IACP finalist!

Exciting news to share – one of my articles, Cognac’s Sultry Side, was named as a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in the “Writing About Beverages” category. This prestigious award is given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The full list of finalists is posted here – let’s just say I’m in VERY good company. The names on the list include some major culinary and literary talent, as well as friends and acquaintances I’m delighted to see receive some well-deserved recognition. I’m truly honored to be part of this group.

Here’s a look at my article, which appeared in Inspirato Magazine, a high-end travel publication.

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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.)

5 things I’ve learned about…Liqueurs and Cordials

The October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine included my review column on Liqueurs and Cordials!  The issue is currently on the newsstand, or you can view the digital format (subscribers only).  Here’s what I learned:

1. This is one freaking huge category. In retrospect, I was foolish in flinging the door wide open. But since I’d already done a review column on orange liqueurs and another on coffee/tea liqueurs and still another on the pleasantly bitter/herbal liqueurs that fall within the Aperitif spirits category, I figured there couldn’t be all that much left to try.

Boy, was I wrong:  the grand total on my tasting shelf? 99 bottles of liqueurs on the wall (nope, not 100)!

2. In fact, there were so many, I had to divvy them into categories in order to attack them with some efficiency and meet my deadline. In the end, it was a useful exercise. I decided the basic liqueur categories included  Fruit & Floral (subcategory for limoncello); Whiskey-based; “Dessert-like” (subcategory for cream liqueurs); and Herbal. Of course, plenty more categories exist, but this system got me through.

3. What’s the difference between a liqueur and a cordial? Apparently, nothing. According to Gaz Regan’s “The Bartender’s Bible,” it’s a matter of geography:  “In America, a cordial, usually served as an after-dinner drink, is what the rest of the world calls a liqueur — a sweetened liquor.” I did notice that the sweeter, dessert-like bottles (chocolate, coffee, cream liqueurs) were slightly more likely to be labeled “cordials” compared to fruity or herbal counterparts.

4. Krauterliqueur. This category — apparently an old German name for herbal liqueurs, many of which date back to the 1800s, 1600s, even the 1500s– was new to me, and a delightful surprise. They seem like Germany’s answer to Italy’s amaro category. My favorites included the fruity-spiced digestif Killepitsch, the lightly herbal Schwartzhog, and the refreshingly berry-sweet/bitter mix of The Bitter Truth E*X*R.

5. Bright pink drinks. These were a less pleasant surprise:  the wide range of variations on “French vodka, blood orange liqueur, and passion fruit,” each marked with a similarly lurid neon pink hue and mildly racy name (Intrigue Pink; Kinky Liqueur; X-Rated Fusion Liqueur).  What I object to is not the liqueurs — the grapefruit-cocktail flavor was fine — but the sameness. If a dozen “Krauterliqueurs” can be so complex and diverse, so can bottled pink fruit drinks.

If you have a favorite liqueur, I’d love to hear about it! I invite you to comment below.

A story three years in the making

The “Cooperage in Spirits” story that became the cover story for the August 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal magazine was nearly three years in the making.

Three years! Some whiskey spends less time in barrels than that.

For me, it all started at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, when Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace gave a small group of journalists an early peek at what was about to become the Single Oak Project:  an experiment that painstakingly isolated variables including mash bill, aging time and environment, distillation techniques and barrel types in pursuit of creating “The Holy Grail” of Bourbon.

A total of 1400 experimental barrels were created — many with only seemingly minute differences. The experimental bottlings were slated for release starting in 2011, and many since have been widely lauded.

“We’re considering American, Canadian, Mongolian, and Japanese oak,” in addition to the standard French oak, Brown told us, explaining that some added sweet notes (Canadian), while others added spice (Mongolian).  “We’re looking at different oak grains, and different barrel sizes.”

To drive the point home, we did a comparative tasting of whiskeys aged in fine- and wider-grained barrels. The former showed a more-developed caramel character, while the latter had a hotter feel because more liquid had evaporated through the grain, leaving a more concentrated, higher-proof spirit in the barrel.

It was an eye-opener.

This article afforded me the luxury of diving deep into this admittedly geeky topic — learning why cooperage expert Brad Boswell says “60 to 70 percent of a spirit’s aroma, flavor, and color comes from the barrels.”

4 tips on cocktail book publishing – MCC recap

At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I organized and moderated a seminar, “Is There a Book Idea on Your Cocktail Menu?” As an author (and now, a hired gun for book proposals and book co-writing), this is a topic close to my heart.

My seminar was part of the “Industry Invitational,” meaning the room was packed with those in the trade. And I do mean the room was PACKED — I suspect that had a lot do do with the all-star panel, which included Jim Meehan of PDT and the PDT Cocktail Book, and Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters — both fresh off of their respective James Beard wins! — Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal, bartenders and authors, and Hang Time publisher Lori Narlock.

A few key takeaways from the panel:

1. Be prepared to write a lengthy book proposal.  This is the document you need to sell a book to a traditional publishing house — it outlines the scope of the book. Jim’s proposal ran about 20 pages (that’s about the same length my proposals tend to run for cookbook projects too). Meanwhile, Brad created a detailed book proposal that was 60 pages long. 

Lori Narlock explained why the proposal is key:  “That’s your blueprint,” she said. And from an publisher’s standpoint, “if you can’t write a proposal, you can’t write a book. You need to commit.”

2. Your agent is not your mom. Apparently some people get that confused.

3. Options exist outside of traditional publishing houses. For example, Maks and Kirk, who describe their Beta Cocktails book as “a punk rock complilation album,” went the self-publishing route. It took a $3,000 investment to get it done, but I’ve seen that lovely little volume sell out every time I go to Tales of the Cocktail, so I’ll assume they’ve recouped the expense (or are darn close). And even inside publishing houses, the “book” format has become fluid.  I love what Lori has started: innovative mini “e-books” of 10 cocktail recipes each, as she ramps up Hang Time’s full-length book offerings.

4. Your publisher won’t sell the book — you have to do it!  What I found most interesting here was how other people promote their books. For bartenders (Jim, Maks, Kirk), having the platform of the bar seems to be effective. Jim is also a proponent of using video to show how drinks are made and to build excitement. However…while social media has proven to be an effective tool for Brad for keeping Bitters in the conversation, Jim is emphatically — I might say gleefully!– not on either Facebook or Twitter.

Cocktail recipe: Suppressor #7

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with “aperitif” cocktails, often made with lower alcohol levels and showcasing lovely vermouths, fortified wines, and bitter spirits like Cynar. And the July issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine includes my article on Aperitif Cocktails.

One of the most entertaining stories in aperitif-land now is in public transportation-challenged Atlanta, GA, where the bartenders banded together to find the polar opposite of the super-boozy Corpse Reviver and its brethren.

“This is a driving town,” explained Greg Best, co-owner and bartender at Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch. “It can get dangerous.” So in a grand effort to suppress alcohol levels, Atlanta’s mixologists hosted a contest to build a better, and lower-octane, cockail canon. The end result:  a new cocktail category called Suppressors.

I’d love to see every bar and restaurant have a lower-alcohol aperitif section on their menu; some “aperitifs” can be pretty darn strong. In my article, I featured Suppressor #21 (Cynar, Barolo Chinato, sherry, created by Paul Calvert of Pura Vida Tapas), as well as recipes sourced from Northern Spy in NY and OAK at fourteenth in Boulder. But here’s a second Suppressor cocktail created by Best, which had to be cut from the article for space reasons. It’s delicious, and quickly disappeared as soon as I shot this photo.

Suppressor #7

by Greg Best, Holeman & Finch

Pommeau de Normandy is a French apple brandy that’s lightened with unfermented apple cider.

1 ounce Cynar

1 ounce Pommeau de Normandy

1 ounce crisp sparkling wine, such as Cava

1 lemon peel

In a mixing glass, stir together Cynar, Pommeau and ice. Strain into a sherry tulip or riesling tulip glass. Pour in sparkling wine, then express oils from lemon peel over the top and discard the peel.

4 things I’ve learned about…Reposado Tequila

Though I’m a little late with this one, the May 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine included my review column on Reposado Tequila!  If you missed the issue on the newsstand, you can still view the digital format (subscribers only).  Here’s what I learned:

1. “I don’t drink reposado.” Can I tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence? Not just from other cocktail enthusiasts, but also from bartenders and even from a tequila representative at a spirits conference. That last one in particular floored me. I fail to understand why reposado is falling through the cracks in the tequila floor. Sure, blanco is the least expensive, and therefore tends to be the default for Margaritas and other cocktails….but repo makes even better cocktails.

 2. Tequila makers are putting some amazingly beautiful bottles out there. (The stuff inside was pretty good too.)

3. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. The tequila category is HUGE. The 70+ tequilas that I reviewed last year weren’t eligible for re-review just yet. And yet…I STILL received over 30 repo tequila bottlings, almost all new to me.

4. I don’t quite know how to couch this last observation. This category seemed to yield the most…shall we say…homespun entries. Maybe I’ve just become too accustomed to dealing with PR reps and large spirits conglomerates. But it was eye-opening to receive an old-school box – not made out of cardboard and wrapped with packing tape—but fashioned from wood and secured with screws. Another box arrived that clearly had been re-used, as was the envelope inside with the former recipient’s name crossed off and mine scribbled on. There’s nothing wrong with this — but it was humbling reminder that tequila distilleries still include many small, family-run operations. And many of these yield wonderful tequilas. One of my favorites wasDon Roberto, one of the few 100% Mexican- and family-run tequila producers. Their 6-month-old repo seemed to burst with rich butterscotch flavors. ending with a lilt of fresh apples, pears, and light brush of black pepper.

Do you drink reposado? If you do, I’d love to hear about your favorite bottle, or your favorite cocktail made with repo tequila. And if not…I’d love to hear why not.  Since apparently, you’re not alone.