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 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.