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Spirits & Cocktails

The Otter

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A friend of mine is doing a bit of wedding planning and asked for my thoughts on a cocktail to serve to her guests. She wanted to name the drink after her dog, who she described as bubbly, brown, and sweet. Not surprisingly, chocolate and champagne had popped into her mind.  Well, when someone else has done 90% of the work for you, there is no point in overdoing it. The best cocktails are the simple ones.

The Otter

1 glass of sparkling rose
1 sugar cube
3-5 dashes of Aztec chocolate bitters (to taste)

Drop sugar cube into the bottom of a Champagne glass. Coat/drown the cube in chocolate bitters. Pour sparkling rose over cube and bitters. You can play with the presentation with some chocolate syrup and/or powdered sugar on the glass.

An Original Cocktail: The French Margarita

I’ve taken a stab at my first original cocktail. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

French Margarita
2 oz Tequila
1 oz Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz Green Chartreuse
1/2 oz Lime Juice
1 tsp Light Agave Nectar
3 dashes Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, and strain into a chilled margarita glass.

Table 3: Fine Yet Affordable Dining in Nashville

Once a week, my wife and I manage to go out for the evening — dinner, drinks, something like that. Couple time is at a premium with two-year-old twins. Last week, we decided to do dinner and a movie in Green Hills. Walking toward the theater, we noticed a valet outside of Table 3. We assumed that it had reopened after what my wife informed me had been a kitchen fire. She suggested we try it.

We were wrong; it had not reopened. As it turned out, we had walked into the pre-opening dry run by accident. We apologized and turned to leave, but were asked to stay if we would not mind eating dinner at the bar. Anyone who knows me will know that I do not mind eating dinner at the bar. (I should note here that the folks at Table 3 had no idea that I had this blog when they invited us to stay, nor did I mention it while we were there.)

This small act of generosity led to one of the more enjoyable meals that I have had since moving to Nashville, and certainly the best value. We opened with a St.Germain cocktail incorporating cranberry juice, which provided a nice flavor and improved the color presentation over, say, lemon juice. My wife had the Roasted Chicken and I had the Leg of Lamb. Both were well-prepared and flavorful, and paired with excellent sides of mashed and au gratin potatoes, respectively. It was a quality meal. It’s even more impressive when one sees the overall value Table 3 offers on its menu.

I was also impressed by Table 3’s wine list, both by the bottle and by the glass. It focuses on France, of course, and the DuPeuble 2009 Beaujolais was a wonderful light-bodied red that went perfectly with my wife’s chicken. I also enjoyed the Louis Changarnier 2009 Pinot Noir from the Languedoc. Even ordering by the glass, the bartender allowed us a small taste before committing to each wine, which was a nice touch.

My point? When Table 3 does reopen, give them a try. I can see myself becoming a regular, so maybe I will see you there.

Table 3 Restaurant
3821 Green Hills Village Drive
Nashville, Tennessee 37215
(615) 739-6900
Appx. $17.00 per entree.

Crying for Argentina in Nashville? There’s a Place . . .

This will be the third in my series of posts about some of the best wine shops in Nashville. In my first post, I highlighted four stores that provide the best overall selections. In the second, I wrote about West Meade Wine & Liquor Mart’s fine selection of California wines. This third installment highlights Grace’s Plaza Wine & Spiritsfor its impressive selection of Argentinean wines, particularly malbecs.

As I said in my last post, Grace’s separate posting is not meant to imply that it lacks variety. Grace’s offers a fine selection of Washington and California merlots and cabernets. It has chardonnays and pinot noirs from California, Washington, and Oregon, and California sauvignon blancs, zinfandels, and syrahs. Grace’s also has a modest selection of American Rieslings from Oregon, Washington, and, at least when I visited, the one Finger Lakes, NY wine that I have found in Nashville. Leaving the States, Grace has New Zealand sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs and Chilean sauvignon blancs and carmenere. Grace’s offers a strong selection of Australian wines, along with solid selections from Spain and France. Though Grace’s is a bit light on its German and Alsatian whites, it has an abundance of Italian wines to offer.

That said, Grace’s large selection of Argentinean wines, particularly malbecs, stands out. When I asked about the focus on Argentina, I was told that it is a hot region right now that is providing good value. Can’t argue there.  If you are looking for a red but are a bit tired of your standard cabernets and merlots, Grace’s is a good destination for something a little different from the Southern Hemisphere.

Grace’s also has a strong selection of spirits. It has a variety of your basic spirits, including strong tequila offerings, accompanied by items like sloe gin, Campari, Aperol, and smaller bottles of vermouth that are very important for a home bar.

Grace’s staff is always ready to lend a hand. I liked that, when I asked about something that they did not have, they did not hesitate to refer me to The Wine Chap, which I wrote about in my first post of this series. Both shops should be on your “go to” list.

4005 Hillsboro Road in Green Hills
Nashville, TN 37215
(615) 383-7660
Twitter: @graceswine

Nashville Wine Shops: Focus on California

In my first in a series of posts on some of the best wine shops in Nashville, I highlighted four stores that provide some of the best overall selection of wines from around the world. I noted that there would be additional posts discussing other shops that do particular things very well, or have a unique set of offerings. This is the second in that series of posts, and it highlights West Meade Wine & Liquor Mart, which offers an impressive selection of domestic wines from the West Coast – California in particular.

West Meade’s listing here is not meant to imply that it lacks any variety in its wine offerings. West Meade offers reds, whites, and roses from popular wine regions in France, Germany, Italy, Australia, and any number of other countries. That said, West Meade’s focus on domestic wines is clear from the layout of its retail space, with nearly all of its horizontal racks dedicated to wines from the West Coast. California selections abound.

West Meade’s racks start with California and Oregon pinot noir, and then move almost exclusively to California with a large quantity of syrah, zinfandel, and sauvignon blanc. West Meade then adds a bit of Washington State to its California selections of riesling, gewürztraminer, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Finally, West Meade presents a large selection of California chardonnay, particularly from Napa Valley. If you’re looking for an oaky California chardonnay, this is your stop. West Meade also offers several high-end wines from California and around the world in its reserve room.

If I had to state one criticism, it would be the absence of wines from the other 47 States, particularly powerhouses like New York and Virginia. I appreciate West Meade’s focus on domestic wines, I just wish its selection within that realm was a bit more varied. That said, you will not find a better selection of California wines in Nashville.

I’d be remiss if I left out West Meade’s excellent selection of spirits. West Meade has a broad selection of your standard spirits, complemented by more unique offerings including St. Germain, Aperol, Amir Lucano, slow gin, Ouzo, Tuaca, Campari, Fernet-Branca, Lillet, Dubonnet Rouge, and Pimms. Finally, right to the left of the entrance, West Meade shelves a variety of high gravity beers. West Meade is a great shop, and worth a visit to see for yourself.

5402 Harding Road
Nashville, TN 37205
(615) 352-3001
Twitter: @WMWLM

Nashville Wine Shops: The Best in Standard Fair

When one moves to a new city, there are certain things that need to be done in short order – set up utilities, learn your route to work, secure child care services, and, of course, find the best local wine shops. You can just rely on the Internet, but to really know where to go for the best in wines and spirits, you need to visit the stores and check out the inventory. There are any number of great shops, each with unique strengths and weaknesses.

Over the last couple of months, I have visited several wine and spirit stores in Nashville. Starting here and continuing in the coming weeks, I will describe my favorites. The absence of a certain shop from this series of posts does not mean you should not check it out. I am comfortable in saying, however, that these places should be at the top of your list.  This post talks about some of your standard, go-to wine shops. In future posts, I will discuss a few others that had unique attributes or inventory.

A couple of universal gripes: (1) I found no Virginia wines and (2) I found only one Finger Lakes wine in one shop. As a former Rochester, NY and DC resident, not to mention a fan of quality American wines, this is a bitter pill to swallow. I hope a local distributor will step up to the plate and correct this deficiency. If not, who knows, maybe I will have to do it.

The Wine Chap

The Wine Chap is a solid wine shop just off of West End outside of Downtown Nashville. A glance around the shop shows relatively inexpensive selections and promotions in numerous displays surrounding more select wines organized by varietal and region. The Wine Chap has good selections of California and Oregon chardonnays and pinot noirs (including labels like Hendry and Grgich), California cabernets, Italian and French whites and reds, and German and Alsatian rieslings. The shop also carries a relatively large quantity of Australian and New Zealand (mostly Marlborough) wines and a variety of other whites and dessert wines from places like Tokaj, though it is a little light on wines from Spain and Portugal. The back of the shop has an above average selection of spirits, including St. Germain, Campari, Alston, and Tuaca. It also carries relatively small bottles of Vermouth, important for a home bar.

Hill Center, Belle Meade
4322 Harding Road
Nashville, Tennessee 37205
(615) 386-0133
Twitter: @thewinechap

The Wine Shoppe at Green Hills

WSGH is just off of Hillsboro Road in Green Hills.  As you walk in the door you’ll find French reds (predominantly Bordeaux and Rhone) and California cabernet, syrah, merlot, and other reds. WSGH also has a variety of chardonnays from Washington, California, and Burgundy, and different whites from Germany, France, New Zealand, and Italy.  There are also red varietals from typical regions like Spain, Australia, and Argentina. The one negative about WSGH is that it can be a bit difficult to find what you are looking for. The organization of the wines is not as clear as it could be, possibly because of the relatively small retail space and large selection. That said, a bit of hunting or a willingness to be led will be rewarded — quality staff here.

2109 Abbott Martin Road
Nashville, TN 37215
(615) 297-5220
Twitter: @wsgh

Midtown Wine & Spirits

These next two options are two of Nashville’s largest wine and spirit stores and therefore, as one might expect, they contain comprehensive selections. A large portion of Midtown’s unsurprisingly, is from California and includes zinfandel (with some interesting selections from Lodi), merlot, cabernet and various other reds. Midtown has a large number of pinot noirs from regions like California, Oregon, New Zealand, Argentina, and Australia. It has a large chardonnay selection from California and Washington and numerous whites and reds from France, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Midtown’s collection of Spanish and Italian wines is respectable if not as large as its California displays, but it has a wide variety of dessert wines to supplement its more standard fair. I would have appreciated a larger selection of German and Austrian whites, such as rieslings and gewürztraminer, but I drink these wines more than most. Midtown also has a solid selection of spirits, including St. Germain, Campari, Aperol, various grappas, Eau de Vie, and numerous bitters. Bottom line, if it is a fairly common varietal and region, or a popular spirit, odds are you will find a good label at Midtown.

1610 Church Street
Nashville, TN
(615) 327-3874
Twitter: @midtownwine

Frugal MacDoogal Wine & Liquor Warehouse

Upon first entering Frugal MacDoogal, you might think that the wine is an afterthought, given FD’s large selection of spirits. This first impression is misleading. FD has a large selection of California cabernet, syrah, merlot, and zinfandel. It also has a good stock of Oregon and California pinot noir. Heading over the Atlantic, you will find reds from Italy, Spain, and Portugal with your standard Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone from France. Though small, there is a selection of New Zealand pinot noir. You’ll also find a variety of whites, including Rieslings from Oregon, Washington, and Germany, California chardonnays, New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and miscellaneous selections from countries like Chile and Argentina.  There are whites from France and Italy as well, but if that is what you are looking for there are other destinations that present more options. FD also has nice dessert wine options like muscato di asti, tokay, and a variety of sherries and ports. There are a few bottles of Tennessee wine. What makes FD different from your average discount wine shop, however, is the separate room in the back loaded with higher end wines from star wineries in various regions – Poggio Antico in Montalcino and Hendry in Napa Valley are just a couple of examples. The spirits also make FD worth a stop if you are stocking your bar. FD has many options in your standard spirits, as well as more unique offerings like Lillet, Abernathy, eau de vie, Luxardo, Chartreuse, and Tuaca. Like The Wine Chap, you can also find small bottles of vermouth here. FD is your typical large-selection wine and spirits shop, but with a few gems amid the plenty.

701 Division Street
Nashville, TN 37203
(615) 242-3863
Twitter: @Frugalmacbeer

Book Review: Boozehound by Jason Wilson

“Let’s be honest: As cultural activities go, there are few more popular than drinking.”

A couple of weeks ago I finished Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, by Jason Wilson. Mr. Wilson is the spirits writer for The Washington Post, which means that anyone reading this blog would drown a crate of kittens to have his job. Wilson has travelled all over the world tasting unusual and novel spirits and has gotten paid to do it. Yes, I hate him too.

But puting that aside, he has combined these experiences with pieces of his own life story and a fresh sense of humor to pen an entertaining and informative book. Any of you follow sports? Picture the Sportsguy of Now I Can die in Peace fame meets a professional drinker, though Wilson is a bit more subtle in his humor. Wilson documents his travels through numerous countries tasting some spirits that have since become famous, such as St. Germain, and others that are still unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Along the way, he also passes judgment on various brands of more common spirits, such as tequila, rum, and cognac. The end result is a treasure trove of information for casual drinkers, mixologists, and those of us wannabe geeks who just wish we had the money and time to indulge in Wilson’s world.

“I don’t mean to suggest that I had esoteric tastes as a teenager. In reality, I was a rube who subsisted on Gatorade and Ho Hos, gagged on mustard, and scraped the onions or mushrooms off any dish served with them.”

Wilson’s knowledge and opinions are woven throughout his stories of the concoctions he has encountered. Some of the highlights of the book are his rants on vodka and vodka martinis (which don’t exist), his criticisms of faux speakeasies (with which I concur), and his discussions of undervalued staples like vermouth and slow gin. His descriptions will also make you long for spirits you have never tasted or even heard of before. Wilson’s narrative makes brews such as Dubonnet Rouge, Tuaca, Aperol, Barolo Chinato, Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, and Aquavit sound particularly appealing.

If I had to come up with a criticism of the book, it may be that parts of it are too obscure. It took a while for a relative novice like me to get fully engaged and left me wishing that Wilson might have front-loaded the basics that he does cover. That said, Wilson brings it all back home at the end for those of us who are relatively uneducated, including his suggestions for the essential elements of a home bar. This is the most practical part of a book that was not meant to be practical, and it was nice of Wilson to include it. Boozehound is a great read, just be ready to expand your horizons.

When you have finished Boozehound, keep your eyes open for Wilson’s next book. The working title is Questionable Taste, and the author describes it as “explorations into drinking well.” It won’t be out for a while, but that just gives you more time to try everything you read about in Boozehound — if you can find it.

Swedish Punsch, Anyone?

Check out this article from Robert Simonson at the New York Times Diner’s Journal. I had a lovely punch with a homemade version of this stuff at The Gibson a little while ago. It’s definitely worth having a bottle in your home bar.

The Wonderful World of Vermouth

Nice article here by Derek Brown, cocktail geek emeritus. Am I the only person on the planet that did not realize that Vermouth turns that quickly? Guess it is time to buy a new bottle.

Cocktail Geekdom: The Force Is Strong At The Columbia Room

Over the last few weeks, I have been doing my best to expand my knowledge of spirits and the art of making high quality cocktails. I’ve already written about my stops at The Gibson and Proof, and I have been reading (in my copious free time) Boozehound, by cocktail expert Jason Wilson. When I found out that my wife was going to be hosting a girls’ night, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to stop by another famous spot for cocktails in the District, The Passenger. At the last minute, I decided to go all in and upgrade my experience with a reservation for The Passenger’s Columbia Room. There, for $64 a head, you can get two small plates and a tasting menu of three cocktails prepared by self-professed booze nerd, Derek Brown.

I arrived at The Passenger a bit early, so I decided to check out the scene. Every seat at the bar and table were taken, but the place was not overly crowded. As I took it in, I heard a couple of regulars taking on either side of me. The first said to his companion, “Tell him what you like and he’ll give you something good.” Always a good sign. I then overheard the second one tell a friend that he used to go to The Passenger all of time, but that he went less now because “the place has gotten more crowded over time, more popular, and the prices have crept up.” When I left the bar two hours later I knew what he meant, as the place had filled up such that it took me five minutes to make my way through the main bar room and out the door.

But those two hours made it well worth the effort I would have to put in to leave. When my time came, I moved toward the back of the bar and turned to the unmarked black door to my left. (There seems to be a theme here, but at least this door was inside a well-marked establishment.) The door opened and I was escorted into a 10-15 seat room with a long, elegant bar displaying a wide variety of liquor and bitters bottles. Two bartenders were setting up the bar and were soon joined by Derek Brown, who welcomed his next round of tasters.

I Found It

The first cocktail offered was a Charles Dickens Punch, a warm drink consisting of rum, cognac (or brandy), sugar, lemon juice, and boiling water. I am normally not a fan of hot drinks, but it was perfect on a cold night. I immediately resolved that I would have to make some for my wife.

Another Black Door

The next cocktail is where my visit became interesting and educational. After chatting with Derek a bit about the punch, he brought me an Antwerp Cocktail, made from Boomsa Oude Genever (pre-dry London gin), Domaine de Canton, Benedictine, and homemade lemon bitters, with a floating lemon slice and wild orchid flower. Derek explained that this was not your typical gin-based cocktail as the Genever was an old fashioned gin. He was right. The juniper was much less dominant than I expected and I thoroughly enjoyed this very powerful cocktail. Oh, and it was served with 3 delicious Virginia steamed clams.

While finishing the Antwerp, I mentioned to Derek, as I have mentioned to you in prior posts, that I do not like gin and was therefore relieved to have enjoyed the Antwerp. Derek looked at me like I had just issued a challenge. A few minutes later, he placed two bottles in front of me: Plymouth English Gin and Dolin Dry Vermouth. When I asked if he was making me a martini after I just told him I did not like gin, he commented that there are two ways to approach things, you can either dip your toe or jump in the water. He always preferred the latter. He said that he made the best martini in town and, if I did not like it, he would concede I did not like gin. At some point during this conversation, a bowl of truffled popcorn appeared in front of me, which certainly made me a much more amenable patron.

I asked what the ratio was and, without hesitation, Derek replied, “50/50, the way God intended it.” Now, I am not going to tell you that I will be order martinis from now on everywhere I go, but Derek’s martini convinced me that I can enjoy the right gin in the right cocktail made the right way. My door to gin experimentation was reopened.

That was the end of the menu, but I had some time left before the next round of reservations. I put myself in Derek’s hands and he brought me a Fancy Bourbon Cocktail, made from Old Weller Antique Bourbon, Royal Combier, simple syrup, Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters, and a twist of lemon peel. It was a powerful drink to end the night with, but very enjoyable with the taste of orange complimenting the sweetness of the bourbon poured over freshly cut ice.

At $65 a sitting, The Columbia Room is certainly not an every night destination. However, the personal attention, the high quality of the cocktails, and the chance to ask questions of such a studied and impressive cocktail geek make it well worth the price of admission. Oh, and if you are a wanna be a true geek, bring a notepad . . . or an Ipad.

The Columbia Room at The Passenger
1021 7th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 393-0220