There are no limits or constraints in the world of cocktails anymore. Both the traditional and the modern co-exist on countless cocktail lists. Across the country, bar chefs are concocting unique, handcrafted, and deliciously drinkable creations, and Memphis has by no means been passed over by this trend. We are seeing more and more artisanal spirits enter our market, giving both professional and amateur mixologists many options for their bar. House-made cordials, infusions, and spins on classics are popping up all over our city, but it's still very much in its infancy.
Luckily, we have a full artillery of spirits to work with. Corsair Artisan, based in Nashville, produces an incredibly expressive battery of liquors, from absinthe to whiskey. It seems as though Corsair, founded in 2007, has come about in the very midst of the cocktail culture exploding across the country.
"When we were deciding whether to launch, we saw a convergence of interest in high-quality, locally produced foods and the revival of classic cocktails," says Andrew Webber of Corsair Artisan. "We thought craft spirits were going to take off on the back of these combined movements."
As with cooking, crafting a good cocktail means sourcing the best possible ingredients. Corsair has that same meticulous attention to detail with the components of its spirits. "Most distillers use very conservative grain bills for whiskey relative to what brewers have been doing with craft beers. Using interesting barley preparations and unusual grains for whiskeys is one of our major passions," Webber says.
Tasting their Triple Smoke Whiskey is a lesson in thresholds. Lovers of Islay Scotch will recognize some of the flavor profiles. However, those who don't care for that particular style will appreciate that Cosair took the whiskey to the limit without going over the edge. It's intense and wonderful. The Triple Smoke is crafted using Sweet mashbill paired with barley smoked with peat, cherry wood, and beechwood.
These whiskeys aren't even some of the more esoteric spirits that Corsair has produced. "About 20 experimental whiskeys, including lagered whiskeys, a chocolate bourbon, and a wormwood wit whiskey have proven popular with tasters but haven't been released [yet]," Webber says. "Other experiments have produced whiskeys too unusual even for us!"
While gin isn't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Tennessee, Corsair is quietly changing that — at least in the world of the spirits enthusiast. Their Gin-Head Style American Gin came out of nowhere to win the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2009. They use only sustainably harvested, traditional botanicals and distill them in a hand-hammered pot in small batches. The botanicals are vapor-infused as opposed to the typical infusing into liquid alcohol. The result is a super-pure, intense-tasting gin that is fantastic.
The folks at Corsair are humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response their small-batch, hand-crafted operation has received.
"Once we make a spirit, we tend to be lost as to what to do with that spirit [beyond putting it in a glass neat]," Webber says. "We're always amazed and gratified when we see what cocktail enthusiasts can do with our spirits, taking them in directions we never considered."
Smoke & Spice
3 oz Corsair Artisan Triple Smoke
1/2 oz St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters
Pour all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir at least 20-30 times to cool the mixture down and achieve proper dilution. Strain into a rocks glass with no ice and garnish with a lemon peel.