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.

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.