Thursday, December 30, 2010

Brandy Friday: Paul-Marie Fils 25 Year Pineau de Charentes

Pineau de Charentes is not a common drink in the US. It is a French fortified wine made from blending brandy (usually unaged) and fermented grape must, which is juice made from the the seeds, skins and stems of the grape.

Paul-Marie Fils Pineau de Charentes is unusual in that instead of being made with unaged eau de vie, it is made with Cognac and then further aged. According to David Driscoll's excellent K&L spirits blog, "It was made from Cognac distilled in 1984 and then white wine from 1985 and put into a barrel for 25 years!" A twenty-five year old dessert wine is unusual indeed.

Paul-Marie Fils 25 Year Pineau de Charentes, 17.5% abv, ($80 at K&L).

This stuff has a very nice aroma. The first thing I get on the nose is Cognac, a sweet one with raisins and other dried fruit, then behind it some of the dessert wine notes that give it a fresh and sweet scent. The flavor opens very sweet, but it's much more complex than most fortified wines I've had, with some of that aged Coganc flavor integrated into the sweet wine. I taste plums and other stone fruit along with the sweet wine flavors and some nice Christmas-type spice. The late palate to finish is very port-like.

This is much sweeter than what I usually drink, but it's quite a pleasant dessert wine with some real depth. I tried it both neat and chilled, but much preferred it chilled, which muted a bit of the sweetness.

If you are a dessert or fortified wine fan, you should definitely check this stuff out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: 2011 Whiskey Predictions

Last week, I decried 2010 as a boring year in whiskey. Now, looking forward toward 2011, I will do my best to predict the trends that will be in and out in the world of whiskey.


1. Super-Duper Premium Whiskeys (aka MYH -Mortgage Your House - whiskeys). Unfortunately, we haven't seen the last of these. The race to sell the oldest and most expensive whiskey is on and we will see more silliness in the coming year. Indeed, truth may prove stranger than fiction.

2. Affordability. It may seem at odds with number 1, but the truth is, we are settling into the third year of an extended recession, and it's all well and good to set records, but the companies that want to survive will have to be able to compete in this depressed marketplace. A few whiskeys actually did lower prices on some of their offerings in 2010, and I think we will see some more of that. Real people want to drink whiskey, but they aren't going to go broke for it. The spirits companies may finally be starting to figure this out.

3. World Whiskey. In whiskey, "world whiskey" means anything made outside of the five major whiskey producing nations (Scotland, Ireland, USA, Canada and Japan). You have only to look to the latest malt maniacs awards to see the growing quality of malts like Amrut from India and Kavalan from Taiwan. Amrut showed up in the US late this year and Mackmyra from Sweden is overdue. We have or are likely to be getting whiskeys from Australia, New Zealand, France, England and Wales, among other places, and they are of growing quality. It's a good trend that, I predict, will grow in 2011.

4. Retailer Specialty Bottlings. Some of the most vital and exciting releases of 2010, especially in American whiskey, were retailer specialty bottlings. Retailers like K&L, The Party Source, Shoppers Vineyard and others partnered with the distilleries to come up with special releases. These releases allow innovation at a micro level with macrodistillery resources. These have already included some really stellar bottlings, and the trend will hopefully keep growing.

5. Canadian Whisky. Canada has long been the unloved stepchild of the big five whiskey nations, but it is slowly undergoing the type of upgrade that has already occurred in its sister whiskey producing nations. There have already been some promising Canadians out and I predict that we will see a real push toward premium Canadian Whiskies in 2011, hopefully accompanied by more in the way of innovation. And now that Canadian Whisky has its own blog, you can be sure that we will here about any fabulous new releases as soon as the big news breaks.


1. Peat Monsters. Peat has had its extended day in the sun, but after a rockin' decade in which it seemed that everyone wanted to smoke up their whiskies, the peat craze may have run its course. That's not to say that there will not be lots of peated whiskey released in 2011, but we are getting away from peat as the dominant flavor profile. During the heady days of the last decade, many traditionally non-peated whiskies added peated expressions, including whiskies from Ireland and the US. There were some successes, but many of these just didn't work. I think we will see an emphasis on more refined flavors, with peat being used more sparingly and big peat being left to those distilleries which have traditionally done it best.

2. White Whiskey. White whiskey, new make, moonshine, white dog...whatever you call it, unaged whiskey was definitely the craze of 2010, but it only takes about one bottle of this stuff to realize that while academically interesting as pre-whiskey, it's unlikely to become a regular drink for anyone. Look for this trend to seriously wane.

3. Closed Distilleries. As time goes by, the era of the massive distillery closures is getting further away, and as it does, the stocks from those distilleries are dwindling. For years, whiskey lovers have flocked to each new bottling, official or indie, of Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank, Stitzel-Weller and other distilleries; talking about the Broras you've loved is almost a rite of passage among whiskey geeks. But this year, Diageo didn't even send its new releases of Port Ellen and Brora to the US. The old Michter's Bourbon that's marketed as A.H. Hirsch is apparently all in bottles now (at ever-increasing prices), and the last of the Stitzel-Weller is trickling out from Van Winkle and McLain & Kyne. As they continue to age, closed distillery bottlings are going to become even more rare and more expensive, which will make them available to an increasingly narrow group of customers. In addition, given that many of these closures took place in the 1980s and early '90s, you have to wonder whether some of this stuff that has been lying around in barrels all that time hasn't been released yet because it is over oaked. We've had the best, now we'll get the rest, and likely at premium prices.

4. Japanese Whisky (in the US). It pains me to include Japanese Whisky in the list of "outs" for 2011 as I'm a big fan, but sadly, in the US, there doesn't seem to be any effort to introduce new whiskeys from Japan. In 2009, Suntory introduced the Hibiki blend and the super-premium Yamazaki 1984 to accompany their two existing Yamazaki expressions, but since then, nothing. US whiskey lovers have been pining away for Yoichi and drooling about the massive awards and praise heaped on Karuizawa, but the desire won't last forever. The resourceful will find ways of getting their whiskey while for others, the longing will pass as they satisfy themselves with the latest malt from India or newfangled Canadian.

Will my predictions be right? Who the hell knows, but happy new year to all. Here's hoping you ring it in with a Super-Peated Canadian from a closed distillery!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy Holidays to Me!

What you see above is the Rancilio Silvia home espresso maker. My first home espresso maker since the Krups Espresso Mini I bought in 1990! I also got a Rancilio Rocky doserless grinder.

My espresso making skills, I have to admit, are stuck in the '90s when I worked as a barista. If anyone wants to teach me how to make microfoam and latte art, I'm ready to learn.

In the future, I'll be posting some of my home espresso adventures.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas Sushi!

Usually I celebrate Jewish Christmas in the traditional fashion at a Chinese restaurant, but this year we decided to eat in with a lovely sashimi selection from Marukai Market in Gardena. Buy big hunks of fish and for an extra $5, they will cut it sashimi style for you and garnish it. There are a number of Marukai Markets but the Gardena branch is larger and has a wider variety of sashimi grade fish.

The star here was the uni, which was among the freshest tasting I've had...creamy, uni goodness. Also pictured, top left, the Market's locally made fresh sukui tofu which is great with a little Maldon Salt sprinkled on top.

Happy Holidays!

Marukai Market
1740 W. Artesia Blvd
Gardena, CA 90248
(310) 660-6300

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cheese Report - Trader Joe's Goes Epoisses

Epoisses is probably my favorite cheese, so when I heard Trader Joe's was carrying a store brand Epoisses, I had to try it. Like all of TJ's products, the Epoisses gives no indication of where it was made, other than somewhere in Burgundy, which is a given. The cost is $8 for a smallish half wheel.

The TJ's Epoisses was not bad. It had a nice flavor with a bit of pungency. It lacked the balance of the better Epoisses I've had which are a perfect balance, at once mild and creamy as well as strongly pungent. The texture was also not quite right. At room temperature, the cheese was soft but not at all runny. It was more the texture of a Taleggio; in fact, it generally tasted more like a Taleggio than an Epoisses, and also had some nuttiness to it.

TJ's isn't a good substitute for Berthaut's wondrous Epoisses, but at $8, it's a pretty good deal and would work in a pinch for your cheese plate.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: 2010 - An Unexciting Year for Whiskey

After a string of amazing whiskey years, 2010 was a bit of a yawner. Maybe it's just that we've grown used to major breakthroughs, innovative new releases and unbridled creativity from the last three or four years, but the truth is, 2010 gave the whiskey world very little that was new or particularly exciting. Sure, there were some good new releases and some great whiskeys, as there always are, but for the most part, none of these shook up the whiskey world.

To the extent that there were exciting releases they were in the ridiculously super premium MYH (mortgage-your-house) category. Gordon & MacPhail's 70 year old Mortlach weighed in as the oldest whiskey ever released, and the record for the most expensive new release was broken twice, first by the Dalmore Trinitas and then by the Macallan 64 year old Cire Perdue, which literally was sold for more than my house cost. But these whiskies can't really be counted as new or exciting releases since it is very likely that no one will ever drink them (except maybe the lucky friends of the dude who swiped a Mortlach 70 in Stockholm). And every distillery that could find an old barrel seemed to release a 50 year old this year. God bless Glenfarclas, who released a 40 year old at a reasonable price (i.e. the lower three figures).

In the world of Scotch that non-tycoons can afford, though, after five or more years of absolute wonder, this year was boring. Even the most reliable and innovative distilleries seemed to be phoning it in. The new Ardbeg releases, Corryvreckan, Rollercoaster and the new Supernova, were good but neither innovative nor overly impressive. Even the mad scientists at Bruichladdich seemed to sputter after a few years of phenomenal new and exciting releases.

In the world of American whiskey, the fall releases have become utterly predictable. We all know what the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Old Forester Birthday Bourbons will taste like, more or less. We don't know what the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection will release, but it will likely suck. Heaven Hill is one of the only distilleries to add some excitement with their Parker's Heritage Collection which is always different and usually excellent. Four Roses did have a great year last year with interesting new releases, including the individual release of all ten recipes for different retailer bottlings.

The majors did come out with some surprises, including new versions of Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, but these were really most remarkable because they came from distillers that hadn't changed their products in years.

Most other notable American releases were from the smaller bottlers. WhistlePig, with their 100% straight rye sourced from Canada and High West's Bourye, a blend of Bourbon and rye, showed the kind of innovation that was lacking elsewhere. There were also some great specialty retailer bottlings, but those are very limited releases.

In any industry there are cycles of production and innovation followed by some market stabilization. We may now be entering a lull in what has been an exciting market for the last few years, but there may be hope as well. Next week, for my last whiskey blog of the year, I'll make some predictions about what we might expect in the world of whiskey 2011.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cheese Report - Demon or Angel

I had a cheese emergency the other day. It was after cheese-store hours and I needed something right away for an evening get together. The best option in such cases is usually Whole Foods, but they are a big step below one of the local cheese shops. Whole Foods pre-cuts and wraps their cheese which is bad news as you can't tell how fresh it is, though their quality tends to be better than most stores which pre-cut and wrap, probably because of a fairly high turnover.

Anyway, because of the pre-cut and wrap issue, I was looking for an uncut round and I have to admit, I was intrigued by Le Demon Du Midi, less for its devil character than for a pleasingly pungent smell emanating from the cheese.

The Demon is a cow cheese from the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. I expected a washed rind, but opened the wrapper to find a brie-like bloomy rind.

Unfortunately, this cheese was much less demonic than advertised. It was mild and buttery, almost like an Explorateur. Of course, everyone loved it, probably more than they would have the high-stink type of cheese I like, but damn it, if you put the devil on something, it should have some demonic qualities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

RIP Tokyo-77

It's sad to have two RIP posts in one week. Tokyo-77 is a tiny Culver City diner hidden away off an alley. While I poked my head into the shop a few times, I never ate there, and my understanding was that it was known more for its old-school, funky ambiance than its food, but I did want to draw attention to this lovely
remembrance by Ken Tanaka (whose picture I used above).

Tanaka, who was somewhat of a regular there, apparently foresaw the closing of Tokyo-77 in a dream:

I had not been to Tokyo 77 for many months, then a week ago I had a dream that Tokyo 77 was closing. Two days later, I took my friend Polo there for breakfast. There was a sign on the door saying " After 30 years, We are Closing. December 18th will be our last day."

It was just like in my dream. I have never had a dream that comes true before. I have had dreams about flying bears, and monkey cats who become friends and let me ride on their backs through the starry skies and together we eat juicy sweat Magalore Fruits. But those dreams didn't come true. I wish this dream hadn't come true either. I will miss Tokyo 77 very much.
Tonight I will try to dream that they are not really closing and that it was just a joke. Maybe that dream will also come true.

RIP Tokyo-77, maybe it will be replaced by a restaurant that serves monkey cats with magalore fruits.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday Trivia: Whiskey in Literature

Some whiskey trivia for you.

Name the book and the woman being described in the passage below.

When she ordered whisky she always chose Tullamore Dew, except on one occasion when she studied the bottles behind the bar and asked for Lagavulin. When the glass was brought to her, she sniffed at it, stared at it for a moment, and then took a tiny sip. She set down her glass and stared at it for a minute with an expression that seemed to indicate that she considered its contents to be a mortal enemy. Finally she pushed the glass aside and asked Harry to give her something that could not be used to tar a boat. He poured her another Tullamore Dew and she went back to her drinking.

Post your guess in the comments. Ill post the answer as an update by the end of the week if no one guesses correctly.

ANSWER: The passage comes from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final volume of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. The woman described, of course, is everyone's favorite anti-social sleuth, Lizbeth Salander. Congratulations to James who answered correctly!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Use Your Moonshine - The White Manhattan

A few months ago I wrote about the new make or white whiskey phenomenon and promised to follow up with some cocktail recipes. Cocktails are important here, because once you have had the intellectual experience of unaged whiskey and shared it with your friends, it's not something you're likely to sit around sipping, which means you may be left with a number of mostly full bottles of transparent, fetal whiskey (trust me, I have so much of this stuff in the house that I fear that if a law enforcement officer came to visit, they'd think I was running a backyard still).

White dog has really caught on with the mixology crowd, which makes sense. The stuff is more hearty than vodka and a nice alternative to the botanical flavors of gin.

The White Manhattan has become the most well known of white whiskey cocktails. It was originated by Neyah White of Nopa in San Francisco. It's fairly simple to make once you acquire the ingredients. Just mix the following with ice and strain into a cocktail glass:

1 1/2 ounces white whiskey (I used Buffalo Trace White Dog)
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1/2 ounce blanc vermouth
3 dashes orange bitters

Keep in mind that blanc vermouth is different than dry Vermouth. It's a sweet, white vermouth with notes of Christmas spice/fruit pudding. The flavor is closer to sweet vermouth than to dry. Dolin is the most available brand and it usually goes for a bit under $20 per bottle.

I enjoyed the White Manhattan (it's color is actually more in the yellow family). It has a strong botanical flavor, almost martini like, but it's sweet. In fact, it was a bit too sweet for me. Next time I might halve the Benedictine and vermouth, though their sweet/spice flavors do complement the whiskey.

If there's a bottle of white whiskey languishing in your cabinet, give the White Manhattan a try.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Great Deal on Christmas Trees

I don't usually give out non-food related advice, but one of the best deals on Christmas trees is a little lot on Sixth and Hobart. No frills, cash only but great prices. Check it out!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

RIP Pho Minh

Pho Minh, the much adored house of beef-noodle soup in El Monte, has shut its doors. It's not surprising. Pho Minh had struggled mightily; it opened in 2008 right before the recession set in. When it looked like all hope was lost last year, they were granted a brief reprieve by a feature article in the LA Times about the restaurant's struggle to survive, but the brief surge of crowds was not able to sustain it for the long term, even if it had the Jonathan Gold seal of approval.

I'll miss the intensely beefy broth and chewy noodles, but truth be told, when the hunger for pho hit, I was more likely to stop at Vietnam House in Alhambra than haul myself all the way out to South El Monte. Still, I was glad to know it was there.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Brandy Friday: Brandy Gifts

I don't review as many brandies as whiskeys, but I wanted to make note of a few that would make good holiday gifts for those of you who like your brandy sans the egg nog.

Cognac: If you like variety, you will have great fun with the Delamain Sampler which includes three 200 ml bottles of the basic expressions of Delemain Cognac. Given that you would have to pay more than $400 for full bottles of these three brandies, this is a great chance to sample the major offerings from one of the most popular Cognac bottlers.

Apple Brandy: For something totally different, I'd recommend the excellent apple brandy from Germain-Robin in Mendocino County. This Calvados-style brandy has a beautiful aroma of fresh apples but without too much sweetness. It retails for around $65.

Budget Brandy: Cognac doesn't come cheap, but there are few better deals than Jean Fillioux's Balzac VSOP. Fillioux is one of the great remaining small Cognac houses and the Balzac, at $35, is a fantastic brandy and is one of the best deals on any spirit.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Gifts

December is our time for Whiskey Gifts. There is a lot of good stuff out there at all price ranges, particularly in American whiskey.

My number one holiday pick: One of the best whiskeys I had all year was the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection Rye 'n Barrel, bottled specially for The Party Source. They take Sazerac Rye Whiskey and finish it in Sauternes-style dessert wine casks. There is a sweet/spicy interplay that is just beautiful. This stuff if so good that I'm shocked there is any left, but it's still for sale on The Party Source website at $60 for a 375 ml bottle. Get some of this while you can!

Other American whiskeys: Of the flurry of this year's new American whiskey releases, two of my favorites were Parker's Heritage Ten Year Old Wheated Bourbon and WhistlePig Rye. The Parker's is a bold, wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill. WhistlePig is a Canadian rye done in an American style but made with 100% rye. Both hover around the $80 range. Oh, and if you're still looking for some George T. Stagg, try Cap 'n Cork on Hillhurst; last time I was there they had a whole row of them. If you're interested in something a bit lighter on the wallet, don't forget to check my reviews of budget whiskeys.

Single Malts: For your Scotch loving friends, there are plenty of options, but why not try something different. Amrut, a Scotch-style single malt whisky from India, recently released its line in the US. There is a range of options and prices, but my favorite was the cask strength, non-peated malt which goes for $75.

Books: There were a number of great booze-related books that came out this year. Max Watman's Chasing the White Dog is an entertaining romp through the world of illicit stills and mason jars full of moonshine. Watman is an engaging writer who keeps you turning those pages. If you are more interested in the historical side of illegal liquor production, Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is a fascinating history of the "noble experiment," covering the politics, crime and culture of prohibition.

If you're looking for a book that's a bit less academic in nature but equally impressive for your whisky loving friends, I would highly recommend Dave Broom's The World Atlas of Whisky. Impressive in both scope and presentation, this lovely coffee table tome has informative text to accompany the lovely photos. I haven't gotten around to reviewing it yet, but it's a book that just shouts "holiday gift."

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sweet Chanukah Kugel

Kugel is a Jewish casserole typically made for holiday meals. They can be sweet or savory and made of almost anything, though the most common are potato, matzoh and my favorite, noodles kugel.

For many years, I've been making a sweet noodle kugel as part of our family Chanukah meal, and practice has made perfect with this never-fail recipe:

Boil about a half pound of egg noodles.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the noodles with:

6 tbs melted butter
1 1/2 lb sour cream
1 1/2 lb cottage cheese
8 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup raisins

Pour into a greased 9x13 baking dish and bake 30-45 minutes until custard is set and the top is lightly browned. It will come out moist and delicious.

Happy Chanukah!