Tag Archives: spirits

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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Hey Millennials, wine and liquor marketers think you have a target on your back

Image

It’s wine, Jim, but not as we know it.

Last month, a pair of essays I wrote ran in Slate. The first focused on the rise in “gender-specific” spirits (i.e. vodka designed for women, flavored cognac engineered just for men), the second dealt with pop-culture branded wine (i.e. Downton Abbey wine, Duck Dynasty wine).

Two very different topics, but one disturbing thread connects both:  clearly, wine and liquor marketers think Millennial drinkers have a big old target on their backs. What I heard over and over again was, “it worked when they were kids; it will continue to work now.”

Consider this comment, from the gendered spirits article:

Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at University of California–Davis (coincidentally, a school famed for its winemaking programs), sees parallels between how toys and these candy-like alcoholic beverages are marketed…“The people who were children in the 1990s when I started to see toys color-coded by gender, pink and blue, they are becoming young adults,” Sweet observes. And “they are used to gender differentiation in products.” In other words, millennials are desensitized to gender-specific marketing; many have never known anything else.

Alongside this comment, from the pop-culture wine article:

Millennials in particular grew up with branding, and they don’t think anything of it,” says Kara Nielsen, a consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insight. “They grew up with a cartoon character on their toothpaste. This is like Mickey Mouse-branded treats for the grown-up set.”

A note to the over-21 Millennial set: when you were a kid and someone handed you a blue SpongeBob Squarepants toothbrush or a pink Disney princess toothbrush, you probably didn’t have much choice in the matter. You’re an adult now, with an astonishing array of choices before you. Please choose wisely. It’s your prerogative to choose candy-flavored whiskey or Star Trek-branded wine if that’s what you truly want, but please, make sure that it’s YOUR decision. Don’t let marketers decide for you.

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10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014

crystal_ball

It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2013 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2014:

1. Fun will make a comeback at the bar. I suspect the goofy fun factor of places like Golden Cadillac (retro 70s) and Butterfly (retro 50s) will start making its way into the mainstream – like the way tiki used to be fun. It’s not a coincidence that cereal is now a hot (if silly) drink ingredient. After years of super-serious mixology, we’re ready for some fun and decadence again.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I’m waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass.

3. The bartender will become obsolete. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect. But in terms of format, definitely seeing more pre-batched kegged drinks (lookin’ at you, Derek Brown)  and bottled & canned & other “batched” cocktails – even high-end Ready-to-Drink cocktails that are actually worth drinking. And I’m not the only one who sees this trend on the horizon.

4. We’ll fortify our drinks with sherry and other fortified wines (but mostly sherry). Sherry cocktails in particular are ramping quickly. But port, Madeira and others are not far behind.

5. Low abv and even no abv drinks will go mainstream. I totally admit to lobbying for this trend. But I’m hearing more about lower proof drinks, and seeing better and more interesting low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks on menus. I foresee this going mainstream this year.

6. We’ll find hard cider cocktails in our glasses. Buzz is building. I think I was too early with this one last year.

7. Flavored whiskey will continue to expand at a rapid-fire clip before burning out altogether. And – what the hell – I’m already calling flavored tequila as a trend for 2015.

8. We’ll develop a heated affection for Asia whiskeys:  some of the best products I’ve tasted this year have been whiskeys from Japan and – much to my surprise – Taiwan. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.

9. Consumers finally will wake up to coffee cocktails. Some of the craziest, most euphoric, no-holds-barred experiments I’m seeing now all seem to involve coffee-cocktail hybrids in some way. (I’m still thinking about the experimental cold brew coffee made with White Pike Whiskey seen at the Dizzy Fizz Holiday Spirits Bazaar a few weeks back – and that’s just the tip of the highly caffeinated iceberg.) I suspect we’re not quite there yet, since the coffee flavor still seems to dominate the drinks in a clumsy way- but man oh man, we’re getting closer to something wonderful.

10. Vodka will develop character.  Usually, vodka bores me. Most have been distilled and filtered to a very limp death. But lately, I’ve been seeing growth among new and interesting vodkas — no longer “odorless and flavorless.” Some have been single varietal vodkas, others (like Karlsson’s, for example), have introduced new vintages each year, reminding me of whiskey or wine. I predict that we’re about to see variety in vodka explode in coming months.

Okay, folks. Have a happy happy and a very merry. See you back here next year.

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Your ultimate Thanksgiving cocktail: Spiked & Spiced Apple Cider

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Here’s why I’m calling this recipe “ultimate”:

1. It works with any brown liquor you have on hand: aged rum, whiskey, brandy, in whatever proportions you like.  If you have two bottles of bourbon and brandy, with just a cupful left in each? Use ‘em up.  It’s like Thanksgiving leftovers for your cup.

2. You can make and serve this drink without leaving the kitchen. Face it – all your guests are gathered there anyway, right?

3. It perfumes your home with the scent of autumn- spicy, apple-y and amazing.

4. Since this drink pairs perfectly with apple cider doughnuts, you now have an excuse to buy some. You saw them at the greenmarket and wanted them anyway.

Okay, that’s enough rationalizing. Let’s drink!

“Spiked & Spiced” Apple Cider

From Cocktails for a Crowd
Serves 8
Total volume: 52 ounces, or 6 1/2 cups

At home, ladle this warming drink straight from the stove (everyone’s probably gathered in the kitchen anyway, right?) or into a teapot to serve. Alternatively, consider pouring the cider into a heatproof thermos to keep toes warm at a tailgating party.

2 cinnamon sticks
8 whole allspice berries
32 ounces (4 cups) apple cider
16 ounces (2 cups) brandy (whiskey or aged rum may be substituted)
8 Tablespoons (1/2 cup) honey

8 cinnamon sticks, for garnish

Tie together the spices inside a square of cheesecloth and secure with twine, creating a spice sachet.

In a saucepan, stir together apple cider, brandy and honey. Drop in the spice sachet. Cover and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and stir again. Discard spice sachet.

Ladle into glass mugs or tea cups and garnish each glass with a cinnamon stick.

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Pictorial: throwing booze around

Who knew there were so many different ways to do this? As in, quite literally tossing it around, whether from bottle to cup, cup to cup or even from vessel directly to thirsty, open-mouthed consumer. Here’s exhibit A:

wondrich

Dave Wondrich, demonstrating the “Blue Blazer” technique he has re-popularized. You can’t tell from this image, but he takes a flame to high-proof hooch, and pours the flaming liquid from one pewter mug to another, and back again, increasing the distance between the two until he has a thin blue flame streaming from one mug to the next.

porron

This pitcher-like vessel, called a porron, is sometimes used to serve (and share) wines in Spain. Here, it’s used for pisco (this was at the StarChefs International Chefs Conference a couple of weeks ago). Bottoms up!

alturias_1

And finally, here is a pourer in action during cider week, at Tertulia.  Apparently, this is part of the culture of the Asturias region in Spain:  the cider typically is held up high above the pourer’s head….

alturias_2

…and poured in such an elongated stream that I couldn’t capture the action in a single shot. The more experienced pourers don’t even look down while they pour.

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The drink you need for your 4th of July party: The Rosemary Refresher

The Rosemary Refresher

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

It’s possible that I may I love this drink a little too much. I made a batch for a book signing event on Saturday, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

A few random thoughts on this drink:

  • Although it was created to be a pitcher drink, if it’s going to sit out for longer than a few minutes before guests gulp it down in a thirsty frenzy, do not add ice! This drink is best when chilled, but loses all its oomph when it gets watered down. Mix it up and set it in a bottle or carafe, and pour it over ice to serve, if it’s going to sit for any length of time. (if serving right away, the pitcher method is just fine, though.)
  • If any rosemary syrup (and/or lime juice) is left over, refrigerate it and save it. Sunday night, I used this template to create an enjoyable Rosemary Daiquiri (though I used 2 oz white rum, not 2.5 oz aged rum). Tuesday night, I found inspiration here to make a rosemary-tinged gin Gimlet.
  • The rosemary sprig garnish is optional. But it makes the drink look really impressive.

The Rosemary Refresher

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman (Chronicle Books)

Serves 8
Total volume: 4 3/4 cups (without ice)

This sophisticated margarita variation is a wonderful thirst-quenching aperitif. The recipe makes a bit more rosemary-infused simple syrup than needed for the cocktails. Offer the leftover portion in a small pitcher for anyone who isn’t drinking alcohol so they can enjoy it mixed with club soda or ginger ale.

Rosemary Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
5 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 cups reposado tequila
1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
4 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
6 ounces rosemary-infused simple syrup
4 cups ice cubes
8 sprigs fresh rosemary, for garnish

To make the rosemary syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. When the syrup starts to boil, lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Gently roll the rosemary between your hands to release some of the aromatic oils, then add it to the syrup. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then remove the rosemary sprigs and strain the syrup if need be. Stored in a covered container in the refrigerator, the syrup will keep for about 2 weeks.

To make the cocktails: In pitcher that holds at least 10 cups, combine the tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and rosemary simple syrup and stir until thoroughly blended. Add the ice and stir well.

To serve, pour into rocks glasses and garnish each glass with a rosemary sprig.

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July 3, 2013 · 11:16 am

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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Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands – of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend– fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.

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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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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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