Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ammunition for the Cocktail Revolution
There’s something about uncertain times that prod us into appreciating the finer things life has to offer. It’s not that we turn a blind eye to the furies swirling all about us—indeed, we’re painfully aware it could end in a flash, or worse, loom taunting above us for who knows how long. But we take solace in the idea that regardless of how it all turns out, we humans have somehow managed through the centuries to produce one or two things that will outlive us. We want to feel remnants of art, architecture, philosophy and politics will still be here whenever aliens discover we little bipods once ruled this planet. Once we cut through all those platitudes, though, we want to be remembered as a people who lived well.

Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the cocktail culture has resurfaced. Whenever the world appears to be imploding, something in us screams, “This might be an appropriate time for a nice drink. What will you have?” It’s been a plot device of films from Casablanca to Titanic, and beyond. It’s been symbolic of victory celebrations since time immemorial. All political correctness aside, alcohol, in all its myriad forms, is inextricably linked to Western culture.

That’s not to imply Western Civilization is one big keg party—far from it. There’s a reason they’re referred to as “spirits”—if they’re not to be revered, they should be at least savored. It’s not going beyond the pale to guess that as many alliances have been forged, treaties have been negotiated, business empires have begun and romances have blossomed as often over a well-considered drink as a pen, a sword or ring.

I was recently invited to review a trio of premium liquors that, while new on the market, uphold that tradition. They come from diverse regions—from Norway to Mexico to France—but they all offer unexpected pleasures.

Tequila, the first spirit distilled in the North American continent, is an often misunderstood liquor. Represented most often in pop culture as a favorite beverage of assorted renegades, and largely marketed as a party drink, it’s rarely viewed as a refined liquor, particularly in the United States. Here, it’s been relegated to shots and margaritas, usually made with mixtol (those mixed with agave and cane sugars) tequilas. It’s only recently that premium tequilas—those made with 100% agave— have made a major inroad in cocktail culture, particularly in California and Texas.

Pertida Tequila is the latest entry in the rapidly burgeoning premium tequila market in America. It’s an estate-grown tequila from the heart of Mexico’s Tequila region, made from 100% blue agave, giving it a purity rarely seen in the current American market.

There are three grades of Pertida—four, if you count the $350 a bottle Elegante, aged over 36 months. For our purposes, we’ll dwell on the other three. The Blanco (not aged) is bottled by hand after being distilled twice to ensure perfection of purity. It’s a tequila with a delicate balance of crispness and faintly citrus notes. I found it surprisingly smooth straight, and as an excellent base for mixed drinks. The Resposado (aged six months in Canadian Oak barrels) offers a more robust flavor than the Blanco, but still has nuances not usually associated with Tequila. I found it smooth, without the burn one usually associates with tequila. Finally, there’s the Anejo (aged 18 months), an exceedingly smooth tequila with hints of spices and a full-bodied finish. While it is an amazing base for traditional mixed drinks, I found it best served neat. The subtleties of this tequila are best enjoyed neat, and savored slowly.

Given its versatility, it’s hardly surprising that vodka overtook bourbon in the 1950’s to become the most popular liquor in America. Undoubtedly, some of that popularity stems from the myth that, unlike other alcohol, it leaves no odor in the breath. That notwithstanding, vodka is one of the most ancient of spirits, dating back to at least the 11th century. It can be distilled from any number of starches, with fermented grains usually being the prime ingredient. Christiania Vodka, a Norwegian import aggressively expanding in the US market, is distilled from organic Trondelang potatoes and Norwegian arctic spring water. The recipe for it dates back to 1596, when King Christian conquered Norway, and brought with him some of the refinements of the Renaissance.


Admittedly, I’m partial to vodka as my mixer of choice. Small wonder, considering how vodka adds a certain something to any aperitif. It’s very rare, at least in America, that a vodka stands on its own as a true experience. While I’ll stop just short of calling my experience with Christiania an epiphany, I will say that it’s the smoothest vodka I’ve ever tasted. I’ve tried it neat, on the rocks, as a base for a martini and even as the venerable screwdriver. It has failed to disappoint me on all counts.

Christiania is possessed of an unmatched sophistication that makes it an ideal complement to dining. It’s probably the first true sipping vodka, as well. Served neat, it’s a taste to be savored languidly, and as a mixer, its crisp, but smooth body enhances any cocktail.

No other sprit is more closely associated with cocktail culture than gin. Compared to vodka and tequila, it’s still a relative newcomer having first appeared in Holland in the late 17th century. It’s most associated with the English, however, where the dry variety was perfected and popularized. G’Vine Gin, from France’s Cognaq region, is a departure from traditional gin in that it’s distilled from grape spirit, rather than grain, and is infused with green grape flowers, instead of juniper, for a smoother flavor and headier aroma.

Tending to favor vodka over gin, I approached G’Vine with some trepidation. That fact that each bottle is individually numbered seemed more marketing ploy than exclusivity to me, and did little to assuage my fears. I was pleasantly surprised once I opened the bottle and took in its faintly floral fragrance. Sampling it neat, its flavor was round, with none of the burn or aftertaste of the English-style gins. Not surprisingly, given its origins, it was rather akin to sipping a good wine.

The true test of any gin is how it works as the base ingredient of a mixed drink. In that regard, G’Vine surpasses almost any juniper-based dry gin, lending a new dimension to the basic martini. What it may lack in bite, it more than makes up for in subtlety. Served neat, on the rocks or mixed, this French gin may well become the standard for gins in the new cocktail culture.

The commonality of these three spirits, ultimately, is that they serve to recognize a restless urge in contemporary culture to explore new vistas and cultivate a refinement in our sensibilities and tastes. Admittedly, none of these spirits, being new to the US market, are readily available at this point. Christiania Vodka and G’Vine Gin have rolled out their respective products on the East Coast, while Partida Tequila is more readily available in the Western region of the US. All, however, are currently available via Internet retailers, with rapid expansion planned to local markets. Christiania and G’Vine are at a $40 price point, and Partida, depending on the aging, costs in the neighborhood of $50-80.