Thursday, December 24, 2009

The price is right

Restaurant wine pricing often puzzles the average consumer, no more so than today; everyone knows wine sales are soft, especially at the higher end, but prices seem to be staying stubbornly unchanged. 

The issue is always a fraught one; restaurants have long discounted wines for special events and holidays, yet never without fear of lost profits. But given today’s economic concerns, operators who cling to mark-ups of 300% in the face of plummeting sales shouldn’t wonder why their check averages are dropping. That’s especially true as distributors consider price cuts to get stock moving and make room for new vintages. Similar moves by operators offer opportunities to build traffic, profits or both.

Some operators have been particularly aggressive about selling wine in the current economy. At the two-unit Rizzuto’s Wood Fired Kitchen and Bar operation in Bethel and West Hartford, Conn., Monday night for the past year has meant half price on all bottles on their 15 wine list. (Rizzuto’s management expects to introduce the program at a new unit set to open shortly in Westport, even as they expand to 30 bottles.)

The list is impressively price conscious even before the discount, until recently topping out at about $45, with the lowest price $24 for a white zinfandel (The recent expansion brought in wines priced up to $70). With the half-off discount, that means Monday’s customers routinely walk away feeling they’ve enjoyed quite a bargain.

“Wine sales are pretty good that night, but we don’t think about it in terms of sales figures or profits, because we’re selling them for barely above cost,” says Paul Mannion, general manager of the Bethel unit. “It’s more about getting people in and giving our regular customers an opportunity to buy something a little special for them at a bargain price.”

Mannion hits on something key; in troubled times, patrons are less likely to splurge or make adventurous dining and drinking decisions. Rather, given the opportunity, they’ll opt to return to a familiar restaurant, especially one that treats them well and offers bargains. Rebuilding wine sales through well promoted periodic or across the board price cuts can build the same comfort level.

Mannion says traffic has ticked up on Mondays, and notes hand selling a wine-timid guest is easier for staff when they see familiar faces. The days of rewarding customers with free drinks or happy hours may be gone, but cutting wine prices in half goes along way toward building traffic on slow nights and rewarding regular customers.

Even in Manhattan, turning customers into friends through considerate wine prices works. At Braeburn, a contemporary American bistro in Greenwich Village that opened just as Wall Street was imploding last year, pricing consciousness played an important role when the doors first opened, according to partner and general manager John Paul O’Neil.

“We wanted to go about this with an understanding that people were suffering,” says O’Neil. “We noticed people were going for things within their comfort level, what they know and trust.”

Before opening, O’Neil and then wine director Katherine Beto searched for high quality wines they could sell for less than competitors. They employed standard practices like buying in quantity, but keeping their mark-up low also on their minds as they tasted through hundreds of wines. Peppering the 120-bottle list with well-priced offerings from Hungary, Lebanon, Cyprus and Greece as well the Rhone, Tuscany and California, they kept about ninety percent under $100, with fifteen or so wines also sold by the glass or in small carafes. As customers gravitated toward comfort foods and safe wine decisions, the Braeburn pricing strategy worked, O’Neil says.

Staff played down trading guests up the list, allowing bargain hunters to enjoy the results of O’Neil and Beto’s search. Guests have been opting for wines around $40-50, though lately O’Neil’s noted customers moving up the list a bit. More importantly, the efforts to create customer loyalty through sensible wine pricing from the day the restaurant opened has made its mark, as traffic and sales are steadily building. Score another fan of wines priced to sell.

(A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 on -line edition of Nation's Restaurant News.)


Friday, December 18, 2009

Sherry in the mix

To me, there's something unmistakably adult about cocktails made with Sherry. The deeply savory, almost umami, quality present in all sorts of non-blended sherries can give cocktails a resonant, lip-smacking and crave-worthy piquancy. In summer, that means Martinis made with a dash of manzanilla; in winter, Manhattans tarted up with some Amontillado or Oloroso. 

So dropping by the Clover Club for the annual Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition this week was  a no-brainer for me. And while I couldn't hang for all the cocktails, I did get to try the winner made by Charles Joly from Chicago’s The Drawing Room, Bread & Wine. 

Usually, ingredient-based cocktail competitions draw too many recipes where the main ingredient is overwhelming; not here. In fact, for me, a few of the drinks needed more sherry and less tartness, or had an intensity from other ingredients that masked much sherry contribution. I know, I know, sometimes an ingredient is obscured in a well- balanced drink, but the same thing can happen when too much effort to craft a unique drink masks its contribution. But getting bartenders to create and customers to order drinks made with sherry is the goal, so just a whiff of Andalucia may sometimes be enough.

Here's the winning recipe:

1 oz Lustau “Don Nuño” Dry Oloroso
1 ½ oz Balvenie Scotch Doublewood 12 year
5 dashes Absinthe (preferably Sirene Absinthe)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
¼-1/3 oz maple syrup (depending on tartness of lemons)

Fill Old Fashioned glass with ice, dash with absinthe and set aside to season. Combine Sherry, Balvenie, lemon juice and maple syrup in mixing glass. Add ice and shake well. Empty Old Fashioned glass, coating sides with absinthe. Add Kold Draft or large pieces of ice. Strain cocktail into glass. Cut a strip of orange zest using a vegetable peeler. Mist top of glass with orange oil, rub rim and place decoratively in glass. No straws please.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Blending and unblending

Through a interactive hook-up held earlier this week at Astor Center in Manhattan, a dozen or two journalists watched Bob Dalgarno, the master blender at Macallan, toy with various beakers of Macallan in his sample room in Scotland. It was around midnight there, and Delgarno's voice, a crackling burr that can be hard to keep up with in person, was occasionally compressed by the digital hook up into plosive hiccups. It was a tiny bit distracting, but getting a chance to taste with him, even at some distance, was worthwhile, especially given the premise of the event: even single malts are "blended" and for good reason.

In this case, we were presented with 12 or so glasses of various 20 and 18 year old barrel samples. Some had aged in puncheons, others in butts, and one in a hogshead - the first two holding 500 liters, the puncheon squatter and made with broader staves, and the latter only 250 liters Their flavors landed all over the flavor map, except for those smokey quarters, and while some seemed unmistakably Macallan in their rich oiliness, others appeared insipid, almost, meant only for filler in a blended whisky. From these and other barrels, Delgarno derived the latest 18 Year Old Macallan, and sampling them made clear he had a lot more to do then watch the calendar, dump and bottle. My notes say "Amazing how different the casks are - while many share the expected Macallan characters of heavy, oily lusciousness, a few are indifferent malts unsuitable for the job most Macallan is charged with - as a 'top dressing' for blends." 

As Delgarno led us through the various vials, I kept thinking of an email exchange I'd had with a curious stranger about the ultimate effects of barrels on whisky. He'd been told that it was the wood itself, not the spirit or wine the barrel had once held, that was the primary agent in the aging of whisky. I've been advised by some blenders about the importance of source, quality and consistency of supply of barrels, and also the importance of the supply's ultimate effect - the emergence of an unpleasant sulphur quality in some whiskies clearly lies there. But surely some whiskies - Macallan, for the most obvious instance, but also Glenmorangie and others that hang their hats on wood-finishes - expect and receive a quality that depends on the sherry-ness of the barrel.

It was clear that some of the samples we tasted this week had better merged that oily and dense Macallan quality which comes from their squat stills with the richness and dried fruitiness of an oloroso. Even the new make spirit had a heavy and oily quality, with dried fruits and spicy, malty notes considered characteristic of Macallan.

This is a long way of explaining why I think tasting older malts poses more questions than it answers. Sure, I learned that sherry butts add more spice and sherry puncheons a creamy and cooked fruit quality. The one hogshead we tried had a lanolin quality I don't associate with Macallan, and also a lot of vanilla and bananas. But I now wonder what would happen if Macallan used some amontillado or palo cortado barrels to go along with the oloroso containers they get from Gonzalez Byass. And need to go back and try the Fine Oak range alongside the traditional Macallan to see how much of that sherried quality really comes from sherry.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First Taste: Square One Botanical

Used to be, the brown spirits had all the character and flavors, derived mostly from wood. Now, it's the tinkering of the vodka distillers, primarily, and the various flavoring methods they employ that seem to set the standard. Unfortunately, many of those spirits are poorly wrought, cheaply flavored and downright lip-curling.

Not this one. Its botanical mix (pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary coriander and citrus peel) evokes aromatic images of a gin-sipping grandma herbalist, but there's something really fun going on here. In the nose, Square One Botanical offers green pear and fresh lavender right off, along with bits of dried rose, crushed coriander and orange peel. It tastes light and, well, green - perhaps green gage plums or D'Anjou pears, but with something extra - white flowers and lemon blossom, with a hint of jasmine at the finish. The finish is crisp and a bit sweet, but not sweetened, something like mixed fruit gum, but overall fresh and gentle for a 45% alcohol by volume product. Square One Botanical promises to be a super cocktail ingredient, and has the added cachet that organic certification brings.

My score: 7

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Right Onion

I always warn cocktail novices that the best way to tell whether a bar takes real Martinis seriously is how they store their olives and onions – if the jars are cooking on the back bar or have been out at room temp for five hours, nix, I say.

I know garnishes have been recently getting their proper due in many bars, but just recently, at NYC’s dell’ anima, by no means a cocktail destination, I had a Martini garnished with some crunchy and tangy house-made pearl onions. Bravo to them for setting the bar higher – courtesy of the National Onion Association, here’s the simplest method known.

Simply Pickled Pearl Onions

1.5 pounds pearl onions, peeled
2 Tablespoon pickling salt
1.5 cups white vinegar
.33 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pickling spices
4 half-pint canning jars and lids, sanitized

To peel, use a small sharp knife to cut off the root end of the onion. Make a shallow crisscross on the trimmed edge and place the onions into a saucepan. Add water to cover, bring to a boil for two minutes and drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze onions gently to slip skins off.

Combine 2 cups water and pickling salt; pour over onions in a non-reactive bowl and let stand 12 hours. Drain and rinse thoroughly. Combine vinegar, sugar and pickling spices in a pan and bring to a boil. Pack onions in sterilized, hot half pint canning jars and cover with pickling liquid, keeping .5 inch headspace. Adjust lids and heat jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 4 half-pints.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Horn Tooting

Bar managers and bartenders aspiring to the management track are invited to sign up for “Successful Beverage Management,” a program created by Barmedia’s Robert Plotkin and myself, with the Phoenician’s food and beverage director Mac Gregory and food and beverage authority Dr. Gail Bellamy. Details here - the full day seminar will take place January 12th at the Phoenecian in Scottsdale, AZ.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mix is up

The latest issue of Mix is now available - click here to read and sign up.


Information and Inspiration for Cocktail Professionals December 1, 2009


The USBG is currently in 14 markets around the country, up from five markets just three short years ago. „As a non-profit with a small national office and limited financial resources, it is amazing the way the USBG has grown over the past three years,‰ says Liz Edwards, who runs USBG‚s Las Vegas-based national office. „Interest in the USBG has spread More…

Return of “The Mixologist”
It’s been a while since the second edition — three years to be exact — but “The Mixologist” has returned, this time as a study of the European cocktail. Edited by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown and published in late November, “The Mixologist: The Journal of the European Cocktail” includes work from Gaz Regan, Sue Leckie on Peter Dorelli (former bar manager of The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel) More…
Keens Reigns Supreme
Midtown Manhattan offers a plethora of drinking options beside the modern speakeasy and classic cocktail cult bar, most of them saloons. Many of them have the age-old New York saloon feel — and smell — and that’s all right for a meet after work and a quick brew. But whenever whiskey makers are visiting New York and want to meet, they inevitably pick the same spot: Keens Steakhouse. More…
Seasonal Sensations
BiNA Osteria in Boston has rolled out two holiday-themed cocktails — the Sugar Plum Fairy (vodka, Maraschino liqueur, smoked plum juice topped with Prosecco, sugar rim) and a Pear Toddy (muddled pear, brandy, honey, clove and Rooibos tea). The Patina Group will open Igloo Bar rinkside at the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center starting this week, and it will remain open in the shadow of the enormous Christmas tree More…

Blog Spotlight

What's Shaken


Peanuty Flip, Royal Salute & Glam Shots
I ask almost every distiller I meet the same question: Have you ever thought about making a peanut liqueur? Americans are crazy about the flavor, whether in PB&J or as a satay dipper. Obviously, others have had the same thought; we now have Castries Peanut Rum Crème Liqueur, and now, the Peanut Board has put together a mixology program. They offer a peanut rum infusion recipe More…
Entrepreneurs & Winners
Arturo A. Vera-Felicie of the R Bar & Restaurant and 1924 Main was named the winner of the 2009 Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition earlier this month. His original creation for the competition was the West Bottoms Social Club, based on pickled fig syrup. Beau Williams of Manifesto and Christopher Conastor of Justus Drugstore placed and showed. Chicago bartender Adam Seger has created Hum More…

Parting Shot
Pearls of Wisdom
I always warn cocktail novices that the best way to tell whether a bar takes real Martinis seriously is how olives and onions are stored; if the jars are cooking on the back bar or have been out at room temp for five hours, nix, I say. More...


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Best Bars

Midtown Manhattan offers a plethora of drinking options beside the modern speakeasy and classic cocktail cult bar, most of them saloons. Many of them have the age-old New York saloon feel — and smell — and that’s all right for a meet after work and a quick brew. 

But whenever whiskey makers are visiting New York and want to meet, they inevitably pick the same spot: Keens Steakhouse. Founded in 1885 as Keens Chophouse, in the heart of what was then the Herald Square theater district, the dark, low-ceilinged restaurant buzzes from noon through the wee hours, with a brief respite in the mid-afternoon. 

The upstairs bar, under a ceiling hung with hundreds of clay pipes known as churchwardens from the days when patrons would fire them up on arrival, is more of an event space than hangout, but downstairs, the main barroom has a customer base that befits its location so close to Herald and Times Squares, the heart of New York’s Garment District and the so-called crossroads of the world.
Hockey fans, malt lovers, bartenders, models, clothing execs, hard hats, Macy’s-bag-laden tourists, cops — everybody goes to Keens. 

Nobody orders Aviations there; in fact, order any mixed drink beyond a Bloody Mary or a Martini and you’ll prove you don’t much about reading a bar (though they have added such drinks as Sazeracs and Last Words, along with the Omar Bradley — rye, orange marmalade and bitters). At Keens, it’s usually beer, Scotch on the rocks, a chat with one of your cheek-by-jowl neighbors and the occasional howl of disapproval as another New York team screws up on the small screen at the end of the bar. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(Reprinted from Mix - read more and sign up there.)


Go Van Gogh

I'm not a vodka guy, though neither am I a vodkaphobe - as far as I'm concerned, whatever gets you through the night... I keep a few bottles around the house, whatever I consider really good, and pass the rest on to friends, neighbors and delivery men. I don't often hold onto flavored vodkas at all...except for Van Gogh, which, as flavored spirits go, are generally unparalleled in terms of pure, essential flavors. In fact, as the international cordial suppliers continue to miss out on the opportunity created by the cocktail revolution - that is, they continue to sell generally artificial tasting, overly sweet and just plain unpleasant liqueurs - bartenders are starting to opt for the 35% abv Van Goghs as flavoring agents. All hail master distiller Tim Voss.

I sat down last week with Norman Bonchick, head of Van Gogh Imports, and tasted all their wares. The good news - the Dutch Chocolate is back and as good as ever, a hot chocolately treat with a slight bitterness, a drying finish with spice and a balanced sweetness. A mistaken change in the formula has been righted, and this is the benchmark chocolate spirit, as far as I'm concerned.

But it's not Van Gogh's best - that nod goes to the Double Espresso, a magnificently crafted spirit that explodes with aromas of freshly ground dark roast coffee bean and tastes like finely filtered and concentrated pure espresso with a shot of spirit. The art of flavoring doesn't get any better, and with the possible exception of Illy Coffee Liqueur, there's nothing close to this Van Gogh.

I was also impressed with the Van Gogh Coconut vodka, quite against my will - "No way I'll like this," I thought and then wham! an aromatic explosion of toasted coconut and coconut cream erupted from the glass, and not a hint of the usual coconut sunscreen notes so often found in such spirits. It's compelling and seductive, and all coconut lushness - a real winner.

Given that these products depend on fresh and seasonal ingredients for their flavors, it's not surprising that some change slightly - the Pineapple was more like pineapple upside down cake than fresh grilled pineapples, which was my overwhelming impression when Van Gogh first sent samples around. I'm told the pineapple can be made twice yearly, which would explain how a particular harvest would change things. Nonetheless, it, too, is outstanding.

Oh, and the new Dutch Caramel Vodka? All I can say is I waved the open bottle under the noses of five unsuspecting friends, and they all said the same thing - "Wow."

My scores: Dutch Caramel: 7
Dutch Chocolate: 8
Double espresso: 9
Coconut: 8
Pineapple: 7

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rioja worth finding.

I got to spend a week hurrying around Rioja last month, visiting, what, 18 or so wineries - luckily, the Riojans aren't as interested in tramping their guests through the vineyards as some people are. Among the wines I didn't have a good sense of previously are those from Bodegas Beronia, and their 2005 Reserva is now one of my favorites, and is available at a fairly good price for Rioja Reserva.

It's got that classic, seductive Riojan aroma of raspberry, ground coffee, toasty oak and black cherries - almost desserty, but that impression is removed by the brisk acid and lively cherry and berry flavors, a clean minerally tang with some black pepper and anise notes. The characteristic Riojan oak vanilla quality is here, of course, managed and subdued, and it finishes crisp, tangy and flavorful. Silky, elegant wine. Try the Crianza as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Three dimensional tasting

The folks from Ardmore asked me to take part in a tasting of their single malt so they could add my notes to a batch they'd gathered from other know-it-alls for a three-dimensional Scotch whisky tasting grid they've put on-line. You've seen the two dimensional ones, with its axes of smoky/delicate and rich/light. This one adds in sweet/floral. too - and after a snafu, my notes are up there now along with a half dozen others. It's an interesting way to demonstrate how tasters react to spirits, especially Scotch, and extremely useful when trying to gauge what a novice might like. Take a look here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cocktails for the longer nights.

Seasonal menus may be nothing new in cutting-edge restaurants, but in bars pioneering the American cocktail revolution, the range of cyclical possibilities is still being explored. In fact, the changes bartenders install as the weather goes from balmy to blustery may be the most dramatic of any seasonal makeover. Where classic cocktails reign, featured drinks tend to get stronger, darker and heavier as the days shorten. At bars and restaurants with more contemporary menus, bartenders frequently introduce flavors from the autumn harvest -  apples, pears, baking spices. At operations with a culinary approach to drink making, the changes can be constant and adventurous, with menus incorporating robust house-made syrups and bitters, and even such ingredients as squash and root vegetables.

(Read the rest of the story below, originally published in the fall issue of Flavor and the Menu.)
Flavor Fall 09

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bar News

Stolen directly from myself and the new email newsletter I'm working on called Mix. Sign up here.
Bar Artisanal, the casual off-shoot of Terrence Brennan’s NYC Artisanal restaurant, has revamped the specialty cocktail list with seasonal additions including the Grape Fizz made with Bacardi, lime and concord grape juices, and the Peppery Pear made with bourbon, pears and pink peppercorns. The list features cocktail and cheese pairings as well.

Concord grapes are  suddenly hot in New York bars: autumnal treats from Rick Pitcher, beverage director at NYC’s famed Gotham Bar and Grill, include the PB&J (made with Montecristo rum, Castries Peanut Rum liqueur and fresh concord grape juice with a crushed peanut rim). He’s also added the Bartlett, (Charbay green tea vodka, Bartlett pears, sage, Tasmanian leatherwood honey and fresh lemon juice).

Here’s an innovative reason to host a party - your back bar has a birthday. No, not that ancient bar back; the back bar, in this case, the imposing structure behind the stick at Seattle’s cocktail haven Tini Bigs, which turned 100 years old this week.

In Los Angeles, the fall menu at Akhasha, which focuses on local, organic and handcrafted ingredients, includes a Pumpkin Pie (Tru vanilla vodka, Modern Spirit pumpkin vodka, soy milk, agave syrup and a graham cracker dusted rim) and Autumn Harvest (Jefferson small batch bourbon, organic apple juice and cinnamon).

The anxiously awaited Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco will be opening its doors to the public on Tuesday, December 8, 2009, owner Martin Cate informs us. Cate, late of Alameda’s Forbidden Island and one of the premier rum and tiki barmen in the country, will offer more than 80 grogs, Tiki drinks, Havana cocktails and other beverages, 200+ rums including an exclusive house rum from St. George Spirits called Eurydice.

Seafood chain McCormick & Schmick a couple of years ago moved to all fresh juices and made to order drinks. Last week, the chain’s execs announced they’d introduce seasonal cocktail menus as well, setting the bar higher for other high-end chain restaurant beverage programs.

Newly renovated Dovetail restaurant in Manhattan has a new sommelier, Amanda Reade Sturgeon, formerly of Babbo and The French Laundry, who has spearheaded a revamped cocktail list to herald the bar’s rebirth. The list takes an old-school turn through classic drinks using ingredients from smaller producers, local distilleries and seasonal juices. Drinks reveal a serious interest in sherry as an ingredient in such drinks as the Dovetail Manhattan (Sazerac rye, Morenita cream sherry, apple cider, bitters, bourbon-soaked cherry) and the D’groni (gin, Cynar and sherry).


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sherry and the Cocktail

For years there has been a struggle to overcome the musty image from which classic sherry suffers. It’s been a labor to acquaint sommeliers and retailers with the wide range of flavors sherry bodegas produce in fino, manzanilla, amontillado, oloroso and other styles.
 Can the cocktail succeed where other promos haven't?

(Read the rest of the story below, originally published in the November Beverage Media publications.)
Nov09 Sherry

Monday, November 16, 2009

Scotch and Sherry, together forever

The streets of New York teemed with whiskyfolk last week, those distillers, blenders and other assorted makers of the world's best spirits, gathered for Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest. And in a strange coincidence, the presence of one of them may have finally resolved the mystery, to me, of why some older single malt Scotches pick up a passion fruit tang.

I sat down with former Glenrothes distiller John Ramsay, who shared with me a few variants from the distillery, including the hard-to-find Glenrothes 1975 (the distillery is one of the few which until recently issued vintage only whiskies). The 1975 is especially odd, because it had been vatted in 1987 and then left to age further, and the result was a surprisingly youthful, fresh, floral and crisp malt, but one with all the tell-tale signs of age, including that passion fruit quality on the finish.

A few days later, at a sherry seminar, the passion fruit appeared again, this time in a Bodegas Tradicion Oloroso VORS sherry. As I learned in Jerez last year, some Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado sherries can have rivetingly intense flavor components - lime, licorice, roasted nuts, mushrooms - with no comparison in other wines and spirits. But the Tradicion Oloroso, along with lime and papaya and some salty tropicality, had loads of passion fruit notes, probably a result of long oxidative aging.

Is that the missing connection? Not all Scotches are as sherry-driven as Macallan or a few others, but nearly all have a sherry component, even if the casks used have been used so long that they are almost neutral in effect. Except that, as César Saldaña, the head of the board that oversees the regulation of sherry, pointed out that day, as the wine ages and a panoply of flavors are created, water evaporates and exits slowly through barrel walls, penetrating deep into the wood. Maybe even bringing with it some of those umami-like flavors so present in most sherries; to me, passion fruit is one of those edgy, savory flavors.

So who knows? Perhaps it takes another 20 or 30 years of aging in one of those Oloroso barrels before the passion fruit re-emerges and joins into the Scotch whisky mix? Or maybe the oxidization that occurs in Scotch is similar to what happens with very old oxidative sherries and the sherry connection is just a coincidence. But as William Burroughs said, "In the magical universe, there are no coincidences and there are no accidents." If the sherry and Scotch-making processes - ancient, misunderstood, endlessly unfolding - aren't part of the magical kingdom, there mustn't be one.


Friday, November 13, 2009

First Taste: Rittenhouse Rye 25 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey

The release of the third and final bottling of Rittenhouse Very Rare Single Barrel Rye has arrived, following the release of the 21-year-old bottling in 2006 and the 23-year-old  in 2007 (reviewed here). The new 25-year-old expression is drawn from the final barrels of the same lot as the first two though questions about how it has benefited are almost irrelevant, as all bottles - even at $190 a bottle - will be scooped up instantly. About those bottles - there are only one thousand 3-bottle cases, a total of 3,000 bottles, to be shared between the US, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.  

So what do I think of the 100 proof, single barrel designated, non-chill filtered, straight rye? On the nose, there's maple syrup, dates, shellac, baking spices, old chair leather, some ashiness and a bit of a charred quality that I don't recall from the last bottling. On the palate, there are all of the above, plus some better defined spice notes of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and even a bit of Red Hot candy, a brisk, drying finish at first and then, wham - some potency starts to show. There is a bit of woodiness starting to peek through as well, which makes me think somewhere between 23 and 25 years was the peak age for this rye. But it almost doesn't matter - is Payton Manning a better quarterback today than three years ago? Is the current Broadway production of "South Pacific" better than the last revival? Was this year's "Mad Men" better than last? Who cares? Buy this if you can find it. (Distributed by Heaven Hill)

My score: 9.5


Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'll take Manhattans

Woodford Reserve's national search for a new Manhattan wound up in New York this week, with eight bartenders displaying their versions of the classic. The high level of the judges - master distiller Chris Morris, Aureole chef Chris Lee, Clover Club's charming mistress Julie Reiner - was brought down when they added me, but we all agreed on the winner, Jeromy Edwards of Back Stage at Theater Square Marketplace in Louisville, whose Cider Manhattan worked best. People may cry the Kentucky fix was in, but three of the four judges are Brooklyintes, so there. My close second was the White Limo from Washington DC's Owen Thomson.

Cider Manhattan
2 oz. Woodford Reserve
3/4 oz. cider reduction
1/2 oz. Antica vermouth
dash Angostura bitter
Grand Marnier-flambéed cherry (preferably Rainier)

Flambé cherry in the Martini glass, allowing it to caramelize. Place ingredeients and ice drink in shaker and turn, don't shake. Pour into Martini glass after it has cooled.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Not exactly death in the afternoon, but maybe blood and sand

Bilbao, Spain, isn’t exactly known for its cocktail scene, though Americans have been stopping off there increasingly since the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. There, as throughout the rest of Spain, gin and Scotch are the favored tipples along with Spanish wines, but malt folk should be on the alert for one fine collection in an unexpected location when on a tapas crawl.

Casa Victor Montes, located on Plaza Nueva in the old part of town, is packed most nights (and middays) at the tapas bar and sit down tables where dishes like dried cod cooked in a sweet pepper sauce or poached in olive oil delight. It takes a few minutes, but slowly, visitors realize the cases and shelves surrounding them and filling the walls to the ceiling hold one of Spain’s largest whisky collections — 600 bottles, 80 of which are still being served.

The collection boasts lots of interesting one-offs, but also oddities (not many places can offer Old Huckleberry Bourbon or Macallan 1964), yet few customers order the stuff, according to bartender Pedro. Too bad, as the place has a well-worn patina bars only get after, oh, say, 140-plus years of operation, and is best contemplated with a dram or two. Great food and fine wine are of course important to find, but it’s especially good to know about a clean, well-lighted place for a late afternoon whisky in any city, ancient or modern.

Lush Life

Jill DeGroff has visited all the best bars of the world - she’s the one off to the side quietly sketching away while hubby holds court. Now we can all see what she’s been up to, as the release is here of Lush Life; Portraits from the Bar. Parties will be held in several cities, featuring culinary cocktails prepared by award-winning mixologists, and she will be signing books and rendering a few caricatures. The tour started in Boston, and she’ll be in New Brunswick, N.J. Nov. 8 at Stage Left , and then on to D.C., NYC and San Francisco — check here for her current schedule.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Mix

To the left you can get an idea what my latest project looks like - the biweekly mixology newsletter called Mix. I'll be keeping track of new beverage programs, up-and-coming bars and bartenders, great resources, events and people. So if you have news of your beverage programs, or know of something interesting and very inside, let me know. No web address yet, but the sign-up link is here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Roll your own Walker

A couple weeks ago, the Diageo folks brought Andrew Ford, the Johnnie Walker blender, to town, and he brought with him various single malts for a blending exercise. Andrew mentioned that he'd stopped off to fill some bottles personally for the event and it's pretty clear, once we started nosing the various glasses poured for us, that Cardhu was back in town after a long absence. The malt is so beloved by the Spanish that Diageo pulled it out of the U.S. years ago (and even started agitating for the ability to sell a vatted malt called Cardhu, which raised a potent stink in whisky circles).
Along with that Speyside, we were offered portions of a grain whisky, an Islay (Caol Ila is my guess), a Highland (Royal Lochnagar?), a Lowland (Glenkinchie), a west Highland (Oban), and a non-Islay island (Talisker). And so we tried to replicate the signature JW Black blend ourselves.

What did I learn? Well, for one, that even with the superior drams mentioned above, mxing together something coming that doesn't bowl you over yet still has a smokey, lusty JWB pop isn't just a matter of pouring on the flavor. Balance is hard to reach, and the single malts seem to get more intense when mixed together, without the correct level of grain whisky to harmonize matters. So kudos for the much-maligned blended Scotch blenders like Mr. A. Ford. And I also was reminded, after a long time between tastes of some of these Diageo whiskies, how much I really, truly love Caol Ila and Talisker.

Friday, October 9, 2009

First Taste: Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila

The efforts by the tequila business to shed the bad old image the spirit earned in the 1960s have largely succeeded, but one result is that tequila prices have gone through the roof. As good as some of today's blancos are (and believe me, the improvement in quality at the blanco level is clear; now, if only barrel management in Jalisco got as much attention as agave quality).

But there are always bargains to be had, and here's one some savvy mixologists already know about; Pueblo Viejo Blanco from Tepatitlan. It has a light cocoa powder, even baby powder, aroma at first, followed by anise seed, orange rind and a touch of bitter herbs. In the mouth, it has a great balance between minerally citrus, mostly lemon and lime, and a moderate agave sweetness. There's a notably rich texture, and the blanco finishes with another dusting of cocoa powder along with a clean lime and apple crispness, a lovely tequila all around. Prices vary, but last month in San Diego, I saw it going for under $16 at a chain store, a steal as far as I'm concerned. (Imported by Gemini Spirits and Wine.)

My score: 6.5

Friday, October 2, 2009

Good cheap wine #3

Wine producers working in regions without much contemporary cachet have a monumental problem; how do they get consumers, overwhelmed with a flood of international wines produced in similar styles, interested in something different? Here's one way: make your wines refreshing, driven by varietal rather than stylistic characteristics, price them well and make them easy to serve.

Welcome example number one from vineyards formerly producing Armagnac; in fact, this little quaffer puts the lie to the idea that grapes normally used to produce brandy like ugni blanc and colombard can't make good wine. Fresh, floral and citrusy, with aromas of grapefruit, lime peel and nectarine, the Colombelle from Gascony is remarkably crisp and lean on the palate, with a great swoosh of citusy acids along with some peachy freshness and a clean, bright finish. It's relatively low in alcohol (11.5% abv), which makes it perfect for a light lunch, hot night, spicy food, or as an aperitif. The price (about $10) is exceptional at a time when flabby pinot grigios can still command $20. Buy it by the case if you find it. (Wine Sellers, LTD)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Craft distillers catch on

Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee don’t have to dodge swarms of bees anymore when they make apple vodka in New York’s Hudson Valley. In a micro-distiller’s world, that’s a sign of progress. The founders of Tuthilltown Spirits are just two of those riding the American craft wave. Now more than 155 strong, these indie distillers have been spurred by consumer thirst for handmade products, the classic cocktail trend, an easing of restrictions on in-store sampling, self-distribution and sales of their own wares and even by the “locavore” movement.

(Read the rest of the story below, originally published in the October Beverage Media publications.)
Beverage Media - Emerging Distilleries

First Taste: Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo Saké

It's rare to be able to sample many fine sakés in one place without emptying the piggy bank, but last week's "The Joy of Saké" event in New York provided guests with at least 200 different brands. A few stood out, but none so much as the Chokaisan. As a daiginjo, half of each grain of rice in the making is polished away, making the category the most expensive to produce, but also, potentially, the most delicate.

The Chokaisan, made with yeast derived from flowers, does indeed have pronounced aromas of white flower and pears. Clean and beautifully round on the palate, it shimmers with flavors of fresh picked and peeled pear and tarragon, crisp yet still a bit creamy, with a clean and minerally finish. Brewer Shunji Sato says he's tried to brew a saké that gives the sensation of gazing at a local mountain on a clear winter's day. I don't know about that, but in the midst of the cacophony of the saké tasting, I did feel a bit of fresh breeze blow across my face as I sipped the Chokaisan. (Winebow)

My score: 7

Thursday, September 24, 2009

First Taste: Hibiki 12 Year Old Japanese Blended Whisky

There's a small subset of whisky lovers who treasure Japanese malts and blends, but for too long, little of the good stuff has been widely available here. True, the overall subtlety of most tend to remind one more of Canadian whiskys than most single malt Scotches, but still, they can be exquisitely refined and sippable. In Hibiki 12 Year Old Japanese Blended Whisky, distiller Suntory finishes aged malt whisky in plum wine casks and blends it with other malts and some grain whiskies, then filters it through bamboo charcoal. The result? A light grainy nose, with a hint of white flowers, rising bread dough and an evocative note of raspberries ripening on the vine in the summer sun. In the mouth, it’s crisp, exceedingly drying, with lots of mouth-watering acids, and a candied lemon peel tang backing up the malt expression. Hibiki finishes extremely long, with an airy and fresh lightness and crisp raspberry tang. It's a lovely and expressive whisky. 43% abv (Skyy Spirits).

My score: 7


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Cheap Wine #2

Given the collapse of the upper-end of the wine market, calling a $15.99 bottle of wine "cheap" may be stretching things, though I'm still waiting to see prices for mediocre bottlings reflect reality at retail. But given the relative madness over Pinot Noir the last few years since the "Sideways" phenomenon took effect, giving the nod to the 2006 Irony Pinot Noir from Monterey County is a no-brainer.

There's a classic Burgundian nose of estery fruit backed with some dried thyme and sun-dried cut grass. On the palate, it's very expressive, with tastes of high-acid fresh raspberries and blueberries, a tang of cola and a lean zippiness. Irony finishes long, lean and lovely, like a first-race yearling discovering its power in the stretch. Sourced from seven blocks of grapes in the company's San Bernabe vineyard, this one surprises at the price and was the bargain hidden in a tasting last week of eight or so other Monterey Pinots, all others $35 and up.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Selling wine to go

It’s a common experience: Restaurant customers fall in love with a wine at their favorite place but can’t locate a place to buy that same bottle to drink at home. But some wine-savvy restaurants, recognizing that customer loyalty is sometimes built drink by drink, are providing wines they feature on their menus for retail purchase.

It’s not always easy. State laws may prohibit or make very difficult dual retail-restaurant licensing. Also, many winemakers prefer to build cachet by limiting their wares to fine-dining restaurants.

But others are willing to take the extra steps to make it happen. At The Bernards Inn in Bernardsville, N.J., for example, customers who select from the 1,500 or so wines that sommelier Terri Baldwin assembles are tickled when they find they can bring most of them home.

“We offer these wines with the intent to build relationships with our customers, so that they can get something unique and different,” Baldwin says. “We don’t want to sell a wine they can get at a retail store, but we are looking to sell people wines they can’t find that might be small production but not necessarily expensive.”

The restaurant doesn’t advertise its retail program, and Baldwin is careful not to upset winemakers who want their wine sold only at the table. But offering those she features on the restaurant’s tasting menu is a perfect example of the loyalty-building concept.

“We’re not a retail store and don’t want to be,” she says, “so we focus it as a benefit to our customer—almost a ‘thank you’ for patronizing our restaurant.”

In states where restaurants can also sell at retail, it’s a no-brainer for wine-focused places to provide the service, says Dan Kezner, director of restaurant operations for Seattle-area Heavy Restaurant Group. At the group’s three Purple Café units, nearly all the wines served are available for take-out.

“It just makes sense, especially in our concept, a wine bar with 80 to 90 bottles available by the glass,” he says. “It was a natural fit for people to shop for retail wines by being able to taste them before they buy them. People can spend a half hour trying our wine and get some guidance on what they want to actually take home.”

Location is important, too. At the downtown Seattle Purple Café unit, office workers looking to do their wine shopping at lunch or hotel guests wanting to improve upon the in-room selection drive up retail business, compared to the two suburban units. But overall, the program is more of a loss leader than a profit center for Purple Café. Because liquor and grocery stores and even discount clubs sell alcohol, the region doesn’t lack for outlets. Still, with Purple Café’s retail prices 30 to 40 percent lower than menu prices, they are very competitive.

But does revealing different retail and restaurant prices give customers pause at the mark-up restaurants typically charge?

“I think most people understand the difference between dining in a restaurant and taking a wine home and realize why they pay more in a restaurant,” Kezner says.

Kezner also points out that with so many restaurants proclaiming their wine-friendliness today, places like his should be developing better relationships with customers through introducing them to good buys and unfamiliar regions.

The Bernards Inn’s Baldwin says that when she knows she’s cornered the New Jersey market on a wonderful yet obscure wine, sharing the secret with a customer is even more rewarding, especially if they pick up a few bottles to share with friends.

It’s a classic way to form a lasting relationship, which after all, is the ultimate goal of a restaurant-retail wine program.

Read the story as originally published at Nation's Restaurant News.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spirits of Mexico

Tequila's cred gets better and better in the U.S. as Mexican distillers and American entrepreneurs keep fine-tuning their products. I just finished judging at the Spirits of Mexico competition in San Diego along with the well-medicated Robert Plotkin; the glamorous Charlotte Voisey, the smiling Junior Merino, the gracious Mario Marquez and other pros including Patrick McCarthy, Larry Auman and Dave Grapshi. We plowed through 111 tequilas, mescals, sotols and tequila-based cordials, and here are the winners of "Best of Category" awards:

Blanco: Corazon and Nocaut

Reposado: Pueblo Viejo

Anejo: Milagro Anejo and Oro Azul

Extra Anejo: Clase Azul Ultra

Sotol: Hacienda de Chihuahua Silver

Mezcal: Forever Oax Reposado

Flavors/Creams: Casa 1921 Cream



Here are Gaz Regan and I reliving the bad old days, at last night's Barenjager competition in New York, won by Kevin Diedrich of Brooklyn's Clover Club:

The Bottom Line
¾ parts Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur
1 ½ parts Highland Park 18

1 part Manzanilla Sherr
¼ parts Cio Ciaro

1 dash orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Add all ingredients to mixing glass, ice, stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First taste: Glenmorangie Sonalta

Glenmorangie has always been miles ahead in terms of wood finishes compared to most other single malts. Dr. Bill Lumsden, the man in charge, even orders his barrels from a particular part of Ozark oak forests, and arranges for the wood to be aged a bit longer before it is turned into barrels.

While other Scotches are known for their rich sherried quality, that has not been the ethereal Glenmorangie's position, though sherry has made an appearance, especially in the now-gone but not forgotten Fino Sherry Finish and the currently available Lasanta, finished in oloroso casks. But Pedro Ximenez? The source of the most dense and syrupy sweet Sherries made? Surely finishing this floral and evocative single malt in PX wood would smother the better qualities, I thought, but nope. The Sonalta, the result of a recent experiment (not Lumsden's only - he's got some finished in Manzanilla casks, but samples were stuck in customs when we met recently) will soon be available in the US after only being sold in duty-free, and lucky us.

On the nose, there's almost a blackened banana quality along with raisins and prunes cooked in dark brown sugar layered onto almond shortbread - rich and lush, with a touch of pear liqueur lurking as well. It's almost unctuous in the mouth, filled with dried fruits and a rummy sweetness backed by a spicy tingle as it finishes. As usual, it's worth the time and trouble to find the latest result of a Glenmorangie wood experiment, which you'll be able to get next January for about $80. (46% alcohol by volume, imported by Moet Hennessey)

My score: 8

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why Bourbon's so popular

If you were wondering how the American whiskey business is doing these days, a glance at The New York Times this past summer might provide a hint.

A full page Knob Creek ad in late June announced that demand for the Bourbon had outstripped supply, and that new shipments wouldn’t arrive until November. In addition to being a brilliant marketing play, this is a sure sign that the premium and super-premium side of the American whiskey business is humming along nicely despite the country’s economic woes.

American whiskies are benefiting from a number of trends...(For the rest of the story, originally published in the September 2009 Cheers, download below.)

Cheers Bourbon 09/09

What barrel charring really looks like

Whiskey gets almost all its flavor from wood, of that there's no dispute. But what wood? From where? How old? How charred? All pertinent questions regarding the final flavor in a whiskey.

Brown-Forman, maker of Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, among many others, also owns the country's largest cooper, Brown-Forman Cooperage. Believe me when I tell you the following video wouldn't get master distiller Chris Morris a job at the plant charring barrels.


Friday, September 4, 2009

First Taste: Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Seasoned Oak

The three (or four, depending on a production quirk one year) in the series of one-offs that have come from the old Labrot & Graham distillery under the name Woodford Reserve Master's Collection have won lots of fans. But I've generally preferred the standard issue Woodford, probably because the experiments didn't improve for me what is a very winning formula.

This time, though, master distiller Chris Morris and company are onto something. Finished in barrels made from wood aged up to five years, far older than American whiskey usually sees, the Seasoned Oak is massively spicy on the nose, smelling like bittersweet chocolate-coated dark cherries dusted with cinnamon and clove. The aromatic notes keep on coming: vanilla, raspberries, Red Hot candies, applewood smoke. In the mouth, it's remarkably smooth, given the explosive aromatics, but still, it's peppery and intense, a bit Port-like in its richness, mouth-filling and robust, with that cooked cherry and bittersweet chocolate flavor swirling in and out among a country kitchen's worth of baking spices. It's got sweetness and the vanilla-coconut quality of the standard Woodford, but moves far beyond into an unusually intense realm. I could sip this all afternoon; come to think of it, I did.

(Available November 1, 50.2% abv, limited release, Brown-Forman.)

My score: 9

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Drinks: Rita Tomatillo

Inspiration comes from the oddest places. A friend brought over some of her freshly made tomatillo salsa yesterday, but there was a bit too much vegetable juice in the serving bowl, making it difficult to scoop up the the minced tomatillos and chiles. So we drained off much of the liquid, which was too fragrant and tasty to throw away but what to do? A bottle of tequila and a bowl of limes in the kitchen provided the basis for the rest of the ingredient mix, that and an aging bottle of limoncello. No commercial tomatillo salsa will do - they are all too acrid and artificial. And you can bring the heat level up or down, as you wish; next time, I'll try making the salsa by roasting the tomatillos and chiles first, and then maybe use a mezcal instead of blanco.

Rita Tomatillo
(serves four)
5 ounces blanco tequila (preferably a minerally tequila, like El Tesoro)
5 ounces tomatillo salsa water (see below)
1.5 ounce limoncello
juice of one large lime

Pour all over ice and shake vigorously. Strain and serve.

Tomatillo Salsa
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
2 fresh serrano peppers, seeded, stemmed and chopped
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, minced
juice of one lime
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt to taste

In a bowl, combine tomatillos, chiles, garlic and salt. Let stand at room temperature for an hour. Add lime juice, cilantro and olive oil, stir and let sit in refrigerator for one hour. Strain liquid to use for Rita Tomatillo; serve the rest with blue corn chips.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tiki and the state of rum

There are many contributors to rum’s surging popularity today: the growth of Latin culture and population, the increasing number of flavored rums and the country’s love affair with the Mojito are only three. But don’t forget the effect of Tiki.

(Read the rest of the story below, originally published in the August Beverage Media publications.)
Rum Beverage Media

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bitter gene

Wonder why your drinking companions never find a cocktail too bitter? Perhaps they're non-tasters for the bitter-tasting chemical PTC - about a quarter of us have a recessive gene that leaves us unable to taste PTC.

Now there's proof that even for certain Neanderthals, there's no such thing as too bitter. Analysis of a 48,000 year-old bone shows that the genetic variation responsible for this difference also existed in Neanderthals. This means that this genetic variation predates the divergence of the lineages leading to Neanderthals and modern humans.

Says the lead scientist: "The non-taster is not something that occurs just in modern populations. It is something that was present at least half a million years ago."

More here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Churchill gene

Some people rave about how some multiply-filtered vodka leaves no trace the next day; others swear they've seen and communed with their familiar as the the level of mezcal in the bottle dwindles. De gustibus, but all I used to know is that some people can drink, and some ought not.

Now, I think I know why; according to a piece by Phillip Hunter, a small percentage of white people have something weird going on in their genes. "According to a 2004 study carried out at the University of Colorado, around 15 per cent of Caucasians have a genetic variant, known as the G-variant, that makes ethanol behave more like an opioid drug, such as morphine, with a stronger than normal effect on mood and behavior. This variant seems randomly distributed among the population: it emerged through mutation, although the factors affecting its selection remain unknown since, like all genes, it does not operate in isolation."

Curious? As Hunter points out: "An exceptional few seemed to thrive on drink, leading to the idea of a "Churchill gene": where some have a genetic makeup allowing them to remain healthy and brilliant despite consumption that would kill others. Mark Twain endorsed this view saying: "My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!"

No doubt some real genes--especially those with a high expression of alcohol dehydrogenase and tolerance of alcohol breakdown products such as acetaldehyde, the "hangover" chemical--contribute to this theory. Yet until recently science has had little to say about alcohol and the creative process, confining itself to studies of damage, tolerance and addiction. Over the last few years, however, evidence has emerged that some have, if not a Churchill gene, then a creative cocktail gene."

Find the rest of the short piece here.

First Taste: Orangerie

Purists may shun flavored or infused whiskies, but it is usually because the products are often artificial tasting, seemingly a result of too much whisky in the warehouse and a marketer's wacky inspiration. Not Compass Box's Orangerie, and Scotch enthusiasts are likely to be almost as enthusiastic about John Glazer's latest offering as they are about Peat Monster or the other results of his modern whisky attitude.

Orangerie is a blend of Highland single malt Scotch whisky, single grain whisky, infused with orange, cinnamon and clove, and that's exactly what you'll find in the glass. A bit reminiscent of old style whisky liqueurs on the nose, but lighter and more reserved, Orangerie smells like a Christmas sachet of dried orange peel and spices. It's sprightly and lightly sweet on the palate, not cloying at all, and has a clean, fresh quality. Seems perfect for cocktail experimentation, cold-weather sipping or just a change of Scotch pace. 40% abv.

My score: 7

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sherry, baby!

Add to the list of signs of an approaching autumn the roll-out of cocktail competitions. One of the best, in that bartenders must enter drinks already served at their establishments and defend and explain their utility, is the Vinos de Jerez Cocktail Competition. They're now accepting entries to find America’s best Sherry cocktail.

The official rules:

You may use any style of Sherry, from any bodega in Jerez.
You must share the precise recipe, garnish and glass; explain in writing why the cocktail is great, when best to serve it, exact preparation method and steps of assembly, and what the perfect food match is and and why.

Also required: a copy of the cocktail menu of the bar/restaurant where the cocktail is being served and a photo of the drink.

Entry deadline: Friday, October 16th, 2009. For all info, go here.

Submissions should be sent via email to Steve Olson.

The winner will receive a cash prize and an all expenses paid trip to Jerez, Spain. (Phot0 of Neyah White's Sherry Shrubb, 2008 winner.)