Thursday, December 23, 2021

2021: Favorite Wine, Spirit, Sake & Drink-Related Items

What were some of my favorite Wine, Spirit, Sake & Drink-related related items of the past year?

As 2021 has arrived, it's time to reflect upon the past year, to remember and savor pleasant memories. I've already posted a few of my annual Favorite Lists, including My Favorite Restaurants, My Favorite Food-Related ItemsTop Ten Wines Under $20. and Top Ten Wines Over $20. It's time now to cover my Favorite Wine, Spirit, Sake and 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 wine related items, you can just search my blog posts for the past year.


Favorite Discount Wine Stores: Consumers always want bargains, excellent value wines which won't stretch their wallets. You can buy the cheap, mass-produced commercial wines which can be found in almost any wine store or, instead, you can seek out excellent, value wines which put to shame those cheap wines. Certain discount wine stores provide not only excellent prices but also an interesting selection and good service. I want to highlight two such stores which continue, year after year, to do an especially good job, places where I go to seek bargains: Bin Ends in Braintree & Needham, and Rapid Liquors in Stoneham. Shop at any of those stores and you won't be disappointed.

Favorite Wine Stores: This is a small list of wine stores which consistently impress me with their selection and service. Each shop is worthy of your patronage and wine lovers should make the effort to visit these places if you have not done so yet.
Malden Center Fine Wines in Malden
Lower Falls Wine Company in Newton Lower Falls
Wine-Sense in Andover
Wine Press in Brookline and Wine Press in the Fenway
Streetcar Wines in Jamaica Plain
Marty's Fine Wines in Newton
Croatian Premium Wine in Boston (Only an online store, but you can get their wines delivered to you, with a great selection of Croatian wines)

Favorite Vermont Wine Store: The Meditrina Wine & Cheese shop, in Chester, Vermont, is an excellent place with a very compelling beer and wine selection, and some gourmet foods. It's a small store, but there's plenty of food and drink available, filling the shelves floor to ceiling, and I bet you'll find plenty to tantalize you, including plenty of natural wines, small production wines, and other intriguing wines, They have wine at all price points and any wine lover will find much of interest. This well-curated selection would be impressive wherever it was located. The shop also conducts regular wine tastings. 

Favorite Restaurant Wine Lists: I want to highlight a few restaurants which this year offered some intriguing and excellent wine lists. 
     Krasi: With the second largest Greek wine list in the country, you'll find almost any type of Greek wine you could desire. There are so many excellent options that you might have difficulty selecting a bottle, but the sommelier and staff can help guide you through the intriguing list. Expand your palate and explore the wonders of Greek wine.
    Nightshade Noodle Bar: Their eclectic, well-curated wine list has primarily more natural wines from small producers. There's plenty of interesting options available, and the wines pair very well with their delicious cuisine. 
     Pammy's: Their wine list is mainly Italian but with some other unique wines, from places including Vermont, Oregon, Washington and California. Plenty of excellent options, including a number of Orange wines, and plenty of Nebbiolo as well. 

Favorite Cocktail Spots: 
     Committee: Their Ultra Crushable Retsina Cocktail impressed me this year. It's rare to find Retsina in a cocktail, and it was made with Stray Dog Wild Gin, Flower Tea and Lime. This cocktail was well balanced, tasty and refreshing, with subtle pine notes beside a dominant herbal melange, mild tea notes, and a touch of sour from the limes. Their Frozen Mastjito was also excellent, a creative and tasty frozen drink, perfect for summer. 
     Nightshade Noodle Bar: I enjoyed numerous tasty cocktails here, including the Nightshade Mai Tai,  Saigon Cigar Club, the Nha Trang Beach (with Mezcal), and Coconut Margarita. And on their dessert list, I loved the Thai Tea, a small Thai Tea Mai Tai. The cocktails are creative, well-balanced and delicious. 

Favorite Spirit Class: With the pandemic, there have been far fewer wine and spirit classes. However, I was able to attend A Baijiu Class with Derek Sandhaus. Baijiu is under-appreciated in the U.S. so it's cool to see at least a few people promoting it in the local area. Derek is personable, down to earth, passionate and very knowledgeable. We tasted four Baijiu and a Baijiu cocktail, while listening to all Derek had to teach us. Fun, tasty and informative. 

Favorite High-End Baijiu: The Luzhou Laojiao Guajiao National Cellar ($220/500ml) is produced in a very traditional manner, aged for at least 5 years in natural caves, and is 104 proof. The nose is complex, with a find blend of herbal and fruity notes, and on the palate it's equally complex. You'll find tropical and stone fruit flavors, complemented by herbal and peppery elements with a hint of anise. It's also silky smooth with a lengthy, pleasing finish, perfect for slowly sipping, enjoying each complex and delicious taste. Taste this Baijiu and I'm sure you'll become a Baijiu convert. 

Favorite Value Baijiu: For a less expensive choice, the Ming River Baijiu ($37.99) is an excellent option. It's made from locally harvested red sorghum grain and pure well water. It is fermented in a traditional mudpit, using naturally harvested yeast, and then distilled in small batches in a pot still. It is then commonly aged for up to two years before the final blending. On the nose, the Baijiu is fruity and appealing, without any aromas which would turn off someone. It isn't the off-putting aroma of which some people assume all Baijiu possess. When you taste it, there's an intriguing melange of flavors, with prominent tropical fruit flavors, especially some pineapple, with an undercurrent of anise and pepper and some floral notes. It possesses a lengthy finish, a mild sweetness, and there's an umami element as well. Well balanced and complex, this Baijiu is delicious on its own, but also is very versatile for cocktails.

Favorite Baijiu Cocktail: For World Baijiu Day, Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, in Cambridge, created the Peppermelon Baijiu cocktail. It ws made with Baijiu, fresh Watermelon juice, black pepper honey syrup, and lemon juice. It has a mild sweetness, a rich watermelon flavor, a subtle peppery kick and the Baijiu came out primarily on the finish. It was nicely balanced, perfect for the summer, and the components worked very well with the Baijiu. And the peppered piece of watermelon on the rim of the glass was a nice treat once the cocktail was gone.

Favorite Vermouth: Maybe the first modern Japanese version of Vermouth, the Oka Brand Japanese Bermutto is fascinating and delicious. It is made from a base of Junmai Sake, which is fortified with Kuma Shochu, a 100% rice Shochu, and has an 18% ABV. Four botanicals are added to it, including Yuzu, Kabosu, Sansho & Yomogi. Tasting it on its own, the Bermutto has a prominent yuzu/citrus aroma, with a subtle herbal accent, and on the palate, it is dry and the yuzu/citrus remains the main flavor, with hints of herbal notes and a mildly bitter finish from the Yomogi. That bitterness is much more restrained than the wormwood taste found in many other vermouths. This is excellent in cocktails.

Favorite Gin: After experiencing Stray Dog Wild Gin, a Greek gin, at Committee, I knew I needed to add it to my home bar. The gin is made with a number of wild-foraged botanicals as well as other ingredients, including sage, fennel seed, rosemary, mastiha, bay leaf, lemon, orange, cardamom, juniper, and coriander. They also use mountain spring water. It's hand-crafted in small batches using traditional copper pot stills. On the nose, there are definite notes of juniper, although it's more subdued than many other gins. You'll also find other herbal notes mixing with the juniper. On the palate, it's a smooth and compelling gin, with a wonderful melange of herbal and citrus flavors, where the juniper is but one aspect of the whole. It is well-balanced, with all of the ingredients working harmoniously together. Each sip seems to bring something different to your mouth, and it's easy to slowly sip a glass and savor its complexity.

Favorite Bouborn Cream: The Black Button Bespoke Bourbon Cream, made in New York, is made with their Bourbon, fresh farm cream, and a little caramel. It's absolutely delicious, with a rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious and complex notes of cream, caramel, vanilla and spices. It has a nice freshness to it that some other cream liqueurs lack. This Bourbon Cream is going to appeal to many people, and is perfect on its own, although you could make cocktails with it as well. 

Favorite Canned Cocktail: Also from Black Button distillery, the CanBee Cocktails Bee's Knees is their first canned cocktail, using the Bee's Knees recipe that was likely invented during Prohibition. This canned cocktail is made with their own Citrus-Forward Gun, real lemon juice, and farm-fresh honey (made from their own bees), without any artificial flavors or colors. I found it to be light, refreshing and tasty. It wasn't overly sweet or sour, but possessed a nice balance of flavors, citrus and botanicals. And with its lower alcohol, you can enjoy a few on a nice summer day, at the beach, on a boat, etc. There's a light effervescence to the cocktail, and it would work well with food too, especially seafood. 

Favorite Cider: The Shacksbury Whistle-Pig Lo-Ball is a limited edition, a "barrel aged highball cider," at 4.8% ABV, which was aged in WhistlePig's Vermont white oak barrels that were used to age their FarmStock whiskey. The Lo-Ball is crisp and dry, quite refreshing, and possesses a rich apple flavor complemented with spicy notes and a subtle hint of whiskey. It was well balanced, with a pleasing finish, and I was extremely glad that I bought it. With its low alcohol content, you can easily have a few cans in a fine summer day, or a crisp autumn afternoon. It is certainly delicious on its own, but could also pair well with a variety of foods.

Favorite Wine/Spirit/Cocktail Histories: This year, I wrote four fascinating historical articles which touched on spirits and/or cocktails. 

Favorite Honjozo Sake: The Yuki Otoko "Yeti" Honjozo  was made with Gohyakumangoku and Koishibuki rice, polished down to 65%, a bit more than what is required to be a Honjozo. The Sake also has a 15.5% ABV, a SMV +8, and an Acidity of 1.2. It is said to be "Dry, light and clean like melting snow."It also can be served chilled, warmed, or at room temperature. I found it to be a clean and refreshing Sake, with a savory kick of umami. Subtle melon and citrus flavors with the umami taking center stage. This would be excellent for seafood, mushrooms, or truffle dishes. The umami of the Sake makes it even more food friendly. Or you can just enjoy this Sake on its own, slowly sipped and enjoyed.

Favorite Sake Pairing: Cheese and Sake isn't a traditional pairing, but it works very well, with different Sakes pairing well with a variety of different cheeses. This past year, I tried Pairing Feta & Sake: Greece Meets Japan. I had three different Feta cheeses, including the Dodoni (a sheep's milk, from the southern region of Greece), Arahova Barrel (a sheep's milk, barrel aged), and the Olympus (also sheep's milk). I also have two Sakes, the Koshi No Kanbai Sai "Blue River" Junmai Ginjo and  the Fukucho "Seaside" Junmai Sparkling Sake. It was a fun and enlightening tasting, and the Sparkling Sake was the most compelling Sake for the Feta. 

Favorite Sake Educational Resource: For some of the latest and most fascinating current information about Sake, you need to read the Sake Industry News by John Gauntner. Each twice-monthly issue contains numerous intriguing news articles, sure to interest all Sake lovers, and with information you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. I've learned plenty from this newsletter and eagerly look forward to each new issue. There's not enough Sake news available out there, and Gauntner is filling a much-needed niche. If you're interested in Sake, you definitely should subscribe. 

What were some of your favorite Wine, Spirit, Sake & Drink-related items this year?

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