Are You a Seasonal Drinker?

Until April, you’ll find me burrowed under blankets with my winter tonic in hand. That could mean a Big Sexy Red – preferably at least 14 percent alcohol – but more often I reach for a more bracing drink: bourbon, rye, a nice sipping rum, brandy or grappa. Something distilled, please.

Me.rye.medium

Scientists say I’m not alone, but they don’t agree on the reason we change drinks with the seasons. Some claim seasonal drinking is triggered by changes in temperature and precipitation, others believe it’s a social curiosity.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report an early-winter pattern of over-indulging during the holiday season, then a pause when we make our New Year’s resolutions to cut back on the booze. They even have a name for it: the “January effect.” (The spirits industry probably doesn’t mind; they earn more than 25 percent of their profits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.)

Another study found people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) sometimes drink more in winter as treatment for their sunshine deficiency, resulting in an alcohol-induced depression. One more possibility: there could be a genetic link between drinking and seasonality.

But you can’t broad-brush these findings. For instance, college students’ breath alcohol levels are reportedly higher in spring and winter – so why do they drink less in the fall, when you’d expect they would be kicking up their heels?

Apparently, location matters, too, but results still are puzzling. A study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation found that Swiss men drink more and cause more alcohol-related accidents on summer weekdays, but not on weekends. In Australia, drinkers cut back on beer in winter and drink more red and fortified wines. In fact, their red wine sales spike more than 33 percent between July and September when it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. I would expect a small increase in red-wine sales, but 33 percent?

If your “January effect” is about spirits, this also is flu season, and fans of the hard stuff know that one of the most soothing remedies is a simple hot toddy. Just steep two tea bags in a cup and a half of boiling water (about 5 minutes), then add lemon and honey. Pour two ounces of bourbon in a mug and pour the tea over it. You’ll feel better, just a little, in an hour.

Wine Lingo:  Solera system (used in producing the rums reviewed, below) = a fractional blending process that involves stacking casks of wine or spirits with the youngest at the top. Periodically, some of the newest wine is poured into the row of casks below it, while some of the wine from that cask is transferred to the next row down, and so on. Only wine from the oldest/bottom batch is bottled, and fresh wine replenishes the wine in the top batch so every bottle is a blend of old and new. The solera system traditionally is used in producing sherry and Madeira, but often with other wines and spirits as well.

Papa Pilar rum small

Vino ‘View:  If I didn’t tell you that Papa’s Pilar (86 proof; Dark $39.99, Blonde $29.99) was rum, you’d think you were sipping quality brandy. Sourced from various locations across the Caribbean and Central America, these rums are solera-blended and aged in sherry and Port casks. The dark version is full and smooth, tasting of plums, pecans, unsweetened chocolate and allspice, with a bit of dry sherry on the finish. The blonde is a tropical surprise; grapefruit competes with orange peel, cantaloupe mixes with lemon bar, and it’s another super-smooth number. I wouldn’t mix these rums even with a splash of water; the alcohol level isn’t so high that you’d need to dilute them. Add an ice cube and relish the refined taste.

[Papa’s Pilar Rums were sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

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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

Grappa – Your New (Very Old) Brandy

When I started learning about wine and spirits, I was told grappa was more or less the garbage of the liquor world. There is a sliver of truth in that bias; after all, it’s distilled from pomace – seeds, stalks, skins and pulp, the parts of the grape most winemakers throw away.

But there the similarity ends. I tasted some fine grappa last week as part of the American delegation touring wineries in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. (I won’t rub it in too much about the Italy thing,  but I’ll share more about it in the coming weeks.)  For my money, discovering grappa was a highlight of the trip.

IMG_0541[Jamie Stewart, brand manager of Cantine Ferrari Trento, with a few of the winery’s 19th-century gadgets.]

Typically a digestivo, or after-dinner drink (because it’s believed to be good for digestion), grappa is today’s spirits trend, made by more than 100 producers and selling about 40 million bottles a year, though it’s been produced since the Middle Ages. Back then it was an easy, cheap way for farmers and vineyard workers to warm up.

Some classify grappa as an eau-de-vie – and in France, brandy distilled from grape pomace is called eau-de-vie de marc (pronounced “mar”). Other sources say eau-de-vie refers to brandy made from raw materials other than grapes.

Some producers distill their grappa in pot stills or column stills, but others use steam distillation, believing a direct flame could burn the pomace. The drink can be produced from one grape variety or a blend; single-variety grappa (at least 85 percent one variety) is sometimes called monovitigno. And it comes with requirements: fermentation and distillation must happen on the pomace with no added water. The stems in pomace can create small quantities of toxic methanol that must be removed, so Italian law prohibits grappa from being produced in a winery – distillation must take place in a separate facility. And in the EU (European Union), it can only be labeled “grappa” if it’s produced in Italy or San Marino, a tiny republic surrounded by the mountains of north-central Italy. But craft distillers in the US, who aren’t restricted by those labeling laws, are starting to produce some fine artisanal pomace brandies and labeling them as grappa.

The grappa I sampled, reviewed below, was produced by the Ferrari group (no relation to the car, though their wines are just as elegant) in Trentodoc, the cartel of sparkling wine producers in Trentino. You’ll notice it’s caramel-colored. When grappa is stored in glass or other “inactive” materials before bottling, it’s a clear spirit like vodka. Aging it in wooden casks gives it color; if it’s called Vecchia or Invecchiata it was aged for at least 12 months in wood. Grappa labeled Riserva or Stravecchia aged in wood for at least 18 months. My grappa underwent a fractional aging/blending process called a solera system.

Sip your grappa slowly, from a small glass – it can be potent stuff. And look at the alcohol content on the label before you buy; mine is a smooth 84 proof but you can find it lighter – or as raw as throat-scarring 120 proof.

IMG_0543Vino ‘View:  Grappa Segnana Solera Selezione (42 percent alc., about $40 US) After I was treated to a taste of this sublime spirit I couldn’t pull out my wallet fast enough; I had to take a bottle home. Made of 60 percent Pinot Nero and 40 percent Chardonnay, it blends five vintages in a solera process: some brandy from the oldest French oak barrels is bottled, then brandy from each vintage’s barrels tops off the next oldest, and the progressive blending continues each year. The barrels impart a roasted, vanilla, smoky flavor mixed with dark fruit and a long, fruity finish. Don’t look for Grappa Segnana on store shelves in the US; you’ll have to order it online. Google for the best price.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Caffé Coretto (“corrected coffee”) = What you’ll drink if you add a shot of grappa to espresso. Or make it Resentin (“little rinser”) – drink your espresso first, then down a shot of grappa from the same cup.

Ciao!

Mary

In Praise of Cheap Blackberry Brandy

My last few weeks were spent on the couch, nursing bronchitis, doing as little as possible and coughing a lot. There’s not much you can do to comfort a sick person – sometimes an illness just has to run its course – but I did find some soothing relief in a drink I remembered from my childhood: blackberry brandy.

We’re not talking Cognac or Armagnac here. Leave the Hennessy for a better day. When your chest is congested and you’re on your fifth box of tissues, reach for the bottom-shelf stuff. It’s the only kind that works.

Brandy

The word “brandy” is a modern version of the Dutch word, “brandewijin,” or “burnt wine.” Dutch traders in the 16th century distilled their wine to help preserve it while it was shipped to Holland. Shipments also were taxed according to volume, and without the water their shipments were smaller. They intended to add water back into the higher-alcohol liquid on arrival, but once their customers sampled the distilled version, more potent and tastier after being stored in wooden casks, they liked it more than the original wine.

My mom used to pour me a little blackberry brandy when I had a bad cold. She said it would make me feel better – and as it turns out, Mom knew what she was talking about. Brandy, blackberry in particular, has healing qualities that have since been documented, I kid you not. A few things medical researchers have learned:

  • Blackberry brandy is packed with antioxidants, especially vitamin C, which helps protect against damage by free radicals. (For that reason, some advocates say it also helps prevent the spread of cancer, but I think that might be stretching it.)
  • In moderate amounts, blackberry brandy boosts heart health and your immune system.
  • Again in moderate amounts, blackberry brandy helps you to relax. Duh.
  • Blackberry brandy can help with sleep issues. That’s why it’s often served after dinner; in olden days people believed it helped them prepare for sleep.
  • A 2009 study in the journal Food Chemistry showed that the longer blackberry brandy ages, the higher its antioxidant levels.
  • The brandy’s antioxidants have anti-aging qualities.
  • Blackberry brandy contains selenium, a cancer-fighting mineral.
  • Finally, the quality most useful to me this summer: blackberry brandy aids with respiratory issues; it helps to loosen phlegm and mucus. To me, it just feels better than other spirits for a chest cold.

It doesn’t take much before you can feel its healing effects. I usually poured a 1- or 2-ounce shot and sipped on it for an hour or two. And if you’re not sick but want to relax with a drink of brandy, serve it in a stemmed “tulip glass” or “balloon glass,” made of the finest crystal you can afford. Don’t swirl brandy in the glass; that mixes and dissipates its subtle aromas. I like my brandy neat, with no ice or mixer, but if you feel like experimenting, you can find plenty of brandy cocktail recipes online.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Brandy = distilled wine or fruit juice. When wine is distilled, in simple terms, the water in the liquid evaporates. Without the water, the more condensed liquid has a much higher alcohol level than the original wine. The Paramount brandy in the photo above is 37.5% alcohol, or 75 proof – almost as high-proof as many whiskies.

Vino ‘Views:  Once I started feeling better, my taste for wine returned (thank goodness!). Since it’s been such a hot summer, I opened what I thought would be a crisp white: 2015 Tariquet Classic (10.5% alcohol, $9.99).

Tariquet small

With its low alcohol level, this Gascony creation is a great summer-evening wine – but we were surprised it’s so young, because it tastes much more “together” than that. It’s a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon and Gros Manseng – dry as August and fruity as the tropics. The first taste in my mouth was bananas, then some melon came through, and finally soft citrus. We drank it with fried chicken and coleslaw – a wonderful value and delicious!

Sip in good health!

Mary

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.]