What’s the Difference Between Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz?

So you’re browsing the wine aisle at your favorite store, you have a pretty good handle on what a Cabernet Sauvignon is, and what a Pinot Noir is, but there’s always a group of red wines you’ve never quite gotten a handle on: Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz. What do these wines taste like, what are the differences between the three, are they named after a grape, like Cabernet, or are they a blend, like Meritage?

To start with, Syrah and Shiraz are exactly the same, just different names for the same grape. It’s called Shiraz in Australia, and Syrah in most other parts of the world, though a few California wineries like Coppola buck this trend and call their bottlings Shiraz. Shiraz is also the name of an ancient city in Iran where some of the oldest wine ever discovered was found, and it’s thought that the grape may have originated in this region. Legend has it that the grape was brought to the Rhône valley in France by the ancient Greek Phocaeans, or perhaps by French crusaders, though of course we have no way of knowing for certain, and it could just be a natural French grape with a lot of mystery around its origin.

In France, Syrah is usually blended with grapes like Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault to make wines we call Rhône blends, like Côtes-du-Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whereas in other countries like the United States, Australia, or Spain, Syrah is just as often blended with a variety of other grapes or simply bottled on its own. Syrah wines are typically lighter than a bold Cabernet, but heavier than a Pinot, with a more extracted fruitiness that can be similar to Zinfandel. Depending on the climate and the bottling, Syrah can be a fruit bomb, all blackberry and raspberry, or it can be a peppery, spicy, tannic, and often smoky powerhouse, designed to be cellared for years. Try Syrah as an alternative to either Cabernet or Zinfandel, with rich foods like barbecue that won’t be outdone by the wine’s body.

So what is Petite Sirah, then? It’s not yet another name for Syrah/Shiraz, but is in fact a totally different grape. While Syrah’s origins are shrouded in ancient mystery, we know exactly who is responsible for Petite Sirah, and when; the grape was bred by a Frenchman named Durif in the mid-1800s and was mostly planted in the United States, where it was incorrectly labelled as Syrah for decades. Despite its minuscule-sounding name, Petite Sirah is one of the biggest, boldest grapes available, with massive tannins protecting gobs of blackberry, chocolate, plums, and pepper. Drinkers used to the biggest, boldest California Cabernets will love Petite Sirah, though unlike Cabernet and Syrah, Petite Sirah doesn’t age exceptionally well and should be consumed within a couple years of its vintage. For a food pairing, you’ll want a meal as big and bold as the wine; barbecue beef and pork is still a good choice, and stuffed peppers or heavy cheeses make good pairings with Petite Sirah, as well. One of the major uses of Petite Sirah is as a blending grape, particularly with Zinfandel; a huge number of California Zinfandels contain up to 10 percent Petite Sirah in them.

While Syrah and Shiraz are identical outside of the vineyard where the grape was grown, Syrah and Petite Sirah are quite different, despite both being generally bold, fruit-forward wines. Syrah is very versatile and can be used to make outstanding blends, whereas Petite Sirah is a good choice for a bold Cab lover looking for something new.

What’s the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Even if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the world of spirits, Cognac can come across as opaque. It can be hard to tell where Cognac fits into the broader spectrum of spirits, and that’s even before you’re introduced to Armagnac, Cognac’s lesser-known sister spirit. So what are you actually getting when you buy a bottle of Cognac or Armagnac, and what’s the difference between the two? Read on.

To start with, both Cognac and Armagnac are both varieties of French brandy. To be reductive, brandy is distilled wine (just like whiskey is distilled beer). Though you can also make brandy out of other fruits, “properly” it’s made from grapes, and this is the case for both Cognac and Armagnac.

Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. Cognac is mostly made from three major varietals of grapes that you rarely see in wine: Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard, as well as smaller percentages of a few other grapes like Sémillon. These grapes, if fermented, would make a wine that is extremely acidic and often unpalatable, but when distilled makes for a spirit that is unparalleled in aging and blending potential. Distillation takes place in copper pot stills, which are regulated in size and shape by the French government. Once distilled, Cognac is stored in French oak barrels to age. All Cognacs are blends of various barrels, and each individual Cognac in a blend is referred to as eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’ The age statement on a bottle of Cognac is an indication of how old the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is, and for really exclusive bottles, the other Cognacs in a blend can be over a hundred years old. Cognac doesn’t usually carry direct age statements like a bottle of whiskey, however; Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.

Armagnac is brandy made in the Armagnac region in Gascony, further south than Cognac. Armagnac uses Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, and Colombard grapes like Cognac does, with the addition of Baco blanc, a grape that outside of Armagnac isn’t used for much of anything. Instead of Cognac’s copper pot stills, Armagnac is typically distilled in column stills similar to American bourbons,, Armagnac is only distilled once instead of twice in the case of Cognac. The single distillation and the column still combine to make Armagnac generally a more aromatic and brooding spirit than Cognac, perhaps a better entry into French brandies for someone used to bourbons. Armagnac uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages don’t match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight. Also important for the imbiber more conscious about how much they’re spending on alcohol, as Armagnac isn’t as well-known outside of Europe, old Armagnac tends to be cheaper than similarly-aged Cognac.

So to summarize, Cognac is distilled twice in copper pot stills, and Armagnac is distilled once in column stills, and the grapes used can be a bit different. Ready to go use your new knowledge and pick up a few bottles? Try some of our favorite Cognacs, like Gilles Brisson VSOP or Martell Blue Swift, or Armagnacs like Chateau du Tarquiet or Marquis de Montesquiou!

Do Sulfites in Wine Give You Headaches?

For many wine drinkers, one of the first things they consider when buying wine is whether their bottle contains headache-inducing sulfites. But are sulfites as bad as they are painted out to be? Do they really cause headaches, and if so, how does one avoid them?

The term “sulfite” refers broadly to a group of chemical compounds that contain sulfur in them, the most common being sulfur dioxide, SO2. Sulfites are found everywhere, in nature and in manufacturing; among many, many other things, they develop naturally in the human body, are used in drying fruit, and most importantly for our purpose, are used as a preservative in wine. Sulfites are added to nearly every commercially available wine to protect against oxidation, and to prevent bacteria from forming in the bottle. Sulfites occur naturally in wine during fermentation, but in most wines, additional sulfites are added to safeguard against spoilage. While wines labelled as “sulfite-free” do exist, it’s worth noting that the label is not technically true; a wine can be labelled sulfite-free if it contains less than 10 mg of sulfite per liter, and it would be incredibly difficult to fully remove sulfites from wine, if it’s possible at all.

So sulfites are everywhere in what we consume — does this mean you should just stay home and hide to avoid those uncomfortable allergic reactions? Probably not. While an unlucky few with sulfite allergies certainly exist, the FDA notes that sulfite sensitivity is much rarer than many realize. If wine is giving you headaches, it’s likely not from the sulfites, but instead from the histamines which also naturally occur in wine, which have been shown cause headaches by way of dilation of the carotid artery, which leads to a drop in blood pressure. There are no histamine-free wines, but if you regularly get headaches after having a glass, talk to your doctor, and maybe she could suggest an antihistamine to take before drinking. And of course, wine has alcohol in it, which has a dehydrating effect. Dehydration is a big part of what causes a hangover, which are typified by — of course — bad headaches.

Still not convinced? Though as we’ve noted there’s no such thing as a sulfite-free wine, by buying organically-grown wines you can at least have a bottle with no sulfites added. Be aware that when picking up such a wine, you’ll have to drink it sooner than you would a sulfite-laden Cabernet. Without the preservative effect the sulfites give, a wine will spoil and become undrinkable quickly. And it’s worth noting that, at least in our experience, organic bottles don’t tend to be especially impressive wines.

How to Make a Flawless Manhattan Cocktail

Prohibition-era cocktails are absolutely booming in popularity right now, so it should come as no surprise that curious drinkers are looking for easy-to-craft period-style cocktails to try and learn. The manhattan has a lot going for it to the novice mixologist: it’s delicious, it looks lovely, and it’s very easy to make. If you’ve ever had a manhattan in a bar or a restaurant and want to try your hand at making your own, follow along!

To start, let’s gather our equipment together. A typical manhattan is served in a cocktail glass (same thing as a martini glass), though there are plenty of establishments that serve theirs in a more simple highball or even rocks glass. The stem of the cocktail glass will keep your fingers from warming your drink; this is important because the best manhattan is served ice-cold. Other than the glass you’re going to serve your drink in, you need a mixing glass and a strainer.

In the glass, a manhattan is a mix of bourbon or rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry. This is the real meat of the manhattan experience; with so many different styles of whiskey and vermouth, you can suit the drink to your own taste, or the taste of whoever you’re serving to. Let’s go through each of these in turn.

First up, you have to answer the age-old mixologist question: bourbon or rye? With the popularity of the ‘authentic’ manhattan, there are those who would scoff at anything other than rye whiskey, which was how the drink was made in the 1870s when it was first invented. Bourbon will make your drink sweeter, since the corn used to make bourbon is sweeter than the rye used to make rye whiskey. Considering you’re adding sweet vermouth and a cherry, the addition of a sweeter bourbon like Maker’s Mark might be overkill, but on the other hand if you’re just getting into mixology, you might be looking for a sweeter drink. If you decide to go with bourbon, the vanilla candy of the aforementioned Maker’s is a popular choice, as are the more balanced tastes of Four Roses or Eagle Rare. If you want a more rugged, traditional rye manhattan, Bulleit is a popular, inexpensive choice, and if High West has made a bad whiskey, we haven’t yet tried it. Of course, if you want a truly flawless manhattan, WhistlePig is a pricey but excellent choice: 100% rye, dry and spicy, which will imbue your drink with pepper and subtle cinnamon.

So you have your whiskey, now what about vermouth? Vermouth is Italian wine, fortified and imbued with all manner of bitter herbs and roots, like a cross between a port and an aperitif liqueur. You use dry vermouth in martinis, and sweet vermouth in manhattans (with the exception of variants like the dry manhattan and perfect manhattan, which we won’t delve into in this post). If you’ve already picked up the WhistlePig, do yourself a favor and complement it with a bottle of Carpano Antica vermouth, which is complex, cola- and chocolate-sweet while at the same time herbal and bitter. It’s perfect for a manhattan, and not bad on its own before a meal. Other choices, depending on the whiskey used, could be Punt e Mes, which is darker and richer and bolder than most other sweet vermouths, and the lightly sweet, anise-tinged Maurin Red. And when you’re done with mixing for the night, don’t forget that vermouth is a wine and can spoil, so keep it refrigerated to make it last longer.

What about bitters and a cherry? For bitters, the traditional Angostura bitters work perfectly, just a couple dashes to bring out the bitterness of the whiskey and the vermouth and give your drink a few more layers to contemplate. Woodford Reserve has made a series of bitters designed just for manhattans, as well. Its cherry bitters could be perfect for a bourbon-based cocktail. For a cherry, Luxardo’s claim as one of the innovators of the maraschino cherry is something to consider; if you don’t mind spending a lot on a bottle of cherries they really are delicious. Otherwise, simple Bing cherries aren’t so overwhelmingly sweet as others, and of course Woodford has you covered for specialty cocktail cherries, as well.

So you have all of your ingredients? Then let’s put everything together! The typical manhattan uses a 2:1 ratio for whiskey and vermouth, though your mileage may vary if you want a little more of a kick from the whiskey, or a little more sweetness from the vermouth. In addition to the vermouth and whiskey, add 2 or 3 dashes of bitters, to taste. Before you start mixing, chill your cocktail glass and your mixing glass in the freezer for 15 minutes or so, then put the whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, along with plenty of ice, into the mixing glass. Stir, don’t shake, to mix; like gin, whiskey can bruise easily, which will leave your cocktail muddled and rough. Chilling your glassware should make sure that your drink stays cold without the need to shake. Strain the concoction from the mixing glass to the cocktail glass, garnish with a cherry, and you’re done! It’s a couple of brief minutes of work to create one of the tastiest, easiest cocktails there is.

A Tour of Scotland: Understanding Scotch Whiskies

Even to a whiskey drinker comfortable with bourbons and Irish whiskeys, Scotch can seem like a whole different world. Due to the varied climate of Scotland, from the wind-buffeted western islands to the famous highlands, Scotch can be incredibly different from distillery to distillery. So join us now for a whisky tour of Scotland, where we will see what makes this noble dram so unique.

Perhaps the most recognizable Scotch whiskies come from Speyside, a small but densely-packed region in northeastern Scotland named after the river Spey that runs through it. Despite being a smaller region than its neighbors, Speyside has more distilleries than the others by an order of magnitude; ask your average tippler their favorite Scotch and there’s a good chance you’ll get a Speyside distillery named, and if you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, or countless others, you’ve experienced Speyside. Speyside Scotches are generally light on smokiness, and may be aged or finished (after an initial run in old bourbon casks) in casks that once held wine or other spirits, and these traits give them a sweeter, more easygoing nature that is attractive to a Scotch neophyte. Distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan mostly use sherry wine casks to impart flavors or orange peel, almonds, and cloves, while others like Balvenie use casks that contained the likes of rum, port, and Madeira to give its Scotch different levels of sweetness and spiciness to stand out from the crowd.

Surrounding Speyside are the imposing Highlands, which take up nearly half the island and as a consequence contain the most varied styles of Scotch in the country. Glenmorangie drinks like a Speyside Scotch, especially its trio of casked expressions like the port-casked Quinta Ruban, or the Sauternes-casked Nectar D’Or. On the other hand, Oban is dense and heavy with peat and smoke, and would be a shock to anyone who has only experienced sweeter drams. The famed Scottish moors dominate the landscape, which provide the variance in wind and temperature that effects Highland barley so differently. There is a style for everyone within the Highlands, and even seasoned Scotch connoisseurs will come back to their favorite Highland bottle.

South of the Highlands are, of course, the Lowlands. Like Speyside, Lowland Scotch can be a great place to start with Scotch whisky, because the whiskies that come out of the region are easily approachable. Lowland Scotch would be an especially easy entry into the whiskies of Scotland for those who are ardent fans of Irish whiskey. Like Irish whiskey, Lowland drams like Auchentoshan can be triple-distilled, which gives them that characteristic citrusy fruit taste that anyone who cut their teeth on Green Spot or Redbreast would recognize. Notes of ginger, toffee, and lemon custard are all easy to recognize in a glass of Lowland Scotch, and its light sweetness on the palate makes it easy to like.

The western coast of the country is a long island chain called the Hebrides, and generally the climates of each island are the same: very cold, very windswept, and very barren. These conditions combine to make some of the roughest, brambliest whiskies in the world, of which the island of Islay is a shining example. Deep in the southwest of the Hebrides, Islay dominates the western whisky regions in Scotland, and brings us monstrous drams bathed in the taste of peat, impregnated into the barley from the burning of said peat during grain malting, and sea salt iodine from the cold maritime air around the island. Islay is a style on the rise, and even those who have not tried any Islay whiskies may recognize names like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Ron Swanson’s favorite Lagavulin. Like French wine, Islay Scotch can be imposing and alien to the uninitiated, but also like French wine, getting a handle on the style reveals untold complexities within each glass, as the peat and smoke and salt complement and flatter the barley. Islay Scotch lasts forever on the palate, with each minute revealing to the imbiber a new facet that was initially hidden under that ruggedness.

Islay is the most famous of the Hebrides, but many of the other islands in the chain house distilleries as well. Talisker and Arran are both easy enough to procure, and like Islay Scotch, these islands produce whiskies that are as rough and powerful as the land they are made on, with notes of the briny sea salt characteristic to all of the islands, as well as heather and ash.

And that brings us to the last region in Scotland, Campbeltown. Far to the southwest, near the coast of Ireland, Campbeltown was once known as “The Whisky Capital of the World”, but those days are long gone, and now Campbeltown has within its region only three distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank. Like the Highlands, Campbeltown thrives on variety, and its whiskies are an interesting mingling of the salt and smoke of Islay and the sweet simplicity of the Lowlands; Springbank’s Hazelburn is triple-distilled and fruity, while Longrow from the same distillery is peated and briny.

As you can see, Scotland’s whiskies are as varied and complex as the most daunting European wine regions. This is a topic that could require research to fully grasp, and we hope that we’ve managed to make things more clear to those curious.

Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!