Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Well Stocked Bar VIII

"We borrowed golf from Scotland as we borrowed whiskey. Not because it is Scottish, but because it is good." ~ Horace Hutchinson

A picture of the Oban Distillery in the city center of the town of Oban.

If Speyside is the heart of Scotch Whisky then the Highlands are the head with great variety and complexity among the varied malts indicative of the relative vastness of the region. The southern boundary of the Highlands is generally defined as the imaginary line between Edinburgh in the East and Glasgow in the West (though a good portion of Speyside would be included using this broad definition). Highland whisky is generally powerful with a richness of flavor and more than a bit of smoke though generally less than can be found in the Island malts. Not unlike the Speyside malts the word ‘glen’ frequently appears in the names and means ‘valley’. There is really no central character that binds Highland malts except to say that they are generally expressive of their microclimates and the unique and varied heritage of their distilleries. Among them you can find some of the mildest and most powerful of all single malts.

Among the noted malt producers in the Highlands are: Aberfeldy, Ben Nevis, Blair Athol, Clynelish, Dalmore (a personal favorite), Dalwhinne, Edradour, Glen Garioch, Glengoyne, Glencadam, Glenmorangie, Glenturret, Glenugie, Glenury-Royal, Loch Lomond, Lochside, Oban, Pulteney, Royal Lochnagar, Teaninich, and Tullibardine.

It should be noted that Glenmorangie, a long produced highland malt is one of the only single malts not sold to blenders for use in blended malt whisky. This is not because it is not desirable in a blend, but quite the opposite, it is because it is simply too popular among the Scots where it is the top selling single malt. It is available and popular in the United States but has been overshadowed by other single malt distillers offering much larger and diverse product lines.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I'm Dreaming of...

"At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows"
William Shakespeare, Love's Labour Lost

...a White Christmas, of course. The problem is here in Atlanta it's been quite warm. Those of you getting battered by snow and ice storms across the nation probably don't want to hear me complaining, but a white Christmas is one of the things I miss most from living in the north, and I do mean north: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska & Pennsylvania; it's clearly in my blood.

The picture above is from the neighborhood during our "snow storm" last January. It shut down the city, but I ran around sans coat taking pictures and took out my Audi Quattro that had never been snow tested after four years in my garage. It handled beautifully and with the snow flying I felt less stupid using the heated seats than I do when it's 50 degrees and my back is just a bit stiff.

If you're burried in snow right now take a picture or two and pull it out during the warmer months and really appreciate how beautiful it is without a snow shovel clasped in your icy fingers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dear Mrs. Claus

Dear Mrs. Claus,

I'm not sure if it's appropriate for Santa to have his own list, but he's hoping that these few items find their way under the tree this year, as you can attest he's been on the nice list most of the year:

Santa loves getting a new and interesting coffee table book every year. This year he'd love to peruse this book while dreaming of a trip on the Royal Scotsman or the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. Santa's had a love of train travel ever since he took a cross country trip as a boy in a private cabin on the much less luxurious Amtrak (though they had cabin steward service and a nice dining car, but that was many years and a few government bail-outs ago). As an added bonus Santa might just convince himself to book the Venice to Istanbul trip he and Mrs. Claus have discussed on and off over the last few years.

Though the reviews are mixed this story captured my interest. This may further help convince Santa to take Mrs. Claus to Italy this year.

The Widow Cliquot sounds like she was a fascinating woman and the makings of a very interesting book. Mrs. Claus can tell all of her friends how enlightened Santa is reading biographies of powerful and interesting women.

Santa loves Simon Pierce glass and has a collection of their decanters, but does not yet have this one. Imagine how nice it would look filled with Grey Goose, that is, for good or bad, both purchased and consumed in bulk at the North Pole.
The Dalmore King Alexander III is a newer offering, falling near the top of their regular line and based on tasting notes and my previous experiences with Dalmore products sure to be a hit. As an added bonus it will warm Santa after a long night climbing down chimneys. Just think how much faster and more accurately Santa can finish his mise en place with freshly sharpened Henckels and Wustoffs.

Santa's favorite scent for the cooler months.

And last, but not least, a feathered friend to keep Santa company when Mrs. Claus is away from the North Pole for business or out with the elves for dinner. Santa's former little helper took his last sleigh ride earlier this year and is sorely and deeply missed.
Saint Nick

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Well Stocked Bar VII

"Whisk(e)y is for drinking; water is for fighting over."
Attributed to Mark Twain
Photo of Strathisla Distillery dusted in snow.
Yesterday's post was dedicated to blended scotch whisky. This post begins a discussion on the various scotch producing regions and the varied single malts they produce.

Below is a map showing the commonly accepted scotch producing regions. Each distinct region produces varied malts but like wines each region has its own terroir influenced as much through the ingredients: water, malted barley, peat (burned to dry the barley), as the place where the barley is malted and the whisky ages in the barrel.

I think the logical starting point in the discussion of scotch regions is Speyside as it is the largest producer of single malts with 46 active producers, more than half of those in the whole of Scotland.

The region is defined by the river Spey which cuts through the area. Most distilleries were located to take advantage of a good source of clean water; in the Speyside region many distilleries use water straight from the river Spey and its tributaries. Geographically Speyside is part of the Highlands but for the purpose of classifying whisky is considered a separate region due to its size and the clear differences in the characters of Speyside as opposed to Highland whisky.

Within the Speyside region are five subregions: Elgin, Glenlivet, Upper Spey, Dufftown, and Rothes. Among these Glenlivet home to The Glenlivet is perhaps the most famous as The Glenlivet its most famous distillery produces the most popular single malt sold in the US market.

The defining characteristics of a Speyside malt are a degree of sweetness, a light to medium body, fruity, leafy and honeyed notes. Some whiskys also exhibit aromas of citrus and flowers like roses.

Following is a partial list of the Speyside distilleries, among them some of the most famous and long lived malts: Aberlour, An Cnoc, Ardmore, Aultmore, Balmenach, Balvenie, Benriach, Benromach, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Dailuaine, Dallas Dhu, Dufftown, Glen Elgin, Glendronach, Glendullan, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, Glen Keith, Glenlivet, Glen Moray, The Glenrothes, Glentauchers, Inchgower, Knockando, Linkwood, The Macallan, Miltonduff, Mortlach, Speyburn, The Speyside, Strathisla, Tamnavulin Glenlivet, Tomintoul, and Tormore.

Among the list is my favorite single malt and distillery Strathisla (pictured above). It is believed to be the oldest distillery in the Highlands built in 1786. First called Milltown then Milton before being renamed Strathisla, the spirit they've produced has long been known as Strathisla. Chivas Brothers bought the distillery in 1950 after the previous owner, a Mr Pomery, was found guilty of tax evasion. The water source at Strathisla, 'Fons Bulliens' has long been highly regarded; Dominican monks used the same source to produce beer in the 12th century. Strathisla is also consistently ranked as the most beautiful distillery in Scotland, and I can personally attest to the quality of the distillery tour having been the first visitor of the seaons some years back and receiving a personal tour from a wonderful gentleman named Leslie who had been working in the whisky business for more than 40 years.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Well Stocked Bar VI

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough."
Mark Twain

As the weather turns cooler many switch from the gin and vodka based drinks of summer to something a bit richer, smokier, warmer. For me it's time to pour a few fingers of Scotch or Bourbon. The last Well Stocked Bar post was dedicated to Bourbon, this is one is dedicated to it's older cousin Scotch, particularly blended Scotch. Future posts will be dedicated to the finer points of single malts.

Scotch has had a long history of regulation (most of it unwanted and imposed unilaterally by the English). Today's Scotch Whisky is regulated by the Scotch Whisky Order of 1990, but is currently under review for further regulation. The Whisky Order is fundamentally a definition of what it takes to be called Scotch whisky:

1. Must be distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley and fermented with yeast
2. Must be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% (189.6 proof)
3. Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years and a day
4. Must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel colouring
5. May not be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume

Blended Scotch is a mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky, usually from multiple distilleries. These are the Scotch whiskies that became popular throughout the world at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and include such brands as Dewar's White Label (the #1 selling Scotch in America), Cutty Sark, Chivas Regal, Johnny Walker, J&B, and Famous Grouse. One reason for their popularity is their consistent house style. Like a Champagne house, a Scotch Blender's job is to produce a consistent product from year to year. They accomplish this by combining single-malt whisky from multiple distilleries in various proportions to achieve a consistent taste and then add grain alcohol to lend a smoothness.

Blended Scotch whisky is a bar necessity for it can be drunk neat, with rocks, with water, with soda, and in a host of different cocktails. If you drink Scotch you probably started with a blend and have your favorite, if not pay attention to what your friends and family order to select the blend most preferred by your most frequent guests. If your budget and bar can accomodate more than one selection it's not a bad practice to have several different selections on hand.

For my bar the "house" is Dewar's 12, a smoother more elegant version of Dewar's White Label that benefits from a combination of single malts the youngest of which is 12 years old. (The age printed on a bottle of Scotch by law has to be the age of the youngest malt included, though the blend may contain malts much older). I also have bottles of Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker Black Label on hand as I have a number of friends who are fiercely loyal to these blends.

What's your blended scotch?

My favorite scotch cocktail is the Rob Roy, named after Robert Roy MacGregor, a Scottish folk hero also known as 'Red MacGregor'.

3 Parts Blended Scotch Whisky, I prefer Dewar's 12 or White Label
2-3 Parts Dry Vermouth (depending on taste)
2 Dashes Bitters, I use Angostura, but Orange Bitters are also nice
2 Dashes Simple Syrup (made by bringing to a boil than cooling equal parts water and sugar)
1 Cherry

Combine first 4 ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled half with ice. Shake vigorously for a few moments. Serve in a old fashioned or a highball depending on the crowd and garnish with a cherry.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hungry at the Holidays

"When a man's stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor."
Euripides (BC 480-BC 406)

Picture of an amazing can sculputre from Canstruction Calgary

Like many I started with can drives as a child in elementary school competing against other classrooms to gather up the most food for the less fortunate (and to earn a pizza party, we were only 6). The habit stuck and over the years I have donated both cans and my time to help stock shelves and deliver food, and have always found it to be a rewarding experience.

As you've probably heard in the news media that donations are falling at the same time as needs are increasing. As many of us prepare for one feast after another this holiday season if we can just buy a few extra non-parishable food items and drop them off at a foodbank or at one of the many drop-off points that are set up this time of year we can help eliminate hunger.

To find a foodbank near you visit: Feeding America, formerly America's Second Harvest.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Luxury (in a Down Market)

Now don't think me too weird for making this suggestion, but how about eating lobster this weekend?

I know it's the holiday season, the short-term economic outlook is bleak, but there's a great reason to indulge - the price. The price of lobster has dropped to a 25 year low, and if you fix them at home your luxe dinner for two of around $40 is much cheaper than anything remotely comparable in a restaurant. As an added bonus to assuade any guilt you might feel while dining like a Rockefeller, the lobster fisheries in the Northeast are in better shape than they have been in many decades, so it's a sustainable luxury.

For those of you so inclined, here is the most humane way to tackle the unpleasantness of butchering your own food:

First put the lobster(s) in the freezer for 15 minutes; this slows their metabolism.

Next put the lobster on its back and slice lengthwise through its soft underbelly. Because lobsters have a decentralized nervous system the tail may still move for a moment more, but the claws will go limp indicating the lobster is dead.

Killing a lobster this way, rather than dumping them in boiling water, has an added bonus, it makes for more tender, less rubbery, meat.

From here you can boil, steam, broil, or even grill your lobsters and eat the succulent meat with the classic drawn butter, or tackle something a bit more adventurous.

For a few recipe suggestions and more information on the current lobster glut check out this recent article from the New York Times.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nog, the Real Stuff

My wife is a devotee of the Egg Nog. To avoid the parade of cartons of the simply ok to completely horrid of the grocery store stuff I started making the good stuff twice a season, once for our annual holiday party, and once on Christmas Eve. This seems to satisfy her; along with last year's discovery of egg nog ice cream. I might try making some of this myself this year as well.

I must also confess that the Tom and Jerry is a family favorite on my father's side of the family. The history of the Tom and Jerry, the name commonly given to eggnog that includes brandy, comes from Pierce Egan, an author popular in the 1820s, wrote a book called "Life of London: or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and His Elegant Friend Corinthina Tom". To publicize his work Mr. Egan made up a variation of eggnog he called "Tom and Jerry". It added 1/2 oz of brandy to the basic recipe and forever named the beverage.

The traditional spirits to include are bourbon and, for the Tom and Jerry, brandy. I "discovered" that Jameson Irish Whisky is an excellent replacement for the bourbon when I ran out of bourbon making a pecan pie with a double on the rocks for me, and some of my guests actually preferred it.

Here's my favorite recipe for real nog:

12 eggs, separated
6 cups 2% milk
2 cups heavy/ thickened cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups Bourbon or Irish Whisky
1+ ½ cups sugar
¾ cup brandy or calvados
2 teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg

In a large bowl and using a mixer, cream the egg yolks with the sugar for approx 10 minutes (the mixture will become firm and the colour of butter).

Very slowly, add in the Bourbon/Whisky) and brandy - just a little at a time.

When Bourbon/Whisky and brandy have been added, allow the mixture to cool in the fridge (for up to 6 hours, depending on how long before your party you're making the eggnog).

30 minutes before you are ready to serve, stir the milk into the chilled yolk mixture along with 1+ ½ teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg.

In a separate bowl, beat the cream and vanilla extract with a mixer on high speed until the cream forms stiff peaks.

In yet another very clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.

Gently fold the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture then fold the cream into the egg mixture and topp with the remaining nutmeg (this final step can be done in a punch bowl if you're going to be serving this at a party).

Serves: 8 mugs or 12 punch glasses

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dining Like a Banker

"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies."
Thomas Jefferson

Please forgive the quote, it seemed timely even though it's only tangentially related to this post.

During a recent trip to Richmond, Virginia I had the pleasure of dining at Bank on the recommendation of the ever Elegant Chris and his generous friends. The restaurant (and club Vault) as the name suggests is located in a renovated turn of the century bank on Main Street in downtown Richmond. It's worth having a drink at Bank if only to enjoy the beautiful facade upon entry.

I dined with a few colleagues, who greedily consumed their food without offering so much as a taste, so my review will be based only on my meal.

I began with the pan roasted mussels with spicy tomatoes and garlic with herb toast points. I'm a sucker for mussels and their version was delicious and a bit hearty for the cooling weather.

For my entree I had the citrus glazed mahi mahi served over shitake risotto with a orangea nd grapefruit compote. The dish was more beautiful to look at than taste as I found the citrus fruit a strange pairing with the mushroom risotto. Either accompaniment would have enhanced the fish, but to combine both resulted in an inharmonious dish.

For dessert I had a variation on a flourless chocolate cake that was good, but not particularly memorable.

I shared several bottles of the Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc. I'm a fan of this wine as the acidity pairs beautifully with most foods particularly seafood and Asian cuisines. I always have a few bottles on hand for home cooking and for Thai or Vietnamese take-out.

On the whole it was an enjoyable evening, though the food was always just a bit off from what it could have been. There's little doubt that food is a secondary priority after the club, which appears to draw a large and diverse crowd.

Bank Wrap-Up

Atmosphere: 4 (modern touches in a neoclassical bank)
Drinks: 4 (a good wine list including reserve list, reasonable mark-ups)
Cuisine: 4 (a good assortment of menu items and specials, a bit more focused on seafood)
Sides: 2 (good sides strangely paired)
Desert: 4
Service: 4.5
Value: 4.5
Overall: 4.1

Note: Warrants another visit.

1005 E. Main St.

(804) 648-3070

M-F 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

S&S 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Bank on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Cause Worth Toasting

"What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?"
W.C. Fields ~ You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
Picture of a cork oak forest in Portugal.

In the interest of blogger disclosure I need to start this post with a confession. I attempt to live a green lifestyle largely when it suits me. I use re-usable grocery bags, have converted most of my lighting to CFLs, have programmable thermostats, etc. But when it comes to always eating local and in season, driving a gas sipping automobile, and the "staycation", I just haven't been able to make the change.

One thing I thought I was doing to be green was to buy most of my white wines and red table wines with screw caps. I thought that these metal caps must surely be more environmentally friendly than the conventional cork that probably came from a different country than the wine and they're used only once then discarded, or in my case horded in tins under the bar for some yet to be determined craft.

Turns out that I'm wrong. According to an article in the Telegraph the reduced demand for real corks is having devestating consequences. Cork oak forests cover 6.7 million acres worldwide of marginally arable lands, but that are rich with biodiversity and support rare species such as Iberian lynx, the worlds most engangered cat, black storks and booted eagles. In Portugal for example 33% of the country is planted with cork oaks.

Over 70% of the cork harvested annually is used for wine stoppers, but with alternative closures gaining in popularity over the past decade cork demand is down, perhaps by as much as 20%. Cork oaks, which take 45 years to reach maturity, then nine years before a tree can be harvested again. Each tree produces enough cork in each harvest for an astonishing 4,000 wine bottles.

The two problems most wine producers have been attempting to avoid by switching to cork-alternative closures are first costs, real top quality wine corks are more expensive than the alternatives and second the potential of wines becoming "corked", where the wine develops a musty smell becomes undrinkable due to contamination with a chemical known as Trichloroanisol, have turned many consumers off natural corks.

From a purely aesthetic perspective nothing can replace the ritual of removing a real cork, inspecting it (please don't smell it), and even saving special corks from special bottles or special occassions. The next bottle you pick up at your corner store or wine merchant make sure it has a real cork, it's a small way to be green.

Close-up of a cork tree partially stripped of it's bark.

Cork harvested from a plantation air-drying before being cut into wine corks.