Friday, May 29, 2009

Wine and food pairings that make sense.

As the American palate for wine and food continues to evolve, smart chefs and sommeliers are making sure that the pairings they offer are broad, deep and coherent. They’re searching out more Old World wines to match today’s lighter, fresher fare, hosting wine dinners developed through kitchen-cellar collaboration, participating in special events and promotions showcasing vintages beyond award-winning powerhouse wines, and trying to stay attuned to what customers really want.

Read the rest of the story, below, originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Flavor and the Menu magazine.
Wine and Food Pairings

Thursday, May 28, 2009

First Taste: Citadelle Reserve Vintage Gin

The gin resurgence has brought us many new iterations that result from the tinkering with the number and balance of the different botanicals, but aging gin doesn't seem to have caught on much. Odd, since, like virtually all other spirits, gin once spent as much time in a barrel as it took to ship and serve the full complement of spirit inside. But now there is Citadelle Reserve vintage, in which the 19-botanical standard Citadelle is given six months in used casks, “in the heart of the Cognac region,” as the company says. Wonder what sort of casks they use? Hmmm.... Anyway, the Reserve 2008 gains a golden hue from its time spent resting and on the nose, the oak aging mutes the juniper, orange and cinnamon notes that are prominent in the standard Citadelle. But it has also rounded them out and integrated some vanilla and a bit of earthiness. On the palate, this is gentler than gin - less snap and more spicy subtlety, but still the juniper bite works its way through. Subtlety, as I say, is the byword in this gin-wood experiment, making it a candidate not for cocktails but for sipping on the rocks, or in a very particular Martini, perhaps. With limited annual production, that's okay. For the gin completist, a must-try. Currently the 2008 is available. 44% abv. (W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd.)
My score: 7

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Vodka, vodka, vodka....

Vodka, vodka, vodka.
Vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka.

Sure, it sometimes can be monotonous.
But vodka also sells. It’s the on-premise cash-cow, the spirit that pays the rent. And despite the current economic tide, the category is growing with every new flavor, line extension and brand introduced. Let there be no confusion: Vodka is firmly established as the most reliably profitable commodity in the bar and restaurant business.

Read the rest of the story below or in the May 2009 issue of Cheers magazine.
Vodka Cheers 0509

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

First Taste: Karlsson's Gold

The vodka backlash, at least in the cocktail-mad speak bars, is in full force, so strong that a reverse backlash has started, as even those uninterested in the generally neutral spirit are taking a second look at what's good and not so good out there.

Include me as one of those reevaluating vodka's place. Good vodka, consumed the way drinkers once did in Poland, Russia, Scandinavia or other original sources, has qualities worth considering: crisp and clean, earthy and rustic, simple but refreshing, great with smoked or pickled fish, sliced meats, vinegary cooked root vegetables, cucumbers and pickles.

Karlsson's Gold, made from seven varieties of new potatoes, is one of the few vodkas I would select as a chilled sipper. There's a rich sweetness on the palate, but it's not overbearing or excessively glycerine-like. Clean and crisp apple and lemon flavors ensue, with an herbal bite - anise, perhaps rosemary - and some earthiness, to be expected from a potato vodka. In the mouth, it is creamy and rich, and finishes bright, charming and clean, with a note of cocoa and coffee bean. Like a lean albariño, Karlsson's offers qualities that make it a natural for food, and it's a smart choice for culinary cocktails. My usual order of preference in terms of vodka sources is rye and then potato, but in this case, I'm thinking Karlsson's Gold is easily among the best two or three I've tasted in the past year.
My score: 7

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A pastry chef walks into a bar...

Over the years, the men and women working behind the bar have taken on many different roles: Apothecary, advisor, bouncer and mixologist are some of the most prominent. But lately, as many bartenders push the boundaries of their craft in an attempt to expand the definition of the cocktail, they’re taking on the role of pastry chef.

Read the rest of the story, below, originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Flavor and the Menu magazine.
Bartender as Pastry Chef

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Masters" of their domains

Like everyone else who writes about wine, spirits and food, I receive plenty of superfluous emails about the latest this, the greatest that, the most interesting other, all in the service of building word of mouth about a product. Fine; I'm not agin publicists, struggling to get their products picked out from the teeming mass, making a mark.

But recently, people are increasingly trying to boost their wares by association with one or another "Master Mixologist," a term thrown around with promiscuous frequency these days. Sometimes the so-called "Master" is someone whose work I know and who may have a legitimate claim to such a lofty title, especially if they have labored long and hard to perfect their craft through thick (the last ten years of the cocktail boom) and thin (well, any other time when knowing the name of more than a handful of bartenders meant you had an overactive drinking life). Other times, it's a neophyte with maybe five or ten years behind the stick. I've been writing about what bartenders do for some time, and was one myself long ago, so when I see people who have been at it for such a short period of time referred to as a "Master Mixologist," it dawns on me that there is NO such a thing.

I mean, there are many bartenders who can legitimately claim to have mastered their corner of the business, but a small m master is not the same as a "Master Mixologist." Who decides that all these people are "Masters?" Masters of what? Creating drinks for a living? No one would ever call someone who only developed food recipes a "Master Culinarian," because clearly, working in a silent and controlled test kitchen to get a dish just right is not the same as managing a kitchen that churns out scores of four star meals night after night. What's the standard? To be considered a master carpenter, one traditionally must put in the time and pass through a series of professional stages and be certified as such. To receive a Masters Degree, again, a generally agreed-upon set of requirements must be satisfied.

To me, a "Master Mixologist" would need to have established not only drink-making skills, but a business track record, including glorious failures and scandalous successes, a history of slinging drinks not only at uber-cool speaks, but also taverns or saloons, nightclubs and fine dining establishments, maybe a hotel or resort thrown in. He or she'd have to know when to call for the bouncer and when they could peel a loser away from the bar on their own, when to buy a drink and when not to pour one, how to cure the hiccups and a sour disposition of a good customer. But today, as far as I can tell, you are a "Master Mixologist" if you say you are, or someone says it for you. Not a very rigorous standard.

This is not to say that there aren't any "MMs." Dale DeGroff, of course, comes by the honor honestly, as do any number of other men and women who have been laboring away, sometimes in the media spotlight but often in obscurity, at resurrecting the craft of bartending in America. I won't start listing names of the people who I think are masters, because it's not my power to say. That's the point; it's not any one person's right to assert such a thing, at least to my way of thinking. The proliferation of "Masters" ought somehow to be curtailed, if only for humility's sake. Maybe the bartending community should assert what standards it has or create some that define what these folks are. Otherwise, the term "Master Mixologist" will become no more than a publicity tool.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

First (and Last) Taste: The Last Drop

This week, two of the self-proclaimed "Three Old Farts" were in town, sharing a taste from the remains of their extremely unusual blended Scotch whisky, The Last Drop. The two - James Espey and Tom Jago - are best known for their development of Baileys Irish Cream, though they were also instrumental in developing Johnnie Walker Blue Label among other Scotch whisky concepts, and if The Last Drop is any indication, whisky is where their hearts reside. The Last Drop is unmistakably unusual in its price - $2,000 per bottle - but its pedigree is equally odd. A variety - 70 malts and 12 grains - of whiskies, distilled in 1960 and aged 12 years, were re-barreled in Sherry casks in 1972...and then, apparently, forgotten. The decade of the 1970s wasn't the best time for the Scotch whisky business, which might explain how the three casks were left in a dark corner of a warehouse at Auchentoshan in the Scottish Lowlands, like umbrellas overlooked at a restaurant door at the end of a spring shower. The contents of the barrels reduced by two-thirds - not only the angels but the devils seem to have taken their share - and about 1,350 bottles-worth are left.

The Old Farts were willing to share a dram with me, and here are my notes: The color of endlessly polished walnut with a dim green light at the edges, the first sniffs of the spirit confuse - is this Cognac? Armagnac? What? Lots of rancio - nutty and umami-ish - and moderate spiciness (mace rather than cinnamon, nutmeg rather than clove) then emerge, though after about five minutes, the aromas shift to pecan pie and maple syrup, part of an constantly altering array of smells - chocolate, leather, figs, rum-soaked raisins. It tastes surprisingly fresh and alive, hard to figure for one so old. Sherry (oloroso? palo cortado?) shows everywhere, but modestly and sprightly, not in the way some single malts are overwhlemed by the sweetness of Pedro Ximenez Sherries. The whisky dances across the palate, with new flavors of passion fruit, kumquat and old leather joining the aromas mentioned above. It's light but long on the finish, insanely refined and a new benchmark for old Scotch.

Only 350 bottles were sent to the U.S., and few are left, if you've got a spare two grand lying around. The Farts are looking for more, though, so keep alert if money's no object. (Imported by Infinium Spirits.)

My score: 10