Monday, October 15, 2012

A New Malört for Chicago

I've tried for years to write about Malört, the bitter Chicago curiosity, pitching the story to various publications. But none bit. Not even Edible Chicago, for God's sake! (If any food/drink magazine needs to weigh in on Malört, it's that one, but the editors didn't seem to get it.)

Perhaps part of the problem was that the niche market for the oddball liqueur was a static one. For decades, there was but one brand of the stuff: Jeppson's Malört. But now, suddenly, there has been a 100% increase in selection. That's right: there are now two Malörts on the Chicago market. The second is being made and sold by a bartender at The Violet Hour cocktail bar, in collaboration with a local distiller. It is called R. Franklin’s Original Recipe.

Then again, maybe there is still only one Malört. When writing this piece for the New York Times, I tried to contact the Jeppson's people. They did not get back to me until after the item had ran. Patricia D. Gabelick, president of Jeppson's, had this to say: "what Leatherbee is planning on producing is not a Malört. A true Swedish Malort cannot be over 80 proof. With all the additives and the high proof it certainly sounds like an Absinthe." 

Here's the

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vintage Vodka

"Vintage Vodka" is one of those word combinations you can't help but laugh at the moment you hear it. An oxymoron, no? What spirit is further from expressive whims of the seasons than the hyper-processed vodka? 

Karlsson's, the very serious Swedish vodka producer, however, is not laughing. They consider their experiment in vintage vodkas to be a worthy one. I will admit that there are differences between the 2008 and the 2009, the two vintages that have been released. But you have to pay close attention to notice them, and paying close attention to what they're quaffing is not a quality associated with vodka drinkers. Furthermore, if you chill your vodka, as most do, the differences diminish. And if you mix, as many more do, they are hardly discernible. But, what the hell? Vintage vodka. Why not, if the people want it? (And they seem to. The first vintage is all but sold out.) Particularly if the vodka is of as high a quality at Karlsson's. 

Vintage flavored vodkas, however, is where I am going to draw the line!

Here's my article: 

Vodka That’s No Small Potatoes
Vintages and vodka would seem to be mutually exclusive drinking concepts. Vintages belong to the world of wine, where weather and growing conditions can alter what ends up in the bottle from year to year. Vodka, meanwhile, can be distilled from any number of source materials, anywhere at anytime, and sold almost immediately. Nature’s many variables are not a big factor.
Karlsson’s, a boutique vodka company in Sweden, intends to give these preconceptions a good shake. The company has already earned a reputation for putting out an unusually distinctive vodka, one that tastes markedly of the potatoes from which it’s distilled. Now it has begun releasing “vintage” vodkas, each one distilled from a single potato variety, grown on a particular farm during a single season. No one, to the company’s knowledge, has done this before.
“The idea behind the company from the very beginning was to see if we can say something about what’s inside the bottle rather than what’s outside the bottle,” said Peter Ekelund, who founded Karlsson’s in 2007. “Will a vodka taste different if you pick different types of potatoes in different places?”
The company has built up a “library” of distillates, Mr. Ekelund said, each derived from different potatoes reaped from individual harvests. “We started with 30 different potatoes,” he said. “We found 15 were useless for making vodka.” The others were tested, experimented upon and cataloged. Just as with grapes, the company found that hot or wet weather can create distinct taste characteristics in potatoes.
The 2008 vintage, which sold briskly when it was released this year, used a hearty russet-skinned tuber known as Old Swedish Red, which, Mr. Ekelund said, was popular in Sweden a century ago. The 2009 vintage, to be released in November, was made with the Solist potato, a small, round, yellow specimen. (Both types are used in the seven-potato blend that constitutes the company’s standard vodka, Karlsson’s Gold.)
Jim Meehan, the cocktail authority who owns the East Village bar PDT, had a chance to taste the entire range of Karlsson’s vintage vodkas. “They’ve captured the nuances of each vodka’s terroir and typicity like a great winemaker does,” he said.
Though the variations in taste between the two vintages would probably vanish if either were mixed with tonic or soda, sipped neat they are apparent. The 2008 is earthy and robust, while the 2009 has a softer, more mellow flavor. (The company is rolling out the 2009 only now for reasons unrelated to aging, which has no effect on vodka unless it is barreled.)
Because of limited quantities — the 2009 will be released in an edition of about 1,980 bottles — the vodka does not come cheaply. The 2009 is priced at $80, which is $45 more than Karlsson’s Gold.
Mr. Ekelund hopes the vintage products will convince his countrymen to think more favorably of the lowly spud. “In my country, we have kind of looked down on potatoes as a source of food,” he said. “But it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Would Keats Drink?

Probably nothing, he was sick so much of his short life.

But that sad fact is no reason to get in the way of so silly an idea as a commemorative cocktail to mark the centenary of Poetry Magazine. (These days, it seems every event, no matter in what field, has to have a signature cocktail.)

Here's my account of the oddball libation:
Ode to a Cocktail
What would Keats drink?
On Thursday, at a celebration in Chicago honoring the centenary of Poetry magazine, guests will raise a cocktail created especially for the occasion. Named the Hippocrene — the mythological source of poetic inspiration — it is the work of Brian West, a web developer at Columbia College Chicago and cocktail enthusiast, and is primarily inspired by John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Mr. West became interested in mixology during the three and a half years he worked as Web producer for the Poetry Foundation, which publishes the magazine. When he was asked to create the drink, he said in an e-mail, he looked at the myth around the Hippocrene spring and the Pegasus, but also at a few lines from “Ode to a Nightingale.” As the tale goes, Pegasus — the winged horse that has long been the symbol of Poetry magazine — struck the mythical Mount Helicon, a peak sacred to the muses, and out gushed the Hippocrene.
The fountain is invoked in many poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale.” The lines Mr. West focused on came from the second stanza:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
“It was obvious that we needed a sparkling wine,” said Mr. West, pointing to those “beaded bubbles winking” in the stanza’s seventh line. “I was also inspired by the line, ‘Tasting of Flora and the country green,’ to add some herbal notes with gin, mint, ginger and basil,” he said.
He found both Prosecco and Korbel Extra Dry performed nicely as the sparkling wine in his concoction, and for the gin — given Keats’s British heritage, what other base spirit would have been appropriate? — Mr. West thinks Ransom Old Tom Gin, Farmer’s Gin and Small’s Gin work best. The ginger in the drink comes in the form of ginger liqueur, and the mint arrives as mint tea. The drink also includes lemon juice, grapefruit juice and grapefruit bitters. (With so many glories of the garden in this concoction, surely Wordsworth would have joined Keats in a glassful.)
The event, where the cocktail will be unveiled, will also commemorate the publication of “The Open Door,” an anthology of 100 poems collected from Poetry’s archives, published by the University of Chicago Press. The magazine was founded in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe.