Sep
01
2014

Imbiber

5 New Under-the-Radar Spirits to Try

Article by Virginia Miller

Many spirits cross my desk or are tasted at countless bars or distilleries I visit in any given month… here are 5 international spirits — from gin to mezcal, Scotch to rye whiskey — that have stood out in recent months.

CALEDONIA SPIRITS’ BARR HILL GIN ($35)

Barr HillThomas Hardie (a distiller I was privileged to meet recently on his trek out West) runs a farm in Vermont where he produces Barr Hill Gin and Vodka, made from local organic honey and grains, both recently gaining distribution in California. Growing up as a lifelong farmer, Hardie has been beekeeping with his family since he was 12 and started doing so commercially by age 20. His raw honey is exquisite and is the fermented base — with corn grain — for his products. Rather than sweetness, the honey imparts a subtle freshness to both products, the creamy-grassy gin is happily juniper-forward.

They are working on beer-distilled whiskies to be released over the coming months: the 1st release is 5 months aged corn whiskey made of 80% corn, 20% rye and barley. I also hope to try Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat, essentially an Old Tom-style gin distilled with juniper and honey.

Where to Buy: At K&L and Wine Warehouse

HIGHLAND PARK’s DARK ORIGINS ($79.99)

HP Dark OriginsOut this fall, one of my all-time favorite Scotch houses, Highland Park (the 18 year is the quintessential Highland Scotch) is just releasing Dark Origins, a non-chill filtered single malt (ABV 46.8%) that ups the sherry cask quotient compared to the classic Highland Park 12 year Scotch. All that sherry wood means spice and chocolate notes, but I also appreciate its nuanced nutty, softly smoky aspects.

MARCA NEGRA MEZCAL ($64.95 – $139.95)

Marca Negra Mezcals are distilled in the mountains of Oaxaca, near the village of San Luis del Rio, with a horse pulling a stone wheel to crush the roasted agave plants pre-fermentation. This is a process I was privileged to see in my journeys around Oaxaca (along with witnessing ancient clay pot distillation first hand, an almost dead art in most spirit categories).

Marca Negra MezcalThough I wish I could visit Marca Negra’s distillers directly, I’ve enjoyed tasting 4 of their mezcal releases (there’s 5 total in California, with the 5th an Arroqueno varietal), from a semi-sweet, floral and white pepper-inflected Ensamble Mezcal Marca Negra, to the herbaceous, sweet and smoky Dobadán Mezcal Marca Negra (both $139.95).

But my favorites are the elegant Tobalá Mezcal Marca Negra ($139.95), with its vegetal, tropical notes undergirded by smoke (only 1250 bottles), and the smoky, woody spice of the dry Espadín Mezcal Marca Negra ($64.95), both Double Gold and Gold medal winners (respectively) in the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. They are both beauties and welcome new mezcal options.

GLENGLASSAUGH ($64.99-$79.99)

Anchor Distilling recently began importing Glenglassaugh Scotch from a Speyside distillery dating back to 1875, bought in 2013 by Billy Walker and BenRiach Whisky Company. They just imported 5 single malts, including a 30 ($500) and 40 year ($3000) Scotch, from barrels ranging from 1963-1986.

On the more affordable end, three releases cover a range of Scotch tastes: Revival ($64.99, 46% ABV) is the first single malt from the reborn Glenglassaugh, aged in red wine, bourbon and Oloroso sherry barrels, the softest, sweetest and roundest of the three. Evolution ($79.99, 50% ABV), matured in first-fill George Dickel Tennessee whiskey barrels, and Torfa ($74.99, 50% ABV), the Norse word for peat, both exhibit a progressive peatiness, Evolution being soft with smoke and spice and the Torfa surprisingly peaty for a Speyside whisky.

Where to Buy: D&M

LOCK, STOCK & BARREL 13 Year STRAIGHT RYE WHISKEY ($140)

Lock Stock RyeOut longer than the other spirits listed here, Lock, Stock & Barrel Rye is expensive, no question. Though I’ve heard some rumors of it being a blend of pre-existing whiskies, the story behind it is that is Pennsylvania distilled from Pacific Northwest rye grain (100%) modeled after the historic styles of rye during the American Revolutionary War when it was our country’s drink of choice.

Robert Cooper (who founded St. Germain) created this 13 year-aged rye. While it is a soft one, each sip grows on you. There is minimal spice compared to some bracing ryes, notes of honeyed oak and salted caramel, but what surprises me is rosy, pink apple notes that impart a soft freshness to the rye. If you want spice and robustness, this isn’t your rye, but I appreciate its unique slant and place in the category.

Where to Buy: At D&M for $119.99

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Jun
15
2014

Imbiber

Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

Creative Asian-influenced cocktails from Danny Louie at brand new Chino in the Mission

My Top Drink Recommends: June 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some of this coverage here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for the Bay Area here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

Spirits

4 NEW LOCAL SPIRITS from a rye and New Orleans-influenced coffee liqueur, to a California aperitif and a sloe gin

Cocktails

The 5 BEST MARGARITAS in San Francisco

6 early favorite cocktails from Bar Manager Danny Louie at CHINO

5 classic NEGRONIS to seek out in San Francisco

FIRST LOOK at THE INTERVAL at the Long Now Salon, complete with robot behind the bar and a Drinking Around the World menu (among 8 mini cocktail menus from Bar Manager Jennifer Colliau)

What to eat & drink at the new Paris-meets-NY chic hotel bar, THE EUROPEAN

NEGRONI WEEK Highlights

Coffee

Unsung Heroes: GRAFFEO COFFEE since 1935

Tea

Check out the new SAMOVAR: you’ve never had tea like this

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Jun
15
2014

Imbiber

St. George's NOLA Coffee Liqueur (photo: Virginia Miller)

St. George’s NOLA Coffee Liqueur (photo: Virginia Miller)

6 New West Coast Spirits

Article by Virginia Miller; photos from brand websites except where noted

[Taken from my ZAGAT article on 4 New Local Spirits to Try, I have also added two additional recommended spirits, another one from California, and one from Oregon]:

In the scheme of quality spirits, each of these is fantastic. Even better, they’re all made locally from Sonoma to Mountain View. After all, we live in the region that pioneered the craft distilling movement back in the early ’80s at Germain-Robin (home of the first Cognac-quality brandies in the U.S.), St. George Spirits (where Jorg Rupf introduced European-style eaux de vie to the U.S.) and Anchor Distilling in SF (Where Fritz Maytag pioneered craft beer in the 60’s, then moved on to whiskies, genever and Junipero gin). In this rich tradition, come four new spirits, all released recently, utilizing local ingredients and talent.

1) Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye Whiskey $62

Sonoma Rye1512 Spirits recently changed its name to Sonoma Country Distilling Company in tandem with Owner/Distiller Adam Spiegel’s expansion to a much larger Rohnert Park facility. What this means for you? More whiskey. Sonoma Rye Whiskey is the brand’s flagship whiskey made from 100% rye grain, ensuring robust spice and white pepper notes balanced by sweet caramel and oak. We appreciate the grain-to-glass processes and single-minded whiskey focus. Don’t miss their 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey and West of Kentucky Bourbon either.
How to Drink It: Whiskey lovers are going to want to drink this neat or on the rocks. But the rye also makes a lovely Sazerac or Old Fashioned.
Where to Drink: They do it right in a cocktail at Alembic
Where to Buy: In SF at D&M, The Jug Shop, Healthy Spirits; at Ledgers in Berkeley

2) St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur ($33)

In March, venerable distilling pioneer St. George Spirits, released NOLA Coffee Liqueur. The liqueur starts local with cold-brewed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans roasted by Jewel Box Coffee Roasters, an up-and-comer in Oakland. St. 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 – beautiful served neat, on ice, with cream. The liqueur is earthy and rich, with a whisper of sweet vanilla, and New Orleans spirit from the chicory.
How to Drink It: Sipping this spirit over ice transports us straight back to the hot, sultry streets of NOLA where we down chicory iced coffee as if it were water. It’s nearly as thirst-quenching but with a decided kick.
Where to Drink: The Lexington House in Los Gatos shows off the liqueur in this beautiful cocktail, Coffee & Cigarettes
Where to Buy: Order through K&L, Cask, or purchase directly at the distillery in Alameda

3) JARDESCA California Aperitiva $30

JardescaJust released a little over two weeks ago, this Sonoma-grown and blended apertif was created by SF bartender/Cantina owner, Duggan McDonnell, who is also behind Encanto Pisco. As with Encanto, JARDESCA is balanced and elegant, made with California grapes and 10 locally-grown herbs/botanicals. While you can consider it in the family of a lovely dry vermouth or European aperitif wines like Lillet, this is a unique, dry, crisp but also slightly sweet and floral, fortified white wine, evoking hints of peppermint and orange blossom.
How to Drink It: While you can certainly make lovely, light cocktails with it, we love it solo, served over ice.
Where to Drink: Absinthe, Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, Clock Bar and the new Chubby Noodle Marina is featuring a JARDESCA infusion during its first month
Where to Buy: K&L, Little Vine in North Beach

4) Spirit Works Sloe Gin $38

SpiritWorks Sloe GinFrom husband/wife distilling team, Timo and Ashby Marshall, comes Spirit Works Distillery, opened last year in Sebastopol’s cool, forward-thinking The Barlow complex. They’re crafting gin, vodka, wheat and rye whiskies, but it’s their sloe gin that immediately began making waves. A berry-infused gin made from rosy sloe berries (in the plum family), traditional English sloe gins are often cloying, sweet and medicinal. But this is the best sloe gin we’ve tasted. And many others agree: Pay attention to how many local bars you’ll see stocking it. Made from wild sloe berries foraged in Timo’s native UK, the Marshall’s sloe gin maintains a bright berry sweetness balanced by dry, fresh acidity.
How to Drink It: It shines with tonic or in classic cocktails like a Sloe Gin Fizz
Where to Drink: Two Sisters Bar and Books in Hayes Valley, the new Zazu in The Barlow in Sebastopol
Where to Buy: D&M, Liquid Experience in Upper Haight

5) MARGERUM AMARO ($50)

Margerum AmaroMargerum Amaro is ideally timed for the amaro craze of recent years. California Central Coast (Buellton, to be specific) winemaker, Doug Margerum, developed a love for amari in trips to Italy and wanted to craft his own. With a Sangiovese base, its herbs and spices include parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, lemon verbena, rosemary, dried orange peels, and local oak, for a fascinating sipper also lovely in cocktails, as Saison proved at their bar this winter.

6) CALISAYA ($30)

CalisayaFlorence, Italy, native, Andrea Loreto, lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he makes Calisaya liqueur, a sweet and subtly bitter liqueur. Bitter orange, gentle spice, floral, earthy and woody notes, and subtle bitterness from cinchona bark result in a pleasing entrant in the American amaro category.

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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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Dec
15
2013

Imbiber

Rusty Cerven wins

Bols Around the World Grand Finals

In the Netherlands with BOLS GENEVER

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst

Getting lost amid the canals and museums of Amsterdam is mesmerizing. This May, I took a memorable journey to the Netherlands with legendary Bols Genever, genever (pronounced “jeh-NAY-ver”) being the precursor to gin (read my Amsterdam food/dining recommends and best cocktail havens and dive bars here).

Confusion still exists around genever and I am ever learning more, as with recent revelations about the history of genever in neighboring Belgium. Though the grandfather to gin, genever is a grain-based, malt spirit, sharing similarities with whisk(e)y, yet, like dry gins, distilled with botanicals such as juniper, angelica, coriander, or anise. Genever’s malty-yet-herbal profile can sometimes be light, as in the case of less-malty, clean jonge (young) genever, or it can be complex, botanical-dominant as with some oude (old) genevers. When in the Netherlands, there is also corenwijn (corenwyn), or “grain wine”, the maltiest and strongest of the three, beautiful to sip on its own like a good whisk(e)y or brandy. I long for corenwyn to be imported to the States.

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery room filled with artifacts

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite restaurant/cocktail bar in Amsterdam) to announce the final 12 for Bols Around the World - the final 12 congregate in the stairwell

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite Amsterdam restaurant/cocktail bar) announcing the final 12 for Bols Around the World – the 12 congregate in the stairwell

A highlight of my visit was tasting 8 year aged corenwyn out of barrels with Bols Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst, a generous, welcoming man who has been with Bols for decades. Barrels of corenwyn and genever are aged at the huge Bols plant about 30 minutes drive outside of Amsterdam amid lush, green farmland and gouda cheese dairies.

h

Antique genever bottles

Though I would have loved to witness stills and distillation production as I have at distilleries around the world, Bols products are not actually distilled in the Netherlands. The liqueurs are distilled in France, the malt wine for the genevers and corenwyn in Belgium. Genever and corenwyn are aged in this location, however, and new recipes are developed in their lab at the plant, including their new jonge (young) genever or 21st Century Recipe, just-unveiled during our visit, with modern, arty label (photo below) and released in Holland.

Exploring aromas of Bols liqueurs in their Amsterdam museum

Experiencing Bols liqueur aromas in their Amsterdam museum

The original Bols distillery opened in Amsterdam in 1575, iconic storefronts of seven separate houses with a rich, vibrant history of distilling, among the oldest in the world. So influential was the Bols family, that Lucas Bols is buried with Rembrandt in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church), a striking church I visited in the heart of the city.

Bols moved to the current plant in 1969 which retains one section of the original distillery storefront from Amsterdam, and an unforgettable room recreated from the original location. The light-filled room (pictured above) is packed with fascinating artifacts like antique genever clay bottles and glassware, distilling equipment, the Bols family Bible from the 1660 (a massive work of art), and a handwritten book on distillation in German from 1572. It was an unreal moment caressing the pages of this book and the family Bible, envisioning the painstaking hours outlining distillation step-by-step, hundreds of years ago.

Sailing

Sailing with Bols & the global bartending finalists

The central event of my trip was the Grand Finale of the Bols Around the World competition, an international, six-month-long competition ending in a TV-worthy showdown at Escape in Amsterdam, complete with a show from world bartending flair champions, all to a crowd of over 1000 people.

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Granted, it was all a bit flashy compared to what I typically cover. At intimate bars and imaginative restaurant cocktail menus around the world, I seek out artistry, boundary-pushing, well-versed classic technique and, above all, balance. Rarely does this come with a lot of flash – and never are the best drinks of the world crafted in clubs or settings with priorities on music and a “scene”. Nonetheless, it was a privilege to chat with bartenders from Korea to Argentina, learning of what they’re doing in their respective countries and cities.

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

I spent the week with 25 or so of the final bartenders (chosen from nearly 3000 competitors in 66 countries), narrowed down that week through more levels of competition to the top 12: Rusty Cerven (UK), Ciro de Giorgio (The Netherlands), Mateusz Szuchnik (Poland), Jimmy Barrat (Dubai), Seongha Lee (South Korea), Tom Richter (USA), Gonzalo Cabado (Argentina), Michie Nishida (Japan), Leszek Stachura (Denmark), Alexandru Tudor (Romania), Luuk Gerritsen (Curacao). Hungary’s Fanni Lajkó won Young Talent out of five finalists (from 500) in the 21-and-under category.

The judging panel was a cocktail world “who’s who”, including Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown (Mixellany Limited, England), Hidetsugu Ueno (Bar High Five, Tokyo), Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Drink Writer, New Orleans), Ago Perrone (Global Brand Ambassador for Galliano/Head Mixologist at Connaught Bar, London).

Bols Yonge Genever, unveiled during my visit

Bols Jonge/21st Century Genever, unveiled during my visit

The finalists made their cocktails in front of judges and the crowd of 1000 plus (no pressure), with the UK’s Rusty Cerven named 2013 Bols Bartending World Champion. His winning drink was William’s Punch, a blend of lemon sherbet, rhubarb juice, Bols Parfait Amour, Bols Genever and champagne, topped with nutmeg and lemon peel, beautifully served in a vintage punch bowl. He won an eight-day trip around the world to four cocktail cities of his choice, and Platinum Bols Ambassadorship, including two all-expenses-paid trips to Amsterdam for bartender training.

The House of Bols museum is a worthwhile visit when in Amsterdam, while the Bartending Academy is sought out by would-be bartenders around the world.

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Nov
01
2013

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Sampling Hendrick's Quinetum with Master Distiller Lesley Gracie

Sampling Hendrick’s Quinetum with Master Distiller Lesley Gracie

2013 GIN TRENDS

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

No doubt about it: gin has had a year. Small batch producers are sprouting up in greater numbers than ever – in the US but also the UK. Though Bay Area local, Old World Spirits, made waves with their barrel aged gin, Rusty Blade, years ago, the aged gin trend has taken off, with even legendary Beefeater (who I had the privilege of spending a week with in London a couple years ago) releasing a barrel aged gin, Burrough’s Reserve.

This year I delved deeper into gin’s predecessor, genever (read about the first Belgian genever imported to the US here) by visiting Bols in Amsterdam this May (articles on that trip in upcoming newsletters). On the American side, I tasted through a dense array of new American, small batch gins flooding the market during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky this spring.

As I reflect on the year in gin, here are few trends:

American Craft Gins Explode

BelleWood Gin

BelleWood Gin

Over the last decade and even before, many of the best small batch gins are from my home of the Bay Area, including Anchor Distilling’s great Junipero, pioneering in 1996 (even the gin martini master of London raved about Junipero when I visited London’s legendary gin bar, Duke’s), elegant 209 Gin, experimental Blade Gin from Old World Spirits, and since 2011, St. George’s remarkable gins.

Around the country, Death’s Door Gin from Wisconsin is a longtime favorite, and in Washington, Voyager remains an excellent gin. In the last couple years, FEW in Evanston, Illinois, is a newer standout, both FEW American Gin, wild and wooly in spirit but not lacking in finesse, and FEW Standard Issue Gin, an intensely vibrant beauty at 57% proof.

Myer Farm Gin

Myer Farm Gin

While more is not always better, and, in fact, there’s much more to wade through now, “more” does mean interesting interpretations and potential greats. Not making any claims of lasting greatness yet, of the over 40 new American gins I tasted this spring alone and from what I continuously find in my travels, these gins displayed interesting characteristics: Green Hat in DC, for unique packaging and sweet lemongrass notes; Myer Farm Gin from Orid, NY, had a strong but pleasurable juniper bite; and Valentine Distilling Co.’s Liberator Gin from Detroit, offered dusty, vibrant character. However, my top two of the newcomers are:

Rob’s Mtn Gin, Formula No. 44 – Loveland, CO: Rob Masters, President of the Colorado Distillers Guild, produces this gin at Spring 44’s distillery (see Old Tom section below). It is balanced, blessedly juniper-heavy, subtle with unique botanicals of kaffir lime, basil and peppermint. Floral aromatics open up when mixed with a quality tonic like Fever Tree.

BelleWood Gin – Lynden, WA: While I enjoy Tuthilltown’s Half Moon Orchard Gin, distilled from NY State wheat (80%) and apples (20%), and I love Scottish Caorunn Gin with Scottish apples added, the best of apple-inflected gins I’ve tasted is BelleWood, distilled on a farm growing most of its ingredients. Though apple based, offering a dusty, cinnamon-inflected nose, the taste is still juniper-heavy, with a crisp apple finish.

Old Tom Gin might still have its day

Spring 44 Old TomA few years back, everyone was talking Old Tom Gin, the dominant, malty, whiskey-like gin that was commonplace in America in the 1800’s before London dry became the popular style.  It bears more relation to gin’s predecessor, genever, than it does to London dry gins, yet it is also quite different from genever. During the last Old Tom revival years ago, the only brand with staying power has been Ransom from Oregon, to this day the brand I see used in Old Tom cocktails menus in countless cities.

This spring during ADI’s Judging of Craft American Spirits in Kentucky, we had enough Old Tom submissions to form its own sub-category, an unexpected sign of Old Tom’s revival (again). Most were better than expected, these three being the most interesting:

- Spring 44 Old Tom: A new distillery in Loveland, Colorado (their gin was just released in California in the last few weeks), Spring 44 was my favorite of the new Old Tom gins (and silver medal winner with ADI). Citrus and spice marry with ginger, oak notes for the most elegant, realized Old Tom of the new releases.

Tasting Old Tom gins

Tasting Old Tom gins

- Downslope Distilling’s Ould Tom Gin: A distillery founded in Centennial, Colorado, in 2008, Downslope considers their Ould Tom somewhere between genever and dry London-style gins, infused with 11 botanicals and an unusual base of US sugarcane. Being somewhere between, it is more dry, citrus and juniper-forward than Old Tom typically is, but has caramel-oak notes and full-bodied texture reminiscent of genever and Old Tom.

Corsair’s Major Tom: Though my least favorite of the three and possibly just an experimental, one-time release, this Old Tom-inspired gin landed on the funky, green side, savory and heavy with celery notes. I typically love that sort of profile but somehow it didn’t quite gel here.

The arrival of even these three begs the question: might Old Tom still have its day? It may never be mainstream again, but with talented distillers crafting new versions and reviving old recipes, it seems we might not yet have tasted the peak of this all-American spirit.

Major Brand Experiments with New Product

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Sampling Quinetum in cocktails

At the beginning of October, I experienced a magical evening in the historic Haas-Lilienthal House with Hendrick’s Gin’s Master Distiller, Lesley Gracie, during her first visit to the US (she only hit 5 or 6 cities). No, the beloved cult gin that became one of the world’s leading brands, is not coming out with a new gin. Gracie and the William Grant & Sons team shared Hendrick’s quinine cordial, Quinetum, which Gracie has been working on for nearly five years in Scotland at the distillery where Hendrick’s is made.

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Quinetum & gin cocktails fireside in Haas-Lilienthal House

With around 4,000 bottles produced, the cordial is only available at two dozen cocktail bars across the U.S. and is not for sale. When I asked Gracie if it eventually might be, she said it is possible but the objective right now is to have key bars and bartenders experiment and provide feedback before they decide on a second batch or broader distribution in the future. The personally-selected San Francisco bars carrying a limited amount of Quinetum quinine cordial are Trick Dog, 15Romolo, Prizefighter in Emeryville, Jaspers, Rickhouse, and Coqueta. If lucky enough, you just might be able to sample an experimental cocktail made with the cordial at one of these bars.

Charming, soft-spoken, witty Lesley Gracie

Charming, soft-spoken, witty Lesley Gracie

Quinetum adds subtle notes to the cocktails I tried that evening and am experimenting with at home, but I enjoy sipping it neat. At a low 4% ABV, it is easily quaffable. Like any cordial or liqueur, it is viscous with sugar yet bracingly tart and lively with a soft bitterness, keeping it from sweet overkill. Floral lavender and bright orange distillates come through. It’s also made with caraway seed, cubeb berries, wormwood, holy thistle, and the key ingredient of cinchona succirubra bark.

Gracie’s recipe was inspired by pioneering mathematician/chemist, Thomas Whiffen, who made great advances in the use of quinine in the 19th century, known for its curative powers, particularly in regards to malaria. Also of note: the lovely, angular Quinetum bottle is modeled after a 1940’s poison bottle found in an old London shop.

Craft London Gin Finally In the US

Stunning views from the 40th floor of the Mandarin Oriental for Sipsmith launch

Stunning views from the Mandarin Oriental’s 40th flr. for Sipsmith launch

Spending two weeks in London and Plymouth in 2011 exploring gin distilleries, cocktail bars and labs, restaurants and food markets, was one of my all time favorite trips. One of the distilleries I visited in London, Sipsmith, was the first small distillery to secure a license in 2009 to produce in London since Beefeater nearly 200 years before. They have changed the distilling landscape in London/England as numerous small distilleries have cropped up since.

Sipsmith G&Ts

Sipsmith G&Ts

In a neighborhood garage once the workspace of famed drinks writer Michael Jackson, Sipsmith’s intimate distillery reflects the best of the craft spirits movement: a place where passionate individuals create thoughtfully-made, delicious product on a small scale. They produce using the rare one-shot method with no neutral alcohol added (spring water is added post-distillation) in Prudence, their custom-designed copper pot alembic still. Making only 400 bottles at a time, each is hand-labeled. Sipsmith is about to move from their garage to a slightly bigger space around the block in Brackenbury Village near Hammersmith.

Of all the small-batch gins I tried in England that we could not get in the US, Sipsmith was my favorite. I’ve held on to bottles from my last trip and have tasted friends on it, waiting for the day it finally came to the US. That day came this September. Of the number of US cities it is now available in, it came first to San Francisco, and specifically the Mandarin Oriental’s Brasserie S&P gin-centric bar where it was available for over a week before its September release.

Jared Brown educates on Sipsmith gin

Jared Brown educates on Sipsmith gin

On the 40th floor of the Mandarin Oriental before breathtaking views of the Bay and America’s Cup races happening during our event, we took in a gorgeous, warm September day sipping Sipsmith neat, in a gin and tonic and a specially-made cocktail. Sipsmith Gin is bold, but also dry and clean, made with 10 botanicals: Macedonian juniper berries, Seville orange peel, Spanish lemon peel, Italian orris root, Spanish licorice root, Belgian angelica root, Madagascan cinnamon peel, Chinese cassia bark, Spanish ground almond, Bulgarian coriander seed. Sipsmith is $39.99 per bottle and distributed in the US exclusively by Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, CA.

It was lovely seeing Sipsmith founders again at the event: Sam Galsworthy (formerly in wine in Chile, then 10 years at Fuller’s London Pride), and Jared Brown, one half of the writing/cocktail/spirits husband/wife team, Mixellany (on the financial side, Fairfax Hall is the third founder).

You can now find Sipsmith at numerous bars around the US. Sipsmith also produces vodka and the best sloe gin I’ve ever had (less sweet and candied, more tart and bright), which hopefully will eventually be imported to the US.

GinventBONUS UK Export: Master of Malt’s Drinks by the Dram series is an excellent opportunity to order sample sizes of countless spirits, the best way to educate one’s palate and find new favorites. They offer many gin and genever samples and also a brilliant concept of a Ginvent (and a whisky) advent calendar with a sample size drink for each day of advent – a perfect holiday gift for the gin aficionado.

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Oct
15
2013

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First Belgian Genever Imported to the US

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Meeting lovely Véronique Van Acker-Beittel here in San Francisco in September, I learned fascinating things about genever (pronounced “jeh-NAY-ver”) that I was not aware of even after years of drinking and exploring the Dutch/Belgian spirit that is the predecessor to gin.

Genever BookAs a Belgian native (from East Flanders, specifically) who moved to the US in 2002 and married an American, Van Acker-Beittel eventually left Fortune 500 jobs to found Flemish Lion LLC, the first company in US history to import Belgian genever. The first brand she’s importing is a hand-selected, small producer, Diep 9 (pronounced “deep nine,” as it is made with nine botanicals), their recipes unchanged for import to US markets, which is unusual for the category.

She’s spent the ensuing years intensely researching genever history, leading to the recent release of her fascinating book, Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle. I love Bols’ genevers (and US genevers like Anchor Distilling’s Genevieve), but genever imports to the US are limited so there are few brands to choose from.

I tasted a range of genevers in Amsterdam this May when visiting with Bols (articles in upcoming newsletters). Though I also visited Belgium, there I focused on beer, with limited spirits on most menus. Veronique informed me of an important reason Holland is known for genever, while Belgium is not: Belgium faced a 66 year ban on the sale of hard liquor in bars from 1919 all the way until 1985, a prohibition Holland escaped, thus preserving their genever production and growth. While this opened the door for Belgian beer to thrive, it diminished Belgium’s genever influence, and to this day few associate Belgium with the spirit.

Diep 9 Genever - Virginia MillerThough there is no definitive proof as to who first created genever, Van Acker-Beittel notes that history can be traced back to 13th century Flanders (now in Belgium territory) where it was originally distilled from wine. During the phylloxera nightmare of the 16th century, grain began to be used instead, ushering in genever as we now know it, aka “malt wine” or moutwijn.

In her book, Van Acker-Beittel explores the first printed genever recipe from 1552, created in Antwerp. She delves into other fascinating facts: the higher ABV of many Belgian beers became commonplace to make up for the lack of spirits in bars; and most of the AOC’s (regions) producing genever are in Belgium, with some production in Germany and France. No AOC’s actually exist in Holland (as I learned in Holland, Bols is produced in other countries, though aged in its facility just outside of Amsterdam).

Her book offers sections outlining every style of genever (more than we are exposed to in the US), the origins of traditional genever jugs/bottles, and cocktail recipes grouped by style of genever.

Flemish Lion LLC imports two Diep 9 genevers: young (jonge) and old (oude), the big difference being that there is no corn in the mashbill as there is with Dutch genever. These small-production, Belgian genevers are softer, more subtle than Dutch genevers I’ve tasted. Young is floral, dry and laden with citrus notes, while my favorite, the old genever, is aged two years in French oak, still soft but complex with hints of ginger, citrus, even spice.

Though the 35% ABV of both genevers is light compared to the average 40%  or higher we’re used to in the US (35% is a common ABV for genevers in Holland), and thus could be lost in some cocktails, choosing the right recipes and partnering spirits can yield sophisticated cocktails.

Find cocktail recipes here or purchase here (Diep 9 is distributed in San Francisco through Waterloo Beverages).

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Jan
20
2013

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4 SPIRITS YOU DON’T KNOW… But Should

Article by Virginia Miller

CHRISTIAN DROUIN Pommeau de Normandie

Photo: Virginia Miller

If you love spirits and apples, then Calvados is your is your ideal imbibement. The elegant French version of apple brandy grown in the Calvados region of France, the apple brandy is often rounded out by pears, and in the case of Calvados Christian Drouin, one of the world’s best-selling small Calvados producers (around 150,000 bottles per year), they grow over 30 varieties of apples used to make their Calvados.

Recently spending a quiet morning over coffee and Calvados with the gracious Christian Drouin himself, I learned his father made Calvados as a hobby but never sold a bottle. Christian launched the company in the 1970’s, wisely growing the business in untapped Calvados markets like US, Asia and Russia, now working with his son, even publishing the first recipe books of Calvados cocktails.

Sipping aged beauties like a crisp 1992 vintage, a lively 1982, and a 1972 Calvados prove that fine Calvados is as pleasurable an experience as Cognac, Scotch, whiskey, and the like. On the affordable side, there’s much to excite. Pays d’Auge is light, floral, and popular with bartenders in elevated cocktails, while Blanche de Normandy is a fragrant, clear aperitif that doubled in sales in 2012.

However, I want to alert you to Pommeau de Normandie ($23): this bright spirit is a blend of Calvados and pre-fermented must, or essentially apple juices, made from 20 varieties of apple. It’s crisp, refreshing, a lush exploration of apples that tastes like fall and spring combined. The Christian Drouin line is distributed in the US by SF’s Anchor Distilling.

PALOMINO FINO

In Northern California, we’re ridiculously blessed with pioneers in every realm of drink. Whether beer, wine, or spirits, these few pioneered methods long before we saw them around the country. The earliest craft spirits were happening here decades past at St. George, Germain-Robin, Anchor Distilling. There’s another longtimer you might not recognize: Quady.

Quady Winery was launched by Andrew and Laurel Quady in 1975 in Madera, California (inland between Fresno and Modesto). They specialize in muscat dessert wines and ports, but are known in the cocktail world for Vya Vermouth (Whisper Dry, Extra Dry, Sweet), released in 1999 well before vermouth experienced its widespread resurgence.

The bottling you may not be familiar with is their lovely Palomino Fino ($29.99). Andrew says they modeled it after a traditional Spanish Amontillado sherry, which begins as fino sherry, the driest style. Using biodynamically grown Palomino grapes (the variety sherry is typically made from in Spain) and producing via the painstaking aging and blending Solera method, this elegant fino – we can’t call it sherry – tastes as if it were made in Spain: dry, nutty (think hazelnuts) and ideal after dinner.

ST. GEORGE FAULTLINE GIN

St. George already produces some of the best gins around. Then they go and taunt us with a limited release, this one being their second gin released through K&L’s hand-selected, independent bottlings: Faultline Gin ($34.99). They’re calling it “the 4th gin”, following after St. George’s line-up of three.

Think St. George’s vivacious use of botanicals with savory celery seed and roasted orange peels for a smoky, umami essence. It shines in a gin and tonic or a Bloody Mary… and there’s only 900 bottles produced. I can’t help but wish it was permanently the 4th gin.

DIDIER MEUZARD Ratafia de Bourgogne

Didier Meuzard has been producing gorgeous Burgundian eaux de vie and brandies (like marc brandy, France’s version of grappa) for decades – you’d do well trying any of them. But you just might fall in love with Ratafia de Bourgogne ($52), which you can order by the pour at The Alembic.

Ratafia is almost like a wine cordial, not unlike Christian Drouin’s Pommeau. Fresh grape must (not yet fermented) is added to brandy for a dynamic, lush pour. It’s a brandy simultaneously tart, light and sweet, stunning as an aperitif before dinner or as a midday sip.

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