Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wine Tasting in Paso Robles - December 2009


Vina Robles - highlights were the 2007 Petite Sirahs - most notably the Penman Springs Vineyard and Jardine (which also uses Penman Springs fruit) bottlings. Penman Springs owners Carl and Beth McCasland are good friends of Jennifer and Don and make a damn fine Petite Sirah of their own. The Penman Springs bottle was particularly dark and rich. Purchased bottles of both.

Robert Hall - met Sunny in the tasting room - had a great dry sense of humor. And he enjoyed forcing us to blind taste and guess the varietals. Did not do too well but nailed the Cabernet Franc. Decent wines but nothing spectacular. Picked up a bottle of the Cabernet Franc.

Tablas Creek - tasted through a lot of wine. The 2007 Cotes du Tablas blanc was good, the 2007 Espirit du Beaucastel blanc was fantastic with a great nose of flowers and tropical fruit. The 2006 Syrah was very good as was the 2006 Espirit du Beaucastel rouge. The 2007 Espirit du Beaucastel rouge was phenomenal. More fruity and full flavored than the leaner 2006 it had lots of dark fruits and a nice delicate earthy. mineral note. Also notable was the 2007 Tannat, a dark and brooding wine tasting with nice boysenberry flavors. Picked up bottles of the Espirit du Beaucastel rouge 2006 and 2007 as well as the 2006 Syrah and 2007 Tannat.

Denner - Also had quite a bit of wine here. Favorite was the 2007 Syrah, which exhibited lots of rich, extracted cassis, blackberry fruits along with nice minerality and well integrated french oak. The Grenache was excellent as well. I don't typically like grenache much on its own, but this wine really jumped from the glass with flowers and jammy cherry and raspberry fruit notes. I'm never a huge fan of the Ditch Digger with its strong mineral and roasted game elements, but it is clearly a well made wine. Also the 2007 Dirt Worshipper, which I've enjoyed in prior vintages, was nice but did not inspire. Purchased bottles of the 2007 Syrah and Grenache.

Zin Alley - Tasted a 2007 zinfandel which was plummy and a bit odd on the nose, a 2007 Nerelli "Generation 4" (Syrah/Zin blend) which was very good with some rich dark syrah fruit to balance the jammy zin fruit, a 2007 Zin Port which was good but a bit simple and a 2007 Nerelli "After Hours" late harvest boytritized dessert wine made from Chardonnay,Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer, which was very good with the Gewurztraminer tropical fruit and spice showing through.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favorites of 2009 - A Year in Review

So after my first year of blogging my brains out, I thought I'd take a few minutes to look back at what 2009 had to offer in the world of potables.

What follows is a list of my favorite "discoveries" of 2009, in no particular order:

1) Amer Picon/Torani Amer - A fantastic spirit which tastes of bitter amaro liqueur and orange zest. Both the homemade version and the commercially available one from Torani are a real treat and make a nice addition to cocktails such as the Brooklyn and the Picon Punch.

2) Laird's Apple Bond/The Jack Rose - Quite possibly the coup of the year for me. Laird's Apple Bond just begs to be mixed in cocktails which seem to unleash the concentrated apple flavors. The Jack Rose cocktail was an epiphany, and highlighted the importance of using a good grenadine (i.e. homemade or Ferrara).

3) Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland) - I've always enjoyed domestic Schweppes, but when Rob and I did our tonic water tasting, no tonic really hit me in all the right places more than Schweppes Indian tonic with its complex bitter character.

4) Plymouth Sloe Gin - A relatively new product on the market, Plymouth is an authentic English sloe gin which has a delicious tart flavor of cherries/plums and warm, lingering finish. A great winter warmer on its own, it was also excellent in the Wibble cocktail.

5) El Dorado 15 year old rum - OK, my official rum tasting post is still in-work, but after my neighbor Beky received a bottle of this from a customer and gave me a taste, I had to go out and buy a bottle of this complex Guyanese rum right away. Tastes of smoky burnt sugar, toffee and raisins with subtle woodsy notes. I have yet to find another rum of this staggering complexity and quality and may soon give up the search.

6) Cherry Heering/Blood and Sand - The Blood and Sand is the first, and possibly only cocktail, which makes successful use of scotch whisky as an ingredient, due in large part to the presence of the delicious cherry liqueur, Cherry Heering. With flavors of cherry, chocolate and spices, I'm looking forward to some more experimentation with Heering in the new year.

7) Root Liqueur - A neat new product from Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction! Thanks to Mike for first seeing it in a magazine and recommending it for trials. Great flavors of birch bark and spice, this liqueur is interesting on its own, and really sings in a Forbidden Root cocktail.

8) Sangrita - An excellent and refreshing tomatoey, citrusy, spicy drink that I've grown really accustomed to having alongside my favorite blanco tequilas. Thanks to David Rosengarten for introducing me to this in his cookbook Taste. Speaking of blancos, I'm looking forward to putting together a tasting of at least one sizable flight of more blanco tequilas in 2010.

9) Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth - A fantastic, flavorful vermouth with licorice and spice (e.g. cloves) flavors. Well balanced with a clean finish, this is simply the best vermouth out there. Create the ultimate Manhattan with Carpano Antica and Rittenhouse BIB Rye (which, incidentally, I do not care for at all neat, but in a Manhattan it is incredible)

10) Ardmore 15 years old & Ardmore Traditional Cask - My first experience with Ardmore single malt scotch whisky was these two bottlings, the 15 year old from Whisky Galore and the Traditional Cask from the distillery. Both were notable expressions of this uniquely heavily peated Highland malt. The 15 year old particularly, when sprinkled with a few drops of water, really demonstrates the trademark creaminess of this malt, which is a component of the Teacher's Highland Cream blend.

Finally, a few special wines really stood out this year. Below are my tasting notes, recalled from memory, on the special bottles I had in 2009.

11) 2006 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Kanzler vineyard - the best of the 2006 Kosta Browne Pinots that I had, all of which were a lighter, earlier-drinking style than their brawnier 2005 counterparts. Intense floral, tart fruit and spice aromatics with a nice balance and long finish.

12) 1990 Lynch Bages Pauillac - Opened my (sigh) last bottle of this during the year which was originally purchased during my college years. A lesson on the ageability of fine Bordeaux - still fairly young, with firm tannins which are just starting to soften. Very drinkable at this age with lots of dark fruits (cassis, blackberry) and that classic lead pencil/graphite aroma along with some grilled meat. Excellent overall balance and a nice long finish. Definitely ranks among the best Bordeaux I've ever had. Still at least another decade ahead for this wine.

13) 1997 Joseph Phelps Insignia - A (very generous) gift from my friend Paul, this is quite possibly the single best California Cabernet I have ever had. Incredible concentration, it poured an inky purple. Loads of sweet black currant, cherry/berry fruit with well integrated vanillin oak flavors. Still quite young, I'll probably give my next bottle a few more years.

14) 2006 Diatom Chardonnay Huber - From Greg Brewer, winemaker at the fantastic Melville winery, Diatom chardonnays are produced from single vineyards and are fermented in stainless steel without a malolactic secondary fermentation (which gives most typical Chardonnays their "creaminess"). The freakishly high alcohol (in the high 16%!) goes largely unnoticed in this wine which oozes tart, crisp fruit such as white peach and granny smith apple along with floral and mineral elements. Striking for its pure, focused fruit flavors and its ability to provide layer upon layer of complex flavors without the typical overt use of oak.

Final Notes: I've had a great time tasting through what 2009 has to offer and look forward to a great 2010. A special thanks to all who've provided feedback and recommendations. I thrive on recommendations, so please keep those comments coming and feel free to offer up suggestions for future posts if anything comes to mind.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Plymouth Sloe Gin

The recent spate of of cold weather here in Southern California has left me searching for a nice "winter warmer". Sure there's the typical wintry standby, single malt scotch, but I was looking to broaden my horizons a bit. This led me to sloe gin.

Plymouth, maker of a fine "Plymouth Gin" which is the only of its kind, as opposed to "London Dry" recently launched its own version of sloe gin which one-ups the sweet, sticky anduninteresting sloe gins usually sitting on the shelf.

According to Plymouth's website:

The making of fruit gins is a long tradition in the British countryside and Plymouth gin keeps true to a unique 1883 recipe. Sloe berries are slowly and gently steeped in Plymouth Gin, soft pure Dartmoor water and a small amount of sugar for approximately 4 months. The sugar levels are kept low to allow the full flavour of the berries to shine and allow the dry acidity of the fruit to be an important part of the taste. The result is an entirely natural product with no added flavourings or colourings. Sloe Gin has long been enjoyed as a "winter warmer" in the countryside.

On its own, Sloe Gin is quite delicious. I took the following tasting notes:

Color: Burgundy with a brick-colored edge
Nose: Evokes cherries, tart plums, black tea, almonds
Taste: tart acidity with bright fruit flavors (cherry, plum skin) followed by a round sweetness and then a bit of alcoholic bite
Finish: Long, more black tea

While it's great on its own, I thought I'd peruse a few cocktail recipes and try a few that caught my eye (yes, even mostly icy concoctions which are far from the "winter warmer" archetype)

Plymouth's website lists a few interesting cocktails; the one that sparked my interest the most was the "Wibble", a recent creation:

The Wibble
1 oz. grapefruit juice (Ocean Spray white grapefruit)
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1 dash simple syrup
1 oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin
1 oz. Plymouth Gin (used Beefeater)

Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Invented at the Player, London 1999 for Plymouth Gin's managing director by Dick Bradsell

Notes ****/***** Really nice cocktail, which gets better as you drink it. I love grapefruit and it works well in this. The gin is surprisingly in the background here relative to the sloe flavors, but it still asserts its presence. Also tried this without the simple syrup and it was still great, just used the slightest bit less lemon juice.

Cocktail DB had a staggering array of drinks using sloe gin. I really had to focus on culling down the list to a reasonable size. Here's what I ended up with:

Black Hawk
1.5 oz. rye whisky (WT 101)
1.5 oz. sloe gin
Stir with ice and strain. Serve in a cocktail glass with a cherry.

Notes: ***/***** This is a sort of Sloe-ey variant on a Manhattan. The Wild Turkey 101 Rye pretty much overwhelms the Sloe flavors which I was surprised to find.

1 oz sloe gin
1 oz gin
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Martini & Rossi)
1 dash orange bitters (Regan's)

Stir in mixing glass with ice & strain. Serve in a cocktail glass with a cherry.

Notes: ***1/2/***** Nice play of sweet and bitter, but the sloe character is a little lost with the vermouth and bitters. Still, a complex and agreeable cocktail.

Diki Cocktail #2
2 oz sloe gin
1/4 oz applejack
1/4 oz grapefruit juice

Stir in mixing glass with ice & strain. Serve in a cocktail glass

Notes: ***/***** This is nice with the apple bond and grapefruit (I used closer to 1/2 oz. of each as 1/4 oz. seemed too inconsequential. A little on the sweet side for an "up" cocktail. Also tried 1.5/1/1 with even better results (at least ***1/2/*****).

Ninety Miles or Savoy Tango (same)
1 1/4 oz sloe gin
1 1/4 oz applejack

Shake in iced cocktail shaker & strain. Serve in a cocktail glass.

Notes: ***1/2/***** Surprisingly good given there's only two ingredients in this, but then again why should I be surprised when Laird's apple bond seems to marry so well in many cocktails. The apple flavors really come through nicely.

Rosy Deacon Cocktail
3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz sloe gin
1 oz grapefruit juice

Shake in iced cocktail shaker & strain. Serve in a cocktail glass.

Notes: ****/***** Whoever decided that grapefruit and Sloe gin is a good combination is a genius. This is surprisingly fruity, complex and way too easy to drink. Watch out, this one will sneak up on you...

Ruby Cocktail
1 3/4 oz sloe gin
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz cherry liqueur
1 dash orange bitters

Shake in iced cocktail shaker & strain. Serve in a cocktail glass

Notes **1/2/***** I like the flavor here but this is a dessert. Simply too sweet for a cocktail, as I might have expected looking at the ingredients. Needs some more "punch" for balance. Beautiful color though. I can see where it gets its name.

Final Notes: I've seen and heard about sloe gin for the longest time, but never really had any interest until this bottling from Plymouth arrived on the market. I really enjoy sloe gin on its own - it's tart, sweet and warming for those chilly winter nights. But it also works very well in cocktails and seems to be a natural partner with gin, grapefruit and apple brandy. My favorite of the cocktails was the Wibble, with the Rosy Deacon as runner up. Anything with 3 stars or more is definitely worth a try.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving Cranapple Punch

Here's a recipe for a mixed drink that I put together for Thanksgiving this year. I focused on a drink that would showcase some seasonal ingredients and provide some level of refreshment, allowing everyone to avoid getting too tipsy prior to a nice dinner with some good wines.

No fruit says Thanksgiving more than cranberries and I selected a 100% cranberry juice from L&A for this. It is super concentrated/unsweetened and is quite tangy and bitter - the true essence of the cranberry. It needed some dilution and sweetening to work in a punch.

As for the liquor in the punch, I don't need much arm-twisting to use Laird's bonded apple brandy. Superior to their Applejack due to the higher apple content (it is 100% apple brandy vs. Applejack which is grain spirits mixed with apple brandy), it works wonders in cocktails where the intense apple flavors really come through.

Finally some fresh squeezed orange juice and a slice as garnish add some dimension and further balance the tartness of the cranberry. I would have used blood oranges were they available, but they don't come into season until December-January. Instead I used CA navel oranges.

Cranapple Punch (single serving)
1.5 oz. Laird's Apple Bond
2 oz. L&A Cranberry Juice (concentrated, unsweetened)
2 oz. Water
1T Superfine sugar
1/4 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice

Dissolve sugar in water. Build ingredients in a double old fashioned glass over ice cubes. Stir. Garnish with an orange slice.

Cranapple Punch (group)
1 750 ml bottle Laird's Apple Bond
1 32 oz. bottle L&A Cranberry Juice (concentrated, unsweetened)
32 oz. Water
1 cup superfine sugar
4 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice

Dissolve sugar in water. Mix ingredients in a large (>>92 oz.) punch bowl. Stir. Garnish with orange slices (half rounds). Add ice block. Serve in individual glasses over ice. Serves 16.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dark 'n Stormy

The Dark 'n Stormy - Bermuda's national drink - is a refreshingly different drink worth checking out. Made exclusively with dark rum and ginger beer (and garnished with a lime wheel only as an option), it is a simple highball which is easy to put together and enjoy.

Trademarked by the Gosling's brand, their website lists the following recipe for the drink:

Dark 'n Stormy®
2 oz Gosling's Black Seal Rum
Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer
In a tall glass filled with ice add 2 oz Gosling's Black Seal Rum and top with Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer. Garnish with lemon or lime wedge (optional).

The drink is indeed very good with Gosling's Black Seal rum as required by the trademark, which the company takes seriously. In fact, Gosling's has apparently been pursuing legal action against Zaya rum which ran an ad in Imbibe magazine recommending their 12 year old rum as the preferred ingredient for a top notch Dark n' Stormy.

While Black Seal rum is good, I have found that there is an even better rum for a Dark n' Stormy. And if using this rum causes the drink to be called something else, then so be it - I'm willing to pay that price. That rum, incidentally, is El Dorado 5 year old Demerara rum from Guyana. Not designed to be a sipping rum (unlike the fantastically complex, otherworldly El Dorado 15 year) it has a spirity, youthful nature which makes it perfect for mixing and it has much more flavor going on than Black Seal. Specifically, it has the classic Demerara burnt sugar, caramely, smoky notes that really play well with a topper of a good quality ginger beer.

This discovery came after trying the drink with a number of different rums that I had on hand for mixing. Coruba, a dark rum from Jamaica, was a little too dark and sweet and lent the drink too much of a molasses note. Mt. Gay Sugar Cane Rum (an excellent rum) was pretty good, but not quite as convincing a performer in the mixed drink as the El Dorado. Its lighter flavors just didn't stand out enough for my taste.

Another great thing about the El Dorado 5 year old rum is that its price is on par or even less than Gosling's Black Seal at around $17.

So how about the ginger beer? Barritt's, a Bermuda brand, was the mixer of choice (officially, that is) prior to Gosling's recent launch of their own Stormy Ginger Beer. It appears to remain the ginger beer that Dark n' Stormy connoisseurs prefer based on some limited web browsing. Another fairly well-known Bermuda brand is Regatta.

The Bermuda ginger beers tend to be fairly light in color, cloudy and to have a medium-strong ginger flavor, but without the lingering burn which characterizes the stronger Jamaican-style ginger beers.

Barritts is my clear favorite. Next to it, the Goslings is slightly harsh with a more musty flavor. Regatta is very good, but it is lighter in style, more like a ginger ale and for that reason does not perform as well as a mixer.

A non-Bermuda replacement that I have found works well is Bundaberg from Australia. It's lighter in ginger bite than Barritts but has a round, sweet flavor. And it is reasonably priced and readily available at your local Bevmo unlike all of the others, which can be difficult to find.

As far as a recipe goes, I tend to use approximately 2:1 ginger beer to rum. And regarding the optional lime garnish - I omit it altogether.

Give a Dark n' Stormy a try and let me know what you think. Feel free to experiment with the ingredients, but just remember that if you're not using Black Seal, you'll have to call it something else.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blood and Sand

If you've ever been to the Tiki Ti in LA, it's unlikely that you ever made it through an evening without witnessing the awesome spectacle that accompanies any order of a Blood and Sand cocktail. The drink is mixed and poured into a glass, then the bartender breaks out a tequila bottle with a bull's head pouring spout and the entire (admittedly small, but surprisingly loud) bar yells "TORO TORO TORO..." while the floater is poured. It's great fun.

Classically made from equal parts Scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth and OJ, the cocktail is named after a bullfighting movie of the same name. There were many versions of the film including an original 1916 version filmed by the author of the book Vicente Blasco Ibáñez but perhaps the most famous is the 1922 silent version starring Rudolph Valentino (poster, right). It is likely that this movie formed the impetus for the cocktail's creation, as others have indicated the recipe first showed up around 1930.

The Blood and Sand emerges from an interesting melange of ingredients which, I have to admit, doesn't quite sound that great on paper. Scotch is difficult to mix in cocktails because of its tendency to dominate with its strong peat smoke flavors, but somehow it manages to play nicely in this one. I used Johnnie Walker green label (a vatted pure malt), which is probably a little high end for cocktail mixing, but it worked fine. A blended Scotch would work well - I'd probably recommend Teacher's which claims Ardmore single malt as one of its components - an excellent peaty Highlander.

This is my first experience with Cherry Heering which is a fantastic cherry liqueur and is the star of the cocktail despite playing a supporting role. Made in Denmark from a local cherry, the Stevens variety, the liqueur is very flavorful with a complex palate of cherries and subtle spices as well as some of the bitter almond-like character of the pits. Cherry Marnier is also recommended by many, but it is not widely available in the US from what I've seen.

I used fresh squeezed OJ, which I always recommend if you have oranges on hand. Also I used Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, my recommended go-to for a "daily" vermouth.

I'm using the Cocktail db version which reduces the amount of cherry brandy and sweet vermouth. This variant is attributed to "Dr. Cocktail" Ted Haigh in one of the articles below. This version retains a strong cherry flavor, offers a better overall balance and is still sufficiently sweet.

A couple of articles that I came across while working on this post are worth noting:

SFGate article
Cocktail Chronicles Post

Blood and Sand Cocktail
1 oz. Scotch whiskey (blended is fine, used JW Green Label)
1 oz. Orange Juice (fresh squeezed)
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Martini & Rossi)
3/4 oz. Cherry Brandy (Cherry Heering)
Mix in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

I have yet to try the Tiki Ti version (there are just too many good drinks there!). I understand that it is made not from Scotch, but rather bourbon as its base and includes the addition of the tequila which is definitely not in the classic variant. Judging by the frequency this drink is ordered in the bar though, it must be delicious indeed. It'll probably be my first drink ordered on my next visit

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fitz's Root Beer

During a business trip last week to St. Louis, I stumbled across a barbeque joint near my hotel which was offering Fitz's Rootbeer in the bottle. After having just seen a six pack of Fitz's Rootbeer on display in the airport as part of a Delmar Loop advertisement, I was intrigued.

According to the company's website:

Fitz’s American Grill & Bottling Works sits in the heart of the Delmar Loop, a ten-block section of distinctive stores, shops and even a renovated movie theater dating back to the 1930’s.

A small hamburger joint may seem like an unusual place for the birth of a root beer legend. But Fitz’s Drive-In is exactly where it started in 1947. Noted for incredible smoothness and thick, creamy texture, Fitz’s Root Beer was served in mugs and quickly became the root beer of choice among St. Louisans.

It still is. Our recipe is a closely-guarded secret and contains many of the ingredients used in the original. Unlike most soft drinks, Fitz’s continues to use pure cane sugar. The old-fashioned goodness of Fitz’s must be tasted to be believed. Curb service and thirty-cent hamburgers may be a thing of the past, but the distinctive, satisfying taste of Fitz’s Root Beer lives on.

So back at my bbq joint (Bandana's was the name of the place), I bellied up to the bar, ordered a mixed plate of pork and beef bbq with beans and cole slaw and a tall bottle of Fitz's.

Still suffering from the lingering effects of a cold at the time, I can't provide the most accurate notes but what I did get from the bottle was a high quality taste, clean from the use of cane sugar and with a fair amount of a wintergreen, minty element that I like in root beer. Others may find it too "toothpasty" but it worked for me.

I always enjoy trying some of the local flavors wherever I am, and I'm happy to have discovered this interesting St. Louis gem of a soda.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

For those of you landlubbers not in the know, today is International Talk Like a Pirate day. I've decided to take this day on in my own style by drinking like a Pirate. And what says "Pirate" like a good old bottle of rum?

I did some quick internet searching (Googled pirate, rum) and came up with just the right website specializing in rum reviews with a Pirate slant. It's ( and has some interesting reviews of a lot of rums. "A love of pirates is what this site is all about" reads the site's "about" page - 'nuff said.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the reviews, but I reviewed the rum selection vs. my current booty at home and came across a highly rated rum which I've selected for this post. It was the last line of the review which really got me:

"Share a bottle with your landsmen friends, and then bask in your own pirattitude as they find themselves well out of their depth."

..."pirattitude" - brilliant!

The rum, by the way is Barbancourt 15 year old from Haiti. A recent purchase, this gave me an opportunity to taste the rum and record some notes. Made from sugar cane juice and double-distilled using the Charentaise method, apparently used in cognac production according to the Barbancourt website. The rum is then aged in Limousin oak barrels and is predominantly marketed in an 8 year old and 15 year old version for rum buffs.

My tasting notes follow:

Color - medium-light amber
Nose - Strong alcohol. Underneath, some caramel, raisins. Very subtle acetone (fingernail polish remover) notes.
Taste - Peppery, strong alcohol. More raisins, caramel in the background.
Finish - Somewhat short, but spicy and spirity

This is a pretty spicy rum as the tasting notes on bilgemunky indicate, though I'm not entirely convinced of its merits. I do see some charms in the subtle caramel and raisin notes, but overall this is surprisingly rambunctious for a 15 year old.

Not the smooth, balanced dram I was expecting, but it just may be an appropriate quaff for a Pirate. And tharrrr's something to be said for that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tonic Water Taste Test

As a kid, I loved bitter and sour beverages. I can remember Sunday dinners at my parents' house - while my Dad and Grandpa had a "scotch and soda" (which to my Grandpa really meant scotch on the rocks) I would often be treated to a sour mix, OJ and grenadine drink. Tonic water was another treat that I would have occasionally. While many bristle at the thought of drinking tonic water straight, I actually rather enjoy the balance of citrus, sweetness and bitterness that can be found in a good bottle.

In the summer, a gin and tonic made with Beefeater gin (I prefer the crispness of Beefeater to the full-bodied character of Tanqueray) with a slice of lemon or lime (I vacillate between the two or sometimes even add a small squeeze of each) is a great thirst quencher and really sets the mood for a mid-late afternoon patio party.

For this post, I assembled a rather large group of tonic waters, ranging from my previous gold standard, Schweppes, to some pricey newcomers boasting artisanal ingredients and manufacturing methods, such as Fever Tree, Q tonic, Fentiman's and Stirrings. Below is a listing of the nine tonics selected.

1. Hansens
2. Schweppes
3. Whole Foods 365
4. Q Tonic
5. White Rock
6. Stirrings
7. Fentimans
8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
9. Fever Tree

Note: Canada Dry is intentionally absent. After much experimentation, I have determined that I have a strong preference Schweppes (domestic) to Canada Dry which has a sweet, cloying flavor and not enough bitterness. For that reason it didn't make it to the finals.

All tonics were packaged in small glass bottles except Hansen's and 365 which were served in a can. Schweppes (domestic) and White Rock had plastic screw-caps while all the other bottles had a classic crown-type bottle cap. Purists tend to like the small glass bottles and believe that they offer superior carbonation.

The tonics were tasted blind by Rob and me. Following are our tasting notes and scores. Where tonics were close in score, I attempted to differentiate by tasting back to back to confirm the ranking.

1. Hansen's
Matt - light citrus, not much bitterness, medium sweetness. Score - 88
Rob - Unctuous, full-bodied. Could be a little more carbonated. Medium bitterness, not very sweet. Score - 90

2. Schweppes
Matt - light flavors. Some bitterness. Sweeter than #1 but less flavorful. Score - 87
Rob - Not much on the opening taste, but then finishes with a bitter attack. Good carbonation. Score - 85

3. Whole Foods 365
Matt - Citrusy, sweet, not much bitterness, though. Nice flavors. Score 86
Rob - Sweeter with light bitterness. Not super flavorful, but pleasant. Score - 89

4. Q Tonic
Matt - Not much going on here - not sweet, some bitterness. Score - 85
Rob - Very little tonic flavor. Some astringent bitterness on the finish. Almost soda water. Score - 75

5. White Rock
Matt - Sweet with some bitterness. Not a lot of citrus, but a decent overall balance of flavors. Score - 89
Rob - Light opening with a pleasantly bitter finish. Score - 87

6. Stirrings
Matt - Light flavors, medium bitterness. Some soapiness. Light sweetness. Score - 86
Rob - Light. Not much flavor. Short finish. Score - 80

7. Fentiman's
Matt - Full-flavored, medium bitterness. Medium+ sweetness with a lot of pleasant citrus notes. Score - 90
Rob - Full-bodied. Definite citrus flavors. Finishes with bitterness. Complex. Could be a bit more carbonated. Score - 91

8. Schweppes Indian Tonic (Holland)
Matt - Wow! Complex flavors, nice fizz, nice bitterness. Medium sweetness, good citrus and an almost herbal quality. Score - 94
Rob - Complex flavor with a mineral finish. Almost a mediciny, soda cracker-like flavor. Score - 89

9. Fever Tree
Matt - Lemon-lime soda, light bitterness. Simple, somewhat uninteresting. Some minor off-flavors. Score - 87
Rob - Simple but good tonic flavor. Won't get in the way of your gin. Score - 88

Final Rankings:

1. Schweppes Indian Tonic (94)
2. Fentiman's (90)
3. White Rock (89)
4. Hansen's (88)
5. Schweppes/Fever Tree (87, tie)
7. 365/Stirrings (86, tie)
9. Q Tonic (85)

1. Fentiman's (91)
2. Hansen's (90)
3. 365/Schweppes Indian Tonic (89, tie)
5. Fever Tree (88)
6. White Rock (87)
7. Schweppes (85)
8. Stirrings (80)
9. Q Tonic (75)

Conclusions: We both agreed that Fentiman's was an extremely fine product - Rob had it as his #1 and I had it at #2. It was the only product that scored in the 90's by both of us. At $3.50 for 125 ml, however I'm not sure how much of this I'll be buying in the future. The Lilliputian bottle is so cute though... Thanks to Rachel for picking this up at Galco's Soda Stop in LA.

The Schweppes Indian Tonic was a revelation for me. I loved the complex flavors and gave it extra points for character. Rob liked the complex flavors as well, but was somewhat put off by the mediciney finish. Unfortunately this product is mostly unavailable here in the US. Rarely seen in stores, I considered it a coup to find this at the Beverage Warehouse in Marina Del Rey. How long they will carry it is anyone's best guess. I may have to stock up.

Hansen's did surprisingly well. I usually do not care for it in a gin and tonic because it is not bitter enough. Which, by the way, brings up an interesting point with respect to this tasting; specifically, how will these tonics rate in a classic Gin & Tonic? To answer that, Rob and I have tentatively planned to conduct a comparison of our top picks of these tonics, mixed in a G&T, in the future.

White Rock was an interesting and tasty newcomer that turned out to be my #3 pick. Another rarity picked up at Beverage Warehouse.

Schweppes (domestic) was a disappointment to me. I have long respected its quinine bitterness as a superior ingredient to a proper G&T. In this tasting it did not shine. I will be very interested to compare it with some of the others when we try them mixed in a drink in the future.

365 was only o.k. to me. Rob liked it a bit more and had it tied for #3. It would definitely be worth trying for anyone near a Whole Foods.

Fever Tree had a mediocre showing despite my high hopes for it. It just didn't stand up to the more complex offerings and Rob and I agreed that it had a fairly simple lemon-soda flavor.

Stirrings was uninteresting and a general underperformer, and therefore would not be recommended due to its premium price.

Q Tonic was suprisingly flat in flavor. I found it lacking in character. Rob found it downright offensive. This was probably the second most expensive bottle in the tasting, so I will probably not be buying this in the future. That said, it is being heavily marketed and is probably worth a try for those wishing to try some of the exciting new tonics out there.

Final Notes: This was a long time coming and I had a really good time comparing flavors and ranking this broad range of tonics. I look forward to the "next phase" where we'll have the opportunity to rank these tonics based on their performance in a G&T.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tootin' Root's Horn

Blog friend Mikey sent me a note asking if I had heard of a new liqueur called Root. I hadn't, so I did a little research and discovered that it is an exciting liquid project from the folks at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I first heard about this company after receiving a cool T-shirt as a gift from Rachel and Jeremy, but did not fully appreciate how eclectic their product range was at the time.

According to the company: Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction firmly believes in empowering artists producing high quality work marked by fine craft and intellectual rigor. We do so by applying the fruits of such labors to the cultural forms of everyday life, granting those who wish to engage the opportunity to do so in his/her own environment. Rather than exist at a distance in the white cube of the gallery space, we weave our offerings into the collective surface of myriad personal contexts. In this troubling epoch of industrial commodification, standardization of reproduction, and fomentation of a society of shallow spectacle, Art In The Age issues a challenge and rally cry. We fight fire with fire, subsuming the onslaught of watered down facsimiles and inaccessible displays with thought-provoking products of real cultural capital.

As far as Root is concerned, the company offers an interesting history of root-based beverages in the US. They don't really go into any detail as to who was the creative force behind the launch of this interesting new product which I, for one, would have found interesting.

The website as well as the bottle tag describe the history as follows:

In the 1700’s, it was called “Root Tea.” An herbal remedy made with sassafras, sarsaparilla, birch bark and other wild roots and herbs. Native Americans taught the recipe to colonial settlers. As it was passed it down from generation to generation, it grew in potency and complexity. Particularly in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, where the ingredients naturally grow in abundance.

At the close of the 19th century, as the Temperance movement conspired to take the fun out of everything, a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol from Root Tea and rechristened it (ironically) “Root Beer”. He did this so that hard drinking Pennsylvania coal miners and steelworkers could enjoy it in place of true alcoholic refreshment. He introduced his “Root Beer” in a big way at the still legendary 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The rest, as you know, is flaccid history.

Here at Art in the Age, we thought it would be interesting and fun to turn back the clock and recreate a true pre-temperance alcoholic Root Tea. We’ve even made it certified organic, since back then, everything was organic. This is the opposite of corporate culture. It’s a genuine experience rooted in history and our own landscape. It is a truly interesting and contemplative quaff. Certainly like nothing else we have ever tasted before. It is NOT Root Beer flavored vodka or a sickly sweet liqueur.

Root is packaged in an attractive bottle and includes a nice label on the back with an artist's rendition of the major consituents in the brew. See image, right.

In terms of flavors, it is definitely reminiscent of root beer - think of a craft brew like Virgil's, but not as sweet. It does have some sweetness, but it is not syrupy or cloying at all. Those who enjoy a good birch beer such as Boylan's will recognize the strong birch bark character. There is also wintergreen which forms another of the primary flavors. In the background and not individually distinguishable, are a bevy of spices such as allspice, nutmeg and anise.

I tried Root on its own, sipped from a shot glass for the first few experiences. It's good and this just may be my primary form of consumption in the future. On the other hand, a number of very creative Root-based cocktails are listed on the Art in the Age website. A few which caught my attention, whether sampled or not, are listed below:

Dr. Hadley's Root Restorative
0.5 oz. Demerara simple syrup
6 large mint leaves
1.25 oz. Lairds Bonded (100 proof) Applejack
1.0 oz. Root Liqueur
.5 oz. Benedictine
.5 oz. fresh lime juice
2 dashes Fee Brother’s Aztec Chocolate bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Garnish: Mint sprig Muddle mint in simple syrup. Add ice and other ingredients. Shake vigorously and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with a spanked mint sprig.
Created by Katie Loeb of Oyster House.

The Root cocktail competition winner, Dr. Hadley's Root Restorative sounds interesting and includes a lot of ingredients I like (Apple Bond, Benedictine, Demerara simple syrup) but I don't have the chocolate bitters (yet!) so I didn't make it and therefore cannot vouch for it. May be reason to order some bitters in the future though.

The Medicine Lodge Cocktail
1/2 oz. simple syrup (used turbinado)
1 1/2 oz. ROOT
2 oz.. Laird’s 71/2 Aged Apple Brandy (used 1.5 oz. Apple Bond)
1-2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
splash of ginger beer (used Bundaberg)

Stir ingredients and garnish with fresh ginger.
Created Christian Gaal of Noble American Cookery

This is pretty good. The ginger beer and Root is a nice combination. The Apple Bond is a little lost in this, though.

Dr. Root
2 oz ROOT
4 oz. Dr. Pepper (used Dublin Dr. Pepper with Imperial Cane sugar in a bottle)
A Splash of cream
Pour ROOT into a tall glass of chilled Dr. Pepper. Add a splash of cream & enjoy.

OK, I enjoyed... Definitely a dessert type of experience - creamy and rich.

Root 'n Ginger
2 oz ROOT
4 oz. ginger beer (used Bundaberg)
ginger slice (omitted)

Pour ROOT into a tall glass of chilled ginger beer. Garnish with sliced ginger.

This is GOOD. It delivers exactly what it says - it's Root and Ginger beer. No nonsense - nice combination.

Forbidden Root
3/4 oz. ROOT
3/4 oz. TRU vodka (used SKYY)
1 oz. fresh squeezed white grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/4 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
dash of Angostura

Shaken and strained into a cocktail glass.
Created by Nic Jarrett

This drink gets props for being a play on the obscure and now defunct liqueur, Forbidden Fruit, which came in a bottle similar to Chambord (from the same company) and was based on grapefruit - see image to the right. I can't say that I'm surprised to find this interesting. I really like the Root flavors next to the grapefruit and Maraschino. I ususally find Maraschino overpowering - but it works here at the level the recipe specifies. This cocktail does justice to its ingredients - each plays a distinct and pivotal role - the hallmark of a successful drink. Definitely worth a try.

To buy Root, which I'd recommend, you either need to live in Philadelphia where it is distributed locally or purchase online through Hi-Time. When Rachel called Hi-Time, they mentioned that there was a lot of interest in Root and was out of stock at that time. But we got on the list for a few bottles which we were fortunate to be able to get a few days later.

Final Notes: I'd definitely recommend Root to anyone looking to expand their liqueur horizons. Excellent on its own, it also makes for an interesting mixed drink - my favorites being the Root n' Ginger and Forbidden Root.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Favorite Belgians

To be clear, I'm not talking about Dr. Evil or René Magritte here - rather, I'm referring to a couple of my favorite Belgian ales. Belgian beer comes in a variety of styles, including golden ales, white beers (witbier, e.g. Hoegaarden), Trappist ales, and Abbey ales (e.g. Leffe), among others. While there are a lot of these worth talking about, I've picked a couple of my favorites, Chimay Triple (white) and Duvel as the subject of this post.

Chimay produces a number of Trappist ales, brewed in the Scourmont Abbey. Their Triple, (known as Cinq Cents in the 750 mL bottle) with the white label has always been my favorite. The Chimay website speaks of two fermentations (as compared with Duvel's three, below, but the actual process appears similar) - a top fermentation followed by bottle conditioning. According to the site:

The yeast is a primary constituent. It is this that makes the story of Chimay beer. In fact, the yeast was selected by Father Theodore in 1948. His work was to isolate the yeast cells and cultivate them, make some "micro-brews" and then, of course, to evaluate the flavour and brewing qualities. When he had isolated the best strain, Father Theodore propagated it selectively.

Duvel (which means "Devil" in Flemish) is a "strong golden ale" and is made from Scottish Yeast, Czech hops, Barley from France and local Belgian water. The beer undergoes 3 fermentations - the first is a top fermentation taking place at a temp of 64-82F, the second is a "lagering" process at 27F, the tertiary step is a "bottle conditioning" whereby additional yeast is added prior to bottling and aged first at around 72F, then for a longer period (about 6 weeks) at 41F. It is this lengthy process which prompts the website to proclaim "Guaranteed not Fresh!".

Following are my tasting notes for these two beers which were served straight from the fridge in a wide-mouthed snifter approximating the glasses shown in the pictures:

Chimay Triple
Color - Dark golden, amber, slightly hazy
Nose - Malty, cereal grains, yeast
Palate - Full-bodied, round, malty. Complex, with some dark, raisin-spice notes.
Finish - Malty, smooth, complex

Color - Light gold, slightly hazy
Nose - Bright hoppy elements. Crisp, mouthwatering
Palate - Fruity hoppiness continues, well balanced, crisp. Some yeasty/doughy flavors.
Finish - Crisp, bitter hops. Very nice.

Pour yourself a glass of these delicious, yeasty brews. And if someone happens to catch you with some beer foam on your upper lip and nose, you can proudly proclaim "That's how we drink it in Belgium. It's called a Belgian Dip." - to quote Dr. Evil.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A few Viogniers

This weekend, our neighbors Jeff and Beky came over with some Viogniers in hand for an impromptu tasting. Jeff has long been extolling the virtues of Viognier and let me tell you, he's been preaching to the choir. They brought a bottle of Summerwood 2007 and Melville 2007 (along with a nice, sweet, late harvest Garretson Viognier for which no tasting notes were taken). I supplied what turned out to be an unfortunate Melville 2006 and Tablas Creek 2006.

Viognier is a classic Rhone varietal, which is used, unblended, in Condrieu. In California it is frequently blended with other Rhone whites (e.g. Roussanne, Marsanne) and is sometimes blended with Syrah to soften the flavors. Crisp, typically dry, flavorful, fruity and flowery, California Viogniers can be very good to excellent expressions of the varietal and are made all over the state.

Following are our tasting notes and scores. Wines were tasted blind. They are listed in order of scores, highest to lowest.

I am supposed to conspicuously point out that Jeff's wines kicked mine's butts decisively.

Summerwood Viognier 2007 (Paso Robles, Westside)
Nose: Flowers, french oak
Palate: More flowers, tart peach/nectarine, french oak, incredible balance and complexity.
Finish: Long, complex
Rating: 93
Jeff: Not much nose. Very smooth, buttery, oaky taste. Smooth, light finish.
Rating 95
Beky: All around best blend. Rating 95
Julie: ...mmm, flowery, very drinkable Rating 87

Melville Viognier Estate - Verna's 2007 (Santa Ynez, Los Alamos)
Nose: Fruits, honey
Palate: Nectarine, tart, cotton-candy
Finish: Tart, fruity, sweet (residual sugar?)
Rating: 88
Jeff: acidic, grapefruit, oak. Rating 89
Beky: sweet start, crisp, alcoholy. Rating 87
Julie: balanced, ...mmm. Rating 89

Melville Viognier Estate - Verna's 2006(Santa Ynez, Los Alamos)
Nose: Honey, some burnt/caramel apple aromas
Palate,: More caramel, burnt sugar, honey along with some tart fruit flavors
Finish: Long, tart, caramel
Rating: 85
Jeff: sour, acidic nose. Good upfront, lingering taste. A little sour. Rating: 82
Beky: Bubbly, champagney. Rating: 83
Julie: Effervescent, old smell, tangy. Rating: 80

Tablas Creek Viognier 2006 (Paso Robles, Westside)
Nose: Not much
Palate: Dry, very light, not a lot of flavor development
Finish: Short, uninteresting
Rating: 80
Jeff: No nose, no body, no structure, no flavor. Rating: 80
Beky: Smoky start, dry, oak, as if cut with water. Rating: 72
Julie: Dry. eh. Neutral. Rating: 70

Final Notes -
Not being used to overt oak in Viognier, it was surprising to me how well the Summerwood fared in the tasting. It was clearly the best balanced of the bunch with great structure. Almost delicate compared to the over-the-top fruit and alcohol bomb Melville, it still had a lot of flavor and complexity.

The Melville 2007 was a very good to excellent wine. After I finished my tasting notes and we had the "reveal", I found that the flavors grew on me a little bit. The Summerwood remained king, but the gap narrowed a bit. Melville Viogniers have been a long-time favorite of mine and are a California quality benchmark year after year.

The 2006 Melville was clearly past its prime. The burnt sugar flavors are telltale signs of storage at too high a temperature or too long a period. Once great in its prime, it had by now developed tired flavors.

The 2006 Tablas Creek was a big disappointment. Clearly lacking in flavor, structure and complexity next to its peers, it really had nothing to offer. This was rated highly by Parker, but was universally panned by our panel.

I'll continue to buy Melville's Viognier as I find it to be a very interesting wine and a decent value. And next time I'm up in Paso Robles, I'll certainly make a point of stopping by Summerwood to revisit their excellent Viognier.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Summer Sizzles, It's Time for Swizzles!

Swizzles are fast becoming a favorite drink of mine. Refreshing, with lots of crushed ice, swizzles are notable for being fairly simple mixtures of rum or other spirits, juices and sweeteners, which are then "swizzled" (stirred) until frost forms on the outside of the glass or pitcher.

Traditionally, swizzles are mixed by using a branch of the Swizzlestick tree, Quararibea turbinata, which is spun between the palms of one's hands (picture to the left). Swizzle sticks like this are generally not found in the US, so unless you or a good friend have a trip to Martinique planned in the near future, you'll have to settle for a bar spoon (which works fine, but is certainly less "authentic" feeling)

A good swizzle has a high-ish proof rum/spirit balanced by a nice citrus tang. The use of lots of cracked ice makes it refreshing and makes the drink last a long time. OK, so "a long time" may be an exaggeration, but it certainly lasts longer and delivers substantially more hydration than your typical "up" cocktail.

Swizzling gave me a good opportunity to sample some interesting rums from around the world. It seems as if each Carribbean destination has their own signature brand of swizzle and at least one excellent rum to go along with it. The Rhum Agricole of Martinique, in particular, have piqued my interest and will no doubt be the subject of further exploration in the future.

For this post I'm using Scarlet Ibis (Trinidad) for the Swedizzle, Mount Gay Sugar Cane Rum (Barbados) for the Barbados Red Rum Swizzle, Gosling's Black Seal (Bermuda) for the Bermuda Rum Swizzle, Lemon Hart (Guyana) for the Queen's Park Swizzle and Clément VSOP (Martinique) for the Martinique Swizzle.

Below are recipes for some favorite swizzled tipples including a rare drink of my own invention, the Swedizzle.

1.5 oz rum (used Scarlet Ibis, Appleton V/X would be second choice)
3/4 oz Swedish Punsch
1/2 oz lemon juice
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass.

Chartreuse Swizzle
1¼ oz green Chartreuse
½ oz falernum (Taylor's Velvet)
1 oz pineapple juice
¾ oz lime juice
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Garnish with a spring of mint. As an option, add 1/2 oz. Bacardi or J Wray Overproof white rum to kick things up a notch (or two with the J Wray)

Barbados Red Rum Swizzle
2 ounces Barbados rum
1/2 lime
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/4 ounce simple syrup
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Recipe from Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide.

Bermuda Rum Swizzle
2 ounce dark rum (Gosling's Black Seal)
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce pineapple juice
1 ounce orange juice
1/4 ounce falernum
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Recipe from Robert Hess.

Queen's Park Swizzle
3 oz Demerara rum (Lemon Hart)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1/2 oz rich sugar syrup (demerara or turbinado sugar)
juice of 1/2 lime
8-10 mint leaves
Muddle mint leaves in the bottom of the glass. Add remaining ingredients and swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Recipe from Imbibe Magazine.

Apple Swizzle
1.5 oz. Apple Brandy (Laird's Bonded)
0.75 oz. white rum
1 oz. lime juice
1 tsp sugar
5 dashes Angostura bitters
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Recipe from CocktailDB.

Martinique Swizzle
2 oz. Martinique rum
1/2 lime
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/2 oz. simple syrup
scant tsp pastis or Herbsaint
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Recipe adapted from Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide.

Notes: My favorite of the Carribbean swizzles has to be the Queen's Park Swizzle. While it originated in Trinidad, Demerara rum is traditional as Trinidad did not really ramp up rum production until after WWII (according to cocktail guru Dale Wondrich).

All of these swizzles make a damn fine drink. I had to tweak the Martinique swizzle a bit to downplay the pastis, balance the sweetness and allow the rum flavor to be noticed. The Bermuda rum swizzle is the fruitiest of the bunch, but definitely a worthwile pursuit. The Swedizzle, Chartreuse Swizzle and Apple Swizzle are all variations on the Carribbean theme, using interesting, if non-standard ingredients, that come together well.

But don't just take my word for it, get to swizzling!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Applejack and Apple Brandy

Applejack is an original American spirit, dating back to the times of Washington. The Laird family, producers of Applejack and several versions of an aged Apple Brandy started commercial production in 1780 and apparently received the first US distillery license in the small community of Scobeyville, NJ.

Applejack was popular with the early colonists, who were leery of drinking water; they believed it to carry disease and were convinced that the strong spririts promoted good health.

According to Laird's website, Robert Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier serving under George Washington, and the Laird family supplied the troops with Applejack. Historical records show that, prior to 1760, George Washington wrote to the Laird family requesting their recipe for producing Applejack, which the Laird family gladly supplied. Entries appear in Washington’s diary in the 1760’s regarding his production of "cyder spirits".

Today, Laird’s AppleJack is not straight apple brandy, but a 35% apple brandy base which is combined with neutral grain spirits along with a "hint of apple flavor and aroma" which is conspicuously obfuscatory.

According to the company a 750 ML bottle of Lairds AppleJack contains 6 lbs of apples and a bottle of Lairds Apple Bond contains 20 lbs of apples. I picked up a bottle of both recently for the purposes of experimentation - first on their own, then in some cocktails.

The AppleJack has a distinct fresh apple aroma and flavor, as advertised. Due to the 40 proof, it is fairly light, somewhat smooth with a nice appley finish. The Apple Bond has less of the fresh apple flavor, but has a lot more distilled apple character along with more heat. Definitely not a sipping brandy. When mixed in a cocktail, the Apple Bond really comes alive with an effusion of complex apple flavors and slightly more heat. I highly recommend it as the first choice in all of the cocktails below.

The cocktails choices were taken mostly from CocktailDB and were a small sampling based on drinks that sounded particularly tasty or made use of ingredients of current interest.

A.J Cocktail
1 1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1 1/2 oz applejack
1/2 oz grenadine
Shake ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating*** (out of 5) A good cocktail with a nice grapefruit zing.

Devil's Leap
1 oz light rum
1 oz swedish punch
1 oz applejack
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating* Not enough tanginess to go with the Swedish Punsch.

Diki Cocktail #2
2 oz sloe gin (used Plymouth)
1/4 oz applejack
1/4 oz grapefruit juice
Shake ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating*** More of a showcase of sloe gin, the subject of a future post, no doubt.

Jack Rose
1 1/2 oz applejack or bonded apple brandy
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz grenadine
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating ***** An amazing cocktail sprang forth from these basic, but quality ingredients. The ultimate demonstration of how apple brandy can come alive in a cocktail.

Jinx Cocktail
1/2 oz. passion fruit nectar
1 oz. gin
1boz. applejack
1 dash Angostura
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating***1/2 On the sweeter side, but everything in check.

Marconi Wireless
1 3/4 oz applejack (used Apple bond)
3/4 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica)
2 dashes orange bitters (Regan's)
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating **** An excellent appley variant on the Manhattan. And it has a cool name and interesting historic link. More here.

Diamondback (from Cocktail Chronicles, link here)
1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey (Rittenhouse bonded strongly recommended)
3/4 ounce applejack (Laird’s bonded apple brandy strongly recommended)
3/4 ounce Chartreuse (yellow works, but green works better)
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating**1/2 This didn't do too much for me. Mostly Chartreuse dominated and I think there are better Chartreuse cocktails out there (or here).

Apple Swizzle
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz apple brandy
3/4 oz light rum
5 dashes Angostura bitters
1 tsp sugar (4 dashes)
Pour ingredients in a highball glass filled with cracked ice. Swizzle (stir) until glass frosts.
Rating**** Nice addition to the growing Swizzle armory.

C.f.h Cocktail
1 oz gin
1/2 oz apple brandy
1/2 oz swedish punch (used Saturnus Arracks-Punsch extract 50/50 with Van Oosten Batavia Arrack)
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz grenadine (used Ferrara)
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating *** Very Swedish Punsch-y. Pretty sweet, even with half the grenadine. Good, not great. Apple Brandy is in the background without a significant role.

Diki Diki Cocktail
2 oz Calvados or apple brandy
1/4 oz swedish punch
1/4 oz grapefruit juice
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating *** Very good with the Apple brandy showing through, but the grapefruit/swedish punsch blend is a little flat.

Hugo Bracer
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz apple brandy
1/2 oz Amer Picon (used Torani Amer)
1/2 oz grenadine (used Ferrara - a new and interesting grenadine)
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating**** A little on the sweet side (will use closer to 1/4 oz. grenadine next time), but a great combination of the tartness of the lime and the apple with the sweetness of the grenadine and the complex bitter-oranginess of the Amer Picon. All in all, a very nice cocktail.

Warday's (War Days)
3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
3/4 oz apple brandy
1/4 oz green Chartreuse or Yellow Chartreuse
Stir ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Rating*** Interesting mix of flavors. Not really a showcase of apple brandy per se, but the ingredients are pretty well balanced in the overall impression.

Final Notes - The Apple brandies tasted as part of this post are excellent spirits, which best express themselves mixed in cocktails. The Jack Rose cocktail was a revelation, especially when made with the Laird's Apple Bond Brandy. The apple character really shines through and blends well with the lime and pomegranate flavors. Recipes usually specify lemon or lime - I've found lime to produce a superior drink. Also homemade grenadine is key here (I opt for 1:1 pomegranate juice to sugar).

In addition, the Marconi Wireless, Apple Swizzle and Hugo Bracer are excellent cocktails and showcase the mixability and complexity of Apple Brandy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Amer Picon, Torani Amer and Amer Boudreau

Amer Picon is yet another of the "lost" ingredients popular among the cocktail crowd these days. Originally invented by Gaetan Picon in the mid-1800's, it was used to combat malaria, first by himself, then by the French Army during his time in Algeria. It contains orange peels, gentian root and quinine among other things.

The formulation changed forever in the 1970's when it went from 78 proof down to 39 proof, making it difficult to recreate the flavor profile and potency of the original version in cocktails. The new formulation is only widely available in France and is not sold in the U.S.

A number of people have set out to recreate this classic ingredient, most notably the Torani company, maker of all of those flavored syrups (their orgeat is my favorite), who market a product known simply as Torani Amer. At 79 proof, many enthusiasts proclaim this to be close replica of the original Amer Picon. And apparently things improved recently when people started noticing a distinct lack of an undesirable vegetal, celery-like flavor element, which they believed pagued this product for a long time. (I have not tried the pre-reformulated version). The reformulated version is very good with a distinct orangey nose, is fairly high alcohol, and has a nice bitter finish. It is very popular in San Francisco and anywhere with a large Basque community (e.g. San Bernardino, Fresno) where Picon Punch seems to be a cultural phenomenon.

Recently, well known bartender and cocktail enthusiast Jamie Boudreau developed an Amer Picon replica known widely as "Amer Boudreau" (recipe here) which makes use of a homemade orange tincture (dried orange peel soaked in high-proof vodka or grain alcohol), Ramazzotti Amaro (which I originally discovered while in Italy - fabulous on its own) and Stirrings Blood Orange bitters. The version I made is a little sweeter than the Torani Amer, but part of that is due to the fact that I used 80 proof vodka so the overall proof level is lower. I'll use a higher proof vodka or Everclear for my next batch.

As far as cocktail recipes, three that I really like are provided below. I discovered the recipe for the Brooklyn Cocktail in an article in Imbibe magazine titled "Gone but not Forgotten" about defunct and lost ingredients.

The Picon Punch recipe is adapted from the recipe in the book aperitif by Georgeanne Brennan. There are a lot of variations on the Picon Punch recipe - many do not use lemon juice at all, but only the peel as the garnish. Some omit the soda. I like both in there. It is an amazingly refreshing cocktail and you can increase or decrease the amount of soda quite a bit without diminishing the enjoyment of this beverage.

The Liberal cocktail recipe is from CocktailDB and makes use of rye and orange bitters. It's similar to a Manhattan but with an extra orangey flavor profile in the background. I'm increasingly becoming a fan of the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (BIB) rye whiskey, which I recommend in this cocktail. While I gave it low marks on its own during a recent rye tasting, I've found that it brings out an extra dimension in mixed drinks (especially when paired with Carpano Antica Formula vermouth) and is fast establishing itself as a standard for me in the Manhattan.

Brooklyn cocktail
2 oz rye or bourbon (Sazerac Rye)
3/4 oz dry vermouth
1/4 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
Add ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a marasca cherry.

Picon Punch
1 1/2 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1.5 tsp grenadine (homemade)
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 tsp brandy
soda water (~2-4 oz. depending on level of refreshment desired)
Add ingredients except brandy to a large-ish wine goblet, top off with soda, add lemon twist and float the brandy.

Liberal Cocktail
1 1/2 oz rye or Bourbon whiskey (Rittenhouse BIB)
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica Formula)
1/4 oz Amer Picon (or substitute)
1 dash orange bitters (Regan's)
Add ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a marasca cherry.

Final Notes - The currently available forms of Amer Picon - Torani Amer and homemade "Amer Boudreau" are enjoyable base ingredients for a number of interesting cocktails. The Torani Amer is inexpensive and readily available ($10.99 at BevMo) and makes a delicious Picon Punch among other things. For those of you enamored with the idea of making your own spirits, the "Amer Boudreau" is fairly easily made and delicious as well - similar but slightly sweeter. So pick up or make a bottle of Amer and find out what it's all about for yourself.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Green Chartreuse

I finally hit a critical mass of interesting looking mixed drink recipes using green Chartreuse and had to get myself a bottle. My first experience with green Chartreuse was many years back; after reading a rave review of the spirit in Wine Enthusiast by the spirits editor F. Paul Pacult, I bought a bottle for my brother as a Christmas gift. I tried it at least a couple of times and was fascinated by its complex herbal flavors.

Chartreuse is made by Carthusian monks, who apparently got the recipe for the stuff back in 1605 at the Chartreuse Monastery located in the Chartreuse Mountains. Chartreuse comes in many forms. Yellow, which is lower in alcohol and sweeter, the aforementioned green, which clocks in at 110 proof, VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) versions of both yellow and green which are aged extensively in oak casks and are very expensive, and finally the Elixir Végétal, supposedly the original form of the spirit which comes in a handsome lathe turned wooden case, is 142 proof, and is not available in the U.S. (and is thus very interesting to me).

Green Chartreuse is excellent on its own, ice cold. It is high in alcohol, but has a light sweetness and an overwhelmingly complex herbal flavor. It is made with 130 herbal extracts. Think of an herb and you'll probably find it evoked in this liqueur.

A number of cocktail recipes can be found which make use of green Chartreuse. Just search CocktailDB and you'll find over 50 recipes. I picked a few from CocktailDB and other sites which seemed especially interesting.

Of note is the Chartreuse Swizzle which is excellent and makes use of Falernum and swizzling - some recent favorites of mine. This recipe came from Marco Dionysos (of Harry Denton's Starlite Room in San Francisco) and won a Bay Area Chartreuse drink recipe contest in 2003. A recipe I found on the internet calls for a garnish of mint and nutmeg. The mint is key, but I am eschewing the nutmeg as I have a strong association with it in rich creamy winter concoctions such as the egg nog and brandy Alexander - which makes it out of place in this drink for me. As for the Falernum, I used Taylor's Velvet as the Fee's would be too sweet in this with the pineapple juice. Also this drink is great with 1/2 to 1 oz. of white rum added if you find it too sweet.

The Swamp Water is also delicious and can be found on the menu at Los Angeles's preeminent Tropical Bar, the Tiki Ti.

The Last Word cocktail is an old-timer, dating from at least before the 1930's, but not widely known. The original recipe calls for equal parts of the ingredients, but as usual I find the Maraschino overpowering and reduced it a bit, while upping the gin a hair.

The St. Germain and the Green Ghost looked the most interesting among the CocktaiDB recipes. The St. Germain is a bit odd, but I like that it's not too sweet, nicely tart and has a nice rich egg white foam. It appears I'm becoming a big egg-white-in-cocktails fan. The Green Ghost is likewise very dry with the Chartreuse more in the background of the gin.

The Last Word
1 oz. green Chartreuse
1.25 oz. gin
0.5 oz. Maraschino liqueur
1 oz. lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Swamp Water
1.5 oz. green Chartreuse
5 oz. pineapple juice
lime wedge
Combine in a highball glass with cracked ice. Squeeze lime wedge and stir.

Chartreuse Swizzle
1¼ oz green Chartreuse
½ oz falernum (Taylor's Velvet)
1 oz pineapple juice
¾ oz lime juice
Swizzle with crushed ice (stir until frost forms) in a tall glass. Garnish with a spring of mint.

St. Germain
1 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. grapefruit juice
1 egg white
1.5 oz. green Chartreuse
Add ingredients to a cocktail shaker and dry shake (i.e. without ice for 10 seconds). Add ice cubes and shake like the dickens for about a minute. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Green Ghost
2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. green Chartreuse
1/2 oz. lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice cubes in a cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass.

Final notes - Green Chartreuse is a complex and tasty herbal liquor. It is excellent on its own - in fact many believe it to be a waste to use it in mixed drinks at all. I do like Chartreuse on its own, well chilled, but also find it can make an excellent cocktail when paired with the right ingredients. Among the cocktails listed above, my faves are the "long drinks", the Chartreuse Swizzle and the Swamp Water, in that order. They're on the sweet side, but the flavors combinations are amazing. All are definitely worth a try.