Inside magazine's chief beverage correspondent dispenses libation information.
We get lots of requests for advice on the how’s and why’s of different quaffs that have been discussed (and decanted) in the Chief Beverage Correspondent cellar here at Inside, so we sifted through some of our recent mail and selected some of the crazi—um, most urgent requests to share with you here:
Dear Drink Mensch: We are lucky to be invited to quite a few dinner parties every year, but we’re a little tired of bringing a bottle of bubbly or merlot as a gift. Any suggestions for a new or more interesting bottle to bring? — Bored in Burholme
Bored in Burholme: Think bourbon. Or beer. Nothing new per se, but they’ve never been hotter or more interesting. Nothing against the thoughtful gift of wine when you’re invited to hang for a nosh or more at my house (Oregon pinot noir, if you’re making a mental note), but those who think outside the bottle, so to speak, put a big smile on my face when they arrive with something decidedly different.
Of late, guests have shown up bearing bourbon and big bottles of craft beer. I mentioned your missive to another real mensch, Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine and author of the new book,Tasting Whiskey (Storey Books), and he threw me some wisdom:
“Some whiskies lend themselves to making a big impression, like a special edition bourbon. Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary might fit the bill: a limited-release bottling for master distiller Jimmy Russell’s 60th anniversary with the company, 13-year-old to 16-year-old whiskeys, more wood than I’ve ever tasted in a Wild Turkey whiskey, but sweet, a bit smoky and smooth, and priced at around $100.
“You might have more luck finding a bottle of Elmer T. Lee, a delicious bourbon that is only now getting the attention it deserves, selected from a favorite warehouse of longtime master distiller Elmer T. Lee at Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky — and it’s in the $30 range, too!
“Now, bourbons are best enjoyed ‘later,’ as in after dinner or after the crush of a party quiets down. If you want your bottle to get some immediate attention, go local with one of the special releases from distiller Dad’s Hat in Bristol, Pa., like their vermouth barrel-finished rye whiskey. It’s a perfect pre-dinner cocktail whiskey and it makes a massively excellent Manhattan.”
Yo D.M.! There is so much craft beer out there, I don’t know where to start! I’ve been to a few beer festivals, but they can be overwhelming. And standing in long lines for a small sip of beer just isn’t my style. I’m not much of a barfly either, but I like finding new beers on tap whenever I do go out for drinks or dinner. Isn’t there a more civilized way to try new beers beyond beer festivals and bar-hopping? —Perplexed in Penn Valley
P.I.P., old boy: Beer fests have their place, and they can be fun, but you’re living in one of the best beer-drinking regions in the world. All of our local brewpubs, most of the good beer bars and many restaurants with a decent tap selection offer a sampler of their drafts. That means you can try a bunch of brews with your dinner, for about the same price as a glass of wine or a cocktail — and it’s more civilized and safer than a crowded tent of tippling 20-somethings.
But here’s my best advice, bubbie: Go big if you want to try some really interesting beers — as in big bottles of beer. You’ll find them in any decent liquor store in New Jersey, such as Roger Wilco in Pennsauken or Total Wine in Cherry Hill, and all of the newer “bottle shops” that have opened in and around Philly, The Beer Store in Southampton, The Foodery stores in Center City, Northern Liberties and Roxborough, and (a real find) the deceptively named Trenton Road Take Out in Fallsington, among them.
“You find the more creative styles and more experimental beers in the large formats,” says Stephen Lyford, a software engineer, beer geek and amateur photographer whose photos cover beer events around town forPhilly.com and on Facebook. “Not too many oak-aged wild ales in six-packs, you know? Although there is a greater variety of craft beer in 12-ounce bottles and cans than ever, you will still find the most creativity and experimentation in the larger-format bottles. Plus, it’s just cooler to pour out of a big bottle than a little one.”
Most big bottles of brew range in size from 22 ounces to the 750-milliliter wine-bottle size, with occasional special commemorative beers sized as large as a jeroboam (4 bottles’ worth) of Champagne. Prices vary by style and brewery. But just as you’re not likely to drink an entire bottle of wine by yourself, you’re not likely to down a higher-octane big beer alone, either. So bring a few big bottles to a bottle-share party.
Lyford has been attending and chronicling bottle-share parties for almost eight years. “The most well-known is the annual ‘Stone Soup,’ ” he says, “held every year on a Saturday, a week before the Super Bowl. That’s the one that got me going.”
Attendees bring a couple of big bottles to share, like a beer potluck. “All kinds of beers are shared,” Lyford says, “more styles now than ever. They used to be dominated by bigger beers, impressive beers, ones that can be aged, because, let’s face it, beer geeks like to impress fellow beer geeks. But now, with craft beer exploding, you see every style imaginable. Most often, they set up different tables for different categories of beers, like IPAs, porters and stouts, wild ales and so forth.”
The original “Stone Soup” event was a small affair. “It grew every year after that,” adds Lyford. “In the last couple of years, PhillyTapFinder.com has been offering two or three bottle-shares a year, organized by them with attendance limited to a certain number of people.” But Lyford says the events are not intimidatingly geeky. “You don’t have people with their faces buried in scoring sheets or notebooks,” he assures me. “Mostly it’s ‘Hey, I’ve never had that one before!’ and then you talk to people around you about what each of you has in your glass.”
Dearest Drink Mensch: I just love good Champagne, and so do my friends, but if I’m entertaining any sizable group, serving the good stuff can get pretty pricey. Also, some of my besties don’t care for alcohol at all. Any suggestions for them and for bubbly that impresses and gets me a better bang for my buck? —Chickie in Cherry Hill
Chickie Baby: I’ve got two words for you: chardonnay and cava. I’ve been grabbing up bottles of Trader Joe’s Sparkling White Chardonnay Grape Juice for a couple of years now, and it’s a smashing substitute for sparkling wine at any gathering that features the fizzy stuff. Made from Spanish chardonnay grapes, it has a slightly dry, toasty finish like its high-octane counterparts, and isn’t treacly-sweet like the usual apple cider bubbles most hosts feel obligated to serve their non-imbibing friends. And at $2.99, it’s a steal for such an elegant quaff.
Cava, the sparkling wine from the Catalonia region of Spain, will tickle your nose with generous effervescence and refresh your tongue with crisp citrus notes. This Iberian bubbly has been made in the same manner as French Champagne for over 150 years and is a little less sweet than Champagne and its Italian cousin prosecco, at half to one third of the price.
“I love cava because it has more of a punch, a rich mouthfeel and lots of bubbles,” says Alexandra Cherniavsky, who was beverage manager and sommelier at the recently shuttered Avance in Center City. “It’s a more substantial, heavier wine — in a good way — and very food-friendly. I really like two particular labels: Raventos i Blanc, who make six to seven different cuvees, and Juve y Camps, who make six different cuvees. Raventos i Blanc make a rosé cava I really love — tart and dry, just fantastic with sushi and spicier foods, too. The Juve y Camps cavas are all solid. They also make an occasional vintage from just chardonnay grapes instead of the traditional Spanish grapes, so very delicious and, like all cavas, so very well-made!”
So keep those emails, cards and letters coming, and we’ll try our best to answer them! L’chaim!
SHARE and SHARE ALIKE
Beer lovers are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet, and few are friendlier or more helpful than the folks at PhillyTapFinder.com, whose founder, Jared Littman, is a big force behind the bottle-share parties in the Philadelphia area. He has some tips for joining or hosting your own bottle share party:
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
“Bottle shares are a great away to bring a group with similar interests together. It’s about catching up with old friends and meeting new friends. Oh, and the beer — you get a chance to taste some of the best beers in the world without having to track down your own bottle or spending good money on something without having to taste it first. Within a several-hour period, you can taste dozens of different beers!”
ALL ARE WELCOME
“Everyone is welcome; this is not just for uber beer geeks. Don’t feel like you need to have an obscure bottle found in some hidden ruin from the other side of the world or a bottle from a very limited series. Just stop at a local bottle shop. Bring a bottle or two of something that you think others will enjoy. If you have the super-rare bottle and want to share it, then please bring it. Most people bring one or two large-format bottles.”
TRY, TRY, TRY
“My advice to a newcomer would be to try as many different beers as possible, even if it’s a style that you’re not familiar with. Also, talk to as many people as you can. There’s generally tons of beer knowledge in the room. Everyone was a novice at one time and the ‘beer geeks’ are happy to tell you about their experiences.”
NOT JUST BEER
“I generally organize my bottle-shares as a way for fans of PhillyTapFinder.com to get together, but this can work with wine tasting and whiskey tasting too! I’d be happy to help others get things going.”
Like he said, Richard Pawlak is the chief beverage correspondent for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.