Artisanal and Intoxicating: Tasting Features Craft, Small-Batch Spirits

October 22, 2012 by Sean  
Filed under Inspired Posts, Ivy F. Kupec, Wine People

There was a boozy time in our history when business deals were settled over Scotch on the rocks or the driest of martinis. The TV show, Mad Men harkens back to those simpler days and simpler tastes. But today, folks aren’t drinking their parents’ cocktails, or at least they aren’t drinking them with mainstream liquor.

These days, as much as beer and wine come from around the world and around the block, so too are spirits.  Craft, small-batch spirits are rising to meet our developing tastebuds in much the same way that craft brewers have blossomed, and one can find family wineries in places like Texas and New Jersey.

So, who better to educate us about those small-batch spirits than Christophe Bakunas, spirits portfolio manager at Cream Wine, one of Hinsdale Cellars’ favorite importers and distributors of fine wine, craft spirits and Ginjo Sake?

“The martini revolution is over,” Bakunas said during a quick phone interview recently. “Sure vodka is still extremely popular, but the cocktail scene over the past five to eight years has changed where bartenders and mixologists are looking for fresh ideas.”

Bakunas will be at Hinsdale Cellars on Thursday, Oct. 25, 6-8 p.m. for Cocktail Night, teaching folks four signature cocktails that are made even better by using craft, small-batch spirits.

The difference between craft spirits versus those that are more industrial is huge,” he said, using as an example of the fjord-like difference Grandmas’ homemade cupcakes versus Little Debbie’s. “Your grandma makes her cupcakes in small quantities with time and attention that make them righteously good – much like the craft distillers. Conversely, larger distilleries must resort to refining processes that diminish their potential for flavor to keep their products consistent and fresh.”

According to Bakunas, after prohibition the laws were written for large-scale beer and spirits production that not only homogenized brands and flavors but also destroyed, in essence, three generations of distillers and two generations of craft brewers. “We went through a period in American beer, wine and spirits history from 1920 until 1979 when home and small beer production was essentially prohibited, losing multi-generational knowledge and lore of brewing. And from 1920 till 2000 craft distilling was nonexistent.” Bakunas said. Fortunately the last decade has seen an increase in federal permits to distill from 24 in 2000 to more than 240 small distiller permits as of today.

But today, these industries sit on a new frontier where consumers not only appreciate creative expression, they actually will buy enough to make artisan liquor production sustainable. “The American palate is changing, and just like with micro brews or visiting the local winery or buying local produce at the farmer’s market, craft distillers tie one human to another. It’s business, but the personal connection adds to what makes it special, too,” Bakunas said. “The coolest thing is that it resonates.”

And when it comes to making the perfect cocktail, his philosophy is quite simple: quality ingredients and balance.

“Coming from the wine side of things, we are always talking about balance,” Bakunas said. “For cocktails, there are three essential elements: the sugar, the alcohol and the acidity. So, as I look at cocktail recipes, it’s a matter of not overwhelming the drink with alcohol and balancing the sweet and sour, so to speak. Finding a harmony amongst these three elements leads to perfection.”

Bakunas will introduce some artisanal gin, bourbon, tequila and rum, while also teaching some tricks of the trade in making the perfectly balanced libation for your next gathering.  Space is extremely limited for this tasting, so RSVP ASAP to attend by e-mailing or calling 630-654-9862.


Vive La France!

July 10, 2012 by Sean  
Filed under Destinations, Inspired Posts, Ivy F. Kupec

I live in Europe, and at this time of year, when I see flags of red, white and blue flying, it is more likely an indication of France’s celebration of independence than the U.S.  And as a wine lover, I really can’t complain. As much as I love my American homeland, I never tire of the endless opportunities afforded to me, living in central Europe, and I must admit I really do love visiting France.

Within 90 minutes, I can be in the verdant Alsatian vineyards that produce aromatic Gewurztraminer and Riesling.  And over spring break, I was equally impressed that within hours, our family was boarding our own personal canal boat in Burgundy where we moseyed along the Canal du Nivernais much like when lush Burgundy wines slowly made their way up this very same canal to be sold in Paris.

I first read about the many canals through France several years ago in a book titled A Year Off.  David Elliott Cohen’s family had sold all their belongings to travel the world, and for at least a month of that time, they chose to live on a French canal boat lazily floating along the gentle waters there during the day to then tie up the boat each night and venture into villages for locally produced sausages, cheeses, breads and produce, absorbing every bit of the local color and culture.  It sounded idyllic, and I could easily picture their jaunty bicycle rides into town, foraging for the wine and supplies for that night’s meal.

So when I learned that my own family plus most of my best friend’s family could enjoy that same sort of experience, we jumped at the chance to rent a boat that easily housed eight.  We too could spend our own few lazy days in the Burgundy region near Chablis, moving between Migennes and Auxerre.

A pastoral beginning

It was in our starting city of Migennes that we had our first real meal of the excursion. The car ride to Migennes, the grocery shopping to ensure our kitchens were well-stocked, the lesson in how to operate the boat and manage it at the many locks we were to encounter, and just loading bikes, clothes, the dog and kids onto the boat ended up taking far longer than we expected.  We didn’t depart the dock until right before the lock operator was about to close for the day.  And once through our first lock, we soon saw the restaurant the lock operator had recommended, so we stopped for dinner and discovered that this lesser-traveled part of Burgundy had many new wines to share.

It was in this cozy little bistro that we got our first sip of Pinot Noir from a little village, Irancy.  It was nearby and we would be there in a day or so, so how could we resist this funny named wine on the menu?  Our curiosity was rewarded, and we became even more determined to explore Irancy further in our canal voyage.

Locks, locks everywhere

The downside of a canal trip is that as soon as one settles in, enjoying the lull of birdsong, the smell of fresh flowers in passing gardens, and the sun’s warm rays on your face, you hear someone say, “Lock up ahead!” Most everyone on the boat gets up to go to their assigned ropes and help tie up the boat for the raising and lowering of canal water that is necessary to move boats along.  Sometimes, we would encounter wonderful treats such as a lock operator who sold a friend’s locally produced wine or a park that was too inviting not to stop.  Other times, we would meet up with a bit of misadventure, such as when our loyal dog jumped into the water just as the lock was about to close.  A few shouts later to direct her to swim to shore and she was soon wagging her wet, stinky tail again next to her master and waiting to get back on the boat with him.


We had high expectations when we got near Irancy because of that wine on the first night, so we moored in Vincelottes, meandering through its own fest and flea market that day, and planning on riding our bikes the few kilometers to Irancy the next morning.  My husband and I had thought we were so smart in buying inexpensive folding bikes prior to the trip only to find out that five-gear bikes really rode as if they had but one gear, making a 45-minute uphill ride into Irancy feel quite endless.  Thankfully, even in a bit of a drizzle, the ride still seemed scenic, and we were rewarded, tasting an interesting assortment of red, white and rosé wines and clearly with unique flavors to this part of Burgundy.  Accustomed to boaters like ourselves, the winemakers quickly offered to drive our newly purchased cases of wine to our temporary boat “homes,” so we were lucky that our bike ride back was downhill and we could still get there quickly enough to meet them in time for the delivery.

Rustic enjoyment

Because our canal trip occurred in the cooler days of spring, we yearned for a little more heat than one might in the summer, so it seemed like the perfect conclusion to our vacation on our last night to dock in a more remote area where we had noticed an established fire ring, perfect for a campfire.  One son had foolishly tried to startle the dog on our boat earlier in the day and was quite eager to dry his wet clothes there, from falling into the mucky canal water himself.  We were just as happy to grill delicious French sausages and eat my friend’s potato gratin known as Jansson’s Temptation, as we sipped seemingly perfect Chablis and listened to our sons’ varying guitar music.

Overall, our canal trip showed a picturesque part of France that felt far less touristy than a trip to Paris or Provence. The boats, at their fastest, traveled slowly enough our boys could ride bikes on the path alongside it and beat us to the next lock, but that seemed just fine in these circumstances.  From the heady Pinot Noir that we drank with our Marguez sausage-laden couscous to the games of Risk and charades, it all felt like a wholesome retreat from electronics and our normally hectic lives to times gone by and an appreciation for all that is good in life and perhaps…all that was and is so very French.

– Ivy F. Kupec


Old vs. New: February red cuvées offer taste of both

February 2, 2012 by Sean  
Filed under Inspired Posts, Ivy F. Kupec, Monthly newsletter

It’s really an age-old debate. Tradition versus new-fangled modernity. Wisdom versus edgy smarts. Subtle charm versus unrestrained boldness. And, in this case, we’re talking about wine, not some family-owned business that falls into the hands of the youthful upstart. Wine critics will rave about “Old World” balance of one wine, and then turn around to compliment another wine’s immediately drinkable  “New World” rambunctious-ness. They generalize that wines from France, Italy and other European environs possess “Old World” characteristics of subtlety and elegance and New World wines (from everywhere else) come with lusciousness, lower acidity and higher alcohol levels. Who’s to say if these generalizations hold true or which style is even better?  You are!  This month, members of Hinsdale’s Inspired Wine Club are offered a treat of two red wine blends that should showcase the two styles: the Syrah-dominating French blend versus the California Central Coast red blend with only 2% Syrah. Surprisingly, they make for fair competitors and perhaps turn those generalizations upside down, but if you’re like those of us here in Hinsdale Cellars, you’ll find them both to be winners.

Pi’nouf 2009 Languedoc Red, Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Pronounced “peee –nooof,” here is an excellent representative of wines from a part of France considered to be the world’s single biggest wine region, making more wine than the entire United States and “on some of the world’s oldest soils.” Though “Old World” wines are prized for their delicate nature, this Languedoc-Roussillon specimen may throw you off a bit. Even its name translates as “bold, rich, persistent,” and its rich, fleshy Syrah plays heavily in that brashness. With 65% Syrah, 25% Grenache, and 10% Carignan, Pi’nouf presents as regal cherry red with purple sheen. It is deeply fruity with a lushness that evokes bittersweet chocolate-covered cherries with smoky vanilla notes. As the winemaker notes, “the palate is medium-to-full-bodied with a long, lingering finish and enough supple tannins to give some classic ‘grip.’” Watch this wine pair perfectly with your heartiest fare or alongside a potent collection of after-dinner cheeses.

Bonny Doon Vineyard 2009 “Contra,” Central Coast, California

Ironically described as a red Rhone blend, this mix of 55% Carignan, 15% Grenache, 14% Mourvedre, 7% Petite Sirah, 5% Zinfandel, and 2% Syrah is grown and produced nowhere near the Rhone River. Though considered a “New World” wine, it comes mostly from “old-fangled” grape varieties and from mostly older vineyards, even if they are in Contra Costa County. It is gorgeously rustic with a nose of cherry, licorice, cassis and blackberry. On the palate, it holds a bright acidity with silky tannins. The winemaker describes “Contra” as having important contrasts of “luscious, opulent fruitiness” with a certain degree of austerity, concluding it’s got the “yin and yang of soft and hard, of fruit and earth….” The Wine Advocate described it as “stunning.” The San Francisco Chronicle included it among its top 100 wines for 2010. We think it marries as well with a hearty Provencal stew as it does with a medium-rare grilled Black Angus ribeye.


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