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.

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

 

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.

Meet the Grande Dame(s) of New Orleans

In many ways, Ella Brennan is the Forrest Gump of N’awlins:  if something notable in the world of hooch happened, she was there. During Prohibition, she helped her uncle make bathtub gin. Trader Vic squired her around California during tiki’s heyday; she sipped daiquiris at El Floridita in Cuba when Hemingway probably crouched just a few barstools down. And her family built, piece by piece, the bars and restaurants that are now treasured pieces of New Orleans history, from the Absinthe House to Commander’s Palace.

And I got to meet her. Hell, I got to drink with her. 87 years old, and “Miss Ella,” as everyone calls her, still has an Old Fashioned brought to her living room by the staff at Commander’s Palace. I think I want to be her when I grow up.

I wrote about our conversation for Wine Enthusiast, conducted in said living room over said Old Fashioneds. But it’s only part of the story.

The women below also are an important part of the New Orleans arc. On the right, that’s Lally Brennan and (far right) Ti Adelaide Martin, aka “Miss Ella’s” daughter. The two are cousins and co-proprietors of the legendary Commander’s Palace,  Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and cocktail bar SoBou.

And the three women on the left are the “bar chefs” for the Brennan’s empire. (Yes, it’s just a coincidence that a woman helms the beverage operations at each, though it brings a certain neat symmetry to the story, from Miss Ella on down to the next generation of bartenders.)  How is a “bar chef” different from a bartender? Abigail explained it this way: Chef = chief.  “A bartender is about the hospitality aspect,” she said. ” A mixologist is about ingredients and technique. A bar chef is all of that. Like Ginger Rogers, you do it all backwards and in heels.”

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Left to Right: Lu Brow (bar chef, Adelaide’s), Ferrel Dugas (bar chef, Commander’s Palace), Abigail DeGullo (bar chef, SoBou), Lally Brennan, Ti Brennan drink “A toast to Adelaide, our Auntie Mame.”

If you don’t recognize where they’re seated, it’s Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, named for Adelaide Brennan – big sister to “Miss Ella,” and aunt to Lally and Ti.  The  Swizzle Stick Bar was named for Adelaide’s necklace, Ti explained: “It would dangle in her decollete – a gold swizzle stock would pop out of her necklace and she would lean over and swizzle her Champagne.”

Just as Ella Brennan learned to make cocktails as  a child (Eight years old was old enough to learn, she said. “Before that, you let them put the ice in the glass.”) Adelaide passed that tradition down too, Ti reminisced.

“We learned how to make cocktails at a very early age. Adelaide didn’t wake up too early and was never on time. It was always part of our life.”

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Printed on cocktail napkins at the Swizzle Stick, Adelaide’s personal “vapor remedy.” Ti surmises: “The ‘vapors’ might have been a hangover, or hot flashes.”

After paying my respects at Adelaide’s, we headed over to Commander’s Palace, in NOLA’s grand Garden District, where I enjoyed La Louisienne (equal parts Sazerac rye – natch, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s for good measure, two more NOLA products). Although Ferrel wasn’t behind the bar, she had mentioned earlier that she had started out as a hostess at Commander’s Palace, while “a grumpy Italian guy worked behind the bar.” Ti knew immediately who that was:

“Mr. Leroy!” she exclaimed. “He was the head bartender at Commander’s Palace forever. We have a Manhattan riff named after him. With rhubarb. Sweet vs. bitters, and super strong.” She even remembered him growing up:

“It’s the south, and we were little girls. He was Mr. Leroy. She was Miss Ella. To everyone.”

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La Louisienne, as made at Commander’s Palace.

Drink consumed, it was time to head across the courtyard to meet “Miss Ella.” A uniformed server soon followed, bearing Old Fashioneds on a silver tray:  “An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella.”

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Miss Ella, in her New Orleans sitting room with her Old Fashioned.

Most of what we talked about that July evening is encapsulated in the Wine Enthusiast Q&A. But good stuff always gets lost on the cutting room floor, right? For example, Ella’s fond memory of the Absinthe House, which her brother Owen owned. Although their mother was scandalized that anyone would try to start a business in the nasty French Quarter, her brother helped gentrify the area. Ella called it “sophisticated” – Owen would wear a black suit in the winter, a white suit in the summer.

“The Absinthe House,” she said, dreamily. “That’s where you’d go to have an Absinthe Frappe, and Absinthe Suisesse, at least four different absinthe drinks.” (Modern-day tipplers, try to reconcile this with your current beer-sticky experience at the Absinthe House – I dare you.)  She had a job purchasing whiskey for the Absinthe House, although it was done on the down-low. “Women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street yet,” she said.

Dummies,” I heard Ti snarl, sotto voce.

Frankly, I can’t fault her for that sentiment. After all, just look at her legacy now.

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?

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.

How to open a wax-topped Armagnac bottle (and not lose your mind)

Yes, apparently a primer on how to open Armagnac bottles actually is needed.

I’ve been working on a review column for Wine Enthusiast magazine focused on Armagnac, the famed French brandy (yet, not as famed as Cognac). Usually, I’m pretty well focused on what’s IN the bottle, not the bottle itself. But the (quite substantial) review pile included eight bottles firmly capped with hard wax. No string or other pull cord to help start a strip to remove the wax, and even sharp scissors and hardscrabble fingernails removed only the tiniest portion of wax. How the heck was I going to evaluate the goods if it was like Fort Knox to get in?

Photo: End of Day 1

I vented my frustration on Twitter, and received some helpful suggestions:

@DeliaCabe: Thin wire, like the kind used to slice cheese. How about a wine foil cutter? X-acto knife?

@Virginia_Made: Corkscrew through the wax. When you pull up the wax will tear open.

@Ponchartrain_Pete: Hulk smash? Try butter knife to chip it off.

The corkscrew seemed like a viable idea – it works with wax-topped wines all the time. So I brought my corkscrew to the office and tried. Turns out, there’s a plastic cap under the wax, so I made a couple of gouges, but no further headway.

Photo: end of Day 2 (corkscrew gouge)

I vented on Twitter again. Replies this time veered from sympathetic to sublimely ridiculous (which I welcomed — at this point I needed a laugh!)

@NeilKopplin: Samurai Sword?

@boozedancing: How about a Sabre then? You know. Like they do with champagne. :)

At this point, I also emailed my editors back at Wine Enthusiast. That tells you how desperate I truly was:  I’d like my employers to believe that I am competent enough to open a bottle (surely that’s the absolute bare minimum for doing my job, yes?). Luckily, Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Director Lauren Buzzeo was cool-headed enough to suggest that I reach out to one of the Armagnac producers and ask how to open the bottles without damaging them. Christine Cooley of Heavenly Spirits, an importer of  various Armagnac brands, provided this helpful reply:

Honestly, depending where I find myself, I just gently bang the top of the bottle against a metal table foot or on a cement floor, or I also take a metal corkscrew and hit the wax gently until it breaks and chips, then I clean the wax and blow on it to ensure that no wax or wax dust can enter the bottle. In the bars, they usually put the top of the bottle under the espresso steamer and the wax softens enough so the bartender can cut it with a knife.

While I don’t have an espresso steamer handy at my office, I tried the “bang-it” method on Day 3 - and it worked! Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Score the edge of the wax with a sharp knife.

Step 2: Gently bang the wax-covered bottle against a metal object (here, the edge of a stainless steel sink).

Step 3: Use a knife to loosen any remaining pieces of wax.

Success!

Now – what really baffled me was the bottles with SCREW CAPS beneath the wax – see below. WTF?????

So – was it worth all the effort to break through the hard wax coverings? For the most part, yes — many of these turned out to be some of the best Armagnacs I had the opportunity to sample. However, I would have enjoyed the brandy just as much with an ordinary cork or other closure that didn’t require crowd-sourcing to open. 

(P.S., the Wine Enthusiast issue with the Armagnac ratings drops at the end of December.)