Spirits

Top Spirits & Cocktails Of 2013

21 December 2013

Slyrs WhiskeyAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2013″ lists. I don’t know if these lists are really all that useful, arbitrary as they are, but compiling them gives me a good excuse to reflect on the past year.

Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting in this country, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails too have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.

Here are my favorites from 2013, in alphabetical order. And if this list doesn’t convince you that the world of spirits and cocktails has never been better, check out my list from 2012 here.

 

AMBER DREAM AT NOBLE EXPERIMENT:

This speakeasy in downtown San Diego was my favorite bar of the trip. It’s a little complicated to get in — you need to make a reservation in advance (ideally, a week in advance), and you can only make that reservation by sending a text message to 619-888-4713. Once your reservation is confirmed, go to a restaurant called The Neighborhood at 777 G Street. Go to the back by the bathrooms, and you’ll see some beer kegs stacked up against the wall. Push on those, and you’re in!

Bartender Anthony hand-cracked the ice for my Amber Dream, a classic cocktail that I must admit I’d never tried before. It contained Beefeater 24 (in which Beefeater steeps the botanicals for 24 hours, amping up the flavor), Carpano Antica (the sweet vermouth craft bars are going crazy for these days), Yellow Chartreuse (a French herbal liqueur), orange bitters and a strip of lemon zest.

This cocktail took a few minutes to make, and it was worth the wait. It started on a sweet note, but the flavor became more and more bitter. I love the smooth, round texture (achieved with lots of stirring) and the citrusy aroma from the zest. Delicious, complex, and positively delightful.

 

BLOOD & SAND AT TAVERNA 750:

Taverna 750

Taverna 750

At this bar and restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, they’ve devised a simple and elegant solution for keeping that last half of your martini ice-cold: storing it on ice in a little glass pitcher until you’re ready to drink it. Each cocktail comes with this sidecar, whether you order off the menu or not. I started with a Blood & Sand, a concoction which dates at least as far back as Bill Boothby’s 1934 cocktail guide, World Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, which calls for scotch, Cherry Heering and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Taverna 750 gooses up that simple recipe by mixing together Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering, housemade orangecello, lemon juice and simple syrup.

My dining companion had a taste of it, rolled his eyes with pleasure and ordered one of his own. It had a creamy bitter-orange aroma, a profile carried through on the palate: rich, sweet and bitter, undergirded by orangey acids. The sidecar kept the second half of my drink ice-cold, with no loss of integrity as I finished the first.

 

BYRRH:

ByrrhAt first glance Byrrh appears to resemble many other sweet vermouths, or even port, it differs in one important respect: It’s spiked with quinine, the anti-malarial compound found in cinchona bark that gives traditional tonic its unique flavor.

I tried it first at room temperature, though it’s traditionally consumed chilled. It had a porty, richly fruity aroma with something herbal in there as well — a bit of parsley perhaps. I loved the round, luscious mouthfeel which slowly developed into orangey acids and the barest hint of menthol on the finish.

After that taste, there was no question — I needed to see what it would do for a Manhattan. I shook two parts Rowan’s Creek Bourbon, one part Byrrh and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters with ice, and strained it into a martini glass. It proved to be a balanced but very bright and lively Manhattan. It seemed to end with a deep note from the bitters, but it jumped up again at the last second with a little cedar and mint.

 

CHÂTEAU DE BEAULON 7-YEAR COGNAC:

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacThis cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche. Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes. In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano). Finding a cognac distilled from Folle Blanche these days is rare indeed.

The light caramel-colored Château Beaulon had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

 

CYNAR

CynarI would never have guessed this artichoke-based liqueur from Italy would make the list. About 10 years ago, a friend and I were in some small-town café in Umbria, and I spotted the bottle behind the bar. Even then I was interested in trying unusual spirits, and the idea of an artichoke liqueur proved irresistible. With no clue what this thing could possibly taste like, I ordered a glass. It was not to my liking. Aghast at Cynar’s bitterness, I discreetly carried the small snifter to the men’s room and poured the remainder down the drain. 

What a difference a decade makes. There was no sneaking off to the bathroom this time. Tasted neat and well-chilled in the refrigerator, the Cynar had a pleasantly bittersweet aroma and a very bitter, intense flavor profile leavened with a strong dose of caramelly sweetness. It doesn’t taste at all like artichokes — it’s made with 12 other herbs and plants, according to its website — and I certainly didn’t want to pour it down the drain this time. Despite Cynar’s relatively low 16.5% alcohol content, it tasted powerful, bracing and surprisingly balanced.

Check out some Cynar-based cocktails I mixed up here.

 

DARK PASSENGER AT THE BAR AT HUSK:

Dark PassengerHusk restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, is no secret, but it’s easy to pass by the bar right next door. I went in on a whim, and discovered one of my very favorite bars of the year. I ordered a barrel-aged Manhattan from bartender Roderick Hale Weaver, who apologetically explained that this was the first time they had run out of the cocktail. He offered to make me an alternative Manhattan-like drink “with depth,” and presented me with a gorgeous Dark Passenger.

Made with Carpano Antica, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, sorghum molasses and a rinse of Branca Menta, this cocktail tasted supremely satisfying: rich, bitter and complex, with a note of mint on the finish. It was absolutely delicious. If you go, have Weaver or one of his colleagues customize a cocktail for you, and whatever you do, don’t miss the glorious cheeseburger.

 

SANTA FE SPIRITS:

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Santa Fe Spirits owner Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

This distillery in the capital of New Mexico makes a number of delightful spirits, two of which I found especially memorable.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. Its flavor definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

 

WHITE LION VSOA:

White Lion ArrackVSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” a wonderful spirit from Sri Lanka which is distilled from the nectar of unopened coconut flowers. At room temperature, the VSOA had appealingly fragrant aromas of bright vanilla cake and caramel. If I hadn’t known what I was smelling, I might have guessed it was some kind of sweet cognac. It starts sweet and smooth on the palate, before blossoming into white-peppercorn spice and an aromatic finish of something savory and herbaceous. Fascinating and delicious.

This spirit proved to be quite a versatile base for cocktails — check out some recipes here.

Campari Reconsidered

4 December 2013
Campari & Soda

Campari & Soda

Along with the free sample of Cynar I recently received, the sales representative included a bottle of Campari, Cynar’s much more famous cousin. This bitter bright-red liqueur is famous as the key component of cocktails such as Campari and orange juice, and Campari and soda. These rather simple cocktails taste fine, but honestly they have never thrilled me.

Yet I knew Campari could be a fascinating ingredient. Alone, it has a bitter medicinal taste leavened with sweetness and a brightly herbaceous, parsley-like overtone. On the rocks, it’s an effective digestif, but I prefer it in cocktails. The Negroni, for example, combines gin, sweet vermouth and Campari to great effect. I decided a little experimentation was in order.

According to Iconic Spirits by Mark Spivak, Campari came about as a backlash against the sweet vermouths popular in northern Italy in the mid- to late 19th century. The formula remains the same today as it did at the time of its invention around 1860, when Gaspare Campari “decided to infuse sixty herbs, spices, barks, and fruit peels into a mixture of alcohol and distilled water.” That year, Campari created a sensation in Milan when he opened up Caffé Campari and began serving his concoction to customers. Spivak writes that as of 2012 (when Iconic Spirits was published), sales of Campari had grown to 27 million bottles each year.

Popular though Campari and orange juice may be, my favorite mixology buddy and I decided that it was time to come up with something a little more interesting to do with Campari. Inspired by the Negroni, we started with gin and Campari, and eventually settled on the additions of ginger liqueur and lemon. The result tasted very zippy, spicy and sweet, but with a grounding bitterness provided by the Campari. I loved the balance of this cocktail, as well as the pretty pink-orange color. I’ll call it the Milano, after the hometown of Caffé Campari:

MILANO

–2 parts gin (we used Death’s Door)

–1 part Campari

–1/2 part ginger liqueur (we used Koval)

–1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice (do not use bottled)

Combine all the ingredients above in a shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon or orange, if you’re feeling fancy.

We also used the Campari and soda cocktail as an inspiration, goosing it up to give it a little extra pizzazz. This drink, which I’ll call the Gaspare, tasted wonderfully refreshing, a little sweet and a little bitter, making it a fine aperitif for both summer and winter afternoons:

GASPARE

–4 parts club soda

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lime juice (do not use bottled)

–1/4 part simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water)

–1 part Campari

Pour the club soda over ice, add in the lime juice and simple syrup, and stir. Then pour in the Campari, and garnish with a twist of lime or orange. The lime juice adds tartness as well as textural interest, and the simple syrup enhances the flavors. Sugar in a cocktail often acts like salt in food, enlivening flavors and bringing the various elements together.

These drinks surely only scratch the surface of Campari’s possibilities. With bitter-tinged cocktails becoming ever more popular, and rightly so, a bottle of Campari (or other bitter like Cynar or Fernet-Branca) helps complete the well-stocked home bar.

Bitter Is Better

27 November 2013

CynarI distinctly remember the first time I tried Cynar, an artichoke-based liqueur from Italy. About 10 years ago, a friend and I were in some small-town café in Umbria, and I spotted the bottle behind the bar. Even then I was interested in trying unusual spirits, and the idea of an artichoke liqueur proved irresistible. With no idea what this thing could possibly taste like, I ordered a glass. It was not to my liking. Aghast at Cynar’s bitterness, I discreetly carried the small snifter to the men’s room and poured the remainder down the drain.

I therefore felt a little apprehensive, as you might imagine, when I recently received a free sample of Cynar to review on this blog. But what a difference a decade makes. This time, my palate was prepared.

Tasted straight and well-chilled in the refrigerator, the Cynar had a pleasantly bittersweet aroma and a very bitter, intense flavor profile leavened with a strong dose of caramelly sweetness. It doesn’t taste at all like artichokes — it’s made with 12 other herbs and plants, according to its website — and I certainly didn’t want to pour it down the drain this time. Despite Cynar’s relatively low 16.5% alcohol content, it tasted powerful, bracing and surprisingly balanced.

Although it makes a fine digestif on the rocks, Cynar can add some wonderful depth to cocktails as well. My mixology buddy and I first tried it with some rye, but that proved to be too one-note and Robitussiny. We actually liked it better with gin, the aromatic and spicy notes of which worked wonderfully with Cynar’s bitter and sweet characteristics. Add a little lemon, and you have a cocktail that’s well-balanced and aromatic, with a fascinating underlying savory note. The citrus gives the drink the proper texture and keeps it from becoming too medicinal:

CARCIOFO (that’s “artichoke” in Italian)

–2 parts gin (we used Death’s Door)

–1 part Cynar

–1/2 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Combine the above in a shaker with a few large ice cubes, and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass, and garnish with a lemon or orange twist if you’re feeling fancy. If you’re making a bigger batch, use a pitcher instead, and stir for a minute or two instead of shaking to achieve an even smoother texture. I don’t usually reach for the gin at this time of year, but this complex cocktail felt perfect for a cold autumn evening.

You could also use Cynar to make a wonderfully refreshing aperitif, an ideal way to get your Thanksgiving or Christmas party started:

CYNAR SPRITZ

–1 part Cynar (chilled)

–4 parts club soda (chilled)

–1/4 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Pour the soda over a large ice cube or two in a lowball glass. Top with the lemon juice and the Cynar, and garnish with a lemon or orange twist if you like. This well-balanced cocktail is relatively low-alcohol, yet it packs a serious flavor punch. And though I associate spritzes with the summer, this version has enough depth to make it appropriate for the colder days now upon us.

Happy Thanksgiving all, and Cheers!

A Taste Of Cognac History

24 November 2013

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacIf I had to choose just one spirit to consume for the rest of my life, I would be crushed, but after I got over the initial shock of being forced to make such a difficult decision, I would choose cognac. I’ve had the fortune to taste quite a few cognacs, including the most famous brands, delicious small-production gems and even a couple of cognacs which literally brought me to tears. If you think cognac is just for aging aristocrats or rap stars, you’re missing out on an exquisite beverage that need not be burdensomely expensive to be thoroughly satisfying.

I’m pleased to drink just about any cognac, really, but I get especially excited when I have the opportunity to taste an unusual cognac. The Château de Beaulon 7-Year Cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche.

Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes (you can read more about cognac production and age designations in my post here). In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano).

There were a number of reasons farmers turned from Folle Blanche to Ugni Blanc. According to Cognac by Kyle Jarrad, Folle Blanche “tend[s] to suffer from rot when grafted onto American roots,” and grafting was the solution to the phylloxera epidemic. Just as important, Cognac producers “don’t want to start the process with a wine that is highly aromatic… Better to start the aging with the more acidic wine that Ugni Blanc gives,” to leave more room for the oak barrels to flavor the spirit.

Almost all cognacs you drink nowadays are distilled mostly or entirely from Ugni Blanc. Distilling a cognac from Folle Blanche instead is a reactionary move; it’s a throwback to the cognacs of the 19th century and earlier. In fact, according to the Château de Beaulon website, “Beaulon has remained faithful to the region’s traditional 16th-century vine stocks: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Montils for Cognac.”

Though it is possible to purchase cognacs with at least part of the blend dating back a century or more, such as the extravagantly beautiful Hennessy Paradis Impérial, those seeking a taste of cognac’s past will find the Château de Beaulon much easier on the pocketbook. And you certainly won’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice when you drink it.

The light caramel-colored cognac had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

If you’re planning on serving a digestif after your Thanksgiving dinner, and I strongly recommend it, a cognac like Château de Beaulon’s would be just the thing.

Vieux Superieur

2 November 2013

Vieux Superieur

It’s surprisingly easy for a bottle of booze to get lost in my cabinet. My spirits collection keeps growing and growing, since I seem to be more addicted to buying spirits than actually drinking them. Just yesterday, I found a little bottle hidden in the back of my cabinet which I hadn’t opened in years. I had completely forgotten about my half-liter of Gall & Gall’s” Weduwe Visser” Vieux Superieur, so carefully carried back from Amsterdam before the irritating rules regarding liquids in carry-on bags took effect.

Despite owning the bottle for some time, I had never figured out what Vieux actually was. I consulted the website of Gall & Gall, which manufactures the Weduwe Visser (Widow Fisher) Vieux Superieur, and learned that Vieux was first produced in the early 20th century as a Dutch alternative to cognac, although “the drinks’ taste and production barely resemble each other.” Vieux comes from distilled grain or molasses, whereas cognac comes from distilled grapes. This base of neutral grain alcohol is then flavored with “different extracts, essences and a little real cognac or other distillate,” according to the Gall & Gall website (translated from the Dutch by Google Chrome).

That didn’t sound especially promising, frankly, and I did not feel reassured when I continued reading on the Gall & Gall website that although Vieux can be consumed neat, it tastes “delicious in different mixes, for example cola.” It’s as if Gall & Gall is saying that sure, you can theoretically drink Vieux on its own, but you’ll like it a lot better if its flavor and texture are obscured a bit by some Coke.

Before sampling the spirit, I checked the label to see if I could find any additional clues as to its production process or flavor profile. Apparently, the recipe dates back to a 19th-century pharmacy. I’ll quote the entire label below, because it took me a while to type all that Dutch into Google’s translation engine:

The story of the brand Widow Fisher parallels the history of the gin itself. [Gall & Gall classifies Vieux as a type of "gin drink."] The Widow Fisher was a prominent woman in Lemmer where she led a pharmacy. That was in the mid-nineteenth century, and the widow had a great knowledge of herbs and recipes and, as was customary at that time, she developed a number of recipes as a basis for spirits. Meanwhile over one hundred years passed by, but the recipes are preserved and are still used in the spirit brand Widow Fisher.

Vieux from the freezerThe pedigree of the recipe gave me some hope that the Vieux would be tasty, but I’m afraid I must report that the spirit is problematic. I tried it first at room temperature, in order to get the fullest sense of the aroma. It smelled like vanilla and rubbing alcohol, mixed with a hint of B.O. I was intrigued.

The light-gold color of Sauvignon Blanc, the Vieux had some serious alcoholic bite, despite its relatively low 35% alcohol content (most vodka, rum and cognac is 40%). It started with some sweet vanilla notes, but it felt very sharp, particularly at the tip of the tongue. The initial syrupy vanilla notes get cleared out almost immediately by alcoholic spice, followed by an undertone of ripe banana.

I thought the rough texture of the Vieux might smooth out a bit if I drank it ice-cold. After being chilled in the freezer for two hours, the Vieux indeed felt a little smoother, but it still did not exactly feel elegant on the tongue.

I enjoyed being reminded of my Amsterdam trip, but next time, I think I’ll just pull out the photos and pour myself a glass of real cognac, rather than this poor Dutch imitation.

Read about the basics of cognac here, about some unusual cognacs here, and about how cognac brought me to tears twice in one day here.

Postcard From Colorado

2 October 2013
Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey

Drinking whiskey at a bar where Butch Cassidy once did

I’m currently traveling through the wilds of Colorado, and along the way. I’ve encountered a handful of surprisingly well-crafted wines, most notably from Sutcliffe Vineyards.

But when I stopped by a former mining town-turned-resort where the notorious criminal Butch Cassidy once drank, I decided it was time to order some whiskey. It just didn’t seem quite right to have a glass of Riesling standing atop Cassidy’s signature carved into the bar (see right).

I wanted something local, and Erik the bartender recommended Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. Stranahan’s distillery is located in Denver, and the whiskey is distilled exclusively from barley grown in the nearby Rocky Mountains. (The water also comes, of course, “from the snow-packed peaks of the Colorado Rockies.”)

Sampled neat, the whiskey had an appealing nose of corn and vanilla, but a generally dry character. It started smooth and oaky, followed by a blast of rowdy spice and a fascinating herbaceous and slightly bitter finish.

At 94 proof, this is a strong, serious whiskey that any manly mountain man would enjoy. I suspect even Butch Cassidy himself would have approved.

Santa Fe’s Accidental Distillery

24 August 2013
Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan in his downtown Santa Fe tasting room

Colin Keegan, founder of Santa Fe Spirits, didn’t set out to be a distiller. He worked for years as an architect, and was working as such on a local property containing an apple orchard. The deal fell through, fortunately for us, and Keegan and his wife ended up buying the home themselves.

Faced with a surfeit of apples, Keegan pressed his harvest into juice, which he then pressed into the hands of as many friends and neighbors as he could. He did not succeed in getting rid of all the juice, however, and he tried his hand at making hard cider. But even then, there was still too much cider to store, and Keegan distilled the remainder into apple brandy.

When the economic downturn hit, Keegan decided it was time to reevaluate. Because of his success with his apple brandy, he turned his hand from architecture to full-time distilling, and Santa Fe Spirits was born.

Now, Keegan has expanded into a building he owns in downtown Santa Fe, the former site of a nail salon. It offers a range of intriguing cocktails created with the various Santa Fe Spirits spirits, as well as tastings of their entire line of products. After chatting with the personable Mr. Keegan, I got down to business. Would Santa Fe Spirits compare favorably to Koval, Few and North Shore, my favorite hometown craft distilleries?

Expedition Vodka: Talk to almost any distiller, and you’ll find that vodka is not their passion — vodkas on their own have little flavor. But the distributor of Santa Fe Spirits suggested a vodka was needed to round out the product line, and Keegan obliged with this six-times distilled corn-based spirit. (Santa Fe Spirits actually purchases a vodka that has been distilled five times, and distills it once morethemselves.) The result has a clean and lightly fruity aroma, with a very smooth texture. The alcoholic bite takes its time to build, increasing slowly and steadily. A very classy vodka, and surely a fine neutral cocktail base. If I had to assign it a flavor, it reminded me, subtly, of honeydew melon.

Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey: I am generally not a big fan of white (unaged) whiskies. I find them fascinating to taste, but the idea of an entire glass usually seems like a bit much. This 92-proof malt-based spirit changed my mind. Keegan pointed out that 100% of the distillate for this whiskey is intended only for this whiskey — none of it is diverted into aged products. That means only pure hearts (the best part of the distillate) end up in the Silver Coyote. It has a round and fresh aroma, and an appealing caramel note on the palate followed immediately by a burst of spice.

Colkegan Single Malt Whiskey: With this whiskey, Santa Fe Spirits emulates the production process used by makers of scotch, employing smoked barley and used bourbon barrels for aging. But this whiskey has an undeniably local character imparted by the use of mesquite to smoke the malt, rather than peat. I could sense it in the aroma, which had notes of smoke and vanilla, as well as a bit of something red, like good Hungarian paprika. It definitely reminded me of a smooth and dusky scotch, but again, there was a unique red note underneath, no doubt due to that smart decision to use mesquite.

Apple Brandy: The spirit which started the company ought to be memorable, and it proved to be one of my favorites of the tasting. I enjoyed the aromas of vanilla and overripe apples, and I loved rich texture leavened with a bang of zesty spice. A worthy calvados competitor.

Wheeler’s Gin: With the profusion of juniper growing around Santa Fe, Santa Fe Spirits would be crazy not to make a gin. This elegant spirit uses four additional local botanicals: cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. This is a gin with serious terroir, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t bring home a bottle. After a smooth start, the botanicals kick in, most notably the juniper and the desert sage. There was a savory note underneath as well, perhaps from the cascade hops. Smooth, complex and lively, this gin would make one mean martini.

That’s five for five. What an unexpected pleasure, to taste these well-crafted spirits which exhibited real local character.

A Single Malt From The Schliersee

22 May 2013

Slyrs WhiskeyWhile perusing the surprisingly extensive cocktail list of a hotel bar in southern Bavaria, an unusual Rusty Nail caught my eye. This classic cocktail traditionally combines Scotch whisky and Drambuie, but for this “Bavarian Rusty Nail,” the bartender utilized locally distilled single-malt whiskey and whiskey liqueur. (I use “whisky” to refer to the Scottish beverage, and “whiskey” if it’s distilled elsewhere.)

Now, I have encountered all manner of unusual German spirits, ranging from pleasant fruit brandies to noxious herbal concoctions originally intended to be medicinal. But a Bavarian single malt? I asked the bartender about it, and he had actually visited the Slyrs distillery, set in a small town on the Schliersee (Schlier Lake). This venture, conceived by Florian Stetter after a visit to Scotland’s Speyside region, began producing whiskey in earnest only recently, in 2007. But the spirit, aged in new American oak barrels, left the bartender impressed.

Intrigued, I ordered a glass of the Slyrs whiskey neat — I wanted to see what this spirit could do on its own. Because the distillery is so new, you won’t see any Slyrs whiskey older than three years, and indeed, the whiskey tasted young and brash. A light bronze color, it had a fresh, herbaceous nose with notes of vanilla. On the palate, herbs and racy spice quickly supplanted the initial caramel richness, leading into a surprisingly long finish of new wood.

Unfortunately, this fun, zesty whiskey has yet to cross the Atlantic — I couldn’t find anyone selling it in the United States. But should you happen to find yourself in Bavaria, don’t hesitate to slap on some Lederhosen and ask for a glass of Slyrs.

Guaro

24 April 2013
Guapiriña

Guapiriña

Olga, it turns out, isn’t the only one in Costa Rica making moonshine. In fact, in an effort to curb the production of homemade sugarcane liquor, also known as guaro, the Costa Rican government began manufacturing the stuff itself, according to Wikipedia. Now, bottles of Cacique guaro, produced by the Fabrica Nacional de Licores-Fanal, appear behind nearly every bar in the country.

Of course, I took the opportunity to try Cacique both in cocktails and straight up. Sipped neat, this clear spirit (30% alcohol) reminded some of my fellow tasters at the bar of a smooth vodka. I didn’t disagree, but to my Odd Bacchus mind, it resembled a good-quality soju (a Korean spirit distilled from rice or sweet potatoes). The Cacique had a bare hint of sweetness and fruit at the beginning, followed by some white pepper spice.

Because of its basic lack of flavor, Cacique (translated as “chief,” as in the head of a tribe) makes for very versatile cocktail ingredient. I sampled it in a number of different concoctions during my stay in Costa Rica, each one more delicious than the last.

At a swim-up bar — a ridiculously fun addition to any pool — I sampled a wonderfully refreshing Mojito made with Cacique, fresh limes and fresh mint. Another evening, lacking electricity in my accommodations, I decamped to the bar for a delicious “Guapiriña,” a Caipirinha which substituted Cacique for the usual cachaça (a Brazilian sugarcane-based spirit). The simplicity of fresh limes muddled with sugar and mixed with guaro was pure delight. And at the very fancy Grano de Oro Hotel in San Jose, I indulged in a Tico Sour, a light and perfectly balanced mix of Cacique shaken with lemon and egg white.

As a matter of fact, as I go through the list of cocktails I sipped while in Costa Rica, I can’t think of a single stinker. The cocktail menus may not include the most innovative concoctions, but the bartenders I met excelled at mixing the classics. Fresh ingredients were the norm, not the exception, which made coming back from a day of steamy jungle hiking all the sweeter.

Costa Rican Moonshine

20 April 2013

Chirrite

While staying in Bajos del Toro, Costa Rica, I took an afternoon to go horseback riding. My guide had the wonderful idea to head into town to learn to make tortillas with Olga, and we trotted, thankfully very slowly, to her pulperia.

It turned out that tortillas weren’t the only thing Olga knew how to whip up. She produced a plastic bottle full of Pepto-Bismol-pink liquid, which my guide identified as chirrite — moonshine. And how could I turn down a mug of that?

I gingerly took a sip (improperly made, moonshine can cause blindness or even death) and my word, but it tasted delicious. Like creamy, very alcoholic rose water.

My guide seemed to think rose water had no part of it, however, and consulting with Olga, determined that wild tomatoes played some role. I suspect there must have been a mistranslation.

In any case, should you ever find yourself in Bajos del Toro, I strongly recommend seeking out the Olga’s pulperia. Try her homemade peanut nougat, her fresh tortillas, her delectable homemade sausage, and above all, her top-notch moonshine. (So far, my eyesight remains intact.)

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