Sunday, March 30, 2014

Flavoured vodka

(A Russian Standard Martini. The Russian Standard for vodka, is absolutely no flavour.)
Vodka, in theory, is supposed to be flavourless (whether a flavourless vodka is even possible is arguable). Yet not too long ago we saw familiar brands such as Smirnoff, Absolut, and Stoli's put out a broad range of flavoured vodkas. You can find pretty much any flavour of vodka you can imagine. And it works because of an  easy excuse; the vodka we started with is still flavourless, but we added a flavour on top. This ridiculous notion is perhaps the first nail in the coffin for the idea of vodkas being flavourless.

See Also: State of the legal definition of vodka

Fast forward to the craft spirit movement, and you have a whole other beast. These spirits are somehow imagined to be different. They have complex aromas, which make them characteristically more like a gin. Yet that unmistakable vodka taste is still there - another clue that perhaps vodka does have taste, and odour. Several craft microdistilleries have also emulated the flavoured vodkas of the big brands, but producing more obscure flavours such as salmon. Predictably, long established brands even deep in the vodka belt, such as Chopin,  have also drawn inspiration from the craft movement. They've produced a broad line of different vodkas using methods such as less distillations and filtering steps. The products they've created are supposed to have a wide range of flavour outcomes. Even products from the same initial distillation batches can be grossly different depending on something as simple as how many times its been filtered.

(The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, Vancouver, produces
Truth vodka with flavour qualities reminiscent of gin.)
In the midst of all this, there is somewhat of a differentiation between the craft and big brands here in North America. Yet, when I look at the wider scope of things, its much different in my mind than what the craft world has done with bourbon. While I myself am not a fan of the 'added flavour' vodkas of the big brands, I can't say that what they're doing is much different than the microdistilleries. On the same token, I find that the craft vodkas are more approachable, creative and classy. My perspective of large brand flavourings is that they're somewhere in the same boat with flavoured jelly beans. They're just supposed to be plain old fun.

That is, they don't seem to be about what the spirit is, but more about the candy coating.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Craft of the Everyman drink

(Part of the allure of the Craft world, is finding new undiscovered gems.)
A good cold bottle of beer is quite possibly the most refreshing thing in the world, after a hard day's work. Heck, even a lot of bad beers can be refreshing after a hard day's work. This image of beer as the drink of the Everyman has been interwoven into our cultural identity.

See Also: Tasting Notes - Mill St Organic Lager

Not so long ago, every beer drinker could have given you a list of most and least favourite domestic and imported beers. And for the most part, we all knew what beer they were talking about. But of course, those little craft micro breweries were hiding in the shadows, waiting I reveal their might.

(It costs a little more, but craft products are a process of trying new things.)
Fast forward to the present day, and craft beer is making a dent in the beer market. With it, comes an expansive list of ales, which do battle with the pale lager heavyweights of the past century. Any serious beer drinker has likely rethought the "list" they created a decade or more ago, and are in a constant quest to find new beers to add to the new ever changing list.
The age of the pale lager giants seems to be giving way to a plethora of mystical ales (well, to be fair, there are a lot I craft lagers too). These new beers come in a variety if flavours, and don't have the slight nuances that separate the nearly indistinguishable mainstream beers. The craft revolution means a few somethings; individuality, character and identity. These romantic words are what propel beer buyers in this brave new market. 

(So, I don't actually know if this is a Craft beer, but it's not exactly common around these parts.)
The solidarity and created by the oh-so familiar Canadians, Budweisers and Blues doesn't hold that illusion of camaraderie that it used to. The commercials used to preach that everyone drinking the same beer used to use a good time. At one time Molson even made fun of all the different micro-lagers, in their own way. But as it turns out the camaraderie had little to do with the brand of beer. In my mind, at least, the craft revolution has just solidified beer as the drink of the Everyman.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Classy cocktails

(This is a Martini - the way God intended it to be when he created all of the classic cocktails from the prohibition era.)
Classic cocktails are somewhat of a personal forte. I enjoy making them, and put a lot of thought and effort into making sure that I can produce them to the best of my ability. I like to think about the proportion of spirits, and mixing agents, and what the final product should taste like. I like to think about what they should looks like; rocks, glassware and garnish are all things I have an internal conflict over. I like to produce both iconic and recognizable cocktails, as well as giving the classics a new spin from time to time.
You may have also noticed that I criticize overtly complex cocktails, or cocktails whose purpose is to hide the spirit below the taste of various purĂ©es, juices and syrups. The sweet and sour mixture can work quite well in small doses but as is the case with many cocktails, it gets taken too far. Blended cocktails whose juice and sugar content is several times more than the amount of alcohol are an obvious choice of criticism. Firstly, their calorie count is deceptively high, but secondly, you usually wouldn't even know that there's even any alcohol in the drink. Next are the would-be Martinis and Cosmos; cocktails that are only those things in name. I've already written about my grief concerning those drinks. There's more though. Beer cocktails that aren't really cocktails, but instead some kind of shandy. Punch without spirits, or sangrias without wine. The list goes on.

(Not a classic cocktail, but definitely a classy cocktail - courtesy of Taylor
from The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, Vancouver.) 
This leaves me in a troubling dilemma though. If all of these things are off limits, then what pray tell are the drinks I approve of? Well, classic cocktails have been recounted several times. But I also approve of sours. That is, sour cocktails such as the margarita, whiskey sour, cosmopolitan and mojito. And as far as those high juice content cocktails; those too are acceptable, as long as they contain at least two ounces of alcohol, and no more than three ounces of mix - they should also be crafted with an intent other than to mask the quality of the spirit. Beer cocktails can't be called a cocktail if only juice has been added, much in the same way a sangria needs wine and punch needs a spike of some sort. And then of course there are shooters; fun and inventive in their own right, and as such are acceptable. But there are many more acceptable cocktails, so long as the goal isn't to undermine the distilleries that provided that most important ingredient.

See Also: My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

What I'd like to share from this article is that drink crafting is no less an art than cooking, composing or painting (all of which I also do!) Drinks should be considered in their entirety, to the point that every ingredient is working toward the goal - and the goal can never be to cover up the spirit, but instead to add dimension. As a bartender, the ultimate goal should be to provide a drink whose taste and aromas create an experience. Whose appearance helps carry that experience. And whose experience leaves the drinker intrigued, contemplative and satisfied.

(Despite all my words against fruity cocktails, I actually do make them myself!
This cocktail is a double, mixed with less than two ounces of non-alc.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tasting Notes - Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine

(This is where it all starts.)
I sat down last night to record yet another episode of Tasting Notes. This time, I gave Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine "White Lightning". This stuff comes in a mason jar, and... well it's quite difficult to open the container!

Once you break through the shield generator, it starts to get a whole lot more interesting!

The immediate thing you may notice on giving the ole 'shine a good sniff is that it's got a quite strong smell of ethanol. It's good for your sinuses, and if you can get past that, you may notice some spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. The texture is almost syrup-like in viscosity, and has a buttery or slick feel to it, as well as notes of butter on the palette. On more consideration, you may notice popcorn.

My original rating for this spirit was 3.5 out of 5 stars, but after trying to consume it for several minutes, I lowered my rating to 3... In all honesty, it's just not my kind of thing. There are a few things about it I enjoy quite a bit, and I see a lot of potential for this in practical or mixological terms, but again, it just ain't my cup o' tea.

THAT said, I do think it's worthwhile if you're serious about making brave new cocktails.

Ole Smoky Moonshine Reviewed by Thomas Goodine on Mar 26 . Buttery, hints of spice, popcorn finish! Ole Smoky Moonshine is a high proof Moonshine hailing from Appalachia. You won't go blind, drinking it, but it might clear up your nose. Light smoke, spicy on the nose, butter and syrup on the palette. Lots of burn. Rating: 3.5

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It's all in a smile

(This is more or less the expression I have all the time.)
A smile can go a long way, but likewise, not smiling can go a long way too. It's an all too common thing - forgetting to smile. I'm particularly bad for it, although I've been aboe to change my habits so that at the very least I smile at guest whenever I make eye contact. But if you work behind a bar, I'm sure that you can relate to the idea that sometimes it difficult to smile while your mind is elsewhere.

See Also: Tasting Notes - The Kraken Black Spiced Rum

As I mentioned, I have been able to improve my bad habit of carrying a staunch grimace while interacting with people, but its still a problem that I've tried to find solutions for when I just can't seem to concentrate enough to keep smiling. It leaves a bad impression, sometimes. I'd received a guest complaint not too long ago where the guest had felt alienated by my blank face. They had suggested that I should try to pretend that I enjoyed my job. It's a disappointing thing to hear, especially for someone like myself, who lives bartending to the point of bringing their job home with them, blogging, researching and experimenting with whatever they can to experience even more of what it means to be a bartender.

(Look at this grim-faced dive bar pro! Oh wait... that's me.)
I really could kick myself regarding the situation above. So easily avoidable, and yet it wasn't avoided. I try to keep a mantra of not taking things personally once they're out of my control, but it can obviously be difficult to put aside something like a miscommunication.
I have back up plans for when I'm having trouble interacting with the guests at the bar - something that can happen rather easily when the restaurant is high volume. I usually start doing using whatever working flair routines I have, or talk about their drinks as I'm making them. It's not hard to get a smile from the guests, or inquisitive responses when I'm doing what I do best.

As for the smiling thing... It's a work in progress. I've gotten much better at remembering to smile, although clearly, there are still times when I need to try harder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My first go at Buffalo Trace - a bartender flop

(The Rusty Nail is kind of like the Manhattan of Scotch.)
I've been on the whiskey train for awhile now, and you may have noticed that's extended to the Rusty Nail - if my recent article wasn't clue enough. The Manhattan is of course, MY drink. I'd also like to share that I'd never gotten a chance to give Buffalo Trace the go around. Until fairly recently, that is. Now, before you get really into this article, I should offer you fair warning: this is yet another opinion piece.

With that said....

I was quite excited to sit down at a favorite local speakeasy style pub, to start skimming the whiskey section of their hefty drink list. Being that - as mentioned earlier - I'm on the most Rusted of Nails, I started off looking at their blends. I was disinterested in their limited selection, so moved onto the much longer single malt section. I had all but chosen my Scotch for the evening when I noticed a fairly priced Buffalo Trace straight bourbon, and decided to tuck away my plans for a tetanus shot. Rubbing my hands together, I ordered my Manhattan, with Buffalo Trace; stirred. Because who wants a shaken Manhattan, really?

(Buffalo Trace! Yours is a love I have not yet known!)
The drink arrived with the familiar red hue, and I took a sip at which point I was met with an overwhelming sensation of Martini Rosso. I'm not really sure what the ratio of whiskey to vermouth was in this case, but I suspect it was closer to one and one than the cocktail's standard. Perhaps my taste is off because I'm having hay fever, or perhaps I just don't know whiskey like I thought I did. Despite that I went to the washroom just to blow my nose for a solid minute or two, but I'm going to give them benefit of the doubt here and say that perhaps I was having an off night. Perhaps the two Rusty Nails I had earlier (Talisker, and then Johnnie Walker Red) have smoked out my senses.

See Also: Bitter me this, bitter me that

Whatever the case, I gave an unofficial promise to myself, and my readers, that I would never give a bad review to an establishment or a product, so I'm not going to name the premises where this happened. What I will say, is that I have gotten good Manhattans all over the city - including this establishment, which I like to frequent for a reason. By and large, I think its a fairly universally understood cocktail. But just to be sure that my own favourite cocktail isn't being misunderstood by myself, and all the other bartenders I've watched make one, I googled it, and verified that indeed the standard is an ounce and a half of rye or bourbon, half an ounce of sweet vermouth and a few dashes of bitter ye olde Angostura. Though, I wouldn't blame anyone for making it even a five to one ratio.

(Beware! This non-Manhattan is deceptively good looking!)
It's not the first time I've gotten a bad Manhattan though. It's the second. The first time, I ordered one of my own favourites, the JD Manhattan (JD Single Barrel is actually my top rated Manhattan). I'm not sure what it was, in that case, but it was just wrong; not terribly wrong though. It was still paletteable.

I still had to give the bartender the benefit of the doubt though, so I started googling reviews of Buffalo Trace (despite that I had already known it was a highly rated Bourbon - from some sources, the best). I was met by ratings such as 92/100, and several four out of five stars. Furthermore, I read descriptions of the palette which simply fell short of my experience.

See Also: The Manhattan returns to The Bottle Opener

The worst part of it all is, I almost knew that the drink was going to be botched as soon as I ordered it. The body language, the response to my order, everything was sending me bad signals. I really, really wanted to keep specifying my expectations after "stirred, not shaken", but I had to give my fellow bartender the benefit of the doubt. The why of it is, I'm apathetic. A lot of the time I go out and feel like I'm the difficult customer that's asking people to dust off the part of their short term memory they never use. Another thing is, I don't specifically like walking them through the way I make it for myself. Sometimes they do it differently, and even though its not what I expect, it's usually a slightly different version of the same thing. And I like it!

(Some of this might have helped out a bit...)
Which is part of the reason I keep coming back to the same establishments. When I sit at the bar and order my Manhattan, its somewhat comforting to hear them ask what kind of glass, bitters, or garnish I want. Sometimes it relaxes me enough that I feel safe to walk them through the Brooklyn, another personal Bourbon favourite.

I sat at the bar, consuming my subpar beverage, considering whether I should give Buffalo Trace another go in an old fashioned. The bartender returned to ask me what I'd like. Old fashioned just isn't my drink. So I hesitated for a few moments before saying I'll settle up. The bill somehow came back as over 23 dollars. Not quite what I was expecting either.

It wasn't worth it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An 'Irish' Rusty Nail

(Drambuie, one of the few Scotch-based Liqueurs.)
With St. Patrick's Day now behind us, I thought it would be a perfect time to talk about an Irish Whiskey cocktail. As far as I can tell, I have no Irish blood in me (though plenty of Scottish), so with the shamrock holiday behind us, I felt the need to instill something Irish in my bloodstream. Like our entire wannabe Irish culture, for one day of the year I felt Irish, but the holiday left me desiring something typically Irish, yet preferably drank in a similar fashion to the Manhattan or Rusty Nail.

See Also: The Manhattan Returns to the Bottle Opener

I've done some reading this morning, and discovered that single malt Irish Whiskies have been used to make Rusty Nails, and that the Irish Whiskey spin on the Manhattan can be called the Emerald, or Blarney Stone (depending on whether it has Orange, or Angostura bitters, respectively). This left me desiring to find a happy balance in between. An Irish Whiskey cocktail that uses Drambuie - similar to the Rusty Nail - but lacking a single malt. The obviously immediate problem is that standard Irish Whiskey is not at all like Scotch, and mixing it with Drambuie may not be the first choice of action for how to make such a cocktail as what I'm looking for. Nevertheless, it has to be done. As you may have noticed, I'm somewhat of a laymen scientist, and experimentation is of the utmost necessity in matters such as these.

(An 'Irish' Rusty Nail.)

The hypothesis - Drambuie can mix well with Irish Whiskey if you use something to transition the flavor. The experiment will consist of bravely mixing an ounce and a half of Bushmills with half an ounce of Drambuie, and two dashes of Angostura bitters. The potion will not be poured until the inside of a snifter has been washed with a few drops of Talisker single malt Scotch, at which point it will be strained from the ice into the glass, and garnished with a slice of lemon peel. All that's left are to begin the test, and generate a conclusion.

See Also: Bitter me this, bitter me that

My biggest concern off the bay was that I'd have to decrease the amount of Drambuie as it may be too sweet. It was indeed sweet, but the amount seemed to work [at least with Bushmills]. The sweetness was balance with the fairly sized citrus peel and bitters du jour. there was a hint of smoke, but for the most part it was smooth, lightly lemony, and aromatic. I was happy with the end product, and will find myself drinking more Irish Rusty Nails.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bitter me this, bitter me that

(The first exposure of all things bitters.)
There comes a point in every passion driven hobby (or activity... profession), where the hobbiest decides to start getting crafty. What I mean to say is, that the inevitable consequence of the passion, is to take the next step toward being a craftsman (or craftsperson!)

See Also: What's in a Manhattan?

My first foray into taking things to the next level, was to start making my own specialty simple syrups, which I'd even considered trying to market as a salable product. While that's still an idea to be had, I moved on to investing in a nice collection of aromatic bitters, which I'd bought from a personal favorite rare tea shop right here in Vancouver. Though, my co-workers at first seemed perplexed when I'd told them how much money I'd spent on bitters, it seemed to me (and still seems) that it was a worthwhile investment.

(Pictured left to right. Dandelion leaves, coffee, black currants, and a lot of crazy sh--.)
Somewhere along the way, I'd wondered about making my own bitters. Though, until I came across the unassumingly named Bitters, by Brad Thomas Parsons, the thought merely came in passing. The book's title just happened to catch my eye as I was browsing the 'beverage' stand in the food section at Chapters. The episode of revelation went sort of like, "Oh, hey, a book about bitters! I'd love to make bitters!" And the rest was point of purchase history.

See Also: The Manhattan returns to The Bottle Opener

I found the Hogwartsian names of ingredients compelling. Hyssop. Devil's club root. Quassia chips. Wormwood. These were surely the things of a hokey witch's brew. Yet surely, I was hooked. The conspicuous names were categorized under catalogues of bittering agents, and flavouring agents. That is to say, things that made your potion bitter, or aromatic. While I've yet to actually make, or even begin making any bitters, the quest I went on to gather some of these rare agents was gratifying enough on it's own. I found myself hiking the urban landscape of Chinatown, and the West End, visiting bird's nest shops, the Asian grocer, the Persian supermarket, and finally the standard grocery store, where I found the more common items such as oranges, and coffee beans - though I admit, dandelion leaves were on sale at Safeway.

(Soda water and Angostura bitters, with a slice of orange. Not bad!)
As for the status of my project.... Well, it's simple at that, remaining a work in progress. Being that the whole process will take three weeks, I've got quite a wait ahead of me, before I can report the detailed findings of my project. But to you, the reader, I leave you with these parting words: take your passion to the next step. Find the same drive that I found; if you're a bartender, do as I do, and take the product of your passion into your own hands.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Are you bored of specialty "Martinis/Cosmopolitans"?

(When I think of a Martini, this is more or less the first thing that pops into my mind.)
Have you ever gone out for a few drinks, eyeing up the cocktail list of your favorite pub, restaurant, or club, and noticed that the signature cocktails section seems to be a random mash-up of various fruit flavored Martinis? Martinis of either the gin or vodka variety are easily one of my cocktails of choice. While I greatly prefer the gin variety, I can appreciate the value of a good vodka Martini, as well. Grey Goose? Chopin? Or perhaps a craft vodka? Sign me up! It can be pretty awesome stuff, taken from a chapter of my very own book of awesome stuff. Generally speaking, though, I like to taste the spirit I'm spending money on.

See Also: State of the legal definition of vodka

Heck, you may have noticed that I'm a big fan of the classics in general. I often like to try new twists, or different takes on well established classics. In general, I'm also a big fan of niche trends in the cocktail scene, preferring brave new experiments, over safe, tried and true routes of intoxication. Beer cocktails? I was totally all over that. Cassis? Awe, yeah! Craft revolution? D'uh...

(Not only is this a beer cocktail, it also contains Creme de Cassis AND champagne. Now that's fancy!)
Specialty cocktail lists are a particular area of discouragement for me, however, whenever I dine or drink out. Why, may you ask, that I often find myself face palming in response to specialty cocktail lists? Well, the complaint is that approximately ninety five percent of every cocktail list I see is full of the same concept of signature Martinis/Cosmopolitans. It goes goes something like this: take a flavored vodka, water it down with a random liqueur, water it down even more with sweeteners, sours, and whatever other random juice, syrup or puree you can find to cover up any trace of alcohol. The outcome is that you end up with candy in a Martini glass.

See Also: How I grew up from Hi-Balls

Now don't get me wrong. These drinks have their place. It's nice to have a variety of cocktails for people who don't particularly enjoy the taste of spirits (or alcohol in general). The unfortunate side effect is that every single signature cocktail ends up using this same method. On the bright side, there are several environments where this is not the case. BUT. Just to reiterate the point of contention, these brave new bars are usually on the higher end of the price spectrum, with absolutely no gradation moving down to more economically feasible bars.

(Here are a couple of signature Martinis I actually don't quite mind.)
In all fairness, I understand that the response to this disappointment could be "If you want classics, then you can order them." And yes, in many ways, I do want more of the classics, but again that's not the point. What I actually would like to see more of, is an establishment's individual take on well established classics such as the gin and tonic, Manhattan, or Negroni. That's not all, though. I also want to see completely new, ground breaking cocktails that get their roots from more modest palettes than the "sweet and sour" of cosmopolitan fame.

In short. I'm bored. I want variation. Am I asking for too much?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tasting Notes - The Kraken Black Spiced Rum

(Mythological beasts are often captured in blurry photos.)
Another day, another episode of Tasting Notes. Okay, while those two phrases don't really go together, what DOES go well together are the secret spices used in 'The Kraken Black Spiced Rum'.

You may have heard of this stuff quite recently, as its been gaining popularity and fanfare. It's a somewhat strong rum at 47 percent, but easy to swallow. It has a light syrupy texture that mixes quite well with the mellow rum flavour, and notes of liquorice, cinnamon and pepper (perhaps ginger).

(This is kind of what The Kraken looks like, in a snifter. Minus the Instagram filters.)
I would recommend drinking it at room temperature, or with tonic, but it would also go well in tea, or as grog. It would probably be interesting as a mojito too, but strong mint and lime may well overshadow the spiced rum itself.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Manhattan returns to The Bottle Opener

(My first attempt at making an even fancier Manhattan.)
I recently brought up the topic of Manhattans, revealing the significance of this classic cocktail in my life. It doesn't need to be said again and again that I love a good Manhattan. But, well... I love a good Manhattan.

I gave a lengthy description of how I like my standard Manhattans, but the fact of the matter is, I really would prefer something slightly more complex if I had the choice.

Coming at the whiskey favourite from a completely different perspective, one night I got to messing around. I opted out of both the rocks and the Martini glass, for a change, considering instead to use a glass which would funnel the aromas of the cocktail into my nasal palette. Aromatic exploration would be in my future.
The first thought I had was to mix an ounce of choice bourbon - Knob Creek - with half an ounce of Courvoisier VS and Martini Rosso, each. I continued by adding ice and and a dash of Angostura bitters before straining into my glass. I finalized my potion by adding a single unskewered cherry and orange zest, which I muddled. 

It was good. Really good, but still, not good enough. For starters, I realized the orange zest was simply not zesty enough, but moreover wasn't doing as much for the drink as I would have hoped; clashing with both the cherry and the cognac. Either a much bigger zest would be required and a rethink of using cognac, or I would simply disregard adding the zest. The choice was obvious - the zest had to go. It was simply too much, and perhaps the only reason I chose to use it in the first place was because I knew it would be too much.

(I know this doesn't look much different from the last one, but... in a phrase: this is the one.)
For round two, I decided to try something considerably different. I looked up my old friend Jack, and got down to risky business; I grasped for his single barrel counterpart instead. I liked JD Manhattans, but this would be something different. Not quite a bourbon, and also not quite so recognizable as a typical Jack cocktail, I then chose Remy Martin Champagne Cognac for my second spirit, and again Martini Rosso. This time my measurements would change a bit; I would use one and a quarter ounce of the whiskey with a quarter ounce of the cognac, and Rosso remaining the same. Ounce more I iced, bitterred, stirred and strained before adding the maraschino cherry garnish that would be awesome to swallow at the end of the glass.

And it was awesome. This time it was everything I had hoped it would be.

Monday, March 10, 2014

State of the legal definition of vodka

(Here are some Diageo brand vodkas... only one of these is from the vodka belt though!
Left to right - Smirnoff of USA, Grey Goose of France, Ketel One of The Netherlands, Belvedere of Poland.)
Legal definitions of spirits and other variety of alcohol are all too common in the beverage world. The reality is, there are regulations (sometimes rather strict) on what any type of spirit can be labelled and sold as. The practice is a form of quality and standard reassurance, but it also lends favor to regional and cultural origins of any said spirit. The world's most sold, bought and consumed spirit - vodka - is actually a hot topic of contention around the world.

See Also: How I grew up from Hi-Balls

Before even jumping into the legality of being branded a vodka, one must consider the origins of vodka. So where did it come from? The historical evidence lends claim to Russia, going back quite a bit earlier than the other contender, Poland. While I tend to lean on the side of Russia, mainly for the sake of my valuing good evidence, I would also have to concede that sometimes these things can be lost to history simply because the language changes over time, and with something such as vodka - translating in both Polish and Russian, to water - there can be a level of ambiguity in regards to what was written, and what was actually meant. Even still, though, there's the fact that not every occurrence has the benefit of being recorded as history. But again, the evidence leans toward Russia, and so do I. However, Belvedere distillery of Poland would disagree with me.

(This is what a vodka martini looks like - which is coincidentally just like what a gin martini looks like as well!)
Vodka likely originated in Russia, but a rich heritage of vodka distillation can be found throughout a collective of Slavic and Nordic countries referred to as the vodka belt. By most account this includes the Baltic states, northern Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and of course Russia and Poland. But as we all know, it's distillation has spread far beyond this area. It's also now distilled in Western Europe and the United States. With that spread comes legal definitions from three different major governing bodies; Russia, the European Union and the United States.

See Also: The Bottle Opener: "Gin-Minded"

The United States and Russia both have relatively uncontested definitions for vodkas in their regions. However, it should be noted that the definitions laid out by each body don't agree with each other very well. Russia, for example, has had a strict legal definition of vodka for over 100 years, explaining it as a triple distilled neutral grain spirit of 40 % ABV. Meanwhile, in the United States the definition is somewhat more relaxed, denoting that it must be distilled from a grain wash, and made to be taste and odour neutral by some means, such as filtration. Despite that these definitions claim a flavourless vodka, most people who have spent some time with the spirit will disagree with the law in that regard, vodka does have a quite distinct flavor.

The biggest area for contention over vodka's definition, though, comes from the European Union, who not until the past 20 years saw the joining of members from Eastern European countries. The EU states that vodka is a neutral spirit made from some fermented source of agricultural means. With the membership of Eastern states came lobbies to change the legal definition; branding of vodka limited to spirits made with grain, potatoes or molasses, and the idea that vodka should have a stricter regional definition that only encompasses countries of the vodka belt. It isn't too surprising to see that Western European states couldn't get behind the desire to ratify the definitions, but at least one change was finally agreed upon; European vodkas produced by means other than potato, grain or molasses are now labeled as 'Vodka produced with...' Unfortunately for the vodka belt, this was hardly the victory they were looking for.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Andy's fundraiser, at Milestones Denman Street

Normally I make it a practice not to write anything about work, or other restaurants in the business. In the past, I'd written a handful of articles where I'd review restaurants, but have taken the approach that this isn't really what my blog was meant to be about, and that it's also a conflict of interest with my employer, future employers, or competitors. I don't want to be that guy who writes reviews, or either promotes or bashes business ventures. That's just not my thing. My thing is talking about products, and passions which I thoroughly enjoy, and that said, I don't talk about anything on here that I don't love.

So with all that said... sometimes there's an exception. In my personal life, I'm interested in a few things other than bartending, such as humanitarianism. As such, I almost feel obligated to write an article describing the awesome contribution from so many people to my friend and co-worker Andy, who has been battling cancer for several months now. This Wednesday, the management and staff at Milestones Denman Street threw a fundraiser to help raise money for Andy, and the results were inspiring.

A lot of people came out, and donated thousands of dollars to help Andy. There were door prizes and silent auction items put up from many sources, such as StarBucks and Howe Sound Brewing to name a few. Even our direct competition, Cactus Club Cafe, provided an awesome and sizable donation for the auction. Personally, I find this sort of willingness for business competitors to work together to be incredibly inspiring, and the fact that such great contributions were made for Andy, is even more inspiring for me.

I had the benefit of talking to Andy just a few moments ago, and asked him if he wanted me to say anything on his behalf in my blog. And of course, he has asked me to extend his thanks to anyone who came out to help support the fundraiser, and that the turn out was more than he could have hoped for. As for me, I'd like to thank every inspiring contribution, right down to each dollar donated, tweet made, or hour spent in honor of Andy.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Tasting Notes - Mill St Organic Lager

(Mill St. Organic Lager, pictured next to the Seasonal Sampler six pack.)
Episode two of Tasting Notes is now out! This time I thought I'd try Mill St. Brewery's Organic Lager, a personal favorite.

I explained my first exposure to Mill, with my review of their seasonal sampler pack, not too long ago. One of the points of interest in the article was their Organic Lager. Smooth, and delicious, this organic lager is fresh, crisp and creamy. Exactly the kind of thing you would want to accompany you and a patio on a nice spring or summer day, but also the kind of thing you can drink on the couch, to wind down after a hard day's work. Because it really is THAT refreshing.

Osake Craft Sake, a flight on Granville Island

(Japanese 101 lesson of the day: Junmai-shu is a variety of sake, which is
considered pure rice wine without any added distillates.)
On Tuesday I had the pleasure to visit the Osake tasting room on Granville Island. I'd wandered past the tasting room several months earlier, on a visit to The Liberty Distillery, just around the corner on Railspur Alley, and had been meaning to visit ever since my first walk past. In short, the idea of an award winning, small batch sake right here in Vancouver was just too compelling for me not to be addicted to at first discovery; especially considering products of the far east have been on my to-do list for some time now.

Knowing pretty much nothing about sake, other than that it's made from rice and often compared to wine, I tried a five dollar sampling trio of three of their products. Not only is the flight considerably low price, they also let you choose the three products you'd like to sample - a very nice touch. As such, I chose their two Fraser Valley products, made from rice harvested in Abbotsford; the Fraser Valley Junmai, and Fraser Valley Junmai Nigori.

I noted from the first sample that the products were served chilled; a surprise as I am used to ordered house sake which has been warmed, much like tea. On tasting my first sample, the Fraser Valley Junmai, I immediately noticed that it was much more fruity than the house sakes I've tried at various sushi restaurants, or Guu. The Nigori, as well, which was my last of the trio was notably more citric, but rather fruity compared to the sake I'd tasted previously. The Nigori also appeared surprisingly cloudy, almost like a wheat beer.

(The translation of Nigori is cloudy, which refers to the unfiltered and cloudy appearance of
Nigori Sake. Nigori is sweeter than standard sake.)
In between the two Fraser Valley sakes, I also sampled the Junmai Nama Genshu - which caught my interest as an award-winning wine. Again, it was quite fruity, but noticeably drier than the other two samples, and with a creamy, smooth texture.

In short, the experience was enjoyable, and pleasurable. I don't know much about sake, or what kind of variety is available, but these three products were all great. The Nigori was my favorite; being somewhat tangy and refreshing. I could easily imagine myself enjoying it as a substitute for a sipping one on a nice spring day. Twenty five dollars will fetch you a 375 mL bottle of the Nigori, while the Junmai Nama Genshu is available in both 750 and 375 mL bottles, for thirty five and twenty two respectively.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Next in wine knowledge for the beginner

(Want real, first-hand knowledge about wine? Try a few glasses.)
In my previous article about wine knowledge for new servers, I went over a lot of strategies for helping you start off on your journey as a server with absolutely no wine knowledge. If you're anything like me, you might be asking, "what comes next?"

Well my friends, there's quite a bit more to know about wine. There's no substitute for tasting the wines yourself; you can often get a lot of products in one go by visiting an organized tasting event. But again, that's all fine and dandy, but it still doesn't help us out as much as we'd like, does it? Personally, I sometimes have trouble finding the details of flavors, as I'm an asthma and allergy case and I always get stuffed up once I start smelling things a lot, or having drinks that are bitter. I often have to read the palette of aromas on the back of the bottle, or on the internet before I can actually sense the full flavor of the wine. So even though the best way to get knowledge is through personal experience, as is the case with me, there can be various problems with that.

(Knowing the aromas, and tasting notes of wines can be a huge advantage.)
One of the more obvious problems to come with the experience method is that it takes a long time to get said experience. This can cause some problems if you're trying to learn a lot of things in a short period of time, so much akin to my first article on the subject I'm going to give you the advice to take a step back, have a breather, and see the bigger picture. Have patience, and realize that the experience will come over time, and that the more you taste, the more you'll see patterns in certain varieties of grapes, and regions.

If you've gotten this far, you may be asking "What gives Thomas. You gave me a lot of ideas in your first article on this subject!" Okay folks, I'm holding out on you in a sort of way. But there's a good reason for that! I really, truly believe that along with the basics I suggested in my first article, you can strive as long as you are patient and diligent.

But as it happens, I do have something of more substance for you, too.

Wines are grouped into two main categories, which are based on firstly the species of grape, and secondly the region that the wine is produced in. These two things are the primary source of the wine's flavor. I'm going to go a bit deeper into this information about grapes and regions for you, but first we're going to touch a bit briefly on flavor - which should not be confused with taste.

(Taking blurry photos of wine isn't necessarily a good way to learn. But at least it shows that you're trying!)
Flavor is an interesting concept, and generally speaking, you most likely picture it as being synonymous with taste.  It isn't though. There are only five basic tastes, and every other taste is a combination of those five; sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. These five tastes don't make up for really complex flavors though. In fact, the combinations of the five tastes don't have much more depth than the basic tastes to begin with. Flavor is a combination of all of the senses. The most important ones are taste and scent, but touch is rather important too, and let us not forget sight and hearing, which are more important in your psychological perception of flavor. Taste and scent make up the primary palette of flavor in all things - not just wine. Taste is what you would describe as the initial flavor, and scent is the lingering aroma that follows. You have only five types of taste receptors but scent receptors (rather, olfactory receptors) number in the hundreds. In fact, 3% of your entire genome is devoted to scent receptors. As mentioned above, touch is quite important too. Touch provides texture, and spice (which is not a taste, but rather, a form of pain that reacts with chemical and temperature sensitive pain receptors). The remaining two senses play a pivotal role with perception of flavor, but this is merely a psychological effect, and not necessarily the classical meaning of flavor.

So friends, if you're still with me, note that the jargon above is important. It's important, because it describes ALL flavor, and not just wine, but it's particularly important for wine (or alcohol in general). There's a huge number of wine products out there, so it's impossible to know about all of them. However, as I mentioned above, there are a couple of keys to help you out. Grape species, and region.

And I think I have the perfect anecdote to help you understand.

Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is a common species of wine grape, whose Latin name is Vitis vinifera. It's used in the production of Pinot Gris white wine, but a lot of confusion is caused in the fact that it's also used in the production of Pinot Grigio. Which isn't, the same wine. Now don't get all up in arms! The two wines are produced from the same species, but they aren't the same, and there's a very good reason for that. You see, Pinot Gris is from France, while Pinot Grigio is from Italy. But it's more than that, too. The climate, water, and soil quality make a huge difference in the flavor of the wine from those regions. But moreover, you should realize that the fermentation and aging process are also going to be different because of environmental differences between France and Italy. Even more confusion can come from the fact that a lot of Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio aren't from France or Italy! So what gives?!

(Sake is often referred to as 'rice wine'.  Now that's some grade-C wine knowledge!)
Well, wine regions aren't only limited to the old world, but sometimes they carry over to new world wines as well. New world wines are essentially wines produced anywhere but Europe, and in the case of wines produced using the Pinot Gris grape, they can take whichever name the producer of wine chooses.

If you were wondering what the point of the anecdote is, allow me to clarify. Different regions and species produce different flavors. Simple as that. The trick to finding out about them all is by tasting them for yourself, and seeing the patterns, but never forget the lesson I tried to teach with my first article about wine knowledge: keep it simple.

Update: I stand corrected on my statement than vitis vinifera is the species name for the Pinot Gris grape. I've incorrectly understood varietals as being interchangeable with species, in this case. Varietals can be understood as a large pool of domesticated grapes of the same species.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tasting Notes - Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Port

(I tried this sweet Port with my home made Skor cake...
While it wasn't bad, it was sort of like a sweetness overload.)
I've started a new short video series I'm starting called ''Tasting Notes", where I taste some products and give them short reviews.

In this episode, I review Taylor Fladgate's First Estate Reserve Port. It's a lower end Port that you can buy at 750 mL for less than 20 Canadian dollars. As far as these lower end ports go, I would recommend it as a good starting point for people wanting to give port a go. It's sweeter than your average port, as well, and has a heavy berry flavor.

The Vancouver International Wine Festival

(This is what it looks like when you pour a glass of wine.)
It may come as no shocker that I'm no expert in wine. However, in the past I've put a lot of effort out to try to put together some good blog articles for your reading pleasure, about the various wine tastings I go to. A lot of the time, I'm simply just too overwhelmed by all of the products, so I take a step back to tell you my personal highlights.

This time, is no different!


See Also: Sonoma vintners wine tasting - the whites

See Also: Sonoma wine tasting - the reds

I have it on good authority that the Vancouver International Wine Festival, is the largest wine festival in North America; sadly though, I don't seem to be encouraged enough to fact check that claim. I'm just going to roll with it. I was pretty excited to bag a free ticket to go this last Thursday. And boy, was I glad to go!

(This is what we people in the real world call "schmoozing".)
The main theme of the festival were French wines. French wines have taken on a legacy all of their own. France is well known as the place to go for great wines, and I'm happy to announce that I couldn't agree with the stereotype, any more. The truth is,  I haven't had all that much exposure to French wines, so this tasting opportunity was a real treat.

See Also: The basics of wine knowledge for new servers

Where to begin? Well, first of all, let's talk regions. I found a new friend in the Alsace region of France. Previously, all I knew about Alsace was that it was a disputed territory between France and Germany for over one hundred years. Today, I know that they have some pretty darned good Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Sparkling Wines, among other varietals. As with most men (an assumption, granted), I normally prefer to go with red wines, and can find at times that whites simply don't have what I'm looking for. After tasting wines from Alsace, I can totally say that I've found my niche in white wines. Like me, you may have noticed a lot of the varietals from the Alsace region have German influence - such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. With my limited wine knowledge, I've figured out that this translates to a much different wine region than the other regions of France.

(I'm guessing the region shown above is Loire. Truth be told I was somewhat inebriated, but judging from the "L" and "e", unless the planet, Lahsbane, from Star Wars is a wine region, then Loire is a good guess.)
This isn't to say, the other regions aren't great either.

I was pleased to taste many a Champagne, Loire or Southwestern France product, but I'll stick to the claim that Alsace was the highlight for me. I of course got the opportunity to see a lot of the local sommeliers partake, who are normally behind the counter themselves. I was also pleased to chat about some French fortified wines, that were comparable to Port (pictured below). The ABV was less than Port, which was also of interest. Being somewhat of a lightweight, I can't finish a bottle of Port in one night, and that leads to the question of it going off. Some of these French fortified wines seem to have fixed that problem for me, being much lower than the 20% ABV of some Ports.

(This is not Port, but I'm fairly certain it's the fortified wine I was talking about, above.)
Unfortunately, I didn't have nearly enough time at the event, and as I saw my timer counting down, I ran off to try a few of the other international wines I was interested in. In the process I got to listen to some cheesy non-truths by a perhaps, too intoxicated Sommelier manning the Israeli table - unfortunate, as I would have liked to know more about the wine, and less about 'True Blood' (that's a joke referring to the TV show of the same name, that probably won't make sense to anyone other than me... let's just say the guy had a very strong sense of imagination).

Goofy assessments aside, the Israeli wines I tasted were quite delightful. Even while I was waiting to get into the event, and flipping through the brochure, my attention was piqued with the realization that there are wines from Israel at the event. Unfortunately, as these things are, I didn't get to try a lot of the other foreign wines I was interested in, but of the ones I did, this was the table that I wanted to share.
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