Tag Archives: Wine Enthusiast

Three things I’ve learned about…Non-London Dry Gin

Ready for Gin & Tonic season?  The April 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine will include (among other things) my review column on Non London Dry Style Gin!  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. New gins are coming to market in leaps and bounds. Long after I’d filed my review copy, I still continued to hear about new and intriguing gins, and eventually persuaded WE’s editors to run a story on “New Generation Gins.” Now…will we find enough drinkers to consume all of these gins? I’m skeptical, since the gin market runs far behind vodka, whiskey, and many other spirits in terms of market share. But its devotees are passionate, including the mixology community, so I’m hopeful.

2. Those damn botanicals again. As with other gin categories, botanicals (those natural “flavorings” like herbs and spices) figured into the mix. My favorite finding: Edinburgh Gin includes milk thistle among its botanicals. This is the same botanical that Elana Effrat, aka @theboozemuse, advised me to take before Tales of the Cocktail last year. As a hangover preventative! Nothing like having a hangover cure in your booze, is there?

3. There’s a fine line between gins considered “London Dry” and not. When I covered London Dry style gin last year, the first order of business was to figure out what the heck “London Dry style” meant. Essentially, it boiled down to juniper as the dominant botanical — and that was what differentiated it from the sweeter Old Tom style, the stronger-flavored Plymouth style, flavored/infused gins, aged “golden gins,” and Dutch genevers/jenevers.  

But really, where is the line of demarcation? A number of the Non London Dry gins still had a good dose of juniper, though overall they were more full-bodied, robust, and in some cases sweeter than traditional London Drys.

If you have a favorite gin (or gin cocktail!) I’d love to hear about it. Personally, I made a lot of Fitty-Fitty martinis (half gin, half dry vermouth…”50/50,” get it?) after the gin review sessions.

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5 things I’ve learned about…Irish Whiskey

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the March 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine will include (among other things) my review column on Irish Whiskey!  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. Compared to just about every other whiskey, Irish whiskies are lighter and smoother. In general, they don’t have intense peat, intense caramel from barrel aging, or deep dark colors (golden vs. amber). At their best, they have a gentle finesse. Many are honeyed (vs. burnt toffee flavors) or have floral or even light tropical fruit flavors.

2.  Irish whiskeys are building quite a fan base on American shores — the category racked up an astonishing 25% increase in U.S. sales between June 2010 and 2011, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Damn!! What other spirits category can claim that…beyond candy-flavored vodka?

3.  So what’s the appeal? Frankly, Irish whiskey is approachable and affordable, but still complex enough to be interesting.

4. But it appears that no one has told the Irish whiskey distillers that they’re hot stuff.  Scotch tends to be accompanied by reams of marketing materials and boastful claims on the back of the bottle; American whiskey is pretty macho in its claims too, and tends to have flashier packaging. Marketing materials and bottle labels for Irish whiskey don’t tell you much, and the bottles generally are plain. Attention PR and marketing pros!

5. Ironically, just as bartenders are rediscovering Irish whiskey, they’re finding that very few are used in classic cocktails. No worries, they’re happy to create new ones. The Redbreast 12-year is called for in a handful of new craft cocktail recipes, but Jameson seems to be called for most of all. This time of year in particular, look for the cheerful abomination known as “The Pickleback”:  a shot of the Jameson basic blend, served with a “back” of pickle juice.

If you have a favorite Irish whiskey or cocktail featuring Irish whiskey, please add a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Four things I’ve learned about…Orange Liqueurs

The February 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Orange Liqueurs.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. It’s the “Bartender’s Ketchup.” At least, that’s what one wise-acre bartender I know calls it.  In other words, it’s sweet, versatile, and gets dashed into everything to sweeten and round out drinks.

2. Orange liqueur sweetens roughly 1 in 4 drinks. That’s not an official statistic; that’s my estimate after leafing through I-don’t-know-how-many cocktail menus. In craft cocktail havens, it sweetens fewer, as bartenders diversify with simple syrup, agave nectar, fruit juices and other sweeteners. In sports bars or other less mixological joints, orange liqueur might be dashed into drinks more frequently.

3. I didn’t realize (but should have) that the base of these liqueurs can be anything – brandy, particularly Cognac, is most common, but I also tried tequila/agave and rum based orange liqueurs. It probably makes sense to complement, say, a tequila-based drink with a tequila-based orange liqueur.

4. Most orange liqueurs on the market are Curacaos. It turns out, Curacao is a generic term used when the bitter oranges are grown on the Caribbean island of Curacao. That family includes a number of brand names you’ve likely heard before:  triple sec and Cointreau, for example. The infamous blue curacao also is part of this family. (As an aside – I tried a new “dry curacao” from Ferrand, which I really dug.) 

PS – How do you pronounce it, anyhow?  CURE-a-sow. Though I’ve also heard some more pretentious types add a mysterious “l” on to the end to pronounce it more like “cure-a-cell.” Hmm. I have absolutely no idea where that “l” sound comes from.

If you know — or if you have a favorite orange liqueur or drink that features the Bartender’s Ketchup, I’d love to hear about it, please post a comment!

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Five things I’ve learned about…American Brandy

The December 31, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on American Brandy.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. American Brandy is an underappreciated, or at least under-publicized, category. A handful are every bit as good as French Cognacs – but the prices are much, much gentler. (I also just received a press release for an intriguing-sounding oak-aged Canadian brandy….could this be yet another nascent category? UPDATE 5/7/12:  Apparently, not a new category, at least not yet. Went back to the release – and it’s for an American brandy with a French-Canadian name.)

2. Many of these brandies are made from interesting wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Semillon. But not all brandies are grape – in particular, there are some amazing American apple brandies, such as Laird’s. And although I didn’t sample any for this review, the category also includes a number of good peach and other fruit brandies.

3. Unaged fruit brandy = eau-de-vie.

 4. Some brandies (such as those from Paul Masson) are produced in California, but are then transported to Kentucky, where they age in former Bourbon barrels. As a result, many have lovely Bourbon-like caramel and vanilla notes.

 5. It turns out that Americans have a long history of brandy innovation, dating all the way back to the original maverick:  George Washington. Though better known as a general and statesman, he also distilled his own rye whiskey and brandy. In fact, according to the Mt. Vernon Museum, the year Washington died, in 1799, his plantation account book shows he had 60 gallons of peach brandy and 67 gallons of apple brandy sent to his main house from the distillery.

Got a favorite American brandy, or brandy cocktail? I’d love to hear about it.

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Five things I’ve Learned About…Single-Malt Scotch

The December 15, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Single Malt Scotch.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. I now understand why people go bananas over the whiskey category, and Scotch in particular. It’s mind-blowing what can be accomplished with grain, water, and barrel wood…and nothing else.

2. This was the category that finally got me to spit during tastings. SO many of these are uber-aged, and have such high alcohol levels, that it became a necessity. It was a survival technique; otherwise I’d have been sozzled during every tasting session.

3. The scoring range was totally different from say, flavored vodkas — significantly more in the 90+ area, and very very few below 85. Although I think what I was sent generally was top of the line (in some cases I know it was), the takeaway is that there’s a surplus of excellence in the single-malt Scotch category.

4. I also had the opportunity to sample the most expensive spirit I’ve ever reviewed: $1300. It was a highly limited edition, but based purely on the blind tastings, much more reasonably-priced spirits were just as good or better. (sorry!)

5. The biggest surprise of all to me – I don’t hate peat!  It turns out, I just hate heavy-handed peat — that overpowering smokiness that I imagine must be like licking an ashtray.

Got a favorite single malt Scotch? I’d love to hear about it. Comment away…

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Five things I’ve Learned About… Aged Rum

The December 1, 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Aged Rum.  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. First, I learned that I really, really like aged rum. In general, the rums I tried were AMAZING, and I haven’t had such a good overall crop since the Bourbon category (and the high scores reflected that.)

However…. I do think this got “gamed” a little bit. In other words, I suspect that I was sent cream-of-the-crop reserve rums in many cases, rather than middle-of-the-line specimens. But I’m not really complaining. :)

2. Whenever possible, I try to arrange tastings to compare apples to apples – ie, for tequilas, it made sense to taste all the blancos together, then the reposados, etc. But it’s awfully hard to segregate rums. At first, I thought age would make sense – but many rums are made using a blend of rums of varying ages, and terms like “VSOP” and “anejo” are used pretty much willy nilly, which must piss off cognac & tequila makers. After a while, I understood why in his seminar at Tales, rum expert Ed Hamilton advised, “don’t get hung up by the age of your rum.”

3. It didn’t make sense to arrange tastings by provenance, either, since rums come from all over the Caribbean and Latin America. However, if I had specifically asked for rums from say, Martinique, or Puerto Rico, I could have done it. Lesson:  I’ll be smarter in future rum tastings and will ask for rums from a specific place.

4. Soft, softer, softest. Sometimes we refer to spirits as having a “soft” or “velvety” texture. But  I’ve never felt anything quite like aged rum for feather-bed softness on the tongue. It sounds like a cliché, but my raw tasting notes for one rum in particular said, “like sticking my tongue in feathers.” Not an appetizing description if you think about it too closely, but it was super-velvety. (The rum was Angostura 1919.)

5. Many rums were aged (or finished) in barrels that previously held Cognac, Sherry, Bourbon etc etc. You can really taste it in the spirit, too, which is lovely. The type of wood used varies too – French, American oak, etc. I knew this was increasingly common in whiskey, but I didn’t realize how prevalent the practice had become in rum too.

Do you have a favorite aged rum?  I’d love to hear about it. (you know where to leave a reply…)

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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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5 Things I’ve Learned About…Blended Scotch Whiskey

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

1. We hear constantly about single malt Scotches, but not much about blends. Some of them are pretty darn good. (of course, some not so much.)

2. What is blended Scotch?  The Scotch Whisky Association provides downright draconian guidelines. For starters, It comes from Scotland.  Yes, this seems obvious, but I think it bears noting that the “blend” doesn’t mean whiskey from other countries can be blended in there. It’s all Scotch whisky (the Scots drop the ‘e’), and it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. However — it may be bottled in other countries.

3.  (aka “2a”) There’s at least one Single Malt Scotch in blended Scotches. The pesky SWA has more to mandate here: Blended Scotch mixes together one or more Single Malt Scotches, often with one or more Single Grain Scotches. For this tasting, blends ranged up to 40 different whiskies in a single bottle (that was Johnny Walker Black Label). A blend that contains only Single Malts is called a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky.

4. (aka “2b”) Wait, so now I have to figure out the difference between Single Malt and Single Grain Scotches? Damn you, SWA. Fine:

–Malt whiskey is made from malted barley (grain that’s been germinated or sprouted), and is distilled in old-fashioned pot stills, considered an essential part of the whisky’s flavor and character.

–By comparison, grain whisky, which mixes together malted barley with unmalted grains (primarily corn), is distilled in a continuous still – a more efficient technology than old-school pot stills, but many experts say the resulting liquor is correspondingly less flavorful.

(*Screeching to a halt*)  You know what?  I’m changing my “what I learned” points here:

3. (Revised) The Scotch Whisky Association is a pain in the butt.

4. (Revised)  It’s a good thing that I have a copy of Gaz Regan’s “Bartender’s Bible” to help clarify the finer points of Scotch nuisance appreciation.

5. Where was I before that peevish digression? Right. Bartenders are understandably reluctant to mix rare Single Malts into cocktails. But they are less skittish about mixing more readily available –and often more affordable– blended Scotches into classic drinks like the Blood and Sand or the Bobby Burns.

…Or to create original new cocktails. In fact, at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May, bartender Jason Asher created the Northshore Cocktail for my “Whiskey is the New Black” seminar, made with Peat Monster from Compass Box. It turned out to be a lovely, smoky riff on the tiki genre. Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, and be sure to to curse, I mean toast, the SWA when you drink.

Northshore Cocktail

By Jason Asher

1/2 ounce Hum liqueur

3/4 ounce Monin almond or orgeat syrup

1/2 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce Peat Monster whiskey

Serve on rocks, garnish w/ lemon peel

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5 Things I’ve Learned About…Spiced Rum

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

1. Spiced rum has a bad reputation. It’s fun. It can be too sweet. You knew someone in college who tossed back too many Captain-and-Cokes. But that doesn’t stop many from taking spiced rum very seriously.  Maybe too seriously. 

2. Dry vs. sweet spiced rums. I didn’t realize there were different styles until I started tasting. But it’s a rather pronounced difference, and the “dry style” spiced rums were particularly nuanced and delicious.

3. Spiced rum is made with actual spices. Not just flavorings. Vanilla is perhaps the most commonly found spice. However, cocktail geeks mostly  disapprove of “vanilla-forward” rums. Taste thoughtfully, and you may detect spices like clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Ginger and black pepper also may appear. One particularly spicy Cajun brand also used cayenne pepper.

4. Spiced rum is not part of the classic cocktail canon. Old school tiki bars would make their own. Some newfangled tiki lounges still do. (I’m lookin’ at you, Martin Cate!)

5. How to use spiced rum in cocktails. Tiki driks. Hot drinks like spiced cider. The Cable Car is a new classic. In other words, spiced rum is more versatile than I had thought. Check out some drink recipes here.

If you have a favorite spiced rum or cocktail made with spiced rum, I’d love to hear about it!

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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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