Gin

Top 10 Spirits And Cocktails Of 2012

19 December 2012

As I assembled this list, paging through a year’s worth of blog posts, I found myself rather startled at the breadth and diversity of the drinks I consumed in the past year. But even more, I felt profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to sample everything from Nicaraguan rum in Nicaragua to Cognac in Cognac.

I sipped a lot of amazing things in 2012, but there were a number of true standouts. As is the fashion at this time of year, here is my list of the Top 10 Spirits and Cocktails I drank in 2012. The links lead to the original blog posts about the drinks:

10. SPICE TRADE — I consumed this cocktail of genever, vermouth, star anise, galangal syrup and persimmon water at Madame Geneva, an atmospheric bar just off the Bowery in Manhattan. With that intimidating list of ingredients, this is one cocktail I won’t be making at home! The floating star anise garnish provided an aromatic introduction, and I loved its orange, anise and juniper flavors. It would have been easy to make this cocktail too sweet, but it tasted well-balanced and finished dry.

9. SPACE FILLER — The mixologist at Root in New Orleans came up with this cocktail, composed of rye whiskey, loganberry liqueur and lemon juice. It tasted surprisingly complex, with notes of berries, citrus and wood; sweet and sour elements positively danced on my palate.

8. FENTIMAN’S ROSE LEMONADE & GIN — I never came up with a name for this mixture of Fentiman’s delightful rose lemonade soda and gin, but it deserves a moniker as refreshing as its flavor. This combo smells amazing, with aromas of rose and juniper co-mingling beautifully. Aromatic, tart, not too sweet, complex — this was the whole package.

7. XORIGUER GIN — Speaking of gin, a bottle of this Menorcan beauty cost me only 12 euro, a smashing deal considering the flavor it packs. Sipped neat at room temperature, the gin didn’t feel silky smooth, but it tasted wonderfully complex, with notes of juniper, anise, rose, white pepper and even incense. What a shame this gin isn’t yet available in the U.S.! Hopefully that will change in 2013.

6. MIRTO — I found this digestif on another sensationally scenic Mediterranean island, Sardinia. Made from local myrtle berries, the mirto I brought home 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). And it made some thoroughly delicious cocktails.

5.  — I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this cocktail on the menu at the Four Seasons Chicago. It contained Crème Yvette, a violet-based liqueur that hadn’t been produced in the last 50 years. But there it was, coelacanth-like, in the A², a concoction of Journeyman W.R. Whiskey, Crème Yvette, yuzu juice (a small grapefruit-like fruit) and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. The cocktail had an aroma of purple grapes, a strong, fruity flavor with some tangy citrus notes, and a dry, floral finish. A well-balanced and elegant drink.

4. FLOR DE CANA 18-YEAR CENTENARIO GOLD — This gorgeous Nicaraguan rum sucked me in with aromas of vanilla cake and brown sugar and sealed the deal with flavors of vanilla, oak and orange peel. Very rich, with a finish that went on and on.

3. BIJOU — Even if it served merely middling cocktails, the Ranstead Room in Philadelphia would still be worth a visit for its speakeasy-like location and sexy decor straight out of a Mad Men episode. But add in spectacular cocktails crafted with meticulous care, and you have a bar that alone makes a journey to Philly worthwhile. My bartender stirred up a Bijou, a wonderfully smooth mix of Beefeater Gin, Green Chartreuse, Dolin Blanc Vermouth and lemon zest. The aromatics of the gin, the herbaceous bitterness of the Chartreuse, the touch of smooth sweetness from the vermouth — it came together like a flavor symphony.

2. HINE TRIOMPHE — So beautiful was this blend of Grande Champagne Cognacs averaging around 50 years old, with extraordinarily velvety caramel and tobacco flavors, that it brought tears to my eyes. Cellar Master Eric Forget, seeing my reaction, quietly remarked, “It’s not a Cognac. It’s just a pleasure.” Indeed.

1. HENNESSY PARADIS IMPERIAL — This remarkable Cognac also reduced me to tears. Only this time, it was in front of the Cognac Summit’s videographer, camera rolling! Embarrassing, yes, but anyone who has tasted this ambrosial liquid can understand my emotional response. It was a sublime moment, tasting something so profoundly exquisite in so lovely a setting as Hennessy’s Château de Bagnolet. I learned later that the Paradis Impérial blend contains Cognacs dating from the 19th century. I drank liquid history! It’s humbling to think about all the work — and all the waiting — that went into producing that glass of Cognac.

Next up: My Top 10 Wines of 2012

The Unusual Gins Of Martin Miller

4 August 2012

Every now and then, a PR company will send me free samples of something or other to review, and by God, who am I to refuse? A few days ago, a little box arrived bearing little bottles of Martin Miller’s Gin, a spirit distilled in England and mixed with water in Iceland. A little Iceland sounded pretty darn great in this heat, so I invited over a gin swilling — I mean, gin loving — friend, and got to work.

Along with the samples, I received all sorts of information about the inspiration and creation of Martin Miller’s Gin. In 1999, Mr. Miller, a “bon viveur and conoisseur of the finer things in life,” was “[l]eft unsatisfied by all other gin on the market,” and he decided to create his own, crafted to his exacting standards. After all, “Gin is the most seductive of drinks… It’s not just history in a glass, it’s romance and adventure too.”

Although I would save the “Most Seductive” award for Cognac, Mr. Miller is on to something. Gin has a whiff of exotic nostalgia to it. In British colonies, it was mixed with quinine to make the malaria prophylactic more palatable, giving rise to today’s gin and tonic. If one can put aside the problematic politics of empire for a moment, a fine gin can evoke the terrace of a glamorous club in Rangoon or Bombay, where gentlemen in white suits relax to the sounds of a phonograph and the occasional distant trumpet of an elephant.

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My New Favorite Bar In The World

21 July 2012

I’ve had a lot of cocktails in my day — a lot. A lot a lot. But I can count on one hand the drinks that make me long to return to the place where I first sipped them. At the very top of that list is not the Pomada in Menorca, nor the Kir Royale in Burgundy, but the Bijou Cocktail in romantic, exotic Philadelphia. This jewel of a drink was served to me in a bar down an unpromising alley, tucked behind a Mexican restaurant. Not even the concierge of the nearby Rittenhouse Hotel had heard of it.

It’s called The Ranstead Room, and though I’ve only had one drink there, it’s currently my favorite bar in the world. To reach this cocktail hideaway, turn west down Ranstead Street from 20th, and look for the black door with the two R’s on your left. The door person may request that you wait a little while, but these cocktails are worth it.

Once inside the atmospherically dim space, you might not feel surprised to see Don Draper with his mistress in one of the intimate red leather booths. In the center of the room, a striking black and amber crystal chandelier illuminates a series of gilt-framed pin-up paintings around the wall, covered in a black and cream damask wallpaper. Faux snakeskin-upholstered chairs line the bar, staffed by true cocktail craftsmen.

The retro cocktail menu had an enticing list of vintage cocktails, all priced at $12. How could I choose among a Roman Highball (amaro, ginger, lime, soda), an Arsenic & Old Lace (gin, vermouth, violette, absinthe) and an Antilles (Cognac, vermouth, orange flower water)? Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

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A Drop Of Britain In The Mediterranean

20 June 2012

Although Great Britain controlled the exquisite island of Menorca off and on for less than a century between 1708 and 1802, its influence can still be felt in the local cocktail culture. The traditional tipple isn’t sangria or sherry, but gin. In fact, Menorca is one of the few places in the world with its own gin D.O., Gin de Menorca, because of the unique local distillation process.

British soldiers stationed on this small island off the coast of Spain longed for a taste of home, and residents obliged, distilling gin mostly from local wine rather than grain, in the manner of Dutch genever. I’m not sure how many distillers were crafting gin 200 years ago, but now the production of Menorcan gin is now dominated by one company, Xoriguer (sho-ree-gair), owned by the Pons family, which traces its lineage back to the very first Menorcan distillers. Xoriguer still uses wood-fueled copper pot stills to craft its gin, much like the first gin makers on the island.

I had my first opportunity to taste Xoriguer gin when I visited Menorca in late April. In need of a little refreshment after touring some of the island’s mysterious megalithic sites, we climbed down to Cova d’en Xoroi, a bar and club inside a spectacular cliffside cave overlooking the Mediterranean. It felt a little too early to drink the gin straight, so I opted for a classic Pomada cocktail. Traditionally, a Pomada is a mix of Menorcan gin and lemonade over ice, but at Cova d’en Xoroi, the bartender substituted lemon Fanta. It still tasted great — cool, refreshing, aromatic and just a bit tart. Of course, the flavor wasn’t hurt by the stupendously scenic setting.

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Gin And Juice

7 April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Orange Jigger and Rose Lemonade

10 March 2012

What bloggers want you to believe happens.

I’ve long been a fan of Fentimans Tonic, but it was only a few days ago I had the opportunity to try some of their other “Botanically Brewed Beverages.” While shopping at Whole Foods, I happened upon four-packs of Mandarin & Seville Orange Jigger and Rose Lemonade — on sale. How could I pass them up?

The intriguingly opaque orange soda and slightly pink rose lemonade each taste quite fine on their own. If you have a non-drinker coming to your home, I’m sure they would be delighted to have one of these instead of some high-fructose corn syrup bomb like Coke (or a chemical stew like Diet Coke). Be sure to serve it in a glass, so that the aromas can be enjoyed.

But I would be remiss in my duties as Odd Bacchus if I didn’t give you at least a few ideas for alcoholic beverages as well. Since I hadn’t worked with these sodas before, I wasn’t sure what booze would pair best with each. Vodka obviously works OK, but what about something with a little more flavor? An experiment seemed to be in order.

I gathered bottles of gin, rhum agricole (rum with a bit higher proof than normal), tequila and Cognac. In order to keep things fair, I used the same proportions for each alcohol: 1 part alcohol and 3 parts soda. Let’s begin.

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The Pegu Club

23 September 2011

An old friend sent me a script to read, and I needed a little nipper to make sure my editing skills were at their peak. I went through the cocktail menu in my mind to come up with something appropriate for the occasion. But then I thought, eh, the heck with it. I had some extra limes on hand, so I shook up a lovely Pegu Club.

This cocktail, named after a colonial British club in Rangoon, Burma, has nothing whatsoever to do with my friend or the script he sent, but gosh, it’s delicious. It’s elegant, but it has a whiff of the exotic, composed of gin, orange curaçao, fresh lime juice, Angostura bitters and orange bitters.

Eric Felten introduced me to this cocktail in 2007, back when he was writing his excellent weekly ”How’s Your Drink” column. Felten confirms that this cocktail did indeed originate at Rangoon’s Pegu Club, though if it exists, this genteel (and at the time, whites-only) watering hole no longer exists. It either burned down during a 1941 Japanese air raid, or was taken over by the Burmese army. It’s rather odd that Wikipedia can’t definitively say whether it still stands, but then Burma isn’t the most open of countries. You can view an old postcard of the club here.

New Yorkers (of any race) can visit a lounge called the Pegu Club in Soho any time they like, and imbibe what is doubtless a stellar version of this cocktail. But those of us stuck in the provinces can make a perfectly delightful version at home:

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The Aviation

11 July 2011

Perhaps as a holdover from my old cosmo-swilling days, I usually have a number of fresh limes on hand, but rarely any lemons. But we recently happened to have a couple extra after jarring a batch of preserved lemons, and I resolved to make good use of them.

I also happened to have a bottle of gin I’ve been itching to open. Back in April, when we visited Door County, Wisconsin, I picked up a bottle of Death’s Door Gin. This gin is actually vintage, marked with the date the “organic hard red winter wheat” was harvested from Washington Island: August, 2009. Because Washington Island, set at the very end of the Door County Peninsula, is a particularly scenic and tranquil spot, I couldn’t resist this gin made from its wheat (as well as “wild juniper berries and various other botanicals”).

On its own, the gin has a nose of juniper (of course) and a bit of fresh mint. Sipped neat, anise flavor gives way to juniper before a hit of white pepper.

A gin this complex and smooth deserves better than a swish of tonic. Since I had some fresh lemons, I dusted off my old Aviation recipe. (more…)

Summer Special

15 April 2011

While sitting at the bar of a neighborhood restaurant recently, I noticed the owners perusing a book of 300 cocktail recipes. I asked, indicating the book, if they were trying to expand their cocktail menu.

“Yes, we’re trying to decide on a new cocktail to offer as a summer special.”

A wonderful idea. I find it delightfully restorative to relax on a bar’s patio, languidly sipping a glass of something cool and bright. I offered a couple of my own suggestions (see below), and returned to munching on my pork cutlet.

Then I overheard something a little startling:

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