Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spirited Flavors

The cocktail revolution still sweeping through American restaurants and bars spurred an entire generation of bartenders to fascinating creative drink-making endeavors. And much attention has been paid to the methods and ingredients, both classic and inventive, they’re using to craft these cocktails.

Homage must also be paid to the spirit companies and distillers of the world who have responded to the opening up of the American palate by exploring new flavor opportunities in unprecedented ways. (Continue reading, below, originally published in Flavor and the Menu, Fall 2008.)

Flavor and the Menu - distillers

Rums in Ybor City

Ever hear of Ron Millionario? Me either, until last year, when it appeared with great presence at the Polished Palate International Rum Festival. It tied with Ron Zacapa as the best in category, rums aged 15 years or more.

This past weekend, the Peruvian sugar cane spirit took best of show at the 2009 event (full results here), one of about 60 spirits tasted. I'll share tasting notes in a day or so, but if you like the rich, nutty, almost candy-like aged Central and South American rums, distinctly different creatures compared to those from the Caribbean, then check it out.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rum Time!

How do you make a good rum? Luckily, that's not among my jobs, actually producing spirits, but I do get to tell people what I think about what they make, what it's good for and how it may best be served.

Tomorrow I get another chance at the Polished Palate Rum Festival here in Ybor City, where 60-some rums, rhums, flavored rums and rum liqueurs will be gathered a fer the judgin'. There's a crew of rum know-it-alls (check the web page for all the info), and I expect once again, as noted re: the recently concluded San Francisco Spirits Competition, to be surprised at what I like and distrubed about what I don't. But that's why they actually play the game; at these blind judgings, reputations add zero to a score. And products change; that's why everyone involved in selling ot working with spirits should taste and retaste what they've got. You never know when a brand will dramatically and silently change its formula. And you all know who I'm talking about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Making cocktails that matter

Every bartender wants to create a winning cocktail. Just check out the fierce competition at the numerous contests put on by spirit brands today to see how serious some bartenders take that aspect of the bar business.

And while winning a competition can further a career, consistently successful cocktail creation demands more than whipping up a couple of charming drinks using the spirit du jour. From research and development to testing and tasting, from tweaking and standardization to pricing and marketing, rolling out new cocktails demands a sound development process.

To find out what it takes to win in the game of cocktail creation, read below, originally published in Cheers magazine.


First Taste: Noilly Prat

"In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen." William S. Burroughs.

Well, maybe so; then who has willed within a couple months this year the return of both Bols Genever and the other main ingredient in the Holland House cocktail, Noilly Prat, back to the U.S. in the original formula?

Tasting the old Noilly (or should that be the old new? Either way, the one that you'll still find on many bar and retail shelves, at least until inventory turns over) and the new (that's the old and now new, which we will call classic for clarity, to be discerned by its sleek, streamlined bottle) together reveals a key difference: the returning classic formula is aged longer, showing so in its pale golden hue. Its aromas and flavors are more robust; instead of just oregano and marjoram, which dominate the style that until recently was sold only in America, Noilly smells of lemon and orange peels, bramble bushes and chamomile. That's what two years in wood, one outside exposed to the Mediterranean sun and sea breezes, and 20 botanicals will do for you. Suitable as a solo sipper, this is also the vermouth a Martini was meant for, and not insignificantly to me, is still a great cooking wine. Remember to refrigerate and if you use a wine preservation system, to apply here as well, unless you go through a bottle every week or so. (Imported by Noilly Prat USA)

My score: 6

Monday, March 23, 2009

And the winners are...

The 840+ entry SF Spirits Competition ended yesterday afternoon, with some surprises: Linie Aquavit, after reaching the finish line a bit behind for a number of years, came across as the Best of Show White Spirit - hope it boosts sales, as it is a terrific drink and ingredient - doubt me? Try a aquavit Bloody Mary soon and you may never return to the odorless and colorless variety.

The Best Brown Spirit (also Best Whisky) was American for the first time, Parker's Heritage Collection, the 27 Year Old Second Edition, 48% abv, a spirit that fought in the hardest to settle category, American whiskey (because, as they believe down in Kentucky and environs, their stuff has never been better - for what it's worth, I agree, and it is certainly the best bargain in the spirit world today).

Bluecoat was named Best Gin; I don't agree, but I wasn't on the gin panel, so can't tell what went down before it made it to the showdown sweepstakes. I do know that odd things always happen, and I am inevitably humbled by what I discover I actually like, or dislike, when tasting a slew of similar products - this year for instance my panel didn't send a single orange liqueur on to the final group judgement of best of the best.

Other surprises: the $7 Angostura as the Best Rum; Weber Haus once again Best Cachaça; and Pere Magloire XO Calvados Best of Show Brandy. Other winners: El Tesoro for Best Blanco Tequila and Best Tequila (since El T is the one many tequila fans consider the real number one, quality product, it's reassuring when it comes out on top); Gran Centenario Rosangel for Best Flavored Tequila, Bushmill's 10 Year Old Single Malt took Best Irish, and the Port Ellen 29 Year Old (a $400 limited number) took Best Single Malt Scotch.

Check the Competition website, above linked, for full list of winners soon.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

San Francisco Drinks

This weekend is the combined New York and Boston Marathons of spirit tastings - the San Francisco World Spirit Competition, whose motto, I think, is "The liver is evil and must be destroyed!"

No, not really, because it's all about the spitting. Sure, at the end of the day, after trying to suss out the differences among eight berry flavored vodkas, or 14 non-Speyside Highland Single Malt Scotch whiskys, or a snootful of brandies, you could find a few glasses pushed to the side, at least at my table, waiting to be sampled in the dusk of an emptying room. But through the day, holding on to your senses, in fact, keeping them sharp so they are working away on all cylinders, means no drinkie for Johnnie until day is done. Just like back in those factory days.

The best part of one of these tasteathons is the results, when one receives the list of what it was you were actually sniffing and slurping, when you discover you really don't like that bourbon you once revered, or don't hate that vodka everyone's talking about after all. To paraphrase David Mamet from "Glengarry Glen Ross:" Always be tasting!

PS: Why is there still no Scotch whisky called Glengarry Glen Ross?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are You Brillat-Savarin or Baudelaire?

Charles Baudelaire was the champion of drunkeness: in fact, his poem - Get Drunk! - is worth revisiting now and again:

Be Drunk!

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it--it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:"It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, as you wish."

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the author of “The Physiology of Taste” and an accepted arbiter of good taste even today, is another matter altogether. His best known quote - "A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine" is embraced by all wine lovers. But another - "Those persons who suffer from indigestion, or who become drunk, are utterly ignorant of the true principles of eating and drinking." - displays a Puritan cautiousness not usually associated with those who make the life of the belly their own. He wrote little on wine, much to Baudelaire’s scorn.

Here's what French thinker Roland Barthes had to say about the two:
"Baudelaire rebuked B.-S. for not speaking well of wine. For Baudelaire, wine is memory and forgetting, joy and melancholy; it is what permits the subject to be transported outside himself, to make his ego’s consistency yield to certain alienated states; it is the path of deviance: in short, a drug.

Now for B.-S., wine is not at all a conductor of ecstasy. The reason for this is clear: wine is a part of food, and food, for B.-S., is itself essentially convivial, therefore one eats and one always eats with others; a narrow sociality oversees the pleasure of food...Conversation (with others) is the law, as it were, which guards culinary pleasure against all psychotic risk and keeps the gourmand within a 'sane' rationality..."

I doubt somehow that B.-S., as Barthes calls the original culinary philosopher, never got tipsy, nor hoisted a few on his own, nor otherwise lost his way. In fact, there’s a period in his later life, not exactly a rambunctious youth, when Brillat-Savarin raked and guzzled with the best of them. Baudelaire, we all know, followed his own advice too closely and expired at 46, helped along by many years of laudanum, opium and alcohol excess.

We who write about drink inevitably skirt most of the issues of, shall we call it, over-indulgence, I guess because there’s enough negativity about alcohol built into this pleasure-fearing country. I was reminded of this when speaking with someone yesterday, who remarked that vodka’s popularity is bolstered by the many people who recognize that they can down enough vodka (as opposed to congener-laden dark spirits) to get a buzz without feeling like Hell the next day when they take their morning jog. Don’t think that will make it into any mags I write for.

There's one thing Brillat-Savarin wrote that I particularly like: "I have often been inclined to place the passion for spirituous liquors, utterly unknown to animals, side by side with anxiety for the future, equally strange to them, and to look on the one and the other as distinctive attributes of the last sublunary revolution."

If B.-S. got as far as equating anxiety and passion for spirits as two significant things separating humanity from animalkind, it seems to me he was quite close to making the leap over to Baudelaire's side. Perhaps he just needed another glass of Claret...

Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Really Brewing

There's a silent revolution going on in fine dining, and it's about time. I'm talking about the slowly widening acceptance of quality beer as a fitting, even superior, accompaniment to most meals. If you have any doubt about how far beer has traveled as a fine-dining beverage in the last few years, drop by New York’s Gramercy Tavern and take a peek at the beverage list. In addition to the 30 or so regular beers, customers can choose from about two-dozen aged brews, including two vintages of Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout, a 10-year-old from Oregon’s Rogue Ale Brewery and an English ale aged in sherry casks. More in the piece below from the Winter 2009 issue of Flavor and the Menu...)
Flavor and the Menu Beer

Emerging spirits

A Dozen Trend-setting Spirits to Build your Drink Program

If you’re in charge of selecting spirits for a bar, restaurant, nightclub or hotel, then you’re in the midst of the best buyer’s market in years. Spirit distillers and suppliers have spent the decade crafting products that often are as good as the hype, and in some cases as good as have ever been produced.

Add to that the fact that entrepreneurs have been scouring the international marketplace for spirits once hard to source. The result is a stream of quality products flooding the market, and now that bar and restaurant operators are being more careful about spending, buyers find themselves in a prime position to drive deals. But besides deal making, the real opportunity is in selecting the best from what is available. More here...


Sunday, March 15, 2009

First Taste: Bols Genever

Bartenders demanded it, and Bols listened; before London and Plymouth style gins dominated the American gin scene, it was the malty and savory Genever style gin that was the essential ingredient in cocktails of the early era (like the Holland House, a lip-smacker made with Noilly Prat, maraschino and lemon juice - you figure out the formula).

Spruced up and back in the U.S. market in a modern package, today’s Bols Genever, made from corn, rye and wheat distilled in copper pot stills, is musty and malty, smelling like a rising batch of hearty northern European bread dough. In the mouth it’s creamy and smooth, with a touch of fresh biscuits and anise. To me, genever works in cocktails as a knitter, binding the other ingredients into a harmonious whole, much the way orris root does in English gins. Modern palates may not recognize the original gin but the cocktail crazed are already hard at work incorporating the Bols version in their latest creations. If you're running a serious cocktail program, you need a genever. But you know that already. And please, ladies and gents of the stick, go easy; it seems to me that whenever a quality spirit makes it way into the cocktail group conciousness, the next dozen or so "new" cocktails I'm served have way too much of the newest thing in them. (Bols Genever, by the way, is also worth trying as a simple sipper.) (Cattani Imports - no link available.)
My score: 7

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Albariño: The green refresher

Despite the dozen 'dangerous oysters' I downed last fall in Galicia in NW Spain, and the predictable outcome, I'm still a big fan of the crisp and lively refreshers made there, now booming in the U.S. Some of them - Martin Codax and Burgans, especially - seem ubiquitous in wine shops, and there are plenty more where that came from. Take a look, below. (This originally appeared in the February, 2009 issue of the Beverage Media magazines.)

What's that I hear you mutter? "Oh no, not another?"

Yes, another. Publishing is ephemeral, but the Web is forever, or so I'm told, so I'll be posting here at least some of what other people pay me to write, as long as they agree. What is that, exactly? I write about beer, wine, spirits and cocktails, mostly for trade publications, and about food and restaurants as well. Like most other blogging writers, there's much I know about that I can't immediately write for publication, try as I may. So now, once again (I edited a blog for my last employer), I do.

But, really, why? Readers, suppliers, publicists, they all now crave a fast link and an easy download of anything a writer does, and who am I to say they're wrong. No Luddite, me, despite what you've heard. And I don't want to be the last one out the publishing door. Dinosaurs Are Us.

I also will add new stuff - like tasting notes, event commentary, reflections on the drinking world, market trends, things I like, and hate, and puzzle over - that I think are interesting. At least that's the initial plan - let's see if I really do. The next one's on me.