Apr
01
2014

Imbiber

Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Why You Should Hunt Down REAL SCHNAPS

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Hochstrasser schnaps at Sporer, Salzburg

Hochstrasser schnaps at Sporer, Salzburg

Whatever association you have with the word Schnapps, or Schnaps, as it is known in Germanic countries (the word means “swallow”), it likely isn’t good. Sour apple, pucker, fruit flavors… you might think of cheap, sugary liqueurs in unnatural colors. But this, my friends, is not real schnaps.

In Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and the French region of Alsace, schnaps, edelbrande or brand (as in brandy), is another thing entirely. The French term is eaux de vie, among my favorite spirits categories and the supreme example of distilled fruits. A classic fruit eau de vie/schnaps will never be too sweet or cloying, but rather fresh, sometimes clean or lush. Production is involved, requireing tons of fruit to produce a mere bottle. The fruit is macerated, fermented, and distilled, typically in a grain liquor base, sometimes a liqueur with sugar added, other times a clear spirit.

McMenamins Pear Brandy (photo source: www.mcmenamins.com)

McMenamins Pear Brandy (photo source: www.mcmenamins.com)

One of the most classic eaux de vie, and my favorite strain, is pear, typically made from Williams pears (the same as Bartlett), aka Poire Williams. I judge American eaux de vie producers by their pear, and the best producers make a crisp version, tart with the taste of fresh pear skin, sometimes floral. In the US, I love the pear brandies/eaux de vie (and plenty of other eaux de vie) from St. George, Clear Creek (which, after decades as an independent distillery, was just sold to a larger spirits corporation so I would keep an eye out for changes in quality), Old World Spirits, McMenamins, and Stone Barn Brandyworks. While decidedly American, these are fine examples of quality eaux de vie.

The great American pioneers in brandy? Jörg Rupf, who founded St. George in 1982, brought Old World methods and precision to California from his native Germany with his brandies. Another US/California pioneer important to mention in a brandy discussion – known for his Cognac/Armagnac-quality spirits rather than for fruit brandies – is Hubert Germain-Robin, who founded Germain-Robin in 1982.

How I wish for this book to be translate to English (or better yet, I read German)

How I wish for this book to be translate to English (or better yet, wish I read German)

In Austria, there are such fantastic brands that would surely be in demand among spirits lovers in the States were we able to get our hands on them. What would it take to get more of them imported here?

I wish I spoke/read German anyway, especially while thumbing through this fantastic book, Edle Spezialitäten in Österreich, a giant, coffee table book outlining every schnaps/brandy and wine producer in Austria via photos and facts (available at Sporer in Salzburg, below). If only someone would translate this invaluable book into English.

Wall of Rochelt spirits at Culinarium in Innsbruck, Austria

Wall of Rochelt spirits at Culinarium in Innsbruck, Austria

Many schnaps made an impression this visit to Austria. One is Golles, produced in the village of Riegersburg in the region of Styria, near Hungarian and Slovenian borders. Alois Gölles distills his schnaps in copper stills, the ones I tasted boasting a rustic elegance and welcome earthiness, among the most lauded in the country.

Tyroler Single Malt Whisky

Tyroler Single Malt Whisky

Reisetbauer in Axberg, northeast of Salzburg, is a beloved, award-winning brand from Hans Reisetbauer, who leased barely 4 acres from his father’s farmland to grow fruit used strictly for schnaps. While many producers source their fruit from other parts of the country and Europe, he has direct supervision and control over fruits grown on his land. Reistebauer schnaps are clean and refined, fragrant and unique, like carrot schnaps, which reminds me of St. George’s experimental carrot brandy years back which I wish was released.

Sporer barrels, Salzburg

Sporer barrels, Salzburg

I was intrigued by and wanted to taste more Siegfried Herzog schnaps. The surprisingly refined, nutty Nusserl or hazelnut schnaps was so brilliant, I bought a bottle at Sporer in Salzburg (see below). Another Sporer win was a recommend from the shop owner: forward-thinking Hochstrasser bottles in sleek black with galaxy/space labels. They produce a range of products from zirbenz (pine liqueur) to banana liqueurs. Their fruit vakuum-destillat, or vacuum distilled, schnaps is a fascinating line. It has been explained to me as a slow-heat, slow “cook” process akin to a sous vide concept where maximum flavors are taken from fresh fruit without “overcooking”. The result, particularly with Hochstrasser’s Rote Williams Birne (red pear schnaps) is tart, clean, tasting of pear skins. I also brought home this stunner, wishing I could have transported the entire line home with me.

Rochelt (photo source: www.rochelt.com)

Rochelt (photo source: www.rochelt.com)

Rochelt is the most exciting of the many schnaps I tried and is respected – almost worshiped – in Austria. Just 15 minutes drive outside Innsbruck, Gunter Rochelt (who opened the distillery in 1989) and his son-in-law, Alexander Rainer, who now runs the business with the three Rochelt daughters, Julia, Annia and Teresa, distills a wholly different kind of schnaps. While still using fruits, from wild rowanberry to morello cherry, these are boozy, high proof schnaps, often 50% ABV or more. Bottled at cask strength and blessedly not sweet, they feel like the whisk(e)y of schnaps. Bracing and complex, I bought bottles of quince and Poire Williams, marveling at the nuance and depth of each. This is fruit liqueur from a completely fresh angle. There’s a whole wall of Rochelt for sale at Culinarium in Innsbruck (see below).

pür bierbrand (photo source: www.purspirits.com)

pür bierbrand (photo source: www.purspirits.com)

Taking an overview of the category, the range of schnaps is broad. German schnaps are often made from pears (Poire Williams or Williamsbirne), apples (often combined with pears and called Obstwasser), plums (Zwetschgenwasser), cherries (Kirschwasser), apricots (Marillenschnaps), Himbeergeist (a raspberry spirit). But non-fruit spirits are also referred to as schnaps, including popular kräuterlikör (herbal liqueurs) such as Underberg, Wurzelpeter, and the infamous Jägermeister. Bierbrand is another ubiquitous category in Germanic countries, essentially a brandy that is distilled beer. One quality brand available in the US is pür•geist bierbrand from pür spirits.

As you might suspect, we are missing out here in the states by having little access to the majority of schnaps. While I’d highly recommend traveling to Austria, I’d also love to see demand grow amongst knowledgeable industry folk (bar managers, writers, consumers, etc.) for these products, with importers and distributors working to bring more to the US. It’s time distilled fruits, nuts and the like had their day… I suspect there are many would-be fans. Consider Austria an underrated diamond in the spirits rough.

Dresden cocktail at The Trocadero Club

Dresden cocktail at The Trocadero Club

Where to drink Schnaps in the US

In LA, you can order pours of the Golles and Reisetbauer lines at Bierbeisl, a great Austrian/German restaurant. In Sacramento, there’s a surprisingly strong selection of schnaps and Germanic liqueurs to drink neat or in cocktails at hip sausage and beer house, Lowbrau. There’s also a strong collection of Reisetbauer and a few other schnaps and Germanic liqueurs at Cafe Katja in New York‘s Lower East Side.

El Chapo

El Chapo: Nocino (Italian green walnut liqueur), Mezcal, Creme de Cacao, Lillet Blanc, lemon

Trocadero Club, a newer San Francisco bar (just opened in October 2013), one of Dennis Leary’s newest spots, is ahead of the curve in its treatment of Austrian drink. Bar Manager/Partner Eric Passetti – part of the opening team for Mamacita and Delarosa and helping to run all of Leary’s bars – envisioned a bar featuring Austrian wines and schnaps. “I’m a contrarian who likes doing things other people aren’t doing,” explains Passetti. With a grandfather and great grandfather who both owned bars in San Francisco, and having bartended for 13 years himself, he wanted to do something different with this bar, noting: “The scene is exhausted as it is.”

S

Sipping a Dresden

Unfortunately, the crowds coming to the relaxed, white-walled, high ceiling bar on a grubby Tenderloin corner, are not quite there. Austrian wines have been reduced due to demand for other wines and there are really only about four schnaps, which is in part due to inaccessibility as imports. But as Passetti knows from his own research on schnaps, instead of, “being high in sugar and low in alcohol, true schnaps are higher in alcohol, lower in sugar.” He showcases schnaps in a good half of his cocktails ($10).

The Dresden shows off the subtle hops of Bierbrand with herbaceous gin, dry Italian vermouth and Green Chartreuse, while the Baroness goes a boozy-yet-elegantly sweet and bitter direction with pur spirits Bierbrand Märzan Schnaps (distilled malted barley aged in chestnut casks), sweet Italian Amaro Nonino, Tempus Fugit’s Gran Classico, and lemon juice.

Baroness  cocktail at Trocadero Club

Baroness cocktail at Trocadero Club

Where to drink Schnaps in Austria

Sitting at the bar looking at vinyl collection

Sitting at the bar looking at vinyl collection

One of the best wine and schnaps bars in Austria (and, thus, the world?) is in Salzburg. Just a couple doors down from my wonderful apartment rental on narrow, cobblestoned-lined Steingasse street, is Fridrich. Run by Fridrich himself since 1986, I would easily call this tiny wine bar one of my favorite bars in Europe. And I’m a spirits and cocktail girl first.

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

Intimate perfection at Fridrich

Though the bar, under arched stone ceiling with glowing lighting, is intimately sexy, Fridrich almost imparts a subtle punk-rock attitude to the relaxed environs. It’s partly his expert knowledge of all things Austrian – he tasted me through the crisp, earthy notes of Nigl (pronounced nee-gel) Gelber Muskateller white wine, harvested from tiered, hillside vineyards, and likewise earthy, complex Golles schnaps. Another visit, it was a glass of lovely Stiegelman Grauburgunder Weingut, a white wine I’d loved at a restaurant in the Tyrolean-chic village of Kitzbuhel.

Entering Fridrich in Salzburg

Entering Fridrich in Salzburg

The other reason for Fridrich’s uniqueness is his impeccable musical tastes and expansive vinyl and CD collection, which he plays interchangeably like a sophisticated DJ. His top of the line sound system envelops the bar with a tapestry of sound.

There’s a wonderful woman who works with him, demure yet engaging, both of them offering recommendations, pours, humorous asides. Lou Reed died the last night we were in Salzburg. Fridrich told us the news, then put on Reed’s music. We all raised a glass, shedding a tender tear. It’s that kind of a bar.

The Renaissance Man and I were so inspired, we dreamed of opening our own tiny bar like this somewhere in the world: a place where you immediately feel like a local, where what is poured and what is played is of equal importance, where there is nothing to prove, only to relax, savor to feel at home.

Where to buy Schnaps in Austria

Culinarium, Innsbruck

Culinarium, Innsbruck

Salzburg’s schnaps/brandy shop extraordinaire is Sporer, which has been on Salzburg’s main, touristy-yet-utterly-charming shopping street, Getreidegasse, since 1903. Sporer staff are informed and passionate about schnaps and can chat about it for great lengths of time, offering samples and spot-on recommendations.

In Innsbruck, don’t miss Culinarium, a father and son-run shop that’s been around over 40 years. There’s a whole wall of nearby Rochelt (see above), and fascinating local spirits like Vir Gin, an Austrian dry gin, or Tiroler Single Malt Whisky.

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Apr
01
2014

Imbiber

“Wine is bottled poetry.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Anderson Valley from Anderson Valley Brewery grounds (photo: Virginia Miller)

Anderson Valley from Anderson Valley Brewery grounds (photo: Virginia Miller)

WHITE SPRING: Alsace Varietals (and more) from Anderson Valley

Article by Virginia Miller; Photos from winery websites

The further my palate develops, the more I adore white wines in all their wide range of complexities. Ignorantly, in my youthful days, I used to mostly drink reds, missing out on worlds of flavor. Thankfully, I’ve only fallen more in love with countless white varietals over years of incessant tasting. Among my favorite regions for white wine in the world is Alsace, on the northeast corner of France, bordering Germany and Switzerland. Due to this locale, there’s parallels between the wines of Alsace and Germany, another of my favorite white wine countries.

Characteristics of Alsace wines can be floral, aromatic, floral and certainly dry. As with Germany, Riesling and Gewürztraminer are the most common grape varietals of the region, though Pinot Gris follows close behind, with other varietals including Muscat and Pinot Blanc. Though tasting notes are largely arbitrary, I give broad descriptions as I like knowing the general categorizations, like floral vs. mineral, sweet vs. dry.

Angel's Camp

Angel’s Camp

On the heels of Anderson Valley’s Alsace Varietal Festival (held every February), and as I spent time this winter in the rolling hills, farmland and redwood forests of Mendocino County, I’ve been swimming in wines from the region. Here are a few Anderson Valley standouts, plus a few sparkling and reds, plus a few Alsace varietals from other West Coast locales for good measure.

- 2012 Angels Camp Vin Gris of Pinot Noir ($18) – An unusual, very small production rosé of pinot: only 18 cases this year, but that will increase in 2015. There’s an appealing funkiness to this dry rosé with crisp berry notes. Owner Brian Zalaznick’s story of buying this vineyard after great personal loss inspires his unique wines.

- Elke Vineyards – I liked every white I tried from this limited production winery, producing wine from twenty-year-old vines. 2011 Mary Elke Pinot Gris ($16) was fermented in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. The result is bracingly crisp with an undercurrent of ripe fruit. I found it particularly lovely with seafood. A decidedly non-Alsace varietal, 2011 Mary Elke Chardonnay ($19) is another strong white. Fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral oak, it’s both mineral and acidic, inspired by the French region of Chablis. Elke Vineyards are primarily grape growers, growing for notable wineries, from nearby Mumm Napa and Roederer Estate, down to Au Bon Climat.

Phillips Hill Gewurz

Phillips Hill Gewurz

- Phillips Hill 2012 Gewurztraminer, Valley Foothills Vineyard ($20) – Trying a few Phillip Hill whites, the clean tea and apple notes of this stainless steel-fermented wine stood out. Winemaker Toby Hill is an artist who lived and work in both NYC and San Francisco and designs the labels.

- 2012 Philo Ridge Pinot Gris, Klindt Vineyard ($20) – With a generous acidity (no oak, 0% malolactic fermentation), white grapefruit and bright tropical notes made this one a fine pairing with Asian food and heat.

SPARKLING:

Black Kite

Black Kite Cellars

Mendocino County’s sparkling producers are well known – with great reason. There’s value here from some of the best sparkling wines in the US. Roederer has long been my favorite, but I also love Schramsberg in Calistoga, on the edge of Anderson Valley. In addition, Scharffenberger Non-Vintage Brut Excellence ($20) is a strong value sparkling. I’ve always appreciated their rose brut, but the brut excellence also shines, a blend of 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir grapes, it is made by traditional methode champenoise (bottle-fermented), tasting bready and bright.

AND A COUPLE ANDERSON VALLEY REDS:

On Point

On Point

- Knez Winery 2011 Cerise Pinot Noir ($42): With a young, hip-yet-refined aesthetic, Knez wines feel fresh, whether a balanced 2011 Chardonnay, or the floral spice of the Cerise Pinot.

- 2011 On Point Christinna’s Cuvée Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($36) – The dark, artistic label jumps out first. The wine is almost as moody as the label, redolent of cherry spice, earth and silky tannins.

- Black Kite Cellars Pinot Noir – I tasted through four different single vineyard expressions. Being a small vineyard, they are all from the same plot but varying patches of land. I preferred 2011 Kite’s Rest Vineyard ($45) and 2011 Stony Terrace Pinot ($55), the former bright with bing cherry and spice, the latter with a bolder, complex tone of black cherry, wood, mushroom and dark chocolate.

FOR GOOD MEASURE – A FEW OTHER WEST COAST ALSACE VARIETAL WINES:

Anne Amie Dry Riesling

Anne Amie Dry Riesling

- 2012 Foris Moscato ($14) – Produced in Rogue Valley, Oregon, surrounded by the Siskiyou mountain range, winemaker Bryan Wilson specializes in Alsace varietals. Though muscat can be a little sweet for me, this one strikes a fine balance – and at such a value. Inspired by the moscatos of Italy’s Piedmont region, they’ve been experimenting with moscato since 1976, and the the result is this floral, white peach-evocative, slightly effervescent white wine.

- 2012 Anne Amie Estate Riesling, Yahill-Carlton District ($20) – This Willamette Valley producer caught my eye with its Old World labels: paintings of 1800′s women that feel pulled from classic literature. The wine’s dry minerality and acidity (thanks to slow fermentation in stainless steel) impart notes of lime, nutmeg and candied lemon. I appreciate their whole line of whites.

- 2012 Trefethen Dry Riesling ($23) – I was surprised to like this Riesling as much as I did. I typically don’t look to warmer Napa for Rieslings, but this one is balanced with crisp citrus and floral notes of orange blossom and jasmine. It’s a lovely food pairing with sushi and other Asian cuisines.

- 2012 Archery Summit Vireton Pinto Gris ($24) – Another Willamette Pinot Gris, this vintage is bright with citrus and floral characteristics, tempered by a hint of green herbaceousness and a clean minerality.

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Mar
15
2014

Imbiber

Rarities: 50 Year Old Scotch & 1950 Cognac

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

When you get the rare chance to try 50 year old Scotch or Cognac, you do. When it’s a tasting with drink industry legends like James Espey, who is behind the creation of iconic brands like Bailey’s Irish Cream, Malibu Rum and even Johnnie Walker Blue, it’s an imperative. I enjoyed a rousing lunch at Hakkasan this week with James and Ben
Howkins of Royal Tokaji, one of the partners in his unique project, Last Drop Distillers.

With the tag line, “Before There is No More,” Espey and his three Last Drop business partners hunt for rare treasure: cellared casks, stored for decades undiscovered. They  release them in elegant, limited edition bottlings, and only in key markets: UK, US and China.

Tasting both the whisky and the Cognac, both coming with fascinating stories.

There’s only 388 bottles of this second edition/release of The Last Drop 50 Year Old Whisky (selling for about $4000 per bottle!), made from over 82 whiskies. They found three casks of this blend, forgotten in the back of a warehouse produced by many now-defunct distilleries around Scotland, married (blended) over 50 years ago.

This heaven of a whisky carries whispers of the enchanting country of Scotland in each sip. A woody, dried fruit and spice nose gives way to a taste that hints at the peat of Islay, alongside the balanced nuance of the Highlands. It’s rich, warm and unfolding, with a touch of water. It’s a privilege just to have tried this beauty.

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Photo courtesy of lastdropdistillers.com

Likewise, The Last Drop 1950 Fine Aged Cognac (selling for about $2800 per bottle) is revelatory. It’s story is romantic and inspired: they met a mother and daughter in the Cognac countryside, the mother 93 years old. She had distilled a Cognac when she was in her 30′s. Though much of what remained had evaporated, what survived was still shockingly lively, and the Last Drop boys bought up all her Cognac casks.

Aside from the unreal time I tasted 1805 and 1865 Cognacs with Salvatore Calabrese and Dale DeGroff during Tales of the Cocktail 2010, this is the best Cognac I’ve ever had. It’s shockingly fresh, clean and floral, yet retains the maturity and depth of a fine whisky, blessedly bottled at cask strength. It imparts a woody playfulness and welcome dryness.

More fun Espey facts: In June 2013, James received an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) from the Queen “for services to the Whisky Industry.” He is also founder of The Keepers of the Quaich, a leading international Whisky Society, and recently published a book on building and marketing your brand (you), no matter the industry, Making Your Marque.

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Mar
15
2014

Imbiber

Tasting Old Blowhard & Barterhouse at Wingtip

Tasting Old Blowhard & Barterhouse at Wingtip

RARITIES: Two American Whiskies with Stitzel-Weller & Old Bernheim Ties

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

Ode to the mighty Stitzel-Weller distillery

Ode to the mighty Stitzel-Weller distillery

As common as they are, “limited” whisk(e)y releases may seem like a lot of hype. But American whiskey fans (such as myself) perked up when we heard about Diageo‘s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. This new line of rare, essentially foraged or found whiskies, just launched with their first whiskies.

20 year Barterhouse and 26 year Old Blowhard bourbons were both found aging in the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery (which stopped distilling in 1991-92), filled with “juice” from the older (circa 1980′s) and the newer Bernheim distillery (sold to Heaven Hill in the late ’90′s), then bottled for Orphan Barrel at George Dickel in Tennessee.

Tasting Barterhouse at Wingtip

Tasting Barterhouse at Wingtip

Future Orphan Barrel whiskey releases will likely be sourced from a number of defunct distilleries.

Having the Stitzel-Weller name associated calls loudly to American whiskey fans. Now nearly impossible to procure Pappy Van Winkle whiskies were once produced at Stitzel-Weller, but have, since its closure, been produced by Buffalo Trace. Like many American whiskey fans, I first got turned on to the possibilities in American whiskey years ago, thanks to Pappy… particularly the rye. What I first tasted was the Stitzel-Weller juice. I was reminded last year in Louisville of its superiority when a colleague pulled out bottles of old Pappy distilled at Stitzel-Weller and I was refreshed on what made me fall in love with it in the first place.

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskies)

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

Any whiskies coming from Stitzel-Weller are a thrill for the whiskey aficionado. Given the rarity of these hand-selected barrels, bottles are pricey, although actually quite reasonable for rare, old, strictly allocated whiskies such as these.

I cleared my calendar for an Orphan Barrel trade and media tasting on March 3 at Wingtip. Though there are ultimately three initial bourbon releases, only sold in the US, the third, Rhetoric, will be released in the coming weeks. In keeping with the Bernheim formula, the mashbill of all three whiskies is 86% corn, 6% rye, 8% barley.

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

(photo source: Orphan Barrel Whiskey)

Barterhouse 20 year old (45.1% ABV – $75)
For 20 years of age, Barterhouse is surprisingly golden and young, with crisp green apple on the nose, and on the tongue, cereal, honeysuckle, warm woods, spices, and a slightly creamy mouthfeel.

Old Blowhard 26 year old (45.35% ABV – $150)
It was difficult to decide which of the two whiskies I liked more. While I loved the bright liveliness of the Barterhouse, I was smitten with the robust masculinity of the Old Blowhard (and it’s tongue-in-cheek name). Its bold, woody nose gives way to dark cherry, leather, tobacco, spice, toffee and toasted wood on the palate. Oak (and thus age) heavily dominates but it’s a pleasure nonetheless, begging for a comfy leather chair, roaring fireplace and a fine cigar.

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Mar
15
2014

Imbiber

St George Coffee 2- Virginia Miller

St. George’s New Nola Coffee Liqueur

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

I adore New Orleans. I adore coffee. And I adore St. George Spirits. So I was (naturally) pleased to hear St. George was releasing Nola Coffee Liqueur. On its way to stores and bars as we “speak”, this new coffee liqueur starts local with cold-brewed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans roasted by Jewel Box Coffee Roasters, an up-and-comer in Oakland, just reaching funding for their business via Kickstarter.

St George Coffee - Virginia MillerSt. George distiller Dave Smith cold-brews the coffee with their vodka base, adds distilled French chicory root, Madagascar vanilla and organic cane sugar. It’s like fresh, bracing, cold-brewed coffee… meaning it’s beautiful neat, on ice. The liqueur is earthy and rich, with a whisper of sweet vanilla, and that New Orleans spirit from the chicory.

I’ll take it neat but it’s also a winner with cream. Sipping it on ice transports me straight back to the hot, sultry streets of Nola where I down chicory iced coffee as if it were water – and it’s nearly as thirst-quenching. Though I haven’t had a chance to experiment with it in cocktails yet, it begs for new cocktail recipes to showcase it, while it would immediately upgrade any “guilty pleasure” Kahlua-type cocktail (Mudslides or White Russians, anyone?)

The label is gorgeous, in keeping with the style of the labels and bottle shape of St. George’s gins and agricole rum, with nods to New Orleans: hints of purple, a drawing of St. Louis Cathedral and the ubiquitous symbol of the city, the fleur de lys. There’s also a tie in with California and their Dry Rye Gin: just as the Dry Rye sports a martini glass in a bear trap (California’s state animal being the grizzly bear), the Nola bottle shows a coffee cup and spoon in a bear trap as Louisiana’s is a black bear. New Orleans is the city where Smith fell in love with his wife, and as a tribute to her, the liqueur carries heart and soul behind its robust, balanced flavor.

Quoting the label – and New Orleanians: “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!)

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Mar
01
2014

Imbiber

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Enchanting Bassano del Grappa on a river at the base of the Italian Alps

Adventures in Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Visiting a Grappa Legend & a Hidden Absinthe Bar

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

View of the river from the Nardini tasting room

This October I spent a magical day in the birthplace of grappa, enchanting Bassano del Grappa, a Northern Italian town (in the Veneto region) on the river Brenta at the base of the Italian Alps.

Since 1779, one of the great families of grappa and Italian liqueurs, Nardini, has been crafting a wide range of spirits in a distillery on the outskirts of town, while their historic tasting room sits right on the corner of Bassano del Grappa’s historic bridge with scenic views of the river Brenta and the Italian Alps.

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

(Photo source: www.nardini.it)

Funny enough, Antonio Guarda Nardini, one of the Nardini brothers and Managing Director of the company, was away when I was in Bassano, but we met up weeks later in San Francisco to talk (and taste) Nardini. He and the family continue to work tirelessly to export more Nardini products to the US and other countries.

Currently, it’s the release of Nardini Bitter (24% ABV), a rosy-red, Campari-esque aperitivo that is more bitter but also sweeter than Campari, heavy on fresh orange notes, laced with bitter orange, sweet orange, Chinese rhubarb root, gentian, vanilla, even absinthe. The bitter lingers blessedly on the finish with hints of pepper. As one of the legendary spirits in the portfolio, it’s a treat to finally see it hit the US. Their Fernet-style product is awaiting US approval, while their 80 proof grappas (regular, a blend aged a minimum of three years – and riserva, a blend aged a minimum of five years) are also slated to hit the US in 2014.

The steps leading to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Steps to Palazzo delle Misture, under the right awning

Antonio came to US in December as part of promotional tour with FederalVini to promote grape-based products (wine, spirits, vinegar) exported from Italy. With his affable sense of humor, he says he’s, “… fed up with grappa being perceived as the leftovers.” I run into it often enough myself: the perception of grappa being rough-and-tumble, harsh, as it is made from grape pomace (skins, stems, seeds, pulp). I love earthy, funky, heavy-hitting grappas, having drunk some pretty rustic ones in the hills north of Lucca (in Tuscany) and other parts of Italy. But there’s a wide array of elegant grappa, Nardini included with the famed Poli just up the street, that is complex and fascinating as a category – recently the category of grappa officially became defined as only produced and bottled in Italy.

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan flash-chilled in a bottle via liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

At Palazzo delle Misture: Nardini Manhattan post-liquid nitrogen

Palazzo delle Misture bar

Palazzo delle Misture bar

The great delight of my day in Bassano del Grappa was a bar I had stumbled upon online researching places to eat and drink in town weeks before: Palazzo delle Misture (which I named one of the best international bar experiences of 2013, a year in which I visited bars in 25 cities and 10 different countries). This treasure of a bar, run by passionate and informed brothers, Gianluca and Andrea Camazzola, is an unexpected oasis of absinthe and classic cocktail books in this dreamy, Italian village.

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Upstairs at Palazzo delle Misture

Gianluca researches classic American cocktail recipes and the history of all things cocktail, clearly influencing his refined drinks in the intimate bar with upstairs lounge and classic absinthe service. I sampled a range of cocktails on my visit.

At Nardini's tasting room

At Nardini’s tasting room

One cocktail created by Andrea, Red Cross, is named in honor of Hemmingway, who served as an ambulance driver during WWI in Bassano del Grappa (a cocktail presented at 2013 Vin Italy, one of the largest wine events in the world). Red Cross is nearly equal parts of Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, fresh lemon, and a house red pepper syrup (pepperoncino rosso), complex yet refreshing topped with soda.

Their Nardini Manhattan wins for presentation. Mixing Aquavite di Vinaccia Riserva Grappa, red vermouth and Angostura bitters, they pour the cocktail into an empty mini bottle of Nardini’s riserva, cover their face with masks and spray the bottle with liquid nitrogen for a swift, frosty freeze. It’s dramatic… and well-mixed.

Palazzo delle Misture's absinthe cabinet upstairs

Palazzo delle Misture’s absinthe cabinet upstairs

On the gin side, they craft a variation on a Bronx cocktail from Hugo R. Ensslin’s self-published 1917 book Recipes for Mixed Drinks. They muddle orange and bitter peel in the gin with pineapple and Dolin dry vermouth, resulting in a dry, bright imbibement.

Named in honor of a battle fought on Mount Grappa in June 1918 where the Italian alpine and infantry soldiers defeated the Austro-Hungarian troops trying to invade Bassano, Blood’s Solstice shows off unaged Aquavite White Grappa, vivacious mixed with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, Nardini Bitter, honey, Luxardo Sangue Morlacco (a vibrant cherry liqueur from nearby Luxardo) and lime, garnished with a skewer of blueberries.

It’s rare to find craft cocktail bars in Italy in general (although that is changing), much less in a small town. Here is a bar that would stand out in a major city… and certainly does in this enchanting city. As the birthplace of grappa, the bar showcases it accordingly – alongside absinthe, whisk(e)y and other global spirits.

My favorite way to drink grappa is neat. As Antonio told me, “Grappa is an after dinner drink that should rinse your palate.” It cleanses, invigorates and delights simultaneously.

Palazzo delle Misture's

Palazzo delle Misture’s Blood Solstice

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Mar
01
2014

Imbiber

Two US Spirits Newcomers: Beet Spirit & Overproof Rum

Article and photos by Virginia Miller

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

Two standout new spirits of the year thus far? Here are two unusual US-made spirits that immediately drew me back for a second taste.

Bete from Sidetrack Distillery ($32.95/375 ml)
In my three trips to Seattle in seven months, a spirit that keeps impressing me with every sip is the uncategorizable Bete from Sidetrack Distillery in Kent, WA. The spirit is distilled from sugar beets and like the great beet cocktails I’ve had over the years, it’s vegetal, earthy, while simultaneously light and bright. Figuring out ways to use it in cocktails may seem initially daunting, but messing around at home, I find it plays beautifully with lime, lemon and other citrus, as well as vegetables like celery. An fascinating product, never has the spirit of beets quite been captured like this.

High Ester Navy Style Rum from Lost Spirits Distillery ($45/375 ml)

(photo source: lostspirits.net)

(photo source: lostspirits.net)

Monterey’s Lost Spirits Distillery (from Distiller/Blender Bryan Davis, formerly making Leviathan peaty whiskey and an absinthe) is not far from my home of SF… but their new cask-strength, Navy-style rum (68% ABV) is an adventure hinting of far away islands and stormy seas.

Hardly what one might call an “elegant” rum – though it is well made – this high ester rum is robust, overproof and most importantly, memorable. Not as boozy as its ultra-high proof would suggest, its Grade A molasses-base ensures a dark, moody spirit with the kind of funk I adore in a rum, hence my first loyalty to agricole-style rums. This is not agricole, but it’s funky, alive, woody, laden with overripe fruit and licorice notes, produced in copper pot stills. There’s a wildness to the rum more exciting than dozens of American-made rums I’ve tried this year, or in any recent years.

Written by in: Imbiber |
Feb
15
2014

Imbiber

Cachaça: Primed For Mainstream?

In Conversation with Avuá Co-Founder
Nate Whitehouse

Article by Virginia Miller

Avuá Cachaça (pronounced ahv-wah kah-SHAH-sah) is spreading the cachaça gospel. Founders Nate Whitehouse, Pete Nevenglosky, and Mark Christou are key voices raising awareness of the complexities and range of Brazil’s beloved sugarcane spirit, best known as the base for the Caipirinha cocktail. Though it surged in popularity a few years back with major brands, the category never quite took deep root in US bars as a wide diversity of brands did not make it to the US.

Cachaça is primed for far greater exposure as Brazil hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer and the 2016 Summer Olympics, where the nation’s favorite drink will surely be consumed in copious amounts. Though the spirit has long been lumped in with rum, despite being considerably different, recently gaining its own official classification/category won’t immediately help bring it to the forefront of spirit drinkers’ minds. Education and greater access to the range of cachaça out there is still greatly needed.
(Photo credit: www.avuacachaca.com)

(Photo credit: www.avuacachaca.com)

I first tasted Avuá (the Portuguese word voar, meaning “to fly”) back at Tales of the Cocktail last summer, both the clean, fruit and floral notes of Prata (aged 12 months before bottling), and the 24-month aged Amburana, named after the wood it’s aged in, exhibiting savory vegetal notes alongside the soft caramel of the wood. I was immediately impressed by Avuá’s quality and complexity above other brands I’d previously tasted. Made from single-sourced cachaça, Distiller Katia Espírito Santo is one of few Brazilian female distillers who also grows all sugarcane used to make Avuá on her family farm, Fazenda da Quinta, in Carmo, roughly four hours north of Rio de Janeiro.

Talking cachaça, I recall pisco a few years ago. The Peruvian and Chilean grape-based spirit has long had a close connection with San Francisco where there have have been bars dedicated predominantly to pisco for years, even when most of the US didn’t know much about it. Pisco really didn’t place on the national cocktail consciousness until recent years when brands like Encanto upped the profile and quality of pisco and bar managers began to feature it more. In my visit to Peru last year making pisco in Ica and visiting cocktail bars around Lima, I was amazed at the diversity of ingredients mixed with pisco in cocktail menus often 50-deep, far beyond how it has been used in the US. Though the spirit has gained much more attention in recent years, there’s still unexplored worlds of its possibilities best represented in its home countries. I see similarities with cachaça.
In a recent conversation with co-founder Nate Whitehouse, I immediately caught his passion for Brazil and cachaça. There’s a growing US community of cachaça producers, importers and aficionados who are uniting to educate and share in a greater way than ever before. Whitehouse is working with cachaça expert Felipe Jannuzzi, who runs the extensive site, Mapa da Cachaca, to translate it article-by-article into English (English site here; more on Facebook).
(Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/mapadacachaca)

(Photo source: facebook.com/mapadacachaca)

Whitehouse compares the rise he hopes to see in the cachaça category to the way mezcal has captured the national cocktail scene. His hope is that as knowledge of the sugarcane spirit deepens, it will face a similar widespread growth. He talks of over 4000 registered cachaça producers in Brazil, but that actual estimates range from 7000 to more than 30,000 producers. With over 500 years of history, cachaça is one of the historic spirits of the world. It can be young, clean and cocktail-friendly or aged in a wide range of woods, resulting in elegant, sipping cachacas. Whitehouse describes these cachacas as embodying, “… a richness we’re not familiar with because of many of them have not come into the US market.”

Similarly, Brazilian bartenders mix cachaça with a wide range of fruits from the Amazon, punches are commonplace, and some infuse the spirit with Amazonian barks and other unusual ingredients. Alongside the revival of the dining scenes in Rio and Sao Paolo, the cocktail scene is thriving.

Inspiring views from Centro de Tecnologia in Cachaça in Brazil (photo source: Mapa da Cachaca https://www.facebook.com/mapadacachaca)

Inspiring views from Brazil’s Centro de Tecnologia in Cachaça (photo source: Mapa da Cachaca facebook.com/mapadacachaca)

The story of how lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Whitehouse fell in love with cachaça and Brazil is a good one, well told in 2012 in Gourmet. Whitehouse was inspired by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, sharing with me Niemeyer’s most famous quote, a passage that inspires the ethos behind Avuá: “It’s not the right angle that attracts me, nor the straight line—stiff, inflexible, created by men. What really attracts me is the free, sensual curve. The curve I see on the sinuous course of our rivers, on the clouds in the sky, on your favorite woman’s body. The universe is entirely made of curves.”

While Avuá launched on the East Coast in NYC this fall and at a few choice spots here in San Francisco, its official rollout in California is right now: late February. In San Francisco, you can find it bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Lolinda, Absinthe, AQ, Wingtip, Local Edition, Laszlo, Penelope in Oakland, and more.

As I listen to bossa nova, which I’ve been crazy about since I was teen, while sipping Avuá cocktails I’ve made at home, I long for a visit to a few of Brazil’s many cachaça producers myself. Every time I get up close and personal with a spirit – particularly when I visit its home country and distilleries – I fall further in love with it and the people who make it. But until I get there, I’m grateful for people like Whitehouse and Jannuzzi who are working to share the best of what’s going on in Brazil here at home.
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