Sunday, August 17, 2014

A brief introduction to sherry

Last year, Noelle and I talked about the emergence of sherry in San Francisco, helped along by Michelin-starred Range in the Mission. Personally, I've been rooting for sherry for a few years now, and I'm excited that it's now taking root in a big way.

I recently had the great good fortune to sample a flight of sherries from Tío Pepe, one of the sherry Spain's sherry bodegas. I was so blown away by the passion of these guys, as well as their lovely sherries, that I wanted to share some of what I learned here. This post is meant to be a basic sherry primer for anyone interested in sherry but put off by the unfamiliarity of it. I'll very briefly cover how sherry is made and introduce you to the seven expressions of sherry: manzanilla, fino, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, cream, and Pedro Ximénez. Finally, I'll cover the best way to enjoy these sherries.

For starters, what is sherry? Sherry is a wine from the Jerez region of Spain. In French, Jerez becomes Xérès. In English we call wines from Jerez (Xérès) sherries. Sherry, like port, is a fortified wine, meaning it's ABV is between 15.5-22%. Unlike port, though, sherry is oxidized, giving sherry a totally unique flavor. Additionally, sherry undergoes a complicated and continuous system of blending and aging in a variety of barrels. Different styles of sherry are produced by aging the sherry in different ways, not by varying the grape. In fact, all sherries come from one of three varietals of white grapes, even those deep red sherries that you'll see at the bottom of this post.

The sherry you see below is called "Fino en rama." Let's look at the "fino" part first. Finos have a pale yellow color and crisp, acidic flavor almost like a verjus (the juice of unripened grapes, basically a less sweet, more acidic grape juice). Fino's flavor comes from flor––a yeasty foam that forms on the surface of the wine while it's made. "En rama" means that this fino came straight from the barrel, a means of preserving the freshness of this delicate wine. Finos are similar to manzanilla sherries, but manzanillas comes from one specific seaside town in Spain and, as a result, have a slight brine to them.


Another fino, the wine below has been aged for six years, but the yeast is still active, giving the fino a bitterness to complement its freshness.


If one were to take a fino, add more brandy to bring the alcohol content up, and then age it in another series of barrels, you'd get an "amontillado." After the brandy is added and the wine is put into new barrels, it's no longer protected by the flor, the foam of yeasts that usually protects the wine from oxidizing. As a result of the oxidization, the wine takes on a pinkish hue and develops more nutty flavors. Many producers add some sweeter sherry to their amontillado, but you can fine some dry amontillados if you look for them and ask at your local wine store.

Now, if you were to age your amontillado for a very long time, the wine would take on special characteristics. Aged amontillado is called "palo cortado."  Palo cortado is a unique sherry because it's like a weird hybrid of an amontillado and an oloroso. What's an oloroso, you ask? Oloroso sherries are aged quite awhile, and they are exposed to more oxygen than other dry sherries. As a result, they're nuttier and redder than other dry sherries. Olorosos use pressed juice and more brandy, making them thicker and richer than sherries that used more delicate juice and less brandy. So a palo cortado is dry and delicate like an amontillado, but thicker and richer like a dry oloroso.

Palo Cortado Sherry

The wine below is also a palo cortado, only much older than the wine above. You can clearly see how the aging process adds color to the wine. What you can't see is how much sweeter (but not too sweet, actually) and richer this wine is. These wine start tasting fruitier, especially raisiny. There may also be hints of orgeat and orange flower water leftover from the more delicate stages of the palo cortado. The folks at Tío Pepe have a slightly more poetic way of describing palo cortado. "What is palo cortado? Palo cortado is the wind in the trees. Palo cortado is the sun in the sky. Palo cortado is the wave in the ocean. Palo cortado is life."

Apostoles Sherry

Finally, let's look at Pedro Ximénez. It's rare to find this on its own in the United States, so if you see it on a menu it may be worth a shot––but skip dessert because this wine is as thick as molasses and ten times as sweet. You only need a small amount, because each drop packs the flavor of figs, dates, and jam. It's very delicious, but if you overdo it you'll end up with a wicked headache.

Noe sherry

Take a look at the pictures below and you'll get a sense of the viscosity of Pedro Ximénez.

Sherry tasting

Sherry tasting

There's one last type of sherry that you'll see the store more than any other: cream sherry. Cream sherry was created for the British export market. Essentially, it's just oloroso sherry sweetened with Pedro Ximenéz. There's no regulation on just how much PX the different bodegas (sherry-making houses) use, so some cream sherries will be painfully sweet while others will be more mild.

I hope that this post provided a reasonably clear introduction to the sometimes daunting world of sherry. I encourage anyone reading this to hit up a local wine store and try a nice sherry. Manzanilla, fino, amontillado, and palo cortado sherries (as well as dry olorosos, if you can find them) should be served chilled and, like any white wine, finished within a two or three days. Manzanillas are so delicate, though, that you really want to finish them within two days. Serve these in a wine-sized pour in a white wine glass. These four sherries also pair well with food––especially seafood or fresh, crisp greens.

Oloroso, high-quality cream, and PX sherries are all fantastic dessert wines. Remember, for PX, and some of the sweeter creams, you only need half an ounce to an ounce. PX is also a nice addition to vanilla ice cream, as long as you're not using a $300 bottle!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Glorious Range of Gins Showcased at Bourbon Steak's Juniper in July

Bourbon Steak - Michael Mina SF

There's a day left to do it! For a quick escape this month, Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak is featuring some gorgeous gins in its Juniper in July special.

Located in the classic St Francis Westin in Union Square, the airy, cathedral-like steakhouse with high ceilings, classic arches, and roman columns offers a civilized spot for diners looking for a chance to try expertly crafted classic martinis with a unique selection of gins.

Bourbon Steak - Michael Mina - Bar

Steered by bar manager Adam Reaume, the menu is comprised of martinis ($14) with made from eight different gins, mostly locally distilled. These include Barr Hill, Distillery No. 209, Junipero, Monkey 47, Spirit Works, St. George Dry Rye, Uncle Val's, and Voyager.

I tried the martini with Monkey 47 (an $8 supplement), a high quality German gin with exceptionally big, bold botanicals—one of the most distinct gins I've ever tried. The name is particularly apt because of its 47 botanicals distilled down to 47 proof. This is served the traditional fashion with vermouth and a very untraditional marshmallow grain garnish—a flavor that brings a creamy addition to the rich martini.

Monkey 47 Gin Martini - Part of Juniper in July at Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak

The rest of the menu is comprised of classic cocktails inspired by the 19th-century barman Jerry Thomas that also go well with steak. To add to that, Adam created some whiskey cocktails and specialty cocktails of his own design. It's a cocktail program designed to go well with the food. Seasonal bounty from the local farmers market is often incorporated into the cocktails, and house cocktails are usually inspired by a dish or element on the food menu.

After the martini, I indulged in The Saint of Pier 50, which is made of 209 gin, along with strawberry. It tasted bright citrusy along with strong botanicals.

The Saint of Pier 50 - Bourbon Steak

My friend Tom, meanwhile, reached for Thyme for Smile (he is always one for puns). The drink is made with Monkey shoulder gin, grapefruit, aperol, and thyme—which results in a light, but herbaceous cocktail—a good pairing for food.

Where There Is Smoke - Bourbon Steak

Speaking of food! The drinks are designed to go with a delightfully hearty menu of steak. One of my favorites.

We started by trying their "fresh ricotta gnudi," a delicious take on meatballs, braised dandelion, caramelized parsnip, and parmigiano-reggiano. Bone-marrow rich with tender meatballs make it a perfect bite.

Gnocchi with Meatbals

I also tried their steak tartar, which was part of their daily special: Steak Tartar with Caper Relish, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Pearl Onions, Horseradish-yogurt Puree, Egg Yolk, Squid Ink Beef Chicarones. From the moment I heard of it, I knew I wanted to try it. After all, who doesn't like tartar and squid ink?

Tartar with Mustard Seeds and Squid Ink Chips

Of course, the star of the night was the steak!

The staff recommended the 10 oz imperial flat iron, a wagyu, but one that still has some of the texture of an American steak. Sometimes wagyu can be overwhelmingly buttery and rich. This imperial flat iron was the perfect mixture of texture and richness.



Tom and I also shared the short rib—a plate of farro verde, beech mushroom, baby carrot, and caramelized onion sauce for two to share.


We finished the night with some beautiful desserts.

Silky buttermilk panna cotta with fluffy citrus sponge cake, rhubarb sorbet, and kaffir lime.


And pillowy beignets, served with cinnamon sugar and macallan caramel custard (dipping the fried doughy pieces into the caramel was as delicious as it sounds!).


Enjoyed, of course, with a drink—this one a classic Hanky Panky from the Savoy Cocktail book, here with Voyager gin mixed with fernet and a Carpano Antica, a sweet, herbaceous vermouth. It's a slow, slightly bitter drink that ends the meal well.


Finished with some house treats.


A classic and elegant San Francisco dinner. :-)

Bourbon Steak
335 Powell St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 397-3003

Posted by Noelle

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Meet the Cocktails: Japanese ingredients, California style at Pabu

Pabu Interior

Though I'm not Japanese, I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of people with a unique sway to Japanese culture and food. I spent my "small kid days," as they call them, eating comfort foods like spam musubis (spam laid over a bed of rice and wrapped with nori), melona bars, and oyako donburi (chicken and egg served over hot rice). On hot days, my summer fun friends and I would walk to the nearby Toyo Superette to buy Japanese candies and drinks, like cold Japanese sodas and soft Japanese gum.

There are two times I've been taken back to my childhood in Hawaii while tasting cocktails. The first was when I first tasted Chareau, the new aloe liqueur made in California. The second was tasting the cocktails at Pabu, Carlo Splendorini's new Japanese-inspired program.

I recently wrote a piece for Eater SF about the new bar in the SF's Financial District. See are additional pictures of the drinks and here some extra commentary from Josh:

A highlight of the Pabu menu is the highballs. Although these drinks are simple mixes of soda water and Japanese whiskey, they have a surprising subtlety. Carlo pulls out this subtlety by using house-made, flavored sodas––strawberry, yuzu, and shiso. These flavors complement the tasting notes in the whiskeys. Noelle's personal favorite was the strawberry, which I have to admit blew my mind as well. The strawberry is subtle, so subtle, in fact, that it can be hard to place. Nevertheless, it pulls out some berry notes in the whiskey that you'd otherwise miss.

Whiskey Highball at PABU

Carlo Splendorini at PABU

Whiskey Highball at PABU

The Fuzzy has a nice tart, and the spicy garnish on top of the drink adds a pleasant tingle to your lips. This drink matches nicely with food.

Carlo Splendorini at PABU


Carlo's play on the Ramos Gin Fizz, The Little Green Bag is the definition of instant gratification. The rich coconut fat makes you feel like you're getting all the richness of a Ramos, but without the heaviness of the lactose. The coconut also adds a nice nutiness. Think of a tropical Ramos.

Carlo Splendorini at PABU


Little Green Bag at PABU

Summer Cocktail. Sometimes served in a glass specially designed to spin the cocktail but not the ice, this cocktail is just fun. Not to mention tasty and easy drinking. Sake and strawberries go fantastically together, but what's more impressive is the strawberry vinegar. It reminds me of a shrub, but far less intense. So those of you who like just a bit of sour will love this drink.

Carlo Splendorini at PABU

Carlo Splendorini at PABU

Carlo Splendorini at PABU

Summer Cocktail at PABU

Whiskey Ceremony is a bit pricey, but it's a nice treat for a special occasion. Carlo pairs each whiskey with a different fruit (usually infused with something else. The strawberry below, for example, is soaked in a special creme de cacao). The fruit is then charred and the glass imbued with the smoke. You nibble the fruit and sip on the whiskey, the flavors gradually melding together to create a unique drinking experience.




101 California St
San Francisco, CA
Bar hours:
Sunday-Thursday: 11:30am-10pm
Friday-Saturday: 11:30am-10:30pm

Posted by Noelle and Josh

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Meet the Cocktails: Drinks for eating at A16 Rockridge

Not too many people know that A16, one of San Francisco's favorite Italian joints, has a sister restaurant in Oakland, walkable from the Rockridge BART station. A16 Rockridge has all the class and atmosphere of the San Francisco location plus one more thing: a cocktail program. The space is beautiful––a sunny indoor spot those of us who want to get away from the foggy San Francisco summers. The bar is primarily a neighborhood bar, which you'll feel when you walk in. The staff is warm and hospitable, which makes you feel part of the in-crowd right off the bat.

A16 Rockridge

A16 Rockridge

A16 Rockridge

Blessed Thistle: Plymouth, Campari, ciociaro, cardamaro, bitters. This is a nice variation on a Negroni, less sweet than the standard recipe and more floral.

Blessed Thistle at A16 Rockridge

Peach + Ginger Fizz: Gin, combier peche de vigne, egg white, ginger beer. The egg white makes this drink creamy and fizz-like, but without the two ounces of heavy cream. The peach is a refreshing touch.

Peach + Ginger Fizz at A16 Rockridge

Rum Rebellion: Hamilton gold, amaretto, cappelletti, grapefruit. The capelletti, a slightly bitter and herbal Italian liqueur, subtly augments the rum. Overall, the drink is meant to spotlight the rum without confusing the palate with other flavors.

Rum Rebellion at A16 Rockridge

The Voyager: Aperol, creme de violette, lemon, sorelle bronca prosecco. The bartender calls this cocktail a vacation drink, and she pretty much hit the nail on the head. It's sweet, bubbly, and easy drinking. The lightness of the aperol and lemon make it an ideal cocktail for those who don't want a heavy, rich cocktail.

The Voyager at A16 Rockridge

The Voyager at A16 Rockridge

Camomilla: Marolo chamomile grappa, gin, honey, meyer lemon. Honey and chamomile is a natural combination, and the meyer lemon adds a lighter, fresher touch than a normal lemon.

Camomilla at A16 Rockridge

Alpine: vodka, salers gentian, combier peche, barrel aged cherry bitters. The potato vodka in this cocktail adds enough interesting flavor to please vodka haters and maybe even convince gin haters to try a nice London dry sometime.

Alpina at A16 Rockridge

Papetier: rye, Pimm's No. 1, amaro nonino. It's fun to see Pimm's in a dark cocktail. This is a good drink for Old Fashioned drinkers; it's herbal, rich, and a touch sweet (but balanced by the rye).

Papetier at A16 Rockridge

Vecchio Stile: Four Roses bourbon, orange shrub, ango. Although the Papetier reminds me of an Old Fashioned, A16 Rockridge's proper Old Fashioned variation is the Vecchio Stile (Italian for...Old Fashioned). This drink isn't for the faint of heart––the orange shrub is pretty intense. If you like sour beers, you may like this cocktail. If you prefer a more straightforward Old Fashioned variation, go with the Papetier.

Vecchio Stile at A16 Rockridge

Negro Oro. I usually don't like dessert cocktails, but the Negro Oro impressed me. It balances lightness, sweetness, and a bit of spice (from black pepper)––it's a much better way to end a drink than a sweet and heavy cocktail.

Negro Oro at A16 Rockridge

A16 Rockridge
5356 College Avenue, Oakland

Mon-Sat 5pm-10pm
Sun: 11am-10pm