The Father of Our Country was a Mixologist

Egg Nog has always been a holiday tradition, but it’s always been the store-bought variety that makes its way to most homes. A couple of years ago my friends Dana and James Pike mentioned a special home-made version that most definitely packs a wallop. The recipe comes from none other than our first president, George Washington himself. The Father of Our Country was indeed a mixologist. While you can easily find the recipe online, we’ve posted it at IEShineOn.com as our Cocktail of the Month for December
, along with a few other holiday delights. Cheers!

 

Cocktails of the Month for September

ieshineon-september-cocktail-of-the-month-623While the weather outside still says summer, the calendar shows we’re on the cusp of fall and the transition to some cooler temperatures ahead. And with the change of seasons comes a shift in the types of cocktails that are most appealing. Specifically, that means a transition from light refreshing drinks, to those that feature dark distilled liquor. There’s no better place to start than with a couple of classic whiskey cocktails – the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned – along with a few other variations. I’ve got my take on a couple of my favorites at IEShineOn.com. These are heavy on the alcohol, so, as always, please be careful and drink responsibly.12072825_1085262341491843_5867455890284977700_n

Beer and Wine Events Guide for August

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Image courtesy of IEShineOn

What else would you do during the dog days of August than find a good event to sample wines, beers or spirits? Okay, there’s probably a lot, but this is the only place to find a comprehensive guide to alcoholic beverage tasting events in the Inland Empire. Check out my Inland Empire Beer and Wine Guide for August at IEShineOn. And check back periodically for updates. If you know of an event I’ve missed, please let me know and we’ll be sure to add it. Better yet, let me know well in advance so it doesn’t get overlooked in the first place. Thanks!

Cheers! 12072825_1085262341491843_5867455890284977700_n

 

Roll out the Barrel-Aged Brews

thumb_IMG_3269_1024I often take for granted that people are familiar with different beer styles, given the rapid explosion of the craft beer industry. But many of my peers’ beer drinking days ended shortly after their college years, and their idea of beer remains Coors or Bud.

Most people are familiar with today’s IPAs and other popular craft beer styles. But I’m certain it comes as a surprise to know that there are as many as 120 different beer categories and subcategories, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program.

One of the most popular styles right now is barrel-aged beer. Not fashioned for the casual beer drinker expecting a light and refreshing thirst-quencher, these brews are for sipping slowly.thumb_IMG_3268_1024

Technically, a barrel-aged beer is any style of beer that has been aged in a wooden barrel. The contact with the wood or with wood chips brings out unique flavor characteristics specific to that kind of wood (mostly oak), or from what was previously stored in the barrel. In many cases, that was bourbon, rye, rum, brandy, port wine or other spirits. The liquor-soaked wood influences the taste and aroma of the beer, adding unique and delicious flavors such as vanilla or spices. Depending on the barrel and the time the beer has been aged (typically six to 18 months), it also adds distinct boozy qualities and increases the beer’s alcohol level.

thumb_IMG_3633_1024The process tends to enhance the beer to a complexity more commonly found in wine. These strong brews are best sipped from a brandy snifter glass rather than a pilsner glass.

Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company released its first Bourbon County Stout in 1992, and today the annual “Black Friday” release brings long lines to liquor stores nationally. The style has become so popular that almost all craft breweries have at least experimented with putting beers in barrels – most to great fanfare and success. Some have become quite proficient, including Simon Brown and Brian Seffer at Claremont Craft Ales, where there are almost always one or two delicious barrel-aged brews on tap. Hangar 24 in Redlands offers its incredible “Barrel Roll” series with special seasonal releases. And while barrel-aged bottles may not always be readily available at grocery stores, reputable liquor stores may carry as many as two-dozen varieties.

Noted beer makers like Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos and Patrick Rue from The Bruery in Placentia have gained international fame for their barrel-aging genius. Upon recently sipping a bourbon-barrel-aged Deliverance Ale, one out-of-town visitor to Port/Lost Abbey exclaimed, “This is Christmas in my mouth!”IMG_0935

Drinking Made “Big” Easy

IMG_1273New Orleans has earned its reputation as one of America’s great party cities. We saw that first-hand when we visited the Crescent City in October. The place truly never sleeps. From The French Quarter, to downtown to the stately Uptown, Carrollton and University districts to all along the Mississippi River, which winds through the city, New Orleans has no shortage of watering holes that are open 24/7.

While The Big Easy in unquestionably a great drinking city, I don’t necessarily think that it’s a city of great drinks. Sure, many great classic cocktails were invented in New Orleans, but everywhere we went the focus was on quick and convenient sweet high-alcohol drinks meant to get your blood-alcohol level rising in a hurry.

EvenIMG_1269 at Pat O’Brien’s, one of the city’s most famous drinking establishments on Bourbon Street, I saw an obvious lack of sophistication. Of course, that’s not why people go there. They go for the Hurricanes, which were invented there. Unfortunately, they’re pre-made and poured in large volume. You can even get them in to-go cups to take with you as you visit other stops along the city’s most famous street.

I have to say that the Sazerac at Pat O’Brien’s was excellent. Perhaps the most acclaimed cocktail originating in New Orleans, the Sazerac is a Bourbon-based drink mixed with simple syrup, Peyshaud’s Bitters and Angustora Bitters and served in a glass rinsed with Pernod and garnished with a lemon twist. It’s not a true Sazerac if it doesn’t include Peyshaud’s Bitters. By far the best cocktail I had during my stay. Nevertheless, I was astounded that the bartender didn’t know how to make a Whiskey Sour using fresh ingredients, and instead used a pre-made sour mix. He was unfamiliar with some basic mixing skills you’d expect at such a renowned establishment.

The knowledge meter didn’t change much a few blocks away at another well-known bar, Lafittte’s Blacksmith Shop, where we grabbed a Voodoo, another high-octane frozen drink resembling a grape slushy, and a Cherry Bomb, a cup of maraschino cherries soaked in Everclear. Simple, sweet and effective. No wonder Bourbon Street has earned its reputation.

The pre-made frozen cocktails are pretty much symbolic of what I found around New Orleans. I’ve never seen a place where “Drive-through Daiquiris” are the norm. High-alcohol fruit-flavored slushy drinks served in to-go cups come with names like 190 Octane, Banana Banshee, Cat 5 Hurricane, Eye Candy, Mardi Gras Mash, Swamp Sludge and Jungle Juice and are available on many street corners.10590523_10152576885018813_6114559751078655724_n

Naturally, I also had to check out the local craft beer scene, but was a bit disappointed. In fact, I found that throughout our travels the craft beer selections were pretty limited. NOLA Brewing Co. had some nice offerings among their regular rotation, including their award-winning Hopitoulas IPA and the Irish Channel Stout, and some interesting specialty beers among their rotations, including brews featuring pineapple and ghost pepper, blackberry and sage. I’m sure their novelty beers are helping to drive a few more beer drinkers to NOLA Brewing.

We didn’t have the chance to visit Crescent City Brewhouse in the French Quarter or any of the other craft breweries just outside of New Orleans, but it was obvious that the industry is not very advanced in the region and through most of the areas that we traveled along the way. None of those, including the widely known Abita Brewery, were “can’t miss” destinations, so we missed them.

Of course, with so many other imbibing options in town, it figures that craft beer would fall behind the “bang-them-out” cocktails found pretty much at every corner. Clearly, people don’t go to New Orleans for craft beers. And I didn’t see evidence that they go for finely crafted cocktails, either.

They go to drink high-alcohol drinks that taste good and are easy – big easy.10425845_10152580540923813_3595453593683359230_n

Cheers!

IMG_0984The Los Angeles County Fair has been holding one of the top wine competitions in the nation for 75 years. Limited to California wines up until just before the turn of the century, the expanded to include wines from around the world, and today the Los Angeles International Wine Competition is one of the most prestigious in the United States.

The competition also serves as the platform for wine education programs and tastings during the annual Fair, as spotlighted here last fall.

Over the years, Fairplex has continued to expand its educational outreach into the worlds of wine, beer and spirits, along with olive oils and other agricultural products. The Fair’s first spirits competition was held in 2007, but was only focused on tequila. The following year it opened to all distilled spirits, and it has continued to grow annually. In 2010, the spirits competition added a separate category for mixers and garnishes.

IMG_0976Thanks to an invitation from competition honorary chairman Dana Chandler (Chopin Vodka) and his wife Sally, I was fortunate to take a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s Los Angeles International Spirits Competition.

The judging panel included a diverse collection of experienced and noteworthy evaluators representing a variety of interests throughout the beverage industry – from mixologists, sommeliers and restaurateurs to beverage distributors, news columnists and a vice president from BevMo (Brian Bowden).

IMG_0989Fairplex Creative Administrator Colene Nath worked brilliantly behind the scenes to organize the 2014 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, which this year received 347 spirits entries from 134 producers representing 32 nations. She said there were 89 entries in 29 whiskey categories alone. That itself was a tremendous increase in that division over previous years.

Colene said other big growth category was Shochu, a Japanese spirit distilled with rice, barley, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, Thai rice or a number of other ingredients. There were 40 Shochu entries in six categories. She told me that one of the judges said that last year’s Shochu division winner saw a doubling of its sales in Japan after winning at this competition.

The mixer category also has continued to flourish, with everything from Bloody Mary and Mai Tai mixes to rim salts, bitters and garnishes.

“Last year the judges debated about giving the Best of Show award to a mixer, but felt that wouldn’t be right. So the mixers were awarded separately from the spirits,” Colene said.

The well-known brands of distilled liquors already have strong followings, so the event is all the more important for new distillers and those who might not be as well known. It’s also an opportunity for established brands to test new products.

All winners are able to tag their bottles with award decals when they distribute their products to stores, which is a benefit to their marketing efforts to boost retail sales.IMG_0977

After watching four separate tables filled with judging panels, Colene offered me the opportunity to sit in on an afternoon judging session of the top whiskeys. At my table were Alfredo Gama, Southern California spirits manager for Wine Warehouse; Michael Nemcik, founder of Red Clay, an event service and beverage consulting company; and Ryan Steely, owner, creative director and designer at SOA32 Creative. Ryan not only participated as a spirits-tasting judge, but he also headed the packaging design competition panel.

Earlier in the competition, the judges had selected the gold medal winners from all of the whiskey categories. They did not know what brands they were sampling, but they were aware they were tasting within each category, such as single barrel bourbons, small batch bourbons, and so on. The gold medal winners from those categories then advanced to this panel, which selected the top whiskey from the gold medal-winning Bourbon, Canadian Whisky, Scotch, Rye Whiskey, American Whiskey, Irish Whiskey and other categories.

Much like judging wine, spirits evaluation is a step-by-step process that begins with a visual examination of the spirit and a deep inhale to capture the aromas and smells.

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Michael Nemcik

“It’s a lot like judging wine in that you start with the nose and search for the characteristics in each glass before you taste it,” said Michael Nemcik. “Then you let it work along your mid-palette for the flavor notes. After that you measure whether the finish is strong and smooth. Is it hot or not? Is it a long finish or a thin finish? You look for a longer finish, a smooth finish. You don’t want one that hits hot and then goes away quickly. You’d rather it be smooth and consistent as opposed to on and off.”

Added Ryan Steely, “The higher alcohol spirits are the hardest to judge because of the burn they leave in your mouth.”

Given the rich flavors inherent with good whiskeys of all varieties, I naturally assumed this would be one of the easiest and most pleasurable divisions to judge. Likewise, I assumed that vodka would be much more difficult, since it is often described as “colorless, odorless and flavorless.” However, Steely disagreed.

Ryan Steely

Ryan Steely

“Vodka is not as difficult as you would think, because good vodkas are fairly complex with distinct characteristics,” he said, but cautioned that flavored vodkas are much harder to evaluate.

“Most tend to start with a base vodka that is not as good, and then smack it full of a cotton candy syrup or whatever else they put in there, which makes it unpleasing. We’re really judging the flavored syrups rather than the spirit itself.”

While the judges knew the categories for each of the gold medal whiskeys they were re-evaluating, I was without the benefit of a judging sheet, so I didn’t know which glass contained a Canadian whiskey and which was filled with Scotch. But after sampling from the 13 different glasses that were set in front of me, I was pleased to learn that the whiskeys I preferred the most (bourbon and rye) were the same varieties I prefer at home. I appreciated all of the whiskeys that I sampled (and dutifully spit), and I would have loved to test the wide variety of other spirits that the judges examined over the two-day competition.

The judges at our table and those at the adjoining table were in agreement in awarding the top whiskey to Glenmorangie Quarter Century 25-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch. It also received the Best of Show for the entire spirits competition with an impressive 98 points. Other people must think it’s decent, too, because on the competition results sheet lists the retail price at $579.IMG_0985

The Powell and Mahoney Sriracha Bloody Mary Mix took Best of Show for mixers. Best of Category awards included (by category): Shochu: Satsuma Godai, Shochu, Sweet Potato; Tequila: Dos Vidas Blanco, 100 percent Blue Agave Tequila, Mexico, Silver Plata; Vodka: Chopin Rye, Unflavored; Liqueur: Schwartzhog, Amaro/Bitter; Gin: Half Moon Orchard Gin, unflavored; Brandy: E&J Distillers Brandy XO, Cognac XO; Rum: Bayou Spiced Rum. A list of all of the award winners can be found here.

The third and final day of the event was a bottle packaging design competition, in which Steely, Gama and Flori Cademartori, a graphic and fashion designer, looked over a dozen different design categories, including typography, container, illustration and so on. I’ve featured some of the finalists among the pictures posted here.

Tastings of award-winning spirits, as well as beer, wine and olive oils, will be available at the “Cheers!” food and beverage festival at Fairplex on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are available online.