Category Archives: My writings

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.

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A Tequila Sunrise for grown-ups

Image

The first mocktail I ever had was a Virgin Tequila Sunrise:  orange juice with a bit of grenadine poured on top for a dark-to-light effect, but no tequila. Around age 12, we’d order them non-stop at bar and bat mitzvahs, until the harassed bartender would pretend to run out of grenadine. (PS: no, I don’t count the Shirley Temple, which is not a “mock” drink – if anything, it’s the rum-soaked Shirley Temple Black that’s the “mock” version of the original).

Later on in college, the standard Tequila Sunrise was one of the first drinks I learned to order by name. It was fruity and it wasn’t beer, and that was all that mattered at that point in time, well before the craft cocktail movement brought better options even to college dive bars.

And that was probably the last time I sipped a Tequila Sunrise — until about a month ago. While researching this story for The Wall Street Journal about revitalized 1970s cocktails, I found my glass full of minty green Grasshoppers and vanilla-citrus Harvey Wallbangers. And this updated classic, which didn’t make it into the final article, but is worth making at home. It speaks volumes about how much has changed in recent decades:  non-mixto tequila, fresh-squeezed juices, and pomegranate juice or syrups instead of sugary fake grenadine. Finally – it’s a Tequila Sunrise you don’t have to be embarrassed to drink as a grown-up.

Tequila Sunrise

Created by Don Lee for Golden Cadillac

1 ½ ounces Siete Leguas Reposado Tequila

1 ounce Passion Fruit juice

1 ounce Orange Juice

1/2 ounce Pomegranate juice

In a cocktail shaker, combine the tequila, passion fruit and orange juices with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a Collins glass over pebbled ice. Gently pour the pomegranate juice over the rounded bowl of a spoon to “float” the juice over the top of the drink. Garnish with a half orange wheel.

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How super high-proof spirits are like “the flashiest girl in the room”

My article about super high-proof spirits (“Idiot Proof“) went up on Slate yesterday morning.

Although I stand behind my opinion — that I prefer lower-proof spirits, and that above 90 proof, most spirits lose what makes them nuanced and drinkable – whoo, those Slater/haters sure do love to argue! The contentious comments have stacked up fast. Luckily, the editors at Slate encourage provocative topics and good arguments.

Yet, I can’t help wondering how the haters might have responded to this comment about rising alcohol proofs, which had to be removed (because it’s not attributed):

“It’s gotten over-the-top,” one well-known producer (who asked not to be named) told me over shots of (pleasantly 80-proof) bourbon. Some distillers use high-proof spirits to attract attention, he hypothesized, comparing pumped-up alcohol volume to a dramatic boob job. “It’s like they’re trying to be the flashiest girl in the room,” he continued. “It’s a way of saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’”

Funny how timing works out, too. The article was written months ago – but now, it’s being published only days before my Tales of the Cocktail seminar on Low Octane Libations. That seminar will focus more about praising lower-proof cocktails rather than bashing higher-proof variations. Then again, Tales is about the cocktail lovers — not the haters.

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Celery-spiked cocktail recipe: Green Hornet

My article, “Put A Stalk In It,” about celery-spiked cocktails, is in the May/June issue of Imbibe Magazine.

Although it may seem like an obscure ingredient for cocktails, once I started looking around, I found myself spotting celery everywhere, in various forms. Erick Castro has a Paloma riff at his new bar, Polite Provisions, subbing Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda in place of grapefruit Jarritos. Celery foam tops Bloody Marys.  A Celery Gimlet is on the menu at Saxon + Parole, one of my new favorite bars — with celery juice and Maldon sea salt. Celery shrub here. Celery bitters there. Celery seed-infused syrups. Housemade celery cordial at Dead Rabbit. In researching a separate article on Rock & Rye, I came across a 1902 reference to “La Rue’s Celery Rock & Rye.”  

It’s enough to make you want a good drink.  So here’s one to try. Although it didn’t fit into the Imbibe article, it’s a mighty refreshing cocktail nevertheless.

Green Hornet

Tona Palomino, Trenchermen, Chicago, IL

The menu description reads simply:  celery gin and tonic. “A lot of people thought it was celery gin,” notes Palomino. “Rather, it’s a celery-flavored gin and tonic.”

1.5 oz. gin

1.5 oz. fresh celery juice

3/4 oz. simple syrup

3/4 oz. lime juice

I dash  Bitter Truth Celery Bitters (optional)

1 oz.  tonic water

Measure everything but the tonic water into a cocktail shaker. Cover with ice and shake. Strain into a 12-ounce Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Top off with the tonic water.

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Garnishes Gone Wild!

Courtesy Wine Enthusiast magazineDon’t pretend cocktails are good for you.

That’s a rule. Cocktails won’t make you healthier. There’s no such thing as a “skinny” cocktail, no matter what reality TV stars may preach. Cocktails aren’t a necessary food group. Cocktails are a luxury and a vice, and that’s why we like them.

So when I received a copy of Alex Ott’s new book, Dr. Cocktail, I turned up my nose at its “homeopathic beverages” message. Healing and invigorating! Hangover cures and magic tinctures! Really, now. (I do, however buy into the “Anti-Stress Cocktails” conceit — a good drink surely is one of the best anti-stress fixes around. But so’s a good hour at the gym.)

But I’m glad I didn’t toss this book aside. It has some of the best creative garnish ideas I’ve seen in some time.  Lemon wheels are sliced into translucent squares. Orange twists are rolled into rosebuds, accented with a fresh green bay leaf, or stamped into stars (as in the photo above). Cucumbers are carved into miniature crowns. I may not buy into the concept of the otherwise lovely gin drink adorned by that cucumber crown – “The Fountain of Youth” — but this book is worth flipping through to learn more about garnishes. Detailed, useful instructions are provided — even experienced bartenders will learn a new trick or two. 

I used some of Ott’s ideas, plus others around the country, in my “Garnishes Gone Wild!” article for Wine Enthusiast magazine, including a special zoom-in for the online edition, “One Fruit, Two Garnishes. “

After researching this article and learning about zany, inspired ideas for topping cocktails (three words:  dried chicken foot!),  I’d like to propose another book idea:  how about a book dedicated solely to creative drink garnishes?

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Super-aged whiskey and a practical joke

pssst.....wanna drink?

Dave Pickerell, whiskey prankster

When it comes to hyper-aged spirits, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

That’s the issue I explored for Slate:  Past Their Prime:  when is a superaged spirit too old to drink?

One of the people I turned to for perspective was Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery, and former distilling guru at Whistlepig Rye and Maker’s Mark. He’s an industry legend who knows a tremendous amount about the science and business behind aging whiskey, so he was a natural (and quite insightful) choice.

But apparently, he also has quite a mischievous streak. This is a story he told during our interview, which didn’t make it into the Slate article, but illustrates neatly what happens when whiskey gets too old:

“At Maker’s Mark, they let me play a lot,” Pickerell reminisced. “And we had what we called ‘the oldest barrel.’ We had no intent to sell it, it was a ‘what-if.’  It aged to 18 years and 2 days. [Note:  standard-issue Maker’s Mark is about 6 years old, though it doesn't carry an age statement.] The nose was unbelievable – OMG cough syrup, honey, it was so sweet….And so bitter on the palate!

“I used it to play a practical joke on Gaz Regan, who is a proponent of ‘older is better,’ with no exception.”  Pickerell  lured Regan in by “confiding” that he had a super-aged bourbon, but “shhh- I don’t have enough for everyone!” Later, they snuck away and he gave Regan a pour.

“I practically presented it on a pillow,” Pickerell recalled, to make it appear precious.  So unbelievably precious, that Pickerell pretended that he couldn’t even spare a pour for himself — he had no intention of drinking the bitter stuff.

Regan’s reaction? He spat it out.  “That’s bloody awful!”

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Cocktail recipe: East River Defense

My article, Your Cocktail’s Been A-Saltedappears in the March/April 2013 issue of Arrive Magazine, which –for once!– I got to read in hard copy format as I trundled along from NY to Baltimore and back again last week on Amtrak.

Gotta love any publication that lets me get away with a pun like that in the headline!

I’ve been looking forward to showcasing the East River Defense cocktail in the photo above ever since I first went to Northern Spy, a sweet little locavore spot in the East Village about a year ago.  I was there to interview Co-owner and Beverage Director Chris Ronis for a Wine Enthusiast feature about Aperitif Cocktails, and although it wasn’t part of the article, this was the drink I walked away thinking about — it had the strangest sweet-salty-tart-refreshing combination.

Northern Spy doesn’t have a full liquor license — they can serve only wine and beer. Luckily, that includes fortified wines (like sherry) and aperitif wines, so the drinks list still is robust and interesting.  In part, it’s that way because Ronis brought in mixologist Erick Castro to create the drinks. (If Castro’s name sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because you’ve been reading about his buzz-y new bar in San Diego, Polite Provisions.)

Although Ronis told me that this is based on a classic Cobbler, I think it’s even closer to the Paloma, a tequila drink made with grapefruit soda. Either way, it’s a perfect cocktail to transition into early spring.

East River Defense

Created by Erick Castro for Northern Spy ((New York, NY).  Nubbly “sea-salted ice” plus briny Manzanilla sherry gives the drink a refreshing salt-air tang.

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 ounces Manzanilla sherry

1 ounce lemon juice

1 ounce simple syrup

3 dashes Scrappy’s grapefruit bitters

Soda water

Scoop ice into a Collins glass, and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. In a cocktail shaker, combine sherry, lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters. Shake well, and strain into glass over the sea-salted ice. Top with soda water. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge and serve with a straw.

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March 11, 2013 · 10:47 am

IACP finalist!

Exciting news to share – one of my articles, Cognac’s Sultry Side, was named as a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in the “Writing About Beverages” category. This prestigious award is given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The full list of finalists is posted here – let’s just say I’m in VERY good company. The names on the list include some major culinary and literary talent, as well as friends and acquaintances I’m delighted to see receive some well-deserved recognition. I’m truly honored to be part of this group.

Here’s a look at my article, which appeared in Inspirato Magazine, a high-end travel publication.

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Ready, set, grow! The cult world of “grower” spirits

Image courtesy Wine Enthusiast magazine

My article on grower Cognac (“Drink This Now: Grower Cognac“) is in the February issue of Wine Enthusiast, as well as the web site (and as I’m writing this, it’s one of the top most-read articles on the site, woo-hoo!).

It’s an exciting topic — and as usual, there’s so much more to say that I couldn’t shoehorn into the space of a 200-word article.

For starters, there’s so much more to the story than just Cognac. Grower Champagne (or as my editor cutely termed it:  “farmer fizz”)  — relatively small-batch bubbly produced, bottled, and sold by the same farmers that grow the grapes — already has its share of devotees.  In the spirits world, Cognac seems to be the next frontier on the grower front.

But keep in mind the growing interest in artisan and “indie” spirits that seems to be spreading like wildfire now.  Here in the U.S., that seems to extend mostly to American-made products. But why not imported products too? Going forward, keep an eye out for other spirits produced by farmers (in the U.S. and elsewhere), such as Armagnac, Calvados, applejack, and “single estate” whiskeys and vodkas.

Cognac has a good running head start because it has an advocate — notably, importer Nicolas Palazzi, who brings many grower Cognacs to the U.S.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Palazzi was the one who first tipped me off to the idea, when I interviewed him for a feature on Cognac last year).  He described the growers as “no brands,” small- to mid-size operations with no access to international distribution, no PR or marketing budget.

When I talked to sommelier John Mitchell of Stella in New Orleans, he described the grower products as “no frills, all quality.” He also described them as “very site-specific”:

“These people own the acreage they are sourcing from,” he explained. “They are walking the vineyards, picking grapes for maximum ripeness.” The distilling “gets away from the house styles that are blended all over the place.”

He’s especially enamored of Jacky Navarre’s Vieille Reserve Cognac bottling:

“This guy is insane,” Mitchell confided. “He must not be out to make any money. He lets the Cognac come down to 40% abv naturally, which takes around 45 years. Imagine reducing a chef’s sauce for 45 years, and how layered that would be. The depth and complexity you would have in the bottle. That’s why there’s only 60 bottles in the U.S.  It’s a labor of love and a passion.”

I may have to stop in to try a glassful the next time I’m in New Orleans.

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Rock on, Rock and Rye!

My essay on Rock and Rye is in the November 2012 issue of Saveur magazine. You can read it here, or see a recipe for DIY Rock and Rye.

But there was so much more that didn’t make it into the article. For example, the numerous tipsy little ditties that pay homage to the sweet-and-spiced whiskey-based libation. My favorite is  Tex Ritter’s 1948 country music song, with these lyrics:

When there’s worry on your mind, here’s what you should try

Go to bed and rest your head and take some Rock and Rye.

It’s a light-hearted song accented by the clink of ice in glasses, and quickly deteriorates into slurring and hiccups. A word of warning:  it’s awfully catchy. Listen more than once, and you’ll be singing this for days.

Here’s a playlist to enjoy while sipping your Rock & Rye.

Rock & Rye, Tex Ritter  (yeah, that’s the late John Ritter’s dad)

Rock & Rye, Earl Hines & His Orchestra

Rock & Rye, Charlie Spand

Rock and Rye Polka, Polka Dots Polka Band

Rock & Rye Rag, Al Dexter (track #9)

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