Welcome to Imbibe Magazine's between-issues look at liquid culture with drink recipes, news and more. From coffee to cocktails, Imbibe celebrates your world in a glass.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review: The Billionaire's Vinegar

I just finished reading The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace (Crown), an examination of the circumstances that led up to the sale—and, later, possible discrediting—of the so-called "Jefferson bottles" auctioned by Christie's. The title bottle was billed as a 1787 Château Lafite; the initials "Th.J" etched on the side of the bottle were said to prove that it had originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Such historic provenance led to the bottle to sell for a record-breaking $156,000 at auction in 1985.

From the beginning, there had been questions about the bottle's authenticity. It was reportedly part of a secret cache of identically initialed bottled found in a Paris basement by famous—eventually, infamous—wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, a German impresario with an extraordinary knack for finding the rarest of vintages. Rodenstock refused to disclose the exact source of his Jefferson bottles, and as time wore on, suspicion grew that he was faking many of his rarities. 

I'd read the New Yorker article on the same subject, and had expected Wallace to present a similar detective story about Rodenstock and billionaire Bill Koch, who purchased four of the Jefferson bottles and later decided to put his considerable resources into investigating whether or not they were real. But Koch doesn't even enter Wallace's story until the end. Instead, what I discovered was a rich depiction of the history of wine, from the time of Thomas Jefferson until today—its prestige, its chemistry, its recurring susceptibility to fraudulence. Without making outright accusations, Wallace sets out to show how the growing interest in rare wine made Rodenstock's alleged actions almost inevitable. The demand for ever-rarer vintages, the innate subjectivity involved in judging the taste of such bottles, an the immense amount of money involved created an irresistible target for con artists.

Wallace reveals a fondness for many of the interesting characters populating his book, and a reporter's fascination with his subject. He tries hard to maintain his objectivity, though he can't hide his dismay at the excesses of the big-budget vertical tasting parties that became common among collectors during the 1980s and '90s. There is delicious insider's gossip aplenty in this book, enough to keep any serious wine aficionado turning the pages. And for those with a more casual interest, Wallace's centuries-spanning narrative and sharp eye for detail make the book a fun and informative read. I highly recommend it—read it now, before the movie comes out. (Don't laugh, the rights have already been optioned.) —Hannah Feldman

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

American Brew DVD winners

Thanks to the many readers who submitted your favorite places to drink beer around the U.S. We learned about a lot of great places across the country, and we hope you'll stay tuned to see the results of your feedback in an upcoming issue of Imbibe.

We received so many responses that we chose two more winner than we originally planned to win a copy of the American Brew DVD from Here's to Beer. Here are a few fun facts from this fascinating film that traces the history of American beer from colonial times through Prohibition and the modern craft beer movement:

  • The average American lives within 10 miles of a brewery. (That doesn't use too much fuel, so visit a brewery near you today!)
  • Americans drink six billion gallons of beer a year.
  • In 1980, there were 48 breweries in the United States. In 2005, that number was close to 1500.
Congrats to the winners, and thanks again for all of the great input!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

To a Tea

You know you’re in the right place when you find yourself psychically in sync with the people around you. Shortly after we both started working at Imbibe, our editorial assistant, Tracy Howard, brought up the idea of creating an iced tea with lavender syrup. (The result is included in our most recent e-newsletter. You don’t subscribe? Now’s your chance.)

Meanwhile, I had been thinking along similar lines—namely, trying to find a way to incorporate my beloved Lavender Earl Grey tea into a cocktail. (Several tea companies make an Earl Grey with lavender—mine is from Metropolitan Tea Company, but you can find other versions on the Internet or at well-stocked tea stores.) I’d first encountered this delicate beverage at an English-style tea shop in my former hometown of Baltimore, but Imbibe's July/August 2007 issue (see "Elements," page 18) inspired me to try infusing it into a spirit. For the infusion, I added 3 ½ tablespoons of tea to 2 cups of vodka. If you’ve never tried this, it’s almost magical to see how quickly the spirit absorbs the tea. Within seconds, the liquid had turned a deep amber. Our article suggests starting with a two-hour steep, tasting frequently to make sure all is well. Worrying about bitterness, I strained the infusion after an hour and a half, but when I began working on cocktail recipes, I realized the flavor was too weak to stand up to any mixer. A three-hour steep yielded a richly expressive, mahogany-colored infusion with a potent floral nose.

Knowing that the proper English way to drink Earl Grey is with lemon—and not, as I’ve always drunk it, with cream and sugar—I experimented with citrus. I tried lemon juice and simple syrup; lemon juice with no simple syrup (in a word: no); Meyer lemon-flavored simple syrup, with or without orange juice; and blood-orange-flavored simple syrup. A concoction involving orange and lemon juices with a small amount of plain simple syrup seemed to be getting close, but it wasn’t quite right. The fruit’s acidity and the tea’s tannins combined for a harshness on the palate, and the juice drowned out those lovely bergamot and lavender scents. I glared at my jar of vodka, which had dwindled to less than a cup—and still not a drinkable recipe in the bunch! How could a drink I had loved from the very first sip make me so indescribably frustrated?

Thinking back to that first sip, I had my epiphany. Forget this, I thought. I’m an American, after all. A quick duck into the fridge for some cream, a little simple syrup, and I had my favorite tea back—in a cocktail-hour form.

The Earl's Pearl
1 ½ oz. Lavender Earl Grey-infused vodka*
1 oz. half-and-half
½ oz. simple syrup (or to taste)
Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: cocktail

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Serve with English “biscuit” cookies for a simple dessert.

*Infusion: Add 2 tablespoons of Lavender Earl Grey tea to 1 cup of vodka. Steep for 3 hours. Strain, making sure no bits of tea leaves make it into the spirit.

This is only the beginning of my adventures with this tea. I’m on a mission now, and the new July/August issue’s feature story exploring tea origins and iced tea recipes has me fired up to try even more concoctions. Something light and summery, or that infuses the tea into a darker spirit. Expect more recipes soon. Or, better yet, post your own here—we love hearing from you!

Meanwhile, Tracy and I are going to see if we can’t find a way to use our newfound psychic powers for good. —Hannah Feldman

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

T-Shirt Contest Winners

A big thanks to all of the readers who submitted designs for our first Imbibe t-shirt contest. We enjoyed all of the submissions, but a few entries stood out as the winners. Drumroll, please...

Grand Prize Winner: Nicole A. of Cerritos, Calif.
Nicole's design, below, illustrates the expansive world of drinks that Imbibe celebrates, from coffee to cocktails. She says, "There are an assortment of drinks in the world, so why not embody it in the form of a glass?" Congrats, Nicole—you'll be receiving six months of fresh-roasted coffee from the folks at Batdorf & Bronson and a Bodum French press to brew all that coffee!

Runner-Up: Alexa R. of Westfield, N.J.
Alexa took another twist on the drinking vessel theme, with each letter of the word Imbibe adorning a separate container. Congrats, Alexa—as a runner up, you've won the Ultimate Bloody Mary kit from Freshies (just in time for the perfect Bloody Mary season)!

Runner-up: RJ G. of New Orleans
RJ took a humorous approach to the contest, and he definitely got some laughs from our review team. Here's what might happen if you took it upon yourself to imbibe every drink idea in our Summer Drinks Guide at once (not recommended). RJ will also receive the Ultimate Bloody Mary kit from Freshies.

Runner Up: David D. of Portland, Ore.
David had us chuckling with his depiction of an Imbibe mouse tempted by olives on a pick. Thankfully, no mice were harmed in the designing of this shirt. David will also receive the Ultimate Bloody Mary kit from Freshies.

Thanks again for all the submissions—we had so much fun reviewing them that it took us longer than we thought to come to a decision! Congrats to the winners and thanks to everyone for waiting patiently for the results.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Calling All Beer Drinkers!

Here at Imbibe we love a good pint after a long day, and we're always looking for a new beer bar where we can hang our hats. So we thought we'd check in with you, our dedicated readers, to find out where you most like to grab a pint. Send us an e-mail and tell us about your favorite neighborhood beer joint. We're looking for all types of beer spots offering everything from a great Guinness pour to a cellar full of obscure Belgian ales, and we'll draw one lucky reader to win a DVD of the fascinating movie, The American Brew: The Rich and Surprising History of Beer in America. Responses should be e-mailed by the 11:59 pm Pacific Time on June 19th, and check upcoming issues of Imbibe to see if your favorite spots make it into the magazine.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Drinking to Dad

I recall many a family gathering where my dad generously played bartender, serving up orders from my uncle's Old Fashioned to my sister-in-law's customary glass of Chardonnay. With mom on food patrol, dad declares drinks his realm; before you even ask for it, you can count on him to whisk your empty glass away and return with a refill.

With Father's Day this Sunday, June 15, now's the perfect time to toast my beloved family barman and raise a glass to fathers everywhere. And nothing says, "Thanks, Dad!" like a good martini. So here are our guidelines for this old standby, as well as a tried and true recipe, courtesy of contributing editor Paul Clarke from his site, Cocktail Chronicles.
—Siobhan Crosby

Imbibe's Tips for a Perfect Martini
- Chill out. A warm martini is no one's friend. Chill your cocktail glass with ice until you're ready to pour your cocktail. And whether you shake or stir (we won't go there), be sure to use plenty of ice.
- Go with gin. We know some people love their vodka martinis, but we think gin offers the right flavor and complexity for this classic cocktail. Try some of the top performers from the gin tasting in our Jan/Feb 2007 issue, like Old Raj Dry Gin.
- Splurge on the good stuff. There are only three ingredients in a martini, so be sure they're all up to snuff. Along with top-shelf gin, use a top-quality vermouth—it will make a huge difference. We like Vya a lot, and Noilly Pratt is always a good option too.
- Bitters make it better. Orange bitters add just the right balance to a classic martini, but not all orange bitters are the same, so play around with the one you like the best. You can't go wrong with Fee Brothers or Regan’s, and look out for the new Angostura orange bitters, which we're very excited about!
- Ditch the olives! There, we said it. Lemon twists are the way to go for a great martini. Lemon perfectly complements the citrus and botanical notes of gin and vermouth; olives tend to compete more with those nuances (they can work better if you're using vodka).
- Trust your palate. If you try one recipe and it doesn't appeal to you, play with the ratios (more or less vermouth, for example). Robert Hess' online essay, The Perfect Martini offers a variety of recipes and leaves it up to you decide on your preferred proportions. As with all imbibing, it's about what you like—your palate will lead you to your own version of perfect. That said, here's a recipe to start with:

Martini (Savoy Cocktail Book style)
2 oz. gin
1 oz. fresh dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Tools: mixing glass
Glass: cocktail

Stir ingredients briskly with ice, then strain into a chilled glass. Twist a small strip of lemon peel over the drink. You may drop it in, if you prefer.

And if you're dad's not nearby, send him a nice glass to enjoy his next martini.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Guinness Fact or Fiction?

“Dude, the legend is true—Guinness really does taste better in Ireland,” shouted an American tourist standing next to me recently at the trendy Gravity Bar on top of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. While I wanted to laugh off the idea, I have to admit that I was thinking the same thing. Every taster has his/her own theory to explain this phenomenon—some claim it’s in the quality of the water, others insist that it's all about the taps, and others dismiss the idea altogether as a silly urban myth. According to Todd Schwartzman, a Guinness rep in the States, even though the legendary stout is brewed in 50 countries and distributed in over 150, consistency is always top of mind. He assures me that the Guinness I enjoy in the U.S. is just as rich and creamy as a pint from its Irish homeland. I’m still not completely convinced, but what do you think? Have you experienced it for yourself or are you one of the naysayers? Ponder it over a pint yourself, or better yet, whip up a batch of our gooey Guinness cupcakes from the Nov/Dec 2006 issue and let us know! —Tracy Howard

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

How Does Your Garnish Grow?

Tarragon CoolerSummer has officially kicked off, which means it's time to head into the garden. Herbs are an easy, rewarding way to exercise your green thumb, and when it comes to cocktails, they're an essential ingredient. If you have a sunny spot, big or small, try growing your own garnish garden (oh, and you can use it for cooking too!). Here are some of the plants we're growing this year for prime summer cocktail season:

Mint grows abundantly and its many varieties allow for fun experimentation with flavors. It's the signature herb in countless cocktails, from the Mint Julep to the Mojito. Try mint in the gingery Sleepyhead for a new take on mint in your next cocktail. It's also great for making your own mint tea or for adding to your favorite lemonade.

Versatile basil lends itself to both savory and sweet cocktails and mocktails, including the alcohol-free Watermelon-Basil Cooler in our 2008 Summer Drinks Guide, on newsstands now. Try basil in a gin-based Bloody Mary or the Sangre de Fresca, a cachaça, basil, strawberry & balsamic drink from Art of the Bar. Or try the fantastic Honey-Basil Orangeade from our July/Aug 07 issue.

Cilantro grows fast in the right conditions, so we're alway looking for creative uses for this flavorful herb. Cocktails provide a perfect outlet for the added zing cilantro lends, whether it's in the tomato-tequila Drinko de Gallo or in a cilantro simple syrup in Kevin Ludwig's Zanahorita, or carrot margarita, from the current issue.

While sage is a long-time culinary favorite, its use in cocktails might not be as widely appreciated. Try sage in Those Bourbon Blues (bourbon, pepper-maple syrup, blueberries & sage) from the 2008 Summer Drinks Guide or experiment with blackberries and sage in your own cocktail creation.

Delicate in appearance, tarragon packs a punch of anise-like flavor that lends well to drink mixing. Lately, we're loving the alcohol-free Tarragon Cooler, which beautifully blends tarragon with cucumber, lime and tea for an amazing drink.

These are just a few examples of the herbs we'll be growing—lavender, thyme and rosemary also make excellent options for using in drinks of all kinds. How about you, what are you planning to grow this summer?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Time for Tales!

Next month brings one of our favorite cocktail events of the year, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. If you haven't already purchased your tickets, now's the time to nail down your plans. This year's event takes place July 16-20, and as usual, it will be packed with fantastic events, from spirits tastings and seminars to cocktail tours and pairing dinners. We're especially excited to be sponsoring this year's Spirited Dinners, which pair some of the world's most talented bartenders and cocktail experts with chefs at the best restaurants of New Orleans. Last year we attended a Spirited Dinner at the legendary Commander's Palace, and it was a truly inredible culinary experience—here's a link to this year's venue and menus. Tickets to these dinners always go quickly, so be sure to reserve a spot in time. Check out the Tales of the Cocktail website for more details on other festivities happening over the course of the event—we hope to see you there!