Monthly Archives: April 2012

Time To Disconnect

21 April 2012

Every now and then I like to escape from the keyboard for a while and do a little fieldwork. While I’m away researching Sardinian Cannonau and Minorcan gin, I would encourage you to do a some research of your own. Go into a wine shop you like and ask for something weird but tasty. Often they’ll have some oddball gem they found at a tasting that they would love to share.

Of course, you’ve probably tried a number of odd drinks in the past already, and I would love to hear about your experiences. Feel free to send me an e-mail about an offbeat wine, spirit or cocktail you’ve tried, and I’ll post some of the stories to this blog. You can reach me at

If you don’t have a good story, well, now is an excellent time to make one. Get out there and drink something weird!

I’ll be back on May 5. Cheers!





The Island Vineyards of Firelands

18 April 2012

Last June, I wrote about Ohio’s Lake Erie Islands, which wine critic Frank Schoonmaker highlighted as an important viticultural region in a 1941 issue of Gourmet. But even then, Schoonmaker lamented the lost potential of these islands, which feature unusually favorable terroir for certain grape varieties. Prohibition killed off a number of wineries, and most of those that remained in the mid-20th century were apparently lazy or incompetent. According to Schoonmaker, “Too many – far too many – wines are falsified, are heavily dosed with sugar, or are blended with cheap California wines.”

With significantly declining acreage devoted to vineyards, I had basically written off these romantic-sounding islands. What a pleasant surprise then, to come across a bottle of 2010 Firelands Gewürztraminer from Isle St. George. Also known more prosaically as North Bass Island, Isle St. George achieved AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1982, and vineyards currently cover more than half the island.



Happy Birthday, Odd Bacchus!

14 April 2012

It was one year ago that I walked into In Fine Spirits, asked for their weirdest bottle, and came away with a deliciously velvety Jović Vranac from Serbia. That inspiring find pushed me over the edge into hardcore bloggery, and now, 117 posts later, I continue to milk this blog as an excuse to drink any oddball booze that catches my fancy.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you people who actually read this thing, and to also take stock and see what’s been catching your fancy. Some of my posts are much, much more popular than others, and it’s fascinating to see what drinks people are most interested in reading about.

It was a big surprise to see my post about Becherovka, an herbal Czech liquor which is tasty with tonic, rank at #11. No cocktail posts made it into the top 10, but the posts about Chicago’s Koval Distillery and the “Hidden Gems of Cognac” came in at #6 and #7, respectively.

A piece about the glories of Virginia Viognier made it to #8, but all the other top wine posts — #2, #4, #5 and #10 — were all about wines and spirits from Serbia! Who knew?



Lighting A Fuse In Lebanon

11 April 2012

I was about to leave a wine tasting at Rogers Park Fine Wines & Spirits, when I noticed that half the people in line to check out had at least one bottle of Massaya Classic in their hands. Recently, I saw the Massaya Classic appear again, this time in In Fine Spirits‘ “tasting tournament.” It made it to the final four, at least. This obscure Lebanese red blend seems unlikely to remain obscure for long.

I wisely bought a bottle of the 2008 at the Rogers Park tasting, and I finally decided to open it and see what the fuss was about. The nose of red fruit, red meat and black pepper seemed promising, and indeed, it won me over at first sip with big, fruity flavors of cherries and plums followed by a peppery finish. I could see why this wine was so popular.

We paired it, perhaps in error, with some homemade pork tacos topped with guacamole, salsa, black beans, rice, cilantro and cheese. The wine became almost overpoweringly spicy, the black pepper kicking into overdrive. (I’m still working on a good red to pair with spicier dishes — if anyone has had any success beyond Lambrusco, please let me know.)

So what’s going on here? Is Lebanon poised to become a real player in the international wine markets? Although nowadays it’s associated more with Hezbollah and war, Lebanon has produced quality wine for thousands of years. Most of the vineyards (including Massaya’s) grow in the Bekaa Valley, where the ancient Romans erected a temple to Bacchus. Even then, this was major terroir.



Gin And Juice

7 April 2012

After seeing the beautiful but disturbing Cindy Sherman exhibition at MOMA in New York, I needed a little refreshment, and a candy from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation just wasn’t cutting it. We headed to The Modern, MOMA’s superlative restaurant and cocktail bar.

Amazingly, we secured a booth at the bar without a minute’s wait, and before long I was sipping one of my favorite cocktails of the trip: Via Per Le Indie, a drink with an inexplicably half-Italian, half-French name that is nevertheless 100% delicious. Cadenhead’s Old Raj Gin, distilled to 110 proof and infused with a little saffron, serves as the cocktail’s base. This Scottish spirit is mixed with Bénédictine (an herbal and relatively sweet French liqueur), fresh lemon juice, ginger and honey, and served over ice.

For $15, I expected something impressive, and this cocktail did not disappoint. An aroma of honey gave way to flavors of juniper, citrus, ginger, and then honey again on the finish. Complex and delicious, and just what I needed after some serious art consumption.

I had a much simpler version of this cocktail at Thalia, a restaurant/lounge in the Theater District. Their Bee’s Knees cocktail ($11) combined Tanqueray 10, lemon juice and honey, and again I found it to be a most satisfying sweet/sour drink.

I had never tried this gin/lemon/honey combo before, but it has a long history — it turns out that the Bee’s Knees is a classic cocktail from the Prohibition era. The honey, no doubt, served to smooth over the rough edges of the low-quality gins available at that time (you can read more about the cocktail’s history here).

Fortunately, we don’t need to mask our gins nowadays, giving us much more freedom to create a balanced cocktail. Encouraged by the simplicity and ready availability of the ingredients, I experimented at home with various proportions. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is Odd Bacchus’s ideal Bee’s Knees:



New York Cocktail Roundup

4 April 2012

While in New York City last week, I found time in between my meetings to dip my toe into the city’s thriving cocktail scene. It’s easy enough to find fine cocktails in Chicago — one of my favorite bars, In Fine Spirits, completely geeked out and declared February “Fernet-bruary” with a menu of Fernet-Branca-based cocktails, for example — but in Manhattan it seems almost impossible to avoid creative mixology.

I drank a goodly number of tasty things during my stay, and here are some of my favorites:

MOUNTAINSIDE (Japanese whiskey, fennel-infused simple syrup and orange bitters — $14)

Consumed at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, a casual restaurant with seriously delicious contemporary Korean cuisine. An oversized, slow-melting cube of ice chilled this cocktail, and though I enjoyed its orangey aroma, fresh Manhattan-like flavor, smooth texture and long finish of cherries, the ice cube stole the show. Nary a bubble polluted its interior, and its edges were perfectly sharp. How could this be? I asked the bartender about it, and she explained that their ice maker freezes the ice in thin layers, to prevent bubbles from forming. Lasers then dissect this bubble-free block of ice into perfect cubes.

SPICE TRADE (Bols Genever, Dolin Blanc, star anise, galangal syrup and persimmon water — $14)

Consumed at Madam Geneva, an atmospheric bar just off The Bowery devoted to gin- and genever-based cocktails. First, let’s figure out this crazy list of ingredients. Genever (also spelled “Jenever”) is distilled from corn, wheat and rye and flavored with juniper berries, and according to European Union rules, it can only be made in the Netherlands and Belgium. Essentially, it’s Dutch gin. Dolin makes high-quality vermouth, and Dolin Blanc is their sweeter, white version. Ginger-like galangal appears most frequently in southeast Asian cooking. It has an aromatic woody quality, not unlike pine or cedar, as opposed to the spicy, warm heat of ginger. You have a fighting chance of finding the licorice-flavored star anise and fruity persimmons in the grocery store, though what exactly persimmon water is, I cannot say.

In short, this is a cocktail worth ordering at a bar, because goodness knows none of us will be making it at home. The floating star anise garnish provided an aromatic introduction, and I loved its orange, anise and juniper flavors. It would have been easy to make this cocktail too sweet, but it tasted well-balanced and finished dry.


SIAM MOJITO (Coconut rum, Thai chili-infused simple syrup, one chopped lime, fresh mint, lemongrass garnish — $21)

Consumed at Bar Seine, the exotic and very plush cocktail lounge in the Plaza Athénée Hotel. A number of the cocktails in the ostrich leather-bound menu caught my eye, but this goosed-up mojito sounded like a fun twist. I asked the bartender if he recommended it, and he cautioned, “Do you like spicy? It’s very spicy. I just want to warn you.” That clinched it — any cocktail that comes with a warning is a cocktail I must try. He was right. It took about 10 sips before my tongue finally became accustomed to the blast of spiciness. This is certainly not a cocktail one can gulp! I enjoyed the novelty of a spicy drink, but the heat did tend to overpower the other flavors. If it were dialed back just a bit, allowing more of the mint and coconut rum to poke through, this could be a brilliant cocktail. (I also wouldn’t have minded experiencing the promised lemongrass garnish, instead of the lime wheel I received.) Even so, I enjoyed the novelty of a rip-roaringly spicy cocktail, and the setting — with its leather floor, onyx-shaded sconces and accent pieces seemingly selected by Seinfeld‘s Peterman — is ripe for a romantic and discreet tete-a-tete.