My Top 10 Wines & Spirits in 2017

As you might guess, I enjoy an adult beverage (or two) pretty much every day. That adds up to a lot of different wines and spirits. Selecting 10 favorites was a challenge – but holy Zinfandel, was the research fun!

These bottles range in price from super-affordable to impress-the-boss splurge, but none are ridiculously pricey. Any would make superb holiday gifts.

In no particular order, these are my 2017 picks:

 

 

  • When I served Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (40 proof, $38) to a few friends, none of them knew they were sipping rum – they thought it tasted like brandy or a honey-infused bourbon. That’s not too far-fetched, since this Venezuelan beauty is aged for up to 12 years in bourbon barrels. Long aging bestows elegance on a fine rum; this one carries notes of fennel, caramel, oak and corn. I wouldn’t mix Diplomatico – savor it neat or cool it with one ice cube.
  • If you haven’t tried reds from northern Italy, the 2016 Colterenzio St. Magdalener, DOC Alto Adige (12.5 percent alcohol, $14) is a good introduction. Its vegetable tone is delicious, tinged with parsley and, as it rests, tea and black cherries. It’s a bit stony, and the ashy aroma continues into the taste with milk chocolate and smoke in the finish. If you don’t like tannins, you’ll love this wine, but keep it for a year or two before you crack the bottle.
  • I drank my 2014 Yarden Malbec (14.5 percent alcohol, $32.99) while I munched on olives, cheese and pepperoni – a typical lazy supper for moi – and it held up beautifully. This Israeli wine, produced in the Golan Heights in Galilee, is a real Big Sexy Red – plums and smoke aroma, followed by bacon, blackberries and a bit of dark raisin tastes. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered shortbread stars, but with heat.
  • Whenever I see Zweigelt, I buy it because it’s not that common in the U.S., but I had never tried a Zweigelt rosé. Earlier this year, a friend gave me a bottle of 2015 Josef & Philipp Bründlmayer Grafenegg Rosé vom Zweigelt (12 percent alcohol, $50) and I’m on a mission to find more. Although Zweigelt is a relatively obscure grape in the U.S. it’s actually the most-planted red in Austria. The soft salmon-colored wine is a high-acid gem – “almost fizzy,” my friend said – but creamy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

 

  •  Pinot Noir isn’t always a big-bold red, but the 2013 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir       Carneros (13.5 percent alcohol, $27) is almost chewy, and dark like a California tan. I got an aroma of dark grapes, blackberries and a bit of turkey sausage (and I mean that in a good way). Add black pepper, raspberries, plums, bell peppers and pomegranate on the palate – a well-ordered structure with smoke and mocha on the finish.
  • I discovered Hanson of Sonoma Small Batch Cucumber Flavored Vodka (80 proof, $26) on a trip to Sonoma last spring and when I returned in November, I brought home two bottles. Don’t let the “flavored” deter you; these certified organic artisan distillers infuse their grape-based vodkas with real produce, and you won’t be drinking a cucumber salad – that taste is barely a kiss. It’s only distributed on the West Coast, but I found it online at MissionLiquor.com. Shipping cost for one bottle is exorbitant, but if you buy three or more it gets reasonable.
  •  One of the hottest wine regions these days is Eastern Europe, and 2015 Patricius Tokaj Dry Furmint (12 percent alcohol, $15) is a great example of the quality wines produced there. Tokaj in Hungary is the world’s first designated wine appellation, and Furmint, one of its most abundant white grapes, is used for making both sweet and dry wines. This one is as dry as wine gets – zesty, fresh, with strong minerality and stone fruit flavors, along with a touch of pineapple and banana.

 

 

 

  • I haven’t tasted every rye in the world, but Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof, $49.99) is the best I’ve tried. Developed by Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, it’s one smooth drink. The tastes are a delicious blend of toffee, rye, pecan and cinnamon – and don’t you dare mix it; this is a fine sipping rye. Just make sure it’s labeled “6 Year Old,” because the regular Russell’s Reserve Rye is 104 proof and not nearly as refined-tasting.
  • Casal Thaulero’s 2009 Thalé Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (14 percent alcohol, $40) is that special-occasion bottle you set aside – but just for a short while, because it’s at its peak now. After aromas of red fruit and vanilla, expect a big, bold mouthfeel and tastes of maple, pumpkin spice and dry leaves – perfect for fall and winter drinking.
  • It’s probably not fair for me to include this bottle because a friend bought it in Italy, but Limoncello is my favorite digestivo and always makes a great gift. It’s traditionally made with Sorrento lemons in southern Italy, but I’ve come across some terrific limoncello produced here in the U.S., too. Get recommendations from your liquor merchant; the best limoncello is sweet enough that you know you’re drinking liqueur, but not cloying; and tart but not bitter. Like any fine liquor, it should be smooth and balanced. You can find quality limoncello for less than $40.

Bonus picks – Three choice drinks didn’t make the list: Ferrari Grappa Segnana Solera, omitted only because it’s not distributed in the U.S. (but worth ordering online if you can find it); OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve, distributed only in eight states but also available online; and Maker’s 46, a great option when you want a not-ordinary bourbon to sip by the fire. All three are in my cabinet…So many bottles, so little time!

Next up – uncommon, last-minute wine gifts for any wine lover – or treat yourself!

Cheers,

Mary

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On World Cocktail Day, I’ll Take Mine Neat

Roh-roh–another Friday the 13th is upon us. But this one’s lucky because it’s also World Cocktail Day, when the spirits-lovers the world over celebrate their favorite mixed drinks.

Manhattan

This day marks the anniversary of the first time the word “cocktail” was seen in print, though a rivalry of sorts has developed over who published it first. One school says that historic mention appeared on May 13, 1806, in a publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository. That entry read, “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

But, students of hooch should know, the venerable Oxford Dictionary also claims to have been the first to mention cocktails on that same day, with this definition: “An alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream.”

They might both be wrong. BigSexyReds found two earlier references on another blog (Diffordsguide.com), one in London’s Morning Post and Gazetteer (1798) and another in a US agricultural manual, The Farmer’s Cabinet, in 1803.

The origin of the word itself might have evolved from a description of mixed-breed horses who, unlike thoroughbreds, had tails resembling “cock’s tails.” Since a cocktail is another kind of “mix,” the name stuck. And, spirits-geeks, May 13 also is the day Harry’s Bar in Venice, birthplace of the Bellini cocktail, first opened in 1931.

What isn’t disputed: cocktail-concocting has launched thousands of careers. Mixology is a  more creative endeavor all the time, and some experts credit the recent surge in popularity (and quality) of premium spirits. Bartenders have had to up their game, and we all benefit from their creativity.

My favorite cocktail is the Manhattan. I still get a headache when I remember my first: I was a teenager, my dad had just discovered the fun of mixing drinks, and long story short, I slept through Christmas.

I’ve tempered my cocktail habit since then, but I still love the way bourbon, my favorite spirit, glides over my tongue when it’s blended with the other ingredients. There’s no way to ruin a Manhattan, so go ahead and experiment. Here’s a basic recipe:

Ingredients:   2 oz. bourbon or rye, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, 2 dashes bitters, brandied cherry   garnish.

Combine all ingredients, add ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail or coupe glass and garnish with brandied cherries.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vermouth = created in the Piedmont wine region of northern Italy in the 1700s, vermouth is a red or white fortified wine, infused with about 100 aromatic spices, barks, herbs and flavorings, including ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, rhubarb and chamomile. You can drink vermouth alone or mix it into a cocktail. Red vermouth usually is sweet, while white can be dry or off-dry.

Enjoy your cocktails! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits, just click the “Follow” tab in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and future BigSexyReds.com posts will come to you by email.

Thanks!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of Holly, Flickr.com.]

 

 

Weep No More, My Lady – It’s Derby Day!

Break out your most dazzling, wide-brimmed hats and your top-shelf bourbon! At 5pm Saturday, all eyes will be on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, and millions of TV viewers will drop everything to belt out,”My Old Kentucky Home” in unison.

Kentucky Derby

Hats and high fashion have always been a Derby tradition. Before the first big thoroughbred race in 1875, racetracks were no place for women; they were dirty and raunchy, and Churchill Downs was no exception. But the Kentucky Derby’s founder, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., had a loftier vision: he wanted his race to attract a more affluent, sophisticated crowd. He worked hard to get the upper crust to the track that day, even driving society women door-to-door to tell their friends they were having a picnic at the track and they’d better not miss it!

The Kentucky Derby was an instant hit among the elite – one of the South’s main events of the year and a prime opportunity to show off the latest fashions. In 1901, a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, “The mass of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, all the colors of the rainbow, blending into one harmonious whole was as beautiful a sight as His Eminence in the lead.” (The writer was referring not to the Pope, but to the horse who won the 1901 race.)

Even Derby officials recognize fashion as one of the main features of the event, encouraging “every female to express her inner Southern Belle…”

The other Kentucky Derby tradition we honor, of course, is the venerable Mint Julep. The easy-to-make cocktail was around long before it made its debut at Churchill Downs for  75 cents a pop. Various versions were made with brandy or whiskey throughout the 1700s; some speculate the first Juleps were made with rye or even rum.

Mint Julep

An early reference in 1803 describes the drink as a “dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” It became a Kentucky Derby legend in the late 1930s when a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered a Mint Julep at a pre-race breakfast in Churchill Downs; today the racetrack sells some 80,000 Juleps on Derby weekend. After losing too many of the special silver (or silver-plated) glasses to racing fans who kept them for souvenirs, officials now sell those as well.

You won’t find an easier cocktail: bourbon (or rye), fresh mint, and simple syrup (half sugar, half water, heat until the sugar melts, set aside to cool). That’s it, easy-peasy. Here’s the recipe:

  • Gently muddle a few sprigs of fresh mint in a chilled silver glass or cocktail glass. The key word is gently; the idea is to release the oils from the mint, not massacre it.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of simple syrup.
  • Fill the glass with crushed ice.
  • Add 2 ounces of bourbon or rye.
  • Garnish with more fresh mint and, if you want to fancy it up, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

You can find more complicated recipes, but why would you want to? Like I said earlier, easy-peasy, and enjoy the race!

And since Sunday is Mother’s Day, a special Wine Lingo for my mom, Eva Dakovich Mihaly, who would be 100 years young later this month!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Chablis = Mom’s choice. She spent most of her adult life ordering “whiskey and soda” – and then she and Dad went to Paris and came home wine drinkers. From then on, she drank “Chablis,” which you don’t hear much anymore. The fact is, Chablis is the name of the northernmost wine district in Burgundy – as well as a village inside the Chablis district – where the only grape grown is Chardonnay. Wines produced there are much crisper and more acidic than Chardonnays produced elsewhere; often they’re kept in stainless steel, rather than wood, to preserve their unique edgy character.

Happy Derby Day and Mother’s Day!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Yin (Mint Julep) and Eric Molinsky, CALI Lesson (Derby scene), from Flickr.]

 

What Will Frank and Claire Drink This Weekend?

Stock the liquor cabinet, order some Freddy’s BBQ and put on your best Carolina drawl: it’s time to binge-watch House of Cards, our annual visit with Frank and Claire Underwood. They’re the coldest, most immoral, power-wielding, sexually-all-over-the-place President and First Lady in U.S. history, and I’ve missed them like crazy.

Cuddly they are not – but they do drink with class. Besides, what’s a dead body or two (or three) when the country’s future is at stake? It’s an election year for President Underwood and after a long day of campaigning, he reaches for his favorite 93-proof hooch: Blanton’s Single-Barrel Bourbon.

Whiskey neat

Produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, Blanton’s is a star in the $2.7-billion U.S. wholesale market, thanks in part to President Underwood. (Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the country, but in reality, 95 percent is produced in Kentucky – a state that boasts more barrels of aging bourbon than people.)

Underwood takes his bourbon neat – no mix, no ice to cool it down, not even a twist of lemon. By law, bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, and that’s the taste he likes, with the characteristic Blanton’s undertone of rye. Occasionally, we’ve also seen him sipping Bushmills Irish Whiskey, but bourbon is his first choice.

Put another drink in front of him, though, and of course he’ll accept. We watched him and Claire knocking back shots of $750,000 vodka, a gift from Russian President Viktor Petrov, in Season 3’s third episode. That gold-encased bottle was fake, but it was inspired by the very real Russo Baltique Vodka, which you can add to your cart for a mere 750,000 Euros – about $825,000 U.S.

Claire hasn’t made any drink famous yet. We’ve noticed her (and Frank) sipping Champagne, white wine, red wine – whatever she’s served. Since Viognier is Virginia’s signature grape, she may request it for political reasons, and because it makes a fine wine. This season, we’ll try to notice what’s in her glass when she gets cozy in her cashmere bathrobe.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mash bill = actually liquor lingo, mash bill describes the grain mixture for a distilled beverage. For bourbon, the mash bill would be at least 51 percent corn; the remainder would be rye, wheat or malted barley in any combination.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]