Apr
28
2014

The Latest

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A bracing Coffee Break ($13) mixing Appleton Rum, Mr. Espresso cold brew coffee, Mandarine Napoleon orange liqueur, house mole bitters – subtle coffee and candied orange notes

Sneak Peek: DIRTY HABIT, opening 5/1

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

DIRTY HABIT, Union Square (12 Fourth St. between Market and Mission in Hotel Palomar, 415-348-1555)

The patio fireplace

The patio fireplace

Though I will miss the upscale inventiveness of the menu at Fifth Floor, thankfully, the same team is in effect at its new, more casual incarnation, Dirty Habit, opening Thursday, 5/1. Chef David Bazirgan, Pastry Chef Francis Ang, Master Sommelier Emily Wines and Lead Bartender Brian Means have created all new menus. The space has not only been completely remodeled in comfortably chic, warm tones, but what was the extended dining room has now become a sleek outdoor patio with rectangular rock fireplace that is set to be one of the coolest downtown hangout/gathering spots.

As I visited last week for a sneak preview and taste-through of most (12) of the cocktails (not including the classics and the barrel aged cocktails) and a number of dishes, I don’t see how this new spot couldn’t be a hit. With playful, quality drinks in equally fun and lovely vintage glassware, stellar spirits collection, standout dishes – elevated lounge food, the staff’s informed welcome, and comfortable chairs in the seductively dim space – not to mention that killer patio – the one safeguard from the hordes is its fifth floor location, tucked away upstairs location in the Hotel Palomar.

Here are some initial bites and cocktails of note via photos:

Femme Fatale ($13): an Avua Cachaca, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, coconut, lime cocktail - with boba, soda water, and sprinkling of espelette pepper on top

Femme Fatale ($13): an Avua Cachaca, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, coconut, lime cocktail – with boba, soda water, and sprinkling of espelette pepper on top

The sleek new patio

The sleek new patio

One of my favorite cocktails on the menu is a vodka drink: Spritz & Giggles ($13) under Seasonal & Shaken: Belvedere Vodka, strawberry shrub, Sutton Cellars vermouth, corn tea - notes of chamomile flowers, orange oil, vinegar and strawberry, salt makes it; bottled & slightly carbonated

One of my favorite cocktails, Spritz & Giggles ($13), is a bottled and carbonated Belvedere Vodka drink with tart/bracing strawberry shrub, Sutton Cellars vermouth, and corn tea – a dash of salt makes it sing

Killer chicken wings - among the best in town: Chicken wings ($10) sweet soy and chili vinaigrette

Killer chicken wings ($10) – among the best in town – crispy in sweet soy and chili vinaigrette

Another one of the best new cocktails: Chupacabra ($13), mixing Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Los Altos Blanco Tequila, Aperol, grapefruit cordial, lime, Sal de Gusano (ground Oaxacan salt, chile & worms) - it's tart with grapefruit, salty, with chili and bitter orange notes

Another of the best cocktails: Chupacabra ($13), mixing Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Los Altos Blanco Tequila, Aperol, grapefruit cordial, lime, Sal de Gusano (ground Oaxacan salt, chile & worms) – it’s tart with grapefruit, salty, subtly smoky, bright with chili & bitter orange notes

House charcuterie platter ($16) - all made in house but speck = with crackers, pickles (pickled Persian plums!)

House charcuterie platter ($16) – all meats & pates made in house except for the speck – with house beef tendon chicharrones and pickled vegetables and pickled Persian plums

Ludovico Technique ($13) under Seasonal & Shaken: Absolut Vodka, blueberry, Dry Madeira, lemon, verjus - notes of green grass and dried grapes

In front of Dirty Habit lunchboxes is the Ludovico Technique ($13): Absolut Vodka, blueberry, Dry Madeira, lemon, verjus, sipped from a bendy straw with notes of green grass, dried grapes and blueberry

Another brilliant dish: Octopus ($16) eggplant, pine nuts, cherries  - crispy confit style

Another brilliant dish ($16): octopus – some of it tender, other tentacles are crispy confit-style – eggplant, pine nuts, cherries

Pink Elephant ($12) under Seasonal & Shaken: Ford's Gin, Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth, Small Hands Pineapple Gum, orange bitters, St. George Absinthe

Pink Elephant ($12): Ford’s Gin, Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth, Small Hands Pineapple Gum Syrup, orange bitters, a dash of St. George Absinthe – herbaceous and tart

Completely remodeled lounge area

Completely remodeled lounge area

Green Thumb ($13) under Stirred & Sipped: Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Carpano Bianco, Green Chartreuse, nectar essence made from African tea in a Tanqueray Rangpur Lime base - experimenting with oils and olive oil for texture in essence

Green Thumb ($13): Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Carpano Bianco, Green Chartreuse, nectar essence made from African tea with a Tanqueray Rangpur Gin base

Fried lamb belly bao (steamed buns) with peanuts ($5)

Fried lamb belly bao (steamed buns) with peanuts ($5)

Marigold ($13) under Stirred & Sipped: Cuttysark Prohibition Edition, Luxardo Apricot, house apricot bitters, Laird's Applejack - slightly smoky-sweet, apple blossom notes

Marigold ($13): Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Scotch, Luxardo Apricot liqueur, house apricot bitters, Laird’s Applejack – slightly smoky-sweet with apple blossom notes

Loveable Trixter ($12) under Seasonal & Shaken: Plymouth gin, lime, blackberries, sage, crushed ice

Loveable Trixter ($12): Plymouth gin, lime, blackberries, sage, over crushed ice

Wink & A Nod ($12) under Stirred & Sipped: Bulleit Rye, Cynar, Galliano Ristretto, Fernet BrancaMenta - rye bread, chocolate, mint, espresso notes

Another favorite, Wink & A Nod ($12), mixes Bulleit Rye Whiskey, Cynar (Italian artichoke liqueur), Galliano Ristretto (Italian coffee liqueur), Fernet BrancaMenta (Italian herbal mint liqueur) – notes of rye bread, chocolate, mint, bitter herbal notes, espresso

Dirt Nap ($10) under Stirred & Sipped: Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth infused with porcini mushrooms, Lustau "Don Nuno" Oloroso sherry, King's Ginger Liqueur - earthy, dried mushroom, sweet ginger notes

Dirt Nap ($10) combines Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth infused with porcini mushrooms, Lustau “Don Nuno” Oloroso sherry, King’s Ginger Liqueur – it is earthy with dried mushroom and sweet ginger notes

Leather & Lace ($12) under Stirred & Sipped: James Pepper Rye, Lustau "Peninsula" Palo Cortado sherry, Licor 43 for sweetness, house tobacco bitters with shaved cardamom on top - nutty, dry, sweet, aromatic

Leather & Lace ($12): James Pepper Rye Whiskey, Lustau “Peninsula” Palo Cortado sherry, Licor 43 for sweetness, and house tobacco bitters with shaved cardamom on top – the cocktail is nutty, dry, sweet, aromatic

Get Me A Juicebox! ($24) canned PBR, hot toddy, house bar nutss for 2

Get Me A Juicebox! ($24): order your own Dirty Habit lunchbox, complete with a can of PBR beer (or, in this case, Negro Modelo), house bar nuts and a hot toddy cocktail in a thermos

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Apr
15
2014

Imbiber

Roka Akor

At Roka Akor: Drunken Monk (L) with slice of grilled Asian pear, adding toasty notes to an otherwise bright blend of winter-spiced pear shochu, green Chartreuse, fresh orange and lemon

Article & photos by Virginia Miller

Here’s my April 10th photo slideshow and article on 10 best spring cocktails in San Francisco for Zagat: www.zagat.com/b/san-francisco/10-best-spring-cocktails-in-san-francisco#1.

A re-imagined Appletini from Claire Sprouse at The Square in my Zagat spring cocktail article

A re-imagined Appletini from Claire Sprouse at The Square

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Apr
15
2014

Imbiber

Westland First Peated-Virginia Miller

7 Washington Craft Spirits You Should Know

Article and Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Virginia Miller

Three Seattle visits in the past seven months centered around craft distillery and cocktail bar research means a few spirits have stood out among the dozens I’ve tasted from Washington state, most launched in recent years. Here are my top seven from the glut of craft distillers hitting the Washington market:

BroVo SPIRITS’ AMARO PROJECT

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

(photo source: brovospirits.com)

With “Lady & Mac Made Liquor” stated on each bottle, BroVo Spirits is an intriguing line of 17 amari (Italian herbal/bitter liqueurs) and counting, made by distiller/owner Mhairi Voelsgen and distiller Mac Kenney in collaboration with hand-selected bartenders from Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, with Atlanta soon to be released. No two amaro are alike, varying dramatically with each bartender’s recipe, ranging from spiced to floral, complex to crowd-pleasing.

Of the 11 BroVo amari I’ve tasted, I find #11 from Jon Christiansen in Seattle to be the most classic in the Italian amaro sense: balanced, bitter, herbal and sweet. He uses damiana, marigold, grapefruit peel and vanilla bean in his well-rounded amaro. One of Chicago’s best bartenders, Mike Ryan, created the #14 recipe, a unique blend that includes chocolate, sarsaparilla, cinnamon and thyme notes. The San Francisco range is broad and refined: Amanda Womack’s (of Cask) delicate, floral # 8, Suzanne Miller’s (of Novela) Indian spiced beauty # 10, or Will Popko’s (of Hard Water) aromatic pineapple sage #9.

BETE from SIDETRACK DISTILLERY

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

(photo source: sidetrackdistillery.com)

A spirit that impresses 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. A fascinating product, never has the essence of beets quite been captured like this.

WESTLAND DISTILLERY WHISKIES

Westland-Virginia MillerIn Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Westland‘s 13,000 sq. ft. distillery has been getting a lot of attention – for the dramatic space, yes – but most notably for the whiskies, which are easily among the stronger American whiskey releases in awhile.

It’s tough to choose a favorite, whether Deacon Seat Whiskey or their peated whiskies. American Single Malt Whiskey is made from a pale malt base grown in Washington, redolent of chocolate, caramel and coconut. First Peated American Single Malt Whiskey is a vatting of two separate new make spirits, the first a smoky mash of peated malt, the second is the WA pale malt which balances the peat with dried fruit and bright, spiced notes, the blend spending time in ex-Bourbon and Sherry casks.

EvenStar SHOCHU from SODO SPIRITS DISTILLERY

EvenStar Shochu-Virginia MillerOpened in 2009 as the first craft distillery license in Seattle proper, Sodo Spirits Distillery’s EvenStar Shochu at first glance sounds gimmicky: flavored shochu, starting with rosemary, their first product released in 2011. But one can actually taste the barley base in the shochu itself. Though a clean spirit, it is not flavorless. Eastern Washington-grown barley shines, and they use Koji mold spores from Japan, with no sugar or flavorings added. Whether rosemary, ginger or mint shochus, all are made with fresh macerated herbs and roots, so subtle as to be but a whisper. Chili shochu particularly stood out for its barley backbone and fresh, bright chili flavor.

HERITAGE DISTILLING CO.’s CASK CLUB GIN

Heritage Barrel Aged Gin-Virginia MillerHeritage Distilling Co.’s Cask Club offers members-only special releases: their Distillers Reserve 4 year gin stands out in the over-hyped barrel aged gin category. At a boozy cask strength (62.5% ABV), it’s a unique beauty that tastes like Christmas, treacle/syrup and spice, with a long, dry finish. While I’m not as big a fan of their regular gin release, this aged version boasts a memorable profile, a truly unique barrel aged gin.

SOUND SPIRITS’ AQUAVIT & OLD TOM GIN

Sound Spirits-Virginia MillerSound Spirits‘ Ebb + Flow Gin is a balanced gin, emphasizing both herbal and citrus notes. I enjoy this gin but am even more taken with Sound Spirits Aquavit, strong on the traditional caraway, dill, coriander, fennel, anise notes, all singing together in harmony. Likewise, their Old Tom Gin is exceptional in this category of 18th century-style gin, redolent of citrus/orange and cardamom tempered by a floral presence. While many aquavit and Old Tom gins I’ve tasted blend together (or can be downright bad), Sound stands out in both categories.

SAN JUAN ISLAND DISTILLERY’s MADRONE BRANDY

Madrone Brandy-Virginia MillerSuzy and Hawk Pingree, the husband/wife team behind San Juan Island Distillery, are an inspiring couple. In their 60′s, they’ve changed careers, pursuing a passion for Calvados/brandy and cider on San Juan Island where Hawk produces cider and Suzy distills a range of spirits from ingredients foraged on the island. Most of their spirits are available to purchase at the distillery only, so it’s all about experiencing the island’s resources in its natural setting.

I particularly enjoyed their madrone brandy ($85 at the distillery), made from blackberries, madrone bark and blossoms sourced on the island. It’s complex, an elegant brandy tinged with subtle bitter and spices.

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Apr
01
2014

Imbiber

Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Drinking schnaps cocktails at Trocadero Club, San Francisco

Why You Should Demand 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 Pinot 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

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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

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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

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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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