Spirits

Flying High With Pink Pigeon

27 September 2014

Pink Pigeon RumRum ranks among my very favorite spirits. The best rums, such as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa Sistema Solera 23 and Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña 12-Year Centenario, sip as elegantly as fine cognac or whiskey. And what a wonderful base for cocktails! Rum’s sweetness balances beautifully with the acidity of citrus or the sharp spice of ginger.

Most rums I encounter come from countries in Central America and the Caribbean, which have plenty of local molasses and sugarcane juice ready to be distilled. How could I resist, then, a rum from exotic Mauritius? This tropical speck lies well to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and until recently, I associated the island mostly with extravagantly sybaritic resorts. It never occurred to me that it might have a talented distiller or two, until I received a free sample bottle of Pink Pigeon Rum from Wine Chateau.

Pink Pigeon Rum comes from the molasses of sugarcane grown in the “fertile volcanic soil” of the Medine Estate on Mauritius, and according to Pink Pigeon’s website, the Medine Distillery is the oldest on the island, dating back to 1926. Because the surgarcane is grown on the estate, and the molasses is distilled on the estate, and the resulting rum is bottled on the estate, Pink Pigeon Rum certainly qualifies as a “single-estate rum,” as the website attests.

Even so, those looking for a taste of Mauritian terroir might have to look elsewhere. Pink Pigeon uses its rum as a “canvas” for infusions, adding vanilla from Madagascar and Réunion, citrus and the “floral petals of vanilla orchids.” The rum may be single-estate, but the infusions come from two other islands entirely. I would be curious just to taste the rum on its own, without the infusions.

The infusions, however, certainly make Pink Pigeon Rum unique. I tried it first at room temperature, at which it has enticing aromas of vanilla cake, candied orange and tropical fruits. It felt syrupy on the palate, but the alcohol (80 proof) cut through the vanilla- and molasses-tinged sweetness. I sampled the rum after it spent a day in the freezer as well, and when tasted ice-cold, both the syrupy texture and the sharpness of the alcohol felt surprisingly heightened.

Though it tasted a bit unbalanced neat, the Pink Pigeon soared like an eagle when mixed into cocktails. I made a classic Daiquiri and a traditional Mojito, and they were absolutely splendid. Both drinks include fresh lime, which, when combined with the powerful vanilla notes of the rum, gave the cocktails a delightful Dreamsicle-like quality. The Pink Pigeon Daiquiri and Mojito were simply two of the best versions of those cocktails I’ve ever had.

PINK PIGEON DAIQUIRI

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 part fresh-squeezed lime juice

–1 very small splash of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water, also available in bottles at liquor stores)

As always, fresh lime juice is important — do not substitute bottled, which tastes quite different. Combine all of the above ingredients in a shaker. If you don’t have simple syrup, just add a small pinch of sugar to the lime juice and rum before you add the ice, and stir to dissolve. Add some ice, shake, and strain into a lowball or martini glass.

Ordinarily you would use more simple syrup in a Daiquiri, one of the simplest and best rum-based cocktails, but because Pink Pigeon already tastes sweet, only a touch of additional sugar is necessary to balance the tartness of the lime. The resulting drink tastes refreshing and citrusy, with a wonderful additional layer of flavor from the vanilla.

Pink Pigeon MojitoPINK PIGEON MOJITO

–2 parts Pink Pigeon Rum

–1 1/2 parts fresh-squeezed lime juice

–6 or 7 fresh mint leaves

–1 small pinch of sugar

–4 parts club soda

Wash the mint, but don’t pat it dry. Add the mint and the sugar to a highball glass, and muddle with a spoon. You’ll bruise the mint, ensuring that its flavorful oils will be released into the cocktail, and the sugar will dissolve into the bit of water clinging to the mint. Add a few cubes of ice, the rum and the lime juice, and stir. Top off with club soda, give the cocktail one final stir, and if you like, garnish with the top of a mint sprig.

What a lovely, refreshing and well-balanced cocktail! Again, the lime and Pink Pigeon combine to create a Dreamsicle-like flavor, leavened this time with the bubbles of the soda and the coolness of the mint. A delicious twist on a classic.

I received my bottle of Pink Pigeon as a free sample, but it’s not all that expensive to buy. You can find it at Wine Chateau or Binny’s, for example, for about $30 a bottle. If you’re a fan of Daiquiris or Mojitos, Pink Pigeon definitely deserves a place in your liquor cabinet.

Postcard From Mexico – Sotol

9 August 2014

Hacienda de Chihuahua Anejo SotolFew drinkers are unfamiliar with tequila, that famous Mexican spirit distilled from blue agave which makes its way into margaritas and tequila sunrises. Smoky mezcal, which can be distilled from a range of different agave species, has also become relatively famous in recent years. I even had a delicious Negroni in faraway Vienna recently, in which the creative mixologist had replaced the gin with mezcal. But I had certainly never heard of sotol, a sister spirit to mezcal and tequila.

Sotol comes primarily from the desert spoon agave (Dasylirion wheeleri), though according to the menu of La Tequila in Guadalajara, other varieties such as duranguensis, palmeri and acrotiche agave can be included as well. Each desert spoon agave takes about 15 years to mature, if Wikipedia is to be believed, and each plant yields only one bottle of sotol. So it’s no surprise that shelves in liquor stores aren’t overflowing with the stuff (blue agave plants can yield up to 10 bottles of tequila or even more).

Because sotol is produced in a manner similar to mezcal — smoking the hearts of the agave plants in an open pit and then fermenting the juice before distillation — there are similarities in flavor. The desert spoon agave, however, makes sotol unique in the same way that blue agave gives tequila its own special flavor.

I tried a Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo (like tequila, añejo sotol must be aged at least one year in oak), and it was a delight. A light green-gold color, it looked like it could have been a Sauvignon Blanc. The lovely vanilla aroma along with notes of smoked paprika indicated otherwise, however! When I took a sip, I thought it was going to hit me with a bang, but it proved to be quite smooth. The sotol started lush and rich, with some sweet flavors that slowly developed into gentle smoke and red-pepper spice flavors.  Very elegant, and surprisingly easy to drink neat.

Sotol comes from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, but bottles filter down to specialty bars such as La Tequila, and I found at least one or two shops in the U.S. offering bottles. But it’s rare, so if you do happen to see a bottle, don’t miss the chance to snap it up.

Encounters With Unicum

5 July 2014

UnicumI figured at some point during my stay in Hungary it would rear its head, but I was quite taken aback to be offered a shot of Unicum Zwack at 10:00 a.m., right at the beginning of my food tour of Budapest. Unicum is not my preferred morning beverage. I held the glass with equal measures of trepidation and resignation.

I first encountered Unicum in Budapest in February of 1999, where I bought a bottle having no idea of the nature of its contents. Even then, unusual wines and spirits interested me. I brought the distinctively spherical bottle home and tried a glass after dinner with my parents. It reminded me too much of bitter, cloying Jägermeister for me to drink more than half a shot. My mother quite enjoyed it, however, and I recall she kept the bottle on her nightstand for a time, taking a medicinal sip before bed.

And indeed, Unicum started out as a health tonic, created by Dr. Zwack, physician to the Habsburg Imperial Court, “to alleviate the royal family’s digestion problems,” according to Food, Wine, Budapest by Carolyn Bánfalvi. It increased in popularity until World War II, when the factory was destroyed. The Zwack family rebuilt it, just in time to have it expropriated by the communists in 1948. “Péter Zwack returned to Hungary in 1989 to rebuild the family business,” Food, Wine, Budapest goes on to say, “and he was among the first in Hungary to buy back a business from the government.”

Since then, Unicum once again has been produced with the true recipe (the communists had a fake), which involves a secret (of course) blend of some 40 herbs and spices. Or maybe more.

Which brings us to the present, with me holding a glass of the stuff at 10:00 a.m., having eaten nothing but some runny scrambled eggs and a paprika-spiked breakfast link. I hoped that the rumors of digestive benefits were true, and gingerly took a sip. And hey, it wasn’t so bad after all! Yes, it tasted bitter and felt syrupy, just like Jäger, but it tasted spicier and more citrusy. Indeed, it almost felt balanced. Despite the early hour and the dubious contents of my stomach, I happily downed the rest of the shot.

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons

Sza-Szi at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Aware that its flavor won’t appeal to everyone, Unicum has recently come up with two alternative versions of the spirit which don’t taste as bitter. I didn’t try either one on its own, but I did discover that a daring mixologist at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace had created a cocktail showcasing Unicum Szilva (Plum). How could I resist?

A mix of Unicum Szilva, plum pálinka (a plum brandy with a grappa-like mouthfeel) and lime, the Sza-Szi cocktail tasted very purple and dusky, but citrusy notes from the lime somehow managed to keep things balanced. It’s not a cocktail that will appeal to die-hard Manhattan or dry Martini drinkers, but I had no qualms about finishing it off. If you find yourself in Budapest, by all means order one. The bar is spectacular, and you’ll be drinking something you won’t find on any other cocktail menu in the world.

In the meantime, you can find Unicum Zwack at certain large wine and spirits stores in the United States, like Binny’s, where it’s labeled simply “Zwack.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bottle on my own nightstand sometime soon — for medicinal purposes only, of course.

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.

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