Is Havana Club rum coming your way soon?

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Well, THAT was fast.

Last Thursday, my article on questing for Havana Club rum went up on Bloomberg’s site. In short, it’s about the fact that the 50-year-old trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba means that you can’t get Cuban rum — at least, not through most legitimate channels (although I found a loophole, and some worthwhile rum alternatives.)

And then yesterday came this surprise in breaking news: the U.S. is expected to normalize relations with Cuba. And that includes access to Cuban rum.

But wait — does that mean a bottle of Havana Club on every bar? Not exactly. Provisions include this little tidbit:

Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

$100 in alcohol isn’t a lot. And since retail outlets (and presumably, importers that sell direct to bars and restaurants) won’t have access yet, this effectively limits imports to private citizens who are bringing a few bottles at a time back from Cuba or duty-free in other areas. And it may not even be called Havana Club: according to rum maven Robert Burr, it may be re-labeled as Havanista.

What’s actually changing is that Cuban rum just moved out of the realm of “illicit alcoholic beverage.” That great thumping sound you hear? That’s bartenders across America pulling their contraband bottles of Havana Club out from under the counter and plunking them down on the bar in plain sight.

I’m glad I had the chance to search for my “holy grail” of rum. Now that it’s (slightly) easier to find, it’s your turn. Get out there and order your Havana Club; I’d love to hear where you find it and what you think of the rum.

Your ultimate Thanksgiving cocktail: Spiked & Spiced Apple Cider

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

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

I ran this post last year to help promote my then-new book, Cocktails for a Crowd. It was one of the most-read posts on the site all year, so I’m posting it again – enjoy!

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.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying the book on Amazon: Cocktails for a Crowd. It makes a great host/hostess or holiday gift, too!

A visit to Woody Creek Distillers

Right now, everyone is up in arms about so-called “craft distillers” that don’t actually distill. But some spirits producers are getting it right. For example, last week I got a closer look at Woody Creek Distillers, located in Aspen, Colorado. Right now, it’s prime season for harvesting potatoes, which then are made into Woody Creek’s flagship vodka.

Emma Farm, located in Basalt, CO

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Picking potatoes

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These are Rio Grande indigenous potatoes. It takes roughly 13 pounds of these potatoes to make one 750-ml bottle of vodka.

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The potatoes are loaded up here…

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…and dropped off here. This is Gabe, with the “potato-cleaning contraption” designed by Woody Creek (yep, that’s what they call it). Each bag holds 700 kilos (roughly 1500 pounds); during harvest season, enough potatoes are harvested to fill six or seven bags a day.

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Inside the distillery. Note the bag of ‘taters behind this gentleman, Mark Kleckner, who is one of the masterminds behind Woody Creek. Seconds before this photo was taken, he snapped that potato in half, “like jicama,” to show the moisture inside. Potatoes can dehydrate within one month, Kleckner explained, so they are digging and distilling vodka now: “By Thanksgiving, we’re done.”

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This next set of machinery cleans, peels and grinds the potatoes.

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About 20% of the peel is left on for nutrients and yeast during fermentation.

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Distillation in the column still.

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Close-up – I couldn’t believe how much it looked like mashed potatoes.

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In addition to the regular Woody Creek vodka, a Reserve (pictured here) also is made at the distillery, from Stobrawa potatoes.

It’s Slivovitz season!

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

A Saturday stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket reminded me that plum season is back. Every stall seemed to have luscious plums in shades of yellow, red, deep purple. And to me, plums = Slivovitz.

Earlier this year, I wrote for Tablet Magazine about my newfound affection for Slivovitz, the sometimes-fiery brandy distilled from plums, and my very recent discovery that sliv can be a spirit worth seeking out:

When I complained about firewater slivs to Angus MacDonald of the Coppersea Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, he scolded me—and then gave me a sample of his first batch of locally-made sliv.

“Slivovitz is rough by nature; it’s meant to be,” MacDonald insisted. “It’s old-country grappa, and the people who drank it were tough-ass mo-fos.” But he also assured me that if made right, it can be more drinkable. And sure enough, his version was delicate and pure, more eau-de-vie than paint thinner.

…Clearly, the time is right for giving slivovitz a second chance. Plum brandies—good ones!—are making their way to the U.S. marketplace.

Want to try some of those plum brandies? Head to the 10th annual Slivovitz Festival. coming up on Sept 20, in Glenn Dale, Maryland. Prefer to DIY? Take a look at this article on how to make your own Slivovitz, written by Cathy Barrow for the Washington Post a couple of years back. Either way, now is the time to give Sliv a chance.

10 new Scotch whiskies coming to the U.S.

Just returned from a trip to Scotland to visit distilleries. Though I’m still processing it all, one thing that struck me is how many new Scotch bottlings are poised to come to the U.S. in the next few months. Here’s a quick overview of what’s newly-released and coming soon down the line, arranged by approximate order of release.

AuriverdesArdbeg Auriverdes. This was a new release for “Ardbeg Day” (May 31) so it’s already here – and in some cases already sold out. This limited edition was aged in first-fill American oak barrels, with the ends of the barrels taken off and heat-treated “for more vanilla, coffee notes.” abv: 49.9%.

Tasting notes: light maple aroma, Very spicy finish. Light smoke on front, then vanilla, then spice; lots of black pepper and cayenne on the tip of the tongue. I didn’t detect coffee, but I liked what I did detect.
Coming: Ardbeg Day 2014 – so it already arrived on May 31

 

Auchentoshan American Oak. Made with 100% bourbon barrels. It’s been launched in press previews over the past couple of months and it’s already available in some U.S. outlets. It will be a permanent part of the Auchentoshan portfolio, so it may be hard to get right away, but eventually it should be relatively easy to acquire a bottle.
Tasting notes: Caramel, creme brulee, oak. Light and smooth.
Coming: Newly available in U.S. – recently launched.

 

MortlachMortlach – Rare Old. Visiting this non-airbrushed distillery was a treat – it’s owned by Diageo and historically Mortlach has been used as a blend (in Johnnie Walker primarily but not exclusively) rather than broken out as a single malt. They’re planning to release four different Mortlach bottlings, and this one should be out of the gate first. It has no age statement, and it’s made with a mix of whiskies aged in new and old casks. It’s an homage to an early 1900s private client bottling that sold at Macy’s Department Store. 43.4% abv.

Tasting Notes: Pineapple and vanilla aroma. Notes of banana, creme brulee, oily feel. It was described to us as “meaty,” with a flavor resembling “venison.” I didn’t quite agree with the venison tasting note. But this is surely robust and something different that Scotch-lovers will get excited about.
Coming: July/Aug 2014

Mortlach 18. This bottling probably will be released around the same time. It’s 18 years old, made with “moderate first-fill sherry casks” to avoid overpowering and refill whiskey casks. They describe it as an “after dinner dram.” 43.4% abv.
Tasting notes: Sherried spice cake aroma, chocolate note, mouth-coating. It’s very bold and explosive in the mouth – it expands on the finish in a way I haven’t experienced before.
Coming: August 2014

 

BracklaCraigellachie 23-year-old: This is from the Royal Brackla distillery, which is owned by Bacardi/Dewars and is one of the “secret ingredient” single malts inside the Dewar’s and other blended Scotches. Piers Adam is bottling it – he owns Mahiki, an exclusive London nightclub, and I assume it’s already available there. Two more Royal Brackla single malts also will be released around the same time, Deveron 12-year-old and Aultmore 12-year-old. But this was the one that made me stop and take note. 46% abv.

Tasting Notes: Craigellachie means “fiery crag,” and it’s indeed fiery. I detected baked apple and a rubbery note that they described as “meaty.” (Note: Some of my other tasting notes for this bottling, jotted down about 10 minutes and two samples later, also say things like “sherry” and “mint-chocolate” and “smoky finish.” I may have had a dram or so too many at this point, so my tasting notes mayyyy not be the most reliable.)
Coming: Bottling in July, coming in August.

 

NadurraThe Glenlivet Nadurra. Nadurra means “natural.” No age statement. This is an umbrella name for small parcels of whiskies, so the flavor profile may change from batch to batch.

Tasting notes: The flavor may change slightly from bottle to bottle, but the one we tried was light, with tons of vanilla, lemon cream pie, spice finish. It was described to us as a “Christmas cake smoothie.”
Coming: Sept/Oct 2014. It’s already available in duty-free shops, in a 1-liter size bottled at 48% abv. When it comes to the U.S., it will be 750ml, and bottled at cask strength (57-58% abv).

 

 

HaigHaig Club (Diageo). It’s a blended Scotch, and is a partnership with soccer player and British celebrity David Beckham.

Tasting notes: I didn’t get to try it. We all know perfectly well it’s going to fly off the shelves based on Becks and what I think of it isn’t going to matter anyway.
Coming: Autumn 2014

 

 

CardeasLaphroaig Cardeas 2014 bottling.  It’s the 3rd bottling tested through Friends of Laphroaig (the previous two were QuarterCask and Select). Cardeas means “Friendship.” The whisky is “double-matured,” meaning it’s first aged in bourbon (Jim Beam) casks, then finished in amontillado sherry cask-finished. Pricing: $120, approx. 52.4% abv.

Tasting notes: Maple up front, smoke in back. Long finish reminded me of long cigarette exhalation, which sounds awful, I know, yet this was one of the few drams I finished.
Coming: mid-year 2015

 

Naked GrouseThe Naked Grouse (Famous Grouse). Intended for a craft niche. Bottle has no label (“we dialed up the naked,” we were told, meaning that they stripped back the packaging.) When the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge visited the distillery, this was Kate Middleton’s favorite of the line-up. It was mine too. It’s The Famous Grouse blend, aged in first-fill sherry casks.
Tasting notes: lots of sherry-like dried fruit notes, warm & rounded.
Coming: “in a couple of years.”

The MaCallan Sienna (Famous Grouse): 100% ex-sherry casks, first fill. Part of range that emphasizes natural colors (Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby).
Tasting notes: dried raisins, spice. An easy pairing with chocolate.
Coming: “soon.”

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.

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.