In no particular order, here is a big chunk of my 2007 in review:
(1.) Best Drinking and Driving: Put down the protest signs. Some fellow writers and I did the drinking and the charter-bus driver did all the driving -- through Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia as we traversed the major portion of the American Whiskey Trail.
In addition to visiting such iconic distilleries as Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Labrot & Graham, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey and George Dickel, we hit some historic sites and got to meet a wide range of people in all those states. True Americana.
(2.) Best Ad Campaign: The bust-a-gut-laughing set of TV commercials for the Irish whiskey known as The Knot. (See the whole batch of them here.) They feature a bantam rooster sort of guy in a pub who takes no nonsense about whiskey.
(3.) Best New-to-Me Whiskey: I had already completed, or so I thought, an article on American ryes for the UK magazine Whisky when I received this hard-to-find gem as a birthday present. It completely changed my mind on which ryes were the best. Black Maple Hill Rye is tough enough to find in the 18-year-old version, but the 23-year-old takes special investigatory powers.
An initial burst of brown sugar, heat and spice quickly transforms into a mellow, oaky smoothness. Despite the richness there is an ethereal lightness one seldom experiences in hot ryes. Fruit notes such as apple and pear dance around the edges, but the palate responds again and again to the varied spices. Utterly splendid, and worth every moment you spend tracking it down.
(4.) Best Appelation Visit: After participating in a wine competition judging in Napa, CA, I drove to nearby Lodi to experience a region in transition from wine grape producing to winemaking, sort of what Napa was like 20 years ago. The region is dotted with third- and fourth-generation farm families who have been moving from mostly supplying major winemakers to developing their own wines and brands.
They’re working hard at making the Lodi brand known outside the Pacific Coast and trying to develop tourism and ancillary businesses along with it, just as Napa did in its early days
(5.) Best New Cocktails Tried: This was a very interesting category to narrow down. In the course of my business I try a lot of different drinks in the course of the year. Some are very complex, some very simple. I like simple better. In two establishments -- T-Bar at Charlie's Restaurant in Lake Placid, NY, and the Reluctant Panther in Manchester, VT -- I coincidentally ran into signature drinks created for each place by Las Vegas-based mixology guru Tony Abou-Ganim then used by the on-premises bartenders to spin off their own versions.
At T-Bar, I enjoyed both the Gondolettes' Blackberry Caiprosca, a simple drink with a complexity of flavors from muddled fresh lime and berries with citrus vodka. Bartender Laura Keaney's recipe switched it to a raspberry recipe to take advantage of the availability of plump local berries.
At the Reluctant Panther, the signature drink takes on the name of the establishment. It's a mixture of Belvedere vodka, freshly-made lemon sour, chambord, champagne and blackberries marinated in Grand Marnier. Bar manager John Cohen created a spinoff using Stoli Blueberry vodka, freshly-made lemon sour, Blue Curacao, Sprite and fresh berries marinated in Grand Marnier.
(6.) Best New-to-Me Beer: Toña, hands down. This Nicaraguan beer is a lager brewed by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua (CCN), made with German yeast and malt, North American hops and Nicaraguan deep-well water. The chief brewer is Rudiger Adelmann, who formerly worked for Steinecker GmbH, a German company that designs and produces brewing and filter technologies for the beverage production industry.
When I served up Toña at a beer blind-judging session, among the comments were: "It's much smoother than the Budweiser, and with a bolder flavor. ... I'd drink this beer all night ... It's very rich and creamy. ... Plenty of taste but doesn't overdo the carbonation so it goes down easy. ... This is easy to evaluate: It's an excellent beer!"
(7.) Best News Story Comment: When I reported that an illegal cache of Jack Daniel's whiskey products, including some old and rare ones, had been seized in Tennessee and probably would be destroyed by the authorities, one of my readers e-mailed this perspective:
"When the authorities in Tennessee recover stolen art do they burn it?"
(8.) Best Host's Revenge: I've often wanted to find a way to get even with guests who reply to "What would you like to drink?" with the non-committal -- and unhelpful -- response "Anything" or "Whatever." A Singapore company called Out of The Box came up with soft drinks called "Anything," a carbonated drink, and "Whatever," a tea-based non-carbonated product. So, when someone makes the appropriate inappropriate reply, you can hand them a can of what matches their response. But that's only one level of revenge.
The second twist is that the flavors inside the cans remain a mystery. They could be cola with lemon, apple, root beer, lemon, peach, jasmine, apple, white grape and chrysanthemum , but there is no indication on the exteriors of the cans which flavor is inside. Gotcha.
(9.) Best New Old Beer: Most brewers strive to come up with something new. Sam Calagione, owner of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery group in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, is using a 9,000-year-old recipe for his latest offering, Chateau Jiahu. He explained it this way: "Preserved pottery jars found in the Neolithic villiage of Jiahu, in Henan province in northern China, has revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit was being produced that long ago, right around the same time that barley beer and grape wine were beinginning to be made in the Middle East."
So, in 2005, molecular archeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania asked Dogfish Head to re-create their second ancient beverage and Chateau Jiahu was born, and went to market in '07. It's an 8% beer.
(10.) Best New Old Distillery: No contest here. While some distillers were pumping millions of dollars into new or expanded facilities, the historic-minded folks at Mount Vernon, VA., rebuilt George Washington's original distillery, based on his diary accounts of the operation that burned down nearly 200 years ago.
Washington's rye whiskey has been recreated there, and the new structure is being used as a tourist attraction several miles from the mansion. I was privileged to be part of the invited group attending the official opening of the facility, and sampled some of the young rye.
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