Thursday, March 5, 2009

When love comes to town

I have been enviously reading reviews and comments about Russell's Reserve Rye for awhile now, hearing only good things and wondering when the OLCC would get off their duffs and order some for the local liquor stores.

According to my friend and goofball writer, Lew Bryson, Jimmy Russell celebrated his 54th anniversary with Wild Turkey last fall. He has been the master distiller there for ages and his son Eddie was promoted to associate distiller a few years ago. Together they created Russell's Reserve 10 year old bourbon, originally produced at Jimmy's signature 101 proof and subsequently reduced to 90 proof. All Wild Turkey whiskies are superb, and the Russell's Reserve is no exception (although I dearly miss the 101 version).

Wild Turkey has produced a spectacular rye for years, during a span of time when it seemed that American drinkers had lost their taste for rye whiskey, and any version could be tough to find. Also bottled at 101 proof, WT Rye is a solid kick in the pants, full of honey and vanilla. It is serious whiskey.

Russell's Reserve Rye, like the bourbon, is bottled at 90 proof after aging six years. It is a remarkably soft and smooth rye whiskey, with the characteristic Wild Turkey honey but far more gentle than the bigger bottling. Of all the ryes I've tasted, it may the most accessible, with no alcoholic burn, none of the spice and hard edge that other ryes might have. It's clearly designed for drinking straight -- no help from water or ice needed, and it is probably not a terrific choice for a cocktail because of its subtlety. "Sipping" whiskey has become a cliché, often undeserved, but I can think of no better way to describe Russell's.

I'm guessing that this whiskey comes from specially-selected barrels of their standard rye, aged a bit longer and bottled at a lower proof so that the flavors need not battle with alcohol. What emerges is a terrific whiskey, and I'm very pleased it's finally made its way to Oregon. Odd, though, that the level in the bottle seems to have dropped considerably since I bought it. There must be a leak.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Orange you glad you asked?

What a nice coincidence! Trader Tiki's blog had a post about orange juice - and some of the weird and unpleasant options for packaged juice. The question arose about which oranges made the best juice. Most of the time, "oranges" in Portland means navel oranges, navel oranges, and sometimes large navel oranges. I intend no criticism of the navel orange and certainly freshly -squeezed navel orange juice is worlds away from frozen, or pre-packaged juice of any kind. But there are better options.

I have always been partial to Valencia oranges for juice and eagerly await the arrival of Valencias in the local market. So I was very excited to find some today on a routine trip to New Seasons market and then was even more pleased to find another orange, called a Cara Cara - which ironically turned out to be a variant of the navel orange.

The Cara Cara is the orange on the left, the Valencia on the right. The Cara Cara is seedless, but a little more pulpy than the Valencia, yielding a less juice. On the other hand, the flavor of the Cara Cara was very sweet and rich; as much as I like Valencia, the Cara Cara knocked it out of the park--and it has that lovely deep color as well.

Under the circumstances, it seemed important to make a cocktail, if only to use up some of the juice. Or, really, to make a cocktail. I ended up with a Monkey Gland, from the 1920s.

The Monkey Gland

1.5 oz. Tanqueray
1.5 oz. freshly-squeed Cara Cara juice
1 tsp. Herbsaint
1 tsp. real grenadine

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Session saison

There is a brewery somewhat southwest of Brussels in Belgium that produces several of the beers on the very top of my list of favorites: Brasserie Dupont. It may be subject to argument, but in my opinion their beers define the modern saison. Originally brewed as a refreshment for Wallonian farmworkers, and thus undoubtedly low in alcohol, most of Dupont's beers range from about 6% abv to over 9%.

The flagship beer is Saison Dupont, a coppery effervescent beer that beautifully combines the fruitiness of a Belgian yeast strain with plenty of hop character and a dry, refreshing finish. Another personal favorite is Moinette Blonde, which is even more hoppy than the standard but again, not with a great deal of the bitterness we associate with American "hoppy" beers. And then there is the seasonal Bon Voeux, richer and stronger (9.5% abv) than the Saison, and the beer I most often choose as my "favorite beer."

Most of the Belgian beers that appeal to beer geeks are bottled at a fairly high alcohol content, corked and conditioned in the bottle, which allows them to be cellared if desired. "Singles" or "bieres de table" are difficult to find in a commercial bottling, although it seems the monastic breweries produce them for consumption in house, "at table." Dupont's Avril (which appears to be the same as Biolegere in Belgium) falls within this range, at 3.5% abv. In the UK, ales produced at a similar alcohol content are quite common, and considered "session beers" because it's possible to spend an entire evening at the pub drinking them with less effect than beers in the US (or particularly, Belgian ales). In the US, of course, "3.2" beers have a well-deserved reputation for being watered-down and flavorless.

Avril is a remarkably flavorful beer, recognizably related to Saison Dupont and Moinette, and obviously much less alcoholic. It's also obviously different, lighter and initially bordering on "thin". It seemed to me that much more of the character of the yeast (especially a bubblegum ester) came through in Avril than in the stronger beers. Like the other Dupont ales, it's effervescent and bottled at a higher level of CO2 than American beers, which enhances the aromatic character of the beer.

Customers used to paying for punch will probably be disappointed. I paid about $9 for a 750ml bottle here in Oregon and only slightly more for a bottle of Moinette Brune from the same brewery -- at 8.5% abv. But I was also far more clearheaded after finishing the Avril than I will be after finishing the Brune. Which may be later today, come to think of it.