Category Archives: Aquae Vitae

All things alcohol (and food) related.

Far East Adventures

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Whisky Samurai

By T. Dietz

We’re at the tail-end of a five week trip to South East Asia spending a few transition days in Tokyo when I’m ready for a night with no kids, alone time with my wife, and a great whisky. A fitting end to a great summer holiday adventure that covered so much-from an elephant safari to diving with sharks and giant moray eels in Thailand. As we at the GAC have pointed out on more than one occasion, we like to finish our adventures (of all and any kind) with a whisky (see our previous whisky tasting article).

I’ve been to Japan, and Tokyo in particular, several times and know first hand of the Japanese’s passion for cocktails and whisky. So instead of heading down to the Shangri-La Hotel bar or the Park Hyatt Hotel’s New York bar, where too many people need to have a drink because of the bar scene in the film Lost In Translation, I turn to the interwebs for the “best whisky bar in Tokyo”.

Up came a number of great bars highlighting chemistry major-be-proud alcohol concoctions, FullSizeRender 8 copyhand shaved ice, dinner-jacketed bartenders, and rarified whiskies from around the world. Many, like the Society at the Park Hotel or the Bar High Five, would easily of met my need for the evening. But, I was intrigued by several articles that highlighted the oldest master barman in Tokyo, Mitsui Yoshida. He is known for having trained many of Tokyo’s great mixologists, his perfect ice and Yoshida Martini, and one of his specialty cocktails called the Kaikan Fizz. Turns out he is bar tending at a bar called Y&M Kisling and one on the “best of” list. Unfortunately, he only tends bar a couple of nights a week and it was not a night that my wife and I had free. BTW, yes, GAC adventures can include your beautiful blonde wife.

IMG_1659 copyThe Y&M Kisling sounded intriguing in and of itself. A small venue that was named for the French painter Moise Kisling and highlighting his painting Jeune fille en rouge, 1925. Although M Yoshida would not be there we figured his protégés would be. Off we went to the Ginza district of Tokyo.

 

 

We were let off at a plain looking office building that, without the sign, would provide no insight IMG_1658 copyas to what was up on the 7th floor. We jumped on a tiny elevator that made us intimately acquainted with one other vertical traveler and up we went. We weren’t off the elevator five seconds when a door swung open and a gentleman in a crème-colored dinner jacket and dark pants invited us into what felt initially like someone’s apartment. A few feet of richly stained wood paneling opened up into an intimate narrow, low lighted old world bar right out of the early part of the 1900’s. Ambience perfection. Just four very nicely dressed patrons were huddled at either end of the long bar- barely looking up from their IMG_1660 copyconversation, drinks and smokes- and we were escorted to the middle section. The bar was pristine with a variety of chilled glasses on display and a deep selection of distillates and spirits. And at its center, the Kisling artwork stood out in riveting contrast to the subdued surroundings.

My wife and I both smiled at what was likely going to be a great evening despite the Master barman’s absence when he just appeared and bee-lined straight to us. With a dignified bow and two other bar tenders standing in military attention at his sides he asked what we’d like to drink. I couldn’t help myself and despite the apparent obviousness of his presence I turned to my wife and said meet M Yosihida, legendary barman.

Without hesitation, my wife ordered up the Yoshida Martini. In an instant, hands were flying around as a perfectly frosted Martini glass was placed in front of M Yoshida and the mesmerizing art of cocktail alchemy played out, perfectly orchestrated. M Yoshida pulled out his pristine ice and chilled everything he used in the process-constantly replacing the ice fresh. Never once did he use a jigger but rather his years of honed skill to pour the exact amount of ingredients into the shaker – a dash of orange bitter, Gordon’s gin, Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth and lemons. His concentration was absolute and his “assistants” never took their eyes off of his efforts nor were a step behind in having what came next at his fingertips. His stirring of the mix, which you can see in the lead-in picture, was performed with the utmost concentration. He finished the cocktail with an absolutely perfect pour and squeezed a lemon a few inches over the glass from left to right. He then presented the drink to my wife with a hand gesture but never looking up and bowed. Over the course of the evening we watched this choreographed mastery many times.

M Yoshida didn’t move until after my wife took her fist sip and smiled. Another bow followed. He then turned his attention to me and what would I like. I said that my experience with whisky FullSizeRender 9 copywas good but extremely limited when it came to Japanese malts with only a 12 year Suntory Hakushu (tasted at our GAC whisky event) under my belt. He quickly brought out a number of Japanese whiskies – a 17 year Nikka, a 12 year Taketsuru, and a 12 year Hibiki.   I tasted each one and favored the Nikka. He nodded in approval and moved away to other patrons while I enjoyed smooth brown liquid. Over the next bit my wife and I relived some of the adventurous trip we were just finishing up and decided it was time for another round.

Having enjoyed the Yoshida Martini so much she elected for it a second time and M Yoshida again enthralled us with his time-honed skills. In broken English he asked us where we were from. We said the San Francisco area and he was excited to tell us he’d been there for a visit years before. I told him again how much I liked the Nikka and he then just stared at me – kind of like when you’re deciding on whether you should do something or not. He turned to one of his assistant bar tenders and after a brief and hushed conversation the IMG_1669 - Version 2 copyassistant bar tender left the bar and went to the wall seating behind us. He lifted one of the seats and reached in. He quickly took the bottle to M Yoshida and then returned to the wall seating to put it back in place.

The bottle was in Japanese with beautiful artwork on it. M Yoshida opened the bottle, took a glass and poured ever so small a portion. He breathed in the aroma and then slid the glass in front of me. I honestly can’t remember the smell. I felt I was drinking something that doesn’t often come out for his patrons. He waited for me to taste it and when I did I just thought it held up to the best whiskies I have ever had. He smiled for the first time and the bottle was taken back to its hiding spot. After some searching I figured out I had tasted from an older stock bottle of Karuizawa whisky, a rare and expensive malt. Nope, I didn’t even think at that point to pull my phone camera back out being completely in the moment.

But two more treats came when first I noticed that the bill did not include my special tasting and then M Yoshida came around from the bar with his assistant and asked for my camera which he gave to another assistant to memorialize our evening adventure in Tokyo.

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Dinner and a discovery

Whisky and Wine

Last October we had the pleasure of joining the Wine and Food Society of San Francisco for one of their wine paring events. Hosted at San Francisco’s distinctive Jardiniere restaurant, we of course anticipated spectacular food and wine. But it was a quiet moment we found at the bar that put a special spin to the evening.

(*From the wfssf web site) The Wine & Food Society of San Francisco is a charter member of the International Wine & Food Society, and the first chapter to hold a dinner in North America. Each year members and their guests enjoy about ten evenings of fine wine and exceptional food at venues in San Francisco and surrounding areas.

The Society has built a comfortable-sized Cellar, so that most events are supported by wines chosen years before by the Wine Chairman. This tradition continues in selecting current fine wines for those who will enjoy these in the future. Each event is planned by a committee of members who work closely with the chef to tailor each experience.

Tom and his wife have been members for a number of years so Tom’s invitation to my wife and I had a convenient coincidence in that it was Leslie’s birthday, and cause for added celebration.

Having arrived early, resplendent in my black tie, I waited at the bar for Tom, Leslie, and my wife to arrive. While enjoying a glass of the featured chardonnay, I snuck off to the far corner of the bar, feeling exposited without my partner in crime at my side.

As anyone with an affinity for bar contents, it didn’t take long for me to examine the inventory of the spirits on the shelf. It was here I found something I had not seen before.

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Our discovery

Sitting at the far end were three distinct bottles, each with a specialty label. The label alone intrigued me so when Tom arrived, I peeled him away to examine the samples I had found. Completely unfamiliar with the brand we asked the bartender what it was. Clearly something unusual, our young friend had to call over the head bartender for an explanation.

The head bar tender for Jardiner is Greg Stone, a gentleman who clearly loves what he does.

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Our lesson from Greg Stone

He proceeded to explain to us the story behind the bottles and who Michel Couvreur is.

Michel Couvreur, having recently passed away, was a Belgian and independent bottler of single malt scotch. His cellars, located in Bouze-les-Beaue are in the heart of Burgundy where he aged his single malts for four years in hand picked sherry butts from Jerez.

The bar wasn’t open tonight; again our reason for being there was about the wine. However with true barman skills, our bartender offered us a pour of two of the three bottles so we could better understand what he was explaining.

He poured the Special Vatting and the aged 24 years versions, each having wonderful characteristics of their own. Tom favored the 24 year, I the special vatting. Both were spectacular, having full command of the sherry finishing Couvreur was trying to achieve.

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remnants of a wonderful evening

From here the evening was amazing and again, it really was about the wine and food. But starting with a specialty whisky and a great conversation with Greg Stone set our evening apart from most others.

 

Whisky Tasting

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“Whisky: Novice or Not”

By Brian K. Brecht and T. Dietz

 

 

"the finishing toast" The closing tradition

“the finishing toast”
The closing tradition

As we plan each adventure, two things have become clear.

First, in the GAC, we want to enjoy our experiences with a wider range of devotees. And second….. we really like whisky. It is in fact how we finish each of our adventures.

Tom and I found our fondness for whisky over time, and we’ve both settled on what we like and don’t like. So as whisky drinkers, we wanted to share our enthusiasm with our GAC friends. We realized we had some members that had some, little or even no exposure to whisky at all. And in discussing how to share our fondness without prejudicing your intended audience, it led us to the idea of hosting our own whisky tasting event.

In order to give our guests the full range of characteristics to the spirit, we took a broad approach, choosing to not steer toward just single malts or whiskies from a particular region. Our goal was to not bias the experience so instead of a deep dive into scotch, or jumping on the current Bourbon bandwagon, we’d start with comparing all the variations to better understand why one differs from another. In fact the deeper we went into the subject; we found things that even we weren’t familiar with. That peaked our interest.

The impetuous for the evening came from a similar conversation with newly indoctrinated GAC member Yves Metraux. After my discussion wit Yves we decided this was to be Whisky(ey)…… whether you were a novice, or not.

THE PREPERATION

After some deliberation we settled on four specific variants, Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, and Rye. From there we picked two varieties of each. We hoped to find similarities in candidates, but also examples that might highlight the wide range between the two selections. Why we didn’t include Canadian Whiskey I’m really not sure, but it just didn’t seem to ring true for us. No offense Canada.

Interestingly enough, though we were planning for only those four types, as guests arrived we wound up with (what we called), the extra credit table. Here were brought other representations such as another high-end highland Scotch, a Tennessee whiskey, and a Japanese whiskey. So to give you the full picture, our menu was cast as follows:

our menu

our menu

Scotch

The MaCallan (Speyside) – 10-year fine oak

Adberg (Islay) – 10-year-old single malt

Irish

Jameson – 12-Year-old 1780

Tullamore Dew – 12-year-old reserve

Bourbon

Knob Creek

Bulleit Bourbon

Rye Whiskey

Bulleit Rye

High West Double Rye

Extra Credit

Stronachie (Highland) – 12 year Single Malt

Gentleman Jack – Tennessee Whiskey

The Hakushu – 12 year single malt Japanese whiskey

From here it was all about planning the event and how we wanted to present our spirits. One of the first things we realized was that food would be a priority. Laying out our eight to twelve whiskeys, we realized we’d need a solid base for it all to sit on. We did something of a potluck but steered the courses to savory full flavor choices such as Tri-Tip, marinade peppers and olives, a ranges of heavy cheese and a mixed green salad in balsamic dressing.

THE PRESENTATION

the tasting cards

the tasting cards

We wanted to showcase all the variants at their finest. Again not wanting to slant toward any of the various brands, we pulled highlights and tasting notes from a variety of sources, and rolled them into tasting cards of our own so that it might entice our guests to each selection. We wanted them to find all the positive tastes, characteristics, flavors and aromas each had to offer.

Finally the glasses. We had hopes of each guest leaving with a souvenir Glencairn tasting glass, but at $10+ a piece that just wasn’t going to happen. In the end it was really about first exposure, so at my local liquor store, I found a great prepackage tasting kit that included small rocks glasses, tasting note cards and even maps of the various whisky regions. Getting a little pre-made prep didn’t hurt the experience.

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the presentation

THE RESULT

For the purpose of this article, we won’t delve into the specific tastings of each bottle. There are plenty of sites that one can dig into the characteristics and subtle hints in each small dram. The purpose here is to highlight the idea that you don’t have to drink beer, wine or any spirit in any certain way. Our event was to bring like-minded friends together and explore something we each had different exposures to. For us this would be no rules whisky. If you like ice, then put it over ice, like it neat, that’s fine too. A little water, no problem, for us it was really finding what our guests would like and why. Taste, color, and of course the experience were all, vital to how we enjoyed the spirit.

All of us had different experiences with the various whiskeys. For myself, I found I still love Irish whiskey, and I still can’t drink Rye. Others found that specific Scotch they either love or hated. And some, found whiskey wasn’t their thing at all. But by the end of the evening, it became clear there were three bottles that were everyone’s favorite. For our event the general winners were The MaCallan, The Gentleman Jack, and The Tullamore Dew.

the winners

the winners

Here are some of the fun quotes I remember from that night.

Regarding the Ardbeg 12: Who served my drink in an ashtray?!

Regarding the Bulleit Rye: “It tastes like a red hot candy!”

Regarding the Hakushu: “They managed to make a whiskey that tastes like Japan”

Regarding whiskey in general: “Had a great night, but I think I’ll stick to wine……. and heroin.!”

Regarding the evening overall: “I would highly recommend the whisky tasting adventure.  It goes well with a padded carpeted floor and no sharp objects.”

And finally: “I like both the scotch and the rye… Just not in the same room!”

IMG_2242In the end we knew we had a successful evening when all of us, now having experimented with all 12 variations, each grabbed a glass of our favorite and found ourselves laughing, joking, and sharing adventure stories in the back yard among the stars. This is indeed what we had a hoped, and aside from the wonderful benefits we find in this particular spirit, in the end, it was the camaraderie of friends that we found truly meaningful.

Until our next adventure,

Cheers!

The Lemon Kiss

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“The Lemon Kiss”

By Brian Brecht

Making limoncello has been a fun little Clubchair adventure. The impetus to make it came from my trip to Italy in November of 2003 (More on this adventure coming in future posts.).

For approximately 100 years, this popular Italian lemon liqueur has been lovingly produced in southern Italy around the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento lemons having always been one of the primary ingredients. As its popularity has grown to other exotic locales such as Sicily, Sardinia, Menton in France, and the Maltese island of Gozo, other lemon varieties are being used. The US has seen a rise in commercial producers using California lemons. The recipe I share below uses fresh organic lemons handpicked by me  from my wife’s cousin’s vineyard in Healdsburg, California.

            Making limoncello is surprisingly easy. It requires only four ingredients and time. There is no shortage of recipes on-line for making the delicious liqueur, so by all means, look around. Mine is not much different than most, but you will find there are minor variations between recipes. Below is what has worked for me for the last few years.

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The main ingredients are as follows:

  • Lemons – 15-20
  • Grain Alcohol – (2) 750ml bottles (Everclear)
  • Water – 5 cups
  • Sugar – 3-4 cups

So this is where the variations begin. You will find some recipes say to use Vodka. By all means, go for it, if this sounds better to you. As with any recipe, booze or otherwise, do what works to your taste. For me, when I contemplated a beverage that has been around for approximately 100 years, vodka was not what they were serving in Southern Italy.  Also, from what I’ve read, traditional limoncello is made with grain alcohol that’s at least 151 proof. IMG_1274That’s more than any vodka you’ll find at the local grocery store. To be fair, I have made a version using vodka and found it lacked a certain “punch”. A close friend has called my limoncello the “Lemon Hammer” so clearly we both liked the added kick of the 151.

On to the process.

By far, the most labor-intensive part of limoncello is the zesting of the lemons. This is one step where all the recipes agree. What you’re doing here is ONLY gathering the yellow lemon peel, specifically the oils that reside inside. What you don’t want is any part of the white, or pith. The more white that comes along with the peel, the more bitterness will be added into your Limoncello. This is not a drink in which you want any bitterness.IMG_1988

That said, again, there are variations in methods. Zesting is easy enough if you have a zester. Truthfully, I did not even know what a zester was until I started making limoncello. I’ve used an apple peeler, a cheese grater and a micro-plane. All will work just fine. Using the standard apple peeler or potato peeler will get you large flat peels of the lemon. This, again, will work as long as again you are not getting any of the white pith. For my version I’ve found the micro-plane to be the best method. The shavings of the peel are very fine and expose a great deal of the oil, which is the primary objective.

As a side note, one benefit to making limoncello is that, after the zesting, you have a pile of fresh lemons that will go bad very quickly if you don’t do something with them. IMG_1994Although it is a bit more work, I took the time to juice all 40 of the lemons and froze the juice. I separated it into 2-cup zip-lock bags, and in the coming weeks, I will be able to take advantage of the fresh lemon juice by making one of my wife’s best recipes for lemon chicken. Also my daughter is asking for fresh lemonade. (When life gives you lemons…) It is definitely worth taking advantage of the by-product and not letting any of the lemon go to waste. Finally, if you are able, add the spent peels to the compost pile. It always feels good to go green if you can.

Back to the beverage. As I mentioned, there is not a lot of effort needed at each step. So for me, as long as I was making one batch, I might as well make a double. It also happens that the lemons we picked were so abundant, I couldn’t let them go to waste. So for many of my photos, just be aware that I’m making a double batch.

So we have zested, peeled or micro-planed our lemons and placed them in a good-sized glass jar. IMG_1992At this point you are adding the first bottle of Everclear (remember, I am adding two). Let this mixture sit so that the lemon oils (flavor and color) will infuse into the alcohol. Now we come to our next point of contention. I have seen versions that call for wait time as little as 4-5 days, others say wait as long as a month. I have always erred on the longer side, assuming the longer I can have the lemons sitting in the alcohol, the more lemon flavor I will infuse into the Everclear. The batch we’re doing here has been sitting for a solid 30 days.

Now that you have waited patiently for a month, this is your first chance to open your container and get a full whiff of the lemon infusion. It is wonderful! But let us not stop here. Next, we need to add a simple syrup and our second bottle of Everclear. But first we need to filter the lemon zest out of our initial bottle of alcohol.

Another side note: I have, in the past, left the lemons in the alcohol, and then added the next steps on top of that, assuming, that if 30 days of infusion was good, 60 days would be even better. In the research I have done, it seems most, if not all, the lemon oil has soaked out of the peels by now, so leaving it on the peels longer just adds cloudiness to the end product. I have to say I agree. We will filter the mixture at various points during the process but the amount of filtering I needed when leaving the peels past 30 days was much greater. I don’t feel that it added anything to the overall flavor.

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So, first, we need to get a large enough jar that we can filter our stage-one alcohol through a strainer, getting rid of 98% of the spent lemon peel.

Next, simple syrup is just that, simple. It is water and sugar slowly stirred over heat until the sugar dissolves; there is no need to bring the water to a boil.

IMG_0628       You’ll know when it is ready as the water will be cloudy at the beginning while the sugar sits in the water. At a certain point, you will start to see the mixture clarify, continuing to heat the water and sugar until the entire pot is a clear and somewhat thick. At this point, pull the water from the heat, and let it cool. I don’t know why, but every recipe I have found specifically says, “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”. So here is my warning: “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”.

Once the syrup has cooled to room temperature, add it to the stage-one mixture that you filtered earlier. IMG_0634Do not be alarmed if, when you add the syrup, the mixture turns a cloudy yellow. There are a number of variables that can affect the overall color of the batch. Some of the research I have done suggests opaque limoncellos can be the result of something called “spontaneous emulsification,” also known as the Ouzo effect, which is a rapid interaction of the syrup and extracted lemon oils.

Moving on,  to the syrup, you will now add the remaining bottle of Everclear. When added, it helps to thin out that opaque color and bring back some of the clarity I had before, but not completely.

From here you want the mixture to sit for another length of time. Again, there is some debate. I have, in the past, let this stage sit for another 30 days. Some recipes suggest bottling as soon as a week later. I am not 100% sure if there’s a difference other than letting the mixture truly blend together for as long as possible. For this batch, I decided to let it sit for two weeks, then moved the mixture into separate bottles. And before the bottling, I would suggest another round of filtering (or two) just to make sure you’ve pulled all the remaining lemon particulate out of the liquid. There are a variety of methods, cheesecloth, coffee filters, etc. I have, at times, used them all.

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      I think there is value in letting it sit for AT LEAST a couple of weeks, and then putting it into the bottle. But once it’s in the bottles, you can really begin to enjoy the accomplishment and the excitement that soon you’ll not only be enjoying this delicious liquor, but doing so with your friends.

      For me, I had almost as much fun coming up with my own label as I did in making the batch itself. Have some fun with it. You’ve crafted the limoncello to your own style and taste, so lets see if you can get your label to reflect the same flare. For me, it was something whimsical that highlighted the Italian adventure that inspired me. And with that, came my own creation, “The Lemon Kiss”

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      From here, my friends, the adventure really begins. Envision having that fancy dinner party, or perhaps it’s just a few friends over for pizza. You break out your own homegrown version of limoncello. It is a great way to end a perfect meal, and if you have done it right, it helps you remember that Italy adventure you took, or, even better, plan for the one you will be taking.

Just say “Kiss me!”

Salute!