Fine Beer, Locally Made

October 31, 2012

Last Friday I was lucky enough to be invited to a beer tasting, with the first large batch from some local brewers. I’m normally all about cocktails and spirits, but this was too good a chance to pass up, so I’m branching out a little this week.

Jason and Rob brew beer right here in Xindian, the very district of Xinbei (aka New Taipei City) in which I live. They’re also regulars at my local, the Green Hornet, and that was where they hauled a few kegs of their new product – an as yet unnamed American Pale Ale.

It’s good beer. Not the hoppy taste explosion of an IPA (American Pale Ale is milder, I learnt)  but something a bit easier to drink. There’s a little bitterness, some hoppy fruitiness and little caramel taste in there. I liked it a lot, and I’m not usually a big beer drinker. Jason and Rob have some stronger stuff they’ve brewed for themselves and plans for expansion.

They hope to have their beer being sold in bars by early next year, so look out for it. (Admittedly, this would be a little easier if it had a name already. It’ll probably be something that reflects its New Taipei/Xinbei origin). The plan is for a small range, probably beginning with the American Pale Ale, a hoppier IPA and a chocolatey stout that they’ve been working on.

Their ale is made with Belgian malted barley, Californian yeasts and some American hops. And their most important ingredient “a lot of love”. From their description of the amount of work that goes into the brewing, especially keeping it in the right conditions during Taiwan’s hot and humid summer, I can certainly believe that.

They are not starting from scratch, though, Jason is drawing on twelve years of experience brewing in America, most recently with Hog town Brewers, a Florida co-op which has since spawned a few successful breweries in that state, including Swamphead Brewery in Gainesville. Let’s hope that Jason and Rob’s venture is the next success story.

It might not be the spirits that I yearn for, but I think it’s great that some local booze is starting to be developed. Until recently the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Monopoly had, well, a monopoly, on the alcohol market in Taiwan, but now there a few (a very small few) microbreweries around, and I wish Jason and Rob the best of luck.


Corpse Reviver #2

October 30, 2012

Halloween’s not really my bag, but I’ll certainly use it as an excuse to down a couple of my favourite cocktails.

A Zombie would be nice, but I don’t have the luxury of the fancy rums needed. No matter, a couple of months ago, I tried this one, and it became an instant favourite:

Corpse Reviver #2

1 oz gin

1 oz Cointreau

1 oz Lillet Blanc

1 oz lemon juice

1 dash absinthe or pastis

Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Optionally drop a cherry in the bottom or garnish with lemon or orange twist.

This is a great drink. The balance is important, but it’s not difficult to get it tasting just right, with every ingredient coming through. It’s light and refreshing, so could conceivably do its job of corpse-reviving if you’re the sort that’s into the hair-of-the-dog. Personally, I think it would be a great Sunday brunch drink. My wife’s also a big fan, and she’s quite fussy with her cocktails.

Most recipes go for these proportions (for some differences, check out this Kaiser Penguin post) and it seems like the perfect balance to me. The only tricky part is that ‘dash’ of absinthe. I find that absinthe can easily become too much in a cocktail. I’d recommend less than a 1/4 tsp, and personally I just do it ‘Sazerac style’ – coat the glass with it and then dash out the excess.

I love gin and I love Cointreau, but the real rockstar ingredient is the Lillet (pronounced ‘lee-lay’ but softly on the ‘lay’). I finally got my hands on a bottle of this (previously unavailable in Taipei) from Sundy, and if it wasn’t essentially a 1000NT bottle of wine, I’d be drinking it all the time, straight or with tonic over ice. It’s really delicious.

Lillet Blanc (there’s also a ‘Rouge’) is broadly an ‘aperitif wine’, similar to vermouth, and specifically a ‘quinquina’ similar to Dubbonnet (which I also adore). It tastes to me a little like a souped-up Sauvignon Blanc, and there are indeed Sauvignon Blanc grapes in there, along with others, and various herbs and spices to add (fairly light) flavouring.

In cocktail circles, Lillet is often used as a vermouth substitute to create interesting variations on classic vermouth drinks. I’ve tried Martinis, Manhattans and Negronis with it, and they’re all great.

For mixing purposes, there is some controversy about how close it is to the original ‘Kina Lillet’ called for in many old recipes. Some say ‘Kina’ was much more bitter, others say not much, and Lillet themselves say that it hasn’t even changed. Read this Savoy Stomp post if you’re interested in the details.

Back to the Corpse Reviver. As the ‘#2’ suggests, there were a number of drinks with this name (back around the turn of the 19th century), but only #1 and #2 are really still in circulation, and the #2 is the most popular of the pair (check out this post for more). Just as the ‘Cocktail’ was originally a hangover cure, Corpse Revivers were one of a number of drinks with similar names (Eye-Openers was another popular one), designed to cure you with a bit more of what ails you.

So no, this isn’t really a zombie reanimator kind of thing. It’s more for self-prescription. Does it work? Well I’ve never actually tried it for its intended purpose. If you have a Halloween party planned, why not track down a bottle of Lillet and get ready to try it the next morning. Better yet, get started now. Corpse Revivers could be self-perpetuating.

A trick I have, whilst boozehunting, is to look on the back label of the bottle and find the address of the supplier, distributor or wholesaler. I’ve found a few this way.
The best is a place in Neihu called Sundy. Here’s their website address.

They ARE a wholesale outlet – there’s a street address you can visit, but they don’t have all their stock on display, and all new stock is (apparently) on their website. The best bet is to wait until you need 3000NT worth of stuff and then they’ll deliver free in the Taipei/Xinbei area. If you’re in other parts of Taiwan, they can send it to you for a small charge.

So what do they have that you can’t get elsewhere?

Lillet Blanc – Sundy is the only place I’ve seen this super-fine aperitif wine, much beloved by cocktail geeks (and for a reason). It’s a little dear, at 1000NT, but worth it.

The entire range of Fees Brothers Bitters – I’ve blogged about how these great bitters are available at Breeze, but Breeze gets them from Sundy and they have been very short on stock recently. In fact there are few flavours left. If you want the good stuff, you’ll have to go to Sundy. I recommend the Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Bitters, Rhubarb Bitters, Black Walnut Bitters and Grapefruit Bitters, in that order.

Kirsch (Massanez) – A fine old cherry eau-de-vie (they also have pear and wild raspberry, which I haven’t tried).

Creme de Violette (G. Miclo) – An essential ingredient for authentic old Aviations, but expensive at 1900NT (I haven’t tried it – they also have Creme de Roses).

Maraschino Liqueur (Luxardo) – Hard to find elsewhere, and essential in many vintage cocktails. (There are other Luxardo products. I am particularly curious about Luxardo Fernet and St Antonio Liqueur. Anyone know about these?)

Stock Vermouth (Dry) – I’ve seen this a few places recently, actually, but am very curious how it compares to Martini and Rossi (the only other brand – along with Cinzanno – of vermouth in Taiwan). Anyone know?

Goldschlager – a kind of schnapps I’ve been curious about, but have yet to try.

You can browse from their website, but the last link on the left, this one, will take you straight to a spreadsheet which is much easier to browse.
Note for newcomers, this place has good stuff for odds and ends, but for Bourbon, go to ‘Number 8 Bourbon Shop’ and for gin go to ‘9 City’.

It’s Mixology Monday again and this week’s challenge – ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ – sees me joining up with another Taiwan-based beverage enthusiast, Tearroir, and making a Taiwanese tea-infused Scotch drink which I’ve named the Sucha Rob Roy.

MxMo is a monthly gathering of cocktail bloggers, and this month, hosted by Ed at Wordsmithing Pantagruel, sees us making something with one or more significant ingredients which must be green. (Edit: Summary now up here.)  I’d just bought my first bottle of good, smoky Islay Scotch and couldn’t help but think ‘Green tea would be good infused in this!’ Well I wasn’t the first to think of infusing Scotch with tea, of course, and further research also led me to see that MxMo had already used ‘tea’ as a theme. No matter. I was keen to try my local Taiwan tea with some Caledonian peat-juice.

Not only am I a beginner when it comes to Scotch, but I know nothing about tea, which is a crying shame, as, being in Taiwan, I live right in the middle of one of the very best tea-growing countries on the planet. Some of the best high-mountain oolongs and other teas are grown within easy driving distance of my home.

So that’s where I turned to local expat operation Tearroir for help. Not only do they sell some of Taiwan’s finest tea, but their mission is to try and let Western tea-drinkers have the same informed, appreciative experience of drinking tea that wine-lovers have drinking wine.

Last weekend I had a great lunch with one of Tearroir’s founders, Austin, to learn something about Taiwan tea. Austin first came to Taiwan to further his Chinese studies, but ended up spending more time in mountainside teahouses than in the classroom, and, incidentally, learning more Chinese from tea masters – happy to talk for hours about their passion – than he did from his professors. On his return to Taiwan, Austin knew he was going to do something involving tea, and after meeting oenophile, David, they had the idea of not just selling some of Taiwan’s teas, but also trying to help develop a tea-appreciation culture similar to that which exists for wine.

I love the way Tearroir’s passion for tea matches the passion for spirits and cocktails held by those of us involved in, or influenced by, the ‘craft cocktail movement’, so this week’s cooperation with Tearroir goes further than just picking up some tea from them.

But, I did pick up some tea. The first is called Tie Guanyin, which means something like ‘Iron Buddha’ in Chinese. It’s a tea which is very similar to (and often thought of as being) a dark, heavily roasted, high-mountain Oolong. My novice taste buds got an immediate impression of good deep earthiness (a taste I love in spirits), then some richness, and some pleasant, slightly bitter tannins.

The second tea I tried was Pu-er tea, (Pu-er Cha)which is made in China (Yunnan), but, in this case, undergoes extensive ‘post-fermentation’ and aging for 15 years in Taiwan, which gives it its distinctive characteristics. An aged tea with an aged spirit seemed like a good choice. On tasting this tea, I was even more impressed than with the Tie Guanyin. I loved it. It also had some clay-like earthiness, but seemed much deeper and richer, with more complexity and a heavenly aftertaste.

Next I started to infuse the tea in the Scotch – a bottle of Islay Bowmore 12-Year. My online research gave infusion times ranging from two minutes to two weeks, so I was really not sure if I was going to get a good result first try. With that in mind, I only infused a small 180 ml, (giving me a result of about 150 ml) of each tea, which didn’t leave much room for experimenting with different cocktails.

I started with the Tie Guanyin, adding a level tablespoon to the Scotch in a sealed jar (the leaves are very tight, almost like peppercorns, so this is quite a lot) and shaking a little now and then. After ten minutes the taste was already detectable, and I stopped it and strained it at twenty. It’s by far the easiest infusion I’ve ever done.

The Pu-erCha is much looser and leafier, so I added a 1/4  cup. After an hour there was little effect, so I left it for two. Unfortunately, it was a little long. An hour and a half would have been much better.

I left both infusions a few days to mellow. I’m not sure if that was necessary, but I was out of time anyway, and wanted to get into some cocktail-tasting fresh, later in the week.

The Tie Guanyin was the clear winner of the two. Sipping it neat, the first impression is all smoky Scotch, but then a strong clear earthy tea aftertaste comes through, rising delightfully and giving a warm flush to the sides of the mouth. I love it. It truly exceeded my expectations. It made me think pleasantly of fresh rain on deep grey granite.

The Pu-er Cha was less successfully. I’d let it become too bitter, and it was not a nice sipper. Also, the flavours just didn’t really match those of the Scotch as well.

I tried both of these in Old-Fashioneds (of which the Tie Guanyin was fine, but not spectacular),  and a couple of other drinks each, but I’ll jump to the one that I thought was the winner, and my MxMo submission:

Sucha Rob Roy

2 oz Tie Guanyin tea-infused Islay Scotch

1 oz sweet vermouth

1/2 – 1 tsp Green Chartreuse

1 dash Fees Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Bitters

tea leaf garnish (optional)

Stir all with ice. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Optionally, garnish with a tea leaf.

The Bobby Burns is a Rob Roy variation with added Benedictine. I used Green Chartreuse instead, as I thought the herbal grassiness would go nicely (and to add to the ‘green’ MxMo theme), and used the Fees Whiskey-Barrel-Aged for my bitters for similar reasons (but Angostura or, certainly, orange would have suited nicely, too). The Rob Roy itself is a Manhattan variation of course, and this was honestly the best, most complex Manhattan-style drink I’ve had.

There were so many delicious layers of complementary flavour, each coming through clearly. The smoke of the Scotch, the pepper of the bitters, the herbal tones of the Chartreuse (slightly too dominant at 1 tsp – 1/2 would probably be better), and finally, and most satisfyingly, the deep earthiness of the Tie Guanyin tea for an impressively solid aftertaste.

The name ‘Sucha’ (soo-char) is a bit of Chinese abbreviation from the words for Scotland and tea.

My results with the Tie Guanyin infusion and the Sucha Rob Roy, leave me more than happy with my experiment.

The Pu-er Cha didn’t infuse quite as well (although it may have with a bit less infusion-time), but I still managed to make one very nice cocktail out of it.

Bonus cocktail:

Tea Lily

1 1/2 oz Pu-er Cha infused Islay Scotch

3/4 oz Lillet Blanc

1/2 oz St Germain Elderflower Liqueur

1 dash orange bitters

Stir all with ice. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and, optionally, a tea leaf.

This was actually very good, having pulled out the big guns – Lillet and St Germain are both divine potions, the latter with a reputation of being able to tame some of the wildest flavours. It worked in this case. The tea lily is a delicious, floral drink. It’s sweet overall, but the smoke, and strong tea flavours are still clearly there.

Final Conclusions: Infusing Taiwanese tea into smoky Scotch can really pay off, and is quick and easy to do. Of course, if you want to try, don’t hesitate to contact Tearroir to get some fine quality Tawian teas.

And if you like this post, please check out some of the other contributors to Mixology Monday. Most of them know a lot more about cocktails than I do.

There are three small chains of import/ boutique supermarkets in Taipei. Breeze Center (the original location on Fuxing), is by far the best, and the only one with quite a few products you are unlikely to find elsewhere. I have also blogged about the City Super in Megacity Mall (Banqiao).

The third is Jason’s, with locations in Taipei 101, Tianmu, Taipei Main Station and Banqiao (as well as Gaoxiong and Xinzhu).

Generally Jason’s doesn’t have anything you couldn’t find elsewhere. They have the range of a good Taipei bottle store (a very good one even), but at higher prices, with nothing unique. One thing they used to have going for them was ginger beer (which I now can’t find anywhere – I’d love a tip there), but now that’s gone too.

A couple of weeks ago though, I saw two new products there, which I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

First is this aged Mistral Pisco (1039 NT). Interesting. My one Pisco – Control – is delicious, and I’d love to try an aged version. It would be great to hear from anyone who has tried this stuff. I saw this at the Banqiao branch (FE City Mall), but they don’t have it at the Taipei 101 branch.

The second thing was two spiced rums from Redrum (750NT). Their standard Redrum and their Voodoo Spiced Rum. Reviews I’ve seen haven’t been particularly positive, saying that if you want spiced rums there are better options around. Well, not in Taipei there aren’t. This has got to be better than the only other spiced rum – Captain Morgan’s. Again, I’d like to hear any opinions on this rum. I saw this at both the Banqiao and 101 branches. I also saw it at Breeze the next week, but at about 100NT more.

Having a smashing time!

October 4, 2012

The ‘Smash’ is a cocktail predecessor based on mint – a “Julep on a small plan” as is often said.

This post is the last in a short trilogy on mint, following Mojitos and Juleps.

Before the ‘Cocktail‘ (in the official sense of the word – spirit, bitters, sugar and water), there was the ‘Sling’ – spirit, sugar and water (or ice). The addition of mint, simply makes it a ‘Smash’, and according to David Wondrich, this was a pretty popular drink in the late 19th century. Another way of looking at it is as a cocktail (like an Old-Fashioned) with mint instead of bitters as the spice.

The Smash I’d heard reference to the most was the Gin Smash. I had an old recipe from somewhere and tried it.

Gin Smash

2 oz gin

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp water

3 sprigs of mint

Muddle the mint in sugar and water, add gin, and shake. Strain into an Old-Fashioned glass of ice with some finely chopped mint, and garnish with an extra sprig.

Well, it was OK. It should have been better. With some thought, here was what I came up with.

Why shake that mint? Julep and Mojito experts don’t shake it. Everyone says it bruises and tastes unpleasant. Why would it be better shaken in a Smash? But even Wondrich says he likes to shake, and a Smash (SMASH!!!) sounds like it should be shaken.

It needs to be sweeter. Maybe it’s just me, but I think mint requires a little more sugar. I found my Juleps much better that way,

Tanqueray, with its brash Juniper-forward profile, might not have been the best choice for gin. Dutch Genever would have been the stuff in the original Smashes, and failing that something milder is called for.

I tried again, three more times, with Genever (Bokme), the sweeter Old Tom Gin (Haymans) and the milder Plymouth. I came up with a plan for the mint. Here’s what I got:

Gin Smash (Take 2)

2 oz gin or genever

2 tsp sugar

1 tb  water

about a dozen mint leaves

1 mint sprig

Briefly stir sugar in water to almost dissolve it in your serving glass. Muddle mint leaves lightly in sugar. Fill a mixing glass or shaker tin with ice. Strain mint and sugar over this and discard the leaves. Add gin. Shake. Fill serving glass with crushed ice. Strain the drink over it. Garnish with a good mint sprig (giving it a slap to release smell first) and serve with a short straw which forces the nose to go right down in the mint.

Well that was much better!

The trick with the glasses is just a way of getting the mint out and throwing it away after the muddling flavours the water. It’s just a light touch, and a lot of the mint ‘taste’ comes from the garnish sprig in the nose (thanks, Ben, for suggesting discarding). I really think this method works. You could also just fish the mint out with a barspoon. Oh, and rubbing the rim of the glass and the end of the straw with mint works too.

Genever was great. I love that spirit. Pity you can’t get it in Taiwan. It’s very different from normal gin, though.

The Old Tom and the Plymouth were quite similar (you can buy Plymouth Gin at 9City), and much better than the Tanqueray in this drink (although I think the latter would taste much better with this new method). It’s a really nice drink. I don’t think a slice of lemon would go amiss. You could also try something like Benedictine, Curacao, or another liqueur as the sweetening agent too (just leave out the sugar, or muddle mint straight into liqueur). The possibilities are endless.

The next one I was tried was a Brandy Smash, with this recipe from Eric Felten:

Brandy Smash

1 1/2 oz brandy

1/4 oz Benedictine

3 or 4 mint leaves

1 tsp sugar

In a  short glass, gently crush the mint in the sugar with a splash of water. Fill the glass with well-crushed ice, add the brandy and Benedictine, and stir. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

I used Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP for the brandy. I think it mixes very well, and I like it more and more.

This is another good Smash. With the Benedictine, it’s a little like a mild and minty B & B. Great stuff.

Smashes are good. They’re a good alternative to other simple drinks. I tried the Gin Smash again before I finished this post, with Tanqueray and Martin Miller. They were fine, but the Plymouth (or Old Tom) is the way to go, and Genever, if you can get it. I’ll also definitely try the Brandy one again as we get into the cold weather that usually sees me drinking B & B’s. That said, of all the mint drinks, the Mojito is still my favourite.

Part 1: Mojitos

Part 2: Mint Juleps

Newsflash!!! Cheap Woodford Reserve Bourbon at RT Mart (Taiwan). That’s the chief reason for this post actually. The Woodford Reserve (Distiller’s Select) is now on sale at RT Mart for a mere 675NT (about $US22 for foreign readers). That’s about half what you’d normally pay for it. I’ve blogged about the Woodford before, and it’s bloody excellent Bourbon.

Edit: I’ve received a report that it’s not every branch of RT Mart that has this special. If you’re in the Taipei area, I can confirm that the Xindian branch does.

Edit 2: Sale’s over and there’s no plans to restock. Keep an eye open when you’re in RT, though. They have had it int he past and may have it again one day.

Normally I don’t rate RT Mart highly as a source of booze. It doesn’t have much of a range. There are two things to make it worth a visit though. That Woodford Reserve, and Havana Club Anejo Especial Rum, available elsewhere, but probably cheapest at RT Mart. Aside from that there’s little else of worth. Their cheap wine selection is better than Carrefour’s, possibly, but only when it comes to French wine and bubbly.

Which brings me to Carrefour, the best source of a few basic bottles and a few rare bottles. Carrefour is about as cheap as it’s going to get for a couple of essential things – Tanqueray, Martini and Rossi Vermouth, Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP (my basic mixing cognac). You can get these elsewhere, but Carrefour is convenient and cheap.

And they have a few things you won’t find elsewhere. I’ve blogged before about two excellent rums: Neissons Rhum Agricole, and Matusalem Platino Cuban-style rum. The Neissons is great stuff if you have slightly daring tastes and the Matusalem is just a great mixing rum – way better than Bacardi, and much the same price. They also have an amber Agricole called Saint James which is very good. You won’t find Broker’s gin elsewhere, either (but there’s better gins out there, so it’s probably not worth it unless you’re a collector). Anyway, they have stuff (new products, too) that you can’t find ANYWHERE else in the country.

While I’m on the subject of large supermarkets (hypermarkets), I think I should cover the other two in Taiwan. A-Mart (Aimai) has some good cheap wine, but nothing much in the way of spirits. Costco is disappointing. There’s nothing there that you can’t buy for much the same price elsewhere, and I despise Costco for their ‘pay for the privilege of shopping with us’ scam. They don’t even have anything in the way of rare mixing ingredients you won’t find elsewhere.

That’s all. Get down and buy some of that Woodford Reserve. It’s in a stupid looking box (they should have left it in its beautiful bottle), but it’s there in bulk. I know someone who bought six bottles.

Stupid Box

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