Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cocktail gets crafty ... and frisky

Mark w book.JPGThe cocktail shelf is getting crowded! We wrote last month about two Negroni books; we've got books galore about seasonal cocktails lying around from national stars like Katie Loeb and local cocktail mavens like Maggie Savarino. There isn't a self-respecting saloon in Seattle that doesn't have a "Craft Cocktail" list to upsell from a vodka-tonic to some lavender-infused concoction that takes ten minutes to prepare.

Then you've got all the producers of specialty liqueurs (St. Germain, to name just one) with recipe books of their own. A home bartender can get seriously ivolved with do-it-yourself bitters, homemade syrups and pickled garnishes. And the mixologists! A regiment of "behind-the-bartists" eager to show off their inventiveness.

Here's one of the best: Mark Sexauer, an award-wnning professional bartender, Seattle-based brand ambassador for Bacardi, who has turned a hundred or so original drink recipes into a handsome hardcover book titled Aphrodisiacs With a Twist. The book's premise is the well-known observation that alcohol is a social lubricant that can "elicit and heighten the sexual experience."

For example, Sexauer's take on the classic Manhattan, which he calls "Tastes Better in Bed," substitutes a homemade reduction of red wine and lime leaves for the traditional vermouth, then adds a splash of orange cordial and a dash of chocolate bitters. Then there's the "Bastadro," which takes four ingredients, including a sweeter red wine syrup, a vermouth called Cocchi Americano and tequila.

Nothing particularly aphorodisiac there? Try this: the Roy and Gouda.

Many cheeses, Sexauer points out, "can resemble the scent of a woman and can be stimulating for both sexes." The active ingredient is phenlethylamine (also found in chocolate, by the way), which is related to the release of endorphins. Here's where it gets all Modernist: Sexauer makes a foam with smoked gouda, olive oil and heavy cream, pours the mix into a nitrous oxide canister to freeze it, then squirts fanciful shapes onto a baking sheet. As you drink the cocktail (a scotch & vermouth concoction resembling a Rusty Nail), the cheese begins to thaw. "It should be the last thing you taste."

The photographs, by Charity Lynn Burgraaf, (styled by Kimberly Swidelius) do a great job of highlighting the color or key ingredients of the cocktails.

Aphrodisiacs with a Twist, 256 pages, $24.95

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Your place or mine?

Sangiovese vineyards outside Panzano-in-Chianti, Tuscany

On Facebook this morning I noted that an American wine writer named Tom Wark seemed to have trouble understanding: that PLACE was more important than grape variety or producer. (Here's a link to the article that caught my attention.) Why is that so hard to understand?

To which this reply, not from the author, by the way:
I'll tell you why it's so hard to understand: if there was a farm that raised three kinds of fowl, duck, chicken and goose...and then said farm went to market with a meat product called "Judy Farms Yummy Feathered Food" people would want to know what kind of "feathers" they're eating. But Judy would say "all the birds ate from the same terroir so it doesn't matter" and most people would say back "it matters to me! I like chicken but not duck!" In America we're very consumer first... We think knowing the ingredients in things comes right after "freedom of speech" in the constitution. That said, I think this 'controversy' will make this winemaker get a lot of press and conversations going.
Well, to continue that example -- there's nothing to prevent Judy Farms from selling both "Duck" and "Chicken" if they want to. Wine, on the other hand, isn't "feathered food." It's "grape food," which, unlike poultry, can be blended from different varieties. And poultry doesn't depend on soil, climate and yeast to taste like poultry. (It just tastes like chicken.)

As it happens, I've just spent five days in the zone of Tuscany that produces Chianti Classico wines from sangiovese grapes. If you add more than 10 percent of anything else, you can no longer call the wine Chianti Classico. If you grow the same grapes outside the zone, you can't call it Chianti Classico. The whole point of an appellation is to wear a name tag: Hi, I'm Ronald from Seattle. The guy over there kind of looks like me, and he's from Seattle, but that doesn't make him Ronald. That other Ronald, over there, he's from Bellevue. Close to Seattle, but not the same thing.

Now, that said, and with all due respect to the participants in the exercise, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico sponsored a tasting of sangiovese wines from two neighboring zones, Radda-in-Chianti and Montalcino (home of the great Brunello di Montalcino). I wrote about it over on my blog, Cornichon, because I was surprised that the differences were subtle, even indistinguishable by the enologists and wine makers in attendance.

We think we want to know. We think that wine education will set us free. But it's not always true. Sometimes all we want to do is love the wine we're with.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Citation is Oregon's best pinot noir

Rossbach with 2002 Citation
Holding the bottle--an Oregon pinot noir from the 2002 vintage--is Howard Rossbach, who launched a brand called Firesteed some 20 years ago to take advantage of a world-class growing region hobbled by a fragmented, dysfunctional marketplace. Oregon's pinot noir producers were a fractious lot; there were famous names like David Lett, David Adelsheim, and Dick Erath, but no one had enough volume to become a category leader, and the small wineries wereforced to charge high prices just to stay in business.

Firesteed was born as a "virtual winery" in 1992, and for ten years used a facility in Rickreall (in Oregon's Eola Hills) to produce its wine, a careful but unassuming pinot noir blended from grapes grown under contract at vineyards throughout Oregon. Eventually Rossbach bought the winery outright, and began farming its 90 acre himself. He went on to purchase another 200 acres nearby, and continues to buy both grapes as well as outside wine (but only if it's better than what he's already got).

Firesteed has gone on to produce other varieties (notably chardonnay and barbera d'Asti), but Rossbach has a personal fondness for the pinot. The best stuff goes into barrel for 16 to 18 months, then sees up to seven years of bottle-aging. The result is stunning: unlike the pubescent, fruit-forward Oregon pinots we've become accustomed to, the 2002 Citation is a wine that's almost fully mature, the sort of wine you cannot imagine if you've never visited Burgundy and had the opportunity to taste from a private collection of Grand Cru wines. There's tobacco and bramble in the nose, an earthiness on the palate, a voluptuous mouthfeel. The winery started with 6,000 bottles, 80 percent of which has already been sold.

Older wines like this, unfortunately, don't do particularly well in competitions because they're so far from the mainstream, years behind the showy bottles that win shiny medals and fuel the media frenzy over Oregon pinot. But a wine like this might make you want to exclaim, like Scarpia, "Tosca, you make me forget God!"

Yet all you have to do is go to Metropolitan Market and pay $70, or travel to the tasting room along  Highway 99 15 minutes west ot Salem, where you only need to plunk down $60. Either way, it's a lot less expensive than flying to France.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Be still: how to make Big Gin

Let's begin by reassuring the State Liquor Board and the federal revenuers that the "still" in the photo is for show-and-tell only, acquired from so that Ben Capdevielle could demonstrate how distillation works. The botanicals in the boiling retort are real, though. It's a dog-and-pony show that Capdevielle took on the road this week for a class in gin-making. The real still, inside a grey clapboard house in Ballard, is a 100-gallon copper job from Vendome in Louisville, KY, a part of the country where distillation (licit and illicit) is an industry with a cultural history as important as, say, aerospace is out here.

The product of the legal effort (legal since the state gummint eased up on craft distilleries in 2008) is called Big Gin, produced by Capdevielle and his gang under a corporate umbrella named Captive Spirits. Big Gin is an aromatic spirit that falls into a category of gin generally referred to as "London Dry." That is, it's not overly sweet even with lots of juniper and orange peel in the nose. Compared to, say, Bombay Sapphire, it has nowhere near the perfume; it has none of the rose-water and cucumber aromatics of Hendricks. Captive spends more than other local craft distillers on its clothes: its gin is hand-bottled and sports an elegant label (by Chris Jordan of Shipwreck Design). All those botanicals, not cheap, either.

Captive will shortly release a second gin, aged in used bourbon barrels. The aging--a typical technique of a gin category known as "Old Tom"--mellows the flavors a bit and adds a hint of golden color. But the feds won't approve labels for gin that even suggest "aging," so the label will read, simply, Old Tom.

Capdevielle teamed up with the folks at Seatown (Tom Douglas's tourist-oriented snack bar at the Market) for the cocktail class. And using the show-and-tell still, with its juniper berries and botanicals bouncing happily in the retort, he explained that craft distillers use neutral, industrial-strength corn-based ethanol and infuse it with flavors. The orange esters, for example, dominate the first part of the distillation; how prominent should those flavors be? Each distiller's "recipe" (how much of this, how much of that) remains a closely guarded secret, even as their trade association, the Washington Distillers Guild, works with the Liquor Board to expand access to out-of-state markets.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tequilas at Cactus

Half a dozen tequila-based cocktails last night at Cactus in SLU. The occasion: the "unveiling" of Olmeca Altos 100% Agave Tequila, a handcrafted tequila produced in the heart of Los Altos, 6,500 feet above sea level in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, using artisanal ingredients and production methods.

The brand is distributed through PernodRicard, one of the world's largest drinks companies (Absolut, Jameson, Beefeater).

My favorite: the Teqroni, made with Campari, Punt y Mes and Olmeca Altos Plata.

On the right, Altos tequila's master distiller Jesus Hernandez; on the left, brand ambassador Steffin Oghene. Afro aside, he's a Scotsman.