Is it happy hour yet?
This is always the most challenging category to narrow down. In essence, this conveys the sterling sips of cocktails, wines, beers, spirits, and coffee-based drinks I had the good fortune to sample. But really, how can you really compare an espresso to a Kyoto-style iced coffee, let alone that espresso to a South African Chenin Blanc? We must take our artistic liberties and run/drink with it.
2013 was certainly the year that wine took center stage in my life, joining the editorial staff of Vino 24/7. At the same time, cocktails were vastly improved in every city I visited and even yours truly has become quite the mixologist at home (that word is “so 2010.”). Craft beer and new distilleries? They didn’t fade at all. It’s just the others really emerged.
Coffee really had its year (see end of year trends later this week) . My daily espresso (or two depending on what city I’m visiting) improved exponentially, including my local café that roasts its own beans and serves them inside a running store (hint hint on the winner for this year’s best espresso winner). If it seems like I’m usually buzzed or very hyper, or both, well…hopefully not, as I do keep that under control! But when we drink, we drink well. Very well. 2014 has stiff competition for a repeat performance.
13. Surly Brewing Co., Furious IPA
2013 was the year that ultra-hoppy Double, Triple, and Imperial IPAs stepped aside to single hops or more restrained use of hops in the IPA genre. It was really the year of deep, dark, barrel-aged, sour, funky, experimental brews. More on that later. Back to the IPA’s, Surly’s Furious sent me into that hop-aided reverie that only the purest, cleanest, most powerful IPA’s can achieve. It’s the beer that has ignited quite the mighty brew scene along the mighty Mississippi in Minneapolis. Now let’s work on getting Surly in California for a dual with its closest competition, Pliny the Elder.
12. Mexican Mocha, Zumbar Coffee, San Diego
As excellent as Zumbar’s (a roaster and café amidst high tech companies along I-5 in no-man’s land Sorrento Valley) Hummingbird Espresso was alone as a shot, here was the pinnacle of mixing espresso, chocolate, milk, and spice. A little cinnamon here, a little cayenne there, and the espresso doesn’t get lost amidst all the additional elements. It’s not too sweet. It’s not too weak. It’s not too milky. The baristas got this just right. And boy did it hit the spot on a sunny Southern California morning. An absolute top notch coffee drink.
Of all the stiff spirit-forward cocktails inside The Office and the many circus tent-ice breaking sling shot- porthole- lavender air extravaganzas upstairs at The Aviary (my favorite was “The Avenue” with passion fruit sorbet, grenadine, Calvados, and Bourbon), the winning drinks sounds like the offspring of a “Dark and Stormy” with a sushi dish. It is truly marvelous from the searing notes of wasabi and the bracing ginger, soothed by the rich dark rum, and rounded out by the cool wind blast of mint. The bonito (fish eggs) adds just enough of a salty umami quirk to raise eyebrows. You don’t just create this at home. Please don’t try putting bonito in a cocktail at home.
A superb expression of Sicily from the maestro Alberto Graci. Unlike many Sicilian wines, this Etna Rosso was thoroughly poised and didn’t lean heavily on a fruit-forward palate. Not that I’ve eaten much volcanic ash in my life, but I could really sense it. The bushes from the slopes, salty olives, and sage brush all came through, mixed with very mature stone fruit. This very balanced, poised trait of the wine might come from not being fined or filtrated. This is straight up Sicily, presented as a rugged and fragrant terroir at its uncovered best.
9. A Banana Tie between: The Banana Justino, Booker & Dax, New York and The Vintage Photo, Trick Dog, San Francisco
Was this the year of the banana drink? I guess. Both of these magnificent echoes of the Caribbean from two of the country’s most beloved innovative cocktail bars will win over any drinker, whether you prefer stiff or soft, sweet or sour. Both take the bananas foster’s banana-maple-rum profile and take it where nobody has ventured before inside a tumbler.
Booker & Dax’s chemistry approach makes this not simply Rum and bananas. The two are “blended with the enzymes chitosan and kieselsol, and spun in a centrifuge at thousands of times the force of gravity.” Yes, way beond simple me. Trick Dog’s creation includes their own banana cordial, their own West Indies cordial (think allspice, cinnamon, clove…), Flor de Caña 7 Year Rum, and assorted bitters. No enzymes and centrifuges here. Both ended far too quickly, like a great tropical vacation.
8. Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Parabola Russian Imperial Stout, Paso Robles, CA
I had the privilege of sampling our beer of the year for the first time when a close friend and far more advanced beer expert than yours truly (he really should be a cicerone) bought this as a gift for a major event in his life. As in, this was a big, big deal beer for a big, big deal celebration. Elegant, smooth, and with more than enough Bourbon, vanilla, and dark cacao notes, this was no doubt the blockbuster that lives up to the hype. But nothing is out of place. Every edge is refined. I’ve had mixed experiences with Firestone Walker (usually good, rarely great). This was as fine as I believe beer can be.
My first visit (of a few) this year to one of the nation’s most consistently excellent cocktail bars started with “Mezcal” as the instruction. A few minutes later arrived the gorgeous “Saladito.” Former Varnish bartender Marcus Tello invented the drink to honor a favorite spicy childhood candy of his in Mexico. Honey syrup mixes effortlessly with bracing Mezcal, then a little lime juice and salt is added before being shaken, and served up in a chilled coupe. The final alluring garnish of powdered paprika gives the jolt to lift everything another smoky, seductive level. The frothy layer atop of the drink makes you swear that there must be egg white involved and dry shaking à la Pisco Sour. You’re wrong. It’s just what long, relentless shaking with the honey syrup yields for a consistency. It’s not a classic cocktail like what so much of The Varnish’s repertoire is. It will be soon enough. An absolute classic of sweet, smoky, spicy, and salty.
6. Single Origin Espresso (Stumptown Roasters) from Maglia Rosa, Portland, OR
The premier espresso of the year just so happened to be…the first I had of the year. Talk about high standards. Everything clicked from the intense cherry nose to the exact right crema to the blissful tasting notes. Maglia Rosa’s espresso with Stumptown single origin beans is everything an espresso shot should be. It’s heavily layered, starting with sage and cinnamon, moving to a bitter cacao nib, and finishing with hot buttered rum. Sparking water palate cleanser along side? You bet. And this was served inside a bike shop in Portland. How Portland, yet how 2013 in general.
There were hundreds of other contenders for this led by the single origin Yirgacheffe Ethiopian from Bow Truss in Chicago’s River North, another single origin from Ethiopia at Minneapolis’ Dogwood Roasters, the wonderful espressos being pulled at the Australian import Toby’s Estate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (who needs flat whites?), and of all places, the LAMILL café inside the Four Seasons Baltimore. I’m not kidding on the latter. It’s stellar, especially with their excellent chocolate chip-sea salt cookies.
Then again, I could just say Four Barrel and Sightglass right here in San Francisco provided the best of the year regularly. That would be boring, even if it’s slightly true. I do know my last espresso of this excellent year will be at a meeting at Sightglass New Years’ Eve. But for the best…you have to go buy a bike.
5. 2011 Donkey & Goat, Grenache Blanc, El Dorado, CA
Like with the twang of Belgian beers or the bitterness of a Negroni for cocktails, Grenache Blanc is an acquired taste. It’s very polarizing. There’s no middle ground. This beloved Berkeley urban winery has interpreted this complex grape with extraordinary results of titanium strong texture and plush lychee and kiwi, shining through an almost golden-gray hue. This is no doubt one of the most influential wines being produced right now. It’s one of the most powerful narratives spoken by a wine I’ve ever dealt with. A real barn-burner.
4. Global Warming, Maven, San Francisco
Every element at first seemed like it should be as wrong as global warming itself. Riesling? Sake? Lemon? Aged Gin? Absinthe? Absinthe as a sorbet? Sorbet in a cocktail? Literally, everything I try to avoid in a cocktail, almost like a greatest hits list of components I’ve noticed that de-rail otherwise great drinks. Shame on me for ever doubting Kate Bolton and her staff at this Lower Haight stalwart. Drinks that evolve over time (like with the portholes made famous at The Aviary in Chicago) deserve extra applause. And so do drinks that make wise use of sorbet or ice cream. The first gin and sake rich sip was gorgeous. As the Absinthe sorbet melted, the drink’s weather improved even more. Citrus meets mint meets fennel meets ice meets juniper meets almost everything. This cocktail should represent San Francisco, not Irish Coffee. I guess I’m more of a fan of global warming than driving a Prius.
Our white wine of the year is also the Riesling I’ve been searching for years to find and be my Riesling epiphany. It had to happen at Terroir, the home of the original “Summer of Riesling” of all places. “Trocken” might mean “dry,” but this was an example of crispness balanced with ripe fruit. A few mineral notes helped the wine veer towards the typical slate dry direction, but it was much more vibrant than being merely dry. This was a wine with punch. Amontillado Sherry even came to mind from the well-rounded sweet nuttiness. An all-around magnificent wine worthy of the highest praise.
Our red wine of the year and wine of the year comes from the brilliant 41 year old Matthew Rorick, giving invigorating hope to unheralded and often forgotten grapes with his four year old California label. I was boring last year choosing (a sensational) Oregon Pinot Noir as the wine of the year. Alvarelhao is a Portuguese grape, demonstrating a flexible, lighter Rhône style character. It’s also known by its Spanish name, Brancellao. Forlorn Hope’s expression of the varietal is one of speckled pepper and juniper initially, an opening that smacks you with the fact that this is a vibrant wine. It’s Mick Jagger energy, not a symphony tonight. The glowing raspberry hued body, slightly lighter universally than its similar colleagues, leads to a carbonated mouth feel that expresses similar plum jam, chipotle, and even anise notes of Cabernet Franc, without the hefty tannins and puckery finish. The carbonation comes from the fact that all Forlorn Hope red wines are stood up on their heads when in barrels aging, then have their tops popped off for fermentation. The conclusion here is smooth, almost sweet like a Port without the syrupy consistency. It’s a bizarre, comforting finish after the jazzy beginning. Talk about a wine with an arc of sensations. I enjoyed this twice in restaurants, both in L.A. Both restaurants were studs. The Alvarelhao was the real gem to leave with, though. This is where wine-making is going in California for 2014. Be excited.
The year’s marquee bar opening in San Francisco just so happened to also present the year’s best cocktail and winner of the best sip in 2013. Yeah, I’m a sucker for beet cocktails. Who isn’t? As regal as the most precise Old-Fashioned and fresh as a San Francisco morning coast when the fog lifts, the “Pantone 7621″ is the result of meticulous balance, a serious encyclopedic knowledge of flavor profiles, and sheer artistic creativity. The alluring jasmine color is not in your face violet like you’d imagine. Raise your hand if you have heard of Kummel? It turns out the caraway seed flavored Scandinavian liqueur is the perfect foil to the sharpness of Four Roses Bourbon, the sweet heat of ginger syrup, and that beloved earthy funk of beet juice. You can end all beet juice-detox comments now. The drink doesn’t taste like beet juice or borscht. It’s startling how everything tames the other. Yet the key, the catch as every spectacular cocktail needs to go to the highest possible level, is that Combier Kummel sliding in as a daring climactic note. What a trick to know. Sadly the Panetone 7621 departed in summer with the original panetone menu. ‘Tis a memory that will always be the peak of drinking in 2013. Cheers to 2014!