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.