Sophisticated wine drinking (NOT!)

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Although I often write about high-end and sophisticated cocktail and spirits experiences, most of my wine-related writing seems to veer to the more…shall we say, whimsical side. 

For example, last week I wrote about the launch of wine in a can, for Slate. 

A few months back, I wrote (also for Slate) about Duck Dynasty Chardonnay and other pop-culture wines.

This also got me thinking about a wine column I used to write for Serious Eats, where they encouraged me to review Hello Kitty wine and riff on the much-maligned “critter wine” genre.

And as long as I’m strolling down memory lane, one of my first published hooch clips was this number, on Halloween candy and wine pairings, for Wine Enthusiast. (Kind of ironic that it’s now the publication for which I cover those high-end whiskies, though they’ve always had a strong anti-snob factor.)

Wine writing gets a bad rap as stuffy and pretentious. Looking back, I’m glad that I’ve managed to find fun and whimsical wine angles — after all, who says cocktail drinkers are the only ones having fun?

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In my glass: Barrel-Aged Gin

Barrel_Aged_Gin

One of the spirits trends I’m most excited about now is barrel-aged gin. YES:  gin aged in casks that previously held whiskey or wine (or even rum!), giving the finished product a golden hue, a luscious wash of vanilla and surprising versatility in bridging the seasons between cold- and hot-weather drinking since it incorporates aspects of wintry whiskey and summer-friendly gin.

In fact: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that barrel-aged gin may be the ultimate spirit for spring.

The reason barrel-aged gin is so firmly on my radar screen is because I wrote about it for the July issue of Wine Enthusiast. Let me clarify:  I started out writing about gin, period — the unaged stuff. But then a few barrel-aged beauties came in during the review session, and knocked my socks off. I’m already a gin girl, but (like most of us), I drink it in cocktails, not straight. But barrel-aged gin is nuanced and interesting enough to sip straight. And I couldn’t believe how different each of the bottlings were.

Among the most creative and enticing takes I’ve tried:

St. George Dry Rye Reposado Gin (St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA). An unusual rosy gin “rested” for 18 months in casks that previously held Syrah and Grenache wines. The end result is crazily hoppy and malty and oaky, with a fleeting dark-fruit quality on the finish.

Corsair Distillery’s Barrel-Aged Gin (Nashville, TN): Aging their gin in twice-used Corsair Spiced Rum barrels gives a pumpkin-spice effect, with distinct cinnamon and nutmeg notes.

Smooth Ambler’s Aged Gin (Maxwelton, West Virginia): It’s rested in used bourbon casks. Though it’s bottled at a striking 99 proof, it still retains a sprightly botanical nose, vanilla/burnt orange notes plus an intriguingly buttery feel.

Treaty Oak Distilling Co. (Austin, TX): Their bold & gutsy Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin has a burnished-copper hue and a deep, molasses-like aroma. On the palate, it veers closer to brown sugar, finishing with dry notes of chamomile tea, cedar and clove. It makes a dynamite variation on a Manhattan, too.

Downslope Distilling Ould Tom Citrus Flavored Gin (Downslope Distilling, Centennial, CO). Perfect for cocktail history buffs. It’s made in the lightly sweetened Old Tom style, distilled from cane and barrel aged for three months, for a golden gin that features honey and pear notes.

Notice anything a little wacky about those picks? Usually, gin is a Brit’s game. And of course the British did it first:  Burrough’s is probably the best-known and most widely-distributed barrel-aged gin.

But the crazy Americans are changing the game. Craft distillers in particular are innovating in what has become one of the most exciting categories around. This is only a handful of the barrel-aged gin offerings out there — I fully expect more to come, and in my opinion, the sooner the better. I’d be delighted to see barrel-aged gin become more than just an offbeat niche category.

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Spirited Award finalist! This one is for the bartenders.

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVEROver the Memorial Day weekend, I received some particularly exciting news: Cocktails for a Crowd was named a Spirited Award finalist in the “Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book” category. The awards – part of the Tales of the Cocktail conference held in July – are a very big deal within the drinks industry, honoring bars, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and writers/authors from all over the world.

Though I’ve attended the awards before (this will be my 7th time at Tales!), this is the first time I’ve been been a finalist. And it’s particularly meaningful that the nod is for Cocktails for a Crowd, because the book has its roots at Tales – where I first saw really good drinks being batched in enormous quantities – and incorporates advice and recipes from so many bartenders I’ve met there over the years.

Take a look at the full list of finalists – I’m up against some hard-hitters and winning this is a long shot (although wouldn’t that just be the alcoholic frosting on an already booze-soaked cake?!?).

So I’m going to go ahead and say thank you now to the bartenders who contributed recipes and insight for Cocktails for a Crowd:  Jason Asher, Scott Baird, Corey Bunnewith, Martin Cate, Kevin Diedrich, Tasha Garcia-Gibson, Charles Joly, Ryan Maybee, Jim Meehan, Stephen Savage, Colin Shearn, and Kelley Swenson. Many of these fine folks are up for awards themselves this year, and at the awards ceremony, it’s for them I will be cheering myself most hoarse.

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Pictorial: celebrity signatures at Tio Pepe

I just returned from Spain, including a visit to sherry producer Tio Pepe in Jerez. They have a lovely tradition there, encouraging important visitors to sign the barrels (which are painted a chalkboard-like black to highlight any leaks). I took a few quick snaps of the signatures, which span celebrities (Lana Turner, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles), artists (Picasso – the only one to sign in color), wine personalities (Hugh Johnson) and political figures (Margaret Thatcher, Chelsea Clinton), as well as musicians, athletes and many others. Scroll through and see how many you recognize.

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Baijiu: it’s coming for you, America

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Front view of the ByeJoe box.

Are Americans ready for baijiu, China’s overproof firewater?

 

No, they are not. But baiju is coming for them anyway.

 

Here’s what’s going on:

 

Baijiu – a clear, rice- or grain-based spirit produced in China – has long been a staple of business culture in China. A friend living in Shanghai explained it to me this way “that’s what Chinese businessmen drink, and if you’re doing business in China, may as well get used to it, because repeated baijiu toasts at long banquets are de rigueur for doing business here.”

 

Usually, it’s distilled at a tongue-numbing 100 proof or higher (by comparison, vodka usually is bottled at 80 proof), and it’s downed as a shot. Matching your host shot-for-baijiu-shot at a banquet is a test of endurance and solidarity. To the Western palate, it “tastes slightly worse than petrol,” my friend insists.

 

But times are changing in China. Younger drinkers in China are favoring Western-style tipples (wine, beer, whiskey, brandy) over traditional baijiu. And most troubling of all: a crackdown on Chinese officials’ lavish spending has affected domestic sales of baijiu, a customary drink at those legendary banquets and a common luxury gift.

 

Uh-oh.

 

So baijiu producers are setting their sights on Western drinkers. Never mind that baijiu is the top-selling liquor in the world (according to International Wine & Spirit Research, baijiu accounts for more than a third of all spirits consumed globally). Outside of Asia, few have heard of baijiu. But by this time next year, that may change.

 

Signs of the times:

 

More baijiu bottlings are coming to the U.S.: The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, often a harbinger of trends in the marketplace, wrapped up a few weeks ago. Of note: increased entries of the Chinese spirit, Baijiu.

 

More producer-led industry education is available: Moutai (a producer of baijiu) has been sponsoring events at conferences (LA cocktail week, Tales of the Cocktail), hiring brand ambassadors to promote the spirit. And Americans seem interested in learning more: at the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, the “Baijiu: Demystified” seminar has already sold out.

 

More English-language information is becoming available: Author Derek Sandhaus has a new English language)book called “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits,” released by Penguin Books Australia.

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to Western palates: London (a particularly adventurous and forward-looking cocktail city), held its first-ever Baijiu Cocktail Week in January (timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year).

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to AMERICAN palates:  In LA, Peking Tavern opened a few months ago, calling itself a “Beijing gastropub.” It’s probably the only place in the US right now where you can sip baijiu cocktails like the “Bloody Mei Lee” (Bloody Mary variation, natch). Peking Coffee (baijiu, coffee and horchata liqueur) or Wong Chiu Punch (baijiu, hibiscus, fresh lemon juice).  My opinion: cocktails are the only hope for getting Americans to drink baijiu.

 

American-made baijius are starting to pop up:  Personally, I think these stand a better chance of gaining traction than Chinese-made versions – they tend to be lower proof, and have packaging that’s more accessible to American buyers. Houston, Texas-based distillery Byejoe USA is importing a baijiu base that is then filtered and sold in the U.S.  (It’s 40% abv, infused with fruity flavors, and tastes like vodka, in my opinion. It’s also packaged in a cutesy-poo box that looks like a Chinese food takeout container.) Meanwhile, Portland, OR-based Vinn Distillery is producing a small-batch artisan baijiu.
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Top of the ByeJoe box.

 

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The best whiskey you’re not drinking…yet.

 

Kavalan

At the NoMad, Leo Robitschek mixes Kavalan-spiked cocktails. (Image courtesy Liz Brusca)

Last night, I had the opportunity to quaff a few drams of Kavalan, a whiskey from Taiwan that’s about to launch in the U.S. Guided by master blender Ian Chang and whiskey expert Jim Swan,  we tried out some expressions never seen here before (notably, the delectable Kavalan Fino matured in sherry casks and the fruit-forward Kavalan Vinho Barrique). But this wasn’t my first experience with Kavalan, which I wrote about for Wine Enthusiast a few months back. Here’s an excerpt from that piece, about the pleasures of serendipity (and whiskey). You can also read the full article here.

 

The Best Whiskey You’re Not Drinking

Sixteen glasses of whiskey were lined up, glinting amber in the glass, perfuming the air with delectable aromas of vanilla, caramel and smoke – and lucky me, I get to sample them all. Some people might call this a special occasion, or a potential overindulgence.

As spirits reviewer for Wine Enthusiast, I call this … Tuesday.

But this particular Tuesday, I was in for a big surprise. Among those glasses of whiskey –single malt Scotch whiskey, to be specific, since that was the category up for review – a single malt from Taiwan somehow slipped in. And its score was off-the-charts good.

I was floored:  a single malt whiskey from Taiwan? – not Scotland, home of the most-lauded whiskies in the world. As it turned out, this one was made by Kavalan. It hit all the right flavor notes – fresh fruit, light smoke, mouthwatering butterscotch. In short, it was delicious.

It got me thinking: Why haven’t I been drinking more whiskey from Asia? Why isn’t everyone?

Frankly, Asia’s rising crop of whiskeys are every bit as good as some of the finest Scotches around. Most of them were deliberately made in Scotch whiskey’s image, but twists have been added that give Asia’s whiskies their own distinct identity. For example, the local water sources used to make standout Japanese whiskies are credited for creating that unique silky texture. India’s Amrut uses Indian barley in its mash bill. And the inhospitable heat and humidity in subtropical Asia is said to accelerate aging time, creating bold flavors. It makes perfect sense that whiskey would be shaped by the world around it.

In the end, I’m glad that Kavalan snuck into the Scotch lineup. It was a welcome excuse to forget about the restrictions of provenance and just focus on what’s in the glass. It was a much-needed reminder to be open to surprises and serendipity, whatever the source. And of course, it was a reminder to drink more Asian whiskey.  –Kara Newman

 

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What the #Limepocalypse means to your next cocktail

As someone who knows a bit about how agricultural commodities work and lot about how cocktails work, I’ve been following the recent ascent of lime prices, which has been causing bartenders considerable pain. If you love Margaritas, Daiquiris or or any other drink that depends on lime for its citrusy zing, you may be feeling the squeeze yourself.

What’s going on? In brief, Mexico, which produces 98% of the limes consumed in the U.S, is now seeing a shortage of limes thanks to a perfect storm of poor winter weather, plagues and threats from organized crime. As a result, we’ve seen lime prices spike from an average of $14 to $25 a case to an unprecedented $100 (or more) per case. You can read more on the backstory here or watch a video here.

If we were taking about the price of burgers, it would make sense to talk about cattle futures as a hedging mechanism. But lime futures don’t trade on U.S. commodity markets — or anywhere else in the world, that I know about. (Feel free to educate me if you know of a market where they are traded.)

In the meantime, what does the spike in lime prices mean to your next cocktail? It means one or more of the following scenarios:

  • Scarcity. In other words, if bartenders can’t get limes, you might not be able to get some of your favorite drinks for a while. For example, it’s been widely reported that Toby Cecchini has taken his famed Gimlet off the menu at his Long Island bar in Brooklyn (after all, the key ingredient is a housemade lime cordial).
  • Substitution. Your favorite drink might taste a little different for a while, as bartenders make creative substitutions. Some are switching to a mix of lemon and lime juices or grapefruit. Others are turning to acids beyond citrus, such as phosphates and lactarts. I would expect vinegar-based shrubs to follow as well. Upside:  who knows what innovative cocktails this forced creativity may yield?
  • Deflection. Some bars will discreetly “adjust” cocktail menus to showcase drinks that don’t include lime. Negroni, anyone?
  • Inflation. You might have to pay more for your drinks. I’d especially expect to see this happen at places like large Mexican chain restaurants, where taking classics like the Margarita off the menu would cause too much outcry. Downside:  once menu prices move higher, they rarely are adjusted lower when ingredient prices moderate.
  • Degradation. Aka crappier drinks.  Keep an eye out for sour mix, prefab lime cordial and frozen lime juice as substitutions for fresh lime. And that lime wedge garnish on on the side of your glass? Say goodbye to that too, for a while.
  • Finally, some bartenders will simply eat the rising cost. Martin Cate announced last week that his San Francisco tiki bar Treasure Island will NOT make any changes to the menu, and will NOT raise prices. Since tiki/tropical drinks use a lot of limes, this is big deal.

[Shameless plug: if you find this explanation interesting and will be in the NY area on Wednesday, 4/2, I'll be reading from The Secret Financial Life of Food (and talking a bit about the "limepocalypse") at DISH, a food and beverage-themed literary event at Housing Works in Soho.]

 

photo credit: flickr/Troy Tolley

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