Let's take a little break from all the wine talk and get down to business with the hard stuff. The summer heat cries out for cold and refreshing pre-dinner cocktails and there's nothing quite like a margarita or a gin and tonic over ice to revive you before dinner. After the sun goes down and the air cools off, it's a great time to sip complex, dark-colored spirits, preferably by a fire pit on a sandy beach under the light of a full moon with waves crashing nearby (we can all have our fantasies!).
GIN: I love gin and the one I'm drinking this summer is Greenhook Ginsmiths' American Dry Gin, made locally in a small warehouse in Brooklyn. Recently a fellow gin-loving friend and I took a short subway ride from Manhattan to meet with Greenhook's founder and self-taught distiller, Steve DeAngelo. It was fascinating to see what goes on in this small, unassuming warehouse located in a gritty area of Greenpoint. Steve is a wizard in there (minus the cape and pointy hat), mixing and experimenting with all kinds of herbs and spices. The aromas of juniper, chamomile, lychee, elderflower, coriander, fennel, ginger and cinnamon waft through the air like the scent of your Grandma's freshly baked cookies just out of the oven.
Greenhook gin's unique distillation process uses a custom-made copper still in conjunction with a mercury vacuum-seal pump which increases the pressure in the still and allows a lower distillation temperature. This process ensures that the delicate herbs, spices and fruits remain fresh and vibrant, resulting in a more aromatic gin. When you taste it, the heady aromas and flavors from the botanicals are clearly present, but not overwhelming. There's a citrusy freshness to it which makes Greenhook American Dry Gin equally delicious in a thirst-quenching gin and tonic (Steve prefers Fever-Tree tonic water) or in a classic, dry martini.
TEQUILA: Ex-lawyer turned passionate spirits producer Pete Girgis makes a unique and delicious tequila called Qui. It is the only clear colored, extra-añejo tequila in the world. Like all extra-añejos, after the tequila is made, it rests in oak barrels for a minimum of three years which gives it rich flavors of butterscotch, honey and a hint of oak with gorgeous aromas of agave, hazelnut and vanilla. After three and a half years of aging, instead of being bottled, the liquid undergoes further filtrations and another distillation, giving the tequila an incredibly smooth finish while retaining many of the beautiful aromas and flavors you get from an aged tequila. Qui won the Gold medal in the 2013 Spirits of the Americas Competition for the best extra-añejo judged and was named one of the Five Best Bottles to Buy Now by the Wall Street Journal. It can be found in many of the top restaurants and liquor stores across the U.S. This fantastic, oh-so-smooth, sipping tequila also makes a mean margarita! See the recipe below for a Qui Margarita ––fresh squeezed lime juice only please!
SCOTCH: There are many different styles of Scotch Whisky depending on where in Scotland it comes from, whether it's a blend or a single malt and how it's aged. I love them all! But in the summertime, after dinner, I head for the smoky, peaty style of Ardbeg whiskies. If you're not actually sitting in front of a campfire (on a sandy beach and, well, you know the rest), you can pretend you are by sniffing and sipping on this smoky liquid gold. Named "World Whisky of The Year" several times, Ardbeg has been making a variety of bottlings (favorites are the Ten Years Old, the Uigeadail and the Corryvreckan) on the small, remote Scottish island of Islay. They use the smokiest, most peaty malt (by drying the malted barley over peat fires) of all which results in a special whisky, often an acquired taste. And if I could acquire it, then so can you! As my friend Franklyn (aka "Franky Whisky") once told me, it takes about 3 or 4 times of trying a whisky before you can get a true sense of its enticing and enjoyable qualities. And did you know that whisky is an excellent accompaniment to cheese? Put some in your glass and sip it alongside an assortment of your favorite cheeses and you will know what I am talking about.
If you're a Scotch drinking newbie, read Sean Baxter's Scotch 101 to learn more.
DARK RUM: I'm into sipping aged rum these days, on the rocks, sometimes with a twist of orange peel. Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera 23 is a remarkable dark rum made from sugar cane harvested in southern Guatemala. It gets its dark amber color from being aged in Bourbon and Sherry barrels and is a blend of stocks between 6 and 23 years old. This delectable rum coats the palate with a distinct richness and has aromas and flavors of caramel, orange zest and cinnamon along with a sweet fruitiness.
Lisa's Mean Margaritas
1 cup superfine sugar
1 cup water
2 cups freshly squeezed lime juice (about 16 limes)
1 cup Qui Tequila
1/3 cup Cointreau
1) Stir all ingredients together with ice in a large pitcher.
2) Pour into chilled ice-filled glasses rimmed with salt.
3) Serve with Lisa's Famous Guacamole. Relax and enjoy!
Find out where you can buy your favorite spirits locally at Wine-Searcher.
Average retail prices for the liquor in this article:
Greenhook American Dry Gin: $32
Qui Tequila: $59.99
Ardbeg Single Malt Whisky: starting at $48 for the Ten Year Old
Ron Zacapa Centenario Solera 23 Anos rum: $48