Tastings: Skip the tie and give your Dad a book and a bottle


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June 21 is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year and Father's Day. In our house it means a day devoted to pleasing Dad with favorite foods, loving attention and homemade gifts. No ties, socks, pajamas, fishing flies or golf gadgets allowed. But this year, I am going to cheat (or more precisely, break) the rule, and inaugurate a new alternative. This year Dad will get a book and a bottle along with foods and attention.

My biggest dilemma on the book will be choosing between two perfect candidates. The first is "99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink" by Kate Hopkins (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). The author is an ex-standup comedian and creator of "The Accidental Hedonist," a popular food blog. The book is an account of her travels in search of the perfect shot.

The second is "When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country" by Vivienne Sosnowski (Palgrave McMillan, $26.95). The author is a journalist, formerly the editorial director of the San Francisco Examiner. The book is a history of California wine-making families' battle to survive prohibition and their triumph against impossible odds.

"99 Drams of Whiskey" is an informal journal of Ms. Hopkins' travels through Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the United States in search of not only fine whiskey, but also the history of the drink and the people who make it.

The search was prompted by the report of a bottle of Dalmore 62 single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky being purchased at the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, England in 2005 for 32,000 pounds (U.S. $70,000). That bottle was one of only 12 in existence at that time. It was consumed by the buyer and his friends in the hotel's bar.

Wanting to understand what it was about whiskey that could instill that sort of passion, Ms. Hopkins set out to taste and learn about the drink. She began her education in Ireland, where records show whisky (as it's spelled there) being distilled since the early 1500s. (Both Ireland and Scotland claim to be the birthplace of whisky and it's likely that it developed at much the same time in both places.) As the author tours the distillers, she and the reader will learn about stills, blending, malt, peat, poteen, wash, wort, mash and grist. Her tasting notes for each bottle she tastes at different distilleries are extensive and her tasting vocabulary interesting:

"Bushmills 21-Year-Old Single Malt

"Nose: A choir of grapes, molasses, oak and a bit of pepper ...

"Taste: Smooth as silk ... flavors such as caramel, chocolate and raisins all play with each other nicely and the balance is sublime ...

"Finish: A long, pleasant finish that starts out like a spice cake topped with raisins...

"Character: This whiskey is Christmas and your birthday on the same day ..."

The study of whiskey continues to the U.S. and includes Pennsylvania as an important player in the history of American spirits production with the Whiskey Rebellion. What a surprise it was to discover that Pittsburgh is Ms. Hopkins' hometown. Although she now lives on the West Coast, she was born in New Kensington and is a graduate of Valley High School.

I was fascinated to learn that in the mid-1950s, Jack Daniel's produced 50,000 cases of the square bottle with the black label. This year they will hit 10 million cases! Safe to say, this is the world's most popular whiskey.

From the giant corporate spirit producers such as Hiram Walker, Diageo and Allied Domecq to the boutique Canadian distiller Forty Creek, Ms. Hopkins has tasted a lot of whiskey and met a slew of interesting characters in the process. "99 Drams" is a good read. I plan to add 50-milliliter bottles of Irish, Scotch, Canadian and American whiskey with the book so Dad can do his own tasting.

"When the Rivers Ran Red" gets its title from the scene of 140,000 gallons of red wine creating a flood of ruby waves as it flowed from the hillside storage tanks at the Fopiano vineyard to the Sonoma County valley below. This is the story of the Temperance movement and the impact of the 18th amendment on the winemaking families of Northern California and how they kept their industry alive for 14 difficult years of Prohibition.

Many European immigrants who came to California in the mid-19th century at the height of the Gold Rush settled in the state and became farmers. Most grew a few vines to make wine for their families. Some grew grapes on a larger scale and winemaking became especially popular with Italian immigrants. By 1887, a visiting New York Times reporter wrote that there were 133 wineries in Napa County and 108 in Sonoma, plus 100 stills for making brandy.

As the Temperance movement gained momentum, winemakers in California seemed unable to comprehend how it would affect their industry. They believed that wine was different from whiskey and beer and that America's drunkenness would cease if drinkers would switch from whiskey to wine. They continued to grow their grapes and make wine. The lucky ones got permits to make sacrificial or medicinal wine.

Others distilled their wines into spirits that were easier to store and didn't turn to vinegar and eventually could bring in a few dollars from bootleggers. But most eked out a living selling grapes to home winemakers across the United States. Under the terms of the 18th amendment, any household could make 200 gallons of wine per year for its own use. Because of a lack of refrigeration on the railroads, the transportation of enormous quantities of grapes was costly and the shipments frequently arrived spoiled. But those sales of grapes to home winemakers probably saved the California wine business.

Ms. Sosnowski's deeply researched story puts a human face on a tragic story. It is the story of the Seghesios, Foppianos, Nichelinis, Cuneos and other families who bravely soldiered on and saved California wines.

Along with this book, I will add a bottle of Beaulieu Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Beaulieu was well established pre-Prohibition and survived the dry years by making sacrificial wines. It is still turning out remarkable wines today.

Dad gets his share of loving attention all year but we'll pour on some extras on his special day.


Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com .


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