August 1, 2011

“…life is short, But desire, desire is long.” - Jane Hirshfield, “Heat”

Gorgeous savory/sour chilled cherry soup at Bar Tartine (see "Top Tastes")

Summer rages on with family visits and more Napa weekends giving way to major events over the next two weeks like SF Chefs (SF’s big food & drink ‘classic’, if you will), and to the huge Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park, both of which I’ll be quite involved in.

Look for me filling in as Guest Editor part of this week on Eater and over the next couple weeks at Grubstreet… any tips on breaking food news are appreciated!

Imbiber/Wandering Traveler visits London for a personal tour of the Beefeater Gin Distillery with master distiller Desmond Payne, then to Plymouth, England, at the Plymouth Gin Distillery with master distiller Sean Harrison.

Top Tastes comments on Nick Balla’s exciting Eastern European-influenced food, while hitting latest in North Beach: a French and an American bistro.

Sip a Grand Promenade at the new Jasper's (see "The Latest")

The Latest highlights early favorite cocktails and bites and just-opened downtown urban tavern, Jasper’s.

On the Town assists in strategizing what events to attend during the crazy, delightful week that is SF Chefs.

I’d love your feedback on any spots visited from my site. As your personal concierge who tells it to you like a good friend would, I also create personalized itineraries: trips, meals, explorations (under “Services“).

Let me guide you to the perfect spot,


Follow me on Twitter:

Follow my “best of” lists on NBC’s The Feast

Recent entries in my Bay Guardian column:
SF Chefs Gameplan
Sneak Peek at Jasper’s Cocktail & Appetizer Menu
Four Noteworthy New Spirits
Three Appetizing New Books

**Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Virginia Miller**

Written by Virginia in: Intro Letter |


Desmond tastes us through the three additional ingredients added to the elegant Beefeater 24: Japanese sencha tea, grapefruit peel, Chinese green tea


One jumps at the chance to spend a day at London’s Beefeater Distillery, particularly when given a personal tour by Beefeater’s master distiller Desmond Payne. Gracious and mannered, Payne has been making gin for over 40 years, his early days being at Plymouth Gin. An English picnic in Kensington Gardens and a week full of fine food and cocktails at some of London’s top bars made for one unforgettable week.

English picnic in Kensington Gardens w/ the latest issue of Horse & Hound

Join me on a photo tour through the distillery (in operation since 1820) – the longest running London Dry Gin actually made in London.

Outside the distillery - we arrived in Beefeater cabs to the Kennington district of South London where the distillery is located

Yeoman Warders (aka Beefeaters) guard Her Majesty's palace and the Tower of London... the memorable, London-centric symbol of Beefeater Gin









Two years' supply of juniper berries (mostly from Umbria, Italy) are kept in a cool storage room for back-up if there's ever a bad crop

Giant stills

Distilling at Beefeater



Beefeater’s unique process is that they steep their nine botanicals (juniper, angelica root, angelica seeds, coriander, liquorice, almonds, orris root, Seville oranges, lemon peel) for 24-hours in copper pot stills with water and a neutral grain base of English wheat. All this with only five year-round staff? Impressive at over 2 million cases a year.

Payne produces a series of seasonal releases, like Beefeater Winter Gin this past December, a 2010 Summer Gin (floral notes from elderflower and hibiscus), and a brand new London Market Gin (with kaffir lime and cardamom) that sadly we won’t see released in the US.

Desmond discuss gin through ages, including early days where it was occasionally dangerous to drink yet was mistakenly blamed for many societal ills until the 1750's when licensing of gin production regulated quality

Beefeater's sexy, comfy in-house lounge/bar

A savory Gary Regan creation, Everest, laden w/ curry & coconut




Dan Warner, Beefeater’s global brand ambassador, mixing up a wide range of Beefeater drinks in the distillery bar

Dan grates fresh nutmeg over the Everest cocktail (he also made a simple, delightful gin classic, Army & Navy)

Written by Virginia in: Imbiber | Tags: ,


GIN for a Winter’s Night

Article by Virginia Miller

A favored experiment: gather a few industry and non-industry friends, taste a specific spirit side-by-side, sample it in the same cocktail recipe, and compare notes. Gin seemed appropriate for a rainy Winter’s night.

While gin is fabulous all year ’round, there’s something about its bracing herbal and citrus qualities that evoke Winter, particularly in Northern California where crisp air and sunny days mingle to create the mild backdrop that spawns our wealth of citrus at its peak.

Our cocktail of choice was plain and simple: the Martini. Gin and dry vermouth with a little twist of lemon… on the extra dry side to truly taste the properties of the gin.

Out of the 12 gins we sampled, these six stood out for various reasons:

All-around Favorite

Death’s Door

DEATH’S DOOR GIN (94 proof – $32) – In our gathering, all loved Death’s Door, and the majority included it as one of their top two or three. It has been a top choice of mine since its release. This Wisconsin gem is made with local ingredients (wheat and organic malted barely) around Washington Island, WI. One of the best gins to come along in recent years, it’s reminiscent of a London dry gin but with its own unique, Midwest character.

Tasting Notes: Juniper berries dominate, coriander and citrus add nuance, while gentle fennel notes surprise.

In a Martini: A bold, flavorful Martini, Death’s Door fennel adds a subtle but seductive absinthe-like tinge to the cocktail.

Rare Edition


BEEFEATER WINTER EDITION (80 Proof – $30 and up) – The very limited Beefeater London Dry Winter Edition Gin isn’t going to be available for long, in limited supply, originally launched in New York and San Francisco in December. Legendary master distiller Desmond Payne has taken the signature profile of Beefeater, and as he has done with Beefeater 24 and their Summer gin, added new depth. Here’s hoping for more seasonal, limited editions ahead.

Tasting Notes: With a heavier citrus thrust than the standard Beefeater, I taste Seville orange and peel with a gentle sweetness. Pine and cinnamon add dimension.

In a Martini: It makes a citrusy, bright Martini with nuanced smoothness.

Brand New

No. 3

NO. 3 GIN (92 Proof – $45) – Created by Berry Brothers & Rudd, London’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, No. 3 Gin is a brand new release named after BBR’s address at 3 St. James St. in London since 1698. Actually distilled in Schiedam, Holland, in copper pot stills, No. 3 is a classic-style, London dry gin.

Tasting Notes: Juniper stands strong here but does not overwhelm. There’s undertones of citrus with the Spanish orange and grapefruit peels used, while Angelica root, coriander and Moroccan cardamom round out this dry gin with a spicy finish.

In a Martini: Makes a classic, smooth Martini, redolent with juniper.

Smooth & Balanced


VOYAGER GIN (84 proof – $35) – Voyager Dry Gin is a harder-to-procure beauty that exemplifies balance and roundness in a juniper-driven gin. Voyager is American (made in Woodinville, WA) in the London dry style, distilled in a copper alembic pot still.

Tasting Notes: Not one element overwhelms: orris root, citrus, angelica, coriander and cassia are all here, but so are licorice and cardamom. They meld with smooth elegance.

In a Martini: Though initially a martini made with Voyager tastes as smooth as the gin alone, when compared side-by-side to other martinis, it somehow got lost. It was quite mellow compared to martinis made with gins like Death’s Door or Junipero.

Local Perfection


JUNIPERO GIN (98.6 proof – $33) – Junipero Gin has long been one of my favorites. Certainly I am proud of its local heritage as an Anchor Distilling product. But it also has one of the bolder, stand-out gin profiles. In the classic London dry style, more than a dozen botanicals and distillation in a copper pot still imbue it with a radiant complexity.

Tasting Notes: Bold and punchy, juniper comes across strong, though the overall effect is still clean and bright. Spice comes through as does citrus, though Anchor Distilling remains secretive about botanicals used.

In a Martini: A bracing yet balanced martini, this makes my top martini alongside Death’s Door.

Classic & Affordable

Broker’s Gin

BROKER’S GIN (80 proof – $20) – Broker’s Gin has only been around since 1998, created by brothers Martin and Andy Dawson, but it plays like a classic London dry gin (actually distilled near Birmingham, England) around for hundreds of years. The best part is the quality vs. price, if you can get past the silly bowler hat cap (although I love the elegant, clean label design with a bowler hat gentleman).

Tasting Notes: Delightfully dry, botanicals reign here with herbs from Bulgaria to Macedonia. Orris root and coriander co-mingle with nutmeg, Cassia bark and cinnamon.

In a Martini: Makes a straightforward, classic Martini, but is also balanced, full and spicy.

Written by Virginia in: Imbiber | Tags:

On the Town


Bands on multiple levels... in the entrance of NYPL: jazz, Parisian, gypsy music

Build your own herbal cocktail w/ lime juice and, unfortunately, the base spirit of Veev Acai

I was one of the lucky ones, spending eight days in NY, my old stomping grounds, for the first annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic, highlighting and celebrating the art of the cocktail and its greatest talents. Or so I thought… I won’t gripe too much, though I will say that despite the stunning transformation of the already gorgeous New York Public Library (NYPL) for the Opening Gala, a scene rife with cocktail luminaries like Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, Dave Wondrich, and some of the country’s best bartenders, the crowds were not quite the cocktailians I expected, and some events were far from what was advertised. For example: at the May 17 “contest” at Keen’s, the competition and notable judges had completely wrapped up and left before the listed START time of the event, leaving only a few cocktails to sample and the incomparably cool, old school Keen’s space to stand around in. Nothing short of false advertising. I could have spent the same money ($50 a ticket) with more exciting results at NY’s great bars.

Let’s recap a few of the best and worst moments of the raucous week that was the 1st annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic:


Wasteland: every available table looked liked this - and that's the most food I saw in 4 hours

1. Starvation – At the Opening Gala, despite spotting Mario Batali, the guy who had supposedly cooked up something special for the night, I never once saw his food. Every other whiff of food was devoured by the time I got near it. In the sweltering heat and humidity inside the NYPL, the one air-conditioned room in the building had a long wait to get in. Once I did, I saw others eating Fatty ‘Cue‘s giant legs of meat. An odd “cocktail party” choice, but hilarious to watch others gnaw on a leg with drink delicately in hand. Again, I never got one. Once I finally got to the last table with food, the line was so long it wasn’t worth it, despite food-less hours endured with sips of multiple drinks (many of the fruity, vodka, soda, flavorless kind)… a bite never came until I hit a diner at 2am.

Outside the NYPL at 9pm, lines snaked down 5th Avenue: the first of many lines of the night

2. Non-Cocktailian Crowds at the Opening Gala – I expected a slew of the country’s and NY’s most hardcore drink fans: the kind that mix Jerry Thomas recipes at home, await Mud Puddle book releases, and value craft and taste above a “scene”. Um, try drunken carousers breaking glasses and leaving trash lying around in the historical NYPL? What about having your photo taken with vodka models? Seriously: you, a bottle of vodka, and sexy models in a brightly lit, LA-style photo shoot. And, yes, there was a long line for this one. Or maybe I’m still just creeped out by the Oompa Loompas or a giant, live Queen Victoria towering over us in the Hendricks’ Gin area (at least there was Charlotte Voisey mixing cocktails below the Queen). I ran into the hardcore, certainly, including many of my SF friends, bartenders and enthusiasts alike. But I was surrounded by the drunken carousers.

A creepy Queen Victoria towering over us

3. Events not as advertised – I’ve already mentioned the misleading representation of the cocktail competition at Keen’s and the drunken, packed-to-the-gills mayhem of the Opening Gala where check-in, getting a drink or even entering a room, meant yet another 20 minute wait. And where were the fine cocktails? Several came from our San Francisco crew who manned a number of tables (negronis!) and truly represented, at Dave Wondrich’s station (though his drink had run out by the time I reached the table – one disappointment after another!), and at the playful Willy Wonka-themed candy counter. But the majority of cocktails were forgettable, watered-down, fruity glasses of blandness… and that’s out of four floors of cocktails.


One peaceful respite: The Virgin Room

1. Astor Center bar/bartenders from around the countryThe Astor Center was ground zero for many of MCC’s daily events, panels and classes. The best part was having bartenders from all over New York and the country cover varying shifts. I met mixologists from St. Louis, LA, San Fran, Boston, and NY bars like Employees Only, Clover Club and Rye House. Not only did these guys whip up some of the better drinks of the entire event, but they were friendly, chatty, engaging, making the Astor Center feel like your favorite watering hole.

2. The Virgin Room at the Opening Gala – What is normally NYPL’s staid, lovely Periodicals Room became The Virgin Room, a detox refuge in the midst of the body-to-body storm of revelers, ego-tripping bodyguards and completely frazzled staff.

Candy dream cocktails at Willy Wonka bar

Coolers were stocked with energy drinks while the latest copies of Interview magazine lined the tables. Never mind that one couldn’t find a bit of water anywhere. At least I could read about Madonna staying sexy in her 50’s via lamplight.

3. Gin Masters – Let’s call this third one a tie between the gracious English class and knowledge of master distillers, Desmond Payne (of Beefeater Gin) and Sean Harrison (of Plymouth Gin), at the English Gin Seminar on May 16 where we did a side-by-side tasting of gins, including their own and the just released (unreleased at the time) Beefeater Summer Gin.

The ultra-cool Stork Club basement

4. The Stork Club – At the Opening Gala, one could catch a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of the rest of the building in the rarely seen NYPL basement, dubbed the Stork Club for the night. Thanks, Diageo, for turning the room into a relaxed but funky party with brassy Budos Band and proper cocktails, including a Bulleit Bourbon Mint Julep and a Mary Pickford made with Zacapa 23 year rum.


Don Julio's Delight at Astor Center bar

–  Ted Kilgore of Niche Taste Bar in St. Louis is a gracious and skilled bartender who mixed me one of his Niche standards, a Ruby Derby: bourbon, vermouth, agave nectar, grapefruit and Aperol.

–  Matthew Pomeroy, International Brand Ambassador for Wyborowa SA, took Luksusowa Vodka to some happy places with a Polish Fling: 2 parts potato vodka, 1 part egg white, 1 part lemon juice, fresh cucumber and dill. Now all I need is some caviar and blinis. A runner-up was A Smoky Fall: potato vodka, lime, orange juice, spicy ginger beer, and plum jam (normally he uses fig jam).

Jill DeGroff artwork at the Astor Center

– At the Astor Center, morning imbibement went down better after starting the day with Duque Spanish Brandy in Orange de Crema French-press coffee with Creme de Alba, Creole Shrubb and an orange slice.

Ted Kilgore at Keen's

– I couldn’t be unhappy with an Astor Bar cocktail utilizing Don Julio: Don Julio’s Delight. Anjeo and Bulleit Bourbon were shaken with amaretto, lime, agave nectar and egg white. Refreshing and bright.

– More breakfast-y winners at the Astor Bar from Rye House’s Jim Kearns: a Blood Mary trio including a Tabasco Red Snapper, Chipotle Mary and the best: Habanero Bloody Mary (tomato, lemon, Worcestershire, salt, fresh horseradish, pineapple juice, Annie’s habanero sauce, black pepper, jalapeno-infused Don Julio). Paired well with a delicious Crawfish & Andouille Egg Souffle.

The dramatic backdrop of Keen's animal heads & paintings for the Yellowtail Cocktail Contest

Written by Virginia in: On the Town | Tags: ,

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