Friday, October 17, 2008

New York City Wine & Food Festival - Day 1 Spirits

This past weekend we attend two days of the New York City Food & Wine Festival, a northern replica of the popular Food Network South Beach Food & Wine Festival. This festival ran from October 9th through 12th – four days of wine, spirits, and food demonstrations. Most of the events occurred in the modernized Meatpacking neighborhood in Chelsea – a district of outdoor cafes – resembling European urban areas. There were food parties, regional wine tasting, seminars, champagne parties, and the ShopRite grand tasting.

As usual for a Food Network event, several of their personalities were present, and on the 11th we stumbled upon our personal favorite Alton Brown - partnered with Rachel Ray – imparting food advice throughout the day at the Comix Kidz Korner series. As the pictures attest, kids and parents lined up early to see one of the four sold out shows. In a neighboring park we also visited a local farmer’s market sponsored by Greenmarket, where the fresh produce was shipped from Geneva – in the Finger Lakes. We sampled several of their inexpensive juices and were glad to see that they also carried Anthony Road wines. Today they were also giving food demonstrations – and advertising a charity dinner at the end of the month: The Taste of Greenmarket n the October 29th. In route to the grand tasting we also passed the Food Bloggers station – a nice courtesy to the online community.

The ShopRite Grand Tasting is a collection of food created from the city’s best chefs and wines and spirits distributed by Southern Wine & Spirits of New York. Maybe it was the sight of the Wines of Puerto Rico when we entered the Pier or the Maker Mark’s station at the entrance of the tent; but we decided to stick to spirits for the entire day. And what a spectacular array of spirits. It started with an excellent Serrallés Don Q Grand Anejo rum paired with steamed yucca on plantain leaves prepared by Hilton Caribe San Juan Lemongrass chef Mario Pagán. Accompanied by bartenders dancing to Latin music – we had a second sifter and a cocktail. The party had started.

The bartenders at Maker’s Mark were creating several cocktails from traditional Maker’s mark bourbon, the new r(i)1 rye whiskey, rum, and tequila. The Highland Nector was very popular – for me – the Bourbon County Crisp. Later in the day we had a chance to sample the r(i)1, which is being targeted by Beam Global Spirits and Wines to younger consumers. It’s a good product – slightly sweet and spicy – that we’d be happy sipping neat – but it was really good in the NYC r(i)1 Sour. We soon had a chance to taste our favorite vodka of the day – and there were several good products from Russia and Sweden. But the Norwegian Christiania vodka was what they advertised: “The World’s Smoothest Vodka” – at least today in New York. The vodka is made from organic Trondelag potatoes and Norwegian water vodka and the mixture is distilled six times before being charcoal filtered. All based on a 400 year old secret recipe originating in the court of Christian IV. Monarchs had the best life. Why did we like it? It is slightly sweet – and incredibly smooth: no burn at the finish. This is vodka worthy of a sifter. The same is true for the Whitley Neill Gin. Normally not fans of gin, this version is very appealing. It is a made with nine botanicals – including fruit from the Baobab tree (“The Tree of Life”) and Cape gooseberries. Johnny Neill has combined his family’s love for Africa with London Dry Gin to create a gin we can enjoy – more citrus than juniper. In fact the Baobab fruit has 6 times the vitamin C than an orange.

Close by, we found several of our favorite spirits from South Beach: Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva 12 year old, Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21, and Moleca Cachaça. The first is Venezuelan rum distilled in copper pot stills, then aged 12 years in oak. It is sweet with nutty and vanilla flavors – and smoooooth. The Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21 is also smooth – but really different from the Diplomatico. First, it is made from distilled pressed sugar cane – not molasses – which gives it a lighter flavor – or should I say - less nutty. It has some vanilla – but more of a honey flavor – with some butterscotch. Another great rum. Finally, the Moleca Cachaça brought back memories of mohitos and caipirinha. Both Silver and Gold are double distilled – producing a smooth spirit – with little burn. Half of our team enjoyed the Silver in cocktails, while the other half preferred the Gold in a sifter. Either way – Cachaça is a coming attraction and there was a larger selection at this tasting. Cabana Cachaça and Sagatiba Pura Cachaça are also double distilled and are each good representations of the product.

At this point, the day became a constant stream of unique new products – starting with Danny DeVito's Premium Limoncello. In South Beach, we had seen Mr. DeVito pouring his liqueur, but the crowds were too large to circumvent. Absent Mr. DeVito, the crowds today were smaller and we were finally able to try this liqueur. Many of our Italian friends have mentioned sipping Limoncello on lazy afternoons, but we had never tasted it. Now, we are “experts”. Limoncello is made by soaking the outer yellow layer of the lemon (the zest) in water and sugar, than combing with neutral grain spirits. The final product is diluted to about 60 proof. DeVito's Premium Limoncello differs from the standard by using organic Sorrento Lemons – known for their aromatics and flavors. In fact this product is the only Limoncello to earn an IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) Designation and is certified kosher. Plus, the bottle includes a "scratch and sniff" lemon. They’ve thought of everything. The liqueur is all lemon – in the aroma, through the flavor – to the tail. It is a little syrupy – but not sugary gritty. Some tasted a little mint, others pepper. Regardless, we all enjoyed it. Harbew Imports recommended several alternatives to drinking it neat – including creating a spritzer using soda water or mixing with sparkling Presecco. (We would spend the second day sampling this Italian grape to find a worthy partner to DeVito's Premium Limoncello.)

Moving on, we came upon the world’s only distiller of açaí - VeeV Açaí Spirit. The spirit is actually distilled in Idaho – using water from the Snake River and the Brazilian “super” fruit: Açaí. The fruit is well known in health food stores because it contains 57% more antioxidants than blueberries and has 30 times more heart-healthy anthocyanins than red wine. VeeV Spirits dilutes 90 proof neutral grain spirits with açaí juice, small quantities of prickly pear and acerola cherry juice, and water to arrive at the final 60 proof product. The cherry is the most pronounced ingredient – but the entire spirit is very smooth neat. However, the Reum brothers are counting on it to become an alternative to vodka in cocktails. We think it would be an interesting alternative to rum in a mohito.

While tasting the VeeV Açaí Spirit we affably heckled a fellow taster “guzzling” Lucid Absinthe at the adjacent table. Little did we know that this was actually David Jones the CEO of Castries and the creator of Castries Peanut Rum Crème – one of our two overall favorites of the day. This is one liquor that we strongly recommend purchasing immediately. Even after a past visit to St. Lucia we had no idea that peanuts were such a large part of their culture and apparently homemade peanut rum liquor is quite popular. Mr. Jones and his partners became their endeavor in 2002 and for five years they toiled to create the precise formula and physical production. Released last year, the Castries Peanut Rum Crème consists of roasted peanuts, spices, Madagascan vanilla, cream and aged St. Lucian rum. Incredible. And versatile. We stood for minutes listing the alternatives to mix with the cream liquor: espresso, chocolate, grand manier…..or by itself. It is a nicely balanced drink – the peanuts, spices and rum intertwine without hindering the other. Well done.

The other liquor we strongly suggest purchasing is also a cream liquor: the Irish made Coole Swan. This time the ingredients are Single Malt Irish Whiskey, Madagascan Vanilla, and Cote D’Ivorie Cocoa, and heavy dairy cream. This product shows with quality inputs and persistence – 231 variations in the formula – affordable and great tasting liquor can be produced. The product is awesome – the vanilla is more prevalent than the chocolate – and like the Castries – the cream and rum balances each other. Named after the WB Yeats poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, we can envision, passing the time with Coole Swan.

There were a couple other interesting spirits such as Chartreuse liqueurs and Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt Scotch. The former is a brand of liqueurs produced by French Carthusian Monks that are famous for their digestive qualities. The Chartreuse is made from alcohol mixed with 130 plants – in which only 2 monks actually know the identity of all. The Green Chartreuse is drier than the Yellow Chartreuse but sips from both immediately calmed our stomachs. There are two versions of the Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt Scotch a 12 year and an 18 year variety. The whiskey is made outside of Kyoto – using pure water used in Japanese tea ceremonies. In each case the malted barley is distilled in copper stills where only the middle cut of the second distillation is used to make the whiskey. The spirit is then stored in one of three types of oak barrels: American Bourbon, Spanish Sherry and Japanese. Whiskey from each barrel is blended together – producing a unique flavor. Obviously the 18 year old is more full bodied than the 12 year – but both have a less peaty flavor than standard Scotch. The 18 year old also has more of a cherry flavor whereas the 12 year old has more of a honey flavor. This is the best selling whiskey in Japan – we will see how it fares in the States.

And we can not forget to mention the food – perhaps the best we had sampled in similar festivals. There was excellent white pizza from Bayard Catering, beet mixtures, pasta, chocolate – but are absolute favorite was the smoked salmon prepared by Jim Botsacos of Molyvos. Most salmon is too fishy for our tastes – but this dish had little fish flavor – instead it was slightly smoky – and fresh.

After a last stop at the Wines of Puerto Rico, our day was done. Where else could one find such a large variety of spirits and liqueurs in one setting? Coming next – the wines.

Note: visit Compass Tours to view all pictures.

No comments: