Spirited Gifting

During the holidays we all run around trying to find the perfect gift that fits the recipients personality and interests, and there becomes a point when becomes downright difficult to that perfect something. This dilemma is enough to drive us to drink—at least when it comes to spirited gift-giving. Be it a bottle of Scotch, a new cocktail book or fancy glassware, a spirited gift is certain to make the season merry and bright. Best of all, spirited gifts of the liquid kind are just the sort of present that the giftee is likely to share with the gifter, so when you think about it, it’s also a gift for yourself. After all, who doesn’t like to share a drink and good times?

With that in mind, here are a few of the drink-related gift ideas I plan on placing under the tree this year:

Beautiful Bubbles:
Champagne makes everything festive, bright and bubbly, it’s a party in a bottle. but  with the price of my favorite “real”  Champagnes soaring this season, I’m perfectly happy to enjoy sparkling wines that are a different sort of delicious and every bit as bubbly. Two of my favorite sparklers that are delightfuly different, fun, and get into the color of the holiday spirit by being red are from Australia.

When star Australian winemaker Chris Ringland (he’s actually from New Zealand, but works his magic in Australia) came up with Bitch wine made from 100% Grenache, he created quite a stir. Now he’s created yummy Bitch Bubbly, NV, a Grenache/Shiraz blend. Made in the methode champenoise style, the wine has aromas of ripe strawberries, cranberries, rose petals and rhubarb. The palate shows white chocolate, summer berries and a good creamy palate. This delightful pink is different, eye-catching and perfect for any celebration. About $11.

For another different celebratory drink, one of my favorites (and several friends’ favorite) is Paringa Sparkling Shiraz. It’s red, its sparkling, it’s rich and flavorful, and the the juice is pure Paringa Shiraz full of bubbles and a dosage. Yummy. It is gorgeous to look at because the color is a saturated, deep, magenta red. It’s dark, dark, dark, rich, and juicy – full of crisp raspberry and blueberry flavors and bubbles galore. It is surprisingly complex and stunning to drink with its velvety, creamy tannins, persistent length of palate and delightful full-flavored finish that even non-wine drinkers will enjoy. About $12.

Gifts with Cordiality
Sometimes the perfect cordial gift is a cordial, and this year there are a few new interesting and luxurious cordials that make a perfect gift.
For your Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur drinker, I suggest offering Coole SwanIrish Cream Liqueur.
Yes, we all know Baileys is the iconic brand of Irish creams, the original, and by far the best-seller: it’s actually the 7th best-selling spirit in the world. But Coole Swan is a cream liqueur like no other, one sip and we fell in love! Packaged in a premium frosted bottle accented with stunning blue labeling, Coole Swan™ uses fresh cream from Ireland’s richest dairylands. The cream is then blended with single malt Irish whiskey tempered with the softest charcoal-filtered spirit. The flavors comprise bittersweet notes of white and dark chocolate, delicate infusions of Madagascan vanilla and rich cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire. When you sip, you find the whiskey is bright and vibrant in the rich and chocolatey cream. This sublime liquid delicately coats the mouth with real cream and chocolate. It most definitely tastes a real and not a fake imitation of creamy goodness. Best served ice-cold in a frozen glass to enjoy all its wonderful complexity of flavors. Your Irish Cream drinker with love you for it. About $30

I’m not sure when I first became addicted to Lazzaroni Amaretti cookies, but I know that I’ve loved them for a long time. When I discovered this Lazzaroni Amaretto 1851 Liqueur in the matching packaging was the authentic Italian Amaretto  infusion for those same “Amaretti di Sarrono” cookies, I was excited. This amaretto has been made and bottled in Saronno, Italy since 1851. Warm and inviting, it’s always a joy to drink and conjures of memories of cold January nights in Venice, and skiing trips in the Alps. When you open a bottle, the immediate nose is one of caramel. This is soon followed scents of toasted almonds, a gorgeous, heady perfume that pleasantly lingers. The appearance of the amaretto is rich amber and slightly viscous, like a thin maple syrup. The taste is rich and silky, and like the nose, the opening flavor is of caramelized almonds, followed by a delicate sweetness and smooth texture of almonds. Sip it, savor it, and relax as the subtle nutty sweetness flows across your palate. Or, trying using it to spike a glass of coffee or hot chocolate. The results will knock your socks off. This would make a perfect gift when paired with a matching box of Amaretti di Saronno. (hint, hint). About $22

Okay, admit it, the curvaceous, seductive bottle of Castries Peanut Rum Crème is alluring. If you have already tasted Castries you know the allure. This is a divine, decadent and all around delicious cordial!  Castries Peanut Rum Crème brings the rich heritage, energy and sensual indulgence of St. Lucia to your mouth. Each sip is a taste extravaganza. Being Peanut Créme, it tastes like peanuts, but the balance of buttery-ness is supreme—it is wispy softness with delicate peanut flavor wrapped in silky cream. Mmmm, mmmm, definite hints of Madagascar vanilla blended with the St. Lucian rum lend toward an almost caramel feel. Castries Peanut Rum Crème’s luscious flavor transcends taste, escorting one to a place of indulgence, seduction and exotic pleasure. This would make a truly unique tantalizing and spirited gift. About $33

If you love ginger in any shape or form, you’ll find Domaine de Canton is an incredible libation.  Domaine de Canton is made in Jarnac, France, and is a French ginger liqueur comprised of an eau-de-vie, a VSOP and an XO Grande Champagne Cognac blend. The cognacs are produced using fresh Tahitian vanilla beans, Provençal honey and Tunisian ginseng. They even infuse fresh baby ginger twice with Grand Champagne VSOP Cognac, and cut this same ginger by hand, then blend it with vanilla and orange-blossom honey from Provence. If you love ginger as much as I do, you will delight in the  fresh, intense flavors, and interesting notes of orange, cognac, and the rich, yet clean, finishing sweetness. Canton can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or in a number of fine cocktails. This year there is the Domaine Canton Ginger Liqueur Gift Set: a frosted, almost art deco style, 375ml bottle packaged with two lovely little glasses to hold this beautiful elixer. This set would make a beautiful gift for the ginger (or sushi lover) on your list. About $20

A Gift of Good Cheer
Oh, bring them some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer in Figenza Fig Vodka. This is DEFINITELY one for the fig lover in your life. If you love figs or know someone who L-O-V-Es them, this will make the perfect gift bottle. Packaged in a beautiful tall, purple bottle this vodka is a deliciously fig-laden luxury born of the Mediterranean sun. Figenza is breathtakingly sweet, smooth and delicious— one sip and your heart will belong to this masterpiece of figgy goodness. It makes a beautiful gift idea decorated with a simple silver ribbon, or keep this super yummy delight it for yourself as your personal privilege. About $36

There’s a reason whisky is the national passion in cold, damp northern climes — nothing warms the heart and soul quite like it. Scotch lovers will enjoy the tastes and flavors of  Johnnie Walker The Collection. This gift set contains four 200ml bottles: One bottle each of Johnnie Walker Red Label – the world’s best selling whisky; Johnnie Walker Black Label – the original Walker whisky – aged 12 years; Johnnie Walker Gold Label – rich, creamy and complex – aged 18 years; and Johnnie Walker Blue Label – the ultimate scotch whisky – this bottle alone makes it worth the $99 price tag. This sampler allows for a sampling and taste comparison of four of the Johnnie Walker blends.

For your favorite single malt drinker, give the The Single Malt That Started It All: The Glenlivet. Encased in a metal tin with an engraved flask, this 12-Year-Old single Malt whiskey is known for its smooth and characterful qualities. There is the exquisite delicacy of summer-like fragrances,  interlaced with floral and fruity aromas. There is also the sensuous touch of exotic fruit, notably pineapple. It opens in time on creamier and richer notes of ripe apricots. Oak tenderly enhances that enticing bouquet with more vanilla and nutty notes and an echo of toasted oats. this is followed by smooth, sweet fruit notes of white peaches and pears poached in vanilla syrup. Those honeyed floral notes shine through, leaving a silky feel on the tongue, leading to a  finish full of Marzipan and fresh hazelnuts followed by a gentle spiciness of grated ginger. Around $49. A glass of this in front of a warm and cozy fire, how can you resist?

Have the merriest — and most spirited — of holidays!

Seven is the Magic Number for this Feast

While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate the Christmas Eve meal with various meats, for Italian families, the dinner is all about the fish – seven fishes to be exact. The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci) is a celebration and commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus, and it is one of Italy’s most famous traditions. In Italian, the meal is known as La Vigilia (the vigil) or Vigilia di Natale.
Apparently, The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” started in  southern Italy and/or the island of Sicily, where the tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence—in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products—on Fridays and specific holy days like Christmas Eve. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would eat fish, typically fried in oil.
For many Italians, and those of Italian descent, the delight of gathering around a bountiful, beautifully laid table, the thrill of indulging in unforgettable regional dishes, and the convivial holiday atmosphere are enough to inspire anyone who loves a celebration or a good feast.
Although the dinner is traditionally celebrated with seven types of fish and seafood,  there may be eight, or even thirteen specific fishes that are considered traditional.
No one is certain about the significance for servng seven fishes, and I found several explanations for the significance of 7. In many societies the number 7 is a Magic Number and is considered a number for perfection. The theory being that the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ. Another explanation states it took God seven days to create the world, hence seven fishes. Some Romans claim it represented the Seven Hills of Rome. Then there was the theory that the seven fishes symbolize the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, along with the seven sins.  Whatever the true explanation, the basic number is always seven and that remains the starting point.
For La Vigilia, there are no requirements as to which types of fish are served. In Italy, eel is regarded as a delicacy and is often, along with  capon and turkey, the few non-fishes on the table.
Popular fishes that are eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, oysters, scallops, whiting, smelts, squid, conch, mussels, anchovies, sardines, clams, and shrimp. The most famous dish is southern Italy’s Baccalà (salted cod fish). The meal usually begins with antipasto, the Italian equivalent of hors d´oeuvres. This can include a variety of cold foods such as cheeses and raw or marinated vegetables, baked or fried kale patties, baked goods, and homemade wine.
In southern towns  La Vigilia Napoletana celebrations include “drowned broccoli rabe” (also known as Christmas Broccoli), a choice of vermicelli with either garlic and olive oil, anchovies, or clams, roasted or fried eel, followed by other fish dishes of your choosing, and a caponata di pesce (fish salad) to wrap up the dinner portion of the meal. Of course that doesn’t mean lobsters, crawfish, tuna, snapper, sea trout, salmon, aren’t included — it depends on family tradition. Somehow, capon and turkey (my family’s traditional Christmas bird) is included on the menu—chicken of the sea?—probably for the non-fish eating members of the family.
Traditional sweets (i dolci) are also important items for the Menù di Natale (Christmas menu) in Italy. These desserts include: struffoli (Neapolitan honey pastry); cenci (fried pastry ribbons sprinkled with powered sugar); dried figs, candied almonds, chestnuts, and marzipan fruits and vegetables.
Okay enough about the food, what about the wine? With all these dishes what wines do you serve?
Well, everyone knows Italian pinot grigio and Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio is a delicious place to start. This light yellow almost sandy-colored wine has the typical intense nose of pear and candied fruit. Extended lees ageing gives softness and roundness to the fresh palate. The noticable acid and phenolic finish provide impeccable balance and plenty of character emphasizing the dry, full-bodied taste and round finish. Tiefenbrunner makes a good companion to appetizers, asparagus, kale, seafood, poultry, pork or veal.
Want something different? Try Terredora Dipaolo Greco Di Tufo. This white from Campania has an interesting nose, offering ripe citrus fruits and hints of apricot, apple, and peach with a light, spicy mineral edge. It is full-bodied, soft,with balanced acidity carrying the fruity flavors through to a long, intense finish.  It is ideal with hors d’oeuvres, shellfish, grilled fish dishes, salmon and tuna, buffalo mozzarella, chicken and cold meat.
For a delightful blend of four Italian varietals: 50% Grechetto, 30% Procanico, 10% Verdello and 10% Canaiolo bianco, try Ruffino Orvieto Classico. This straw-colored white wine is fresh, crisp, and delicately fragrant with flowery notes of meadow and clover accompanied by fruity hints of green apples and a slightly nutty aroma. It is dry, crisp, and fresh, with earthy flavors and a suggestion of pear, fading to a crisp and balanced finish. Orvieto is excellent for antipasti, soups, flounder carpaccio, scallops,  seafood, and white meats. Serve it chilled rather than ice cold, to allow its subtle flavors to blossom.
Another classic is Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico. The funny-shaped bottle was created  in 1953 for Fazi Battaglia by the architect Angonio Maiocchi. This Verdicchio is a bright medium-straw color with brisk scents of Granny Smith apples, nearly ripe pears and hazelnuts with a few petroleum aromas reminiscent of German Riesling. The freshness carries over to the palate–with excellent acidity to match up with a pasta sauce, spinach, lemon and garlic. Perfect for stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, deep fried calamari, linguine with clam or lobster sauce, cod fish balls in tomato sauce or kale patties.
Soave Wine is one of Italy’s old time favorites, and Si Soave Italia 2008 should become a classic tradition. Lively, fresh, and smooth, this is ideal for nearly any occasion. Similar in style to a Pinot Grigio, Soave has less of an acidic kick and comes off smoother with flavors of apple, citrus and tropical fruit.  Made mostly with Garganega and rounded out with some Trebbiano, Si Soave is ideal for Octopus or Scungilli salads, salmon and tuna dishes. Drink liberally with an arrugula salad, Italian salumi or even a thin crust margarita pizza!

For oysters and oyster shooters, I heartily recommend my all-time favorite, Domaine du Baumard Clos du Papillion Savennieres. Yes, it is French from the Loire but—the beautiful minerality and citrusy flavors make it deliciously delectable with shellfish. It is a little pricey, but for shellfish and crustaeceans, it’s well worth the price.

Okay, you’re not a white wine drinker, what sort of reds will work with this feast?

My all-time goes-with-everything Italian red is Cantele Salice Salentino Reserva. This red wine is from Puglia, in Southern Italy, and is a blend of 85% Negroamaro and 15% Malvasia Nera. The color is ruby red with dark glints of garnet. This wine is medium-bodied withbeautiful aromas of dark cherries, black tea and spice. This luscious wine explodes with fresh acidity that is keenly balanced by well-developed tannins and flavors of fresh dark berries and caramelized plums and hints of cedar. This wine pairs well with any aged cheese or any dish with tomato sauce, eggplant, kale, spicy peppers and capers! Perfect for pasta and meat sauce, as well as a goat stew and any red meat dish. This red is ready to drink immediately or will keep for 3-4 years It is an excellent quality “spaghetti wine”!

For something a little more classic, Rocca delle Macie’s Chianti Classico fits the bill.  This bright ruby-red Chianti is a blend of  blend of 90% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo and 5% Merlot. There are mature cherry and berry fruit aromas. The flavors are rich and well-balanced with ripe berry fruit. This red is a perfect compliment to a wide range of entrées including beef, chicken, drowned broccoli, kale, eggplant, and pasta in flavorful sauces.

Another Italian favorite is Zenato Valpolicella Classico.  A blend of 80% Corvina, 10% Rondinella and 10% Sangiovese from the Valpolicella Classico area, this ruby-red wine delivers super clean aromas and flavors of blackberry, with a hint of licorice. This red is medium-bodied with a crisp palate and a fresh, fruity finish. It’s dry and robust on the palate with an excellent, velvety texture, offering fleshy aromas of wild berries, currant, black cherry and spice, framed by intriguing hints of chocolate. A perfect wine to pair with stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, stuffed-baked lobsters, deep fried fish/shrimp/scallops, linguine with clam or lobster sauce.

Here’s a hint to try for the salty Baccalà and anchovies that you may not have tried before: Fino sherry. It is a beautiful combination.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that has existed since ancient times, and one which will surely continue. Life changes, but for Italian people throughout the world, this is one tradition whose religious and cultural significance outweighs everything else. Have a merrry!!!