Thursday, January 29, 2009

Brandy Friday: Kelt Cognac - Exciting and New

Kelt is a recent entry into the world of Cognac (founded 1987) with a unique twist on aging. Claiming that in days of yore, spirits "developed in an astonishing way during the long sea voyages from Europe to the new world," Kelt has created the Tour du Monde, an ocean voyage for its barrels. That's right, each of Kelt's barrels is sent out on a three month luxury cruise around the world. (Kelt VSOP, please report to the Lido Deck.) As the Kelt website puts it:

During Kelt’s tour du monde OCEAN MATURATION the spirits move constantly with the rolling of the ship. Every molecule of the liquid is in contact with the oak wood repeatedly each day. There are huge variations in temperature, and often extreme heat. The high temperatures persuade the wood to impart the finest of its lignin into the spirits. The constant changes in temperature and air pressure also enable the wood to expand and contract, thereby varying the oxygenation of the spirits. The evaporation increases considerably as does the quality. The edges are rounded off and the spirit becomes much more mellow and subtle. This is reflected in both the nose and the taste. Due to the constant movement, temperature and air-pressure variations the molecular structure is rearranged, marrying the blend in a formidable way.

Hmm, molecular restructuring due to sloshing about...sounds sort of sci-fi, like the Cognac version of The Fly. I'm not sure I buy it, but hey, let's taste.

The designation V.S.O.P. or Very Superior Old Pale, indicates that the youngest brandy in the bottle has been aged at least four years, though Kelt says it is, in fact, older.


Kelt Tour du Monde, VSOP, Grande Champagne, 40% alcohol ($50-60).

Hmm, smells like whiskey. Tastes similar to a grain whiskey, but lighter. In fact, if you gave it to me blind, I might guess a Scotch single grain; when you hold it in your mouth, you begin to get the more brandy qualities. The finish is where the brandy really comes out, with sweetness and fruit, though I detect more pears than grapes.

Interestingly, Kelt also makes a whiskey, a vatted malt whiskey made from 37 Scotch single malts which also takes the Tour du Monde. It would be fascinating to try, though it does not appear to be available in the US.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Ryes (and Fall) of Jim Beam

As you know if you are a regular reader, rye whiskey is one of my favorite American whiskies. We are in the midst of a rye explosion, and the quality of new ryes I've tasted has been uniformly high. In all my rye reviews, I've scarcely found anything to complain about.

There is no greater sign that rye has arrived than the release of the highly touted (rī)¹ by Jim Beam. Pronounced, we are told on the packaging, "Rye One," this whiskey comes in a tall, sleek bottle fit for a club-friendly vodka drinking crowd. It also comes with a steep $50 price tag.

The reaction of the whiskey connoisseur community to this new release was immediate flagellation of this interloper. We in the American whiskey world are used to bottles with names of people we've never heard of packaged in a manner reminiscent of something that might be served in a nineteenth century saloon. We have no use for sleek packaging and are wary of style over substance, and the advertising copy on (rī)¹ didn't help deter this impression("(rī)¹ is the definition of ultra-premium rye whiskey"; "the smoothest alternative on the cocktail scene"). It's unclear if this reaction reveals a healthy skepticism, a high degree of snobbery, or both. American whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery took on this attitude in his blog, arguing that (rī)¹ is a good cocktail whiskey and "not as superficial as you think."

Personally, I'm skeptical anytime Jim Beam comes out with a new, highly touted product. Beam already has two rye whiskies that run in the $10- $15 range: Jim Beam yellow label and Old Overholt Rye. What is it about this new, fancy rye that merits $40 more than these other Beam ryes?

Well, I picked up a bottle of (rī)¹ along with an Old Overholt to find out. Both are straight rye whiskies. The (rī)¹ is slightly higher in alcohol at 46% vs Old Overholt at 40%. While it usually hovers around $50, I picked up the (rī)¹ at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys for $38. The Old Overholt put me out $11.99 at the same store. And now the tasting.

Old Overholt: More Sweet Than Rye

Old Overholt is an old Pennsylvania whiskey which moved to Kentucky and is now owned by Beam. It is a four year old whiskey that is about as unhip as you can get, with a picture of old man Overholt on the bottle and the catchy slogan, "Reg. in U.S. Pat. Off."

For a rye, there is surprisingly little rye in the nose of Overholt. I get very subtle notes of hay and grass as well as some banana. The flavor surprises me with its initial sweetness. There are a few rye notes if you hold it in your mouth, but you don't get any real rye spice until the finish. It's an odd rye, almost tasting more like a Jack Daniel's product than any other rye I've had.

(rī)¹: Rye Lite

As noted above, (rī)¹ is slightly higher in alcohol than Overholt. The label suggests serving it on the rocks or "to elevate an otherwise ordinary cocktail," but here at Sku's Recent Eats, we drink our whiskey neat. (rī)¹ has no age statement, which means that it is at least four years old.

(rī)¹ is very light on the nose; as with Overholt, it has some subtle rye tones. The flavor is a bit more rye than Overholt and lacks Overholt's sweetness. Like Overholt though, it fails to deliver much in the way of solid rye flavors. Eventually, if you hold the whiskey in your mouth, you get some dulled rye in it, and there is some in the finish, but it's definitely Rye Lite. This lack of rye spice, including all of that clove, pepper and other spice that make rye whiskey so interesting, is amusing given the bottle booklet's claim that "spice is in." To be fair, though, the label does describe (rī)¹ as having a "slightly spicy, yet lighter rye flavor." I would modify that to read "barely spicy." Overall, (rī)¹ is very similar to Overholt, but less sweet.

Just to give it the benefit of the doubt, I chucked a few ice cubes in a glass and tried some (rī)¹ on the rocks, as per the label's instructions. (With all the instructions, how did they leave out "Do not use as a flotation device"?). The ice dulls the rye flavor and really brings out the sweetness. It's actually not an unpleasant drink on the rocks but it has precious little in common with anything rye.


In the end, I wasn't enthralled with either of these ryes. In fact, these were among the only two ryes I've had that I really didn't care for. If you are not huge on spice but want a subtle, balanced rye for a cocktail, get some of Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Rye or some Rittenhouse 100, and if you want your rye neat and like the spice, you have many excellent choices. If you like things sweet, these Beam ryes may suit you, and if you want to pay a premium for a fancy bottle, (rī)¹ is the one rye for you.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Porky New Favorite: El Caserio

Do you have restaurants that you really should have made it to but that you just never did? There is no rational reason that I had yet to set foot in El Caserio. The well regarded Ecuadoran-Italian restaurant is close to where I live; I've driven by it literally hundreds of times, both the original location on Virgil and the newer, fancier Silverlake Boulevard restaurant. I've eaten at nearly every other place within a one mile radius going any direction, but I just never made it there. Finally, I decided enough was enough, it was time to go, so we hit the location on Silverlake Boulevard.

It's a nice looking restaurant with a good vibe. The clientele on a Sunday night appeared to be mostly South American and many were larger groups there for special occasion dinners.

We ordered a few things, but the highlight of the meal was the Cosas Finas (fine things), a giant plate of sausage, roast pork, potato cakes, roast potatoes, fried plantains and mini-tamales topped with hard-roasted corn. This was outstanding and enough to feed two. The tamales were sweet and did well with a dash of the restaurant's spicy tomato water, the sausages had nice flavor, and the roast corn added a nice crunchiness.

My favorite cosa fina, though, was the roast pork. The pork was roasted to the melt-in-your-mouth point in which the fat and meat mix together to create that beautiful smoky, porky taste, similar to a Cuban lechon. I kept picking at the bones to get every last morsel.

El Caserio also has a variety of homemade pastas. We had the Pappardelle Bolognese with meatballs. The pasta was nice but the meatballs were dense and didn't have great flavor.

I will definitely go back to El Caserio, and even though I didn't like the meatballs, I would like to try more of the pastas, as they had potential. Most of all though, I'll be back for that plate of Cosas Finas.

El Caserio
401 Silverlake Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 273-8945

309 N. Virgil Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90004
(323) 664-9266

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Brandy Friday: Jean Fillioux

For our first Brandy Friday tasting, we've chosen a Cognac from Jean Fillioux. A small house run almost entirely by Pascal J. Fillioux, Jean Fillioux makes Cognac entirely from the vineyards on his estates in the acclaimed Golden Triangle area of the Grande Champagne cru in the Cognac region.

The Fillioux brand can be hard to find but much of the range is available locally at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys and selected bottles can also be found at Silverlake Wine. Some of the Fillioux Cognacs have age designations (VSOP, etc.), but most, including today's, do not.


Jean Fillioux La Pouyade Cognac, Vieile Grande Champagne, 1st Cru, 42% ($40).

The nose on this is wonderfully fruity: pears, plums, prunes, sweet white wine and spices. I could just sniff it all day. The flavor follows up with sweet fruit and a good amount of oak to give it some backbone and complexity. A really nice Cognac and a nice start to our tastings.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Dear Mr. President

As we witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, it's hard not to write about this historic day. Our new president will face countless challenges on issues as vital and diverse as the economic meltdown, global security, climate change and healthcare.

Sure, all of those things are important, but what about the whiskey? America's whiskey lovers are clamoring for liquor law reform, and I am ready with a Whiskey Wednesday presidential wish list. Some of these things would require regulatory changes, some would necessitate actual changes in the law. Some involve more regulation and some less, but everything on the list is aimed at helping us, the whiskey-loving public.

1. Allow Imports in Alternative Bottle Sizes

Did you know that US regulation sets the acceptable size of alcohol bottles? In fact, this is one of the reasons we don't get lots of the best whiskey from overseas. The standard bottling size for US spirits is 750 ml whereas in most other places it is 700 ml. That means that if a Scottish or Japanese distillery wants to export its whiskey to the US, they have to buy completely different bottles from their standard run. As a result, we miss out on many smaller, more limited or specialty bottlings where, from the distiller's point of view, it's just not worth the expense to do two separate bottlings. (Kevin Erskine has a good write-up on the history of this anomalous regulation here).

The difference between these bottle sizes is only 50 ml, the size of a typical mini or airplane bottle, so who cares? Change this regulation and allow us to import all of the best Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskey!

2. Allow Distillery Direct and Website Sales

If you live in the UK, you can buy whiskey from a whiskey store, from a distillery or on ebay. In the US, you can only purchase spirits from a licensed retailer who purchases from a licensed distributor who either purchases it from a domestic distiller or imports it. This complex three-tier system is a relic of prohibition and has no place in the world of point-and-click purchasing.

I want to purchase whiskey (1) directly from the distillery; (2) from on-line UK retailers such as Whisky Exchange or Royal Mile Whiskies; and (3) on ebay (though I better be careful about fakes). Yes, allowing all of this will require a number of complex legal and regulatory changes in everything from commercial to tax law as well as legal changes at the state level, but it will be worth it.

3. Label Disclosure - Distilleries

Call me crazy, but when I drink something, I like to know what it is. That means I want to know who made it. In the world of American whiskey, this is a big problem. Companies buy up whiskey from distillers and sell it under their own labels, often times implying that they made it themselves. I propose that any American straight whiskey should list the distillery or distilleries in which the whiskey was produced on the label.

4. Label Disclosure - Ingredients

A bottle of American straight whiskey contains pretty much just that- whiskey. Not so for imports. Scotch often includes food coloring. Canadian whiskey, as you may recall from our recent write up, can contain various additives. I want to know anything that goes into that bottle that isn't whiskey or water...that means brandy, caramel coloring, sugar or anything else. I want to know if the deep brown color of my Scotch comes from years in oak or from a bottle of spirit caramel. We require ingredient lists on food, why not on whiskey?

5. In-Flight Whiskey

As a frequent business traveler, I am all too familiar with the indignities of the strip and cavity search that is post-9/11 airline security. I understand the metal detectors and certainly want to be safe when I fly, but has any terrorist act been prevented by the prohibition on liquids? Frankly, I think airline security is more about appearances than actual prevention, as most domestic terrorism is foiled by intelligence, not making people take off their loafers. In any case, I think it's high time we lifted the ban on in-flight liquids. I'm tired of spending the flight worried about my newest purchase wrapped in laundry and towels in the cargo-hold...I haven't had a breakage yet, but I've been lucky.

So, Mr. President, please add these important measures to your agenda for change. And if anyone has any others, please chime in.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I Eat Animal, It's Incredible

Let me join the chorus of those singing the praises of Animal on Fairfax. The semi-celebrity chef driven restaurant, owned by the Food Network's 2 Dudes, is a temple of meat (not a single vegetarian entree appeared on the menu on my visit) and down scale food done up.

My very favorite dish, by a long shot, was the poutine. Now, while I have long heard tell of this Canadian specialty of french fries, covered with brown sauce and cheese curds, I've never actually tasted it, so I can't make a comparison with the real thing. I can tell you that the Animal version is exquisite. Perfectly fried french fries, topped with a rich and wonderfully rich oxtail jus, it was all we could do not to lick the jus off the plate when we were done. This was one of those dishes that you think about long after your dinner and yearn to taste again. And we weren't the only ones, poutines were shooting out of the kitchen like mad. My dining partner and I agreed that we would happily come back and just have the poutine.

The poutine overshadowed our other appetizer, foie gras with biscuit and sausage and gravy. This was a case of two much of a good thing. The biscuit, both moist and fluffy and gravy, sweet and nicely spiced, was a great update of the southern classic. The foie gras was well cooked but I don't think it was needed on the dish and the combination of flavors didn't really come together as well as it could have.

Continuing the southern theme, I went for the entree of fried quail, greens, grits, bacon back and syrup. This was an amazing tribute to classic southern cooking. The quail was fried up like some of the best fried chicken ever (chicken fried quail?) and the pairings, in contrast to the foie gras, harmonized well. The salty quail, the porky bacon, the sweet syrup, the greens, the gritz, every element worked and complemented its neighbor.

I was less blown away by the desserts. Yes, I had the chocolate bacon crisp bar, but I wasn't impressed, but then I've never been on the bacon-for-dessert bandwagon. The dulce de leche tres leches cake was a nice, well done piece of tres leches, but not exciting.

Additional pluses at Animal were a reasonable price point for the caliber of food and plenty of wine by the glass and carafe as well as the bottle, for those of us who are lighter drinkers (and yes, that includes me).

So eat animal, it is incredible.

435 North Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Introducing Brandy Friday: Time for a Cognac Break

At Sku's Recent Eats, Wednesdays are definitively for whiskey, but occasionally, we get the hankering for some other spirit and take a whiskey-break. The last time we did that was during our Mezcal Miercoles series, in which we sampled Mexico's premier Mezcals. Now it's time for another spirit, so for the next month or so, in addition to our regular Whiskey Wednesdays, we will have Brandy Fridays with a focus on Cognac.

Unlike our Whiskey Wednesdays, Brandy Friday will be an occasional series, but we will start with a straight month, so I may add an additional food post on Thursdays to maintain the proper food/spirit balance.

Now, I hardly have the aptitude for brandy that I do for whiskey, but it's always fascinated me, and I've tried to learn at least the basics so I can have some idea of what I'm tasting. Hopefully, you will come along and learn with me. So, here we go.

What the heck is brandy?

Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine, juice or fruit. There are many different brandies, including Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and others made from many different things. We will be focusing on wine-based brandy.

What is eau de vie?

Eau de vie, as used with regard to aged brandies, is what we in the whiskey world call white dog, the unaged distilled spirit. Eau de vie is also the term used for fruit brandies that are bottled without aging. Eau de vie translates to "water of life" which, as you will recall, is also the root of the word whiskey.

What the heck is Cognac?

As noted above, Cognac is a type of brandy from the Cognac region in Western France, so Cognac is to brandy as, say, Scotch is to whiskey. Pursuant to the regulations of the The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), Cognac must be made from grapes, 90% of which must come from three varietals: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, but most are made from Ugni Blanc, also known as St. Emilion. The remaining 10% can only be made from specific grapes as well. None of these are popular wine grapes; they tend to be used only for brandy.

Cognac must be double distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in oak barrels. Within the region of Cognac, there are six sub-regions or crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Of these regions, Grande Champagne, which lies at the very center of the region, is thought to be the finest, though many Cognacs contain a blend of brandies from the different crus.

Most Cognac is a blend of different Cognacs made by the distillery (as opposed to a single barrel), and as with Scotch, the age designated on the bottle is the age of the youngest brandy in the bottle. In another similarity to Scotch, Cognac can contain caramel coloring. Unlike Scotch, Cognac can also contain sugar syrup as a sweetener and oak chips to enhance the wood flavor (known as boise).

Nearly all Cognacs, and nearly all aged brandies, seem to hover closely to the 40% alcohol levels. Cask strength is not something that has entered the industry as of yet in any wide-scale way the way that it has in whiskey.

What does Cognac taste like?

Cognac is distilled wine, but it really tastes more like whiskey than wine. I think of Cognac as tasting like a light, fruity whiskey. It has none of the heaviness and boldness of whiskey, and whiskey drinkers might miss that. Common flavors are dried fruit, pear and sweet white wines. At its best, it is a subtle and complex spirit that lifts you into the clouds.

VSOP? XO? Napoleon? What does it all mean?

These are age designations:

VS (Very Special): Aged at least two years.

VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or Reserve: Aged at least four years.

XO (Extra Old) or Napoleon: Aged at least six years, though many are much older.

While there are a few vintage Cognacs, it is very unusual to have precise age statements on Cognac bottles. In addition, some Cognacs don't use these terms at all and the meaning of the terms seems to vary for brandies outside the Cognac region. The long and short of it is that people who are used to the precise vintage on a bottle of wine or the age statement on a whiskey won't find such straightforward information in most of the world of brandy.

Who makes Cognac?

The biggest producers of Cognac are the four major houses: Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier, which represent 90% of all Cognac sales. However, on our Brandy Fridays, we will be experimenting with some of the smaller, artisan producers, though those producers seem to be struggling to survive. Toward the end of our series, we will journey away from Cognac and try some other brandies as well.

Where can you buy Cognac?

In Southern California, I've found that the liquor stores that have great whiskey selections also tend to have great Cognac selections. That means Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, Hi-Time Wine in Costa Mesa and K&L in Hollywood. There is also some good stuff on the shelf at Silverlake Wine.

Where can you learn more about Cognac and Brandy?

Unfortunately, brandy has not developed the loyal following among connoisseurs that whiskey, Tequila and rum have recently acquired. There is no Brandy Magazine or Cognac Advocate to parallel the whiskey publications. While there is some information out there on the internet and in books, much of it is contradictory and some is just wrong. I had to do some real digging to find out the facts, including talking to some producers and industry people, and I still may not have everything straight. There is still a lot of mystery in the brandy universe.

Next Friday: Let the tastings begin

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ham of God: Jamon Iberico de Ballota

Jamon Iberico is a Spanish cured ham made from the Iberian Black Pig whose diet consists largely of acorns. A cousin of prosciutto and a sibling of Jamon Serrano, Jamon Iberico is considered their superior and is priced accordingly. Until recently, it wasn't available in the U.S., but over the last year, it's been trickling in.

At the Cheese Store of Silverlake, they have Jamon Iberico de Ballota (the most prized type, made from free range pigs which eat only acorns) for $90 per pound. Expensive? Heck, yeah. Like cheese, though, the good thing about cured meats is that you can almost always afford a little bit. So, for $10 I got four slices.

The Jamon was a darker red color than most cured hams; it was heavily marbled with fat which seemed more translucent than in Prosciutto. Could a piece of ham be worth this much? In this case, I'd have to say yes. The meat was rich and subtle, much less salty than a prosciutto. It had a pure, rich ham taste which I wanted to savor for as long as possible. The fat marbling gave it a melt-in-your mouth effect. Don't just gulp this stuff down; hold it in your mouth like a fine wine, and savor it.

If transcendence can be achieved through a cured ham, then this is the ham that would do it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey in Utah?

There's a new whiskey in town, and that town is Park City Utah. In fact, it's a new whiskey in the state and a state not exactly known for its distilled spirits at that.

High West Whiskey is a microdistillery operated by David Perkins which is making vodka as well as Rendezvous Rye. Under pressure to turn a profit, many microdistilleries put out whiskey that is too young. High West, which hasn't started bottling its own whiskey yet, has come up with an alternative. Their first whiskey is a blend of whiskies produced by other distillers.

Rendezvous Rye is a blend of two straight rye whiskies, a six year old which weighs in at 95% rye and a 16 year old which is 80% rye. These are huge rye percentages, much more than the typical straight rye on the market. As is typical in American whiskey, High West won't say where it acquired these whiskies, except to imply that they are from "back East." As a big rye fan, I was excited to try this new product.


High West Whiskey Rendezvous Rye, Batch 11, 46% alcohol ($50).

Wow. Aroma is subtle with rye and fruit. Great flavor. Very smooth for the high rye content...subtle and complex with a great balance of rye spice and sweetness. This one really blew me away.

High West really hit the notes on this one. Perkins clearly has a nose for whiskey, and hopefully, this will come through on the stuff he distills as well as this blend. I'll be watching these guys.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cupcakes and Muffalettas: The Deli at Little Dom's

I don't get to Silverlake/Los Feliz all that much, but when Eating LA mentioned the deli at Little Dom's had a chocolate cake in a mason jar, well I just had to get myself over there.

Little Dom's is the relatively new restaurant on the north end of Hillhurst where La Belle Epoque used to be. The deli has various sandwiches and other food. Now, if I was going to go, I was going to eat more than cake in a jar, so I got some sandwiches as well.

Most of the sandwiches were pretty standard, but I was very impressed by the Muffaletta. It's very hard to find a good Muffaletta outside of New Orleans. There is a temptation to use big, puffy rolls, when you really should use a more dense, Italian bread, and that's what Little Dom's does. It's got a nice olive salad with good deli meat (though it could use a bit more); the sandwich is also liberally sprinkled with olive oil (a Muffa-must).

Is it odd that you'd find a great Muffaletta at a place that doesn't really serve New Orleans food? Not really. In LA, you rarely find Muffalettas outside of Cajun/New Orleans themed restaurants. In New Orleans, though, you get Muffaletta's at Italian delis like the Central Grocery in the French Quarter, not at places that serve crawfish etouffe and jambalaya. So, it actually makes some sense that a deli that doesn't really do traditional New Orleans food would have really good Muffalettas. Dom's Muff should make the place a destination for homesick New Orlenians.

I also really liked the mocha cupcake which had a rich, chocolate/coffee cake with a wonderful, very light buttercream frosting. A plain chocolate cupcake with a cream cheese frosting wasn't as good.

The famous mason jar chocolate cake was, as advertised, cake in a mason jar, covered with a caramel sauce and pecans. It was fine cake but nothing special. I'd say it's mostly about the presentation.

My advice: Skip the mason jar cake and grab a Muffaletta and a mocha cupcake.

The Deli at Little Dom's
2128 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, 90027
(323) 661-0055

Thursday, January 8, 2009

La Hada Verde: Spanish Absinthe from Obsello

Obsello [ob-SAY-oh]Absinthe is a new, Spanish Absinthe made by American distiller B. Alex in the Catalan region of Spain. As with most micro-distillers, Alex appears to be somewhat of an obsessive, in a good way. He started his distilling career at a young age, making illicit rum in his closet while in high school. "I couldn't get a fake ID," he told me "and I found that you don't get carded for buying brewer's yeast." Ten years ago, his high school hobby grew into a passion when he began experimenting with Absinthe.

He moved to Spain to start a distillery at a time when Absinthe was still effectively banned in the US. In doing so, he spent significant time researching the local customs and process. Spanish Absinthe, according to Alex, distinguishes itself from its French and Swiss brethren by being sweeter and having citrus notes.

The base of Obsello Absinthe is a eau de vie made from Cava grapes Macabeo, Xareal-lo, and Parellada which is produced by a local distiller. In the redistillation, Obsello uses eight herbs, the majority of which is grande wormwood, rounded out with anise, fennel, coriander, melissa, hyssop, star anise and one secret ingredient. It does not contain any added sugar or color. Obsello is 50% alcohol, which makes it lower on the alcohol scale than some of the other Absinthes currently available. Alex's operation is the type of small, detail-oriented, individually run operation that I really like, so I was excited to try a sample they sent.

As per my usual Absinthe tasting ritual, I tried Obsello both with sugar and without.

Obsello has a light green color and louches nicely with a cloudy, as opposed to more milky louche. Since it's a bit lower in alcohol, I added a tad less water than I would for higher strength Absinthes.

This is one of the most balanced, easiest drinking Absinthes I've tasted. The nose is rich with traditional anise scents as well as a touch of orange rind. The flavors aren't as harsh as some Absinthes, and it is amazingly pleasant and drinkable. The anise, fennel and wormwood flavors are there but it's less tongue-numbing than some brands, and there is an excellent balance between sweet and bitter; there is citrus too, though I found it more apparent in the nose than the flavor. The finish is pure black licorice.

Based on the different preparations I tried, I would definitely recommend taking this Absinthe with sugar; the sugar does much to bring out the balance which was less apparent in the sugar-free pour.

Because of its smooth and balanced character, I thought Obsello would make a great cocktail Absinthe as well, so I tried it in a Sazerac. It performed very well, providing just the right anise notes and sweetness to balance the drink.

Overall, this is definitely one of the better Absinthes I've tried and I would highly recommend Obsello if you're looking for a regular Absinthe pour.

Obsello has only recently entered the LA market. Locally, it can be purchase at K&L in Hollywood for $48.99. Alex said he would like to move the price point down so that Absinthe could restore its place as a bar staple. He is also working on a higher end Distiller's Reserve that will be available exclusively through Given the quality of Obsello, I'd guess that will be a must try for Absinthe fans.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Reads -- The Wettest County in the World

Well, Anderson said, where I come from we don't have cars full of liquor blasting through the town square every night with women at the wheel, men getting castrated and their testicles delivered to them in the hospital, and nobody seems to care or say anything about it.

A fictionalized Sherwood Anderson,
The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

Rum-running, bootlegging, whiskey's the stuff of legend and tall tales. For writer, Matt Bondurant, it's also the stuff of family history. He comes from a line of notorious bootleggers, and his second novel is a fictionalized account of his grandfather's experience as part of one of the most notorious bootlegging operations in prohibition era Virginia.

The story, which alternates between two time periods in a sort of before and after chronology, is centered on a trio of brothers who ran illicit hooch out of Franklin County, Virginia in the latter days of prohibition. In the later time period, a late-career Sherwood Anderson investigates and reports on their plight and a resulting corruption trial.

Bondurant is a fine storyteller who understands the beauty of men (and the book is certainly oriented toward men) and their dedication to their craft, be it the Bondurant brothers and their hooch or Anderson and his writing. There is plenty of Prohibition era action, including a car chase finale worthy of the sliver screen, mysterious beatings and shootings and, as noted above, at least one castration, but the work is also a study of how people perceive themselves, of the weight of personal insecurity and of the importance of myth and legend in storytelling.

Whiskey, or spirits in general, are really secondary to the story. The brothers make everything from rotgut, to corn whiskey to what they claim is the best apple brandy around. There are a few quite lyrical descriptions of distilling and of the purity or lack thereof of various products, but overall, the hooch (which can go by names as colorful as popskull and sugarhead) while important, is less the focus of the story than the hooch-trade.

In the end, the one thing I was left with was the sense that moonshining was hard work. Shiners were in constant movement and on a near-constant run from the law, from unethical officials seeking bribes, from the competition, and from the perils of nature and the economy. Far from being lone-wolves, Bondurant's covert distillers feel at once trapped in their lives but also very much adjusted such that they've accepted the inherent normality of their situations. They are much more similar to how we might view young drug dealers today than the romanticized notion of outlaw rum-runners.

If you are interested in this era or just an entertaining read, check it out.

Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World, Scribner, $25.00.

Thanks to Scribner for sending me a copy.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Philippe's vs. Cole's: The LA French Dip Throwdown

Any food lover who lives in LA knows that there is a long-standing rivalry revolving around which of two esteemed downtown establishments served the world's first French Dip sandwich. Philippe the Original and Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet both lie just off Main Street, about a mile and quarter apart from each other, in LA's downtown corridor. Both restaurants were founded in 1908, though Philippe's has since changed location, and both serve beef, pork and lamb sandwiches dipped in jus. Despite those similarities though, these are very different restaurants and that is even more the case since downtown entrepreneur Cedd Moses refurbished Cole's. Given the recent reopening of Cole's, I thought it was time for a Dip-off between LA's two jus-soaked giants of the French Dip.

Flipping for Philippe: Philippe the Original

From the look of it, Philippe the Original hasn't changed much in the last fifty or so years, and certainly not in the ten years I've been going there. The floor is strewn with sawdust, the staff may have been working there since it opened and the place is filled with anachronisms like the old-time candy counter, the row of phone booths and ten cent coffee (no refills).

Anyone who isn't familiar with it may be surprised to find that Philippe's Dip isn't what most people think of as a French Dip sandwich. That is, it isn't served with a little bowl of jus. Instead, the server dips the bread in jus for you (or double dips it if you request it, which you should) while she is making the sandwich. In my mind, this raises some suspicion as to whether you can call Philippe's the first Dip. It certainly isn't the Dip that caught on elsewhere.

I've been to Philippe's enough to know what my order is: the lamb sandwich, double dipped with blue cheese, smothered with the atomic, sinus clearing mustard, a side of slaw and a pickled egg. The lamb is gamy, the blue cheese is pungent and strong and the mustard packs a wallop. The slaw is nothing special but it cuts the heat of the mustard and the eggs are a beautiful shade of purple. There are few sandwiches more satisfying, and you can wash it down with a pick from one of the last affordable wine-by-the-glass lists in the city. It's one of the city's great sandwiches.

A Merry Old Soul: Cole's PE Buffet

Where I'm a Philippe regular, I must admit that I had never made it to Cole's before this challenge. It took the refurbishment to motivate me to finally make good on my pledges to check it out. Having never seen the earlier version, I can't comment on the changes, but it's a nice looking place with a good old-time groove. The wood paneling and old photos make me feel like I'm at "the tables down at Mory's" or some other mythic old robber-baron haunt.

Despite it's name, Cole's is not a buffet and, in fact, has a very limited menu, though they have the same major offerings as Philippe's. I took a beef dip and the Cole's version of my Philippe favorite, the lamb with blue cheese.

The beef was fine but unexciting, but I'm not a fan of the beef dip at Philippe's either, so I honed like a laser on the lamb. The lamb was well cooked, not as gamy as Philippe's but more refined...different but equally good. The blue cheese was weak in flavor and couldn't contend with the lamb; they need to use something stronger. The atomic mustard was there and seemed pretty comparable in its sinus clearing capacity. Unlike Philippe's, Cole's gives you the traditional bowl of jus to dip in. While the jus was rich and tasty, there needs to be enough jus for a whole sandwich, and mine ran out after half. You can order extra jus, but I don't feel I should have to pay extra just to have sufficient jus for the whole sandwich.

As for sides, while the menu is limited, the creamed spinach was my favorite. The cream and some Parmesan cheese gives it a rich and tangy taste, and the spinach retains its character and texture in a way that is lacking in so many creamed spinach dishes where the spinach is reduced to a totally molten state.


Overall, I'd say the title of the best Dip has to go to Philippe's. The sandwiches there came together in a way that Cole's did not. The counterpoint of the gamy lamb and the strong blue cheese is a flavor explosion. The double dipping ensured that the entire sandwich was saturated in jus and the sinus clearing mustard adds the final's a roller coaster of flavor.

Cole's had nice lamb and nice jus, but the sandwich just didn't come together in the same way. The bread was bit too thick, the cheese too subtle, the jus too sparing. Of course, Cole's only recently reopened and there should be room for some tinkering, but as of now, I'll stick to Philippe's.

It should be noted that there are other French Dips in this town. For a rich, beefy beef dip with plenty of deep, thick jus, I'll take Taylor's Steakhouse in Koreatown over either Cole's or Philippe's, but when you're talking Dips in LA, there are two giants and all the rest will always be...all the rest.

Philippe the Original
1001 N Alameda St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-3781

Cole's PE Buffet
118 E 6th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 622-4090

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Holiday Toffee-Off

I love toffee. It is so basic yet so difficult to do well. The ingredients are simple: water, sugar, lots of butter, maybe some vanilla or nuts, covered with a chocolate-nut mixture. I've made it myself, but like many toffees, my version had good flavor but poor texture; it was rock-hard. Other toffees stick unpleasantly to your teeth. Good toffee should be buttery and not overly sweet. It should be firm but should break easily as you bite into it. It should be crunchy, never chewy.

Having tasted many toffees, I decided it was time for a toffee-off between my top three:

  • Enstrom's, based in Colorado, has a national reputation as one of the best toffee makers in the nation. This was my first time trying Enstrom's toffees.

  • Littlejohns, at the Farmers Market, is an LA legend and was my reigning favorite going into the match. The toffee is perfectly textured, has a beautiful crunch.

  • See's is, of course, a perennial holiday favorite.

From left to right, Littlejohn's, Enstrom's and See's

And, after a tasting, here's how they ranked.

1. Littlejohns - near perfect texture, crunchy without any stick or hardness. You can bite through a piece without forcing it. The flavor is wondrous; it's very buttery with a strong burnt sugar element as well. This just confirms for me what I've long believed...Littlejohn's is some of the best toffee around, and perhaps the best.

2. Enstrom's - very good texture, whole almonds are mixed in the toffee. The toffee flavor is not quite as good...there is a nice burnt sugar element, but it's lacking some of the buttery deliciousness of Littlejohn's. In addition, much of the chocolate coating fell off the toffee, but that could have been a shipping issue so I didn't deduct points for that.

3. See's- See's, for all my nostalgia for it simply isn't up to the other two. The texture is a bit more grainy. There is much less toffee flavor in the See's; it has none of the butteriness of the other two.

Happy holidays and enjoy your toffee.