Spirits: A nod back, a look ahead

Honey Spiced Punch
Serve Honey Spiced Punch to New Year's guests. (Michael Temchine - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Well, it's been another crazy, boozy year on the spirits beat. For me, 2009 was a year of innovation and historical revision, mindless fun and vigorous debate, and maybe a little (and I mean just a teensy bit of) ranting and raving.

In the Tilting at Windmills Department, I quixotically argued against the mid-century Very Dry Martini and the vodka martini, and ranted about the use of artificial sour mix. I took issue with the champagne cocktail, and I suggested that the piña colada start acting like one, with more pineapple and less Coco Lopez. I tried to re-engineer the horrible Red Headed Slut shot into the more refined Molly Ringwald. And I even learned to appreciate Scotch (even if the ones I liked were "girly Scotches," as some suggested).

As for trends, I watched wine cocktails grow in popularity, and I liked seeing bartenders continue to turn newbies on to spirits such as Aperol. I also enjoyed the re-emergence of fine fruit eaux de vie from distillers such as Oregon's Clear Creek, California's St. George Spirits and Austria's Han Reisetbauer. Some of my favorite cocktails from 2009 boldly use eau de vie as a base spirit; they include the Brasserie Lebbe, which calls for pear eau de vie along with Licor 43 and sparkling wine.

For me, the high point of 2009 was being fortunate enough to visit the source of so many great spirits, including Kentucky bourbon country, Normandy's Calvados producers and Sweden's Cape Bjare peninsula, where a potato vodka called Karlsson's Gold boasted of terroir ("the region is to potatoes what France's Bordeaux region is to grapes"). I visited Wolfenbuttel, Germany, to sneak a peek inside Jagermeister's top-secret herb room (no, the stuff is not made from deer's blood, as the old rumor has it) and spent a few days in gorgeous Bassano del Grappa, gaining a new appreciation for grappa, a spirit that scares many as "rocket fuel."

The low point was the continuing emergence of artificial mixers and pre-made, ready-to-serve cocktails. The nadir: Sauza's Margarita-in-a-Box.

Looking ahead to 2010, what will be the new trends in spirits and cocktails? Let me put on my trend-spotter hat and see whether I can make some predictions.

For spirits, I think people will be looking south, as in Latin America. Bartenders will continue to experiment with tequilas and mezcals in innovative new ways, such as in the Nouveau Carre (añejo tequila, Lillet Blanc, Benedictine and Peychaud bitters) and Restraining Order (reposado tequila, Aperol and celery bitters). Distillers also will keep pushing the envelope when it comes to producing and aging agave-based spirits. For instance, I'm eagerly awaiting the launch this year of Excellia, a tequila aged in Sauternes wine casks and Cognac barrels.

I believe 2010 might also be the year of premium pisco. This past summer, I traveled to Peru and observed the development of a new premium pisco, Campo de Encanto, which will soon be on the shelves along with Macchu Pisco (produced and imported by Bethesda resident Melanie Asher) and other high-end brands. I'm interested to see how innovative bartenders find new ways to use pisco beyond the classic pisco sour.

The movement to "legalize cachaca" (driven in part by a marketing campaign by Leblon cachaca) will also grow. The U.S. government does not officially recognize cachaca as a unique variety of spirit, and the U.S. Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau insists that the spirit should be labeled "Brazilian rum" when imported.

Finally, drinkers will continue to discover that rum might be the most complex, fun and affordable spirit in the liquor store. Look for Chairman's Reserve, a delicious new rum from St. Lucia, that is being imported by Washington-based Team Spirits. Chairman's Reserve, at around $20 to $22, is a great value, along the lines of Gosling's or Appleton, for mixing or sipping. Rums, of course, are especially essential now that tiki drinks seem to be having their moment.

On the cocktail front, the speak-easy wave has probably crested, but let's take a moment to applaud the classic-cocktail crowd for resurrecting so many great, forgotten drinks. Punches are making a comeback, saved from the frat house and your great-aunt, and I'm seeing them served at many of the cutting-edge cocktail bars across the country.

Readers are always requesting ideas for drinks they can make ahead of time for large parties. Most cocktails are best shaken or stirred to order, but punches are an exception. That's why, just before New Year's Eve, I've included two punch recipes that nod to trends. The Honey Spiced Punch is a blend of cachaca, rum and falernum. Adam Bernbach of Proof has created the Hans Punch Up (named after a guy he got into a fight with one New Year's Eve), unique in that it calls for fruit eau de vie -- pear, in this case -- as its base spirit. Both use honey syrup and lemon juice, so it's relatively easy to make them in advance and offer your guests a choice. Either punch will give them a taste of what's ahead in 2010.

Happy new year!


Honey Spiced Punch

Hans Punch Up

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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