Putting together the perfect birthday bar

24
Apr/09
1

The big day has arrived and passed but the party is happening tomorrow. I still haven’t decided upon a cocktail and in the absence of any notable flashes-of-brilliance, recipe-wise I’ve decided to cover my bases with a wide variety of liquor.

So far, I’ve picked up an ever-reliable bottle of Centennial 10 Year Old Rye, Stoli (I used to buy Iceberg but then I realized that Stoli was just a dollar more and quantifiably better), Martini Rosso, Hungarian Grande  Cuvée Brut and McGillicuddy’s Peach Schnapps. My friend Alex McLeod and his girlfriend gifted me with a bottle of Gianduia chocolate-flavoured grappa which I suspect I will have little problem finding a use for.

On the day of, I’ll probably head back to the LCBO and pick up some Sailor Jerry Rum, Grand Marnier, McGuiness Melon and Banane and Hendrick’s Gin. If I have any money left over, I might buy some Jagermeister, Luxardo Amaretto and Unicum bitters but I have some Angostura at home which will do in a pinch.

Mix-wise, I’ve already made some simple syrup and I have a bottle of grenadine lying around too. I don’t have any time to make anything else (unless I can persuade my mum to help me make  a bottle of orgeat syrup) but I’m probably going to buy some juices (cranberry, orange, acai blueberry, pomegranate, aloe), pop (soda water, ginger beer and green tea ginger ale) and maybe a four-pack of Red Bull.

Fruit will probably be nothing more exotic than a ready supply of lemons and limes but I’d like to have some ginger root on hand. I also have spices left over from the last party and I’d like to use ‘em more this time.

For the wine-drinkers, I have three bottles of red kicking around: the Pascual Toso Malbec 2007, the Barco Reale di Carmignano Capezzana 2006 and the Cent’are Nero d’Avola 2006. After my last post on Fuzion, I should probably get a bottle of that too but I’m not sweating it.

Yesterday, I decided against a bottle of Ironstone Symphony 2007  but I might change my mind tomorrow.

I let other people bring beer. My brother Lowell is always good for a mini-keg of Heineken.

Looking at this list, I think I might very well be going overboard but I replenished my bar in such a long time and I really want to do my own Fridgin’ Out: Liquor Cabinet Edition.

In completely unrelated news, I’ve sampled the rest of the LCBO’s 2009 spring beer release, including the new Innis & Gunn Blonde! I’ll probably post that when I recover from the inevitable party hangover, sometime next week.

innis-gunn-blonde

(Image taken from ralph&dot’s Flickr photostream.)

Fuzion in the top four at LCBO

24
Apr/09
0

fuzionYou may or may not have read about it but Beppi Crosariol over at the Globe and Mail wrote about the overwhelming popularity of Fuzion with consumers at the LCBO.

Apparently, it’s the number four product sold at everyone’s favorite provincial monopoly (right behind Heineken, Corona and Smirnoff vodka) What’s interesting to me is how a wine from Argentina, with no advertising and plenty of approving worth-of-mouth, has bumped Bacardi from the fourth spot to play the field with those perpetually-popular big boys of booze.

Corona spent a total of $30 million on print advertising alone last year. Heineken spent $50 million launching Heineken Premium Light (a fuckin’ light beer of all things…). I would imagine Smirnoff spends less (being a Canadian company and not having quite the global dominance of the first two brands) but it probably throws way more money into its advertising than Zuccardi does.

What then, can account for the love people have for Fuzion, the little wine that could? Beppi (I don’t know him but it’s kind of fun to call him that, try it) noted that some folks accused him of fanning the flames of its popularity with his approval of the affordable red that delivers a big taste for its price.

While Mr. Crosariol may have fueled the fire roaring under Fuzion, he didn’t spark it. Toronto Life, NOW Magazine, the National Post and the Toronto Star all reported on the phenomenon but to truly understand what’s going on here, we should look to Malcolm Gladwell and his classifaction of the stages of societal adoption of new ideas/products/etc. known as the diffusion model.

You have the Innovators, the visionaries who prize revolutionary change and will take risks to try out whatever’s new and interesting. The Early Adopters come next. They watch the innovators, evaluate what they do and join in.

Because of the Internet and greater saturation of writing on wine, approval of Fuzion was able to quickly spread in tandem with more personal methods of recommendation. These early adopters congregate on forums like Chowhound and the innovators, those who pay attention to these forums, in turn write and talk about this information through their own channels which is then filtered into the consciousness of the majority. This is where Beppi and Co come in.

They’re followed by the Early and Late Majorities; those people who while they may not have their finger on what cool kids are doing pay attention to the media and other critics.  With this media attention, you can bet the Laggards, those of us who value tradition and the tried-tested-and-true, will finally start paying attention and the next six months will either see them adopt it as a red wine standard (a la Yellowtail) or pass on it as a fad.

There are a couple of factors that will definitely affect whether this adoption takes place. While the change from the 2007 varietal to the 2008 went unnoticed by many, a sharp dip in quality could leave a bad flavor in some people’s mouths and result in a drop in sales.

Also, raising the price could lead to Fuzion competing with a higher quality of wine, at least in some people’s eyes and also result in a drop in its popularity. A similar thing (albeit on a much smaller scale) happened with Les Jamelles, a winery from France. Beloved by merchants and restaurateurs alike, it quickly became must-have by-the-glass option for those looking for that magical Old World median between price and quality. However, increased demand led to a lack of availabilty and was quickly followed by a rise in price. While it still has a good reputation (it’s merlot and sauvignon blanc are both very fine) it’s been replaced by The Next Thing on many a wine list.

Mind you, Les Jamelle’s merlot was never available at the LCBO and they never had to deal with fickle consumers. A change in cost could drastically affect Fuzion’s market share, particularly because one of the wine’s chief selling points is its $7.45 ticket price. While adding a couple of dollars may not seem like a big deal, a shopper at the LCBO may pass on a more expensive Fuzion, particularly if they remember reading about how it used to cost less or worse, they remember buying it for less. On overcrowded wine shelves with the LCBO carefully tracking its process, a severe enough dip in sales could mark Fuzion for eventual delisting.

Another good example is Bohemian, secretly brewed by Molson. The go-to beer for those of us looking to throw cheap parties, art gallery-openings and what-have-you, it was sold for an unbelievable $26 a case! Not only that but it tasted better than all of the other discount brands out there.  There were plenty of times I’d go to The Beer Store looking to get a couple of cases only to find that they were sold out.

When the price was raised to $28, suddenly Bohemian became way less appealing. It began to compete with beers that were, quite frankly, much better and while I don’t have any hard numbers to back me up, I don’t see Bohemian at many parties I go to and I bet you anything they don’t sell half as much as they used to.

The appeal of Fuzion goes beyond its attractive price point and has quite a bit to do with society’s perceived learning curve when it comes to appreciating wine. Many people simply don’t know what wine they should by. Its taken forever to get beyond simple denotations of “red” and “white” and now we find folks talking about “liking chardonnays” or “hating pinot”.

These people are intimidated by wine. They don’t have a McDonald’s equivalent of beer (say Heineken) from which to base their expectations on. Imagine someone coming along and saying there’s a terrific, cheap wine out there that works pretty well with lots of different food and can be consumed rather casually? I would hazard a guess that that would be quite a relief for your average joe staring at twenty-odd bottles in front of him.

Also, there’s the self-fulfilling pride “the expert” can take in recommending a sure thing plucked from the depths of relative obscurity. This person becomes, at least temporarily, cool. They know about what’s going on, even if its tangential knowledge, and unlike beer or liquor, having a working knowledge of wine is something that’s generally considered to be an admirable skill.

Even those of who know some things still can appreciate a good recommendation. I was introduced to Fuzion through my neighbor Jacqueline Rendell, who brought over a bottle one day. She in turn had been given a few bottles from a friend of hers who really liked them. I ended up buying half-a-dozen bottles of my own over the winter and I mentioned Fuzion in my post about the best, cheap booze in Ontario. Several people who read this blog have subsequently told me that they now stock their home with Fuzion on a regular basis and we only have to go back to Beppi to see that this is a personal example of what’s happening all over Ontario and Quebec.

As knowledge of Fuzion reaches its “tipping point”, this will have less of an impact but for now, Fuzion’s cool image will undoubtedly benefit from the advice of whomever we turn to for wine info and its price will only sweeten the deal.

The best, cheap booze in Ontario

13
Feb/09
2

boozeIn honor of Esquire’s list of the best, cheap liquor one can buy in the US, I’m proud to present an Ontario-centric version featuring all of the best buys I’ve found at the LCBO. This knowledge wasn’t bought in some fly-by-night operation; it’s the result of many years of drunken trial-and-error as I slowly but surely trained my taste buds to appreciate all things alcoholic.

Like many young folks, I went for coolers because they were cheap and weren’t as gross as my virgin tongue made beer taste. I quickly found out that their sickly-sweet nature hid one hell of a hangover and I quickly progressed to old standards like rum-and-cokes and vodka-and-sevens.

The nightclub I was working at had a special version of these for employees that came in a pint glass and that worked just fine for me awhile until I got bored; a situation was paralleled at home as I got tired of having the same old cheap beer and liquor. (Wine didn’t really register for me at the time because it was something people brought over when they didn’t drink the above two which was inconceivable to me. “How could you not like beer?”, I thought, conveniently forgetting my inability to even finish one Corona back in ‘97.)

So I start buying new products. I’d usually stick with beer (because in terms of individual cost, I had the least to lose) and I came to see there was a happy medium between the bottom-of-the-barrel shit and the super-premiums. I also started going to quite a few more tastings and between trying new stuff at bars and availing myself of the tasting booth at the Queens Quay LCBO, I built up my tongue to supplement what I was learning online.

Fast forward to the near-present. A year-long stay at Joy Bistro as their bartender leaves me with a healthy appreciation for wine and I set about building a little wine-cellar at home, hampered only by my budget and thirsty roommates.

I discover how much fun buying wine can be and it’s much more forgiving than beer. Statistically-speaking, even choosing by label produces passable results but that soon gives way to being aware of regions and appellations, how the same grape will grow differently depending on where its from and differentiating the good years from the mundane and the bad.

Now, I spend far more money on wine than I do on beer and liquor combined. With the added bonus of having no roommates for a month, I’ve managed to build up a healthy collection in a couple of weeks and it’s gratifying to be able to go into the LCBO and know the taste of at least two-thirds of their inventory from experience.

But let’s go on to the list. I will cover one sterling example from pretty much every category but, unlike the Esquire list, my choices are equally drinkable straight or mixed in a cocktail. I demand that kind of versatility in my bar and I think you should too.

One caveat: I haven’t included any cognacs, sake or bourbon because I don’t think you should skimp on any of them ( but feel free to suggest something if you have a favorite).

centenFirst up is the Centennial Rye 10 Years Old Whiskey. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t get too much into again but suffice it to say, this is the best blended whiskey I’ve ever had for the measly price of $24 ($23 if you act now) and despite scary rumors, the man at Queens Quay insists that the LCBO is standing behind this product for the foreseeable future; even in absence of the heavy sales it so rightfully deserves.

I love this straight but it makes a lovely rye-and-ginger (go with ginger beer for that spicy kick-in-the-head feel) too. If you’re feeling fly and have ten more, go for the 15 Years Old, sip slowly and let the fireworks kick in. You don’t have to thank me; just drop a bottle off at 585 Gerrard. St East.

zubrowkaNext up, we have Żubrówka vodka, an herbal-flavored vodka from a region bisecting Poland and Belarus. Like Centennial, it retails for only $24 but is unfortunately not quite so available and can usually be found in the Vintages section.

It starts of grassy then gets a bit fiery before finishing on a slightly-bitter note. I get hints of vanilla mixed with almond but it’s more mild than one might think for a so-called flavored vodka. Traditionally, it’s served with apple juice but I find it much more versatile than that. Try Green Tea Ginger Ale with a splash of grenadine, for example, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

For those purists out there, go for Iceberg Vodka. It’s nothing special but it’s definitely better than Smirnoff or any of the other cheap Canadian brands available right now.

sjMy next choice is a bit more expensive but still of good value. Sailor Jerry Rum can be had for $27 and for all of that cherry, vanilla goodness, you’d be hard-pressed to do better. I like it with banana liqueur but you can go the traditional route with a Coke (hold the lime this time) or add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a touch of extra-decadent gluttony.

By this point, you may have noticed that all of my choices are slightly-tweaked versions of what is regularly served but I’d rather have that than the same-old, same-old, especially when it’s cheaper.

50672I don’t buy much gin because I like Hendrick’s and I can’t afford to regularly stock that but when a party calls for some, I’ll generally go with Juniper Green Organic London Dry Gin.

The juniper and savory spices come to the fore but I also taste the coriander. It’s light character belies a complexity that rewards its use in a martini or even with the standard tonic.

Like Sailor Jerry, it’s very nearly breaking the cheap bank at $30 but all of the really good gins cost at least $12 more so you’re still saving a bit and at 86 proof, it outperforms the 94 proof Broker’s London Dry which is still not worth it at $6 less.

I’m not going to feature any liqueurs but suffice it to say that you should probably stock at least three; apple, melon and banana and just buy whatever’s cheapest. Midori was the only one of the lot that noticeably tasted better and it’s discontinued, more’s the pity, so follow the sale and you’ll be fine.

On to beer! If I’m cheap (and we are today!) I’ll buy Grolsch tallboys (currently a steal at $2.05) and if I’m near-broke, I’ll go for Bavaria Holland ($1.79 each for a $10.75 six-pack) or Tuborg’s Gold or Pilsner (both currently at $2.15 but quite often discounted).

If I’m looking for something a bit tastier, I might go for a Creemore (still decent at $2.60) or Dragon Stout ($1.81 each for a $10.90 six-pack)

31Last, but most certainly not least, I’m going to mention my house red, white and sparkling.  Currently, like most of Quebec, I’m in love with the Fuzion Shiraz/Malbec 2008 from Argentina.

It’s extremely well-balanced and versatile and can either be enjoyed on its own or with poultry, fish or pasta. I like how smooth and fruity it is and the tannins don’t rub me the wrong way either. Best part is, it’s only $7.45 so buy two and leave that Valpolicella on the shelf.

For my white, we head across the Pacific to New Zealand for the Monkey Bay 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. $14.95 buys you an intense fella with plenty of acid and structure. It’s less grassy and more fruity with a bit of citrus. I like it with chicken, pork and seafood.

If bubbles are what you crave, I recommend the Hungaria Grande Cuvée Brut. Dry and light, it’s everything a cheap sparkling wine should be and it’s way better than many more expensive bottles at a mere $11.95. It works well as a base for a Kir Royale or a Mimosa or can be enjoyed on its own as an apéritif.

And that, dear readers, is that. The entire bar can be had for under $200 or you can buy whichever bottles strike your fancy. You can rest easy knowing you’ll be getting the best, damn value for your coin this side of the border and you’ll be able to satisfy all of your party’s wants without hurting your wallet.