Monday, November 30, 2009

What I learned this year...Part 2: The Rhone Valley




How close to perfection can one particular wine region get?

Look at the Rhone Valley, and you'll see.

Earlier this year I launched into a pretty intensive updating on the Rhone Valley, following by an equally intense week in the region itself, courtesy of the French Wine Academy and the exceptional folks at Inter-Rhone.

Cornas and its rugged slopes.

Having spent a great deal of time in the region over many years, both professionally and en vacance in gites (which, by the way, is one of the finest ways to have a vacation you can imagine), I have always loved everything about this part of Europe. But after a concentrated week of trundling in and out of wine caves, cellars, and tank rooms with some of the finest and most dedicated winemakers in the world---interspersed with capacious lunches and convivial dinners, of course; this is France, after all---I am firmly of the belief that the Rhone is in the lead for the title of best all-around wine region.

First: when it comes to as-good-as-it-gets red wine across all price levels, is there any region better than the Rhone? From the humble Cotes-du-Rhone AOC to the often-stunning Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, stepping up to the Named Villages, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Gigondas, and the exquisite voluptuousness of Chateauneuf-du-Pape---and realizing you're still in the southern portion only, and haven't even gotten to the north yet, where you can reel off the magical names of Cornas, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cote Rotie'. Throw in the less exalted but damned satisfying sub-regions of the Costieres des Nimes and the Luberon and Ventoux, and the even less well known Vivarais and Tricastin and you've got a red wine behemoth!

While the north produces it's exalted Syrah wines, the south puts out the finest blended reds you could want, utilizing the palette of varieties, both indigenous and imported, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault and others. Lots of others.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Second, the whites: while not as overwhelming as the reds, the whites include the smallest AOC (Chateau-Grillet) along with the not-much-larger Condrieu, as the epitome of Viognier; the Marsanne of St-Peray AOC, both still and sparkling; and the honey-tinged blends of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and other varieties (Hermitage Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and countless Village wines).

Third: let us now praise the lovely rose' wines of the Rhone, justly renowned as they are...and not only the Lirac and Tavel, but the humble little village roses as well. Anywhere you go in the Rhone you find these lovely and satisfying and oh-so-food-friendly dry pink wines. One of my favorite pastimes when in the Rhone---much to the dismay of my wife---is to turn in every time I see a "Degustation Vente" sign and pick up a bottle of rose'. I'm almost never disappointed, either in finding the rose' or guzzling it when I get back to the gite.

Fourth: you've even got the sweet red category covered, with the Vin Doux Naturels (Rasteau, anyone?) and the sweetie whites with the luscious and irresistible Beaumes de Venise. You'e even got the curious, and curiously charming, lightly sparkling wines of the Dioise in Clairette de Die.

Okay, okay, the Rhone, for all its glories, doesn't have a lot of things...like Cabernet. Fine, I can live without that if I have to, and Cornas fills that need anyway. But how about Pinot Noir, you ask? Well, look on the map: the Rhone is just close enough to get up to Burgundy to score those little jewels, with plenty of time to stop in Lyon on the way back and sample some of the finest food in France. So, problem solved.
Just imagine yourself kicking back of an evening, a lip-smacking rose' in your hand, fresh roasting meat on the grill, a little asparagus beside it, a bottle of Cornas waiting on the sideboard, and Mt. Ventoux looming on the horizon.

Yep. I think I'm on pretty firm ground here.

Gigondas Vineyard, with the Dentelles de Montmirail looming in the background

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I learned this year...

I was talking to a friend recently and he mentioned all the seasonal "Ten Best" and "Best of" lists that were coming out, many of them purporting to give the listmaker's version of a) their favorite wines, supposedly in order of magnitude of favorite-ness, or b) a list of what their readers should seek out and buy.

So, inevitably, it happened. He asked, "What's your Ten Best?"

Don't have one, I said. Not into ordination, especially of wines.

"Well, how about a list of ten wines I should definitely buy?"

Couldn't possibly do that, I said. Besides, it's better if you find them yourself, rather than wait for me to give you a list.

"Well, so much for all the
wine knowledge you have," he huffed. "What advice can you give?"

As the pedant in me started to sonorously explain that I really didn't see any value in lists, that ordination of wine was not, to me even possible, that what he wanted was a 'greatest hits', and that I didn't do numerical scores or rankings or yadda yadda yadda, I did something totally out of character for me: I shut my big fat mouth.

It wasn't what he wanted to hear.

So, after I moment, I said I'd give him what he wanted---but not the way he wanted, and not right then, because his question deserved a thorough and considered answer. I would reply, not with a list or ranking or shopping guide, but with what I managed to learn---or in some cases, relearn, over the past year.

So herein is my answer (in segments, because I'm naturally long-winded, sorry, but there it is).

First, Provence:
I had the greatest fortune and most excellent timing when my early retirement from corporate life coincided with an invitation I could not have previously honored! I was invited to participate in the French Wine Academy Study Abroad program to pursue Master Level Instructor status through the Academy. This enabled me to spend a couple of glorious weeks in French wine regions, learning more about some of the best wines in the world.

An artist's rendition of the essence of Rose' in sculpture.

Sometimes, with wine, you find out it's not what you know that's important; it's what you knew but forgot and had to learn all over again. That was Provence for me.

I had learned it so long ago, and had travelled it so long ago, and then gone back numerous times without paying attention to what I knew, and to what was changing, and to how I was changing as well. I had forgotten the most important thing about Provence and its wine. My knowledge now was only academic, and worse, outdated...the one unforgivable thing about wine knowledge.

So my summer in Provence was a re-awakening, a resurgence of learning and appreciating. And each and every moment was a revelation. Provence tends to be that way.

America, despite being one of the strongest wine markets in the world and the desired target for any producer anywhere---the French being no exception---is still abysmally ignorant of wine, and the majority of American wine taste leans toward the big, the bold, the clearly stated (or overstated?). Subtlety, complexity, and fine nuance are not always as appreciated by American wine drinkers as they should be---which is curious to the extreme because the essence of French wines lies much more in subtlety and nuance than in bravado and forcefulness.

The most perfect case in point of this is in Provence. For some time the region has languished in virtual insignificance in the American market. Too hot to be a fine wine region, sniffed some.
Very disorganized, and they choose to focus on something as seasonal and bland as rose', said others. Lovely country, yes; superb for vacations and rustic countrysides, certainly. But for "serious" wine, look to other regions.

Wrong.

Instead, Provence is a thriving, lively, dynamic, wine scene these days. The growers and winemakers are as committed as any I know anywhere, and the sheer volume of producers, coupled with the outstanding overall quality of wines, is amazing.

And it is no accident, no whim, no lack of quality, that leads many Provencal wineries to focus on rose'. And focus they do: they are fiercely devoted to this style and approach, and have invested countless hours and euros studying what makes rose' the wine it is, and what makes a good rose'.



(True wine aficionados---wine geeks---should investigate the unique Centre Provencal de Recherche et d'Experimentation sur le Vin Rose'--Official Rose' Research Center in Provence, or go to the Wines of Provence website---www.winesof provenceusa.com for some truly fascinating information on this topic.)


It's time Americans got off this hobby horse of 'big is better; bigger is best'. There is nothing finer than a meal of varied tastes, flavors and textures served with a subtle, elusive, multifaceted, crisp and fruity Provence Rose'! Let's have done with the idea that Rose' is a summer wine only; it isn't. Let's dispense with the outdated idea that rose' is bland and featureless and indiscriminate, simply a jumble of things that make a light pink sweet whatever wine----that may be so in other places, but it is not so in Provence.

The Recherche of Rose'

So among the things I've learned this year, one of the most valuable for me was the rediscovery of Provence and its particular delight, Rose'. There's not another wine I know of that runs the full gamut of satisfaction for me. It can be a 'white wine' when that's what I need; it can be a red wine when that's what is called for. And it can be endlessly pleasing on multiple levels with its subtlety and complexity, its delightful razor-edged crisp acidity and tart, mouthwatering effusion of delicate flavors.

And did I mention how lovely the prices are? How nice to find a wine that can be so pleasant and so affordably priced!


A Regular Morning of Exhaustive
Investigative Research at the Institute!




So go out now, and ask your friendly local wine merchant for a Provencal Rose'. It's not just for summer sipping anymore.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Love Lagrein...

It's not the easiest wine to find, I'll admit. It's well off the familiar well-beaten wine path, for sure. And while it's not expensive, and most you do find are well worth the price, it's not exactly a bargain leader either. Most times when I tell people I love Lagrein I get a puzzled look. As in, "WTF is he talking about now?"

Lagrein is a deep, dark red wine from the Trentino-Alto Adige in North Italy, and only rarely found outside that region (although I did find a delicious one in a single-vineyard plot in the Willamette Valley in Oregon!) Supposedly descended from the also fairly obscure Teroldego grape from the same region, Lagrein tends to be what most wine geeks call 'rustic'---which means it's deeply colored, boldly flavored and might bite your tongue off with tannin.

To me, Lagrein is reminiscent of an old style Mendocino Petite Sirah, inky black, tart and astringent, loaded with scratchy tannins and black pepper, but also spicy and tangy and rich in brambly berry flavors.

One you might be able to find is one I recently tried: the Kellerei Tramin Lagrein Alto Adige DOC 2008 (imported by Winebow/LoCascio). It's not pricy, it's a great example of the variety and the region, and it is an altogether impressive wine.


While it's common knowledge amongst wine geeks that the basic co-op doesn't tend to make outstanding wines, you automatically can find many exceptions to the rule. Kellerei Tramin is one of the best exceptions, since it is headed by the estimable Willi Sturz, a 2004 Tre Bicchieri Winemaker of the Year, and one of the most dynamic and talented of northern Italian Sudtirol winemakers.

This Lagrein is a blend of several vineyards, so consider it a good representative of what Lagrein should be...which is, dark and inky black, tart with sour cherries, astringent with barely managed tannins, herbal, black pepper, and lean, tart puckery berry fruit. And for me there is always that hallmark flavor of deep roasted coffee. Maybe even a hint of tobacco that you used to be able to buy for pipe smoking, the black. damp, clumpy, aromatic stuff that tamped so well in the pipe and smelled like a damp forest floor---which may sound terrible to you but brings back tremendous Proustian memories for me.

And it can be a great food wine too. Last night, by popular request, I served the extended family (four generations) my thrown-together pasta sauce that became a favorite, sort of a weird puttanesca loaded down with way too many kalamata olives and capers and onions and garlic and spicy red peppers, simmered for a couple of days. The Lagrein was perfect with the pasta sauce. Bold flavor met bold flavor, and they got along just fine with each other! (The lone non-wine drinker of the group elected to have the Upright Rye beer I recently opined about on this blog; it did pretty well too.)

So if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary to handle your wine jones, and you like your reds big and bold, give Lagrein a try. Specifically the Kellerei Tramin Lagrein; you can't go wrong with that one.

Upright Brewing: An Expose!!!


After having a rather impressive dark rye beer from the new Upright Brewery in Portland (www.uprightbrewing.com), I decided I’d do a little intrepid investigative reporting and learn a little more about these guys and do a hard hitting report.

[Actually, I saw on their website where they had tastings at the brewery on Saturdays and Sundays, and figured, hey, what the hell, I got nothing else to do…]

Took my beer swilling son-in-law and headed downtown, to the east bank of the Willamette, amidst the tangle of freeway interchanges and bridges, to the Left Bank Project. Down in the basement was Upright Brewing, an artisanal beermaker devoted to crafting Belgian-style brews but using locally grown and locally sourced ingredients. They offered a sampler of all their current products---six of them---on tap, so we launched into our tasti...er, investigation.

The designation of their beers is simple---each of their basic brews is indicated by the number of the specific gravity (which indicates body), so there is a Four, a Five, a Six and a Seven. Then there were two ‘special’ releases, essentially small batch riffs on a theme---the theme being whatever these guys think will taste good!

Four is essentially a light wheat beer, light on the hops, fairly soft and creamy and citrusy-fruity. Well made though it is, it’s not my style. Five is more a pale/amber style, with noticeably more hops and a slight toffee/caramel flavor. Much better, much more interesting (i.e., much more my style.) But Six---the Rye Beer---hit the sweet spot. It’s the first one that got my attention at Clyde Common, and after tasting the full range, it’s still the one that rings my chimes. Full, hearty, robust, nicely balanced in all its elements, and with delicious chocolatey-caramel flavors wrapped up in dark (but not sweet) spiciness, this is a real winner! The Seven was laudable too, a French/Belgian Saison style, lighter than the rye but still fruity/spicy and savory. And the Seven would be excellent with spicy foods...Thai, Viet, Chinese, Mexican, Indian.

But the following beer, Lavali, was a curious critter, basically a wheat beer steeped in barrel with a special blend of Turkish chili peppers. Interesting at first, in that the entry of the beer was rather citrusy and crisp and lightly hoppy, but then a slow, fairly gentle burn rose in the back of the palate and down the throat. And it wasn’t a hot burn so much as a slightly herbal, warm suffusion. As I said, curious; not bad, but not something I’d look to have on constant hand in the fridge. Very much a specialty brew.

The six beers, from left to right.

The final sample, Dry Hopped Four, was an extreme example of the first beer, a wheat beer flavored aggressively with dry hops, with distinctly sharp and bitter hops dominating the taste.

But you have to keep an eye on what the boys are doing at Upright, because they have, at various times, a witbier (“Dry Wit”, with coriander, orange peel and oats), and an extreme creation that was a big enough hit to reprise, “Turkey On Rye”, the basic Rye barrel-aged with various ingredients, including chocolate syrup and selected Turkish chiles. And there are rumors of a semi-kriek bier in the works. They sure do keep it interesting down in the basement beer laboratory.

Final result? I like what the guys are doing down in the basement. Liked the Rye enough (as did my son-in-law) to take home a bottle for dinner that night, and I plan to get it again. Their Saison ranks pretty high with me too; I like this style, and I’d happily drink the Upright version frequently. The Five is a good light amber style as well. I’m not overly enamored of the basic Four, although I recognize the quality, and couldn’t help noticing my son-in-law gulped it down pretty quickly. I expect the Upright will do well in the market (which means essentially the greater Portland market right now), and I look forward to drinking more of it.

And I’m waiting for that next batch of Turkey On Rye…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Uncommon Clyde and An Upright Rye


So, is Clyde Common a great bar with a restaurant attached...or is it a great restaurant with a bar attached?

Yes.

The 'rents-in-law were in town so I needed a place to take them for lunch in the downtown Portland area. Being a selfish sorta guy, I figured Clyde Common, in the hipster Ace Hotel on Stark Street would be the place to go. As usual, I was right.

As soon as you walk into Clyde Common and glance at the bar you realize this is a devoutly spiritual place. These people take their libations seriously. The wall of spirits behind the bar is a sight to behold, and the list of featured cocktails is more in the way of a checklist than list of choices.

Sweet and sticky drinks? Not here. Serious, well-crafted, balanced cocktails rich with flavors are the rule here. And the mixologists---hell, let's call them bartenders---are knowledgeable, well trained, and apparently love their vocation. And since every bar has its own style, this one shines in the whiskies, the gin selection, and the choices of bitters.

Hey, when the house vermouth tends to be Carpano Antico Formula, that pretty much says it all about the quality orientation.

But today I was on good behavior so I let them steer me past the bar and toward the communal table looking out over Stark (good for people watching and rain gazing), and perused the menu. For Clyde Common is not simply a bar: it is also a great little restaurant. The food choices on the menu echo the cocktail choices on the bar, thoughtful, well-constructed, use of superb ingredients, careful attention paid to detail, and intriguing flavors.

My wife had a house flatbread plate that turned what could have been a humdrum veggie dish into an exciting adventure in flavors and textures. My MIL had a sorta-kinda po'boy sandwich of deep fried mussels with a piquant salsa verde that I briefly wished I had ordered...until my freshly boiled and grilled house-made bratwurst with sauerkraut on a mustard slathered roll came to the table! The brat was perfect---and mind you, I'm speaking from the point of view of a guy who learned his brats from spending his teen years in Germany then honing his tastes through several years in Wisconsin (ya betcha). And whoever made these brats knew what they were doing. (Okay, the kraut could've used just a touch of juniper berries, but hey, it wasn't bad.)

And here's a lusty Irish potato-lovin' shout out for the Clyde Common fries: folks, this is what fries are supposed to be! Thin, long cut fries cooked to absolute crispy outside/creamy inside perfection and then dusted with salt and served at burn-the-fingers heat. That's what I'm talking about! (And a tip for the boulevardiers amongst you: go during happy hour in the afternoon and you can languish with cocktails and beers and large plates of these fries for only $3 a plate!)

I also had the prescience to order a beer off their specials list, from a local brewery called Upright Brewing. Previously unknown to me, this place will be supplying some interesting drinking in the future. They apparently fashion themselves along the lines of a Belgian or French-style farmhouse artisanal beer maker, and the Upright Rye was unmistakably in that style. Rich, dark, spicy, but balanced, with a thin, light head, its arrival occasioned some queries from nearby diners, and subsequent orders by them. My obvious relish at the brew might have helped that. I love a good hearty, caramel/chocolate/spice beer with a velvety feel and just enough of a bitter tang to keep it interesting...and that's exactly what the Upright Rye delivered. I will most definitely be on the lookout for more brews from this local producer. Might even be growler time.

So I can recco Clyde Common. For food and drink. And if you go during the lunch hour, you'll probably find Jonny behind the stick. Say Hi to him: he's enthusiastic as hell about what he does, and he knows whereof he speaks on spirits. Makes a wicked good drink too.

And order the fries.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Luxardo! --A Must Have Bottle...





Since the title of this blog is "elixir vitae", here's a vital elixir for anyone with a decent bar: Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur.

Luxardo is an intensely concentrated liqueur from the Maraschino (Marasca) cherry, and it is a delight of pure sour cherry flavor. If you don't have it in your home bar, you should. And if you see it on a professional bar, that's a pretty reliable sign that you're dealing with a knowledgeable mixologist who knows what it takes to make a good cocktail.

Luxardo's been around....oh, forever...and it's pretty recognizable with its traditional green bottle and white straw cladding, and any good retailer should have it on hand. There are no substitutes (and no, Virginia, maraschino cherry jar juice won't do---too sweet).

It is amazingly mixable, and suits quite a range of spirits. You'll be surprised, once you get it on your bar, how many drinks you'll be using it for. One word of caution though: Luxardo is intensely flavored, and a little goes a very long way; use discretion initially until you get used to it. Sometimes a mere drop will suffice.

There's the classic Aviation cocktail, naught more than gin, lemon juice and a splash of Luxardo (and it looks fantastic in a martini glass with the Luxardo gently plopped in to settle to the bottom of the glass for a colorful accent).

Another cocktail I found (courtesy of Martin Miller's Gin) is what they call the Tuscan Sunset. Caution: it is for true lovers of bitters (Me!! Me!!!) and may be a bit much for the lovers of sweet drinks. It's a combination of gin, Carpano Antico, Luxardo, lime juice, Peychaud's bitters, and Fever Tree Ginger Ale. Colorful, delicious, aromatic, and stimulating to the palate!

But one of my more customary uses of Luxardo is in a variation on the classic Manhattan. Make a Manhattan in the classic mode, shaking rye or rye-heavy whiskey, bitters and vermouth with ice and straining into a martini glass, then simply add a drop or two of Luxardo when you drop the cherry in. Some people cheat a little and marinate their cherries in Luxardo. Whatever. It makes an incredibly good Manhattan.

So...if you don't have this, get it. Please. I'll expect to see it on your bar the next time I'm over.

Friday, November 13, 2009

If they only knew...


When in Milwaukee recently I was told to stop off on the way to a big screen tv Green Bay Party because they were running short of whiskey. Stopped in just-another-liquor-store along the way. I was surprised initially by the rather impressive selection of whiskies they had (what with Milwaukee being such a brandy-drinking state and all) and reveled in the benefits of the whiskey revival this country was so obviously experiencing these days. Lots of great choices.


But with the unfailing keen and hawklike eyes of the bargain predator that I am, honed by years of looking for the deals and steals, I spotted a lone bottle lurking. And it had the strobing beacon of a red price tag! Closing in for the kill, I realized I had hit the big time jackpot: a bottle of Old Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey for only $13.99. And…wait for it, wait for it…it was a full Liter bottle! (Victory dance ensues)


So why was I so excited? Easy. In this day and age, when hype accounts for so much, and high prices don’t always reflect commensurate quality, there remains a handful of sturdy, consistently superb and reliably excellent brands that always deliver. And they don’t always get the recognition they deserve. One of those brands is Old Rittenhouse, from Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Easily one of the best rye whiskies there is, it’s almost always found at a modest price, and often goes relatively unnoticed on the shelf. Mind you, the pros have acclaimed it and serious connoisseurs know it well---after all, it did receive the 2006 San Francisco International Spirits Competition “North American Whiskey of the Year” (for the 100 Proof version), seriously outclassing competition priced at four or five times as much!

But that’s acclaim and awards. For some reason it doesn’t resonate with the drinking public as much as it should. I don’t know why, either. Whatever the version ---there are three: the 80 Proof, the 100 Proof Bottled in Bond, and the extra-aged special release, currently in either 23 or 25 year old limited bottlings--- Old Rittenhouse is a fine, old style, robust and full-bodied example of a classic Rye. And I would, without any hesitation, put it up against anything in the market!

The Award Winning 100 Proof Bottled-In-Bond

This is whiskey with character: rustic, edgy, spicy with nutmeg and clove and allspice, a touch of herb and fennel, a whisper of spearmint, and all wrapped in soft caramelly-vanilla oak that barely restrains it. And it has enough flavor to stand out past any mixer you’ll throw at it. This is the Rye you want for your Sazerac cocktail. This is the Rye you want in your Manhattan---straight up, icy cold, and add the tiniest spike of Luxardo just before you serve it, if you please, Mr. Mixologist!

Now the three releases out there are very different: The 80 Proof is, or should be, a standard rye in a good bar, suitable for mixing the basic cocktails. The 100 Proof is my sipping whiskey; it’s the perfect combination of richness and flavor and spice. And the 23 Year Old Reserve is the one I hold for the rare moments of sheer unadulterated pleasure (and mind you, I’m not necessarily a believer in the myth of “the older the better”, but this is one of those splendid exceptions to the rule; the other is Van Winkle). My advice? If you can have only one on hand, split the difference and get the 100 Proof.

Below, 23 Year Old Limited Release
(which, you should be so lucky)

So the trend hoppers and the marketing-driven can run out and chase the darling of the moment, or be dazzled by pretty bottles and flashy labels---just hand me the bottle of Old Rittenhouse, and I’ll be fine. It’s quite simply one of the finest rye whiskies on the market.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Letting Off A Little Steam...

Had occasion to hit several different bars, pubs, and associated beverage dispensers over the last several days, and realized I had accumulated a litany of gripes and bitches and observations that I needed to divest myself of. So here goes.

The trouble with bars/lounges/pubs these days...is the same exact trouble that's always been present: most of these people don't have the slightest clue what they are doing!

Shame, really. And it reflects on not only the bartenders and waitresses but the managers and owners who either don't know---or worse, just don't care---about the right way to do things.

Over the last several days I've seen the following, in a range of establishments, so it's endemic and I won't mention any single place.

Young lady asks if I know what I want. Gin and tonic, I say. "You want just a rail drink, right?" Well, depends, whataya have, I respond? "Oh, we got three or four. Want me to find out."

This young lady obviously works cheap, and gets paid an appropriate amount for her services. And no one has made an effort to train her, either.

Never assume somebody wants a rail drink! And never go out of your way to sell down when you don't need to. Assume you've got a discerning customer here (or at least pay him the compliment). No, you don't need to push things on him, but you can discreetly go for the upsell. "Is there a particular gin you like, sir? Tanqueray, Beefeater?"

And they had only four gins on the back bar, so she shouldn't have had to "find out". (I could see them from where I was sitting.) She should have known already. Turns out that they had Plymouth Gin there. Who would have guessed, eh, in a standard blah bar setup? Of course, she could have just rung up another rail G&T and been happy with it (along with the lower tip.)

I go into a pretty lively bar. The bartender is friendly and amiable, so I ask for a Whiskey Manhattan (it was in Milwaukee; I had enough sense to specify whiskey so I wouldn't get brandy instead); saw they had Woodford Reserve Bourbon, so I ordered a Woodford Manhattan. He comes back to report that they're out of Woodford, so would Knob Creek be okay? For devoted whiskey drinkers, there's a world of difference between Woodford and Knob Creek, so it's good he asked. But why did they run out of Woodford, early on a Saturday evening on a holiday weekend? Somebody's not paying attention to business.

To add personal insult to injury, when I got distracted by the whiskey that wasn't there, I neglected to specify what kind of Manhattan I preferred. So the young man automatically whipped up a watered down lowball, rocks and water (I was in Milwaukee, remember; this is standard there). Okay, my bad---but he should have asked.

In another bar, I did remember, and I did ask for "a Whiskey Manhattan, please? And Up?" Young lady looked at me and said, "What's that?" What's what, I replied. "Up. What's that mean?" She had no idea what I was talking about, and had apparently never taken an order for anything but a lowball rocks drink. I explained "Up", and she cheerfully thanked me, so it's not like she didn't have the ability and willingness to learn her trade. It's just that no one took the time to teach her anything about what she was doing.

Another gripe---and this is one that continually irritates me---is when I walk into a bar, glance at the back bar, then look at the printed bar list just to verify what I already knew: whoever managed the place had been lazy (or just plain stupid; or both) and had let one distributor rep write the whole stale, standard blah list. It was painfully obvious. As a result the bar did not in any way reflect reality, or customer demand, or any sense of style or distinction. It was filled with gaping holes and lame choices put there to satisfy someone's quota for the month. If you go to the trouble of starting up a business that depends on a bar for revenue, at least put some thought into what you're pouring from the bar, you idiot.

Finally---and aren't you glad this rant is almost over?---there's the continuing failure of even good bars to understand that to make good drinks you absolutely have to have good Vermouth!

It is astonishing to me when in establishments that clearly should know better, places that have gone to great lengths and great expense to stock ultra premium spirits and develop elaborate cocktail programs----and then they buy the cheapest brand possible of Vermouth!?! What's up with that? Fifty whiskies on your proud list, and all you have is $2.00 vermouth? Not only no variety; no quality in the one you do have. What, like it doesn't matter? No cocktail is any better than the ingredients used to make it. And if you don't have a selection of quality vermouths, you're not making good cocktails.

Okay, that's it. Thanks. I feel a lot better now.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Battle of the Belges, Stone Soup and Fat Squirrels

Visited Milwaukee this past weekend, so the theme was beer. None of it was from Milwaukee though.

The first night we ended up at Point East Pub; I'd heard about the incredible wings, so I figured I'd even brave the cigarette smoke (which unfortunately was at the fumigatory level, ech) and check 'em out. They were...incredible. Some of the best wings I've ever had. Twice cooked, loaded with spice---but more spice than sheer heat. Anybody can do hot; takes a good recipe to do spice, with balanced heat.

They had a panoramic selection of beer at PEB, and good wings deserved good beer, so first up was a Chimay Red. The bartender apologized and said all he had on hand was a Duvel glass; I laughed and said I'd let it slide this once. Great ale; tart apricot fruit on the nose, but red plums, red plums, red plums in the mouth, with a tincture of herbal sappiness and a lovely cinnamon-nutmeg dustiness, all wrapped up with a tart/sweet/sour/bitter finish.

And hey, since I already had a Duvel glass, heck, why not a Duvel?!? I'll tell you up front here: I'm not impartial when it comes to Duvel. I love the stuff; it's easily one of my favorite brews. And this iteration didn't let me down one bit. It was creamy and pleasantly bitter and drenched in tart fruit. Perfect, absolutely perfect, with the wings, and over the top with the sweet potato fries. And word: Duvel is great with food too.

Next day was the long awaited Green Bay-Minnesota game at Lambeau, so we ended up in front of a giant tv screen watching most of Wisconsin get depressed---but to salve our spirits we sucked down some beer from New Glarus Brewing Company.

I had heard good things about the cool couple at New Glarus, and been urged to try their brews, so this was my chance. Sure glad I did: These people are making some great beer down in southern Wisconsin, and I'm now a big fan.

The first was Stone Soup, billed as a Belgian-style ale. And it was. It was actually as close to being a la Belge as any American micro I've ever had. Very similar to the Chimay Red, with tart fruit and spice. This is a beer I could fall in love with. Great balance, and an even greater lingering finish that brings you back for more.

The next one, Fat Squirrel, was just as impressive in its way. It was a soft, fat, slightly caramel/chocolate nut brown ale, with a hazelnut for the nut and some pumpernickel for the brown, and just the right touch of hops to keep things tight and tasty. Liquid bread, baby!

Keep your eye on New Glarus. This is beer worth looking for. They're two for two with me. (They also make a Cracked Wheat, but I didn't try that. My son, who inhaled it, did say it was pretty good though.)

And say what you will (and I know you will), Favre came to play on Sunday. Gotta give him that.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.