Friday, December 15, 2017
2017: Favorite Spirits, Sake, Cocktails & Drink-Related Items
Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of 2017. I have already posted my Top Wine lists as well as Favorite Wine-Related Items. This post will now concentrate on some of my Favorite Spirits, Sake, Cocktails & Drink-Related Items. This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of compelling and memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year.
This is also a purely subjective list, based on my own preferences, and makes no claims about being the "best" of anything. But all of the items here have earned my strong recommendations and I hope you will enjoy them as well. For more spirits, Sake, cocktails and drink-related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.
Favorite Achievement in Spirits Writing: This year, I'm especially proud of my article, An Expanded History of Pechuga Mezcal, where my research uncovered a wealth of documented references to Pechuga Mezcal, a type of mezcal that has been flavored with meat, as well as maybe some fruits and spices. Prior to my article, there were bottles from the 1930s that were labeled Pechuga but there was no known documentary evidence prior to that time. However, I found over 30 different written references to Pechuga before the 1930s, extending as far back as 1864. There is still more research needed in this area, but I was pleased to contribute my efforts to expanding the known history of this fascinating type of Mezcal.
Favorite Whisky Dinner: A great theme, killer whisky, and delicious food all combined to make the Robert Burns Scotch Dinner at Civic Kitchen & Drink a wondrous experience. It was my first Burns Night celebration and I marveled at the ritual, the toasting, and the intriguing food, including Haggis, which I actually enjoyed very much. There was plenty of Scotch, each unique in its own right, and all quite tasty and complex. The crowd was fun and it was more than just a simple dinner, but an intriguing experience and the memories will remain for a very long time.
Favorite Blended Scotch Whisky: This year, I've attended two Compass Box tasting events, though I've only written about one of them so far. However, it is clear to me that Compass Box and its owner John Glaser are producing some excellent blended Scotches. I've enjoyed most of the portfolio that I've tasted and am impressed with the diversity of their whiskies. Their limited edition Double Single thoroughly impressed it, a silky smooth, complex and well-balanced whisky with a fascinating melange of flavors. There were hints of vanilla and caramel, berries and tropical fruit, herbs and spices. Each sip seemed to bring something new to my palate. Highly recommended.
Favorite Irish Whiskey: Tullamore DEW, the "official Irish whiskey" of the Boston Red Sox, is offered at the Tully Tavern, in Fenway Park, especially in the Monster Mule, a variation of the Moscow Mule that is made with 1 part Tullamore DEW, 4 parts Ginger Beer, and lime juice. They have a nice portfolio of whiskies, but my favorite was the Tullamore DEW 14 Year Old Single Malt which is matured in the usual three types of barrels, but then also spends a little time in Port and Madeira casks. On the nose, there are pleasant notes of apple and tropical fruit, and the palate also presents this fruit flavors, accompanied by a complex mix of vanilla, spice and caramel, with an elegant creaminess that caresses your palate. The finish lingers for quite a time and I can easily see myself sipping this all evening.
Favorite Whisky Rant: It is an issue which deserves attention but seems unlikely it will acquire what is needed. In my Rant, Whisky, Sherry Barrels & A Lack Of Transparency, I discuss how a number of whiskey producers are using Sherry-style barrels, from outside the legal Sherry region, but those barrels are still be labeled as Sherry barrels. Sherry is a protected term and it should be respected and honored yet some whiskey producers are failing to do so. We need more people to know that this problem exists and then hopefully a united effort and get whiskey producers to change their ways on this issue.
Favorite Spanish Whisky: Have you ever tasted whisky from Spain? Spain isn't a significant producer of whisky but you may hear more about Spain in the near future if whisky like the Navazos Palazzi Malt Whisky becomes more well known. Produced from malted barley grown in Spain, the whisky spends about four to six years aging in Palo Cortado Sherry casks, which is definitely a rarity in the whiskey industry. This whisky presents with a nice, dark amber color and its complex aroma is enticing, a blend of harmonious fruits and spices. You could easily sit and enjoy the diverse nose of this whiskey for quite some time before taking a sip. Your palate will be seduced by the complex, and sometimes subtle, melange of flavors that caress and tantalize. It is sweet, briny and savory, with plenty of fruit, from apples to raisins, as well as lots of spicy notes. Honey, caramel, and malt with clear Sherry notes and a long and lingering finish that satisfies to the last wispy taste. It is elegant and compelling, unique and delicious, a well-balanced whiskey that will surprise and delight.
Favorite Unique Whiskey: At The Townshend in Quincy, Palmer Matthews, their Bar Manager, introduced me to Dry Fly Distilling Straight Triticale Whiskey, which might be the only straight Triticale whiskey in the world. Triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat which was created in Scotland in the late 19th century. I enjoyed a shot, chilled by a single large chunk of ice, and found the whiskey to be intriguing, with a nice spicy kick up front, which then became soft and almost sweet. As I love Rye whiskey, I savored the spicy element of the Triticale, but also liked how the wheat softened it more on the finish. If you want something more unusual, but still quite tasty seek out this Triticale.
Favorite Maryland Rye Whiskey: During a visit to the Tenth Ward Distilling Company, I had the chance to taste a few of their products and I was most taken with their Lindsay Stunkle Rye Whiskey which is named after a famous Prohibition-era bootlegger from Frederick, Maryland. This limited-release whiskey is made from a mashbill of 80% malted rye and 20% malted barley, and comes in at a whopping 120 proof. It is released twice a year, in June and November, and is intended for home aging. It is spicy and potent, enhanced by the addition of a little water, and will definitely appeal to rye lovers. There is complexity to its taste and a lengthy finish, and I would love to see this aged in the barrel for a number of years.
Runner-Up Favorite Maryland Rye Whiskey: Also from the Tenth Ward Distilling Company, a more unique Rye whiskey is the White Caraway Rye, which is made from a mashbill of 80% malted rye and 20% malted barley, and comes in at 95 proof. The spirit is mashed with caraway seed so it is intended to taste more like rye bread, though it may also remind you of Scandinavian Akvavit. I was captivated by the intriguing flavors of this spirit, as it certainly reminded me of spicy rye bread, with a hint of mint. Though you could drink this on its own, I think it would be best used in creating some fascinating cocktails.
Favorite Gin: As I've said before, I'm not usually a fan of gin, disliking the over-powering juniper flavor I find in many, but I have enjoyed some that I felt were more well-balanced. Certainly a more unique gin, the Pierde Almas 9+ Botanicals is actually a hybrid Mezcal/Gin, using Mezcal as the base spirit and then adding nine botanicals, including juniper, coriander, star anise, fennel seed, orange peel, cassia bark, angelica root, orris root, and nutmeg. On the nose, the piney aroma of juniper is dominant though beneath that aroma were more subtle herbal notes. Once you taste it, the Mezcal elements make themselves known, and it is an intriguing and complex spirit. There are plenty of citrus notes up front, with an interesting melange of spices and herbs, as well as a smoky edge, especially on the finish. The piney notes of the juniper became much more integrated into the whole, and the other botanicals joined the complex mix. This is definitely a sipping spirit, which is quite enjoyable neat, and each sip seems to bring new flavors to your palate.
Runner-Up Gin: From the McClintock Distilling Co. in Maryland, their Forager Gin is a vapor infused New-World style gin using about 18 botanicals inspired by native herbs found in the Appalachian wilderness. On the nose, there is a strong juniper aroma with subtle hints of other botanicals in the background. On the palate, the botanical mix is more balanced, and the complex melange of flavors delights the mouth. There are elements of fruit, mainly citrus, and floral flavors, with a sprinkle of spice elements. The gin should be served chilled, and would be delicious on its own, or used in cocktails.
Favorite Rum: Rum actually has a lengthy history in the Oaxaca region, a place best known for Mezcal. However, little Oaxacan rum makes it out of Mexico, which is a shame. One of the recent exports is the stellar Paranubes Rum, brought to you by the good people of Mezcal Vago. Made from sugar cane juice, and not molasses, the Paranubes is made in a very traditional manner, the current producer being at least the 3rd generation in his family to produce this rum. Its aroma is very funky and prominent, with a saline character that reminds me of the smell of the ocean or an olive tapenade. The aroma doesn't follow through much on the palate, which instead brings a mild sweetness, a touch of grassiness, and some citrus and tropical fruit flavors. It is more light and elegant, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. It reminds me of a Rhum Agricole, and its distinctive and unique aroma and taste certainly sets it apart. The Paranubes can be consumed on its own though it also would work well in a variety of cocktails.
Favorite Unique Rum: From Navazos Palazzi, which also made the Spanish whiskey I previously mentioned, comes another unique spirit, a Cask Strength Rum, aged in Sherry barrels. The base rum had been distilled in the Antilles, where it aged for five years in ex-Bourbon barrels, and then given to a Spanish Sherry bodega, where the rum further aged in Oloroso barrels for 10 years. The color of this rum was deep and dark, though with some translucence, reminding me in some ways of an aged Oloroso Sherry. I was enamored with the complex aromas that wafted up, seducing my nose. There was fruit and spice, nuts and chocolate, and it was a pleasure just to sit and enjoy the aromas. On the palate, I was initially pleased with the relative dryness of the rum. It wasn't one of the prominent sweet rums but rather its sweetness was of a more subtle nature, with underlying caramel, vanilla and molasses flavors. And the complexity of the nose was duplicated on the palate, such a compelling melange of flavors that seemed to present something new each sip I took. There was a certain nutty and saline character that reminded me of Sherry, but also bright citrus and plum notes. There were plenty of spicy elements, with a backbone of umami, and hints of leather. Elegant and fascinating, this rum had a pleasing, lengthy finish.
Favorite Mezcal: Pierde Almas, which made the Mezcal/Gin hybrid mentioned above, is primarily a Mezcal producer and they have an amazing portfolio. My current favorite is their Maguey de Lumbre Mezcal, made from a rare and little-known agave. The aroma is more subtle, with hints of citrus and smoke, and the first taste is pure gustatory pleasure, a hedonistic revel in the complexities and flavors of the Mezcal. This was a compelling Mezcal and once I started looking deeper, it only became even more intriguing. Citrus notes dominated the flavor profile but there was much complexity providing harmony to the spirit. There was also a mild smokiness, subtle herbal accents, and wispy spice notes. Just sit and sip it and you'll realize the fascinating complexity of this spirit. The taste was clean and smooth, an elegant pleasure, something to slowly savor on a summer evening, though you could certainly enjoy this year round.
Favorite Pechuga Mezcal: Pierde Almas also produced my current favorite Pechuga Mezcal, the Mezcal de Conejo, which is produced using a rabbit. Pechuga is a type of mezcal that has been flavored with meat, as well as maybe some fruits and spices. Once I tasted this Pechuga, I was immediately struck by the anise notes in this Mezcal and then I could detect the ripe fruit flavors, especially pineapple, a mild smokiness, and a touch of a more wild and gamey element. It was complex and intriguing, a unique melange of flavors which should please any Mezcal lover. You wouldn't know this Mezcal was made with rabbit, but it still would make for an interesting addition to your Easter dinner.
Favorite Shochu: Shochu, a distilled spirit made in Japan, can be made from many different ingredients though sweet potato is considered one of the best choices. While dining at Tori Shin in New York City, I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of Shochu, the Tenshi no Yuwaku, which is a sweet potato Shochu that was fermented in Sherry casks for about 10 years. This is a more unique Shochu as few are ever aged this long. It's name translates as "Angel's Temptation," a reference to the Angel's Share, the amount of spirit that evaporates over time while it ages in a barrel. I enjoyed it neat, finding it rich and creamy, with intense Sherry notes, hints of sweetness, and plenty of complexity.
Favorite New Liqueur: A collaborative effort between companies in Britain & France, the Escubac seems to have its roots in Ireland. It is a "juniper-free botanical spirit," made from a base of neutral sugar beet alcohol with the addition of 14 botanicals. After it is distilled, they infuse it with saffron and sweeten it with raisins, vanilla, and sugar. The Escubac has some sweetness up front but it wasn't cloying or overly sweet, and it was complemented with a mix of citrus and herbal notes, with intriguing spice notes and a touch of bitterness. I was pleased with its complex and intriguing melange of flavors, and it can easily be used in a variety of cocktails.
Favorite Baijiu: With many Americans, the Chinese spirit Baijiu suffers an image problem, often considered to have a terrible, off-putting taste. Though there are some Baijiu with very strong aromas and tastes, others have much lighter and appealing flavors and are worthy of attention. Made in New Zealand, Taizi Baijiu, the creation of two Chinese brothers, would be a great introduction to Baijiu for anyone. With its clear color, the Baijiu has an intriguing nose of berries and licorice, and on your palate, the berry flavors are very prominent upfront with more licorice notes on the finish. It has a slightly oily texture, but drinks very smooth and balanced, and you wouldn't realize its high alcohol content. There is an underlying complexity, more subtle notes, including some herbal elements, accenting the Baijiu. One of the best Baijiu I've ever tasted, I highly recommend it.
Favorite Chicago Bars: On a whirlwind visit to Chicago, I was fortunate to visit two cool and compelling bars, including Income Tax and Estereo. Income Tax, which has been open for a year, is cozy and elegant, with a lengthy bar and a casual, welcoming vibe. Their drinks list is diverse and interesting, and they carry some Sherry by the glass. Their food is also quite tasty, and is great for pairing with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Service is excellent as well, and it is the type of neighborhood bar you really should frequent. Estereo is also a neighborhood bar, specializing in spirits from Mexico, Central America, and South America such as Cachaca, Pisco, Mezcal, Tequila, Sotol and more. Great cocktails, incredible diversity in their spirits, knowledgeable staff, and a fun & lively atmosphere make this a great place to drink.
Favorite Sherry Bar: Taberna de Haro wins this category hands-down, once again, as there is no other local restaurant which comes close. With over 60 Sherries, including some rarer bottlings, Chef/Owner Deborah Hansen has compiled an amazing Sherry list, offering a good number by the glass. The Sherries pair very well with her Spanish cuisine and I could easily sit at the bar all night sampling different Sherries, from a bone dry Fino to a sublime aged Palo Cortado. If you are ever in the area, you must stop here and try some Sherry.
Favorite Restaurant Cocktail: The Schrodinger's Coupe is available at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, which makes several other Baijiu cocktails too. The Coupe is made with Baijiu, curaçao, grapefruit, lime and plum bitters. It's Baijiu taste was accompanied by some sour fruit flavors with a hint of grapefruit. It wasn't overly sweet and was a refreshing summer drink.
Favorite Restaurant Hot Cocktail: While at a Burns Night dinner at Civic Kitchen & Drink, we began the evening with the Ginger Rabbie, a hot cocktail, made with Towiemore Classic Scotch, tea, molasses, and ginger. It was similar in some respects to a hot toddy, only mildly alcoholic, lightly sweet, and with a pleasing taste of tea and spice. Great for the winter.
Favorite Daiginjo Sake: The Kirin-Zan Junmai Daiginjo, which comes in a cool pentagonal blue bottle, is a superb Sake, elegant and complex, with such an alluring taste. It is clean and bright, with subtle citrus notes, some peach and melon, and a lengthy, pleasing finish. It is said to be "reminiscent of a clean mountain stream," and it possesses such a sense of purity, a Sake that pairs perfectly with nigiri. This is a Sake which impresses and I highly recommend it. Find it locally at Pabu Boston.
Favorite Junmai Ginjo Sake: I was impressed with the unique Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo, which spends three years in an insulated storage room chilled only by 1000 tons of snow! It is a Genshu, undiluted by water, and has a high acidity. I found the Hakkaisan to have a more subtle aroma and on the palate presented an elegant, deep complexity with hints of melon and a touch of anise. It was full-bodied and smooth with rich, savory umami. A hedonistic pleasure that is extremely food friendly. It can be found locally at Reliable Market.
Runner-Up Favorite Junmai Ginjo Sake: While dining at Torishin, a killer Yakitori restaurant in New York City, I ordered a carafe of Fukuju Junmai Ginjo and it was so delicious I had to order a second carafe. The Sake was simply superb, with a dry, clean and elegant taste with plenty of fruit notes. It was silky smooth, drank so easily, and I could have sat all night savoring this Sake. Highly recommended.
Favorite Kimoto/Yamahai Sake: The Suehiro Densho Yamahai Junmai Sake is produced from Gohyakumangoku rice, and is a typical Yamahai Sake, with delicious earthy notes, high acidity and plenty of umami. It is easy drinking, smooth, and complex with a hint of citrus, smoke, and sweetness. Simply a delicious Sake, which will pair well with many different foods, from mushroom risotto to a grilled steak.
Runner-Up Favorite Kimoto/Yamahai Sake: The Sohomare Tokubetsu Kimoto Sake has a high acidity and it was quite compelling, a mellow and smooth-drinking Sake with plenty of delicious umami. It has a richness to the mouthfeel, a lengthy and satisfying finish, and is something I could sit and drink all day. There is a mild earthiness to the Sake which enhances the totality. A well-made and delicious Sake, it would be an excellent pairing with umami dishes, especially mushroom or truffle-based ones, and would also go well with various meats.
Favorite Sake Store: It is difficult to find a local wine shop that carries a large and diverse Sake selection. However, Reliable Market, in Union Square, Somerville, has been enlarging their selection, and stock many of their Sake in refrigerated cases. You'll find plenty of Sake, of all types, in regular-sized bottles as well as half-bottles, at a range of price points. They also carry both local Sakes, Dovetail (from Waltham) and Blue Current (from Kittery, Maine). Reliable Market probably has the best and largest Sake selection in the Boston-area and you should check it out.
Favorite Sake News: Back in April 2015, I posted an article, An Expanded History of Sake Brewing in the U.S., which discussed the early history of Sake breweries in the U.S. My research for this article included combing through hundreds of old newspapers, picking out tidbits of information that hadn't been previously collected into a single resource. It was a fascinating exploration, expanding my knowledge of this topic, and revealing intriguing facts which contradicted what many previously believed. This year, a Japanese man, who runs a packaging company, wrote an article for a Japanese Sake journal based upon my article and I wrote out it in My History of U.S. Sake Breweries Inspires A Journal Article. And fortunately, I got to meet the author last month when he visited Boston, and we drank plenty of Sake together.
Least Favorite Sake News: In Ugh! More Stinkin' Scores For Sake From Wine Advocate, I express my displeasure at the Wine Advocate for continuing to provide "scores" for Sake. I've been ranting about this issue since 2013 but it is more recently that the Wine Advocate has started providing Sake scores on a more regular basis. Their main effect seems to be raising prices and they don't seem to be sparking much discussion or interest on Sake. Even on the Robert Parker bulletin boards, Sake discussion is all but nonexistent. The scores aren't really helping anyone, and are probably hurting more, so they should be eliminated.
Favorite Beer: I dislike most beer, as I am very sensitive to the bitterness of hops and that taste turns me off. Every once in a while though, I find a beer that does appeal to me. This year, I was impressed with the The Flying Dog "Heat Series" Shishito Rice Ale. This beer is brewed with Shishito peppers, a generally sweet Asian pepper where about one in ten is spicy. I found this beer to be light, crisp and refreshing, lacking bitterness and with just a whisper of spicy heat, mainly on the finish. There are some subtle malty undertones and a couple hints reminding me of a Sake. It would be an excellent beverage on a hot, summer day.
Favorite Cider: From the Asturian region of Spain, the 1947 Sidra de Nueva Expresion is
is a Petillant Semi-Dry Cider, produced from a blend of 14 apple varieties, all from their own orchards, with a rough breakdown of about 75% sharp, 15% bitter-sharp and the rest bitter-sweet. Fermentation occurs in an open chestnut vat, with wild yeasts, and I was quite surprised that they also allow it to mature in the open vat for about 12 months! The vats are old, some being as much as a hundred years or more, and are quite large, about 15,000 liters. It possesses a strong, appealing apple aroma and on the palate, it presents as mostly dry and crisp, with strong apple flavors and only the slightest hint of sweetness. It also has a mild effervescence, enough to be a nice palate cleanser and excellent for food pairings, and a lengthy pleasing finish.
Favorite Pear Cider: For the second year in a row, this Asturian pear cider, the Viuda de Angelón Sidra de Pera is the winner. The pear trees are wild, organic and over 70 years old. Once the pears are picked, they are first fermented in stainless steel, with wild yeasts, and then mature for about four months in chestnut vats. Then, they undergo a second fermentation in the tank. This is an impressive Perry, with a harmonious blend of earthiness with subtle pear flavor and a mild effervescence. It is dry and refreshing, with lots of depth. It would be excellent on its own or paired with food, especially something with umami.
Favorite Non-Alcoholic Cocktail: At Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, they have several cocktails, and I was impressed with their Sumiao Citrus, which is made with white grapefruit juice, lemon, simple syrup, blood orange puree, and orange garnish. This was an interesting concoction, not overly sweet, and was quite refreshing. The fruit flavors blended well together, presenting a tasty melange of flavors. If you aren't drinking something alcoholic with your meal, then this would be a good option.
Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink: Switchel used to be popular in New England in the 17th century, and now seems to be making a bit of a comeback. At Russell Orchards in Ipswich, I bought their version of Switchel, which is made from with apple cider vinegar, apple cider, maple syrup, ginger and water, with the vinegar and cider made on their premises. It is unpasteurized so needs to be refrigerated. The Switchel possesses a distinctive ginger aroma and it is prominent on the palate too. It is dry with a prominent vinegar aspect, subtle apple notes, and a ginger backbone. It is refreshing and I see how it can be quite refreshing on a hot day. Plus, it makes for a great cocktail ingredient.
Favorite Canned Non-Alcoholic Drink: At Gre.co, a fast-casual Greek restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston, they have a few canned drinks including the Tuvunu Greek Mountain Tea, which is made from Sideritis, an indigenous perennial. The tea is flavored with brown cane sugar, wild blossom honey, and fresh squeezed lemon juice. It was delicious, with only a mild sweetness, and pleasing tea notes and an herbal backbone. It is refreshing and you could easily drink can after can without feeling bloated or overwhelmed by sugar as you can be with soda.
What were some of your favorite spirits and drink-related items this year?