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

Advertisements

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

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]