Noilly Prat

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Down in New Orleans last week I was lucky enough to attend a tasting and presentation of Noilly Prat. Noilly was announcing the release of the their European dry vermouth formula to the United States. Apparently all these years we had been getting the touristy version. The presenter claimed American tastes are finally sophisticated enough that they don’t have to dumb the recipe down, but I think it may have to do with wormwood regulations changing. All the presenter said is that the European formula is more bitter which may be because it has more wormwood and that it is aged slightly differently. Well anyhow, the presentation was very well done and I did take some notes which I will elaborate on.

The grapes that Noilly Prat uses are Picpoul from the plains which contributes 60% of the blend and Clairette from the slopes which makes up the difference. I have no experience with Picpoul but it was described as rich in bouquette while at the same time delicate and floral, with a dried fruit character and a creaminess. Clairette was described as delicate, of aromatic character, and floral with notes of honey. I didn’t understand if they buy the wines in October or buy the grapes. I guess by October they could buy already made very young wines. The wines may ring in at 10-12% alcohol and they are immediately fortified to 16% for stability. I imagine this is done with a neutral spirit of very high proof so it takes less acidity diluting volume.

The wine is then put into 40,000 liter, 100 year old Canadian oak barrels which imparts no color on the wine and have very tight pores relative to other oaks. This adds roundness and clarity to the wine which stays there for eight months. The wine then moves outside for 12 months in L’ Enclos which is a large field of 2000 barrels exposed to the Mediterranean elements. The wine loses 6% of its volume to the angel’s share and also oxidizes to a characteristic elegance. Eventually the Picpoul and Clairette are blended with the addition of a mistelle or grape sugar concentrate containing fruit liqueurs of raspberry and lemon peel.

The dry formula contains 20 botanicals of which Noilly Prat will only disclose chamomile, elderflower, coriander, orange peel, and quinine. The wine is macerated with the botanicals in Trieste forest casks (giant Slovenian style cask) for three weeks stirring every day (the dodinage).

The rouge sees extra botanicals of which they disclose: cloves, cocoa, saffron, quinine, and caramel.

The ambre was created in 1986 to explore another direction a vermouth could take. There are forty botanicals including, orange, cinnamon, rose petal, vanilla among others.

Tasting notes.

When I sat down and tasted the dry vermouth no specific flavor stuck out besides a subtle honeyed tone which probably is the intention. It is very enigmatic. You may not be able to name specific flavors but you can verbally praise the vermouth’s beautiful nose with its subtle androgynous fruit. Everything is very integrated and the dryness of the finish is well within the average of people’s tastes. I did note that I could drink a 6 oz. glass straight and I do know people that do on a daily basis (for every one of those people I know fifty that claim no one likes vermouth on its own).

The rouge didn’t get very many notes because I was in conversation with some people at the tasting. The subtle ever so noticeable bitter is very nice. There is also a cinnamon-like tannic mouthfeel.

At first I thought the ambre was fun, but not the mind blowing product that I’ve heard hyped. I thought that its vanilla was perceivable but perfectly done and it did not act to obscure anything. During the tasting I bounced in and out of conversation with people and eventually I had a moment of clarity while drinking the ambre and I tasted the sexiest shades of chocolate and tobacco I can remember. When I finally was able to take it in I noticed a long finish that lingered with serious depth. The ambre lived up to the hype!

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Manzanilla a.k.a. Chamomile Acid

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[progressive ideas from very long ago]

I just acquired La Gitana which is a classic bottling from Bodegas Hidalgo. These dry sherries are often beyond the average of most people’s tastes to drink alone, but so is straight lemon juice and that means they can mix spectacularly.

i just entered Boston’s Hendrick’s cocktail contest and this what I settled on:

1.5 oz. hendrick’s gin
1 oz. manzanilla sherry (la gitana, a very classic bottling…)
.5 oz. sloe gin (plymouth)
.5 oz. yellow chartreuse
dash of peychaud’s bitters
stir

Chartreuse and sloe gin are my favorite liqueur duo’s at the moment. The yellow works especially well. The contest was looking for cocktails that highlight a botanical besides cucumber and rose petal within Hendrick’s botanical formula. Manzanilla as a sherry style was named after the chamomile flower because its flavor has that earth apple character, but it also has badass cocktail craving acidity! A classic example of the sherry (unlike the La Cigarrera manzanilla that I really like) gives chamomile acid to contrast the liqueurs and support the gin.

When I tried the drink with green Chartreuse all it brought out in the wine was the intimidating oxidized wine character. Yellow Chartreuse really highlighted the earth apple character of the sherry.

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No Thanks, I’m Sweet Enough

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I’ve always loved aromatized wines. Sweet vermouths being at the top of the list. I buy new ones when ever I see them and try to wrap my brain around describing them. Tackling a wine is no problem and I’m never at a loss for words, but vermouth’s aesthetic is tough to crack and as a liquid fine art object I’ve never found something so hard to fit into words. Maybe that is why no one tries?

As I’ve started to drink all the available brands, I have found that every single one has merits and so far I haven’t truly disliked a single sweet vermouth. I have noticed that randomly, certain brands create stuck, simplistic flavors in particular cocktails but there is very little way to predict what is going to happen besides trying many options. I used to want more intensity than I ever found in a sweet vermouth and also more bitter, but this was before I realized that that particular aesthetic was the role of the Americano which is the Campari, Aperol, Cynar, Cocchi, or Vergano product. I’ve successfully made thrilling Americanos that I’ve called vermouths, but having wormwood does not define the category.

Vermouth versus the Americano is all about the aesthetic. The name vermouth as a product category has lost its original meaning of simply being a wormwood aromatized wine to being something else and maybe with no wormwood at all. Vermouths have a relatively neutral or elder flowery moscat-like wine base. Their botanicals are so integrated nothing can be picked out or it is a flaw (many are flawed but who knows if it is a variance within a single batch). The sugars and acidity are all within certain tolerances and the bitter qualities do not protrude through the other flavors like in the Americano. In the americano, on the other hand, more or less anything goes. Americanos often have pornographic proportions of flavor and exotic bitterness is the main show. The ranges of sugar and alcohol can be as loud as the flavors. To be honest, sometimes I’d take an Americano over a vermouth and I’d probably demote Vya’s “sweet vermouth” down to an Americano. (Quady shouldn’t be offended because Americanos for some reason seem to fetch more money anyway.)

Describing the flavors is difficult and only sometimes do you have a moment of clarity where it all makes sense. At certain moments of tasting any of them I’m reminded of curry spices and then in other moments that makes no sense. One thing to look for is the length of the finish like on a fine dessert wine, but again its hard to determine because all of them are pretty long.

Noilly Prat seems to have a bitter finish which I quite like and all that comes to mind from its flavors are dark shades of grey.

Boissiere seems brighter than the Noilly Prat and less bitter on the finish. The Boissiere is also far lighter in color than many which may not mean too much because all are adulterated with caramel.

Vya is very expressive on the nose and not really integrated. At first on the nose, I’m almost reminded of cola, then after revisiting the Vya, I pick out cinnamon and nutmeg with out enough tie ins to integrate them. But then when I taste the Vya again, orange peels and fruit dominate everything. Orange peel is not listed in the blend, but Quady does proudly list his wine bases as Orange Muscat, Colombard, and Valdepenas which contribute the fruit. I don’t really know anything about the Orange Muscat variety relative to Moscato d’Asti, but I wager it gets the name from its orangey character which dominates this vermouth. The intensity of the fruit protrusion is comparable to the elderflower-like character of some dry vermouths and the concord grape like character of some grossly fruity aromatized products like Wincarnis “tonic wine”. I haven’t measured the sugar of anything yet but one thing that almost feels noticeable is dryness on the finish of Vya which has a lower pH than Noilly Prat and Boissiere.

Cribari has something on the nose that I know elementally but can’t name. It is almost musty smelling then rolls into a chocolaty aromas then something like coffee but also a complete lack of fruit on the nose. When tasting the Cribari with all the others, it stands up well and is interesting, though its the least known and cheapest sweet vermouth I’ve ever come across. I feel like there is a scotchy, smoky, pinotage-like note I’m not able to pin down but after revisiting the vermouth I was totally reminded of a bad old cooked down coffee experience I had earlier in the afternoon. The strange nostalgic but not quite pleasurable flavors were that roadside truck stop shade of coffee. The pH is by far the lowest and being from New York and probably composed of New York grapes, I can see why it has a high acidity (super cool climate grapes preserve acidity). I don’t understand how the vermouth gets this strange anti fresh taste. Is the wine base to blame and is it going to change batch to batch? Were the grapes from a such a cool climate they had to add fermentable sugar and that augmented the flavor? who knows. If I had a way to move some of the product like in a dessert or an entree pairing, I’d love to see if its consistency changed.

Noilly Prat pH 3.39

Boissiere pH 3.46

Vya pH 3.21

Cribari pH 3.05

****hopefully I can update this as I sit down and taste more

****update****

so I tasted another one

As I was leaving work my boss surprised me with a bottle of carpano antica that he scored while in NYC. I didn’t get to try it in any drinks yet, but drank a couple ounces and took some notes.

The nose had a faded anise character with evident vanilla and a subtle orange peel kind of character. The nose to me, seemed to be not that complex and had stuck aromas that come into focus and don’t really leave. A coworker thought she smelt a nutmeg/mace like character that was most satisfactory. Over all, I thought it smelt rather stodgy.

On the palate you definitely get a vanilla character that you never see in other vermouths except Noilly Ambre. There is a raisinated date-like fruit character that is kind of fun. I think other vermouths would benefit from fruit character more fun than orange peel. The Antica is definitely a few shades more bitter than other vermouths in a quinine/wormwood kind of way. It is kind of buried in there but the Antica feels like it uses a rougher more grappa like and fun fortifying spirit.

Over all, I’d say that Carpano Antica is not very complex. It is not exactly over the top integrated and enigmatic like some of the others. You can recognize clear as day so many of its elements, but what Antica does have is incredible direction and the balance of its loud flavors are a huge amount of fun. I definitely wouldn’t demote the Antica to an Americano

Over all delicious. I would love it try it in some cocktails but I wouldn’t trade in my Stock, Cinzano, Boisiere, or even Cribari.

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Capturing the Big Easy (or not)

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I’m on the edge of my first real vacation in quite a few years which I’m making out of the tales of the cocktails event down in NOLA. Part of getting ready is a little bit of practice drinking. To keep up with everyone else I need a strategy. I’m taking advice from Chris Charmichael of the Tour de France training fame and using a high cadence with smaller sips technique. Many great drinkers of the past have used the technique to hold their booze over arduously long evenings. I’m also trying to acclimate myself with cocktails that capture the spirit of New Orleans. Easier said than done without ever having been there. The first go at it looked something like this:

2 oz. baby sazerac rye
.75 oz. pimento dram (homemade, Alpenz would probably be better)
.25 oz. yellow chartreuse
1 oz. dry vermouth as tart as a lemon (9 grams of malic acid per 250 mL of gallo dry vermouth)
dash of peychaud’s bitters.

This drink was okay, but needs a better balance and maybe something other than yellow chartreuse or just more of it. I wanted gross excess and no compromises by way of lots of liqueurs and also the flavor of vermouth but also a dry, refreshing drink that you could only get with lemon or lime juice. I got what I was looking for to some degree, but the particular allspice in my dram may be too fiery to be elegant. As easy going as I hear New Orleans is, there still may be a dress code at times and that may hold true for good drinks.

My second try took a different direction. I almost thought of changing up the first drink then I put on some jazz. I wanted a style of drink that could give more length to my night (lower alcohol, fuller flavor).

1 oz. baby sazerac rye
1 oz. dry sherry (La Cigarrera manzanilla)
1 oz. sweet vermouth (noilly prat)
stir over ice then float:
.5 oz. peychaud’s bitters (7 dashes?)

Those that drink a lot of vermouth may recognize the Half Sinner, Half Saint in all of this, but with a couple different notes. Flavors like sherry always remind me of either a rich solo by Stephane Grappelli or sometimes an upright bass. sherry is the greatest expression of wood and oxidation that I can consume to my heart’s desire because of its low alcohol level. I’ve also found that Absinthe is the most overrated product in beverage (I’ve never encountered one that was more adult tasting than good & plenty candies). I’d take a large dose of peychaud’s bitters over absinthe any day of the week.

For breakfast I just revisited the riff on the Half Sinner, Half Saint:

1.5 oz. sweet vermouth (noilly prat)
1.5 oz. dry sherry (last of La Cigarrera manzanilla)
.5 oz. of floated peychaud’s bitters

This drink is most satisfying. I personally enjoy the taste of the bitters over an absinthe, but it just doesn’t float the way I’d like it to. The thin barrier of absinthe in a Half Sinner, Half Saint coats your lips in a briefly cloying way to enhance the refreshing experience of the vermouths underneath. Sinners and saint, pleasure and pain. One can’t exist without the other and the drink exemplifies it. I keep coming across sherries like Matusalem that use biblical marketing and they seem to fit in with the role of the saint without missing a beat.

On its own, by the way, this Noilly Prat sweet vermouth is kind of interesting. it seems to have a drier finish than other sweet vermouths. This vermouth also seemed darker in character. In a moment of clarity a couple days ago, I thought I perceived strong notes of wormwood relative to any other sweet vermouth. This might be in line with the Noilly’s reputation as being more bitter than the others. Whether they can actually use wormwood or not who knows. Recognizing it is from my experience of using it in my projects. This vermouth feels like its in danger of tasting too much like coffee or too much like chocolate. Coupled with a whiskey I suspect one might end up with a flavor dead end. I’m willing to invest in the drinking to figure out if that’s true or not.

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After Midnight Kind of Flavors

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I still have a bottle of Pisco infused with some dried apricots. Like in the Bolivar cocktail, a good use for the simple infusion was for diluting over the top single malt scotches like Lagavulin 16 to create a nice fruit and smoke contrast. Last night a guest wanted a bitter challenging drink so I served one up as so:

1 oz. lagavulin 16
1 oz. apricot infused pisco. (handful of dried apricots in a bottle)
1 oz. “cerasuolo” americano* (substitute vergano’s “americano”)spoonful of chestnut flower honey liqueur (2 parts cognac, 1 part chestnut flower honey in a bottle)
stirred with a flamed orange twist.

The drink really delivers on the fruit and peaty smoke contrast. And the different fruit elements overlap to create a very sexy shade of something like a plum or cherry, but definitely stone fruit summery goodness. The bitter is evidently wormwoody and helps to lengthen the finish of the drink. This is like S&M in a glass so only serve it after midnight.

*this drink uses some proprietary ingredients but besides the cerasuolo americano I made myself, the ingredients are pretty easy to construct. The main technique is to put stuff in a bottle and then strain after a week or so. The chestnut flower honey liqueur is so worth making. The alcohol works as a great solvent and a crystallized honeys with lots of comb solids can easily be made clear and easy to work with. Vergano’s Aperativo Americano is slowly popping up in major cities.

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fava beans and bruleed pecorino toscano with aged balsamic

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This rather simple yet interesting dish entered rotation into our tasting menu. The dish is rather basic and I don’t really get why it is special enough to get a slot on our menu. The dish however, is interesting enough to think about with wine.

The plate consists of fava beans three way (pureed raw, blanched, then boiled), soppressata, a seasonal type of pecorino toscano that is bruleed with sugar and topped with aged balsamic, and then some interesting bitter greens to garnish of a type I can’t remember. Very little elaborate preparation happens here. The raw beans have a very fresh and green taste that darkens as they are cooked more while the texture gets softer as well. The bruleed cheese is pretty incredible. The sweetness and complexity of the caramel is beautiful contrasted with the acidity and balsamicness of the vinegar. The cheese adds awesome texture and you tastes it before the other parts diffuse through your mouth. The stacking of the flavors makes things linger for quite a while. I see how the acidity of the soppressata could contrast the richness and sweet elements of the cheese, but how do the fava beans fit in? I think that they may just be there because chef really likes favas. so many other delicious and seasonal things could be substituted and the favas just change the rules of what wine works for the whole dish. So many wines could work for certain elements but when you consider everything on the plate, things will be narrowed down.

The first wine i tasted with the dish was a really focused, dry reisling from clos de rochers in luxembourg. With the pureed favas, the beans seemed to lighten the wine and stretch the fava flavor on the tongue. Nothing special happened with the cheese. The interaction of the wine and soppressata was simple and harmonious. The dryness of the wine was refreshing. The best part of the pairing was the greens which showed the elegant flavor depth and sophistication of the bruleed sugar and balsamic.

The next wine was bridlewood’s viognier which has a very different structure and is rather low acid. The raw pureed fava pairing was nothing bad, but the greenness contrasted with the baked peach like fruit of the wine was weird. The bruleed cheese with the wine was really long lived in the mouth and created an experience where both were tasted in a continuous and pleasurable stream of sensations. The soppressatta on the other hand, made the wine taste flat perhaps because the soppressata has more acidity than the wine. Comparable acidity may be a requirement for success across the entire dish. Again, the greens with the balsamic was beautiful and quite long lived in the mouth with the wine.

Whitehaven’s intensely grapefruity new zealand sauvignon blanc enlivened the balsamic but was barely interesting anywhere else.

A lightly extracted Chinon rose of cabernet franc, which is rather dry and quite aromatic, seemed to overpower the favas. The wine was nothing special with the cheese and seemed to bring out a vanilla note that may have been from the caramel. Like the favas, the soppressata seemed to get lost in the intensity of the wine.

The last wine that I tried was Montinore estates very feminine style of pinot noir from the willemate valley. Even being considered light for a pinot noir, the wine was too full bodied for the favas and soppressata creating an inelegant vanilla flavor trap with the bruleed cheese.

Knowing that to have a successful pairing across the board you would need sufficient acidity, the wine I wish I could have tried with the dish would have been a vino verde from portugal like “joao pires”. joao pires is a muscat based wine and has a unique “greeness” of flavor that could perhaps be interesting with the favas themselves or perhaps provide the flavor contrasts the favas have while refreshing the palate with every sip. This worked similar to the signal that chefs give when they pair a fruit with a meat. If the chef feels that shade of fruit is a good contrast, a wine that captures that similar note will probably work wonderfully as well. Fava beans are not exactly fruit, but the greenness of a vino verde is not too outlandish a comparison. Some vino verde’s have a really peasanty, gritty finish, but I find joao pires to be the best of the few examples I’ve tasted. Another interesting wine of potential success would be a fruity dry vermouth like Martini & Rossi’s.

I never really pinned down the ideal wine but I know more about it than when I started and I think I have a better appreciation of the dish.

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Cerises au Soleil

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[This post is horribly out of date and has some flawed concepts that I have since learned quite a bit about. A new recipe is part of my distillers workbook that references some great literature and unlocks more of the mysteries of the preserved cherry. Anyhow this is what I was dong back in 2008]

In the last couple weeks many forces have been preventing me from making it to Hay Market but today I finally got there. After checking out all the vendors, I bought four pounds of cherries for two dollars a pound (two pounds of Rainier, two pounds of Bing).

Cherries are not a big part of my diet and I usually only ingest their flavors through wine. The Rainier cherries are quite sweet relative to the Bing and my understanding is that the peak of their season is in July. In wine I’d say you might experience the Rainier flavor in the fruit of a lightly extracted rosé. The Bing variety has the most stunning sour quality and are really refreshing. They are really juicy in flavor and I think I should eat more of them. Bing cherry as a wine descriptor is thrown around quite a lot, but I can’t think of any wine that truly captures their flavor which is quite concentrated. A very young Dolcetto would be the best bet. The Piave liqueur Elisir Gambrinus synthesizes a Bing or probably better yet Marasca cherry like flavor by reducing the wine of the weed grape Ribasso. Only after concentrating the flavors (it makes a bland wine on average), does it come close to the intensity of a raw cherry.

So I bought all these cherries because one of my favorite discoveries of last year was the Provencial specialty called Cerises au Soleil or cherries of the sun. In this canning tradition, the French jar cherries with sugar and eau de vie then age them on roof tops for the duration of the summer. I got a couple jars of the imported version at formaggio kitchen and used them for a special Brown-Forman cocktail event I did for a couple hundred people last year. The product was great but the only thing I didn’t like was that the pits of the cherries were intact making them slightly difficult to eat.

For my recipe I cleaned and pitted all four pounds of cherries and put them together in a three liter mason jar. Instead of eau de vie, I added 750 mL of cachaca and 750 mL of Stock brand maraschino liqueur because both ingredients were on hand. I then added a small fraction of the pits that I took out to add a subtle nutty character. If I smell too much of that nut character I feel like someone is trying to poison me with cyanide. (if I ever put an almond liqueur in a drink, I need a float of dark rum to cover up that unnerving smell). So the only sugar I’ve introduced to the cherries has come from the maraschino liqueur which is quite sweet. The sugar content is enough to make the preserving liquid dense enough to float the cherries which is not where I want to be. Herve This advises in his Molecular Gastronomy that the proper sugar content for canning fruit in syrup is one at which the fruit doesn’t all fall to the the bottom (not enough sugar) or all float (too much). This is complicated by the differing ripeness of the fruits which is exacerbated in my batch by the differing varieties (I’m not stressing, at good average is what I seek). At the moment all of my fruit is floating and I should take out some of my alcoholic syrup and add either water or more Cachaca. Optimizing the syrup will keep the fruit from bursting if the sugar content is too low or shriveling if it is too high. Every home made maraschino cherry I’ve had has been shriveled, while the Cerises au Soleil from Provance were perfectly shaped. (I’m also not afraid of wasting any booze to get the correct maraschino liqueur to Cachaca ratio because anything I take out is going to flavor some sangria)

The next interesting part of the recipe to consider is the sun. Submitting the jarred cherries to the elements especially sunlight induces oxidation and basically speeds up the aging process. Maynard Amerine describes aspects of the idea in his Technology of Wine Making but doesn’t exactly recommend any of it. The technique may not create any attractive flavors in a wine or brandy but may add further sophistication to the over the top flavors of unfermented fruit. I keep putting my batch out in the sun when I work lunch while I’ve heard of other people decorating their gardens with their canning jars. Time will tell exactly how much I like my domestic results.

Some ideas for down the road would be to augment the acidity to my liking. I really enjoy aspects of the Rainier cherries but feel that they are kind of sweet. Diffusing a little extra acidity through a sprinkling of malic or tartaric acid would really create a preserved yet refreshing palate cleanser. Also enhancing the preservation with avante garde base spirits would be cool. A really minerally Cape Verdean rum or over the top Peruvian pisco would add awesome sophistication.

**** update****

So mixing the two types of cherries turned out to not be a great idea because their colors became kind of homogeneous and they definitely had drastically different densities therefore requiring different amounts of sugar (half sunk and half floated). I do think they taste good but for some reason the cherries taste far more alcoholic than the liquid they are in and I have no idea why. Another problem is that the cherries at the very top of the jar have browned due to oxidation. None of the imported Cerises au Soleil browned even though there was no preservative listed and the jars were not even filled to the top. How did they do it?

I found a clue in the electronic addition of Artisan Distilling by Kris Arvid Berglund. Berglund provides a small and very useful guide for small distilleries that is definitely worth checking out. An interesting part of the guide describes the tradition of the pear in the bottle of eau de vie and what it really takes to make it stick. Apparently an 80 spirit isn’t enough to really preserve a fruit and prevent browning. For starters Burglund recommends a 45% alcohol spirit. Then very surprisingly to me, Burglund recommends filling the bottles with a 1% sulfuric acid solution and letting it stand for one hour. The bottles are then thoroughly rinsed with softened water. One gram of ascorbic acid is dissolved in every liter of fortifying brandy. After filling the bottles Burgland recommends to vacuum out the oxygen as well with something like a water jet pump or maybe a vin vac (I have no idea how you would do it to a canning jar). Another surprise to the story is that often the fruit has to wait in the jar quite a while before the eau de vie is even ready for it. to preserve it in the mean time a solution of 10 g citric acid, 1 g ascorbic acid, and 100 mg SO2 (= 2ml SO2 solution 5%) per liter which can supposedly preserve the fruit for up to six months while the eau de vie is being produced.

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