Monthly Archives: October 2012

Get Your Pumpkin On

31 October 2012

This time of year, big orange squash are inescapable, whether you’re beset by pumpkin scones at Starbucks or pestered by pumpkin-flavored beers at the bar. I admit, I get into the spirit of things a bit, ordering an annual pumpkin spice latte (one a year is enough) and occasionally even making pumpkin crème brûlée, which gives me an excuse to use my kitchen blow torch.

Now, here is where I would ordinarily start writing about how I experimented with various recipes for pumpkin cocktails to serve at your Halloween party, and how I discovered a fantastic recipe. Alas, I had neither the time nor the palate to do anything of the kind. Perhaps I’ll come up with something original for Halloween next year, but in the meantime, I’ve assembled a collection of other people’s pumpkinlicious cocktails sure to tickle your gourd. Why carve a pumpkin when you can just drink one? always has commendable cocktail recommendations. For your Halloween pleasure, you might start with some homemade pumpkin vodka.

But then, why make your own pumpkin vodka when you can just buy some at the store? After all, it’s a little late to start this stuff from scratch.

Now that you’ve obtained your pumpkin vodka one way or the other, it’s time to start mixing. I recommend consulting’s list of five pumpkin cocktails, most of which sound actually rather good.

Or better yet, invest in a bottle of Corsair Pumpkin Spice Moonshine. This white whiskey is apparently “great in a Manhattan,” and heck, goodness knows I’d drink it. You can also find Corsair’s recipes for Pumpkin Spiced Punch and a Pumpkin Pie Martini here.

But this being Halloween, you’ll want to drink something really, really scary. I’ve sipped a lot of scary things over the years, but surely pumpkin wine ranks among the very scariest.



Mezcal, Vegetarian And Non-Vegetarian

27 October 2012

Although it’s started to have a following in the United States, mezcal has yet to invade the popular consciousness the way tequila has. Everyone knows tequila, whether they like it or not, and almost everyone who drinks has tried a margarita at least once in their lives. But what does mezcal taste like? And what’s the signature mezcal cocktail?

The answer to the second question is easy: There isn’t one. At least, not yet. And that’s because of the answer to the first question. Mezcal has a much smokier, less cocktail-friendly flavor than tequila, because the piña, the heart of the agave plant from which mezcal is fermented and distilled, is roasted underground for about three days. (The piñas used for tequila are baked, not roasted, and they come only from the blue agave plant.)

While staying in Acapulco recently, I had hoped to explore the world of mezcal more deeply. But as a single traveler staying at a property well outside of town, it felt uncomfortable and inconvenient to bar hop in the city itself. Fortunately, my hotel had an excellent mezcal for me to sample, an Amores Reposado made in Santiago Matatlán (in Oaxaca) from espadín agave. As with tequila, “reposado” indicates that the spirit was aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months.

Amores distills its mezcal reposado three times and ages it for eight months, instead of just two, and the extra care shows. It had a red, smokey aroma, and it felt strong but surprisingly smooth, with smokey notes tempered by something sweet. It tasted particularly good paired with orange wedges dipped in chili powder.

Unfortunately, I failed in my quest to sample mezcal pechuga, which is mezcal distilled with a variety of fruits as well as a breast of chicken suspended in the still (you can read more about the process here). I found a bottle of Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga in a liquor store in Acapulco, but it cost an eye-popping 1,950 pesos, which works out to about $150! Even for a mezcal distilled with a chicken breast, that seemed a little steep. I consoled myself with some bottles of wine from Baja instead.

Mezcal won’t appeal to everyone, but if you happen to like tequila, it’s definitely worth a try. Fans of scotch, which can also be a bit smokey, should also consider investigating mezcal. Your liquor store should carry at least a few examples. Go for a reposado or an añejo (aged one to three years in oak). A quick search of Binny’s website revealed 36 options priced anywhere from $18 to $230 per bottle. And hey, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to send to Odd Bacchus, Binny’s carries the Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga for a cool $200.


Liquore di Mirto

25 October 2012

As is often the case, the name of this liqueur sounds better in Italian. “Liquore di mirto” has more power to stir the heart than “myrtle berry liqueur.” Myrtle berry liqueur sounds like something I might try for the blog, since I haven’t the faintest idea what a myrtle berry even tastes like, but it’s not something I would see in a liquor store and snatch off the shelf. I tend to be suspicious of berry-flavored liqueurs — they’re usually just too syrupy and sweet, occasionally veering towards the medicinal.

But on a cruise this past April, I had a port of call in Sardinia, the Mediterranean’s second-largest island. I knew of three Sardinian specialties. First, wine made from the Cannonau grape, which one can find in the U.S. fairly easily. Second, Casu Marzu, a cheese made more… ripe? is that the word? …by allowing fly larvae to grow in the cheese and partially digest it. The cheese is typically consumed when the larvae are still alive. I consider myself strong of stomach, but after seeing a video of this cheese in action, I knew this option was out.

That left mirto, and I was determined to find some. Our guide, after showing us some mysterious megalithic ruins and picturesque resort towns, took me to a supermarket in a strip mall, and I procured a bottle. It was worth the effort.

I opened it recently with Scott, who assisted me with the Cherry Pie Martini, and we took a sip, not really knowing what to expect. It tasted of ripe cherries, something herbal, like eucalyptus perhaps, and cinnamon on the finish. It was positively delightful, both at room temperature and chilled (how it’s usually served).

It seemed a shame to mix it with anything, but when alcohol is involved, shame is a feeling I can easily overcome. Gin seemed the most obvious place to start, since its botanicals would likely work well with the herbal qualities of the mirto. We came up with a very simple and absolutely delicious cocktail, which we dubbed, for better or worse, the Mirtini.


2 parts gin (I used Death’s Door)

1 part mirto

1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine the above in a shaker filled with ice, agitate, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon, if you’re feeling extra fancy. The drink starts with bright notes from the botanicals in the gin and moves into the more grounded, darker notes of the mirto before finishing with a flash of brandied cherries and cinnamon. The lemon holds it together, providing necessary texture and enhancing the flavors.

We thought the cherry notes of the mirto could also work with something brown, in the manner of a Manhattan. Cognac seemed like a good place to start, since brandy and cherries seem made for each other. Here we used mirto in the place of sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, and came up with, if you’ll forgive us, the Mirhattan.


2 parts Cognac

1 part mirto

3-4 dashes orange bitters

Combine the above in a shaker filled with ice, agitate, and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a slice of orange peel, if you like. Scott remarked that the cocktail smelled “like expensive soap,” and I was hard pressed to disagree. Nevertheless, it tasted round, rich, spicy and sweet. It was great fun, and perfect for the cooler weather.

If you can get your hands on some mirto, by all means buy it. It’s delightful by itself, and I have a feeling the two cocktails described above are only the beginning of its mixological potential. Type in the words “mirto liqueur” into a search engine, and you’ll find some U.S. retailers which sell it, typically for $25 to $30.


Drink Some History For The Holidays

20 October 2012

On the off chance you’ve read a few of my other posts about wine, you may have noticed I usually write about bottles that cost less than $15. Because I focus on the unusual and the obscure, most large wineries and PR firms aren’t interested in sending me free samples. I buy what I drink, like most of you, and therefore I have a keen eye for value.

You can perhaps imagine, then, me standing in Binny’s on Marcey, faced with a $22 bottle of Turkish wine. On the one hand, I’ve never reviewed a wine from Turkey on this blog. But good heavens, doesn’t $22 for a wine from Turkey, of all places, seem a little steep? I’ve been to Turkey — it’s a spectacular country, and I enjoyed myself immensely. We even did some wine tasting there and discovered a few gems, such as a wonderfully minerally Narince (pronounced approximately “nahr-IN-jeh”) from Cappadocia. But I can’t remember a single red I really liked.

Even so, I was in an extravagant mood. The bottle said “Single Vineyard,” which gave me some confidence, and it was the very last bottle in the bin. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t try it — I’m one of those people who tends to regret not drinking more than drinking — so I plunked down the cash and brought it home.

What a revelation. The 2008 Kayra Vintage Single Vineyard Öküzgözü “Collectible Series #5” from the central Anatolia region was not only the best wine I’ve had from Turkey. It was one of the best wines I’ve had all year. A deep, opaque purple, it smelled like an aged Cabernet: rich and jammy with a bit of (not unpleasant) dust. Dark, luscious fruit revealed itself on the palate, tempered by dusky tannins and some pumpkin pie spice on the finish. There’s structure and restraint there too — it’s not just some fruit bomb. My drinking companion called it “very festive” and “perfect for the holidays.” And he was absolutely right — this was a suave party guest of a wine.

But what the heck is it? I consulted my books, and discovered that Öküzgözü is one of Turkey’s indigenous grape varieties, noted in passing as a popular variety in Anatolia, but not listed among the most promising varieties. I trust that error will be corrected in future editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. But perhaps these books deserve some slack. As the Companion notes, Turkey may encompass the very birthplace of viticulture itself (around Mount Ararat), and “the region is therefore rich in indigenous vinifera vine varieties, of which between 600 and 1,200 have been identified but fewer than 60 are grown commercially.” That’s a lot of varieties to keep track of.

Öküzgözü isn’t noted at all in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, but this book does note that Turkey’s terroir exhibits great untapped potential. Anatolia, where the Kayra Vintage comes from, has cold winters but very sunny, dry summers, making it a challenging but potentially very rewarding region for viticulture. And the Turks certainly know how to tend a vineyard. The country is the world’s fourth-largest producer of grapes, but most are eaten fresh or as raisins. Only 2.5% make it into wine. Why?

Most Turkish drinkers seem to prefer raki (like ouzo) and beer to wine, meaning there isn’t much of a local market. Tourists pick up some of the slack, and some wines are exported, but because Turkey lacks a reputation as a quality wine producer, I have to think that selling exports can be a tricky business. And if those barriers aren’t already high enough, international investors might feel skittish about putting a lot of money into a winery in a Muslim-majority country, however moderate it may be.

The Kayra Vintage Single Vineyard Öküzgözü could stand on its own in any case, but it’s all the more impressive for succeeding against these formidable headwinds. And at just $22, it packs a ton of flavor for the price, as well as quite a pedigree. The “single vineyard” referred to on the label is Şükrü Baran, located in the Elazığ region near the Euphrates River. Vineyards have been cultivated there for some 4,000 to 6,000 years. When you drink the Kayra Vintage, you reach back into the very heart of winemaking itself.


2008 Kayra Vintage Single Vineyard Öküzgözü “Collectible Series #5”: Dark and lusciously fruity, with supple tannins and a unique finish of sweet spices. Pair with autumn dishes such as duck, turkey or pork stuffed with dried fruit. Chill in the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving. Note that because it’s unfiltered, the last glass of wine may contain some harmless sediment.

Grade: A

Find It: I purchased this wine at Binny’s for $22.


Door County Discovery

17 October 2012

I recently vacationed for a week in Door County, Wisconsin, which is that lovely peninsula that sticks into Lake Michigan. Autumn there is particularly fine, when the trees put on a magnificent display and orchards allow you to pick your own apples. We did just that at Lautenbach’s Orchard outside Fish Creek, and it was there I discovered the joys of tart cherry juice.

You might be able to find cherry juice at your local grocery, but tart cherry juice, made from Montmorency cherries, seems to be more of a specialty product. This year it might be especially difficult to find, because the cherry crop in Wisconsin and Michigan was damaged by the frost which followed March’s string of 80-degree temperatures. If you do see tart cherry juice (100% juice is best), for heaven’s sake, buy it. Lautenbach’s Orchard sells it in its refrigerated case, and you can also purchase it online.

UPDATE: I just discovered Whole Foods carries tart cherry juice as well.

It’s worth the trouble to find. The juice from Lautenbach’s Orchard tasted like rich cherry pie in a glass, which makes some sense, since the juice comes from the same cherries used for pies. But though the juice is sweet, it is by no means cloying or syrupy. Since Lautenbach’s adds no sugar to the juice, it retains its tart punch. For a simple fruit juice, it’s remarkably complex, and I love drinking it on its own.

But of course, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I had a feeling that a juice this delicious couldn’t help but make a delightful cocktail, and indeed it does. I tried it with whiskey, brandy, tequila, vodka… All these combinations, using about two parts juice and one part spirit, worked beautifully. I shared the juice with my friend Scott, a great connoisseur of cocktails, and after one sip, he exclaimed, “Oh… Yes. We are going to make a Cherry Pie Martini with this.” And who was I to say no?

I knew that vodka and tart cherry juice worked well, but it felt a little pointy. Some fresh-squeezed lemon juice rounded out the texture, but it still seemed a little bright. To enhance some of the low notes, we added a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters. Perfect. The result looked enticingly cherry-red, but it was no sugar bomb. This was a strong, serious cocktail, with a most pleasurable balance of flavors:


  • 2 parts vodka (I use Sobieski, the best vodka value I’ve found)
  • 1 part 100% tart cherry juice
  • 1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Add all of the above to a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into chilled martini glasses. If you must, garnish with a fresh cherry.

And that’s it! Easy as pie, and a great cocktail to serve around Thanksgiving.

(And if you have any non-drinkers at the party, they’ll be delighted by this alternative: 4 parts club soda, 1 part 100% tart cherry juice, a healthy squeeze of lemon, and, if you have it on hand, a healthy squeeze of lime as well. Delicious!)


Australia Reconsidered

13 October 2012

I find myself avoiding most Australian wines. Many are inexpensive, to be sure, but most cheap Australian wine turns out to be a poor value for the money. As I’ve said before, just because a bottle of wine costs $7 or $8 doesn’t mean you’ll get $7 or $8 worth of flavor out of it. Inexpensive Shiraz, Australia’s most famous export, can frequently be quite crude and overblown, and a poor value at almost any price. I have no doubt that it’s possible to find bargains, but I don’t know enough about the Australian wine scene to ferret them out.

If you find yourself inexplicably in the mood for something Australian, go for one of the lesser-known grape varieties. You’ll likely get more bang for your buck with something like a Semillon or a Sangiovese. It’s just not safe to pick up a random bottle of Australian Shiraz or Chardonnay these days.

A bottle of 2008 Oxford Landing Viognier from South Australia had been languishing on my wine rack for years, I have no idea how it got there, and I must admit I’d been avoiding it. Even Viognier seems a little too fashionable to be trusted in Australian hands, and the fact that Oxford Landing is one of Australia’s most famous wineries did not inspire confidence (although the Oxford Landing website reassuringly describes its Viognier as “suitable for vegans and vegetarians”).

But I tend to prefer younger Viogniers, which have the best chance of retaining their trademark perfume intact. Already, this wine had likely passed its prime.

I decided to take my own advice and just open the stuff, and some Thai delivery provided the perfect opportunity: Low stakes, and numerous alternative bottles within easy reach, should the Viognier have to go down the drain. Fortunately, the wine still had a heady honeysuckle aroma, and my goodness, it was tasty and rich. A buttery start gave way to pears, flowers, some pointy acids and even a touch of flintiness at the end. The acids ensured balance, and its exotic flavors paired just fine with the Thai food.

I ended up quite enjoying this inexpensive Australian wine! I have no idea what I paid (perhaps it was a gift), but other Oxford Landing wines cost about $8 at Binny’s. Quite a fine value indeed. I may have to reconsider my ban on wines from Down Under. I would love to hear if you’ve made any exciting Australian discoveries lately — feel free to write me an e-mail or post in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can scare up some more unusual and inexpensive varietals from Australia. Who knows? Maybe I’ve been missing out!


2008 Oxford Landing Viognier: Intact perfumy, honeysuckle aroma. Rich, fruity and flowery, with tart balancing acids and a touch of flint. A very good value. Pairs well with Asian dishes, and probably most pork recipes. Chill well in the refrigerator before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I have no idea where I got it, but Oxford Landing is a major exporter, and it’s likely a well-stocked wine shop will carry its wines, which run about $8 to $10.


Taking A Risk On Rosé

10 October 2012

I like to stretch out rosé season as long as possible, and now that the nights are flirting with freezing, I’m stretching it indeed. But my goodness, I know of few other styles of wine so broadly consistent as the long-maligned pink. How many dry rosés have I tried, made with who knows which varieties from heaven knows what godforsaken backwater — and they’re almost all at least good.

Why is that? The theory I’ve adopted is that since rosés can be tough to market, winemakers who choose to make them make them from the heart. These aren’t dumbed down to appeal to everyone, so the wines have a point of view, and have a good chance of reflecting the vineyard’s terroir. The winemaker is, hopefully, expressing him/herself with the rosé, and perhaps having a little fun. And fun is the point of a rosé — it should be lively and joyous, if not necessarily deep or complex or profound.

But even I have limits, and I find it difficult to work up enthusiasm for rosé in the winter. That’s why it’s important to pick up a bottle now and open it immediately, while the leaves still have a touch of green. You could do much worse than a 2011 Kir-Yianni “Akakies,” which will likely be my last pink of the season. Yep, it’s made from a who-knows-which variety in a godforsaken backwater, and it’s great.

In fact, it’s made from Xinomavro, one of the three grape varieties starting with “X” listed in The Oxford Companion to Wine. The name means “acid black,” according to the Companion, and it’s “one of the few Greek vine varieties which may not reach full ripeness in some years.” Perhaps that’s less the variety’s fault and more due to the fact that it’s popular in the cool, high-altitude vineyards of northern Greece.

This particular Xinomavro is a 100% varietal from Amyndeon (as spelled on the label), a region in inland Macedonia just south Greece’s border with Macedonia the country (as distinct from the Greek province of the same name). Adding to the geographic confusion, since Greeks use the Greek alphabet, the Arabic spelling of place names can get creative. In my various wine tomes, I have found it spelled Amyndeo, Amyntaion and Amindaio.

In any case, the region on the northwest side of Mount Vermio “is so cool that it can produce aromatic whites, a denominated Xinomavro rosé, and good sparkling wine,” according to the Atlas. I was delighted to see Sotheby’s note that the “brilliant” Alpha Estate is realizing the full potential of the Amyndeo terroir with its fine Xinomavro-based red blends. I first wrote about the Alpha Estate “Axia” here, and I liked the wine so much that I served it at my wedding.

But let’s get back to the Kir-Yianni rosé, because with autumn fully upon us, there’s no time to waste. A deep pink color, it smelled of sweet cherries and watermelon. On the palate, it exhibited juicy fruit, a slight prickle on the tongue, some tightly wound acids, a chalky midsection and a tart finish. A fun ride, and delicious paired with some slightly spicy red beans and rice.

So even this rosé of Xinomavro from Amyndeo (or Amindaio, or Amyntaion) — a risk if there ever was one — proved to be quite fine. Which again goes to show that taking a risk on an unknown dry rosé isn’t really much of a risk at all.


2011 Kir-Yianni “Akakies”: Fruity, but tight, focused, minerally and tart. An excellent choice with food that’s lightly spicy. Chill well in the refrigerator before serving, and serve it soon. Its summery flavors will soon feel out of place.

Grade: A-

Find It: I purchased this bottle at In Fine Spirits for $15.50, and I see that Binny’s also carries it.

Next Page »