Old Tom For A New Century: A Long-Lost Spirit Makes A Comeback

Article written by Tony Sachs for The Huffington Post

The cocktail scene in the 21st century is almost as preoccupied with archaeology as mixology. Old-style saloons and faux-speakeasies are all the rage. Bartenders are reviving long-forgotten juleps, cobblers and punches whose recipes dotted 19th and early 20th century bar books by the likes of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson. And as a result, long-forgotten libations like brandy crustas and Ward 8's are nudging aside apple martinis and cosmos at high-minded watering holes all over the world — a most pleasing turn of events for serious drinkers.

The only problem is that many of the ingredients required for these vintage cocktails haven't been made for decades. Enter craft distillers — small, mostly independent alchemists who have become the Doctor Frankensteins of the cocktail scene, recreating everything from bitters to absinthe using chemical analysis, vintage recipes and the dogged determination of bloodhounds on the scent.

Among the most legendary vintage cocktails is the Martinez, which evolved from its humble origins in the mid-1800s into the martini, the most famous and iconic alcoholic beverage of modern times. On first glance — and sip — you wouldn't know that the two cocktails have anything in common. Where a martini uses a whisper, trickle or splash of dry vermouth awash in a glass of dry gin or vodka, the Martinez is more than half vermouth, and sweet vermouth at that. Moreover, the gin that's used isn't even modern-day London Dry gin, but a curious, long-extinct animal known as Old Tom gin.

The origins of Old Tom gin are murky, and to even get an accurate definition of it is pretty difficult. Gaz Regan, in his invaluable tome The Bartender's Gin Compendium, explains it thusly: "… at some point in the early 1800s, when distillers started adding sugar to their gins, probably to disguise their badly made spirits, Old Tom became a term used to describe sweetened gins." So far, so good. But gin itself took many different forms in the 19th century. As cocktail historian/bon vivant David Wondrich told me, "There was no one way of making it, and as distilling technology changed… what was Old Tom at the beginning of the century would have been pretty unrecognizable from what it was at the end of the century."

So Old Tom wasn't just sweetened gin, it was lots of different kinds of sweetened gins. There was London Dry gin — a neutral grain spirit (a/k/a vodka) flavored with juniper and other botanicals and spices. But there were gins that had been aged in wood for various amounts of time, usually weeks or months. And then there were Dutch-style genevers, which employed longer aging and added malt wine to the neutral spirit.

Confused yet? Then you can imagine how any modern bartender who wanted to recreate an authentic 19th century Martinez must have felt. Amazingly, for the better part of a century it was nearly impossible to whip up a historically accurate version of one of the most important libations in cocktail history.

Today, however, there are two Old Tom gins on the market and another one that doesn't call itself Old Tom but comes pretty damn close, as far as I'm concerned. Each one is distinct from the others, representing different styles and eras of ur-cocktailianism. I tried them three ways: neat; on the rocks; and in a Martinez. Historically, the Martinez called for two parts sweet vermouth to one part gin, but since I wanted to taste more of the gins (and because of the ingrained bias of my modern palate), I reversed the proportions. What can I say — I'm not ready to jump in the way-back machine just yet.

Ransom Old Tom Gin

Tad Seestedt, with David Wondrich to guide him along the path of historical accuracy, has brought back to life a type of Old Tom that was around when Abe Lincoln was an obscure Illinois lawyer and Jerry Thomas, the most legendary bartender of the 19th century, was still a relative unknown — Wondrich describes it as "almost pre-Victorian, it's almost late Georgian." Looking at Ransom Old Tom, and then tasting it, a 21st century martini drinker will probably say, "This is gin?!" Well, yes, although it's got more in common with Dutch genevers (also known as Holland gin, at the time the most popular gin in the States), and even American whiskey, than with modern London Dry gin.

Ransom Old Tom employs juniper and other traditional gin botanicals (orange, coriander and angelica, to name a few), but that's about where the similarities to modern-day gin end. Instead of using neutral grain spirits, Seestedt blends in a high percentage of barley-based whiskey. And at the end of the process, the gin is barrel-aged, giving it a whiskey-ish amber color.

The first taste of Ransom Old Tom is mind-blowing, or rather, taste bud-blowing. It's incredibly malty, with strong juniper and citrus notes and just a hint of sweetness. On ice, it opens up even more to reveal wood, corn and a little more sugar. It's one of the most complex spirits you'll ever try. In a Martinez… well, let's just say you haven't had a Martinez until you've tried it with Ransom. Its carnival of flavor mixes most harmoniously with the vermouth, making what could be a heavy, sodden drink a surprisingly light concoction. To think that this stuff went out of style!

Meet Viognier (featuring Seven Hills) by Bill Daley

Wine is a worldwide phenomenon: Sauvignon blanc thrives in New Zealand; French carmenere is equally at home in Chile and Italy; and that "all-American" grape, zinfandel, has Croatian roots. So, while it may sound a little funny at first, it makes total sense to find American vintners making wine out of a quintessentially French grape, viognier.Viognier (vee-oh-NYAY) is the white wine grape behind the famed (and pricey) Condrieu and Chateau Grillet appellations in France's Rhone region. Viognier is also blended with syrah to make the red wines of Cote-Rotie.

It's that excitement over wines like Condrieu that leads consumers to try wines made elsewhere from the same grape, said Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif. He's president of the board of directors of the Rhone Rangers, a nationwide group of winemakers devoted to growing the 22 grape varieties found in the Rhone.

"I don't think people who drink wine made from a particular grape think of it as being exclusively from a certain region," he said. "European viognier is so scarce and expensive. There's a lot of room for competition from the New World."

California's Central Coast, already home to so many Rhone and Burgundian grapes, has seen a flourishing of viognier. The Central Coast is also where the bulk of the Rhone Ranger memberships lie: Viognier is the predominant white grape among the group's members, executive director Cheryl Quist said.

Haas said viognier's appeal lies in its overt charms.

"This is not a subtle wine," he said. "There's so much fruit, and it is so floral. It has a lot of immediate appeal to people who like a fruity, floral wine. It's pretty easy to taste, and I bet a lot of people would like it."

Haas said viognier also appeals to new wine drinkers because it has "nice, forward fruit. It's very floral, almost flowery."

While some winemakers in the 1990s were convinced viognier would be the next "it" white wine grape, Haas thinks viognier will "lapse more comfortably into a niche varietal status."

"I think people have given up on it as the next chardonnay or pinot grigio, which is great because it is not that," he said. "Chardonnay and pinot grigio can be like blank canvases; they're wildly adaptable. Viognier has a distinct personality."

Viognier Food Pairings: Butter and butter sauces Cheese Chicken, especially roasted and/or with cream sauce Cream and cream-based sauces Curries Fish, especially white and/or stewed Lobster Nuts, especially roasted Pork, especially roasted. Source: "What to Drink with What You Eat," by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

2009 Seven Hills Talcott Vineyard (Tasted by Panel) A charming wine from Washington's Columbia Valley, with a buttery, floral nose and a crisp yet voluptuous flavor. Think mango and apricot spritzed with lime. Serve with grilled pork chops and mango salsa, salmon with orange salsa.

Ask your sales representative about Cream's USA Viognier!

Cream's Fall Preview Warehouse Tasting



Monday, September 20, 2010 from 11-4pm
Held at our temperature controlled warehouse located in Chicago's International Produce Market in Pilsen
2455 S. Damen Unit #9, Chicago, IL 60608 (view in mapquest)
(312) 421-1900 (Cream office number)



CREAM INFO: Celebrate the last days of summer with a quick trip to our Temperature Controlled Chicago Warehouse for a special Fall Preview of new selections taken from the entire global portfolio. This is a fantastic opportunity to be the first to discover new releases, estates and categories (in addition, we will be presenting many new Italian wines imported by Cream). There will also be some special pricing on pre-arrivals as well as outstanding wines that have overstayed their welcome. Take advantage of this! Baguette in one hand and glass of insane wine in the other, while waiting for Chicago's finest grilled sausages and veggies to come off the grill. This is a pretty cool way to spend a few hours on a Monday. Good times, great wine and according to the lunar calendar, it's a fruit day.
All member of Illinois wine trade and staff are welcome.

PLEASE RSVP TO vanessa@creamwine.com OR (312) 421-1900

Taste wines and new releases from the following regions - Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand ns USA/California/Washington/Oregon. A complete list of producers, wine and pricing will be available soon. If interested in viewing, please ask your salesperson to forward you a copy. Thank you! 

Giving Pinot Grigio Another Go

Article written by Jay McInerney for The Wall Street Journal

Oddly enough, the first time I encountered Pinot Grigio was at Elaine's, the legendary Manhattan restaurant, back in the 1980s, when the literary lions of the silver age were roaring and preening there. (Norman Mailer was the one who called his era the silver age; Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner ruled the golden age, and I was a representative, he informed me cheerfully, of the bronze age.) Most of the writers who frequented the place drank scotch mixed with testosterone. Mailer, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Maas, Gay Talese, Kurt Vonnegut—these guys were the highball generation, and they seldom bothered with anything as wimpy as white wine. Nevertheless there were usually women present, and I recall a lot of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio on the tables. Not being much of a scotch fan, I drank gallons of it myself, though I tried not to do so when Mailer was watching. Many others, apparently, were doing the same.

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is one of the great marketing success stories of modern times, the reason that Pinot Grigio is virtually a brand name. Pinot Grigio was pretty much unknown in the U.S. when Tony Terlato, a young importer of Italian wines, went to Italy in 1979 in search of the next great white varietal. The story goes that at a hotel in Milan he was charmed by a glass of something called Pinot Grigio and promptly drove to Alto Adige, in northeastern Italy, the source of the wine. "Upon arriving," according to the Terlato Wines website, "Tony sat down at a small restaurant in a local inn and ordered 18 bottles of Pinot Grigio off of the wine list." The winner was a wine called Santa Margherita. He promptly set off to visit the winery and secure the rights to import the wine. Thirty years later, Santa Margherita exports 600,000 cases to the States, selling at around $30 a bottle retail, while other brands like Cavit and Ecco Domani have taken advantage of demand with lower priced wines. Pinot Grigio has become such a celebrity it has impersonators: According to one industry insider, the price of PG grapes in Italy has soared to the point that much of what gets sold as PG is in fact composed of cheaper white grapes, like Chardonnay and Garganega.

Pinot Grigio found a niche in part because it's more versatile and less assertive than oaky chardonnay. But popularity comes at a price. (Just ask the members of Coldplay.) Most serious wine drinkers shun Pinot Grigio the way they once shunned Soave. And not entirely without reason. One should never underestimate the power of snobbery, but the fact is that 99% of what's called Pinot Grigio from Italy is dilute and flavor-challenged, a refreshing, lemonade-like food lubricant/buzz-delivery system.

Like many of my peers, I turned my back on Pinot Grigio early in the 1990s, and I remained slightly embarrassed about my early enthusiasm, as I did about my earlier reverence for the music of the Monkees. Pinot Grigio seemed like the vinous equivalent of the novels of Paulo Coelho. As its popularity grew, its identity became more nebulous and it was planted all over Italy, far beyond its natural home in the northeast. Then about 10 years ago, I visited Friuli, the Italian province just east of Alto Adige, and I drank some very good, in fact some really excellent, Pinot Grigio. I wondered if the grape was worth a reconsideration. After all, it's a mutation of Pinot Noir, universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest wine grapes on the planet. (Pinot Gris, as it's called in France, thrives in Alsace, where it is, don't ask me why, called Tokay. But that's another story.)

In Friuli I had really stunning examples from Lis Neris and Vie di Romans, but of course we all know the syndrome of the little country wine that tastes unbelievably great in context, on the home court, when one is on vacation, surrounded by scenic ruins and charming rustics. But a few years ago I dined at Gramercy Tavern with Alois Lageder, a fifth-generation gentleman winemaker from the Alto Adige region, and I was really impressed by his Pinot Grigios, notably a single vineyard bottling called Benefizium Porer. More recently on a visit to the Breslin Bar, a fashionable and calorific Manhattan hotspot, I encountered a Pinot Grigio that blew my mind and encouraged me to reopen the question: Can Pinot Grigio possibly be serious? The wine was a 2007 Pinot Grigio from Movia, a winery founded a year before Lageder's in 1820, which is in Slovenia just across the Italian border adjacent to some of the best vineyards of Friuli.

I had met Movia's winemaker/proprietor Ales Kristancic in Friuli and again in New York and he'd impressed me as one of the most energetic, not to say manic, characters of my acquaintance. Here's one of my notes from that first encounter, a quotation from Ales: "We are solar men. Our power is not money. We can find solar energy in a dark place." I believe he was speaking about marshalling the sun's energy in the dark recesses of a wine cellar, but who the hell knows. He also makes up a lot of words. At any rate, his wines are incredibly expressive and singular and already, in his mid 40s, he's a legendary figure in wine circles. Like almost everything about Ales, his Pinot Grigio is larger than life, rich and concentrated with a host of exotic fruit flavors and mineral notes. Was this a one-off, or was it possible that real men could drink Pinot Grigio again? I started buying and tasting as many PGs as I could find, subjecting myself to the derision of sommeliers and wine store clerks.

I consulted Henry Davar, the wine director at Manhattan restaurant Del Posto, who helped me to organize a tasting. Mr. Davar was enthusiastic about the project, though he informed me, somewhat ominously, "We don't serve PG by the glass. We don't want our guests to order something just by default." We stuck mostly to bottles from northeast Italy, to see if we could find regional as well as varietal characteristics. And I'm sorry to say we had more misses than hits, although the hits gave us hope and a few wines to put into rotation on our drinking cards. We were hard pressed to find any flavor at all in the '09 Santa Margherita. A hint of lemon drop? But flavor abounded in the '09 Palmina, winemaker Steve Clifton's Cali-Itali project. Or is that Itali-Cali? Whichever—he grows Italian varietals in Santa Barbara and his Pinot Grigio is really impressive, especially at $20 a bottle.

"I tasted some great Pinot Grigios in Friuli," Mr. Clifton says, "and I wanted to make one that wasn't just a water substitute. It has to be grown on a good site that expresses minerality, but at its best it's a bridge between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio hits the middle for seafood dishes that are too delicate for Chardonnay."

A certain stony element characterized the PGs Mr. Davar and I liked the best—and sometimes stone fruits like peaches—most of them from the Collio region of Friuli. ("Pinot Grigio from Friuli always has a strong mineral element," says Maurizio Castelli, who makes the excellent Scarbolo PGs.) The standouts were three successive vintages of Movia's Pinot Grigio, the 2005, 2006 and 2007, the latter being a spectacular wine, which had nose suggestive of a young red burgundy, reminding us that PG is indeed a relative of that noble grape. Mr. Davar, for one, was impressed. "You can drink Pinot Grigio as a thirst quencher on a terrace. Then there a few wines like these, which are on a level with the great whites of France."

Anyone who's ever had a Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris will believe that nobility is possible with this grape. The best Italian examples come from small, deeply committed producers in Friuli, especially the Collio region, and Alto Adige, and in the $20 to $30 dollar price range, they represent real value. I'm going to seek out Pinot Grigios by Schiopetto, Lis Neris, Lageder, Jermann, Vie di Romans and Long Island winery Channing Daughters, sneers of my peers be damned. But I don't recommend that anyone undertake this course lightly. One of the scents I sometimes imagined in nosing certain Pinot Grigios was hay, which brings to mind the all too apposite maxim about the needle in the you-know-what.

2009 Palmina Pinot Grigio: Pinot Grigio worth tasting
A beauty which hints at Golden Delicious apples and honeycomb with lively acidity and an underlying stony element.

Ask your sales rep about Cream's Pinot Grigio wines and Pinot Gris wines.

Mezcal, Tequila's Smoky, Spicy Cousin

I FEEL almost as if I have to whisper my feelings about mezcal. It is so immersed in legend and colorful misrepresentation that it's a shame to spoil it all with truth. And yet the truth can be so richly rewarding that I may as well shout it out.

Mezcal is one of the world's great spirits: complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place. Mezcal is little known, however, and even less understood, but paradoxically has been anointed in the last few years as the Next Big Thing.

It's a designation that may send shivers of delight among publicists but is somewhat meaningless since mezcal-good mezcal-is made in minute quantities and is relatively expensive. 

Discovering mezcal offers a wonderful opportunity to question our definition of greatness, as it pertains to spirits. By tradition the standard is set by whiskeys and brandies, which are celebrated for their refinement, mellow complexity and delicacy.

But mezcal, even more so than its sibling tequila, takes greatness out of the library and into raw nature, where jagged, elemental yet ethereal aromas and flavors offer different sorts of thrills from the quieter pleasures of a fine single malt, yet without losing subtlety or complexity. Mezcal also allows us to examine how a spirit that has largely been made on an artisanal scale for local consumption comes to terms with global recognition. 

What does it mean if mezcal is indeed the Next Big Thing? Does the spirit-loving world adapt its tastes and standards to mezcal? Or does mezcal fundamentally alter its character to appeal to tastes formed by other drinks?

These were among the weighty questions conjured up in a recent tasting of 20 mezcals. On the panel, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Philip Ward, of Mayahuel, an East Village restaurant that specializes in mezcal and tequila, and Joel Cuéllar, a spirits sommelier at Brandy Library in TriBeCa, which offers a fine selection of mezcals and tequilas.

Of course, the most basic questions are: What is mezcal? And how does it differ from tequila? Both are distillates from the fruit of agave plants. Tequila is a form of mezcal that by law can be produced only in several designated areas centered on the state of Jalisco in western Mexico. It is made from the blue agave, and while the law requires only that tequila be 51 percent agave, all good tequilas are 100 percent blue agave.

Mezcal comes from the vicinity of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. While mezcal can be made from any number of varieties of agave, the vast proportion uses the espadin agave. Oh, by the way, the legend that a bottle of mezcal always contains a worm is simply colorful marketing shtick. 

Tequila is mostly produced in factories, but most if not all good mezcals are essentially handmade in small family operations. The agave for tequila is generally roasted in large ovens. For mezcal, the agave is usually roasted in palenques, or rock-lined pits, accounting for its characteristic smokiness. 

In Scotch terms, you can think of mezcal as possessing the challenging, distinctive flavors of peaty Islay malts, and tequila as a smoother, gentler Speyside variation. Joel put it another way: "Mezcal is to tequila as rye is to bouron." Which I took to mean that mezcal is the spicier cousin of easygoing, sweet tequila.

But if comparisons give you a sense of where mezcal stands, the only way to really know is to taste a few. For me, the flavors in mezcal are unlike those in any other spirit, even tequila. They are diverse, fitting for a spirit that reflects its terroir so well, and gorgeous in their rusticity.

I understand that rusticity is often a pejorative term, but not as far as mezcal goes. The flavors of a great mezcal are unmediated by oak or long aging. They offer no vanillas or chocolates, honeys or heathers. Instead, you get a briny, vegetal burst, with Tabasco-like hints of vinegar, salt, oily smoke and earth, and an uncompromising purity.

(The article by Eric Asimov for New York Times goes on to rank many mezcals the panel judges.)

The time is ripe to explore mezcal, not in a haphazard salt-shot-and-lime sort of way, but with care and thought. It may well be that mezcal is not to everybody’s taste, but it is without a doubt worthy of everyone’s respect.

Susana Balbo's market visit: Get ready to meet 'the Evita of wine'

Susana Balbo stands out in Argentina for her incredible skill, experience, and passion. She has been making wine since earning her enology degree in 1981, and she has probably produced a wider variety of wines than any other winemaker in Argentina. Susana was the first Argentine winemaker to be hired as a consultant to make wine internationally; she has made wine in Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa, and Spain, and she spends a month each year in different regions of the world studying with local winemakers and growers.

After twenty years of producing wines for others, Susana decided to apply her education and experience to her own wines and put her name right on the bottle—1999 was her first vintage. Susana strives for balance in her wines, with layers of complexity coming from the individually fermented varietals. Her wines consistently receive high praise. She wants people who drink her wines to feel that every sip from the glass is as exciting as the first. In 2002, Susana designed and built Dominio del Plata to take her winemaking to a higher level with greater control and
incredible results.

We invite you to meet this extraordinary woman.
Binny's Downers Grove location is having a Argentine food and wine pairing with her from 6-8pm. Susana will guide you through food and wine pairings matching her wines with Argentine-style steak specialties. Each of the 3 signature samples will pair with 3 Susana's wines in this casual tasting. Event costs $20 which will go towards purchases made that night. Reservations are required; call 630-705-9463.

8/27/10: Hinsdale Wine Shop is having a wine tasting with Susana from 6-8:30pm. Chat with her while tasting her Signature Susana Balbo wines, BenMarco wines and Crios de Susana Balbo wines. Call 630-654-9862 to RSVP.

Save the Date! WWHQ & TAPWC Portfolio Tasting

Save the Date!  
World Wine Headquarters & The Australian Premium Wine Collection Portfolio Tasting
Thursday August 26th
Sunda Restaurant - 110 West Illinois Street, Chicago
rsvp vanessa@creamwine.com/312.421.1900

Download World Wine Headquarters & Australian Premium Wine Collection Portfolio

Join John Larchet and other winemakers & proprietors from around the world for the World Wine Headquarters & Australian Premium Wine Collection National Portfolio Tasting. Meet the people behind these distinctive Wine Estates from both new and old world countries & taste the wines from a truly balanced “worldwide” portfolio.  John's “Distinctive Style Imprint” has been the hallmark of his portfolios. Wines that are highly aromatic, and intensely flavored. But above all else, wines that are born with a natural sense of balance and harmony. By definition, wines that do not have any “arms or legs sticking out” (no excessive alcohol, no excessive acidity, no excessive tannins and no excessive oak). Those wines are always a pleasure to drink.

The fabulous line up of winemakers & proprietors in attendance with other wines shown at the tasting:

German Frenk and Cristian Garcia (winemaker) Altivo, Uco Valley Mendoza
Andrew Noble, Director, Ichanka, Famatina Valley, La Rioja

Australia/New Zealand
John Larchet, Owner/Winemaker Tir na n'Og, The Wishing Tree, Hill of Content, The Old Faithful
Allister Ashmead, Owner, Elderton Estate, Barossa Valley
Lee Florentzou, Owner Aramis Vineyard, McLaren Vale
Patrick Gehrig, Director of Sales, Rutherglen Estates, Rutherglen Victoria
Mike Tiller, Owner Isabel Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand
Primo Estate, South Australia
Grosset, Clare Valley
Blackbilly, Adelaide
Fireblock, Clare Valley
Clonakilla, New South Wales
Frankland Estates, Western Australia
Rocky Gully, Western Australia
The Catcher, Western Australia

Alexandre Sirech, Owner/Winemaker Bordeaux …..this man has turned Bordeaux upside down!
Eva Blanco, Export Director, Tilenus, Bierzo. Spain
Felipe Alvarez, Export Manager for Vega Moragona, Monte Vicor and Celler Molandro. Spain

Celebrate the spirit of Mexico with a glass of Fidencio Mezcal

Deep in the south of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, villagers for the past 400 years have been producing and consuming a mystical liquor called mescal.

Imagine your favorite tequila, add a deep, rich, earthy complexity and a layer of smoke, and you have a high-quality mescal. While mescal's boldness is unappealing to some at first sip, the spirit's fans say the distinctive flavors are mescal's most engaging characteristic, and represent one of the main reasons why the spirit is spreading like wildfire in U.S. cocktail circles.

Mescal is claimed by many as the first spirit produced in the Americas, and thanks to several small artisan distillers, it is now available here. Mixologists and consumers have welcomed the arrival of mescal. The spirit has a fresher face in the U.S. than its ubiquitous cousin tequila. Also, the flavors are multifaceted, making it challenging and fun to experiment with in cocktails. The spirit has reached such popularity that several bars across the country prominently featuring mescal have opened this year, including Las Perlas in Los Angeles and Casa Mezcal in New York City. Mayahuel , another New York City mescal bar that opened its doors in 2009, received the "World's Best New Cocktail Bar" award at Tales of the Cocktail 2010 in New Orleans in July.

John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, shared a particularly poignant anecdote with the audience at a mescal seminar at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail Festival in New Orleans.

He described meeting a Oaxacan villager, who upon hearing trite descriptions of the spirit by some American tourists, offered her own description of mescal's unique taste. "The taste is time," she said, reflecting the history and soul of mescal. Oaxacan villagers have been consuming beverages made from agave for ceremonial and social purposes since pre-Columbian times, then began to use modern distilling methods after the arrival of the Spanish. Mescal has become part of the fabric of everyday life.

The word "mescal" comes from the Nahuatl word Mexcalmetl, meaning maguey or agave, which is the foundation for the spirit. The hearts of the maguey are slow-roasted over hot stones in a pit, covered with earth, and left to cook in the ground for three to five days. Then the liquid from the hearts typically undergoes a long fermentation process in wooden vats before being double-distilled and bottled. Blue agave hearts, which are only used to produce tequila, do not usually undergo this natural roasting process before fermentation and distillation; most are cooked in stainless steel ovens, which is one of the reasons why the two spirits taste so drastically different.

While tequila can only be produced with the hearts of the blue agave plant, mescal can be produced from one of up to 30 varieties of agave. So while tequila is technically a type of mescal, not all mescals can be considered a tequila. Blue agave sets the standard for the taste of tequila, whereas for mescal, each type of agave plant changes the flavor of the final product, making each batch slightly different.

So what are you in for when drinking mescal? Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, claims that "mescal is the mother of all tequilas." It is a complex spirit that will stop you in your tracks and force you to take in the moment that each sip hits your tongue. Though a tequila drinker can easily pick out the underlying agave flavors, the earthy, spicy notes of mescal are the ones that stand out the most upon first taste. Discovering mescal (or having mescal discover you, as Cooper insists is the case) is a transformative moment, like when a bourbon drinker first discovers his or her favorite Scotch. The bold complexity puts mescal into a category above and beyond your typical tequila.

Philip Ward of Mayahuel in New York City recommends tasting mescal for the first time in a cocktail.

"Cocktails are the perfect vehicle to introduce people to unknown complex spirits because it rounds out and softens the complexity of flavors while offering a good introduction. You taste it, but it doesn't overwhelm the palate," he said.

In other words, a cocktail will introduce you to mescal's character, without hitting you over the head with smoke and spice, as drinking it straight might. While mixing it with other ingredients might seem like lunacy to villagers in Oaxaca (just as mixing Scotch in cocktails seems absurd to Scotch connoisseurs), Ward considers it the best gateway for those who are new to mescal so that an understanding and appreciation of the spirit can be cultivated over time.

For Central Texans new to the liquor, here's a twist on a much-loved classic, the margarita. Below are the recipes for a Oaxacan Summer and a couple other recipes from prominent mixologists. If you're feeling courageous, sip mescal straight up. No lime. No salt. No worm (which, Cooper said, is a marketing gimmick of lesser quality mescals, not a traditional practice). This way you can evaluate the layers of nuanced flavor in its purest form.

The Oaxacan Summer

1 oz. Fidencio Mezcal

1 oz. reposado tequila

1 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1 oz. agave nectar

3-4 dashes of Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters

Combine all ingredients and shake. Serve in a chilled margarita glass. Chile powder on the rim is optional.

The Brave

1 oz. Fidencio Mezcal

1 oz. Hacienda del Sotol Plata

1/2 oz Averna Amaro

1 tsp. Marie Brizard Orange Curacao

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir in a glass without ice and mist Angostura bitters on top. Flame an orange zest above the cocktail and allow the flaming zest to drip into the drink for a garnish.

— From Bobby Heugel , co-owner of Anvil Bar and Refuge, Houston

Tres Coops

1 oz. Fidencio Mezcal

1/2 oz. Averna Amaro

1/2 oz. St. Germain elderflower liqueur

1/2 oz. Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1/4 oz. fresh egg white

Pinch of freshly ground chile powder.

Combine all ingredients and shake. Strain and serve in a cocktailz glass.

— From Tad Carducci of Tippling Bros. for Mercadito Chicago

Article written by Emma Janzen for Austin360.com

The story of Tentaka's organic brewery

Alder Yarrow writes about Tentaka "Silent Dream" on his Vinography blog.

I'll admit it. It's probably been at least six months since I've had sake in my mouth. In part, I think that's because even more than wine, I find sake a contemplative drink, and one that is best sipped serenely over a long evening. I haven't had that many evenings recently, and even though tonight wasn't particularly a special night, I opened a nice bottle to go with the steamed fish that we were eating.

There are some clever, even inspiring winery names in the wine world, but for some reason I find the stories behind how sake breweries get their names much more inspiring. Some of that often has to do with the fact that many were named hundreds of years ago. But even more modern breweries can have great stories behind them.

Tentaka brewery, in Tochigi prefecture, was given its name in 1914, when owner Motoichi Ozaki named it "Hawk in the Heavens" after a bird that he had seen in a dream years earlier. Ozaki was a successful liquor wholesaler with a dream of making sake, and when he saw the Yuzukami brewery on the auction block in bankruptcy, he leaped at the chance to create a small brewery that he and his heirs could run. And that's just what they've done for the past three generations.

While Ozaki's grandson doesn't live in the brewery as his grandfather did, he maintains the small production with an eye towards innovation. Among other things the latest Ozaki has moved the brewery's production to be completely organic. This is not as easy as it seems, as organic rice production in Japan is uncommon, especially when it comes to the special rice that is used in sake production.

Up until a few years ago, there were no specific regulations for organic sake, and those brewers interested in the idea, were left to simply say that the sake was "made from organic rice." But these days there are a set of regulations that define organically made sake, of which the most important is the stipulation that the sake must have been made from 95% certified organic rice.

Certified organic rice, as noted, is tough to come by. If only because in order to be organic it must have no pesticides or chemical fertilizers added, and that, you might imagine, is a tricky thing when rice paddies are often irrigated by water that has flown downstream from someone else's rice paddy. It's an analogous problem to some would-be biodynamic winegrowers who can't get themselves certified because their neighbors spray pesticides that blow into their fields.

In addition to producing organic sake, Tentaka brewery has also opted to use an ultra traditional, incredibly painstaking and costly method in their production of this, their top end sake. This method, known as shizuku, is the sake world's equivalent of "free-run juice" except it is quite a bit harder to come by. Whereas in the wine world free-run juice is just all the liquid at the bottom of the fermentation tank that can flow out before the grapes are pressed, the shizuku method involves hanging hundreds of fabric bags filled with the finished mash of sake rice (moromi) in a very cold room to let the sake drip out under its own weight, drop by glistening drop.

Not unlike free-run juice, the sake obtained through this method is the sweetest and purest, but also the most precious, as much less liquid comes through the bags via gravity than from the press.

While make of Japan's prefectures make sake, Tochigi is not as well known, especially for high-end premium sake, compared to powerhouses like Niigata Prefecture. If Niigata is the Napa of Japan, then Tochigi is the upper peninsula of Michigan, if you get my drift. However, Tochigi does have a long history of growing good sake rice, thanks to the three rivers that crisscross the countryside and generally good weather.

This sake is a junmai daiginjo, which means that no additional alcohol was added to the brewing process, and the rice used to make it (the traditional Yamada Nishiki variety) has been polished to at least 50% of its former mass, though in the case of this sake, the rice has been polished to 35% of its former mass.

Tasting Notes: Wonderfully viscous in the glass with bright shine to it, this sake smells of lychee, marshmallows and chocolate milk with a little bit of malt added. In the mouth the sake is smooth and polished on the tongue with a woody, wet bamboo and rainwater character that has a hint of tarragon on the finish. Lovely. Evokes a stroll through a bamboo forest after a rain, as darkness falls.

Food Pairing: It went beautifully with a Chinese steamed fish with ginger and scallions.

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