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Bartending: Wine and Alcohol

The main purpose of this section is to further the knowledge, appreciation and general enjoyment of all alcoholic beverages.

Beverage Facts
The most popular beverage in the world is tea; beer is second. India makes the most tea and as nation drinks the most. The Irish are the world’s top individual totalers at 3 kilograms of tea per person per year. Americans only drink about 0.3 kilograms of tea per annum. China produces the most beer at about 24 million metric tons. America makes approximately 22 million metric tons of beer. The United States drinks the most total beer but is 13th in per capita consumption with the Czech Republich drinking close to 170 liters per person per year.
 

Wine

What’s on the Label?
Winery - who made the wine
Wine Name - given by Winery or Region
Variety - type of grape (s) used
Vintage - year of harvest
Alcohol percentage - how much is contained
Place of Origin - where grapes were grown and/or wine was made; could be appellation, region or more specific location
Import Company - if imported
Contact Information - of winery, import company
Misc. info - bottling date, vineyard characteristics, winemaking techniques, winemaker’s notes, food pairing suggestions
Logos or gimmicks - Winery or series specific, collector’s label of art or style of bottle

Tasting
I believe that when we taste or more fittingly, drink wine, we use all of our senses.  The first sense that we use is that of our sight. At birth, this is the least developed of all the senses but by 8 months of age, our sight is equivalent to that of an adult.  Looking at the wine takes on a couple of different issues.  First we look at the label – to verify that is what we want to be drinking. Next, we examine the cork for damage, mold or bottling information. The wine itself is looked at with a great eye – looking for clarity of the product and the presence of particles such as crystals or dust. These can indicate how well the wine was fined and filtered. Psychologically, the color and overall look of the wine will be an indicator of what you can expect – or at least should be. If we see deep red almost purple we think the wine will be full or if the wine looks almost white and watery, we will tend to assume it will be bland. For the true connoisseur, the color could indicate the age or variety.  The next time couple of times you open a bottle of wine, take some time to truly look at the wine and see what you notice.  Take note of what you see and how it affects the taste. Remember to use clear glasses and a neutral backdrop.

Smell
Smelling, in my opinion, is the most important part of wine tasting. If the aroma
appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy the taste – and vice versa – an off smell will bias your taste towards dislike. Studies indicate that we can distinguish about 10,000 different scents. The basic physiology of smelling is that aroma molecules (in the wine) are whiffed up into the nasal cavity where they bond with receptor proteins. Each scent has a distinct pattern that can be identified. The patterns can be similar as in peppermint and spearmint. To help release the aroma molecules in your wine, swirl the liquid in the glass. Use just your wrist to avoid splashes and spills. Next stick your nose right into the glass and take a good whiff. Savor the aromas before you actually take a drink. This is referred to as the bouquet or nose. That is, the odors found in wine that result from things other than the grapes; the oak barrels or the changes in the grapes due to oxygenation and general aging. Concentrate on both the primary and the secondary aromas. The primary scents are easy to find in young wines and are related to the grape itself. Chardonnay can have vanilla and a buttery tone while you’ll find red berries in a Merlot. The secondary aromas come out more in aged wines. This is where you’ll hear terms like, “cigar box”, “vegetal” or “earthy”. You might also have the unpleasant experience of smelling off-odors in the wine. This could be a result of mold, sulfur or vinegar. Either way, what you smell will give you an impression of what you will taste. And just like the appearance, the aromas can give you an indication of the character and origin of the wine. An aged wine will have a more complex nose than a younger version. As well, regional characteristics will be present in the wine. Try to avoid external odors such as spicy cooking, perfumes, smoke or other over-powering smells. Smell is a wonderful gift that affects our mood, memory and desires. Take the time to appreciate the wine and enjoy the pleasures that waft out of the glass.

FEEL
We first looked at it, then we smelled it and tasted it and finally we are going to feel it.  When I sued the word feel, there are two separate ideas that go along with this. The first is the actual sensation in your mouth.  That is, how does the wine feel on your tongue?  Is it smooth and crisp, sparkly, dry, mealy, heavy? The way the wine sits in your mouth can give you a sense of pleasure and completeness to the wine or it can be the end to something unbalanced.

The second idea to feel is your mood. I truly believe that wine tastes different depending on your experience with it.  One bottle may taste terrific depending on the meal, the company, the atmosphere and your overall emotions towards the environment.  While the same bottle of wine may taste completely different on another day with other people. If you have ever visited a winery you can definitely relate.  The experience you have in the tasting room while on a vacation is much different to that you have at home after a tough week at work.  The wine is really incomparable although the same bottle. The same goes for anyone who has fallen in love over a bottle of wine. That same bottle can become your absolute favorite or never taste the same again.  As well, a “bad” bottle of wine could turn “good” in other circumstances. If you are keeping a journal of what wines you taste, remember to add in notes about who was there, what you were eating and how you were feeling. 

The Grape
The grape is, obviously, the most important part of the wine.  Without it, there would be no wine (let’s not discuss dandelion, cherry or like).  Grapes are made up of 90% water, but, it is the other 10% that makes the wine worthy.  Grapes come in clusters of about 80 to 150 berries.  The ideal wine grape is small with a moderate amount of must but good concentrated flavors.  Those looking to make bulk wines grow varieties that will yield fatter berries that produce more must when pressed; quantity over quality.  Phenols include tannins, sugar and pigments.  They are found mostly in the seeds and skin but those in the seeds are pretty undesirable.  Some winemakers will crush and ferment the grapes with the seeds to gain everything they can out of the grape.  Red varieties produce more phenols than whites.  Phenols also contain those substances that have proven health benefits.  The pulp or the flesh is the bulk of the wine and is the richest in juice.  The juice is clear in both white and red skinned varieties.  It is the color in the skin that dyes the juice during fermentation.  The longer the skins are “mixed” with the juice, the deeper the red the wine will be.  The White Zinfandels and Merlots, and all roses are red wines that have only had minimally exposure to their red skins. 

Harvest Time Terminology
Brix is the measurement of sugar contained in the grapes. This measurement helps to determine ripeness of the grape for harvest. Most grapes are harvested at 20 - 25 Brix. Brix is also used after the wine is made to determine residual sugar.
 

Types of Wine

Chardonnay
Chardonnay is arguably the most well known white grape variety.
Grown in chalky soils, the French mastered its growth and production making it a noble wine.  It can be found all over the world but is highlighted in California, Australia and South America. Chardonnay loves oak.  Wines made from Chardonnay are dry and exhibit flavors of green apple, butter, almonds, honey, ripe melon and vanilla.  Chardonnay is a versatile wine and can go with just about any meal - from chicken to fish to macaroni and cheese.

Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc has its roots in the Loire Valley where it is called Pineau de la Loire.  It is a warm climate grape that grows well in various soil types.  The grapes are fairly thin-skinned and susceptible to noble rot.  These traits allow Chenin Blanc to be made into a variety of styles from dry to sweet and even sparkling. Producers from the Loire Valley such as Vouvray, Anjou and Saumur make Chenin Blanc into light and off-dry wines.   California and South Africa, where they call it Steen,   produce Chenin Blanc in a softer style to that of France.  In our wine aisles we  will mostly find general table wines made from Chenin Blanc with fruity flavors of quince, melon and vanilla.  As a general rule, Chenin Blanc is not barrel-aged thus making these wines great alternatives for those who don’t like oaky Chardonnays.  

Gamay Noir
Gamay Noir is the secondary red grape of the Burgundy region (after Pinot Noir); particularly in Beaujolais (where it is just called Beaujolais). It is also grown in California and Australia. Gamay is fermented by carbonic maceration and is rarely oaked. This variety does not play well with others and as such is vinified on its own.  Gamay is a wine that is fresh and fruity and best enjoyed while it is young (max. 2 years). It has a blue-purple hue, low alcohol and a bouquet of strawberries and cherries.  Gamay should be served slightly chilled.  It goes great with cheese and crackers, chicken, fish and light pastas. 
This is it a great sandwich wine. 

Gewürtztraminer
Gewurztraminer (pronounced Guh-VERTZ-tra-meener) is a pink-skinned grape that produces wonderfully spicy white wines. It grows best  in cool climate areas such as Alsace, Germany, Northern Italy, Eastern Europe and right  here Michigan.  It is made into  various styles from semi-dry to richly sweet.  In places such as Alsace, drier table wines are the way for Gewurtz, whereas North American winemakers vinify the grape into lighter-bodied, sweeter versions. The grape is also used for late-harvest  and ice wines as it holds on the vine for longer periods without losing the balance between acidity and sugar.   Typical Gewurztraminers produce aromas of spice, lychees and rose petals.

Grenache
Grenache can be found in many parts of the world but is best known for making roses in France’s Rhone Valley and Languedoc regions and especially in Spain.  Its prestige comes from being part of the base to Chateauneuf du pape.  Grenache wines are best drunk young with raspberry and pepper flavors becoming fullest when slightly chilled.  Serve with lamb, veal or pork.

Malbec
Although its production in Bordeaux is decreasing, Malbec is still one of the four classic Bordeaux red varieties (Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and Merlot are the other three). It grows best in warmer climates with long periods of sun. This is why  Argentina produces fabulous Malbecs. Malbec is softer than the Cabs but fuller than Merlot with a deep color, good tannin and distinct plum flavor.  Mostly used to balance Bordeaux -style wines, it is made into a varietal in South America where it takes on more of the Merlot characteristics.  Malbec is always oaked and of course needs some time to mellow out once opened. I love serving Malbec with grilled steak when I don’t want something as big as a Cabernet. 

Mead
Mead of course, is honey wine. Mead has roots in almost all cultures throughout history from the Nordic folk to Greek myths, the Hindu gods as well as the Roman and British royalties.  One legend has it that mead fell from heaven in a dew-like substance and was collected by the honey bees from flowers.  It was considered sacred. Mead also tends to be associated with romance and victory and thus drunk on special occasions such as weddings, honeymoons and in September.

There is some debate as to whether mead is in the wine or the beer family. It has the alcohol content of wine but lacks tannins, water, acids, nutrients, etc. that come from grapes and need to be added to mead.

There are several versions of mead on the market.  The two most noted are the “traditional and the varietal honey”.  These are both made strictly from honey, either a blend or from one flower source. There are also meads which contain the addition of apples, grapes or other fruits and fruit juices.   You can also find a braggot or bracket with the addition of malt resulting in a mixture of mead and ale. This is more on the beer side.

Merlot
Merlot is a red variety that originates in Bordeaux. The most famous of all is Pomerol’s Chateau Petrus. However, it is grown world wide including cool climates.  The low tannins help this wine to be wonderful on its own but also to be used to soften even the heaviest of Cabs. It thin skin makes it susceptible to fungus and rot and needs to be carefully tended to in the vineyard.  Most Merlots are aged in oak and are ready to drink in 4 to 8 years.  Merlot is often described as delicious with plums, berries and violets in the aroma.  To help enjoy a Merlot, serve with a beef or lamb. 

Pinot Blanc
Although not a popular variety, Pinot Blanc produces a wine that can range from medium bodied to crisp and light.  It is often mistaken for Chardonnay and as such referred to the “poor man’s Chardonnay.”  Although it is vinified without oak, similar tastes to Chardonnay like apples, honey and vanilla predominate the flavors.  Pinot Blanc is grown in the Alsace region of France, Germany and Italy, where they call is Pinot Bianco. Wines made from Pinot Blanc compliment light pasta dishes, seafood plates and chicken.

Pinot Noir
Nothing says elegance and class like a smooth, silky Pinot Noir.  It is a stubborn grape to grow and will only produce in perfect conditions of chalky soils, gentle sloping vineyards and enough sun to ripen the grapes without over doing it.  France’s Burgundy region, the state of Oregon and our own Northern Michigan provide for Pinot Noir’s strong-willed needs.  There are of course, other regions that are producing Pinot Noir, some to increasing success like California’s Russian River Valley. Pinot Noir in its ideal, is a red, medium-bodied, dry wine with cherries, strawberries, violets and licorice aromas that ages well and feels like satin on the tongue.  Its sear perfection in the final product only excuses its difficultness in its creation.  Pinot Noir goes well with roast pork, turkey and baked ham.

Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is slowly becoming a favorite of mine.  For years it has brought me distaste with its tart and tang.  The high acid brings a bite that is harsh on the tongue.  However, I recently have gone back to the Bordeaux section and am learning to enjoy Sauv Blanc for all it has to offer. New Zealand, Chile and California are also making great bottles of the variety but it is the Fume Blancs that I am relishing these days. Sauv Blanc is full of grass, gooseberry, asparagus, grapefruit and minerals.  And let’s not forget the “catbox”. These are not your average flavors. But the stainless steel fermentation gives this variety a crispness and zest that I am learning to crave.  Sauv Blancs will go with just about anything including spices such as garlic and cilantro.

Zinfandel
Zinfandel, or more commonly, Zin. There is a great debate as to the origins of the variety with some saying it is the same as the Italian Primitivo and the Croatian Plavic Mali. Although there are similar DNA components and properties, it is not been completely proven that the three grape varieties are the same. Zinfandel is grown almost exclusively in California and can be made into a big full red wine or a light refreshing rose. In the early 80s, the full red Zin declined in popularity until creative winemakers vinified the grape into a slightly sweet rose. Sales of the “new wine” took off and Zinfandel was made almost exclusively in this pink style. Although still produced, it is the red version that gets the good press. The most common characteristics you’ll find in a red Zin are blackberry, raspberry, cloves and oak as most Zinfandel wines find themselves aging in barrels for some period of time. To bring out all that a Zin has to offer serve the wine with tomato-sauce pastas, pizzas and especially grilled meats. There is nothing like a BBQed Angus hamburger and a bottle of red Zin. Offer a White Zin with foods such as appetizers, salads, lighter meats like poultry or even egg dishes. Remember to slightly chill the White versions and let the big reds breathe.

Organic Wine
Organic wine is “a wine made from organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites”, there are two schools of thought when it comes to organic wine. The first is wine made from organically grown grapes – no chemicals in the field, thus producing more naturally hardy and resistant vegetation.

Harvest is done by hand to allow for only the ripest and healthiest grapes to be chosen.

The second school of thought follows this process to the cellar where any added chemicals, sulfur included is forbidden. Most organic winemakers do agree that minimal sulfite addition is necessary to keep the stability of the wines. Some producers will even use wild yeasts and keep filtering to a minimum allowing for a truly natural wine to form. For those who are die-hard organic followers, there are even recommendations on packaging and labeling – corks are regulated.
For a complete list of recommended organic practices, see www.organicwine.com

Wine is subjective whether it is organic or not and there are those who say that organic wine is more flavorful and clean. As consumer tastes evolve and wine practices improve, there is more and more support and like for organic wines.

Wine Words
Acidity - Tartaric, malic, citric, and lactic acids occur naturally in wine. These acids help to maintain the wine’s freshness. However, too much acid will make the wine unbalanced, overpower the natural flavors and make it taste sour or tart. You’ll find higher acidity levels in younger wines as well as wines produced in cool, rainy seasons. Acidity is found on labels as a percentage with dry wines falling between 0.6% and 0.75% per volume. Sweet wines should not be less than 0.70% of the volume.

Words to Know about Wine Making
Fining - Before wine is bottled, the liquid is clouded with dust, stem, leaf, seed and grape particles. One way of clearing out these unwanted, minute pieces is to add a clay substance such as bentonite or an organic product like isinglass or egg white. These substances act like magnets drawing the particles out of the wine and dragging them to the bottom. Left for a couple of days to settle, the wine is then racked into a clean container leaving the sediment on the bottom. This method in considered less disrupted to the wine than filtering although many winemakers will do both.

Racking is essentially large scale decanting. The wine is siphoned out of one container or barrel into the a new container, leaving the sediment in the first. To get a clear product, fining and racking will have to take place several times.

Lees refers to the sediment left on the bottom. Some labels have “aged on the lees or sur lie”. This means that the wine was not racked and that the flavor (and tannin) in the stems, skins and such was imparted onto the wine.  The wine is then more tasty and full than if it was racked.

Handling Wine

Decanting
As (red) wine ages or sits on a shelf, sediment from the liquid will settle to the bottom of the bottle. Also, red wine needs some airing before serving to help mellow the tannins. One of the classier methods to serve wine and to remove the sediment and begin the aeration is to decant the wine. This process is done by carefully pouring the wine from a bottle to a clean (glass) vessel. Be careful to leave the sediment in the bottle. With some practice a candle can be held under the bottle to help see the deposit before it flows to the awaiting bottle.

What is corked wine?
Although this is fairly uncommon, only about 1% of wines are affected, corked wine is talked about a lot. And rightfully so as once you experience a corked wine, you’ll never forget it. It is generally caused by a compound called TCA (tricholoroanisole) and occurs when chlorine has been used to clean natural corks or from musty barrels. Cheaper wines tend to be affected more as some wineries will use less expensive cork or use cheaper means to clean the winery. You can tell a corked wine by its musty and woody aroma. There is a lack of fruit smell to the wine along with a bitter, cardboard taste. This is one fault in the wine that if you find it, you’ll know it.  Just be careful, if you find bits of cork floating in the bottle or glass, this does not mean that the wine is faulted; it just means the cork just got too wet or dry and fell apart. If you get a corked bottle, return it to the store or send it back at the restaurant.

How long can I keep an unopened bottle of wine?
It varies depending on the variety, the vintage and the quality. However, the majority of the wine sold in the United States is meant to be drunk within a year.  There really is very little selection of wine that needs to be cellared.  Even wine that would typically need some time to age is not released by the producer until it is ready or very close to being ready to drink.  The main concern to keeping any bottle of wine is proper storage. Keep wines in a cool, dark place.  Decorative wine racks add a nice touch to dining rooms or kitchen counters but are not really wine friendly as people tend to sit them near radiators where there is fluctuation in the temperature, in direct sunlight or where general movement can vibrate the bottles and disturb the wine. Keep your unopened bottles “hidden” and when you have finished a bottle, carefully fill it with water, recork it and store it on the rack for decoration and for the remembrance of a good time.  A rule of thumb - on average, red wines will last longer than whites, but most of the wine on the shelves is only good for up to a year.

How long do I keep an open bottle of wine?
Oxygen is both a wine’s friend and foe.  Red wines need air to mellow out the tannins but too much oxygen and the wine will begin to spoil.  Of course, my opinion is that if you open a bottle of wine, you should drink it.  But as I understand it, sometimes this isn’t possible.  So what do you with an open bottle?  There are several devices on the market that supposedly help preserve the wine. These include various types of vacuum pumps and inert gas cans (Private Reserve).  I have polled several people and there is no consistency with these products, each person I ask seems to have their own opinion. Outside of these devices, you can also transfer the wine into a smaller bottle and recork it.  What you are trying to achieve is minimal air exposure.  Always store un-drunk wine in the fridge (red, fortified and herbal wines included) as this helps to slow the oxidation process and drink the wine within a few days.  Normally red wines hold better than whites but since sugar and acidity act as natural preservatives, whites tend to sit better in the fridge after they have been opened.

What do I do with left over wine?
Well, you can store it like discussed above and then drink it or you can “make more memories.”  One year I purchased some mere de vinegar (mother of vinegar) and made Liana’s vinaigrette.  Vinegar mother comes in both a red and a white variety.  I had two vessels; red and white; and in them I put a little of every bottle I opened.  I purchased decorative glass cruets, fresh herbs and spools of ribbon. I added a small note referring to a time I had drank some wine with a particular person during the year and voila - personal Christmas presents. Of course you can just keep your wine, let it turn to vinegar on its own and dress your dinner salads.

How much do I need to spend on a bottle of wine?
The answer relies on your budget.  But if money weren’t the issue, I would still say no more than $10-15. Of course there are some great choices that do cost more but for everyday drinking or light entertaining, you can definitely stay close to that range.   Like any other commodity, the price of wine is determined by the cost to make it, advertise it and what the overall market is driving. Don’t be fooled by high price wines, they just may not be worth it.  This is where your favorite wine magazine or Internet site is important to help you with some research.  How much you spend on a bottle of wine also depends on what are your tastes.   It really doesn’t matter if you spend under $10 or upwards of $50, buy and drink what you like - that is what is important.

Are there a lot of calories in wine?
On average, wine has 25 calories per ounce.  A typical serving is 6-8 oz.  Thus a glass of wine contains about 175 calories.  Alcohol is the largest contributor to those calories although some of them do come from the actual grapes used in the production.  Logistically, drier wines have fewer calories than sweeter choices and lower alcohol wines have less than higher percentages.   The United States Department of Agriculture says that 100 grams of “table wine” (12.2 percent alcohol by volume) has 85 calories while 100 grams of “dessert wine” (18.8 percent alcohol by volume) has 135 calories. A simple way to determine the number of calories in a glass of wine is to multiply the percentage of alcohol (found on the label) by the number of ounces in the glass and multiply that by 1.6.
(Note: I would like to credit Lisa Shea of wineintro.com as the originator of the wine calorie calculator.)
 

Wine Regions: French, German,  Italian, and  California Wine Regions

French Wine Regions
France is the largest Western European nation with an area slightly less than twice the size of Colorado. It has generally cool winters and mild summers with a terrain that alternates between flat and rolling hills.  The wine industry in France dates back centuries with its rise in stature resting upon its ideal grape-growing conditions and its relationship with England and their love of French wine. Although France has seen a decrease in its vineyards and wine production, it continues to be the number one producer in the world with about 5.9 million liters per year. 

The Label
France places more importance on where the grape was grown than the actual grape. That is, they feel the finished product is a result of the geographic factors of the place – rainfall, soil type, hours of sunlight and wind.  This concept is called terroir. Each region has its own distinct terroir along with its own production style (that suits the varieties).  As such, French wine is labeled by the place it is made, rather than the grape varieties.  As a consumer, you need to remember which varieties are grown where in France to know what you are getting in the bottle.  For example, in Beaujolais, Gamay grapes are grown and made into light, fruity reds.  Thus, when looking at a Georges DuBoeuf label, it won’t say “Gamay” but simply “Beaujolais”.  There is a slow movement to change this and place variety names on the bottles as French producers are realizing this isn’t a very consumer-friendly system.

The Most Famous of All
Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world as it has both a long history as well as traditionally some really great wines. As stated earlier, one of the reasons why French wines became popular was due to established relationships with England.  Long story, short, years ago, there was a British King who married a Bordelaise girl and brought back local wine to make her happy. His rich friends loved the stuff, had more shipped over and the demand for Bordeaux wines was created. Although there are differences in the vintages from year to year, the quality of Bordeaux wines remains constant. This region is situated in an area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde River. This shield helps to maintain stable temperatures and a consistent environment. Red wines comprise approximately 85% of Bordeaux’s wine production.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec are the region’s approved red varieties and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion are the whites.  If you hear the terms, “Bordeaux blend”, “Claret” or “Meritage”  - think Bordeaux red grape variety blend.

Bordeaux labels are broken down in the following manner. Bordeaux is the region.  There are then six districts or sub-regions (Medoc, Graves, Pomerol, St. Emilion, Entre Deux Mers, and Cotes de Bourg). Within these are communes or villages. For example, in Medoc you will find St-Estephe, St-Julien and Pauillac.  Within the villages are individual estates or chateaux. The more specific the label, the better quality as the individual producer’s reputation is at stake, rather than a group of winemakers with no particular name.

Each district has its own style of wine related to the emphasis of which grapes are grown.  Medoc is full of Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Emilion and Pomerol are Merlot areas, Graves and Entre-Deux Mers are white wine places and Cotes de Bourg is a combination of the reds.

Due to the high quantity of tannins in the Cabs, Bordeaux wines, on average will age for 5-15 years.  The red wines tend to be full bodied and powerful while the whites are either fruity-fresh or dry and rich.

The Other Great Region
Bordeaux and Burgundy both produce wines of immense quality and distinction and they are both wine regions in France.  Outside of that, they are few similarities.  While the reds of Bordeaux are big and bold, the reds of Burgundy are soft and supple and the Bordeaux whites are fresh and crisp and in Burgundy there are rich and full. The main red grape of Burgundy is Pinot Noir and the predominant white is Chardonnay.

Most of the wine from Burgundy is made from a collective pool of grapes and resources.  There are two main collectives through which the wine is bottled. The first is a co-operative, where the vineyards are subdivided into smaller parcels that are held by different owners.  The wine is sold under a common name and explains why you will see several wines labeled with the same vineyard name. The quality of these wines may differ from producer to producer.  The second system of this collective wine making takes place through a negoicant.  This is a firm that buys grape must from several local growers and then blends these to sell under their house label. There are also individual estates, like the Chateaux in Bordeaux, but are called Domaines in Burgundy.

Burgundy is divided into seven districts.  There is Chablis where Chardonnay reigns and the Pinot Noir areas of Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune and Cote Chalonnaise. Macon is filled with both reds and whites and the well-known Pouilly-Fuisse (Chardonnay).  Beaujolais sits in Burgundy and is Gamay grape country.  Here you’ll find young, fresh wines that can use a little chilling beforehand.

The Littlest Region
Alsace is a little region close to the German border.  Although both Germany and Alsace grow similar varieties, the styles are quite different. Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc are the main varieties with the Alsatian versions being drier, fuller and slightly more alcoholic than their German counterparts.  Unlike other French regions, Alsace wines will carry variety names on their labels.  One of my all time favorites is an Alsatian Pinot Blanc.  

The Rhone Valley
The Rhone Valley is a prime producer of full bodied, rich, robust  reds.  The red grapes include Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault.  There whites that are grown include Viogner, Marsanne and Rousanne.  One of the well-known wines from this region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It is made from a combination of 13 red and white varieties. However, it is the Grenache and Syrah that stand out. There is both a young, light style and an aged, richer version. Look for the aged-style.

The Loire Valley
Pouilly-Fume is a crisp yet rich Sauvignon Blanc made in Pouilly-sur-Loire in the Loire Valley.

Break out the Bubbly
Champagne itself is a designated wine region in the northern part of France. Sparkling wine is made from the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that grow here.  Due to, what is essentially naming rights; the only sparkling wine in the world that can be called Champagne must be produced in this region. (There are international law suits pending regarding this issue.) A champagne company is called a House and the wine produced in a given year is a cuvee. There are a few production methods to making the wine bubble with everything from a complete hands-on process to simply injecting carbon dioxide into the vats.  The expense to these wines derives from the production methods used; the more personal the winemaking, the more expensive the wine.  These particular wines will be labeled “methode champenoise” or “traditionnelle” which is the only way the wine can be made in this region.
 

Germany’s Wine Country

Many of us stopped drinking German wines. At one time, these sweet, cheap wines dominated the market and satisfied our wine drinking needs.  American palettes have evolved and as a whole, we are drinking more off-dry and dry wines.  Germany has moved with this trend and are producing newer and more complimentary wines. 

Germany is one of the most northerly wine producing countries with cool climate conditions.  Its 13 wine growing regions sit in the southwestern portion close to the border of France and the Alsace region.  There is much similarity between Germany and Alsace wine as the two have crossed influenced each other over the years. The two regions share similar climate, grape varieties and even the distinct tall, thin bottles.  The vineyards in Germany lie in proximity to the rivers of Ahr, Mosel, Nahe and Rhein.  The water has the effect of moderating the temperatures for better growing conditions. 

Grape Varieties
Due to the cool climate conditions of the country, the German wine grape production runs about 90% white.  Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Scheurebe, Muller-Thurgau, and Ruländer/Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) are the most widely planted varieties.  The whites range from light, fresh and fruity, to fragrant, elegant, sweet and rich.  The sweetest of the wines have proven to age well over time.  The newer styles of white are similar to the Alsace style of dry and fuller in body.  These are the wines worthy of trying.  Almost all of the reds stay in the area but every now and then you will find one on the shelf.  The main grapes are Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Portugieser and Trollinger.  The reds are light with more fruit bouquets than tannin. 

On the Label
German wine labels have the usual information such as vintage, region, grape variety and producer.  You will also find an AP or  Amtliche Prüfnummer number.  This number is a unique code given to each wine produced by every winemaker.  The sequence of numbers can help to identify region, village, estate, a bottle number and year of tasting.  This wine tracking system helps the producers more so than having any real advantage to the consumer.  Some of the more traditional producers continue with the color-coding of bottle; green bottles are used for Mosel wines, brown for Rhein and blue for Nahe.  This dates back to preliterate times when a buyer could pick out a bottle and know its style, flavor, etc. without having to read the label.

The Prädikat
The label will also state the classification of the wine under Germany’s version of the AOC or DOC.  The Prädikat system denotes sweetness levels of the wine rather than actual quality of the product.  However, as the sweetness levels rise, so does the intensity of the winemaking process.  The sweeter wines require more hands-on work and attention and subsequently would denote better quality.

Qualitatswein (QBA) - Quality wine; most German wine; fresh, low alcohol, easy drinking
Qualitatswein Mit Pradikat (QMP) - Quality wine with special attributes or distinctions, usually ripeness levels
Kabinett - Fine wine; lightest and driest of the QMP line
Spatlese - Late harvest
Auslese - Only fully ripe bunches of grapes are picked; intense bouquet and Sweet
Beerenauslese - Individual overripe berries are selected to make rich, dessert wines; SWEET
Trockenbeeranauslese - Selection of overripe, dried single grapes to make a very rich wine; SWEET
Eiswein - Wine made from berries frozen on the vine; sugars and acids are concentrated; wine is honeyed and SWEET

What is Piesporter?
Piesporter is a wine growing area within the Mosel region.  The wines produced in this region are light and delicate, sweet almost to honeyed.  Think every wine menu before 1995! 

German Wine Terms
Anbaugebeit - Region
Bereich - Sub region
Grosslage - Group of vineyards
Einzellage - Single vineyard
Sekt - Sparkling wine; made using the charmat method

Tuscany the Italian Wine Region
In the central part of Italy lies the Tuscany wine region and the home of Chianti. Chianti is one of the more famous Italian wines. There are seven individual Chianti zones each with its own label and symbol marked on the neck of the bottle. There are essentially two styles of Chianti. The first we remember as the straw-covered bottles hanging in Italian restaurants.  These wines  are made in the traditional manner with a blend of white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia and red grapes, predominantly Sangiovese and Canaiolo. The whites help soften the bolder, harsher reds.  This wine is young and fresh and meant to be drunk early. The wine laws began to change as varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah proved to do well in the region.  As a result there is a newer style called Chianti Riserva that includes these varieties and little to no whites. These wines are barrel aged for at least three years and often require some bottle aging to full develop.  They are much heavier and deeper than their counterparts and can stand up to any other Bordeaux-style wines.  Along with Chianti, Tuscany also produces wines known as “Super Tuscans”.  These wines are made from the newer varieties in the area such as the Cabs and Merlot. Super Tuscans fall under Vino da Tavola and do not hold a DOC or DOCG status (Italian Wine Law grading system - Vino da Tavola is a lower grade).  The Cab blends from Tuscany can run a high price but are definitely worth it. Other reds from Tuscany to keep your eye out for are Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. The Vino Nobile uses Chianti varieties but is drier, fuller, higher in alcohol and ages better than traditional Chiantis. Brunello is a big huge wine made from Sangiovese grapes. This wine needs many years to full mature and can have an alcohol percentage of up to 14%. This wine is hard to come by and is costly but once again, as all Tuscan wines, worth it!   
 

The California Napa Region
Napa. Neither its size, about 1/8 of the size of Bordeaux, nor its production, a little over four percent of California’s total wines, has stopped Napa Valley from growing into one of the most talked about and high class wine regions of the world.

Napa Valley’s climate is suited for grapes. The maritime weather gives cool nights and warm days, which are combined with fertile soils to create prime conditions for grape growing. Added to that years of inventors and wine industry leaders and you have one incredible wine region. Napa is full of microclimates that help to produce specific varieties with distinct style and character.
 
The showcase red wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah. Gamay and Pinot Noir are also produced. The whites that dominate the market from Napa Valley include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. A fair amount of Sparkling
wine is also made in the area.

Napa Valley is itself an appellation and within the area exists 14 subappellations, including: Atlas Peak, Chiles Valley District,

Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros,

Mt. Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Spring Mountain District, Stags Leap District, Yountville, Wild Horse Valley and Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. The Calistoga appellation is still pending approval.

The first established commercial winery opened in 1861 by Charles Krug (sparkling wine fame) and by 1889 there were more than 140 wineries, including Beringer and Ingelnook. It didn’t take long before phylloxera took hold and literally ate up the vineyards. After replanting, Prohibition hit in 1920. After 1933, Napa Valley took hold and began to collectively grow grapes and make wine sharing best practices among vintners.

Today there is over 260 wineries in the region. Napa is home to names like Beaulieu Vineyard, Caymus Vineyards, Frog’s Leap Winery, Grgich Hills Cellar and Robert Mondavi Winery.

For more information about Napa Valley visit www.napavintners.com


Other Wines:
Sherry
Sherry is a fortified wine made in the Jerez region in Spain.  The wine is made from the grape varieties Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Muscat with grape brandy added.  After the wine is made and fortified with the brandy, it is aged in 550-liter used-oak casks.  There the wine goes through the Solera ageing process (see below).  Fino style sherries grow a layer of yeast called a flor on top of the wine.  The type of flor that develops determines the sweetness and exact style of fino sherry produced.  Olorosso sherries are fortified to such a strong alcohol content that the flor cannot grow. 

Sherries are not ageing wines.  Once bottled and sold, sherries are at their peak within a year.  After a bottle is opened, it only holds its quality for about 6 weeks.  However, if you are like me and enjoy sherry, that shouldn’t be a problem. Store an opened bottled in the fridge to keep it from going bad too quickly. 

The best use for sherry is to serve it as an aperitif with appetizers, particularly tapas (Spanish appetizers).  However, don’t discount it with soups, white meats, blue cheeses or desserts like pecan pie.  

Solera System
The Solera System contains rows of barrels stacked in a pyramid fashion that hold the sherry for ageing and creates a system for blending.  The new wine is put into the top barrels.  Every six months, or other timed cycle, wine is moved from top barrels to the next level down. Only half of the very bottom barrels are bottled and sold. This means that every bottle has potentially the same quantities of young and old wine. Solera system wines have no vintage date, as they are true blends.

Types of Sherries
Sherries fall into two main categories: Fino and Oloroso. 

Fino  -  Fino sherries develop a flor on top.  They are vinified dry, are pale golden in color and have overtones of almonds in the taste.  These should be served well chilled and drunk within one year of bottling and soon after opening. 
Amontillado  - These wines are old Fino sherries.  They are amber in color with a hazelnut flavor.  Amontillados come in either dry or slightly sweet and are light and smooth on the palate.  They should be served cool, not chilled.  Dry Sack in an Amontillado sherry.

Oloroso - Oloroso sherries are stronger in alcohol than finos and do not develop the flor.  They are deep orange- red, mahogany hue as during fermentation the barrels are exposed to air that oxides the wine.  Nuts and grapes dominate the bouquet of an oloroso.  Most Olorosos are sweetened before bottling with Pedro Ximénez, or are used as the base wine in the even sweeter Cream sherries. These wines compliment desserts, nuts or fresh fruit and should be served at room temperature or on ice.
Cream - A sweet, mahogany-colored wine, made from Oloroso. It has an intense aroma, velvety palate, full body and full of sweetness. Think Harvey’s Bristol Cream.
 


Beer

Beer is a fermented beverage that uses grain as its sugar source where wine uses grapes.   The fermentation in beer is caused by one of two yeasts - bottom or top fermenting.  Bottom fermenting yeast is used in the production of lagers.  The yeast particles settle to the bottom of the tank and the beer results in a crisp clean taste. It takes about two weeks to ferment lagers.  Most of the popular brands here in the US are lagers - Budweiser, Miller, Coors and Molson. On the other hand, ales are fermented with top fermenting yeasts.  These yeasts take only a week to work and produce higher alcohol concentrations. Yeasts used for ales cannot ferment some of the sugars in the grains resulting in sweeter beers.   Here in the States, a “real ale” is hard to come by but there are several types of ale we enjoy (see below). All beers fall under either the category of either lager or ale.

Lagers -  Pilsners are golden in color and aged in wood barrels. It is the palest and lightest tasting of all lagers - Labatt’s Blue.

Ales - Stouts use roasted barley to obtain their black color and sharp taste. They come in various sweetness levels and alcohol percentages. Guinness is a stout.

Porter is a heavy beer that is also made from roasted barley.  It has a less hoppy taste than ale but with a touch of sweetness. Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery is a Porter.

Pale Ale has high alcohol content with a strong hoppy taste - think Bass Pale Ale.

India Pale Ale is a premium pale ale.  Alexander Keith’s is an IPA.

Brown Ale has chocolate and nut in the flavors.  Try Pete’s Wicked Ale or Newcastle.

Light beers are beers with fewer calories than the “regular” version. The look and feel of light beers often resemble pilsners as they are tend to watery tasting.

Draft or keg beer is any beer served in the “cask” it is conditioned (the term for aging beer) in. It is not filtered or pasteurized and thus has a fuller flavor but shorter shelf life than bottled beer.

Malt Drinks
Nothing says refreshing like premium malt beverages (PMB).  These are great alternatives to those who don’t like beer but want something refreshing to drink by the BBQ.  Premium malt beverages use malt as their base and are brewed like beer.  They have natural and artificial flavorings added to give the desired taste.  Although some have spirit-company names, they are made by a brewery. For these products to be sold under the beer-regulations, the US Government does not allow spirits to be added to malt beverages.  However, other countries, like Canada, can add in a little kick.

  • Smirnoff Ice - No vodka but still refreshing and very citrusy.
  • Bacardi Silver Low Carb Black Cherry  - This is the lowest carb product out there.  Great taste of cherries and hints of vanilla.
  • Bacardi Silver makes Citrus, Raspberry, Lemon and Orange versions (but only BC is Low Carb).
  • Tequiza- A mixture of lager beer and blue agave nectar.  Hmmm - beer and tequila!  Yummy with lime!
  • Zima - The original premium malt beverage.  Not the greatest product, tastes a little soapy to me.
  • Doc’s Hard Lemonade - Good lemonade flavors. 

 

Cocktails

Americans are the world’s greatest cocktail consumers. The tradition was invented in America and Americans keep the tradition alive. Bartenders everywhere offer imaginative cocktails wherever Americans travel.

The famous Mayflower carried kegs of beer, wine, and spirits to provide entertainment to the pilgrims. Later on when settlers had planted and started distilling, anyone ordering whiskey was served rye distilled by George Washington’s small but profitable distillery at Mount Vernon. Shortly after the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, many distillers fled Pennsylvania and settled in Kentucky to avoid additional taxes. Governments everywhere have been taxing alcohol almost from the moment it was produced on commercial scale and continue to this day.

In America, cocktails started becoming hugely popular at the beginning of the 19th century.

The origins of the word cocktail are still unclear. Some researchers claim it to be a mispronunciation of coquetier, the French word for egg cup, others attribute it to French officers stationed in New Orleans and frequent guests in a tavern where mixed drinks were served garnished with the tail of a cockerel.

When bourbon whiskey producers in Kentucky started flooding the market, an imaginative bartender invented mint julep that consists of bourbon, fresh mint leaves, sugar and ice cubes. Even the famous English writer Charles Dickens consumed many mint juleps during his frequent visits to the U S A. Actually; he was fond of spirits including gin (gin, sugar and hotel water).

Cocktails were expensive as ice was rare, and costly. The invention by John Gorrie (a physician by trade) of inexpensive ice cube production around 1850’s made cocktails affordable.  Well heeled and socialites started frequenting sophisticated bars looking for new cocktails, excitement and adventure. Manhattan, one of the classic cocktails of all time was created for New York governor Tilden, by a bartender, upon request for a special cocktail. It consists of bourbon, sweet red vermouth and a maraschino cherry. In Canada, rye whisky is substituted for bourbon and in the United Kingdom Scotch whisky.

The “old fashioned” also a classic cocktail reflects the drinking customs of the time (bourbon, sugar and bitters). In those days, whiskeys were rough and hardly aged. Sugar mellowed the harshness, and ice cubes rendered the drink refreshing and palatable.

The undisputed king of cocktails remains the martini, which was created for a traveller by bartender Jerry Thomas at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. The name originates from the town of Martinez, the destination of the traveller, near San Francisco. Originally, martini cocktails consisted of 2 ounces of gin and one ounce of sweet white vermouth. Today, martinis contain very little dry vermouth.

In the 1970’s vodka replaced gin in popularity and today most cocktails aficionados want a vodka martini when they order a martini. Contrary to common belief, martini must be served with an unpitted green olive, never with a stuffed one.

Actually, modern martini’s popularity can be attributed to two things; first James Bond’s now famous phrase ordering the bartender to “shake” his martini and not “stir”. In reality, no self-respecting bartender will ever shake a martini. Vodka martini is preferred because one can barely detect it on the breath, whereas gin smells quite strongly, but gin distillers everywhere spend millions of dollars in marketing to keep it popular.

Cocktails are the domain of imaginative and entertaining bartenders who never tire of experimenting with alcoholic beverage combinations, fruit juices, sugar, ice cubes and other ingredients. Presentation and glassware contribute a great deal towards the appeal of any cocktail, and must be considered carefully.

Cocktail competitions organized by various distillers have contributed positively to the evolution of these intriguiging mixes that continue to please and relax  millions of people daily.


(Information Source: Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management)

 

Liquors

Gin
I am sure I’m not the only one whose tastes change from season to season. For me, the warmer weather brings out my thirst for gin and more specifically gin and 7-Up with a slice of lime. Gin is a neutral grain spirits that is flavored with a mixture of spices, herbs and fruits.  For the spirit to be labeled “gin”, juniper must be the predominant flavor but lemon, orange, cinnamon, licorice, coriander seed, just to name a few, can be added.   Each gin distiller has their own botanical blend recipe.  The word gin is derived from the French word for “genievre” meaning juniper. There are two styles to gin but we rarely see the sweet Dutch version. Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire and Gordon’s are London-style gin.  These gins are clean, light and unsweet.  Add a little flair to your gin by trying a Tom Collins - gin mixed with soda water, a bit of sugar and lemon juice. Don’t forget the classic dry Martini - one good measure of dry gin and a dash of dry white vermouth.  Gin is better chilled so keep the bottle in the fridge.  

Rum
Rum is a spirit distilled from sugar cane juice and/or molasses. Most other spirits are made from grain but because rum is fermented from sugar already in its raw state it retains more flavor. Rum is generally not aged in oak barrels unless additional color and flavor is wanted.  The spirit ranges from 80 to 151 proof alcohol depending on the style it is made into. The lightest and best used for most cocktails is white or silver rum.  This is the most common bar rum such as Bacardi white. Amber or Gold rum is medium bodied with a bit of flavor.  This type of rum is barrel aged to give color and taste. Dark rums are made with molasses, are full bodied, full flavored and can linger on your taste buds.  Some rums are aged for a maximum of 20 years after which they do decline in quality.  There is also a variety of flavored rums on the market - spiced, coconut and several fruit flavors. These are mostly made from white rum with flavorings added.  Most rum is made in the Caribbean with better rum house in Jamaica, Barbados and Puerto Rico.

Scottish Whisky
Whisky is produced all over the world and can be traced back to the 15th century in Scotland where it is called scotch. Scotch, like all whiskies is not made from grapes but from grains like barley or corn.  The best of scotches are the single malts. These are products made from malted barely, are double-distilled and made exclusively at one of Scotland’s distilleries. Most are aged for several years. The Macallan, Talisker and Glenlivet are single malts.  Vatted malts are blends of several single malts.  They are usually region-specific in that vatted malts are assembled from distilleries in one area, giving a local style to the product. Bells Special Reserve, Bennachie and MacPhail’s are vatted malts.  Finally there are the blended scotches.  These are made from a combination of malt and grain spirits. J&B, Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s and Teacher’s fall into the blended scotch category. Most scotch runs about 40% alcohol and do spend some time ageing in wood barrels.  Like other spirits, scotch’s body and taste is created before bottling. That is, the ageing process ceases and the aromas or flavors will not change or develop in the bottle. For the most part, Scotland is divided into four major production areas:  the Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and the Western Isles and the Highlands.  The Lowlands whiskies tend to be gentle and sweet, Campbeltown’s products are fresh and heady, Islay scotches are seaweedy and pungent while the Highlands give smokiness to their whiskies.  And like Robbie Burns, any scotch is pure poetry.

Tequila
Tequila the drink is legendary. The Mexican Government regulates tequila production and requires that any product bearing the name Tequila must be made with at least 51% of juice from the Blue Agave plant from one of the five designated states in Mexico. If the product contains only Blue Agave juice it is labeled Tequila 100% h2-margaritaAgave. The Agave plant dates back some 9,000 years and comes in many varieties, but it is the Blue variety that makes tequila. In the late 1990s, a fungus plagued the Blue Agave plants much like phylloxera did to the grape vines in the 1800s. This has affected the production levels over the last couple of years.

The Blue Agave plant itself takes six to ten years to mature and can weigh up to 100 pounds. When the plant is harvested, its heart is steamed until a starchy sugar juice is produced. This juice is then pumped into fermentation tanks where it is mixed with yeast.  After fermentation it is distilled twice to fully refine the product. The first distillation results in a low-grade alcohol that is blended with the clear and harsh product from the second producing Tequila. Tequila runs between 70 and 110 proof alcohol.

Tequila 100% Agave is considered a premium product that is bottled in Mexico and comes in Blanco, Reposada and Anejo styles. Tequila (51%) can be exported in bulk and bottled in other countries. Along with the three styles of the premium kind, Tequila (51%) can also be made into an Oro style. The Blanco or White style is bottled within 60 days of distillation and is a clear liquid. This is the product we drink most often and is on the fiery side. The Oro or Gold is similar to the Blanco but has caramel added to color and slightly soften the taste of the drink. The Gold style is excellent in frozen Margaritas as it adds a little sweetness to the drink. Reposada or Rested, has been aged for two to twelve months in oak barrels. These tequilas are pale in color and mellow tasting. Top quality tequila is labeled Anejo or Aged and has been aged in small oak barrels or used Bourbon casks for more than a year. Anejo Tequilas are so smooth that it is recommended drinking these from a snifter to fully appreciate the aromas and flavor. Some Anejos are aged for longer periods and are sold as Reserva. These can command high prices.h2-fz-margarita

Most of us associate drinking or shooting tequila chilled, with a little salt and lime. However, it is traditionally served at room temperature in a 2-oz. glass called a caballito and should be sipped, not shot. The salt and lime would show you are a typical tourist but adding a bit of lime juice to cut the bite is okay. Blanco and Reposado Tequilas are often served with a “sangrita” of tomato and orange juices with salt and chile. And honestly, I would still take the salt, lime and quick shot!

Margaritas

Nothing can cool you off better than a margarita. It can be served over ice or blended to make a frozen version. Peach, strawberry, watermelon and other fruit flavors can be added to quench any thirst. There are several stories to the actual origin of the drink but most end up that it is named for a pretty lady. One legend even has it that it was named for Rita Hayworth whose real name was Margarita Carmen Cansino. For best tasting margaritas use real ingredients instead of the mixes and make sure you start with a good quality tequila.

Frozen Margarita
3 oz. Tequila (use Oro for best flavor)
1 oz. Triple Sec (or any orange flavored liqueur)
1 oz. Lime Juice
2 oz. Fruit Flavoring (optional / strawberry, peach, etc.)
Pour all ingredients in a blended filled with ice and blend. Run a slice of lime around the glass rim. Roll rim in coarse salt and pour frozen drink in glass. Add a slice of lime for garnish.

Margarita on the Rocks
3 oz. Tequila (White will give fullest flavor)
2 oz. Triple Sec (or any orange flavored liqueur)
1 oz. Lime Juice
Pour all ingredients into an ice-filled shaker and shake. Run a slice of lime around the glass rim. Roll rim in coarse salt, fill glass with ice and pour drink on top. Add a slice of lime for garnish.

 

Mezcal is a cousin of tequila as it too is made from Agaves but not necessarily the Blue variety or from those in the designated states. And as such, tequila can be considered a mescal. It can also contain up to 40% sugar cane that results in a harsher spirit. And one big point, Mezcal has the worm, tequila doesn’t.

Vodka
The word vodka comes from the Russian "zbiznennaia voda" which translates as "water of life", a rather hospitable phrase that has been oxymoronically linked with bellicose, totalitarian regimes and evil dictators. Ivan the Terrible, the unspeakably ruthless and murderous first Czar of Russia, played a pivotal role in Vodka production and consumption. Ivan built the first taverns, (known as kabaks), for his equally merciless palace guard, the oprichniny, the 16th century precursor to the modern KGB. Ivan also initiated state owned distilleries in order to profit from the production and sale of vodka and other spirits. Likewise, a modern Devil incarnate, Joseph Stalin, also encouraged the expansion of vodka production to finance national defense.  Finally, the more level headed Mikhail Gorbachev endeavored to curtail vodka and liquor production due to the rampant alcoholism in the USSR. However, the financial rewards of its sale won out in the long run. Lenin by the way, opposed drinking since he felt it would impede the goals of communism. 

Exactly when vodka was first made is the subject of historical debate. Various sources place its genesis in the 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries.  It didn't start gaining popularity in America though, until after World War II. 

Vodka can be made from a variety of grains. Barley and wheat are the most common but corn and rye can be used as well. It can also be made from potatoes and beets. Grain vodkas are generally considered to be the best.

Vodka is a clear, neutral and nearly pure spirit due to the high proof distillation process. Early vodkas however, were crude and nearly unpalatable.  They were often mixed with herbs, spices or honey to mask the offensive taste and harshness.   Then, in the early 1800's, it was discovered that filtering it through activated charcoal created a significantly refined, smoother, and purer product. 

Because of vodka's neutral flavor, it has become the spirit of choice for many mixed drinks.  This "neutrality" though, is a function of an undeveloped palate.  Connoisseurs of vodka can indeed detect flavor profiles, (and especially degrees of smoothness), amongst brands.  It is because of the velvety texture and clean flavor of quality vodka that it has all but replaced gin in the standard martini.  Moreover, the true vodka purist will forego the vermouth normally found in martinis and drink his vodka straight, in the traditional Russian manner.  The only caveat is the vodka MUST be cold. 

Ideally, the glass should be chilled beforehand.  The vodka is then shaken over ice and strained into the glass. Common accompaniments are olives or a twist of lemon.  For a slightly sweet alternative try a cherry. All of the utensils used to serve the vodka must be very clean.  Because of vodka’s pristine flavor, subtle impurities in the glass, strainer or ice can be easily detected, especially if you have grown accustom to your favorite vodka's taste.

Since the 1980’s a number of flavored vodkas have arisen including, but certainly not limited to vanilla, lemon, orange, and even hot pepper. These are best for mixed drinks.  Unflavored vodka is most suited for drinking straight.  The addition of flavoring elements, while adding a new dimension in taste, sometimes comes at the expense of the vodka’s smoothness.  I recommend the classic Russian brand Stolichnaya and if you can find it, Stolichnaya Gold.  The Gold is their top of the line vodka and is analogous to drinking liquid silk.

A Russian computer programmer I once worked with told me of a custom from his homeland.  He and a friend would take a bottle of vodka out of the freezer.  They would then drink shots of it, and attempt to finish the bottle before the frost on the glass melted.  (Now you know where Gorbachev was coming from).  Vodka can certainly stand alone but I recommend you try it with food as well.  The victual of choice to be served with vodka is of course caviar but other kinds of seafood and various salty morsels are also good choices. 

COSMOPOLITAN

• 2 oz. lemon flavored vodka
• 1 oz. triple sec
• Splash of lime juice
• Splash of cranberry juice.

Chill a martini glass in the freezer.  Fill a cocktail shaker with ice until three-quarters full. Pour in the vodka and triple sec and shake vigorously.  Strain into martini glass and add the lime and cranberry juice.  Garnish with a twist of lemon. 

Crème vs Cream
Did you know that a crème liqueur has no cream in its ingredients?  Crème, in this insistence, does not mean milk, but refers to the syrupy consistency of the liquid.  These liqueurs have so much sugar added to the mix that the liquid becomes thick and creamy in texture.  That means, that these drinks are sweet.

The most common flavors in the crème category are cacao (chocolate), menthe (mint), banane (banana), cassis (black currant) and cerise (cherry).  Most of the crème liqueur products come in clear liquids and also a colored version.  For example, crème de menthe comes in clear and in green. There is no taste difference between the two, but one adds color to your drink or recipe.  Crème liqueurs run about 25% in alcohol. 

A cream liqueur is one that is made with a flavored base and dairy cream.  These are easy drinking liqueurs that can be served on their own, on the rocks, with milk or in coffee.  Unlike crème liqueurs, cream liqueur has a short shelf life and should be kept in the fridge after opening.  The product choice is limited but includes Baileys and Saint Brendan’s that use Irish Whiskey and Amarula that uses distilled marual fruit juice as its base.  From time to time, some liqueurs will come out with a cream version edition.  A couple of years ago, Grand Marnier had a special edition Grand Marnier Cream. 

Both crème and cream liqueurs can be wonderful in cocktails, with milk or other mixes (only crème liqueurs) or in cooking, especially baked goods like tortes or cookies. 

 

Flavored Liqueur

Liqueurs are a great category of alcohol.  Their diversity and versatility is essentially endless.  Liqueurs begin as brandy or whisky and are sweetened and flavored by a variety of natural products like herbs, seeds, plants and fruits.  Some liqueurs simply derive their flavor from the spirit base. The flavoring agents can be infused into the spirit by a number of methods like maceration, percolation and distillation. The differences in techniques do not change the flavor but some agents respond better to certain methods and sometimes it is a matter of economics.  Liqueurs fall into one of four categories:  herbal, fruit, seed and plants or whisky.  Liqueurs, or cordials, can be served straight up, on ice, or mixed with a variety of juices, sodas, milk and even other liquors like Champagne.

Herby Herbs
Herbal liqueurs use numerous substances to flavor the base spirit.  Benedictine mixes 27 herbs and plants while  Chartreuse blends over 130.  Most of the liqueurs in this category were created long ago for medicinal purposes.  Benedictine was supposed to be the remedy for malaria.  Jaggermister is a digestive.  Although there is no scientific proof these cure any ills, I know from personal experience, they will at least numb the pain.

Fruity Fruit
The most popular of the liqueurs is the fruit category.  The range in flavors is vast from orange and other citrus, to blackberry, banana, raspberry, blueberry, black currant and peach (to just name a few). Some use natural flavorings while others use artificial or a combination of both.  Here you will find Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Midori, Poire William, Framboise and many of the crème liqueurs.

Seedy Plants
Unlike those made from a blend of many herbs, liqueurs made from seeds and plants use only one or two flavoring ingredients.  Mint, nuts and aniseed are the most popular choices. Amaretto is made from crushed apricot pits and Frangelico is made from hazelnuts.  Anisette, including Marie Brizzard and Sambuca get their black licorice flavor from aniseed.

Whisky
There are some liqueurs that do not add natural substances for flavoring.  These liqueurs allow for the distinctness of the base spirit of whisky or brandy to draw through. Scottish Drambuie, Irish Mist and South Comfort are found in this section of the shelves.


Recipe:  Homemade Banana Liqueur
You can make banana liqueur at home and you don’t even need to clean your bathtub!

2 ripe bananas
2 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
6 cups favorite vodka (unflavored will leave sole banana flavor but if you want to combine flavors, use about 1 cup of flavored vodka (ex. mandarin) and 5 cups of plain vodka)

Mash bananas and put in a gallon jar; Cover bananas with vodka; Seal jar tightly and set aside in cool, dry place for a week.
After a week, pour the mixture through a strainer to remove banana mush
Mix in sugar to the remaining liquid; Strain again through a clean cloth to filter any sediment; Mix in vanilla.
Let it sit for a day or so then serve
Source:
The Beverage Alcohol Report - Feb, 2006, Liana Bennett.


After Effects

The Morning After (Hangovers)
We all agree that drinking in moderation is the responsible thing to do.  However, let’s be honest and admit that from time to time we have had one, two or even three too many.  For just a moment, put aside the fact you have no memory of singing, “Sweet Home Alabama”, at the Karaoke Bar, where your shoes are or how you got home.  The real problem at hand is the incredible headache, the nausea, the sensitivity to light and sound and the overall feeling like someone ran you over with a MAC truck. 

Hangovers are officially called veisalgia, meaning “uneasiness following debauchery” and “pain”.  Germans refer to it as a katzenjammer or “cat’s wailing” while the French call it gueule de bois or “wood mouth”.  Each is pretty much right on the money. 

A hangover is caused by primarily two things; the first is lack of water which causes dehydration and the second is a poisoning of the body from toxic acetaldehyde produced from the alcohol.  There are natural components in wine and other alcohol beverages that if drunk in large quantities will poison the body.  These are congeners and are found in higher amounts in darker drinks like red wine.  There is a rumor that lighter drinks like vodka contain less of these poisons, thus reducing the risk of hangovers.  (I am not convinced and anyone who been to an open bar at a cousin’s wedding can relate - think screwdrivers.)

There are as many so-called remedies for hangovers as there are cocktails but the best cure for hangovers is water, rest and time.  Vitamin B can also help to restore balance in the body.  One of the classic roadside cures for hangovers is the good old fashioned Bloody Mary.  One of the reasons for this is that the tomato juice is full of nutrients to help replenish those you have lost.  Prevention, like most other things in life, is the best option to avoid a hangover. That is drink moderately, drink water in between drinks and eat while drinking. But just in case you forget to do this, don’t make breakfast plans.

Sources:

  • Liana Bennett - Bachelors of Home Economics from the University of British Columbia and a Masters of Foodservice Management from Michigan State University
  • Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management
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