Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Remembrances of Venice:Street dogs and the Murano hustle

In this second (and thankfully final) amble down the misty nostalgia of memory lane inspired by a friend's recent Venetian visit, I revive from my "In Caso da Nebbia" journal the enchanting stories of the dog that wasn't and the never-ending hustle of the Venetian soul.

After a morning of shopping the next day, we decided we would go to Murano.  More specifically, our wives decided they would go to Murano, and we were to go with them.

Massimo, from our locanda, arranged the visit by water taxi.  As he greeted us at our locanda door I noticed the engaging little dog bustling around his feet, darting through the legs of all the passersby with great aplomb.  Looking like a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a midget seal, he was quite the sight.

He is not my dog.
“You have a nice dog, Massimo.”

--Massimo, puzzled, looks down.  “That’s not my dog, Signore.”

“Oh, but he acts as if he were your dog.  Or rather, that you were his person, perhaps.”

--“He acts as he will, Signore.  But he is not my dog,” says Massimo, with a curiously expressive flip of his hand off to one side, and a half-shrug.

“He must like you though, since he follows you around.  And he appears to pay very close attention to you.”

--“Ah, yes.  He came one day, and I happened to be going to a MacDonald’s, so I bought for him a hamburger.  Since then he stays with me and accompanies me when I go to my meals.  Sometimes, when it rains, he asks to come into my apartment.  But he is not my dog, you see.”

“Yes, I see.  He is not your dog.  Quite obvious.”

--“Yes.  Now we must go to the water taxi.”  Massimo made a smirching kissy sound with his lips and waved his hand to the dog that was not his, who immediately trotted over to his side when Massimo strolled away.

When we reached the water taxi, Massimo called us over to the side and huddled with us, speaking privately.  The dog that was not his pattered over to smell what may have been a dead fish or some such.

--“When you reach Murano, Signore, you must understand.  We are Venetians, you see.  We have either been occupied by or have dealt with the Romans, the Goths, the Turks, the Slavs, the Levantines and Arabs, the Austrians, the Germans, everyone.  We have either conquered them, or they us, or both at different times.  So we are traders.  When the man at Murano makes you an offer, he will say ‘One thousand Euros for this.’  So you must say, ‘No, Five Hundred Euros, no more!’  Then you and he can discuss this for a while. But never accept what he first says.  This is not an insult to us, you must know.  This is the way we are.  If you are so foolish as to take the first offer, we will of course accept the money, but you deprive us of the bargaining, which we expect.  This, for us, is our way, and part of what invigorates us. The man at Murano will not feel badly if you bargain.”

Millefiore alla Murano
We bought, of course, for it is almost impossible not to buy at Murano.  Not for the haggling and the pressure to buy, but because the pieces are so beautiful and the artisan’s pride shows through certain pieces so clearly that you feel you are purchasing a small piece of their soul, and therefore acquiring a bargain even if it is not.  And the maneuvering is fun. 

The man at Murano, Ricardo, who was of the fifth generation of one of the four families who had established the Vetrerie, the glass factory, was delighted to be showing his glass to us, and delighted that we treasured it enough to buy it, and delighted to bargain with us, for then he could further respect us for being intelligent as well as appreciative of his art. 

The Arlecchino in question
As we left Ricardo recommended two restaurants, gave us directions, told us the names of the owners, advised us on what to order and instructed us to tell the owner we were friends of his and should get “Ricardo’s price,” not the price for tourists!  And this is the beauty of Venice, when the provider profits, and the buyer profits, and both are happy and content.  Then you go to lunch.

(And now, the rest of the story of Ricardo: after bargaining for quite a while for a particular bowl in the “Arlecchino” style, Ricardo took the bowl to the back room for the artist to sign and to then pack carefully in layers of straw and paper and twine so I could carry it in my backpack. Which I did for the remainder of the long trip, until it was safely home. When I unwrapped it, it was quite a different piece, clearly inferior, sloppily done, shoddy.  Ricardo had substituted, it seemed. The old bait and switch. Ah, Venice. Let the buyer beware.

I formally lodged a protest with Visa; they contacted the Vetreria, and someone immediately agreed, without any demur, to refund the entire amount, and we were told to keep the piece.  So we did, and have it now as a memento of our day in Murano and the mercantile nature of Venice.)

Then  across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal and back to San Marco, and the cathedral, and a walk to l’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim.  Along the way we come to understand that Venice is, as much as any city has been, ever, a city of music.  There are street musicians.  There are cafes on the various piazzi who have trios and quartets and quintets and sestets, mostly based on strings, to entertain the languid patrons.  There are various and sundry orchestras throughout the city on a nightly basis in the summer, celebrating music.  The chiesi have their doors open in the evening so the music can spill out into the streets.  When the hour strikes, the various belltowers carol out point and counterpoint, as if each was playing to and with the other in the soft air above the city.

The Guggenheim was overrated, although the walk through the city was not.  Max Ernst may have been avant-garde, but he was also a terribly modest and limited painter, and Peggy liked the dark things for the most part.  Perhaps that is why he was her second husband.  Even the Kandinsky and the Klee were not of the vibrance that typified them.  Only the Calder showed the exuberance and vitality inside the villa. 

Ah, but on the outside, with the Picasso-like sculpture on the canal of the boy on the horse with arms spread and erection in full glory and the horse smirking as only a horse can, or the juxtaposition of the grand pallazzi, the Venetian seahorses and the pyramid of orange metal on the aged and pitted marble terrace with the sunlit water lapping just beneath, all under the celebrated Venetian Light.

A short break in the room, then inexorably out to the streets and alleys and canals and the endlessly milling people, the constant movement and babble, the flowing of colors and sounds and smells, feeling the amazing textures and contrasts of this place.  The gruesome and tragic turn fascinating and romantic when you realize you have just stepped on the Ponti dei Sospiri and can see the smooth depression rubbed in the marble of the first step from the countless millions of feet that have stepped just there at that point.  And how many of those feet were dragging and reluctant, you wonder, as people now take pictures of each other on this bridge of romance, emitting altogether different sighs. The fantastic and the mundane sit in equal glamour when a sleek black lacquered gondola glides by, with a young couple dazzled by the gondolier as his voice rings out like a clear chime while he effortlessly dips the paddle just so to swerve around a putrid garbage boat reeking of the effluvium of the stylish ristorante perched over the canal.

Restless, we move on past the grand palaces with their pitted facades and the mooring posts that seem so solid but oddly show their bottoms hollowed and eaten away to the spindly core when the boats pass and disturb the milky green water.

We stop at a canal-side ristorante to duck away from the pitter of rain and shelter under the canopy, again close to the throbbing Rialto, to sit and dine and watch the boat traffic go by, the clogged vaporetti, the polished and shiny water taxis, gleaming like wood-lacquered echoes of The Great Gatsby, the rusted work barges, the cigarette boats of the nouveaux riche and the stolid and dowdy boats of the old and tattily elegant rich. 

But it is the worst of Venice we have ducked into, this tourist trap without soul or substance, with waiters shilling people off the streets and squabbling amongst each other to provide tasteless food for high prices for heedless people.  We decide to order a glass of wine, as little as we can for the pleasure of watching the flow of spectacle, a pittance of Pinot Grigio, then we are off to a more hospitable place.  We come across, in some conjunction of alleys somewhere, the Aquila Nera, purportedly founded in the 1500s and still possessing charisma in its little hidden corner of streets that don’t quite meet.

They have a good wine list, so we carefully peruse it and make our selection:  A bottle of Refosco.  The waiter returns shortly and tells us, “I am sorry, Sir, but the bottle of Refosco is missing.”  We look at each other, but neither shows a quiver, and neither says a thing.  Let us try this again:  A bottle then of Marzemino, per favore.  Again the waiter returns, this time visibly embarrassed, to tell us, “That bottle is also missing, Sir.  Perhaps something else?”  The next bottle, a Cabernet Franc, for we like the Francs of the Veneto and Friuli, is not missing, and so we have it.  Perhaps for the next person it will join the other missing bottles from the good wine list of the Aquila Nera?

Finally, footsore and tired but not weary, we shuffle through the streets to our locanda and listen to the city quieten itself through the night, and think of all the things we did not see or feel in our time in Venice.

We are off the next day, on the vaporetto past the train station to the Piazzale Roma, with its link to terra firma, to the justly derided Mestre, and on to Padova and the Colli Euganei.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Remembrances of Venice...

I rarely revisit pieces I've written, but I do have favorites, oh yes indeed.  Inspired to revery by the Facebook postings of Pat Dodd as he takes his team through Venice as part of their Italian tour, I exhumed this portion of an old travelogue, In Caso da Nebbia, chronicling a memorable visit to the Veneto and Friuli...and discovered to my joy that it remains every bit as appropriate as when I wrote it.

So here's the first vignette from In Caso da Nebbia, our introduction to Venice:

Venice is a prostitute.  A beautiful courtesan, to be sure, dressed in the finest attire, sophisticated, charming, beautiful and willing and eager to please, but still a prostitute.  La Serenissima is what you wish her to be, but everything is a transaction; she is there, but you are passing through.  She will beguile and amuse you, but when you are gone, she will just as eagerly entertain, and profit from, the next customer.  After all, she has to live, and being La Serenissima she expects to live well, so you must provide for her.

When we arrived at the Ponte Rialto, amidst the crowds and chaos, still jet-lagged and thinking American, we knew a ‘period of adjustment’ was required, so we dumped our luggage in our locanda and launched ourselves into the waves and tides and eddies of people, finding the stream that moved sluggishly to the Piazza San Marco, where we camped on the edge of afternoon sunlight on the piazza at Café Florian.  We idled over cicchetti and cappucini, listened to Florian’s string band, slowed our internal clocks to Venetian time and watched the passeggio as the angular interplay of light and shadow became our timekeeper. 

When the restorative application of music, sun and shadow, espresso, olives and prosciutto had achieved their effect, helped by an additional infusion of Antinori Rosato Toscano, we languidly strolled to our friends’ hotel near the piazza, following the instruction of the carabinieri of “To the corner, and three canals over in that way, Signore.”  Our friends were not there, but we did not care, for we knew eventually they would be, sometime, and it was of no matter when, as we were, after all was said, in Venice.  And so would they be when they arrived.  And eventually they did.

The four of us strolled.  Aimlessly, as is possible in that way only in Venice.  Or if not only, certainly in the best way, from shop to shop, each filled with glittering amusements for the eye and mind and wallet.  Osterias, trattorias, cafes and ristorantes of every sort and description, and some that defy description, each a high water mark of one or more of the waves of cultures which have crested in Venice over the centuries and left their unique residue.  An Austrian osteria mit wurst und schinkel am der pizza.  A place of somewhat dubious Turkish delights.  Here Istrian, there Vicentina, and there Padovana; here bigoli (dicke ‘Spaghetti’), there noodeln mit tomatensaft.  A Greek taverna serving Spaghetti Bolognese alongside the dolmas and spanakopita.  Pizza with octopus and cuttlefish next to the “Hawaiann Special, with Pineapple and Prosciutto.”   And that was merely the first alley we walked down.

Eventually we decided to stop, and stepped into the first interesting place, Osteria Verdi near the Rialto.  Baccala alla Vicentina con Polenta was my dish, with my friends having langostini with shells split grilled heavily over a wood fire, and tagliatelle con funghi, with excellent and fresh green salads and radicchio rosso.  We attempted to order a Friulano Bianco off the list, but the owner, who spoke fluent New Jersey (which is occasionally close to American English, although a fully recognized alternate language in the Proto-Indo-European group), insisted we try instead the vino da calice, or carafe version of Friulano Bianco, his house white.  I pointed out that the bottled version on the list cost significantly more and by steering us to his house carafe he was depriving himself of money.  He looked at me and shrugged, saying “This is better; you’ll see.  If you don’t like it, you get it free from me.”  I shrugged as elegantly as he and said “Perché no, Signore?”  The forever unnamed bianco was, but of course, excellent, and was to remain one of the most pleasant wines we tasted throughout our visit, for wine is not only the wine itself but also the circumstances surrounding it when you drink it.  We finished our meal with some local cheeses and a rustic Raboso from the Veneto.  The wine was nothing to rave about, unless one wanted to rave about a hearty red with the glorious crumbles of Grana Padano, both from the same place. A pleasant end to our first day in Venice.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Triple Take: A Trio of Gins from St. George Spirits

Triple Take: A Trio of Gins from St. George Spirits

Photos courtesy of St. George Spirits
Had the occasion to taste all three of St. George Spirits’ gins this week, and came away impressed.  This Alameda-based distillery has always been an avatar of quality and unique styling, and these gins are very much an extension of that tradition.

If you have to ask, “Why do three different gins?” then you obviously haven’t tasted all three, because when you do, the question becomes moot. These are three entirely different expressions of what gin can be.

Botanivore Gin
While generally not a big fan of the ‘throw everything in the batch and see what comes out’ approach to building a gin, I have to confess this one works.  With 19 different botanicals---St. George claims angelica root, bay laurel, bergamot peel, black peppercorn, caraway, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, citra hops, coriander, dill seed, fennel seed, ginger, juniper-berries, lemon and lime peel, orris root, Seville orange peel, and star anise (excuse me, I have to take a breath now)---it would be easy to muddy up the botanicals into a vast stew of indiscriminate, or even combatting, aromas and flavors. Bu the Botanivore pulls it off. 

The profile is crisp and herbaceous, with brisk, sharp definition of some aromas and muted background notes of others, but they do play well together.  Not terribly overt on the juniper element, and with a bright burst of pungent citrus mélange with understated florality, this would be an intriguing gin for bartenders, budding or pro, to tinker with.  A good all-purpose gin leaning forcefully to what they're calling the  “new American style.”

Terroir Gin
If by the evocation of the word “terroir” St. George Spirits means a palpable sense of place, then I’d go beyond their suggested California and take this gin all the way to the Sierra Foothills, because it’s very much like the experience of taking a walk through the Sierra Redwood forests on Christmas day: there’s a blast of Douglas fir in all its evergreen glory that nips at your nose before you even begin to pick up the teasing interplay of the other botanicals: angelica root, bay laurel, cardamom, cinnamon, coastal sage, coriander, fennel seed,  juniper berries, lemon peel, orris root, and Seville orange peel.

Ho Ho Ho!, and put a green-striped candy cane in your martini glass. This is an audacious gin with exuberant focus on the woodsy/earthy/evergreen slice of the aromatic flavor wheel. And Terroir is a great name for it.

Dry Rye Gin
Not for the faint of flavor heart, this bold gin might also be a puzzlement to staunch traditionalists of gin…but then again, maybe not, if you go all the way back to the precursor that got the whole thing started, Dutch genever.  Decidedly based on grain, and specifically rye with its spicy, dry, slightly astringent herbaceous quality, Dry Rye Gin comes across at first as malty, genever-like, white-dog-whiskey-like with woody spice and bright citrus added.  That’s a lot to put in one bottle, folks; this is an altogether impressive and highly individual gin expression. The recipe, beyond 100% rye, is black peppercorns, caraway, coriander, grapefruit peel, juniper berries, and lime peel.

It would be easy to sip this one solo.  It would be just as easy to put it in a classic Negroni. The folks at St. George heartily recommend crafting an Old Fashioned with it---and I can certainly see their point.

So there you are.  As to the question of why three gins, let’s classify them as Balanced and Elegant, Evergreen and Christmas, and Bold and Complex.  Seems reasonable to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

That Time of Year: Cassoulet at Kesslers 2014

It has become one of our favorite traditions of the year, a celebration of friendship and feasting built around one of the most sumptuous and satisfying dishes:  Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2014.

For several years now Lou and BettyLu have graciously hosted a cassoulet dinner as winter begins to wane.  BettyLu begins her preparations months ahead, planning and sourcing and preparing all the elements for the cassoulet and composing her much-coveted invite list to orchestrate a traditional evening of fine dining.  Lou also begins mulling over his wine choices from the well-stocked wine cellar, the envy and source of pleasure of many of his friends.

For 2014, we were lucky enough to be invited to the final of three cassoulet dinners. Arriving from Portland we were happy to see the emergence of spring in full blossom and bloom in California Wine Country, with the late-but-appreciated yellow mustard of Napa and the snowy-white and pretty-in-pink trees lining the streets in showy array.

In keeping with the seasonal explosion, Lou had selected a handsome array of aperitif wines to go with the delicious appetizers---duck liver pate on toast, limey scallop ceviche in crispy wonton cups, Dungeness spring rolls in rice paper, stir-fried shrimp on endive leaf, crackly home-made herbed breadsticks---and we sipped our way through them all.

First up was the delicate, almond-nutty Pieropan La Rocca Soave 2010, understated, soft, flexible with the foods; not as taut and structured as I’ve had from La Rocca in the past, but quietly delicious.

As the conversation got livelier, so did the wine as I segued to the Pichler Riesling Loibner Steinertal Smaragd 2007 from the Wachau in Austria.  Silky-smooth, with the fatness of smaragd almost disguising the stony acidity, refreshing, bracing in the mouth, and a perfect companion to the lime and scallop ceviche!

Next was a wine I couldn’t resist, a surprise from Lou’s cellar, and a wine that lit up the eyes of Steve Edmunds: Eric Texier’s Cotes-du-Rhone Brezeme Roussanne 2000.  Would it hold?  Yes, it would.  The high aromatics of youth were toned down a bit, of course, but the trade was a ripe fleshiness, a juicy, peachy-floral character with a bit of melon muskiness.  I love Roussanne, and of the Rhone triumvirate I much prefer it over Marsanne and Viognier,  although the three are usually best when blended.   This one stands just fine on its own and it holds its age quite nicely; it was a lovely surprise having a fully matured and not at all tired Roussanne from Eric.

The Chenin Blanc du jour was Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec 2002, wondering if it had avoided the deadly plague of premox.  It was drinkable, but not all that lively and without the electricity that Huet usually brings.  Plenty of acidity, of course, but lacking a succulence of fruit and that pleasing contrast of sweet-sour that the demi-sec does so well.

Finally, one of Lou’s recent discoveries from Southern Oregon.  A biodynamic wine,  no less, complete with arcane symbols on the label (and now with the hubbub of True Detective symbology all the craze one looks closer, more intently, at those symbols. Heh-heh), the 2012 Cow Horn Spiral 36 white blend from the Applegate Valley in Oregon.  Whoo! Lively florality, waxy and reeking of lily of the valley, plush fruit, touch of spice---a really gorgeous blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, voluptuous, dry but fat,  Lime citrus, peach, but also a distinct honeyed note.  A hit; a palpable hit!

Palate prepared, we went to table.  This year, a slight change: having gone heavy-up on the passed apps, BettyLu opted to go directly into the cassoulet rather than a first course.  No one complained because we got to the cassoulet quicker: and, after all, that was the ostensible reason for the get-together.  It was glorious, and many thought the best we’d had thus far. 

Glistening sausages, tender confit of duck and firm, chewy but not tough beans with perfect texture (BettyLu had elected to use a new bean this year from southern Mexico by way of Rancho Gordo, and they were exceptional!)  The texture was lovely, and the concentrated intensity of the dish was amazing (BL had long-simmered some of the liquid to a dense reduction and added it back to get to that perfect point). 

A simple side dish of julienned carrots---what more do you need with cassoulet?---with three bottles of Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998, and a reverent almost-silence ensued, marred only by the slurp and suck of dish and glass.  The cassoulet was so good and quickly gone I forgot to take a picture of it.  Wouldn't have done it justice anyhow.

The Beaucastel was shy and bashful at first, despite having been opened hours earlier, and hesitant to reveal all its charms of aromatic complexity and black-fruit density, and it kept emerging until it was all gone.  It was simply elegant with the cassoulet, stepping up admirably when called on, handling the richness, the salt, the fat.

With a thirsty crowd, abetted by Steve Edmund’s incessant demands for even more red wine, Lou went back to the cellar and emerged with another Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the estimable 2001 Le Vieux Donjon.  Altogether different; lush, and blowsy and fruit-drenched, with some Rhone funk-spice (technical term) that made it indulgent, although I think the tightwound nerviness of the Beaucastel was better with the cassoulet.

For the final course we had two remarkable cheeses---Txiki, a raw sheep’s milk from Baringer Ranch in Marshall, CA; and Chabrin, a French goat’s milk---and bottles of Rudi Pichler Wösendorfer Hochrain Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2001, that rare example of a well-aged Grüner at full resolution.  Discussion ensued about the smaragd-ness of the wine, that Austrian combination of fat texture and dryness (Steve declared at least .04 or lower and no one disputed him) that made it tightly structured but soft and pillowy.   It was luxurious and deceptively unctuous…until the fruit, and herbs and minerality registered.  The pairing with the cheeses was perfect, and occasioned great comment; BL had gotten them from the local Oxbow Market cheese shop in consultation with the wine sommelier.  The cheese and wine combination was one of the (many) outstanding moments of the entire meal.

But was that enough?  Certainly not!  BettyLu served up plates of gorgeous chocolate truffles, “American style” (which I was told was encased in dipped chocolate rather than the more French style of cocoa, but what do I know?)  It was so rich, so mouthfilling, that one was a surfeit.

And so we dwindled down to a midnight halt, overfed, over-wined, over-cheesed and over-chocolated, just short of foundering on excess.  In other words, the usual end of Cassoulet at Kesslers.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Foodable TV, Cognac and the Golden State of Cocktails

It's not often---okay, this is the first time---that I get featured in a video on Foodable WebTV Network, so I might as well get the most of fleeting fame by sharing on my blog.

Not long ago I had the great pleasure to participate in some exciting, impressive and downright fun sessions on behalf of Cognac during the Golden State of Cocktails to-do in Los Angeles, a gathering of bartenders, restaurateurs and tradespeople celebrating the cocktail culture and sharing ideas.  It was three days' worth of concentrated and intense learning, combined with great people enjoying themselves.  This was the inaugural edition of the event, the first of what I hope will be a long series to come.

Foodable was there in the person of correspondent Lanee Lee doing some very professional video interviews and capturing the spirit of the event quite nicely.  I managed to get interviewed during some of the Cognac events, and enough of that avoided the cutting room floor to end up as part of a great piece that subsequently aired.  The entire piece is well worth watching, but if you want the key moment (well, for me, anyway) that begins at 5:08.

Here's the link to the video:

Foodable WebTV Network Side Dish

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The singular single malts of Auchentoshan

Recently had the opportunity to sit down with the ebullient Johnnie Mundell (Johnnie TheScot on Facebook), Morrison Bowmore Brand Ambassador (okay, okay, and a couple of tables full of bartenders) and savor the delights of Auchentoshan Single Malt Scotch Whisky over some fine food at the Imperial in Portland.

I've always had a soft spot for the 'sweet' style of Auchentoshan, that singular single malt from Glasgow by the banks of the Clyde, and this tasting did nothing but reinforce the feeling.  Well, maybe even amplify it a bit.

We were treated to three iterations of Auchentoshan, the 12 Year Old, the 18 Year Old, and the Three Wood (which is the one most people fall in love with rather instinctually) and each was showing preternaturally well in the circumstance----said circumstance being the excellent food coming out of the Imperial kitchen.

Let the professionals have the purity of laboratory-slick antiseptic tasting facilities; I'll take a plate of Imperial's slightly salty but richly umamied mushrooms with my Auchentoshan every time.  The smoked duck breast wasn't too bad either.  Why people divorce spirits from foods when tasting is simply beyond me...

But enough soapboxing.  What about the scotches?

Auchentoshan 12 Year Old
A lovely and well-oaked example in that rarity of single malts, both a Lowlands and a Triple-Distilled, replete with a bright zing of ctirus, toasted nuts, English toffee, sweet caramel, and the smoothness that comes from triple-distillation combined with long aging.  Auchentoshan 12 is clean, balanced with a slight leaning overall to the soft woody-toasty note, and finishes with a lovely underlay of ginger spice.

Auchentoshan 18 Year Old

Take that signature Auchentoshan and add a few years more barrel maturarion and you get this: deeper, rounder, more mellow, slightly more nutty and toasty, with a round expansive mouthfeel.  The Auchentoshan marketing guys say "green tea"...and I can buy that, whether suggestion or not, because there is a definite herbal-woody note to the 18 that is not as evident in the 12.  It's a full and mellow mouth-filling dram that lingers for a nice long while.

Auchentoshan Three Wood
This is my icon for what I call "dessert malt."  Doesn't necessarily have anything to do with having it after a meal---au contraire, it's often most delightful as a soft and mellow aperitif; besides, who says dessert should always be after a meal---but to signify the style of Auchentoshan as a clean but mellow and supremely easy-drinking style of malt.  The truly beautiful thing about the Three Wood is that it incorporates distinctly different aspects of the scotch whisky experience in such a softly harmonious package; if you like your scotch rich and silky, this is a good one to have on hand at all times.

The "three woods" are American Bourbon oak barrels, Oloroso sherry barrels, and a certain amount of intensely flavor-soaked Pedro Ximenez sherry barrels (PX is the stuff that makes the sweet sherries so sweet and unctuous and raisiny-rich, and a restrained presence of the PX adds lovely elements to this scotch.)  Those three maturation influences, on what is a clean and bright scotch to begin with, work wonders, delivering up a mixed bouquet...and I use the word bouquet advisedly, for there is a marvellous florality in the Three Wood you don't often find in other single malts---coupled with dried fruits (think plums and raisins and sultanas) and light cinnamon spice, all mixed and mingled together with sweet caramel and luscious butterscotch.

For all you scotch aficionados out there who are looking for good scotches to recommend for malt newbies, this could be the best of all.  I often suggest Highland Park 12 Year Old as a good starting point for a balanced and harmonious style of single malt, yet even that lovely scotch can come across as bit austere for beginners. If you wish to play it safer and kindle a love affair that will last, try starting with the Three Wood.  When people call it a "sweet scotch', that's not at all a pejorative; it's simply a good descriptive term to convey the caramelized sugars of...well, caramel, and butterscotch, and toffee and such...that seep into the whisky during slow maturation.  So it's not 'sugar sweet' we're talking about in our arcane terminology; it's more succulent and softly aromatic and gentle and mellow on the palate.  Introduce people to single malt scotch with the Auchentoshan Three Wood and they might eventually gravitate to different scotches---but in all likelihood there will always be a 'sweet spot' for Auchentoshan forever.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Glen Garioch: A Single Malt For Auld Lang Syne

Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve 1797
For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, 
for auld lang syne.
...Robert Burns

For those who like their uiscebeatha manly and bold; for those who harken back to a time when you could wear woolen skirts without underwear and still could be considered manly instead of just very uncomfortable; for those who still use phrases like "harken back" in their speech and sing Auld Lang Syne only twice a year, on Bobby Burn's Day, when you remember it and a mournful version on New Year's's an old time, old fashioned, absolute classic of a scotch that will take you back to those old times...even if you were never there the first time around and can't ever remember the lyrics.

I'm speaking of Glen Garioch---which from the mouth of a Glaswegian Scot is supposed to sound like "Glen GHEE RAYH" as if you're cheering at a football match---you know, the kind of football where they use round balls and spontaneously but dramatically fall down often.

Glen Garioch is scotch very much in the old Highlands tradition, before Speyside came to dominate the Highlands style.  It's hearty, for sure, and robust and rustic, with undisguised pure malt aromas and flavors to match.

Glen Garioch 1994
Glen Garioch 1797 Founder's Reserve
An old style of Highlands whisky that reaches back over two hundred years, when it was more about heather and less about peat. This is a rustic style of Highlands whisky, with loads of fresh, crisp apple fruit up front leaping right over to the barrel notes of vanilla and rich brown sugar and nudging ever so gently into the spice zone.  At 48% abv, or 96 Proof, it's sturdy and bold and worthy of its single malt nature and Highland origins.

Glen Garioch 1994 (Bottled in 2011)
Barreled in 1994, bottled in 2011.  That works out to about 17 years of slow and gentle maturation in used American oak barrels. Local water, native barley, yeast, fermentation, multiple pot still distillation, then into the barrel for 17 years.

There's peat in this one---but it's in the nature of banked embers glowing in the dark rather than than raspy smoke; this peat is , light, herbal and well integrated into the whisky, and there's a bright, lifting floral note that draws you in.

Yet, oh my, the power is there.  Bottled at a hearty and hefty 53.9% abv, or 107.8 Proof, this is a powerful scotch, yet for all that does not immediately seem hot or scorching.  Perhaps it was chancy for the master distiller to offer this at such high alcohol; I think not, though, for the scotch can surely handle it, and it leads to a slightly sweeter rather than a hotter expression in the mouth.  To insure as much flavor as possible remains, Glen Garioch is non-chill filtered before bottling, so you're getting the unalloyed expression of a classic single malt.

This may be a rustic style, but it's also one of those 'contemplative' scotches, where you can just sit quietly and let the aromas waft up to your nose and are content to sip occasionally and roll the whisky over your tongue to slowly savor the moment for as long as possible.

There's a historic character to the 1994 as well.  The distillery shuttered its doors after the 1995 vintage, and when it resumed operation the 'new' Glen Garioch was devoted only to unpeated malt whisky, so what few remain of the 1994 and 1995 are the last of the peated style of Glen Garioch.  Find them if you can.