Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits

 

Italy

The April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is the annual “Italy issue.” That means a strong focus on Italian wine, food and travel. For me, it meant the opportunity to drill down into Italy-made spirits like never before, ultimately resulting in a feature story, “Beyond Grappa: a regional guide to Italy’s spirits.” And it was an incredible rabbit hole to fall down.

I thought that anyone who is currently learning about spirits (or wine, for that matter — or writing, even), might enjoy a peek behind the process that led to this article, since it’s kind of geeky and completely different from the usual get-out-on-the-road-and-see-what-you-find reporting approach.

It started with the reviews. Here’s what happened: we put out a deliberately wide-ranging call for “Italian spirits” — and I was completely unprepared for the volume of bottles that poured in. The only way to keep from losing my mind was to find a way to organize the spirits.

I started with categories. It was easy enough to identify the familiar bottles: the aperitivo spirits (Aperol, Cynar) the brisk and bitter amaros (Montenegro, Nonino) and even a handful of vermouths made from fortified Italian wines.

After that followed a parade of fragrant anisettes and sambucas. I used to think of Sambuca as a specific brand of anise-flavored liqueur, but no, it’s a rather large category of its own. Sunny limoncellos were segregated into a cheerful yellow pile, made with fruit from sunny Southern Italy. Fiery grappas, mellower aged brandies, and even a vodka distilled from Italy’s famed grapes also factored into the mix. And rounding things out came a pile of digestivos, lovely sticky sweeties flavored with fruit, coffee, chocolate, almonds and even Italy’s beloved biscotti.

This organizational system got me through the reviews, and safely to the other side. It was an exhilarating process.

At the end of it all, I realized there was another way to view all of these spirits:  by region. Since so many of Italy’s spirits are made from the raw materials that grow nearby, they can be categorized by place — just as we do wine. And just like that, a map started to form among the bottles: the roots and herbs that grow in the northern Alpine regions are used to flavor amaros; the grape-growing regions contributed the grape-based aperitif wines, vermouths and brandies; the fruit of sunny Southern Italy are macerated into limoncellos and liqueurs.

I photocopied a map of Italy and started a crude visual system of sticky-note flags to indicate where each of the bottles were produced – at least, those where I could figure out the provenance. Then I removed a bunch, ending up with the map above. That became my feature article about Spirits of Italy, as I then drilled down to learn more about where and how each bottle was made. It also reminded me of previous visits to Italy — during my last trip, I had noticed how every village seemed to have its own very specific, very personal and regional take on pastries. So why wouldn’t spirits have similar regional tales to tell?

I learned a tremendous amount working on this particular issue, and I can’t wait to repeat this with another region. Though maybe next time, instead of backing in from the bottles,  I’ll start by getting out on the road.

Literate drinking: Drink.Think heads to San Fran on Feb 5!

image courtesy Monica BhideDrink.Think is going on the road…to San Francisco!

If you’ll be in the Bay area on Tuesday, Feb 5, I hope you’ll come out to Cantina to enjoy a drink and hear an amazing group of writers read from their work about beverages.

In addition, Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa Rum will be pouring samples of their products.  (The regular bar also will be available.)

Date & Time:  Tuesday, February 5, 2013.  The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.

Location:  Cantina, 580 Sutter St at Mason St, San Francisco, CA

Admission: FREE admission and samples of Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa. Drinks will be available for purchase.

Featured Readers:  Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:

  • Camper English, cocktail/spirits writer for San Francisco Chronicle, Details.com andFine Cooking
  • Courtney Humiston, columnist, 7×7 Magazine and founding editor, TableToGrave.com
  • Duggan McDonnell, writer, bartender and boozy entrepreneur
  • Gayle Keck, food and travel writer
  • Virginia Miller, food and drink correspondent, San Francisco Bay Guardian and blogger, ThePerfectSpotSF.com
  • Jill Robinson, travel writer, San Francisco ChronicleAmerican Way and more
  • Michael Shapiro, freelance travel writer, National Geographic Traveler and Islands magazine
  • Stevie Stacionis, wine writer and Director of Communication at Corkbuzz Wine Studio
  • Liza B. Zimmerman, editor-at-large Cheers and contributing editor to Wine Business Monthly

I hope to see you at Cantina on Feb 5 – come thirsty!

Literate drinking – Drink.Think returns on Oct 16

After a one-year hiatus, I’m delighted to announce that Drink.Think  is back!

If you’ll be in the New York area on Tuesday, Oct. 16, I hope you’ll come out to Casa Mezcal to enjoy a drink and hear an amazing group of writers read from their work about beverages.

In addition, Montelobos Mezcal will be pouring samples of their new mezcal. The product comes to market this month, so you can be among the first to try it. (The regular full bar also will be available.)

Date & Time:  Tuesday, October 16, 2012.  The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.

Location:  Obra Negra, below Casa Mezcal – 86 Orchard Street, NY, NY

Admission: FREE admission and samples of Montelobos Mezcal. Books will be available for purchase and signing; full cash bar available.

Featured Readers:  Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:

  • Jenny Adams, cocktail/spirits writer for Imbibe Magazine
  • Alia Akkam, drinks writer and editor
  • Jennifer Fiedler, Associate Editor, Wine Spectator Magazine
  • Caren Osten Gerszberg and Leah Odze Epstein, editors of Drinking Diaries anthology & blog
  • Michael Neff, bartender/co-owner of Ward III/Rum House, and writer at Serious Eats
  • Peter Joseph, author, Boozy Brunch
  • Rosie Schaap, Drink columnist, New York Times Magazine and author, Drinking With Men
  • Laura Weiss, author, Ice Cream: A Global History

I hope to see you at Casa Mezcal on Oct. 16 – come thirsty!

Cognac and “Carbinacion”

Take a large mouthful [of cognac], but don’t swallow it now,” read the instructions in the letter to legendary writer Ernest Hemingway. “Swish it around in your mouth half a minute or so. Hold it. Now exhale through your nose– completely deflate your lungs. That’s right. Then swallow the cognac to get it out of the way. Open your mouth. Quickly! Inhale as deeply as you can.”

This odd little tippling technique is called Carburation, or in Spanish, Carbinacion, and I learned about it while reading “To Have and Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” a new book from cocktail historian Philip Greene coming this November. It’s an educational and thirst-provoking read that has had me making Papa Dobles all week long.

Although Hemingway clearly loved his rum (and his absinthe, and his gin — Papa travelled often, and drank locally), it was this technique for drinking cognac that stopped me cold. I’ve never heard of this before.

Greene sets the scene in 1930s Havana, where Hemingway received this advice from Grant Mason, “a wealthy executive with Pan American Airlines, which had capitalized upon Prohibition by opening air routes to Havana.”

Mason announced that he had “a new way to drink called carburetion…based on the principle of carburetion in good engines,” Greene explains. By following this technique, Mason insisted, the brandy “enters your lungs in a fine mist that way. Goes into your blood stream faster, like a caruretor that gives the best mixture for burning in an engine.”

Now, I don’t know much about engines, but I thought I knew a thing or two about drinking. For example, it’s common in wine and spirits tasting to take a sip, swallow (or spit) and then exhale gently, a technique that somehow amplifies the flavors still lingering on the tongue and palate. But the sip-exhale-swallow-inhale box step is a new one on me.

So I tried it.

Greene specifies that “good Cognac” should be used for Carburetion, so I broke out a pour of Ferrand’s Selection des Anges. Sip. Exhale. Swallow. Inhale. The book notes that as Hemingway and friends “embraced caruretion with gusto…soon the room was filled with exhaling sounds like those of dying porpoises.”

Perhaps I was too dainty — taking a tentative sip, and exhaling not at all like a dying porpoise– and I didn’t exactly achieve Cognac nirvana through Carburetion. However, it did accomplish a fantastic job of aerating the spirit in my mouth, enhancing the flavors and elongating the finish in an intriguing way. And certainly I can see how much fun the acoustics could become with a room full of friends all trying the same noisy experiment.

4 tips on cocktail book publishing – MCC recap

At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I organized and moderated a seminar, “Is There a Book Idea on Your Cocktail Menu?” As an author (and now, a hired gun for book proposals and book co-writing), this is a topic close to my heart.

My seminar was part of the “Industry Invitational,” meaning the room was packed with those in the trade. And I do mean the room was PACKED — I suspect that had a lot do do with the all-star panel, which included Jim Meehan of PDT and the PDT Cocktail Book, and Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters — both fresh off of their respective James Beard wins! — Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal, bartenders and authors, and Hang Time publisher Lori Narlock.

A few key takeaways from the panel:

1. Be prepared to write a lengthy book proposal.  This is the document you need to sell a book to a traditional publishing house — it outlines the scope of the book. Jim’s proposal ran about 20 pages (that’s about the same length my proposals tend to run for cookbook projects too). Meanwhile, Brad created a detailed book proposal that was 60 pages long. 

Lori Narlock explained why the proposal is key:  “That’s your blueprint,” she said. And from an publisher’s standpoint, “if you can’t write a proposal, you can’t write a book. You need to commit.”

2. Your agent is not your mom. Apparently some people get that confused.

3. Options exist outside of traditional publishing houses. For example, Maks and Kirk, who describe their Beta Cocktails book as “a punk rock complilation album,” went the self-publishing route. It took a $3,000 investment to get it done, but I’ve seen that lovely little volume sell out every time I go to Tales of the Cocktail, so I’ll assume they’ve recouped the expense (or are darn close). And even inside publishing houses, the “book” format has become fluid.  I love what Lori has started: innovative mini “e-books” of 10 cocktail recipes each, as she ramps up Hang Time’s full-length book offerings.

4. Your publisher won’t sell the book — you have to do it!  What I found most interesting here was how other people promote their books. For bartenders (Jim, Maks, Kirk), having the platform of the bar seems to be effective. Jim is also a proponent of using video to show how drinks are made and to build excitement. However…while social media has proven to be an effective tool for Brad for keeping Bitters in the conversation, Jim is emphatically — I might say gleefully!– not on either Facebook or Twitter.

My essay is in the New York Times!

A personal essay I wrote about an ususual Scotch experience is running in the “Opinionator” section of The New York Times this week – read it here: Drink and Thrive.

After the piece came out yesterday, a few people on Twitter and Facebook tried to guess the magazine and the magazine editor around which the story revolves. “The New Yorker?” Nope. “Vanity Fair?” Strike two. “Esquire?” Thanks for playing, but no.

Funny enough, the original version of the essay named both the magazine and the editor. In fact, the original title of the piece was “A Drink with __{Magazine editor’s last name}.” But since the editor is alive and well and retired to Florida, the NYT column editor suggested that it might be kindest to remove the identifying details.

Want to know which magazine had the Scotch-loving editor that had interns fixing drinks for the editor-in-chief in best “Mad Men” style? (Go on. Take a guess.  Then you can scroll down to learn….)

 

 

 

 

…..that I was an intern at New York Magazine.  (Did you guess it right?)

“Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste” – I call BS!!

Last week, Bloomberg ran a story, “Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste,” summing up a study from the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. And man, did that story raise some hackles for me.

You’ve heard of “supertasters” by now, yes? The roughly 25% of the population with more sensitive taste receptors? Odds are, if you’ve been to a food conference (or chemistry class) in the last five years, you’ve taken that test where everyone places a strip of paper on their tongue to see whether or not they experience that crazy-bitter taste that indicates the presence of propylthiouracil, or PROP for short. (Yes, if you care, I can taste PROP. It’s disgusting.)

But here’s where I take issue: Are wine critics (insert spirits or food critics here if you like) more sensitive to flavors that consumers can’t taste? In other words, is all that yammering about “red fruits” and “minerality” something that the average consumer won’t even be able to taste? Hell no.

The difference isn’t between what critics and consumers taste; the difference is in how it’s articulated. Consumers taste it; they just wouldn’t have thought to describe it that way — I never thought about “minerality” until I took a wine class, but after that, it was a very definite concept I can’t shake. I keep a journal of “taste words” for days when I need a little memory-jogging to pin down the difference between vanilla vs. marshmallow vs. custard flavors. That’s not an “exquisite, acute sense of taste,” as one of the study authors said wine critics possess. That’s just vocabulary.

The difference also is in experience. Think about your last vacation, and how you can almost taste the sea air in that lobster dish that reminds you of those final days in Maine. It’s like that for critics too:  once I visited Bourbon country in Louisville, KY and experienced the scent of a rickhouse first hand, it heightened my appreciation for whiskey, and Bourbon in particular, and I can now deconstruct certain elements in whiskey aromas I could not before. Or if you’ve had the privilege of blind-tasting your way through dozens of Pinots (whiskeys, dishes of salt), before long you’ll be able to pick out nuances and make an informed decision as to which one you like best. That’s not biological superiority. That’s education.

That said, I do agree with one observation, that supertasters are more likely to gravitate toward the wine (food, spirits) field.

Well, of course. And probably at the foodie conference mentioned above, more than 25% of the room raised their hands to indicate their super-taster-ness (you probably also could identify them by the sound of loud retching) — because as the study found, people with this heightened stimuli are more likely to be adventurous in their food and beverage choices. In other words, just the type of people likely to come out to a food conference.

So there you have it:  critics don’t taste better; they just talk better. 

This is also why I think there’s plenty of room for blogging and Yelping and taste-Tweeting. How do you hone your tasting skills unless you taste — thoughtfully and often –and pronounce an opinion? I know of no other way, and I don’t think the other wine (food, spirits) critics of the world do either.