Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wine Connextion: Whiskey & Spirits

From Wine to Whiskey.

The Wine Connextion, a discount wine shop in North Andover, has recently expanded its offerings to include high end whiskey and other spirits. The Wine Connextion opened in 2009 and I raved about it then, praising its low prices. Since then, it has continually been one of my favorite discount wine stores, Now that they offer discounted spirits too, there is even more reason to journey to North Andover to check out this store.

As you wander down the aisles of their wines, you'll see some New Hampshire Price Buster signs, indicating the lower prices found at the Wine Connextion compared to the New Hampshire Wine Outlets. And as you see, the price difference can be significant, such as the $9 on the Stag's  Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the rear left corner of the store, they have broken down the wall and added a small room where they display high end wines and spirits. They still have another, smaller room for some high end wines but this has expanded their space.

These shelves contain a variety of spirits, though heavy on the whiskey, and the prices are definitely better than you will find in most regular liquor stores. I saw plenty of my favorites, from Blanton's Bourbon to Balvenie Scotch. There is vodka and mezcal, vermouth to rum. As this section is still relatively new, I bet they will add even more products in the near future.

This new room also contains a number of large format wines, and Wine Connextion has the largest collection of large formats that I have seen at any other local wine shop. And you probably won't find better prices on these large formats either.

I checked out the new addition on the evening that they held a special East vs. West Whisky Tasting event. They sampled 12 whiskies, pitting 6 Scotches against 4 Japanese and 2 Taiwanese whiskies, and offered some meat, cheese and bread to help cleanse your palate and offset the alcohol. The tasting was well attended, plenty of people intrigued to taste all of these different whiskies. This may have been the store's first whiskey tasting but I'm sure it won't be their last.

The Asian whiskies included the Nikka Coffey Grain ($56.99), Nikka Miyagikiyo 12 Year Single Malt ($94.99), Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Pure Malt ($58.99), Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Pure Malt ($129.99), Kavalan Single Malt ($74.99), and the Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask ($74.99). Check out my prior review of the Nikka line as well as my prior review of the Kavalan Whiskey. The Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Pure Malt remains one of my favorites, especially at its price point.

The only new whiskey to me was the Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Pure Malt and it impressed. Silky smooth, complex and with a lengthy finish, the whiskey presented intriguing flavors with plenty of spicy notes, some red berry flavors and caramel notes. Highly recommended.

For the Scotch selection, they offered the GlenRothes Select Reserve ($47.99), GlenRothes Alba Reserve ($47.99), GlenDronach Single Cask ($84.99), GlenDronach 15 Year (($89.99), BenRiach 10 Year ($54.99), and the BenRiach 16 Year ($78.99).  Of these six, my two favorites were the GlenDronach Single Cask and BenRiach 10 Year.

The GlenDronach Single Cask, which is cask strength, is a powerful Scotch, with strong spicy notes, caramel and chocolate flavors, and a lingering, satisfying finish. It benefits from the addition of a little water due to its high alcohol content. This is something to slowly savor with some good friends. The BenRiach 10 Year is a peated whiskey, and I loved its smoky aroma. The peat is prominent but doesn't overwhelm, adding an interesting smoky aspect to its flavor, complementing its nutty notes. It is smooth and alluring, complex and bold.

Check out the Wine Connextion for both their wines and spirits, and find some of the best prices in the area. Attend one of their weekly tasting events, such as the Run for the Rosés on May 2 or Zins & Sliders on May 23. Maybe I will see you at one of their upcoming events.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Rant: A Single Country Wine List

Consider this: You dine at a new Italian restaurant and while you peruse it's wine list, you see that they only carry Italian wines. There is no California Chardonnay or Australian Shiraz.  You see listings for Chianti and Prosecco, but you also find wines with unfamiliar grapes, like Grillo, Frappato and Arneis. Does this situation bother you because you can't find the California wines you enjoy?  Does this situation bother you because you don't know much about many of those Italian wines? Or are you pleased with the wine menu, relishing the adventure of exploring the list?

There are restaurants which choose to limit their wine list to a single country, to fit their ethnic cuisine, though locally, they are in the minority.  Most wine lists try to cater to diverse tastes, not willing to take the risk of a single country list. They fear offending some of their customers by not having certain types of wines. Their wine list might be predominately from one country, but there will be a percentage from at least several other countries. Is that really necessary?

I respect a restaurant willing to create a single country wine list, and I know I'm sure to find plenty of wines that will enjoy. I also savor the adventure of exploring such a list, trying wines that are new to me. Sure, wines from all over the world can pair well with Italian cuisine, but if an Italian restaurant only wants to offer Italian wines to pair with their cuisine, I am fully supportive of their desire. It is a way to expose more consumers to the diversity and wonders of Italian wine, to helping to broaden their palates. 

You wouldn't go to an Italian restaurant and expect to find Australian meat pies or Southern-style fried chicken, so why expect to find wines from places other than Italy? You are going for the experience of Italian cuisine, and wine is actually food. Thus, it makes sense that Italian wine is served as part of the Italian cuisine. This applies to any ethnic restaurant which chooses to limit its wine list to the country of it's cuisine. 

For many restaurants though, it is a matter of money. There are consumers who would object to such a singular wine list. They are too set in their ways, and want to be able to get their California Chardonnay no matter what restaurant where they dine. If a restaurant has a single country wine list, they won't attract these type of customers, and that could have negative economic consequences for the restaurant. 

We need to give our support to those restaurant brave enough to have a single country wine list, to dine at such restaurants and enjoy their wine choices. 

What are your thoughts on restaurants with single country wine lists? Do you have any favorite restaurants with such a list?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.. **********************************************************
1) Pastoral Chef/Owner Todd Winer invites guests to learn Italian cooking techniques during his Todd Teaches Sunday School cooking classes which take place monthly. The next class will take place on Sunday, April 26 from 4pm until 5:30pm and the theme is Meatball Madness. Students will learn the basics behind making meatballs. The class is $40 per person and includes wine, samples of the finished dishes, and recipe cards to take home. Space is limited and can be reserved by logging onto Eventbrite.com.

Upcoming class include:
Cooking With Mama- May 10th
Vegetables Steal the Show- June 14th
Fish Feast- Italian fish prepared in Neapolitan style
Knife Skills- how to properly carve poultry, filet fish, chopping vegetables
Italian Casseroles- Learn how to make Lasagna, Mac & Cheese and Eggplant Parmesan

For more information and reservations, please call (617) 345-0005 or visit www.eventbrite.com.

2) In an effort to discover who will be mixing up the Seaport District’s best sangria this season, the Seaport Hotel is introducing the first-ever Seaport Sangria Smackdown. Bartenders from various Seaport District establishments will come together on May 13 from 6pm-8pm at Seaport’s state-of-the-art Action Kitchen, where they will bring their sangria A-game; whether an existing recipe from their eatery or a new twist on an old classic. Guests will be the final judge of who will be dubbed the Seaport Sangria Smackdown champion!

For $20 per person, guests will enjoy sangria tastings and light hors d’oeuvres; they are encouraged to vote for their favorite sangria, with one restaurant being crowned the Seaport Sangria Smackdown Champion. Participating restaurants include: City Bar, Empire Restaurant and Lounge, Legal Test Kitchen, MC Spiedo, Sam's at Louis, TAMO Bistro & Bar and The Barking Crab.

TICKETS: Tickets are $20 each and can be purchased online at: www.sangriasmackdown.eventbrite.com

Sake News

Kanpai! Here is another short list of some of the interesting Sake articles that have been published lately. It is great to see more and more coverage for Sake, though I recommend that anyone seeking to publish a Sake article check it at least a few times for accuracy. A few basic errors continue showing up in introductory Sake articles, and those errors would be easy to eliminate if you had a knowledgeable Sake person check your facts. Let us also hope that we see more than just introductory Sake articles in the future. Sake has many depths and all those varied facets make great material for articles.

1) Ever hear of Sake Jelly? In an article on Eater,Timothy Sullivan discusses how Sake brewers have recently started to make a new product, Sake Jelly, which he describes as such: "Imagine a drink that pours out like a soft jelly, is mostly clear, sweet and usually has a low alcohol content around 1.5 percent, although certain brands go higher." The article mentions that the Kamotsuru Brewery makes an unflavored version while Ozeki makes a Peach version. I'll note, though it is not in the article, that Ozeki also makes Sparkling Sake Jelly in two flavors, Peach and Berry Mix. Though Sake Jelly isn't available widely in the U.S., Timothy provides a recipe for you to make your own. It's easy to do so you have no excuse not to try it.

2) A Sake brewery coming to the United Kingdom? The Newmarket Journal has recently reported that a Japanese company is hoping to open a Sake brewery in the village of Fordham in Cambridgeshire, England. The company, Dojima, purchased the Fordham Abbey, and is planning to invest plenty of money into the endeavor, ensuring the beauty of the area is retained. Everything is in the beginning stages right now, so it is a story I'll keep an eye on.

3) All-you-can drink Sake? Now that sounds like a fantasy I'd love to see fulfilled, and if I travel to Tokyo, it will become a reality. Rocket News 24 reported that a new spot, the Kurand Sake Market, has opened in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood where you can drink all the Sake you want, from a selection of about 100. The restaurant was set to open on March 10, For a mere $25 (3000 yen), you get unlimited refills and you get to choose from one of six different types of cups, though you can change your selection at any time. It is a self-service place, and they serve a few different bar snacks, though you can even bring your own food with you. Just know that you must stand at this restaurant, so be careful you don't drink so much that you fall down. Unfortunately, we'll probably never get such a place in the U.S.

4) New York City & Sake? Edible Manhattan published an intriguing article about the development of the Sake scene in New York City. In just over 20 years, the city has transformed, from a place where there were few Sakes, and mostly low quality, to a place now where you can find around 800 different Sakes, The article talks about the restaurants and importers which helped to bring about these changes to the city, supplying more artisan Sakes to tantalize and delight their customers. Check out this article to get all of the details.

5) Sake in Arkansas? The Japan News recently highlighted Ben Bell, an Arkansas native, who is currently interning at the Nanbu Bijin Sake brewery. He once worked at a liquor store, and promoted Sake there. Ben's plan is now to eventually start a U.S. Sake brewery. You can also read another article about Ben in the Asahi Shimbun which gives more details on his Sake experiences. I only know Ben online but he seems to have a true passion for Sake and I wish him all the best.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Historical Tidbits About Sake In The U.S.

While researching my article on the early Sake breweries in the U.S., I discovered a number of other fascinating historical stories and tidbits about Sake. They didn't necessarily fit into my article but I still wanted to share these seventeen items as I know some of my readers will find these matters quite interesting. I have organized them by date, from the earliest in 1859 to the latest in 1926, and I hope you enjoy this look into American's early views on Sake.

1) The oldest California newspaper that I found that mentioned Sake was from July 1859. A Sacramento newspaper wrote "The Japanese are very hospitable, and when you enter their houses not only offer you refreshment, consisting of cake, confectionary, sakee, or tea,..." It is interesting to note that the term "sakee" is not defined in the article so it seems assumed that their readers would know its identity. With the recent opening of Japan to trade by Matthew Perry, it seems likely that many people were discussing aspects of Japanese culture, and Sake started to become known to the general public. It could have been mentioned in earlier newspapers or books.

2) Another California newspaper article from November 1877 discussed the home life in Japan, stating that “At this time probably a majority drink sake in greater or less quantity. The drink is brewed from rice, and contains from two to eight per cent, of alcohol.” I suspect the information about the alcohol content is erroneous, as Sake is usually is in the double digits, and other newspaper articles in the near future mention the potency of Sake.

3) In June 1886, a California newspaper wrote about two aspects of Japanese etiquette, the tea-party and the wedding. In the wedding section, there was a discussion of sansankudo, the ritual where both bride and groom sip from three cups of Sake during the ceremony.

4) Some interesting information on now Americans view Sake brewing is provided in a newspaper in April 1887. It is said that malt is made from rice called koji, and that the rice is steamed to make it gelatinous in consistency. Once cooled, yeast is added and it is then fermented, being frequently stirred. Water is added and it is fermented for 5-6 days, when it is then filtered and becomes available for consumption.

5) It is interesting to note that a California newspaper in January 1892, quoted a writer from the American Antiquarian, claiming Sake drinking was "one of the great curses of Japan." However, no additional details were given to explain that conclusion.

6) There is an interesting article from June 1893 discussing the type of shops, including a Sake store, you will find while touring a Japanese city. Interestingly, the author refers to Sake as a "rice whisky." The article mentions how you can usually identify the shop as it has a branch of cryptomeria or a cluster of cypress outside. Most people buy Sake and take it home with them, though a few will buy a tiny cup of Sake and drink it there. The shelves have wooden tubs of Sake, each marked with a character and picture.You might see the word "Dai" meaning "best" of "first-class," or "Santokusbu," meaning "the three virtues of flavor, strength and purity." It is also noted that sweet Sake, which is allegedly drunk primarily by women and children, especially at some holidays, is often advertised with a picture of Mount Fuji.

7) The legend of Saru-zake, monkey Sake, is explained in a newspaper article in October 1893. First, the article mentions that Sake is drunk warm and tastes similar to a mild Sherry. That comparison to Sherry is raised numerous times in later newspaper articles. It is also claimed that westerners can drink plenty of Sake without getting drunk, while the "vegetarian Japanese" get drunk much easier with Sake.

The article then discusses a legend that apes first discovered Sake. It is said that apes stole rice from some human homes, and took that rice back into the mountains. After devouring some of the rice, they left the remaining rice in the crook of a tree. Later, rains came that soaked the rice and later, when the sun came out, it warmed the rice, starting a fermentation process. Thus, Sake was created. I have read of this legend in other sources, though usually the tale involves fruit that accidentally ferments into alcohol. This is the first time I have heard the tale where rice is involved.

8) In April 1894, a Hawaiian newspaper noted that a Japanese ship, the Aikoku Maru landed i Hawaii and the Custom Authorities seized 20 cases of Sake from the ship as they were not listed on the ship's manifest.

9) In December 1896, a Los Angeles newspaper noted,  "Sake is a natural beverage of Japan, and until recent years was the only fermented liquor known in that empire. It is obtained by the distillation of the best kinds of rice. In appearance it resembles very pale sherry w.me, though in taste it is somewhat acid. The best sake is white, but there are many varieties, and the poorer people in Japan have to content themselves with a turbid sort."

10) In August 1900, another California newspaper referred to Sake as "rice brandy" and in July 1901, a San Francisco newspaper article also referred to it as "rice brandy". This seems to me as if they considered Sake to be more similar to a fortified wine, with a higher alcohol content.

11) The Los Angeles Herald, in March 1904, published an article, China Collecting In Los Angeles, which concentrated on Sake cups, kettles and bottles. It is worth a read. The article mentions that Sake kettles were usually made of iron with a bronze lid while Sake bottles were usually made in the "pilgrim gourd" style. Most of the article talks about Sake cups, and their styles, decorations, and more.

12) In February 1907, a San Francisco newspaper reported on a deadly fight, allegedly caused by the effects of Sake. A number of men, who had been drinking heavily, were out on the street when they came upon two other men, T. Yeoka and H.Torogama. For some reason, not mentioned in the article, a terrible fight broke out, and the drunk men pulled out knives. Yeoka was killed and Torogame received serious wounds. I was unable to find any additional information about how this incident turned out.

13) In August 1908, there were about forty Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles, and they usually served alcohol. However, they often don't possess a proper liquor license, which would cost $60, as they claimed it was too expensive. The police commission has been considering the matter, speculating that maybe they should lower it for Japanese restaurants, down to only $20 for a license. The police noted that it was tough to convict these restaurants for license violations as the restaurants catered almost exclusively to other Japanese, who wouldn't testify against each other. These Japanese restaurants were not seen as competitors to other restaurants, so the police commission doesn't think lowering the license fee for them would lead to protests from other restaurant owners.

Apparently the police commission eventually decided against lowering the liquor license fee, and chose instead to take a more aggressive stance. In May 1909, the police raided the various Japanese restaurants, finding that none of them had liquor license on record, though many had Geisha girls serving Sake and beer to their customers. The records also indicated that three Chinese restaurants in the city had liquor licenses, which now cost $75. The raids seemed to accomplish their purpose as the next month, 26 Japanese restaurants applied for liquor licenses, though only 12 received them. The police felt that 12 licenses were sufficient to meet the needs of the Japanese community. However, by October, a total of 20 Japanese restaurants had secured the proper licenses.

14) The San Francisco Sunday Call, on December 18, 1910, ran one of maybe the first major articles abut Sake in English. The extensive article, Sake, The National Booze Of The Japanese, was written by Mary Ogden Vaughan, and is well worth reading. It touches on many different aspects of Sake, from customs to legends.

I want to highlight some information on pricing during this period. Vaughan states, "A good sized cask of the best— and the best comes from the great rice fields in the region of Osaka, near the Inland sea — costs between $3 and $4 in Japan. In this country the wholesale price is at the rate of $1.25 a gallon."

In addition, the article mentions that during the time of the samurai, they used to preserve the heads of their enemies in tubs of Sake. They would then present these heads to their liege for identification and also to show their martial prowess.

You'll also find a Japanese drinking song:
When you drink sake
You feel like the springtime,
And the loud cries
Of impatient creditors
On the outside
Sound in your ears
Like the voices of' nightingales
Singing most sweetly

15) In June 1911, a shipment of 1000 barrels of California table wine was sent to Japan, allegedly because it was said that the Japanese were starting to change their tastes, from Sake to wine. After California wine had previously dealt with competition in Hawaii from Sake imports, I'm sure they felt better that their wines were now being seen as competitive to Sake in Japan.

16) In New York in March 1912, the Sun newspaper published an article describing Sake, and it even refers to it as seishu, the legal name for Sake in Japan. It states Sake is unique, and though it resembles beer, wine and brandy, it is not any of those categories.It correctly notes that Sake is originally of Chinese origin.

17) In July 1926  a Sausalito newspaper reported on a “Dry" Village In Japan. "The young women residents of Takaso, a village in Japan, have refused to marry any young man who has not taken the pledge. The members of the Young Women’s association noticed that an abnormal quanlty of sake, the national Japanese drink, was being consumed by the “young bloods,” so they organized and voted unanimously to have nothing to do with any youth who drank sake." I haven't yet been able to find any more information about this pledge.