Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Effen Vodka and Architecture at the Wit

I’m often asked how I choose the events I go to. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing and other times it’s something that just makes me stop and go “Wow, I’ve got to get there.” The Effen Vodka Party at the Wit Hotel the latter – and I wasn’t disappointed.

It was a first for me in many respects. I had never made it to Chicago’s Theatre District, never been to the Wit Hotel and had yet to learn about the rich architectural history of the Windy City. And how can you say “No” to an invitation that arrives on a USB drive accompanied by a bottle of vodka?! The one thing that was familiar to me was Effen Vodka. I had sampled it during My Flavored Vodka Party and was quite a fan of the black cherry.

The party took me to the rooftop of the Wit Hotel for one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. It was a cool night so the party remained inside, where I was warmed by as much Effen as I wanted. Before I get to the plentiful drink selection with the incredible cocktail choices, I have to mention the other purpose of the party. It was to hear about Chicago’s plans for sustainable designs directly from one of its top architects, Jonathan Boyer of Farr Associates. The talk was interesting and informative, and easily understood as I looked at the beautiful skyscrapers in front of me.

Beam Global has never been one to shy away from the unusual cocktail (love that Red Stag with just about anything) and they were full of imagination with Effen for this night. There were four feature cocktails with anything else we could possibly want available. Here are three of the evening’s favorites…

Susaintable Sour
1.5 oz Effen Vodka
1 oz St. Germain
.5 oz Simple Syrup
.75 oz Fresh Lemon
Pour ingredients over ice, shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with lemon and cherry.

Second City Sparkler
1 oz Effen Black Cherry
.5 oz Domaine De Canton
.5 oz Fresh Limon
Pour first three ingredients over ice, shake and strain into a champagne flute. Top with Prosecco and garnish with a lemon twist.

Green City Gimlet
1.5 oz Effen Vodka
.5 oz Cointreau
.75 oz Fresh Lime
2 Basil Leafs
Muddle one basil leaf and add remaining ingredients over ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a fresh basil leaf.

As usual, I was a bit stifled by the citrus allergy, but Wit mixologist Jonny Abens came through for me with a Limon-less Sparkler and a Gimlet with pineapple instead of lime. Both were incredible. I also have to give a shout out to the Wit’s unbelievable food – Apple and Bacon Pizza, Baked Fresh Ricotta and Grilled Lamb Burgers were just a few of the tasty treats.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Tennessee’s Whiskey Country

Whether it’s Opryland or Graceland, many come to Tennessee for its rich musical background.  There’s no shortage of music here in a variety to suit everyone, but when it comes to beverages, there’s only one that Tennessee owns – good ole American whiskey.

I don’t know that there’s any place more famous worldwide for whiskey than Jack Daniel's and they put on quite a show.   At times I felt like I was on a movie set instead of at a distillery and that may be why they get the crowds.  In the end what really matters is the product, and there’s plenty of quality product at Jack’s and no one goes there without wanting a taste.

We got started with a sample of the Single Barrel, the whiskey with the highest maturation and a 94 proof.  This is a beverage for the true whiskey fan, with its strong oak flavor.  Old No. 7, the one the bartender takes right out when you just say “Jack,” is more a well-rounded whiskey.  You will taste the caramel and vanilla and with much less wood.  I was surprised to learn, though, that it's not No. 7 which is the fastest growing worldwide.  Gentleman Jack owns that title. , It is also the only whiskey in the world that is charcoal-mellowed twice, giving it more spice and fruit, with even less oak taste than the other Jack Daniel’s offerings.

From the spectacular to the quaint is how I’d describe the difference between Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel Distillery, my other Tennessee whiskey stop.  At George Dickel, everything is done by a hands-on process -- there are no computers to be found at this distillery.  The visitors' center at George Dickel was built in 2003, complete with a picnic area. 

George Dickel offers a number of products.  The Barrel Select is aged 12 years and finished at 86 proof.  The Cascade Hollow is the newest blend, aged just over three years and No. 8 Black Label is aged a bit longer for 6-8 years.  My choice was the No. 12 White Label.  This whiskey is 90 proof, aged 8-10 years and a bit sweeter and smoother than the others. 

There are a number of factors involved in giving each whiskey distillery its own unique flavor. The blending combination of corn, malted barley and rye varies in each product.  There’s also usually a slight variation in process that can change the taste.  The wood used for the barrels, as well as the process used to toast it, can change the flavor of the whiskey inside it.  There’s also the water. Distilleries are often built in certain areas to specifically take advantage of the unique spring water, something of which Tennessee has an abundance of. There are so many factors that go in each whiskey it's no wonder there is such a variety.

The best way to taste the difference between whiskies is to visit as many distilleries as you can.  There isn’t a large choice of accommodations around those areas.  Lynchburg, Tennessee, does have a number of Bed & Breakfast establishments, including the Tolley House, the Mulberry House and Lynchburg Bed & Breakfast

I stayed in Nashville during this trip at the Hermitage. Since we were on a tight schedule I didn’t get to check out much of the hotel, but I hope to go back soon.  I did get to make a short trip to the Grand Ole Opry, which you can’t miss if you head to Nashville.  I also suggest checking out the official website of Tennessee tourism.  It’s easy to navigate and contains lots of information for your trip.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Create your own adventure with Wine Travel Guides

It's hard to keep up with all the wine regions out there all over the world.  One site on the web  is making it a little easier to navigate your way around European wine. Wine Travel Guides has over 50 guides with 2,500 pages worth of information -- for free!

I don't usually write about websites, but I was quite impressed with Wine Travel Guides.  It provides detailed guides for trip planning or interesting reads for the armchair traveler.  The guides are divided into France, Italy and Spain and then broken down into very specific regions. Within Burgundy, for example, there are guides for Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and northern Beaujolais and Heart of Beaujolais

The pages on each region on Wine Travel Guides offer in-depth information on the area's wines, places to stay, food of the region, visiting wineries and additional detail. All of the guide writers are well-published and experienced in the regions they write about.  Though it isn't quite clear on the website, all of this information is free of charge.  The only thing that costs a nominal fee are the PDF printouts of the wine guides, which are completely optional.

Photo of Savagnin vines on the steep vineyard terraces below the hilltop village of Château-Chalon. © Wink Lorch

Saturday, April 3, 2010

History and Whiskey in Mount Vernon

Washington, DC is so full of attractions we often forget its namesake’s home, but a trip to Mount Vernon is well worth it.  It’s not surprising that this estate is a landmark full of history, but not many realize that some of that history is the spirited kind.

My trip to Mount Vernon actually began at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia called The Majestic.  It’s a small place that you can easily miss on this busy street, but it’s worth checking out the extensive cocktail list (loved the Mint Julep) and Nana’s Sunday Dinner (incredible Tiramisu, something I’m not usually wild about).  After dinner I was lucky enough to be able to stay at the Mount Vernon Guest Quarters, owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.  This group is actually the oldest national historic preservation organization in the U.S. – and quite hospitable.

The next day it was off from the quaint house to the big house, Mount Vernon.  Though the property now has a modern museum and classrooms, it still retains many of the rooms and all of the beauty the Washingtons gave it.  Over one million people pass through the buildings each year, gazing at the room George Washington first learned he was president, looking at the bedroom he and Martha shared and taking in the beautiful view of the Potomac River.  It was in this estate that Washington coined the phrase, “The sun should not catch you sleeping,” and he did little of that while entertaining guests and running the United States.

Beyond the beautiful estate is something newly developed and unexpected – a gristmill and distillery. George Washington is of course the “father of our country,” but how many know he’s also the father of whiskey?  In 1797, eight years after he was inaugurated as president, he began commercial distilling at Mount Vernon.  The distillery was a quick success and was enlarged by 1798.  The George Washington Distillery was a huge success until his death in 1799.  The property remained without use until 1932, when the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased it, reconstructing the gristmill and miller’s cottage, with plans to redo the distillery.

With a large donation from Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the project to recreate George’s Washington’s Distillery began.  The gristmill was opened to the public in 2002 and the Distillery in 2007, after ten years of research and reconstruction.  In addition to the working distillery, this site at Mount Vernon has become the Gateway to the American Whiskey Trail.  There is a museum upstairs which chronicles the history of the spirit, and a movie to tell you even more about it.

Even though I grew up on the east coast and made many trips to the area, this was my first to this estate.  A trip to Mount Vernon and George Washington’s Distillery, both of which are open daily, is a must the next time you are in the D.C. area.   And maybe someday (laws permitting) you will actually be able to sample the beverage of a president at his home.

The George Washington Distillery is also the official start of the American Whiskey Tour, which not only includes “whiskey,” but also encompasses rum in the Puerto Rico & St. Croix and Bourbon in Kentucky.  Check back for more about other distilleries along this trail.