Sunday, March 28, 2010

You Had Me at Hello: The Whisky Podcasts of Richard Paterson

The podcasts for Whyte and Mackay Whisky may be superficially infomercials for its blended Scotch, but with Masterblender Richard Paterson, they are pure entertainment. If you spend a few minutes with the whisky expert, you are attending a whisky college as well as being tempted to buy a bottle. That's whiskey with no "e," don't forget.

The podcasts are not merely a "here, buy my product" marketing tool. They are an education. One podcast explains the history of the shape and color of nineteenth-century glass bottles. Another explains the distinctive flavors each area of Scotland exhibits through the country's 106 collective distilleries. As described by Mr. Paterson, some areas of Scotland have a scotch with a more peaty flavor. Others areas, close by the ocean, have a scotch with a salty taste. With no surprise and maybe more than a touch of favoritism, Mr. Paterson claims that the lowland area that Whyte and Mackay calls home gives its whisky a "light-bodied charm and and elegance."

Mr. Paterson too has a light charm and elegance. With his matching tie and pocket handkerchief, he has an elaborate and oh-so-entertaining routine when it comes to taste-testing a whisky. But, pocket handkerchief notwithstanding, there is no pretension to his repartee as there might be with some suspect oenophiles.

He pours a sample of scotch, swirls it around in a stemmed glass and throws it on the "world's most expensive carpet," presumably because of the many glasses of priceless scotches that have been tossed there. Why he can't pour the scotch into a sink, I haven't figured out, but I am amused every time he does it. He says that the force of the liquid coming out of the glass rids the rim of any "lingering" odors.

The tasting ritual as described by the Masterblender: the first sniff of the whiskey is to say "hello." The second sniff is to say "how are you?" The third sniff is an enthusiastic: "Quite well. Thank you very much." And we haven't even taken a sip yet. When you do have the courage to take a taste, please don't "knock it back like a cowboy."

The Whyte and Mackay website professes two things you must remember about Mr. Paterson: "If you drink the whisky too quickly, he'll slap you. And if he sees you holding a whisky tasting glass the wrong way, he'll kill you." But that kind of violence isn't really indicated by Mr. Paterson's methodical ways — at least not on the podcast.

There is some trendy instruction as to what whisky pairs best with certain foods. Or should I say it the other way around: what cuisine goes best with a certain whisky. The latter seems to be of more weight in the whisky world. Either way, the pairing of meals to spirits is becoming as de rigeur as wine pairings were last decade.

Even if you are not a whisky lover, which I confess I am not, take a look at Mr. Paterson's work; you will get an enlightenment into both drink and country. You'll get an understanding of the elaborate culture that Scotch Whisky has grown up around itself. And at the very least, you'll have a good idea of how to order a whiskey in a bar and how to dress down the bartender if he or she dares to put ice in that whisky.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sake is Good for the Skin and other joys of Japanese Cocktails

If cocktail bloggers were to emulate Julie Powell and her famous online journey through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, they could do much worse than working their way through Yuri Kato'sJapanese Cocktails. Although there is not a year's worth of drink recipes here, by the end of the experiment, there is much more gained than dozens of techno-colored beverages in Hello Kitty hues on the resume. A culture is glimpsed through a very particular microscope, much like Ms. Powell's experience of Paris through that great cookbook.

Japan may not be well-known for its cocktail culture, at least in the tuxedoed Jay Gatsby, flapper, speakeasy connotation that frames most current expectations for old-school mixology. But that is changing, says Ms. Kato. Japan has much to offer to modern mixology.

It is no heihatsu that I received a review copy of Japanese Cocktails in the mail on the same day that I had one of the best Bloody Marys of my drinking life — a Bloody Mary made with sake at the Popover Cafe on the Upper West Side. A popover specialty restaurant may not be the obvious choice for cocktails, and sake may not be an obvious choice for a cocktail base, but the coincidence illustrates some ways that Japanese mixology can influence the present American cocktail.

Sake makes for a great base in mixing because of its lower alcohol content. About the same as a strong wine, the alcohol level is significantly less than vodka or gin — what is normally found in the pre-happy hour Bloody Mary. For someone is hunkering down to a long, luxurious brunch, less alcohol in the same number of drinks may make for a more pleasurable Sunday.

A bonus, adds Ms. Kato, is that sake is good for the skin!

Japanese Cocktails is beautifully illustrated: the reproduction of retro posters from cocktail cultures past, e.g. Suntory ads from the 1950s, are especially vivid, but Ms. Kato's anecdotes from her own experiences growing up in Japan are what's most delightful about her book. She has been the publisher of for more than a decade, and she has obvious expertise in mixology, but as in any good conversation at the bar, it's not what you know, it's what you'll share: "My mother used to send my older sister and me to buy beer or sake from nearby vending machines for my father's dinner guests."

The book offers a history of Japan's unique spirit industry with sidebars that cover everything from cherry blossom season to the Harajuku girls. In trying out some of the recipes in Ms. Kato's book, I started out with the bright green ones first because I'm drawn to bright and shiny objects. If there is a cocktail that is the equivalent of Hello Kitty, it is Midori, Japan's famous melon liqueur.

In true kawaii fashion, two basic recipes for Midori are the Pine Soda:

1 oz. Midori
4 oz. pineapple juice
1/2 oz. club soda,

and the Melon Cream Soda, named for a favorite non-alcoholic drink served in Japanese kissaten cafes. It is very much a summer drink.

1 oz. of Midori melon liqueur
1 1/2 oz. citrus-flavored vodka
3 oz. club soda
1 scoop vanilla ice cream

Mix all liquid in a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour into tall glass. Top with vanilla ice cream. Garnish with melon slice.

One of my favorite drinks, and stories, from the book (and isn't that the balance to which we all aspire) is the Black Ship and its fascinating tale. The Kurofune Matsuri is a festival in Shimoda Port commemorating the arrival of Commodore Perry's ship. Every year, a communal toast signifies the end of Japanese isolationism. Opening up Japan had been tried before, but some think it was the arrival of the whiskey on Perry' boat that truly opened up the country.

The Black Ship

1 1/2 oz of blended whiskey
1 oz. pomegranate juice
1/4 oz of port
1 tp. lemon juice
lemon peel for garnish

Mix all ingredients except lemon peel in a cocktail shaker with ice.

Strain into a chilled martini glass, garnish with lemon peel, and serve.

The book is a slim volume; a few additions would have been welcome. As Ms. Kato says, it is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating; Japan's cocktail culture is intrinsically connected with its cuisine. It might have been an interesting inclusion to the book to note how certain cocktails might pair with some of Japan's more famous dishes. It is hard to imagine just how the Melon Cream Soda would fit in with any dish except as dessert, but I would have loved to hear more.

Another area needed more explanation for a Western readership — just where to find some of these exotic ingredients. I am lucky enough to have a Japanese grocery in the neighborhood, but others are not. Ms. Kato suggests ordering online, but some prioritizing would be useful. Perhaps a listing of what might be essential and what might be fanciful could save time and money. And as I found out, even with a Japanese grocery at hand, it's not always easy to find an ingredient.

Armed with the book, I ventured out to find yuzu juice for a Tokyo Sidecar. Soon I realized that knowing I needed yuzu juice is not quite enough. I needed to know what the Japanese character is for the yuzu juice. Once again, I found myself depending on the kindness of strangers who found the bottle on the shelf for me. Yuzu, it turns out, is a citrus in the family of lemon and lime, and the brand I ended up with was akin to Rose's Lime Juice.

The Tokyo Sidecar:

2 oz. whiskey
1 oz. Cointreau
1/4 tsp. yuzu juice

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and serve.

The Sidecar usually calls for a lemon twist. I did not opt for it, fearing to overpower the yuzu juice. I did load up on the sugared rim, although it was not called for. Hello Kitty would approve.

And speaking of sweet teeth, there is lovely chocolate in Japanese groceries — a whole new country of candy to explore. Domo arigato!