Tuesday, December 28, 2010

W.H. Harrison Indiana Bourbon

Disclaimer: Any tasting notes may be a bit off as my taste buds have been thrown out of whack due to strong antibiotics.  I feel I am on the mend enough to comment on taste again.  That said I'd estimate that I'm operating at around 85% palate capacity.

I am writing this post on Christmas vacation in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Being that my in laws live here, I am usually here a couple times a year.  Indy's not a bad town.  It's a city designed for cars, so no parking and traffic problems like we face in Philly.  Indy's size makes it manageable and it has some cool stuff to see and do.  I don't think the food scene can quite match Philly, but I have to say my sister-in-law and her boyfriend have taken us to some very cool places.  One place, MacNivens, offers a fantastic scotch list at prices that would drop some jaws in Philly.   Property values are about the cheapest in the country, too.  Of course I'm always trying out Midwestern beers while I'm out here, as many of them are local and not available on the East Coast.  As a side note, I've noticed that the heavy hitting craft brewers on the shelves in New Jersey are the usual suspects out here, too; New Belgium, Founders, Bells, etc.  There is not a lot of PA representation on the beer shelves; usually an offer or two from Victory and that's about it.  Anyway, the Indiana/Illinois brewers put out some good stuff, as does my sister-in-law's boyfriend, who homebrews (here is a post of us brewing together http://urbangrain.blogspot.com/2010/09/brewing-beer.html).  He usually guides me on which local brewers are good and which are not so good.  Maybe sometime I'll do a rundown of Midwestern beer, but this post is about bourbon.

William Henry Harrison was an Indiana governor and U.S. president.   A bunch of stuff out here is named after him, including a former military base that is now offices and condos.  Now he has a bourbon named after him.  According to the bottle, this bourbon is made from Indiana corn and aged in handmade oak barrels "harvested in and around Indiana."  It has an age statement of "less than 4 years."

Folks who appreciate the raw spirit of moonshine might appreciate this bourbon, but for me it's underaged.  Especially at 35 bucks.  It has a ton of corn on the nose, and it's quite pale in color.  It goes down fairly smooth, again with a lot of corn sweetness.  But it has little of the wood character for which bourbon is known.  No cinnamon, no vanilla, no caramel, no spice.  The guy at the store said the Governer's Reserve version has more caramel due to it being barrel proof but I wasn't ready to lay down $55. 

As much as the craft beer scene has elevated our beer palates in America, the craft distilling scene is a bit of a different animal, especially when it comes to spirits that require aging.  I have been burned a few times on "craft" whiskies.  For example, I like the idea of Rogue Dead Guy Whisky, which uses the wort from their Dead Guy Ale and then ages it in barrels by the seaside.  But here again, the whisky is just too young.  Stranahan's Colorado Whisky actually has quite a good reputation but I didn't care for it; too fruity for my taste.  I have heard that Anchor makes some fantastic old style ryes but haven't tried one yet.  And of course there are others out there, e.g. I just bought my father-in-law an Oregon whisky that looks pretty good (McCarthys gets their malted barley from Scotland, then the Widmer Bros. Brewing Co. turns it into a wash for them which they distill, then they age it in Oregon wood.  Apparently it approximates Islay scotch).  It comes down to the aging.  A major producer like Heaven Hill has tons of barrels holding whisky at all different ages.  Their stock is huge, and at any given time they can look for a new flavor profile just by wandering through the rickhouse and sampling.  And if they were so inclined, they could afford to make a new recipe and let it age; they have much less to lose.  It seems to me like these upstarts, tired of losing money during the aging process, rush to get product to the market that simply isn't ready.  It's a shame, because Harrison's seems to be made of some good ingredients, i.e. it didn't taste harsh or cheap.  If they ever release a 7 or 8 year, I'd give them another go.  But a $35 bottle of whisky should taste more complex than mellowed out moonshine.  I am very curious if the Governer's Reserve does a better job in terms of flavor with it's barrel proofing and higher rye content.   But it's difficult to justify climbing a brand ladder when you are turned off by their overpriced first rung.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Quest for George T. Stagg

While visiting the Buffalo Trace distillery this summer, we saw George T. Stagg being bottled in Blanton's bottling hall.  It was kind of exciting, as this bourbon is part of their Antique Collection, which only comes on once a year in the fall.  And when I asked our tour guide, a retiree from Philadelphia, which Buffalo Trace bourbon was his favorite, he replied "George T. Stagg."  Really?  "Ohhh, yeahhh," he said.  (Nicole does a great impression of him).  I had to get some of this stuff.  I thougth I had seen it last year at a liquor store in Cherry Hill, and one other liquor store had a floating bottle from the 2009 edition, the one rated best bourbon in the world by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.  That bottle was marked up to $120 (most places charge in the $75-80 range).  What's the big deal with Stagg?  Well, in addition to winning high marks and awards, simply the fact that it's uncut and unfiltered; this years comes in at a whopping 143 proof.  And tons of flavor.  Get your water ready with this stuff. 

I decided the surest way to procure a bottle would be to special order it.  I have ordered alcohol and had it shipped to my house in the past (this is illegal in PA, gotta love the Quaker laws, but I figure I'm under the radar).  This time I chose the website drinkupny.com.  The customer representative told me if I order it under last year's label when it comes in it will ship on a first come first serve basis.  Several times I emailed to see when it would arrive.  Finally they got their shipment, but wait, they only got 9 bottles when they expected over 40.  Like a lot of the Stagg distillate, I didn't make the cut.  They didn't even notify me until I hounded them, and then they gave me the option to remain on the waiting list for another year, with no guarantee that I would get a bottle at that time.  I demanded my refund and set out to find a solution to this dreadful problem.  My plan was to go to the liquor store that had that leftover bottle and just overpay to get it.  After all, the 2009 was the bourbon of the year, it would be worth it--although in my heart I wanted the 2010 edition, since I saw it being bottled.  I figured it was worth a trip to Total Wine in Cherry Hill, as I needed some other beverages for Christmas gifts and whatnot, and with the vague thought that I may have seen it there last year.  I arrived and, tada!  They had the Stagg.  As well as several others from the Antique Collection.  The Sazerac 18 year rye was already sold out (it was last year's Whisky of the Year, again according to Jim Murray).  But they had the Eagle Rare 18, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, and the Stagg.  Can't remember if they had the Weller, which is the wheated entry.  Anyhow, I grabbed that Stagg and it's beautiful, tall, wine type bottle, at it's fair, $75 price.  So exciting.

Here's the kicker.  I can't drink it yet.  I have been sick since November 3, and took antibiotics that apparently destroyed my stomach and my taste buds, which have yet to recover.  The quest for Stagg continues...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Stocking the home bar

One tool I forgot to mention, the soda siphon.  This is a very cool gadget for any fizzy drink.  Over time it can pay for itself bc/ the CO2 cartridges are much cheaper than bottled soda.  Plus you feel like a bartender from the past, or a soda jerk or something.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stocking your home bar part 2

Yesterday we discussed beer, wine, and straight liquor.  Today I will focus on the tools of the mixologist, both liquid and stainless steel.

Liquor for mixing
Obviously, the choice of spirit will depend on the drink.  Like, I make a drink that calls for Hendrick's gin, and I do think that is clearly the best gin for the job.  However, if you stock any gin, you can make any gin based drink.  For me, the two key spirits for a home bar are gin and rye.  They are the heart of many classic cocktails.  I don't stock vodka, though I know some bartenders like it as a blank canvas to highlight other ingredients.  For me, the spirit should always be the star of the show.  And vodka is too boring for me.

My favorite all around gin is Bluecoat ($25).  It's made in Philly, it's really smooth, and goes well in any number of gin cocktails.  The cheapest gin I can tolerate is New Amsterdam ($15).  It's good for practicing a drink you've never made, or saving a few bucks if you are throwing a party.  There are a bunch of good gins out there, like Plymouth, Bombay, Tanqueray, etc.  I've heard Anchor's Genever is very nice.  They also make a Holland gin or genevieve, very earthy and too me not pleasant, or maybe it's an acquired taste.

The best all around rye for cocktails has got to be Rittenhouse 100 proof bonded.  It's under $20 a bottle, thought it's a bit hard to come by these days.  I don't love it straight, but it's just at the perfect level for mixing nicely in a Manhattan or other rye based drinks.  I enjoy other ryes, but if I enjoy them enough I'd prefer sipping them straight.  I won't go into a treatise on rye here.  A few quick notes though-I don't like Jim Beam rye, Old Overholt is not great but serviceable (and Don Draper drinks it), Sazerac is good for mixing, Russell's Reserve Rye is almost too good for mixing, Michter's is probably too good to mix.  There are ryes above that but obviously they aren't made for mixed drinks.

Bourbon/other whiskies

Bourbon cheap enough to mix is generally not assertive enough to hold up in some cocktails, but I use it whenever I run out of rye.  I have tried Canadian Club as a mixing whisky because it has a high rye content but I don't care for it and would rather use a cheap bourbon.  Keeping a blended whisky on hand is probably a good idea, too.  Famous Grouse is called for in one of my favorite drinks, the Penicillin, though I've yet to make it at home.  Time was I would drink the grouse on it's own, it's not bad.

I've sipped at a number of different tequilas and mezcals, but right now have a bottle of El Jimador ($20) on hand for when we are in the mood for margaritas, and it works just fine.

Secondary Ingredients

I always have a sweet and a dry vermouth on hand.  Dolin is a great brand and price point for both of these types of fortified wine ($15), though I have to special order it.  Martini and Rossi is okay.  Noilly Prat recently changed their export to the dismay of many martini lovers, but Noilly is fine, too, both sweet and dry.  I really think the extra couple of bucks makes a big difference with vermouth, though.  I keep it in the fridge and it lasts me months and months before spoiling.  Carpano Antiqua Formula is the best sweet vermouth I've ever had (though it's not called a vermouth), but it's a bit pricey at over $30 for a liter.  I've read about other vermouths being decent; it all depends how much you want to experiment.

Angostura are the most common, you can find them in the grocery store and in most dive liquor stores.  If you only buy one bitters get these.  But as with anything, there are tons of bitters out there.  Second on my list is Peychauds, the bitters called for in the classic New Orleans drink the Sazerac.  I also have some orange bitters on hand (some folks like them in a martini with a twist) and plan to get some whisky barrel aged bitters.  I've heard celery bitters are good in a bloody mary.  But start with the Angostura.  Fee Brothers makes a bitters using angostura bark, as well, but I find it a bit too strong and can ruin a drink if you accidentally add an extra dash.

Simple Syrup
You can buy this, but why spend money on sugar water?  Just boil some water, and add an equal part of sugar, stirring until it dissolves.  Rich syrup is a 2:1 but I find that simple syrup is very versatile.  Honey syrup can be made in the same way.  Stirring honey into the boiling water makes a liquid that is much more easily mixed.

Other liqueurs

Vermouth and bitters are essential.  These others fall into a broader category that will build as you learn to make different drinks.  Don't stress about these; the only one below that is close to essential for me is the absinthe, as we quite enjoy making the rye-based Sazerac. 

Absinthe-If you don't want to shell out 50 bucks for absinthe get some Pernod.  I have Philadelphia          Distilling Co.'s Vieux Carre absinthe, and didn't mind paying for it as I only use a drop for each Sazerac that I make. 

Pimm's No. 1-Pimm's is a gin based liquer infused with herbs and great in a drink called The Porch Swing.  It's cheap enough to grab a bottle to play with

Green Chartreuse-I got a bottle of this herbal liqueur made by French monks with a secret recipe but I haven't cracked it yet.  The recipe I am trying to use it for is The Last Word, a classic cocktail with equal parts gin, lime juice, green chartreuse, and...

Maraschino-This is why I haven't cracked the Chartreuse.  I special ordered some Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur and I'm still waiting on it.  A number of cocktails call for this. 

Creme Yvette or Creme de Violet is hard to come by, it's used in the gin based cocktail Aviation.  I may have to order some.

Sloe Gin-Gin infused with British sloe berries, used in the refreshing drink sloe gin fizz.  Plymouth, makers of the original martini gin, make a sloe gin.  Don't bother with the cheap sloe gin liqueurs you can find with other mixers, they add the berry flavor in rather than infusing the gin.

Cointreau-for margaritas and sidecars.

I always stock lemons and limes.  Also Goya queen stuffed olives (cheap and perfect for martinis).  My wife likes garlic stuffed olives on occasion.  I brandy my own cherries for use in Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, but recently ordered some Italian cherries that are supposed to be like maraschino cherries before prohibition.  I also have some rose water and orange flower water.  They can brighten up a drink and are fun to experiment with.

The key tool is the Boston shaker.  A stainless steel cup that is just larger than a pint glass, when used together you have a shaker.  A strainer to fit the shaker.  A long handled barspoon.  A muddler.  A lime juicer, or just a citrus reamer (which is what I use, though even a fork will do).  A Lewis bag for crushing ice. (a Lewis bag is a canvas bag that you fill with ice and then beat with a mallot or muddler).  Speaking of ice, I like perfect square ice cube trays, I got mine at Sur La Table.  If you want to get hardcore get a special freezer and order giant ice blocks to chip from, like the speakasies do.  That's a bit overboard though...  A cutting board and sharp knife.  Several different sized jiggers, or one that looks like a miniature measuring cup with multiple fill lines.  A small fine strainer if you don't like pulp in drinks that have citrus.  Some of these tools quality matters more than with others.  I definitely want to upgrade my shaker, as the stainless steel one I have is proving to not be so stainless, and the strainer is bent out of shape.  But it's fine for now and I've gained a lot of practice on it. 

Final Note
My plan for this post was to simplify the home bar, but I feel that it came across as a complex endeavor.  Just know that a few key ingredients can go a long way.  If you have this short list:
rye, gin, absinthe, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, bitters, cherries, olives, oranges, lemons, limes, simple syrup, tonic, honey
You can make at least these cocktails:
Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Martini, Gin and Tonic, Honeysuckle, Gimlet
Then with each ingredient you add to the list, the more drinks you can make.  Tequila and Cointreau-Margaritas.  Now add brandy, you can make a sidecar.  Pick up some Pimms and a cucumber, you can make a Porch Swing.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stocking your home bar

This post may need editing from time to time, as the way I stock my bar evolves as my tastes evolve.
The best way to build a home bar is drink by drink.  You learn to make a drink by procuring that drink's ingredients.  (If you like the drink a lot you will have to procure them again quickly, but you get the idea).  Still, I thought it would be fun to give an idea of how my bar has evolved to this point, and lay down some basics.  Part one of this post is a note on beer, wine, and straight liquor.  In the second part I'll talk about tools, mixers, and so forth. 

Beer and Wine
I am researching cellaring beer, but at this point my warm, dank, rowhome basement is not really suited to it.  So I just keep a few styles on hand to suit my mood.  I am just getting into pairing beer and food, so this may get more complicated.  But in general I drink a lot of seasonal beers.  Wheat beers in the summer, richer, stronger beers in the winter.  I have recently been on a kick of high abv styles, like Belgian tripels.  So maybe right now I have a bunch of stuff like that, then in a couple of weeks it will be Christmas brews, and so on.  I also like to do comparisons, like I have two Brewdog bottles I am dying to crack, one is their regular IPA and one is that same beer aged in Islay scotch casks.  Anyhow, I could write about beer all day, this post is really about cocktails but I thought I would say a word about the world's most versatile beverage.  As far as wine, I don't have a wine fridge, and while I enjoy a decent red, wine isn't really my cup of tea, so to speak, and my wine stash consists of about 4-5 bottles for guests or if the mood strikes me.  My wife sometimes drinks wine as a nightcap, but I much prefer my whisky.

Anything else you drink straight
You might like to sip gin, or brandy, or liqueur.  I like to have a few different whiskies on hand.  I am currently still on a big bourbon kick, but you never know when I'll get a craving to visit Islay, or have a spicy rye, save some money, or sip something special.  Just to give you an idea of the type of range I mean, here is what I have right now:

Macallan 15 year Fine Oak Collection (sherried highland entry)
Springbank 10 (one of only 3 Campbelltown scotches)
Laphroaig 10 (smoky, peaty, seaweed, iodine, like no other)

Blanton's Single Barrel
Pappy Van Winkle 15 year (wheated)
Rock Hill Farms

High West Rye (Utah)

Tomorrow I'll get into the heart of stocking the home bar, but I couldn't begin without noting straight drinking, which is my favorite kind.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Mint Julep

The first time I had a mint julep was this past summer, though I've owned my own personalized, etched, pewter julep cup since I graduated from college.  I'm not kidding, it was a gift from the Templeton family, who funded the honors program. 

I got this recipe from watching Robert Hess make one on the Small Screen Network http://www.smallscreennetwork.com/
The site is a great way to learn the technique for each cocktail if you are a visual learner.  I've seen recipes for juleps where you make a mint extract by wringing mint into a towel or something.  But that's a bit complicated for what should be simple, refreshing drink.  That way may be better for making a pitcher's worth, though.  It's a great summer drink and it's the drink of the Kentucky Derby.  So why am I posting about it in December?  Because I'm just getting around to it.

On to the recipe:

Mint Julep
2.5 oz bourbon
.5 oz rich syrup
4-5 mint sprigs with stems removed
powdered sugar

Lightly muddle mint and syrup.  Add bourbon, add crushed ice, stir.  More ice, then garnish with mint sprig, dust top with powdered sugar.

A few notes on the mint julep.  Be careful, it's extremely refreshing, yet extremely strong, a dangerous combination.  You can get away with some pretty cheap bourbon here due to the strong flavor of the mint.  I made one with Evan Williams Single Barrel and one with black label Evan Williams and could hardly tell the difference.  Rich syrup is a 2:1 sugar to water syrup, if you have simple syrup (1:1) on hand, that would probably work fine, too.  The pewter glass really is part of the show of the drink because it holds a nice frost, but a regular old fashioned glass will do just fine.  You can order your own pewter cup after you get hooked on this drink.  Crushing the ice is a bit tricky if your icemaker doesn't feature crushed ice.  I plan to order a Lewis bag for the next time I make them.  It's a canvas back that you whack with a mallot or a muddler; the bag absorbs the moisture and allows you to crush the ice as finely as you like.

Monday, December 6, 2010


This is a cool blog about classic shaving for any who were intrigued by my previous post.


He has some cool videos:


Friday, December 3, 2010


This post is not about drinking but is a lifestyle entry.

I have been wetshaving for about 4 years, and I'll never look back.  Prior to that, I was a consumer of the Mach 3, which I thought at the time was a fantastic innovation.  Now I realize it's all a sham.  Disclaimer: I don't want to offend anyone and how they perform their personal grooming, but I am very particular about my shaving.

What is wetshaving?  Wetshaving is shaving the way grandpa used to do it.  With a lot of hot water and a double edged safety razor.  For a detailed overview of wetshaving, check out this article by Corey Greenberg http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/6886845/ns/today-today_weekend_edition.  I use some of his concepts and directions in this post.

I'll give you a quick "how to" and include some product recommendations.  All products I name can be purchased either at http://www.classicshaving.com/ and/or on Amazon.  The biggest distinction between modern shaving and wetshaving for me is the use of a double edged (DE) safety razor.  Prior to DE, men were using a single edged blade like Sweeney Todd uses to slice open his victim's throats.  The DE safety razor is the pinnacle of shaving technology; all of the other stuff only appeared because the razorblade patent ran out and Gillette had to pretend it was improving it's technology.  First with disposables, then adding a blade, etc. until we wound up with these bizarre vibrating razors with 9 blades and moisturizers, etc., etc.  What a crock.  All you need is one good, sharp blade.  And the DE safety provides that in a, well, safe manner.

Ideally you want to shower first to open your pores and get your skin ready for the shave.  Personally, I shower after shaving so as not to deal with a fogged up mirror and also to post wash my face to seal up any minor nicks.  If you don't shower first then definitely wash your face with hot water before shaving.  I use Musgo Lime Oil face soap from Portugal.  It does a fantastic job of cleansing my oily Italian face without drying it out.  I also use it post shave and sometimes just in general.  With a clean, damp, warm/hot face, you are ready to proceed.  Your initial tools: a mug, some quality shave cream, and a badger hair shaving brush.  Over the counter you can find boar hair brushes pretty readily, but badger hair is so much more luxurious it's worth the initial investment.  I got my Vulvix brand British made brush in the $40 range.  If I had it to do over I would spend $50-$75 and get a bigger brush to hold more lather but my brush works just fine.  As far as cream, if you want value go with Proraso, an Italian cream you can get for around $9.  It sounds expensive until you realize it will last you months and months.  Proraso also makes a nice pre/post shave cream that makes for a better shave but it's an unnecessary step, especially if you upgrade your cream a bit.  I use Truefitt and Hill's West Indian Limes, it's a few bucks more than Proraso for sure, but provides a fantastic lather and scent, and the tube or tub lasts quite a while.  Dip your brush in hot water and let it drip for a few seconds.  Then work up some lather in the mug with the cream.  Depending on if you have a tub or tube of cream you may put some cream directly on the brush or squeeze some into the mug.  The idea is to combine hot water with the cream using the brush and a mug.  Spread it on your face, as you apply the lather should increase and should be thick and rich.  It takes a while to learn the right amount of cream to use.  Then use your DE razor and hack away.  Just kidding.  The DE razor is safe, but it is sharp, as well.  Modern razors are designed for laziness, classic razors for precision.  You don't need to press hard, but don't be afraid to let the blade work.  Again, practice makes perfect.  As far as the razor, I use a German Merkur brand razor that is a replica of the Gillete 1904 original safety razor.  I got it for around $25.  I would actually recommend a bigger handled razor, maybe the Merkur Hefty Classic for a better grip and control.  For the blades, my favorite are the Feather brand, I think they are the most delicate as far as getting a close shave.  If your skin can tolerate it, after shaving once lather up again and go against the grain for a very close shave.  I love doing this I feel it makes my shave lasts a bit longer.  Then use a quality aftershave or moisturizer.  I use the Truefitt and Hill West Indian Limes to pair with the cream I use.  I prefer a balm to an alcohol based aftershave, but it's your face, maybe you like the burn.  The alcohol does heal up any nicks if you can tolerate it.  Like I said, I just rewash using a facesoap that has trace alcohol.

It sounds a bit overwhelming at first.  And yes, it will add a few minutes to your routine.  And costs around $100-150 to get started.  But once you do, you can buy replacement blades for around 50 cents.  Compare that to a few bucks for Mach 3 replacement heads.  You will enjoy shaving this way, reduce if not eliminate bumps and razor burn, and feel like Cary Grant.  Wetshaving feels like an upgrade, but it's actually a return.  A return to something better.  It's like being told all your life to order steak well done because it's safer, and then eating a medium rare steak by mistake--no pun intended--and realize you've been missing out on life.  Or drinking Bud Light for years and than having your first craft beer.  Or like traveling to a new country and gaining an entirely different worldview.  I think you get the picture.  Also, if you ever get the chance to get a straight razor barber shop shave, do it.  Nothing like a hot towel on your face to prep for a perfect shave.

A note on travel: They sell travel brushes, etc.  But I usually just get by on my travels with a disposable razor and some cheap cream.  I don't want to have to worry about leaving my razor in the hotel or packing my mug and brush or buying travel versions of everything I own.  And while I hate shaving with disposable razors, it makes me appreciate the classic shave when I get home all that much more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I am an old man

Here are the ways I am an old man.

I have matching pajamas and an monogrammed robe.
I wear Florsheim leather slippers.
I smoke a pipe.
I shave with a double edge safety razor like grandpa used to use.
I prefer classic cocktails,e .g. Manhattans.
I don't really like "cool" movies or music.  Give me some Dean Martin anyday.
I'm sure there are other ways, too.  Look for an old man update if I think of them.

Mexican in Philly Update

A couple of months back I did a writeup of eating Mexican in Philly.  I have a new favorite, Los Gallos at 10th and Wolf (a funny location as there is a medicore Philly mob movie with the same name).  Anyhow, it's basically a Mexican grocery, but they have tables and takeout service.  Chef Jiminez is a first time business owner, and told us the previous owner of the shopfront told him the Board of Health never comes down to South Philly and not to worry about proper permits.  Luckily he's didnt't listen and figured out all the bureaucratic kinks, because this place was awesome.  The chef asked us to sign a petition to add more tables and make it more of a restaurant, which would be great.  The tacos with crispy pork and pineapple are awesome, I think they are called El Pastor.  The other stuff is great too.  He has plans to start making his own tortillas soon.  I read in one review (Philadelphia Weekly)  that a lot of Mexican line chefs from great restaurants like South Philadelphia Taproom and Amis are telling their bosses how great this place is.  Amis's Brad Spence ordered 80 tacos for a private party he threw.  Cheap, authentic Mexican with no frills or hipsters in sight.  Great stuff.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brewery Tour Series: Yuengling

Okay this is a very retroactive review, as my wife took me to Yuengling's historic brewery two summers ago for my birthday (after promising it the birthday before...)

Yuengling has become a huge brand.  It doesn't rival the sales of BudMillerCoors, but it is sold up and down the east coast with plans to expand beyond.  Their lager was the go to beer of my college years, and I've shared many a case of it with close friends on weekend visits.  If you are a craft beer geek, you know that Yuengling brews with corn in addition to barley, a no-no in the craft beer world as corn is viewed as an additive.  Yuengling says they use the corn grits to lighten the body of their beers.  Whatever.  I know it's not "all malt," as it were, but I still enjoy a "Lager."  I know it's not complicated and thought provoking, or big and rich, but I also know you can drink a bunch of it during a football game, try doing that with your high octane imperial ipa or Belgian trippel.  It sure beats Budweiser, which throws in some rice in addition to  corn, and at the same price point, how can I complain?  I like some of their other beer offerings, too.  I also love the idea of drinking beer from America's oldest brewery.  After being a fan for a while, I figured I had to make the pilgrimage to Pottsville, PA.

For the record, Pottsville itself is horrible.  We had a hard time finding a decent hotel and there was almost nothing open as far as dining options.  We finally found a half decent restaurant that didn't even have Yuengling on tap.  The brewery tour was great, though.  Yuengling has long since outgrown the capacity of the quaint historic buildings that they show you on the tour.  Any Yuengling you drink from a tap comes from the Tampa facility and they have a brewery in the next town over from Pottsville as well.  But the old brewery is still operational, and very cool to see.  Yuengling dabbled in the ice cream business to stay afloat during Prohibition, but there were some shady goings on as they had cases of beer ready to deliver to the White House the minute the law was repealed.  The coolest part of the tour was seeing the underground caves where they used to store the beer before modern refridgeration.  The walls in the mash room have this cool old mural of which I unfortunately don't have a picture.  But here is one of the caves:

The tasting room is a cool looking bar area, and they let you choose one of their signature beers to sample.
They would probably allow for more than one sample but for the hordes of people on the tour.  I chose the Porter.

The Yuengling brewery was the high point in my brewery visits.  So much history, a brewery on a mountainside...if only the town wasn't so dead.  Pretty, but dead.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Hot Toddy

This is about the only thing I've been drinking since I fell ill about 3 weeks ago.  The first time I had a hot toddy was several years ago.  It was made by my mother-in-law when I was sick on a visit to Indiana, and it was about the strongest drink I'd ever had.  It put me on my ass for about a 5 hour nap.  And I still slept well that night.  I've heard that some folks drink them even when well, on a chilly winter's night.

The toddy is so simple yet so useful.  The warm liquid soothes your throat, while the alcohol helps rock you to sleep.  Or in the case of my mother-in-law's version, knocks you out with a sledgehammer.

The Hot Toddy
1 jigger (1.5 oz) of the cheapest whiskey you have on hand
boiling water to fill the rest of the mug
a squeeze of lemon
a spoonful of honey

Sweet dreams.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Beer List Update

I just added around 20 beers to the list.  I'm averaging about 10 new beers per month, which isn't bad.  I've read articles about guys who have had 10,000 different beers.  I doubt I'll ever reach that pinnacle, but I am approaching 500, which is a number to be proud of in its own right.  Some of the notables from the most recent beers and breweries I've sampled:

Furthermore Beer (WI)-Fatty Boombalatty, Knot Stock
The Knot Stock is a beer made with black pepper.  I don't know that I'd get it again but pretty interesting stuff.  Fatty Bombalatty is one I've seen on tap before but never ordered it.  It's a Belgian White with ramped up flavor and alcohol content.  Fantastic.  I can't name a beer I've had only once as a favorite, but I would definitely seek this out.

Lakefront Brewery (WI)-Wheat Monkey, White Ale
A buddy and I, along with my wife, recently did a mix six pack at the newly opened Bottle Shop on East Passyunk a few minutes walk from my house.  Instead of each picking two beers, we decided to do a tasting of all six.  These two from Lakefront were chosen bc/ we like wheat beers and they had cool packaging, but we all thought they both sucked.  Low on flavor.  Blah.

Michelob's Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale
While on the subject of crappy beer...I was hesitant to try a beer by a major producer, but I love bourbon cask aged beer and this one was aged with vanilla beans, which I also love.  The beer sucked.

Breckenridge (CO)
I really enjoyed their Agave Wheat with mexican food over the summer, and quite enjoyed their Vanilla Porter this fall.  A better use of vanilla than Michelob's.

Miscellaneous Pumpkins
This fall I had a few pumpkins, some I've had before some not.  I really liked both Weyerbacher and Riverhorse's Imperial Pumpkins.  Dogfish makes a solild pumpkin but I don't think it's as good as these two.  I also had Roy Pitz Pumpkin on tap, it was fine I don't remember it too well, but I was happy to support a PA brewery I hadn't had before.  I also had Southern Tier's Pumpkin entry on tap.  It was fine but I think the Weyerbacher and Riverhorse were my two favorites of the bunch.

Philadelphia Brewing Co.
Harvest from the Hood-This is a fresh hopped beer made by PBC using hops that they've grown as well as some from a local farm.  I'm not a hophead but I thought this was quite good, and definitely had a very fresh taste.  It looks according to the website that they have a few more seasonals coming out over the winter.

Arcadia (MI)
Whitsun Ale is a British wheat ale made with honey.  It is delightful, a bit sour, a bit sweet, a lot refreshing.

Tommyknocker (CO)
Just because I haven't been drinking beer the past couple of weeks (I've been on antibiotics and it tastes bad, I know it's a tragedy), I feel like ending on a down note.  Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale made with maple syrup sounds delicious but isn't.  It really made me want to try some of The Bruery's Autumn Maple but I think it is out of season now.  Oh well, on to Christmas beers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pub Review: The South Philadelphia Taproom

SPTR is my favorite bar.  It's a bit farther than some of the pubs we frequent, i.e., it is not on E. Passyunk, the new restaurant row.  But I kind of like that.  We took my mother-in-law there for dinner last night after the weak outing by the floundering Phillies, who have since been ushered out of the playoffs.  It is kind of a hipster bar but not exclusively, and the servers are all pretty nice.  Our server last night was a little lacking on knowledge of the beer list; I asked her if the Sly Fox Grisette was different than their bottled saison, and she replied, "If it has a different name it must be different."  Otherwise it was business as usual at SPTR, which means a solid, solid beer list and excellent gastropub type fare.  The Amish fried chicken special was awesome, as was the eggplant parm special.  The pork meatball sandwich was very good if not special.  Their mac 'n cheese is good, too, though I like my wife's better (with bacon and a potato chip topping).  They also do a very good burger, not the best in the city but in my top 3 or 4 for sure.  I was disappointed that the North Carolina bbq chicken sandwich, my all time favorite menu item, is no longer on the menu, I forgot to ask if it will return next season. 

As far as the beer, I tried Philadelphia Brewing Co.'s wet hopped "Harvest in the Hood" ale, made with locally grown hops.  I thought it was pretty good and tasted very fresh.  I then had a Victory Moonglow (weizenbock), which I quite enjoyed.  It has a nice fruitiness, a rich taste perfect for fall weather.  Of course I had to try the Sly Fox Grisette.  I'm still not sure if it was different than the bottled saison they put out year round, but I really liked the bottled version in the past while I thought this one was just okay.

Other thoughts on SPTR...They do a wheat beer fest called "Wheaties" in the summer, which I love, as I love wheat beer.  They do special beer and food pairing dinners but I have yet to make it to one.  The same owners have a coffeeshop across the street with takeout beer, appropriately named Brew (the tagline reads "beer and coffee together at last").  Brew has fantastic hand-brewed coffees from around the globe, and a nice beer selection.  I still buy most of my beer in Jersey as I have the good fortune of working there and taking advantage of better pricing.  But Brew is a nice option for trying something special or mixing a pretty good sixpack.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Evan Williams and Evan Williams Single Barrel

I recently did a side by side comparison of two Heaven Hill brands, Evan Williams black label (7 years old) and Evan Willams Single Barrel (9-10 years old).  I believe the two whiskies are from the same mashbill (recipe).  EW Single Barrel distinguishes itself, in addition to a couple of more years in the warehouse, as being the only vintage dated whisky on the market, meaning each year there is a new release, like they do in the wine industry.  Of course there is a bit of marketing here; many mid to high end bourbons label the bottle with information such as when it was filled, from what location in the warehouse, etc.  But the EW Single does provide a good amount of hand written info on the back of each bottle, including the date the whisky was "put in oak," the date of the bottling, and the barrel number.  I had barrel #429 from the 2000 vintage for this tasting. 

Black Label
Back to the black label.  Evan Williams 7 yr. is the $12-$15 bottle of whisky you can find in any liquor store in the country, and will recognize it because the label looks like a Jack Daniel's knock off.  I believe it was the first whisky I ever bought back in college, probably lured in by that marketing technique, "It looks like Jack but at half the price..."  Evan Williams black label pours a light gold color, and it smells like your average bourbon but with a faint cheapness to it.  The taste provides a bit of sting, but not in a bad way.  The corn is strong with just a bit of spice.  Again, their is a faint cheapness to it, you will know what I mean if you've sampled bourbons from even lower shelves than this one.  The finish is not as short as the price would suggest; it's not a long finish but doesn't vanish either.  Overall I find it inoffensive at worst and bordering on the complexity of much better bourbons at best.  A great value bourbon for a shrinking wallet or mixed drinks.  It's simple, sweet, straightforward. 

Single Barrel Vintage
I read one message board where someone asked if the single barrel is 2 times better than the black label.  Comparing values is such a relative thing, but for me the single barrel is easily worth the upgrade.  It may be the extra aging, or careful barrel selection, but this is clearly the superior whisky.  It pours slightly darker than the black label, with a richer, sweeter nose.  The taste is rich, with a lot of wood; the caramel and vanilla flavors bourbon is known for appear as you drink it but aren't immediate up front.  The finish is substantial, like cinnamon in your mouth.  It may not be the most balanced bourbon I've had, as the wood seems to dominate the subtler flavors.  But for my money, this is the best value on the market at around $25 a bottle. The only other single barrel at a similar price point I can even think of is Elmer T. Lee, probably a couple of bucks more but another fine choice.  I find EW Single Barrel rivaling bourbons at twice the price, and superior to many at its price point.  The vintage dating is a lot of fun, too.  I stumbled on a 1999 edition and snatched it up; I plan to get one each year for a few years and then have a tasting comparing them. 

Bonus thought
I came across a post on bourbonenthusiast.com that made an interesting observation.  Heaven Hill has chosen to market their upscale brands as extension of lower shelf versions, like Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18.  This is unlike Jim Beam, which created new brands for their small batch line (Booker's, Basil Hayden's, etc.).  Jim Beam doesn't want to ruin the romance while you sip your Knob Creek with the knowledge that it is the same mashbill as white label.  Wild Turkey has a similar approach to H.Hill, they proudly state "Wild Turkey" on all of their products at all price points.  I don't really care one way or the other as long as the bourbon inside the bottle is good, but I actually kind of prefer the Heaven Hill way, it seems to take pride in their brand rather than hiding from it.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Update on Merry Monks

I feel vindicated in my gushing over the Merry Monks Golden Ale from Weyerbacher, as it recently took a Bronze Medal at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver for the Belgian Tripel category.  Okay maybe it's not really a "golden ale," in the sense of Duvel or Damnation.  But it's pretty damn good in any case.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Trio of Golden Ales

Last night's horrific loss by the lack of fightin' Phils in game 6 of the National League Championship Series was mitigated by the secondary activity I was participating in, a comparison of 3 belgian style golden ales during the course of a surf and turf dinner cooked for my wife's birthday.  We started with a Merry Monks from Weyerbacher Brewing in the Allentown area, then went to Russian River Damnation, and finished with  Duvel (prounouned doo-vell or doovil, depending if you are of French or Flemish persuasion).  I am not going to rank them, just comment on their similarities and what I liked/disliked about them.

Merry Monks, Weyerbacher Brewing Co. (Easton, PA)
$6 750 ML corked and caged bottle
Merry Monks pours a rich, thick, gold, a half decent head and nice carbonation.  A lot of fruity aromas, some reviews I looked at compare it to the aromas of a hefeweizen (banana and clove).  It is high ABV (around 9 percent) and has a real rich mouthfeel.  My wife feels it is too sweet; I usually don't like things too sweet but if it is on the sweet side I didn't seem to mind.  I love this beer.  In the taste, a lot of fruit from the yeast, a bit of breadiness.  Technically this is a Belgian style triple, though the label says golden ale.  It's all in the same ballpark with similar ingredients and techniques. 

Damnation, Russian River Brewing Co. (Sonoma County, CA)
$10 375 ML corked and caged bottle
Russian River is one of the rock stars of the craft beer world.  I feel like all of their beers have huge buzz, one even being named "best beer in the world" by various sources.  I've only had Damnation and Consecration.  Maybe it just can't live up to the hype, or maybe it's the fact that it was the most expensive of the three beers here.  But I've had Damnation a few times and I won't rush to get it again.  That's not to say it isn't great stuff, because it is.  It has almost all of the characteristics of the Duvel and maybe even more complexity with some nice cedar notes and an interesting dryness.  More sour than sweet (as the Merry Monks was).  A little less thick and rich than the Merry Monks, with a fast, dry finish.  My wife still thought this one was sweet compared to Duvel, but I didn't think so.

Duvel (Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat, Belgium)
$9 750 ML corked and caged bottle
This is the original.  Maybe it's just because we had this one last in conjuction with a caramel hazelnut cupcake that destroyed my palate but this tasted exactly the same as the Damnation to me.  The Damnation had a woodiness that wasn't in the Duvel, but otherwise it was a fascimile of this Belgian modern classic.  Of course Duvel is famous for it's curvy chalice glass and thick white head.  Duvel basically takes the crispness and mass appeal of the pilsner style--using pilsner malts and Bohemian hops--and then throws us a curveball in the form of Belgian yeast.  Still easy drinking but a lot more complex and flavorful than your favorite pilsner.  This is a great beer.  If you haven't had it, this should be high on your list.  If you ever see it on draft (Duvel Green) you should know it's not the same stuff, as the bottle conditioning does a beautiful number on this beer and the tap version is not nearly as good.

Final thoughts
Maybe if I lived in northern Cali and didn't have to pay a huge upcharge for Russian River I might like their beers more.  The Merry Monks wine size corked bottle was only six bucks, that's less than half the price of the Damnation.  I won't say it's qualitatively better than Damnation, but I honestly think I like it better.  As for Duvel, it's a classic.  Maybe the Damnation offers a bit more complexity, but for twice the price. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bar Review: Stogie Joe's Tavern

Stogie Joe's has been a dive bar on E. Passyunk Ave. since before we ever moved into South Philly.  But recently they redid their exterior, hanging a new sign and adding a patio area.  They also got some buzz in Philadelphia Magazine's best sandwiches feature for their meatball sandwich.  We figured it was time to give old Stogie's a chance.

The atmosphere is still that of a dive bar.  Some South Phillly guys screaming at the Flyers game, run down decor, etc.  Their tap list is not special, but for a dive bar it was pretty good, with a couple of imports and craft beers.  Their fridge had a number of local bottled craft beers, as well.  Nicole and I opted for a couple of rounds of Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale.

The food was solid.  Nicole had the burger.  It wasn't really that great, but they get a lot of bonus points for cooking it to her specifications.  She said medium rare and it came out medium rare; a pet peeve of mine is serving well done meat when you asked for medium rare.  I had the meatball sandwich, which was fantastic.  I won't say the meatballs are as good as my aunt's homemade meatballs, but it was close.  I chose sharp provolone and broccoli rabe for toppings, which went well with the sandwich, served on a nice roll.  The rabe was a bit undercooked but definitely fresh.

The only real annoying part about this place was that they don't take credit cards, another pet peeve of mine.  I wouldn't have minded so much except their ATM was out of service and I had to walk a few blocks just to pay my bill.

I'm not going to hurry back to Stogie Joe's, but the meatball sandwich guarantees that I will return at some point.  It's not a bad corner bar.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Manhattan

Last week I blogged my martini recipe.  Today I'm doing another classic, the Manhattan.  Feel free to Wikepedia it if you want the history, but here's my history with it.  My mother always told me that her mother drank Old Fashioneds--more on those later--and her father drank Manhattans.  Hearing about my grandfather, who I never knew, and his drink of choice eventually led me to try to make one for myself.  My first effort was probably more like a cheap Rob Roy, I used blended scotch (maybe Famous Grouse or Cutty Sark) and Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth, some ACME maraschino cherries and a few dashes of Angostura bitters.  It wasn't bad, but thankfully I didn't peak there. 

A whisky bar opened in center city Philadelphia a year or so ago, appropriately called Village Whiskey.  It seemed like a place that could serve up a decent Manhattan, so I ordered one.  This event spurred me and a buddy of mine to make our own Manhattans, comparing recipes and ingredients until we were satisfied.  You can get as picky as you like, but what I love about this drink is it's simplicity and elegance.  And t he cherry adds a bit of fun.  Here is the resulting recipe, by ingredient.

The Whisky
Manhattans call for rye; some folks prefer bourbon.  To me bourbon already has a sweetness to it that makes it a bit too sweet in a drink with sweet vermouth, and I think the rye spice is a nice balancer.  I have tried a half dozen ryes or so.  The one I ultimately settled on was Rittenhouse 100 proof bonded, a solid rye at a great price ($18 bucks), perfect for mixing.  I felt vindicated in this choice when I read Jim Murray's tasting notes on it; he likes it.  Unfortunately it's now quite hard to come by and so I am experimenting again.  I really like the Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve 6 year rye, but it's almost too tasty on it's own to mix it.  Old Overholt is a bit too cheap tasting, though I used it at a Mad Men party and felt it was successful (Don Draper uses it in his Old Fashioneds on the show).  Sazerac is decent as well.  I don't really care for the Jim Beam Rye, and I'm planning to take another run at the Wild Turkey entry level rye.  I've had a couple of fancier ryes but nothing I would use for mixing.

The Vermouth
Some folks like their Manhattans "perfect," meaning they contain both sweet and dry vermouth.  I like mine with just the sweet.  The best vermouth for Manhattans isn't even a vermouth, per se, but a sweet Italian wine called Carpano Antiqua Formula.  It's a bit pricey for me, though, even though you only use a bit of it at a time it is a wine and once opened the shelf life countdown begins.  So my sweet vermouth of choice is Dolin , it does a fine job, it's sweet but not syrupy, provides the "winey" flavor of the Manhattan without overpowering it or cheapening a decent rye.  Currently I am using Noilly Prat sweet vermouth, it's not quite as good but more readily available.  It's been a while since I've had the Martini and Rossi sweet, but I didn't think it was bad. 

The Bitters
The classic cocktail craze has caused a range of flavors of bitters to be available.  Manhattans call for Angostura bitters, which are the most readily available.  You can probably even find them in your grocery store.  I have been using the Fee Brothers Classic bitters (which also use the Angostura bark), but find them a bit too potent--one dash too many and you've overpowered the drink. The Angostura brand is the best.

The Cherry
Since Manhattans are one of my staple drinks, I brandy and jar my own cherries.  I found a decent recipe online and I can do it for around 2-4 bucks a jar, not much more than cheap maraschino cherries and a lot cheaper than fancy imported cherries.  There is a long history about the bastardization of the maraschino cherry due to Prohibition.  I won't bore you to tears here but long story short I like to make my own cherries rather than using cheap store bought cherries.  You can use them, though, if you don't feel like special ordering Italian cherries or brandying your own.   There's no shame in it. 

The Drink
2 oz rye
1 oz sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir rye, vermouth, and bitters till chilled.  Strain into martini glass (chilled if you like) and garnish with cherry.  (note: stir gently, and don't shake, otherwise you get a frothy drink)

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Martini

The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived. – Bernard DeVoto

I received a request to blog about martinis.  I am very flattered, as this must mean the other cocktails I've made for this individual must have been decent.  The martini was the first cocktail I ever made.  I saw someone making one at a party I went to while studying abroad in Oxford, and I was very intrigued.  But at that time I was just diving into the international beer scene, and my experience with hard alcohol was a ways off.  I'm not sure exactly what triggered it, but one day I did some reading online and set out to make my first martini.  I bought Gordon's gin and Martini and Rossi dry vermouth, and some stuffed olives.  I mixed it up, and fell in love.  I loved the saltiness provided by the olives and the way the gin and vermouth hang together in your mouth long after you take a sip.  For a while this was my drink of choice, as it was really the only thing I knew how to make.  During that time I bought into the hype of the ultra dry martini, meaning the less vermouth the better.  Winston Churchill supposedly made his martinis by filling a glass with gin and then looking at a bottle of vermouth.  They even sell misters that simply coat the top of your drink with vermouth.  But as I got into classic cocktails, I felt that the modern martini was not even a true cocktail.  I want to taste the vermouth, otherwise why bother?  Old time martinis were a one-to-one ratio.  I wouldn't recommend that, but it just goes to show you how cocktails change so much over time, to the point where they are a shadow of their former selves.  Sometimes they improve, but sometimes you lose something in that process.  By the way, a martini is a drink made with gin.  Folks that want vodka should be the ones specifying.  A "martini" is a gin martini, in my book.

My martini
The martini is such an individualized drink, only you can decide whether you like olives or a twist, a rinse with orange bitters, or if you like it a bit dirty.  But this is how I make my martini, according to each ingredient.

The Gin. 
This is the most important element, as it's the base spirit.  My favorite gin is Bluecoat, distilled in the fine city of brotherly love.  It has a citrusy element to it, and some bartenders might say it would work better with a twist but I still like it with my olives.  I use gin for a lot of other cocktails and I find it versatile and a decent price point ($25).  Plymouth is the original martini gin and there are plenty of other gins out there to try.  The cheapest gin I can recommend is New Amsterdam at around $15 a bottle.  It claims to be "so smooth you could drink it straight," which is not entirely true--it does have a bit of bite--but it's a decent value, especially the 1.75 ml size which goes on sale for $20 a bottle.  New Amsterdam is also a good option for experimenting with cocktails, it has a similar flavor profile as Bluecoat but if you mess something up while making a complicated cocktail you don't feel too bad.  I would also like to try a martini with Genevieve, gin's oilier cousin, but haven't yet. 

The Vermouth. 
I started with Martini and Rossi dry vermouth and once one of my friends asked me if "Stock" vermouth would be okay.  I responded "yes;" at that time I thought they were all the same.  But vermouth is a wine, obviously there is a range of quality.  A lot of Americans that have been using Noilly Prat dry vermouth for years are upset because they recently stopped making their export version and now send the one they've been selling in the French market.  Supposedly it's more herbal and some folks think too much flavor for a dry martini.  I've only had the old American version and it's decent.  I really like Dolin, a few bucks more than Martini and Rossi but I think worth it, as it lasts several months in the fridge and you only need a little for each drink.  Long story short, I would recommend Dolin but if you don't want to hunt it down Martini and Rossi is good and you can buy the smaller bottle which is handy if you aren't pounding martinis constantly.  Or you could try Noilly Prat.  Okay, maybe a few vermouths will do, but I wouldn't go bottom shelf like Stock.  I've heard Vya is a good vermouth but better on it's own than in a martini. 

The Olives.
I've tried fancy olives, but for me Goya queen stuffed work great, 2 bucks a jar, nothing fancy, but good nonetheless.

The technique.
Shaken, stirred, it's all the same.  Some folks think shaking "bruises" the gin, thus releasing more flavor, but I don't buy it.  Even though this post wound up being long, to me the martini should be a simple, everyday cocktail and the simpler the better.  I shake my martinis but it's a matter of preference.  If you like, keep the gin in the freezer to prevent over diluting your drink.  I don't have any fancy metal olive toothpicks or anything, I just let them sink to the bottom of the glass.  I wouldn't say I like my martini "dirty"--meaning with a lot of olive juice--but I don't mind a few drops of juice dripping from the spoon as I put them in the drink.  For one martini I use a full 1.5 oz shot of gin and .5 oz of vermouth.

Without further ado...

The Drink
3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
3 olives

Chill martini glass(es) in freezer or by filling with crushed ice (discard before pouring drink).  Shake the gin and vermouth, strain into chilled glass.  Drop in three olives. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Whisky Party

Last weekend I hosted a whisky tasting at my home to celebrate the arrival of fall; of course it wound up being hot and humid.  This was the first time I've hosted a party of this kind.  It was a ton of fun.  A lot of whisky tastings will involve focusing on a specific style or region, but I was going for a more laid back feel for my first whisky party and told my friends to each bring a whisky from anywhere at any price point.  It was fun to have a variety and compare styles; we even had a blind taste-off late in the evening when our taste buds were a bit numb.  For dinner I smoked a pork shoulder on my little Aussie charcoal grill for 6 hours, it came out pretty tender and I think everyone liked it and needed it to sop up some of that whisky.  I had some trouble keeping it warm in the oven after it was pulled, though.  For the tasting we basically just went around the table, explaining why we chose our bottle and tasting them together.  We had water crackers and pretzels to clear the palate, and plenty of water and ice if folks were interested in going in for a full shot of something after the tasting.  Some people "switched to beer" after to slow down drinking.  Four beers later...

Following is a list of the whiskies we had with brief writeups (not full tasting notes or rankings):

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey-A young whiskey (2 years) with a very fruit forward taste.  Very light, maybe not my favorite but an interesting change up.

Ardbeg 10 (scotch)-A very smoky smelling island style whisky.  I was shocked at how pale the color is that may be why they put it in a green bottle.  For all the smokiness/peat flavor I found it still pretty light and fruity, delicate.

Talisker 10 (scotch)-Another island entry, the only whisky from the island of Skye.  I've had this a couple of times and for some reason I can't pinpoint the taste in my memory.  A fine drink, for sure, but I just can't place it yet.

Highland Park 18 (scotch)-This whisky is sort of the best of both worlds in terms of island and highland styled whiskies.  You get the sherry and the peat, a lot of flavor but balance as well.   

Prichard's Double Barrel 9 year bourbon-This is a neat twist on bourbon.  A bit of marketing involved with the double barreling concept.  The bourbon comes from Kentucky but it rebarreled and aged again by a company in Tennessee.  It somehow delivers a unique taste in bourbon.  I don't know about it in terms of value but at our party it was a big hit.

Yamazaki Sherry Cask (Japan)-This whisky was not overshadowed but the elaborate display that one friend set up to present it to us.  One of us described it as "cognac-like."  It was very rich, dark in color and with a nice bite. 

Bowmore 12 (scotch)-Another solid island style scotch.  I have a couple of sample bottles of this leftover that I am looking forward to tasting again.

Auchentoshan 10 (scotch)-Our only lowland scotch at the party.  I think those of us who have had Glenkinchie think that one is a bit better but I found them similar in terms of the creamy, grassy nature the style is known for.

Forty Creek Canadian-I chose this bottle because of the special techniques used to make it.  The 3 grains are distilled separately and aged in barrels of different char levels (how much the wood is burnt) before being blended.  I was very dissapointed.  It has a nice complexity to it but overall it's like cough syrup.

Pappy Van Winkle 15 (bourbon)-This is one of my favorite bourbons.  Wheated, so it's mellow but still with a ton of burn.  Hard to describe.  It pours fiery red.  Mellow but with a bite, just like your grandpappy.

A couple of folks tried some of my Four Roses Single Barrel, I find it much better than their other selections but we weren't sure how it stacks up against Evan Williams Single Barrel, which is one of my favorites, a couple others of us really like that one, too.  I don't want to name clear favorites, but I think the Prichards and the Yamazaki were both big hits.  The scotches were all good but maybe too many to choose a standout.  I of course, love Old Pappy Van Winkle, a lot of folks commented on its burn factor, which is good or bad depending on your preference.  I think the Forty Creek was clearly the worst. 

Sorry I forgot to take pictures you'll have to take my word that the party was a lot of fun.  I want to do another where we all chip in and get a super premium bottle of some sort.  One suggestion is the Hirsch Rye, the last of the Pennsylvania ryes.  That could be fun to try.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brewery Tour Series: Yards

Yards is located on Delaware Ave. along the waterfront in Philly.  They moved there after a falling out with the owner of what is now the Philadelphia Brewing Co.  PBC got the brewery and equipment, Tom Kehoe kept the Yards brand and brews.  We stopped in to check out their current operation a couple of months back.

The tour itself was very well done, our tour guide did a great job explaining the brewing process and gave abundant samples.  I even scored a free beer for answering the question "What are the four main ingredients in beer?"  The operation seems very eco friendly, they recycle everything they can, giving spent grains to local farmers to feed livestock and using them to make the bread for the tasting room's grilled cheese sandwiches.  

The tasting room  portion of the visit was a little disappointing.  The room itself came across as a bit grimy.  I understand the value of recycling, and the bowling alley bartop was cool, but there was junk piled everywhere and it all just seemed a bit dirty.  The bartenders were a bit strange, for lack of a better word.  The grilled cheese was good and a good value, at 3 bucks, but the beers were overpriced considering we were sitting next to the room that makes them.  I think they were charging 5 bucks a pint.  The sampler was a little better in terms of value.  They did have a couple of bourbon barrel aged one offs that I enjoyed trying.   And of course they have takeout growlers and glassware for sale. 

A good time and worth the visit, but it could be better done.  I like Yards beer, I read somewhere that their beers are at the intersection of cheap/not shitty.  I think they are a little better than "not shitty."  I like their Philly Pale Ale and Saison, and the Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce is fun.  I think their standout beer is the ESA; it's the one that made the brand.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brewing Beer

While on vacation I had my first experience brewing beer.  My sister-in-law's boyfriend Aaron does it regularly and has a nice system set up for always having some homebrew in the keg.  I learned a lot about the process.  I won't bore you with a step by step--I'm not sure I could recall everything, anyhow--but here are a few pics.  The high tech setup:

Here is the grain, Aaron uses actual malted barley rather than extract.

Moose is key to the process.

This was the only point in the process where being sanitary is key, up to that point, we used buckets from the shed, cobwebs included, and didn't wash anything.  The long boil assures your beer will be safe, but at this point it is ready to start cooling. 

The glorious result, a Belgian styled dubbel.  It will take a few weeks before it's ready for consumption.  This beer used candied beet sugar, whole flower hops as well as hop extract, and an abbey style strain of yeast.  I'm just sorry I won't be there to drink it.  I did get to try Aaron's pale ale, which he described as "not quite ready" in terms of carbonation.  It was fantastic, easily one of the best I've had.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eating Mexican in Philly

Last Saturday Nicole and I ate at Xochitl (pronounce So-Cheet) in Headhouse Square.  We had eaten there for restaurant week when the chef was Dionicio Jimenez, who is now at Stephen Starr's El Rey, and quite enjoyed it.  I thought it would be fun to do a review of Xochitl by comparing it to the other Mexican joints we've dined at in the city.

Xochitl, was a huge disappointment this time around.   I really like Zahav, the Israeli restaurant by the same ownership group, and I was lured by the supposed new concept of Xochitl, which Philadelphia magazine called "a casual cantina" with "a lower price point."   I suppose dressing the waitstaff in soccer jerseys does promote a more laid back atmosphere, but I found the food to be very overpriced.  Their new menu is all small plates, and they recommend that you order 2-3 per person to fill up.  Nicole and I each chose two dishes and two drinks (a margarita and beer each), and the bill came in just shy of $100 (including tip).   I don't know where to begin with my critique of this place.  I'll start with the concept of small plates.  At a restaurant with a great chef like Jose Garces, doing a tasting menu of small plates can be one of the most special meals of your life.  But the concept of small plates, or tapas, at a place seeking a cantina vibe seems like a way to make the menu look more reasonable than it is.  Reading the menu outside the door, one might tink, tacos for 12 bucks?  Not too bad until you walk in and the waitress tells you will need to eat 2-3 plates of them to be satisfied.

Nicole pointed something out early on that now gets under my skin.  She saw the staff bringing in bags of tortillas identical to the ones we buy at the Mexican grocer around the corner from our house for about a buck.  Okay, so they don't have little old Mexican women hand making tortillas like they did at the authentic place we went to in San Diego.  But then they cut them smaller to fit the agenda of small plates!  They were so small that they wouldn't even hold the skirt steak filling that we chose.

Next, the drinks and service.  The margarita was mediocre and 8 bucks, to me about 2-3 bucks overpriced for what it was.  I'm no tequila connoisseur but I know my way around a decent margarita.  The bartender did not appear that skilled; she was making drinks with a shaker and only shaking 4-5 times.  A good bartender knows it will take a good 15 shakes to chill those contents.  Their "special" of the night was a flight of Don Julio Tequila for $20 (you can do this everyday at Cantina Los Caballitos for $13).  While we pondered the overpriced tapas menu, we watched our drinks sit on the bar for several minutes while the bartender was chatting with one of the hostesses.  Our waitress did a good job overall, and though it wasn't her fault the food took forever to come out of the kitchen.  Small plates should keep coming, not with 15-20 minute gaps between your last bite of one and first of the next.

I could overlook all of the above if the food was great.  It wasn't.  It was good, but not great by any stretch.  The chorizo and virginia ham cuban sandwich tasted good, but the bun got soggy as you ate it.  The potato and chorizo stew was oversalted.  The crab ceviche was about the smallest portion of seafood I've ever seen, and it was nothing special.  The skirt steak tacos were cooked properly but not especially flavorful (and on a tiny tortilla).

I will make a final complaint in honor of a coworker of mine.  If you really want a casual cantina vibe, you have to provide free chips and salsa, not try to charge $9 for a bowl of guacamole.

If I were you, I would pass on Xochitl.  But where should you eat Mexican in Philly?  This post is already a bit long so I will do the others in list form:

Cantina Los Caballitos/Dos Segundos-This pair of cantinas are almost identical; one in South Philly one in Northern Liberties.  The house margaritas are solid with fresh squeezed lime for around $5, and they do indeed provide free chips and salsa.  Their menu is creative but not cute, e.g. their sandwiches come with Yuca fries and they have 3 kinds of wings.  Their specials are always appealing; the pork belly tacos are fantastic.  The menu has a range of price points but I don't think I've ever gotten an entree for more than about $12 bucks or so.  The burritos are under $10 and will fill you to the brim.  The beer list is pretty thoughtful, too.

El Vez-It's been too long since eating there for me to really review this old center city Starr mainstay.  The chef may have been Jose Garces when I ate there, I'm not sure.  We had fun, but obviously I didn't rush back.

El Rey-This is Stephen Starr's new center city Mexican joint, with a mixed menu of Mexican street food and homestyle, or "pueblo" food.  The moles are fantastic, and Chef Jimenez took a few menu items from the old Xochitl including a stuffed poblano pepper that Nicole loves.  As always with Starr, more emphasis is given to atmosphere than to anything else.  The margarita was good and the beer list was just okay, though I really enjoyed the agave wheat beer from Breckenridge in CO.  And walking through the kitchen to get to the speakeasy bar in the back is fun, if a total gimmick.

Distrito-This is Jose Garces's West Philly Mexican spot.  A small plates concept that, for me, worked.  I loved, loved, loved the nachos with skirt steak.  I feel El Rey is a response to this, and I would choose this.

El Zarape-This is a hole-in-the-wall taco stand in South Philly.  Very authentic kind of place, not tex-mex and without all of the spice and artificial atmosphere of most of these others.  Good stuff.

La Esperanza-Okay, this one is in Jersey, Lindenwold specifically.  Again, authentic, and very good.  My friend's parents eat here all the time.

Tortilla Press-Another Jersey spot (Collingswood).  I had this menu item: "Our Award Winning Chipotle Peanut BBQ Pork Platter" and loved it.

The Adobe Cafe-This is hardly Mexican, more of just a local bar on East Passyunk Ave.  Most menu items are just okay, but their Texas Ranchero wings are fantastic.

Disclaimer: I've never been to Lolita, which I'm told is a very good BYOT (Tequila).  Nicole didn't love the ownership group's Indian place, Bindi, but really we just haven't ever made it there.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bourbon Tour Wrap Up

Here are my rankings of the 8 tours we did on our whisky themed vacation.  The only Kentucky distillery you can tour which we didn't is Tom Moore, makers of 1792 Ridgmont Reserve.  George Washington's is the only one on the list not in Kentucky (it's in Mt. Vernon, VA).

1.  Woodford Reserve-The corn to cork tour was classy, informative, and fun.
2.  George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill-I really enjoyed getting up close to the history and process of American whisky production.
3.  Buffalo Trace-Some tours show you more, maybe we just got lucky with a great tour guide, maybe I'm biased toward the brand.  But this tour was very cool.
4.  Wild Turkey-If you are only visiting two I would make this my second choice.  It was just so different then the others, in a good way.
5.  Maker's Mark-Over the top and Disneyfied.  In spite of that, or maybe because of it, still a lot of fun.

6.  Heaven Hill-The tasting was cool but mostly HH is not really worth the time.
7.  Four Roses-In a way this is worse than Beam because they make some effort and still come up small.
8.  Jim Beam-There is literally nothing to it. Stop in for the free tasting if it's not too far out of your way.

We did other things besides visit distilleries.  We drank bourbon by the fire.  We went kayaking.  We went to 3 bourbon bars.  Okay, we drank our fair share of bourbon.  I won't do full reviews of the bars we went to, but two of them bookended our trip quite nicely and deserve mention.  On our first night in Bardstown we went to the Old Talbott Tavern, an old stagecoach stop where Lincoln once stayed.  Their bourbon menu is very solid and they have a great deal: 5 shots of any bourbon at the bar (with the exception of Pappy Van Winkle 20) and a souvenir shot glass for $25.  These are the ones we had, using strong recommendations from both the bartender and a local guy at the bar:

Michters 10
Four Roses Single Barrel
Rock Hill Farms
Pure Kentucky
Jefferson's Reserve

The cheapest bottle of these in terms of retail is probably at least 35 bucks, and they go up to around $75.  You can't get a deal like that at any bar in Philly.

On our last day in Kentucky we stopped at a bar called Bourbon's Bistro.  Unfortunately they weren't open for lunch, but we did stop in for a drink before heading to Indianapolis to visit Nicole's folks and sister.  The bourbon selection was unbelievable.  I stupidly asked the bartender if he likes bourbon, and he rattled off a few of his favorites, saying that mostly he rotates through brands depending on mood.  When he realized I was from Philadelphia and looking to try something new, he tried to sell me a shot of Four Roses Single Barrel which the bar hand selects at the distillery, but I just had to try the Sazerac 18 year old rye, Jim Murray's whisky of the year last year.  It was fantastic, like drinking a glass of rye bread. Before we left, the barkeep showed me a bottle of Old Forrester (I think, I can't remember the label) that was bottled in 1915 that they will open for the Breeder's Cup, when tourists in town will pay $50 a shot to try it.

Yes, most of these bottles contain bourbon:

You can appreciate bourbon without going to the bourbon trail.  But if you can tolerate a bit of marketing and some cheesiness, visiting the distilleries that make your favorite spirits is a whole lot of fun.  Now, when I kick back with a glass of Woodford Reserve or George T. Stagg--I just ordered a bottle of the new batch that we saw being bottled at Buffalo Trace--I will picture the sour mash in giant cyprus vats, rows and rows of resting barrels in sleepy rickhouses, hand bottling lines, and friendly tour guides like Frank from West Philly, who left the city life for rolling Kentucky Hills and bluegrass country.  I doubt I'd follow his lead and leave the city, but it's nice to have in mind stables, farmland, and white picket fences while I sip America's famous spirit.  I, for one, won't be sharing any of my bourbon with the angels.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Bourbon?

This post is from my wife and bourbon trail partner, Nicole.  This the official, historically and legally accurate (possibly), history of bourbon whisky.

When you grow up in Indiana and escape to the East Coast as soon as possible, the idea of vacationing in Kentucky sounds pretty lame. However, a quick cost-benefit analysis reveals that camping (cheap) + tours (mostly free) - airfare (ridiculous) + tastings (also free!) = a pretty decent way to have some cheap fun. Granted, we went to eight distilleries, and for the less hardy among us, that might prove a bit inhibiting. However, the good news is that I now know the entire story of bourbon pretty much by heart.

And here it is: Once upon a time there were people who liked to drink. For cheap. They boiled some corn, rye, malted barley, and wheat. They added some yeast, and a bit of the previous batch's fermented mixture (just like when making sourdough bread) and let that shit ferment but good. After a few days, they stuck the resulting sludge (now called "sour mash" or "distiller's beer") in a copper pot and distilled it. What that means, is that they cooked it at a temperature whereby the alcohol (a product of the fermenting process) evaporated while the water and grain sludge did not. (Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water).  The alcohol, now in gaseous form, rose to the top of the still, where it was directed into a pipe and away from the boiling mess. Cool water surrounds the pipe, cooling the gaseous alcohol and turning it into liquid. The liquid, at this point, still had a tinge of color from the grains, so they did it again. This time, the liquid was clear and beautiful. They called it white dog, because it was clear (white) and it would bite you. Later, during Prohibition, when folks had to do their distilling in the dark, it got the name moonshine.

All very well and good, but this is the story of bourbon.

So some folks from back east rode over the Blue Ridge mountains to the land of Kentucky, blessed by bluegrass and sheer limestone cliffs. Unbeknownst to them at the time, that limestone was the perfect filter for water free of iron and perfect for bourbon making. These folks continued to practice the distilling of whisky as they had back east, but trouble was there was nowhere to sell it--too hard to get it back over the mountains to the cosmopolitan markets in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Instead, they decided to ship it downriver to New Orleans. They chose to ship it in barrels, and instead of using (and paying for) brand new barrels, they reused the barrels that had shipped various livestock and goods up the river. So as to protect their product from contamination, they charred the insides of these barrels to kill any lingering chicken germs.

When the folks down in Loo-zee-anna got a taste of that liquor a few months later, they were dumbstruck. The whisky had taken on the color and flavor of the charred barrels, resulting in a mellower, more flavorful sip. The white dog's bite was now a gentle tongue bath. They took to requesting this kind of liquor by name--they asked for Bourbon County Straight Whisky. That was a mouthful, so eventually they just called it bourbon. (Back in those days Bourbon County encompassed much more land than it does today; in fact, today Bourbon County is a dry county.)  Editor's note: Those folks in New Orleans were supposed to ship the whisky up the eastern seaboard, but the stuff was too good to give up. 

Now, years later, the government in their infinite wisdom and tax-centeredness decided to write down some rules so that not just anyone could distill some corn cobs, pour in food coloring, and call it bourbon. Depending on which tour you go on, there are either 6 or 8 laws distillers must follow in order to make bourbon.

1. Corn must constitute at least 51% of the grains used in the recipe. Most use more, between 70 and 75%

2. There may be no artificial additives. (This, incidentally, is why Jack Daniels is NOT bourbon, but Tennessee Whisky. They run their moonshine through a maple filter.)

3. The bourbon must be distilled at less than 160 proof, which is 80% abv. Any higher than that and it's not bourbon.

4. The bourbon must be stored in BRAND NEW charred white oak barrels.

5. The bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years.

6. The bourbon must be bottled at a maximum of 125 proof, or 62.5% abv. (See, it sits in the barrels for 2-18 years, slowly evaporating, so it comes out of the barrels at a much higher proof than it entered. The distillers then cut it with water.)

I may be missing a few regulations, but those are the ones I remember off the top of my head. And in fact, all of this is now permanently ingrained in my brain. However, I have not yet revealed the one thing that truly makes bourbon delightful. It is this: the hole in the barrel out of which the bourbon is poured is called...

wait for it


The end.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Distillery Reviews: Heaven Hill and Jim Beam

This is the last in the series of reviews.  We hit up these two on the way out of Kentucky.

Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY

On our last night of camping, I took a walk through the golf course that was adjacent to our campsite.  In the distance, through the twilight, I saw what appeared to be rickhouses to my newly trained eye.  I had to get closer even though I didn't have a way to let Nicole know that would mean I'd be returning to our site a bit after dark.  As I walked towards the cluster of buildings I saw a sign that read "Free tours and tastings," but at this point I wasn't sure if this cluster of buildings was a distillery or a winery.  Then I saw the sign for Heaven Hill's corporate offices.  I was shocked that the whole time we had been camping with a major bourbon producer right in our backyard.  I kept walking so I could get a peek into the visitor's center, and along the way I swear I could smell some angel's share from the rickhouses, which were resting across the street in beautiful cornfields.  I saw some workers from the evening shift in the bottling house taking lunch, and then I had to head back to camp.  We had been planning on skipping Heaven Hill, but now it seemed un-neighborly to do so.  Especially since said neighbor makes one of your favorite bourbons, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage.  This evening walk was the most peaceful part of my trip, the best part being that it was completely unplanned.  It was perfect. 

With some playing with the schedule we figured out how to squeeze Heaven Hill in after Maker's Mark.  After doing the tour I almost wished I'd have left the previous night's perfection be, as the tour was short and a bit corny, consisting of a video, walk through a rickhouse, and a tasting.  You see, the distillery on site burned down over a decade ago, and the distilling is now done at a plant down the road.  It was neat to hear that when the fire happened, their competitors offered them space to continue making their products.  Heaven Hill didn't take them up on it, instead purchasing a mothballed distillery and quickly outfitting it to continue production.  Our tour guide speculated that they may eventually build a small distillery on site to honor the heritage of the brand.  The guide was the best part of the tour, by far.  She was a wrinkly old woman who has had more than a sip or two of bourbon in her day.  She spoke with a weird cadence, to the point where it seemed she was yelling, "I believe the bourbon we provide you in the tasting will be some of the best bourbon....you've....EVER.....TASTED!"  She also pushed me out of the way at one point.  A tough lady, for sure.   

The tasting was very cool, done in a barrel shaped room.

Evan Williams Single Barrel and Elijah Craig 18 were the bourbons provided, possibly the best combo we'd been offered at any tasting on the whole trail.  Our guide explained how to use a nosing glass, and sniff lavender oil to awake the senses.  She warned us against allowing our friends to pour their own glasses at a bourbon party we may host now that we are experts, "They will fill it up to the top and it will be warm by the time they finish it.  Then they'll dump it and waste it."  And then she firmly clinked glasses with every member of the group, about 20 of us, and drank with us.

All of the distilleries have their hook, but also their way of saying they are the oldest.  Oldest continuously operating, oldest on one site, oldest family owned, etc.  Heaven Hill is a relatively young company, but their point of pride is that they are still family owned, not connected to a drinks conglomerate (if you look at their website, though, they appear to be a conglomerate of their own, as they own many other product lines besides bourbon).  In lieu of a more complete tour, they also have the "Bourbon Heritage Center," basically a museum and gift shop surrounding that barrel shaped tasting room.  Museum exhibits include this odd entry, where pressing a button allows you to smell what must be artificial bourbon at different stages of aging:

I will look back fondly on Heaven Hill, but must say several tours have them beat in every area but the tasting.  We did the mid level free tour.  I can't imagine how they make it any shorter for the "mini" tour, and there didn't seem to be much they were hiding that they could show in the longer tour, which costs 25 bucks.  You might as well take your $25 and get a bottle of E.Williams Single Barrel.

Jim Beam, Clermont, KY

We didn't do the tour here, which consists of a short video in the old master distiller's quarters and nothing more.  Instead, we just joined in the previous tour group's tasting, which consisted of Booker's (fantastic) and Red Stag, a cherry infused bourbon liqueur (yuck).  What a weak offering from the world's biggest bourbon producer: a non-tour with a tasting featuring non-bourbon.  At least Wild Turkey was proud of their industrial appearance.  Jim Beam was literally just a factory with a gift shop. 

Here's Booker: