Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Perfect for summer cocktails (or neat pours), here are two new spirits I’m rather crazy about.


AgricoleRumIt’s back! Sporting a new label aligned with their gins, St. George Spirits released its California Agricole Rum this week. Formerly Agua Libre (first released in 2010), it’s no surprise, given that agricole is my favorite rum category, that I take to the grassy, funky elegance of St. George’s agricole. Most notably from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, this style of rum (or rhum) is made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses, often notably earthy, vegetal and other flavor profiles I crave.

Keeping it local, St. George’s sugarcane is grown in SoCal’s Imperial Valley. Stalks are then pressed at their Alameda distillery in a sugarcane press, while the fresh-pressed cane juice is distilled (post-fermentation) in a 500-liter copper pot still.

Delight is not too keen a word to describe how I feel about seeing this rum back on the shelves and on bar menus. Lance Winters, Dave Smith and the incomparable St. George crew, prove that the refined umami funk of agricole needn’t merely come from the Caribbean. I’m proud to say this local agricole keeps up with quality Martinique rhums.

TAPATIO 110, $48

B110_Blanco110ProofTapatio tequilas are a pleasure (the bright and affordable blanco – $34, reposado – $38, and anejo – $44), distilled by the genuine Carlos Camarena of Mexico’s 75-year-old Tequila Tapatio and El Tesoro. Just released in the US? Possibly my favorite of the line: B110 Tequila Blanco (55% alc. by vol.), averaging 114 proof.

At 110 proof, it is less watered down, more intense than the basic blanco, yet does not feel “hot” or out of balance. Floral, spice notes, even hints of tea and earth, shine more vividly in the smooth B110. Distilled at La Alteña Distillery (alongside El Tesoro, Tequila Ocho, Charbay Tequila – the latter of which should be re-released later this year), Tapatio’s blue agave plants are 100% estate-grown. In conversation with renowned tequila experts, I’ve learned Carlos is the last producer left in Jalisco to own and source all plants from their estate rather than purchasing plants from growers. Carlos’ grandfather, Don Felipe, opened the distillery in 1937 in in the Arandas Highlands, although tequila distilling goes back in his family into the early 1800’s.

Ukiah Sour # 3

Ukiah Sour # 3

Distilled first in a stainless steel Alambique still, with a second run through a copper Alambique, then aged for 6 months in stainless steel, B110 is certainly a tequila-lovers’ tequila. It ups the ante in flavor for any classic tequila cocktail, from a Margarita to a Paloma.

In downtown Napa, Mercantile Social bar in the lobby of the Andaz hotel features local, craft spirits, including one of the best ways to try Tapatio (ask them to “perk it up” with B110 or enjoy with the standard Tapatio blanco): the Ukiah Sour #3, mixing Tapatio blanco with bay leaf syrup, lime and Tempus Fugit’s earthy, lush Crème de Cacao.

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NEW SPIRITS: Rum & Vermouth

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Here are a couple noteworthy products that crossed my desk in recent weeks…

MOUNT GAY BLACK BARREL RUM, $29.99 Mount-Gay-Black-Barrel-Rum
Barbados favorite, Mount Gay Rum, recently released Black Barrel Rum, a rum finished in charred bourbon oak casks.

For American whiskey lovers like myself, it makes for a fine marriage of bourbon and rum, balancing caramel-vanilla-sweet notes from sugar cane molasses and wood with subtle hints of pepper and spice. Barbados’ acclaimed water, naturally filtered through coral layers, is said to contribute to the smooth taste of the rum.

Its subtle elegance especially works given the value. It can double as a sipping rum and elevates cocktails, like a simple mix of Black Barrel, lime juice and St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.

ATSBY VERMOUTH, $44 each armadillo
is a newer artisanal vermouth out of Upstate NY. Atsby’s two, non-traditional vermouths are best enjoyed on their own.

Atsby Amberthorn is the lighter of the two, fresh and sweet with botanicals like French lavender, basil, Chinese anise, which intrigue though none dominate. It’s soft so a squeeze of lemon brightens it up.

Atsby Armadillo Cake (yes, there’s a story behind the name) makes a bit more of a statement with a dark caramel sweetness (from Indian Muscovado sugar) and complexity from cardamom and unusual botanicals like wild celery and Japanese shitake.

There’s little bitterness to either vermouths so they should both be approachable to a wide range of drinker. Though soft, they stand strong solo, but I have a harder time mixing them in cocktails as the unique botanical profiles of both aren’t an easy replacement in classic recipes. There’s a number of recipes on the website, though it’s the simpler ones that work better, like a twist on a classic Martinez using Bols Genever, the Armadillo vermouth, Maraschino Liquor, and Angostura bitters garnished with an orange peel strip.

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Article by Virginia Miller

Ringing in the new year is all about celebratory imbibing, but the sometimes dreary days of January likewise call for a cheering pour. It’s a month of planning towards a new year, reaching out for fresh horizons… good reasons to have something quality in the glass, whatever the category. Here are a few worthy bottles, from sake, wine, whisky, even cocktail bitters.


Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters (photo source: www.brooklynbitters.com)

Medicinal and mixable, the glut of bitters released the last few years had  oversaturation has been achieved. But Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters ($21 per bottle) stands out in recent years. Made in Brooklyn, the focus is on seasonal flavors like popular Meyer lemon, rhubarb or Sriracha. Heat radiates from their savory-sweet blackberry mole or spicy charred pineapple bitters, or a brisk, bitter chill from Icelandic bitters. These are some of the more inventive, elegant bitters on the market.

A couple additional stand-out bitter flavors: The Bitter End’s vibrant curry bitters ($24) made in Sante Fe and put to perfect use by  Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago in his Short Circuit cocktail with cachaca, manzanilla sherry and Kalani coconut liqueur. From Canada, Bittered Sling’s plum root beer evokes a sweet sarsaparilla.


Nikka Whisky is blessedly and finally distributed in the US through San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling, just releasing two new Nikka imports – hopefully many more to come. My favorite of the two, Yoichi Single Malt ($129), is a splurge-worthy, 15 year old whisky distilled on the island of Hokkaido from pot stills heated with finely powdered natural coal, a rare traditional method. Though more akin to a Highland-style Scotch, it nods to Islay with a hint of peat alongside a balanced brightness. On the more affordable side is Taketsuru Pure Malt ($69.99): a 12 year pure malt whisky blended in vats from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The mountain air and river water humidity of the northern Honshu region where Miyagikyo is produced adds silky, ripe pear dimensions.

This November’s Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza in San Francisco (held in 13 major markets), offered tastings of expected Scotches. A few special drams were the fabulous Scotch Malt Whisky Society‘s 8 year Ardbeg Cask No. 33.113, a salty, smoky Scotch young with exotic fruit. The Single Malts’ Auchriosk 20 year Scotch exhibits tropical vividness, though a classic beauty. It was a joy to taste The Balvenie Tun 1401/Batch #6, the youngest whisky in its blend being over 20 yrs old. This rarity expresses layers of fruit, vanilla and spice, lively despite age.


Sake produced in a town outside Portland? SakeOne is a range of affordable sakes (those mentioned below $13-15)  made from rice grown nearby in Sacramento, CA. There’s Momokawa organic sakes, like a clean Junmai Ginjo or creamy Pearl Sake redolent of banana and coconut, or the smooth, balanced G Joy Sake.


Despite low quality bottled sangria you may have tried before, Eppa (found at Bay Area Whole Foods and numerous shops across the country, $12 a bottle) is a refreshing mix of pomegranate, acai, blueberry and blood orange juices with Mendocino Cabernet and Syrah. Trying it chilled over fresh cut fruit this holiday season with family, it tastes homemade,  lush and dark, not too sweet, but just right.

Indy Spirits

It was the best year yet at the San Francisco Indy Spirits Expo last month. A number of newcomers merely await West Coast distribution but are available online. With a slew of “craft” tonics released lately, each using real cinchona bark (quinine) without the natural color removed, Tomr’s Tonic is one of the better I’ve tasted. 100% organic and made in New Jersey, Tom Richter’s lively tonic combines citrus, herbs, cane sugar, with cinchona. The tonic mixes beautifully with a number of gins I sampled it with at home.

Fabrizia Limoncello is produced in New Hampshire with California and South American citrus by two Italian-American brothers. Balanced, fresh, tart (unlike their sweet Blood Orange liqueur), this limoncello is a step up from most. SW4 London Dry Gin, produced in the Clapham neighborhood of London and imported through Luxe Vintages in Florida, is a smooth, solid gin made from 12 botanicals, including lemon peel and cassia.


Craving the sparkling especially at this time of year, two great value bottles ($15 each) are Nino Franco’s Rustico Prosecco, dry yet lively, clean and tight, and Coppo’s Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont, Italy, its vivd effervescence cutting through intense sweetness, vibrant with brunch or spicy food. For after-dinner dessert wine, Donnafugata’s “Ben Rye” ($45 for half bottle) from Sicily, gives off a rich, raisin-like hue in the glass, made of Zibibbo grapes from the island of Pantelleria. To taste it’s lushly elegant, with a balanced sweetness and nuttiness.

At an industry tasting this fall with Sommelier David Lynch at his restaurant St. Vincent, we explored wines of the fascinating, warm-weather Consorzio Tutela Morellino Di Scansano region of southernmost Tuscany (established as a D.O.C.G. in 2007). I learned the region requires its wines be made with a minimum of 85% Sangiovese grapes. A 2010 Tenuta Pietramora di Collefagiano stood out, unusual at 100% Sangiovese. Its pleasantly funky nose gave way to cherry, even chocolate/earthy notes, balanced by soft acidity.

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10 Best Spirits Releases of 2012

Article by Virginia Miller, Press photos/from brand websites

Each year holds a range of interesting spirits released from around the globe. As the craft spirit industry continues to explode, there are many exciting newcomers this year. Here are some of the best of what’s crossed my desk in 2012.

FORD’s GIN ($27) –  The 86 Company is a new venture from spirits and cocktail world stars Simon Ford (former International Brand Ambassador for Plymouth Gin), Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric (owners of New York’s Employees Only bar, authors of Speakeasy). Just last month, they released Caña Brava Rum (a Panama rum, aged 3 years), Aylesbury Duck Vodka, and Ford’s Gin. It’s the gin I’ve been mixing with at home in every kind of cocktail from a basic gin and tonic to complex Ramos Gin Fizz. The gin’s bright citrus-juniper properties shine in each – and the price is right. Master Distiller Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers, worked with Ford to develop Fords Gin, made with nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, cassia, jasmine, bitter orange, grapefruit peel. A nice, local connection (and environmental plus): distilled gin is shipped in bulk to and bottled by our own Charbay in Napa, cut with fresh Mendocino County water.

HIGH WEST CAMPIRE WHISKEY ($54) – Though I’ve been partial to Balcones Brimstone when it comes to a wild and wooly American smoked whiskey (in Balcones’ case, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak), High West’s new Campfire continues in that rugged vein,  smoky with Old West charm. Bourbon, rye and smoky single malt are blended together in a spicy, woody, sweet, floral whole that makes me crave BBQ.

IMBUE PETAL & THORN Vermouth ($27) - From Portland and the creators of bittersweet vermouth Imbue (Derek Einberger, Neil Kopplin, and Jennifer Kilfoil), Imbue’s Petal & Thorn is a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol – a truly unique elixir that’s lovely with soda on the rocks, in twists on classic cocktails like the Negroni, and on its own.

TEMPUS FUGIT KINA L’AVION D’OR ($35) – Fresh off the heels of their unparalleled Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao last year, Tempus Fugit does it again with Kina L’Avion D’or. Reminiscent of Lillet and Cocchi Americano but with a more intense flavor punch and elegant bitter quotient, it’s made from a hundred year old recipe from a Swiss distillery… a shining beauty in the quinquina family of aperitifs, distinct with quinine bite.

1512 SPIRITS Poitín ($39) – Poitín is a rare Irish spirit made in this case from potatoes and barley (the word poteen refers to small pot stills in which the liquor is historically made). Clear, bold and light, it evokes cucumber and Summer, with the spirit of an eau de vie and robustness of a white whiskey. There’s nothing quite like it.

WAHAKA MADRE CUISHE MEZCAL ($80) – New to the US this year, Wahaka Mezcals are solid across the line, from an affordable Espadin Joven ($30) to an award winning Tobala ($80). I especially appreciate the earthier Madre Cuishe ($80), made from the wild agave plant of the same name, evoking fresh earth, cigar ash, citrus even fresh, green vegetables. If you get a taste of their Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125), it’s blissfully like sucking on a stone, intensely earthy, fascinating – for the mezcal aficionado.

CHATEAU de LAUBADE BLANCE ARMAGNAC ($55) – From a Gascon, family-run Armagnac house established in 1870, this clear, refined Armagnac has more in common with an elegant grappa or pisco than beautifully rough and ready Armagnacs. Airy yet substantial with pear and floral notes, the lack of color is due to it being an unaged Armagnac. The purity of the base, made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes, shines. Consider it the cleaner, lighter side of brandy.

LEOPOLD BROTHERS FERNET ($35) – First tasting Leopold Brothers’ Fernet straight from the vat as it was fermenting when I visited their family-run Denver distillery in Sept. 2011, its release this year yielded a lighter, layered fernet-style amaro, where ginger, mint, cacao and floral notes peek out alongside the menthol bitterness Fernet is known for – the brothers (Todd and Scott) added sarsparilla root and molasses for a distinctly American touch.

GLENFIDDICH MASTER MALT Edition ($90)This limited-edition whisky was released in September from the classic distillery, one of only four in Scotland still owned and run by the same family since the 1800′s. At 18,000 bottles, it’s small production for Glenfiddich, celebrating their 125th anniversary. Malt Master Brian Kinsman crafted this double-matured whisky, which spent roughly 6 to 8 years in used Bourbon barrels, then 4 to 6 years in sherry casks. Sherry characteristics hit first but don’t overpower, with accompanying brine and spice.

FOUR ROSES 2012 Limited Edition SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($90)  – A bracing bourbon at 100-114 proof, depending on the barrel, with only 3600 bottles released, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has personally selected these uncut, unfiltered 12 year bourbon barrels for special release this year, among the more noteworthy whiskey tastes of 2012.




A Better Tomorrow (L) & Vicious Circle (R)

PROSPECT, SoMa – In the midst of 3.5 star reviews and consistent accolades, Prospect moves forward in its early opening months shining. My first take on it was strong and repeat visits only confirm. This place is the whole package (see Top Tastes for food, below for wine).

Enter more supreme cocktails from Brooke Arthur and crew. On the regular menu, complexity rolled over my taste buds with A Better Tomorrow ($11.50), Danny Louie’s recipe of Encanto Pisco, Gran Classico, Broadbent Malmsey Madeira, Regan’s Orange Bitters. Starting out sweet, lush and bitter, it unfolds with earthy nuttiness, an herbal, raisin-sweet finish. This cocktail exhibits ingenuity and classic principles. And I appreciate the film name.

Jimmie Roosevelt for Cocktail Week

Vicious Circle ($11) continues the cinematic and literary references – in taste it’s a light presentation of Old Overholt Rye, ideal on a hot day (which we’ve been having quite a few of recently), enlivened with Zirbenz stone pine liqueur, Drambuie, pineapple gum syrup and lemon.

SF Cocktail Week was appropriately celebrated here with two boozy beauties, particularly Jimmie Roosevelt ($12), a Charles Baker classic. Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru de Cognac is poured over an Angostura-soaked sugar cube and chunks of ice, mixed with green chartreuse, topped with a prosecco float. Similar to A Better Tomorrow, this cocktail develops with spicy, herbal tones, gaining sweetness as the sugar cube dissolves.

Expect refinement, as well as refreshment, in Prospect’s cocktails.

Glories of GRAPPA

Poli Grappa tasting

I have visited Luce a number of times since its opening, pleased with Dominique Crenn’s food and with their Bar 888’s one-of-a-kind grappa selection. At a recent visit, assistant restaurant manager Kiet Le, selected a flight of Poli grappas for me, inspired by their Rustic Grappa Flight ($14), which I have also tried: S. Cristina Grappa di Lugana, Nardini Aquavite (aged, hot), Luxardo Euganea (harsh but pleasing), Le’s Poli choices were all smoother, more nuanced than the still enjoyable rustic three.

Rustic Grappa Flight

Out of the three, I was most wowed by Poli’s Moscato brandy, a traditional-style grappa in a long, graceful bottle inspired by a woman’s neck – even draped with a necklace. It’s a clean, clear eau de vie: aromatic, dry, yet floral and lush with whispers of vanilla.

Sarpa Riserva is another beauty, aged in Slovenian oak, golden, floral and redolent of juniper berry. Poli Miele Honey Liqueur was my least favorite due to its heavier sweetness, but it’s a fine intro to grappa for beginners who normally find it too harsh. It’s lightly cloudy to the eye, green and herbal to the taste, honey sweet.

BOURBON with Four Roses’ Jim Rutledge

Lunch w/ Jim Rutledge

Even as I find it a thrill to taste the best in any genre (spirit, wine, beer), my taste buds are most in love with American whiskey: bourbon and rye somehow comfort and please me like nothing else. So I jumped at the chance for an intimate lunch at Zero Zero with Four Roses distiller, Jim Rutledge. A romantic bourbon with a history and name based on a Southern belle’s response to the founder’s proposal of marriage in the late 1800’s, Four Roses is a crowd-pleaser with it’s classic yellow bourbon, ideal for cocktails (which was also the country’s #1 selling bourbon post-Prohibition).

Four Roses tasting

All bourbons in their line are made with a mix of corn, rye and barley grains (read about their unusual process of 10 distinct recipes here). Their 90 proof Small Batch hits the nose with rye, vanilla and fruit, while it tastes of spice, brown sugar and a rich rye. This one is a smooth sipper that could convert those who think bourbon is too strong. My favorite is the Single Barrel, surprisingly smooth for a bracing 100 proof, yet subtle and restrained on the nose. I detected hints of vanilla, honey, even pine there, but to the taste it was spicy, with notes of cherry and maple.

VODKA: Borje Karlsson of Karlsson’s Gold

Borje Karlsson

You may have heard my thoughts on vodka, usually my least favorite spirit. I have tasted Karlsson’s Gold Vodka before, appreciating it’s earthy potato complexity. I had a recent Burritt Room lunch with its master blender, Börje Karlsson, who was also behind Absolut years ago, a soft-spoken vodka craftsman.

Karlsson’s Gold is made from seven varieties of virgin potatoes grown on Cape Bjäre in Sweden on family farms. Unlike a lot of vodka companies who brag about how many times their vodka is distilled, which is actually no bragging point since it means (one of my main issues with vodka) all flavor has been distilled out of it, Karlsson’s appropriately distills their vodka once. As they discussed during lunch, if you use an expensive raw material like virgin potatoes instead of significantly cheaper wheat, why would you distill the flavor out?

Karlsson’s Gold (photo source: Karlsson’s website)

Using 18 lbs. of potatoes per bottle (!), they blend the varieties for greatest balance and consistency. Lest one think all potatoes are created equal, we had the opportunity to sip a variety of their vodkas in varying forms, from three made of the same potato but different vintages, to two different potatoes and vintages. The range of tastes is surprising: some sweet and creamy, others fiery and complex, like my favorite, 2004 Frieslander.

The final product encompasses a mix of the various vodkas we tasted, ideal served as “Black Gold”, or rather, on the rocks with their own black pepper freshly ground on top. On a hot day, it was refreshing, peppery, bracing, with notes of citrus. Once again, there are exceptions to every rule.


Wine tasting at B3

B3, Mission – Besides the food at my last B3 visit (see Top Tastes), I sipped Forlorn Hope’s new wine: 2008 Ost-Intirgen. Forlorn Hope is a favorite discovery through B3 – try any of their wines. This visit, I was taken with Fort Ross’ 2006 Pinotage’s gentle blackberry earthiness balanced with hints of black tea and vanilla. It improved with burgers. Another stand-out is two from Lee Family Farm in Lodi: a 2008 Rio Tinto (56% Touriga Francesa, 24% Alvarelhao, 13% Touriga Nacional, 7% Tinta Roriz grapes), which marries berries to nutmeg and cardamom with enough acidity to make it food-friendly. Their 2008 Grenache is Monterey-grown with jasmine and berries on the palate.

PROSPECT, SoMa -Wine director Amy Currens knows her wines. When it came to a recent meal at Prospect, her by-the-glass recommendations started off strong with an off-dry Egon Muller Scharzhof Estate 2008 Riesling ($11), reaching a higher pinnacle with 2006 Bruno Colin Charmois Saint-Aubin Chardonnay: bright acidity with the lushness of caramelized apple.

JAQK’s Pearl Handle Chard (photo source: JAQK website)

JAQK CELLARS – A brick building in the architectural richness of the Jackson Square area (between North Beach and the Financial District) is home to JAQK Cellars‘ lovely offices, complete with rooftop deck in the shadow of the Transamerica Building (you can host private wine and food tastings here with 8-12 people at a mere $25 per person). I was impressed with the down-to-earth staff and winemaker, Craig Maclean, of JAQK Cellars. As much as I like the striking, irreverent labeling of their bottles with a speakeasy gambler’s feel, it can give the impression of being gimmicky.

JAQK’s 22 Black (photo source: JAQK website)

They brought it up first, saying restaurant owners and wine buyers often see them coming and turn the other way… until they taste the wines, which are selling out on many of the wine lists where they’re featured. They spoke frankly about California wines compared to old world, European styles, and the pressure to cater to Parker, which they refuse to do (though Maclean has won Parker accolades in the past, he sees right through the hype of awards and points).

JAQK’s rooftop deck view

These wines are California wines and thus bigger than many European wines with higher ABV, though not outrageous (hovering around 14% for some of the reds). Among the whites, 2008 Pearl Handle Chardonnay was the stand-out. Higher-priced at $36, it’s toasty oak, spiced pear and vanilla notes open up with surprising acidity as it aerates. Their 2008 Charmed Sauvignon Blanc ($19) grew on me with each consecutive taste, crisp with mineral citrus and vanilla. 2007 Napa Valley “High Roller” Cabernet ($67) is JAQK’s flagship wine, meant to age, rich with tannins, oak and acidity. Not commonly a Merlot drinker (there are some fine ones, of course), I’d almost go for the 2007 “Bone Dance” Merlot first, both for value ($25) and round, black cherry earthiness.

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ROSE PISTOLA, North Beach - Lovely bar manager Aurora Siegel maintains a fine cocktail menu at Rose Pistola that could be easy to miss in North Beach’s tourist bustle. Finely-wrought takes on classics like Rose’s Manhattan ($10 – Bulleit Bourbon, sweet vermouth, bitters, Amarena cherry juice, essence of orange) mingle with bright refreshers like The Q ($11 – Hendrick’s Gin, muddled cucumber, house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, salted cucumber slice).

Rose Pistola (photo source: www.rosepistolasf.com)

Bella Bolle ($10) is an ideal pre-dinner or warm night imbibement with Encanto Pisco, seasonal fruit (in my recent visit, strawberries), fresh lemon juice, house elderflower syrup, topped with a prosecco float. Siegel skillfully whipped up cocktails on the spot based on my friend’s request and I sampled her cocktail for next week’s SF Cocktail Week, utilizing Encanto Pisco with fall-like spices. Sit at the bar with appetizers or specials like steaming mussels or a dreamy flatbread covered in prosciutto, Mission figs, creamy stracchino cheese, drizzled in white truffle oil, and one feels transported to a European bar.

FAIR SPIRITS - It was exciting to witness the first certified fair-trade spirits released at a Burritt Room private party on 7/31. FAIR, a France-based company, has created a vodka, a Goji Berry Liqueur, and a coffee liqueur… all fair trade.

FAIR cocktails at Burritt Room

I am partial to the quinoa-based vodka and FAIR.Cafe Liqueur myself. I am likewise inspired by the years of work to certify ingredients used in these spirits, a truly pioneering effort. They have a rum and tequila in the works but there is little in the way of fair trade agave or sugar so the hurdles are many. Co-founder Alexandre Koiransky flew out from France for the release of FAIR in the US cities it’s currently available: NY, LA, Chicago and SF.

The night turned into a “crawl” at three superb bars, Cantina, Rickhouse, and Gitane, where bartenders invented their own  FAIR cocktail creations. There were highlights at each bar, not the least of which was the (intentionally) ridiculously named Cartoons Can Be Midgets at Burritt Room, boozy and bright with FAIR vodka, Cynar, chipotle tincture, and peach bitters, in a Chartreuse-rinsed glass, garnished with orange peel.

As  we were admonished that night, “We can now vote with our dollars at the bar…” by ordering fair trade.

9/13 HARLEM SHOT COMPETITION at Tasting Panel’s Tour -

Germana Heritage Cachaca

Tasting Panel hosted a tasting of the Double Gold winners of 2010’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition and International Wine Competition at  Hotel Monaco Monday. Highlights included 2009 Germana Heritage Cachaca, Vizcaya VXOP Solera Rum, El Jimador Anejo Tequila, Jules Taylor’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, and Lynmar’s 2007 Russian River Chardonnay.

HARLEM Liqueur

But the most fun portion of the afternoon was HARLEM’s shot competition where 11 SF bartenders concocted creative shots using HARLEM liqueur. Besides the two below, I also was taken with the spirituous balance of Brian MacGregor’s Shot of Courage (HARLEM, Yellow Chartreuse, Bols Genever, lemon) and Sierra Zimei’s (of Four Seasons’ Seasons Bar) bright Cherry Poppins (HARLEM, unsweetened cherry juice, homemade cinnamon/vanilla bitters, egg white).

The winning drinks were…

Judges choice: Carlo Splendorini from gitane’s SAN FRANCISCO LATE SUMMER NIGHT
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz mission fig reduction
Muddled lemon thyme
Candied fig for garnish

Combine all ingredients excluding garnish into a shaker, muddle lemon thyme, shake for 5 seconds. Fine strain into chilled shot glass and garnish with candied mission figs.

Fan favorite: David Ruiz from Mr. Smith’s HARLEM MARMALADE
3/4 oz lemon juice
1 bar spoon homemade triple citrus orange marmalade

Combine HARLEM, fresh lemon juice, jam and ice in shaker. Shake hard to break down jam. Double strain and pour into a shot glass.

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SPOONBAR, Healdsburg - I wrote last issue about Spoonbar in Sonoma County. It’s up to you get out there… and fast… for some of the best cocktails in all of the Bay Area (no surprise) from Mr. Scott Beattie.

Tempus Fugit Negroni (L) & Siddartha (R), two magical cocktails

Ask for the full cocktail menu beyond the one you get when first seated. It’s a glory of new creations, featuring edible flowers and the herbal, produce-driven beauties Beattie has perfected since Cyrus days. There’s the added bonus of classics done with a Beattie sensibility. I get giddy at the site of three versions each of Old-Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans and Sazeracs, the holy foursome of cocktails.

I chose the Tempus Fugit Negroni ($8.50). How could I not? Made with Ransom’s impeccable Old Tom Gin, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, orange zest and Tempus Fugit‘s brilliant Gran Classico Bitter, it’s a musky, full revelation.

More beauties: Dark & Stormy (L), John Chapman (R)

On the classics front, Beattie’s Dark ‘n Stormy trumps all others. There’s an Appleton Reserve version for $7.50 (or pitcher for five at $37.50). I had the Ron Zacapa Solera 23 (a rum I’ve long been a fan of) version for $9/$45. With fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters, Beattie adds drops of essential ginger oil for a pure, full taste. Locally grown sunflower leaves are a vivid garnish.

Going the creative Beattie route is equally thrilling. John Chapman ($10.5) is a taste of fall. When you mix St. George Whiskey and Pear Eau de Vie with lemon, apple, ginger and a Thai coconut foam, you get magic. Ditto, on the other side of the spectrum, with the Summery  Siddartha ($9.5). This one utilizes Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka with Beefeater Gin, St. Germain Elderflower, lemon, Thai coconut milk and lemon verbena. It’s silky, seductively bright and garden fresh.

Trust a drink from Beattie and try the spectrum. I am plotting a return…

Bar Agricole's striking patio

BAR AGRICOLE, SoMa - I’ve been asked about my take on the new and long awaited hotspot from Thad Vogler. Though I tried three cocktails and bites at a pre-opening event for Bar Agricole, I did not walk away with enough of a stand-out yet to give you a proper report, though I’m sure one will be forthcoming.

Spaghetti Western at 15 Romolo

I will say the space is strikingly unique, welcome in our city of understated dining rooms. It’s forward-thinking and fresh, from the photography behind the bar, to radiant light fixtures, to the awesome front garden and patio.

15 ROMOLO, North Beach - I’m always happy here… you hear me say it enough. The 15 Romolo guys do it again with two divergent cocktails. One is Spaghetti Western ($9), it’s cool name belying the crazy candy taste that happens when rye and Campari meld with sweet tomatoes (love the plump tomato garnish), lemon and a Pilsner float. The other, the spirituous bitter of Lo Scandinavo ($11) with North Shore aquavit, Gran Classico, Carpano Antica… a Scandinavian approach to a Negroni.

Lavender beauty at Revival

TAMARINDO ANTJOERIA’s MIEL BAR and REVIVAL BAR & KITCHEN, Oakland and Berkeley - And in the East Bay, Tamarindo Antojeria opened a tequila bar, Miel, in half of their restaurant, a chic, shining temple of all things tequila. Besides a fine selection of tequilas by the pour, cocktails like the Mezcalito ($12) highlight Del Maguey’s Creme de Mezcal with a little fresh orange and volcanic salt rim. They do a nice job on their margaritas and Paloma, too.

Revival Bar & Kitchen is a welcome cocktail stop in downtown Berkeley, even if the menu (food and drink) is similar to many you’ve seen in SF in recent years. They do classics, like Death in the Afternoon, Bourbon Crusta and Jalisco Sour, but also whip up specials of their bartender’s doing, fresh with the likes of lavender, lemon and egg white.


Reza Esmaili pours Rosebud

This is a layered, aromatic aperitivo created by Reza for SF Chefs and one of my favorite drinks of the week. He was gracious enough to share the recipe…

1oz vodka
.5oz Hendrick’s gin
1oz Lillet Blanc
.5oz Aperol
3 drops rosewater
1 “Russia Rose” or mini, dry rose used for asian teas

-stir ingredients for approx 10 seconds
-strain into two sherry or port glasses
-garnish with rose
serves two


MINISTRY OF RUM – Another year of Ministry of Rum, a fine rum tasting event put on by rum expert (and a downright great guy), Ed Hamilton (read about last year’s here).

Black Tot sits in its wood box

Many of last year’s same vendors were there at Waterfront Hotel/Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Jack London Square. Bartending greats shook cocktails as we sipped through various rums.

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva stands out with a caramelized, spiced nose and buttery spice and tobacco flavors. Cruzan’s smooth Single Barrel Rum is an easy after-dinner sip: a light but mature, pleasing rum at the right price (retails from $27-35 online).

Despite the greater aged 8 and 12 year El Dorado rums, I prefer the 5 year cask-aged version. It’s medium-bodied, lively and redolent of the tropics with toasted coconut and fruit notes.

Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva

Each time I’ve tasted them, I enjoy honey and dark chocolates notes in Santa Teresa 1796, aged in Solera oak barrels, and Flor de Cana’s rich, charred oak and dark caramel-tinged Centenario 18 year.

Black Tot Rum was the big hoopla of the afternoon, a 40-year rum doled out in dropper-sized tastes. From the little I could gather, it was nuanced though hardly revelatory, especially compared to whiskies of similar age. Though I find some younger rums more exciting, Black Tot was nonetheless an excellent slice of history and a worthy sip.

When it comes to rum, I can’t help but return to Zacapa rums as favorites, both the Centenario and the XO.

Here’s to next year, and thanks, Ed, for ever furthering our knowledge and showing us the scope of rum.

HEAVEN HILLHeaven Hill has an enviable line-up including some of my favorite bourbons in existence. I jumped at a chance to stop in at 83 Proof on my way to judging a whisky contest to sip one of my top bourbons (another being Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year): Parker’s Heritage.

Heaven Hill tasting at 83 Proof

I fell in love after first trying their anniversary edition at Whiskyfest. Tasting Parker’s 27 year again is fabulous every time. Sip their Golden Anniversary edition and you’ve died and gone to bourbon heaven.

I adore rye, and Rittenhouse 25-year Rye is surely a fine one, but I’m not sure I gained much more from the added years. When it comes to aged rye, my love still lies with Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-yr Rye, which is, tragically, very hard to come by.

Agua Libre Rum

ST. GEORGE’s AGUA LIBRE - Don’t even get me started on how much I love St. George Spirits. I’ve been a fan for years, from my rush to purchase their incomparable Absinthe Verte upon release, to the loss of my last bottle of Agua Azul Reposado until they make a tequila again in the future, I’ve been proud to have them in the Bay Area. Tours, release parties, any event at the distillery is memorable.

St. George private bar upstairs

I won’t go into the joys and secrets of a private tour from distiller Dave Smith last week, replete with tastes, whiffs and ecstasies from bottles, test tubes and barrels of unreleased products. Experimentation is alive and well at St. George/Hangar One and it thrills me to witness it.

In the meantime, there’s two brand new releases to enjoy. The first US rum agricole grown from US sugarcane, Agua Libre comes in two forms: dark, aged rum and white, unaged, both grassy and smooth. Also, the second batch of Firelit Coffee Liqueur was just released with dark chocolate notes from the Blue Bottle beans.

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Wandering Traveler

The Latest in Cocktails in NEW YORK CITY

My May New York adventures brought me to some of the city’s newer treasures I’ve been desiring to partake in… a couple of them literally just opened weeks before, others open about a year.

Brand new

Cienfuegos' Havana-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland interior

CIENFUEGOS (upstairs through Carteles sandwich shop), East Village – Open barely a month when I visited, this intriguing new rum bar is through a Cuban sandwich shop just a couple doors down from Death & Co. (and same owners).

A rum-centric bar with punch bowls, varying sizes of cocktails and rum shots, what immediately converts here, after a walk through the humble sandwich shop and up a set of stairs, is the magical wonderland interior. I’m not a pink girl, in fact it is my most loathed color, only palatable when paired with something to give it heft, like black or brown. But here, pink entices, teases, even charms. There’s yellows, soft greens, white, a pastel profile I would normally hate, but here becomes a glowing explosion of color.

Cienfuegos rum drinks: Rosa Verde (L), Vesperone (R)

It plays like old world Havana meets Alice in Wonderland. You have fallen down a candyland rabbit hole and awaiting you are vibrantly fresh cocktails and bowls of rum punch, served in both the restaurant (will have to try next time) and bar area.

I adore their little cardboard-bound menu with old-fashioned drawings and a mix of classics, punches and modern creations. Initial intrigues? The Vesperone ($15) wowed by mixing Zacapa rum with rye whiskey, Green Chartreuse, agave nectar, blackberries and sage leaves. Musky and bright. Rosa Verde ($14) is a salad in a cocktail. I slurped down arugula leaves from a bright, pink glass of Flor de Cana rum, watermelon juice, celery bitters, lime, arugula-infused simple syrup and pink peppercorn.

LA BIBLIOTECA, East 40’s/Midtown East - Again, this just opened a couple weeks before I arrived in the basement of a new restaurant, Zengo. I’d go to Mayahuel (below) for the best tequila cocktails in NY and a hip, festive atmosphere, but La Bibilioteca offers tastings of over 400 tequilas, NY’s biggest selection yet, in an expansive underground lair.

La Biblioteca - Manhattan's tequila library

La Bibilioteca is a tequila storage library (similar to, but larger than, SF’s Taverna Aventine) in a subterranean lounge where you are leisurely educated with tequila flights or your server’s suggested tastings. The night I visited, a tequila brand ambassador was giving a tasting, offering further opportunities to educate New Yorkers, who, it was apparent, have barely scratched the surface of the tequila world.

Tequila tastings & shots of sangrita

Thankfully, this place is attempting to narrow that gap. Servers are still in the process of beginning to try all they offer, so you may  want to do some research ahead of time and go ready to ask for tequilas you would like to taste (for example, I noticed the Del Maguey line sitting in one cabinet – a fine place to start for mezcals).

Inside the enchanting world of East Village's Cienfuegos

But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Their servers are friendly and willing to offer guidance, while the menu offers flights with varying themes. I appreciate the Barrel Aging Tasting ($16) theme, three tequilas aged in different barrels: Don Julio Reposado, the best of the three and one I’m already a fan of (bourbon barrel), Riazul Anejo, with vanilla and caramel notes (cognac barrel), and the interesting, but not necessarily winning, Asombroso Reposado (wine barrel). There’s Anejo flights (mine had Don Julio, Casa Noble, Patron), brand flights where you try reposados through extra anjeos of one particular brand, and so on.

I sipped palate-cleansing shots of their bright tomato sangrita, and best of all, their house Horchata Blanco using Jose Cuervo traditional. Creamy and lush.

Sink back into black couches lining the large room (with touches of red), order guacamole and chips, and get schooled on tequila, New York.

2009 Openings

Raines' brick walls & leather chairs

RAINES LAW ROOM, Flatiron – Opened in early 2009, there is a whiff of pretension when one locates  an unmarked door and hipster doorman (a new guy on his first day). But there is no pretension within. In fact, this is now one of my favorite bars in NY.

The bartenders and staff are relaxed, knowledgeable, willing to explain stories and ingredients behind their recipes. Linger in the brick-walled, elegant main room, on black leather couches, cozy chairs next to the fireplace, pulling little wall buzzers  signaling you are ready to order. This is an elegant, Prohibition-era den evoking a wealthy but approachable friend’s living room.

Alice's Evidence (L); Harold & Maude (R)

Head back to The Kitchen where, under pressed tin ceiling and atop a marble butcher block countertop, mixologists concoct drinks as you interact with them.

Most enchanting is the back garden, where herbs used in their drinks are grown. On a warm May evening, candles flickered in Moroccan lamps, lounge chairs inviting me to recline and take in the night air. The garden was refreshingly empty on an early weekend night. An idyllic respite.

The menu runs the gamut from classics (Negronis, Old Cubans), to seasonal (utilizing herbs and produce), to signature house drinks (all $13). There’s even a “Fancy Cocktail” section with elaborate drinks from $16-23.

Raines' soothing secret garden

My visit included a boozy but smooth special of the day, Alice’s Evidence with Asyla scotch, lemon, lime, simple syrup with absinthe rinse, and a signature Harold & Maude: Johnnie Walker Black, Zacapa 23, lemon, rose & lavender syrup, aromatic bitters, shaken and served down. Beauties, all.

Their former doorman is a chocolatier and after expressing interest in his chocolates (listed in the menu; available by the box), our server brought us a couple to sample. Chocolate Meurens are creamy, Belgian-style truffles in flavors like Aztec (cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, anise, orange flower water) and Early Century (absinthe and Grand Marnier).

MAYAHUEL, East Village – Tequila doesn’t flow on the East Coast like it does in California. In fact, our bartender at Mayahuel talked about the difficulty accessing tequilas we are easily able to procure in Cali. But that’s where Mayahuel, from the crew behind Death & Co., steps in.

Mayahuel's tequila cocktails

I’d been eager to visit since I first heard about it’s opening last Spring. The tequila selection is comprehensive with the likes of Del Maguey and Fortaleza stocking the shelves.  The mezcal selection is excellent, bartenders are informed and passionate about spreading the tequila gospel, and the space is a charming, half-underground Mexican bordello with shiny tiles, wrought iron, snug booths, and loads of citrus and herbs lining the bar. If this was in my ‘hood, I’d be a regular.

It made me reflect on the tequila bars we have at home, and though there is no tequila selection to match Tommy’s, I wish we also had a spot like this: tequila in an subterranean, cozy, hip space with top notch cocktails (SF’s Cantina has a superb tequila and South American spirits cocktail menu but the decor is not Mexican, which, gimmicky or not, I love about Mayahuel).

I didn’t eat here, but they have a fun menu of good-looking food. If you’re not sampling straight tequila, there are a slew of fine tequila cocktails. I particularly liked the balanced heat in Herb Alpert ($14 – love the musician’s moniker): El Jimador Blanco infused with jalapeno, mezcal, fresh oregano, lime, and enjoyed a layered Slynx ($13): reposado, bonded applejack, pear & whiskey barrel bitters with a mezcal rinse.


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