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A spirited year — or was it a century?

By Jason Wilson,

When I reflect on the year in spirits, I wonder if I am looking back at 2012 or 1912. I mean, just the other evening, I was pouring an aperitif from a bottle of the bitter French gentian liqueur Suze while I read the newspaper. (Yes, a print edition.) It was Pablo Picasso’s 1912 collage “Verre et bouteille de Suze” come to life on my kitchen table.

Suze, created in 1885, has been a French cafe standard for more than a decade, owned by giant Pernot Ricard, but it has been absent in the United States until this year.

Suze wasn’t the only trip back to another century in 2012. In fact, Suze wasn’t even the first previously unavailable French aperitif to reappear.

In the spring, I got my first taste of the odd, biblical-ish-named byrrh. Byrrh is a quinquina, a red-wine-based, low-proof aperitif with a measure of quinine made from a 125-year-old Languedoc-Roussillon recipe. Close in taste to Dubonnet, byrrh has richer, more portlike aromas and flavors — notably ripe berries and herbs — and a balancing bitterness to the fruit. I mixed it with cognac and kirsch in the old-timey Byrrh Cocktail, one of my favorite drinks of the year.

I spent so much time thinking about the 19th century in 2012, I’m surprised I didn’t sprout mutton chops.

One exciting new cocktail ingredient is Swedish punsch, a blend of batavia arrack, sugar, spices and sometimes rum, citrus or tea. It’s a folk favorite in Sweden, often served during the winter with the country’s traditional Thursday pea soup. Kronan Swedish Punsch, newly imported by Haus Alpenz, is the first version of the spirit we’ve seen in the States in a long, long time. It was amazing in cocktails like the Diki-Diki (Calvados, Swedish punsch, grapefruit juice).

Then there is kummel, distilled from caraway seed, cumin and fennel by Combier, which has been making liqueurs in the Loire Valley since 1834. Kummel’s funky, pungent spicy-sweet aromas and flavors feel pre-modern, elemental. My tasting notes: “Wow. We are not in a world of Justin Bieber and Walmart and whipped-cream vodka anymore.”

Yet perhaps one of the most auspicious product launches of the year was Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao Ancienne Method, a true curacao from a 19th-century recipe that’s similar to Grand Marnier or Mandarine Napoleon, with some aged cognac added to the blend. But the 19th-century recipe is much spicier and more complex — and, frankly, more old-fashioned — than the others.

Of course, there were also some more contemporary flavors to talk about. Sales of American rye whiskey surged, thanks in part to big-brand releases this year from Wild Turkey and Knob Creek. Enthusiasts discovered the joys of Japanese whiskeys. And port wine continued to reinvent itself as a cocktail ingredient, which I totally approve of, as long as it means that more fresh, fruity, new-wave ports like Warre’s Otima 10-year-old and Noval Black, both priced around $20, come onto the market.

These were some of the other deep, philosophical questions we pondered this year in the Spirits column:

■ Is 2012 the year we finally put to rest the question of “manly” drinks vs. “girly” drinks? Perhaps not, but the new local chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, or LUPEC DC, a society of more than a dozen female craft bartenders in the District, certainly made the case that shots of rye and Fernet Branca are now “ladies’” drinks.

■ Is grapefruit juice simply the best cocktail mixer? Well, taste something like the delicious 866 recipe we published in April (with aquavit, Campari and grapefruit, and a sprig of dill), and you decide.

■ Is there a lonelier or more depressing spirits “occasion” than drinking from the hotel mini-bar? No. (Unless you check into one very, very expensive hotel.)

For my last cocktail of the year, I’d like to offer a variation on a trendy cocktail that’s been popping up on menus across the country: the “White” Negroni. One reason the “White” Negroni is trendy is that it calls for any one of three gentian-based aperitif liqueurs — Suze, Salers and Aveze — that entered the market in 2012.

Well, you know what we say about “threes” around here. Clearly, by the laws of lifestyle journalism, gentian aperitif liqueurs are a certifiable trend. Which means this Negroni is a perfect way to enjoy as you celebrate our year ’12 — whichever ’12 feels right to you.

Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.

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Recipes: ‘White’ Negroni

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