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.

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.


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.

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.


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

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.


Locations Mentioned:

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

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

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.

1330 Fillmore St
(between Eddy St & Ellis St)
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 655-5600

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.