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!

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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.

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.

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.)

Cognac and “Carbinacion”

Take a large mouthful [of cognac], but don’t swallow it now,” read the instructions in the letter to legendary writer Ernest Hemingway. “Swish it around in your mouth half a minute or so. Hold it. Now exhale through your nose– completely deflate your lungs. That’s right. Then swallow the cognac to get it out of the way. Open your mouth. Quickly! Inhale as deeply as you can.”

This odd little tippling technique is called Carburation, or in Spanish, Carbinacion, and I learned about it while reading “To Have and Have Another:  A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” a new book from cocktail historian Philip Greene coming this November. It’s an educational and thirst-provoking read that has had me making Papa Dobles all week long.

Although Hemingway clearly loved his rum (and his absinthe, and his gin — Papa travelled often, and drank locally), it was this technique for drinking cognac that stopped me cold. I’ve never heard of this before.

Greene sets the scene in 1930s Havana, where Hemingway received this advice from Grant Mason, “a wealthy executive with Pan American Airlines, which had capitalized upon Prohibition by opening air routes to Havana.”

Mason announced that he had “a new way to drink called carburetion…based on the principle of carburetion in good engines,” Greene explains. By following this technique, Mason insisted, the brandy “enters your lungs in a fine mist that way. Goes into your blood stream faster, like a caruretor that gives the best mixture for burning in an engine.”

Now, I don’t know much about engines, but I thought I knew a thing or two about drinking. For example, it’s common in wine and spirits tasting to take a sip, swallow (or spit) and then exhale gently, a technique that somehow amplifies the flavors still lingering on the tongue and palate. But the sip-exhale-swallow-inhale box step is a new one on me.

So I tried it.

Greene specifies that “good Cognac” should be used for Carburetion, so I broke out a pour of Ferrand’s Selection des Anges. Sip. Exhale. Swallow. Inhale. The book notes that as Hemingway and friends “embraced caruretion with gusto…soon the room was filled with exhaling sounds like those of dying porpoises.”

Perhaps I was too dainty — taking a tentative sip, and exhaling not at all like a dying porpoise– and I didn’t exactly achieve Cognac nirvana through Carburetion. However, it did accomplish a fantastic job of aerating the spirit in my mouth, enhancing the flavors and elongating the finish in an intriguing way. And certainly I can see how much fun the acoustics could become with a room full of friends all trying the same noisy experiment.

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.