Category Archives: beverages

Understanding Japanese saké

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Japan loves that so many people in the U.S. have become fans of their cuisine. Representatives from Japan and several U.S. Japanese experts agreed to participate in a panel discussion about Japanese cuisine and saké, held at the Japan Information Center this week. Steve Dolinsky of ABC 7 hosted the discussion as part of kickoff week for Chicago Gourmet.

Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo
Chilled sake bottles. AND the cans of sake sold in vending machines everywhere in Tokyo

In addition to the panel, several companies presented various iterations of their trademark sakés for tasting. Unlike traditional wines, saké – known as rice wine – is brewed like beer. Aromas, just as with grape-based wines, range from floral to fruity and everywhere in between. Flavors depend on the precise combination of rice, water, koji and yeast, and vary according to profile, some even made of only rice and water. Varieties also change according to how much of the rice hull is polished away before fermenting.

Panelists agreed that the sophistication of saké has grown in tandem with the curiosity of U.S. consumers. The drink has come a very long way since 30 years ago when, if you ordered saké with your dinner, in most Asian restaurants you’d get a stoneware cruet of something – room temp or heated – that was barely drinkable.  Now saké breweries produce dozens of subtly different saké wines.

Kombu - dried kelp used in making dashi broth
Kombu – dried kelp used in making dashi broth

Panelists talked about Japanese cuisine, too, tossing around terms like dashi – a broth made of steeped bonito fish flakes and kombu – a staple of Japanese cooking. They passed around pieces of kombu (dried kelp) so that attendees could feel and smell it. Everyone agreed Asian cooking is healthy, and raising consumption is simply a matter of continuing to educate consumers about saké and Japanese cooking.

Saké comes in multiple categories (list below), and premium sakés should always be served chilled to preserve their aromas:

  • Diaginjo and Ginjo – pair well with light foods and hors d’oeuvres.
  • Honjozo and Junmai – pair with a wide variety of foods, from sashimi to beef.
  • Bold types of saké – pair with heavier, gamier foods like cheese and beef. Bold types may include some Kimoto, Yamahai, Nama (unpasteurized) Genshu and Koshu (aged saké).
  • NIgori (cloudy) saké and sparkling saké
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake
Shohei Shimokawa sampling sake

Saké is made in hundreds of different breweries. Then like traditional wines, an importer/distributor team must agree to represent the products in the U.S. Importers include some prestigious wine importing firms like Kobrand Wine & Spirits, Terlato Wines International, and many more. Two importers present were Vine Connections – their rep Jonathan Edwards says those Bushido cans of saké (photo at top) will be in Binny’s by next week – and Tenzing Wine and Spirits, the only table  present that offered samples of an unpasteurized version. Saké Boys from Kyushu was pouring samples of their premium saké (photo). Tip: their website includes brief, helpful explanations about the brewing process.

For your next meal of Asian food, talk to an expert in saké so you can experiment with pairing. How about saké and steak, Chicago?

Sake sample bottles
Sake sample bottles
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Kobrand brings stunning Italian wines on U.S. tour

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https://www.crateandbarrel.com/swoon-carafe/s291781?&a=0&source=igodigital&cid=THANKS&dtm_em=171474dde920335dd4fad21b92834157&e=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&et_cid=628484&et_dos=9212017&et_rid=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&j=628484&jb=85479&l=33_HTML&mid=7200679&u=194336557
The best carafe for decanting – this “Swoon” carafe at Crate & Barrel

Kobrand Wine & Spirits, is a family-owned importing and marketing firm that’s been known since 1944 for its distinguished portfolio of hand-selected brands from virtually every major wine and spirits region of the world. Kobrand focuses on one thing – quality – in its collection of gems from New World and Old. In a recent showcase that began with our city and is traveling around the U.S., they brought an array of stunning, mostly luxury, wines to Chicago, each lovingly presented by either the owner or the winemaker. The collection was impressive enough to rival any grouping from anywhere in the world. Read more from President and CEO Robert T. DeRoose about Kobrand’s passion for finding great wines.

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Emilia Nardi - brings her fine Brunellos on Tour d'Italia
Emilia Nardi – brings her fine Brunellos on Tour d’Italia

Their recent Tour d’Italia took place at the 5-star Peninsula Hotel and featured wines from the major Italian wine-producing regions across the depth and breadth of Italy: Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Piedmont in the North, the more central regions of Tuscany and Umbria and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Guests were able to interact with the people most closely connected to these exceptional terroir-driven wines.

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Kobrand’s Italian winemakers or principals that are presenting their portfolios on this tour include the following:
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Colleen McKettrick: Tenuta San Guido
Niccolò Finizzola: Tenuta di Biserno
Giovanna Moretti: Tenuta Sette Ponti, Feudo Maccari
Emilia Nardi: Tenute Silvio Nardi
Giovanni Folonari: Tenuta di Nozzole, Tenute del Cabreo, Tenuta Campo al Mare, Tenuta La Fuga, Tenuta TorCalvano
Giacomo Boscaini: Masi Agricola
Michele Chiarlo: Michele Chiarlo
Alberto Medici: Medici ErmeteRoberto Pighin: Fernando Pighin & Figli
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Impossible to list all the superior-quality wines represented at this gathering. Any wine from one of these wineries is practically guarnateed to be a winner. Prices for all wines presented varied dramatically – from under $20 for a 2016 Pighin Sauvignon Friuli to well over $100 for the 2009 Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone Veneto. Below are a few that stood out and are worth considering for your cellar – or for the upcoming holidays, or just because you deserve them.
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Feudo Maccari. Multiple wines from Noto, Sicily, all presented by the tall and handsome winemaker Giovanna Moretti, dressed impeccably in an elegant sport coat and tie. He particularly welcomed attendees to taste and compare two different vintage years of the same wine – same grapes, same vinification, etc. – as a dramatic demonstration of how beautifully his wines age in the bottle. Feudo Maccari owner Antonio Moretti took over the Tenuta Sette Ponti vineyards from his father and than later purchased Poggio al Lupo in Maremma and then Feudo Maccari in Sicily.
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2013 Feudo Maccari SAIA, made of Nero d’Avola grapes from old bush vines – which produce almost 50% less than regular vines – this robust and luxurious Sicilian red comes from the founder of Tenuta Sette Ponti in Tuscany. Beautiful with roast meats and game. Good value at SRP ~$30.
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2014 Feudo Maccari MAHARIS, made with 100% Syrah grapes at SRP ~$47. Both wines get 90+ points from multiple reviewers, this win has balsamic notes mixed with cocoa and coffee.
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Giovanna also showed a delightfully rich white called Feudo Maccari GRILLO 2016 that would perfectly compliment a dish of pasta with salty fish or grilled fish. at SRP ~$16.
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Tenute Silvio Nardi. Owner Emilia Nardi, attired in deep emerald green that perfectly complemented her light blonde hair, spoke with love and reverence about the winemaking process she began learning from age 12 by working with her father. She spoke of the sun rising on the grapes in the vineyard he bought in 1962.  After her initiation into the business, she pursued an MBA and returned to become one of the few female leaders in Brunello. Her winery, Tenute Silvio Nardi, is among the oldest and most respected producers of legendary Brunello di Montalcino – the first bottle of which dates back to 1954. Two of her estates, Casale del Bosco and Manachiara Vineyards, are among the most coveted plots in Montalcino. Below are notes on three of her wines – all made with Sangiovese Grosso grapes – you should consider for special occasions or to treat yourself and a friend or two:
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2012 Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. A traditional Brunello of depth and complexity, with impressive structure and remarkable potential for aging. Intense, complex aromas of red fruits and spics with toasty oak notes. Silky texture, great finesse and profound flavors with velvety tannins. Impressive now and perfect for aging. SRP ~$48.
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2012 Tenute Silvio Nradi Manachiara Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Clean, intense and complex aromas of rich, round ripe fruit with spice and floral notes. Deep flavors along with fresh acidity, solid structure and supple tannins. Long subtle finish. Enjoy it now, or cellar it for a few years. Either way, you’ll be delighted. SRP ~$75.
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2011 Tenute Silvio Nardi Poggio Doria Riserva Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. Pronounced aromas of ripe red fruits with spice and leather notes. Full mouthfeel and firm structure, with strong, suave and velvety tannins. Long lovely finish. SRP ~$86
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https://www.crateandbarrel.com/swoon-carafe/s291781?&a=0&source=igodigital&cid=THANKS&dtm_em=171474dde920335dd4fad21b92834157&e=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&et_cid=628484&et_dos=9212017&et_rid=rgfwriter%40gmail.com&j=628484&jb=85479&l=33_HTML&mid=7200679&u=194336557
Gorgeous “Swoon” carafe available at Crate & Barrel

It was also a joy to watch Emilia as she decanted and aerated her fine wines without any fancy gadgets. She upended the bottle of one of her fine vintages and held it at an angle against the inside of the neck of a beautiful decanter. The wine splashed vigorously against the glass as it flowed from bottle to container, even splashing slightly outside the vessel. Upon completing the decant, she poured a bit in her glass, sniffed with her educated nose and nodded to indicate the device-free aeration had achieved the desired result. Try this at home if you like – but you may want to use a lesser wine until you perfect the process!

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**BTW, Poggio means “top of a hill” in Italian.
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3 Sicilian wines under $20 for holiday meals

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It’s never too early to start thinking about wines you might like to serve with your holiday meals. The selection is endless, certainly, but recommendations can help you hone down the list of possibles. Based on some recent complimentary review tastings, here are three we can recommend for various occasions, including various upcoming holidays. Two Sicilian whites and one red:
Donnafugata Lighea - unique Zibibbo grape wine
Donnafugata Lighea – unique Zibibbo grape wine

Lighea 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. This is a truly unique taste in white wines. It’s made of Zibibbo grapes (also known as Muscat of Alexandria), and the vines are grown in hollows on low bush vines (notorious for lower yields than traditional). This vintage was grown in a relatively dry season with weather that wasn’t overly hot, so the winemakers were able to focus on the quality of the grapes without worrying about quantity. Lighea has a brilliant straw color with greenish tints, a nose of classic notes of orange blossom, saturn peaches and Mediterranean scrub. The aromas reflect exactly what you’ll taste on the palate along with a fresh mineral vein – and that’s why this unusual combination produces such a unique flavor. Delicious as an aperitif and good with first courses like seafood or a light soup. SRP ~$15-20.

Donnafugata SurSur - light and lovely Grillo white
Donnafugata SurSur – light and lovely Grillo white

SurSur 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Made from the ubiquitous Sicilian grape, Grillo, this white wine has a fresh and fruity character and a bouquet of peaches, elderflowers and rosemary – so there’s a hint of savory that makes it lovely with seafood, vegetables and baked sturdy fish. Open it when you’re ready to serve and pour into medium-size tulip glasses to get the most out of the fruity aromas and the brilliant straw yellow color. Even the label, with its painting of a young girl running through the grass, makes you feel like you’re there with her, “listening to a thousand Sur Sur” (it means crickets). Nice value for an apertif at SRP ~$13.

Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d'Avola and many other grapes
Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d’Avola and many other grapes

Sedàra 2015 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Another of Sicily’s classic grapes, Nero d’Avola, is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes here and crafted into a quality red wine suitable for everyday enjoyment or favorite family occasions. The dark berries and slight spice notes come out in a pleasantly dusky quality that makes this wine good for pairing with rich foods like barbequed meats, pizza, or even seared tuna or roast turkey. A complex, structured red that benefits from letting it breathe a while before you drink. SRP ~$15.

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Chicago hosts lovely Bordeaux wines

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Herbarium peek-a-boo walls at Bad Hunter - hosting Bordeaux wines in Chicago
Herbarium peek-a-boo walls at Bad Hunter – hosting Bordeaux wines in Chicago

It’s always a joy to have the winemakers of France come to Chicago, and particularly delightful to taste the wines of Bordeaux in our fair city. After their recent New York event, Somm’ Like It Bordeaux, Vins de Bordeaux held a tasting at The Herbarium at Bad Hunter that proved enlightening and enjoyable for industry experts and media.

As with many grape-growing lands, two rivers – River Garonne and Dordogne – flow through Bordeaux. One way to categorize their red wines is to note that those from the Left Banks tend to blend their local grapes with Merlot, while wines from the Right Banks tend to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon.
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Bordeaux wines come from 65 different appellations, many of which you’ll recognize: Cotes de Bordeaux (“cotes” denotes hillsides that overlook the right banks of the Garonne and the Dordogne Rivers), Saint-Emillion, Pomerol & Fronsac, Medoc and Graves.
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The Bordeaux region as a whole produces dry whites (11% of their production) that are fresh and vibrant with good natural acidity. Bordeaux sweet whites are made from grapes affected by botrytis. They’re medium- to full-bodied and are produced mainly in Sauternes and Barsac in the southern part of Bordeaux.
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Below are a few of the many standouts at the tasting:
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Whites:
Chateau Petit-Freylong, Cuvee Izzy 2015. Rich, stone fruit bubbly from Bordeaux made from early-picked Sauvignon Blanc, this was 5-star all the way. Importer: Sweiss Group, LLC. SPR ~$22.
Chateau de sours, La Source Blanc 2011. This blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon will please nearly anyone. SRP $35.
Reds:
Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), Legende 2012. Beautiful blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot. Imported by Esprit du Vin. SRP $49.99
Chateau Lafitte Laujac 2011. Made from grapes grown in very well drained soils in the Medoc region, this one spent a full year in barrels. 60% Cabernet, 35% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. Lovely.
Rosés:
Chateau Maurac 2012. Blended from Cabernet and Merlot from the Haut-Medoc area and imported by Michael Corso Selections. SRP $29.99.
Chateau de Sours, Reserve de Sours sparkling Rosé. A lovely sparkling wine from Bordeaux made of 87% Merlot and 13% Cabernet and imported by Old Bridge Cellars. SRP ~$20.
Unique bar at Herbarium at Bad Hunter
Unique bar at Herbarium at Bad Hunter

For more information about the Bordeaux wine regions, read here.

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Jake Melnick’s kicks a** on Chicago’s BBQ scene

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You know how sometimes when you walk in a place – air-conditioned and comfortable-like – on a hot day, you feel so grateful you decide to set a spell. That’s how it feels to walk into Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap, 41 E. Superior. Don’t let the address fool you. It’s a quick and easy walk from Michigan Ave., sitting nearly katty-corner to  The Peninsula Hotel.
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Helpful classifications on Jake's beer menu
Helpful classifications on Jake’s beer menu

The lighting is a mixture of behind-the-bar, overhead (subtle) and twinkle lights; the effect is warm and cozy – even the tiny lights lining the panels of the dark wood ceiling are a warm orange-y shade. The music is upbeat, and the mood is laid-back party. With a big selection of beers, craft and otherwise, plus a selected list of decent wines and a full bar, you can get anything you want to slake your thirst and/or complement your food. Remember, the keynotes here are ‘barbeque’ and ‘fried.’

Jake's Street fries accompaniments - practically a full meal
Jake’s Street fries accompaniments – practically a full meal

Jake’s signature Street Fries are amazing. Served with half a dozen condiments, from creamy, rich cheese sauce, sriracha and jalapeños to pulled pork, delicious chunky guacamole and chopped cilantro, they’re skin-on, just-crispy-enough French fries. You can get them with everything dumped on top or with everything on the side so you can customize your taste experience. The cilantro and guac combo is excellent – even sans fries. Dip some fries in the cheese sauce and top with fresh chopped jalapeño – scrumptious.

The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great
The pickles tend to slide out of the breading, but the flavor is great

The deep-fried pickles are cut in long, thin whole-pickle slices rather than chips or spears so you get plenty of the delicious breading in every salty, savory bite – which you can further enhance by dipping in a little tub of Ranch dressing. The hand-cut BBQ potato chips are crunchy and gently-BBQ-seasoned. Topped with a sprinkle of blue cheese and chopped scallions and served with a light blue cheese dressing, these were the only items that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Jake's French fries - skin-on and crispy
Jake’s French fries – skin-on and crispy

Order the pulled pork sliders, served with a huge pile of French fries, so you can have the chance to try all three of Jake’s signature sauces – Carolina (vinegar-based), Georgia (mustardy and delicious) and traditional BBQ flavors – one on each of three mini egg buns full of sweet, juicy pulled pork that’s smoked right on the premises. They smoke all their meats here – brisket, chicken, ribs and more.

Jake Melnick’s has been servin’ up good BBQ in Chicago for 15 years now. Even as I write I’m still dipping fries in the cheese sauce and scarfing up the rest of the jalapeños. Great place to hang with a group of friends or bring the family. With a choice of so many signature sauces for almost everything, ketchup on the fries seems like overkill – but at Jake’s, you make the call.
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Monthly specials at Jake Melnick's
Monthly specials at Jake Melnick’s

And don’t forget the wings, burgers and sides – and the monthly specials. August specials are: 1) Jake’s jumbo crispy Charred Orange Bourbon Maple chicken wings served with rosemary Ranch dressing $13.95, 2) Burger al Pastor (pork marinated with red choke paste, fresh herbs & citrus, grilled and topped with roasted Serrano aioli, grilled pineapple, onions & shredded lettuce, served with fries) $15.95, 3) Mac Daddy Mac n Cheese Pizza Mac (crispy pizza dough with house-made pizza sauce, Jake’s creamy Mac, cheddar cheese, local Makowski hot link & green onion) $11.95; and 4) Jake the Ripper Makowski hot link wrapped in bacon, served on a sausage roll & topped with grilled onions, fresh pico de gallo & chipotle-lime cream) $12.95.

Be advised, come hungry and leave your diet behind. And if you want a little more nutrition, they’ve got salads. And brick oven pizzas.
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And, oh, yeah. sweet potato fries.
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Bulletin…this just in. In case you have room for dessert – or that’s really what you want anyway – they’ve got some kick-a** items in that category, too:
  • Fried Oreos. The classic cookie, pancake battered and fried, then served over vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. – $6.95
  • Warm Apple Pie Skillet. Fresh-baked old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream. – $6.95
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet Sundae – a giant warm chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream, warm fudge and whipped cream. – $6.95
  • NEW! Jake’s Carnival Fries:house-made funnel cake strings tossed in powdered sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and caramel sauce with whipped cream and sprinkles. $7.95
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T&B Grill – taco/burger ambrosia in Albany Park

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Don’t drive or walk too fast down the 3600 block of Lawrence Ave. or you may miss the opportunity to enjoy some exceptional food in an unlikely location in Albany Park. T&B Grill, 3658 W. Lawrence, is a delight – but shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s getting nearly 5-star overall ratings on Facebook and Yelp.

Ambrosio Mancines, Chef/Proprietor, brings his passion for good food together with his experiences in the culinary world and his desire to be of service to hungry and discerning customers. All of this comes out in the form of a unique menu that features very tasty tacos, burgers, fries, appetizers, and desserts. Who would think: Tiramisu on the menu with shrimp tacos? Who would imagine a bison burger with truffle fries and a chocolate soufflé for dessert ? How about tortillas handmade with cilantro and jalapeño? Think house-made ketchup with a touch of chipotle, and sweet potato fries with a crisp-crunchy touch of sugar on the outside. Nearly everything here is made from scratch and obviously with tons of love. And the mixing of the cuisines is intentional – Bon Appetit looks for just such originality in its “best new restaurant” category. We believe T&B belongs there this year!

Value for your dollar is exceptional at T&B. The menu offers mini burgers – variously topped with anything from bacon or cheese to caramelized onions and/or a small fried egg – that can be had with fries for a mere $5. The colorful and flavorful tacos – generously filled with duck, shrimp, steak, grilled veggies and so on – are on the menu at $3.50. This kind of pricing is hard to beat anywhere in Chicago – except maybe at an occasional happy hour – and it’s even more amazing when you realize the food is of such high quality.

We tried several of the burger types and loved them, except for the black bean burger which seemed to have too much flour in the mix. Otherwise, all versions were very good, cooked to order, and served on delicious buns. In fact we, who are normally in the habit of taking half the bun off our burgers, didn’t want to do it here. Just too good.

While you eat and drink – BYOB whatever you like, or even choose to mix with any of several house-made cocktail mixes – enjoy the unique and original artwork adorning the walls. In fact, Ambrosio recently engaged a local artist, Manuel “MATR” Macias, to paint a giant mural on the outside wall of the restaurant on the Lawndale Ave. side. Coming soon, it will make it nice calling card for vehicle and pedestrian traffic coming from the west side.

The French fries are hand cut, skin-on and cooked with just enough crispiness on the edges. The variety of choices – four appetizers, seven types of burgers, seven types of tacos,  four types of french fries and four different desserts plus seasonal ice cream – gives you a sense that you can have something new every visit. Visit here for more information on T&B Grill and LOTS of gorgeous professional photos of the food.
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And make no mistake. You will want to come back. This place is worth the trip, even if you don’t live in the area. We were impressed with the value and love that it’s also BYOB. Congratulations, Ambrosio and manager Omar Contreros. Great job. Have already put the word out to friends and neighbors. We can’t wait to come back.
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Happy belated National Scotch Day!

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Even though National Scotch Day was July 27, it’s never too late to share news about this legendary drink. Whether you’re a Scotch devotee or an occasional imbiber, pretend today is National Scotch Day and read on.
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Spirit of Place book coverWe received a beautiful book a while ago about Scotland’s distilleries. Called Spirit of Place, it was written by Charles MacLean with gorgeous photos by Lara Platman and Allan MacDonald. This coffee-table-worthy book tells stories of the many dedicated professionals who spend their lives producing unique expressions of this venerable drink. My daughter backpacked through Europe and Africa some years ago, and she said Scotland was the most beautiful country in all her travels. If you love Scotch whisky and you can’t visit there yourself, this book will bring you to the people and the places of 50 of Scotland’s great distilleries in a way that only beautiful pictures and heartfelt words can. $35.55 on Amazon.
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For some, Scotch is an acquired taste; the heavy peat-and-smoke flavors of some expressions can put newbies off. Even some Scotch aficionados like a less-smoky spirit. But either way, you can look forward to refining your own taste buds as you try out the many, many types of Scotch available.
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Old Pulteney 12 year old
Old Pulteney 12 year old

We were pleased to receive recently a review sample of Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Scotch Whisky. This brand is matured in hand-selected American ex­‐bourbon casks. Over the years, the casks gently absorb the northern sea breeze, giving the whisky its smooth, complex flavors and coastal characteristics. The combination of the exposed maritime environment and traditional distillation methods create a malt described by a leading whisky writer as ‘unashamedly excellent.’ (SRP, $45)

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We liked the different categories they suggest to characterize each whisky. For example, the above Old Pulteney 12-year-old is shown as (rookie, traditional, sailor, honey). Many of the terms were derived from the heritage of each brand. For example, the maritime heritage is at the heart of Old Pulteney whiskies and they’ve long embraced the sea as a source of inspiration. The brand is actively committed to celebrating the achievements of maritime communities and individuals who share their passion for the ocean. See several other impressive Scotches described below:
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Speyburn 10 year old
Speyburn 10 year old

Speyburn 10YO (rookie, traditional, golfer, honey)
Speyburn 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (SRP, $30) offers a classic Speyside experience with its medium-bodied, delicate and fruity character with a long, smooth finish. Always a favorite, it’s no surprise that the Speyburn 10 was awarded a gold medal in The Scotch Whisky Masters competition from The Spirits Business in 2016. Consistent quality and outstanding reviews (like the 93 points Wine Enthusiast awarded the selection) make this a go-to selection for next National Scotch Day and every day.

Speyburn Arranta
Speyburn Arranta

Speyburn Arranta Casks (rookie, traditional, hunter, spicy)
The limited release Speyburn Arranta Casks (SRP, $40) is a 2016 International Spirits Challenge Gold Medal winner.  Wine Enthusiast chose Arranta Casks as one of their Top 100 Spirits of 2015 awarding the selection 93 points and a “Best Buy” designation. Arranta (meaning “bold”, “daring” and “intrepid” in Scottish Gaelic) is unique for its exclusive use of first fill American Oak ex-bourbon casks and draws its rich color and full-bodied, bold flavor from the quality and character of the air-dried wood.

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Old Pulteney Navigator (rookie, bold, sailor)
Old Pulteney Navigator was created to celebrate the sailing community and commemorate the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. Only 3,000 bottles are available in the United States of this one-time release. Aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, Navigator delivers a rich, balanced flavor showcasing the nuances of the distillery character. The 46% ABV allows the salty, citrus notes to shine through. (SRP, $55)

Stroma Liqueur
Stroma Liqueur

Stroma Liqueur (rookie, bold, sailor, spicy)
Stroma Liqueur is a careful blend of malt whiskies from Old Pulteney’s multi-award winning portfolio. Bottled at 35% ABV, its smooth, sweet taste has robust and rugged undertones and a warm and comforting finish. Every aspect of Old Pulteney’s latest release is designed to embody the intrigue, craft and history of the brand’s seafaring roots. Stroma’s unique bottle features an embossed image of crashing waves and it is packaged in striking black and gold – with a foil neck tag, which includes the brand’s story and tasting notes. (SRP, $34.99)

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Balblair
Balblair

Balblair 2005 (aficionado, indulgent, collector, citrus)
Only a handful of American oak, ex-bourbon casks laid down in 2005 were selected by Distillery Manager John MacDonald to form this classic Balblair expression. Light, fruity and refereshing, this classic Vntage embodies Balblair’s house style. (SRP, $65)

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anCnoc 12YO (rookie, bold, design lover, honey)
The anCnoc 12 Year Old is renowned the world over. Known as a must-have in any whisky drinker’s collection, it’s light and yet complex. Smooth yet challenging. And each twist and turn delivers a surprise. Sweet to start with an appetizing fruitiness and a long smooth finish. Light yet complex, smooth yet challenging. This is a dram that has something for everyone. (SRP, $50)
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Patio pleasures at Trattoria Gianni

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Trattoria Gianni's charming enclosed patio
Trattoria Gianni’s charming enclosed patio
Sitting on a block of Halsted in Lincoln Park that’s also home to high-flying successes like Alinea and Boka can be a challenge for any restaurant. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, takes it on as a comfortable Italian oasis that has the distinct summer advantage of a large, enclosed, charmingly decorated patio.
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On a recent press visit we sampled some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Rice balls that were tender inside and deep-fried just enough to give a hint of crunch on the outside. Meatballs made with pork and veal. Pasta veggie primavera. Italian-dressed romaine and tomato salad with Italian bread. Italian food, filling and plentiful.

Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.

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Moscato d’Asti will open your eyes

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Surprise: Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont region is worlds away from what “moscato” meant to most American 20 years ago – which was generally an over-sweet wine without the balance of appropriate acidity. Just plain cloying to drink.
There are versions of Moscato being made in Sicily and other parts of Italy, but the magic of Moscato d’Asti comes from the strict regulations of the DOCG designation. No extra sugar can be added, for example. And fermentation must be natural, not from injected gas. Because standards are so strict, every year is declared a vintage.
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Today 4000 companies in Piedmont grow grapes on 27,000 acres of mostly hillsides to create the light, low-alcohol, floral white naturally sweet wine with a touch of bubbles. The natural fermentation sets it apart from the simplicity of Prosecco, which bears no comparison to the complexity of this Moscato d’Asti. Some say this Moscato has similarities to complex yet lightly sweet German wines like Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.
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Generally considered a fresh wine, you won’t find many older vintages of Moscato d’Asti. Though you might find a bottle here and there that has stood the test of time for a few years, up to 5 or so. Part of the reason for the freshness is that producers don’t bottle the wine until it’s been ordered. They actually use fine-tuned technology to maintain the fresh, non-alcoholic juice at 2 degrees below zero Celsius until it’s time to bottle. Once an order is placed,  winemakers gradually raise the temperature of the juice until fermentation sets in, then watch it carefully until the perlage – bubbles – are just right for the maker’s vision.
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Climate change is affecting how the Piedmont Moscato winemakers do their work. They are having to pick earlier and anticipate in the near future having to grow their grapes almost exclusively on the hillsides where it’s cooler than in the valley, has more light and cooler nights.
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Most of these winemakers suggest enjoying their wines as apertif or even as a midday refreshment. Remember the study that said office workers who consumed a glass of wine at lunch tended to perform better, come up with more creative solutions, and generally be in better moods? It’s true, people. Come on, live a little!
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Here are a few wines that struck a chord at this event:
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Saracco Moscato d’Asti DOP 2016. Surprisingly delicate, complex and slightly fizzy rather than bubbly. Fun to drink with dessert or alone, as a pleasant mid-day break. Remember – delicate bubbles, low alcohol (generally only 5%) and extremely aromatic. A treat.
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Coppo Moncalvino Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Moscato represents one of the most important indigenous grapes to the Piedmont region. And Moscato d’Asti has higher acidity – to balance the natural sweetness – than almost any other sweet wine, which keeps the flavors interesting and complex. This particular wine is fresh and aromatic with floral notes and peach and pear overtones.
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Marenco Vini Scrapona Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. This wine has a heady combination of aromas – almost reminiscent of musk oil – that translate into a deliciously rich flavor. The winemaker said, “We are all about preserving the distinctive aromas of the Moscato grape.” One part of achieving that goal is to allow no irrigation; the wines are made with whatever moisture nature provides. This particular wine is substantial enough to pair well with a wide variety of foods: from tempura and spicy foods, to light cheeses, to desserts and fruits of multiple varieties.
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Vignaioli di Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. A bouquet of elder flowers, lime and peach. A little sweeter than the others with a delicate rather than a bold aroma. Suggestions to pair: sweets, cakes and ice creams plus some cheese or fruits like figs or melons.
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La Caudrina Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Aromatic with a delicate flower scent, sweet yet lightly acidic. Perfect for dessert, with dry bakery such as Panettone (a fruity bread) or Easter Coloma. Refreshing anytime as a low-alcohol option. Only 5% alcohol. Lively and pleasant.
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Food news you can use

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 One of our favorite things to do is to taste-test new and interesting food products for this blog. We were recently invited to try out products from Just Spices,  Peter & Pat’s Pierogies and molly&drew®. Now we’ve got a couple of new ideas for cooking at home and for gifts for other cooks. Below are some thoughts.
  1. Just Spices is a German company that makes a series of flavorful seasoning powders, some spicy, some sweeter (like the new berry flavoring for yogurt) that are USDA organic and “sourced with love.”
     The one for barbecue popcorn is a surprise – it gives your evening popcorn a barbecue flavor that doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, like many BBQ seasonings do. Especially if you pop your popcorn in coconut oil – so delicious – you don’t want to overwhelm it with spice. This BBQ seasoning is delicate yet definite enough to make your mouth pay attention.

     The Just Spices Mexican seasoning is transformative. Now an avocado-studded taco salad – minus the beans and the meat – can be pretty delicious with just romaine, cilantro, red onion and salsa, topped with thickened 2% Greek yogurt (lower fat and calories than sour cream) and lots of fresh lime juice. Add a few drops of Habanero sauce and you’re good to go. But then, if you add a quarter teaspoon of the Just Spices Mexican seasoning, that same dish puts you on the sun-soaked hacienda of an elegant Mexican resort. And you immediately want to order a margarita with your salad. Even if it’s 8:30 AM. We also added it to our turkey meatballs and to the tomatoes we cooked ’em in and really enjoyed the whole thing.
     Go try some of these. They just introduced 20 new flavors, too. You won’t go wrong buying one of their boxed sets as a gift for a hostess or friend who enjoys cooking but isn’t fanatical about making their own seasoning. These provide a shortcut that any non-professional cook – and maybe some professionals, too – will appreciate. Each individual package is 100 milliliters and priced from $5.99 to $7.99. Available online only at www.justspices.com/

  2. Peter & Pat's Pierogies make an easy dinner entree
    Peter & Pat’s Pierogies make an easy dinner entree

    Peter & Pat Pierogies. And how about some low-fat, low-cholesteraol all-natural pierogies to back up – or be – your dinner entree? Peter & Pat love traditional Eastern European food so much they built it into a thriving catering business over the past 20 years. The most popular dish on their menu is the pierogies. In fact, theirs has become one of the top-selling pierogie brands in the United States. It’s been so successful they’ve now officially launched in Costco locations across the Midwest.
     We can personally vouch for the flavor and filling ability of the 4-cheese-and-potato version they sent to test – delicious mix of creamy mashed potatoes with Cheddar, farmers, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses. Yet only 240 calories for four pierogies – not bad for so much creamy, cheesy goodness. Frozen bags of 4 pounds – that’s a lotta pierogies (65 per bag – 12 servings) – for $9.99 at Costco.

  3. molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy
    molly&drew Mug Cake mixes and beer mixes are fun and easy

    molly&drew® Single Serve Mug Cake Kits come in four flavors include, Ooey Gooey Chocolate, Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel, Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Candy Cane. Just add water, microwave for 90 seconds and ditch the need to mess up the kitchen. Fast, easy dessert for one or two. Top with whipped cream to make it more decadent.
    molly&drew® also craft their own beer breads and beer cakes that let you blend your favorite beer into ready-to-go mixes. Try the beer bread for appetizers, main dishes, sides and desserts. There’s a cake mix, too, which we sampled – fun to make a cake with beer. We did, however, find the sizable dose of almond extract in the Amore Amoretto flavor somewhat overpowering. We left the cakes sit out for a day and the almond flavor diminished a bit. Still, what a fun – and EASY – idea for sharing with family and friends for brunches, barbeques, dinners, parties, sporting events and more.

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