Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Great American Distillers Festival, Portland OR--- J Witty Chamomile Gourmet Organic Liqueur

The Liqueur/Cordial category is sort of a catch all of spirits---it's purposely designed to include pretty much any spirit you wish to use, any flavor or combination of flavors you wish to use, and it allows you to make the final spirit in any way you wish as well. Indeed, it's commonly known that some liqueurs are no more than synthetic flavors dumped into flavorless alcohol vats, stirred, and bottled.

The only thing liqueurs need have in common, in fact, is that they all have to contain sugar (from 2.5% to 35%, to be exact.) And even there, the type of sugar isn't specified!

Designed originally as medicines, tonics and restoratives (cordialis--of the heart, from concoctions designed by the alchemists to stimulate and revive the failing organs and appetites and desires of their wealthy patrons; and while we are in the etymological frame, liqueur comes from Latin liquifacere, to melt or soften), liqueurs eventually became fashionable as after-dinner drinks and liquid desserts.

The current fashion for mixology immediately fixed on liqueurs as a particularly good source for intense flavors---and not coincidentally useful for adding sugar to some of their concoctions---and there never seems to be a limit to the number of flavors that can be produced for the public fascination (St. Germain Elderflower,anyone?). So liqueurs remain popular for entrepreneurial purposes---and since the sky's the limit on rules, a liqueur can be as simple or as profound, as perfunctory or as magical, as the producer wishes it to be.

Enter J. Witty, a worldly and well traveled restaurateur who divides her time between California and Portland and is consumed by an interest in good taste derived from natural products. After several years of experimentation and persistence, she managed to come up with a perfect concoction that not only uses all natural products, but also expresses a unique flavor statement:

J Witty Chamomile Gourmet Organic Liqueur.

Where most liqueurs are mass-produced by large corporations and generally (okay, almost exclusively) use synthetic chemicals and manufactured essences on top of the simplest and cheapest of grain neutral spirits (translation: as little flavor as possible, made as cheaply as possible), Witty insists on top quality and organic botanical components.

But when the philosophy is stripped away, and only the flavor is left, the flavor becomes the most important thing. So how does the J Witty Chamomile Liqueur taste?

Pretty damned good!

Witty wisely elected to stay relatively low on the sugar scale---I'm not sure what the precise level is here, but it's a lot closer to the 2.5% minimum than the 35% maximum sugar. And perhaps more importantly, it's a softer, gentler style of sweetening from agave nectar and cane sugar that is in harmony with the pleasantly delicate aromas and flavors of the chamomile and spice base. This would be perfect as a light, slightly sweet, delicate after-dinner drink, or used judiciously to enhance and expand the flavor of a cocktail.

On a side note, and circling back to the original philosophy espoused by Witty, the chamomile dregs left after the fermentation and distillation process is complete are provided to local Portland gardeners as a fragrant compost, thereby completing the cycle back to the earth.

So: good quality, responsibly made, and totally sustainable. What more could you ask of a liqueur? Perhaps, another serving?

Oh, and the next time your Great Great Aunt smiles as she gently sips her Chamomile Tea---you might look at how she sweetened it.

For more information, go to www.jwittyspirits.com

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great American Distillers Festival, Portland OR---Tuthilltown Distllers, Hudson Valley, New York

I knew about the cheese. I knew about the foie gras. I didn't know about the whiskey until now.

Having attended the 5th Annual Great American Distillers Festival in Portland OR, I got to learn
about---and taste---the whiskies of the Hudson River Valley.

Tuthilltown Spirits, located on the aptly named Gristmill Lane in Gardiner, NY, has a thriving distillery operation that is turning out some interesting variations of American Whiskey. (They make some other intriguing products, but at this event had only the whiskies.)

Gable Erenzo, Distiller and Brand Ambassador for Tuthilltown, was on hand with some of his apothecary bottles for some spirited show-and-tell. There were three whiskies on display---a "Baby" Bourbon made from 100% Corn, but otherwise adhering to the rules for Bourbon; a Manhattan Rye Whiskey, with a 100% Rye mashbill; and a Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey, composed of Rye, Corn, Wheat, and Malted Barley.

The Baby Bourbon was redolent of corn right enough, with a sweet, sweet nose and mild caramelly/toffee notes from the barrel maturation. Not terribly complex, and a bit too simple for my tastes, but I can see that it would be a gentle introduction to American Whiskey and the Bourbon category, and perhaps suited to mixed drinks.

The Manhattan Rye was very much the opposite end of the whiskey spectrum: bold, spicy, and with a considerable bite! It too was indicative of its single grain, and reminiscent of the long lost heritage of American Rye whiskies from before Prohibition, when Rye was the dominant whiskey consumed. Not for the faint of heart, with its robust attack, strong spicy character, and full throttle flavor, it would be a perfect teaching tool to learn about the basic nature of the different grains in whiskies. And as billed, it might be great in a classic Manhattan, with some sweet vermouth and a cherry to soften and tone down a few of the rustic edges.

Since the maturation cycle is not mentioned, I'm not sure whether there is any beyond the required minimum, but in the case of the Rye, I'd certainly be interested in seeing what greater maturation would reveal.

(Note to Tuthilltown: I'd also love to see the barrel and maturation info detailed on your website, guys. When you're dealing with whiskies, the specifics of how you mature and how long you mature are crucial, and it would be a good thing to dwell a bit on those details.)

The real proof though was in the Four Grain Bourbon. The judicious blending of the mash bill of raw ingredients is one of the most important flavor sources for any whiskey, and the distillers at Tuthilltown have down a fine job here, with a balanced mashbill designed to 'fill in the flavor holes' that one or the other grains alone might create. In the Four Grain, you have the warmth, without too much heat, the sweetness, the spice, the fire, and the lovely addition of vanilla/caramel oak over time. A commendable Bourbon, and one that bartenders and mixologists would have fun playing with in their concoctions.

Looks like now I'm going to have to visit the Hudson River Valley. After all, they have all the necessary food groups there, and it should be easy to get a decent drink!

For more information, go to www.tuthilltown.com

Great American Distillers Festival, Part 2---Montana Whiskey by RoughStock Distillery

There's something rare and special about a truly well made whiskey. You can argue all day long (and whiskey lovers do) about Scotch and Bourbon and Canadian, but good whiskey is simply good whiskey wherever you find it.

And I found a good one from Montana.

Bryan and Kari Schultz are a young couple from Montana, fresh-faced and clear-eyed and friendly, quick with honest warm smiles and eager to show off their new whiskey.

RoughStock Distillery is an all-Montana production near Bozeman, dedicated to small batch craft whiskey.

The barley malt and the fresh water come from Montana (and so do the Schultzes); the copper still comes from Kentucky, where such things are made, along with the requisite white oak barrels, where such things are also made.

The whiskey has just recently been released...you can currently get it in Montana, but you'll have to wait until Bryan and Kari get it distributed out to other areas, because there's not a lot of it right now and it has to work its way out through the system of distribution to other states.

But when you can get it: Get it! For a young whiskey with not a lot of maturation time, this is remarkably good, well made, and balanced whiskey, folks. Once production ramps up a bit more, and Bryan has some further time to develop aged stock, I suspect some of the slight rough edges will soften with maturation and mellow out with added complexities. Not to say the whiskey isn't drinking well right now---it's surprisingly smooth for its age, with a soft vanilla and spice finish, and would be a good sipping whiskey, as well as a base for some enterprising cocktails.

So when you see Montana Whiskey (the first Montana Whiskey since Prohibition!) pop up on the local retail shelf, or on the back bar of your favorite watering hole, don't be shy. I think you'll be impressed when you try it. I was! Now I'm thinking it would be great in a classic (i.e., freshly made by someone who knows what they're doing) Old Fashion. Or perhaps a softer-sided Manhattan with a little touch of cherry juice? Hey, let's make a "Montana Smash!"

RoughStock Distillery Montana Whiskey (www.montanawhiskey.com)

And if you're up around Bozeman, give Bryan and Kari a jingle. My bet is you'll get a warm Montana welcome.

5th Annual Great American Distillers Festival---Part 1

If you missed the 5th Annual Great American Distillers Festival in Portland, OR, this past weekend, you missed a chance to meet some devoted artists and craft people doing what they love---making and concocting very personal small batch spirits.

You also missed some of Oregon's best bartenders and mixologists at work crafting their own concoctions from the artisanal spirits!

Held in the Bossanova Ballroom (722 E Burnside) in Portland, the Festival was a cozy affair, allowing up close and personal interaction with many of the distillers themselves. And the only thing artisanal distillers like as much as creating their spirits is talking about their spirits, so there was lots of animated interchange going on.

Meanwhile, up on the stage, there was a continuing series of mixology competitions, with the primary stipulation for the contestants to use the spirits available to impress the judges---with courtesy sampling of the tasty and innovative results for the extremely appreciative audience, thank you very much. It was intriguing to see the mixologists at work in their cocktail laboratories, quickly and efficiently assembling the oft times complicated cocktails.

As you might expect here in the epicenter of cuisine culture of the Pacific Northwest, there was a strong emphasis on freshness and purity of flavor, as well as use of local ingredients. One drink I tasted depended largely on what was available in the local farmer's market that morning, for other than the spirit base it was primarily freshly sourced or personally produced. And why shouldn't your cocktail from the bar reflect the local and fresh products of the region, just as the food menu from the kitchen does?

But the base of every cocktail is the spirit...and there were spirits aplenty in this Halloween season, from the homegrown to some far flung places like Colorado, Montana and New York.

And every single spirit category was represented too (if you include the agave syrup used as sweetener to represent tequila, since it isn't legal to produce tequila anywhere but the approved areas in Central Mexico). Plenty of vodkas, as you might expect, but numerous gins, liqueurs, brandies, whiskies and rums too.

Although I'm not personally fond of most flavored vodkas, since they tend to be simple infusions of compounded essences imposing a flavor on neutral grain spirits, there remains an art to it, and it certainly does appeal to the masses. And I'll admit there were some creative infusions---roasted cocoa beans for chocolate vodka was a big hit, and a black truffle infused vodka got some attention too.

But let's take a closer look at some of the spirits, and the distillers who craft them, in following posts.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lazy Man's Chowder, Ciabatta and Wine on a Friday

There's a nifty store near where I now live called New Seasons (more about the place in another post) and it has a pretty impressive wine selection and a couple of enthusiastic and talented stewards. Always fun to browse the wine aisles when I'm shopping there, and it's a great place to pick up a casual bottle for the weekend.

We were straight out exhausted, just totally limp, on Friday evening, with no desire whatsoever to cook. And we didn't want to go out either---it was one of those nights where we just wanted to lay around in our grubs, watch a little cable, and relax. So I dredged up the last reserve of energy, popped over to New Seasons, picked up a tub of their Clam Chowder and a loaf of their spectacular Olive Ciabatta (this bread is packed full of kalamata, let me tell you, and it's as close to Italian ciabatta as I can find in the area, soft and slightly stretchy on the inside and dusty, crusty, chewy on the outside; and like I said, packed with olives). Oh, and a bottle of vino!

So I shuffle around the wine aisle for a while, find a little under-$10 Italian that looks good (I'm a sucker for Friuli!) and snag it.

It was the di Lenardo Vineyards Lis Maris Santa Pazienza Bianco 2008, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Bianco from the Venezia Giulia IGT, and I can report that I definitely got my money's worth with this bottle.
Massimo (Call me Max), owner and winemaker, has the right sense of direction here: this wine is clean and
bright and balanced, with the acidic and grassy-herbal Sauvignon balanced out and filled in with the softer, rounder, fleshier Pinot Bianco.

Sometimes, not always but sometimes, Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli-VG can be a bit shrill and overly lean (which I like, honestly, but not in the context of clam chowder and olive ciabatta on a slovenly Friday); this blend toned down the Sauvignon shrillness and brought out the richness and slight creaminess of the Pinot Bianco...which put it perfectly in tune with the chowder!

But the essential nature of the wine handled the milk and butter of the chowder to finish clean and strong and tart in the mouth, and it could stand up to the meaty, oily spice of the kalamata as well.

So: if you're lazy or beat down by the day, and want a lovely, casual little white that is versatile and charming and amenable to food, but that still has enough going on on its own to be interesting (trust me, you'll like it enough to have that second glass), then this could be a good choice for you.

Monday, October 19, 2009

ANDINA -- NovoPeruvian, Pearl District, Portland

I’ve been a fan of Andina since immediately after it opened, so when Roxi and I found ourselves in the Pearl District in Portland on a drizzly fall Saturday, it was an easy choice for lunch.

Fortunate enough to be seated at one of the roomy window booths, we could peruse the busy, buzzy interior or watch the passersby stroll through the rain. You could tell they were native Pacific Nor’westers for the most part because they took little notice of the rain, walking calmly along, no futile dodging of raindrops or ducking of heads or waving of newspaper-umbrellas.

We wisely opted for shared small plates…a word of Andina advice: the food is so good, and so wonderfully diverse, that as good as the main dishes are (and they are, they are) the small plates are always a good choice because you get to sample more of their offerings!

It seemed fitting to begin with a cocktail, so in keeping with the Peruvian theme I ordered Pisco Sours, a drink I enjoy but have rarely. This was superbly executed by someone who knew what they were doing behind the bar. Served in a martini glass, with just the right admixture of egg white to generate a foamy, creamy body, and with that particular and unmistakable pungency of clear Moscato brandy, it had the puckeriness of fresh lime juice, a touch of lime zest, and a drizzle of Angostura bitters on top of the foamy cap. Both a good start, and my obligatory Pisco Sour for the year!

Immediately following the cocktail, our sopa dal dia arrived, a luscious, creamy, hot potato soup---and perhaps one of the best creamy-style potato soups I’ve ever had! Made from Yukon Gold potatoes pureed with a touch of cream, lightly laced with herbs, and beautifully crowned with diced red peppers, a dollop of Peruvian causa (more later) and super-fruity-fresh olive oil, this was a soup to linger over! If this is on the menu when you’re there, order it! You won’t be sorry.

Then the small plates arrived to prove that we had ordered wisely (okay, it’s not difficult to order wisely in Andina, since everything is so good, but still…) First the Pimiento Piquillo Relleno, a mild red pepper stuffed with nutty quinoa, cheese, and Serrano ham. Then an impressive rendition of Empanadas Caseras de Carne. Mind you, the empanada can be a gamble in some South American restaurants, ranging from dull and thudding lumps of soggy dough and tasteless filling to fluffy, flaky little crescents with lovely spiced grilled meat, savory cheese, and studded with pungent little raisins. Andina’s version is very much the latter; these were truly wonderful, examples of empanadas at their best.

CAUSA! Finally we were delighted by a dish I make a point of ordering when at Andina: Causa! Causa is a traditional Peruana food consisting of a thick Yukon Gold mashed potato and lime juice mix formed into a small tower, then studded with various ingredients---in this case, the Causa Mixta Kikkei, large juicy chunks of ceviche-marinaded ahi tuna flecked with herbs; white, flaky, fresh, succulent and sweet Dungeness crab meat; and all topped with a quinoa-crusted and tempura-fried prawn!

As if this wasn’t enough, the plates were ‘boosted’ by a side plate of triple sauces (a mild peanutty Thai-ish sauce, a delicious spicy mango-passion fruit I’d love to have a couple of jars of, and a jalapeno-spicy verde sauce, sort of like a chimmichurri), which we played with liberally. This was enhanced by baskets of light, fluffy Andean bread laced with poppy seeds. Caution: Addictive!

Trio of Sauces (Go for the middle!)

The wine? I lobbied strongly for one of the truly interesting and impressive whites on the list, but Roxi was adamantine for Rioja. So we had Rioja. Unfortunately, neither of us was impressed by the 2005 Palacios Remondo Rioja. Mind you, I have tremendous respect for some of the wines Alvaro Palacios has made; and he certainly has had a profound effect on the “New Spain” style of wines---but this was not very well integrated, showed raw sweet vanilla-oak in front, a hollow and expressionless middle, and a slightly charry, bitter, tart berry finish. I’ll be charitable and say perhaps it’s going through a phase. Perhaps. And perhaps it is a wine I will never be fond of.

The desserts were as intriguing as the rest of the menu---but we couldn’t take any more freight on at that point, so we elected to walk it off instead, and traipsed our way through the always delightful and colorful warehouse-district turned fashionable spot that is the Pearl. If you’ve been to Portland recently, you’ve been there. If you haven’t, when you come to Portland, you’ll go there. And if you do, you should go to Andina. You’ll thank me later.