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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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A Tequila Sunrise for grown-ups

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The first mocktail I ever had was a Virgin Tequila Sunrise:  orange juice with a bit of grenadine poured on top for a dark-to-light effect, but no tequila. Around age 12, we’d order them non-stop at bar and bat mitzvahs, until the harassed bartender would pretend to run out of grenadine. (PS: no, I don’t count the Shirley Temple, which is not a “mock” drink – if anything, it’s the rum-soaked Shirley Temple Black that’s the “mock” version of the original).

Later on in college, the standard Tequila Sunrise was one of the first drinks I learned to order by name. It was fruity and it wasn’t beer, and that was all that mattered at that point in time, well before the craft cocktail movement brought better options even to college dive bars.

And that was probably the last time I sipped a Tequila Sunrise — until about a month ago. While researching this story for The Wall Street Journal about revitalized 1970s cocktails, I found my glass full of minty green Grasshoppers and vanilla-citrus Harvey Wallbangers. And this updated classic, which didn’t make it into the final article, but is worth making at home. It speaks volumes about how much has changed in recent decades:  non-mixto tequila, fresh-squeezed juices, and pomegranate juice or syrups instead of sugary fake grenadine. Finally – it’s a Tequila Sunrise you don’t have to be embarrassed to drink as a grown-up.

Tequila Sunrise

Created by Don Lee for Golden Cadillac

1 ½ ounces Siete Leguas Reposado Tequila

1 ounce Passion Fruit juice

1 ounce Orange Juice

1/2 ounce Pomegranate juice

In a cocktail shaker, combine the tequila, passion fruit and orange juices with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a Collins glass over pebbled ice. Gently pour the pomegranate juice over the rounded bowl of a spoon to “float” the juice over the top of the drink. Garnish with a half orange wheel.

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For Burns Night: DIY Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

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

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

Pre-batched, bottled cocktails are officially a thing.  Bars across the nation are mixing up batches of cocktails ahead of time.  (I’ve even received a couple of press releases for bars that are offering nothing but – are bartenders obsolete?) You can even buy pre-batched cocktails by the bottle at liquor stores.

Or you can go the DIY route, for a party or to keep in the fridge at home after a long day. Here’s my recipe for making Bobby Burns cocktails by the bottle. Whip up a batch for Burns Night this weekend.

 

Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman

Serves 8

Looking for an excuse to chase away the late-January blahs? Celebrate Burns Night on January 25. This drink—perfect for Scotch lovers—is named for the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.”

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  Scotch
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  sweet vermouth (such as Carpano Antica)
5 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons)  water
2 ounces (1/4 cup) Benedictine
8 lemon twists, for garnish

In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine the Scotch, vermouth, water, and Bénédictine and stir well. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-ml liquor bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until chilled.

To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each glass with a lemon peel.

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

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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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Your ultimate New Year’s Eve cocktail: French 75 Punch

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

Happy New Year!  Here’s why this is the drink for your New Year’s Eve bash:

1. It’s sparkling, and you know you need something bubbly for toasting at midnight.

2. Between the fancy block of ice and simple orange-wheel slices, It looks great in a punch bowl. But it’s easy to put together and difficult to screw up. If all else fails, just pour in more bubbly.

3. As the ice melts over the course of the evening, the punch mellows a bit, but never waters down (thank you, gin), so the party keeps going until Auld Lang Syne.

French 75 Punch

From Cocktails for a Crowd

Serves 8

Total Volume: 7 3/4 cups (without ice)

The French 75 is a classic cocktail usually made with cognac, though gin is sometimes substituted, and that’s the spirit I call for in this recipe. It typically isn’t served as a punch but works quite well in this format. Serve this fresh, fragrant variation at any occasion that calls for toasting.

A simple chunk of ice, such as one frozen in a loaf pan or bowl will suffice, but for a special, decorative touch, consider freezing orange wheels inside the ice.

16 ounces (2 cups)  London dry gin
8 ounces (1 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 ounces (3/4 cup) simple syrup
1/2 teaspoon orange bitters
32 ounces (4 cups) dry champagne or other sparkling dry white wine, chilled
1 large ice block
8 orange wheels, for garnish

In a punch bowl, combine the gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters and stir well.

Just before serving, pour in the champagne and stir gently. Add the ice and garnish with the orange wheels.

To serve, ladle into punch glasses.

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10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014

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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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You’re invited to the Drink.Think NYC – 12/3 at Jimmy’s No. 43!

Photo credit: Jill Howe, for Drink.Think

Photo credit: Jill Howe, for Drink.Think

Drink.Think is returning to New York! Come out to hear drink and food writers read from their work about beverages, enjoy drinks at the bar, and otherwise celebrate our favorite literary muse – booze!

Date & Time:  Tuesday, December 3, 2013.  The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.

Location:  Jimmy’s No. 43, 43 E. 7th St., New York, NY

Admission: FREE admission. Drinks and food will be available for purchase; books will be available for purchase and signing (hello, holiday gift list!).

Featured Readers:  Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:

Hope to see you there!

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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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Come out and see me sometime – classes, book parties and more

Lots of events coming up in the next few weeks! Please mark your calendar and come out to say hello.

Sunday, October 27 - “Foodie & the Beast” show on Federal News Radio, Washington DC:  I’ll be making drinks (for the entire studio!) and talking about Cocktails for a Crowd with charming host Nycci Nellis on the “Foodie and the Beast” show on Federal News Radio. (11 am-noon. If you’re in the DC area, listen live at 1500 AM; if not, find the audio online here. ) 

Monday, October 28 - Lecture on The Secret Financial Life of Food, at The World Bank, Washington DC:  Q&A with moderator Yurie Tanimichi Hoberg, Senior Economist in the Agriculture and Environmental Services Department of the World Bank. (12:30-2 pm,  at The InfoShop at The World Bank in Washington, DC. Open to the public; bring your ID.)

Tuesday, November 5 – Fresh Ideas for the Holidays cocktail party, with Erica Duecy, The Beacon Bar, NY:  Don’t settle for the same-old mulled wine at your holiday party. Join Erica Duecy, author of the newly-released book Storied Sips and me for fresh cocktail ideas to spice things up. We’ll have live jazz, passed nibbles and cocktails from both of our books, so come thirsty! (6-8 pm, Hotel Beacon NYC, 2130 Broadway at 75th St. Please RSVP: shari@bayerpublicrelations.com.)

Friday, December 6 - Cocktails for a Crowd – Holiday Entertaining class at Astor Center, NY:  A hands-on cocktail-making class! Whether you’re planning an elegant holiday soiree or a laid-back New Year’s Eve gathering with friends, learn how to make big-batch cocktails to impress your guests, without breaking a sweat. Don’t wait too long to sign up, the August class sold out quickly.  (6:30-8 pm, December 6 at Astor Center. Purchase tickets here.)

Saturday, December 14 Holiday Cocktails for a Crowd class at Mohonk Mountain House:  As part of Mohonk’s annual “How To” Holiday Weekend (Dec 13-15), learn to mix and make traditional holiday cocktails to get everyone in the spirit. (5 pm, December 14 at Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, NY. For reservations, please call 855-883-3798.)

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Halloween how-to: ice spheres with gummy worms, for creepy cocktails

20131013-175434.jpgIf you’re looking for a different way to serve a favorite dram (or a batched cocktail like a bottled Bobby Burns on the rocks) for Halloween, here’s an option: ice spheres with gummy worms. Here’s how to do it:

You’ll need:

1. An ice sphere mold – or multiple molds, for serving multiple guests. Buy them at Muji or specialty bar supply stores like KegWorks. Plan on making 2 ice spheres per guest, if you can.

2. Distilled water. (makes slightly clearer ice vs tap water)

3. Gummy worms. Alternatives: gummy spiders, eyeballs or other candy or trinkets. Just make sure whatever you’re freezing inside is non-toxic.

Open the mold and press the gummy worms into the mold. Loosely layer a couple of more worms on top of that, leaving enough room for water to expand when it freezes.

Pour water into the mold, close and allow to freeze sold – overnight is best.

When you’re ready to serve, release the spheres from the mold. If necessary, run the sphere briefly under running water to smooth off any rough edges – this will also bring some of the “worms” to the surface, a desirably creepy effect. Place in a glass and pour your favorite cocktail or whiskey.

Of course, you can experiment with other options too: a single worm curled within each pocket of a standard ice cube tray, for example. Or a new friend at Salt & Sundry suggested this idea: fill a rubber glove (the kind that comes without powder inside) with juice and gummy worms. Freeze and peel off the glove. Couldn’t you just imagine that one floating in the center of a punch bowl at your next Halloween party?

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