Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thirst Boston: Creating and Catching the Rising Tide of Cocktails

"We do what we love and don't let anything scare us from doing it."
--Chris Cusack

How do you succeed at business, and more specifically in the bartending industry? Most of the seminars at Thirst Boston held on Monday were trade-focused, providing very practical information for bartenders, mixologists and others. Even if you weren't in the bartending industry, some of the seminar topics had cross-application to a number of other fields and were worth attending. Just reread the initial quote I posted and see how it can easily apply to so many different endeavors.

This advice, and much more, was provided at a seminar called Creating and Catching the Rising Tide of Cocktails, which's description stated: "Why are some cocktail cities better known than others? How do some cocktail bars catch a wave when others watch it roll by? What is it about some bartenders that draws others into their world to the point that their notoriety propels them to a position of influence and credibility?" The seminar was also subtitled, "How to make yourself, your bar and your market famous." I don't own a bar. or have any plans to own one. I also don't work in a bar and probably never will. However, I found value in this seminar.

The presenters at this seminar included: Ian McLaren, Director of Advocacy for Bacardi USA (who moderated the seminar); Lesley Ross, beverage director of Canard in Houston, Texas; Sean Muldoon, owner of the Dead Rabbit in New York City; and Chris Cusack,  a co-owner of Treadsack, a restaurant group in Houston. Each had a fascinating tale to tell, about their rise in the business, and they shared some of their insights with the attendees.

Ian led off the seminar providing some statistics about the bartending industry, showing some of the influence of bartenders as well as that of the cocktail enthusiast community. To start off, there are approximately 700,000 to 800,000 bartenders in the U.S. More than 50% of those bartenders identify as "an authority on cocktails." Interestingly, about 44% of all the drinks served by bartenders are recommendations. Those recommendations can help shape the market as well as better define the style and concept of a bar. It also shows how many people put trust into their bartender to select a cocktail for them. It is thus important for bartenders to form a rapport with their customers, to create a bond of trust which will lead to more recommendations.  

The global bartending community is well connected nowadays, and it is often easy to trace the influences of specific bartenders and bars through a community. Bartenders commonly change careers every 2.5 to 3 years, meaning that is the approximate length of a generation. Fortunately, those bartenders train replacements and others before they move on, continuing the traditions and spreading their influence. It is a network of bartenders, a spiderweb that spreads across cities and states, and sometimes even across the country.

The cocktail enthusiast community is important in supporting the bartender community, especially as they are a vocal community, one active on social media. They assist in spreading the word about favored bartenders and bars, telling others about special events, and much more. It would be far more difficult for bartenders to attain fame without this vocal community of enthusiasts. Ian stated that there was no better time than now to "publish your message."

For the rest of the seminar, Ian posed a number of questions to the other three panelists. They shared their experiences, and some of their answers differed from each other, simply indicating that there is no single path to success. What works for one person may not work for another. However, that doesn't mean you can't garner wisdom from the experiences of others.  I'm going to share some of what I consider the most valuable advice from these panelists.

What does success mean? Both Sean and Chris had similar responses, essentially that you must never be content with what you have accomplished. You must continue to evolve, to strive for your next goal and not sit on your laurels. All three panelists have lofty goals and continue working very hard to create more and more.

What are foundations of building an empire? The three answers to this question were different in some respects. Sean stated you should set yourself the most distant goal and then move toward it, noting that luck plays a part as well. Leslie also stated you should set your goal but then backtrack the steps to what will get you there. This will better help you differentiate your goals from your dreams, what is realistic against what is unrealistic. For Chris, the key was managing your priorities.

During a brief discussion on the role of the broader community's importance to success, Leslie made a fascinating point, which I've paraphrased as "Knowledge is a vessel that can get full so you must give some away so you have room for more." The importance of sharing information and experience with others is an important aspect. It can help spread your influence as well as enhance your reputation.

Who is your competition? Leslie stated that everyone is your competition and that you must always be paying attention to prevent surprises. You also should learn from others, including those with other skills sets and in other industries. Ian also added that you need to define your enemy and then try not to emulate them or their actions.

How do you get the word out? Chris stated that you should do the type of things that media pays attention to, often the biggest, craziest, and most fun. However, Chris also noted that there are many stories that the mainstream media won't cover, but which are deserving of attention. In that regard, Chris created his own magazine about the cocktail industry to cover such stories. I also think blogs can help in this respect, telling stories that the mainstream media might not want to cover.

At the end of the seminar, Ian showed a short TED video, with a man dancing alone at some public event. In a short time, someone else started dancing with him and eventually a large crowd was all dancing together. The idea was that the first follower is also a type of leader and new followers will actually follow the first follower rather than the leader.  The original leader should treat his initial followers as equal, as their importance cannot be underestimated. As the size of the group grows, people see less risk in getting involved so are more likely to participate.

Now starting working toward your own goals.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Thirst Boston: New Kids On The Block--Whisky From Unexpected Places

You probably know about Bourbon from Kentucky, Scotch from Scotland, and Irish Whiskey from Ireland. You might even know about the wonderful whiskey now being produced in Japan. However, were you aware, or have you ever tasted, whiskey made in France, England, Taiwan or India?  

At Thirst Boston, you had the opportunity to taste whiskey made in these countries at a fascinating seminar called New Kids On The Block: Whisky From Unexpected Places and its description stated: "These days whiskey means so much more than Scotch and Bourbon. From France to Taiwan, American bartenders and whiskey drinkers are now able to drink delectable brown potations from across the globe whether it be Japanese whisky from a 90 year old distillery or some of the first releases from an English upstart." It was intriguing to be able to taste whiskey from these countries, to obtain a glimpse into the differences they bring to this category.

The presenters at this seminar included: Scott Pugh, VP of Sales & Product Development for Venturi Brands, which owns Vicomte French Whisky; Gardner Dunn, Beam Suntory National Brand Ambassador for Hibiki, Yamazaki and Hakushu Japanese Whiskies; Gregory Fitch of Anchor Distilling representing Kavalan Whisky; and Raj Sabharwal, owner of Purple Valley Imports, sole importer of Amrut Whisky, the only Indian whisky currently in the US, and the English Whisky Company

In 2015, Americans consumed approximately 830 million liters of whiskey, and that amount continues to grow each year. Americans are enamored with whiskey and love exploring the various brands they find on the shelves of their local liquor shops. As they peruse these shelves, they're likely to start seeing whiskey made in countries not commonly know for whiskey production. I'm sure that will intrigue many whiskey lovers though they might not be willing to buy an unknown product. However, I encourage these consumers to expand their palates and try these new whiskies, as these countries are making some damn good whiskey.

From France comes the Vicomte 8 Year Old Single Malt ($40-$45) which is produced by a 3rd generation distillery located in the Cognac region. The distillery once provided bulk product for Cognac but eventually decided to make a product for themselves. They begin with 100% organic barley, grown and harvested in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. The whiskey is distilled twice in copper pot stills before going into French Oak Limousin Barrels for about six months. Then, it is aged for about 8 years in first-fill Cognac barrels.

This was a delicious, easy-drinking whiskey which might remind you of bourbon with its sweet vanilla and caramel notes. There were also some fruity notes, some apricot and citrus, with a touch of chocolate. Silky and smooth, it would be a great introductory whiskey which should appeal to many drinkers. The Vicomte was made to be easy to mix in cocktails and I think it would work well in that regard.

Vicomte started aging their whiskey about 12 years ago so they are planning to release a 12 Year Old whiskey in the near future. This is the second French whiskey I've ever tasted and both pleased me. There are only a handful of French whiskies available in the U.S. and I would recommend you check out the Vicomte.

The Kavalan Single Malt is made in Taiwan and I have previously written about this distillery and several of their whiskies so I encourage you to check out that prior post, Kavalan: Taiwan Whiskey In short, Kavalan is making some amazing whiskies.

During the last hundred years, Japan has made huge strides in the production of whiskey and now win top international awards for their products. Most whiskey lovers will confirm that Japan is making many fantastic whiskies and now they are eagerly sought. I'm a fan of Japanese whiskies and have written about them before such as Nikka Whisky. Suntory Whisky, which makes the Hibiki, Yamazaki and Hakushu brands, is all about innovation. With an assortment of different types of stills, different oaks, different grains, and more, they can produce about 160 different styles of whiskey. That gives them a huge amount of "ingredients" for the art of blending, which is vitally important to them.

Their former Master Blender used to eat the same meal every day, Tempura Udon, to keep his palate neutral. In addition, he didn't smoke and wouldn't eat garlic. That is certainly dedication and discipline. His replacement has been emulating a similar diet for the last nine years, though he's eating Soba instead of Udon. The Master Blender always thinks he can make a better whiskey, continually working toward perfection though he knows he will never reach that ideal. Hibiki is intended to be a "blend of harmony," and the foundation of their Hibiki product line.

The Hibiki Japanese Harmony ($60-$70) is a blend of at least 10 malt and grain whiskies, aged in five different barrel types, including American white oak, Sherry casks, and Mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels. The whiskies also come from three different distilleries, including Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. I think the Master Blender has accomplished their goal, with a whiskey with a fascinating and harmonious blend of flavors. It is light and on the sweeter side, with notes of honey, caramel, candied fruits and baking spices, though there is also a touch of smokiness and floral accents. It has an intriguing depth of flavors, with a long, pleasing finish. You really need to sample the wonders of Japanese whiskies.

It might surprise you to learn that India is the largest whiskey consumer in the world. Once you understand that fact, then it is easier to understand why they might start producing their own whiskey too. Amrut Distilleries was founded back in 1948 in Bangalore and they initially produced rum, considering that India is also the world's second largest producer of sugarcane. In addition, most of the whiskey produced in India is molasses based, though that is primarily consumed within the country. During the 1970s, they started producing single malts, though only for blended whiskies. However, now at least a couple distilleries have started to bottle single malts on their own.

Amrut makes a number of different single malts, using Indian barley, grown at the base of the Himalayan Mountains, and which is only used for brewing/distillation. They do not use age statements and the intense heat of the region matures their whiskey much quicker than usual. It is said that 1 year of aging in Bangalore is equivalent to about 3 years in Scotland. In addition, and as expected, they lose plenty of whiskey to the angel's share, as much as 15% in a single year.

The Amrut Fusion Single Malt (about $65), which was released in 2011, is a "marriage" of 75% unpeated and 25% peated 100% barley whiskey which is then aged for another six to nine months in ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at 100 proof. I enjoyed this whiskey too, finding it light bodied with an interesting and complex blend of flavors, including caramel, intense spices, citrus and a touch of smoke. Smooth and easy drinking, this is another whiskey which should appeal to a wide audience. It makes me want to try the rest of the Amrut portfolio.

Finally, we end up in England, with the first and now oldest whiskey distillery in that country, with about 5 whiskey distilleries now in the country.  Established in 2008, the St. George's Distillery is the home of the English Whisky Company, a name change which was necessary for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with a similarly named company. They received initial distillation advice from the legendary Iain Henderson, formerly of Laphroaig, so they started from a strong place.

The English Whiskey Co. Peated Cask Strength ($100-$110), at 60.9% ABV, is made from estate grown barley, was aged for about 4-5 years, and uses peat from the mainland of Scotland rather than the islands. That is a very important difference as the peat lacks the salinity you find from the islands and in addition, the inland peat doesn't express as strongly. The peat level in this whiskey is 55 parts per million (ppm), which is actually higher than Laphroaig at 50ppm. However, the English whiskey tastes much less smoky than the Laphroaig though you wouldn't expect that to be the case. There are notes of bacon fat amidst the mild smokiness, as well as caramel and toffee notes, with mild citrus, nuttiness, and vanilla. A complex and intriguing taste, with a fuller body and a lengthy, satisfying finish.

The main takeaway is that delicious and interesting whiskey is now being made all over the world and you should take the opportunity to try some of these new whiskies. You might just find a new favorite. And as these new countries gain more knowledge and experience, their whiskey will only  evolve and improve. Don't be a whiskey snob and  be willing to expand your palate.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thirst Boston: Mezcal & Beyond

One of the seminars which I most looked forward to at Thirst Boston was Mezcal & Beyond, and its  description stated: "Some version of mezcal--from the Nahuatl word meaning “oven cooked agave”-- is made in every one of the 31 states of Mexico, utilizing a wide range of production techniques and dozens of different species of agave. One of the few distilled spirits to exhibit terroir--a true sense of where it comes from--tasting it easily leads to discussions of history, geography, culture, language, cuisine and politics. Join some of the movers and shakers of today’s mezcal revolution and get a peek into this fascinatingly vast and astoundingly delicious category." The seminar included a tasting component, a chance to taste several intriguing Mezcals, including one which is not even commercially available yet.

The presenters at this seminar included Sergio Mendoza, the creator of the Derrumbes line of Mezcal; Arik Torren, the US importer of Fidencio Mezcal; Misty Kalkofen, Mezcal ambassador for Del Maguey; and Jake Lustig, who has created, owned, distributed, and developed range of Mexican spirits from tequilas to mescals, and represented Mina Real Mezcal. The passion of these individuals for Mezcal was more than evident and we could have spent several hours discussing a wide range of Mezcal-related issues, from NOM 199 to sustainability. They had to rein in some of their excitement, knowing that there was only a limited amount of time for the seminar.

The session began with some basic information about Mezcal, an introduction to this intriguing Mexican spirit (you can learn some basics in one of my recent posts). The discussion then ranged across a variety of topics with a significant discussion involving the effects of the Mezcal Denominación de Origen (DO), mostly concluding that the DO system should evolve and change, with an important goal of protecting people and not just the product. There was a thought that maybe the Mezcal DO was too large and should be changed to cover smaller regions instead, In addition, all of the states which make Mezcal should be included and these smaller DOs should also reflect the regional names for Mezcal.

I'm not sure that would be the best option and think that rather than destroy the existing Mezcal DO, that maybe you could work within its rules. These are only some preliminary ideas which came to mind during this seminar and more thought needs to be dedicated to the concept. Within the wine appellation system, you sometimes find sub-appellations, smaller geographic areas within the larger protected region. Why not apply that concept to Mezcal?

Keeping the larger Mezcal DO, a number of sub-appellations for each of the states within the DO could be created. Those sub-appellations would all be able to call themselves Mezcal, but as a sub-appellation they also could use their own regional name if they possessed one. The Mezcal DO should also be expanded to include many other Mexican states within the DO and not limit themselves to the current 9 or so.

At one point during the seminar, Misty made an interesting comparison, stating that the cooking of agave piñas is similar in some respects to a traditional New England clambake on the beach. That could be an excellent way to explain the tasting process to local people. Misty also stated that the texture of Mezcal is very important to her and that by adding water to it will change that texture. So, she did not advise on adding water to Mezcal as you might do it to a strong whiskey. I've heard others with a country opinion, who suggested you might want to add a little water if the alcohol content was too high for you.

The sustainability of agave, especially where it involves tequila and Blue Weber agave, has often been discussed yet another sustainability issue was raised during this seminar, an issue which receives far less attention and is more specific to Mezcal. When roasting agave, wood is the most commonly used fuel, yet the sustainability of the forest is not considered as much as it should be. Erik mentioned how Fidencio addresses this issue, by purchasing old oak staves for 50% of their fuel source. Mina Real also uses brick ovens to avoid consuming firewood.

Onto the tastings...

The Mina Real Blanco (about $27-$35) is produced in a 300-year old distillery located in the town of Santa Catarina Minas in Oaxaca. It is made from 100% Espadin agave, which grows at an altitude of 4800 feet., and it has a 42% ABV. The piñas are steamed, rather than roasted, in cantera stone kilns (cantera being a local volcanic rock) and it is distilled in clay pots.  Lacking the usual smoky aroma or taste of other Mezcals, it is more floral and fruity, with a smooth, clean taste. There are citrus flavors, a mild earthy aspect and some intriguing chocolate notes. Jake even recommended putting a shot of this Mezcal into your coffee. This would make for an excellent introductory Mezcal, a gateway to the wide world of Mezcal and helping to dispel the myth that all Mezcal must be smoky.  

The Fidencio Tobala ($130-$145) has roots back over 120 years, when Fidencio Jimenez started making Mezcal. The distillery is located in Santiago Matatlán in Oaxaca and they started their own Espadin agave farm back in the 1950s.  Interestingly, they practice organic and Biodynamic agriculture including harvesting during the new moon. They believe the moon phases effect the flavor of the agave and that the new moon leads to a more delicate Mezcal. Based on some quick research, they might be the only Mezcal distillery involved in Biodynamic agriculture.

Fidencio only does a single batch of wild agave each year and though they don't label their Mezcals as "vintage," they are identified by a Lot number which essentially tells you the year of harvest. This Fidencio Tobala was Lot 12, indicating it was from the 2012 harvest, and it has a 45.5% ABV. In the production, they used a horse-drawn tahona to crush the piñas and roast them using Encino, a special type of American black oak. Fermentation occurs in 1000 liter pine vats, the porous wood supporting the bloom of bacteria, and then distillation occurs in a copper pot still. I was impressed with this Mezcal, finding it complex and intriguing. It was silky smooth, with a mild smokiness and pleasing citrus and herbal notes. On the lengthy finish, there was a nice peppery element. Slowly savored, this is the type of Mezcal that will make you think, relishing each unique flavor you discover. Highly recommended.

Del Maguey was founded in 1995 by Ron Cooper who is largely responsible for introducing the U.S. to artisanal, traditional Mezcal. They produce a series of single village Mezcals, made by small, family producers and which are also 100% organic. The Del Maguey Papalote is currently not available commercially and won't be released into the market until around August 2016. This Mezcal was produced by Aurelio Gonzalez Tobon, the 9th family that Del Maguey is working with, and the first family located outside Oaxaca.

This Mezcal is from the region of Puebla and initially, Del Maguey was going to release this spirit as a "distillate of agave" as Puebla wasn't included in the Mezcal DO.  However, they met some resistance from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) who seemed to have trouble understanding why this could;t be labeled as Mezcal. The delay though had a silver lining as in 2015, Puebla was finally added to the Mezcal DO so now Del Maguey didn't have to call it a distillate of agave. Papalote is the Puebla name for the Tobala agave and Del Maguey wants to use the regional name out of respect for the region and family producing the Mezcal.

This Mezcal is made in a traditional way, roasting piñas in a horno, fermenting in an open air vat, and distilled for about 35 hours in a copper pot still. In some respects, this Mezcal reminded me of the Fidencio, which isn't surprising as they both use the same type of agave. It too was complex and intriguing though it tended to possess more of a floral aspect and fruit flavors of pear and apple. There was only a mild smokiness, a very lengthy finish without the pepper of the Fidencio. This was an elegant Mezcal, another one which you will want to slowly savor with good friends.  Highly recommended.

The Derrumbes San Luis Potosi ($70) is produced by Emanuel Perez in the village of Charcas in the state of San Luis Potosí.  It is made from Salmiana, a wild agave which has a very low yield, and has a 43.5% ABV. The piñas are cooked above ground using some dried agave leaves, and thus is is not as smoky as some Mezcals, and is later fermented in clay pots. I found this Mezcal to have strong vegetal and herbal flavors, including some jalapeño, pepper, and floral notes. There was also an intriguing streak of minerality in this Mezcal, with a powerful finish that presented a complex and harmonious blend of citrus and spice. There is plenty going on within this Mezcal yet it all works well together. Another delicious Mezcal you should check out.

Drink more Mezcal!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Back by popular demand, Chef Tony Maws’ Guest Chef “Top Dogs” series returns to The Kirkland Tap & Trotter for its second year—featuring a new lineup of culinary all-stars, ready to serve their unique takes on an American summer classic. From June-September, one guest chef per month will step into the kitchen, creating a limited-time version of their “Top Dog,” which will be offered Monday nights alongside Chef Maws’ original Kirkland Dog ($16 each).

A lifelong Frank fanatic, Chef Maws initially created the series to celebrate one of his favorite foods; have some fun with chefs he admires; and support an extremely important cause. After raising $8,500 for the organization in 2015, Chef Maws will once again donate 50% of the proceeds from the guest chef hot dogs to No Kid Hungry, a national non-profit working to end childhood hunger in the United States.

This year’s Top Dogs will be created by Kristen Kish (formerly of Menton), Susan Regis (Shepard), Tim Cushman (O-Ya, Hojoko), and Andrew Taylor & Mike Wiley (Eventide Oyster Co.). The four chefs will be on hand at Kirkland to present their dogs for the first night of their series. Guests who visit Kirkland for the Top Dog series will get a punch card and are encouraged to return to try each chef’s version. Those who successfully order all four dogs will be entered for a chance to work with Tony Maws’ team and create their own hot dog, which will then be featured on the menu in October.

Top Dog Schedule (only available on Mondays):
June 6 – June 27: Kristen Kish
July 11 – July 25: Susan Regis
August 1 – August 29 : Tim Cushman
September 12 – September 26: Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley
Guest chefs will only be present at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter on the first Monday listed; their hot dogs will be available on each Monday until the next chef’s appearance.

Last year the chefs really let their imaginations run wild,” says Chef Maws. “We had everything from a Japanese Ball Park Street Dog, to a Jersey Italian Hot Dog, an Icelandic Lamb Dog, and a ‘Rhody Dog’ topped with calamari! I know this group will take our hot dog to a whole new level. I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with, and am thrilled to work together to benefit a great cause!

2) Society on High, located in the Financial District, invites Bostonians to get Shipwrecked at Society on June 11, from 3pm-7pm, for their second installment of Surf & Turf Socials. Society on High's Surf & Turf Socials sizzle on the newly-design Society patio on the second Saturday of every month.

Shipwrecked at Society brings together Boston's sailors, pirates, and mermaids at heart for a Saturday afternoon social with complimentary, nautical-themed surf & turf bites (think lobster and sliders), specialty drinks with Sailor Jerry rum, tunes spun by some of Boston's best DJs, and more!

HOW: RSVPs are strongly recommended for groups of 10 or more. Special packages for offices parties or corporate groups are available. Theme attire welcome. Complimentary food while supplies last.

3) Chef/Owner Will Gilson and the Puritan and Co. team invite guests to join them for a night of all things Rosé at their second annual Rosé Rumble. This event will offer guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in the best rosés in Boston like a true insider. Taking place on Wednesday, July 13, the Rosé rumble will showcase a variety of rosés for guests to taste, discuss, and learn about while enjoying bites from Chef Will Gilson and the Puritan and Co. team.

The night will feature two, separately ticketed sessions- one at 5:30 p.m. and one at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $75 and can be purchased here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rose-rumble-2016-tickets-25272381373.

4) The Terrace Bar at Legal Sea Foods in Charles Square is ready to bring on summer. Each month from June through August, Legal Sea Foods will offer “Endless Summer” themed eats exclusive to its al fresco Terrace Bar situated in front of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.

Since Legals feels that “Taco Tuesdays” should be a daily occurrence, the Terrace Bar kitchen will host their “Total Taco Takeover” every day in June. For thirty days and nights, Legals will serve up a collection of tacos for less than $5 each: Crispy Fried Fish with avocado, pico de gallo, pickled red cabbage and chipotle mayo ($3.95); Ancho Chili Braised Chicken with salsa verde, queso blanco and pickled red onion ($3.95); Spicy Tuna Crudo with avocado, peppadew peppers and crudito ($4.95); and, Grilled Shrimp with corn salsa, queso blanco and chipotle mayo ($4.95).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thirst Boston: Sacred Bond Pop-Up

The quality of the ingredients in your cocktail can make a significant difference in its taste. For example, if you're making a Manhattan and use a higher quality Vermouth, the cocktail is going to taste much better than if you use some cheap Vermouth which lacks in flavor. The problem is that too many people don't think much about secondary ingredients like Vermouth, feeling that only the quality of the Whiskey is important. However, you need to consider the quality all of the alcohols and mixers in your drink.

Brandy is another of those secondary ingredients which many people don't think much about. They buy the cheapest brandy they can find, thinking it won't matter much but it actually does. Sure, you don't need to spend $100 for some rare Brandy but you should be willing to pay a reasonable amount for a quality Brandy which will elevate the flavor profile of your cherished cocktail.

Let me offer you a Brandy recommendation.

At Thirst Boston, I checked out the Sacred Bond Pop-Up Bar, which was led by Lynn House, a master mixologist and the National Brand Educator for Heaven Hill Brands. Lynn was showcasing The Christian Brothers Sacred Bond Bottled-In-Bond Brandy (about $25) which will be released soon in about ten markets, including Boston. And this is a delicious Brandy that you should stock at your home for your cocktails.

The Christian Brothers, founded in 1882 in the San Joaquin Valley, California, was a religious order of monks who made wine and brandy. Still in San Joaquin, the company currently makes a line of different brandies and this new product was made to honor the original monks. The Sacred Bond is a grape brandy, made with California grapes, which is distilled in copper pot stills. Though this Brandy is produced and aged in San Joaquin Valley, the finished product is shipped to Kentucky where it is then bottled.

In accordance with the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, this brandy has been produced in a single distillation season, by one distiller, at one distillery. In addition, it has been aged for 4 years in American white oak bourbon barrels, in a federally bonded warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. Very few spirits qualify to be bottled-in-bond.

I first tried some of this Brandy on its own and was very pleased with its smooth, flavorful taste. It is more full bodied, with delicious and bright flavors of red fruits and ripe plum, with mild spice notes and a vanilla backbone. There was even a hint of chocolate on the finish. Despite it being 100 proof, the alcohol was well integrated and there was only a mild heat at the finish, not what you might expect at all. With its full flavors and complexity, this would enhance any cocktail and Lynn mentioned that the Sacred Bond was created to enhance cocktails.

I tried the three cocktails they had for sampling, including a Ginger Sidecar, Brandy Smash and Temptress. In each cocktail, the Brandy took the dominant role, rather than as a supporting ingredient. And each cocktail worked well, providing a delicious and well-balanced drink. My favorite of the three was the Brandy Smash, made with 2 oz Sacred Bond, 1/2 oz Fresh lemon juice, 1/2 oz simple syrup, and 6 mint leaves destemmed. It was fresh and minty, with bright citrus and red berry flavors. Very refreshing, this would be an excellent summer cocktail. The Ginger Sidecar, made with 2 oz Sacred Bond, 1 oz de Domaine Canton, & 1/2 oz Fresh lemon juice, was also very good, with the clean taste of ginger, mild red berries, and bright citrus.  It too would work well for the summer.

The Sacred Bond Bottled-In-Bond Brandy will soon be on liquor store shelves and I recommend you pick up a bottle and try it out with your summer cocktails. I know that I'll be doing that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thirst Boston: Overall Impressions

"To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."
--Homer Simpson

I've spent the last three days sampling and drinking a wild variety of spirits and cocktails, including Rum, Rye, Vodka, Mezcal, Bourbon, Scotch, Gin, Cider, Rhum, Whiskey (from all over the world), Liqueurs, Sake, Baijiu, Water and more. What a fun, educational and tasty three days.

Yesterday, the 3rd Annual Thirst Boston ended and it's now time to reflect and contemplate over my experiences this past weekend, as a media guest, immersed in the world of spirits and cocktails. I filled many pages in my notebook with informationI garnered from this conference. As I've also attended the last two thirst Boston events, it is interesting to compare and contrast the three events, to see how it has evolved over time. In short, this year's Thirst Boston was excellent once again, albeit with some minor issues that could be improved at next year's conference.

This year's event was put together by two local professionals, Maureen Hautaniemi, and Nick Korn, though obviously there was a large group of other people who helped to contribute to the organization and operation of the conference, including sponsors, presenters and volunteers. There were ample individuals at the event with the black Thirst Boston t-shirts, helping to ensure everything ran as smoothly as possible. Logistically, the conference seemed to run very smoothly and largely on time. The staff and volunteers all possessed a positive spirit and were very helpful with questions and issues.

This year, Thirst Boston was held at the Boston Center For Adult Education (BCAE), on Arlington Street, a change from last year's Fairmont Copley Hotel. The conference events were held on two floors, and it was easy to access all of the main seminar events and pop-ups. I think this venue worked well for this type of conference and hope that they return again next year. Each year of Thirst Boston has been held at a different venue and it would be good to have some regularity on the location.

The event begun on Friday night, May 20, with The Thing at the Hampshire House and ended on Monday morning, May 23, with a number of private industry events. In the previous events, the heart of the event took place on Saturday and Sunday but this year they added more events, especially seminars, on Monday too, expanding the size and scope of the conference. Most of the Monday seminars were more trade-focused but they still were open to anyone interested in the various topics.

Ticket prices varied dependent on the event though you could purchase special discounted one, two or three-days passes. At the top was the Cocktail Scholar ($250), saving you $50, which allowed you entry to three seminars on Saturday & Sunday, entry to The Thing and the Blender Blender competition. The Industry Professional ($150), saving you $55, allowed you entry to three seminars on Sunday and Monday, and ticket to the Blender Blender competition. A Saturday Pass ($60), saving you $15,  allowed entry to 3 seminars. while a Sunday Pass ($100), saving you $30, allowed you entry to three seminars as well as Blender Blender.  The Monday Pass ($50), saving you $25, allowed entry to 3 seminars.

Compared to last year's prices, the cost of individual seminars remained the same, $25 per class. The two and three day passes actually cost less this year. As such, prices remain reasonable and even if you are on a very limited budget, you still can experience plenty. For example, if you spent only $25 to attend a seminar on Saturday, you were also able to attend, for free, two Pop-Up Bars, the Boston Shaker Pop-Up Store, the New England Craft Showcase and the State Lines: New England Pop-ups. That is plenty of spirits and cocktails for one low price.

"It takes only one drink to get me drunk. The trouble is I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or the fourteenth."
--George Burns

There was a nice diversity of social events, including the Friday Opening Night Gala, The ThingBlender Blender (a bartender competition of frozen drinks), State Lines: A New England Popup (number of bars offering special local spirits), three Cocktail Dinners (such as Stammtisch: German Feast with Jägermeister) and a couple of After Parties.  Thirst Boston has always been a very social conference, with plenty of parties and after-parties, ample opportunity to drink and mingle with friends old and new, as well as to meet new people. Though I didn't attend the late evening parties, those I spoke to who attended such parties enjoyed themselves.

There were also four Pop-Up Bars with spirits and cocktails from companies such as Mad River Distillers, Anchor Distilling, Konga Line, Sacred Bond, and Lejay Cassis. Essentially, you could taste some spirits neat or in one of a few different cocktails. You could taste all of the different cocktails they were offering and return later to try them again. I stopped by several of the pop-ups and enjoyed much of what I tasted, and will be discussing some specific alcohols and cocktails in a later post.

In addition, there were about 38 seminars, about 15 more than last year's. As last year, each seminar ran for about 90 minutes and they covered a wide diversity of subjects, from local Cider to Japanese Whiskey, from Rhum Agricole to Baijiu. I attended nine seminars, which were generally well attended. Overall, the presenters did a great job and there were tasting components to all of the seminars I attended. At each seminar, your seat also included a bottled water and a pen, and there was also a spit bucket very close. Hydrate and spit, a great way to navigate all of the alcohol you might sample that day.

What I wrote last year about the seminars applied equally as well this year: "Another good aspect of the seminars is that they generally promoted an anti-snobbery attitude, helping to bust some of the myths concerning spirits, especially in regard to what is "the best." No one was put down for whatever they preferred to drink, and exploration and expanding your palate was encouraged. The seminars were often educational, but the presenters also made it fun, so it wasn't a dry, scholarly lecture."

No matter your interest or preferences, there was probably plenty for you to enjoy, and there were certainly lots of opportunities to taste intriguing spirits and cocktails. In the near future, I'll be posting specifics about the seminars I attended.

Once again, Adam Lantheaume of the Boston Shaker (the best cocktail supply store in the Boston area) opened a Pop-Up Shop at Thirst Boston, offering a variety of cocktail related items for sales, from bitters to glassware, books to t-shirts. So many interesting items for purchase and I. bought some bitters.

Some of the interesting spirit and cocktail books that were available.

Lots of bitters, of all flavor types, ready to enhance any cocktail.

Great socks!

Glassware, shakers, and much more.

"There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking."
--Benjamin Franklin

From their website, Thirst Boston is stated to be "... a weekend long cocktail festival focused on education all about cocktails and spirits. We have amazing classes during the day with everything to get you need to get started making cocktails at home, all the way up to career focused education for hospitality professionals. Our nights are full of celebration and fun, with a black tie gala, a bar crawl full of New England's best bars and a blended drink party to put all blended drinks to shame." In addition, the website states that their intent is to be "...a gathering of bartenders, industry icons and beverage connoisseurs from Boston and beyond. Our goal is to educate attendees on the science, craft, and taste of all things related to the art of drink."

The primary attendees at Thirst Boston seem to be those involved in the trade, trying to expand their knowledge, hone their skills, network, and have fun. There is only a small percentage of attendees who are spirit and cocktail enthusiasts, who don't work in the industry. I think many other enthusiasts would benefit from attending Thirst Boston, expanding their own knowledge and learning about a wide variety of spirits and cocktails. Plenty of these people attend tasting events at local liquor stores so why not come to Thirst Boston?

Yesterday, I covered the Diversity issue which I have raised after each Thirst Boston event. Hopefully that post will start a discussion to improve the local spirits and cocktail community.

One of my complaints, which is the same as I voiced last year, is that if you wanted to maximize your experiences at Thirst Boston, trying to attend as much as possible, you had little free time to grab lunch. There was only 15 minutes between each seminar, and during that time, you also might want to check out the pop-up bars. Except for some breakfast foods on Monday, Thirst Boston didn't supply any food to the attendees, not even cheese & crackers. And no food with all that alcohol is not a good thing. It would have been beneficial to have had a food truck or two outside the BCAE for the attendees. Hopefully, Thirst Boston will work on the food issue for the next conference

Thirst Boston fills an important need in the Boston area, providing a large scale spirit & cocktail event. There are plenty of large wine events in the area each year, but spirits and cocktails have far less representation at large events. Their seminars provide important educational information, their tastings provide important opportunities for sampling, and their parties provide fun, social occasions. I look forward to next year's Thirst Boston and hope that it is even bigger and better.

If you attended Thirst Boston, what were your thoughts?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Rant: Seeking Diversity At Thirst Boston

Today is the last day of the third Thirst Boston, "... a weekend long cocktail festival focused on education all about cocktails and spirits." I've attended and enjoyed the previous two Thirst Boston conferences and was very curious whether this new conference would share a disturbing commonality I observed during the prior events. Unfortunately, it did.

I'd said that approximately 90% of the attendees and presenters at Thirst Boston are white. That number hasn't changed since the first Thirst Boston back in 2013. Where are the people of color who love to drink spirits and cocktails? Where are the people of color who work in the spirits and cocktail industry, the bartenders, mixologists, restaurant workers, brewers, distillers, brand ambassadors, media, and others? Why isn't Thirst Boston more diverse?

I don't have answers to these questions but I strongly believe the questions need to be examined in greater depth. Have the organizers of Thirst Boston even thought about this issue? If so, what have they done to remedy the situation? If they haven't done so already, the organizers of Thirst Boston need to be asking these questions and seeking ways to bring more diversity to the event. Is it a marketing issue, that they are not reaching out to the right groups and individuals? Are there reasons why more people of color don't want to attend Thirst Boston?

I'm sure there are plenty of people of color who enjoy spirits and cocktails so why aren't they coming to the largest local spirits & cocktail conference in the Boston area?

Thirst Boston certainly isn't unique in this regard. I've attended a number of other spirits & cocktail events during the last few years and there have been few people of color. This is a far bigger issue than a problem at any single event. It is an issue worthy of examination, analysis and discussion. Let us find ways to attract more people of color to these type of beverage events. Let us try to enhance diversity at this drink events.

Maybe the first step is to start a dialogue, to discuss matters and gain the input of any and everyone who might have an insight into this matter. Please contribute to this discussion by adding a comment here and if we get sufficient comments, maybe we can move forward to a different forum to better address these issues and questions.

Unless we ask these questions and talk about diversity, then nothing will ever get done.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A&B Burgers: Sweet & Salty For The Win

The Burger. A quintessential American food which seems to be growing in popularity, in the U.S. and internationally as well. For example, in 2014, U.S. restaurants served about 9 Billion hamburgers, a growth of 3% from the prior year. New burger joints pop up all the time and it doesn't seem like it will be ending anytime soon. However, where do you find the best burgers? Which restaurants are offering the juiciest, most savory burgers? What factors help differentiate all these burgers from each other?

Let me provide you one recommendation with an analysis of the reasons for my choice.

Last summer, at the Boston Magazine's 4th Annual Battle of the Burger, one of my favorite burgers was the Sweet & Salty Cow from A&B Burgers. The burger consisted of a grilled Black Angus burger topped with Buratta, bacon, fig jam and arugula on a Martin's Potato Roll. As I said before, "The juicy and flavorful burger was enhanced by the balanced sweetness and saltiness of the other ingredients. The burrata also added an additional creaminess which was a nice alternative to other types of cheese." I'd never been to A&B Burgers before but was impressed enough with their burger that I planned to check it out.

At the time, A&B Burgers was located in Salem and readying a move to Beverly, so I decided to wait to check them out after their move. They were closed for a few months and reopened on January 8, 2016. Since then, I've visited the restaurant three times, twice for lunch and once for dinner. They are more than just a burger joint, offering plenty of other delicious dishes, as well as a large beer, cocktail and tequila menu. Their burgers are some of the best in the area, based on a number of factors from their beef sourcing to their method of cooking.

A&B Burgers is owned by Thomas Holland and Amy Constant. Holland, with over 20 years experience in the restaurant industry, has been involved in a number of local restaurants, from Sonsie to Tico, and others outside Massachusetts, such as Alta Strada at MGM Foxwoods and Oritalia in San Francisco. I've spoken with him on multiple occasions and he is clearly personable, passionate, and sincere. It is also obvious that he loves what he does, and you can detect his excitement when he talks about their new oven or discusses their tequila collection.

Constant also has plenty of experience in the restaurant industry, especially as her family operated three restaurants in Connecticut, and she worked with Holland at Alta Strada. She also has significant experience in non-restaurant related sales but eventually returned to the restaurant industry, helping to open and operate A&B Burgers with Holland. I've met Constant too, though have only talked with her briefly.

The new Beverly location, on Cabot Street, is a casual location but still with a certain flair of elegance. Seating more than 120 people at tables and booths, it also possesses a large U-shaped bar. At the front of the restaurant, there are large garage-like doors which can be raised during warm weather providing a patio-like experience. On two of my visits, the garage doors were open. During my dinner visit on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was quite busy and I suspect you should make reservations for the weekends if you hope to get a table.

The Executive Chef is Keith Seeber, who left a corporate job to enter the food industry. The restaurant is open seven days a week, for lunch and dinner. The Lunch menu includes Small Plates (6 choices at $9-$14), Salads (3 choices at $8-$11), Sandwiches (5 at $10-$12), & Burgers (11 choices at $9-$14). For Dinner, the menu expands a bit, adding an additional Small Plate and Entrees (5 choices at $15-$28). You'll find Small Plates like Pan Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Pot Pie, as well as Sandwiches such as the Cubano and Fried Eggplant. Entrees range from Grilled Salmon to Grilled Rack of Lamb. This is more than just a simple burger joint, more a gastropub.

The restaurant has a full bar, specializing in Tequila, and they have approximately 110 tequilas available, with a couple ultra-high end tequilas including the Clase Azul Tequila ($195 per shot) and the Jose Cuervo 250 Aniversario ($225 per shot). Though you might think that such pricey tequilas would sit unopened, they've actually already sold at least two bottles of the Clase Azul since their opening in January. You'll find plenty of other spirits too, including four Mezcals, and a nice list of cocktails, priced $10-$13, such as the Blood Orange Margarita and the Grand Manhattan.

The Ghost ($10) is made with Ghost chili-infused El Jimador tequila, triple sec, housemade sour, simple syrup, & pomegranate juice. As expected, it is spicy hot though not overwhelmingly so, and the cocktail is nicely balanced with some pleasing fruit notes and a mild sweetness that helps to reduce some of the fire. A tasty treat for those who like some heat.

The Seeber ($10) is made with Matusalem, lemon, cilantro, bitters and simple syrup. It too was a nicely balanced cocktail with pleasing herbal accents and citrus notes.

You'll also find about 25 Beers, bottles, cans and on draft, including a number of local choices. There are about 16 Wines available by the glass, and plenty more by the bottle, primarily well known labels. You can even order a Milkshake, either as is or as a special Adult Milkshake with some added alcohol, such as a Mexican Mudslide (with Patron XO Cafe & Bailey's) or a Daddy's Rooter Float (with Myers Rum, Titos Vodka, & Root Liquor). The restaurants is also working on some new milkshake flavors for the near future.

I tried the Chocolate Salted Bourbon, made with bourbon, chocolate syrup, sea salt, & chocolate ice cream. There is a small chunk of thick, housemade whipped cream atop the shake too. It was thick and chocolatey, with the definite taste of bourbon and a salty edge which was a nice contrast to the sweetness. I ordered this shake with dessert, a pleasing ending to my dinner. They are also working on some new milkshake flavors.

I also note that water is served in mason jars and they also carry fresh-brewed, unsweetened iced tea (which makes me happy).

One of the new innovations introduced at their Beverly location has been the installation of a CVap oven, an expensive piece of equipment but which Holland believes has been more than worth the expense. Created by Winston Shelton in the early 1980s, CVap, or Controlled Vapor Technology, was invented to solve the problem of conventional ovens, which tend to dry out food as they heat it. The CVap though creates an environment that surrounds the food with moist vapor which prevents the heated food from losing moisture. The ovens are quite versatile, being able to bake, braise, confit, dehydrate, ferment, poach, roast, sous vide, steam and more.

At A&B Burgers, their CVap oven is large enough that it could cook 650 burgers at once. That is more than sufficient to meet their needs and also allows them the capability to handle large burger events. In this oven, their burgers are slow cooked for nearly two hours and then placed onto the grill for a few minutes for finishing. While in the CVap, the moisture levels in the air and within the burger are maintained so the burger doesn't dry out, despite the lengthy amount of cooking time. That means that your burger should be tender and juicy when it arrives at your table. There is plenty of science behind this entire process, but the proof is always in the results, and the A&B Burgers are all the evidence you will need to understand the great results from the CVap.

Few other local restaurants use the CVap oven, giving A&B an advantage to their burger preparation and cooking. It is one of the significant factors which contributes to them having some of the best burgers in the area. A dry burger is a major turn off and the CVap helps to ensure that your burger arrives moist and juicy.

I've tried several of their Small Plates, generally comfort food which I found quite pleasing. For example, one of the compelling Small Plates is the Louisiana Fried Wings ($10), six crispy fried chicken wings with a side of honey and a house-made BBQ sauce. The outer skin is quite crunchy and crisp, a clean, tasty coating that conceals the moist and meaty chicken. Damn good wings. The BBQ sauce is mildly sweet and a nice addition to the wings, though a touch of honey works well too.  On the Dinner menu, one of the Entrees is Chicken & Waffles, with this same Louisiana Fried Chicken.

Another Small Plate is the Smoked Gouda & Chorizo Mac n' Cheese ($12), with creamy smoked gouda, aged chorizo seco & a Grana Padano crisp. Coming in a cast iron pan, this is an ample portion of creamy and smoky little elbows, which were cooked just right. Though this is an excellent tasting dish, the crisp is addictive all by itself. If you love mac n' cheese, as most people do, this dish will impress.

Still another Small Plate is the New England Charcuterie & Cheese Board ($13), with a number of the products from Moody's Delicatessen in Waltham. Beside the cured meats and cheeses, there is a date and raisin relish, house pickled vegetables, crostini, and whole grain mustard. This is a great way to start a meal, with silky, well-spiced meats, tasty cheeses (including burrata), and pickled veggies.

On the dinner menu, they add a Small Plate, the Seared Veal Meatballs ($9), with grilled fennel, pomodoro fresca, and shaved Grana Padano. The meatballs were crisp and firm, with a meaty taste and were tasty atop the little crostini. The sauce enhanced the dish, with a rich tomato taste.

As for salads, the Classic Caesar ($8) is made with chopped romaine, house caesar, ciabatta croutons and anchovies. A standard caesar, with fresh romaine, though nothing special.

And what about those Burgers? On my first visit, I needed to try The Sweet & Salty Burger ($13), the same burger which impressed me so much at the prior Battle of the Burger. The 7 ounce burger, which is made from locally sourced and sustainably farmed beef, is usually topped with Burrata cheese, fig jam, bacon, & arugula (though I had them omit the arugula). One bite into this burger and I was hooked, savoring the juicy, meaty burger with the compelling blend of salty and sweet flavors as well as the creaminess of the burrata. The bun was soft and fresh, and wasn't too large for the burger. It was a damn good burger. Frankly, one of the best burgers in the area and reasonably priced as well.

Each burger is accompanied by sea salt fries though for a small extra charge you can substitute them for items like bacon truffle fries or fried pickles. Above, I have the Bacon Truffle Fries, which were crisp with a fluffy interior, and plenty of smoky and truffle accents.

Another advantageous factor for the success of their burger is their sourcing. It is great to see that they source locally, using only sustainably farmed beef. That beats beef that is sourced from the huge factory farms. And at only $13 for a burger and fries, the dish is reasonably priced considering the quality of the ingredients which are used. You can pay $13 for a burger and fries at plenty of other restaurants which don't offer similar sourcing and which don't taste anywhere near as good. Finally, the proportion of ingredients in the burger work well, from the ratio of the meat to bun, to the toppings.

The Black & Blue Burger ($13) is topped with a Bleu cheese spread,  fried onion strings, bacon, arugula, and a spicy A&B rub. It is accompanied by the regular sea salt fries. Another excellent choice.

Another recent addition to the restaurant is their use of 7X Beef from Colorado, both ground beef for burgers as well as a 7X Hotdog. Only a handful of Boston area restaurants are currently using 7X Beef but you'll likely see this number grow when people realize its advantages, even if it isn't local. First, 7X is "...committed to sustainable ranching practices, including rotational pasture systems, efficient water management, and quality fencing operations to ensure a high quality of life for each member of our herd." Second, their cattle graze on "grasses and herbs like brome, timothy, orchard, alfalfa, clover, and annual legumes..." Third, and importantly, their cattle are an ancient Japanese breed with a 100% bloodline. They have not been mixed with any American breeds.

Allegedly, due to legal reasons, the 7X website does not identify the specific breed of Japanese cattle they raise. However, a couple news articles seem to identify the breed as Kumamoto Red, also known as Akaushi or Red Waygu. Their meat has intense marbling, is extremely tender, and possesses lots of flavor. Most of the American "Waygu" that is found in the U.S. is from mixed breed cattle, which only has maybe 25% of Japanese breed within them. 7X though is a 100% Japanese breed so it possesses all of the benefits, undiluted by any other breed.

For an upcharge of $5, you can order almost any of the A&B Burgers with 7X Beef rather than the usual Angus burger. I tried the Hangover Burger with 7X beef, which is usually topped with bacon, a fried egg and American cheese. The 7X Burger is only cooked for about 20 minutes in the CVap oven to protect its extra fat from collapsing due to over-cooking. I found this burger to be even better than their Angus, with a compelling meaty, tender and savory taste, enhanced by the gooey yolk of the egg. I will say that the differences between the 7X and Angus burgers tends to be more subtle and not everyone may taste a difference.

As for Sides, the Onion Rings ($3) are thin and crispy, with a nice clean taste, and I was impressed. I'm very picky with my onion rings and these were addictive with a nice sweetness to them.

On the other hand, I wasn't impressed with the Side of Fried Pickles, which I found to be a bit soggy and not crisp enough. They were thin enough and the pickles were crisp and flavorful, but the coating didn't do them justice.

One of the dinner entrees is Chicken & Waffles ($15), with three pieces of Louisiana fried chicken, a Belgian waffle, anejo tequila maple syrup, and house made pickles. Like the Small Plate, the fried chicken is compelling, with an excellent crunchy and crisp coating and plenty of moist, meaty chicken. Delicious chicken which will satisfy your fried chicken cravings. The waffles were very good too and though I'm not usually a syrup person, the tequila syrup was actually tasty and not overly sweet, and I dipped the waffles in the syrup. This is pure comfort food, a dish that will make you smile and your belly will be happy.

Currently, A&B Burgers has only a few Dessert options, though they are working on a larger menu for the near future. They want to offer some different items, which are not commonly found in their area. For example, you wouldn't expect to find Churros ($5.95) at a usual burger joint. These Churros were a perfect ending to dinner, like a fresh, hot donut. Covered with cinnamon and sugar, the thick and light churros had a crisp exterior with a light and fluffy interior. Highly recommended. Two of the other Dessert options that were available included a Tres Leches Cake and a Gluten-free Brownie Sundae.

On two of my visits, service was excellent, but on the third visit there were a couple service issues. Our server though had only been at the restaurant for a week so was still very new and needs more experience at the restaurant. The food is generally delicious, reasonably priced, and includes plenty of comfort cuisine. Their burgers are top notch, some of the best in the Boston area, enhanced by the quality (and sustainability) of their beef and the use of their CVap oven. If you love Tequila, this is a destination spot for you, though you'll also be pleased with their cocktails, milkshakes and beer list. And you have to check out those Churros! 

A&B Burgers earns a hearty recommendation.

The next Battle of the Burger won't take place until August but voting has already begun to choose 25 restaurants which will compete at this event. I'm sure A&B Burgers will receive sufficient votes to enter the competition and I think then they will have a very good chance of winning the competition this year. You should check out the restaurant now and experience their burgers before the competition.

(Note: I paid for two of my visits to A&B Burgers and was comped by the owner for one of my lunches.)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) In an effort to discover who will be mixing up the Seaport District’s best Sangria this season, the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center will hold its 2nd Annual Seaport Sangria Smackdown. Bartenders from various Seaport District establishments will come together on Thursday, June 2, from 6pm-8pm, at the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center, and bring their sangria A-game; whether it is an existing recipe from their eatery or a new twist on an old classic, guests will be the final judge of who will be dubbed the Seaport Sangria Smackdown Champion.

For $20 per person, guests will enjoy sangria tastings from participating restaurants and light hors d’oeuvres and are encouraged to vote for their favorite sangria, with one restaurant being crowned the Seaport Sangria Smackdown Champion! Participating restaurants include: Ocean Prime, Empire Restaurant and Lounge, TAMO Bistro & Bar, Legal Test Kitchen, Del Frisco’s, Barlow’s Restaurant, MJ O’Connor’s, Salvatore’s, Morton’s, Rosa Mexicano, Rowe’s Wharf Sea Grille and returning champion, The Barking Crab.

TICKETS: Tickets can be purchased online at: http://sangriasmackdown2016.eventbrite.com

2) On Sunday, June 5th, Ward 8, located in the North End, will begin serving up Lobster Clambakes every Sunday evening throughout the summer. Ward 8 Executive Chef Kenny Schweizer has created a delicious version of the New England summertime favorite: the lobster clambake. The individual Lobster Clambake, priced at $35, will include a full lobster, clams, corn on the cob, mussels, and chorizo sausage.

When: Every Sunday,  starting June 5, from 5pm-10pm
Reservations are suggested but not necessary. All reservations can be made via phone at (617) 823-4478.

3) As part of his season-long farewell tour, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz will host the fourth annual “David Ortiz Children’s Fund Gala” on Monday, July 18 at the Boston Park Plaza, celebrating the worthy accomplishments of Ortiz’s nonprofit organization, its courageous young beneficiaries and its dedicated supporters.

Emceed by top ESPN personalities Steve Levy and Jonathan “Coach” Coachman, proceeds from the fundraiser will benefit the David Ortiz Children’s Fund, in partnership with MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the World Pediatric Project, which provides critical pediatric healthcare to children in New England and the Dominican Republic.

Tickets now are available for this soiree where revelers will have the opportunity to mix-and-mingle with Boston’s biggest names in sports and entertainment while Big Papi gives remarks on his final season and his future after baseball. Guests also will enjoy a cocktail reception, live music and entertainment as well as a three-course seated dinner in honor of the special works of the David Ortiz Children’s Fund. Additionally, all guests will have access to a silent and live auction featuring unique memorabilia, priceless experiences and retirement season exclusives from David Ortiz.

WHEN: Monday, July 18
6:00pm-7:00pm: VIP & General Cocktail Receptions
7:00pm – 10:00pm: Dinner Program in the Ballroom

--General Admission (includes access to the general cocktail reception and the dinner program): $295 per person; $500 for two people
--VIP Tickets (includes access to the VIP cocktail reception with David Ortiz and other celebrities, the dinner program, name mentioned in the event program and a photo opportunity with David Ortiz): $1,500 per person; $2,500 for two people

To reserve tickets, please visit: www.501auctions.com/ortizgala.

The David Ortiz Children’s Fund is a registered 501(c)(3) public charity. The David Ortiz Children’s Fund is exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All donations are fully tax-deductible to the extent allowable by law.

The David Ortiz Children’s Fund provides critical pediatric healthcare to children in New England and the Dominican Republic. The David Ortiz Children's Fund has currently netted approximately $2 million, provided over 500 children with life-saving heart surgery in the Dominican Republic, and has helped countless others throughout New England region. In 2011, David Ortiz was awarded the Roberto Clemente Award by Major League Baseball for his work with the David Ortiz Children’s Fund.

4) Now in its 19th year, Chefs in Shorts brings together a group of the area’s top culinary talents who fire up the grills and create their best dishes during this expansive outdoor, summer-in-the-city barbeque hosted at the Seaport World Trade Center. Join some of Boston’s best chefs for an evening of grill-offs, desserts, beer, wine and fun to benefit Future Chefs, a local nonprofit focused on first careers in the culinary arts. Attendees also will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite culinary creation.

This year’s featured chefs include the following:
Host Chefs:
Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center--Karen Hodsdon, Pastry Chef
Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center--Richard Rayment, Executive Chef
TAMO Bistro & Bar at the Seaport Hotel--Robert Tobin, Chef

Participating Chefs & Venues:
Artbar--Brian Dandro
Ashmont Grille & Tavolo--Chris Douglass
Back Deck--Paul Sussman
Bar Boulud--Jonathan Kilroy
Bastille Kitchen--Adam Kube
BOND at The Langham, Boston--Mark Sapienza
Brasserie JO--Nicholas Calias
Coppersmith--Jason Heard
Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse--Rodney Murillo
Deuxave--Shaun Velez
Earls Kitchen + Bar--Cyrus Winter
Flour Bakery + Café--Corey Johnson
Foundry on Elm & Saloon--Shayne Nunes
Gather--Dennis Wilson
Harvard Club--Dean Moore
Kashmir--Harjit Pabla
Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar--Matt Drummond
Lucca Back Bay--Andres Cruz
Lulu’s Allston--Sarah Wade
Ocean Prime--Mitchell Brumels
Pete & Gerry’s Eggs--Karl Johnson
Philip R’s--Philip Rotondo
RFK Kitchen--Rachel Klein
Salty Pig--Josh Turka
Scampo--Alex Pineda
Serafina--Brendan Burke
Tip Tap Room--Brian Poe & Emmett Ledbetter
Top of the Hub--Stefan Jarausch
Town Market Andover--Mark Porcaro
TRADE--Cory Seeker
Waterline--Joe Florio
Worden Hall & Five Horses Tavern--Jim McQuinn

WHEN: Friday, June 24, 2016 from 7:00pm-10:00pm
COST: $80 per person (includes admission with complimentary beer, wine and culinary tastings)
TICKETS: Advance tickets are required: http://chefsinshorts2016.eventbrite.com. Tickets will not be available at the door.
MORE INFO: This event is strictly ages 21+ and requires proper identification.
BENEFICIARY: Future Chefs’ mission is to prepare urban youth in Greater Boston for quality early employment and post-secondary education opportunities in the culinary field and to support them in developing a broad base of transferable skills as they transition into the working world.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Besserat de Bellefon: Champagne Made For Food

That's an intimidating scientific formula yet it's important to understanding the nature of Champagne. Fortunately, you don't have to solve or even understand this formula as there are others who will do it for you. You can just benefit from their learning. Essentially, the formula helps determine the size of the bubbles in a bottle of Champagne, which is related to the pressure within that bottle. And the size of the bubbles also relates to how well the Champagne pairs with food, which is something you should know.

Recently, I attended a media lunch at L'Espalier, hosted by the Champagne House Besserat de Bellefon and their importer, Winesellers, Ltd. The primary purpose of the tasting event was to show how well their Champagnes pair with food. As was said, "Many Champagnes are good with food, but only one was made for food." Besserat de Bellefon doesn't just make Champagne. They produce   Champagne which is specifically intended to be paired with food and the size of their bubbles is indicative of this intent.

Godefroy Baijot, the Export Director for Besserat (as well as part of the family which now owns the House), was the main speaker during the event, providing us some history of the House, information on their production methods, notes on the specific Champagnes we tasted, and more.

The House was founded over 170 years ago, in 1843, by Edmond Besserat. In 1920, Victor Besserat,  one of the grandsons of Edmond, married Yvonne de Méric de Bellefon, the daughter of a noble Champagne family, thus creating the House of Besserat de Bellefon. The path of the House was set in 1930, when they accepted the challenge set forth by a famous Parisian restaurant, the Samaritaine de Luxe. The restaurant wanted someone to create a Champagne that could accompany an entire meal, pairing well with every course. Besserat de Bellefon accepted the challenge and succeeded in winning, creating a Champagne which thoroughly impressed the restaurant. Bessaret then decided to direct all of their efforts to producing Champagne which worked great with food.

Their Champagne line was initially known as Crémant des Moines, paying homage to the Benedictine monks who first mastered the techniques of producing Champagne. Eventually, this line was renamed the Cuvée des Moines ("blend of the monks"). The term "Crémant" once referred to Champagnes made with less pressure, giving them a creamier texture, and a number of Houses made Champagnes in that style. However, the use of this term died out around the 1980s with the creation of a number of Crémant appellations, which partially changed the older usage of the term. For example, the Crémant appellations do not require those sparkling wines to have lesser pressure.

The entire portfolio of Besserat de Bellefon Champagnes is made with a lower pressure. Other Houses may produce a single Champagne with a lower pressure but Besserat may be the only House that does so for all of their products. This lower pressure leads to smaller bubbles in the bottle, which brings us back to the formula at the top of this article. Using that formula, Gerard Liger-Belair, Professor of Physics of the University of Reims, determined that: "The bubbles of the Cuvee Des Moines are 30% finer than those of a traditional Champagne." The pressure within the bottle is about 30% less as well.

These smaller bubbles make the Champagne taste creamier, more unctuous, and lighter, which works well with a variety of foods. Godefroy said that it is "most important what you feel in the mouth." This lesser pressure and smaller bubbles is accomplished by using less liqueur de tirage, a smaller dosage. This causes the secondary fermentation to be lighter and also means there is less sweetness in their Champagne. This is not the only production method though that sets Besserat apart from most other Houses.

Besserat de Bellefon does not engage in any malolactic fermentation, a rarity in the region. Before the 1980s, malolactic fermentation was rare in the Champagne region however change came because of the American palate. Americans wanted their Champagnes to be more buttery and less acidic and because of the importance of the U.S. market, French producers started appealing to their preferences, using malolactic fermentation. Godefroy stated that malolactic fermentation will decrease acidity quickly but it isn't natural. For them, the natural way to reduce acidity is to age their Champagne, which is more costly but is the "real taste of Champagne." A lack of malolactic fermentation also allows their Champagnes to retain their purity and freshness over time, increasing their cellaring potential.

As aging their Champagnes is very important to them, they have chosen to age them much longer than the minimum times required by law. For example, non-vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 15 months while Besserat let's it age for at least three years. Vintage Champagne must age for at least three years while Besserat chooses to age theirs for at least seven years.

You might not realize that the term "Cuvée" on a label legally entails that the producer is using the first press to make their Champagne. Thus, you know that Besserat uses the first press, considered the best juice, for their Champagnes. Godefroy also mentioned that "Champagne is a story of blending," a sentiment I have written about before, noting how blending is truly an art in the Champagne region. For their reserve wines, Besserat actually uses a solera method, such as used in the Sherry region, which blends wines of different vintages together.

Godefroy believes that the disgorgement date, the time when the lees are removed, is the "beginning of life," a very important event and that date is listed on each of their bottles. Their Champagne bottles also have a special shape, which was created in 1991, to help indicate that they produced their own Champagne. Some companies purchase Champagne bottles from other producer and just slap their own label on them. As no one else uses the bottle shape of Besserat, then you know  they are the only ones to make their Champagne.

Besserat de Bellefon is currently a family owned, medium-sized House located in Eparnay. They produce about 500,000 bottles made each year, with about 3 million bottles in their cellars. The House owns about 30 hectares of their own vineyards, primarily located in the Marne Valley, and purchase the rest of their grapes. 60% of their production is consumed within France and the rest is exported, with the United Kingdom and the U.S. being two of their top markets. Besserat is also the official Champagne of the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée du Louvre.

Admiring the Mona Lisa with a glass of Besserat? That would be like drinking Champagne with art, which is "food for the soul."

Godefroy stated that it is a "fight to get people to eat with Champagne." Champagne is seen as a celebratory wine, a luxury which people don't consider when choosing a pairing for dinner. It is not only a problem in the U.S. but also in France and the rest of Europe. Even though more Europeans drink wine with their meals, that commonly does not extend to Champagne. This is especially disconcerting to Godefroy as Besserat is specifically designed to accompany food. It is thus important to him to travel and promote the idea that Champagne and food should go together.

Yesterday, I encouraged people to Drink Champagne With Dinner and I would also strongly recommend that you consider drinking the Champagnes of Besserat de Bellefon with food. After tasting through their portfolio, I found their Champagnes to generally possess a creamy texture with good acidity and delicious flavors. They were well-structured, elegant wines with plenty of finesse. The bubbles were tiny and fine, refreshing and cleansing. And with our lunch, each course was enhanced by the addition of the paired Champagne.

We began our lunch with the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Extra Brut ($60), a blend of 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 45% Pinot Meunier. They added the Extra Brut to their portfolio in 2009 and it has a low dosage of 3.5 grams of sugar per liter. I found this Champagne to be bone-dry, with lots of acidity and strong lemony notes. It was creamy with a backbone of minerality and briny hints. It was clean and elegant, and went well with the lush fattiness of a Salmon sashimi skewer. This certainly would be an excellent accompaniment to a Sushi dinner or a plate of raw oysters.

Next up, we tasted the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut ($45), a blend of 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 45% Pinot Meunier. This is their flagship wine, which accounts for about 55% of their total sales. It is not a traditional Brut but rather a Prestige Cuvée, with a dosage of about 4.8 grams. You should note that this wine, as well as the Extra Brut, has a high percentage of Pinot Meunier, which is uncommon for many Champagne Houses. This wine also was creamy and elegant, dry with good acidity, and with tasty flavors of lemon, pear and salted nuts. It was paired with a crude of lubina (sea bass) with pickled vegetables & a citrus foam. Again, it was a very good pairing and the Brut would work well with sushi and oysters too.

The NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Blanc de Blancs ($75) is made from 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Cotes des Blancs. This style was added to their portfolio in 1999. Creamy, dry and crisp, this Champagne presented an appealing and complex blend of flavors, including light toasty notes, bright citrus and honey elements. Plenty of chalky minerality and some floral accents, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. It was paired with a grilled Maine lobster with West Coast morels, faux gnocchi, ramp creme, seaweed-mushroom jus and Burgundy truffle. This champagne cut well through the richness of this dish.

The Vintage 2006 Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut ($80) is a blend of 54% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir, & 31% Pinot Meunier. This is their current release and they don't always produce a vintage Champagne each year. This Champagne possessed a bright gold color and reminded me of the Brut except at a higher level, with more intensity and complexity. It was still elegant, yet with more restrained power. Crisp and dry, creamy and delicious. A beautiful and harmonious melange of flavors, including apple, pear, almonds, spice and brioche. There is so much going on in the glass. This was paired with roasted squab breast , Berkshire pork belly, a buckwheat pancake with balsamic syrup, walnut and portobello circles. This was a heartier dish and the Champagne was up to the task, making me think it will do well with other grilled meats as well.

One of my favorite Champagnes of the event was the NV Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut Rosé ($70), a blend of 30% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, & 40% Pinot Meunier. They started producing a Rosé in 1972 and it has become very popular in the U.S. With a rich salmon color, this is a compelling Champagne, with bright red fruit flavors, a mild smokiness, peach & orange zest notes. It is crisp and clean, elegant and dry. This is a Champagne I could easily drink all night. It was paired with a couple cheeses and was a very pleasing companion. I think this would be a versatile Champagne for food pairings and I'd happily drink it with pizza or a burger.

Look for Besserat de Bellefon Champagnes at your local wine shop or while dining out at a restaurant. Champagne pairs well with food and you should be drinking it more with meals, but the Champagnes of Besserat go even better with food than many others. And they are simply delicious as well.