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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Distillery No. 209 Is One of a Kind

Distillery No. 209 sits on edge of San Francisco, just a baseball throw away from AT&T Park, home of the SF Giants. Pier 50 is on the industrial side of things, so you won’t find crab vendors or sea gulls swooping on pedestrians. I entered the distillery and was welcomed by Wendi, their Marketing and Brand Manager, along with Abby the distillery poodle. Wendi and Abby were kind enough to walk me around their magic factory and explain the history of No. 209 Distillery.

No. 209 is actually the distillery number it was given when it was founded back in 1882, by master distiller William Scheffler. It was and still is part of the Edge Hill Estate located in St. Helena, which also produces amazing wine. The distillery building was shut down shortly after it was erected due to Prohibition, but not before winning several awards for their handcrafted spirits. In 1999 Leslie Rudd took over the project and during the building’s restoration discovered lettering on the building that read “Registered Distillery No. 209.” Hence the name.

After learning that the distillery was founded in Napa, I was somewhat shocked because now Napa County turns a blind eye to DSPs (Distilled Spirits Permit) for fear of competition with the wine industry. C’mon folks, there’s plenty of room on the shelf for everybody.

So a little bit about me…I have visited numerous gin distilleries for MicroShiner and as a mixologist tasted hundreds of gins. Not to mention running a restaurant spirits program. So I like to think that I have seen and tasted it all when it comes to gin. But when Wendi brought me into the herb, spice, and botanical room at Distiller 209, I was blown away. Seeing the herbs is one thing, but being able to smell and taste them and explore each flavor and texture was truly inspirational. Wendi took me to school. From learning about what size of cardamom pods are more flavorful (it’s the smaller ones you want) to which spice brings out bitterness, I was pumped to get such a hands-on, put-this-herb-in-your-mouth tour. I walked in feeling I had a good grasp on gin botanicals and left feeling like I just received my master’s degree.

After learning about the various base spirits and their process for crafting gin, it finally came down to my favorite part... the magical dance between spirit and palette. Now I know every distillery has to do something to stand out from the next guy, whether that’s the bottling used, or the base spirit being grain or brandy, or perhaps the spirit is cut with that special water that was sourced from that one place that nobody has been. We get it. You’re different. But honestly... No. 209 might be changing the game.

At this point, we have all heard of barrel aged gin, usually just the standard Charred-White-American-Oak. Now consider French Oak barrels. And to take it farther… imagine French Oak barrels that once held wine! Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon! Since No. 209 is affiliated with a wine label (remember, Edge Hill), they do have easy access to these barrels. Yes some may say it’s cheating, but if you have to cheat to get to this degree of singularity … well, I welcome whatever they might have up their sleeves. Their lineup consists of several different spirits and a variety of gins. First is their standard flagship 209 Gin and of course Vodka. Followed by their Barrel Reserve line. Starting with their Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Aged Gin which has notes similar to a Lillet or Dry Vermouth. Then the Chardonnay Barrel Aged Gin. Tons of notes similar to big oaky, creamy chardonnay. I could almost taste the malolactic fermentation. Finally I was able to taste the Cabernet Barrel Aged Gin. This was most impressive. The first thing that I noticed was the tannic notes, followed by big fruit. Forget your bourbon whiskey (just for a night at least) and drink the Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Reserve Gin with a few cubes. Perfect for sipping!

I was sad to leave, especially without a bottle, but happy to finally see the place I have heard so much about. I’m looking forward to visiting their Estate in Napa soon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#DrinkBetter: I Created It ...

The art of mixology is very much a matter of trial and error. Some combinations compliment each other perfectly, and others are hardly fit for the drain. This is one of those imaginative concoctions that works.  

401 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA
tel. 855-246-1080


Equal Parts 
- Hophead Vodka from Anchor Steam Distillery
- Lillet Blanc. 
Twist of Lemon. 

Floral and Hoppy. Super crazy taste.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Eat This Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Jeremy Cherfas, producer of the superb Eat This podcast, and discussing the lay of the craft spirits landscape. We chatted about the birth of MicroShiner, the role of NGS, and how much bigger craft is than just spirits, among other things. It was a lot of fun, and I encourage you to check it out.

Jeremy is a great host, and his podcast on food and drink is one of the best around. It runs the gamut from Old World to New, with some international flavor thrown in for good measure. If you like slow food and eating local, I would recommend the visit to Elkstone Farm in Colorado.

To listen to the podcast, click here

Friday, August 19, 2016

#DrinkingMusic: DJ Swamp

Sitting in the Amigo Room of the Ace Hotel sipping a Desert Facial, a world class DJ was the last thing I expected to see. Yeah, the Ace is rad, and Coachella famous for bringing top shelf musical acts to town but still, a USA DMC champ on a Wednesday night in a tiny little club? Am I dreaming?

Not being an authority on the genre, my yardstick for measuring this style of music is pretty simple: I either like it or I don't. And I definitely liked DJ Swamp. In the words of a fan on his website: 
“DJ Swamp is unquestionably one of my favorite musicians. His talent is simply undeniable. What I love is how each and every time he has put on a performance, whoever I brought with me that night became an instant fan."
That certainly was the case for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

#DrinkBetter: I Won't Moscatel If You Won't...

Bar Bravas is a rad spot for tapas and drinks. The name on this one says it all. Hush!

Healdsburg, CA

"I Won't Moscatel If You Won't..."

- Sonoma County Distilling Rye
- Moscatel Sherry
- Dolin Rouge
- Spiced Chocolate Bitters
Served up in a coupe.


Rum With Friends

The world is getting smaller. That notion has been reiterated more and more these days as the speed with which we transport information, and ourselves, has increased exponentially over the last century. But this ease of transmission certainly isn't shrinking our surroundings, and in fact, the mass availability of travel, both around the globe and over digital networks, has afforded the current generation an unprecedented opportunity to explore any curiosity and make even the smallest interest larger than life. In the same way, the words we use to describe our craft spirit world can be a tad misleading. Small batch distillations, Micro brews, these terms refer to scale of production, but their diminutive tone runs the risk of undercutting the immense effort that goes into filling each barrel and bottle with a labor of love. The batches are not all small, so much as they are rare, and worth seeking out. The brews are not all micro, so much as they are regional, and draw from their unique locale like a prized wine. The experience of discovering and enjoying these craft spirits happens on a personal, intimate level, and while such an encounter may be brief or limited to a single serving, the impression they leave on the taster can be enormous.

As amusing as these discoveries are to make on your own, they are always better with a few savvy friends, and so it happened that a smart little shipping box from Papa's Pilar rum made its way to my mailbox and found its final destination on the bar of Redd's Uptilly Tavern, where a couple of old colleagues from my days behind the stick gathered round to sample the goods. Sliding open the snug cigar box revealed a bottle of each of Papa's offerings, one Dark and one Blonde. The Blonde variety, it turns out, falls under an entirely new category of rum, created to distinguish Papa's Pilar from the far more common Light rums, and reflecting the great lengths to which the distillers went to add more character and flavor to their product. This rum was well received immediately by the whole group. Straight from the bottle, it was smooth and sweet, with a creamy vanilla feel in the mouth, but finished with a smoky warmth that really lingered on the palate. One of my bartender buddies, Joel Fernandez, was particularly impressed with the Blonde and we challenged each other to mix up a fitting cocktail. Ultimately, we found it’s best compliment was simply ice and fresh lime juice. With the depth of flavor present in the rum, plus it’s naturally sweet profile, the tart citrus and chilled toss over ice essentially whipped up a simple daiquiri that was as good as any either of us had made or tried before.

In the other corner of the straw-filled box, was Papa's Dark Rum. While both varieties are finished in Spanish sherry casks, the Dark Rum takes more cues from the American Bourbon-making process, and the influence is apparent. With a sharper kick and a deep caramel flavor, the subtly syrupy spirit was a bit too strong to sip straight for some, but another good pal and veteran mixologist had just the trick up his sleeve for clearing that minor hurdle. Leaning on decades of bar experience, Eric Orlando was quick to reach for an often overlooked bottle of Crème de Noyaux, and soon produced his truly tasty version of a Mai Tai. The fruit juices and sweet liqueur blended perfectly with the rum's rich candied notes, while leaving just enough of its bite.

Between the New Orleans heat, the tropical themed cocktails and the Caribbean-sourced rum, we could have just as easily been in the Florida Keys enjoying our afternoon, and that ambiance was ideal, as Papa's Pilar strives to instill the adventurous spirit of Ernest Hemingway into their products and business philosophy. Having thoroughly enjoyed the bold and uncommon characteristics of both the Blonde and the Dark, we all agreed that Papa was definitely hitting the mark on their mission statement. The two offerings can be enjoyed in drastically different ways, but simply put, they are both high quality craft spirits, and having a couple of good friends to share them with is all the enhancement you really need.

Ian Gregory is a product of the 80's and a Tulane graduate, with a BA in History. Born and raised in Manhattan, NYC, he has called New Orleans his home for the last 13 years.

With many nights behind a bar under his belt, Ian has appeared in the Where Y'at Best Bartenders of New Orleans Guide on 3 separate occasions. Now writing spirit reviews for MicroShiner, he doesn't have a twitter handle, but feel free to find him on Facebook 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cocktails, Yes. Craft Spirits, Not So Much.

Much like its island cousins offshore, Southern California has the perfect climate for enjoying cocktails. Wine rules the state further north, and while Napa Valley chardonnay can certainly be found on every menu, there is just something about the SoCal lifestyle that lends itself to the mixologist’s art.

Unfortunately, while a well made drink is easy to come by, finding one made with local, or even craft, spirits is a lot more difficult. A recent foray into LA and the Coachella Valley turned up lots of great places to enjoy a cocktail, but few that catered to craft tendencies.

First stop was the lounge at Melvyn’s, a Palm Springs classic. Once the haunt of such desert legends as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, Melvyn’s is still the place to be for anyone wanting the ultimate martini bar experience. Just don’t expect it to include craft spirits.

With the Purple Room closed for renovations, the Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel played pinch hitter. Part of a worldwide collection of reimagined accommodations, the Ace in Palm Springs caters to the hip Coachella and LA Basin crowds that descend on the desert each winter season. In the Amigo is found an amalgamation of dank tavern and 70’s discoteque, but not much in the way of local spirits. A request for something made in California yielded Hanger 1 on one occasion and “how about Texas?” i.e. Tito’s the next, both of which were certainly craft at one point, somewhere in their distant past. Still, plenty of craft beer, the vibe and local musical talent made for a worthwhile stop, especially considering the swim club and late night menu at the salvaged roadside diner next door.

The highlight of the trip, however, was a visit to the Lincoln, a new project along Venice Beach designed by Matt Winter and executed by Cameron Dodge-White. Extremely well done, with attention to every detail, this is a bar that blurs the line between upscale and dive in a way that would seem impossible to do if wasn’t already a reality. Anchored solidly in Dodge-White’s Midwestern roots, the guiding tenet at the Lincoln is a place to go to have a real drink. No food (other than the complimentary hot dogs), no nonsense, just a highly curated selection of beer, wine, and spirits.

But even here the micro-distiller presence was lacking, and local spirits completely non-existent. The question of California spirits was answered by a lengthy dissertation on the inadequacy of native Golden State production. Journeyman Spirits’ Last Feather Rye, a nod to Dodge-White’s home state of Michigan, was the only craft label behind the bar, but a couple fingers of that over ice, along with the sublime atmosphere and exceptional service, helped make this fact much easier to swallow.

That’s not to say that craft is completely unheard of in Southern California, only that it is diluted and therefore slower to get noticed. A small producer is easily lost in the vastness of greater Los Angeles, and getting on the shelf in neighborhood bars challenging at best. The future of craft in SoCal, for the near term, probably looks more like a larger regional producer such as Our / Los Angeles, or in niche bars and restaurants that focus specifically on offering craft.

Which is exactly the recipe for success at Eureka! in Indian Wells. An established SoCal chain that is spreading its reach into other craft conscious locales as Austin, Boise, and Boulder, the spirits menu at Eureka! was a veritable who’s who of craft elite. Offerings included such reputable whiskey producers as Corsair, Westland, and Balcones alongside cocktail friendly spirits like Ascendant Spirits American Star vodka and Anchor Distilling Junipero Gin. Tasty gastropub fare and a trendy yet relaxed ambiance appealed to tourist and desert dwelling local alike.

The exciting thing in all of this is the massive potential for growth. With an ample market and plenty of industrial space just waiting to be repurposed, it’s only a matter of time before craft begins to really take off in Southern California. And with that comes the opportunity to explore a multitude of unique spirits, inspiring locations, and personal expressions. The incomparable essence of craft mixed with that quintessential SoCal style.