Holiday gift guide for baby boomers – 4 edible ideas

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As Baby Boomers, we mostly feel like we don’t need any more “stuff,” yet we still might like to buy presents for friends or relatives who are in the same boat. What to do if you simply must buy something?

For people who have everything, or simply don’t want or need anything else, giving a food-related gift is just the ticket to express your gratitude, appreciation or love. Truly, you can’t go wrong with food. It’s dear to the hearts of every one of us – especially at this time of year… “ ) Here are a few ideas to consider.

OpenTable Gift Card

Let 'em dine and think of you!
Let ’em dine and think of you!

No, you don’t eat it, but this instant-gratification gift gets your giftee into a place she’d will want to eat. OpenTable Gift cards let you or the recipient personalize the gift precisely to taste – you pick her favorite restaurant or let her make the choice. Ideal for foodie friends and relatives who love new dining experiences. When you purchase an OpenTable gift card (available in denominations starting at $10), pick from the list of 180 restaurants in and around Chicago – or if she lives elsewhere, pick from more than 2,000 restaurants in 30-plus cities. The gift arrives via e-mail, and your giftee can either print it out and redeem it at the restaurant (good any hours the place is open), Or she can just show it to the server on her mobile device. The full amount of the gift is deducted from her final bill (remember to tip on the original amount!). Talk about convenience, and no fees – every penny of your gift counts.

Choose from several nice designs and put in a short or long personalized message. Then either send it right away – I love that it comes instantly into her inbox – or set the specific date you want it to arrive. And the fact that you can just carry it on your cell phone or tablet makes it super convenient – no coupons to forget or misplace. Every year OpenTable is becoming a bigger and better player in the food/restaurant space; this gift card idea beats the generic gift card all to heck.

Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel confections

Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel
Crisp apples, gooey chocolate and caramel

If you love caramel apples, try one of these beauties. Mrs. Prindable’s uses deliciously crisp fresh apples and coats them with thick, softly chewy caramel and nuts, or stripes them with caramel and dark and milk chocolate, and decorates them to fit the season – e.g., beautiful Christmas or Hannukah trimmings. Their Chicago-style nut-and-chocolate-covered toffee makes a timeless, seasonless gift. You can order basketsful of Mrs. Prindable’s chocolate and caramel goodies of any size, starting at $29.99. Even if you’re watching the budget this year, you can still surprise your giftee with a box of four chocolate-covered caramels for $5.99 or a pack of three chocolate-and-caramel-covered pretzels for $7.99 – though if you don’t want to pay shipping [$10.99 for that $5.99 item), you can pick up your order in Mrs. Prindable’s Factory Store, 7425 Croname Rd in Niles. While you’re there, check out the dark or milk chocolate Nut Clusters, the Truffles and the endless combinations of boxed delights. These goodies are beautifully packaged in beribboned packets and boxes. The apples I tried arrive still cold from refrigeration, so don’t worry they won’t hold up with shipping.

GODIVA chocolates

GODIVA - synonymous with luxury
GODIVA – synonymous with luxury

The name speaks for itself. Visit one of the Chicago-area GODIVA boutiques (three in downtown alone) or order online. Below are a few to consider for a sublime holiday indulgence:

  • Holiday Ballotin ($50 – 36 pcs) – The GODIVA signature assortment of classic Belgian chocolates (caramels, ganaches and pralines) presented in the gold box tied with a red ribbon.
  • Limited Edition Holiday Chocolates & Truffles Collection ($50 – 12 pcs) – All-time favorites mixed with limited edition holiday chocolates and truffles like Gingerbread, Eggnog and Raspberry Linzer Torte.
  • Signature Truffle Gift Box ($50 – 24 pcs) – Select from the full truffle line, adorned with a red ribbon.
  • Hot Cocoa Gift Set ($20 – 12 pkts) – GODIVA cocoa packets (three milk, three dark and three caramel).

Amy’s Candy Bar – Candy made by a trained French pastry chef

Bly a pastry-maker turned candy artist
By a pastry-maker turned candy artist

Just in time for the holidays, Hyde Park welcomes a pop-up Amy’s Candy Bar store, 1546 E. 55th St., to go with the original Lincoln Square location, 4704 N. Damen Ave. Hand-crafted confections at the new store include Orangettes (dark-chocolate dipped orange peel), almond toffee covered in dark chocolate and sea salt, meringues, and signature caramels dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with a new variety of gourmet salts.

Storeowner Amy Hansen graduated from the French Pastry School and trained under renowned chocolatiers Regis Bouet and Lionel Clement. Her handmade treats are made with premium ingredients including European-style butter, organic cream, Madagascar vanilla, Belgium chocolate, and fresh fruit purees. The OMG Bar – hazelnut praline sandwiched between salted caramel and milk chocolate ganache – had Food & Wine Magazine hailing Hansen as a “candy making genius,” and named hers one of the five best candy stores in the country.

Amy’s Candy Bar in the Hyde Park Shopping Center (612.269.0970) is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11-7. Lincoln Square is open Monday, 3-7, Tuesday-Saturday, 11-8 and Sunday, 11-6. For more info, visit amyscandybar.com.

 

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Eating out Thanksgiving Chicago 2014

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English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people don’t like to cook, let alone put the Herculean effort in to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving feast. I used to spend days preparing – and oh, how we loved to enjoy! These days, my son-in-law does most of the work (we travel to Cleveland), while I usually sous-chef the carrots and green beans and hand-strip the fresh herbs from their stems for his delicious stuffing.

In case you aren’t up for cooking and aren’t going to a house where someone is, here are a few places you can go to get your Thanksgiving eating game on:

  • Brasserie by LM, 800 S. Michigan, is offering a $35 prix fixe menu, available on Thanksgiving Day only. The menu includes a choice of appetizer, entrée, side dish and dessert. Here’s the mouth-watering menu:

Appetizer – Roasted Chestnut Soup (truffle oil and chives) OR Bitter Green Salad (escarole, radicchio, frisee, bleu cheese, pomegranate pom vin)

Entrees
Roasted Turkey Roulade – stuffed with chestnuts and collard greens with sweet potato mash and turkey gravy OR
Fried Ham Steak – bacon and Brussel sprout hash OR
Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto – sautéed whitefish, pecan and sage brown butter

Sides – Green Bean Casserole OR Buttermilk Biscuits OR Turkey Stuffing with Cranberry Sauce
Desserts – Apple & Cranberry Cobbler OR Pumpkin Pie OR Cheese Plate

  • Troquet River North, 111 W. Huron in the Felix Hotel, is offering a holiday themed special with a French twist. Their Roasted Turkey Sandwich is topped with cranberry compote and Brussel Sprout slaw and is served on a croissant alongside hand-cut sweet potato frites ($14). The special will be available Monday, November 24 through Sunday, November 30.
  • The Brixton, 5420 N. Clark St., closed Thanksgiving Day, has a special on Tuesday, November 25; Wednesday, November, 26 and Friday, November 28, Chef Kevin McMullen’s Confit Turkey Leg is served with cranberry aioli, house stuffing and fried sage ($9).
  • Maxwell’s at the Club, 500 N. Kingsbury St. inside the East Bank Club, offers traditional Thanksgiving dinner from 1 to 7 pm. Reservations are a must. Parking lot available. Check out my review. If their other food is any indication, you’ll very likely enjoy your holiday vittles here.

 

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Try this cranberry-ish holiday cocktail

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It’s fun to experiment for special occasions, and I couldn’t resist this charming holiday-colored version of the martini. The Bombay Sapphire version of gin – made with juniper berries from Tuscany forgodssakes – gives it an extra depth of flavor. Hope you have a fabulous Thanksgiving.drink Yuletide martini

Yuletide Martini

  •  2 oz Bombay Sapphire
  • 2 tsp Cranberry Sauce
  • .25 oz dry curaçao
  • .25 oz cinnamon syrup
  • 1 dash five spice bitters (Bar Keep)

“The Martini was called ‘the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet’ by H.L. Menken. and, although the classic recipe involves only gin and vermouth, in the American spirit of invention, the cocktail can be experimented with to no end. In light of the holidays, The Yuletide Martini takes inspiration from some of the brighter flavors of the holidays, and incorporates cranberry, orange and spices to evoke the feeling of holiday spirit. E.B. White called the martini the ‘elixir of quietude,’ and this martini is meant to be just that: a quiet moment to be found in the hectic rush of the holiday season. Cheers.” – Created by Bombay Sapphire Denver’s Most Imaginative Bartender Winner, Tacy Rowland of Bol in Denver.

Hmm. Is this right? My plate never looks this skimpy at Thanksgiving.
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Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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Sparkling Italian wines and more from Veneto

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Provinces of the Italian region of Veneto
Provinces of the Italian region of Veneto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fine wines in Italy are certified as DOC or DOCG (read more about 4 excellent whites and a red from Romagna here and some fun info here), and a great many of them come from Veneto, Italy’s biggest-producing wine region. The region exports 28% of its wines compared to only 5% from Emilio Romagna and 12% from Trentino.

Reps from Veneto brought several wines to Chicago recently via the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014.  Below are a few you might like to try:

Sparklings

Wine service pouring a glass of the Italian sp...
Wine service pouring a glass of the Italian sparkling wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Selezione Raphael Dal Bo 2013 – from Raphael Dal Bo SRL.  Fruity, light (11% alc) and refreshing with a smooth finish and aromas of green apples and white blossoms. Excellent as an aperitif or with light starters, or to celebrate a festive occasion.  Some call this the “Swiss Army knife” of sparkling wines – good for most anything. (Price not available.)

Prosecco DOC Extra Dry Ca’ Delle Rose 2013 – from Domus Vini SRL. Fresh, lively and fragrant (11% alc) with floral, fresh fruit hints of apple, pear, citrus and yeast. This one’s grown near the Dolomite Mountains so has more minerality than some. Great as a cocktail and aperitif or with light foods, fish and seafood, and creamy desserts. (Price not available.)

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry 2013 – from Azienda Agricola Drusian Francesco. Fine and persistent on the palate with scents of green apple, pear, wisteria and white flowers. Drink as aperitif or with fish dishes (11% alc). Retails at ~$20.

White

Breganze Pino Grigio DOC Superiore Savardo 2013 – from Cantina Beato Bartolomeo da Breganze.  2013 was a good year for white wines in Veneto. This one is dry, crisp, fruity and fragrant with acacia blossoms and exotic fruits. (12.5% alc). (Price not available.)

Reds

Valpolicella Ripasso DOC 2012 – from Terredomini SRL.  Dry, velvety, with hints of baking spice, dark red fruits and tobacco, and an aroma of bitter almonds. Good with most anything: meats, cheese, pork medallions, veal shanks, etc. (Price not available.)

Venezia Rabosos Dell’ Arnassa DOC 2010 – from Castello di Roncade.  Full-bodied, pleasantly high acidity, with light wood notes and an aroma of vines with hints of mature red fruit and cherry. Goes great with the heaviest of meats such as venison, boar and duck. Retails anywhere from $15 to $25.

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4 white and 1 red Italian wines – Romagna Heart of Italy

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English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy
English: location of Emilia-Romagna in Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’ve been growing grapes and making fine wines in Romagna in Italy since the time of the Roman Empire. All the wines from this area are DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) or DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) – designations granted only to the best certified quality wines in Italy.  Romagna produces about 20 million bottles of this certified wine and exports 35% of it to other countries.

Romagna is known for its deep, dark Sangiovese reds and many white wines – from dry to aged dessert types. Since most of the winemakers are very small, they needed to band together to promote themselves. So 250 small winemakers and 200 partner wineries worked to form Consorzio Vini di Romagna. They brought some of their fine wines to Chicago recently during the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014.  Below are four of their white wines and one red I recommend:

Whites

Romagna Italian whites and Sangioveses
Romagna Italian whites and Sangiovese reds – part of the Simply Italian Great Wines tour

4 stars Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Progetto I 2013 – from Leone Conti Societa’ Agricola. Lovely white wine, dry and warm with aromas of yellow fruit, golden apple skin, wet rocks, oak and vanilla. Good with starters, first courses of fish and roasted white meats. Four stars and a great value at ~$15. This wine won over a Sauterne in a blind taste test.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco I Croppi 2013 – from Celli SNC di Sirri & Casadei Societa’ Agricola.  Rich, round, fresh, elegant with aromas of yellow pulp fruit and scents of apricot and melon. Four stars and another great value at ~$15. Good with noodles, grilled fish and white meats.

4 stars – Romagna Albana DOCG Secco Alba Della Torre 2013 – from La Sabbiona S.S. Azienda Agricola. Dry, warm and harmonious, with a finish of burnt almond. This is a beautiful wine with intense fruity and floral notes and a whiff of peaches. Another great value at ~$15. Good for starters, fish, especially grilled fish, but really it would go well with your whole meal.

5-star beauty – Romagna Albana DOCG Passito 2010 – from Bissoni Raffaella Alessandra Azienda Agricola.  Creamy, slightly sweet, but rich and complex, with persistent tannins and aromas of apricot, dried figs, almonds, ripe dates and scents of rich fruit and spice mixtures. It’s a dessert wine, so go ahead and splurge at $45 retail. Serve it with almond pastries, and/or mature Pecorino or blue cheeses with honey or jam.

One red I recommend is the Romagna Sangiovese Doc Superiore Riserva Nonno Rico 2010 from Azienda Agricola Alessandro Morini “Poderi Morini.” Delicately soft, smooth and fresh with notes of thyme and oregano along with scents of plum, cherry, vanilla and licorice with a finish of ripe rose. Doesn’t it just make your mouth water? A good value at ~$20. Serve with filet of beef or other rich meats.

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Trentino – Fine wines from grapes grown in harmony with the mountains

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I tend to love Italian wines. And Italy has done more to make me enjoy white wines – they are really good at those – than anything else. Had a chance recently at the Simply Italian Great Wines tour 2014 to taste some beautiful white wines and a couple of lovely reds from Trentino, the northernmost wine-growing area of Italy.

Smaller wine growers have a hard time marketing outside their region, since costs can be prohibitive. So, many Trentino winemakers got together to extend their reach out to the rest of the world with their delicious wines. The “Vini del Trentino” consortium has 120 members and represents about 7500 winemakers.

Trentino produces more than 120,000 tons of grapes each year – equal to more than 21 million gallons of fine wine. But the region has so many different microclimates that you’ll discover many distinctive flavors and fragrances among those products. Grapes grow in vineyards located either on the valley bottom, on the hills, or on the Dolomite mountains. Ninety percent of the vineyards in Trentino make D.O.C. wines – that’s Italy’s own method of controlling quality. Here are a few I found 4-star or better:

Whites

  • Trento DOC Cantina D’Isera Brut S.A. (sparkling) (~$12) – 100% Chardonnay. Citrus and peach notes.
  • Trento DOC Cesarini Sforza Tridentum Brut 2009 (~$27) – 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Nero. Full and rich.
  • Trentino DOC Pinot Grigio 2013 (~$18) – 100% Pinot Grigio. Intense fruity aromas, including ripe pear.

Reds

  • Trentino Superiore DOC Marzemino D’Isera Etichetta Verde 2011 (~$10). Delicate, violets, fruits of the forest. This one can be aged two to three years after purchase. Great value.
  • Teroldego Rotaliano Superiore Riserva 2011. Robust red, notes of raspberries, plums and chocolate. This is a fabulous wine – 5 stars – and the price reflects it (~$31).

For more information, visit www.vinideltrentino.com.

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New holiday drink tradition

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The drink is called Good Memories. I made it last night and can see just why they gave it that name. I also got a kick out of my friends trying to guess what was in this delicious ice-cream-and-liquor delight – it’s a fooler. The combination of ingredients is so unusual and the flavor so unique, I’m guessing even a professional bartender might have trouble figuring it out. I can tell you I will be offering this to guests all this season as my new alternative-to-eggnog holiday drink tradition. Thank you, Bombay Sapphire!

You need several liquors, but don’t think they’ll go to waste. You might even want to make an occasional one of these just to treat yourself. Recipe below.

GOOD MEMORIES

  • 1.75 oz  Bombay Sapphire Gin (aromatic, sightly sweeter-than-regular Bombay gin – check out their gorgeous distillery)

    Make Good Memories this holiday season
    Make Good Memories this holiday season
  • 1 oz spiced rum (I used Capt Morgan’s 1671 blend)
  • 1 scoop Hazelnut ice cream (if you use Ben & Jerry’s Hazed & Confused you’ll end up with a bunch of tiny chocolate pieces in the bottom of the glass – not the end of the world, but smoother is nicer; next time I’ll try Talenti Hazelnut Gelato)
  • 0.5 oz  cherry brandy (I used Kirschwasser)
  • a dash of Jerry Thomas bitters (I left this out because I couldn’t find it, but if you can, it will make the drink even more aromatic and mysteriously flavorful)
  • Cinnamon

Method: Put the first four ingredients into a shaker or a big pitcher. Then either shake or blend with a stick blender ’til it’s creamy and smooth. No need to add ice. The ice cream will melt into the drink, chilling it out perfectly. Pour into either stemmed wine glasses or small cups with handles – you don’t want the warmth of your hand thinning the drink too much. Then stir in a dash of Bitters  and grate or sprinkle some cinnamon on top.

Now go make some good memories this holiday.

“It’s a delicious martini-style cocktail perfect for Christmas, with hazelnut notes and cloves, all surrounded with cinnamon aroma, cherries, and vanilla from the rum. It’s a cold blend that has a floral body from the Bombay Sapphire Gin, that warms you up in the cold. It is also perfect for a summery Christmas on a fantastic tropical island. Enjoy responsibly! Salute!”Created by Bombay Sapphire NY’s Most Imaginative Bartender Winner, Vincenzo Cangemi of Ovest Pizzoteca & Bar in NYC.

And here’s the next one I’ll be featuring. Stay tuned!

The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)
The Yuletide Martini (with cranberry sauce!)

 

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