Gin de Mahón

photo via: http://www.pviglobal.com/mahon/

Here’s a question for those “in the know” when it comes to distilled spirits: Name a IGP Gin from Spain! It’s a tough question – but the answer is: Gin de Mahón, produced on the island of Menorca (one of the Balearic Islands located in the Mediterranean Sea, off the east coast of Spain).

The production of gin began on the island of Menorca during the island’s occupation by the British in the 18th century (1712-1802). This time in history coincided with London’s Gin Craze, and the British soldiers on Menorca would ask for gin during their visits to the local taverns. The island, at the time, didn’t have gin – or any similar spirit – so the locals found a way to re-create (and, most likely, improve upon what was at the time) the London style of gin.

Using a brandy base made from wines of the region (remember, this is Mediterranean Spain and grapes and wine abound), the spirit was produced in wood-fired copper pot stills, re-distilled with juniper berries (grown wild on the island) and lemon zest, and aged in American oak barrels. This created a unique, earthy style of gin with the distinct botanical-piney-resiny aroma and flavor of juniper, along with a hint of bitter citrus, a smoky, earthy undertone, and a clean finish.

After the British left the island, the locals continued to produce and enjoy their unique style of local gin. By the 20th century, several brands began to emerge and the gin became an international commercial success.  One particular brand – Xoriguer – was started by Miguel Pons Justo, a member of a family with a long history of craftsmanship. Xoriguer was (and continues to be) the name of their family business, and the picture on the bottles  is of a windmill built on the family estate in 1784. Xoriguer – which appears to be the only producer of Gin de Mahón left – is still a family business and produces a range of spirits and liqueurs.

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Gin de Mahón is produced using a base ferment of the local wines of the region, distilled in wood-fired copper stills, flavored with local juniper, and aged in American oak before bottling.

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The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Keeping Santa Cruz Weird

Santa Cruz

Visitors and residents alike (both of which I have been, at various points in my life) agree: Santa Cruz is unique. Witness the surfing santas, omnipresent drum circles, kooky politics, and even the tag line “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” (borrowed from Austin, Texas, which can also boast all of the above). Combine this with incredible natural beauty, a moderate climate, 29 miles of coastline, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – and you have a heck of a place.

Viticulture as well has a unique place in this inspired environment. The area has been home to famous winemakers in the past, such as Paul Masson, Martin Ray, Randal Grahm and David Bruce; and it remains a vibrant center of wine production as well as a leader in organic and sustainable winemaking.

The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established in 1981. It was one of the first AVAs to be established according to elevation, and largely follows – and sits above – the fog line along the coast. The region encircles the ridge tops of the Santa Cruz Mountain range – which reach over 3,000 (920 m) in elevation. The eastern boundary of the AVA rests at 800 feet (240 m), while the western edge, located close to the Pacific Ocean, extends down to 400 feet (120 m).

Santa Cruz 3However – the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which is tucked in betwixt and between several other AVAs, is the only section of the coastal region from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco bay that isn’t part of the larger Central Coast AVA. As a matter of fact, it is “specifically excluded” from both the Central Coast AVA and the overlapping San Francisco Bay AVA as well.  Sounds a bit tough, doesn’t it?

The story goes as such: When the Central Coast AVA was first created in 1985 (four years after the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was born), it was much smaller than it is today, and, due to differences in topography and climate, did not include or extend above Santa Cruz. The southern boundary of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was (and still is) contiguous with the border of the Central Coast AVA.

However, 1n 1999, a petition was made for a new AVA, to be known as the San Francisco Bay AVA. It was proposed that this new AVA would include the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda (which includes Livermore), and Contra Costa, as well as parts of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties – including the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. At the same time, it was petitioned that the Central Coast AVA be expanded to include this new San Francisco Bay AVA. The Central Coast AVA would, then, encompass virtually all of the area west of the Central Valley from the North Coast AVA on down to Santa Barbara.

santa cruz 2However, when the proposal was open to public comment, the TTB received almost 50 comments. Thirty-three of these were opposed to combining the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA with either the new San Francisco Bay AVA and/or the expanded version of the Central Coast AVA.

One comment claimed that combining the established Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which many viticulturists and vintners had worked so hard to build the quality, reputation, and distinctiveness of, with the Central Coast AVA would cause “incalculable damage.”

Others stated that combining the areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains with such far-flung and diverse regions as Livermore and metropolitan San Francisco would “undermine the meaning of American viticultural areas.” Another respondent made the point that, culturally, people that reside in Santa Cruz do not consider themselves residents of the San Francisco Bay area, and that if Santa Cruz could be called part of the “San Francisco Bay Area,” then the North Coast AVA could be called the “Napa Area,” and the Central Valley could be called the  “Yosemite Area.” It was a vinous version of “hell no, we won’t go.”

Screen shot via http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/us_by_ava.pdf

Screen shot via http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/us_by_ava.pdf retrieved on September 26, 2015

The San Francisco Bay AVA was approved in 1999, along with an expansion of the Central Coast AVA (both were expanded again in 2006).

However, the boundaries of the new and expanded AVAs “specifically excluded” the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, as well as its sub-region, the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA.  And it remains so – keeping Santa Cruz weird.

Click here to read the official documents relating to the petition and public comments of the: Central Coast Expansion -Federal Register Jan 20 1999

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas – missjane@prodigy.net

Five Cognac Curiosities

Cognac CuriositiesAll good wine and spirits students know that Cognac is a high-quality French Brandy, made from grapes grown in the delineated Cognac region, located just north of Bordeaux. There are several grape varieties allowed, of which Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) is the preferred; the ferment goes through a double distillation in an Alembic still, followed by a minimum of two years’ aging in oak. Good! We’ve covered the basics. But did you know…

#1: The product of a third distillation is known as “Espirit de Cognac.” Espirit de Cognac was awarded an AOC in 1936, and is an unaged product that—after hours and hours of distillation—comes off the still at 80% to 85% abv. Brandy lovers of the world, don’t feel bad if you think you’ve never had Espirit de Cognac—it is not allowed to be sold as a spirit. Instead, it is used in the production of sparkling wines, and may comprises a portion of the liqueur d’expedition used in your favorite Champagne.

#2: Don’t confuse the unaged, bound-for-bubbly Espirit de Cognac AOC with a product labeled as L’Espirit de Cognac. Many Cognac producers use the term L’Espirit to designate their top-tier bottles. For instance, L’Espirit de Courvoisier is an assemblage of old cognacs – the oldest is rumored to be from the 1802 vintage (“the few precious drops that escaped Napoleon’s lips”), and the youngest from 1930.  Bottled in a numbered, hand-crafted Lalique crystal decanter, L’Espirit de Courvoisier sells for upwards of $5,000 per bottle – if you can find one.

Cognac grapes#3: Cognac is distilled from a white wine base, which is typically based on Ugni Blanc with some Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, and Sémillon sprinkled in. In practice, Ugni Blanc is by far the dominant grape, accounting for up to 90% of the total vineyards. Folignan, a Folle Blanche X Ugni Blanc cross may be used up to a maximum of 10%.

#4: Three other grapes are currently allowed to be used in the base wine as well. These are Jurançon Blanc, Meslier-St-François, and Sélect. Most of these grapes fall into the “uninteresting” category; however Meslier-St-François is (according to Jancis Robinson, et al, in Wine Grapes) a historic French variety that once grew in Champagne, the Yonne department of Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. As a matter of fact, in 1990, Charles Jumert of Cave de la Berthelotière “saved” the last surviving Meslier-St-François grapes of the Loire Valley by taking cuttings off of a vineyard as it was bulldozed under. He planted the grapes in Villiers-sur-Loir (north of Tours) and has been making a varietal Vin de France from them since 2003.

Cognac curiosities 2#5: 97% of all Cognac produced each year is exported. That’s right—only 3% of the Cognac produced, on average, is consumed at home. As a matter of fact, the French consume as much Scotch whisky as they do Cognac. This means that an average of 130 million bottles of Cognac are exported each year, which is enough to make grape brandy one of France’s most valuable exports. (As for France’s other valuable exports, #1 is airplanes [as in Airbus], #2 is medications, #6 is wine, #9 is make-up and sun-tan preparations, and #13 is perfume. Number 18 is brandy, Cognac included – not bad. You can see the rest of the data on French exports here.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

In Praise of the Juniper Berry

Fig 4-2 Juniper BerriesThe hero of gin lovers everywhere, the juniper berry is not really a berry at all but the seed cone of the juniper plant. Juniperus communis, the common juniper, is a shrub or small evergreen tree with needle-like leaves in whorls of three. Juniper often grows as a low-spreading shrub, but juniper trees can grow to over 32 feet (10m) tall. The juniper plant has over 50 species, and the largest range of any woody plant, thriving throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia.

Many cultures consider the leaves of the juniper to be a symbol of protection against disease and evil spirits. In Tuscany, a sprig of juniper is often placed in front of the door to offer protection to the house and its inhabitants. Juniper can also ward off snakes, at least according to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, who claimed that the smoke from a fire of burning juniper could keep snakes away.

The “berries” of the juniper plant begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. Juniper berries are revered for their medicinal purposes, particularly as a diuretic and in regards to conditions of the kidney, bladder, and stomach.

Of course, to students of wine and spirits, the juniper berry is known primarily as the predominant flavoring in gin and other spirits such as Genever, Steinhäger, and Wacholder. The flavor profile of juniper berries is often described a pine-like, resin-like, intensely herbal and with bitter citrus notes. Noted author Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking defines the flavor of juniper as “green-fresh.”

The Juniper Forest ("The Valley of Juniper) in Ziarat, Pakistan

The Juniper Forest (“The Valley of Juniper”) in Ziarat, Pakistan

Juniper berries are considered an important culinary herb, particularly throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe. Juniper is often used to impart a sharp, clean flavor to meat dishes – particularly game meats – as well as cabbage and sauerkraut dishes. Juniper has a natural affinity for pork and is found in many recipes for roast or braised pork. The recipe for Choucroute Garnie, a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and meats, universally includes juniper berries.

One more thing: on Easter Monday, the young boys in Kashubia (Northern Poland) chase the girls in the town square, brushing (sometimes referred to as “gently whipping”) their legs with juniper sprigs. This is, according to tradition, to ensure good fortune in love to the “chased” young ladies. After watching this annual tradition unfold,  I am guessing, the parents would most likely appreciate a nice shot of gin.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net

A Side Note on the Sidecar

sidecar 1This blog post about the classic cocktail – the Sidecar – was borne of last Friday night’s dinner.

The anh (adorable new husband) and I went to our favorite local swingin’ hot spot. It’s a pretty fancy restaurant, maybe even special-occasion style, but we always snag a couple of seats at the bar and order casual. We have never been disappointed. Great, simple, classic food; excellent cocktails, professional, white-apron service – we love it every time.

One of my favorite things about the restaurant is the short-and-simple list of craft cocktails they offer. I usually order something cha-cha like the Bartlett Pear Martini (garnished with a house-made slice of dried pear) or the absolutely fabulous Blood and Sand, but this evening I really fancied a Sidecar. Interestingly enough, our lively bartender remarked that no one had ordered a Sidecar in years and he had to look it up. He quickly consulted his handy Mr. Boston Guide and made me a delightful cocktail (well, actually there were two cocktails by the end of the evening). Just perfect.

But it set me to thinking…if a working bartender in a busy, upscale restaurant has to remind himself how to make a Sidecar – what gives? A Sidecar is a classic, 1920’s-style  cocktail, and as such should be enjoying a resurgence of popularity along with other crafty cocktails – so let’s help it along!

As is true of many cocktails, there are many versions of the origin of the drink and the meaning of the name. One legend dates back to Harry’s Bar in Paris, near the end of the First World War. It seems there was a certain American Army Captain who sidecar 2would often arrive at the bar in the sidecar of his friend’s motorbike. The Captain drank Cognac, but as Cognac is considered more of an after-dinner drink in France, the bartender sweetened it with a bit of Cointreau and sharpened it with a squeeze of lemon juice. Named after the Captain’s preferred method of transportation, the Sidecar was born.

England also claims to be the land of the Sidecar’s invention. In London the star of the story is the legendary Pat MacGarry, bartender at the Buck’s Club in London, famous for inventing the Buck’s Fizz cocktail. The details of the story are the same – a Cognac-loving gentleman pulled up to the club in his friend’s sidecar – only the names have been changed!

A totally different version of the story harkens back to pre-prohibition New Orleans, where it is said that the Sidecar evolved from the Brandy Crusta. Here, the word “sidecar” was used for that little bit of a drink that is sometimes leftover after a drink is strained into the glass. The bartender would serve the excess in a shot glass on the side – which came to be known as a sidecar. In time, the story goes, the recipe for the Brandy Crusta (Cognac, Curacao, bitters, lemon juice, sugar) evolved, with Cointreau replacing the Curacao, and the new drink became known as a Sidecar.

sidecar 3There are also many versions of the recipe. While it is commonly agreed that the drink is composed of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice—after that, all bets are off. Some recipes call for a sugared rim, some call for a lemon zest garnish, some call for a non-sugared rim, and some call for an orange wedge garnish. Some list the proportions of the drinks as 1:1:1 Cognac-Cointreau-lemon juice, some 2:1:1 for the same ingredients. I used to make mine in the 2:1:1 recipe – until I watched this beautifully made video by The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess. Robert recommends 4:2:1 Cognac-Cointreau-Lemon, and after listening to him (and trying it out) – I agree!

You need to watch Robert’s video! It will take six minutes of your life, but I promise it will be well worth it! You’ll learn a lot about the Sidecar, cocktail ingredients, cocktail techniques, and perhaps even life in general. And you will definitely be left craving a Sidecar. Enjoy in moderation and good health!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net