Fall Season Kick-off

From the Central Park Zoo to the Museum of Natural History, Manhattan’s venues come to life. Plus rye and rhum.

U.S. launch of Snow Leopard Vodka

Two Nights at the Zoo

I never expected that I’d be visiting the Central Park Zoo twice this fall. But what could be a more appropriate place for the U.S. launch of Snow Leopard Vodka? The invitation stated, “The snow leopards have an early bedtime at sundown so for your best chance to see them please try to arrive before 7PM.”

I arrived early and made my way to an upper level of the zoo. Behind an extensive cage, the zoo’s resident male snow leopard was there perched on a rock. It was mesmerizing to see this large endangered cat, native to Central and South Asia, right there just two feet away. The trainer nearby explained the wild cat’s cooperation, “When I am near the cage, it means it’s soon mealtime and he stays put.” For close to an hour the snow leopard nodded off and yawned while the guests conversed in a hushed tone and sipped cocktails made from his namesake vodka.

Snow Leopard Vodka, made from spelt grain, gives a percentage of profits to save snow leopards from extinction. Their goal is to sell 150,000 cases a year, which would equate to one million dollars that they could donate to the Snow Leopard Trust annually. Brad Rutherford, the executive director of the Snow Leopard Trust, said that if they can maintain that donation each year for a generation, then they’ll be able to get the snow leopard off the endangered list. Yes, drinking for a good cause, we must.

My second Central Park Zoo visit was for another good cause: the Sip for the Sea benefit for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium. It featured a seal show with five seals doing tricks while guests sampled wines from the Hess Collection. Not only does the Hess Collection have sustainable vineyards in Veeder Mountain and Howell Mountain in Napa but at properties throughout the world. Winemakers and representatives came from points down under---Argentina (Amalaya and Bodega Colomé), South Africa (Glen Carlou Winery) and Australia (Peter Lehmann). The Hess Collection bills itself as having “terroir wines crafted on four continents.”

Two More Prime New York Venues

The Park Avenue Armory came alive with the New York Art, Antique & Jewelry Show put on by the Palm Beach Show Group. Socialites from Palm Beach merged with the Park Avenue crowd for the opening night preview party. How lovely to sip Champagne while viewing the tapestries, antiques and jewels from some 80 international exhibitors.

Next night it was off to the Museum of Natural History for the global launch of a partnership between Virgin Galactic and Grey Goose Vodka. The press material billed this as “a seminal moment of human achievement to celebrate the pioneers who defied expectations to achieve the extraordinary.”  Sir Richard Branson arrived with his team of body guards.

The party unfolded in three parts: a reception arrival hour with Grey Goose cocktails, a panel discussion by the Virgin Disruptors on the Future of Travel, and finally the big after party.

The seminal moment from Grey Goose’s side was to introduce a new vodka expression, Grey Goose VX, coming in an impressive wide-shouldered bulbous bottle. Francois Thibault, the brand’s celebrated Maitre De Chai, was on hand to introduce Grey Goose VX, which he crafted from soft winter wheat and the Gensac spring water and finishes “with a hint of precious Cognac made with the grapes from the Grande Champagne region.”

Guests arrived and drank tasty cocktails for a good hour (no hors d’oeuvres in sight) and then were ushered into the Rose Center for Earth and Space to witness Richard Branson and other Virgin disruptors---George Whitesides, CEO Virgin Galactic, and Jerry Sanders, CEO of SkyTran---speak about the future. The room was pitch-black with only the stage dimly lit. Somehow the sound system failed to work. Did I hear something about travel to Mars? The talking heads were discussing futuristic concepts yet ironically the staff couldn’t get the sound system to work. I guess the evening turned out to be less of a seminal moment in human achievement than forecasted.  Fortunately, at the after party cocktails animated the group and copious hors d’oeuvres finally appeared.

The Macallan Rare Cask

For launch party of The Macallan Rare Cask, held at the Academy Mansion, another New York landmark, Macallan put on quite a show. Setting the mood for the unveiling of something rare, a violin quartet of beautiful women in black cocktail dresses serenaded the arriving guests. We were directed into room with an enchanted forest of tall oak branches and oak barrels, a type of museum display illustrating the process of making single malt. Unlike most whisky brands which use American ex-bourbon barrels for aging, Macallan’s claim to fame is aging in Spanish Sherry seasoned casks. These casks impart the whisky’s signature rich red color, dried fruits notes and tannins.

Bars were set up throughout the mansion’s many rooms for guests to try drams of The Macallan 12, 15 and 18 Year Old. We then assembled in the mansion’s atrium to hear Stuart MacPherson, Macallan’s Master of Wood (yes, his actual title), who came in especially from Speyside, Scotland to take the group through the tasting. 

Being the Master of Wood, MacPherson, not unexpectedly gave a little tutorial on the wood, giving the wood its rightful provenance and romance. The wood comes from an ancient forest of northern Spain. Once cut into staves, it is hand-fashioned in Cadiz and then as a barrel, toasted at a cooperage in Jerez. The casks first hold dry Oloroso Sherry for 18 months (that’s what is meant by “seasoning”) before getting shipped off to Scotland to be filled with the whisky. 

Especially designed glasses were distributed through the crowd and with a hush MacPherson took us through the “nosing.” Without a doubt this is always my favorite part of an unveiling to hear the great whisky makers---or in this case, wood masters---wax poetic about their creation. “Picture an orchestra setting up, a sweet ensemble with a spicy quartet of say…ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove,” he rhapsodized.  He went on to pinpoint the flavor notes standing out like orchestral instruments: first subtle vanilla, then pronounced chocolate, followed by fruits of raisin, apple, lemon and orange.  Citrusy on the finish. Ah, warm and smooth.

With its ruby hue and rich elegant flavor Rare Cask ($300), bottled in a sculpted, heavy glass decanter, doesn’t come cheap. But indeed it comes with a lot of poetry and craftsmanship—not to mention those romantic Sherry wood casks.

Eye-opening discoveries at wine and spirits dinners

Everyone wants to know is: what’s the next big thing we should be drinking?  Well, it’s one of the oldest and most classic pre-Prohibition spirits:  rye. At a dinner for a new ultra-premium rye, Lock Stock & Barrel---which was paired with Chef Joe Ng’s heavenly Peking Duck at RedFarm’s Decoy in the Village---I discovered I loved rye. But not just any rye, 100% rye made in Alberta, Canada, now in the portfolio of Cooper Spirits.

Rob Cooper is a legend in the business having brought the world, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, a key ingredient for cocktails celebrated by every mixologist worldwide. Cooper was on hand to tell the story of his rye and how it came to be. “I found myself drinking Rittenhouse Rye with buddies at Death & Co. I loved the super-rich flavor of rye and decided I am going to make a rye,” he said, looking as fit and handsome as when he stood at Little Branch at the launch party of St. Germain some dozen years ago. So he went to a distillery in Alberta and decided to make a 100% straight rye. “It’s hard to malt rye; to make the fermentation you need an enzyme used in making sake.” He let his trusted team taste the Lock Stock & Barrel and had resounding approval. Spirits scholar David Wondrich, King of the Cocktail Dale DeGroff and spirits authority Paul Pacult all loved it. He’s almost sold out of his 13Year aged straight rye and soon will release the 15 Year.

BOTTLE OF Koyle Costa Pinot Noir 2012

What makes this job as a wine critic so exciting is meeting the winemakers, most of whom are over-the-top with passion about their wines’ unique personalities. They explain the exact location of their vineyard, the altitude, what direction the vines face, the soils, the drainage, their process of vinifying the grapes (lately in futuristic concrete eggs fermenters), the yeasts, the barrels and on and on. They’ll tell of their good earth practices—sustainability, organic or biodynamic viticulture. Some will profess the theories of natural winemaking, i.e. letting the wine make itself with minimal intervention. But with all this explaining of their methodology, it still comes down to what’s in that glass. And once in a while, I have an “ah-ha” moment when a wine is indeed distinct and like meeting a new person, it can actually charm you at first introduction.

At a dinner with the passionate Cristobal Undurraga, co-owner and winemaker at Chile’s Vina Koyle in the Colchagua Valley, he spoke about his biodynamic viticulture and his single vineyard wines. Single vineyard and single parcel are the new buzz words among top level winemakers because that is the ultimate in terroir-driven wines. If you can say the wine comes from a tiny brilliant parcel from the best vineyard on the property---say the Los Lingues vineyard which is from a cooler area of the foothills of the Colchagua Valley---then you’ve found the magic ground. The family owned winery had been there for six generations.

Oh, Cristobal talked on and on about the exact location of his vineyards—five miles from the Pacific Ocean where the terroir is yellow granite with quartz stone--- and then he served his Koyle Costa Pinot Noir 2012 ($35) and I was thoroughly charmed. It had a wonderful brightness, aromas of cassis and herbs and flavors that were rich yet buoyant. I really loved it.

bottle of 2009 Kim Crawford Fizz

A few nights later I had the same excitement over a newly released New Zealand sparkling wine from Kim Crawford. I sat down with the winemaker, the strapping Australian Anthony Walkenhorst, who hails from the Yarra Valley but has been in New Zealand with Kim Crawford for 10 years.  It was a dinner to showcase the winery’s new “Small Parcel” releases. Again there was all the talk of making small quantities of small parcel wines to prove the greatness of New Zealand terroir…to push the boundaries. “Small parcel wines are an individual expression of specific parts of the planet… we get to experience those vineyard blocks, those small distinct parcels from back in New Zealand, right here in our glass,” chorused Walkenhorst along with the brand ambassador, Matthew Deller.

We tasted the Wild Grace Chardonnay from vineyards from two sites and landscapes in Hawkes’ Bay on the North Island—yes, it was wild and elegant. Then a Rise & Shine Pinot Noir from Central Otago on the South Island, where the Pinot has deep dark berries and the wine, a rich intense flavor.

The star of the night, though, was clearly the 2009 Kim Crawford Fizz ($30), the winery’s newly launched methode champenoise sparkling, a blend of Pinot Noir (60%) and Chardonnay (40%) aged 42 months on the lees.  It was dry and crisp with fine bubbles and a distinct minerality and brioche character resembling fine vintage Champagne.

Graffiti bottle of Rhum Clement

In October I had a tasting and seminar with the lovely Marine Bettler, the brand ambassador for Rhum Damoiseau, which is under the umbrella of Clement USA, which promotes and sells rhum agricole  in North American including Rhum Damoiseau from Gaudeloupe, and Rhum J.M and Rhum Clément from Martinique.

Rhum Clément just celebrated its 125th anniversary and issued a fabulous commemorative graffiti-laden bottle, Clément V.S.O.P. Rhum Agricole Vieux ($45) in limited edition designed by street artist and Harlem-native JonOne.  Bettler sat down with me and explained the difference between rhum and rum.

What is the taste difference between rhum agricole and regular Caribbean rum? Agricole rhums are earthy, vegetal and grassy. Smooth but not sweet. And they actually taste like sugarcane. They are more delicate and complex. I like to say that they are herbaceous like mescal, but without the smoky taste.

 How does Damoiseau fit into the galaxy of premium rums? The premium rum category is very large. One again, you have to distinguish between the molasses-based rum and the rhum agricoles. Taking the whiskey category as a comparison, I would say that agricoles are like the single malts. Within this category, Damoiseau is considered a craft high-premium rhum.

 What is its chief defining characteristic? Because Guadeloupe is not regulated by an AOC (but  instead by an IGP) the sugarcane varietals are different, more "wild.”  Damoiseau cane fields are located where the earth is dry and arid and so the sugarcane is highly concentrated in sugar. They're very smooth but not sweet, complex and above all, very flavorful with a powerful nose.

Should the rhum be consumed on the rocks? Or is there an optimal cocktail for this rum?  The typical cocktail of Guadeloupe is the Ti-Punch (means little punch in creole), made by the glass. It's simply a squeeze of lime, some sugar and rhum. The quantities are up to you. The VSOP is perfect neat or on the rocks.  I also appreciate it made into an Old-Fashioned.

What are the different expressions? So far in the US market we have two expressions available: Damoiseau Virgin Cane Rum (white) 80 proof (40% ABV) and Damoiseau VSOP (4 years aged in re-charred bourbon barrels.

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