Monday, April 30, 2012

Rant: Can You "Buy Time" With Small Barrels?

There is a surge in micro-distilleries, small, artisan producers of a variety of spirits, from vodka to rum, whiskey to gin. For example, in Massachusetts, you can find micro-distilleries such as Privateer Rum, Turkey Shore Distilleries, Ryan & Wood Distilleries, and Bully Boy Distillers. You can find micro-distilleries though all across the country, and many more are likely to pop up over the next few years. That is certainly a very positive movement.

One controversial practice of some of these micro-distilleries is the use of small oak barrels for maturation. As with wine, barrel aging can be very important for certain spirits, especially whiskey and rums, though the size of the barrels can vary widely. Small barrels are generally considered to range from 5-15 gallons. The intent behind the use of these smaller barrels is to mature the spirit quicker, in a number of months rather than years. The idea is that smaller barrels allow more wood to be in contact with the spirit, which is supposed to result in increased extraction. But is it truly effective?

Buffalo Trace Distillery, a well respected bourbon distillery in Kentucky (which I shall be visiting later this week), conducted a five year long experiment, trying to ascertain the efficacy of small barrels in aging whiskey. Upon completion, they brought in Charles K. Cowdery, the editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, to view and taste the results of their experiments. Cowdery then published an article on the experiments in the December 2011 issue of The Bourbon Country Reader, and the article, with supplemental material is now available as an ebook, Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey. That title is fairly self-explanatory, as well as quite provocative, and indicative of Cowdery's view on the experiment results.

Subtitled "Buffalo Trace Distillery Tested The Effectiveness Of 5, 10, and 15 Gallon Barrels for Aging Bourbon Whiskey," the article provided some details on the experiment, and Cowdery's thoughts on the taste of the whiskey that was aged for five years in each of the three small barrel sizes.In short, Cowdery felt that the whiskey aged in the 5 and 10 gallon barrels was undrinkable and that the 15 gallon barrel was only barely palatable. All of the whiskeys evidenced the unpleasant taste of raw wood. This would seem to indicate that small barrels are ineffectual for the usual periods of barrel maturation.

The standard size of a whiskey barrel is 53 gallons, and American whiskey commonly ages for 4-8 years, if not longer. Interestingly, most micro-distilleries age their spirits for less than two years, and usually a matter of months, in these small barrels. Though they might get good extraction in the short term, if these distillers continued to age their spirits for a longer period in these small barrels, that could end up ruining their products. There is little other research of extended maturation in small barrels so the Buffalo Trace experiment is important, though there also does not appear to be any significant group contesting those results either.

It is also crucial to understand that extraction is only one element of barrel maturation. You must also consider the effects of evaporation, oxidation and chemical changes. All play a significant role yet seem to be largely ignored when discussing small barrels, where extraction takes on a dominant role in any conversations. Such matters should be examined more to determine what impact they play on the production of small barrel spirits.

We then enter a more controversial area, some of Cowdery's more personal comments on small barrel whiskey. He acknowledges that some whiskeys matured for a short period in small barrels may taste good, but he feels they do not taste like properly aged bourbon or whiskey. To him, they become a different type of entity, and he feels they probably should form their own category.

These comments garnered plenty of disagreement from others in the industry as well as bourbon consumers, and numerous people responded to Cowdery on whiskey forums. To these people, small batch bourbon is still bourbon, even if it has a different taste profile. They feel that as long as it conforms to the legal definition of bourbon, then it should be considered bourbon. They do not feel there is any singular bourbon flavor profile so Cowdery's comments are way off base. There is no disagreeing that some small batch bourbons sell very well and have a significant following. So who is correct?

Though the Buffalo Trace experiment deal only with whiskey, the ideas translate easily to small barrel maturation of other spirits too. Andrew Cabot of Privateer Rum, which uses large barrels for maturing their rum, stated to me, "You can't buy time." He does not believe small barrels produce the type of rum he prefers, and he stated that his thoughts were mirrored by some experts in the rum industry. Yet other micro-distilleries, such as Turkey Shore Distilleries, produce rum from small barrels and it is well received by consumers. I enjoyed the Turkey Shore Tavern Style Rum, aged in 15 gallon barrels for about six months.

In the end, it probably is a matter of preference more than anything else. It is unlikely that the laws will change any time soon to differentiate small barrel matured spirits, and it doesn't seem likely that the industry will adopt any terminology to differentiate their products. Consumers will make their own choices as to which spirits they wish to drink. But it would be interesting to see more studies done on the effects of small barrel maturation, and more than just on extraction.

What are your thoughts on small barrel maturation for spirits?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Taste of The Nation: Helping Feed The Children

Cue the irony, a large group of people gorging on plentiful food and alcohol while nearly 17 million children struggle with hunger. Fortunately, the event is aimed at alleviating the problems of childhood hunger, and 100% of all ticket sales go directly to these efforts.

The Taste of the Nation, which was established in 1988, has run numerous events, all across the country, bringing together chefs, mixologists, wineries, bakers, and more all to help fight childhood hunger. Ticket sales directly support Share Our Strength’s efforts and this year's funds went to their program,No Kid Hungry. This is a very serious problem and this event is doing something significant to combat it, and all of the participants, who mostly have donated their time, food and drink, deserve kudos for their efforts.

I had a fun and delicious time at this event, tasting many interesting dishes, wines and cocktails while getting the chance to chat with some chefs and vendors. It was not overly crowded so you didn't have to wait at most of the tables. I want to highlight several special items at the event, some very new to me, others which continue to impress.

Seafood charcuterie is up and coming, and I definitely want to write a story on it soon. It is an intriguing idea and seems to work well from prior items I have tried.  606 Congress presented a Monkfish Chorizo, which is made with monkfish, cream, egg whites, and chorizo spices. It was tasty, with a creamy texture to it and the spices added a nice balance.

Masa, with locations in Boston and Woburn,  infuses their own Reposado tequila to make a Habanero Watermelon Margarita. I love the taste of watermelon and this cocktail presented a nice watermelon taste, not too sweet, with a tequila undertone and a very spicy finish. I would have enjoyed a big glass of this refreshing, spicy margarita and will have to stop by the restaurant to have it once again.

Mat and Evan of Turkey Shore Distilleries, makers of Old Ipswich Rum, were pouring some of their rum and they recently won three medals at the American Distilling Institute's 9th Annual Craft Distilling Conference & Vendor Expo. Their award is pictured above, a mini-still which actually works! I previously reviewed their distillery and rums, which are worthy of your attention. On May 5, the public is invited to attend Turkey Shore Distilleries' one-year Anniversary Celebration and Rum Release party from 1pm-5pm at their headquarters at 23 Hayward Street in Ipswich.

A bowl of savory and salty Crispy Pig's Ear Chicharrones made by Franklin Cafe. A perfect snack and I wish I had a bowl in front of me right now.

Chef Jason Santos of Blue Inc. served up some Pastrami Dumplings, which were very crunchy, reminding me more of wontons than dumplings. The pastrami fitting went well with the crunchy coating and they were also an excellent comfort food.

Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta, who I often see at charity events, presented an intriguing dessert, a smooth and creamy pudding-like item that uses lucuma, a Peruvian fruit which is also known as egg fruit because its flesh seems to resemble the texture of a hard boiled egg. It reminded me of a delicious butterscotch pudding,  and I had a couple of them because they were so good. Peruvian ingredients deserve much more respect as their diversity offers so many intriguing flavors.

Of all the wines I tasted, the best value finds were two wines from Biohof Pratsch, an organically certified Austrian winery. Both wines were in one-liter bottles, which is 1/3 more than a usual wine bottle, and cost only $13, which would be equivalent to about $9.30 for a regular 750ml bottle. The 2010 Gruner Veltliner was crisp and dry with bright citrus flavors and hints of spice. A very refreshing wine that would be excellent with food or just as a summer sipper. The 2009 Zweigelt was light bodied and smooth with plenty of tasty red fruit flavors. Another easy drinking and flavorful wine, and both also only have 12% alcohol. Excellent values and both are strongly recommended.

I had the pleasure to meet Michele da Silva and Dana Masterpolo, the owners of Bantam Cider, a new cidery in Inman Square, Cambridge. The cidery opened last January and they currently sell a single product, the Wunderkind, which was named in honor of Amelia Earhart. The cider contains only fermented pressed apples, honey and sulfites. The apples are a mix of Cortland, Empire, Macintosh and green apples, all from western Massachusetts. They use a sparkling wine yeast and ferment it dry, adding the honey later more for body than sweetness. It has an alcohol content of 6%, is gluten free and sells in a 650ml bottle for about $8.  

Michele and Dana wanted to make a hard cider that would be accessible to all. They also have plans to make other varieties in the future. In addition, they self distribute so they are still trying to get their product into more venues. I was impressed with the Wunderkind's taste, which was mostly dry, with only a light sweetness, lots of tasty apple flavors, hints of some floral elements and a fuller body than some other hard ciders. It was refreshing and the type of hard cider that you can easily drink a few bottles on a nice summer day.

Michele and Dana emphasized that the cider was food friendly too, pairing well with cheese and spicy Asian dishes. With all of the new artisan breweries and distilleries sprouting up, many of them appear to be run by men so it is good to see women getting involved as well. They have created a good product here, and I look forward to seeing what else they will develop in the near future.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  Johnny and Kosta Diamantopoulos proudly announce that the first pizzas to come out of their new All Star Pizza Bar oven will take place on Thursday, April 26.  Their hours of operation will be 11am-9pm daily.

Debut Menu Items, Eat in or Take out, starting @ $13.95
--Atomic Meatloaf Pizza: Italian sibling to the Meatloaf Meltdown from All Star Sandwich Bar, a regional favorite for the past four years with a local secret: Inner Beauty Hot Sauce.
--Ms. Piggy’s Fig OMG: Black Mission figs and goat cheese with prosciutto, arugula, vincotto and pistachio gremolata
--Buffalo Duck Confit: Starring: Duck confit, All Star Buffalo Sauce, Maytag blue cheese
--De-Constructed Chile Relleno: Tomatillo salsa, cotija, poblano, chorizo, corn, cilantro
--Dukes of Hazzard: Good Ole Boy breakfast on crust: hominy-ricotta grits, maple breakfast sausage, soft-baked eggs, cheese and pickled chiles
--Romesco Ratatouille: Roasted eggplant/squash/peppers with almond sauce, cheeses and fresh herbs
--The Red Head: For meat lovers: Shaved steak and smoked bacon with smashed new potatoes, onions, horseradish cream and cheese

Almost 20 add-ons @$1, ranging from asparagus and anchovies to meatballs, mushrooms and beyond. Wine and beer also available.

2)  Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar is now offering a new way for guests to mix and match in the bar and lounge area from now until June 3. They are rolling out “Small Plates, Big Pours” – a selection of seven Small Plates matched with an oversized wine pour from the Fleming’s 100 – for just $24.95. Maeve Pesquera, Fleming’s Director of Wine, has specially chosen each of the seven wines to pair with the flavors of the steakhouse small plates. Guests can select one of the suggested pairings below or create a unique flavor combination of their own by mixing up these wine and food options:

· Sliced Filet Mignon & Penley Merlot: Beef filet, mushroom risotto and Merlot all exhibit a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth quality and harmonize well together
· Shrimp Scampi Skewers & Paco & Lola Albariño: Albariño’s crisp minerality echoes the fresh ocean flavors of the shrimp, and the green apple and floral notes of the wine are a wonderful complement to the spicy chimichurri sauce
· Petite Lamb Chops & Cline Cashmere Red Blend: Oak-aged red wines almost always pair well with grilled meats, and the lamb has flavor compounds that pair particularly well with the chocolate notes and hints of black pepper in this Syrah-Grenache-Mouvèdre blend
· Seared Ahi Tuna & A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir: The bit of spice in this perfectly smooth Pinot Noir soothes the piquant notes of the mustard sauce served with the tuna dish
· New Bedford Scallops & Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc: The fruity minerality of this refreshing Sauvignon Blanc accentuates the buttery richness of the scallops, and its citrus qualities echo the dish’s Meyer lemon-honey glaze
· Filet Mignon Skewers & B.R. Cohn Silver Cabernet: Powerful foods need a powerful wine, and the full, rich flavors of this Sonoma Cabernet pair well with the robust flavors of seared beef, creamy gorgonzola and smoky bacon
· Lobster Tempura & Silverado Chardonnay: The richness and sweetness of the lobster echo the rich flavors of crème brûlée and citrus found in this medium-bodied Chardonnay

3)  For Mother’s Day, Haru has created a three-course prix fixe menu to help celebrate, designed to pair with its champagne-laced cocktails. For appetizers, guests will choose from the following: Symphony (layered tower of spicy tuna, salmon tartate, king crab and caviar), Tuna Ceviche (tuna, grape tomatoes, red onion, avocado and green apple in a citrus ceviche sauce) or Seaweed Salad (with sesame soy vinaigrette). For entrees, options are one by land and two by sea: Grilled Chicken Teriyaki (with steamed vegetables), Sushi (eight pieces of assorted sushi and choice of California or Tuna Roll) or Hime (spicy crab mango roll, tuna avocado roll and shrimp tempura roll). Top off the occasion by dipping into Mochi Ice Cream or Cheesecake Tempura.

And because every mother deserves some bubbly on her special day, Haru also offers the following libations: Berries & Bubbles (prosecco, Svedka Raspberry and fresh strawberries), Enter the Dragon (prosecco and pomegranate juice) and Kitty Kat (St. Germain elderflower liqueur, prosecco and a splash of pineapple juice).

When: Mother’s Day: Sunday, May 13th from 11:30am – 11:00pm
Cost: Three-course prix fixe: $25 per person (excluding tax & gratuity) Champagne cocktails: $12 each

4)  For Mother's Day, why not have brunch at The Beehive. From 10am-4pm, enjoy brunch prepared by Executive Chef Rebecca Newell while listening to live jazz performances. Guests can choose from (2) prix fixe options, priced at either $25.95 or $34.95. Brunch starts off with selections like an Apple Cinnamon Breakfast Bread Pudding, and Ham & Spring Pea Soup before guests indulge in brunch classics including Eggs Shakshuka (sunnyside eggs baked “North African Style” with tomato sauce and polenta), asparagus, brie & tomato quiche or its famous thick-cut French toast, chantilly cream and maple syrup. For those that opt for more traditional fare, try Organic Chicken Piccata, Seared Ahi Tuna Nicoise and Roast Leg of Lamb. While children can order off the “Little Bee’s Kids Menu” ($12).

The Beehive will also be serving Mother’s Day Dinner from 4pm-10pm featuring menu specials and a night of soulful performances showcasing the very best blues music in New England with an all-star house blues band led by 25-year musical veteran Bruce Bears on the keyboards, a core band of inspired performers and a rotating cast of legendary “drop in” musicians making guest appearances. Regular menu served à la carte.

For Reservations, please call 617-423-0069.

5)  Join Joslin Diabetes Center for a fabulous Evening At Pops at Boston’s Symphony Hall on May 11, as the beloved Boston Pops feature the iconic music of George Gershwin. All proceeds from the evening will support Joslin’s singular focus on diabetes and its High Hopes Fund. The High Hopes Fund supports Joslin’s integration of cutting-edge research toward a cure, as well as clinical care and education for those living with diabetes and their families, ensuring a future with great hope.

Evening at Pops guests will enjoy a spectacular musical experience as Keith Lockhart and the Pops celebrate George Gershwin by performing many of his vibrant, jazzy and uniquely American pieces, including Rhapsody in Blue. At this year’s event, Joslin Diabetes Center will honor North End restaurateur Carla Gomes for her tireless work and dedication to cure diabetes through the annual CityFeast.

For tickets please visit
Cost: $250 for premium floor seating and VIP Reception $100 for balcony seating
When: Friday, May 11, 6p.m.–VIP Reception, 8p.m.--Concert

6)  The Kentucky Derby is just around the corner and I will be attending it this year. If you can't go to the Derby though, there are some local places holding special Derby events on Friday, May 4, and Saturday, May 5.

Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake (384 Boylston Street, Boston – 617.859.8555):
Executive Chef Brian Poe will be honoring the Kentucky Derby with an exclusive preparation of Mint Julep Tacos filled with scallops and topped with jalapeño mint salsa and bourbon crema ($12).

Woodward at AMES (One Court Street, Boston – 617.979.8200):
They are nviting everyone to sip-and-snack on exclusive Kentucky Derby specials while catching the “greatest two minutes in sports.” Executive Sous Chef German Villatoro will be serving up a southern-inspired carte du jour with items including: Benedictine Dip (sesame lavosh, pumpernickel toast - $12); Savory Country Fried Beef Tenderloin (corn pudding, creamy spinach, red-eye gravy - $32); and, Derby Pecan Pie (vanilla ice cream - $10). Specialty cocktails include: Kentucky Derby Mint Julep (Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon, simple syrup, mint, crushed ice, Sailor Jerry Rum float - $7); Sazerac Kentucky Rye ($11); Knob Creek ($12); and, Woodford Reserve ($11).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Konnichiwa, Albarino-san!

During the winter, it can be difficult to find Albariño wines because many wine stores seem to feel it is more of a summer wine. Yet I strongly disagree with that reasoning as I believe Albariño is good year round. Sure, it is a perfect summer wine, yet its versatility in food pairing make it an excellent choice during any season. After tracking down a bottle of 2010 Burgan's Albariño, I brought it with me to Kyotoya, a Japanese restaurant in Stoneham, to assess its compatibility with that cuisine.

Albariño is an indigenous grape in Spain, and grows primarily in the Galicia region, in the northwest of Spain. It is the signature grape in the Denomination de Origin (D.O.) of Rías Baixas, which is also the only exclusively white wine D.O. in Spain. Though 12 grape varieties are permitted in Rias Baixas, Albariño is heavily dominant, representing 90% of all plantings. Interestingly, over half of the nearly 200 wineries in Rias Baixas have female winemakers. This has been a very recent change as back in 1990, there were few female winemakers. This surge of female winemakers has also accompanied a rise in higher quality and more complex Albariño wines.

The Burgan's Albariño is produced by the Bodegas Martín Códax, which was established in 1986 as a cooperative and now has about 285 members. The winery name is derived from the name of a famous 13th century Galician poet, more accurately known as a jogral, who composed a type of lyrical poetry called cantigas. A jogral is similar in a number respects to a troubador, though they are not nobles. The name Burgáns refers to the name of the slope where the winery is located.

The nose of the 2010 Burgan's Albariño is a compelling blend of citrus and other fruit smells and much of that fruit comes out in the flavors as well, including peach, lemon, apple and ripe pear. Accompanying these flavors, there is a subtle minerality and an almost sweetness to the ripe, full taste. The flavors linger in your mouth, providing a very pleasant finish. But how does it pair with Japanese cuisine? Actually, quite well.

Kyotoya is one of my favorite local restaurants and it creates some excellent and inexpensive Japanese cuisine. In addition, it is BYOB, so you can bring your own wine or beer and they do not even charge a corkage fee. Thus, Kyotoya provided a perfect opportunity to put the Albariño to the test with a variety of dishes.

We began the meal with some sushi, including tamago (egg omelet), maguro (yellowfin tuna) and salmon. With the raw fish, the fruit of the Albariño became more muted and the minerality surfaced. In addition, the wine helped to mellow some of the heat of the wasabi. A nice start to the meal and the Albariño was already showing some of its versatility.  Soon after, we were delivered some miso soup and salad, and the saltiness of the soup also mellowed the fruit flavors and sweetness, though without raising the minerality. The wine was now showing a different face, and that was very interesting.

Kyotoya has superb tempura, shrimp and vegetables, which is perfectly light and crispy. Frankly, it is one of the best tempura I have ever tasted.  The Albariño made a fine match, the flavors of both the food and wine complementing each other, though taking on a different flavor than when it has been paired with the sushi and miso. The clean flavors of the tempura worked well with the fruit of the Albariño, and the wine also worked as a palate cleanser.

The crisp gyoza, fried dumplings, did as well as the tempura with the Albariño, and the wine was not bothered by the slightly earthier filling inside the gyoza.

Beef and white wine? Not always a first choice but it can work sometimes. We tried an order of Beef Tataki, thinly sliced, rare beef in a ponzu sauce. Ponzu sauce is citrus based and those flavors matched well the citrus found in the Albariño, so the pairing actually worked. The wine was also rich enough to handle the silky, tender beef. I could easily see the Albariño with a beef carpaccio too.

The Tatsuta Age, ginger battered fried chicken, brought out another side of the Albariño, emphasizing almost a spicy undertone while once again muting some of the perceived sweetness. In some respects, the Albariño reminded me of Sybil, with all of the different personalities it was evidencing, each brought on by a different food pairing.

One of my favorites dishes at Kyotoya is the Unagi Sandwich, which has pieces of eel sandwiched between slices of sweet potato tempura and topped by a type of barbecue sauce. The sweetness of the sauce complemented the wine, while the wine also handled the tempura and strong eel taste. Another winning pairing.

Finally, we ended with Salmon Teriyaki, and once again the sweetness of the sauce was an excellent complement to the fruity Albariño, while the salmon flavors were not overpowered by the wine and seemed to extract a bit more minerality out of the wine. I knew seafood paired well with Albariño but it was nice to learn that Asian flavors also worked well too.

I believe my Japanese excursion provided more evidence of the versatility of Albariño in food pairing, as well as indicating its diverse personality, how it changes in taste and style dependent on the specific food with which it is accompanied. Sometimes it is more fruity while other times the minerality is more dominant. It can handle spicy flavors, seafood, fried foods and even beef. Don't think about Albariño as just a summer wine, but enjoy it year round and don't be afraid to experiment with food pairings.

(This was originally posted on the Albariño Explorers Blog, and they also paid for my dinner and wine, though I had the choice of which wine to select and which restaurant to visit. All of the opinions stated in this post are my own.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rant: Time To Give Up The Blog?

Has my blog been ruining my enjoyment of good food and wine? Should I give up the blog so that I can better enjoy gustatory pleasures? I might not be alone in these feelings, and in fact, many food and wine bloggers may find themselves in this same situation. So what is a writer to do?

The impetus to these questions was a brief and intriguing quote in the new issue of  Scientific American Mind (May/June 2012). It read: “Did you just enjoy a delicious meal? Consider keeping it to yourself. Researchers found that describing how good a cupcake tastes makes you enjoy it less and explaining why a movie is horrible makes you hate it less. Recounting an experience may enhance your understanding of it, which then dulls your opinion of the incident.

I attempted to gather additional information about this study but was unable to find anything online thus I know nothing of its methodology or sample size. But nonetheless it raises an interesting point, worthy of pondering. It is especially timely as it deals with issues that I partially addressed in my wine review last Friday.

In general, I do not feel that my writing about food and wine diminishes my pleasure, and I also feel that it can enhance my understanding of such matters. But, I can see that over analyzing such matters might serve to diminish one's feelings about such culinary pleasures. At times, this can be a fine line, something to take into consideration when writing about our experiences. It is possible that this is more applicable the closer your writing becomes to a career and not just a hobby.

There are times when analysis of all these issues can interfere with one's enjoyment. Case in point, as mentioned in my wine review on Friday, I did not engage in a technical analysis of the wine, choosing instead to revel in its sensory pleasures. It was a time to simply enjoy the beauty of this wine, and not think about it critically. At that time, such an analysis would have diminished the occasion. I have felt that same way about certain meals as well, that they only needed to be savored and enjoyed in their own, without dissecting them with a critical eye.

So, as long as I understand and accept the existence of such occasions, then I have no complaints about the times I write about my drinking and dining. In addition, my writing feeds other pleasures and satisfactions, which are their own rewards. I garner enjoyment from sharing my experiences with others, with supporting the people and places I feel worthy. It is eminently satisfying when my readers follow my recommendations and suggestions, and greatly enjoy what they find.

I am certainly going to continue to write and blog about my experiences. Next month, on May 9, will be my blog's fifth anniversary and I plan to see many more such anniversaries. But I recommend that my fellow writers ponder these questions, and determine for themselves whether their writing diminishes the pleasures of their food and drink. In fact, bloggers in other fields may want to consider these questions too. For example, does reviewing a novel diminish your enjoyment of it?

What are your thoughts about the quote above?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sake & Shochu: The "National Alcoholic Beverages" of Japan

Despite its 2000+ year history and importance in Japan, Sake was never declared to be its "national alcoholic beverage." Until now.

According to the Daily Yomiuri Online, the Japanese government will soon declare Sake and Shochu to be "national alcoholic beverages." The idea behind this decision is to help local economies, increase the demand for rice, and boost export sales. Motohisa Furukawa, the state minister for national policy, stated. "Sake and shochu are part of the Japanese culture of taking pride in high-quality rice and water. I'm confident [they] could develop into an export industry capable of penetrating the global market."

As I recently discussed, Sake exports in 2010 and 2011 reached record highs and it appears that the Japanese government is trying to continue this very positive trend. The government will engage in a diverse number of actions to boost overseas sales and that can only benefit Sake lovers all over the world. Offhand, I don't know the current statistics for Shochu exports, but I believe they are less than Sake and it still is much less popular in the U.S. than Sake. But we could be seeing more Shochu consumption too if the Japanese plans work.

Though even with increased imports of Sake and Shochu to the U.S., it will still be necessary to have passionate advocates in the U.S. to help spread the word about the pleasures, benefits and diversity of these beverages. U.S. consumers need to be told about Sake and Shochu, educated and intrigued, so that they understand these drinks, and are not afraid to taste and buy them. Wine store and restaurant owners also need to be informed and educated about these products, as well as be willing to carry and recommend them in their establishments. Consumers are also needed to be willing to take a chance on Sake and Shochu, to get past any negative preconceptions they might have.

The Japanese declaration and plans to boost exports is but one step in a greater chain, a significant and positive step, but it still requires action by those in the U.S. This is similar to the situation of some wine regions, which are making an effort to promote their wines more, but which still require work from those in the U.S. to promote and educate about such wines.

Kudos to Japan for their plans to better promote Sake and Shochu. It is now our turn to assist in this process.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What Does A Perfect Wine Taste Like?

Does the perfect wine exist or is that merely an unreachable ideal? If someone declares a wine is perfect, is that a subjective or objective determination? Should people be able to agree on what constitutes a perfect wine? Intriguing questions and I even explored this issue previously in a short story, The Perfect Wine.

Under the 100 point system, wines are ranked from 50-100, and one would assume that a score of 100, the utmost top number, reflects a perfect wine. Interestingly, the major wine print media does not provide any specific definition of what constitutes a 100 point wine. The Wine Spectator lumps together 95-100 points as "Classic: a great wine." Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate lumps together 96-100 points as "An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume."

So what is a 100 point wine? In a prior interview, Robert Parker offered some explanation for what he feels constitutes such a wine. "I’ve always tried to explain it saying that, you know, I’m a very passionate person and an emotional person. I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment." So it seems largely a matter of context, that different people under different circumstances may rate a wine differently, even disagreeing upon whether a wine deserves a perfect 100 or not.

Wines that receive 100 points are relatively rare and usually expensive. Many wine lovers have probably never tasted, much less owned, such a wine. I am also sure a number of wine lovers don't care but I won't deny that I find the idea intellectually intriguing, to get an insight into what some consider a perfect wine. I recently had the chance to indulge my curiosity as several years ago I acquired a wine rated 100 by Robert Parker, though I was unaware of that fact at the time.  

Back in September 2008, I made a visit to the Lower Falls Wine Co., one of my favorite wine shops, and found that they carried some 2005 Sine Qua Non, a rare cult wine from California. At that time, I had also received several email newsletters from other local wine stores selling Sine Qua Non, and most of the prices ranged from $300-$350 per bottle. Yet Lower Falls was selling them for only $150 per bottle, a significant bargain over all of the other stores. Rather than inflate their prices due to the reputation of the wine, they chose to make it much more affordable and that gains my respect.

I had never tasted those wines before, but had read about them, seen the praise bestowed upon them by numerous people in the wine industry. If nothing else, buying those wines could be a good investment, especially at the Lower Falls price. Fortunately, I had some extra cash at the time so I bought four bottles, two Syrah and two Grenache, and placed them into my Vinotemp for storage.

Sine Qua Non, located in Ventura County in the Central Coast AVA, was founded in 1994 by Manfred and Elaine Krankl. They quickly built up a reputation for producing excellent Rhône style blends and their annual production is very small, around 3500 cases. Most of their grapes come from Santa Barbara County and each of their wines is unique, and never the same year to year. Manfred is an artisan wine maker, hand crafting intriguing products.

Later, I did some research on the wines I purchased and found that the 2005 Sine Qua Non "Atlantis Fe 203-1a,b,c" Syrah had received a score of 100 points from Robert Parker. He stated: "The perfect 2005 Syrah Atlantis Fe 203-1a,b,c is a blend of 93% Syrah, 5% Grenache, and 2% Viognier, with 25% whole clusters...An extraordinarily flowery nose interwoven with scents of blueberries, blackberries, incense, and graphite soars from the glass. Although not the biggest or most concentrated Syrah Krankl has made, it is one of the most nuanced, elegant, and complex. It remains full-bodied, but builds incrementally on the palate, and comes across as elegant and delicate, especially when compared to many California Syrahs. Nevertheless, the intensity is mind-boggling, and the finish lasts for nearly a minute. Drink this amazing effort over the next 10-15+ years."

What did other major wine critics think of this wine? In comparison,Wine Spectator awarded this wine only 92 points while Stephen Tanzer gave it 94-95 points, both which are significantly different than Parker's 100 points. I guess perfection in wine is very subjective. Wine Spectator didn't even score this wine in their top category. So the big question remained, how would I feel about the wine?

The four wines remained in my Vinotemp for several years, and its value increased to as much as $500-$600, roughly three to four times what I paid for it. Not a bad return on my investment in less than four years. I did contemplate selling a bottle or two over the years but never actually went through with it. Ultimately, the value of wine for me is in the drinking, in sharing special bottles with special people. Sometimes, rather than waiting for a special occasion, such as a birthday, anniversary or other celebration, you have to create your own moment and make it special by opening such wine.

Recently, I decided to take the plunge and open a bottle of the 100 point Atlantis, to see how it measured up and whether I would consider it a perfect wine or not. There was no specific occasion to celebrate, simply the fact that I was dining out with some very good friends who appreciated fine wine, including Adam of Wine Zag and Andrew. Thus, it felt right to open such a bottle, to experience it with others who would savor the chance to taste such a wine.

I thought the wine might be big and powerful, a muscular beast that might throttle my palate yet still impress with its balance and complexity. That did not end up being the case. Instead, I encountered a silk-clad temptress, whose seductive wiles entranced me while her lush lips crushed against mine, inciting my own passions. Memories of that kiss lingered long and I craved for her touch once again. She was an elegant woman yet with the concentrated power and grace of a black panther. I wanted to explore all of her depths, to lose myself within her soft, smooth arms.

Perfect? I don't know and I don't care. All I do know is that I found it to be an amazing wine which appealed immensely to my wine preferences. In the moment, there was nothing else I wanted from the wine, and those memories will linger long in my mind. It was an experience, more than just a taste of wine. It was not the time, place and context to engage in an overly intellectual analysis of this wine. That might have ruined the overall experience. Sometimes you simply must savor and enjoy a wine.

The others with me all greatly enjoyed the wine too. It is an impressive Syrah and I am extremely glad that I bought it. And even happier that I still have one more bottle in my cellar.

Now I have to consider when to open that bottle.  

Have you tasted a 100 point wine? If so, what were your thoughts?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  Towne Stove and Spirits will be revamping their brunch menu to welcome the spring and summer seasons. Culinary Director Lydia Shire and Executive Chef Mario Capone are expanding their scope to include more savory options.

To start your brunch experience, try one of the new Bloody Mary options: The Classic Bloody (unchanged with celery - $8); Bonsai Bloody (Japanese-inspired with wasabi, soy and ginger - $8); or, Towne Jumbo Bloody Mary (22 oz. with celery, shrimp and pepperoncini - $11). To begin the meal, Towne will now offer four starter courses: Fruit & Berry Plate (with yogurt smoothie - $8); House Made Rum Smoked Salmon (potato pancakes, hot horseradish crema, beet chips - $12); Blackberry Biscuits (scones with English Devonshire cream - $8); and, New England Clam Chowder (with cocktails and quahogs - $10).

In the “Eggs & Other Options” portion of the menu, highlights include: Soft Omelettes (cheddar - $11; sherried chanterelles - $12; crab or lobster with chives - $14); Deep Fried Poach Egg (on ‘minute’ skirt steak with creamed spinach and curried croutons - $18); Lemon Chiffon Pancakes (whipped maple butter - $10); Crisp Malted Waffle (maple syrup and butter); Chicken & Waffles (grits, bacon and Tabasco - $14); and, Roast Beef Skillet Hash (crisped with organic eggs poached or over easy - $16).

Towne also will now offer dedicated “Lunch Options” during brunch service with options such as: Crunchy Peanut Butter Sandwich (Schaller & Weber bacon on toasted buttered brioche - $8); Spaghetti Carbonara (rapini leaves and soft cooked egg - $15); ‘Kitchen Sink’ Bacon Sandwich (ripe tomato and xtreme French fries - $10); Ale Battered Fish & Chips (with green goddess tartare sauce - $15); Grilled Ham & Cheese (sweet potato fries - $11); and, French Dip Sandwich (brie and caramelized onions - $14). On the side, the culinary duo will dish out items like: Towne’s Tater Tots ($4); Hot Cheddar Grits ($4); and, Daisy Ham ($4).

The new brunch menu at Towne will launch on Saturday, April 21, and is open for brunch on weekends from 11:00am to 3:00pm.

2)  On May 9, at 6:30pm, Legal Harborside will team up with Ted Lemon, owner of Littorai Wines, for an exclusive four-course wine dinner. A vineyard known for producing world class chardonnay and pinot noir, Littorai Wines was founded in 1993 on the north coast of California between Sebastopol and Freestone in western Sonoma County.

This menu will be presented as follows on Legal Harborside’s scenic second level overlooking Boston Harbor:

Hors D'Oeuvres
Gnocchi with Lobster, English Peas and Maitake Mushrooms
Littorai “Charles Heintz Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2008
First Course
Pan-Seared Loch Duart Salmon (lavender-scented honey, preserved lemon and fennel)
Littorai “Les Larmes” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, 2007
Second Course
Braised Veal Cheek (grilled asparagus and spring onion)
Littorai “Cerise Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, 2007
Cheese Course
Saint-Marcellin (cardamom preserved cherries)
Littorai “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, 2007

Cost: $125 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservations may be made by contacting 617-530-9470

3)  Food Truck Festivals of New England is holding 11 festivals, spanning from June through October, each festival taking place from Noon to 4 pm, with a special VIP Preview hour from 11am – Noon. Tickets can be purchased onlineOver 50 trucks from all over New England will be participating on a rotating basis; some will be at all, others in select communities. A complete list of up-to-date participating trucks can be found online.

Ticket Prices:
VIP Tickets $40/each (limited quantity)
General Admission $30/each ($35 day-of)
Foodie Four Pack $25/each with the purchase of four tickets ($100 for four pack)
Children 6 -12 $10/each
Children 5 and under FREE

Each ticket allows one serving from each of the 20-30 participating food trucks and does not include beverages. NOTE: There are a limited number of tickets for each festival, based on the capacity of the venue. The festival site will note the availability of tickets up to the day of the festival.

2012 Planned Festival Schedule
June 10 – The Boston Food Truck Festival at the UMass Boston Campus Center, Boston, MA
(Please Note: This date has been changed from May 26th, all original tickets will be honored)
June 16 – The Charlestown Food Truck Festival at Pier 4, Charlestown, MA
June 30 – The New Hampshire Food Truck Festival at Rockingham Park, Salem, NH
July 14 – The Worcester Food Truck Festival at Elm Park, Worcester, MA
July 28 – The Charles River Food Truck Festival at DCR’s Artesani Herter Park, Brighton, MA
August 25 – The Cape Cod Food Truck Festival at Barnstable Fairgrounds, Falmouth, MA
September 8 – The Lowell Food Truck Festival at the Tsongas Center, Lowell, MA
September 22 – The Suffolk Downs Food Truck Festival, East Boston, MA
September 29 – The Shipyard Food Truck Festival, Hingham (Shipyard), MA
October 6 – The Framingham Food Truck Festival at Shoppers World, Framingham, MA
October 20 – The Newport Food Truck Festival at the Newport Yachting Center, Newport, RI

4)  Local artisan micro-distiller Turkey Shore Distilleries, makers of Old Ipswich Rum, garnered three medals at the American Distilling Institute's 9th Annual Craft Distilling Conference & Vendor Expo, held in early April, 2012 in Louisville, KY. Old Ipswich Tavern-Style Rum won a Gold Medal for Best of Class Rum category, the Gold Medal for Amber Rum, and the Old Ipswich White Cap Rum won a Bronze Medal in the Clear Rum category.

"It was the surprise of the show," said Mathew Perry, President and Founder of Turkey Shore Distilleries. "It's humbling to get this kind of recognition from our peers so early in our career. Our first product, White Cap, is a smooth white rum, with vanilla notes. With our Tavern-Style Rum, we set out to re-create a refined version of oak barrel-aged rum that was so popular in Colonial Days. We're proud to be part of the quality, hand-crafted spirits trend that is growing so fast locally in Massachusetts and across the nation."

On May 5, the public is invited to attend Turkey Shore Distilleries' one-year Anniversary Celebration and Rum Release party from 1 p.m.-5 p.m. at its headquarters at 23 Hayward Street in Ipswich.

According to Turkey Shore Master Distiller Evan Parker, "We plan to add new flavors and limited special edition spirits as we grow. The May 5th event will be the debut of our Greenhead Spiced Rum, which is steeped with green tea, lemongrass and spearmint. It has a clean, refreshing bite for springtime cocktails."

5)  This Mother’s Day, take your Mom out for a prix-fixe brunch at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. For $34.95 per person, families can enjoy three courses of classic brunch dishes and Fleming’s favorites. In addition, a brunch cocktail, Blood Orange Fizz, will be available, as well as Fleming’s traditional à la carte menu. As thanks for their hard work, mothers will receive a complimentary $25 Dining Card** to enjoy on a future occasion.

Guests will start brunch with Fleming’s signature Wedge Salad or a Fresh Fruit Medley, followed by one of five entrée choices. The tender Filet Mignon Benedict is cooked to order, topped with poached eggs and buttery béarnaise sauce with fresh lemon, shallots and tarragon. Fleming’s New Orleans-Style French Toast is made from thick slices of rich brioche bread soaked in Grand Marnier-flavored cinnamon batter, and topped with a generous dollop of housemade chantilly cream and fresh berries. A Sunday favorite at Fleming’s, Prime Rib, is slow roasted and served with a trio of sauces. Shrimp or Filet Frittata and a Steakhouse Filet Mignon Cobb Salad round out the main course offerings. All entrees are served with a choice of Potatoes O’Brien or Sautéed Green Beans.

To bring the meal to a sweet conclusion, guests can enjoy their choice of White Chocolate Bread Pudding with bourbon crème anglaise, Crème Brûlée made with creamy Tahitian vanilla bean custard and served with fresh seasonal berries, or Walnut Turtle Pie featuring housemade caramel, walnuts and chocolate in a chocolate pie crust.

A prix-fixe children’s brunch is available for $16.95* for each child under 12 years old, and includes a fresh fruit salad followed by four kid-pleasing entrées, and a sundae or sorbet for dessert, plus a beverage.

Blood Orange Fizz, a brunch cocktail bright with citrus flavors, is offered at a special price of $6.95. Maeve Pesquera, Fleming’s Director of Wine, created the brunch cocktail with Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, Stoli Vodka, fresh lemon juice and a splash of club soda served on the rocks.

Brunch hours on Sunday, May 13, are 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Reservations are strongly recommended.

6)  Or this Mother’s Day, treat her to a special meal at Tryst in Arlington. Tryst will be serving Mother’s Day brunch from 10am-2:30pm on Sunday, May 13, featuring a special two course, prix fixe brunch menu.

Executive Chef Paul Turano’s Mother’s Day menu features special items such as Lemon & Ricotta Pancakes, Breakfast Pizza with eggs, house-cured ham, cheddar asparagus & caramelized onions and Slow Roasted Pork & Apple Hash with 2 eggs sunny side up, or opt for more lunch-like fare with Tryst's Blackened Chicken Sandwich on a ciabatta roll with fresh mozzarella, pickled peppers, smoked tomato & arugula, all for only $22 per person.

Toast the celebration with Tryst’s classic brunch cocktails including the Mimosa ($9), Peach Bellini ($9) and Trysted Bloody Mary ($9). Make this Sunday a family affair! If Mom would rather sleep in, Tryst will be serving Mother’s Day dinner from 4:30PM to 9:00PM featuring seasonal favorites such as Miso Glazed Faroe Salmon with ginger & garlic stir fried greens, crispy rice cake & miso broth ($23), or Eggplant Norma, house made cavatelli, fresh ricotta, basil & roasted tomato ($9/$17).

Reservations are strongly recommended. Please call 781-641-2227.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Moonlight Meadery: Michael, Metheglin, Melomel & More

"Mead is passion, it's about romance, it's about enjoyment, family and friends, and sharing."
--Michael Fairbrother

Back in January, I attended the Boston Wine Expo and found two local Meaderies showcasing a few of their products. You can read my Mead Wars post, gain a little understanding about mead, and learn about Moonlight Meadery and Maine Mead Works. The meads from Moonlight Meadery intrigued me, so I recently drove up to New Hampshire to tour their facility and taste more of their products. In addition, I was accompanied by my friend Jason, of Ancient Fire Wine Blog, who has home brewed some of his own meads.

Much mead merriment ensued...

Pictured above is Michael Fairbrother, the owner and meadmaker at Moonlight Meadery, and he led us on the tour and tasting. Michael was very personable, obviously passionate about mead, and very forthcoming about his mead making efforts. Michael began making mead in 1995, initially as a hobby at home, and his first mead was a cyser, an apple and honey mead. In 2006, he was the president of a computer software company and had thoughts about moonlighting as a commercial mead maker. That is also the origin of the name of the meadery, Moonlight. But he then attended a speech which changed his entire perspective and led to him becoming a full-time, commercial meadmaker.

"How can you do something you love only part time?" Those words resonated deep within Michael and he realized that he was the only obstacle preventing himself from living a good life. He wanted to follow his passion, to turn it into far more than a part-time endeavor. So, in May 2010, he converted a small space in his garage into commercial space so that he could begin his new career as a mead maker, launching his first commercial mead, Desire, in July 2010. It did not take long before he moved his equipment into a larger space, about 2000 square feet and soon after to an even larger spot, about 4000 square feet. We shall see how long before he requires even more space.

Michael expects to produce about 100,000 bottles of mead this year and this facility could make up to 200,000 bottles, so they do have some room for growth. Above, are four of their six 500 gallon fermentation tanks. At any one time, the facility is generally producing about 5000 gallons of mead. Their meads are available locally, but they were also the first New Hampshire winery to be distributed in California, and are currently in talks to obtain national distribution. What phenomenal growth from a business that started only two years ago.

Obviously, the most important ingredient in their mead is honey, which also happens to the their most expensive ingredient and which might even be the most expensive sugar product that exists. Though they do use some local honey, the sheer volume of their business necessitates that they source much from outside New England too. Last year, they used 43,000 pounds of honey, which is greater than the total output of honey from all of New Hampshire. Even if they wanted to use only local, it would be an impossibility for their needs. Plus, local honey can be very costly which is another important business concern.

They obtain much of their honey from a local broker, and it is all True Source certified honey, which means it is both ethically sourced and quite transparent. You can track the honey down to the specific beehive, and most of those are located in New York and Pennsylvania. That is all worthy of respect. Michael purchases raw honey and ferments it himself, adding about a gram of yeast per gallon of honey. They do differentiate some meads by the nature and source of the honey, a terroir-like concept of a single source or varietal honey.

As for their other mead ingredients, they source about 75% from New Hampshire or otherwise locally. For example, they use cider and blueberries from New Hampshire. There are obviously certain ingredients which are not available locally, such as vanilla and coffee, so they must be obtained elsewhere. Michael is very supportive of the local community, but also must be realistic for his business. And he doesn't try to hide anything about his sourcing. In addition, he is very careful about the sources of all of his ingredients.

The same yeast is used for all of their meads as it works well, can push the alcohol content to 18%, and they have won awards with meads using the yeast. They have experimented with a number of other yeasts but none of them accomplished exactly what they desired. They do run their meads through a plate filter, though they do not need to do so, and state that they do not detect any flavor change with the filtering.

Michael has over 54 mead recipes that have been approved by the federal government, though a few are still waiting for label approval. About 30 meads are currently available in the shop. It can be a challenge selecting new names for each recipe, and sometimes he must resort to some rather obscure terms. Each mead label bears a moon, a few with different colored moons. Michael has been experimenting a bit with the moons, trying to create a more romantic moon rather than a science project. He attributes much of his success to the "diversity of flavors" of his product line, having something that will appeal to almost any taste preference.

There are a few challenges facing Michael, some common to all small business owners, and others more common only with niche producers. For example, like many businesses, capital is a challenge, as it is needed for the growth of the meadery. As a niche producer, Michael must face the obstacle that many consumers still know little about mead, and they must be educated about it. It is not just an oddity you find at a Renaissance Fair, but it is an intriguing and versatile alcoholic beverage. In addition, it is very food friendly, something which restaurants also need to learn as many seem reluctant to carry their mead. It is a new category for many, which requires an open mind, a willingness to broaden one's palate. In this regard, it reminds me a bit of Sake.

Some of their most intriguing meads have been aged in used Samuel Adams Utopian beer barrels, which once were bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace Distillery. They obtained about 20 of these barrels and have been aging a few different meads, some as much as 3 years, noting that they lose plenty of angel's share, the amount lost due to evaporation. This does make these meads very unique.

The Utopian mead (16.9% ABV) is very limited, very popular and sells for about $50 a bottle. Though I appreciate its complexity and depth of flavor, it reminds me too much of a beer and thus does not appeal to my personal preference. The Virtue (18% ABV) is a cyser, an apple mead, and usually ages in the barrel for six months though we had a sample at four months. It possessed an alluring apple aroma and had plenty of depth as well, though this time the beer taste was minimized, and it resembled more of a scotch. A nice choice.

The Temerity (15% ABV), which means "bold and audacious," is made with black currants and was produced to be a gateway for wine drinkers. It has prominent berry and black fruit flavors with a bit of tartness and no taste of beer. Very tasty and likely something that would appeal to many people. Michael loves black currants, using them in a number of meads, as he feels that it is a powerful fruit with a very distinctive flavor.

Above is the line-up in the tasting room, and I chose to taste some specific meads which most interested me. With all of their diversity, a person certainly should be able to find something that caters to their personal preferences. Sweet to dry, herbal to fruity, spicy to minty. Lots of options. I'll provide some insight into some of the meads I tasted.

The Mojo is made with mint and lime and is likely to remind you of a sweet mojito, with the lime being more prominent and the mint forming the underlying backbone. This is one of the sweetest meads they produce. The Red Dress contains red currants and is one of their best sellers. It has a pleasant berry taste with hints of spice, almost a cinnamon note. One of my favorites was the Flutter which is made with ginger. Though ginger can be an overpowering flavor, they were able to tame it in this semi-sweet mead, so that the ginger complemented the honey notes. This would be a nice accompaniment with some Asian cuisine.

The Paramour is loaded with fruit, a combination of blackberries, blueberries, currants, and black cherries, presenting a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. I might pair this up with roast lamb. The Smitten uses peaches, though the peach flavor is restrained, coming forth more on the finish. The Madagascar combines vanilla beans with honey and the result is a sweet taste that reminded me of the old Turkish taffy candy I used to eat as a child.

For a bit more savory and spicy, you could try the Scorn, which is made with red chili peppers. I did not find this too spicy though, more on the finish though it made for an interesting change of pace from the more fruity meads. The Fury was more my style, using three types of chili peppers and presenting more heat and spice, though not so much that it would burn your mouth. Though the heat does accumulate with the more you drink. These are certainly for the more adventurous drinker and I recommend them.

New meads are still being created, and Summer Love is due out sometime in 2013, a mead made with orange and vanilla. Though they do make meads with coffee, I was surprised that they have not made a mead yet using tea. I would think with the diversity of teas, and it affinity for honey, that they would make an excellent mead combination. It is good to know that all of the meads they sell have a shelf life, if unopened, of at least 15 years. After you open a mead, it will last for about two weeks.

You probably won't like all of their meads, but that will primarily be a matter of personal preferences. You might not like something too sweet, or a certain flavor may not appeal to you. But there should be meads which you will like, and that diversity is clearly a major strength of this meadery. In addition, mead is a versatile alcohol which further enhances its value even if you don't want to drink the mead on its own.

Mead can be used to make cocktails, and with the diversity of the flavor profiles of those meads, that means they can be used to create a multitude of different cocktails. All it takes is a little imagination, though it would be beneficial if the Moonlight Meadery website added a section that provided some mead cocktail suggestions. You can get some suggestions though if you visit the meadery. Besides cocktails, the meads can also be used in cooking, to make sauces, glazes and such for everything from fish to chicken, pork to beef. Again, it would be beneficial if the Moonlight website offered some suggestions, though you can also find recipes at the meadery.

You can even find jams and jellies from Laurel Hill that were made from mead.

Mead has a rich, vibrant and lengthy history and is making a comeback now in this age of artisan distillers, wine makers, and brewers. Mead is a beverage worthy of your attention, for drinking, for cocktails and for cooking. Moonlight Meadery is producing a wide range of compelling meads, and you should taste their meads, or even tour the meadery. It is a locally produced item, made by a very passionate person, and deserving of your support.

Engage in some Medudréam, an Old English term for "mead merriment."
(Thanks to Jason for telling me about that term)

"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug – he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead – and he took out his pipe."
--The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting listening guests."
--J.I.M. Stewart, referring to J.R.R. Tolkien

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rant: Cocktails & Food Pairings?

Is a cocktail merely a path to getting drunk? 

Most of the time, you'll probably enjoy a cocktail without considering how it might interact with food. It might be as an apertif before dinner, or out at a bar without any food at all. Even if you drink the cocktail with your dinner, you probably don't worry about pairing it with your dishes, or give it even the most minimal of attention. Why is that the case?

With the abundance of artisan spirit producers and the craft cocktail movement, cocktails may never have been better. They are worthy creations that deserve more respect and which can be properly paired with a variety of dishes and cuisines. This came to my mind again this past week when I attended a media dinner at the ArtBar, a restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Around last November, the ArtBar underwent some significant changes and now have instituted an intriguing craft cocktail program.

Their cocktail menu has plenty of interesting selections, and they make some of their own mixers, such as ginger beer, cream soda and bitter lemons. I tried four of their cocktails, including a Pimm's Cup with ginger beer, French Standard, Smoked Cherry Fizz and a Pressure (a nonalcoholic cocktail). All four were nicely balanced, tasty and evidenced their care for their cocktail program. One of my suggestions to them was to add cocktail pairings to their Bar/happy hour menu, and they seemed pleased at this suggestion.

Such pairings, if patrons take to them, might encourage them to experiment with different cocktails dependent on the appetizer or small plate they choose to snack upon. More importantly, it might start getting people to view cocktails in a different light, and not just as a path to getting drunk. Obviously the initial effort must come from the restaurants and bars, from the cocktail specialists, who must decide on which dishes best pair with their diverse cocktails. They might need to consult with their chefs, a united effort to best prepare the proper combinations.

The more restaurants that start doing this, then the more people that would be exposed to thinking about cocktails and food pairings. This would hopefully promote people to think of all alcohol, including wine and beer, paired with food. So which restaurants and bars will be the pioneers in this respect, which will set an example for all others? Which consumers will take a chance and pair cocktails with their food?

Start thinking differently!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Brewing Sake: Release the Toji Within

You probably know someone who makes their own wine or beer, and might even have tasted some of what they have produced. But did you know that some people brew their own Sake? This is still a niche, home brewing endeavor but as the popularity of Sake continues to grow, there will likely be an increased movement  for home brewing Sake as well. Though you can find numerous books on making your own wine and beer, information about home brewing Sake is much more limited, generally only found on some websites or out of print books. Until now.

Brewing Sake: Release The Toji Within, written by William G. Auld (CreateSpace, March 2012, $19.95), is one of the only books in English, and maybe the only one currently in print, that explains how to brew your own Sake. It is a trade paperback of 218 pages, divided into about 25 chapters. Auld, who lives in Portland, Oregon, also runs an informative website, Home Brew Sake, which he started in August 2009. His goal is to provide anyone the information they need to brew their own Sake.

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of Sake books and I am always pleased to find a new one being published. Brewing Sake is a more technical guide, not really for the casual reader, with the intent of providing detailed instructions and explanations for how to brew Sake at home. It begins with a list and description of the equipment you will need for brewing, and then moves to a detailed, step by step procedure for brewing. If you follow these directions, you should be able to make a good Sake, even without fully understanding all of the reasons for each step.

The subsequent chapters then go into much greater details on the ingredients, procedures, chemistry and science behind Sake brewing. For example, you will find a brief history of rice growing, not only in Japan but also in the U.S. and Australia. There is a large section on moto, yeast starter, production with information and procedures for five different systems. You will find multiple comparisons between commercial brewing and home brewing, indicating changes that the home brewer likely may have to make. Chemistry lessons play a part, and some of the information can get very technical.

Despite its technical sections, the writing seems very clear and following the instructions seems easy enough. There are also numerous photos and charts to help to help you better comprehend the material. You will also find an informative glossary at the end of the book. The Sake information appears very accurate, and includes some information that you might not find in many other Sake books.

The key audience for this manual is anyone who is interested in brewing their own Sake. For such individuals, this will be an invaluable reference book. I would also recommend picking up a more general book about the basics of Sake, to better understand this intriguing and delicious beverage. A home wine maker or beer brewer who wants to expand their repertoire should definitely consider buying this book too. A Sake lover would also be interested in this book, even if they don't want to brew their own, as they would acquire a deeper understanding of the brewing process.

This may be a niche book but it is one which was needed and I am also glad to see another book which further love and understanding for Sake. Kanpai to William!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  Thirteen years ago, Chef/Owner Michael Leviton opened Lumière in West Newton and through the years, Leviton’s philosophy that great food begins with great ingredients led him to forge close relationships with farmers, seafood purveyors and artisanal producers throughout New England and beyond. He believes locally raised and harvested products not only taste better, but are better for the environment, the local economy and our health. This belief, coupled with his ties to local producers, allows Leviton to cook in harmony with the seasons, a defining characteristic that led to his appointment as Board Chair of the Chefs Collaborative in 2010.

To celebrate Earth Day and Lumière’s enduring mission to support local farmers and producers, Leviton hosts a 13th anniversary dinner made exclusively from local ingredients. Though a few exceptions will be made (coffee roasted locally and chocolate made locally, rather than locally-grown beans, for example), the menu features 100% New England ingredients, including:
· Goat from Frizzell Hill Farm in Lydon, Massachusetts
· Jersey veal from Vermont
· Grain from central Massachusetts
· Sea salt, kelp, canola and mustard oil from Maine
· Cheese and dairy from Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts
· Fish and shellfish from Ingrid Bengis of Stonington, Maine
· Spring produce (spring dug parsnips and roots from the cellar) from farms all around Massachusetts
· Yogurt from Sophia's Greek Pantry in Belmont, Massachusetts (made from local sheep and goat's milk, of course)
· Wine from Sakonnet (Little Compton, Rhode Island), Westport Rivers (Westport, Massachusetts) and Turtle Creek Winery (Lincoln, Massachusetts)
· Local apple ice wine and craft beer

WHEN: Sunday, April 22 at 6pm
COST: $125/person; $175/person with local beer/wine/cocktail pairings. $25 from each seat sold will go directly to the Chefs Collaborative with Organic Valley matching the total money raised up to $10,000 in celebration of Earth Day.

2)  Italian chef Marisa Iocco,– famed for culinary expertise at Galleria Italiana, South End Galleria, La Bettola, Bricco, Umbria and Mare– has been utilizing her talent as a consultant for a handful of restaurants in greater Boston. Chef Iocco is now launching a new concept, unlike anything she’s done before, at Gennaro’s 5 North Square in the North End (a restaurant I previously gave a very positive review).

MangiAmerica takes the Italian-American menu, familiar to all for classics like spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parm, and dramatically raises the bar on their taste, quality and presentation. It’s food that is pieno d'amore -- full of love.

Italian-American cooking, often derided as a lesser spinoff of true cucina Italiana, has been receiving some long overdue respect in recent years. Books like John Mariani’s Italian-American Cooking, and Lidia Bastianich’s Italian-American Kitchen are focusing attention on the roots of Italian-American culinary culture, roots that have grown deep into the soil and soul of American dining.

For Chef Iocco, MangiAmerica is both a declaration of affection for the United States, and a journey of personal discovery. It is an homage to the soulful hominess and evocative flavors of Italian-American cooking. Because this is food that often conjures up memories, she has recreated these dishes with great reverence.

Iocco’s grandfather Vincenzo built railroads in Boston and New York for decades, to support his family back in Italy. Immigrants like this, coming to America and unable to find the ingredients of home, developed a new cuisine that utilized ingredients that were often in short supply in Italy, yet abundant here: meat, dried pasta and dried herbs, canned tomatoes. In immigrant enclaves across the country, Italian families transformed such products into economical yet plentiful dishes. Thus evolved a uniquely Italian-American gastronomy, passed down through generations, and served both at home and at neighborhood restaurants that were soon discovered (and adored) by the general public.

Highlights of the MangiAmerica Menu:

Meatball Medley: One order = three meatballs, with Marisa’s Marinara for dipping. Or, mix and match as desired: classic beef, pork & pancetta cacciatore, veal saltimbocca, chicken & mushroom marsala, roasted eggplant with Romano and mozzarella.
Mozzarella Bar: Locally made cheese in a quintet of dishes: burratina with tomatoes & basil, braided over green salad, knotted over garlicky broccoli rabe, in carrozza with anchovies, and a fresh ricotta bruschetta.
Macaroni: Made without eggs to produce lighter-than-air classics like Chitarra Amatriciana, Rigatoni Bolognese, Linguini & Scampi, Fettucini Alfredo

--Gnocchi with Whole Clams in Pizzaiola Sauce
--Vegan Ravioloni with Seasonal Vegetables
--Mushroom Risotto Arancini with Red Peppers & Sharp Provolone
--1 lb. Porterhouse Veal Chop with mushroom piccante sauce
--Lamb Chops Cacciatore

Served Family-Style Only
--Sausages and Polenta
--Pasta with Sunday Gravy and Pork Ribs
--Giambotta (Vegetable Stew)

Standards We Cannot Live Without
--Fish Stew
--Lobster Fra Diavolo
--Veal Marsala
--Chicken Parmigiana

And there will be her famous bread pudding! It is almost worth starting your meal with her bread pudding so you don't end up too full after dinner to eat dessert.

3)  On Wednesday, May 2, The Beehive is going south of the border early in celebration of Cinco de Mayo with its annual event featuring live music and amazing food & cocktail specials! Guests will be able to indulge in Mexican-inspired food specials from Chef Rebecca Newell while getting in the spirit with tequila cocktails made from Ilegal-Mezcal, small batch, artisanal mescal. A special performance by nine piece Mariachi band, will keep the night going as Mariachi International takes over The Beehive’s stage from 8pm-12am. Mexican appetizers, entrées, desserts and tequila specials will be served all night long.

--Fresh Guacamole, Charred Tomatillos, Corn Chips $11
--Shrimp & Chorizo Quesadilla, Salsa Verde $12
--Mexican “Fall Off the Bone” Roast Pork, Warm Tortillas, Rice & Beans $20
--Grilled Mahi Mahi Tacos, Slaw, Salsa, Mexican Corn on the Cob $20
--Mexican Chocolate Coconut Flan $8

Classic Ilegal Mezcal Margarita $10.50
Ilegal Mezcal Strawberry Margarita $10.50
Ilegal Mezcal Red Sangria Mexicana $10.50

No cover charge and a cash bar. Dinner reservations are highly recommended by calling 617-423-0069. Sombreros welcome!

4)  The Taste of the North End is turning 18 this year, and with this rite of passage, is asking guests to vote for the best taste for the first time. Guests can sample from more than 35 popular North End eateries showcasing a wide array of  appetizers, cheeses, entrees and desserts, and sip on libations from area wine and beer distributors. There will also be a high-end silent auction with hotel and restaurant packages, Boston sporting tickets, memorabilia, and more, along with a special ceremony honoring Dennis Seidenberg of the Boston Bruins for his charitable work with North End organizations.

All proceeds from the event are split between multiple non-profit organizations in the North End including elderly, education and health programs to help better then entire community; last year over nearly $100,000 was raised. This is the third year that North End Waterfront Health has partnered with the Frattaroli family to put on and host the event.

This year’s event co-chairs are event founder Donato Frattaroli, owner of Lucia Ristorante, and James Luisi, CEO of North End Waterfront Health. The Master of Ceremonies for the 15th year is KISS-108 and NECN’s Billy Costa, who will receive a special honor for his commitment to the event. Also being honored this year will be Boston Bruins Player Dennis Seidenberg.

In celebration of the event turning legal, more restaurants than ever are participating, including but not limited to: Accardi & Son, Al Dente, Albert A. Russo Imports, Inc., Antico Forno, Aragosta, Artu, Bricco, Cantina Italiana, Carmelina, Dante, Ducali, Espresso Plus, Filippo, Fiore, Il Panino, J. Pace, La Summa, Lucca, Lucia Ristorante, Mamma Maria, Massimino, Mercato del Mare, Mike's Pastry, Modern Pastry, Neptune, Pagliuca, Paul W. Marks, Pellino, Perkins, Piantedosi Baking, Sysco, Taranta, Terra Mia, The Living Room, Tresca, and Vito’s.

Where: DCR Steriti Memorial Ice Rink, 561 Commercial Street, Boston
When: Friday, May 4, from 7pm--11pm.
Tickets are $79 until April 20, and $99 from then until time of event. Tickets can be purchased in advance by logging onto their website. Tickets are $75 with military identification.

5)  The Massachusetts Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure® (Komen MA) is proud to present the 4th annual “Chefs for the Cure” event on Saturday, April 28, at the Viking Center in Westwood. “Chefs for the Cure” is an exclusive culinary tasting-style event which gives guests the opportunity to sample gourmet cuisine from some of the finest local chefs. This year’s featured chefs and menu item include:

Ø Jose Duarte, Taranta: surprise fish dish
Ø Joanne Chang, Myers+Chang: Mama Chang’s pork & chive dumplings
Ø Peter Dexter, ONE Bistro: lemon risotto w/gulf shrimp
Ø Weldon Fizell, The Regatta of Cotuit: ginger cured salmon on sesame crostini with miso aoli
Ø Keenan Langlois, Union Bar and Grille: frankfurter on brioche w/house cured sourkraut
Ø Christopher Robins, Gaslight: beef tartare
Ø Brian Reyelt, Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar: cured duck pastrami on rye w/grain mustard
Ø Richard Garcia, 606 Congress: smoked New England bluefish rillettes
Ø Ben Lacy, Tastings Wine Bar and Bistro: pork pate de campagne, blackberry mustardo, T’s greens, champagne vanilla vinaigrette
Ø Charlie Redd, Redd’s in Rozzie: vegetarian hush puppies with onion ragout
Ø Nicole Coady, Finale: whoopie pies
Ø Johnson & Wales students: fig cracker with prosciutto and mini doughnuts

To wash it down, wine pairings will be presented by Calina, a wine produced in the foothills of the Maule Valley, Chile. The evening will also include a silent auction and live raffle giveaways featuring coveted culinary and experiential prizes, including a 15" wine cellar with six wire shelves to store up to 24 wine bottles horizontally, keeping corks moist, courtesy of the Viking Center (valued at $2,200).

The event takes place on Saturday, April 28 beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Viking Center (400 Blue Hill Drive, Westwood, MA 02090), a state of the art culinary showroom. General admission tickets are available for $100 and provide admission to the grand tasting. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit Komen MA to help fund educational, screening and treatment programs, offer grant money to community-based organizations that support its mission, and to help better the lives of those facing breast cancer locally.

“Chefs for the Cure” is sponsored in part by Sous Chef Level sponsor Cancer Treatment Centers of America, X-Rated Fusion Liquor, Calina, Belmont Springs, and Saga Blue Cheese. Komen MA partners making this event possible are CBS Radio, Wicked Local, and Qwicket Design.

This is a very cool event, for an excellent cause, and I do recommend it.

6)  Let’s Talk About Food Presents: Sustainable Seafood Teach-In which will address important topics such as: assessing fish stocks, what fish varieties should we be eating? How do we maintain the livelihood of fishing fleets but still safeguard our environment and our fish? Where does aquaculture fit in? Seafood experts will educate attendees on policies, nutrition, the environment and the fishing business as a whole.

Let’s Talk About Food is presented in collaboration with the Museum of Science, the Chefs Collaborative, the New England Aquarium, the Cambridge Science Festival, and the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Environment.  Keynoters for this event include: Author of Four Fish, Paul Greenberg; National Marine Fisheries Service Scientist Gary Shepherd; Northeast Seafood Coalition Policy Director Vito Giacalone; Boston Globe Business Writer Jenn Abelson; Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz; Island Creek Oyster owner Skip Bennett; Hamersley’s Bistro owner Gordon Hamersley; Author of For Cod and Country Barton Seaver; and Let’s Talk About Food Founder Louisa Kasdon.

When: Sunday, April 29,
1:00p-5:00p (Fishing for Sustainability Forum)
7:00p-9:00p (Let’s Talk About Food Sustainable Seafood Forum)
Where: Fishing for Sustainability Forum is taking place at the Harvard Science Centre: 1 Oxford Street in Cambridge. Let’s Talk About Food Sustainable Seafood Forum is taking place at the Museum of Science: 1 Science Park, Boston.

The cost of the event is $10 for the public and is free for Harvard students for the first event. The second event at the Museum of Science is free to the public. For more information or to secure tickets, please log onto

7)  Ladies, don the largest and most elaborate hats to be found, and gentlemen, break out the sport coats, khakis and flashy ties because Blue on Highland is bringing the 138th Kentucky Derby to Needham. On Saturday, May 5th, guests of all ages are invited to celebrate the annual running of the roses with a southern-inspired viewing event from 5pm-7pm featuring food and cocktail specials, giveaways and more.

Guests will be able watch everything from the pre-race red carpet to the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” in the bar and lounge as they indulge in specials such as Kentucky Fried Chicken Wings with a Kentucky Bourbon BBQ sauce, and “Shrimp Dip Devine” served with crackers, both $10, while sipping on traditional Mint Juleps, Stone Sours and Pimm’s Cup cocktail all available for $11.

From 5pm-7pm, Derby Diners will have a chance to test their own luck with a chance to win prizes from Blue on Highland including free appetizers, dinner for two, and more. The event will be held in the bar and lounge area, but food and drink specials will be available for dine-in and takeout. Guests are encourage to dress in traditional derby attire.  Post time for the Kentucky Derby is approximately 6:24pm.

Reservations are recommended. Please RSVP at 781-444-7001.

I won't be at Blue on Highland because I will be in Louisville at the actual Kentucky Derby. Look carefully on your TV and there is a tiny possibility you will see me there.