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Whiskey for Patty’s Day!
By Craig Girolami
Published in Encore Magazine March, 2009

Ireland is widely considered the birthplace of whiskey. The history of Irish whiskey is believed to begin as early as the fifth century when distillation technology based on a simple Arabic alchemical still (called an alembic) was brought back to Europe by Irish missionary monks. The art of distilling spread through the Church and eventually reached beyond the monastery walls. Today, all Irish whiskeys are produced from just three distillers. A few very rare whiskeys are still being sold from distilleries long since closed.

The legal definition of whiskey varies from country to country. Irish whiskey must be distilled from a mash of grains fermented and aged in wooden barrels a minimum of three years on the island of Ireland. It must be at least 80 Proof (40% Alcohol by volume) when bottled. Some whiskies identify the minimum amount of time the whiskey was aged in wood with an age statement on the bottle. A vintage designation can be placed on the bottle to refer to the year of bottling and not the age of the whiskey.

Since prohibition Scotch, Canadian and American whiskies have dominated the market in the US. Scotch and our homegrown Bourbon whiskies are generally more highly regarded than Irish whiskey. In recent years, Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing market segment for whiskey. This means that on St. Patrick’s day (when we are all Irish for a day) there many more choices of golden libation. For decades, Irish Americans were forced to choose from the only two brands widely available, Jameson and Bushmills. Jameson, based in the Republic of Ireland was often the choice for Catholic families while Bushmills, based in Northern Ireland was the brand for Protestants. Those days may be gone for good as more Irish whiskey is being marketed in the states. Some Irish brands are even bottling single malts, following the lead of very popular single malt Scotch. These whiskeys are made at a single distillery from a single type of malted barley.

Irish whiskey relies more on the master distiller and the process of making the whiskey to determine its character than Scotch or Bourbon. The distiller chooses the blend of malted and unmalted barley (other grains like corn and wheat are allowed, but used sparingly). Nearly all Irish whiskey is triple distilled. It can be aged in a variety of wood, and casks used to make other spirits. Generally, Bourbon barrels are used for primary aging, with Sherry, Madeira, or Port barrels used to finish and add character. Irish whiskeys tend to have sweeter, lighter profile and less smoke than their Scotch counterparts. This is mainly because the Irish generally do not smoke their barley.

The landscape of Irish whiskey available to Americans is broader than ever before, so if you haven’t explored them, now is a great time to treat you palate to one of the world’s truly distinctive liquors. They are an Irish tradition that might just stay with you all year long.

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Think Spring and Fresh Michigan Asparagus
by Craig Girolami
Published in Encore Magazine, Spring, 2008

Each spring and early summer in Southwest Michigan, we are blessed with a culinary treasure—fresh local asparagus. It is one of my favorite local bounties, right up there with blueberries, sweet corn and apples.

Asparagus is a member of the Lily family. Its cultivation has been traced back to the Romans in the 1st century AD. Spears grow out of a tubular root system a called a crown. The crowns are buried in trenches about one foot deep. After planting, a crown takes three years before it can be harvested. A healthy crown can produce quality crops for 15 or more years. Another surprising fact about asparagus is that in the right growing conditions it can grow 10 inches in 24 hours.

Michigan is the third largest producer of asparagus in the US, behind California and Washington State. Of the 25 million pounds harvested here each year, surprisingly only about 15 percent is sold fresh at roadside stands and markets. About 85 percent of the crop is sold to processors to freeze and can.

American asparagus lovers have become spoiled in recent years with year round availability of some pretty nice asparagus at reasonable prices. This product is generally shipped in to the US from Mexico, Peru and Columbia. Of course it is not as tender, nor flavorful as the fresh local product.

Did you know that asparagus has played a part in the “War on Drugs”? It’s true, the growth in imported asparagus is a side effect of the US Government’s “War on Drugs”; We are allowing the import of asparagus from some South American countries duty free. The tariff was lifted in an effort to discourage their farmers from growing the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, and plant asparagus instead.

This policy is widely thought to be ineffective by US farmers, because the coca is grown in mountain terrain and asparagus is not. Also, it seems that Cocaine imports from South America have not slowed. In addition to providing the US market with good asparagus year round, another unintended consequence of this policy has been the loss of jobs in the asparagus industry. Processing plants have been moved to South America to take advantage of a bountiful supply and favorable labor market. and this has caused lower prices for asparagus. Good for the consumer, but tough on farmers and food process employees.

When it comes to tasty food, I prefer to put politics aside and just enjoy the gastronomic opportunities that are made possible by the global economy. On many levels it makes sense to simply enjoy food sourced from all over the world. Economic factors and varied climates allow us to have so much to enjoy year round. But when it comes to quality, I enjoy the taste and satisfaction of supporting producers of fresh local food. And, if you’re like me, it won’t be long until you get asparagus fever.