Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Getting into the GrüVe: Austria's Premier White

Grüner Veltliner (pronounced Groo-ner Velt-liner) is the little white grape from Austria that never quite hit the tipping point. It has long been fashionable among the wine cognoscenti - sommeliers and wine writers - but it never quite captured the mainstream market like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Argentine Malbec. This is a downright shame, as Grüner Veltliner is a world class grape capable of producing pleasurable and distinctive wines that don't break the bank.

Grüner Veltliner accounts for about a third of grapevine plantings in Austria, making it the country's most important grape. It grows in other Eastern European countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but it's Austria that leads the pack in quality. Grüner Veltliner is grown almost exclusively in the Northeastern section of the country where regions like Wachau and Kamptal are believed to produce the most nuanced and complex versions of the wine.

In its simplest form, Grüner Veltliner is a dry, aromatic white (often sold in liter-sized bottles in the US and jugs in Austria) that offers up flavors of citrus, minerals and flowers. These are wines meant for drinking rather than thinking about; bring them on a picnic rather than lying down in the cellar. Some finer versions can age for a short while and become more honeyed and savory with time. However, if you're spending less than $20 a bottle, it's probably best to drink up now, as the wine will probably not be the type suitable for cellaring.

So then, how does one best explore the joys of Grüner Veltliner? The key is trying the different styles and appellations of the grape variety. A perfect, inexpensive introduction to the grape would be Artner Grüner Veltliner. Hailing from the region of Carnuntum (which is located just Southeast of Vienna), this zesty white exemplifies the simple pleasure Grüner Veltliner offers through its floral aromas and crisp acidity. It's nothing complicated or complex, but it's the type of light, refreshing wine that has one picking up their glass and asking for a refill often.

Another easy-drinking example would be Berger Grüner Veltliner from the acclaimed region of Kremstal (which is located further North of Carnuntum). Imported by a man named Terry Theise, a legend in his own right, this wine is a perennial best-seller. In Theise's own words, "Berger's wines are delightful and affordable." Theise believes that Erich Berger, the winery's proprietor, places an emphasis on making wines that possess charm and drinkability. It's a good thing its sold in liters - there's plenty to go around.

Also imported by Theise is Nikolaihof "Hefeabzug" Grüner Veltliner, a wine that displays the heights to which Grüner Veltliner can rise. Nikolaihof is a biodynamic producer located in the vaunted region of Wachau. Their Grüner Veltliner is complex and long-lived, much like the winery itself - it's Austria's oldest wine estate. The Saahs family runs the estate and sees to it that all the fermentation is natural using only indigenous yeast and that the wine is aged in large old oak. The wines spend a long time - up to 4 months - on the lees. Still, the wine should not be put on too high a pedestal. Mr. Saahs likes to say, "I like to drink wine, not study it." It's impossible to disagree.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Biblious National Rivalries

There's a saying in Scotland that the Irish invented whisky, but the Scots perfected it. In the world of spirits, a region's local beverage can be tremendously important to its identity; in addition to the economic boon of having a successful local product, there's a great deal of pride that comes with originating one of the great drinks. But when these claims are challenged, and worse, when multiple regions credit themselves with the invention of spirits like pisco, vodka, or absinthe, it can start some acrimonious rivalries.

Pisco: Peru vs. Chile 
Pisco - a grape brandy traditionally made from the Quebranta grape - is only made in Peru and Chile, and the two nations have been intermittently caught in legal tangles over who exactly has the right to produce it. Named for the port town of Pisco in Peru, it became popular with sailors transporting goods between Spain and its colonies in the 17th century. Peru's national Pisco drink is the Pisco Sour, while Chile prefers the Piscola (Pisco and cola). The verdict: hard to say. We're generally more fond of the Pisco Sour, and more Peruvian Pisco is imported to the United States, so it seems like Peru might be winning either way.

Vodka: Russia vs. Poland 

Whether you're talking wódka or водка, this once-specialty distillate is now the most popular in the world; it's no wonder that a nation would want to claim it as their own. The first recorded reference to vodka came from 15th century Poland in court documents referring to medicinal products, and many Russian documents also refer to a vodka in a medicinal context. The word finally appeared in Russian dictionaries by the 19th century. Though Scandinavian and French vodkas have dominated the market for the last few years, Russian vodka has held America's popular imagination for decades - think Stolichnaya in Mad Men.

Absinthe: France vs. Switzerland 

While it's undisputed that Switzerland is the birthplace of absinthe, thanks to Dr. Pierre Oridinaire or Henroid Sister in Couvet, Switzerland, and wormwood spirits have held a place in herbal medicine since long before that, it's France that has claim over absinthe's bohemian romantic image. It's the "French method" of serving that introduced the use of a (sometimes elaborate) slotted spoon and sugar cube in service, and the counterculturists that have kept the green fairy in the imagination of such a wide audience. It was in France where the phylloxera epidemic ravaged the vineyards, where the urbanites shifted their drinking habits from red to green, and where the temperance movement ravaged the spirit's public image with rumors of it's causing a host of mental illnesses. However, Switzerland still produces some of the world's finest absinthes, both of the blanche and verte varieties, and while there may be less frenzied romanticism (and misinformation about hallucinogenic properties), the more straight-laced image of Swiss absinthe still has an extremely relevant place in the market. While there has been some legal controversy in this arena as of late, we think that both have a well-deserved place in our collection.

So, ultimately, we celebrate variety in spirits production. While we understand the pride one takes in one's drink - we're certainly pretty attached to the spirits we sell - more options mean that, inevitably, there will also be more top-tier products being made; if a distiller is passionate about their product, then national borders seem a little less important.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Behind the Scenes with Ron Zacapa

Recently we sat down with Tekla Israelson, NY Ambassador for Ron Zacapa to discuss the brand and the company behind it. A native of Juneau, Alaska, Tekla has been working in hospitality since she was sixteen and continued working as a banquet supervisor and bartender throughout college at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

After graduating with a focus in Beverage Management, Tekla moved to New York to work with the premier beverage distributor, Empire Merchants. There she specialized in training and cocktail creation for some of the world's most recognized spirit brands. After almost 3 years with Empire, she left to join the Diageo Rum Ambassador team to focus on Zacapa Rum, Oronoco and Pampero. Tekla has been working with Zacapa Rum for over one year and has been to the distillery in Guatemala twice to learn about the unique way in which Zacapa Rum is made.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation with Tekla:

Ron Zacapa has come a long way. Tell us about the history of the company.

Zacapa Rum is one of the finest and most celebrated rums in the world. Zacapa is the actual city that gave its name to the rum as a celebration for the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1876. In addition to many awards and high ratings from influential media, Zacapa Rum has the honor of being the first brand to be inducted into the International Rum Festival's Hall of Fame. Zacapa Rum is manufactured by Industrias Licoreras de Guatemala (ILG) who signed a global distribution and joint marketing agreement with Diageo. 

Many minute details go behind a great brand. Where do you source your sugar cane from? Do you use any special strain of yeast?

Zacapa Rum is a unique product that is crafted with supreme attention to detail from start to finish. The sugar cane that we use in the production of Zacapa Rum comes from our own plantations surrounding the Zacapa Rum distillery in Southwestern Guatemala.

The sugar cane is transported directly from these fields to our mill. The juice that we collect after the first pressing of the sugar cane is then converted to virgin sugar cane honey. This concentrated virgin sugar cane honey is much sweeter than molasses, which is the base material for over 90% of rums produced worldwide, and has a profound effect on the depth and flavor of Zacapa Rum.

We also use a very specific strain of yeast, cultivated from pineapple. While this yeast does not make the rum taste like pineapple, it is integral to the consistent flavor of the rum. We ferment the rum slowly – approximately 120 hours, or 5 days – to give this special yeast the time it needs to work and influence the final product.

Ron Zacapa is one of the few rum producers to embrace the Solera system. Tell us more about that process. 

We use a unique Sistema Solera for aging Zacapa Rum, which is based off of the traditional Solera system, developed over 500 years ago to age sherries in Spain. Our Sistema Solera involves blending younger rums with older rums as the liquid moves through four different types of seasoned oak barrels. We start with barrels that previously held American whiskies, and after a minimum of 3 years, we move the rum to freshly charred American whiskey barrels. Next we move the rum into barrels that previously held Oloroso Sherry before finishing the aging process in Pedro Ximenez barrels. Each of these barrels imparts different flavors and aromas to the rum, building the complexity and character of the rum as the aging process continues for up to 23 years. 

How does the high altitude effect the maturation of the final product?

Our aging facility, the "House Above the Clouds" is located 2300 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level near the town of Quetzaltenango in Western Guatemala. The high altitude has two great advantages for aging our rums. The first is the temperature, which averages approximately 65°F (18°C) year-round. This cool temperature enables us to age the rum for a longer period of time with less evaporation than we would be able to at the average sea level temperature.

The second advantage is that there is less oxygen at a higher elevation. Due to the thinner air, the liquid expands further into the barrels and is able to pick up significantly more flavor from the wood it is aged in. 

How is the XO different from the Centenario?

Zacapa Rum XO is aged in a Sistema Solera, similar to Zacapa Rum 23, but it goes through an extra step in the barrel aging process. The XO finishes its aging in barrels that previously held Cognac. This final step imparts a substantial cognac character to the rum. Stylistically, Zacapa Rum XO is less sweet than Zacapa Rum 23; it emits aromas and flavors of dried fruit, sweet spice, vanilla and chocolate, with a hint of ginger at the finish.

How would you serve Ron Zacapa to enhance the experience?

Zacapa Rum 23 is a very versatile rum, it is great for sipping but also mixes very well in cocktails. I believe the ideal way to enjoy it is either neat or served over one large ice cube. I've also been known to pour it over some vanilla ice cream! When I drink the Zacapa Rum XO, I enjoy it neat with some dark chocolate on the side. 

We are living in the revival era of classic cocktails. What would be an ideal cocktail for Centenario?

I love to use Zacapa Rum in cocktails that really showcase and enhance the flavors of the rum. I take classic bourbon or brandy cocktail recipes and substitute the base spirit with Zacapa Rum 23. My favorites are the Manhattan, old fashioned and sidecar. Zacapa Rum also works well in classic rum drinks like the classic Daiquiri, Hemingway Daiquiri and Dark and Stormy.

With so many good brands in the market, how do you plan to position Ron Zacapa? What is your target demographic?

Rum, particularly aged rum, is becoming much more popular in the US right now. As more and more great brands come into the market, we are all growing together as consumers become more aware of how great an aged rum can be. With Zacapa Rum, I focus on the quality, history and integrity of the brand. The goal is to get as many people as possible to sample the rum. We look for discerning customers who appreciate a fine, complex spirit. Currently the majority of our customers are male, although we always welcome female consumers. Lorena Vásquez, our master blender, is one of only three female master blenders in the spirits world and I don't think anyone could possibly love the brand more than she does.

What is next for Ron Zacapa? Are there any new brands coming out any time soon? Do you plan to venture into a new market?

We do not currently have plans to introduce a new brand to the market. Zacapa Rum does have a 15-year-old rum that is not available in the US market, but you can find Zacapa Rum 15 in some duty free stores.

If you were to drink a rum other than Ron Zacapa, which brand would it be?

What I love about rum is that there are so many great rum brands out there, and so many different styles. If I were to choose another brand it would be Oronoco Rum, which is a great Brazilian rum. It is a white rum that I love to drink on the rocks with just a squeeze of lime.

Stop by our store on Saturday, June 25th between 5:30 PM and 7:30 PM to try Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera Grand Reserve for yourself! We're located in Brooklyn, NY at 468 4th Avenue, which is easily accessible by the R, F & G trains.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Heading South for the Summer: The Reds of Languedoc

As the temperature rises, so does one's desire to drink crisp, refreshing white wines. The seemingly natural disposition to enjoy whites in warmer weather is, no doubt, the result that these wines are often served chilled. Add a little air conditioning or some flavorful BBQ, and our palates easily make the adjustment back to taking pleasure in reds. The case has even been made that hot regions produce reds perfect for summer sipping because the locals need to enjoy them year round. 
When it comes to hot climate viticulture (and reds well-suited for enjoying in the heat) few places can compete with the Southern French region of Languedoc. The Languedoc is France's proverbial grape-basket; the area possesses three times as many acres under vine as Bordeaux. As France's largest wine region, the area is known for producing many phenomenal values under the appellation level of Vin de Pays, which translates roughly to "country wine". This level of appellation is less strictly defined than its Appellation d'origine controlee counterpart (which goes much further in its restriction of permitted grape varieties, maximum yields, and other regulations). Vin de Pays wines are usually labeled with the grape variety on the bottle, so there's little question as to what’s inside. Wines like La Source Cabernet Sauvignon and  Alois Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre typify the clean and expressive fruit-forward nature of their stated grape varieties .

The Languedoc does have its fair share of its Appellation d'origine controlees, or AOC's. Perhaps, its best known are Corbières and Minervois, both located in the western half of the region. This can be rugged terrain with Corbières essentially being the foothills of the Pyrenees. Both of these regions produce hearty reds from grape varieties like Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan. In fact, the regulations governing both appellations dictate that the wines must contain at least two varieties, meaning they have to be blends. A wine like Castelmaure "Col des Vents" Corbieres offers a perfect introduction to the region, medium-bodied and spicy, while Domaine Faillenc Sainte Marie Corbieres, is fuller and more analogous to Zinfandel with its raspberry-driven palate. Both appellations produce reds that scream for meat from the grill, from homemade hamburgers to lamb kabobs.

In the eastern end of the region, lesser known appellations such as Saint-Chinian and Faugères are slowly, but steadily making names for themselves. Saint-Chinian is blended wine that hails from a relatively mountainous area where vineyards can often be found at altitudes of over 600 meters (1970 feet).  A wine like Borie La Vitarele "Les Terres Blanches" Saint-Chinian offers up rich flavor with soft, ripe tannins. Vineyards in Faugères can be at similarly dizzying altitudes, while their wines are round and smooth. A wine like Chateau des Estanilles "Tradition" Faugères is a easy-drinking enough to be served with a slight chill. Faugères is a wine best enjoyed in youth as its smooth tannins don't need to be softened with age.

So next time you head outside with a glass of wine this summer, consider a red from Languedoc. This viticultural frontier has much to offer, and a plethora of appellations to explore. And that's without even mentioning some of the region's crisp, delicious whites.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How To Properly Prepare Absinthe

How does one prepare a glass of absinthe?

Part of the modern appeal of absinthe involves its somewhat ritualistic traditional preparation, but really it's no more complicated than making a common cup of tea.

First: Under no circumstances should fire have any part in the absinthe ritual. This is a pointless innovation created in the 1990's and promoted by the purveyors of imitation absinth to make their products seem more interesting and to reinforce the illicit drug image.

Likewise, absinthe being in the 106 - 148 proof range, it is not intended to be drunk neat or in shots, but should be tempered with water, making it about the strength of a glass of wine.

The accoutrements:

The glass. There are dozens of styles of absinthe glasses currently available, ranging from antiques that cost hundreds of dollars to modern reproductions costing less than ten dollars. Many absinthe glasses have special "reservoirs" at their base that indicate how much absinthe should be served. If you don't have an absinthe glass, an ordinary wine glass or footed water glass will work just fine.

The spoon. This is probably one of the most unique features of absinthe preparation. An absinthe spoon consists of a flat, perforated trowel-like tool at the one end with a notch in the handle to hold it in place on the edge of the glass.

The sugar. Ordinary sugar cubes obtained from any grocery store will work perfectly when preparing your absinthe. Some dissolve more readily than others, so you may want to try several brands.

The water. Ideally, you'll want to use ice cold water, poured in a thin stream either from a water carafe, absinthe fountain, or a special dish called a brouilleur which fits over the top of the glass. Filtered tap water or bottled water are both acceptable. Soda water and tonic are not usually recommended.

The method:

Step 1: Pour a small amount of absinthe into your glass. One ounce (30ml) is generally considered one drink.

Step 2: Place the spoon across the top of the glass, and place the sugar over the perforations in the spoon.

Step 3: Slowly drip a thin stream of water over the sugar cube. The water will dissolve the sugar, which will then fall through the slots and into the absinthe.

Some absinthes will require more water than others, based on flavor profiles and alcohol strength. A good rule of thumb is to add three parts water to begin with. If it's still too strong, continue to add more. Some absinthes hit their "sweet spot" with ratios as high as 5:1.

As the water begins to dilute the absinthe, you will notice the color change, turning from clear to milky and opaque.  This is called the louche (pronounced "loosh") and is caused by the essential oils in the absinthe coming out of solution with the alcohol and becoming suspended in the water.

Step 4: After the absinthe has reached your preferred dilution ratio, use the spoon to stir the absinthe to help dissolve any sugar crystals that may remain at the bottom of the glass.

 Step 5: Sit back and enjoy! When you're ready to kick it up a notch and start evaluating and scoring absinthes, you can find the evaluation instructions at the Wormwood Society, here.

Contributed by Brian Robinson, Review Editor, Wormwood Society

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Shine On, Unaged Whiskey

Over the last few years, we've seen an explosion in moonshine, white dog and white lightning. All euphemisms for the same thing - namely, unaged whiskey - this category started with illicit distillers taking matters into their own hands to avoid high alcohol taxes. The clandestine production and transportation didn't allow for any waiting around, so this generally harsh spirit never saw the inside of a barrel.

The authentic, backwoods stuff was known to occasionally have some pretty nasty side effects, such as blindness caused by methanol. Whereas a trained distiller knows what parts of a batch - the "heart" of the distillate - make for not only safe but delicious sipping, moonshiners were sometimes inexperienced and didn't know what shouldn't be consumed. And in some cases, less scrupulous moonshiners would actually add methanol or other unsafe substances to up the apparent strength of their hooch.

So, all that said, why would anyone want to touch the stuff? With a reputation as dangerous, harsh, and frankly a little gross, the appeal beyond novelty might not be immediately obvious. Well, the modern stuff that's actually sold in stores - and has, therefore, been subject to the tax man and regulatory oversight - can be utterly delicious. Made in various grain configurations, it's most often made primarily with corn mash. When drinking a whiskey that doesn't benefit from the mellowing effects of barrel aging, you'll notice that the character of the grain comes through much more clearly; corn-based whiskey maintains the sweet character of the grain off the still.

In order to be labeled a whiskey, laws require that it at least see the inside of a barrel for some time, but these brief oaky flirtations don't do much in the way of changing flavor or color. Many excellent microdistilleries are experimenting with the stuff, as it means less storage space for aging in barrels and the ability to bring their distillates to market quickly. Because so many of them are being made by young upstart distilleries interested in experimenting with the art, you'll notice a surprising amount of variety amongst moonshines. Some that we've grown to particularly appreciate are High West Silver Western Oat Whiskey, Tuthilltown Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, and Finger Lakes Distilling Company's "Glen Thunder" - tasted side by side, you'll notice significant differences in character, but consistent drinkability. And while moonshine is only recently finding its way into cocktail culture, you'll find it's a fun spirit to experiment with. Try swapping it out in recipes for bourbon or other whiskies, or use it as a more flavorful substitute in vodka drinks.

White Manhattan

This twist on an old classic is near-clear and quite delicious.

1.5 oz unaged whiskey
.5 oz Benedictine
.5 oz blanc vermouth (such as Dolin)
3 dashes orange bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Behind the Scenes with Pacific Distillery

Located in Woodinville, Washington, Pacific Distillery is a small, family-owned and operated microdistillery dedicated to producing world class handmade spirits. We interviewed Mr. Marc Bernhard, the owner and Master Distiller of Pacific, to give you an in-depth look at this renowned distillery and the skilled craftsmanship behind "Pacifique" Absinthe Verte Superieur and "Voyager" Single-Batch Distilled Gin.

1. What inspired the creation of Pacific Distillery?

I created Pacific Distillery mainly because of my love of absinthe and quality spirits. I found that I could make better small batch absinthe than what was available at the time. When absinthe became legalized in the USA in 2007, I began to build Pacific Distillery.

2. What are the pros and cons of opening your own distillery? What difficulties did you encounter?

The still at Pacific Distillery
Opening your own distillery is an adventure not for the faint of heart. The myriad of federal, state, and local hoops one has to go through makes it a daunting process. The main difficulty in opening a small-scale distillery is not the actual opening of the distillery or the creation of good products - it's finding a route to bring your products to market. While there is a market for hand-crafted products, most large distributors do not want to deal with small distilleries due to their size and small marketing budget.

3. Why did you choose to produce an absinthe and a gin, rather than other spirits?

I chose gin and absinthe because those two spirits are my favorites and I have a personal history with them. I have always loved the flavor of anise and naturally gravitated towards anise-based spirits (ouzo, pastis, etc.). Also, my mother is of French extraction and I grew up loving the anise flavors she incorporated in much of the home cooking I grew up with. As for gin, my earliest memories of it were getting tiny sips of my father's gin & tonics when I was a small boy. I began to enjoy the smell and flavor of juniper. It also helped that we had juniper bushes in our yard as I grew up and l loved the smell of juniper on hot summer days.
4. What sets Pacifique Absinthe & Voyager Gin apart from the competition?

I think one of the things that sets Voyager Gin and Pacifique Absinthe apart from the competition is the dedication to craft that we bring to these spirits. Both spirits are micro-batch produced. We only make our Voyager Gin in 30 case distillation runs and Pacifique Absinthe is made in even smaller batches. Both gin and absinthe begin as an herbal/alcohol mixture that is distilled. For our spirits, we select only the best organically-grown botanicals from global sources, and our base spirit is of the purest available on the market. We also grow and incorporate a lot of our own herbs for our absinthe (wormwood, roman wormwood, hyssop and lemon balm). Recently we have received industry accolades for our work. Last year we were awarded a Gold Medal by the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago who stated our Voyager Gin was "Exceptional". Voyager was also awarded a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011. Pacifique Absinthe was declared one the the "Top 50 Spirits of 2010" last December by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011.

5. Are you currently working on any new products or planning any for the future?

We are currently working on several projects that may be released in the next few years. We are actively working on prototypes of rum, whiskey, specialty liqueurs, and perhaps an American brandy or eau-de-vie.

Enjoy Voyager Gin and Pacifique Absinthe in the Clipper Ship Cocktail, created for Pacific Distillery by Robert Hess:

2 oz Voyager Gin
1 oz St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz lime juice
1 dash Pacifique Absinthe

Shake with ice, strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass, and garnish with a lime twist.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!