Top 10 Spirits And Cocktails Of 2012

19 December 2012
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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

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.