Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Alcohol in California Pinot Noir

There is a war being fought. In vineyards and restaurants throughout the nation, a battle for minds and palates (not to mention wallets and purses) is being waged. There's even name-calling; the term "Fruit Bomb" is tossed about more often than hand grenades. The skirmish is about alcohol and its place in wine, particularly those hailing from California that are made from Pinot Noir.

There are two major schools of thought: there are those that believe that California's benign climate is almost too ideal for growing grapes (especially the early-ripening Pinot Noir) and that resultant wines will be big, lush and high in alcohol (let's say over 14% ABV) and that this is alright so long as the wine is balanced. And there are those who think otherwise; they possess the belief that such balance can be achieved at lower levels of alcohol. Their model Pinot Noir is that of red Burgundy where there exists many examples of complex wines that have alcohol below even 13% ABV.

Each side of the war possesses its own rhetoric, but the important thing to realize is that there's no reason why only one style of wine need dominate. There is room in the market for both the high-octane Pinots that pack a little punch as well as the lighter versions that place an emphasis on delicate subtlety. The question then becomes one of discerning which wine style a specific bottle embodies. Luckily, the alcohol content will be right there on the label.

It is difficult to draw geographic generalizations concerning the two styles, as they appear to be independent of appellation. There are some lighter-bodied Pinots from the North Coast as well as some weightier ones; much depends on the decisions of grape growers and winemakers.

Still, one interesting trend has emerged: Pinot Noirs with higher levels of alcohol tend to carry higher price tags. Of course, many of them warrant it as they can be extremely balanced and expressive. This is not to say that lower-priced, lower-alcohol Pinot Noir can't be delicious; a good deal of them are. It is really just a matter of taste, which, as the saying goes, there's no accounting for. So never mind the war, drink what you please as that's the best way to fight for what you enjoy.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Build Your Cocktail Bar, Part 4: Brandy

Last week, we looked at tequila and mezcal in building your home bar, and this week, we’re back to classic cocktail staples with brandy. One of Golden Age bartenders’ most-used base spirits, brandy--fruit distillate, most commonly made from grapes--is the foundation for many an essential drink. A flip though a classic cocktail book will quickly reveal its significance, as well as offer up some mixing ideas.

Your starting point should be a Cognac VS, the youngest age designation for these regional spirits; while a more aged spirit can make an excellent cocktail, and we encourage you to try mixing with your favorite VSOP, this is the absolute necessity. We suggest taking a look at Philippe Latourelle Cognac VS. One of our favorite cognac classics is the Sidecar, and though there several traditional variations on it, this is our favorite so far:

2 oz. Cognac
1 oz. Combier Orange Liqueur
½ oz. fresh lemon juice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

A less common variety that’s nonetheless a must-have is apple brandy. This category has many variations, from America’s applejack to France’s Calvados, and these spirits have a wide range of delicious mixing applications. Apple brandy can be used in a variety of seasonal warm punches, and it’s got bourbon tied for our favorite addition to hot cider. Named for (and possibly by) a famous early 20th century perjurer, this dusty pink cocktail is a must-mix.

Jack Rose
2 oz. Applejack
1 oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. Grenadine

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Finally, if you’re interested in experimenting, we’d suggest looking to the traditionally-sipped-straight category of eau de vie. Translating to “water of life,” these traditional fruit brandies make flavorful substitutions for vodka.

Happy mixing from DrinkUpNY!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Riesling: How Sweet Is It? And How Sweet It Is!

It is easy to argue that no grape better conveys a sense of place than Riesling—from the crisp, fragrant ones of Alsace to Mosel’s off-dry, mineral-laden versions to the tangy, lime-dominated styles that are found throughout Southern Australia. It is because of this immense diversity of styles, that wines made from this grape can be hard to peg down. While differences in the flavors of Riesling from various regions might be subtle, the question that plagues most is simply: Is it sweet?

It is important to know that Riesling can run the gamut from bone-dry to off-dry (aka: a little sweet) to sweet. Here are a few tips (organized by country of origin) for figuring out what’s in the bottle without popping the cork:


As the British writer Kingsley Amis once penned, “A German wine label is one of the things life's too short for, a daunting testimony to that peculiar nation's love of detail and organization.” German wine labels are notoriously wordy and difficult to try to decipher.  A common misnomer is that the term “Kabinett” indicates a dry wine, while the term “Spätlese” indicates an off-dry or sweet wine. This is simply untrue. “Kabinett” and “Spätlese” are terms that point to how ripe the grapes were when they were harvested, but this has no bearing on whether the wine is dry or sweet or somewhere in-between (as the winemaker might choose to ferment all the sugar into alcohol or not in either case).

Far more telling are the terms “trocken,” which translates to “dry,” and “halbtrocken,” which means “half-dry” or a little sweet. Of course, producers are not required to use these terms so it is very possible one might be left in the dark as to a Riesling’s sweetness. Another word that means essentially same thing as “halbtrocken” is “feinherb” though, just because a wine has some sweetness to it doesn’t mean it will be labeled as such.

So then, what to do if your German Riesling isn’t labeled “trocken,” “halbtrocken,” or “feinherb”? The answer is hidden in plain view - look at the alcohol. Alcohol is one of the byproducts of the fermentation of sugar, thus if all the sugar hasn’t been fermented the alcohol will be lower. A good rule of thumb is that if the percentage of alcohol is lower than 12% the wine will have some degree of sweetness. So a Riesling with 10% alcohol by volume (ABV) will have some sweetness, while one with only 8.5% should be very sweet. By contrast, a German Riesling with 12.5% alcohol will be dry. This 12% rule will be helpful for Rieslings elsewhere, as well.


Luckily, if one can successfully grapple with a German wine label, decoding the level of sweetness in a Riesling from elsewhere is comparatively easy. Unless labeled “Vendange Tardive” or “Sélection de Grains Nobles,” all Rieslings from Alsace will be dry.  “Vendange Tardive” basically means “late-harvested,” while “Sélection de Grains Nobles” means that the wine has undergone Noble Rot; both of these styles are essentially dessert wines.


Like Rieslings from Alsace, Rieslings from Austria will be dry.

All Other Countries

For all other countries (USA-included), follow the 12% rule and you’ll have a good idea whether your Riesling will be dry, sweet or somewhere in-between.

Now all that’s left to do is explore the world of Riesling, which should be considerably easier now that you’ll have an idea of what you can expect from a bottle without any help.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to Build Your Cocktail Bar, Part 3: Tequila and Mezcal

Last week, we looked at rum in building a home cocktail bar. In this installment, we’re moving to a category that you’ll find few mentions of in dusty cocktail books, but that’s critical to a modern bar: tequila and mezcal. Both have previously suffered bad reputations--too many cheap shots of anything in college will do that--but in recent years, connoisseurs have discovered just how good this stuff can get. A well-made agave distillate can be complex and entrancing, and that quality translates into cocktails.

Tequila and mezcal are subject to different laws and standards; tequila must be made in Jalisco while mezcal can come from anywhere in Mexico (though most is from Oaxaca), and the traditional production processes leave mezcal generally smokier than tequila. However, there’s one thing you should keep in mind while buying either: make sure it’s made from 100% agave. In the case of tequila it should be Weber Blue Agave, and in mezcal, one of many potential subspecies including Tobala and Espadín. Your drink will thank you! Make sure you always have a blanco tequila on hand--we recommend Milagro Silver--and bring in a reposado like 7 Leguas for more advanced mixing.

A bottle of high-quality mezcal, such as Del Maguey Vida, opens up possibilities for creative drink-making. Mezcal is still coming into its own with cocktailians, but there are some interesting possibilities for this smoky, earthy spirit. For some delicious variety, try swapping mezcal for tequila for an subtle twist on old favorites. With their relatively recent entrance into the cocktail world, agave spirits also offer interesting opportunities for substituting in classics; for something a little more unexpected, try swapping out tequila or mezcal in recipes that traditionally call for whiskey.

three parts blanco (silver) tequila
two parts Triple sec
one part Freshly squeezed lime juice

Shake with ice and strain into a salt-rimmed cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Tequila Old Fashioned
(inspired by The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess)
2 oz reposado tequila
2 dashes aromatic bitters
1 tsp. agave syrup

Stir with ice and strain into an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Until next time, cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Behind the Scenes with Ron Santa Teresa

Hacienda Santa Teresa has been one of Venezuela's leading rum producers for over 200 years and has earned an excellent reputation for their high quality spirits. We interviewed Daniela Curiel, Brand Manager of Ron Santa Teresa to bring you the true story behind the brand, and give you a closer look at the culture and history that shapes it.

1. What is the history behind the Santa Teresa brand? How did the company begin?

Ron Santa Teresa is the oldest producer of Ron de Venezuela. Its origins date back to 1796, when the Count of Tovar founded the Hacienda Santa Teresa. By the middle of the 19th century, aguardientes from sugar cane were being produced in Santa Teresa. In 1909, Ron Santa Teresa was registered as the first Ron de Venezuela brand. Under the leadership of the 5th Vollmer family generation, Ron Santa Teresa is currently devoted to the distilling and marketing of the finest añejos.

2. What sets Santa Teresa apart from the competition?

We are proud to be an independent Venezuelan family business. We have been growing sugar cane at the Hacienda Santa Teresa for more than 215 years. At the Hacienda, we distill, age and bottle the finest rums. Our ultra Premium Santa Teresa 1796 is the pioneer in the rum industry using the ancient Solera method - the secret of Spain’s sherry and brandy producers. Our rum is the only añejo in the world that is totally aged through this artisanal process. Our portfolio includes extra aged rum Selecto, Santa Teresa Añejo and Santa Teresa Claro. All our rums boast the seal that certifies their origin and quality: the Controlled Denomination of Origin, Ron de Venezuela. We also produce rum-based liquors Rhum Orange Liqueur and Arakú. We are definitely rum focused and we aim to boost the Premium rum category around the world.

The Hacienda Santa Teresa is also home to the Alcatraz Project, a two-year program which recruits and rehabilitates gangs of young criminals.  After a period of isolation involving an intensive three-month scheme of labor, education, rugby training, psychological assistance and community service, gang members are taught skills from home-building to producing gourmet coffee, coaching, cooking or serving as security officers. The result has been a dramatic reduction of the crime-rate in Revenga county, where the Hacienda is located, and which was among the highest in the country; from 77 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year in 2003 to only 27 in 2008.  We strongly believe that the viability and profitability of our business is dependent not only on our ability to produce exceptional quality rums, but on our ability to generate growth and well-being in the surrounding community, on which we are so dependent for the stability and sustainability of Santa Teresa.

3. What inspired the company to enter the US market directly from Venezuela?

After Spain, the US is the second market for rum in the world. We began our international business in Spain and have been in that market for more than 10 years. Our brands have been growing in Spain all these years. So, it was time for us to come to the US and take care of the American consumer. Additionally, cocktails are in the American DNA and rum is the base of so many wonderful cocktails. Our rums have been very welcomed by mixologists and bartenders in New York.

4. We heard that Santa Teresa has a private single barrel program. Can you tell us more about it?

Bodega Privada was especially created for the most demanding palates. Bodega Privada is a lineage rum ultra Premium añejo of unrivaled smoothness. Since 1989, a blend of high quality mature and smooth rums, continues its ageing process in 140 white oak barrels, in the oldest Venezuelan ageing shed: our Bodega Privada. This shed is located just across from the house of the Count of Tovar y Blanco, who in 1796 founded the Hacienda Santa Teresa. Bodega Privada owners enjoy the privilege of having their own particular barrel and of having personalized labels on each bottle of their particular rum.

5. Santa Teresa has released a premium rum that is not yet available in the US. Can you give us more information on this product? When can we expect it to reach the US market?

Bicentenario A.J.Vollmer is the collector’s ultra Premium rum. Its unsurpassable maturity is the result of carefully blending the oldest Santa Teresa reserves with ‘new generation’ rums. Rums aged in white oak barrels for more than 35 years, are blended with 80 year-old añejos. This gives Bicentenario A.J.Vollmer its distinction. This blend is then aged in oak casks for 15 years, until the rum reaches its unique and unmistakable smoothness. Launched in 1986, it announced the bicentenary of Hacienda Santa Teresa. Only 1,200 liters a year of this limited production are taken from the casks to fill 1,800 numbered bottles that carry the signature of Alberto J. Vollmer, fourth generation of Santa Teresa rum distillers. Because the production is so limited, we have reserved Bicentenario A.J.Vollmer exclusively to the Venezuelan market.

Enjoy Ron Santa Teresa in the Angel's Share Cocktail:

1 1/2 shots of Ron Gran Reserva
3/4 chopped lime
1/4 chopped orange
1 tablespoon of sugar

Add the fruit to a rocks glass and muddle. Add Gran Reserva and crushed ice and stir. Garnish with a lime or orange slice.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Friday, March 11, 2011

How to Build Your Cocktail Bar, Part 2: Rum

Last week, we started this series with a look at must-have gin and vodka for building your home bar. In this installment, we move on to another staple: rum. This libation is made from fermented and distilled sugar cane juice, or more commonly, molasses. Though most often associated with South America and the Caribbean, rum is made around the world and can exhibit wildly different characteristics from distillery to distillery. This variety makes this a particularly fun category to experiment with, but there are some essentials that you’ll want to look at to start.

First, you’ll need to get yourself a basic light rum; this is the bottle you’re likely to reach for most often when mixing. These are produced in one of two ways: bottling fresh after distillation, or barrel aging followed by filtration to strip the color. In either case they are generally very affordable; the challenge lays in finding the right one to suit your tastes. Denizen Rum is one of our perennial favorites as its easy to mix in a broad array of cocktails, but flavorful enough to keep things interesting. If you’re curious about the fresh, distinctive flavor of rhum agricole in a light rum, we suggest turning your shaker to Neisson Blanc as a delicious starting point.

Next, we recommend a bottle of gold rum as an addition to your mixing arsenal. Aged in barrel without the heavy filtration of an aged light rum, these spirits retain character from the wood. You can expect a hint of vanilla and butterscotch flavors in these more mature bottlings. While many of these are also wonderful on their own, they add another layer of toasty complexity to rum drinks. We recommend Angostura “1919” 8 Year Old Blended Rum as a starting point; try it in a Planter’s Punch at your next party to keep your guests quenched.

Finally, a rich and flavorful dark rum is a requirement for the well-prepared cocktailian. Lending a mouthwatering vanilla, caramel, and spice character to your drinks, these spirits are aged in heavily charred barrels for a more assertive profile. Though many of these are delicious on their own, they’re also a must for a Dark and Stormy. Two mouthwatering options are Cruzan Black Strap Rum and Gosling’s “Black Seal” Rum.

The Classic Daquiri is a wonderfully easy cocktail that is delightful in warmer weather.

2 oz. white rum
1 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup

Shake with ice and strain. Serve in a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.

Happy mixing!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Rise of Cachaça

Cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil, is one of the fastest growing spirit trends in the US, and one of the most widely consumed spirits in the world. Since cachaça is created from sugarcane, it is often considered a rum, but the key difference between the two is the way the base ingredient is processed. Unlike rum, which is traditionally distilled from molasses, cachaça can only be distilled from fresh-pressed, unprocessed sugarcane juice, which lends a subtle sweetness and a distinctive vegetal note to the finished product. To futher the distinction, Brazilian lawmakers signed a decree that established cachaça as the official and exclusive name for Brazilian cane alcohol, which they hope will eventually be recognized worldwide.

Although the exact origins of cachaça are unknown, historians date the initial creation between 1532 and 1550 - predating the creation of rum by more than one hundred years. Portuguese colonists began cultivating sugarcane soon after Pedro Alvarez Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500, and by 1532 the first sugar mills had opened along the Sao Paulo coast. It is believed that the slaves who worked in these mills discovered fermented liquid in the area where the sugarcane was crushed, and began drinking it. Eventually this fermented sugarcane juice met with the distillation techniques of the Portuguese, and cachaça was born.

To create cachaça, harvested sugarcane is washed and pressed through large metal rollers to extract the juice. The juice is then filtered into fermentation tanks, where the producer may add a leavening agent such as corn meal or rice bran to produce a higher alcohol content, as well as influence the aroma and flavor of the finished product. The sugarcane juice is fermented from one to three days, depending on the ambient temperature, then distilled at a steady temperature of 90º Celsius, or 194º Fahrenheit. The first distillation batch, known as cabeceira, is very strong and often used to make liqueurs, since the alcohol volume is too high to be considered a traditional cachaça. The second batch, which is usually around 18% alcohol by volume, is called cachaça boa, and is sent on to be bottled or aged. The cachaça that is not bottled immediately is aged for at least one year in barrels made from Brazilian amburana, cedar, freijó, garapa, balsa, vinhático, jequitibá or other woods. Some producers use European and American oak barrels as well.

Over time, cachaça has become an important part of Brazilian culture, and is usually enjoyed straight or in a Caipirinha, the country's national cocktail. Made with muddled lime and sugar, the Caipirinha is now becoming a standard cocktail on menus across the country, along with other cachaça concoctions. There are currently over 5,000 industrial and artisinal cachaça brands available in Brazil, but only a handful have made their way into the US. Three brands that are popular among bartenders and mixologists are Pitu, Leblon and Mae de Ouro, all of which have proven themselves in a traditional Caipirinha, as well as other excellent cocktails. Try the delicious Amazonia Caipirinha - an interesting interpretation of the classic!

Amazonia Caipirinha

2 oz Leblon Cachaça
½ oz. St. Germain Elderflower cordial
2 oz. white cranberry juice
¼ oz. fresh lime juice
4 basil leaves
Sparkling wine

Build all ingredients except the sparkling wine into a shaker. Add ice, shake and strain over ice into a highball glass. Splash with sparkling wine and stir.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Build Your Cocktail Bar, Part 1: Gin and Vodka

Does your home bar just have a few random bottles left over from parties past? Or are you starting your spirits collection from scratch? A well-stocked bar is an essential for any good host or hostess, but building up a functional collection can be a little overwhelming; there are lots of items to pick out, and versatility is key if you want to be able to serve friends a wide range of mixed drinks. In the How to Build Your Cocktail Bar series, we’ll provide you with some easy tips on creating the best bar possible for your home. In each installment, we’ll also provide advanced items for the more seasoned cocktailian (or, of course, the adventurous amateur).

Gin and vodka are two clear pillars of mixology. Vodka is a starting point for many basics, often admired most for an ability to stealthily hide in the background of a drink, while the more assertive gin is the base for many of the more complex classics. You definitely need some of each, but which ones to pick?

The right vodka choice can mean the difference between an adequate and excellent cocktail. We love U'Luvka Vodka for mixing precisely because it refuses to be a wallflower. Slightly peppery and quite full-flavored, it integrates into a cocktail beautifully while deliciously reminding you that it’s there. A citrus vodka is also a home bar staple, finding its way comfortably into a wide array of drinks. Try Hangar One Kaffir Lime in a Moscow Mule--vodka and ginger ale--for an easy crowd-pleaser.

As for gin, it’s most essential to have a London Dry on hand. This is the workhorse of cocktail-making and the most common on the market. These gins tend to be strong on the juniper flavor, and are what you’d usually reach for when making a Martini or Gin & Tonic. Martin Miller's London Dry Gin is one of our favorites, as it’s balanced and versatile. We’d also suggest stocking a bottle of Plymouth English Gin, a brand that also defines its own subcategory. This is a softer, rounder, slightly sweeter style that adds variety to your repertoire. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, look to Hayman's Old Tom Gin. This yet-sweeter style was popular in the 18th century, and would have been the type that many older cocktail recipes would have been referring to when they called for gin. This uncommon variation begs for creative experimentation, but if you’re interested in a somewhat complicated cocktail with a killer payoff, we suggest a Ramos Gin Fizz.

Ramos Gin Fizz

2 oz Old Tom gin
1 oz cream
½ oz lemon juice
½ oz lime juice
1 egg white
1 tsp sugar
2-3 dashes orange flower water

Add ice and shake hard for several minutes--we suggest waiting until the shaker gets really, really cold. Strain into a tall class, and fill to the top with selzer. Play with the proportions to suit your tastes as desired, but we promise, this drink is well worth achy arms.

Until next time, cheers!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Mezcal of Pierde Almas

Pierde Almas, meaning "lost souls", is a line of high quality, small batch mezcals produced in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The recipes for these exceptional mezcals have been passed down through generations of the Sanchez Altamirano family, who operates their small distillery in the hilltop village of San Balthazar. Their complete respect for the earth is apparent in every step of the production process, and they are determined to not only reduce their ecological impact, but to also improve local and regional environmental conditions. Although this brand is not certified organic by the USDA, Pierde Almas follows local organic practices to create this mezcal.

The agave fields of Pierde Almas
Pierde Almas Mezcal starts with the finest agave plants, grown without the use of fertilizers or chemicals. The hearts of the magueys, known as piñas, are baked for up to five days in earthen ovens, which run on fallen timber found in the area. (This timber is the result of indiscriminate logging in Oaxaca, and the debris left behind creates a fire hazard if not removed.) After the baked piñas cool, they are crushed under a horse-drawn millstone and then placed in wooden vats for 100% natural fermentation. Fermentation is complete within four to seven days, depending on ambient temperatures, and the resulting mash, known as "tepache", is twice refined in a serpentine copper alembic still. Consistency and uniformity is not important to Pierde Almas - every handmade batch is a like a work of art and can differ every time. Under the watchful eye of the Master Mezcalero, each new harvest delivers a unique mezcal with its own distinctive identity.

After distillation the spirit is bottled directly from the still, as Pierde Almas believes that mezcal should be enjoyed young, or "joven". Their mezcal is never aged in whiskey barrels because they interfere with the natural, traditional flavor of the spirit. Before the Pierde Almas Mezcals are ready to leave the distillery, they must receive the finishing touch: a hand-printed, recycled label. These delicate labels are made from non-polluting, lye and acid free, handmade paper derived from fibers indigenous to the region. This includes coyuche, jonote, pochote, pita, chichicastle, cornhusk, banana leaf, and of course, the maguey fibers left over from production.

Pierde Almas currently produces five types of mezcal derived from different species of agave, however only three of them are available in New York at this time: Pierde Almas Dobadaan, Pierde Almas Tobala Silvestre and Pierde Almas Tobaziche. Keep an eye out for the other two, Pierde Almas Espadin and Pierde Almas Mezcal de Pechuga, because we'll be carrying them as soon as they reach New York!

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!