Posts Tagged In Fine Spirits

Lighting A Fuse In Lebanon

11 April 2012
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I was about to leave a wine tasting at Rogers Park Fine Wines & Spirits, when I noticed that half the people in line to check out had at least one bottle of Massaya Classic in their hands. Recently, I saw the Massaya Classic appear again, this time in In Fine Spirits‘ “tasting tournament.” It made it to the final four, at least. This obscure Lebanese red blend seems unlikely to remain obscure for long.

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

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

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


New York Cocktail Roundup

4 April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Don’t Put Up With Any Crap

18 July 2011

Now that Sam’s Wine is but a cherished memory, the title of “Best Large Wine Store in Chicago” falls to Binny’s Beverage Depot. (Although I do love my neighborhood shop, In Fine Spirits, with its small but very well-chosen selection.)

I trekked down to Binny’s the other day in search of some unusual, delicious and inexpensive wine to pour at my upcoming wedding. I already planned on serving some Serbian Tamjanika and Vranac, but I needed some contrasting options.

After discussing the logistics of ordering and delivering the wine with “Michael,” one of Binny’s’ wine consultants, we hit the floor. I explained how I write a blog devoted to unusual and obscure wines and spirits, and asked for something a little off-the-wall. He led me to a display of Pillar Box Red, an Australian blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Ah yes, an Australian Shiraz — I’m sure no one at the reception will have tried that before.

He next recommended the Peter Lehman Layers, a somewhat more interesting Australian blend once again dominated by Shiraz. I realized I must have been unclear. I explained again that I wanted something really unusual, “like the two wines I’ve already chosen to serve, a Serbian Tamjanika and Vra–”

Michael interrupted. “Oh, we don’t have any Serbian wine here.”

“Yes, I realize that,” I responded, “But that’s the level of ‘unusual’ I’m looking for. Maybe you have some fun Greek options?”

Michael looked at me like I’d just farted.  (more…)

A Serbian Surprise

13 April 2011

In Fine Spirits, my local wine shop, describes the 2007 Jović Vranac as “A high quality wine trying to break into the market.” This lovely $12 red has a long road ahead of it, I fear. It might be a few years before one commonly hears a conversation like:

“Let’s pick up a bottle of wine on the way home to have with dinner. Oo! I think I’m in the mood for something Serbian.”

“Yes, something red to go with the Bolognese. You know what would be charming? A Vranac!”

“Of course! A Serbian Vranac would be perfect.”

As surely as you will never hear this conversation, the 2007 Jović Vranac is worthy of it. But then, who knows? A few decades ago, very few people could have imagined that Australian Shiraz would be stocked in almost every grocery store. (more…)

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