Taking the world of Scotch by Storm

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Friday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

Instant weather barrier.

Instant weather barrier.

The drinking world boasts countless aficionados of Scotch whisky and undoubtedly as an offshoot of that, numerous Scotch whisky “purists.” They’ll instruct you as to which Scotch to drink with which cigar, which to drink in the unlikeliest months of a hell-heated summer and clutching firmly to their tartan mythology, whether it’s somewhat unethical or even pedestrian to actually add a cube of frozen water to which, or even any, glass of Scotch whisky. Sometimes the Scotch ambassadors are so wound up about their personal code of properness that they may as well be drinking like an Englishman.

Scotch, like most adult libations, can bring a little levity to the table or party. So don’t be fooled or forced into thinking that all those pre-mature notions have to be applied. Once we get past the old stereotype of Scotch being the preferred beverage of crotchety old men, the sooner we can knock down all those other barriers of coerced thought and what to drink with whatnot.

In the meantime, we are left with our own personal exploration of different Scotch whiskies and the quest to find “those which please us most.” The following acts as just a sampling of some of the myriad of Scotch whiskies that are readily available to begin or continue your pursuit.

East Tennessee’s newest Scotch comes from the Isle of Skye on Scotland’s northwest side. Appropriately dubbed for the wee bit of inclement weather that rolls through the Hebrides, Talisker Storm is a golden, almost amber colored whisky. Its smoky whiffs of burning wood are both alluring and warming, while the dried fruit and honeycomb flavors make for an easy drinking dram. Talisker Storm is a must try for Scotch whisky followers.

Conversely, if you’re looking for a tried and true Scotch, I’m a long time fan of the Oban 14 year from the Western Highlands. About ten years ago, I did a trek through Scotland and my “walking the Earth like Kane” journey led me to a tour of the Oban Distillery. Like most tours they are simply precursors to the free samples at the end. My lips had discovered sheer bliss in a glass, and Oban became and remains one of my three favorites. I credit that fondness to Oban’s unique caramel aroma and the cheerfulness it has brought to many Burn’s Night Suppers.

Finally, the deep northern Highlands malts as well as the Speyside malts, also have much to offer. If you’re looking for a beginner single malt Scotch, you might best be served by sampling a Dalwhinnie 15 year Single Malt from the rugged north of Scotland as it is lighter and leans to the softer side of Scotch. And the Speyside distilleries are always well represented by the Cragganmore 12 year Single Malt with it’s sweeter nuances and friendlier flavor profile.

Four for four, now that's a good lineup!

Four for four, now that’s a good lineup!

The Amalfi

With neighbors like Pompei, Sorrento and Positano, you know the Amalfi Coast is in good company. This southern Italian getaway brings the best of Italy together: breath-taking scenery, oceanic daydreaming, fresh cuisine and tourist-pampered indulgences. That was the inspiration behind this next drink, The Amalfi; I wanted to bring together some of the best that the boot has to offer, from the Venetian popularized Prosecco, to an old guard Amaro, to some of the continent’s best produce.

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Italian sunshine in a glass!

Amaro is a classic herbal spirit (often used as a digestivo) that can be both fruity and bitter. The Amaro Bolognese produced by Montenegro is my personal choice because it tends to show off more dried fruit flavors while escaping the nasty side of other Italian bitters like a Fernet Branca. One sip (if you can get past the smell) of Fernet Branca and you’ll swear off such liqueurs forever. Actually you’ll just swear a lot and wonder who dipped your tongue into iodine. Luckily, Montenegro is nothing like that.

Combine three parts Prosecco, one part of the Amalfi Coast’s famed limoncello (in this case I used the batch I enjoyed making this spring with the mayor of Rocky Hill) and a splash or two of Montenegro Amaro – depending on your herbal aptitude. Shake well and gently pour over several blood orange slices and ice.

The Prosecco will cause a little bubbly action so take it slow. The combination of limoncello and oranges create a nice sunshine like glow in the glass while simultaneously producing a popping citrus-like prowess.

Cocktails for the second side of summer- welcome to The Riviera!

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

Beach front view, the French Riviera on the rocks.

If you didn’t already know it, summer has passed its halfway point. So? So, get busy. Enjoy a lake or ocean of cathartic waters! Enjoy those extended citrus and vegetable aisles at the market! Enjoy some travel-inspired summer time cocktails!

Today’s post is part one, of a three part experiment with creating new summertime cocktails, which were inspired by a little daydreaming of the beaches in France, Italy and yep – even England.

Wednesday’s inspiration comes from the Côte d’Azur, a name designated by the blue coastline of the French Riviera. Think of the cooling hues of aqua, azure, teal, lavender and seafoam. Add the glitz of Monaco, Saint-Tropez and Cannes and you have the backdrop for this all-French libation, The Riviera.

The Riviera combines two parts of the contemporary French Gin, Magellan and one (to 1 and ½) part St. Germain Liqueur. You can learn more about Magellan and its flavorful grains from my Gin review for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Non-gin drinkers will enjoy adding a splash more of the St. Germain to the drink as its elderflower sweetness provides a counterbalance to the strong presence of juniper berry in the Magellan.

Mix these two beautiful French spirits over ice and garnish with lemon and lime. The result is an elegant cocktail, with some strikingly blue and cool colors, that will have you ready to dive right in.

Cocktails for the opening day of grilling season

* A version of this column was first published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Pork (like the pulled pork sandwich from Dead End BBQ) is another great option for your Memorial Day feast.

Pork (like the pulled pork sandwich from Dead End BBQ) is another great option for your Memorial Day feast.

Sticky, sweet and saucy savoriness can only mean one thing; the opening day of grilling season is upon us. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to light that fire because we’re about to embark on some killer combinations of grilling masterpieces and thirst-quenching cocktails.

Pick any weekend in late spring or throughout summer, and most grillers will tell you that an outdoor barbecue starts with that all-American delicacy of a tender, mouthwatering rack of ribs. And whether your family preference is Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina or St. Louis style ribs, the common ingredient in the sauce or rub is none other than brown sugar.

The simple beauty of the brown sugar ingredient is just how well it adds a touch of sweetness to the ribs and concurrently makes for a natural pairing with a bourbon-inspired cocktail. Brown sugar and its caramelizing effect are frequently notable flavors in both ribs and bourbon. Sure you can’t go wrong with a cold beer to cool you down while hovering near the heat of the flame. But when it comes time to enjoy those succulent ribs try pairing them with an Old Fashioned.

The Old Fashioned is a classic bourbon cocktail that’s been around longer than most of us. Its timeless endurance is due in part to its simplicity as well as its reverence for letting the bourbon shine through. My recipe calls for a mash of one sugar cube, three dashes of bitters and a splash of soda. Add ice and pour in one to two ounces of your favorite bourbon, like Elmer T. Lee. Garnish with a fat cherry and the result is a bourbon and rib pairing that will have your palate doing a little skip just like dance partners in a Texas two-step.

Preparing ribs for a large cookout can be timely and expensive. For those budget barbecues that are a tribute to the staple of our domesticity, namely hamburgers, no greater cocktail pairing can be found than the Bloody Mary. The standard model of cheese, onions and tomato on a juicy, seasoned beef patty actually goes extraordinary well with the tomato juice, Worcestershire and pepper ingredients found in most Bloody Mary mixers.

A new mixer, called the Charleston Mix, is on its way to the market and offers a lively and spicy blend along with a rich tomato flavor. Just pour it over a glass of ice and an ounce or two of Ketel One Vodka and not only do you have something great to go with your burger (besides that heap of potato salad) but you also have the not-so-secret formula to the post party aftereffects.

Dead End BBQ's chicken cooker works its magic of science and art.

Dead End BBQ’s chicken cooker works its magic of science and art.

No barbecue is complete without some representation by the king of cluck, Mr. Chicken. Whether it’s wings, thighs or pulled chicken barbecue, the presence of the bird is always a fan favorite. I’ve tried, to no avail, to mimic George’s competition chicken from Dead End BBQ off of Sutherland Avenue in Knoxville. So rich and tangy, that when I do take on this ode-de-chicken backyard challenge I make sure to have a refreshing beverage as its side-kick.

My go-to cocktail for BBQ chicken is the citrusy Bull Frog. Fill a tall glass with ice, then add two ounces of vodka and fill with Simply Brand Limeade. After a good stirring and some fresh lime garnish, you’ll have a bright, thirst quenching drink that can beat the heat of your spicy chicken rub as well as those fast-approaching and overly-scorching Frog days of summer.

George's Competition Chicken at Dead End BBQ  with fried okra, southern cornbread and Red, White and Blue Cole Slaw

George’s Competition Chicken at Dead End BBQ with fried okra, southern cornbread and Red, White and Blue Cole Slaw

Classic aperitif meets modern wine bar at – Drink.

* A version of this column originally ran in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Sit for a spell

Sit for a spell

I like to drink, you like to drink and I think that’s exactly where we’ll end up.

K-town’s swanky, hip, and mood enlightened drinking establishment, “Drink.” opened a few months ago after years of fashionable planning. The latest venture by Knoxville restaurant magnate, Randy Burleson, “Drink.” is a posh and sleekly polished wine bar located next door to his flagship restaurant, Bistro by the Tracks.

Bistro’s longtime wine and spirits manager, Lana Shackelford, has also taken over the portfolio of Drink.’s three self-serving wine dispensers as well as its full and eclectic collection of spirits. Her aptitude for selecting incredible and unique wines for Knoxvillians to sample is a tribute to her personal research and patient commitment to doing the homework. You’ll notice that just as soon as you circle the collection of wines to choose from, coming across both dependable selections as well as several exclusive wines you’re going to want to instantly learn more about.

Some of Lana's Libations

Some of Lana’s Libations

Lana’s creative application of thought provoking and conversation-starting names for her seasonal cocktails are just as appealing as the wine selection. And a recent meet up offered a challenge to her innovation by crafting imaginative cocktails using the nearly 100-year-old classic Italian aperitif known as Aperol.

In Italy, Aperol and Prosecco (Italy’s famed sparkling wine) go together as well and as often as prosciutto and cantaloupe. Known for its orangey, herby flavor profile and vivid blood orange color, Aperol’s lower alcohol content makes for an irreplaceable and inspiring mixer in cocktails.

Take for example Lana’s enhanced and Italian-inspired rendition of the aforementioned Aperol and Prosecco spritzer. The “Vespa” cocktail adds the influential elderflower element of St~Germain Liqueur to the traditional recipe. The result is an off-sweet cocktail, with a slow and soft fizz development. The “Vespa” successfully combines that subtle orange undertone to an inquisitive floral cocktail. It will have you humming along for the ride.

Everyday Patron

Everyday Patron

A second experiment in Aperol mixology spawned “Rosemary’s other baby.” With a clever take on Nashville- made Corsair Gin, Lana was able to balance some of the Aperol’s fruity nature. Corsair creates one of the more unique gin interpretations with its woodsy aromas and Indian-like spiciness. Throw in a little muddled rosemary and you have an angelic combination of the herb’s evergreen fragrance, the gin’s offbeat attribute and Aperol’s predisposition towards bright citrus and freshness. It’s the kind of shared drink that makes for better neighbors.

One might think Aperol’s flexibility would have been proven well enough after tasty run-ins with Italian Prosecco, or French liqueur or Tennessee gin. But a rendezvous with tequila shows its strength as well in appealing to south-of-the-border libations, namely Mexico’s distinctive Don Julio Reposado Tequila. With lime juice, honey, and bitters mixed together with the Aperol and Don Julio, the “Spaghetti Western” is reborn. This is Italian fashionista meets Cinco de Mayo, simultaneously chic and festive.

Are you thirsty now?

Are you thirsty now?

Culinary creations in a glass

* A version of the following article was first published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Back in the 1980’s vodka took its first small step into the world of flavored spirits. With the American launch of Absolut Peppar, the world of Bloody Mary’s and indeed vodka would never be the same. Today, flavored vodkas are everywhere and being made by almost everyone who distills vodka. A stroll down the vodka aisle shows just how much the category has grown from the pepper or citrus-based beginnings to the threshold-pushing flavors of bacon, bubble gum and even birthday cake.

Muddling through the bizarre efforts of some vodka distillers can be formidable, so recently I sat down at the Grill At Highlands Row to talk turkey (did I just create a new flavor) with Chad Barger, general manager at the Grill. Along with bartender Laura Musgrave, we wanted to examine some of the more culinary-driven flavored vodkas and see just what creative and enjoyable mixed drinks we could invent.

A few years ago the Sazerac Company (purveyors of outstanding Bourbon) launched an organic vodka with unusual flavors of cucumber and lime called Rain. Musgrave, who has been with the Grill At Highlands Row since it opened in 2010, took the Rain Vodka and quickly focused in on a mojito influence with the mixing of muddled mint, lime and simple syrup to the already cucumber enhanced vodka. The result was a savory, balanced cocktail with an air of freshness to it.

With Musgrave’s creation, dubbed the Muddler in the Rain, she was able to walk the fine line of the citrus influence. Too much would have overshadowed the cucumber and not enough would have meant loosing that crispness and thus balance of the drink.

With the Nielsen ratings showing that premium vodkas were up over 33% last year, it was no surprise when the trendsetters at Absolut rolled out a new premium vodka in 2013. Little did anyone know; however, that the line extension would include the popular herb of cilantro.

Cilantro is one of the few things that my wife and I disagree on. You either love it or hate it for its floral, herbaceous nature. And obviously Absolut was thinking of culinary-influenced mix drinks when they created this herb-guided vodka. So, I was enthusiastic when Barger and Musgrave collaborated to concoct two killer cocktails with this uniquely flavored spirit.

The first creation was a mix of the Absolut Cilantro and Lime with some ginger beer, lemon and lime juice. For all of those who enjoy a nice pre-dinner cocktail to stimulate the appetite, this “Appetizer Cocktail” is just for you. The piquancy of the ginger plays out nicely to the late arriving but appetite-building cilantro.

Second, they fashioned a full-circle tribute to the whole reason Absolut introduced its first pepper-flavored vodka 27 years ago, the iconic cocktail – the Bloody Mary. With the Absolut Cilantro and Lime being mixed with Musgrave’s zinged up rendition of Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix, they added a garnish of in-house jalapeño stuffed olives. It’s the perfect prelude to some shrimp and grits for Sunday brunch.

Finally, as a lover of all things Italian I was eager to sample a third flavored vodka invention, the “Epic Bellini.” A natural twist on the Italian Bellini, it is a simple mix of prosecco and Knoxville’s newest vodka brand, Epic. Wonderfully aromatic and true to its fruit source, the Epic Peach flavor offers a jazzed up version of the classic Venetian cocktail with a garnish of blood orange.

Straight off the shelf, flavored vodkas may not be for everyone. But with the proper mixology and some professional advice culinary delights can be a sip away.

Bourbon leads straight to Kentucky

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Corn may not grow at all on old Rocky Top but they have managed to find enough just north of us to make some of the best American whiskeys, namely Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon has several requirements for authentic production. These include being comprised and made from a majority of corn grain, a minimal aging of at least two years in charred oak barrels and no addition of artificial flavorings or colorings. The result is a pure bottle of American tradition that has survived the setbacks of both war and Prohibition. The following five bourbons are all produced at Kentucky’s legendary Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

E.H.Taylor Bourbon

If Kentucky Straight Bourbon had a post-Civil War godfather, his name would irrefutably be Edmund Haynes Taylor. One of the early architects in both modernizing and defining bourbon techniques and specifications, Taylor has been immortalized through craft production bourbons made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Its E.H. Taylor Jr. Collection includes a “Small Batch” bourbon that strikes a perfect balance between an ultra-polished, sweet-smelling whiskey and a brawny, flavorful one with a dead-on amount of edginess. Sumptuous aromatics of brown sugar and butterscotch infuse a glass of this attractively, amber-colored bourbon, leaving little room for second-guessing what your new favorite bourbon is likely to be.

Successfully combining Kentucky’s two iconic images — that of bourbon and horseracing — can be as simple and seductive as a fresh Mint Julep on Derby Day or as unique and commemorative as Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Blanton’s 93 proof is a golden, straw-colored bourbon with warm aromas of vanilla bean and caramel. Designated as the “Original”, Blanton’s Single Barrel (like all its distinguished bourbons) is topped with a Kentucky-appropriate, pewter-like stopper resembling a racing horse and jockey. There may be no better way to celebrate all things Kentucky than with Blanton’s at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Aged for a sturdy 10 years, Eagle Rare Single Barrel reveals a dessert-like bouquet of banana-laden banoffee pie and a freshly caramelized crème brule. But don’t be fooled by all that post-dinner revelry; its underlying structure is one of leather and grass. And it is that very concept of being so well-rounded that makes the journey from rich aromas to rugged flavors an adventure in every Glencairn glass.

Similar in undertone to the Eagle Rare is Buffalo Trace’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Both are 90 proof and carry that same distinct delivery. But the Buffalo Trace separates itself from the crowd with a deeper richness of nut bread or heavy cake.

Finally, no tour of bourbon force would be complete without a mention of the Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel. Its golden color and lighter aromas produce a polished, rounded texture with subtle caramel notes.

Not your grandmother’s gin

* The following article originally appeared in Saturday’s online edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Gin has the discouraging reputation as being the preferred spirit of an anachronistic era when taste buds were seemingly immune to the notion of wincing.

From its early Dutch and English origins, gin amassed the ignoble status as a cheap, easily available spirit that went from being “mother’s ruin” in England to the homemade American version in countless, Prohibition-era bathtubs. At times, its quality was so poor that it probably could have used a good scrubbing.

That being said, this herbal-inspired libation has moved well beyond its Swann Rubbing Alcohol predilections and into unique interpretations by numerous, modern-day gin distillers.

gin

A new favorite of mine comes from an Atlantic island just off Scotland’s western coast. The Botanist Gin boasts a whopping 31 botanicals, including 22 “native” botanicals from the island of Islay. With some heartier aromas, this 92 proof gin is a clean representation that receives my PDS award, or Pretty Damn Smooth. Excellent on the rocks, it also makes one of the better gin and tonics that I’ve had in awhile.

Not to be outdone, France’s Magellan Gin isn’t shy in displaying the “grains of paradise” that have encouraged its panache as a well-seasoned international traveler, including Iris flower, cardamom, orange peel, cassia and half a dozen other herbals. Named for the world’s most renowned explorer, Magellan is a floral, striking translation of gin with an exotically ice blue tint. Lovers of the juniper berry and aromatic style gin have to put this on their list.

The steep 94 proof Broker’s Gin from England carries the banner as a more traditional gin. Medicinal in nature with a focused delivery, Broker’s could have conventional gin connoisseurs showing their approval with a mere tip of the old top hat.

Also distilled in England is Martin Miller’s Gin. For those looking for a not-so-dry gin, Miller’s flavor profile of sweeter botanicals and a fruitier nature is unequalled. Blended with Icelandic water, Martin’s Gin makes for an ideal introduction to this oft-maligned liquor category.

Finally, if you’re part of the “buy local” movement, you won’t have to look to Europe or even outside of Tennessee to fill the gin supply line. In fact, the not-too-far-away Music City has its own melodic gin to sing about. The first thing you’ll notice about Corsair is its curious aroma. With heavier notes of coriander and cumin-like aromas, Nashville’s Corsair Gin (with a splash of club soda) makes a fantastic pre-dinner appetite builder. Also well suited for a slew of martini recipes, Corsair Gin carries that adaptable and exemplary modern-day swagger.

The new Scotch is not a re-Peat

* This column was originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

If you’ve ever taken a long train ride into the Scottish Highlands, you know that you’re likely to see more sheep, inexplicably dotting steep mountainsides, than you are to see trees. These areas are often barren and limited in vegetation. Because of this, the long history of whisky making in Scotland has been singularly dictated by the source of fuel needed to toast the barley grains, which in turn created great malt whiskies.

Not to be denied the pleasurable warmth of a nice whisky, the great Scots relied on the burning of dried peat moss as a natural and cheap source of fuel in their whisky making process. The peat, in turn, produced toasted malts with smoky, earthy and musky notes that, out of necessity, became the trademark characteristic of Scottish whisky.

Eventually though, all of that began to change with the industrial revolution as alternative sources of fuel became accessible deep into the remote areas of northern Scotland and indeed many of the isles. With transportation facilitating the access to these sources, it also established a supply line for malts that weren’t as smoky or for that matter pre-disposed to peat at all.

Fast-forward to modern trends in making Scotch whisky and any purveyor can tell you that the new Scotches, hitting the store shelves, mostly seem to be avoiding that old-school peaty style. In fact, today’s new malt whiskies place more emphasis on what they’re aging their product in, namely unique and diverse barrels that once were homes to sherry, port, sauterne, madeira and just about anything else just shy of root beer.

Naturally, this new trend is designed to introduce more consumers to Scotch as these different casks greatly alter the final whisky into something less austere and more likely to be enjoyed en masse. If you want to get a sense of this newer, less peaty style, then the following four whiskies offer differing insight into today’s new Scotch.

Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or 12 year (glen-MORE-an-jee)

Aged in French Sauterne casks, Glenmorangie’s “Golden Nectar” creates a substantially sweater aroma, reminiscent of a traditional Irish whisky. A bouquet of orange peel and ginger ale compliments a honeyed finish and a Sauterne-inspired nuance of honeysuckle.

Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year (Bol-VAINNY)

As far as experimenting with new interpretations of Scotch whisky, the Balvenie Distillery is perhaps one of the original pioneers in this modern whisky movement. Its DoubleWood 12 year whisky sees aging time in both a whisky oak barrel as well as a sherry oak one. The result is a Speyside whisky with minimal peat influence that shows off caramelized brown sugar notes, warm vanilla aromas and a fluid, mellow mid-palate.

Bruichladdich Rocks (broo-kladdie)

The western Isle of Islay is known for making some of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies in all of Scotland. So, it’s a bit ironic that the Islay based Bruichladdich Distillery decided to produce this completely unpeated whisky. Bruichladdich Rocks has scents of warm cake and vanilla with just the faintest of medicinal finishes.

Glengoyne 10 year (glen-goin)

Since a very good Scottish-born friend recently recommended the Glengoyne 10 year, it’s the next whisky on my list to sample. Located halfway between the Eden-like Loch Lomond and the workingman’s capital of Glasgow, the Glengoyne Distillery produces an unpeated, 10-year whisky. And I can’t wait to try a not-so-wee dram of this insider information.