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