October 25, 2022
It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by Magdalen Nabb, too long, it seems, as I’d forgotten how enjoyable they are. But, I was recently in Florence, where her (detective and mystery-y books, not the kids books as far as I know) books take place in the main, and felt I should revisit one of them in honor of the Florence revisit. Did that make sense? Blame the jet lag if not! Anyway, I went with Death of the Englishman, the first of her Florentine mysteries, featuring Marshal Guarnaccia (along with other reoccurring characters, some of whom get more time than he in some books. It’s neat, and incredibly well-done, how she balances out the various narratives. Very skilled without being showy). There’s a murder and a mystery and some thieves, too, all goods stuff, but the best stuff is the detailed look at Florence, the streets, the smells, the food, the sights, and especially the people and the routines and experiences they go through. If you love Florence, Italy, or mysteries well-written that transport you, then you should be in on these. Especially if you also like wine, grappa, or vin santo (like me).
“Well, try and get some rest, anyway, and drink plenty of fluids.” Both of them noticed at the same time the almost empty whiskey bottle standing by the parchment lamp. “Not that stuff.”
“I’ve never tasted it.” The Marshal drank half a litre of red every day with his evening meal, never more nor less, and a drop of vin santo on Sundays.
“And no wine, either, while you’re on this.” The professor was reading the Marshal’s mind as he wrote.
–Magdalen Nabb, Death of an Englishman
September 13, 2022
For our final What Rhymes with Murder? Cocktail Talk (and don’t miss What Rhymes with Murder? Part I and Part II to get some more boozing, sure, but also to learn more about this Jack Iams’ 1950 mystery, where a British flirty poet gets shot, a reporter hero tries to track down the murder as he’s a suspect, and where the society page grand dame reporter might be the best shamus of the bunch!) I have what I’m thinking is one of the finest moments in the however many years I’ve been writing here: the mention of grappa in a 1950s pulp pocketbook! Really! Amazing! I love grappa, being like one of the big grappa pushers I know, and someone who brings back bottles of obscure-in-the-US grappas in my suitcase when traveling to Italy every year. So, when I saw the below, I was very, very happy. You will be, too.
I went around the corner to Frascini’s, a restaurant where a lot of newspapermen and politicians and cops hung out. It was crowded, and I had a feeling that people were staring at me, and after a bowl of minestrone, I didn’t want anything more.
“Whatsa matter, you sick?” asked Tony Frascini.
“No, just shaky.”
“Have a grappa. Fix you up.”
–Jack Iams, What Rhymes with Murder?
October 1, 2021
It was, say two months ago, basil season (I take it to be late August, though your basil-ing may vary), which is a fragrant green season indeed. Usually, one thinks: basil, an herb, used in cooking, see pesto, etc. However, I (and maybe others, too) also think: basil, an herb, used in making liqueurs and other drinkables, see Basil Grappa, etc. I first made Basil Grappa way back in the halcyon days of writing a book called Luscious Liqueurs (I originally saw the idea in a small Italian language pamphlet of liqueurs, and then tweaked it up a tiny bit), and it’s featured in said book, and I’ve been making it fairly regularly ever since – including this very year! It’s a straightforward recipe, just basil, grappa, simple syrup, and a little lemon juice for balance, and one that’s a little less sweet than some liqueurs. Why? Cause while I love the basil, I still wanted to let the grappa shine through, and not have its grappa-ness (that lovely grape-ness, vineyard-ness, and wine’s-older-brother-ness) completely smoothed away. This liqueur is, for those grappa neophytes, an easy path into the world of grappa by the way, grappa being a spirit that is mostly misunderstood here in the US, but one also that has many varieties (as many as wine itself, I suppose). While not always super available here (if you are US-based, that is), I’m finding more grappas around, but if you can’t track down a bottle, hound your local liquor store until they bring some in!
Basil Grappa Liqueur
1-1/2 cups fresh basil
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
3 cups grappa
1/2 cup simple syrup
1. Add the basil and lemon juice to a large glass container. Using a muddler or wooden spoon, muddle them together cozily.
2. Add the grappa to the container, and stir well. Put it in a cool dry place, and let everything get acquainted for two weeks, swirling occasionally.
3. Add the simple syrup to the container, stir, and put back in that cool, dry place, once again, swirling.
4. Strain the Basil Grappa. I’d suggest once through a fine mesh strainer, then through cheesecloth – into a glass bottle, or a number of small bottles if you’d like to share (sharing is nice)!
September 17, 2021
A few short weeks ago, I had a Friday Night Cocktail that was actually a homemade aperitif called Fugger’s Revenge. Based on the Italian white wine Est! Est!! Est!!!, with herbal and fruit accents, I suppose it could be nearly thought of as a vermouth, though not so much so that I would do it. I’ll stick with a white wine-based aperitif moniker, thank you very much. Anywho, it was pretty neat-o, and I’ve enjoyed it over ice nicely. And hopefully will again, while also trying it out in cocktails, starting with this one right here in front of your peepers, a drink called Martin’s Folly. If you go back to the Fugger’s Revenge, you’ll get the full story, but let me abbreviate, until such time as you have time to do such browsing. There was a jolly (I may be making that part up) German bishop, Johann Fugger, who was traveling to Rome, and wanted to be sure he hit up the best wine at the best bars on the way, so he sent along his pal (one hopes) and assistant first, to scope out the wine score, and one particular wine was so good, said adjunct wrote in big letters on the bar with this good wine, “Est! Est!! Est!!,” or “there is.” Good wine here, that is. And that wall-writer and wine-searcher’s name? Martin!
In the Martin’s Folly, I mixed the Fugger’s Revenge house aperitif with Wildwood Spirits’ Kur gin, a favorite gin of mine made here in WA with local wheat. It carries a robust gin flavor, highlighted by juniper (‘natch), spices and such, and a hint of Seville oranges. I didn’t want to get too far afield from our original bishop’s journey, outside of the gin, and didn’t want to add too many more ingredients, either. So, I fiddled with a bit of this, a splash of that, and didn’t find the right choices until I decided to tie back to the wine – with grappa. The grappa-grape-ness (or grappa-ness, to be technical) worked wonderfully, as did the final part of the folly, a lemon twist.
2 ounces Wildwood Spirits Kur gin
3/4 ounces Fugger’s Revenge white wine aperitif
1/2 ounce grappa
Lemon twist, for garnish
1. Fill a mixing glass or cocktail shaker halfway full with cracked ice. Add everything but the twist. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with the twist.
April 17, 2020
If you didn’t know (and hey, why would you, unless you’re stalking me – you aren’t are you? Cause I’m really boring and feel for you if so), I recently, due to current events you know about, had an Italian vacation cut short by coronavirus. Said cutting short involved some radically fast packing (I mean, I’m a good suitcase arranger usually, but this was a mad dash), and that means quick choices about what to bring back, what you can fit, all that. One of the things I did bring back was a little bottle of Mazzetti Bitter, a deep red flavorfully-bitter aperitif with hints of rhubarb and lemon from the well-known grappa makers. Just like a week before the packing I purchased said bottle at my favorite north-Umbrian shop, Enoteca Lo Sfizio, which is a combination beautiful booze store, gift store, wine store, condiment-y store. It’s not huge (which is great cause huge stores scare me), but dreamy. So, ingredient one packed. One of the few other bottles I managed to squirrel away in said suitcases was a lean bottle of Donini Grappa (Donini being the finest winery in probably all of Umbria, owned by the nicest folks around), a monovitigno (one varietal that is, here being Sangiovese) grappa, very crisp and fragrant, that doesn’t forget that cozy grappa kick. Ingredient two packed. For ingredient three, I had to go out of suitcase – cause a rushed packing job sometimes has gaps. Luckily, on a past trip to Italy, I had packed in a smoother manner, cool-like, and managed to fit a bottle of Donini’s delicious Dono Di Dio, a vino liquoroso, or aged dessert wine that’s rich, lush, and needs to be tasted to be believed. If you’ve been Tuscany and had Vin Santo at a restaurant, think of that but like 10,000 times better. Yummy stuff. While I was sad to leave the Italian vacation, due to the wackiness of the travel (and cause once a trip is started, it’s always nice to be coming home), I was also very happy to make it back to Seattle. Which leads to: ingredient four in this here drink, Scrappy’s Seville Orange bitters. If your dream vacation is cut short unexpectedly by a world pandemic, a drink featuring the always-spot-on Scrappy’s and some ingredients reminding you of the vacation, well, it’s not going to get you over the experience, but sure makes thinking about it easier.
Forty Minutes Ago on the Balcony
1 ounce Mazzetti Bitter
1-1/2 ounces Donini Grappa
1/2 ounce Donini Dono Di Dio
Two dashes Scrappy’s Seville Orange bitters
Orange slice, for garnish
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass three-quarters full with cracked ice. Add everything but the orange. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass or something that helps your day travel easier. Garnish with the orange.
October 5, 2018
Usually, I try not to have favorites in booze categories. Meaning, I wouldn’t say I have a favorite gin (I like too many, too well), or amaro, or vermouth. Or white wine. However, I might say I have a favorite red wine (other red wines, please turn away now). Or, at least a favorite red wine grape, that being Sagrantino. Growing only around Montefalco, in Umbria (lovely town, by the way, the Falcon’s Mount, also referred to the balcony of Umbria, and worth a visit – great churches, great museum, a few mummies, and more, and the wine, naturally), real Sagrantino di Montefalco uses 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, is aged 37 months at the shortest, and has a deep, rich, color (dark purple) and taste of dark stone fruits. Memorable stuff!
But here’s something I recently found out (thanks to a bottle coming my way). There’s also a Montefalco Rosso wine. It’s a bit like Sagrantino’s more playful younger sibling. Aged just 18 months and blended with 60-80% Sangiovese. The specific bottle I tasted was Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Rosso, which is 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sangrantino, and 15% Merlot. It’s a beautiful wine, with a light ruby coloring, and also a lighter nature than Sagrantino, probably more approachable for a larger percentage of people, with a fruity nature (red fruit, juicy ones), and hints of spice on the nose and taste, but with a softer finish than its sibling. A nice red wine for a late-summer or fall day. And also, a nice one for making into a wine cocktail.
Of course, as you know, I have a hard time not experimenting with any ingredient I have at hand, and while a glass of this Montefalco Rosso by itself is dreamy, it plays well with others, too. Here, I brought in some Italian favorites, starting with light, slightly citrus, aperitif, Aperol. To match up with that and to balance some of the wine’s fruits, a few dashes of Fee Brothers Orange bitters added to the party – not Italian, but we do have another Italian fav, too. See, I wanted some strong undercurrents, too (sometimes in fall there’s a chill in the air), and wanted to stay Italian-style, and so brought in an underutilized cocktail ingredient: grappa. Specifically: Marolo Grappa di Amarone, which is aged in oak, and which has cherry notes, along with an adaptable nuttiness, that go with the wine perfectly. Altogether, this is a cocktail that’ll have you fantasizing of Italy – and savoring every sip.
On the Road to Montefalco
2 ounces Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Rosso
1 ounce Aperol
1/2 ounce Marolo Grappa di Amarone
2 dashes Fee Brothers Orange bitters
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add everything. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass. Bella, bella.
October 21, 2016
At some point this month, I myself will be in Italy, and I can’t be happier about it (having lived there once, it’s easy to see that I am a big fan), and in a way this drink is a bubbly celebration of that happiness. Though, it’s also perhaps a more serious number (not in a bad way, at all) than some bubbly Italian drinks. Howso? It starts with grappa, which I love, and which is of course a cousin to wine, and as you probably guessed by the “bubbly,” this also has Italian sparkler Prosecco. Let’s hold on that for a second, to talk about the third ingredient, Cynar. A member of the digestif amari family, Cynar is crafted from artichokes along with 12 other herbs and plants. It’s a wee stitch bitter, but has a great smooth herbal-ness and a small comforting sweetness, too. It’s swell solo, but also in drinks, and plays well with the strong grappa here. But back to the Prosecco – to hold up to those other two strong personalities, you need a bubbly with its own strong sense of purpose and flavor, and here I went with Zonin Black edition (a bottle came in the mail recently – yes, I was born under a good sign). It’s a slightly spicier Prosecco, with cardamom hints alongside apple and a little floralness. Combined with our other two Italian imports, this makes for an effervescent drink that can be had both before and after dinner, and perhaps savored more than most.
The Italian Evening
1 ounce grappa
1 ounce Cynar
4 ounces chilled Zonin Black edition Prosecco
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add the grappa and Cynar. Stir well.
2. Strain into a flute. Top with the Prosecco. Stir to combine. Garnish with the lemon twist.
September 24, 2013
Just last week, I talked about finding and reading and digging the book by Madison Smartt Bell called Straight Cut. Go read that post if you haven’t. Back now? Great, that means it’s time for you to dive right in to some more Cocktail Talk quotes from said book. The first is about grappa, and the second, for balance, is about rum.
In the early evening I went to the trattoria for an early supper and mainly to get out of the house and there I remembered about grappa. There’s no language difficulty about ordering grappa. You just say “grappa” and the man brings you some, in this case a sizable portion for the equivalent of about thirty U.S. cents.
On the Bayswater Road, near the corner of Kensington Gardens, I found a booze shop and bought a quart of dark naval rum. Circling back about Queensway, I picked up some plastic cups at a grocer’s and then I went back to the room. It was time to get drunk and think it over.
— Straight Cut, Madison Smartt Bell