Posts Tagged ‘cocktails’

Wine Tasting Party: The Experiment Continues

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

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Earlier this year I hosted my first wine tasting party, and it was a learning experience, for sure. I don’t look at wine the same way, and after one get-together, I had a new sense of confidence when it came to talking about wine. But one wine tasting does not as sommelier make. As the saying goes “practice makes perfect,” so I took one for the team (aka you) and attended another wine tasting party with our newly formed group.

This time, our host was “Renaissance Woman” Laura Marlowe. Laura is a print production manager by day, and remodels house rentals, makes jewelry and cooks amazing food (including homemade bread) in her spare time. She is a superwoman and amazing friend.

In our second tasting party, Laura decided to focus on white wines, taking us through everything from Chardonnay to Marsanne. As with our previous tasting, none of us could agree on what we liked or didn’t like, and I am finding that is the point. It’s almost like looking at art – everyone will come away from the wine with a different view.

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I don’t like Chardonnay’s, and view them as buttery and blech, but they are a popular wine, and there were those at the tasting who disagreed with me. These tastings are teaching me that “taste is in the taste buds of the beholder” and it’s ok to not like what everyone else does, or dislike what everyone else spits out. It’s all about trying a variety of wines and finding what you like.

Here is what we learned from our second experiment:

Keep the tasting notes simple
We found a real winner in our second set of tasting notes, put together by Laura (you can download a PDF of our notes here), and designed by fellow taster, Pamela. We went from a very complex form to a four step process. We debated adding “suggested” words to it, but decided that it was best to let people come up with their own descriptor words, rather than be guided by someone else’s words. We have already reused the same note sheet again at a subsequent testing with one change – we have the host add the wine information in the “Wine Facts” section before the tasting. Writing all the information down was a struggle and made the pace a little sluggish, so we decided in the future that we wanted that information pre-printed (I am working on creating an interactive version of this PDF for a future post, so stay tuned!).

Eat up!
In our first tasting, we ate before we started tasting, because that’s what all the sites I read said to do. The idea was that you would eat to have something on your stomach, and then drink water to cleanse your palate so that you could truly taste the wine. I call poppycock on this one. For our white wine tasting, we drank while we ate, and we discovered something amazing – food pairings! It became a fun game to figure out what foods made each wine taste better or worse (sometimes a cookie paired best, and sometimes a spicy salami). Christina has become a true master of this game. Make sure that you have a good variety – salty, sweet, spicy, savory – so that you have lots of options in what you are pairing with each selection.

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There’s an App for That
Before the tasting, a couple of our participants had discovered a fantastic wine app called Vivino. This free app allows you to catalog and rate wines you have tasted, scan or search wines to see how others have rated them, and discover what wines your friends are drinking by connecting you with your Facebook network of friends who also have the app. All of this can be done by simply taking a picture of the label, which the app then uses to find the wine within its database. You simply rate, make any notes, and save. I have used it several times when I am buying wine as a way to ensure I am buying something that is rated well. As a side note, we aren’t being sponsored to promote this app, we just really love it.

Wine Guide
This was truly Laura’s contribution, and something that has proven to be a great addition to our wine tastings – a wine guide. You can customize the guide to include a variety of wines, or if you are focusing on one wine, you can expand on fun facts for that particular variety. It gives your guests a take-away guide to keep on hand so that they can continue their learning at home, and have something to reference the next time they want to try something new. You can see an example of the guide she created for her party here.

After just two tasting sessions, we have really started to hone in on what works for us as a group, from the format to the food to the tasting notes. The key has been assembling a group of people who are like-minded in our desire to learn more about wine, and agreement to allow an environment where people can be open and honest with their opinions.

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Before the end of the year, I will bring you a summary (including a list of what we tasted) for our most recent tasting on champagne/sparkling wines.

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Cheers!

Wine Tasting Party: An Experiment

Friday, April 4th, 2014

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Wine is both something I love, and am intimidated by. Whenever I go to a restaurant, and the waiter pours a “taste” of what I ordered, I am able to fake my way through the swirl, sniff and sip test, but I am not really sure what I am looking for. Instead, it feels like a ransom I am paying to get the rest of my glass of wine from the waiter, who I probably wrongly assume is a master of all things wine and judging my every move.

After years of being a drinker of wine, and stressing out every time someone asked me to bring a bottle for dinner (fearing that the jig would be up, and they would see that I know nothing of this beverage I claim to love), I decided enough was enough. It was time to learn more, and what better way than to host a wine tasting.

I invited my fellow Wilderness Girls, Christina and Rachael, as well as my friends from work, Laura and Erica, and we booked a day to start the first of what will be a series of tastings. I wanted this to be a journey that we took together, so that we could help improve the process as we went.

For my first tasting, I decided it would be a good idea to go back to basics and focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. I did some online reading, and headed to Total Wine to pick a bottle from each of the regions that are known for Cabs (France, US, Argentina, Chile and Australia).

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I had appetizers and seltzer available for us to enjoy as everyone got acquainted, and bought some chocolates and cookies for dessert. I didn’t concern myself too much with what I served since we weren’t doing a pairing with the wine, but it doesn’t hurt to look online to make sure you aren’t serving a spice or type of food that might clash with the wine if it lingers on the palette.

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The first tasting was far from perfect, but we learned a lot and had a fantastic time.

Here are my tips from our experience:

Tastings are best done with a group of 6-10 people.
I started by inviting 8 and we ended up with 5, so in the future, we are going to build our group to 12 so that we always have a larger number at each event. The more opinions and knowledge around your table, the better. You may be surprised at some of the facts your friends know, and at our tasting, everyone brought some new tidbit to the table.

Laura taught us that the “legs” are what you look for after you swirl, as they will drip down the glass, and the higher the alcohol content, the stronger the legs will be. Erica chimed in that she learned from her wine tasting trip to Argentina, that the best Malbecs have a 14% or higher alcohol content (and we also found this to be true in our small sample of Cabs). Rachael advised us when tasting that if we wanted to have a better sense of the elements of the wine, to inhale a little air through our mouth as we let the wine cross our palate.

Plan ahead.
Unlike my normal routine, I had a particularly busy week and did the majority of my planning the day before and the day of the event. If you are hosting, you don’t have to be an expert on the wine you serve, but it helps to do some research so that you can select wines properly. What I did was pick a wine from each region that Cabs are known for coming from, but what I would do next time is pick the best regions, and then both research options through an online wine site and survey my attendees for suggestions.

As a group we decided that a wine cheat sheet would be the perfect addition to future events. On the sheet we will list the traits and information on the type(s) of wine we are serving so that each attendee has access to review them during the tasting.

Keep score.
If you are a novice group, start with a simple scoring sheet. We used this scoring sheet from Total Wine, but half of us didn’t even use the scoring method and just took notes. For me, it almost made the experience too intimidating and less enjoyable. You can always add to the sheet you start with after each tasting. We are customizing our own sheet for our next event.

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Have a “control bottle.”
If possible, have a “control. bottle” What I mean by that is if you are focusing on one type of wine, buy a bottle that you know for sure is a good representation of that wine. It will ensure that you have something to compare everything else to, and that you know at least one of the selections will be good. We decided to end with the “control bottle” for future tastings.

Put your big girl pants on.
Try not to get offended if a few of the wines you selected score poorly with the group. I totally failed at this with my first tasting. The first three wines were a mix of “this is ok,” “tastes like a Pinot – a bad Pinot,” and “meh.” Being the perfectionist that I am, I didn’t want anything to go wrong, and ideally, I wanted all the wines to be good. But that’s not realistic or helpful. The point of these events is that you have the opportunity to openly discuss wines with your friends in a safe environment. And the interesting thing was that except for two wines (Michel Gassier (France) and Chateau Los Boldos (Chile)), we all disagreed on whether or not we liked most of them. So, next time, I will remember the big girl pants.

Make it a team effort.
I learned a lot at our first tasting and am already looking at wine bottles differently (for example, I never cared about the alcohol content before, but with some wines it makes a difference). The biggest thing I learned was that a tasting will go best if you make it a team effort. We all were there with the same goal – to learn – and you can’t be too proud to ask for help, or assign tasks.

At the end of the event, over dessert, we had a discussion on what we are going to do differently next time, and things that we wanted to keep from our current tasting. We agreed that we will have this same discussion after each tasting so that we can continue to improve the event.

Here are our items to keep or improve for next session:

* Keep the white tablecloth. I read that having a white tablecloth helps in the swirling stage when you are looking at the color, and we found this one to be true. This tip is a keeper, and if you decide to do this, you can get a very affordable tablecloth from Amazon.

* Go potluck. Having one person prep and pay for all the food is a lot, and most everyone who came wanted to bring something anyway, so we will all contribute food in the future (unless the host prefers to do it all themselves).

* The host selects the wine. Although it might be fun to have each person bring a bottle, we decided that it’s better to have the host do the research and select all the wines.

* Buy-in fee. We each decided that all who attend will chip in a $15 buy-in fee for the tasting. Our hope was that this would enable the host to buy a few inexpensive bottles and potentially spring for a more expensive bottle for our “control bottle,” if needed.

* Increase the attendee count. We are adding a few more people so that regardless of schedules, we always have a group that ranges from 6-10 people. The more people that attend, the more we learn.

* Take more pictures. I realized by the end of the night that I had very few pictures of the event, so make sure to keep your phones handy. It is a good idea to assign that task to one attendee each event so that one person has it top of mind.

We already have our next tasting adventure booked. We will be sampling alternative whites with our wonderful host, Laura.

Check back for a recap of our second event soon!

Booze Infusions: How To & Recipes

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that a few weeks ago Rachael and I visited the home of my friends Chris and Adele to learn how to infuse booze. Booze infusion is a pretty simple concept – you take alcohol, add ingredients to flavor it, and let it sit until you like the taste.

Since Rachael and I were new to infusions, the first recipes Chris taught us are simple. In fact, you are going to be shocked how simple these are and may be inspired to start today!

Here are some basic steps for doing most infusions:

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Step 1: Buy the supplies. You will need mason jars, the alcohol of your choice, and the ingredients that will flavor your drink.

TIP: If you are using fruit, buy organic. The alcohol is going to absorb all of the flavors, good and bad. Be sure you are using good quality produce grown without pesticides (the perfect excuse to hit up your local farmer’s market) and don’t forget to wash it when you get home.

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Step 2: Sterilize the jars. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully place your jars and lids into the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Using tongs, remove the jars and lids, and carefully dry off with a clean towel.

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Step 3: Place the ingredients that will flavor your drink into the jar.

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Step 4: Pour the alcohol of choice into the jar until the jar is full. When buying your alcohol, buy what you like to drink, not necessarily what’s on sale. Although the ingredients will give the liquor some flavor, a bad vodka will still taste like a bad vodka, no matter what you put in it.

TIP: For our tutorial, Chris recommended Svedka Vodka (as it is both good quality and not crazy expensive) and Makers Mark Whiskey or better. That will give you a sense of the price/quality level you should look for when making your purchase.

Step 5: Secure the lid on your mason jar, shake the jar, and play the waiting game. There is no set amount of time that works for all infusions. This is where it becomes more of an experiment. Each week, take a small taste and see if you like the flavor. Infusions that are too “young” will often have a bite to them, so giving them more time will help to mellow out the flavors.

TIP: Use a sharpie or a label maker to put the date you created your drink on the jar. This will help you to determine how many weeks it has been infusing.

Step 6. Tweak where needed, and be patient. Don’t be afraid to add something if you need to after your first taste. Even with the harsh edge, you will be able to tell if the end result is going to have a good flavor. Also, good things come to those who wait. Some of the infusions at Chris and Adele’s home had been sitting for a year or more, so don’t give up – what your drink may need is simply more time.

The great thing about infusions, as you can tell, is that the possibilities are endless. Like art, you must start by selecting your medium (alcohol) and what you will add. I found a great site that lays out some tips on choosing both elements here.

If you are like me though, you just clicked on that site, got intimidated, and almost closed this post. Wait! Don’t leave! I’ve got you covered. Check out three very quick and simple starter recipes below:

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Raspberry Infused Vodka

Ingredients: 1 pint organic raspberries, vodka, everclear and simple syrup (when serving)
Time it will need to sit: 3-6 weeks, depending on how often you change out the berries
Instructions: Add raspberries to a sterilized jar and fill with ½ vodka and ½ everclear. Seal and date your jar and let sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. Shake the jar every once in a while when you think about it. Strain out the raspberries (they will have turned white, or as I called them “zombie raspberries”), and reserve the liquid. Add a fresh pint, pour the liquid over the raspberries, seal and let sit in your fridge for another 1-2 weeks. You will repeat the raspberry replacement step once more. Once they are fully infused, use a coffee filter or unbleached paper towel to strain the final alcohol into a bowl. You will want to strain the liquid three times. You can store this in a bottle or mason jar, and when you serve it, just add simple syrup to taste.

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Ginger Infused Vodka

Ingredients: Candied ginger (handful) and vodka
Time it will need to sit: 1 week
Instructions: Add ginger to a sterilized jar and fill with vodka. Seal and date your jar. You can store the ginger vodka on a shelf, and shake it occasionally. This drink should be ready in about a week, but taste it and let it sit longer if you need it to. This one does a cool magic trick in that a day after you put the candied ginger into the liquid, it expands and looks like slices of fresh ginger. If your ginger stays intact, you won’t need to strain this one. If you notice that it disintegrates, strain through a coffee filter or unbleached paper towel until the liquid is clear (2-3 times).

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Cin-Van-Sky (Cinnamon/Vanilla/Star Anise Infused Whiskey)

Ingredients: Cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, 2-3 star anise pods, whiskey/bourbon and brandy
Time it will need to sit: 4-6 weeks
Instructions: Split the vanilla bean and add it, the cinnamon stick and the star anise pods to a sterilized jar and fill with whiskey/bourbon and top with a shot of brandy. Seal and date your jar. Store the jar on a shelf, shake occasionally, and test 4-6 weeks after you infused it.

Last year for Christmas, I gave away homemade vanilla extract as gifts to my friends. From my friend Adele (who hosted our infusion lessons), I received a bottle of her limoncello. Homemade gifts are fantastic to give and receive, no matter what time of year it is. So, pin this post, and come back to it the next time you need to make a bulk gift, but want to do something unique.

The possibilities with this are endless, so be bold, be creative, and run to your local liquor store right now to get started.

Cheers!

Hard Fireball Razzyade

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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This month, I am taking the whiskey baton from Christina, who created a fabulous Ginger Whiskey Cocktail last month, and spicing things up a bit by turning to a newly popular whiskey for inspiration — Fireball Whiskey.

Fireball Whiskey is a strong cinnamon-flavored whiskey; it’s delicious and perfect for people (like my husband Bryan) who are not whiskey fans. Although most people I know drink it as a shot, there are a lot of great cocktail recipes that feature this fiery whiskey.

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I was hoping to find a recipe that provided some surprise factor. I love it when I try something, or have someone try something, and you get to play the “Guess what’s in it?” game. Wait. Let me clarify that. I love playing that game when the answer isn’t something I wouldn’t want to be eating – like Rocky Mountain Oysters.

When I first read the recipe below, I was highly skeptical that cinnamon and lemonade would pair well, but this recipe definitely delivered. In fact, after taking one sip, Bryan informed me that he was taking mine and that I could make another one for myself.

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Hard Fireball Razzyade (Recipe by This Girl Walks Into a Bar)
* 2 ounces Fireball Whiskey
* 3-4 ounces raspberry lemonade (you can add more or less depending on your taste)
* lemon wedge, squeezed
* lemon slice and/or raspberries for garnish

Fill a glass with ice (I recommend using a lowball glass), then pour the whiskey and lemonade in the glass and squeeze the lemon wedge over the drink. Stir lightly with a spoon and garnish with a lemon wedge or a few raspberries on a toothpick.

To up the ante on the red, and keep the drink from diluting, you could also use frozen raspberries in lieu of ice.

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Go get some Fireball Whiskey and brew up this love potion for your own Valentine!