Tag Archives: vodka

Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits



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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10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014


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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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!

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Would you put vodka in your Negroni?

So, this writer walks into a bar….

No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s what I did Tuesday night. Not a craft cocktail bar, not a fancy hotel bar, just an ordinary neighborhood bar on my way home. And I ordered what’s become my go-to recently:  “A Negroni, please.”

“Certainly,” the bartender responded. “Would you like that with vodka or gin?”

That gave me a moment’s pause — no one has ever asked me that before!– and I stuttered out my response: “Gin, please.” As the bartender finished another order and then began mine — Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin –I thumbed out a quick post on Twitter:

The responses flew in before I’d even finished my drink. “RUN!” urged @inukena. “YES, RUN!” echoed @feeedme. Emboldened by alcohol, I finally asked the bartender:  “So…do people really order Negronis with vodka?” He nodded solemnly. “Oh, yes. It’s the vodka generation. But personally, I prefer gin.” I polished off the rest of my drink and posted again:

But clearly I had touched a nerve. The responses continued to roll in over the next 24 hours:

@inukena:  (Collective sigh of relief)

@RobertOSimonson:  He still should never ask that question. With a Martini, I’d grudgingly accept it. A Negroni? No.

@LegendofMyself:   you can choose between the Negroni which is with gin, the Negroski with dry vodka and the “wrong” Negroni with brut champagne :)

@orpheum:  People order Negronis with vodka? Shame on them. Shame!

@raelinn_wine:  VILE! pffff vodka in a negroni.

@nikki_d:  Vodka in a negroni? Yikes!

@SpiritManager:  But if you make it with Vodka, is it still a Negroni? Shouldn’t it have a different name?

All this anti-vodka vitriol! OK. So cranky contrarian that I am, I couldn’t help it. Last night, I returned the same bar, and asked the same bartender:  “Negroni, please. But this time….I’ll try it with vodka.”

He did a double-take, but quickly recovered, and made my drink. As he stirred, I explained my reasoning:  My preferred gin for a Negroni is Plymouth, because it’s soft and neutral, and not overly juniper-y. But isn’t that just a step removed from vodka anyway? And wouldn’t bitter Campari overwhelm the nuances in gin, anyhow?

 He nodded, clearly placating the babbling guest, and set my drink down.

So how was it? The gin-based Negroni was much, much better than the vodka version.  I can’t explain why. Frankly, it’s not logical, and the best I can offer is some lame excuse about the alchemy between the three ingredients that make up the cocktail.

But the bartender understood when he saw me push away the barely-touched drink, and repeated his line from the night before.

“Personally, I prefer gin.”

Me too, barkeep. Me too.


Filed under Drink recipes, Drink trends, Uncategorized

Why I won’t be drinking “the world’s hottest chilli vodka”

Supposedly, I know a thing or two about spicy spirits and cocktails.  But even I have my limits.

A press release just landed on my desk, announcing the launch of “the world’s hottest chilli vodka” (this is a UK brand; U.S. folks use “chile” to refer to hot peppers): “100,000 Scovilles – Naga Chilli Vodka, made by infusing vodka with the world’s hottest chilli – the Naga Jolokia. ” In other words, Ghost Pepper-infused vodka.

Fine. Those ghost peppers are mighty hot stuff.  But I’ve had ghost pepper-infused spirits. That’s not the problem. Nor is the following warning on the label/web site (actually, I think this is funny):

By purchasing this bottle, you agree that:

1) I have been warned and fully understand that this product contains extreme heat and should be used and handled responsibly.

2) I use this product entirely at my own risk and I understand the potential danger if used or handled irresponsibly. If I give this product as a gift I will make the recipient aware of the potential danger if used or handled irresponsibly.

3) I accept that the retailer and manufacturer of this product will, under no circumstances, be responsible for, or liable for, any claims of injury or damage arising from the use or misuse of this product and by purchasing this product, whether for myself or as a gift, I acknowledge and agree to this fact without question.

4) I am not inebriated or of unsound mind and am fully able to make a rational decision to purchase this product.

No, what bothers me is THIS:  drinkers are urged not to drink it neat, and “definitely do not have it as a shot.”

Simply put: If you can’t drink it straight, you shouldn’t buy it.

What? You’re going to buy it anyway? Masochist. Might as well buy a copy of my book while you’re at it to get some cocktail suggestions, since you’re so severely discouraged from drinking that vodka straight up.

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“Whiskey doesn’t care. That’s what makes it cool.”

Ever anthropomorphize spirits? You know, assign an animal or object (like liquor) human traits?  Here’s an excellent, and hilarious example, from Dan Dunn’s recent rant on Food Republic, “Finally A Whiskey For Horrible People.”

It doesn’t matter what whiskey he’s referring to in the headline – THIS is the whiskey you want to know better:

Whiskey doesn’t care. That’s what makes it cool. The only other liquor that’s anywhere near as cool is Tequila. But Tequila’s always been too crazy to really be cool. Tequila will cut you for looking at its woman, then laugh while the cops drag it off to jail, and spit at you during the trial. And trust me you don’t want to pick on Vodka either. Dude doesn’t have much of a personality, but I swear he goes to the gym twice a day. You want the nerd of the liquor crew? Try Gin. You can give Gin an atomic wedgie and the worst it’ll do is scream that his daddy will have you banned from the yacht club.

Where else do we see anthropomorphizing? That’s right, fairy tales, where the wolf is Big and Bad, and the piglets are helpless but chatty. I want to read a fairy tale – or at least watch a cartoon – featuring these spirits as characters.


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5 Things I’ve Learned About…Cherry/Berry Flavored Vodkas

The November 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Cherry and Berry Flavored Vodkas.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio (if it’s not there now, it will be soon).  Here’s what I learned:

1. Flavored vodka gets no respect. Cocktail geek buddies groaned when I told them I was doing this category. They were mostly but not entirely right. Yes, there was lots of mediocrity in the cherry/berry category (unlike citrus-flavored vodkas, which overall were quite good), and on average, the scores were relatively low. But — as I suspected —  there were gems worth finding.

2. A wide range of good berry/cherry vodkas exist; they’re not necessarily uniform.  The best of the bunch included a full-bodied, deep red, nearly cordial-like vodka; a blush-pink, floral-berry vodka; and a clear-as-a-bell spirit with an engagingly juicy raspberry character.

3. There are more bad than good vodkas in this flavor category. A surplus of crummy vodkas surely arrived, such as the Windex-blue contender that arrived in a jug-sized plastic container and tasted like mouthwash. Another memorable specimen was a vodka whose main claim to fame was that it turns your tongue black.

4. It must be difficult to accurately replicate cherry and berry vodka flavors, since so few get it right.

5. The aroma is often the best part of flavored vodkas. Bartenders already know this.

If you have a favorite cherry/berry flavored vodka to share, I’d love to hear about it. Usually I’d rather showcase what’s awesome vs. bashing the not-so-good, but I’ll make an exception this time:  vodka horror stories are welcome too!


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Playing with pepper (and vodka)

 You might already know (or suspect) my fondness for peppercorn cocktails. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive a box containing a bottle of Karlsson’s Vodka, along with a Karlsson’s-branded bottle of black peppercorns.

I had to ask, what was the connection between vodka and pepper?

“The inspiration came from the founder, Peter Ekelund, who was accustomed to eating the potatoes with black pepper,” the PR rep explained. “After developing the vodka, he was inspired to try it on the rocks with some black pepper, thus creating their signature drink, the Black Gold.” More specifically, vodka with a grind of black pepper.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of ground black pepper in drinks — it makes for an unpleasantly gritty texture. But I tried my own variation (above) — vodka shaken with ice and whole peppercorns. It livened up the sweet vodka with a bit of peppery zing, but made it easy to leave the pepper at the bottom of the glass.


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5 Things I’ve Learned About…American Vodka

The July 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Vodkajust in time for Independence Day.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. To be perfectly honest, I’d been dreading this category. Unflavored vodkas with no scent, color, or flavor? What the heck was I going to say?  As it turns out….plenty. However, in the end, reviewing vodka (at least, this particular batch) was a little like evaluating shades of gray. I didn’t realize until I saw the print column, side by side with the wide-ranging wine reviews, how unusually homogeneous the scores were.

2. All those states produce vodka?  It was exciting to see the broad cross-section of states represented in the samples, spanning up the Northwest coastline, across the Midwest, and over the Eastern seaboard.   I think I sampled from NY, IL, CA, WA, VA, OR, MN, NJ, VT, AR, ID, PA, WI, OH, CO. It’s like armchair travel.

3. All the different stuff from which vodka is made. Of course, grain was expected, and came in the form of wheat, rye, and corn. We don’t see many potato-based vodkas outside of eastern Europe, but at least one arrived. However, enticing vodkas made from grapes, honey, maple sap, and milk sugar were particularly pleasant surprises.  A pricey Napa Valley vodka made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes was especially memorable.

4. I need to learn more about the distillation process. Since it seems to be a particular bragging point among vodka makers, I’d like to understand better how (and frankly, if) it truly matters how many times a spirit is distilled. Or whether it’s filtered through charcoal, volcanic matter, diamond dust, etc.

Maybe vodka distillation is subject to the rule of diminishing returns:  Frankly, from my semi-layman’s view, extreme distillation seemed to yield minimal impact. (I’m going to get hate mail over that last statement. So be it.)

5. It’s surprisingly hard to think of distinctive vodka cocktails to illustrate how specific vodkas might be used. “Vodka soda” and “vodka martini” seem pale, don’t you think?

Unlike whiskey or tequila, vodka never seems to be the centerpiece of cocktails these days. In fact, vodka gets so much disrespect in the cocktailian community, one mixology chat room I know has set up a gleeful macro: every time a member types the word “vodka,” it’s auto-replaced with the word “poserfluid.” Now there’s a word that might generate some fireworks among vodka distillers.

Do you have a favorite vodka or vodka cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.


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Spicy Spirits: Yazi ginger flavored vodka

I hate spirits targeted to women. I just don’t understand why I’m expected to want to drink something just because it’s pink, or just because a chick is printed somewhere on the label.

So sorry to say, Yazi Vodka (isn’t that the name of a contraceptive?) had a strike against it from the minute I saw the marketing material. The funny thing is, it’s not a particularly “feminine” bottle. It has a dragon on one side, and a red-and-and-white label on the other. Although it’s being marketed as “perfume-inspired,” in fact, the bottle has some serious heft to it. Perhaps it could be marketed to women looking for a weapon to fend off attackers.

Okay, that’s enough sniping about the packaging. What about what’s inside?

The ginger-infused vodka has a good punch to it, “sweet and spicy,” as advertised. Supposedly it’s made from four different species of ginger (which ones are not specified anywhere I can find), and cayenne, as well as lemon and orange.  I didn’t quite pick up the fruity notes. The cayenne zing sneaks up on you and lingers a good long time, though it probably would be tempered in a drink with some sweetness to it, like the “Yazitini” recipe listed on the bottle neck tag — essentially, a ginger Cosmopolitan. At 35% abv, it’s a little less potent than most of the 80 proof vodkas out there, which is not a bad thing.

The final verdict: Although the pseudo “Sex and the City” positioning makes me cranky, the spirit is just fine.  Chileheads will enjoy the lingering cayenne prickle.

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