Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Marsala: Mmm, Mmm Good!

When most hear the word Marsala their thoughts turn to chicken recipes rather than quality fortified wine. And why not? When was the last time you or anyone you knew purchased a real bottle of Marsala to enjoy as an aperitif, a before-dinner drink? Cheap supermarket rip-offs and American generic brands have sullied the reputation of this once well-regarded wine. Its popularity has followed a trajectory similar to that of Sherry, with a recent resurgence in interest after a long period of obscurity.

Vintage bottles of Intorcia Marsala.
All true Marsala hails from the island of Sicily where it was first popularized by English merchant John Woodhouse (it is unclear the relationship he had, if any, to the Port producer Smith Woodhouse) in the late 18th Century. Eponymously named after the port city, the grapes that produce the wine must come from a delimited area on the Western end of the island. Marsala made from white varieties such as Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto is referred to as Oro or Ambra, while Marsala made from red grapes like Calabrese and Nerello Mascalese is called Rubino.

There are many different types of Marsala, from dry to sweet, light to dark, but common to all its styles is the method by which the wine is matured. The aging regiment is called "in perpetuum" and bears a resemblance to the Solera system used in Andalucía for Sherry. This system ensures consistency, stability and the aromatic complexity that Marsala is known for. The oxidative maturation afforded by this system yields nutty, dried fruit and toffee aromas in the final wine.

The Marsala DOC became an official Italian wine appellation in 1969, with the rules governing production further refined in 1984. Written into law are the aging requirements and their accompanying descriptors:

Fine (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 12 months
Superiore (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 24 months
Superiore Riserva (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 4 years
Vergine/Solera (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 5 years
Vergine/Solera Stravecchio or Riserva (Dry): Aged a minimum of 10 years

If your interest is piqued, the good news is that Marsala is affordable. Because it isn't as fashionable or popular as other fortified wines like Port, Marsala enjoys the economic advantage of being in relatively low demand. This translates to the fact that one can find Superiore Riservas like Vito Curatolo Arini's for under $25. And better yet, a basic Marsala like Intorcia Dry costs less than $15 a bottle.

Marsalas should be served with a slight chill. Drier version can best be enjoyed on their on their own before a meal, while sweeter versions like Vito Curatolo Arini Sweet Marsala Superiore can be enjoyed after dinner or with a cheese plate. Of course, these are brilliant wines to cook with and numerous recipes call for the use of Marsala, best known is the aforementioned Chicken Marsala. Ever versatile, it also makes a great, though often-ignored, cocktail ingredient in drinks like flips or as a substitute for Amontillado Sherry. So next time you need a Marsala for sipping or simmering, skip the supermarket imitator, try the real stuff, and taste the difference.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bols Barrel Aged Genever

Established in 1575, Lucas Bols is one of the world's oldest distilled spirits brands, and the first registered company in Holland. The Bols family first began distilling liqueurs in an Amsterdam workshop called "t Lootsje", meaning "The Shed". The business greatly expanded during the Golden Age because Lucas Bols, the head of the company at that time, had a majority stake in the Dutch East India Trading Company. This gave him access to wide variety of exotic herbs and spices returning from the colonies in Indonesia, South American and the Caribbean. Using these ingredients, Bols was able to create 300 different liqueur recipes in the 18th century alone.

In 1664, Lucas Bols began distilling genever - a triple distillate of rye, wheat and corn (what the Dutch call malt wine), which is then blended with a botanical and juniper berry distillate, resulting in a balanced, full flavored spirit. The original Bols Genever recipe was an immediate success and was quickly transported throughout the world by the sailors of the Dutch East India Trading Company. However in 1820, Bols introduced a revolutionary new genever recipe with a better balance of malt wine, neutral grain alcohol and botanicals. It resulted in a smoother, more subtle spirit which gained immense popularity during the rising cocktail craze in the US. By 1875, the import of genever into the US is six times larger than that of gin. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in cocktail culture, and Bols Genever's authentic 1820 recipe allows bartenders to recreate the true classics as they were meant to taste, as well as invent new, interesting combinations.

The 1820 Bols Genever recipe.

However, Master Distiller Piet Van Leijenhorst, is always looking for new ways to enhance the genever experience. Bols has recently announced the release of the new Bols Barrel Aged Genever, a new expression of the spirit designed with bourbon connoisseurs in mind. Bols Barrel Aged Genever is produced according to an authentic recipe created by the company in the 19th Century - different from the recipe used for Bols Genever 1820. This recipe is aged in French Limousin oak barrels for at least 18 months, lending the spirit a pale golden color and adding complex notes of wood and spice to the herbaceous, juniper flavors of the original Bols Genever.

For centuries, Bols Genever has been bottled and shipped around the world in brown clay jugs that can still be found in old shipwrecks or during archaeological digs. In honor of this tradition, Bols Barrel Aged Genever is bottled in grey earthenware jugs from the German Westerwald region.

Antique bottles of Bols Genever.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rhum Barbancourt: The Spirit of Haiti

When Christopher Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, he arrived on the sandy shores of Môle Saint Nicolas in present day Haiti. He named the island Hispaniola, and for the next 200 years, the entire island remained under Spanish rule. During this time, the Spanish settlers introduced a variety of plants and animals to the region, but the one newly imported species that had the most influence was sugar cane. It was cultivated to produce sugar for the wealthy, and as the demand for this commodity grew, the European settlers throughout the region fought for control of the islands. In 1640, the French conquered the nearby island of Tortuga, and from there, waged war on Hispaniola. By 1695 the Spanish were defeated and conceded the western half of the island to the French in the Treaty of Ryswick.

When settlers originally traveled to the region, they brought with them the knowledge of distillation. This technology spread rapidly throughout the Caribbean islands, and by the time the French acquired their newest colony from the Spanish, the distilled sugar cane spirit they called "rhum" was in high demand. On their new colony, which they named Saint-Domingue, the French built large sugar cane plantations to create both sugar and rhum. However, the demand for these products kept growing and they needed more and more field workers to achieve the results they desired. The island natives were forced to work on these plantations, along with Africans that had been "purchased" with European goods and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. This slavery continued until the Haitian Revolution of 1791 - the only successful slave revolt in world history and the defining moment of the abolition of slavery. Born from this revolt was the free and independent state of Haiti.

At this time, many of the mid and lower class French settlers who had not owned plantations or slaves remained in the country and lived in relative harmony with the liberated Haitian people. One of these colonists was Dupré Barbancourt, a native of the Charente region in France. In 1862, he decided to experiment and subjected the fermented sugar cane to the double distillation method usually reserved for the finest cognacs. The rhum produced was of exceptional quality, and although it was created in very limited quantities, it gained immense popularity in the Caribbean, as well as France. 

The Barbancourt Charentaise Still
Over the years, Rhum Barbancourt has been passed down through the generations, but it was Dupré Barbancourt's great nephew, Jean Gardère who truly modernized the business. In 1949, he relocated the distillery from Port au Prince to the heart of the sugar cane fields of Domaine Barbancourt. By 1952, the distillery began to produce rhum exclusively from sugar cane grown on their own land, which allowed the brand to grow from a small cottage industry to an international exporter. By the mid-1960s, Barbancourt had greatly expanded and was able to release their finest product - the 15 year old Reserve du Domaine.

La Société du Rhum Barbancourt is one of the oldest Haitian companies, and still produces their rhum in accordance with the original recipe by Dupré Barbancourt. Although the company has several releases, two of the finest rhums produced are the "Réserve Spéciale" and the "Estate Reserve". 

"Réserve Spéciale"
Rhum Barbancourt "Réserve Spéciale" has been aged in Limousin oak for 8 years, lending a lovely golden hue and enticing aromas of vanilla and pepper. The palate is powerful, smooth and well balanced, with complex flavors of cooked fruit, citrus fruit and exotic spice. The limited edition Rhum Barbancourt "Estate Reserve" has been aged for 15 years and is of even higher quality. The nose offers lively aromas of candied citrus fruit and spice, while the palate displays intense flavors of cooked pear, citrus fruit, cinnamon and pepper. The devastating earthquake Haiti endured in 2010 damaged the distillery and ruined a large amount of the aging rhum, but the newest release of the "Estate Reserve" has recently arrived at DrinkUpNY, so order today to reserve a bottle of this exceptional spirit.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sake 101: History & Production

First produced in Japan roughly 2,500 years ago, sake has an extensive history, is produced in a variety of different styles, offers a wide range of aromas and flavor characteristics, and frankly, can be rather confusing. Do you want Junmai? Daiginjo? Junmai Daiginjo? In this series, we aim to clear up any questions you may have about sake, and give you a more thorough understanding of this traditional beverage which has made such an impact on Japanese society throughout history.

We'll start off by providing you with some background information:

Sake actually originated in China about 4,500 years ago, and the Chinese developed many of the most important techniques for sake production. However, when wet-rice cultivation was introduced to Japan, this knowledge was transferred as well, and early rice farmers were among the first to introduce sake into Japanese culture.

In ancient Japan, sake production involved an entire village - each person would chew on a mixture of rice and nuts, and then spit it into a large tub. The saliva added the enzyme necessary for fermentation, and sake produced in this manner was called "kuchikami no sake", which is loosely translated to mean "chewing the mouth sake". This process was also part of a Shinto religious ceremony, however it was discontinued when it was later discovered that koji mold and yeast could produce the same results.

Adding Koji mold to the rice at the Dewatsuru Brewery
At first, sake was produced in relatively small quantities and was consumed by individual families or villages. However, over time the rice became a large scale agricultural product, the production process evolved, and sake was created in much larger quantities. It became an important component in many Japanese customs - sake was used as an offering to the Gods, to purify the temple, consumed in wedding ceremonies, and also became popular among the upper class. By the 1300's, breweries were being built, the production process became more modern, and sake was being mass produced. In the 19th Century, Japan experienced their Industrial Revolution, and breweries began to incorporate machinery into the production process, making sake widely available to the public.

Tending the steamed rice at the Manabito Brewery
The basic process of sake production has not changed much throughout history, although the technology is of course, much more modern. The first step involves "polishing", or milling the rice kernels to remove the outer layer of the grain. The rice is then washed to remove any unwanted excess particles (called "nuka"), soaked for a period of time to add moisture, and then steamed - a process which allows the starch molecules to emerge. The rice is then cooled and periodically sprinkled with koji mold to convert the starch into sugar. A yeast starter, known as "shubo" or "moto", is added to the mixture to promote fermentation which will then last for 18 - 32 days. It is during this time that the skilled brewer adjusts the temperature and varying other factors to create the desired flavor characteristics. After fermentation, the mixture is "pressed" which removes the unfermented rice, or "kasu", and only the sake remains.

After the sake is created, there are a variety of different processes that may be implemented. The sake can be filtered, pasteurized and aged - or not. These final steps, along with variations of the brewing process, greatly affect the finished product... but we'll get to that topic next week.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!