Story by Joel Levin
New Jersey Newspaper Group
Photos of bottles and some cocktails courtesy of the producers.
Photos of some cocktails Joel Levin.

Cocktails and other fun spirits.

In no way is any disrespect or levity intended in this column. We all owe a debt to those who have sacrificed -- many even putting their lives on the line -- to help humanity emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

During the pandemic, most of us have found that there is more free time.

While we are in this mode, I recommend drinking better and not more. Go ahead and spend 10 or 20 bucks more to upgrade your customary bottle. Try an unknown winemaker or a wine varietal new to you. Choose from local breweries, wineries, and distilleries. And enjoy. Slowly. Concentrate on the textures, aromas, and tastes. I repeat: s l o w l y. Let's not add a new crop of alcoholics to the list of COVID tragedies. Experiment with new experiences. Savor life. Sip liquid pleasure. To that end, here are a few bottles and drinks to try this summer and fall.



Claremont Vodka and Bourbon

Some of the best things to have originated in New Jersey (besides Frank Sinatra, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Dionne Warwick, Philip Roth, The Boss, and Cory Booker) come from Claremont Distilling. With one glance at the bottle, you know that the clear liquid within will taste of quality. The understated graphics of the extra tall, slim Claremont Vodka bottle are heavily painted on, while most other brands glue on paper labels or use imprinted stick-on tape. Even the small type on the back explaining the distilling process is three-dimensional.  Sometimes, you can judge a spirit by its bottle.

This is an important observation because it shows attention to detail and reflects the care taken in distilling the spirit from local potatoes, the tuber being both more expensive than grain and more difficult to work with. It's encouraging to see quality throughout, the same quality you will find in a tasting visit to the Claremont operation in Fairfield, NJ.

The bottle's heavy green/black/white embossing will seduce you into running your fingers over its dimensionality, but the real seduction begins when you pop the white cork and take in the distant aroma of canned pears in syrup. The first quality noticed is that there is no hint of rubbing alcohol, an off-note present even in "premium" vodkas. But in addition to this good lack, there is the presence of a rich, sweet, buttery fragrance which whispers "Taste me... slowly." So, do that: neat, rocks, or cocktailed. CV marries well with tart mixers such as orange and lime, bitter such as tonic, and sweet such as coffee, chocolate, colas, and cream.

We are also partial to the distillery's five-grain Bourbon, Tracks and Rails, best enjoyed with a small hit of cold water or over one ice cube. Even without thinking about the taste, it was clear that this Bourbon from the hands and minds of Claremont's distillers would never bore. I sipped a few small glasses with a splash through an hour and a half of To Catch a Thief, and never craved anything else -- not even popcorn or bar snacks.

The spicy sniff of carnations far forward accented the less-intense dry woodiness. The influence of new American oak was actually more present in the satisfyingly long finish, but there's no question that with a million permutations of grain proportions possible, Claremont hit Tracks right.

Paul John Edited

Paul John 'Edited'

Can India do Scotch better than Scotland? Taste the answer in a bottle of Paul John "Edited." "Edited" means that a very peaty malt was toned down by adding a less-smoky malt for PJ's version of perfection. The barley is grown and malted in India, but as a nod to the spirit's inspiration, the peat is imported from Scotland.

It's 92 proof but sips like 80... very satisfying, despite my descriptives that sound like they would clash. First, there's the aroma of orange marmalade and mint with vegetal highlights, which in two minutes, migrated to nuts and then chocolate.  My Scotch-trained-and-tuned nose declared that it smelled exactly like molasses-mint saltwater taffy!

On the palate is cooked oatmeal followed by more mint and finally a persistent peatiness. Producing no palate fatigue even long into your session, the complex nose continues to intoxicate. Yup, one of Scotland's best -- or is it? One of the most unusual attributes of PJE is the way it coats the upper (hard) palate with a thick sweetness. Distiller's secret or just lucky? You'll enjoy pondering those questions.

John Paul is from India. The new Scotland? Well, get your nose out of the air, snob; enjoy the trip and forget everything you knew about Scotch or even Suntory. There's a new continent contending for a place on your shelf of good sippin' drams. Paul John "Edited" and his little cousin "Brilliance" belong on that shelf. If you like thinking while drinking, think about giving some Paul Johns a home.


Litchfield Vanilla Bourbon. From northwest Connecticut's horsey Zip codes, emerges a successfully tasty exercise in restraint. Instead of cooking up a candy bomb for beginning drinkers, the alchemists at LD merely dialed up a flavor naturally imparted to the spirit by its contact with oak. Inside each bottle is a long vanilla-bean pod.

We are also fans of Litchfield's Cask Strength Straight Bourbon, tapped straight from the barrel at about 122 proof. Sip; don't mix this special elixir. An incredibly and delightfully complex mixture of acrid smoke and sweet caramel dominate, but with about 50 percent more alcohol than what you are accustomed to, a generous teaspoon of water per glass is needed.

Tanteo Tequila

Yes Tamaro cocktail

Based on the peppery Tanteo tequila (a novelty in itself) this simple cocktail will surprise with its flavor complexity infused with halapeños, habaneros and roasted chipotles. Drink Yes Tamaros like there's no tomorrow and there won't be. Rather, take it easy and pair with ripe and blue cheeses or pasta with red sauce. Great with cold calamari in hot sauce in August. It also cuts nicely through buttery jalapeño popcorn in the summer. 

On the nose, the spirit solo shows old dry oak, a wisp of vanilla, and a bit of dust; but there's no mistaking the bite of the three-pepper medley. A splash of water or a couple of minutes on one ice cube increases the softness and opens up vanilla on the palate. It has just enough tropical flavor to smooth any rough edges. Attention, gringos: It's OK to add water when tasting Tanteo straight... or make the easy cocktail Tamaro today!

2 oz Tanteo, either Jalapeño, smoky Chipotle, or super-hot Habanero variety
1 oz Ramazzoti Amaro

On the rocks, orange wedge, and orange twist. That's all. The picante pepper-forward Tanteo is reinforced by the balanced bitter herbality and sweetness of the amaro. Or create a twist on that by making a tall drink with tonic.


Bloody Mezzy  

1-1/2 oz smoky Mezcal 
Adobo liquido seasoning
Chunky diced Italian tomatoes 
(optional) tomato juice

Add fresh mushrooms, sliced medium, and red pepper flakes, and give a good shake or a hearty stir to incorporate.

Black Apple Nightcap

Black Apple Nightcap

1 oz smoky mezcal
1-1/2 oz Laird's 12-year-old apple brandy
Strong coffee to top off coffee cup
Cream to taste (but don't leave it out)
Garnish with rare or crisp bacon strip, sizzling if possible

For smoke effect as in illustration, blow in smoke from neutral incense or burning twig (outdoors only!) and cover with a coaster until ready to serve. Forcefully lift off the coaster with a flourish and the smoke will curl up dramatically,  producing an Instagramable surefire party fave!


Italish Dream

Strega liqueur and Hyde Irish whisky on the rocks.

Try at 1:1 proportion and then try increasing the amount of whisky.

Strongarm Cocktail

Strongarm Cocktail

Shake equal parts of vintage Armagnac and real Sauternes or Bandol with ice. What -- mix a cocktail from two three-figure bottles? Some might call it sacrilege. I call it heaven. And you still have what's left in the bottles for late-night sipping.


Scotch Plaid

2 oz smoky Scotch 
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz triple sec

Must the measurements be exact?  No, because tastes of all three ingredients are not standard; vermouth especially which has no standard formula. However, you can't go wrong with the 2:1:1 ratio.

Whether single malt or blend, the Scotch must be smoky. We love it with Lagavulin or Ardbeg from the Speyside area. This is terrific with raw oysters or clams. Don't think about that. Just try it.

Variations: Substitute ginger liqueur (such as longtime favorite Barrow's Intense) for the  vermouth. Top with  ginger ale in a tall glass as a highball.


Keep in mind that your increased spare time gives you an opportunity to EXPERIMENT, so not only can you experiment with new brands and styles, you can experiment with cocktail recipes. Cocktails are invented, not born. Every cocktail in history began with a mental image, so when you look at an ingredient list or taste your drink, think about changing proportions of the components or substituting others, or dropping in a new garnish. Note that Bloody Mezzy above, uses bacon (!) as garnish.

If you fear ruining a good thing or wasting pricey ingredients, cut down amounts. Make mini-cocktails and gradually add more of an ingredient until it tastes right. When you get it right, simply scale up -- and just like that, you've become an instant mixologist.




© September 2020 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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