Pictorial: celebrity signatures at Tio Pepe

I just returned from Spain, including a visit to sherry producer Tio Pepe in Jerez. They have a lovely tradition there, encouraging important visitors to sign the barrels (which are painted a chalkboard-like black to highlight any leaks). I took a few quick snaps of the signatures, which span celebrities (Lana Turner, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles), artists (Picasso – the only one to sign in color), wine personalities (Hugh Johnson) and political figures (Margaret Thatcher, Chelsea Clinton), as well as musicians, athletes and many others. Scroll through and see how many you recognize.

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10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014

crystal_ball

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.

How sherry came back from the dead, and why it isn’t going away anytime soon

image credit: Kara Newman

Sherry and jamon pairing at Mockingbird Hill (Washington, DC)

A few weeks back, while in Washington DC, I had the good fortune to spend an evening at Mockingbird Hill, a shiny-new, sherry-centric bar. In the company of owner, bartender and sherry-phile Derek Brown, I enjoyed jamon and jerez pairings, and we chatted about why bartenders are having a particularly torrid love affair with sherry these days. Sherry’s not exactly the new kid on the block, I noted, so why is it having a revival now?

“There’s been no good reason to know about sherry until now,” Brown admitted. But during a trip to Spain, he fell hard for the fortified wine. “I just fell in love with it,” he continued. “It’s like the song that gets stuck in your head, and you can’t forget it.”

Sherry has been very much on my mind right now, in part because I interviewed bartenders about sherry for a Wine Enthusiast article on the topic (my WE colleague Mike Schachner wrote the feature, I wrote the sidebars about cocktail usage).

But again – why the revival now? Schach makes this keen observation:

As long as I’ve been covering Sherry, the message out of Andalucía has been that Sherry is being rediscovered en masse. Or, that Sherry producers, believing that their wines are about to take off, are mounting yet another global marketing campaign. Or, simply, that Sherry is the most underappreciated, yet perfect wine to pair with food.

But according to tastemakers—i.e., the sommeliers who sell Sherry daily—there’s something different this time around, adding traction to the latest movement.

Here’s what’s different:  this time, the bartenders are firmly on board, not just the somms.

This wave of the revival has much to do with cocktails. When I talked with  Dan Greenbaum, co-owner and bar manager at The Beagle here in NY (another sherry-enthusiastic outpost), he astutely noted that “historically, Sherry has had a huge place in the evolution of cocktails.”  Indeed, sherry first entered my radar screen as a cocktail ingredient, when I had a sherry cobbler at Bellocq in New Orleans, almost two years ago.

Greenbaum praised sherry’s versatility –  a refrain I’ve now heard from many other bartenders as well. It’s not a one-sherry-fits-all situation. Rather, it seems like there’s a sherry for every mood, from the briny, delicate acidity of fino and manzanilla, to the nuttier, more oxidized notes of amontillado and oloroso, to the sweet, raisin-like richness of Pedro Ximenez. It folds into a wide range of cocktails.

But this isn’t purely a bartender story. They may have beat the drums most loudly, but sommeliers have re-discovered how well sherry pairs with a wide range of foods (as I learned at Mockingbird), from savory to sweet. It’s the confluence of both bars and restaurants, cocktail and food culture, that has reinvigorated sherry as a category, elevates it beyond mere trend, and will give sherry some staying power going forward.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s a shortlist of some of the sherry bottlings that bars and restaurants are loving right now – and there are some big guns on this list. For more about sherry, go read the Wine Enthusiast article for an informative overview and bottle recommendations (from Schach) and cocktail recipes that feature sherry (from me).

La Ina Fino: At The Beagle in New York, co-owner and bar manager Dan Greenbaum frequently mixes La Ina into cocktails – young, bone-dry and crisp, it stands up to vermouth, amaros and other spirits, he says. It’s also a fine sipper alongside light nibbles such as Marcona almonds.

La Guita Manzanilla: Spanish resto Manzanilla in New York (recently named to Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants list) showcases the mouthwatering saline and bright apple notes of this sherry in its signature Manzanilla Martini.

Pedro Romero Amontillado:  Crowned with fruit and plenty of crushed ice, this is Bellocq’s pick for their signature sherry cobbler. Off-dry and featuring notes of hazelnut and spice, it’s a natural companion to cheeses and savory appetizers, too.

Toro Albala ‘Don PX’ Pedro Ximenez: “PX,” as Pedro Ximenez is often shorthanded, is noted as the sweeter side of the sherry spectrum. This bottling is served by the glass at  Vera, a tapas restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop area, usually as a dessert pairing – but on the savory side, keep an eye out for the PX syrup drizzled over Vera’s cocoa-dusted foie gras, too.

Lustau East India Solera: With its tawny hue and appealing mix of rich fig, raisin and cocoa, consider pairing this bottling with a traditional Spanish flan. Yountville, CA’s famous French Laundry includes this bottling on its extensive wine list.

Talking and tippling with the 3 “Vermouth-kateers”

The "Vermouth-kateers":  Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

The “Vermouth-kateers”: Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

Julia Child splashed French vermouth into much of her cooking. James Bond added Italian vermouth to his famous “shaken, not stirred,” martinis. But American-made vermouth is what’s now taking the cocktail world by storm.

So on April 8, it was my pleasure to moderate a panel of West Coast wine and vermouth producers, “Fountain of Vermouth,” at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in San Francisco.

The three panelists- who jokingly refer to themselves as “vermouth-kateers“-  were Neil Kopplin, a former bartender and current partner of Portland, Oregon’s Imbue Cellars, who makes his Bittersweet Vermouth with Willamette Valley Pinot Gris; Carl Sutton, owner of Sutton Cellars in Sonoma, Calif.; and Andrew Quady, a Madera, California-based winemaker who also produces vermouth under the Vya label.

Quady first provided the attendees with a definition of the aromatized, fortified “wine-but more than just wine,” including an overview of some of the botanicals used to flavor it.

That was followed by a lively debate between Kopplin and Sutton, who have divergent philosophies about what makes for good vermouth. Sutton said he starts with both wine and brandy that is “absolutely neutral” in character: “I want a completely blank canvas, something I can project onto.” He then adds as many as 17 ingredients for flavoring.

Kopplin, for his part, insisted that since the wine makes up 75-80% of what’s in the glass, it should be “the bright shining star” that the botanicals are selected to complement. He fully expects his vermouth to change from year to year, he added, since he switches up the base wine with each vintage. This year, he’s using local Pinot Gris; next year, the base will be Sémillon.

To cap it all off,  Sutton mixed up a round of Bamboo cocktails for the crowd – here’s the recipe:

Bamboo Cocktail

1½ oz. Lustau amontillado sherry

1½ oz. Sutton Cellars dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir together all ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.   Garnish with a lemon peel twist.

Cocktail recipe: East River Defense

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My article, Your Cocktail’s Been A-Saltedappears in the March/April 2013 issue of Arrive Magazine, which –for once!– I got to read in hard copy format as I trundled along from NY to Baltimore and back again last week on Amtrak.

Gotta love any publication that lets me get away with a pun like that in the headline!

I’ve been looking forward to showcasing the East River Defense cocktail in the photo above ever since I first went to Northern Spy, a sweet little locavore spot in the East Village about a year ago.  I was there to interview Co-owner and Beverage Director Chris Ronis for a Wine Enthusiast feature about Aperitif Cocktails, and although it wasn’t part of the article, this was the drink I walked away thinking about — it had the strangest sweet-salty-tart-refreshing combination.

Northern Spy doesn’t have a full liquor license — they can serve only wine and beer. Luckily, that includes fortified wines (like sherry) and aperitif wines, so the drinks list still is robust and interesting.  In part, it’s that way because Ronis brought in mixologist Erick Castro to create the drinks. (If Castro’s name sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because you’ve been reading about his buzz-y new bar in San Diego, Polite Provisions.)

Although Ronis told me that this is based on a classic Cobbler, I think it’s even closer to the Paloma, a tequila drink made with grapefruit soda. Either way, it’s a perfect cocktail to transition into early spring.

East River Defense

Created by Erick Castro for Northern Spy ((New York, NY).  Nubbly “sea-salted ice” plus briny Manzanilla sherry gives the drink a refreshing salt-air tang.

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 ounces Manzanilla sherry

1 ounce lemon juice

1 ounce simple syrup

3 dashes Scrappy’s grapefruit bitters

Soda water

Scoop ice into a Collins glass, and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. In a cocktail shaker, combine sherry, lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters. Shake well, and strain into glass over the sea-salted ice. Top with soda water. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge and serve with a straw.