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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Nov
01
2013

Wandering Traveler

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

In the remote Oaxacan mountains taking in Old World (clay pot) mezcal distillation

MEZCAL JOURNEYS in OAXACA

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril

One of my favorite mezcals in the Los Siete Misterios line, Barril (bottle shot photos: www.sietemisterios.com)

Exploring mezcal distilleries with bartenders and staff from the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, was one of the most unforgettable trips of my life. Besides amazing days in Mexico City (read more here) and the enchanting town of Oaxaca (more here), I had unreal experiences at distilleries where Los Siete Misterios’ different mezcal varietals are produced – there are six regular varietals, the seventh/siete being a changing varietal. For the first time in my life, despite visits to dozens of distilleries around the world, I witnessed clay pot distillation, the ancient way of distilling where liquid is distilled in a pot in the mud, not through a still.

I spent time with jimadors (agave plant harvesters) as they hacked agave plants with a machete, or with mezcal distillers working up winding, narrow roads in the Oaxacan mountains in the regions of Sola de Vega. After a day up in the mountains, we ended with a home-cooked meal at one distiller’s home with a number of distillers and their families. We filled up on mole they cooked for two days and sipped mezcal as kids and dogs ran around and grandmothers looked on.

Los Siete Misterios' whimsical Day of the Dead-influenced artwork, different for each varietal

Los Siete Misterios’ whimsical Day of the Dead artwork, different for each varietal

About an hour outside Oaxaca city in Matatlan, I chopped roasted agave myself with a machete. This distillery was described as “modern” compared to what we saw up in the mountains, as they use a copper alembic still and crush agave plants with a horse and wheel – still clearly Old World but not as ancient as clay pot distillation.

How could I forget stopping roadside up the mountains where two women made salsa, grilled Oaxacan cheese quesadillas on a streetside grill, while we drank from coconuts they’d just hacked open with a sword as we gazed across mountain vistas? Spend some time exploring the region and you will surely happen upon similar, once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Here are a few of mine, via photos:

Sola de Vega, Oaxaca

A jimador since he was a child

A jimador since he was a child in the mountains of Sola de Vega

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Watching a mature agave plant cut down by machete from a lifelong jimador

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Mezcal distiller walks us through agave fields

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Unreal: experiencing distillation in clay pots as it was hundreds of years ago

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Open air fermentation in hollowed-out trees

Wild goats roam mountainside

Wild goats roam mountainside

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Fermenting mezcal under leaves

Lush mountain views

Lush mountain views

Funneling mezcal into containers

Funneling mezcal into containers

Tobala agave, up close & personal

Tobala agave, up close & personal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distiller

Distiller blowing perlas (bubbles) through hollowed out carrizo (akin to a bamboo reed), sucking up the mezcal from the jicara (gourd), then letting it stream back to note quality of perlas which tells alcohol level

Clay pot distillation

Clay pot distillation: a marvel of Old World processes with clay pots buried in the mud, natural distillation running through hollowed out reeds, funneled via leaves into plastic containers

 

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Stopping for roadside tortillas grilled up with Oaxacan cheese, served with homemade salsa & just cut coconuts to drink

Matatlan, Oaxaca

The more "modern" method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

The more “modern” method of crushing agave with a horse and cement wheel

Just-roasted agave

Just-roasted agave

Hacking agave with a machete

Hacking agave with a machete

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Distilling in

Distilling in Matatlan

Fermenting agave

Fermenting agave

Alembic still

Alembic still

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roasting agave in a pit

Roasting agave in a pit

Befriending the horse

Befriending the horse

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Oct
15
2013

The Latest

Huevos con chorizo, the artful presentation

Huevos con chorizo, the artful presentation

MEXICO CITY in SF: La Urbana

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

LA URBANA, Western Addition (661 Divisadero Street at Grove, 415-440-4500)

La Urbana's muse on chairs...

La Urbana’s muse on chairs…

After a preview a few months back and a visit to Mexico City exploring some of the city’s stellar restaurants (read about it here), I was excited to see La Urbana open in Western Addition this September. Having already dined there three times in the roughly five weeks it has been open, I can vouch for the usual “finding itself” struggles a new restaurant faces. But the vision of Mexico City (also based in SF) owners, Eduardo Rallo and Juan Garduño is clear: bring a Mexico City-style restaurant to San Francisco with the most extensive mezcal selection on the West Coast. The design of the space is inventive and playful, with mezcal bottles lining mismatched shelves from Mexico hanging in a colorful patchwork on the wall.

La Urbana Margarita

La Urbana Margarita

La Urbana’s next door garage is about to open, a laid back space where tacos, smoothies, beers, sangria, and margaritas will flow against a backdrop of black and white over blue, Aztec-esque graffiti art that was their temporary construction covering outside when they were building out the restaurant. I previewed the garage space a couple weeks ago, appreciating the yin-yang contrast of the neighboring spaces.

Smoking ceviche

Smoking ceviche

In the restaurant, they are still exploring how experimental they want to be (experimental would be fully in line with Mexico City, Mexico’s most cosmopolitan dining city), and what they want to save for upstairs, where tasting menus will be de rigueur
when that space opens.

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Upcoming cocktail: Gulf of Mexico

I am drawn towards their most experimental expressions, first, because that is what lacking in the endless excellent Mexican restaurants around, and as this is where Chef Benjamin Klein and Chef de Cuisine Julio Aguilera shine. Consistent with my impressions at the restaurant preview, huevo con chorizo ($6) remains my favorite dish. Twice I’ve had it in artful form: inside a delicate egg shell, the top cracked off. But for greater approachability, in the restaurant it has evolved to a mini bowl of eggs and chorizo whipped with light potato puree, lime crema, dotted with pickled jalapeno and tortilla chips. It’s savory, textured, gorgeous, even if the egg shell is the more dramatic presentation.

Preview of Mercado Urbano garage

Preview of Mercado Urbano garage

Roasted corn

Roasted corn/esquites

Ceviche ($11) is so ubiquitous, I passed over it on my first visit, but in the interest of trying everything on the menu by the second meal, I ordered it. Surprisingly, it’s one of La Urbana’s best items. Using fresh fish of the day, like California sea bass, tossed with avocado, orange chunks and a smattering of cucumber “dust,” it’s a fine ceviche. But the presentation sets it apart from every other version: it arrives in a blue-tinted mason jar, the lid removed to a billowing release of mesquite smoke, which infuses the fish and the air with delicate smokiness.

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Huevos con chorizo, the still fantastic restaurant version

The kitchen hand grinds their own corn every day, utilized in blue corn mini-quesadillas “Tijuana” ($9). More like mini-empanadas, these warm bites ooze Manchego cheese and okra, delightful when dipped in a smoked crema and smoky salsa. Sides are unexpected standouts, whether roasted, summer-fresh corn/esquites ($7), accented with Meyer lemon aioli and Manchego cheese, or oregano-tinged squares made of paper thin slices of potatoes/papas ($5). Entrees don’t always wow, but a silky salmon or halibut al huitlacoche ($24) accompanied by cauliflower, gains complex flavor from the corn fungus funk of huitlacoche, artfully touched with citrus corn foam and nasturtium petals.

Chocolate cremeaux in mezcal gourds

Chocolate cremeaux in mezcal gourds

Salads can be freshly gratifying, like an ensalada verde ($12) of bright fava beans, avocado and frisee, in a cilantro dressing. Another salad, betabeles y chayote ($11), is bright with roasted beets, carrots and habanero jam, but had an excess of rather tasteless chayote, made more exciting on first visit when a salty smattering of chapulines (grasshoppers) was on the salad – they are now using a popped wild rice to simulate that texture and flavor (bring back the grasshoppers, please!) Desserts are strong, particularly a fluffy Oaxacan chocolate crémeux ($9) over vanilla ice cream, served in a traditional mezcal gourd with mezcal gélée, punctuated by canela (cinnamon) crisps.

Luis

Luis Ranzuglia lights a volcano bowl

Lucas Ranzuglia oversees the cocktail menu, bringing bar experience from his native Buenos Aires, cocktail mecca London, and Mexico. A number of his drinks from the preview remain the best on the menu, like a mezcal-tinged Margarita ($9), and particularly Mezcal & Cacao ($9), an icy blend of mezcal and Oaxacan cacao in a coffee mug, touched with rose water, lavender flowers, vanilla, orange peel and spices.

La Urbana's Day of the Dead skeleton

La Urbana’s Day of the Dead skeleton

Playful themes occur in the likes of The Mexican Dude ($10), a take on The Big Lebowski and White Russians, going the Mexican route with house horchata and mezcal, a bit of Belvedere vodka and espresso coffee liqueur. From the extensive mezcal collection (including a number of rarities), there’s 1.5 oz. pours of mezcal or trio flights of 3/4 oz. pours. Mexico City’s common after-dinner drink, a Cafe Royal ($8) – aka Carakillo or “Con Piquete” – is on offer, with espresso on the rocks sweetened by citrus-vanilla-tinged Spanish liqueur, Licor 43.

Recently I had a preview of drinks Ranzuglia is about to launch in the restaurant, with his unique vision that starts first with a concept shaped into a cocktail recipe. Currently, he’s creating cocktails themed around different locations in Mexico. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser is the Gulf of Mexico, a cocktail inspired by visions of sand, Gulf winds, and vacation: Bols Genever mingles with coconut water, ginger tincture, finished with frothy-sweet-spicy guava-habanero foam. It’s complex yet utterly approachable and refreshing.

Mexico City cocktail

Mexico City cocktail

The tortilla water (which tastes like fresh tortilla chips) in the fantastic, nonalcoholic tortilla lemonade I sampled at the restaurant’s preview is now thankfully going into a cocktail, Mexico City. The drink combines Casa Noble blanco tequila, mezcal, tortilla water, lemon and guava puree, then Ranzuglia dips a lavender and chile-laden tea strainer infused with dry ice into the glass which smokes and bubbles, meant to resemble MX earthquakes, imparting a hint of carbonation. Ranzuglia covers the drink with a cement-like disc that holds in the vapor, representing the cement covering of the massive city built into a water basin, bubbling underneath. He describes it as: “A glass of pure surrealist city, the flavors of Mexico City’s valley.”

Urbana's muse on the building's exterior

… and La Urbana’s muse on the building’s exterior

Back dining area under agave plant map of Oaxaca

Back dining area under agave plant map of Oaxaca

Pyrotechnics come into play with shareable volcano bowls inspired by the volcanoes of Pubela, lit with incense and filled with boozy, shareable cocktails reminiscent of Tiki volcano bowls, soon to be on offer. A more classic off-menu cocktail is a twist on a Hemingway Daiquiri, subtly mixing mezcal, cilantro, lime, grapefruit, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino.

If this sounds fussy, it isn’t. Drinks taste alternately sweet, agave-rich, smoky, whatever the elements may be, enriched by stories behind them for those of us who care, merely tasting good for those who do not. Ranzuglia’s vision is refreshingly unique, welcome in a city that has long mastered cocktails and could use a fresh perspective.

Mezcal flight

Mezcal flight

La Urbana will hopefully unfold to a fully realized expression of Mexican food unlike any other restaurant in a state that has long perfected Mexican food. Offering a range of experiences and tastes from garage to mezcal bar, one hopes La Urbana will evolve along with the exciting dining scene of Mexico City.

Eclectic Urbana bar shelves from Mexico

Eclectic Urbana bar shelves from Mexico

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Oct
15
2013

Wandering Traveler

The new Mexico: international, chic, clean flavors and culinary mashups like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

The new Mexico: international, clean flavors, like Mexican sashimi at La Trainera

MEXICO CITY RISING

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Tree-lined streets and fountains

Mexico City’s (MX) dining scene is HOT. Gorgeous diners smoke cigarettes while dining on sashimi platters accented by Mexican flavors from chiles to avocado. Experimentation – the likes of which is far advanced even from what one finds in Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara – reinvents classic Mexican flavors through an international, cosmopolitan lens (in San Francisco, the recent arrival of La Urbana from MX owners, brings a snapshot of what is happening in MX to SF).

Flying in to MX, the massive expanse of a city of nearly 20,000 million people looks like a dense maze of traffic covered in thick, brown smog. But on the ground there’s a surprising amount of parks, tree-lined streets, European-influenced architecture and impossibly chic restaurants. Some of the most raved about restaurants, like Pujol from CIA-trained Chef Enrique Olvera, reach gastronomy magic, working wonders with larvae and insects, frog legs and squash blossoms.

Charming Sabor Amor

Charming Sabor Amor

MX street food and markets are fascinating, full of gourmet treasures. Here one can explore all the complex regions of Mexico and the varying dishes and specialties from around the country in one market. In this metropolis of a city, “New Mexican” reaches its most realized state, reinventing Mexican cuisines for the next generation.

Far more than in Guadalajara and vastly different from traditional, romantic towns like Oaxaca, Mexico City is the culinary future of Mexico, where the world’s cuisines collide, informed by Mexican ethos, even as other Mexican culinary capitals keep tradition alive. Both are important. Despite my many travels to Mexico, I feel as if I hadn’t fully experienced the possibilities of Mexican cuisine until I visited Mexico City.

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

Fish on display at La Trainera restaurant

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Cocktail ingredients in Los Siete Misterios competition at Aurora Roma

Exploring mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca with the fantastic Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, we spent a few days in MX. There I judged a cocktail competition involving bartenders from NY, Toronto and Mexico City using Los Siete Misterios mezcals, while also visiting restaurants and cocktail bars. Mexico City is on the cusp of an artisanal and classic cocktail scene. There are up-and-coming bartenders with a fine sense of balance, like David Mora and Rodrigo Martinez Trejo, honing craft in some of the city’s best bars.

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

Cocktails at Sabor Amor

One thing I noticed at cocktail bars here is masking alcohol is common. The best drinks often tasted like complex layers of fruit and herbs… with little booze kick. While emerging craft bartenders in MX are using a fascinating mix of Mexican herbs, chiles, fruits and so on, veering away from sweet or giant martini glasses to classic glassware and balance, there’s still a big gap between what we see across the US or major cocktail cities internationally in terms of a broad and deep grasp of classic technique or understanding (or even much of a selection) of brown spirits, from whiskies to brandies. But Mexico City masters agave spirits and an innovative use of produce, so it’s only a matter of time before the international cocktail renaissance fully takes hold here.

Aurora Roma sign

Aurora Roma sign

Few have done more initially to usher in this renaissance than Limantour, with the tag line “Live the old new days.” Limantour advances the cocktail revival in MX, having just opened a second location. I visited both, one with an open storefront, warm glow and a bustling bar, the other, an intimate, upstairs lounge – both bars are relaxed yet sexy, serving elegant cocktails, including a San Francisco tribute, the hilariously-named San Francisco Homie, a rum recipe adapted from none other than 15 Romolo.

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Common dessert cocktail in MX: espresso & Licor 43 (Spanish vanilla citrus liqueur) on ice

Aurora Roma in the Colonia Roma district – marked by a beetle sign – is a cocktail den graced with a long black bar and low, pressed tin ceiling. It was the site of the cocktail competition I judged.

Whether visiting pulque (viscous, milky, alcoholic drink made from fermented sap of agave plants) havens like Las Duelistas, or mezcalerias like El Palenquito, agave spirits are (of course) well represented across the city.

Here are dining and food recommends, from restaurants to bakeries, around the city:

QUINTONIL, Polanco

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

Mezcal cocktails at Quintonil

The best meal in my recent visit was the humble green structure housing Quintonil (which means amaranth leaf). Chef Jorge Vallejo, a young chef who comes from the aforementioned Pujol, showcases impeccable technique, indigenous ingredients and modern, unexpected combinations. Whether a clean cactus sorbet with burnt corn husk, or pork jowl marinated in achiote, each dish (paired with mezcal on my visit) was enlightened, highlighting the innovation and freshness that is Mexico City dining.

Superb dishes at Quintonil

Superb dishes at Quintonil

ROMITA COMEDOR, Colonia Roma

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

David Nava prepares cocktails at Romita

Romita Comedor is an impossibly cool spot. Up winding stairs in a 1900′s building above a clothing shop and salon, its high ceilings, black and white tiled floor, and massive, open window, combines Old and New World touches. The space is casual yet hip, serving delicious tacos, octopus and shrimp dishes, at mid-range prices.

Romita ceviche

Romita ceviche

Romita is a cocktail outpost for refreshing classics like Tom Collins, Negronis, and Caipirinhas, but also creative creations by bartenders like David Mora (who won the Los Siete Misterios cocktail competition I judged at Aurora Roma), like a bright blend of serrano chilies, mezcal, apple, lychee and cucumber, or a creamy Horchata de Aquacate blending Don Julio blanco with house horchata.

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comeador

Striking, open air dining room at Romita Comedor

MONTAGU GASTRO WINE BAR, Del Parque Lincoln

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers

Mexico City native Chef Rogelio Weber infuses dishes at intimate, glowing Montagu Gastro Wine Bar with international flair. Studying cooking in Barcelona, he’s cooked in London, New York and between Africa and Asia. His duck confit tostadas, black octopus tacos, mole amarillo, or chapulines (grasshopper) topped guacamole (a nod to Oaxaca) are comforting yet delicate. In addition, Montagu is a wine bar so expect a thoughtful array of wines from Mexico, South America and beyond.

Experimentation with varied local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

Experimentation with local ingredients in cocktails at Montagu

SABOR AMOR, Colonia Roma

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El Irreal at Sabor Amor

Sabor Amor is in a dreamy, multi-floored house with a terrace and dining rooms of different colors and themes, including a pink and creme-striped room that feels meant for high tea. It’s the most romantic setting of the places I dined, offering earnest service and generous, artfully designed dishes.

Brightly colored rooms

Colorful rooms

Besides serving Oaxaca’s ubiquitous guacamole dotted with chapulines (fried grasshoppers), Sabor sends out rich dishes like a round tower of whipped cheeses (“El Irreal”) layered with eggplant, red pepper, basil and tomatoes, accented by chile oil. The restaurant does best with its Italy-or-Spain-meets-Mexico dishes, such as a bacalao (salt cod) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) ravioli.

LA TRAINERA, Centro Historico

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Raw fish tostadas at La Trainera

Impossibly hip La Trainera sports greenery growing on walls, a rooftop dining area, and mountains of fresh fish and seafood in a multi-floored mansion.

The aesthetic is as chic as the Hollywood-by-way-of-Mexico clientele. On the open-air top floor, everyone is (ironically) smoking as they dine on spanking-fresh sashimi. Raw tuna tostadas are a hit, a ubiquitous dish around MX, made popular by the restaurant Contramar. There’s a range of ceviches and tacos utilizing their impressive fish selection, but I found the sashimi and tostada menu sections offered the most gratifying dishes.

BOTTEGA CULINARIA, Condesa

Delirio

Delirio

A gourmand’s food shop, Bottega Culinaria stocks impeccable breads, cheeses, pastas, spirits, jams, sauces, cookbooks, and would be similarly at home in New York, San Francisco or Paris. It was a strong choice for French-style pastries and coffee in the leafy Condesa district.

DELIRIO, Zona Urbana Río Tijuana

With sidewalk seating evoking European cafes, atmospheric Delirio is a strong wine bar, cheese, charcuterie shop and all-day, casual cafe serving organic dishes for breakfast, lunch and wine hour.  While no dish I had here was exactly memorable, the setting is, making it a worthwhile stop for gourmet foods and even a few select mezcals we can’t get in the US.

In addition, food markets shine in Mexico City, particularly the “chef’s market,” Mercado San Juan in the Centro Historico, offering foods and produce from across Mexico.

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Aug
15
2013

Imbiber

3 NEW DEL MAGUEY MEZCALS

Article and Photos by Virginia Miller

Wild Tepexate - San Jose Rio Minas Del Maguey - Virginia MillerTHE reason mezcal has become popular and widely available in the US can be traced back to one man: Ron Cooper, who founded Del Maguey, a brilliant line of mezcal producers from a wide range of Mexican villages. I have long been a fan of the entire line, and, in fact, it took years before I found mezcals even worth drinking in comparison.

Once I traveled to the magical state and city of Oaxaca, I found even more to love, visiting mezcal producers hours up in the mountains, in remote places, and sampling rare mezcals in the town of Oaxaca at Mezcaloteca. Since I first fell under the spell of the agave spirit years ago, there are far more mezcals on the US market, most recently in the last 2-3 years.

As the category of the “oven-cooked” agave spirit expands (the “piña”, or heart of the plant, often being cooked underground), it’s news for any mezcal aficionado when Del Maguey releases new product. Lucky us, there are three new Del Maguey releases. Two just came out mid-August, the other releases in November, all at limited quantities around the US.

Here are my brief notes after tasting each.

Just Released

Wild Papalome - Virginia MillerWILD TEPEXTATE ($99

The rare wild agave, tepextate (agave Marmorata), often takes a full 25 years to grow in high altitudes, making it a rarity as a mezcal varietal. From the same producer who makes Del Maguey’s Tobala and Espadin Especial, Wild Tepextate is “green”, bright with bell pepper and jalapeno notes, with an undercurrent of subtle earthiness and dusty cinnamon/canela (Mexican sugar).

SAN JOSE RIO MINAS ($99)

A new Del Maguey producer in Oaxaca’s remote Northern Mixteca Alta region produces this floral beauty. San Jose Rio Minas sings to me of wildflowers, apple orchards and peach blossoms, balanced by a sweet smoke. The story of how they found this producer is classic Ron Cooper (read here under San Jose Rio Minas).

November Release

WILD PAPALOMETL ($99)

Wild Papalometl migh be my favorite of the three new releases – if forced to choose. It is produced by Fernando Caballero Cruz in San Pedro Teozacoalco, also in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, hours from anywhere off rocky, dirt roads. Made from the papalome maguey (the Nahuatl name for butterfly), the plant looks similar to Tobala agave but much larger. Made by an ancient distillation process, which I witnessed in remote Oaxacan villages in the mountains, Wild Papalometl is distilled in a stainless pot with a clay condensor and Mexican bamboo tube. The result is earth, smoky, meaty goodness, expressing hints of sweet corn, slate and mushroom.

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Jul
01
2013

Imbiber

TWO SPIRITS to DRINK NOW: CALIFORNIA AGRICOLE & HIGH PROOF TEQUILA

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

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

ST. GEORGE’S CALIFORNIA AGRICOLE RUM, $50

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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Dec
15
2012

Imbiber

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.

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Oct
15
2012

Imbiber

Tasting craft beers alongside (expensive) Scotch at Highland Park & The Beer Chicks fantastically fun seminar at WhiskyFest SF 2012 (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

TASTING SPIRITS

Photos (unless otherwise noted) and article by Virginia Miller

NAVY STRENGTH GIN REACHES US SHORES

photo source: Plymouth Gin website

Unforgettable: my journey to the south of England in the town of Plymouth and its legendary distillery with Master Distiller Sean Harrison. Possibly the most beautiful distillery I’ve yet visited, I relished drinking Plymouth Navy Strength ($34.99) while in the UK, a bracing version of their classic gin at 57% ABV/114 proof, the preferred gin of the British Royal Navy. Though still smooth like Plymouth gin, Navy Strength packs a greater botanical punch, enlivening cocktails.

The good news is it finally arrived to the US merely weeks ago in September so drink up. It radiates in a classic Pink Gin (2 parts Plymouth Navy Strength, 3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters, lemon twist to garnish), which I enjoyed in the hills above Plymouth made by Harrison using fresh drops of reservoir water from the reservoir we enjoyed tea alongside. 

RECAPPING WHISKYFEST 2012

The sassy, lovely Beer Chicks (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

This year’s WhiskyFest was another memorable one. The hilarious Martin Daraz of Highland Park and the uber cool Beer Chicks, Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune (their book, The Naked Brewer, just released), killed it with their laughter-packed seminar. There wasn’t enough room for all who wanted to attend their tasting pairing Highland Park whiskies, all the way up to the glorious 30 year (still a favorite every time I taste it) with well-chosen craft beers selected by the Beer Chicks – a number of pairings went shockingly well together. This seminar should definitely return next year, giving all those who missed it a chance to partake of the joys.

Get him a stand-up comedian gig already! Highland Park's hilarious Brand Ambassador Martin Daraz (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

Digging further into the independent distillery line of BenRiach whiskies with international Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan was a highlight, whether the affordable steal of 10 year Curiositas, a robust, elegant 1995 Pedro Ximenez Cask #7165 (at cask strength, 52.3%) or the otherworldly, perfectly balanced 25 yr. The BenRiach line is a nuanced alternative to an Islay Scotch. Though peaty, these whiskies corner balance, letting the peat shine alongside other layers.

Photo source: Ben Krantz

On the American side, the standout was St. George’s 30th Anniversary XXX Single Malt Blend, a layered blend of whiskies from three generations of St. George distillers, Jörg Rupf, Lance Winters, Dave Smith. This new release (only 715 bottles) is a rare blend of whiskies: Winters’ first single malt distillation, his 1999 single malt aged in Rupf’s pear brandy barrels, a small portion of Lot 12 whiskey, and a whiskey distilled in 2007, aged in a port cask made of French oak. Pear notes shine in this bright whiskey as does ginger, butter, banana, hazelnut and orange peel.

Another Scotch standout was Classic Malts’ Glen Spey 21 year, a limited edition whisky maintaining a lively profile in spite of age from bourbon casks with notes of coconut, caramel, toffee.

THE FIRST SF CRAFT SPIRITS CARNIVAL

My favorite new taste at Spirits Carnival: Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997

Held this weekend in the massive Fort Mason, the first SF Craft Spirits Carnival was yet another opportunity for the consumer and industry to sample a wide range of international spirits. Though burlesque felt off in the middle of the vast space, acrobatics were more in line as we explored a US craft spirits-heavy selection with a good mix of Scotch, tequila, rum and the like from around the globe surrounded by gorgeous Bay and Golden Gate Bridge views.

While a number of my usual favorites were there (Highland Park, St. George, Old World Spirits, Charbay, Rhum Clement), there were quite a few new releases to taste. Charbay started importing beloved Tapatio tequila earlier this year, one of the best values out there for quality tequila, and at the Carnival, poured Tapatio’s just-imported Reposado and Anejo tequilas. Finally in the States, both are green, bright beauties thankfully allowing the agave to dominate over barrel wood.

Local distiller Don Pilar just released a refined Extra Anejo (aged a minimum of three years). Though I am typically not a big Extra Anejo – or sometimes even Anejo – fan when it masks agave properties with too much oak, Don Pilar manages complexity with agave liveliness.

Spirits tasting in a massive Fort Mason pavilion

Greenbar Collective’s (aka Modern Spirits) spiced rum ($30) from downtown Los Angeles could have been too sweet – as their fruit liqueurs were for me – but the spiced rum is subtle, nearly dry, aromatic with allspice, clove, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange zest, redolent of fall.

Michter’s from Kentucky (I’ve long appreciated their 10 year bourbon and their rye) poured their two brand new releases out this month, a decent Sour Mash (86.6%) aged over 4 years, mixable more than sippable, and a robust, cask strength (114.2%) 20 year single barrel bourbon, aged over 20 years with a definite rye spice, although they can’t disclose any information whatsoever on the grain make-up or distilling location.

Tapatio's just imported Reposado & Anejo tequilas

The tasting highlight of the weekend belonged to Rhum Clément. Already a fan of their elegant rhum agricoles from Martinique, they just released a fresh, smoky 6 year old ($56), and a cinnamon, wood, vanilla-inflected 10 year old ($73), both aged in virgin and re-charred oak.

In addition, Rhum Cément Cuvee Homere is aged in French Limousin barriques and re-charred bourbon barrels, smooth with tastes of biscuits, almond butter, hazelnut, chocolate, black pepper, while the stately, pricey Clément XO Rhum, is a Cognac-reminiscent treat blending rhums from highly regarded vintages, like 1952, 1970, 1976, complex with fruitcake, toffee, tobacco, leather. My favorite ended up being a cask strength (though still reasonable under 100 proof) 10 year old Rhum J.M. Millesime 1997, unfolding with toasted nut, lemon, sage, passion fruit, white pepper, cinnamon.

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