A Tale of Two Piscos: Pisco Portón and La Caravedo

Imagine you’ve taken a seat at your friendly neighborhood craft cocktail bar. As you scan the bottles, you see all manner of gins, tequilas, rums, brandies, but only a single bottle labeled “whiskey” – no Scotch, no bourbon, and no rye – just “whiskey.” You opt for a classic Manhattan, made with, of course, whiskey. Your first sip is filled with smoke and brine – it seems it’s a smoky Scotch whiskey, rather than a vanilla forward bourbon or a spicy rye like you’d expect.  Suddenly that classic Manhattan is not such a classic anymore.

You might think it’s ridiculous for a bar to have only one type of “whiskey” when there’s such a broad range of flavor profiles, but something akin to this happens with pisco, the wonderful grape-based brandy from Peru. If a bar has pisco at all, it’s likely to be a single bottle, which is a shame because the range of piscos available have quite a range of flavors. I was vividly reminded of this recently when I sampled two piscos from the same producer side-by-side.

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Checking out Tanqueray’s Bloomsbury Limited Release Gin

With the rise of craft spirits, established brands are finding themselves under attack by an army of Lilliputians, all touting their small batch, artisanal, hand-crafted credentials to great effect in influencing the buying public. The big players like Tanqueray aren’t all standing still, however. In addition to their standard lineup (Tanqueray, Tanqueray Rangpur, and Tanqueray 10), they’ve released a string of limited editions over the last three years, the most recent being Tanqueray Bloomsbury, which I received a bottle of for review here.

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Checking out the La Quintinye Vermouth Lineup

Every so often, a press release for a new product jumps off the screen to capture my attention. Such was the case when I read about La Quintinye vermouths, which claim to be the first vermouths made with Pineau des Charentes. Don’t feel too bad if you’re not acquainted with Pineau — I didn’t know about it myself until a year ago when I learned that certain Plantation rums are finished in Pineau barrels. Pineau is sweet, delicious aperitif from France, a union of lightly fermented grape juice — only specific grape varieties need apply — and unaged cognac. I’ve acquired several bottles of Pineau and savor them, so this vermouth quickly got my attention. Let’s take a look at the La Quintinye lineup. If you’re not familiar with vermouth, you might read my earlier primer on it.

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Minimalist Tiki: What you truly need to make the classics at home

Recently there’s been a torrent of articles in the mainstream press heralding the re-emergence of Tiki drinks as worthy of the craft cocktail movement, and highlighting well-regarded top-tier Tiki bars like Smuggler’s Cove, Three Dots and a Dash, and Hale Pele. Readers are regaled with tales about bars with hundreds of rums and all sorts of exotic ingredients, making these bars destination-worthy. I’m completely down with this upsurge in interest, and I myself regularly go overboard in my home bar, creating drinks with ten-plus ingredients, multiple rums, and flaming garnishes.

However, it recently occurred to me that all these exotic Tiki recipes that specify seemingly esoteric ingredients and very specific types of rum can seem a little daunting to the beginning or mid-level home bartending enthusiast. I imagine it’s easy to flip though a Tiki recipe book (or the incredible Beachbum Berry’s Total Tiki app) and feel deflated that you can’t find a single recipe to make with what’s already in your home bar.

With this in mind, I set out on a small research project: Determining the minimum set of ingredients necessary to make a dozen or so of the most popular, beloved Tiki and tropical drinks. By deconstructing classic Tiki recipes and finding the most common elements, I’ve created a minimal working set of ingredients, which enables you to craft all sorts tropical libations without spending a fortune and taking over your living space.  It’s too late for me in that regard, but you can enjoy top- notch Tiki cocktails at home with limited space and budget.

My starting point is a list of Tiki/tropical cocktails that I consider the essential classics; as all lists are, it is completely subjective, but I’ve also conferred with Jason Alexander, @tikicommando. who makes classic and original Tiki drinks for a living at the Tacoma Cabana. For consistency, my recipe reference is the aforementioned Total Tiki app. Because some Tiki recipes have evolved with multiple variations, when there’s more than one recipe I’ve selected the oldest version. Without further adieu, here we go:

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Cocktail Obsession: The Starboard (Pisco, Suze, and Apricot)

One of the benefits of getting to know your local bartender is figuring out what they’re passionate about and then letting them run loose with that desire. At a recent pisco throwdown at Damn the Weather in Seattle, I learned that Canon’s Dustin Haarstad is a bit of a Pisco freak. Fast forward a few months and I found myself on a slow evening at Canon with Dustin and Chris Goad at the bar. Canon is a place that has an exceptional menu (Tales of the Cocktail nominatedagain for 2015), but is also a bonanza of great mixology when you let the staff run wild. On this particular night, I remembered that Dustin has an affinity for pisco, so I went dealer’s choice, aka “Shrouded Roulette” in Canon parlance. The result was the Starboard – Pisco, Salers and Apricot Liqueur. I completely dig this drink – it’s light yet complex, and not particularly difficult to make. Dustin graciously provided me with the recipe and the okay to publish it.
Conceptually, the Starboard falls into the way-out Negroni category. Wait, what? None of the classic Negroni ingredients (gin, Campari, vermouth) are in the Starboard. However, it’s commonplace to swap out gin in a Negroni for other base spirits: Use bourbon instead of gin in a Negroni and you have a Boulevardier. Using rum instead of gin yields a Right Hand, a particular favorite of mine, especially when it’s a pungent Jamaican rum.
While a classic Negroni is 1:1:1 with its ingredient ratios, a growing trend in Negroni variations is to bump up the base spirit and reduce the bitter Campari and sweet vermouth components accordingly. This helps keep the more delicate, floral base spirits like pisco from being overwhelmed by the bitter component, e.g. Campari. Pisco, in case you’re wondering, is made in Peru and Chile from grapes, making it technically a brandy. Peruvian and Chilean piscos are quite different when examined with more than a casual glance; in general, Peruvian pisco is better suited for a cocktail like the Starboard.
The Starboard trades the firetruck-red Campari component of a Negroni for a slightly more subtle but still powerful bitter French amaro. Salers, which is strongly flavored with gentiane root and offers a bold greenish-yellow hue. (Truthfully, I prefer it to Campari in my drinks.) While Dustin’s recipe calls for Salers, I successfully reproduced this at home with Suze, another gentiane-based liqueur from France with a similar color and flavor profile.
Lastly, the Starboard cocktail replaces the sweet vermouth with apricot liqueur. You’ll want a sweet liqueur here, not a dry apricot brandy or eau de vie. While apricot liqueur is generally sweeter than a sweet vermouth, the overall sweetness is tempered by the larger ratio of pisco to liqueur. Dustin and I both used Giffard Abricot du Roussillon. (Giffard, also from France, makes an outstanding lineup of liqueurs and syrups. The Giffard orgeat is my go-to almond syrup when mixing Tiki drinks.
The Starboard Cocktail
  • 1.5 oz Peruvian Pisco
  • 0.75 Gentiane aperitif, e.g. Salers or Suze
  • 0.5 Apricot liqueur, e.g. Giffard Abricot du Roussillon
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express a lemon twist over the top, then drop in.

The Starboard Cocktail, as prepared by Dustin Haarstad at Canon, Seattle.

Cocktail Obsession: Hemingway in the Hebrides

 

I have a (bad) habit of conjuring up spirit flavor combinations that sound great in my head, then inflicting those ideas as off-menu request to my favorite Seattle bartenders. An entirely drinkable concoction always arrives, but every so often I hit the jackpot – a killer drink that I need to experiment more with at home. Recently I hit up Erik Hakkinen, bar maestro at Seattle’s legendary Zig Zag Café, with “Something lush… sherry… maybe some spice… and smoke!” Erik smiled, as he’s prone to do, and said, “I got this.”

What Erik created with my loosely defined request knocked my socks off, and he graciously provided the recipe, handwritten on a coaster, sans name. While incorporating all my ideas (sherry, Ancho Reyes for the spice, Islay scotch for the smoke), Erik saw what I was missing – a base flavor to bring together the flavors I’d requested. I had an “Of course!” moment when he mentioned that an apple brandy (Laird’s Bottled in Bond) was his starting point. In Erik’s creation, no one flavor dominates, and the apple, sherry, pepper spice, and smoke flavors harmonize well together.

Naming drinks is always the hard part, and Erik left that to me. Thinking about the ingredients–Spanish sherry, smoky scotch, Mexican pepper (from the Ancho Reyes) and robust apple–it seemed to me like something Ernest Hemingway would drink – robust and manly! (If I do say so myself…) All are bold flavors, strongly associated with their respective countries. Hemingway was born in the US, and traveled in Spain and Mexico, but I couldn’t find a solid reference to him traveling to Scotland. I like to think that if he’d visited, he’d have gone to Islay, home of smoky scotch, which is part of the Hebrides isles, and when he arrived at the bar, he’d have had something like this:

Hemingway in the Hebrides

  • 1.5 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy (100 proof, bottled in bond)
  • 0.75 oz Ancho Reyes
  • 0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso or PX sherry in a pinch)
  • 0.5 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
 Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.
Bar coaster with recipe from Erik Hakkinen, Zig Zag Cafe, Seattle
Depending on your preference for spice versus smoke, adjust the Ancho Reyes and Laphroaig ratios. A variation on the above that I found enjoyable (and a bit punchier) drops the apple brandy component down, brings up the smoke, and reduces the spice a tad.  I like to think Papa would approve.

  • 1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
  • 0.5 oz Ancho Reyes
  • 0.75 oz Lustau East India Sherry (sub sweet Oloroso, or PX sherry in a pinch)
  • 0.75 Laphroaig (sub other smoky Islay scotch)
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Express lemon peel over drink, drop in.

 

Checking out Amaro Lucano

 Several years ago, when I was a less-experienced cocktail wonk just starting with my spirits collection, I quickly ran head-first into the confusing category of amaros (aka amari), Italian for “bitter.” Amari are liqueurs created by infusing dozens of herbs and spices in alcohol, then sweetened and diluted to make them consumable neat–assuming you have a moderately adventurous palate. So many strange names– Campari, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico! So many unusual ingredients – gentian, cinchona bark, citrus peels, rhubarb, saffron! Where to begin? I quickly learned that collecting amaris, especially with so many hard-to-find bottles, can be an addicting and expensive habit. It’s a  bit like baseball cards were when I was a kid – once I had a few, I wanted the whole set which makes for a lot of bottles to track down. In this post we’ll take a close look at Amaro Lucano, a mainstream Italian amaro with a long history.

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Getting in sync with Sauza 901: Justin Timberlake wants you to buy, buy, buy* his new tequila

With the rise of upscale artisanal tequilas like Partida, Fortaleza, and Suerte, the big tequila heavyweights like Jose Cuervo and Sauza have seen an opportunity (or threat) and released new products targeting an upmarket niche. A notable recent example is Patron, already considered upscale in some circles, with their release of the Roca line. Sauza, one of the big players, has gone the celebrity partner route, teaming up with Justin Timberlake as co-owners of Sauza 901. I was provided a bottle of Sauza 901 to review, so let’s take a wonky look at it.
Sauza is owned by Beam Suntory, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Laphroaig, Cruzan rum, and Pinnacle vodka. The Sauza subsidiary comprises several well-known tequila brands, including Hornitos and Tres Generaciones, in addition to the base Sauza line.
Let’s address the obvious question first:  901 what? Apparently it references the telephone area code for Memphis, TN, Justin’s home town. 
The Sauza 901 bottle shape is visually striking – tall and slender with a sharp angled-face and curved back. Viewed from above you’ll find that the front half of the bottle is hexagonal (six-sided) while the back is circular. Fueled by enough Sauza 901, it starts to resemble a squashed cartoon rendition of the Millennium Falcon. Sauza’s rooster, a company symbol, makes two bottle appearances –on the front as a dime-sized image, and a much larger rendition dominating the reverse.
Inside the bottle is blanco (“silver”) tequila at the usual 80 proof. Unlike many tequila lines which offer blanco, reposado, and anejo versions, the Sauza 901 has a single blanco expression. The story starts with blue agave that’s reached at least seven years of age prior to harvest. A short fermentation process “prevents the development of off-notes and promotes more agave flavor.” Following fermentation, Sauza triple distills it, first in a column still and then twice through a pot still. (By regulation, tequila must be distilled at least twice.) The fermentation and distillation choices are somewhat surprising — I’ll come back to these later. Tequila regulations say a blanco tequila can be unaged or aged up to two months, but I wasn’t able to determine if the Sauza 901 spends any time in wood.
Pouring a bit into a tasting glass, the nose is subtle – a moderate hint of agave and not much more. Sipping reveals a very smooth, almost demure agave flavor. I struggled to pick out any flavors of significance beyond the base agave and slight floral note. I could easily imagine casual tequila drinkers sipping this over ice, as it doesn’t overwhelm, even sipped neat at room temperature. It’s very clean, smooth and subtle with a moderately short finish.
If you’re looking for pronounced flavors in your blanco tequila, the Sauza 901 isn’t the first bottle I’d point you toward.  For comparison purposes I tasted it side-by-side with Cabeza and Partida Blanco expressions. Both were significantly more intense in flavor: The Cabeza is more brash and peppery, and the Partida has a lush creaminess. While you can certainly mix with the Sauza 901, I can see bolder tastes such as lime, ginger, and bitters overwhelming its delicate flavor. It would play well in something like this Negroni variation, featuring only light-colored spirits:
El Negroni Amarillo
  • 2 oz Sauza 901
  • 1 oz sweet white vermouth (such as Dolin Blanc)
  • 0.5 oz Suze

Stir over ice, serve in chilled coupe, express orange peel, then drop in.
Having gone several rounds with the Sauza 901 and its marketing material, it seems the target market is not so much the spirits connoisseur looking for an intense, defining character. Instead, the promotional imagery focuses on Sauza 901 over ice in a fancy glass, rather than just another tequila for frozen margaritas. It also pumps up the #nolimesneeded hashtag, a reference to people using limes and salt to mask the rough-tasting, bottom shelf, rotgut tequila flavors you all remember from your college drinking days. For Cinco de Mayo this year, Sauza put out a humorous video (I laughed more than once) called “No limes needed,” starring Justin Timberlake himself as Rick “Sour” Vane, his head encased in a giant lime, bemoaning how the Sauza 901 has killed off the demand for limes after decades of being the number one cocktail condiment.  Never let it be said that Justin Timberlake won’t go all the way for a laugh.    (See also, “Dick in a Box.”)
From the perspective of a casual consumer, the Sauza 901’s production choices make sense:  A short distillation process produces fewer of the organic compounds that make up the flavors we perceive of as “fruity” or “creamy,” but those same compounds are also responsible for some of the more challenging flavors as well. Likewise, each additional distillation pass makes a spirit more pure and “smooth,” but also reduces their distinctive flavor. Distill enough times and you’ll end up with perfectly pure vodka–and literally no taste. The Sauza 901 tequila tilts toward the subtle and smooth, rather than brash and bold – it’s a pleasant lifestyle tequila designed for folks who perhaps want an alternative to vodka, with a moderate agave flavor without being overly assertive.
*You can blame Mrs. Wonk for the bad title pun. Though she wants it to be known that she has never, ever been an ’N Sync fan and only dances to “SexyBack” at the company Christmas party after she’s had a few craft cocktails.

Now Boarding TikiKon Air: Iron TikiTender 2015 Recipes from Seattle Bartenders

A highlight of the CocktailWonk blog last year was attending TikiKon 2014 in  the Portland/Vancouver vortex. In addition to classes and parties, my personal highlight was the Iron TikiTender competition, which my good friend Jason Alexander, owner of the Tacoma Cabana, won in his first time as a competitor. The contest pits three bartenders against each other in a series of challenges, such as “Most Mai Tais in 10 minutes” and “Best drink with a mystery ingredient,” with judging by rum celebrities like Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove. Sadly, I’ll be missing the 2015 TikiKon as Mrs. Wonk and I are headed to New Orleans a few days in advance of Tales of the Cocktail. Nonetheless, I was glad to hear that some of my local, Seattle-based bartenders are applying to compete at Iron TikiTender 2015.

Iron TikiTender 2014 – Felix Fernandez, Marie King, Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander

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Cocktail Obsession: Remember the Maine

Mrs. Wonk and I have a friend who’s a cook and foodie, and every month or so he spends an evening at Casa Cocktail Wonk. The three of us work collectively on a themed dinner, including several appropriately paired cocktails during preparation. Last time the flavor theme was cherry, so my natural first line of thought was Cherry Heering, the delicious, sweet liqueur from Denmark. Now, our friend isn’t a big fan of sweet drinks, so the obvious Tiki choices were out, and I’d already made a Punchy’s First Strike during a prior visit. The classic Blood and Sand (with corrected ratios) was already on the docket, but I needed another cocktail that made good use of the Cherry Heering. Thanks to Imbibe Magazine’s ever-helpful site, I quickly zeroed in on the Remember the Maine – a drink I’d heard of but had somehow never made.
The Remember the Maine is an interesting twist on the Manhattan. The classic Manhattan, you may recall, is rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The Remember the Maine drops the vermouth ratio down a tad but makes up for it with Cherry Heering, while the kick of the bitters is replaced by the exotic herbal-ness of absinthe. The typical recipe given for it is this:
  • 2 oz rye
  • 0.75 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 teaspoons (1/3 oz) Cherry Heering
  • 0.5 teaspoons (1/12 oz) Absinthe (*)
Stir ingredients over ice, strain into chilled coupe. Garnish with a brandied cherry (preferably not cheap nuclear red cherries).
(*) There is disagreement whether to rinse the glass with absinthe, or include it as an ingredient with the others. I advocate rinsing–a little goes a long way in this drink.
The Remember the Maine’s origins harken back to the classic 1939 book The Gentleman’s Companion, by Charles H. Baker. The drink’s name refers to a phrase that became popular in the US during the lead-up to the Spanish-American war of 1898: “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”  The backstory: The USS Maine, an American warship, sank mysteriously in Havana’s harbor, and rumor had it that Spain was responsible.
Much as I enjoy the classic Remember the Maine recipe, it also has solid bones for improvising. While the spicy rye provides a good base, I wanted to also incorporate some rich, full-bodied rum into the mix without giving up the rye completely. As well, my particular affinity for the flavor of Cherry Heering inclined me to bump its proportion but not make the drink substantially sweeter in the process. Dropping down the vermouth portion took care of that. My current recipe:
  • 1 oz rye
  • 1 oz aged, dry rum (*)
  • 0.5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 0.5 oz Cherry Heering
  • 1 dash absinthe, for rinse
Rinse chilled coupe with absinthe, discard excess. Stir remaining ingredients over ice, strain into coupe. Garnish with brandied cherry.
(*) Here, I mean a 5+ year rum, dry on the palate, with little or no added sugar. Barbados rums are a good example, and a dry Cuban style like Brugal could also work. I used El Dorado 5.
Of course, there are endless other variations on this theme. Swap out the rye or rum (or both) with tequila, for instance. And please share in the comments if you have your own interesting spin on this classic cocktail.