Mar 17, 2014

Five bottles to bring back from your vacations that your friends will never ask for...

Strasbourg (Alsace), France
When you travel abroad, it’s kind of customary to bring back a bottle of booze that is identified with the region you visited. Sometimes just because your friends asked for them, sometimes to serve when you are boring everyone to death with your stories and endless slideshows of your vacation. You bring beer from Belgium or wine from France: easy… All purchased from the duty free shop at the last minute. But what if you wanted to bring a bottle which most of your booze lover friends are not familiar with and can create conversation around it? I have a list of my own favorites that I usually purchase when I am traveling for my own liquor cabinet and would like to share a few here just to give you some ideas.

St. Raphael from Alsace, France:  St. Raphael is a fortified wine served as an aperitif or digestif.  It has a secret recipe created by a gentleman named Doctor Juppet dating back to the 1830s and, back in those days, was sold mainly in pharmacies. The formula contains a blend of French wines, quinine, cocoa beans, bitter oranges, vanilla pods and calumba, among other herbs and seeds. It comes in red and white bottlings, often referred to as “twins” in France, depending on the grape varieties used in making them. It is mostly used in cocktails emphasizing its bittersweet qualities, but I really like it chilled with a single cube of ice served to with a rich chocolaty desert.  Despite its big fame and worldwide success after the Second World War, it was forgotten lately, became very hard to find, and disappeared completely around 2010. They even shut down the web presence of the company. Luckily the brand got resurrected within last year under new ownership and slowly is getting easier to find in northern France and Belgium.

Kastellorizo (Megisti), Greece
Metaxa from Greece:  The brand was created at the end of the 19th century by a Greek merchant named Spyros Metaxa.  Contrary to popular belief, standard expressions of Metaxa are not brandies but liqueurs. The process starts with dry white wines from different regions of Greece made both from fresh grapes and raisins. These are distilled and aged in French Limousin oak barrels for a period of time. Then a small amount of rich, sweet muscat wines sourced from Samos and Lemnos islands are blended with the aged spirits and, finally, a secret mix of herbs and floral extracts containing rose petals is added.  This unique process makes Metaxa a liqueur rather than a brandy. The brand has a wide range of products: 3 stars, 5 stars, 7 stars, 12 stars (stars refer to the age of the youngest distillate in the vat) and a Reserve Collection with Metaxa Private Reserve (30 yo) and Aen Metaxa.  Aen Metaxa contains aged spirit sourced from their Cask Number 1 also known as "Spyros Cask", which according to their press release holds some brandy over 80 years old.  It has a rich and syrupy texture with peach compote, candied pecans, Tokaji wine and rose water aromas. The palate is sweet, with chestnut honey, ripe figs and cinnamon. Absolutely the best pairing for your Greek coffee. They are meant to be together.

Montrachet (Burgundy), France
Marc de Bourgogne from Burgundy, France: Like any other wine country, the wine makers from Burgundy also didn’t want to discard the leftovers from the wine making process and decided to distill them. So technically what we have here is a grappa from Burgundy, but with a few differences. The seeds are also crushed and distilled, which adds a distinct bitter note to the palate, and they are aged in French oak barrels. So, because traditionally the good barrels were used mainly to age higher class spirits like Cognac and Armagnac, Marc de Bourgogne barrels used to be tired casks, which had no further use for other spirit producers, or big wine barrels recycled within the winery.  Also, aging for a long period of time wasn’t the idea. Wine makers wanted to have the spirit just mellow enough to make it drinkable, nothing more. So the resulting brandy is a little raw, bold, and has a pretty strong finish. Nowadays it’s possible to find fine aged and high end expressions but I strongly recommend to walk into a café in Burgundy and give a chance to one of the cheap brands made for the working class.

Ajerkoniak from Poland: Now, this is a confusing label... Actually Akerkoniak is the Polish equivalent of Advocaat, which is a Dutch liquor traditionally made from eggs, sugar and brandy but, despite the word “cognac” (koniak) in its name, this Polish version contains vodka instead of brandy as its main ingredient. I know how it sounds, and it requires a lot of convincing to take the first sip for the ones who are not comfortable having some eggs in their glasses, but it is beyond delicious. Some expressions are served with a spoon because it’s so thick and creamy. The liquor has a smooth, velvety mouth feel and the palate is sweet and custardy. Great when it is served a little heated on winter days and also very enjoyable on summer afternoons with an ice cube.

Zagreb, Croatia
Slivovitz from Croatia: I said Croatia since I had so many great nights involving many shots of Slivovitz on Tkalciceva Street in Zagreb, but Slivovitz is identified with almost every Balkan country in the region. Bosnia, Hungary, Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, Romania—all have their own versions of Slivovitz and they all share the same pride of naming it as their national drink.  It is basically a brandy distilled from Damson plums, usually bottled un-aged but it is possible to find aged varieties as well.  The uniqueness of the process comes from not removing the kernels of the plums when crushing and pressing and leaving them to ferment with fruit. I personally like the vibrant and young palate of the un-aged expressions with a pint of crisp lager characteristic to the region, and to consume them with a matching speed to the locals (which can end up pretty embarrassing), but sipping the aged ones slowly can be equally satisfactory.

[edited by Teresa Hartmann]

*Originally written for and posted at The Alcohol Professor on March 11th, 2014.