you most excited to drink on your global quest?
The one I had been looking forward to the most for years was an eau de vie in Austria made by Hans Reisetbauer. This guy took over his father’s farm and has these amazing orchards just full of apples, pears, plums, and apricots. The fruit brandies he makes are everything distilled spirits should be; they’re perfect. Hans is a crazy character, and I really enjoyed being with him and drinking his eau de vies. To cap off our tasting, he asked if I wanted to try something really incredible; “Would you like to taste a rum from Fidel Castro’s cellar?” “Why, yes, yes, I would.” So he comes back in with this clay pot wrapped in straw, which he had gotten from a friend of a friend of a friend. He told me, “This is a really dirty spirit.” You can only imagine how Fidel might have acquired this rum. It was 120 proof and absolutely stunning.
What do you still want to try?
I want to visit the cachaca distilleries in Brazil; that’s definitely on the to-do list in the next year or so. I’d love to go back to Peru, too, and spend some more time exploring the pisco scene.
You’re on a sort of crusade against vodka. Why?
I don’t prefer vodka, but I don’t hold it against anyone who enjoys it. As someone who writes about spirits, I’m trying to open peoples’ minds about other flavors and tastes. I do have vodkas I enjoy, especially Eastern European Zubrowka, which is sometimes known over here as buffalo-grass vodka.
Where do you like to go out for a drink here in D.C.?
You’re going to get me in a lot of trouble [laughs]. The Passenger, PX, Proof, and the Tabard Inn, and PS 7’s are all favorites. The great thing is that Washington has a really amazing crew of bartenders right now.
What’s your favorite cocktail these days?
I love all the variations on the Manhattan, like the Red Hook, the Little Italy, the Greenpoint and the Kensington. But there are so many good drinks out there that it was a struggle to only put 50 recipes in the book. Actually, it wasn’t too much of a struggle; it was just drinking.
Do you still sometimes wake up in the morning and not believe that this is what you do for a living?
I started out thinking that I was going to write the great American novel, and somewhere along the way I started writing about booze. It’s a source of endless bewilderment that this is how it’s come to pass. My parents still don’t know what to make of my career. Frankly, neither do I.
Recipe File: Red Hook
2 ounces rye whiskey
1/2 ounce Punt e Mes
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur, preferably Luxardo
Preserved or maraschino cherry
Fill a mixing glass two-thirds full with ice. Add the rye whiskey, Punt e Mes and maraschino liqueur. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the cherry.
Note: If you substitute 1/2 ounce of yellow Chartreuse for the maraschino liqueur, you will have what is called a Greenpoint. If you substitute 1/2 ounce of Cynar and 3/4 ounce of sweet vermouth for the Punt e Mes and the maraschino liqueur, you’ll have a Little Italy.
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Recipe adapted from Enzo Enrico of the bar Milk & Honey in New York