Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Avid wine drinkers and food lovers the world over all face a fairly regular question: What should we drink with this meal?
While there have been many published guides on this, nearly all are dry and far too involved and reference- like for regular day-to-day use.
Redeeming this genre of book is the recent publication of Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s What to Drink With What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea — Even Water — Based on Expert Advice from America’s Best Sommeliers (Bulfinch September 2006; 368 pages; $35; see their website for their latest work.)
Despite the unwieldy, if straightforward title, What to Drink With What You Eat delivers exactly what it promises — the definitive contemporary guide to food and beverage pairings based on current “expert” opinion and tastes from a wide cross-section of wine and food professionals and sommeliers (a fancy French word for the waiter in charge of the wine service). The book begins with an engaging and instructive introduction to the art of food and beverage pairing, both at home and commercially, then gallops along at a nice, very readable pace.
There are two basic parts to this informative and practical book. The first offers a comprehensive alphabetical listing of foods from Aioli to Zucchini, and each entry is accompanied by a list of suggested beverages that would best accompany it.
The second part of the book offers the same but leading with the beverages instead of the food, offering an equally comprehensive alphabetical listing, from Aglianico (pronounced “ah-LYAH-nee-koe”; a red varietal wine from the Campania and Basilicata regions of Italy) to Zinfandel. Again, the entries here are accompanied by a list of compatible food suggestions.
Peppering the text throughout are quotes, situational advice, and instructive and entertaining anecdotes from their experts.
The back section of the book contains interviews, advice, dream menus, and the like, distilled from the book’s “Who’s Who” list of experts from America’s best restaurants. This is the part of the book you’ll either find absorbing or dreadfully dull, depending partly on how familiar you are with the wines and dishes, but mostly on how much pleasure you take in reading the culinary fantasies of others.
Despite this feature — either a fault or virtue, depending on tastes — What to Drink With What You Eat is a wonderful guide filled with excellent advice.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
One of the most tortuous aspects of Washington’s summers is the speed with which the baking, blinding sun cedes its jurisdiction to the steamy, stifling rain — and then back again. When Mother Nature plays such tricks, it becomes necessary to find some method of refreshing one’s spirit. Perhaps some magic elixir that delivers the ying of a sweet dose of sugar balanced by the yang of something sour, with the whole brought to life by a zesty, tangy bite. What is needed, clearly, is a Jack Rose cocktail.
A simple, fruity potion of Applejack (American apple brandy), grenadine (pomegranate juice with sugar), and citrus (lemon or lime), the Jack Rose is one of those classic, elevating, magical cocktails that, like the well-made martini, becomes something far more than the sum of its parts. Unlike the martini, however, the Jack Rose is fairly hard to come by in your average bar. For not only will 9 out of 10 bartenders display total incomprehension at your request (unless they have been at it a very long time), most bars don’t even stock all the necessary ingredients.
The primary ingredient that is hard to come by in most bars is not the grenadine, which every bar has but most every bartender hates to use (principally because most commercial mixes lack real pomegranate flavor and are too sweet). Nor is it the citrus, which no cocktail bar could really survive without.
No, the hardest Jack Rose ingredient to find in bars today is the Applejack — the original American distilled spirit.
Although it isn’t too difficult to find in a well-stocked liquor store, and it isn’t at all expensive, applejack fell from many a bar roster as national tastes shifted and simplified to clear spirits like vodka. This is tragic not only because it is a fine product and the base spirit of the Jack Rose, but also because Applejack is as American as, well, apple pie.
English apple seeds were first introduced to America around 1630. Fairly early in the American colonial experience, hard apple cider became one of the standard beverages of choice. It was imbibed at every meal and often throughout the day, including mornings — John Adams was said to nock back a tankard every day with breakfast. Wherever apples grew, cider’s popularity spread. Throughout the Colonial experience, hard cider was second only to rum.
The initial evolution from cider to applejack was simple: The cider was kept outdoors and allowed to freeze during winter, and then the ice was scraped off, leaving it far more concentrated and potent. The next step was obvious, and so by the 1670s virtually every farm with an apple orchard began distilling their hard cider into apple brandy, or applejack, for family and friends.
It was around this time, in 1689, that William Laird, a Scotsman from County Fyfe, who had crossed the Atlantic and settled in Monmouth County, N.J., began distilling applejack.
The first existing record of the commercial distillation and sale of applejack in America dates from the 1780 ledger entry of William Laird’s grandson, Robert Laird, at the Colts Neck Inn, which he operated. Thus, Laird & Company dates itself from that ledger entry, 225 years ago. Entirely family owned and operated, Laird & Company is now the only company in the United States that still distills applejack. Their only product until the 1970s, the Laird’s now produce just 50,000 cases of applejack a year, amounting to less than 4 percent of their total profits.
Lightning in a bottle
Applejack, or “Jersey lightning” as it has been affectionately known, is today an apple brandy (about 65 percent) blended with neutral grain spirit (roughly 33 percent) and a little bit of apple wine (just 2 percent). Unlike the French Calvados of Normandy, however, this stuff is more like a young whiskey than a brandy — it is rough, unsubtle and assertive. Add grenadine and citrus in the right proportions, however, and you get something exceptional and delicious. You get a Jack Rose.
There are several competing theories in wide circulation that attempt to explain the naming of this drink. The first is simply that “Jack Rose” is a contraction based on its obvious components: It is made with applejack, hence the “jack,” and the drink has a distinctly pinkish hue, giving us the “rose.” Another theory asserts that “Jack Rose” is merely a corruption of its original name, the “Jacque Rose,” so named because the drink’s color is the exact shade of the thornless, long-stemmed rose known as the “General Jacqueminot Rose.”
Another version of this same theory suggests, even more improbably, that the “Jack Rose” was actually named for the man for whom the flower was named: Jean-Francois Jacqueminot, a French general and Napoleonic war veteran.
Yet another theory credits the Laird family with the drinks invention and propagation. The idea being that a John or a Jack Laird invented this rose-colored drink at the Colts Neck Inn and spread it around from there.
The Lairds actually endorse the most exotic and best-known theory of them all: The drink was named for a gangster named Jack Rose who was the star witness in a notorious 1912 murder trial in New York, in which a policeman was tried and convicted for murdering a gambling house operator named Herman Rosenthal.
Jack Rose, however, was actually the thug who murdered Rosenthal on July 13, 1912 at the Hotel Metropole in Times Square. An influential journalist with the “New York World” named Herbert Bayard Swope conspired with District Attorney Charlie Whitman to pin the murder on Lt. Charles Becker of the NYPD anti-gambling squad. As Cocktail historian David Wondrich summed it up: “Becker went to the chair, Whitman to the Governor’s Office, Swope to the Executive editorship of the 'World,' and Rose — well, he went into the catering business.”
Regardless of which of these theories is nearest the mark, the Jack Rose remains a wonderful and beguiling cocktail hat is silky, sweet and refreshing. The key here, as it is in most worthwhile endeavors in life, is balance — that harmonious interplay of ingredients that ensures that everything is coherently perceived, but nothing overpowers.
Pour 1 1/5 ounces of applejack, the freshly squeezed juice of half a lime (about 1 ounce), and no more than a 1/2 ounce of grenadine (please only use a grenadine that contains real 100 percent pomegranate juice) into a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Shake well, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wedge.
Recipes differ on whether to use lemon or lime as the citrus component. Most early recipes call for lime, more contemporary directions call for lemon (including the back of the Laird’s Applejack bottle). Both are excellent in a Jack Rose, but they make for very different drink sensations. Some prefer lime juice, while others decry lime as overpowering, insisting that only lemon will do the trick. Try them both.
An apple a day, the hoary adage has it, keeps the doctor away, but a little Applejack a day mixed with grenadine and lime juice should set you up nicely indeed.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
WASHINGTON - As Passover begins the evening of April 2, Jews will recount the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land while enjoying traditional festive food and kosher wine.
Kosher wines in the United States have most often been associated with sweet and heavy Concord grape wines made by companies such as Manischewitz or Mogen David. But there is no reason for kosher wine to be qualitatively any different from non-kosher wine, nor need it be sweet.
Here then are some of the better and more interesting kosher wines to look for this Passover.
Abarbanel, Riesling, Vin d’Alsace, France, 2004 — This delicious, balanced, elegant medium-bodied dry wine begins with a delightful whiff of the florist’s shop, before offering its primary aroma and flavor bounty of citrus and tropical fruits along with sour apples, peaches, flinty minerals and honey, all balanced against the nicely assertive but not overly pronounced acidity. A pleasure to drink, with or without food. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars
Barkan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Altitude +720, Reserve, Israel, 2003 — Grown in the Har Godrim vineyard near the Lebanese border (720 meters above sea level), this full-bodied, tight, concentrated, intense wine is exhibiting lovely notes of currants, cassis, cherries, herbs, eucalyptus, mint, coffee and even some tobacco, but it is still gripped by firm tannins if slowly integrating tannins — give this one room to breathe, or another year or so in the bottle. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars
Capcanes, Flor de Primavera/Peraj Ha’Abib, Montsant, Spain, 2003 — A stunning wine. This delicious oak-aged, deep, dark ruby-colored blend (40 percent Grenache, 35 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Carignan and 5 percent Tempranillo grapes) is nicely balanced between tannins, acidity, wood and fruit, with aromas and flavors of black currants, plums, sweet blackberries, raspberries, cherries and mocha, with intriguing overlays of coffee, white pepper, licorice and minerals, with something very much like mint emerging on the lengthy finish. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars
Carmel, Gewürztraminer, Late Harvest, Single Vineyard, Kerem Sha’al, Israel, 2005 — This sweet, elegant dessert wine has some lovely depth to it, with pronounced aromas and flavors of apricots, peaches, nectarines, litchis, cinnamon, honey, pineapple and rose petals all set against nicely balancing acidity, preventing the whole from seeming too sweet or sticky. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars
Hagafen, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2002 — Another stunning wine. This sumptuous yet graceful, harmoniously balanced, complex, slightly spicy wine offers layers of aromas and flavors, including currants, black cherries, cedar wood, licorice, black pepper, chocolate, eucalyptus, cassis, blueberries and mint, with a marvelous earthy finish with spice, berries and something slightly menthol. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars
Noah, Tevel, Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, Israel, 2005 — A purplish-colored, medium-bodied fairly well-balanced effort with pleasing aromas and flavors of cherries, slightly stewed strawberries, cranberries, cassis, black pepper and other spices, and with an intriguing, slightly burning, slightly astringent finish that is yearning for a bit of flesh (steaks, roasts, etc.). Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars
Recanati, Chardonnay, Israel, 2005 — This wonderfully crisp, controlled, rich yet elegant wine is even better than previous vintages, with more minerality and complexity and less of the pronounced oak and butter notes. Refreshing and food-friendly, the wine offers beautiful aromas and flavors of green apples, vanilla and tropical fruits, with some slightly spicy, racy notes throughout. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars
Recanati, Sauvignon Blanc, Israel, 2005 — This outstanding crisp, clean, firm, rich, pale straw-colored wine has tasty and zesty aromas and flavors of freshly cut grass, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, citrus fruits and even some melons, with a very pleasing earthy, slightly smoky background. Critics’ grade: 4/5 stars
Recanati, Special Reserve, Israel, 2001 — Another stunner of a wine. This full-bodied, complex, serious, enticing and elegant wine (96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent Merlot) exhibits aromas and flavors of dark berry fruits, plums, vanilla, Mediterranean herbs, black pepper and dark olives, with hints of mocha coffee balanced against soft, seamlessly integrated tannins and a little oak. Critics’ grade: 5/5 stars
Yatir, Sauvignon Blanc, Israel, 2005 — This light-golden colored, food-friendly wine is nicely tart, dry and tight, with slightly intense and defined aromas and flavors of grapefruits, passion fruits, gooseberries, Granny Smith apples, hay, honeysuckle, citrus peel and lemongrass. The finish drops off a bit, feeling flat and stripped. Not altogether balanced, but pleasing and enjoyable. Critics’ grade: 3/5 stars
5/5 stars Excellent
4/5 stars Very good indeed
3/5 stars Good
2/5 stars Kind of drinkable
1/5 stars Cough medicine
Monday, October 20, 2008
WASHINGTON - There’s nothing more warming, soothing, calming and, well, fortifying than a nice glass of port wine.
Of course, port wine is generally out of fashion. As the British novelist Evelyn Waugh once said, “Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.” But this is partly why most Americans don’t drink the stuff. And it’s too bad — port is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered.
Port wine is made from many varieties of very foreign-sounding grapes grown in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. Also known as “Vinho do Porto” or “Porto,” the name comes from Oporto, the city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped.
Port is a typically heavy, rich, sweet, high-alcohol wine not only due to the type of grapes used, but also because it is fortified — the winemakers add some measure of distilled grape spirits (brandy or aquardente) to fortify the wine with an unnaturally higher alcohol content which, in turn, immediately kills the yeast cells, halting the fermentation process before the grapes’ remaining sugar is converted into alcohol.
Port comes in an offputtingly confusing variety of styles — vintage, tawney, Colheitas, ruby, white, etc. — and can also be produced as a semi-dry or even an extra-dry wine, but generally, sweet is what the market and tradition calls for.
Whatever the style, port is usually served at the end of a meal, with dessert or as the dessert. But why not go for a port cocktail instead?
The Porto Flip
Fill a cocktail shaker at least half full of hard, cracked ice and throw in 1 egg, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 1/2 oz. Ruby Port and 1/2 oz. cream (optional). Shake the heck out of it, then strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish, if you wish, with a light sprinkling of nutmeg.
Chivas Ruby Royal Martini
This one was made by the folks at Chivas, but is a killer nonetheless. Pour 1 1/2 oz. Chivas Regal Scotch, 1/2 oz. Ruby Port and 1/2 oz. Blackberry Brandy into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Irish Stout Sangria
This one is from Lucy Brennan, the owner of Mint and 820 in Portland, Ore. Into your serving glass pour 12 oz. Murphy’s or Guinness Irish Stout and a 1/2 oz. of simple syrup; allow this to settle, then add 1/2 oz. of Ruby Port. Gently stir this a few times, then top with the remaining 4 oz. of Irish Stout (the cans come in 16-oz. servings). Allow to settle for 30 seconds or so, then serve.
WASHINGTON - So the New Year is upon us, and already I’ve given up on at least one ill-conceived resolution. But why a resolution at all? Well, the New Year celebration is traditionally a time for taking stock of the outgoing year and resolving to improve in the new. Some people use this time to take stock of their lives, others take stock of some more mundane things — like their liquor cabinet.
Indeed, the traditional ushering in of the New Year is, for some of us, the ideal time to plan a big drunken bash to clean out the liquor cabinet in the hopes that the wife will stop badgering us — read “me.” So this year, I found myself planning a big Scottish bash.
Why Scottish? Well, Scotch whisky, which I always seem to have an endless supply of, is a convenient theme around which to formulate your party’s booze and food.
How to plan the festivities
Keep it simple. Solid food, solid booze, good tunes and quality guests mean your actual work can be kept to a minimum — simply make sure nothing runs dry until the crowd begins to thin.
In terms of decorations, a few small items, like tartan napkins or tablecloths, go a long way. If your Christmas tree and red/green colors are still up, just go with it. And consider adding to the kitsch — for example, I hooked up a 17-inch monitor to play a video fireplace/Yule log throughout the evening.
Music? Limit yourself to Scottish bands or artists, blending in the occasional traditional bagpipe and fiddle tune for effect. Bands and artists to consider include Rod Stewart, Franz Ferdinand, The Proclaimers and Garbage to name a few.
On the booze front, obviously you’ll need some quality Scotch. Single malts are what everyone will look for. Here are some choices to consider having on hand (although supplying more is advisable):
» Glenmorangie — There is a whole range of options here from their bog-standard 10-year-old to their “wood finish” 12-year-old lineup; all are worthy and affordable (in the $40 range).
» Jura — Again, there is a whole range here, but the 10-year-old (around $30) is beguiling and easy drinking for the uninitiated, while the “Superstition” (around $45) is deliciously smooth yet tantalizingly smoky.
» Glenfiddich — Again, there is a whole range here of affordable options (ages 12, 15, 18, etc., from $35 to $60), each of which is familiar to veteran Scotch imbibers but remains very drinkable.
» Macallan — There is an increasingly wide range of options here, but either their regular “Sherry” aged malts or their “Fine Oak” line will satisfy the multitudes (starts at around $40 and shoots up fast).
But don’t overlook blended Scotch whisky or whisky cocktails. I heartily recommend having at least one large format bottle of something really dependable, like The Famous Grouse Finest Blended Scotch Whisky (around $30 for a 1.75 liter bottle) — it is balanced, inexpensive, easy to find and utterly delectable on its own.
As for cocktails, you don’t want to spend your entire party mixing drinks for your guests, so opt for something you can pre-mix and have available in an easy-pour bottle. Don’t get too exotic here.
The Rustly Nail, also known as a Knucklebuster, consists of equal measures of whisky and Drambuie served over ice. The effect is to accentuate the light caramel, vanilla and toffee-like flavors, while taming the ginger-spice aspects of the whisky, simultaneously smoothing out and sweetening the mix with Drambuie’s honey, heather and herb flavors.
Better yet, mix up a Highland Lemon (see sidebar for recipe). This will taste somewhere between lemonade and something faintly, yet pleasingly Scotch-like, but packs quite a wallop.
On the cooking front, whisky is much easier to assimilate and work with than one might expect. Our menu had over 10 dishes each having whisky as a central ingredient. This can be as simple as dinner rolls with an orange whisky butter (butter, orange rind, whisky, salt and sugar blended together) to a whisky and honey ice cream (milk, eggs, heavy cream, sugar, heather honey and Macallan 12-year-old single malt whisky).
Water (enough to boil pasta)
Pasta (of your choice)
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp. butter
1 pint heavy cream
Whisky, preferably smoky
Smoked salmon, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil a large pot of water. Once boiled, add salt and pasta. Meanwhile, finely chop two onions, sauté them with a little butter over a medium flame. Once the onions have sautéed a bit, add one pint of heavy cream and allow it reduce a little. Add 1/4 cup of a smoky whisky, such as Talisker single malt whisky (other smoky whiskies, such as Ardbeg or Caol Ila, may be used to equally good effect, or Johnnie Walker Black Label, if you prefer to cook with a lightly smoky blended whisky). Turn off the heat, then add small strips of smoked salmon to the sauce and stir in well. Strain the pasta and transfer to a serving bowl. Add the sauce and serve, adding salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to add parmesan or some other cheese if desired.
Highland Lemon cocktail
1 oz. Scotch whisky
1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1/2 oz. Limoncello
1/2 oz. lemon juice
Prepare it in a shaker with ice and serve in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel. For a large gathering, prepare this in batches well in advance of company, but try to wait to squeeze and add the lemon juice until just before guests arrive, as this will maximize the vibrancy of the juice’s citric acid zing. For an interesting variation, you can half the amount of whisky, and add a 1/2 ounce of Drambuie.
WASHINGTON - While on the west coast last week I had occasion to sample an unusual and, frankly, unfortunate tasting spirit, Green Tea Vodka. It was just a small sample and followed some outstanding cocktails and spirits (which I intend to report back on another time), so it is possible that it didn't get a fair hearing (the product shall remain nameless for the time being). I mention it now because it brought to mind a far more interesting tea-infused spirit concoction that is extremely good, perhaps even sublime: the Earl Grey MarTEAni.
As the brief post-Thanksgiving weekend portion of November is always such a slow period in the nation's capital, this little concoction makes for a pleasant diversion. For starters, it takes time and patience to prepare. The drink is the creation of New York mixologist Audrey Saunders, the mad scientist of cocktails behind the Pegu Club in Manhattan's West Village. It is a pretty simple formula: a spirit base, some acidity (fresh lemon juice), some sweetener (simple syrup), and an egg white for texture and added depth. As in all such things, however, the genius is in the details. The spirit that serves as the base here is Tanqueray gin which has been specially infused with Earl Grey tea.
Audrey Saunders created this following a working trip to London. She had been invited to work a Thanksgiving celebration at The Ritz Hotel in London several years back, and thought up this little number while enjoying British tastes and flavors. The cocktail proved a big hit in London and in New York, and led to a spurt of tea-based cocktails on both sides of the Atlantic.
Infusing spirits is a wonderfully easy way to experiment with flavors. Any number of herbs and spices, even vegetables, can be called into service here. When testing these infusion ideas out, stick to high-proof bottlings, the alcohol will work to boost the flavors. Most people prefer to work with vodka, like the unnamed perpetrator of the Green Tea Vodka, because of vodka's high alcohol content, clarity, and nearly zero taste profile. It is virtually like painting on a clean, white surface. Gin is a bit trickier, but only a bit. Tanqueray gin, at 47.3 percent alcohol by volume, is a good and not too expensive bottle to play with, as is Beefeater (47 percent), Bombay Sapphire (47 percent), or even Van Gogh (47 percent). Or you can go wild, spend quite a bit more, and tinker with something already sublime like Old Raj Gin (55 percent). The only limits here are self-imposed.
In the Earl Grey MarTEAni, Ms. Saunders's genius was in recognizing somehow that the distinct Bergamot flavors of Earl Grey would somehow blend well with the botanicals in "London Dry" styled gin. The lemon juice helps to bind and tame the flavors, while adding a supportive zing, the simple syrup helps balance out the acidity while complementing the tea, and the egg white elevates the whole into something rich and silky.
Here then is the Earl Grey MarTEAni (adapted from Audrey Saunders' recipe).
First, you must infuse your gin, this simple, but time-consuming. Add 1/4 cup of loose Earl Grey tea leaves to a 1 liter bottle of Tanqueray gin, screw the cap back in place and shake the hell out of the bottle. Let this steep for 2 hours or so, then gradually strain out the tea leaves, but don't press the tea leaves, otherwise you'll extract bitter tannins as well as excess gin.
Then put 1 and 1/2 ounces of your Earl Grey Gin Infusion, 3/4 of an ounce (about 4 tablespoons) of fresh lemon juice with 1 ounce of simple syrup, and 1 egg white into a cocktail shaker filled at least 2/3 full of hard, cracked ice. Shake the hell out of it for about 15 seconds or so, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Although I'm less convinced of the worthwhileness of adding this extra step, I should mention that the original recipe calls for the pre-chilled cocktail glass to be rimmed lemon-zest infused sugar (finely grate the zest of 1 whole lemon andmix with 1/2 cup of granulated sugar).
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with world-renowned wine writer Hugh Johnson as he breezed through town promoting his new memoir on the inner workings of the wine world, A Life Uncorked (University of California Press; March 2006;384 pages; $34.95). This is a deeply personal book. Yet, as Johnson admits, it is not an autobiography. Rather, this memoir is a personal journey, as much about wine as it is about his life.
For Johnson, wine is essentially "a social game" not merely an interest or a hobby. Wine is "about human relations, hospitality, bonding-all the maneuvers of social life-and all under the influence, however benign, of alcohol." Who can argue with that?
This social experience is richly transformative: "However good a wine may be, sentiment can make it better" and "with the right companion, a single wine can be a continuing conversation." In person, as in his writings, Johnson comes off as witty, personable, and charming, and his approach to wine is wonderfully infectious.
Never one to shy from a fight, Johnson (a Brit) takes issue with Robert Parker, the preeminent American wine critic. Johnson criticizes Parker's wine scoring system, which treats wines "like American high school students"-50 points just for showing up, 60 = dreadful, 70 = pretty poor, 80 = not bad, etc. Johnson decries the effect this approach has had on the wine industry, where wines are Parkerized to get higher scores.
Ultimately, Johnson's unpretentious and highly enjoyable attitude towards wine appreciation is compelling. As he plainly explains, "It depends on whether you see wine primarily as a drink or as a recreational substance. In a drink you look for something refreshing and satisfying without too loud a voice, not too intrusive on your food or your thoughts each time you take a sip." So take a page from Hugh's book, and enjoy a jolly good read with glass in hand.
My formal review ended there -- I told you it was brief! When I posted a link to it (the Examiner no longer has it online) on one of the wine forums I used to frequent, I got a few emails from folks asking for more details on Johnson himself. This is what I posted to the forum:
Hugh Johnson was perfectly charming, very British in a moderately old-school way, relatively self-effacing (all things considered), and a little shorter than I imagined from having seen him on television. He was amiable in a grandfatherly sort of way. Also, his manner of expression was really very similar to his writing, which adds an enjoyable, perhaps infectious, sense of pleasure and calm to the conversation. Although his career establishes his erudition in wine, he does not come off as a bore or a snob or a geek (either in "wine" terms or in general). He seemed, instead, to be very relaxed and in very good form. Speaking with him was like dipping into one of his early volumes on wine, except that I could ask questions.
leaving him to be thronged by the crowd for book signings, I thought of something he wrote in his very first book, Wine, where he says: "Wine is the pleasantest subject in the world to discuss. All its associations are with occasions when people are at their best; with relaxation, contentments, leisurely meals and the free flow of ideas." One gets the impression that Hugh Johnson is often "at his best."
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Weekend section of the August 27 & 28, 2005 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 4; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space.)
If wedding bells are in the air, at some point you will need to discuss the wedding reception. As a wedding is one of the most festive moments in one’s life, the drinks that will fuel the party can be very important. Indeed, in a sense the alcohol offered can help determine the tone of the occasion. A wonderful tradition, either as the primary libation or as general crowd pleaser, is the proverbial bowl of punch.
Dating back to at least the mid-17th century, punch has a long and varied history. Hailing loosely from South Asia where it was probably concocted by European Colonials and adventurers, punch was the first mixed alcoholic drink to attain international popularity. The name “punch” is said to come from the Hindi word “Panch” or “five,” in reference to the five classical ingredients (spirit, sugar, tea or water, spice and citrus fruit juice). Obviously, things have changed, and today punches can contain more than a dozen ingredients.
Here are some basics to help ensure that the flowing punch bowl you choose to have at your wedding exudes the desired look, tastes good and refreshing, and carries enough vim to your guests to be regarded not just as “punch” but as “punch!”
First, strive for the best ingredients your budget will comfortably allow. Don’t go hog-wild on the wines or spirits, however, as the subtler and more delicate charms of some the most expensive brands would be entirely lost in the mix. In the case of fruit juices, strive to use only fresh fruits, freshly squeezed — there are only a few exceptions, such as pineapple, mango, papaya or cranberry, where commercial juice brands are generally perfectly acceptable for mixed-drink applications.
Second, don’t overdo it on the variety or quantity of booze being poured into the punch bowl. Make certain that the chosen liquors will all go together harmoniously and that the alcoholic strength of the punch will be appropriate to the mix and the occasion. Think of your punch as simply a cocktail with various fruit juices and/or liqueurs that is being made in large quantities — like the cosmopolitan, the margarita, the whisky sour, the daiquiri, the sidecar, the fuzzy naval, the mojito, the mint julep, etc. The recipes will obviously need adjustment for punch application, but the basic idea is the same. Always strive for balance.
Third, for the festivities to stay warm, the punch must stay cold. All ingredients should be pre-chilled. The warmer the punch, the faster the ice will melt and the sooner the mix will taste diluted. Ideally, you should also pre-chill the serving bowl. Use a large, solid block of ice in the punch bowl rather than ice cubes. The ice block will help keep the punch icy cold with a minimum of dilution. Indeed, use the largest block of ice the punch bowl will accommodate. Also, make sure to use only clean ice that is free of any foreign odors or flavors.
If you have trouble obtaining a suitably large and clean block of ice, make one. Thoroughly wash clean a juice or milk carton or cake ring mold, add water and place in the freezer. When ready to serve the punch, simply peel away the sides of the juice or milk carton from the ice block, or slip the block from the mold.
Fourth, a flat punch is a drab punch, so add your carbonated elements, if any, absolutely last, just before service. Obviously, this should also be pre-chilled. If this is the primary ingredient and there is little to make in advance, make sure everything is damned cold before mixing for service.
When the punch is ready to be served, pour the mixture over ice in the punch bowl, and then add the soda and/or Champagne — all of which has been pre-chilled. Stir briefly with the label before and occasionally during the serving, as this will help maintain uniform consistency.
When the punch bowl is nearly empty, have a replacement ready prepared exactly as before, with everything pre-chilled. Otherwise guests will think the party’s over when the bowl runs dry. Generally, each quart of punch will serve four guests, at two 4-ounce cups per guest.
Finally, while presentation isn’t everything, it is truly important to a wedding, so give this some thought. Choose a punch bowl that is practical but appropriate and handsome — crystal, glass, ceramic, whatever fits with the overall schema of your wedding reception. The same is true of the cups or glasses out of which your guests will drink the punch.
Punches invite experimentation, but here is one particularly easy classic to get the ball rolling.
For each bottle of brut Champagne you wish to use add 1 1/2 ounces of brandy, 1 1/2 ounces of Cointreau or Triple Sec, 1 bottle of club soda, the rind of 1 thinly cut orange and just a smidgen, if any, of bar sugar (according to taste). Pour all this into a prechilled punch bowl containing a large block of ice. If you wish, decorate with sliced fresh pineapple and orange and plenty of fresh mint. Many feel that crushed fresh strawberries will “add a gala touch.” As you please.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
Baked Trout with Whisky Stuffing
(Allow one 8oz trout per person; recipe makes enough stuffing for 2 fish)
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons of finely chopped celerey
2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons of finely chopped thyme
The zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 cup Panko bread crumbs (the recipe called for fresh brown breadcrumbs)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
2 healthy tabelspoons of Scotch Whisky (I used 10 year old Springbank single malt)
Pam (olive oil or melted butter would work too)
Preheat the oven to 400F. If the trout is not already gutted and cleaned, glut and clean them. Rinse the trout in cold water and then pat dry with paper towel. I left the heads and tails on, but you can remove them if you like. Place each individual fish in a roughly square foot piece of aluminum foil which has been sprayed with pam or brushed with oil or melted butter (on the matt side).
In a small frying pan, melt the butter and gently fry the onion and celery, just until softened (about 3 minutes). Then shut off the heat and add the remaining ingredients and mix very well, add the salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Stuff each fish cavity, be generous and use all the stuffing up. Parcel up the fish in and foil and place these on a rack in a baking trroasting pan. Bake at 400F for 20 minutes; then unwrap the fish and bake for an additional 5 minutes. When done, it should look something like this:
Then plate and bring to the table :-)
Friday, September 5, 2008
Glendronach is, unfortunately, not such a well known single malt here in the US. The Glendroach is located in the Forgue Valley in Aberdeenshire’s “castle country” in Huntly. This puts Glendronach just inside the much vaunted Speyside whisky region of Scotland.
Speyside is that blessed region just north of the Cairngorm and Grampian mountains that, roughly, stretches into the Moray Firth from Inverness in the West to Aberdeen in the East. I say "roughly" because the geographical designation is a bit of a conceit really. It is smack dab in the Highland's and outside of the whisky context has no real meaning or historical designation. It is, in other words, a product of marketing. Further, although this region, or subregion, is less than 100 miles wide, it is, nonetheless, generally sub-divided into as many as eight smaller districts by whisky aficionados: Speyside (central), Findhorn, Lossie, Rothes, Dufftown, Strathisla, Deveron, and Livet.
Speyside came into prominence in the 19th century, the railways offered more economical and efficient access to the Scottish Highlands than did shipping. Indeed, most of Scotland's still functioning whisky distilleries are located in Speyside. The region's name comes from the river Spey, and its natural bounties are marked by the rivers Findhorn to the West and Bogie and Deveron to the East. From the Spey flows three all important tributaries: the Fiddich, the Livet and the Avon. This, coupled with the natural beauty of the area, accounts for its pride of place among Scotch whisky devotees.
The Glendronach distillery stands is in the Deveron district of Speyside, and straddles the Dronach Burn (or spring), which supplies the cooling water for the distillery's condensers. The name means “valley of the blackberries (brambles)” in Gaelic. It is thought that the distillery used to be the site of illicit distilling; the distillery is surrounded by tall trees where a long established colony of rooks is said to have provided “good luck” in the form of early warning to the advance of excisemen or strangers.
The distillery was founded in 1826 by the Glendronach Distillery Company, a consortium of farmers and businessmen headed by James Allardes or Allardice or Allardyce (depending on the source). Allardes was a friend of the local laird, the Scottish nobleman, soldier and politician George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon (February 2, 1770 – May 28, 1836; styled Marquess of Huntly until 1827).
Gordon has a special place in the history of Scotch whisky. Deeply troubled by the whisky smuggling and related lawlessness of his Highland compatriots, Gordon thought that the Government could curtail the lawlessness by making it profitable to produce whisky legally and so proposed this in the House of Lords. In short order the Excise Act of 1823 was passed, legalizing the distillation of whisky in return for a license fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by illicit distillers who went legit. The Excise Act of 1823 thus laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry.
With the Duke of Gordon’s public approval, the Glendronach whisky concern became highly successful. In 1837, though, James Allardes’s luck ran out and a major part of the distillery was destroyed by fire. Such troubles were not uncommon in distilleries at the time. Unable to fully recover financially, the Glendronach Distillery Company and its license was eventually sold in 1852 to Walter Scott, the former manager of the Teaninich Distillery.
Scott expanded the distillery and also bred Aberdeen Shorthern cattle on the estate. Scott passed away in 1887 and the distillery was acquired by a consortium from Leith, led by John Somerville & Co. In 1916, the distillery was acquired by the Crown. Then in 1920, the distillery was sold for £9,000 to Captain Charles Grant, the fifth son of the founder of Glenfiddich.
William Teacher & Sons Ltd. bought the distillery in 1960; they added two more stills (for a total of four) between 1966 and 1967, and added a visitor center in 1976. Unusually, the stills were all coal fired (most distilleries switched to “indirect” heating, usually via steam coils) until September 2005. Such changes generally produce substantial changes in the character of the spirit, and so in the character of the whisky.
Coal was also used at Glendronach, until 1996, to dry the malted barley in its own floor maltings (about 15% of the total malted barley used by the distillery was provided onsite). Now, like most every other distillery, the malted barley is bought ready. The distillery used to employ a combination of peat and coal to dry the malted barley (could be up to 14 PPM), the bought in malt is unpeated.
[For my fellow whisky nerds out there, the distillery’s mash tun is a traditional cast-iron tun with a copper canopy; the distillery’s eight washbacks are made of Oregon Pine with a unique venting system for the extraction of carbon dioxide; both dunnage and racked warehouses are employed for maturation.]
William Teacher & Sons was taken over in 1976 by Allied Breweries Ltd, which became known as Allied Distillers [the company took over J. Lyons and Company, a food and catering group, and became Allied Lyons in 1978; which in turn took over Pedro Domecq in 1994, resulting in the drinks giant Allied Domecq]. The distillery was mothballed (or taken offline) in 1996, restricting the supply of Glendronach whisky – which is partly why it isn’t so well known in the US.
The distillery was brought back online on May 14th, 2002. At this time the distillery also switched from 100% sherry cask maturation to exclusively using bourbon casks. Then on July 26, 2005 Allied Domecq was acquired by Pernod Ricard, supported by Fortune Brands. Pernod Ricard became the second largest producer of whisky in Scotland with 12 distilleries; Diageo is #1 with 27 distilleries; and William Grant & Sons is #3 with three distilleries (Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie). The distillery currently has capacity to produce 1.4 million liters of whisky a year.
The Glendronach 15 year old single malt was 100% sherry cask matured, and is now, sadly, no longer available anywhere. For the most part, it was a personal favorite of mine over The Macallan (which was the other primary 100% sherry cask aged whisky). Although it was sometimes inconsistent towards the end of the production of the 15 year (the distillery took to vatting whiskies from second, third and fourth refill and so often totally spent sherry casks; E 150 caramel coloring was employed to maintain the sherry cask coloring; this is used now as well for their new “original” 12 year old).
At its best, the nose of the 15 year was nicely sherried and a little fruity, with some pleasing cinnamon and ginger spice notes and hints of smoke. The whisky was full-bodied, creamy and well rounded, with the palate showing caramel, dried fruits, apples, some wonderful spice and smoke, with distinct toasted oak nuances. The finish was creamy, long, warming and delicious with sherry wood notes and more of that spice and mild smoke sensation. Alas…
The flagship 12 year old has undergone many changes. It used to be the "original" and it was very good, then they called it the “Traditional” which was less good, and now they are once again calling it the "original." That is, it is now "The Glendronach Original 12 year old double matured Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky" although it tastes almost nothing like the original "Original", which hasn’t been available for a very long time, but it is better than the "Traditional". Still with me?
But then this is now all ancient history. Glendronach was sold off to BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd because Pernod Ricard’s operational and marketing strategies determined that it was excess to requirements. Not surprising, Pernod Ricard is expanding the Glenlivet distillery and re-opening both the Allt-à-Bhainne and Braeval distilleries.
BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd, meanwhile, has announced its intention to re-package and re-launch the Glendronach. I have very high hopes for this and will report back, eventually, as the makeover/relaunch emerges.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (a national trade association), issued a press release early last month: "For Sale: First Whiskey in 200 Years at George Washington's Distillery." In a nutshell, the Mount Vernon Estate, with generous support from DISCUS and its members, discovered the archeological footprint and remains of George Washington's distillery and rebuilt it for historical education/preservation/heritage celebration purposes; then began distilling rye whiskey to keep it all fun and "educational"; and so now wish to sell it to tourists and other visitors to the historic distillery; the State of Virginia just granted a license to permit this -- actually pretty cool.
In case you are wondering what, exactly, the backstory on all this is, it just so happens that I wrote a piece on it for The Malt Advocate magazine which they have since posted online in their "classics" section of their website. The piece is "George Washington, Whiskey Maker." Partially excerpted here:
History came to life Wednesday, September 28th, 2006, with the official dedication of a freshly reconstructed 18th century whiskey distillery at historic Mount Vernon.
The distillery project was a painstaking and exacting historical effort, based on years of research and archeological excavation, conducted under the auspices of the Mount Vernon Estate and through the generous support of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and its members. On hand for the ribbon cutting was UK’s HRH Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, as well Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s Attorney General, Jim Rees, Mount Vernon Executive Director, Peter Cressy, Distilled Spirits Council president, and assorted names from within the Scottish and American spirits industry.
This $2.1 million George Washington Distillery stands on the footprint of the original distillery, and was reconstructed in accordance with 18th century techniques and materials. It is located adjacent to George Washington’s Gristmill along the banks of the Dogue Run Creek, just three miles down the road from the Mount Vernon Estate mansion in northern Virginia.
This George Washington Distillery is a near-perfect historical recreation—with slight modifications to keep it up to modern fire codes—of George Washington’s original distillery.
Father Of Our Country’s Whiskey
Although it is rarely taught in elementary school textbooks, the Father of our Country, Hero of the Revolution, and First President of these United States was one of the largest commercial producers of rye whiskey. Indeed, Washington made and sold booze from 1797 until his death in 1799, at which time his distillery was known to have produced more than 11,000 gallons of rye. This was much in excess of what anyone else is known to have been producing at the time.
This fact is hardly surprising considering that our Founding Fathers consumed vast amounts of alcohol. Apparently, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages between 1790 and 1840 than at any other period in our nation’s history—nearly a half pint of hard liquor per man each day. Even John Adams, who was often heard striking temperate notes against public taverns, imbibed a tankard of hard cider a day with his breakfast.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Cooking section of the Wednesday, September 13, 2006 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 33; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space.)
Looking for a quick, delicious, elegant, yet totally easy one-pan recipe for dinner tonight? Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it. Well look no further. This peppered steak with whisky cream sauce works brilliantly with either salmon or beef. Not only is clean up a cinch – everything is cooked in one pan – the entire dish, from prep to table, should take no more than about 20 minutes. This is one of those dishes where the sauce is an essential compenent to the dish, and who can resist cream, butter, and scotch whisky.
I adapted this recipe from Scottish Chef Nick Nairn, who developed this originally as a peppered beef dish. Chef Nairn eventually adapted the recipe for chicken, and then turned his eye towards salmon. What can I say, the man is a culinary genius! The recipe is essentially a “steak au poivre” (French for steak with peppercorns) that has been liberally adapted and that makes wonderful use of Scotch whisky.
Peppered Steak (Salmon or Beef) with a Scotch Whisky Cream Sauce
2 6-ounce salmon steaks or 2 (8-ounce) beef fillets (you can use a 16-ounce sirloin steak, and just cut it into two portions)
1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
½ tablespoon crushed white peppercorns
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
freshly ground sea salt
½-ounce salted butter
1 tablespoon whisky
¼-pint double cream (use heavy cream in a pinch)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, plus extra to garnish
Mix your black and white crushed peppercorns together and put to one side. Now spread the dijon mustard all over your steaks and then press the crushed peppercorns into the flesh. Don’t overdo the mustard, you want just enough to give it a nice thin coating. Season with salt as desired.
Heat your frying pan until it is very hot, then add the butter. As as soon as it starts to foam, place your steaks into the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and fry the steaks for about 3 minutes on one side to brown them.
Then turn the heat back up and flip the steaks to the uncooked side. Then pour in the whisky but be careful to not throw it in wildly and create a flambé. Boil this quickly until the whisky has all but disappeared, then pour in the cream. Carefully deglaze your pan (scrape up any bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pan around the steaks), while you bring the cream to a fast bubble.
Now boil this until your sauce starts to thicken (1 to 2 minutes), then taste and, should it need it, season with more crushed black pepper and salt. If using salmon, the fish should be just cooked, if it is too pink, continue to simmer it over a low heat for another minute. If using beef, it should be just about rare, but can be cook to desired doneness.
Once the cooking is finished, stir your chopped chives into the sauce around the steaks and serve immediately. Garnish with the extra chives.
Monday, September 1, 2008
(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Cooking section of the Wednesday, September 13, 2006 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 33; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space. This was a companion piece to my beef/salmon steak in whisky cream sauce recipe.)
The notion that wine, beer, and sometimes spirits can make for an excellent accompaniment to a fine meal is now fairly common. Yet few folks seem as persuaded about using their tipple in their cooking as an ingredient. This reluctance is unfortunate. Cooking with wines, liqueurs, beers, and spirits is an easy way to add some seriously delicious flavor and complexity to even fairly simple dishes. This is particularly so with Scotch whisky, an otherwise neglected culinary ingredient.
Sauces, marinades and stews all are good candidates for a bit of Scotch whisky to enhance the taste. Whisky will add to the flavor of dishes as varied as fish, meats and desserts.
Cooking is a complex choreography of aromas, flavors, textures and heat producing something very tasty, or very nasty. The devil is in the details – finding the right interplay or balance of aromas and flavors and textures, without mucking up the application of heat (through over or under cooking). Balance is key.
Cooking with whisky shares the same basic principles as cooking with wine, or any other booze, in that boiling down the liquid concentrates the flavors, but only up to a point. The idea is to reduce and concentrate it, not evaporate all the flavor all away. Unlike wine, whisky has a higher alcohol content, the flavors are generally more robust and pronounced, and so usually only a little liquid is needed. Also the hard stuff has a much longer shelf-life than wine, so feel free to reach for that really expensive Scotch you were given years ago but have been afraid to open. Just be sure to stick to flavors that will work in concert with the rest of your dish.
First and foremost, choose your “cooking” booze the way you would your other ingredients, with the emphasis on quality and taste, and with an eye towards how the flavors will work together. Unless you have a particular favorite whisky in mind for a given recipe, I heartily recommend the Famous Grouse Finest Scotch whisky. The Grouse, as it generally known in Scotland where it has consistently been the number one selling whisky since 1980, is a delicious, rounded, mild and elegant blended Scotch whisky, with decidedly appealing aromas and flavors of delicate fruits (ranging from apricot to orange to currant), sherry, soft peat, lavender, young oak wood, caramelized ginger, sweet grain and spice. The Famous Grouse is a great baseline Scotch to work with in general, whether in cooking or cocktails, because it is balanced, inexpensive, easy to find, and utterly delectable on its own.
Do not, however, shy away from cooking with single malt Scotches. As the flavor characteristics involved with single malts are more distinct than blends, the tastes you are working and playing with require a bit more thought in the dish. The trick is to experiment; the more you cook with whisky, the more comfortable you will be in selecting the right Scotch to enhance your gastronomic creations.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Frankly, though, I was feeling pretty timid about this option too. There seems to be an awful lot of blogs already on the topics that interest me. A lot of these are rather good too. See, for example, some of the blogs I have listed in the margin's of this blog.Nor are these examples the only ones I read regularly, but hey, if I list a zillion blogs it'd be a tad too much, no?
Adding yet another blog to the pile seems a waste of effort. At best it'd be covering well trodden ground, at worst it'd be of zero interest -- like writing a breezy critique of Operation Iraqi Freedom or writing a sequel to the film Howard The Duck. Yet I still find myself gravitating back towards the blogosphere.
I can't help it. I'm a writer at heart. I make no claims to being especially gifted at this craft, nor would I even say that I have a particular aptitude for it above those of any other randomly selected semi-literate individual. No, when I say I am a writer at heart, I mean simply this: I have little self discipline about expressing myself and writing is my naturally preferred mode of expression. I also enjoy it. The craft of it. The fun of it. The communication of, and therefore the grappling with, ideas. I have made a meager, though not insignificant, living off of it. I now am a professional lobbyist by day, rather than a writer or journalist, but this is a simple matter of expediency. I am paid more for the one, than for the other.
Now a blog, as I understand it, is generally more diary or journal than treatise. I have a stronger stylistic grasp of the latter, and have seldom dabbled in the former. Whats more, I have generally always followed the "indolent disposition" of Dr. Samuel Johnson that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
On the other hand, I can think of plenty of reasons to type merrily away at this keyboard, such as that Congress is in recess and idleness leads first to boredom, then to trouble. Further, I need not ever show this to anyone else, and I can delete it at any time. So, wtf?! Right?
I cannot promise that this will be of abiding interest to anyone else, but I will honestly endeavor to make it so. Bit of a crap-shoot, really. As E.M. Forster once replied, when asked his opinion on something or another, "How do I know what I think until I have written about it?" Quite. Likewise, how do I know that it will interest anyone else until I have at least determined that it actually interests me too.
Until I think of some unifying theme, I shall write about whatever the mood takes me to write...but mostly about Scotch whisky, maybe food/cooking, and, well, anything really except politics. I am a paid lobbyist, after all.