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Drink me: Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Despite my name, I am comprised of at best 1/16 Irish blood, perhaps significantly less than that, but that doesn't deter me from enjoying the holiday. If you're planning to partake this St. Paddy's Day, please do not debase yourself with weak beer tainted with green food coloring. You'll respect yourself more in the morning if you opt for a lovely Guinness. Or, if like me you live in the Bay Area and want to go a bit more local, quaff a pint of my new favorite beer, Russian River Brewing Company's Pliny the Elder.

Like a lot of Northern California microbrews, Pliny is heady and hoppy; but unlike too many other hop-headed beers that offer nothing beyond one-noted bitterness or, worse, a metallic tinge, Pliny is rich and complex. Sure, it's hoppy, but it's layered with bright, refreshing notes of citrus, delicate sweetness of orange flower blossoms and elderflowers, and a healthy waft of the evening breeze in Humboldt County. Or so I'm told. At any rate, it's balanced and utterly drinkable.

My friend Julie has been waxing rhapsodic about this beer for a while now, but I only recently had the pleasure of partaking at a recent installment of Book Club at Toronado. Suffice to say, it was love at first sip.

As for the name? While Pliny is best known for having witnessed, and died during, the eruption at Vesuvius, Pliny wrote a significant work titled simply, Naturalis Historiae (Natural History), an encyclopedia cataloging a mangificent array of understanding of the natural world. Among his achievements in his work as a natural scientist was to give hops its botanical name, or so sayeth the brewers themselves. And this beer's hoppy application is as fitting a tribute as any.

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Drink me: Hangar One Chipotle Vodka

Cuchicuchi

Loyal readers know that I’m prone to making my own vodka infusions. I find most commercial flavored vodkas have a chemical, artificial flavor. DPaul and I have experimented with many permutations, sweet and savory alike, but even my Mad Scientist tendencies have their limits. Fortunately for me, the concoctionists at Hangar One are not so constrained.

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We visited the Hangar One distillery on the former Alameda Air Force base Naval Air Station a few months ago, along with a couple of other local food bloggers. It’s a recommendable excursion, though I would prefer to return and experience it when they are actually doing something; on weekends (and, for that matter, many weekdays — it’s a small-batch operation), it’s basically a huge, cavernous warehouse with a big, pretty alembic still perched in the middle of the floor. Still, it’s interesting to see where they do what they do, and to hear their philosophy about making top-notch infused vodkas.

Infused. That’s the operative word here. Whereas big-name industrial distillers like Grey Goose, Smirnoff and Absolut flavor their vodka with chemical extracts, Hangar One’s vodkas derive their flavors from direct contact with the actual ingredient they are meant to taste like. (Interestingly, Chow’s panel outwardly disliked both Hangar One and Charbay, both artisanal, fruit-infused products. I know from personal experience that vodka infusion deconstructs the flavors of the source ingredients, sometimes resulting in some intensified notes and others suppressed; it is surely easier, or at least more effective, to build a better — i.e., more generally palatable — flavored vodka chemically. But count me among the stalwarts who prefer a true infusion.)

The other thing I respect about Hangar One is their tendency to sidestep the obvious. Everyone else makes lemon; Hangar One opts for the otherworldly and highly perfumed Buddha’s Hand. Lime is de rigueur; but Kaffir lime adds an exotic edge.

But why stop at pedestrian fruit flavors? Last year, they kicked off their Alchemist Series, extremely small batches of more experimental flavors, with a wasabi-infused creation, which I unfortunately never had the pleasure of trying. (Our tour guide at the distillery recounted that, as wasabi is a member of the mustard family, it combined with vodka, a volatile solvent, to form, well, mustard gas. The distillers had to wear gas masks while developing the infusion.)

This year, it’s chipotle. So when the manager at Plumpjack Wines told me they had just gotten their small allocation of the stuff in, I bought it on the spot. As I proudly unsheathed the bottle from the brown bag when I got home, DPaul’s eyebrows rose.

First up, a taste, straight up. I poured the barest drizzle into two shot glasses, and sipped.

From the instant the liquid — nay, the very vapors — hit the palate, a searing burn and almost meaty smokiness pervaded my mouth. Tears welled in my eyes. I hacked out a couple dry coughs.

In other words, delicious. But clearly, not a spirit meant to be taken lightly, or alone. Bloody Marys are the obvious application, and no doubt what inspired this invention, but here’s the thing: Neither DPaul nor I particularly care for them.

So what to do with this literal and figurative firewater? I wasn’t the first to come up with a cocktail showcasing the vodka‘s incendiary qualities, but I found little else. My mind immediately drew to complementary flavors in Latin and Southeast Asian cooking — a little tropical fruit for some sweetness to temper the burn, some lime for sour to balance the flavors.  Perhaps a little salt to round things out. After all, how does it go — Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet?

I am no mixologist, but a little experimentation yielded some surprisingly delicious results. We produced two cocktails, of similar proportions but of slightly different ingredients, each with distinctive character. The smoky chipotle flavor remains assertive, yet never overpowers — no mean feat that. The names are arbitrary and whimsical — one of them dubbed by our neighbor. I look forward to tweaking these recipes further; no doubt we’ll reach smoky cocktail nirvana right around the time the last bottle of chipotle vodka is plucked from the shelves.

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Drink me: Plumpjack 13-year bourbon

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It’s easy to forget, when you’re firmly esconced in your own happy bubble of culinary joy, that mediocrity fills the world like so much styrofoam popcorn. The one surefire way to burst that bubble is air travel. For when you are on the plane, the universe of diverse and wonderful consumables is suddenly and horribly narrowed to a meager selection of subpar goods supply of which, in Soviet-era style, is prone to running out even before demand has been given the opportunity to arise.

Coming home from New York, wedged in a middle seat, I sought succor in the form of Jack Daniels to numb the psychic pain of the trip and help make the time pass faster. (This is another thing about air travel — the eerie extension of time, as if the fuselage of the plane is some kind of time machine with the preternatural power to turn hours into days. Small wonder I always feel years older when I deplane.)

Now, DPaul and I like us the bourbon. A lot. Having been to Kentucky something like 500 times, we have had the occasion to visit a few of the distilleries, like Maker’s Mark and Labrot & Graham (producer of Woodford Reserve). Many distilleries are in idyllic spots* full of natural beauty (fresh mountain stream water is, you see, a critical ingredient), peppered with quaint and country-fied cottages and cabins. Yes, it’s all very Disney, but they do cultivate a marvelous image of old-fashioned booze-making.

(Photo: DPaul Brown)

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