Review: 2014 Grgich Hills Chardonnay Napa Valley

40 years ago, Grgich Hills released its first chardonnay, a wine that has since become an icon of Napa Valley. Now, in honor of her father, current co-owner Violet Grgich has released the 40th anniversary bottling of Grgich Hills’ Chardonnay, which the winery describes as a “limited-production wine recalls an earlier style of Chardonnay, with crispness, rich body, and refined elegance.”

Well, no surprises here: Oak and vanilla hit right from the start — and they don’t much let go after that. Secondary notes run from baked pear to lemon to butter cookies to some lightly grassy notes, and a light lick of acidity gives the finish some brightness. That said, make no mistake — you’re sipping Napa chardonnay, sourced straight from the heartland.

B+ / $53 / grgich.com

Review: Martell VS Single Distillery Cognac

Ready for something new in the world of Cognac? Check out this new idea from the House of Martell. Allow them to explain:

The iconic House of Martell unveils Martell VS Single Distillery, a cognac from a sole distillation source, offering an exclusive new profile to the Martell family of expressions.  This innovative blend unites eaux-de-vie from a single distillery, drawing the same sensorial profile and flavor characteristics for a richer expression of the Martell style. The eaux-de-vie come together in perfect harmony, resulting in an even smoother cognac with an elegant, fruitier profile.

So, in a nutshell, it brings the single malt whisky idea to France, with all the brandy in the bottle coming from a single distillery.

I feel like this experiment would be more intriguing if the brandy was allowed to age a bit more. The nose initially shows the hallmarks of youthful brandy — too much alcohol, some granary character, a little too much wood. The palate finds things softening up, with ample fruit — apple and some citrus — showing itself, along with some traditional raisin and gingerbread notes. That said, it still feels rustic, its various flavors never coming together quite perfectly.

That said, there’s still a lot to like here, and as it opens up with air time, its charms start to deepen, revealing some interesting pineapple and gingerbread notes — but only after awhile. It’s a brandy that merits taking the time required to show itself more clearly, though it never approaches the complexity you’ll find in an older Cognac.

Impatient? Give it a try in a brandy julep.

B+ / $32 / martell.com

Cupping Coffee with Intelligentsia

Intelligencia Coffee
There is no scent warmer and more inviting than that of coffee beans roasting. The moment we stepped through Intelligentsia’s front door, all traffic woes were forgotten in favor of a good mood. We knew the afternoon would only get better. We walked past huge bags of newly roasted coffee beans and paused a moment before an enormous roasting machine with its large paddles for stirring the beans as they roast.

Large roaster machineHave you ever experienced cupping coffee? During our visit to Intelligentsia Coffee’s San Francisco facility, we learned how to perform this delightful ritual used by coffee roasters to determine the quality of their newly roasted coffee beans. There are elements each bean is rated upon with regards to types of aromas and initial flavor profiles. We discovered that each roaster has their own proprietary checklist they work from.

Cupping coffee — a tasting system that involves a significant amount of protocol — isn’t quick and there’s a specific way to sip the coffee from the spoon. Loud slurp noises are acceptable! However, it is worth the time because fine beverages meant to be savored — including coffee.

For cupping, the first thing you do is lean over the cup to take in the aromas. You can use your hand to wave the scents toward your face. Aromas range from floral to leguminous; the goal is to identify additional scents, such as botanicals, floral, or citrus.

Next you sip the coffee and determine the following factors:

  • Taste – There are sixteen types of taste descriptors, ranging from acrid to delicate; then from soft to creosol. Elements like saltiness and bitterness levels are notated on a checklist.
  • Sweetness – How prevalent or how missing sweet notes are present in the brew. The type of sweetness can vary as well; honey-like or sugary or syrupy if overdone.
  • Acidity – Varying types of acidity can enhance a coffee’s flavor or add to bitterness. Acidity ranges from lactic to acerbic with the harshest being kerosene like.
  • Complexity – Complexity involves the balance of the flavors present in a cup and whether elements in the flavor profile complement one another or compete, creating odd or negative tastes.
  • Aftertaste – This is typically used to describe negative tastes at the end of a beverage. While it is often a sign of something wrong with the bean or during the roasting, it can be a pleasant association as well.

A Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel put out by the Specialty Coffee Association shows all the common elements to look for.

Our host, Mark Cunningham explained how any coffee is at its finest during the cupping and that it will never be better than at that moment. He told us that a good coffee will still taste good after it’s gone cold, but lesser quality coffees get bitter and harsh.

Our cupping completed, we came back to our coffee after touring the roasting floor to discover the truth in his statement. The cups of varying roasts tasted just as amazing as when we first sipped from the spoon. The big chain coffees’ burnt-tasting dark roasts are no longer palpable. Strong doesn’t need to be bitter or charred; in fact, it is much better when it isn’t.

Cupping RitualIntelligentsia also offers a variety of artisan teas called tisanes. We sampled two of them at the cupping. Both were wonderful blends of tea, spices, and botanicals such as cardamom, rose hips, and turmeric. They are expanding in the tea area by continuing to produce new blends.

Just how does Intelligentsia obtain their high quality coffees? By working with small, family owned coffee bean farmers around the world. Their buyers are very hands-on in their search for the best beans to purchase, taking the time necessary to visit the farms and sample the raw product. With the climate and soil compositions determining the flavors of the coffee after roasting, this is an important step. It makes sense when you realize that beans mature at different times of the year, depending upon where in the world the plants are growing. One thing Intelligentsia insists on are beans properly matured on the plant before harvesting. We liken that to the taste difference between garden grown tomatoes and those picked early and expected to ripen on the way to the grocery store. Most fruits and vegetables stop ripening once harvested so their flavors aren’t robust as those garden grown. Coffee beans wouldn’t be any different.

Just recently opened to the public (previously their clients were bars and restaurants), Intelligentsia has red coffee trucks which make appearances around town in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Follow them on Twitter to find out where you can catch them. They also recently opened a monthly coffee subscription service. Additionally, Intelligentsia offers classes on brewing for barista training.

In closing, we learned that Two Sisters Bar and Books in San Francisco created a couple of cocktails featuring Intelligentsia coffee. They were kind enough to share those recipes with us. We made them with the Intelligentsia coffees and found them both to be amazing cocktails. Give them a try and let us know what you think.

The Bluegrass BuzzThe Bluegrass Buzz
created by Mikha Diaz for Two Sisters Bar and Books
3 oz. Intelligensia Cold Brew from cold brew concentrate (diluted at a 6:1 ratio)
1 1/2 oz. Old Forester 86 bourbon
1/2 oz. brown sugar simple syrup (equal parts brown sugar, gently packed, and boiling water; stir to combine)
lightly whipped heavy cream

Combine cold brew, bourbon and brown sugar simple syrup in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with 2-3 tablespoons of lightly whipped cream.

The Sharp Shooter
created by Kathryn Kulczyk for Two Sisters Bar and Books
1 1/2 oz. Cold Brew Cognac (4 oz. El Diablo blend, ground for cone drip filter, infused into 750 ml. Maison Rouge 100 proof cognac)
3/4 oz. Ancho Reyes liqueur
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica vermouth
3 hard dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters

Combine cognac, liqueur, and vermouth in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with three whole coffee beans.

intelligentsiacoffee.com

Memorial Day Cocktails, 2017

Spiked Cherry Lemonade Slushies
If you’re like us, this long Memorial Day holiday weekend is much anticipated. We want to kick off this holiday of remembrance and thankfulness with a set of cocktails to serve your veterans and those who honor them. What are cocktails without food to serve alongside? We’re sharing a chicken and chorizo dish you can cook indoors or out. Now, on with the drinks!

Playa Fortuna
created by Ryan Wainwright
1 1/2 parts Bacardi Superior
3/4 part lime juice
3/4 part coconut cordial (equal parts of coconut water and sugar)
1/4 part Falernum
4 drops tartaric acid (1 part cream of tartar and 5 parts water)
edible flower for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into a Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with an edible flower and serve.

Rose Basil MartiniRose Basil Seed Martini
The original Strawberry Basil Martini recipe came from foodandwine.com. However, we discovered a rose basil seed drink at a convenience store which also sells Indian food items and decided to give it a shot. The drink is sweetened so the simple syrup is intentionally omitted.
3 strawberries plus one slice to use as a garnish
3 fresh basil leaves
1 oz. gin (We used Brockman’s)
1 oz. vodka
2 oz. Rose Basil Seed beverage (you can add more if you want a stronger rose taste)
½ oz. fresh lemon juice

Put the strawberries and basil leaves in a cocktail shaker and muddle them. Add ice, gin, vodka, and lemon juice; then shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Top with the Rose Basil beverage, garnish with the strawberry slice, and serve.

Spiked Cherry Lemonade Slushies
2 oz. Blue Ice Vodka
1 tsp. Crystal Light Lemonade mix
1/2 tsp cherry syrup
3/4 cups water
1 cup ice
maraschino cherries

Add all ingredients , except the cherries, into a blender and blend until the drink has a smooth and slushy texture. Pour into 2 glasses. Garnish with maraschino cherries.

Auchentoshan Berry White
1 1/2 parts Auchentoshan American Oak Single Malt Scotch Whisky
1/4 part fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 parts Shrub & Co. Strawberry w/ Meyer Lemon Shrub
3 1.2 parts Belgian witbier (wheat beer)
4 dashes rhubarb bitters

Build the drink in tall glass with ice. Then fill the remaining space with Belgian wheat beer. Garnish with a lemon peel before serving.

Laphroaig Back Yard CollinsLaphroaig® Back Yard Collins
recipe by Ivy Mix, NYC
1 1/2 parts Laphroaig Select
3/4 part Cherry Heering Liqueur
3/4 part lemon juice
1/2 part orange juice
1/2 part vanilla syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 vanilla bean split open; boil together and cool before using)
1 dash Angostura Bitters
light lager beer
lemon wheel (for garnish)

Combine all ingredients except the lager in a cocktail shaker; shake and strain into a Collins glass with fresh ice. Next, top with the beer and garnish with a lemon wheel.

Banana Beach
created by mixologist, Jane Danger
3 oz. Baileys Almande
2 oz. coconut puree
1/2 oz. agave syrup
1 1/2 ripe bananas
banana slices and grated nutmeg for garnish

Combine Baileys Almande, coconut puree, agave syrup, bananas, and ice into a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour the contents into a tall glass. Garnish with banana slices and freshly grated nutmeg.

Svedka's Imperial BlueSvedka’s Imperial Blue
1 1/2 parts Svedka Blue Raspberry Vodka
1 1/2 parts black tea
3/4 part fresh lime juice
3/4 part simple syrup
1 part sparkling wine
3 raspberries

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the raspberries. Then combine with the remaining ingredients, except for the sparkling wine. Shake and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Top with sparkling wine and stir. Garnish with raspberries and loose black tea.

Modelo Summer Crusher
cocktail by Betsy Maher and Austin Hartman, New York
12 oz. Modelo Especial
1 1/2 oz. strawberry chipotle syrup (recipe below)
1 oz. blanco tequila
3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
Modelo Summer Crushersalt
ground chipotle
1 strawberry for garnish

Rim a mason jar with salt and ground chipotle pepper mixture about half an inch down the jar. Fill the jar to the top with crushed ice. Combine tequila, strawberry chipotle syrup, and fresh lime juice into a shaker with ice. Shake 18-20 times. Strain over the crushed ice and top with Modelo Especial. Garnish with a strawberry.

To make Strawberry Chipotle Syrup
12-15 medium to large strawberries
3 cups of water
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground chipotle

Boil the water and add ground chipotle. Blend strawberries in a blender. Lower the water temperature and add the strawberry mixture. Let simmer for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn off heat, add sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Let cool before using.

Cool Mule
1.5 parts Three Olives Cucumber Lime Vodka
.75 parts lime juice
.75 parts simple syrup
3 cucumber slices
10 mint sprigs
ginger beer

In a mule mug, muddle cucumber and mint. Add the remaining ingredients to a shaker and shake well. Pour into the mug and top with ginger beer. Use a cucumber slice or lime wheel to garnish. Serve!

Sweet and Smoky
We took a typical mezcal cocktail and changed it up.
3 oz. mezcal
1/2 oz. agave nectar
3 dashes Orleans bitters
2 maraschino cherries plus 1 Tbsp. syrup from the jar.
ginger ale

Place the two cherries inside a rocks glass. Then combine all remaining ingredients except the ginger ale in a shaker glass with ice. Shake well to thoroughly mix in the agave nectar. Strain into the glass and top with ginger ale. Note: if this is too sweet for your tastes, add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice.

Many of us fire up the grill for the first time of the year on Memorial Day weekend. Use an iron skillet with a lid or an iron Dutch Oven to roast this chicken dish on the grill. If your grill has three burners, light the outer two and place the skillet on the unlit center portion. Then you can sit back and enjoy your cocktails while it cooks.

Basque Roast ChickenBasque Roast Chicken
original recipe courtesy of Canadian Living.com; of course we put our own spin on it.
3 sweet red peppers, halved and cored
1 sweet onion, thickly sliced
1 28 oz. can of stewed tomatoes, drained (use whole tomatoes if you like your meal chunky)
5 oz. cured chorizo sausages, cut in chunks (We had problems finding chorizo in sausage form so used what was available. It worked but the chorizo blended in with the tomato sauce more than it should have; the taste certainly didn’t suffer.)
10 cloves garlic
¼ cup mezcal
8 small chicken breast pieces (half-breasts, thighs or drumsticks)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3/4 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

On the grill, roast the red peppers, cut side down, until blackened. Let cool enough to handle. Peel off blackened skins and slice into strips. Then put the peppers, onion, tomatoes, chorizo, garlic, and mezcal into the skillet.

Toss chicken with oil to coat. Combine thyme, salt, sweet and smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper; rub all over chicken. Place on top of the vegetable mixture in the pan.

Cover with the lid and roast for about 45 minutes. If you prefer to cook this in an oven, then bake for the same amount of time at 450°F. Serve with flour tortillas.

Review: Black Cow Vodka

Black Cow Vodka is made in England, where the company says it produces “the world’s only Pure Milk Vodka made entirely from the milk of grass-grazed cows and nothing else.” I’m not sure how Vermont White and VDKA 6100 fit in with that claim — as they are both also from milk products — but let’s not get too hung up on firsts.

Looking at specifics, here’s how Black Cow is produced: “The milk is separated into curds and whey. The curds are used to make cheese, the whey is fermented into a beer using a special yeast that converts the milk sugar into alcohol. This milk beer is then distilled and treated to our secret blending process. The vodka is then triple filtered and finished, before being hand bottled. Black Cow is made from the same milk that is used to make dairy farmer Jason Barber’s 1833 cheddar, and our own Black Cow Deluxe Cheddar.”

Well, what then of the spirit?

The nose is earthy, and slightly pungent with notes of dried savory herbs, hay, and — perhaps it’s just my imagination — some sour milk character. The palate follows alongside this, but give it time and things open up with a healthy amount of air. On the tongue, an initially muddy palate eventually finds notes of cinnamon, lemon peel, and chocolate, atop a relatively creamy body. The finish isn’t anything out of the ordinary, though it’s got a hefty amount of bite and some vegetal character that’s hard to shake.

80 proof.

B / $40 / blackcow.co.uk

Review: Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished

Crown Royal continues its limited edition, called the Noble Collection, which started with the Cornerstone Blend last year, with this second release, Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished.

What we have here is classic Crown Royal that is finished in cabernet sauvignon wine barrels sourced from Paso Robles (winery unstated). No other production data (including the length of time in the finishing barrel) is provided.

There’s something immediately off on the nose — notes of gunpowder, black pepper, and overripe fruit weighing heavily on the caramel and vanilla core. There’s a ton of stuff going on on the nose — lemon peel, thyme, tobacco leaf, and menthol… more elements than you’d expect, and we’re just talking about the aromas.

The palate is just as confusing, a somewhat muddy body offering notes of dark chocolate and oily walnut, with a heavy grain underpinning. A bold furniture polish note — astringent and pungent — dominates the second act, while the finish evokes something more akin to well-aged sherry more than cabernet. The conclusion is simplistic, a bit fruity, a bit grain-heavy, and directionally confused.

Crown Royal’s special releases have long been hit and miss, but this one is a tougher sell than most.

81 proof.

C+ / $50 / crownroyal.com

Review: 2015 Mia Bea Chardonnay and Petite Sirah

Barra Family Vineyards is a small, family-owned vineyard in Mendocino County. In 2014, the vineyard owners decided to use some of the harvest to make their own wine, a chardonnay. This year, they’ve expanded and are now offering their first red, a petite sirah.

We tasted both wines from the newly released 2015 vintage. Thoughts follow.

2015 Mia Bea Mendocino Chardonnay – Buttery and thick with vanilla, but dialed back enough to let a bit of spice and some herbal notes push through. A slightly syrupy body gives it a very lengthy finish, which works against it a bit, letting some lingering bitter notes creep up in the end. B / $22

2015 Mia Bea Mendocino Petite Sirah – While densely purple, this wine drinks with more delicacy than expected from a petite sirah, giving its dense raspberry and blackberry notes at the core a slightly floral touch. The finish is a touch earthy, with some licorice notes on top and a smattering of fresh thyme. A- / $28

miabeawines.com

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