Monday, December 14, 2009

Moskovskaya Vodka: A Bargain from Russia


There is a lot of foreign vodka available in the U.S. and no spirit category has more competition. As your host has mentioned previously, the method of vodka production can heavily influence the flavor. Recently, your host recommended Dry Fly Vodka out of Spokane, WA. In that case, the uniqueness of the product, full bodied flavor, and craft production process merited the $30-$35 price tag. On the opposite end of the flavor profile lies the drier, Russian/East European style. With these vodkas, a higher price may more likely represent brand prestige than an indication of outright quality.

Your host recently came across a Russian vodka that for the price, knocks the socks off of most vodkas 3 to 4 times as expensive. The brand is Moskovskaya vodka, and is available at your local Trader Joe's at the bargain price of $8.99 for a 750 ml bottle (for those fortunate to live in non-control states).

Enthusiasts of Russian vodka may recognize that the green label design and bottle bear a striking resemblance to the red labeled Stolichnaya vodka. In fact, both brands are manufactured by the same company, SPI Group, a major Russian conglomerate. Originally formulated in 1894, Moskovskaya vodka was re-introduced under the Soviets in 1925. It has a different flavor from Stoli, with a slightly spicier finish. It shares Stoli's smooth mouth feel and pleasing smell, at less than half the cost. The mash bill reportedly contains rye malt, and the distillers add small amounts of baking soda and acetic acid to the final product as flavor enhancers.

It's easy to strike out in this price range for vodka, as most options tend to have a nasty alcohol burn and medicinal smell...fine for mixing and masking with juice, but not suitable for a martini. Moskovskaya is a winner, let's hope the price stays low.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

River City USA...Surprising Sacramento

Unless it's for business, family, or a pit stop while traveling to or from Tahoe, many Bay Area residents probably would not consider a trip to Sacramento. While it's true the city can't compare to the sights and sounds of San Francisco, it does offer some experiences that make a pleasant weekend trip...especially for those interested in a classic mid western style river city experience in California.

Sacramento also has one of the largest concentrations of late 19th century architecture in California, with its historic Old Town and its Mid-town collection of late Victorian homes. Below are several LCBV favorites in Sacramento.

Old Town Sacramento:

While touristy, the architecture in this district is unique with a number of Gold Rush and Victorian era commercial buildings. The whole area owes its preservation due to it being a slum for a good part of the 20th century until its re-development. There is also the tree lined Sacramento riverfront promenade, with views of the 1935 historic yellow vertical lift Tower Bridge. A must visit is the California State Railroad Museum, which has one of the nation's largest collections of restored and preserved steam locomotives including the Genoa and Sonoma, both classic Western style Baldwin engines. In addition, a seasonal steam train runs along the riverfront during the summer and on certain weekends.

On the waterfront is the Delta King, an original Sacramento Riverboat. While in service during the first half of the 20th century, it would carry passengers on overnight trips between San Francisco and Sacramento. Now a hotel, it provides unique accommodation with a river view. Ask for a room with a view facing the river, preferably a corner room. The decor has a nautical theme, and the rooms are very cozy, though larger than they originally were when it was in service. The boat also has a decent restaurant and bar, with a nice Sunday brunch buffet. For those into theater, the on board venue provides live entertainment on certain nights. During the summer and fall, the roof promenade is a good place to watch the fireworks show over the river after a minor league baseball River Cats game (the local team).

Make sure to grab a bite to eat at the Rio City Cafe, a classy riverfront venue with outdoor deck and historical decor. While the food is reliable, you also typically escape the Summer weekend tourist hoards who are congregated outside the nearby Joe's Crab Shack.

Alphabet District/Midtown:

Over the past 10 years, this district has started to attract a more cosmopolitan vibe. For those familiar with Portland, OR, the district is somewhat reminiscent of the NW 21st/23rd shopping and restaurant areas, as large Victorian and early 20th century houses are interspersed with shops. Many of the worthwhile spots are located along or nearby Capitol Ave, to the East of the State Capitol park. Both Rubicon Brewing, a pioneer in the craft brewing scene, and Zocalo, an upscale Mexican restaurant in an historic auto dealership are located here. The nearby Old Soul Co. coffee shop and bakery is also worth a visit. Worth a small detour is the old white California Governor's Mansion a few blocks to the North. Built in 1877, it's a rare example of a large Second Empire-Italianate Victorian. Now a museum, Ronald Reagan was the last governor to live inside.

Downtown:

The K Street Pedestrian promenade anchors the downtown area of Sacramento and has a number of outdoor cafes and shops. The intersection of 11th and K Street is particularly leafy during the summer and is a pleasant spot for lunch. The circa 1887 Cathedral of the Blessed Sacramento and the 1940's era Crest Theater are nearby.

A block to the South is the State Capitol, constructed between 1861 and 1874. The building's dome, at 220 ft, was designed to equal the height of the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. It's worth the time to enter and see the interior of the House and Senate Chambers as well as the interior dome decoration Of note, the interior of the dome is painted with shades of pink, which was considered a very masculine color in the late 19th century.

A block to the North of K Street on J Street lies the City Hall plaza and the Citizen Hotel. Along with the Delta King, the recently opened Citizen Hotel is one of the more unique places to stay. Originally constructed in 1925 for the California Western Life Insurance Company, the building is classically designed with marble and a mansard roof. Prior to the hotel conversion, the building was unofficially known as the "Poverty Palace" due to it holding the offices of numerous social service and charity groups. The developers did an excellent job preserving historical elements including the original lobby with its carvings and brass elevator doors. While cozy, the rooms are well appointed and are decorated with political cartoons. The on-site restaurant, The Grange, is a good spot for a cocktail or breakfast. The balcony lobby bar "Scandal" has a dark library feel. In fact, the designers did a good job preserving the historic original marble lobby while adding another, darker lobby behind where you actually check in. The hotel occasional runs a $99 per night promo, so it's best to call ahead to see about that rate. Normal rates start around $139, which is still very reasonable.

During the summer, the plaza across the street often hosts a farmer's market. Around the corner is Bud's Buffet. Not a true buffet, but a sandwich shop/deli that is very popular with the government crowd. While the immediate area is improving, the area gets pretty empty at night save for the corner liquor store/pawnshop crowd. Down the street from the Citizen is the old Elks Building, another grand old high rise. It's currently the home of a McCormick & Schmick's Seafood restaurant on the ground floor.

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Selected Listings:

Citizen Hotel
926 J St
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 447-2700
www.thecitizenhotel.com

Delta King
1000 Front St
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 441-4440
www.deltaking.com

Rubicon Brewing
2004 Capitol Ave
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 448-7032
www.rubiconbrewing.com

Rio City Cafe
1110 Front St
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 442-8226
www.riocitycafe.com

Old Soul Co.
1716 L St
Rear Alley
Sacramento, CA 95811
(916) 443-7685
www.oldsoulco.com

Bud's Buffet
1016 10th St
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 443-6905

California State Railroad Museum
111 I St
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 322-8485
www.csrmf.org/default.asp

Governor's Mansion Historic Park
1526 H Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=498

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vodka without the burn...

Your host recently had the chance to visit Spokane's Dry Fly Distilling. Dry Fly Distilling is a relatively new company, and has recently started to ship its gin and vodka to Northern California. Founded in 2007, Dry Fly was Washington State's first licensed micro-distiller. It's located in an unassuming strip mall next to the Norther Lights Brewery on the outskirts of downtown Spokane. Until 2007, it was very difficult to distill in Washington, and the current owners of Dry Fly lobbied the state to create a certain legal category that would allow a small distiller to prosper. One of the stipulations of the law is that 51% of the ingredients must be from Washington State.

Why is this exciting news? It's exciting since this law, designed to help Washington farmers, also causes the distiller to make their alcohol from scratch. Too many new distillers buy industrial grain alcohol (GNS) from Midwest conglomerates such as Archer Daniels and Cargill. They re-distill it, filter it through charcoal, dilute it with "artisan" water, and then slap a fancy label on the bottle and normally a premium price. Unfortunately for the consumer, it's very difficult by look to determine if their vodka or gin is GNS based, or made from scratch. However, if it is GNS based, the marketing material will likely discuss the special filtration process and the use of such items as crystals, lava rock, special charcoal, or diamonds in the filtering. Some bottlings, but not all, will also say 100% grain neutral spirits on the label.

If the alcohol is made from scratch, the distillery either ferments their own grain or uses a local brewery to provide them with wort. The result is usually a more flavorful product with less burn. Well made vodkas made from scratch will have a pleasing, sometimes sweet smell with no trace of rubbing alcohol. It's possible to make a good GNS based vodka, but it will usually have no smell at all and little special taste. It is considerably more expensive and difficult to produce alcohol from grain than it is to buy GNS. Almost every large vodka producer uses GNS, or mixes GNS with a smaller amount of house made spirit to provide flavor.

Dry Fly's vodka, made from Washington wheat, has a creamy, somewhat sweet taste. It is excellent on the rocks with a dash of orange bitters or in a Martini. It's also a vodka that's easy to drink at room temperature, and actually smells nice. Use a cheap vodka for the cranberry or lemon mixer.

Dry Fly's gin is also made with the same vodka base, but is flavored with numerous classic and unique botanicals such as Washington green apple. The flavor is mellow and soft, and while excellent, this gin may not appeal to fans of the more assertive London Dry Style. Use it in a martini or with a squeeze of lime. Save the London Dry for the gin and tonic.

If you're in Washington, both the vodka and gin can be purchased at state liquor stores for around $30. In California, the price tends to be around $35+tax. Both K&L and Beltramos typically carry the vodka and gin. While the vodka is pricey compared to other brands, it's worth the money, and you are not paying for a fancy advertising campaign.

Dry Fly also makes a wheat whiskey, though the initial batch ran out shortly after it was released this fall. Aged two years in bourbon barrels, initial reviews indicated that the next batch is worth seeking out when it's available, which the distillery says might be December 4th.

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Dry Fly Distilling
1003 E. Trent #200
Spokane, WA 99202
509-489-2112
www.dryflydistilling.com

Monday, November 9, 2009

Unique Sonoma County - LCBV Favorites

Your host recently returned from a short day trip to our Sonoma neighbors to the North. It seems that when most people visit Sonoma County for fun, it's one of 3 places. Sonoma Valley (with Downtown Sonoma), Healdsburg/Dry Creek for wine tasting, and Russian River water activities. While these are all great destinations, there are several interesting spots that many people miss. Below are some favorites.

Downtown Petaluma:

Petaluma has one of the more attractive and historic commercial districts of any Bay Area City. Founded in 1858 along the Petaluma River, downtown Petaluma has more remaining commercial Victorian buildings than perhaps any other city around. It's notable for its row of cast iron fronted commercial buildings that survived both the 1906 Earthquake and the 20th century modernization projects that removed many older structures from other small cities. Visit the corner of Petaluma Blvd. and Western Avenue for the best collection of structures. A stroll down neighboring Water Street along an historic trestle gives a good view of what was once a bustling port. Across the river in the old Northwestern Pacific train depot is a helpful tourist office with guides and maps.

Beef Jerky:

The surrounding countryside is home to several old butcher shops offering some mighty fine American style beef jerky and other smoked meat products. One of which is Angelo's Meats out near the Petaluma Airport. The other is Bud's Custom Meats, a few miles to the North in Penngrove. While expensive, the jerky at Angelo's is moist and rich, and a far cry from most factory produced jerkies. If possible, ask if they have a fresh batch that has not yet gone into plastic. The teriyaki is a good flavor. In addition to Jerky, Angelo's offers house made sausages and other smoked steaks.

Bud's Custom Meats is known for their Bloody Mary beef jerky. It's essentially jerky that is cured in a tomato pepper sauce and is unique. It's slightly cheaper than Angelo's and a little harder to find. Both of these shops will custom smoke your own meat as well.

The enclave of Penngrove has a small, but charming downtown next to the railroad tracks. Before the construction of Hwy 101, Penngrove was on the main street connecting Petaluma with Cotati (Old Redwood Highway). There are several small restaurants and shops worth a visit. The downtown is located at the intersection of Main and Old Adobe Road.

Artisan Cheese:

Sonoma County is home to several well known cheese companies including Vella, Sonoma Jack, and Spring Hill Cheese. One cheese company, the Matos Cheese Company, is well off the beaten path between Cotati and Sebastopol and worth a visit. The company makes only one type of cheese, a white Portuguese cow's milk cheese called St. George from the on-site dairy's own cows. The cheese has a nutty flavor, and is great by itself or in dishes. It tastes sort of like a firmer Havarti. The company is owned by 5th generation cheese maker Jose Matos and his wife Mary, formerly from the Portuguese Azores Islands. The dairy has a small shop at the end of a dirt road. Behind the retail counter is the aging room filled with rounds of cheese. While the chase is available at several specialty retailers at a good markup, the cost is $7 per lb at the factory shop. You can buy the cheese by the pound.

Apples and Apple Cider:

The nearby town of Sebastopol is known for its Gravenstein Apples, a variety introduced by Russian traders in the 1800's at their outpost in Fort Ross. While apple farming has somewhat succumbed to urban sprawl and wine grapes, there are still a few farms that sell direct to the customer. One of which is Hales Apple Farm right on the main Hwy 116 north of downtown. The retail stand is in an old red barn. While Gravenstein apples ripen in late July through August, a number of hard to find late harvest varietals such as Arkansas Black are available through November. They also offer fresh pressed non-alcoholic cider. The farm stand is only open during harvest season.

A few miles north in the town of Graton is the California Cider Company, which manufactures the Ace Hard Cider line from fresh apple juice. They operate a great pub called Ace in the Hole, where you can sample their offerings including regular, pear "Perry", berry, honey, and the Joker. The Joker is a stronger European style cider with a champaign like quality. The food menu is reasonably priced.

In addition, down the street in Graton's quaint small downtown is the Willow Wood Market, a great spot for specialty sandwiches and regional cuisine.

Breweries:

Sonoma County is home to a number of breweries, including Russian River, Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Stumptown Brewing. Russian River Brewing, arguably one of the Bay Area's only world class craft breweries, pushes the limit in many of its beers. It's most known for its hoppy ales and Belgian inspired beers. You'd be hard pressed to find a better IPA than Pliny the Elder or Blind Pig. In addition, Vinnie Cilurzo, owner and head brewer, has been on the forefront of the American development of barrel aged sour beers. His sour blond Temptation Ale, aged in Chardonnay barrels, is a highlight, along with Consecration Ale, a dark ale aged in Cabernet barrels with currants.

The special sauce is the use of brettanomyces, a special yeast strain that gives the beers its unique sour character. Russian River operates a tap room and pizza parlor in downtown Santa Rosa, a perfect stop on the way back from the Healdsburg Area, especially during the 4 to 6:30 pm daily happy hour (or all day Sunday). For those not wanting to drive to Santa Rosa, various products are now bottled for local stores and many items are on tap at Toronado bar on Haight Street in San Francisco.

Bear Republic Brewing may be more well known to the casual beer drinker due to their Racer 5 IPA, on tap at many San Francisco bars. Bear Republic operates a restaurant and brewery a block off the main square in Healdsburg. If you like Racer 5, make sure to try Hop Rod Rye, a hoppy rye ale.

Lagunitas is the oldest active brewery in Sonoma County, and a reliable choice. Their IPA helped start the West Coast style. While tame in bitterness compared to some newer offerings (i.e. Racer 5 and Blind Pig), their IPA may be a better choice for someone less familiar with hops. For the real Hop Heads, they produce their Hop Stoopid beer, with over 100 IBU's. The company recently opened a tap room "Beer Sanctuary" at their brewery near Petaluma, where they have a number of offerings on tap and provide pub food and live music on many nights.

Fans of San Francisco's Zeitgeist should definitely check out Stumptown Brewing in Guerneville (Stumptown was Guerneville's original name due to the heavy logging.) It may look familiar since both venues have the same owners. Stumptown is the smallest brewery, and features a couple of house brewed beers along with other craft and macro offerings. The back deck overlooking the Russian River is one of the more attractive places to enjoy a brew.

Until recently, Stumptown was also unique since they were a partner to Fossil Brewing. Fossil Brewing is a new company dedicated to making beers from prehistoric yeast. Apparently, the microbiologist founders decided to brew beer with a strain they discovered and found it made wonderful esterly ales. Before going into production, they decided to tweak the recipe at a few breweries including Stumptown. The result is the XP pale ale, which could be described as a cross between a California Pale and a Belgian Blond. However, it seems that Fossil is now going to manufacture the beer itself, so the current batch on tap at Stumptown may be the last for a while.

Miscellaneous Sights:

If you have traveled all the way to Guerneville, there are a few other spots of note within a short drive that are worth a visit. One stop is the Korbel Champagne Cellars. Founded in the 1860's, Korbel is one of the oldest surviving producers of American Champagne. Their historic winery and gardens are arguably one of the more scenic spots in the area (their modern factory is located back in the canyon, away from the historic area). In addition, the vineyards in this area are a nice contrast to the surrounding Redwood trees.

They offer free tours and tastings most afternoons. The tours take you into the old cellars and discuss the process of making California Champagne. History buffs may enjoy the historic brandy tower and the original Northwestern Pacific train depot on sight, as well as stories about how redwood stumps on the property were blown up with dynamite while filming the Combat TV show. The tour ends with a complimentary tasting of 4 to 5 different products. If your familiarity with Korbel stops with their "Brut," this tour is a chance to try several other products including a nice dry red Champagne, and the Natural Style, which is served at the White House. For those who remain thirsty, step into the retail shop where you can taste an additional 4 or 5 at no cost. The retail shop has bottlings not available in stores, and the prices are refreshingly reasonable compared to surrounding wineries.

Nearby and North of the town of Guerneville is the Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve. It's the only sizable grove of old growth Redwood in Sonoma County and has a few major trees including the Armstrong Tree and and Parson Jones Tree. The reserve is named after Colonel Armstrong, a lumberman who chose to preserve the park in the 1870's.

The park is also a perennial favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger to include on the potential state park closure list. For now it's open and worth a visit. Park in the lot outside of the gate to avoid the $8 admission fee, until you wish to drive to the picnic area at the other end of the park. Most of the large trees are within 3/4 mile of the entrance parking lot.

Back along the river to the West is the small vacation hamlet of Monte Rio. Located here is the historic Highland Dell Lodge, built in 1906. It now operates as a Bed & Breakfast and German Restaurant. The back deck is an excellent place to enjoy a drink or lunch in the Summer months with views of the river and redwoods. In the winter, the restaurant is open for dinner and serves hearty German fair such as Sauerbraten and Schwabentopf.

One last place to reference is the town of Occidental. A former lumber town and narrow gauge railroad stop, it's notable for both its scenic redwood grove location, and for its famous Italian Restaurants: The Union Hotel and Negri's, the former being in business since 1925 in a building dating to 1879. Head South from Monte Rio and the Russian River and you will run right into downtown Occidental, which has has a number of remaining historic structures.

Happy travels.

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Select Places Mentioned:

Contact each place for hours, as they may change.

Angelo's Meats


2700 Old Adobe Rd
Petaluma, CA 94952

(707) 763-9586
http://angelossmokehouse.com/

Bud's Custom Meats

7750 Petaluma Hill Rd
Penngrove, CA 94951

(707) 795-8402

Matos Cheese Company

3669 Llano Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707) 823-4454

Hales Apple Farm
1526 Gravenstein Hwy North
Sebastopol, CA 95472

707.823.4613

Ace in the Hole Pub
3100 Gravenstein Hwy N
Sebastopol, CA 95472
(707) 829-1223

www.acecider.com/

Willow Wood Market
9020 Graton Rd
Graton, CA 95444
(707) 823-0233
www.willowwoodgraton.com


Russian River Brewing
725 4th St

Santa Rosa, CA 95404

(707) 545-2337

www.russianriverbrewing.com

Bear Republic Brewing
345 Healdsburg Ave
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-2337

www.bearrepublic.com

Lagunitas Brewing and Beer Sanctuary
1280 N McDowell Blvd
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 769-4495

www.lagunitas.com

Stumptown Brewing
15045 River Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 869-0705

www.stumptown.com

Korbel Champagne Cellars
13250 River Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 824-7000

www.korbel.com

Armstrong Redwoods SNR
17000 Armstrong Woods Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 869-2015
www.parks.ca.gov


Highland Dell
21050 River Blvd
Monte Rio, CA 95462
(707) 865-2300

www.highlanddell.com

Union Hotel Pizza and Pasta Co.
3731 Main St
Occidental, CA 95465
(707) 874-3444

www.unionhotel.com

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sidecar Shenanigans in Vancouver...

Your host recently returned from a great weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia. It's definitely a city worth visiting. It's clean, beautiful, and the public transit is robust. The local beer rivals beer from Seattle, Portland, or SF, and the restaurant scene is diverse with many Asian influences. For us San Francisco residents, Vancouver's West End and Yaletown have provided a good deal of inspiration for SF's South of Market redevelopment with all the new tall residential towers. Vancouver got on this bandwagon 30+ years ago. While Vancouver is on the cutting edge of many things, it's severely lacking in one area...cocktails.

Think big, sweet, icy, and very 1980's. It's as if Vancouver cocktails are harking back to their 1986 World Expo, instead of looking forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Your host had the chance to peruse several cocktail lists during the short trip. Of the drinks ordered, most memorable was a uniquely Canadian Sidecar.Your host has never had a Sidecar like this one. And yes, the picture above is of said Sidecar. Granted, a Sidecar was not on the menu, but given that the establishment was fancy (it seemed to be Vancouver's equivalent to the Top of the Mark or Starlight Room in San Francisco), and our server assured us that they had a "very experienced" bartender, it didn't seem like a big request. After all, a Sidecar in its simplest form is cognac/brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice, served up in a cocktail glass. How difficult is that? Apparently very.

Our friendly, but clueless server should have been a warning sign, as he had never heard of a Sidecar before, but again referenced their "very experienced" bartender. As one familiar with Sidecars might imagine, the above result was somewhat shocking. If the bartender was experienced, it must have been at Trader Vic's or some other Temple of Tikidom. With a broad smile, our server exclaimed, "This sidecar drink looks delicious! Brandy, triple sec, and lime sweet and sour mix. Is this what you wanted?" Short of the brandy being pisco, it was hard to fathom exactly what brandy was used in the drink (or if it was actually brandy at all) based on the color. In a situation as comical as this, it seemed best to politely smile and express how interesting it is to try new preparations. Next time it will probably be better to stick with a beer.

This story aside, there likely are plenty of spots in Vancouver that can made a good sidecar and other classic cocktails. Just be careful of what you order, and stick to something on the menu.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Good Value Spirits: Buyer's Guide

Your host has returned! After a two month break traveling around the country, your host is back to entertain and amuse.

Recently, your host has been on the lookout for value priced spirits. Below is a list of spirits that are either under priced, or good value for the money. Typically, these spirits are able to price well due to their obscurity, newness, or the economy of scale of the producer. Most lack the prestige factor that high end single malts or certain luxury vodkas possess.



Korbel VSOP California brandy ($11.99 at BevMo): This is definitely one of the better mass market California brandies. The VSOP is aged in used Jack Daniels barrels, which gives a smokier flavor to the spirit. The spirit is smooth, and not overly sweet like many other U.S. brandies. Try it in a sidecar.

Boomsma Oude Dutch Genever ($15.99 at Beltramos): The Dutch style of gin, genever (or Holland gin), is gaining popularity in the U.S. Genever is a precursor to the more popular London dry style and is usually a heavier and sweeter spirit. While they both use juniper as a flavoring agent, genever tends to be more oily and maltier. A good comparison is that the London dry style is flavored vodka, while Dutch genever is favored whiskey. Aged in oak for over a year, Boomsma Oude has a scotch like quality, and is excellent on the rocks with a dash of bitters. At less than half the price of Bols (a leading brand), it's a good bargain.

Johnnie Walker Black Label (~$23 at major retailers): The conglomerate Diageo works its magic with this brand. Due to its immense scale, Diageo is able to keep the price of this smoky malt to a relative bargain when compared with other scotch whiskies Slightly smokey and slightly sweet, Black Label is a good standby.

Ron Zacapa 23 Solera ($39.99 at Beltramos): This rum from Guatemala is unique. A blend of rums aged between 6 and 23 years old, the spirit is aged in a variety of casks including bourbon, sherry, and Pedro Ximenez wine casks and manufactured in the solera process. While the price has risen from the $20's in the past few years, it's still a good value when compared against similar spirits, such as comparable cognacs and whiskies. The taste is sweet and rich, perfect in a brandy snifter.

Rain Vodka ($14.99 at Beltramos): This vodka is made from sweet white corn and manufactured by the Buffalo Trace company (makers of several bourbons including their namesake brand). This corn based vodka is sweeter than many, with a more pronounced creaminess. Unlike many vodkas, the company makes their vodka from scratch. Many modern US vodkas buy grain neutral spirits from industrial distillers and then charcoal filter and dilute with artisan water.

Ridgemont '1792' Reserve Bourbon ($24.99 at Beltramos): This relatively new bourbon is the premium offering from Barton Brands, now owned by the Sazerac company). At 8 years old, it has a nice richness. This would be a good option for people used to Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve. The bottle is also upscale looking.

Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whiskey ($21.99 at BevMo): This whiskey, produced at the Kittling Ridge distillery in Grimsby, Ontario, is an excellent whiskey in the lighter Canadian style. It's unique in that they age the whiskey in house made sherry wine barrels, and make 3 distinct component whiskies from corn, rye, and barley before blending them together for the finished product. The price is also reasonable, and has not increased like many other independent distillers have done over the past few years.

Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof ($17.99 at Beltramos): This is one of the best values in rye whiskey. Spicier than bourbon, rye makes an excellent Manhattan and is a requirement for the Sazerac cocktail. The 100 proof version is much better than the 80 proof version, which tastes watered down.

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Both Beltramos and Bevmo offer online sales. Beltramos, located in Menlo Park, tends to have some of the best prices, but the inventory can be limited. BevMo has multiple locations.

www.bevmo.com
www.beltramos.com

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Distillery Directory and Stay Tuned....

Hello readers. Your host recently returned from a coastal trip along the U.S. 101 from Seattle to San Francisco. In the next few weeks, look to see a full overview with highlights, in case you are planning your own Pacific Coast trip.

In the meantime, here is another liquor related post. If you share an interest in American craft distilling (or their products), check out the American Distilling Institute webpage. They cover a variety of topics concerning domestic spirits, and operate as an advocate for the industry.

Their 2009 directory, linked below, is a good place to start. The directory lists almost every craft distiller in the U.S., and also contains some interesting articles concerning domestic brandy and eue de vie. If you're planning a trip, it's a great resource to check to see if there might be any liquor tasting rooms near your destination.

http://www.distilling.com/PDF/09directory.pdf

Bill Owens (President)
American Distilling Institute
Box 557
Hayward, CA
510-886-7418
www.distilling.com

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Monopolowa Gin: Value Gin Made From Potatoes


Gin is one of those spirits where quality is very important, as unlike vodka, you can rarely cover the taste of bad/harsh gin with juice or other mixers. While there is good reason to be suspect of a $10 gin, one can be surprised, such as in the case of Monopolowa Gin.

Monopolowa gin is made by the J.A. Baczewski Company, a former polish distiller now located in Vienna, Austria. Unlike most gins, Monopolowa Gin is distilled from potatoes, rather than grain (J.A. Baczewski also makes an excellent potato vodka). They use standard London Dry botanicals such as juniper berries, orange and lemon peels, coriander, anise, and fennel, but the overall product is much less assertive than traditional London Dry gin and closer in taste to Plymouth Gin (known for its softer flavor). It has a creamy mouth feel and balanced flavor profile. This gin mixes particularly well with bitter liqueurs such as Campari and Chartreuse, as the piny juniper flavor doesn't dominate. Try it in a Negroni or Martini. However, those accustomed to the taste of strong English gins like Beefeater may find it a little weak tasting for a Gin & Tonic.

Costing $9.99 at the local Trader Joe's for 1L, this gin is an excellent value.

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Monopolowa Gin
J.A. Baczewski Company
http://www.agjab.com/monopolowa_2008/frame.htm

The Perfect Negroni

1 oz Gin
1 oz Bitter Sweet Vermouth (Try Punt e Mes)
1 oz Campari

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. The Negroni is traditionally an aperitif, designed to stimulate the appetite. If you must use a cheaper, less bitter, sweet vermouth like Martini & Rossi or Ponti, add a few dashes of Angostura Bitters to the mix.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cocktails on the Small Screen

There are dozens of blogs and media outlets that concern the art of the cocktail. Some of these are featured on the links section of this page. Most of these blogs are run by bartenders, amateur cocktalians, or owned by various liquor companies. However, a few business start-ups have entered the space, including the Small Screen Network (SSN).

The SSN specializes in "niche casting," consisting of short sub-10 minute programs targeted at the cocktail/beverage enthusiast. Their first show, "The Cocktail Spirit," is hosted by Robert Hess, cocktail expert and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail. When not discussing cocktails, Mr. Hess interestingly hangs his hat at Microsoft as a Technology Evangelist. His short videos are a great way to learn how to mix quality cocktails quickly and properly, ranging from well known drinks like the Cosmopolitan to lesser known libations like The Last Word.

Other shows include "Raising the Bar," hosted by Bartender Jamie Boudreau, "Three Sheets," with comedian Zane Lamprey, and "The Liquid Muse" with mixologist Natalie Bovis-Nelsen.

In addition to the videos, the SSN also operates several entertaining blogs. For those of you with money to play with, they're looking for angel investors according to the webpage.

Follow the below link:

http://www.smallscreennetwork.com

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Black Pudding and Beer: Gastropubs Move West


Those that live in or frequent San Francisco's Marina District probably have noticed the line that forms outside the new gastropub, The Tipsy Pig, on weekend nights. Conceived by the Vintage 415 gang (Umami, Mamacitas, The Ambassador, et. al), the restaurant is well run and popular. While the food is decent pub food and the beer list thoughtful, the culinary offerings are tame by gastropub standards. For example, there's nothing obscure enough on the menu to make the average Marina denizen squeal. The pork sliders are one of the better menu options.

The Tipsy Pig is just one of several gastropubs to open in the Bay Area over the past few years, as part of a current broader movement. The term was originally coined in 1991 by David Eyre and Mike Belben who operated the Eagle Pub in Clerkenwell, London. A combination of "gastronomy" and "pub", their "gastropub" establishment was an attempt to combine quality dining in a pub environment, thus elevating British dining and pub culture. The movement jumped to New York City in late 2003 with the opening of The Spotted Pig. The general scene has exploded since then, helped by the current economic times as gastropub menus typically feature more reasonable prices and comforting food such as upscale hamburgers and mac and cheese (as well as more obscure Scottish and English specialties like blood pudding).

The Bay Area's gastropubs could be broken into two groups. The former includes classic pubs that have upgraded their culinary offerings, while the latter includes new arrivals such as the aforementioned Tipsy Pig. Good examples of the first group include classic pubs like Liverpool Lil's and The Pig & Whistle, founded in 1973 and 1991 respectively. The latter group is diverse with more traditional establishments with beer centric menus/pub decor like Monk's Kettle, Magnolia Pub, Martin's West, and Tipsy Pig, to ones that have more of a focus on lighter, more California influenced fare and decoration such as The Alembic, Urban Tavern, and the Grand Tavern in Oakland. In addition, one could argue that with the West Coast's focus on fresh and exciting food, many of our local microbrewery restaurants were essentially "gastropubs" before the name became trendy.

Your host recently had the opportunity to visit Martins West, a new gastropub that opened in May in the historic area of Redwood City. The founders include the husband and wife team of Moira Beveridge and Derek Smith, both active in the local restaurant and bar scene, as well as Michael Dotson, former Executive Chef at Evvia in Palo Alto. It's named after the Martins Restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland, run by Martin Irons, a family friend of Ms. Beveridge.

Located in the old Alhambra Theater building constructed in 1896, the restaurant incorporates some of the original design elements of the building including a line of solid wood columns that extend down the middle of the room. Also notice the scorch marks on the back exposed brick walls, resulting from a fire in years past. The proprietors went through great lengths to use recycled materials during construction. The bar is made from an older wooden water tank, and many of the tables are made from old wine barrels.

The menu is adventurous with Scottish items such as black pudding (cow's blood mixed with flour), haggis (sheep's entrails), and herbed marrow bones featured prominently on the menu. This is in addition to friendlier fare like burgers and fish and chips, and several more California influenced dishes like tandoori roasted local halibut. The black pudding is excellent, and not too salty.

The beer selection is U.S. focused with several micro brews on tap, as well as bottled European beers. The cocktail list is thoughtful, and includes options made with rye whiskey and served in mason jars.

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Gastropub Recommendations:

Martins West Pub
831 Main Street
Redwood City, CA 94063
(650) 366-4366
www.martinswestgp.com

The Tipsy Pig
2231 Chestnut St
(between Pierce St & Avila St)
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 292-2300
www.tipsypigsf.com

Liverpool Lil's
2942 Lyon St
(between Greenwich St & Lombard St)
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 921-6664
www.liverpoollils.com

The Pig & Whistle
2801 Geary Blvd
(between Collins St & Wood St)
San Francisco, CA 94118
(415) 885-4779
www.pig-and-whistle.com

The Monk's Kettle
3141 16th St
(between Albion St & Valencia St)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 865-9523
www.monkskettle.com

Magnolia Pub & Brewery
1398 Haight St
(between Central Ave & Masonic Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 864-7468
www.magnoliapub.com

The Alembic
1725 Haight Street
(between Cole St & Shrader St)
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 666-0822
www.alembicbar.com

Urban Tavern
333 O'Farrell St
(between Mason St & Taylor St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 923-4400
www.urbantavernsf.com

The Grand Tavern
3601 Grand Ave
(between Davidson Way & Weldon Ave)
Oakland, CA 94610
www.grandtavern.net

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A cocktail book that helped start a movement...


Over the past five years, there has been a resurgent interest in the classic cocktail. Cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and New York all contain new bars specializing in pre-prohibition drinks.

One of the books that helped spawn the movement is titled "Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails." Originally published in 2004 by Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail, the book contains a multitude of very interesting cocktail recipes and the histories behind them. Haigh recently re-released an updated and expanded version that contains additional recipes, pictures, and resource sections about the locations of obscure ingredients.

While the recipes provide for hours of bar tending or home mixology fun, the stories are entertaining and provide useful background. The book makes a great read, or a fun conversation starter on an airplane.

Online bookstores such as Amazon.com currently carry the new version.

Of the included cocktails, one of the more fanciful recipes in name and taste is below, supposedly created by J.P. Morgan, of banking fame.

Alamagoozlum Cocktail (for 3 servings):

1/2 egg white
2 oz genever gin (Junipero or other strong gin also works)
2 oz water (melted ice can suffice)
1 1/2 oz Jamaica rum (preferably Wray & Nephew Overproof white rum)
1 1/2 oz Chartreuse (green or yellow)
1 1/2 oz gomme syrup (simple syrup)
1/2 oz orange curacao (Cointreau works)
1/2 oz Angostura (not an error)

Shake, strain into three glasses. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tilted Travels: Sailing on the Bay

For a city surrounded by water, surprisingly few residents have had the chance to sail on San Francisco Bay in a real sailboat. While taking the Blue & Gold ferry for drinks/brunch at Sam's in Tiburon is nice, it's not the same experience as traveling under sail on a boat tilted 45 degrees.

Fortunately, there are several charter services available. One of which is The Ruby, run by Captain Josh Pryor. Your host recently had the chance to take part in a Sunday afternoon cruise.

For a reasonable $40 per person, you get a 2.5 hour sail around the bay, which includes a lunch of deli sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and cookies. A decent selection of beer and wine is available for $4 a glass. Captain Josh is at the helm, and his First Mate, Elizabeth, acts as bartender and helps around the boat. Josh and Elizabeth are great hosts, and will gladly share information about the boat and journey including anecdotes about past voyages. Josh has been running the Ruby for close to 30 years, and Elizabeth has been on the boat for 5. Many passengers return over and over, including one late 20's passenger on our cruise who said she has been coming since she was 7 years old.

The boat itself is interesting, as it was constructed by Captain Josh himself in the late 1970's. The 63 ft long sloop is constructed of steel, and has a handy solid railing around the edge (as compared to a metal cord like many boats have). Considering how much the boat tilts while under sail (see picture), the railing is reassuring, especially after several beers. When not under sail, the boat is powered by a small antique 1940's diesel engine. For those who wish to take refuge from the wind/spray, the interior cabin is large enough to accommodate several passengers and is nicely appointed with white wainscoting. Notice the stuffed turtle head on the wall.Like the boat, its berthing location is also unique, being behind The Ramp, which is a fun, ramshackle, waterside outdoor bar/restaurant in the Dog Patch neighborhood of San Francisco. It's an excellent place for a post-cruise beer or cocktail. In addition, for those interested in historic industrial architecture, there is a very old dry dock with cranes across the inlet.

Captain Josh sails all year round, normally once or twice a day. It's best to call ahead to make reservations, and to learn the day's sailing time(s). Routes can differ depending on the wind and currents. Our route took us out past AT&T Park, under the Bay Bridge, and around Alcatraz to Angel island and return. For those that forget their warm clothes, there are several West Marine sailing jackets available for use on the boat.

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The Details:

Ruby Sailing Yacht
835 Terry Francois St
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 861-2165
www.rubysailing.com

The Ramp Restaurant
855 Terry Francois St
(between Illinois St & Mariposa St)
San Francisco, CA 94158
(415) 621-2378
www.ramprestaurant.com

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Musings on "Mocktails"

For many hosts, non-alcoholic drinks are typically an after thought at most parties. Perhaps there will be a bottle of sparkling water, maybe some soda, or a bottle of Martinelli's. While these options are perfectly fine, it's possible to create more interesting drinks with a little time and preparation. Designated drivers and teetotalers will appreciate it, as will those that prefer sophisticated beverages, but prefer to cut the alcohol after one or two drinks.

When making non-alcoholic "mocktails" it's important to emphasize the bitter or sour ingredients, to avoid something flat and sweet. Ingredients such as fresh citrus, tea (green or black), ginger, balsamic vinegar, white wine reductions, and commercial bitters (Angostura, Peychards, Fee Brothers, etc) can elevate the ordinary to extraordinary. While bitters typically include alcohol, the amount is virtually negligible if only using a few dashes.

The below two "mocktails" are refreshing for Summer. For those that abhor the thought of boozeless cocktails, both recipes work quite well with a splash of light rum.

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Strawberry Balsamic Cooler

1 ounce aged Balsamic vinegar
3 large diced fresh strawberries
3 ounces chilled smoky Oolong tea
1/2 tbl spoon agave syrup, or 1/2 tsp Stevia extract
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Crushed ice
Sparkling water

Place diced strawberries into bowl with vinegar and marinate. Place strawberry mixture into a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and all remaining ingredients except for sparkling water. Make sure Oolong tea is a heavy brew. Stir with spoon. Top off with sparkling water, and lightly stir again. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

The Temperate Twizzle

4 ounces chilled concentrated green tea
2 tbl spoons white wine syrup (see below)
Juice of one fresh lime
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1/2 tbl spoon agave syrup
2 crushed mint sprigs

Shake all together with high quality ice cubes/crushed ice. Strain into cocktail glass, and garnish with a lime twist. For concentrated tea, make a heavy brew by steeping for longer than normal. The ice cubes will add water to the mixture, providing the proper dilution.

White wine syrup: Reduce one bottle of sweet acidic wine in a saucer pan, which will cause the alcohol to vaporize. Un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc or Rieslings will be best. Simmer until liquid has a medium consistency. Drop small portion into ice water. If the liquid congeals, the reduction is complete. Store excess syrup in refrigerator for future use.

Note: Your host created the above drink, which is a variation of a tea cooler. A main difference is that this drink is designed to be served up in a cocktail glass.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Toronto Cocktail: A Different Take on San Francisco's Favorite Bitter Liqueur

Loved by some and despised by many, Fernet Branca is of one Italy's most potent herbal bitters. Originally formulated in 1845 by Bernardino Branca, Fernet is based on a closely guarded family recipe which includes saffron, gentian root (as in Angostura bitters), aloe, myrrh, rhubarb, and red cinchona bark mixed with a brandy based spirit. It has a pungent aroma and taste, which some describe as similar to Jagermeister without the sugar. At 40% alcohol, Fernet is considerably stronger than other Italian bitters including Campari and Cynar, which are both around 20% alcohol.

San Francisco has the distinction of being the City in the U.S. with the most drinkers who happen to love the product. San Francisco's love affair with the liqueur extends back to before Prohibition, and has only increased since. According to the Fratelli Branca company, which manufactures the liqueur, San Francisco consumes over 1300 cases per month, which equates to about 90% of U.S. consumption. For those familiar with the SF bar scene, it's not uncommon to see people drink shots of Fernet, often with a ginger ale chaser.

While many enjoy the taste bud blasting shot approach, there are several, arguably more pleasurable, ways to drink Fernet. One of these is in the Toronto Cocktail, which your host previously mentioned briefly in the post from May 26th, and is worth discussing again in more detail. This cocktail is a whiskey based cocktail that's a great alternative to a more traditional Manhattan or Sazerac.

The Toronto Cocktail is typically rye whiskey mixed with Fernet, sugar, and another bitter such as Angostura. A robust rye whiskey, such as Rittenhouse or Sazerac, is important in this drink since the whiskey needs to stand up to the assertive flavors of Fernet. Using a weaker whiskey like a Canadian or a wheated bourbon (i.e. Maker's Mark) will cause the drink to be unbalanced. If no rye whiskey is available, use a bourbon with a high amount of rye like Bulleit or Four Roses, which are both common at most higher end bars. As is the case with most whiskey drinks, it's important to stir this cocktail (vs. shake) to avoid excessive dilution from melting ice.

For a town where Fernet is so well known, there are surprisingly few bartenders that are familiar with this drink. Feel free to share the below recipe and perhaps you'll make a new friend.

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Toronto Cocktail
2 ounces rye whiskey (100 proof or greater is best)
1/4 ounce Fernet
1/4 ounce simple syrup or other sweetener
2 dashes Angostura Bitters (or other high quality aromatic bitters)

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel, or orange twist. Use more or less sweetener to taste.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rails to Breakfast: San Carlos Depot Cafe


Riding the rails between San Francisco and the Peninsula can turn up a number of surprises, one of which is the San Carlos Depot Cafe. The cafe is located in the former Southern Pacific train depot, which now serves as the San Carlos stop on the Caltrain.

Unique in California railroad architecture, the sandstone depot was constructed in 1888 in the Richardson Romanesque style. You might notice that the architecture has a lot in common with the old campus of Stanford University. Through his friendship with Leland Stanford, early San Carlos resident and builder Nathaniel Brittan reportedly hired architect Charles Coolidge to design the railroad depot. Coolidge's Boston firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge were the architects of Stanford University and they used the same brown sandstone from the same quarry used for the Stanford buildings. The depot was designed as a gateway for the City, in part to entice potential homeowners to purchase land. During the railroad grade separation project of the late 90's, Caltrain engineers chose to preserve the depot based on its history and its position on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over 20 years ago, the Depot Cafe moved into what was the former waiting room and telegraph office of the depot. The menu offers standard breakfast and lunch options, including an expanded menu on weekends with corned beef hash and Eggs Benedict. The food isn't particularly inventive, but you will find well prepared omelets, pancakes, hash browns and breakfast meats at reasonable prices. Try the bacon.

In addition to the the food, what makes the cafe most interesting is the decor. Above the old fireplace is a model steam engine, and just about every wall is covered with train photographs, maps, and memorabilia. Rail fans rejoice.

While it's easy to take a stop on the Caltrain for breakfast, it's also convenient to drive and use the Holly exit off U.S. 101. There are dedicated parking spots for the cafe within the Caltrain parking lot.

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Location Details:

San Carlos Depot Cafe
599 El Camino Real (Cross street San Carlos Ave)
San Carlos, CA 94070
(650) 595-0555

Open 7 days a week, 6:00 am until 3:00 pm.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hoppy vodka? Not quite...

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its artisanal food and drink, including its locally produced wine and spirits. Most enthusiasts in the know are well aware of St. George Spirits (Hanger One Vodka, whiskies, and fruit brandies), Anchor Distilling (Rye whiskies and Gin), and Germain-Robin (distiller of fine brandies). However, far fewer are aware of a much smaller distillery, deep in Silicon Valley, named Essential Spirits.

Essential Spirits is the endeavor of David Classick and Andrea Mirenda, a husband and wife team who caught the distilling bug after spending time in France and at the Germain-Robin brandy distillery in Ukiah. Having a technology background, they both needed to get educated on distilling before deciding to open their distillery close to home in Mountain View. Rather than making brandy or whiskey, which typically require several years of aging in oak, or vodka, which has tons of market competition, the couple decided on making a unique un-aged German style spirit distilled from beer called Bierschnaps.

First produced in 1999, their Classick American Bierschnaps is a very unique spirit, as its the only one like it produced in the U.S. It's so unique, that the Federal ATF needed to create a special category for licensing the product. Unlike its German cousin, Classick uses a house made hoppy California style pale ale, similar to Sierra Nevada. He then distills the beer in a custom made Jean-Louis Stupfler copper pot still from France. The resulting product is clear like vodka, but has spicy undertones of the Northwestern Hops and American malt with a dry finish. It's an entirely different spirit than vodka in both flavor and mouthfeel. Bottled at 80 proof, it's a great substitute for vodka or gin in many drinks and makes a particularly good martini.

Over time, Essential Spirits has added other products to the portfolio including Napa Valley grappa, rum, and pear brandy. In addition, they also distill DH Krahn Gin in their pot still under a license agreement. As of press time, the distillery is not open for tours.

K&L Wines, a local merchant, carries several of Essential's products including the Bierschnaps, and also ships to home addresses.

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Locations Mentioned:

Essential Spirits
144 S Whisman Rd # A
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 962-0546

K&L Wines
3005 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA 94061
(650) 364-8544
www.klwines.com

Bierschnaps Cocktails:

Bierchnaps Martini
2 ounces of Bierschnaps
1/2 ounce of dry vermouth
Dash of Angostura Bitters

Shake vigorously with ice, strain, and serve with an olive.

While your host usually prefers a generous pour of vermouth in the martini, it's best to utilize restraint in this cocktail to allow the subtleties of the Bierschnaps to shine through.

Modified Lime Rickey
2 ounces of Bierschnaps
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 tsp of agave syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters

Shake vigorously with ice, strain, and serve with a twist.

The agave syrup is a little more exciting than standard cane based simple syrup. Make sure to use a lighter variety, or the agave flavor will dominate. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's usually carry several brands.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

For relaxing times...Make it Suntory time!


Fans of the 2003 comedy, Lost in Translation, may recognize the above phrase as the slogan voiced by the character Bob Harris (Bill Murray) for Suntory brand whisky. For those outside of Japanese cultural and whisky enthusiast circles, this mention may have been their first exposure to the world of Japanese whisky, as Suntory as a brand has historical been more familiar for its melon flavored Midori liquer.

Until a few years ago, it was next to impossible to find Japanese whisky in the U.S. outside of Japanese restaurants and enclaves, save for a bottle of Super Nikka or Gold & Gold (both decent, but nondescript blended whiskies). The release of the movie more or less coincided with the release of the Suntory Yamazaki line of Japanese single malts in the U.S. market, the first of what will hopefully be many releases of premium Japanese malt on this side of the Pacific.

Founded in 1923 by Scotland educated Shinjiro Torii, Suntory is the oldest provider of Japanese whisky, and their Yamazaki product line consists of a 12 and an 18 year old single malt product distilled and bottled at the Yamazaki distillery, located in Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan. Manufactured in the Scotch style with imported Scottish barley malt, the whisky has scotch characteristics while being uniquely Japanese.

One differentiation is the use of Japanese oak in addition to sherry and bourbon barrels during the aging process. Japanese oak, which is a denser wood, adds a spicier element. In addition, the Japanese environment, with its unique terroir, affects the whisky during maturation. However, in a reference to its origins, the Japanese largely spell their whisky ending with a "y" as they do in Scotland, vs. an "ey" as is done in the U.S. and many other countries.

The late whisky critic Michael Jackson described the 12 year old as " A pioneering malt in Japan, for which Suntory deserve great credit. In its early days, it was rounded and delicate, as though wary of offending anyone. Now it is more intense, confident and elegant." Playboy Magazine gave the 18 year full marks (Yes, Playboy does, in fact, write some thoughtful liquor reviews). Your host personally enjoys the 18 year malt, as it's rich and dark without the smoke characteristic to many Scottish whiskies (apparently the Japanese dislike the taste of peat). Adding a little water to the whiskey will uncover aromas of fruit and strawberries.

Your host recently had the opportunity to attend a private tasting of several Suntory whisky products at the Guanxi Lounge of Shanghai 1930, a private cigar lounge within the art deco inspired Chinese restaurant, located in San Francisco's financial district. The tasting was lead by Gardner Dunn, North American Brand Ambassador for Suntory whisky, and Indah Marcelly, the local San Francisco based ambassador for Suntory products. Those familiar with the New York cocktail scene may know Gardner as a consultant for 33 Libations, a firm that consults on beverage programs.

Gardner walked attendees through Suntory history, with flair and colorful language, and provided samples of various Suntory products. Samples included the aforementioned 12 and 18 year Yamazaki single malts, as well as samples of component whiskies, including 12 year old cask strength (110 proof) whisky aged in Japanese, bourbon, and sherry woods. In addition, the standard Hibiki blended whisky, as well as the 17 year Hibiki blend in a lunar new year ceramic ox figure were available for tasting (See photo).

The Hibiki line, not yet available in the U.S., provided an interesting contrast to the more robust Yamazaki single malt line. The 17 year Hibiki was excellent, and had a silkier mouth feel and cleaner taste than the Yamazaki 18, characteristics of good whisky blending. Harking back to Lost in Translation movie references, the Hibiki line was the one featured in the mock commercials (look closely at the bottle in the movie). In Japan, blended whiskies have historically been more popular than single malts. Indah mentioned that neither the Hibiki, nor any other Suntory whiskey product, will be imported until distributors exhaust the 10,000 cases of Yamazaki product already shipped to the U.S.

This current presentation was a far cry from when Suntory first started to market Yamazaki in the U.S. market. At a tasting event your host attended a few years back, an older grey haired gentleman walked the audience through the nuances and subtleties of Japanese whisky. In a quest to appeal to younger audiences, Suntory appears to have moved on to more lively, hipper, spokespeople.

Expect to pay around $40 for a bottle of the 12 year Yamazaki, and between $80 and $110 for the 18 year. Most high end liquor stores in the Bay Area should carry the product. It's less prevalent in bars and clubs in San Francisco, but check out Whiskey Thieves, Nihon Whisky Lounge, Yoshi's, or any bar in Japantown.

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Locations Mentioned:

Shanghai 1930
133 Steuart Street
(between Howard & Mission Street)
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 896-5600
www.shanghai1930.com

Commentary: While the Guanxi lounge is private, anyone can eat in the restaurant, which offers Asian specialties and jazz music. It's one of a few restaurants in San Francisco located below street level. The bar usually stocks Yamazaki.

Whiskey Thieves
839 Geary St
(at Larkin St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 409-2063

Commentary: There is arguably no bar in SF with a better selection at such reasonable prices (Scotch, bourbon, Irish, craft, Japanese, etc). For many years, this bar allowed smoking due to a special owner-operator status (one of just a handful in San Francisco). This recently changed, and now you don't need to elbow aside chain smoking patrons at the bar on weekend nights. Located in the tenderloin, the atmosphere definitely has the dive bar vibe.

Nihon Whiskey Lounge
1779 Folsom St
(between 14th St & Erie St)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 552-4400
www.nihon-whisky.com

Commentary: This upscale Japanese lounge offers an impressive whiskey list, as well as decent sushi and Asian food. It's definitely a good option if you are looking to dress up and have a whisky themed evening.

Yoshi's
1330 Fillmore St
(between Eddy St & Ellis St)
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 655-5600
www.yoshis.com

Commentary: Located in the revitalized Fillmore Jazz District, Yoshi's provides a nice bar setting, as well as the restaurant and Jazz theater. In addition to the Yamazaki line, Yoshi's sometimes carries the Nikka Gold&Gold, often priced cheap like a shot of Jim Beam.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A (Very) Classic Dry Martini

More often than not, most people nowadays think of the Dry Martini as vodka based, shaken, with lots of ice and maybe just a touch of vermouth. Some bartenders leave out the vermouth entirely, going so far as proclaiming "Vermouth is for Cream Soup," as one well known bartender does here in San Francisco at the Connecticut Yankee. While the above preparation works well for some, it is a far cry from the original Dry Martini.

Historically, the Martini has been gin based, with a much higher proportion of dry vermouth. David Wondrich, acclaimed writer and authority on all things cocktails, discusses this issue in his book, Imbibe! (Penguin Books, 2008).

Wondrich
references an early Dry Martini recipe, originally published in the Hoffman House Bartender's Guide from 1906. This recipe used equal parts vermouth and gin, along with a few dashes of orange bitters. It's important to use a classic London Dry style of gin in order to hold up to the vermouth. While modern and lighter citrusy gins such as local favorites Sarticious and N. 209 are great in their own right, they will not provide the balance necessary in this drink. Use more juniper forward gins like Beefeater, Tanqueray, or Bombay. If you prefer local craft spirits in your drink, Anchor Distilling's Junipero Gin works well. The vermouth should be the dry French Noilly Pratt, and the orange bitters can be Regan's #6. This drink should be stirred, not shaken, with chunks of good quality ice, store bought or made with purified water. Due to the subtleties of the drink, high quality ice is more important here than with a juice based cocktail.

Few bars will likely list this type of Martini on the menu, though most should be able to make it with some guidance. However, one bar in particular, the legendary Pegu Club of New York City, offers a variation of this classic style called the Fitty Fitty.

Fitty Fitty Martini

1 ounce dry gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
Few dashes of orange bitters

Stir with ice in mixing glass. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

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Below are several bars in San Francisco where you can drink this style of Martini in worthy historic surroundings.

Bix
56 Gold St
(between Balance St & Montgomery St)
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 433-6300
www.bixrestaurant.com

Commentary: Classic styled restaurant in the historic Jackson Square neighborhood. Art Deco styling with columns, soaring atrium, commissioned art work, and nightly jazz or piano music. Try the steak tartare.

Elite Cafe
2049 Fillmore St
(between California St & Pine St)
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 346-8400
www.TheEliteCafe.com

Commentary: Art Deco roadhouse styling, originally founded as the Lincoln Grill in 1928, and recently renovated back to classic style decor. Check out the unique light fixtures, and try the deviled eggs.

Big Four Restaurant
1075 California St
The Huntington Hotel
(between Cushman St & Taylor St)
San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 771-1140
www.big4restaurant.com

Commentary: The bar has rich wood finishing with dark hues and is in a building constructed in 1922. Good bar menu to accompany the martini. Try the chicken pot pie.

Maxfield's Pied Piper Bar
The Palace Hotel
2 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 512-1111
www.maxfields-restaurant.com

Commentary: This bar arguably contains one of the finest bar murals of all time, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, painted in 1909 by Maxfield Parish. The mural alone is worth a visit. The decor is similar to the Big 4 Restaurant, with dark wood paneling.

Butterfly Bar
Hotel Majestic
1500 Sutter St
(between Gough St & Octavia St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 441-1100
www.cafemajesticsf.com

Commentary: Though the Cafe Majestic recently closed, the adjacent Butterfly Bar is still open and provides light Victorian styling and unique actual butterfly displays. The Hotel Majestic, constructed in 1904, is one of the only wooden SF Hotels still in existence to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Bar Drake
Sir Francis Drake Hotel
450 Powell St
(between Sutter St & Post St)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 395-8555
www.sirfrancisdrake.com

Commentary: Though the bar itself is a new creation, it is located within the lobby of the Sir Francis Drake hotel, constructed in 1928. Unlike the modern Clock Bar at the neighboring St. Francis Hotel, Bar Drake incorporates classic styling with marble and brass. A bar has existed in some form at this location for a number of years.

Elixir
3200 16th St
(between Guerrero St & Spencer St)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 552-1633
www.elixirsf.com

Commentary: The current owners claim a saloon has existed on the site since 1858, making this likely the oldest drinking location in town. In 2003, the bar was renovated to a more classic styling with stained wood and brass.

House of Shields
39 New Montgomery Street
(between Jessie St & Stevenson St)
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 975-8651
www.houseofshields.com

Commentary: Founded in 1908, this bar recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Drink a cocktail or listen to live music in subdued Edwardian surroundings that haven't changed much since construction.

83 Proof
83 1st St
(between Elim St & Mission St)
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 296-8383
www.83proof.com

Commentary: This is the new kid on the block, though it is likely one of the most straight forward cocktail bars in San Francisco constructed in a classic style. There is no set cocktail list and the bartenders are highly knowledgeable. If you happen to stump the bartender, he may look up the recipe on his iPhone.