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.


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!



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.


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 (, 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 posts will come to you by email.



[Photo courtesy of Holly,]



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!


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


It’s International Women’s Day–Ladies, What’s In Your Glass?

It sounds like a fabricated holiday designed to sell more greeting cards, doesn’t it? But International Women’s Day (IWD) has been around longer than any of us: in 1909, women from 17 countries came together for the first International Conference of Working Women. After much more evolution and revolution, the United Nations finally, in 1975, established March 8 as International Women’s Day.

It does have a purpose, but first – do these history lessons make anyone else thirsty?

You’ll have to pardon me for setting aside my wineglass this evening. The sun’s shining here in Cleveland, and that means just one thing:


Oh yeah. As soon as I can walk outside without a heavy sweater, my gin and tonic craving sets in. Gin has been quenching thirsts since the 14th century, when the first recipe for “Genever” was recorded in a Dutch encyclopedia. In 1585 it was known as “Dutch courage,” and by the 1700s, “gin tonic” was a common cure.

By law, the dominant flavor in gin must be juniper, but you’ll find other botanicals in the mix: coriander, angelica, quinine (a bitter medicinal from the bark of the chinchona tree), cardamom, cassia bark (you know it as cinnamon) and orris root, the dried root of the iris.

This cocktail was started in India by the British army. Quinine had been used for years to help prevent and treat malaria – a big problem in the tropics. Soldiers were given a periodic gin allowance, so they added it to their quinine, along with sugar, water and lime. (Today’s commercially produced tonic water uses less of the nasty-tasting quinine.)


So why limes? Presumably because they were cheap and plentiful. If you order a gin and tonic in the U.K., though, it’s likely to be garnished with a lemon wedge rather than lime, which I think tastes awful. A “g & t” made with Hendrick’s Gin usually is garnished with a slice of cucumber.

Popular culture loves a gin and tonic. James Bond’s recipe in the book Dr. No called for the juice of an entire lime for each drink. Billy Joel sings about “Piano Man,” “making love to his tonic and gin.”

The best bartenders use a “balloon glass,” shaped like a little bowl, because it concentrates the gin’s fragrant aromas at the opening of the glass – just like a good wineglass. I use rocks glasses, but I may invest in some balloons.

The recipe for my best g & t? Start with four ice cubes in the glass, and smoosh a thick wedge of lime around the rim (though I was told by my nephew last week that he doesn’t like pulp on his lips – picky, picky). Squeeze the juice from the wedge into the glass, then drop the wedge in. Add about an inch of gin (oh, don’t be such a prude – the glass has those big ice cubes in it!), then fill it to the top with tonic.

I like New Amsterdam gin – it has a great taste and it’s half the cost of the gins most people order. And I buy diet tonic (zero calories compared to about 90 for a serving of regular tonic). It has a bit more sodium than regular, but it’s a small tradeoff.

Before I forget, the purpose of International Women’s Day: to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and, these days, it’s also a call for gender parity.

I’ll drink to that.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Sloe Gin = not a real gin because it’s not made with juniper as the dominant flavor; sloe gin is made from “sloe berries,” a relative of the plum. But there is a liqueur called Pacharán made with sloe and juniper in the Basque region of Spain.



[Photos courtesy of Fred Wenzel and Spencer E. Holtaway, Creative Commons]

Wine & Tequila? On Margarita Day, Si!

Not crazy about tequila, you say? That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate National Margarita Day with the rest of the Jose Cuervo crowd.


This scrumptious drink is called The Devil’s Margarita – A Margarita Recipe topped w/ Wine. If your taste runs more to vino than fermented agave juice, this easy cocktail – a classic lime margarita layered with red wine – gives even wine lovers a way to party like Louis C.K. (Bet you didn’t know he was Mexican!)

(I used an earthy, slightly dark cherry-tasting Tempranillo as my red. The grape thrives in the Guadalupe Valley of Mexico’s Baja. Aha.)

I’m not the first to flavor tequila drinks, of course. Any mixologist will make you a peach margarita, or mango, strawberry, banana, or orange. You can find plenty of wine-based margaritas online, too, most made with white wine, some adding or substituting orange liqueur for the tequila, and almost all served in a salt-rimmed glass (which I decided to omit, having learned long ago that salt and red wine don’t make the greatest pairing, even with tequila in the glass).

Speaking of glasses, the traditional margarita glass is shaped like an upside-down sombrero – apropos, right? But you’ll also find bartenders serving them in martini glasses, Champagne coupes (the old-fashioned shallow glasses) or batched and sold by the pitcher. You can order them slushy-frozen, shaken (but make sure the bartender sings “La Cucaracha” while he shakes) or straight up. I found one recipe for a “wine-arita” that called for freezing red wine in ice cube trays and plunking them into a traditional margarita. I think you could get away with a regular rocks glass for that one.

If you research the margarita’s beginnings, you’re likely to find more versions of its history than variations of the drink itself. One story had it invented in 1941 in Ensenada, Mexico by a bartender who was experimenting with drinks; a woman named Margarita Henkel, daughter of a German ambassador, was the first to taste his tequila drink so he named it after her.

Another source claims the drink was created in Galveston, Texas for the late torch singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee, and still another says it was invented for a Ziegfield dancer who was allergic to most other booze.

There are more. The most accepted history: a Tijuana bartender in the 1930s decided one night to mix tequila in his drinks instead of the brandy he’d been using, and customers loved it. His drink had been called “The Daisy,” and “daisy” in Spanish is “margarita.”

The Devil’s Margarita, thanks to our friends at Yummly:

Mix 1-1/2 oz. white tequila, 3/4 oz. lime juice and 3/4 oz. simple syrup (made of equal parts white sugar and water) in a shaker filled with ice, then pour the mixture into a frosted martini glass. Slowly pour red wine into the glass, cascading it over the back of a spoon.

Click here for another photo and recipe. And don’t forget to like, share, comment and click on the “Follow” tab at the bottom right corner of your screen to get BigSexyReds  by email. Thanks!

Wine Lingo of the Day: demi-sec = translated from French, it means “half-dry,” describing wines that are just slightly sweet.