New vodka, more tequila

New Russian Vodka Arrives -- If you see one more vodka added to the bevy of bottles at your favorite liquor store, it might well be a new Russian import called Imperia. It is Russia's leading domestic seller that is going global. Suggested retail price for the 750ml bottle is $35, and will be available at various locations in New York, California, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and Nevada, with additional geographic distribution planned in the coming weeks, according to Shaw-Ross Importers International. Imperia is a winter wheat-based vodka, filtered four times.

Labor Unrest? -- We're not sure if this means workers at the Wyborowa vodka distillery in Poland are unhappy that beverage giant Pernod Ricard now owns their company after swallowing up Allied Domecq. But, whatever the reason, a group of Wyborowa workers has offered to buy the brand from the company. Chances of that happening are slim, but it could signal consumers to keep a wary eye out for anything that will affect the quality of the vodka.

Where's My Scotch? -- If you see spot shortages in the availablity of Glenmorangie scotch whisky, it's because it has changed its American distributorship. LVMH, which acquired Glenmorangie earlier this year, will begin marketing its flagship single malt brand in the U.S. through its Mo√ęt-Hennessy USA subsidiary. Brown-Forman had been handling distribution in the U.S., Canada, Europe and parts of Asia.

High In the Sky -- If you're planning a first-class trip on Virgin Atlantic Airways you can forget about fumbling with those mini-bottles the airline flight attendants sell. Virgin has partnered with the Bombay Sapphire gin people to create what may well be the first on-board cocktail bar. Passengers will be able to choose from a variety of drinks created by a Bombay-uniformed bartender for in-seat delivery or consumption at the bar. If the experiment goes well, the service will be added to other flights.

Tequila Sunrise -- Concern over the health of the blue agave plant in Mexico has been allayed somewhat by industry reports that the amount of tequila produced from the flower is at an all-time high and the crop no longer shows signs of over-harvesting. The blue agave, of the lily family, is grown for eight years and harvested only once, so tequila makers don't get many chances to get it right. In line with that news, consumers may consider, guilt-free, checking out the new portfolio of 1800 Tequila labels. The company, which has the No. 1 selling super-premium tequila, is offering the new 1800 Silver along with successful 1800 Reposado and 1800 Anejo. The 1800 brands come from blue agave grown in the volcanic soil of the Mexican highlands.

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Handicapping a Bourbon Derby

PHOTO BY WILLIAM M. DOWD (double-click to expand images)

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY -- There they stood, a half-dozen strong, the photographer's lights glinting off their sturdy necks, all eyes upon them as they prepared to battle to the last drop in their very beings.

The true aficionados in the crowd evaluated the contestants as though they were prize yearlings at one of the horse sales in this famed racing town: "A slow starter but a powerful finisher." "Lingered a little too long." "Could be a winner for some."

The venue was 9 Maple Avenue, a cozy tavern in this horsey-set little city where owner-barkeep Mike Sirianni stocks 120 scotches, 28 bourbons, dozens of vodkas and on and on. An old-fashioned brick pub with modern spirit sensibilities.

The occasion: a private tasting session of six top-end specialty bourbons.

The resurgence of "brown whiskeys," an offshoot of the rebirth of the cocktail hour that started a few years ago with new martini bars and a run on collectible barware, was the impetus for the tasting. No sense limiting such things to wines, coffees, teas and chili. The bourbon industry -- the Jim Beams, Wild Turkeys and Maker's Marks of the world -- has put on a global full-court press, scooping up medals in spirited tasting competitions, making themselves available in markets that had only heard rumors of this bold, smooth American liquor but had never had access to it.

Our panel of tasters met to try six labels on the upper end of the price and craft scale: $3.50 to $11.50 a shot. Each was rated on a scale of one to five points for color, clarity, aroma, smoothness and aftertaste.

The five judges' tasting process was straightforward. The entries were poured and sampled one at a time with or without water, beginning with the lightest -- Basil Hayden (80 proof, 8 years old) -- and ending with the powerful Booker's (120.5 proof, 7 years, 10 months old). Both are from Jim Beam Brands. In between were Hancock's President's Reserve (88.9 proof, age 5 years plus) from the Ancient Age distillery; Woodford Reserve (90.4 proof, age 5 years plus) from Labrot & Graham; Elijah Craig (90 proof, 18 years old), and Pappy Vin Winkle's (90.4 proof, 20 years old).

The results, bearing in mind that individual chemistry and preferences can easily cause the same whiskey to be viewed in widely divergent ways:

Basil Hayden: This was a nice starter. Mild enough not to deaden the palate for the later samplings. It's one of the popular Jim Beam Brands "small batch bourbons" and a good starting point for those people curious about bourbons but under the misapprehension that one sip will knock you head-over-teakettle. It's a light, clear distillation with slightly citrus overtones, a pale amber look and mild aroma.

Hancock's: This single-barrel whiskey (which means it is not a blend of several barrels) has a somewhat sweet taste, making it perfect for mixed drinks. One taster said it had "almost a clove taste," another that it was "a tad strong and sour." It got its highest marks for color and aroma.

Woodford Reserve: Here we began nudging above the 90-proof brands. This one attacked the palate with its not-unpleasant hints of leather and tobacco. "Too much going on!" said one judge. However, "That is beautiful," said another while holding his glass up to the light. Two sips later he compared the taste to that of diet soda. Several found the aroma flat after the initial leather/tobacco experience, but two others liked the lingering finish. Everyone loved the look of it and the mellow aftertaste.

Elijah Craig: Here we were into the 18-year-old stuff, although still at around 90 proof. "It's amazing what age does to a bourbon," remarked one judge. "Great when sipped slowly," said another. Most thought the aroma complex with many diverse scents -- vanilla, caramel, spice. Finished on top of the field in three categories: clarity, aroma and smoothness.

Pappy Van Winkle's: This 90-proof 20-year-old was much touted by our barkeep, but didn't fare as well with some of the judges. The good comments: "Sweet, woody finish." "Could be a winner for some." "The color is perfect." The bad: "A bit sharp and fruity." "Too much bite." "Far too pungent an aroma; works against the taste all the way."

Booker's: This unfiltered 120.5-proof whiskey is bold in color, aroma and taste. Its powerful taste and high alcohol content can smother other tastes, so it's best to have it as an after-dinner drink with a splash of water. (Contrary to what you may think, adding a bit of water to a fine bourbon only lengthens the lingering aftertaste, rather than diluting it.) "It has a strong initial bite that levels out just a bit. The bite shouldn't be confused with the fact that it is very smooth," said one judge. "Makes me want to dance," said another who, it should be noted, did not.

When the scores were counted up, Elijah Craig (109.2 points) was the winner by a fairly wide margin over Pappy Van Winkle's (101.5) and Booker's (100.5). The bottom three were Hancock's (94.5), Basil Hayden (86.5) and Woodford Reserve (82.4).

Of course, given the Elijah Craig place in history that gives credit to Mr. Craig for creating bourbon, just being selected to be in the same competition with it is an honor.

Then, mission completed, photographer's lights packed away, and bottles and glasses returned to their upright positions, we slunk into the night, designated driver at the wheel.

We felt good.

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The Daiquiri: From Slick to Slushy and Back

“It's such a warm evening, I think a daiquiri would be nice,'' said the lady of a certain age to the very young cocktail waitress.

“Oh, I'm sorry, we don't serve frozen drinks,'' was the reply.

“Young lady, a proper daiquiri is not a frozen drink,'' the lady responded, icily.

And therein lies a tale.

The original daiquiri, as created and nurtured in Cuba and named for a river, a village and an area on the east side of the island, was not a frozen drink. Served nicely chilled, yes. But resembling a slushy, no.

However, the daiquiri has morphed over time to become one of those froufrou drinks that, while enjoyable in the right setting and with the right company, has perverted the original and upset purists worldwide with the introduction of various extra sweeteners, fruits and crushed ice into the mixture while under warp-speed in the blender.

Just as bullfighting (“Death in the Afternoon''), the Spanish Civil War (“For Whom the Bell Tolls'') and restless young Americans in Paris (“The Sun Also Rises'') were driven into the American pre-World War II consciousness by the writings of Ernest Hemingway, so was the daiquiri pushed on to a very receptive palate.

The legendary hunter and fisherman, Nobel Prize-winning writer (“The Old Man and the Sea'') and world-class carouser lived in many places before taking his own life at age 61 in 1961. Cuba was one of his favorite haunts, and Cubans embraced “Papa,'' as he was called by intimates and admirers.

Hemingway came across the daiquiri at La Floridita, a restaurant and nightclub in Havana that has been around since 1820 under several names but became world famous when he began frequenting it, and a love affair was born. Papa hosted Hollywood friends at highly publicized parties there until Fidel Castro's forces came to power in 1959, and often made mention of the hot spot and its signature drink in his magazine pieces and short stories.

The classic daiquiri is a deceptively simple delight made with two ounces of light rum, the juice of half a lemon (or a combination of lemon and lime juices) and a teaspoon of superfine sugar, shaken vigorously with ice to just approaching frothy, then poured through a strainer into a chilled cocktail glass and garnished with a lime wedge.

Hemingway liked his formula a bit stronger, and the locals referred to his version as “Papa Doble,'' or double Papa.

Is that still the way it's done at La Floridita? Well, as noted before, many things change over time.

At La Floridita, the basic daiquiri now includes a teaspoon of grapefruit juice and a teaspoon of maraschino syrup along with the aforementioned ingredients.

The quality of the rum remains paramount. Light rum is the usual preference because it blends so well with so many other tastes. However, there is nothing to prevent you from selecting a dark rum if that is your preference.

Many brand names offer consistent quality, mostly from Caribbean distillers that make fresh sugar cane into molasses then distill rum from it. Prominent among them are Bacardi (whose Bacardi Limon version is, in a pinch, an alternative to fresh lemon juice), Grand Havana, Appleton, Myers's, Cruzan and Mount Gay.

Here are the base recipes for the three most popular and enduring daiquiris. If you want to turn one into a frozen drink, slowly add one cup of crushed ice to the concoction and continue blending. In either case, always serve the drinks in a chilled glass with an appropriate fruit garnish:

Peach Daiquiri: Combine 1 cup frozen peaches, 1/4 cup lime juice, 1 1/2 ounces light rum, 1 ounce of peach schnapps, 1/2 ounce of apricot brandy, a dash of vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon superfine sugar in a blender until smooth.

Banana Daiquiri: Combine 1 ounce light rum, 3/4 ounce creme de banana, a dash of simple syrup and 1 peeled banana in a blender until smooth. Note: Simple syrup, also called bar syrup and necessary for many cocktails, is simply sugar and water. You can make a supply by dissolving sugar in boiling water, then taking the pan off the heat to cool. Proportions generally are one part water to two parts sugar.

Strawberry Daiquiri: Combine 1 1/4 ounces light rum, a splash each of fresh or pureed strawberries, grenadine syrup and sour mix in a blender until smooth.

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Cuba blockade no barrier to rum style

The island nation of Cuba remains an enigma to most Americans.

Blocked off from the one-time Caribbean playground by a U.S. political and economic embargo that is nearly a half-century old, we're more familiar with its athletes, its cigars and rum, and the iconic face of Fidel Castro than any other aspects of Cuban culture.

St. Martin, Antigua and Puerto Rico have better resort facilities. Honduras produces cigars many aficionados say are just as good. And rum comes from so many places you may not think of Cuba first anymore.

But that has not stopped producers of Cuban-"style" rum from building their latest consumer marketing plans around the legendary old mystique.

Grand Havana and Marti in particular are taking on the likes of such established brands as Bacardi and Captain Morgan (Puerto Rico), Angostura (Trinidad), Myers's (Jamaica), Gosling's (Bermuda), Demerara (Guyana), Pyrat (Anguilla), Cruzan (Virgin Islands), Malibu and Mt. Gay (Barbados), Montecristo (Guatemala) and numerous others.

Since rum is made from molasses, a derivative of sugar cane juice, it usually is produced in sugar-growing countries. However, respectable brands also come from such non-Latin American countries as Bermuda (Pusser's, Gosling's), Australia (Inner Circle, Bundaberg), Canada (Lamb's), France (Rhum Chauvet) and Nigeria (Rhum Nigeria).

Grand Havana has a strong, legitimate Cuban link. Although it is being made on the Caribbean isle of Grenada by Cuban-Americans from Miami, they are descendants of Don Tirso Arregui, a Cuban businessman whose rum distillery operated on the outskirts of Havana in the late 1800s.

The Arregui family, who fled to the U.S. after Castro came to power, set out to create small-batch offerings under the Grand Havana name. At their distillery, which boasts old-fashioned copper kettles, they double-distill the rum, then age it in sherry casks bought in Spain. Each bottle is numbered. In a private tasting of the super premium reserva excellencia ($30), we found it pleasantly oaky, as smooth as a fine Scotch or bourbon, with a gentle, ephemeral finish.

Marti, despite being named for the 19th-century Cuban rebel leader and poet Jose Marti, actually was developed by the New York company Chatham Imports, working with rum makers in the Dominican Republic to craft a basic rum recipe. Their products are bottled by the Marti Autentico Rum Co. of Lewiston, Maine.

Most of the rum companies make a variety of flavored spirits to satisfy the ever-expanding consumer demand for sweet drinks and cream drinks. The aforementioned Cruzan is a good example of the genre, offering banana, coconut, pineapple, orange and citrus rums ($14-$17). In addition, its rum cream ($15) is a thicker drink I find offers the consistency of eggnog and a pleasant layering of rum, cream liqueur and subtle flavorings.

By contrast, Marti also offers a variety of flavors, including a coco suave ($14) -- its premium rum infused with a pleasing jolt of natural coconut flavor. But it is capitalizing more on the mojito drink craze with its Marti Mojito ($14), a lime- and mint-infused premium rum.

The mojito cocktail, popular in the warmer months, is one of those many workingman's drinks that have gone up the social ladder in the Americas. It was a popular drink among Cuban farmers and sugar cane workers in the late 19th century and was nearly as popular as beer. These days, it is pushing out cosmopolitans and the like in American bars.

Purists who like making things from scratch might not warm up to the Marti mojito, with its mint and lime flavors already infused, but I found it a satisfying way to make a quick Cuba Libre (3-to-1 Marti mojito and Coca-Cola) or an easy mojito cocktail (Marti over ice, or mixed with club soda for a spritzer), especially appealing when entertaining a crowd.

Brand line extensions are popping up all over to meet the demand for something beyond basic spirits, no matter how good the basics may be. Malibu has added a passion fruit alcohol. Absolut has added peach-flavored vodka. Jose Cuervo is launching a ready-to-drink margarita. Bacardi has introduced a new drink called Island Breeze, and signed up "Sex and The City" actress Kim Cattrall as its celebrity spokesbeing. It's a calculated switch from the cosmopolitans she helped push into the national consciousness by regularly drinking them on the HBO series.

Lest you think these all are pop-spirits makers, even the iconic Moet Hennessey wines and spirits group is getting in on the act by introducing 10 Cane, its premium rum brand, to the U.S. market.

(All prices are suggested retail prices for 750 milliliter bottles.)

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Alcohols of the Americas

National pride can be wrapped up in so many things. Science, food, sports, music. And then there is the spirit world.

Not the John Edward, talking-to-the-beyond-on-television kind of spirits, but the earthier ones found in amber bottles, cut-glass decanters and crystal tumblers.

Most countries point with pride to a "national drink." The French have champagne; the Greeks, ouzo; the Russians their vodka. They are not alone.

In the United Kingdom, for example, we readily find the single malts and gins of Scotland and England. Now even Wales, that forgotten little country that shares the British mainland with them, is getting back into the swing after being without a native distillery since 1894.

This past spring, the 3-year-old Welsh Whisky Co. introduced its first product, Penderyn single-malt whiskey, created from barley malt and Welsh spring water. It retails for about $40.

The privately owned distillery, which operates in the Brecon Beacons National Park, revives a Welsh industry that had provided experienced whiskey makers who were among the founding fathers of the American bourbon industry. In Penderyn, the American link lives on. The whiskey is aged in Jack Daniels and Evan Williams bourbon casks shipped from the United States before being finished in Wales in rare Madeira barrels.

In the United States, we've long enjoyed "national" drinks brought to our shores from elsewhere in our hemisphere -- the rums of Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and the tequilas of Mexico, for example. Now, a trio of previously little-known alcohols from the Americas recently discovered by U.S. tourists is beginning to make inroads in our domestic market.

From Central America comes S Guaro, introduced in the United States just this year. It's made in Costa Rica from pure sugar cane with no additives.

Right now, S Guaro is essentially a California drink, with a marketing campaign by distributor S Spirits of Malibu that began by creating a word-of-mouth buzz by serving it at parties orbiting the Golden Globes, Grammy and Academy Awards shows.

The campaign is similar to one launched last year in the New York area by the distributor of Hpnotiq, a pale-blue French concoction of cognac, vodka and fruit juices. Movie premieres, nightclubs and celebrity parties in the city and in The Hamptons were successfully targeted, and the pale-blue drink quickly caught on.

"We're trying that grass-roots thing, too, before we try to go nationwide," said Shari F. Levanthal, marketing director for S Spirits. "Funny thing is that if you mix Hypnotiq and S Guaro, you get a great combination drink."

Guaro tastes more like a vodka than it does anything else, and its distributors recommend it as part of a mixed drink rather than straight.

On the Caribbean isle of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the indigenous guavaberry that centuries ago was turned into liquor by the Amer-Indian people is today distilled into a unique "folk liqueur," even though the fragile berries are difficult to cultivate and harvest.

My first experience with guavaberry liqueur was a colada served in a Philipsburg hotel bar on the Dutch side of the island. It's a deceptively smooth drink, reminiscent of blackberries and dark cherries, sweet but not overly so, thanks to the slightly woody, spicy taste of the liquor.

Despite the name, the guavaberry (GWAH-va-BER-ry) has nothing to do with the guava fruit. The liqueur is made from oak-aged rum, cane sugar and the berries that grow wild in the warm hills in the center of the island.

Farther south, in Brazil, a form of brandy called cachaca (ka-CHASS-ah, Portuguese for firewater) has taken the South American nation by storm in the past few years. Odd that it took so long, considering it has been around since the 1500s.

Cachaca is distilled from unrefined sugar-cane juice fermented in a wood or copper container for three weeks, then boiled down three times to a concentrate, giving it a rumlike flavor. The more expensive versions are aged in wood casks that provide a caramel color and take the edge off the raw alcohol taste.

Brazil has some 4,000 brands of cachaca (Pirapora, Pitu and Velho Barreiro Gold among them, priced in the $24-to-$30 range), making it second only to beer among alcoholic drinks consumed there.

Like tequila, which moved from being a blue-collar drink to upscale status in Mexico and the United States in recent years, cachaca has taken the same path. It got an extra boost when bartenders at trendy tourist spots in the Brazilian metro areas of Rio de Janiero and Sao Paolo looking for something novel began using it as the basis for a line of cocktails.

The most popular is a simple one called the caipirinha. It's made by crushing slices of fresh lime in a glass, sprinkling sugar over them, filling the glass with chilled cachaca and popping in a few ice cubes.

Ah, what a hemisphere!

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$2,000 sip of Scotch almost too grand for words

NEW YORK -- Does a $2,000 bottle of Scotch whisky really taste appreciably better than, say, a $35 bottle from the same distiller?

You bet it does. I had the rare opportunity to sample both styles, as well as several others, at the recent unveiling in Manhattan of noted beverage alcohol writer F. Paul Pacult's latest book, "A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons'' ($24.95, 304 pages, John Wiley & Sons).

Part of the private festivities at the renowned Keens Steakhouse, a city fixture since about 1850, was fueled by samples from the two iconic distilling houses via their kilt-clad stars -- Chivas master blender Colin Scott and Glenlivet master distiller Jim Cryle (seen above) -- who flew in from Scotland for the event.

Chivas, the top-selling Scotch in the U.S., and The Glenlivet, widely regarded as the finest single malt Scotch anywhere, remain competitors despite the fact they both now come under the Pernod Ricard USA corporate umbrella. A testimony, for good or for bad, to the globalization of so many industries and the seemingly endless mergers therein.

Scott, Chivas' master blender since 1989, provided three samples: a 12-year-old with warm, peppery notes and a certain hint of apples and nuts; an 18-year-old version with chocolate and toffee notes overlaying a woodsy, nutty base, and the 21-year-old Royal Salute developed for the coronation in 1952 of Elizabeth II, a traditionally smoky blend with tastes of dry fruit throughout.

The 18 is Scott's favorite, the one he says he'd choose if he knew it would be his last drink.

Chivas' commercial success is something its top people don't want to fool with despite the fad-driven nature of the industry, Scott notes, "so we're tweaking the orchestra but the tune remains the same.''

Cryle, who has been in the distilling business for four decades, shared a quintet of The Glenlivet's single malts. One was a comparative youngster at 12 years old with upfront pineapple taste drawn from the wood of the American and European oak casks in which it is aged. A 15-year-old aged in Limousin oak had more of a cedar and fruit combination. And, an 18-year-old that really opened up with a splash of spring water added to the tasting glass was ripe with notes of pear and melon.

But the stars of The Glenlivet portolio were an Archive (minimum 21 years old) with a great nose and robust, lingering sherry-tinted aftertaste, and the aforementioned $2,000-a-bottle Cellar Collection 1964 distillation.

Only 14 casks of the Cellar Collection were made, nine in sherry wood and five in used bourbon barrels. From that tiny pool came just 1,824 bottles (750-milliliter sized), each one signed and numbered, with a mere 800 of them sent to the American market several months ago.

I confess I've never tasted a $2,000-a-bottle whisky before. I expected a socko experience, but it was just the opposite. There is a certain delicate layering and complexity of flavors missing in other Scotches, even those of the expensive sort, that coats the mouth.

The 1964 is a warm, satisfying distillation, wonderfully smooth with a balance of floral and plum notes and a long, spicy finish. It was excellent by itself, sublime with a crumble of Stilton from the nearby cheese board. Each sip revealed another nuance of quality. Worth $2,000? If someone else is buying, sure thing.

Speaking of Scotch, new rules proposed by the Scotch Whisky Association would change the way such distillations are labeled.

The proposal, expected to become law in Scotland by 2007, would limit to five the number of different styles of Scotch: single malt, single grain (both from a single distillery), blended Scotch, blended malt and blended grain. Definitions such as "pure malt'' or "vatted malt'' will be outlawed, replaced with blended malt. The proposal also would outlaw the use of geographical descriptors for whiskies unless they actually are from the area named on the label.

Distillers will get a one-year selloff period to divest themselves of existing stock before having to adhere to the new rules.

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8,000 ways to make a martini

What is it about the martini?

The drink is variously credited to bartenders in high-class hotels from about the 1860s to just before World War I. Most students of the game come down on the side of Martini di Arma di Taggia, an immigrant Italian bartender at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel who got closest to the modern drink around 1912.

Obviously, much time has passed since then, yet we find ourselves in the midst of a popularity boom for the celebrated cocktail unprecedented since its birth.

Signor Martini's basic recipe combined equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, but the best proportions have since been debated in enough words to fill several volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- 4-to-1, 20-to-1, an eyedropper full of vermouth, passing a photo of an unopened bottle of vermouth in front of a gin bottle ... .

The martini, which had been largely an East Coast drink, had its first global golden age after World War I, faded in the '60s, then became resurgent in the '90s and into this century, now more often employing vodka rather than gin as its main ingredient.

The other major difference is that it no longer is merely the focal point of a debate over proportions. It is the object of world-class inventiveness and I encounter it everywhere I go.

Carlos, head mixologist at the Empire Bar in New York's LaGuardia Airport Marriott, recently told me his clientele ranges from international flight crews to business meeting participants. Their cocktails of choice?

"The younger ones mostly drink Cosmopolitans or Appletinis right now, the ones in the middle like vodka martinis, and the older or more adventurous ones like the original gin martinis, mostly with Bombay Sapphire.''

In San Antonio, Texas, Gilberto -- another bartender who prefers to go by only his first name -- deals with thousands of tourists each year from behind the bar of the historic Sheraton Gunter Hotel near the huge tourist draw known as the Riverwalk, a waterway lined with cafes, shops and bars. What's the adult beverage of choice?

"On the Riverwalk it's beer and margaritas,'' Gilberto said, "but here it's about 50 percent martinis, 25 percent Manhattans and the other 25 per cent a combination of everything else.''

In New York's tourist-rich Capital/Saratoga Region that stretches from Albany north into the Adriondack Mountains, the concoctions have gotten rather exotic. The Inn at Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, for example, offers patrons a range of martinis that includes the Double Fudge (Van Gogh Dutch chocolate vodka, Godiva liqueur and Kahlua) and the Broadway (Bombay Sapphire gin, white creme de menthe and a fresh mint garnish).

At the Webster's Corner martini lounge in Albany's Crowne Plaza hotel, bar maven David Tucker can whip you up a Tootsie Roll (Stolichnaya vodka, dark creme de cacao and orange juice, garnished with a Hershey's Kiss), a Gumbee (Chopin potato vodka with green creme de menthe, topped with a bit of whipped cream), or any one of 40 other concoctions.

The newst martini bar in the Capital/Saratoga Region is 205 At the Turf, in the Holiday Inn Turf in the Albany suburb of Colonie near the Albany International Airport. While it also serves wine and a full range of liquors, marketers there chose to feature the martini menu as its come-on.

205 At the Turf offers concoctions the likes of the Dirty Banana Martini (vodka, banana liquor, Godiva chocolate liqueur), the Espresso Martini (vodka, Tia Maria liqueur and espresso), and the Martini Stinger (vodka, brandy and creme de menthe). The latter is a twist on the classic Stinger cocktail made with just the brandy and white creme de menthe.

But far and away at the top of the innovation scale is a little gem of a CD from the folks at Van Gogh, who distill all sorts of vodkas and gins. It's entitled "8,406 Ways To Mix It up.''

Yes, more than 8,000 martini recipes. A year ago they had only 6,794, so you can see the pace of the game.

The collection includes such inventions as the Coconut Melon Low-Carb (Van Gogh coconut vodka, Van Gogh melon vodka, bottled water and a melon or coconut garnish) and the Roxy Treat (Malibu rum and Van Gogh raspberry vodka, plus a splash of Amaretto).

Click here to request a free copy of the CD (Windows version only) online.

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Here's to the ladies!

It was a ramshackle building where adventurous boys climbed one flight up to learn to play pool in a room with a warped floor and straight tables. On the way, we always stole a peek into the first-floor space where the busiest tavern in town was located.

We'd seen the inside of a tavern before. But this one was different. Women were welcome.

Back in the mists of time when I was a youngster, it was rare for a respectable woman to frequent a tavern in towns like the small farming community we called home. There, rough-hewn men drank rough-edged beverages. No distiller or brewer was looking for a share of the female consumer market which barely existed.

A local ordinance prohibited women from sitting at the bar. There was a painted line on the worn wooden floor which they could not cross. They even had their own entrance to the building.

This was not all male chauvinism. In those days, it was expected that business owners would make some efforts to shield the ladies from unwanted attention. The restrictions created a no-action zone.

For the most part, those adventuresome lasses drank the same stuff as the men. Maybe a little bit of sloe gin or Southern Comfort here and there, sweet drinks that rounded off the edges. But no distiller was really aiming to attract them.

Flash forward to today and the female niche of the liquor market is significant, generally interested in beverages tending toward the fruity and the sweet. Distillers are falling all over themselves trying to meet the rising demand.

All of which brings us to one Dean Phillips, fifth-generation head of Phillips Distilling Co. in Minneapolis, a company long known for flavored schnapps and vodkas and spiced whiskies. He's continually on the road pushing a new line of whiskies called Phillips Union. The name may sound like a petroleum product, but it actually is a blend -- a "union'' -- of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whisky.

In addition to the basic blend, he has one flavored with Michigan Royal Anne cherries, another with Madagascar vanilla. The whiskies come from longtime suppliers whose names Phillips won't reveal.

"I just got back from a tasting demonstration in Lexington, Ky.,'' Phillips said. "You'd expect them to call it sacrilege, blending their bourbon with Canadian, but it really went over very well.''

His basic finished product is 80 proof, fairly standard for your average bourbon or Canadian. The flavored blends, however, are 70 proof (35 percent alcohol), which many surveys say meets the demands of women and younger consumers.

"Over one-third of whiskey consumed in this country is by women,'' said Phillips. "Our new styles intentionally speak to women.''

A recent issue of Advertising Age magazine carried a cover story called "The Death of Beer,'' citing the swift increase in liquor purchases and decline in beer consumption, particularly among young adults.

"The depth of the dilemma (for breweries) was highlighted in a recent survey by Morgan Stanley that found spirits were the most popular drink choice among 21-to-27-year-olds -- the sweet spot for brewers. Among that group, 40 percent said spirits were their favorite drink compared to less than 30 percent in 2003,'' the magazine said.

Phillips Union whiskies ($25 each fpr 750 ml bottles) are made in a facility north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The bourbon and Canadian are taken from their aging barrels and blended in vats with local spring water. Some of the blend then is infused with the cherry or vanilla and left to marry. The finished products are bottled directly from the vats.

Phillips like the idea of lower proofs because "alcohol dulls flavor, sugar enhances it. Jim Aune, our second-generation blender, really knows how to make a great tasting product.''

That opinion was backed up in private tastings I held in which we found the basic Union an exquisitely smooth blend. Aune seems to have captured all the high points of both types of whiskies, removing the signature bite of the bourbon that sometimes is too much for lighter drinkers despite being part of the enjoyment for bourbon regulars.

Some of the tasters were fearful the cherry- and vanilla-infused blends would be too sweet, perhaps on the order of soft drinks. The reality was quite different for some.

While the sweetish vanilla version did require some cutting (plain soda works well) for most of us, the cherry version tasted very much like a ready-made Manhattan straight from the bottle, and was particularly good with a dash of bitters and shaken vigorously with ice to both chill and slightly dilute the blend.

In both instances, mixing them in plain Coca-Cola (3 parts soda, 1 part whiskey) makes adult versions of Cherry Coke and Vanilla Coke, particularly nice for a barbecue or summer party.

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Vodka: Not just for comrades anymore

Once upon a time in America, the idea of a non-Russian vodka was sacrilege to sophisticated drinkers. Then, Polish brands began making inroads, then French, and even Swedish and Dutch.

But this is, after all, America, and we like to be No. 1. There was no reason that in this land of abundance we shouldn't be able to turn some of the world's best grains and potatoes and purest water into top- shelf vodka.

So, we did.

At one time, the only commercially viable vodka made in America was Smirnoff, brought here early in the 20th Century by expatriate Russians. Today, several hundred native brands compete for attention as the dominant white spirit.

Vodka can be created from virtually any organic matter, most frequently grain. By U.S. law, basic vodka (the name is the diminutive of the Russian word voda, or water) must be a neutral grain spirit -- colorless, odorless, tasteless. All of which might make it seem like a waste of time to make or drink. But, the filtration process, the quality and combinations of ingredients, and how the distillate holds up to various temperatures and mixes help create nuances. Aficionados debate those with all the ferocity of rabid sports fans defending their teams.

Also, when your product sits on shelves alongside literally dozens of competitors, packaging is paramount to attracting attention. That's why vodka bottles often are a study in artistic concepts.

We tested four unflavored domestic vodkas to assess a range of styles and price points. Each is available locally, although it may take a bit of hunting. Each was sampled three ways: (1.) straight from the bottle, (2.) from the freezer where the fluid becomes syrupy, and (3.) as part of a martini, arguably the most popular way to drink vodka.

Here's the rundown, with average retail prices for 750ml bottles of 80 proof vodka:

Hangar 1 ($39.99) -- This handcrafted offering (seen above) splits from the pack in its base material: the Viognier grape. It's the work of Jorg Rupf, a renowned maker of fruit brandies in his St. George Distillery housed in a former airplane hangar on Alameda Island, near San Francisco. The bottle is a cross between a sleek, aerodynamic look and the classic Russian style.

Inside: Stands up to any competitor, foreign or domestic, for clarity, smoothness and lightly nuanced reaction on the palate. The freezer treatment draws out the taste of the neutral grape spirits blended into the vodka.

Blue Ice ($23.99) -- The name refers to the source of the Rocky Mountain spring water used in making the vodka-- glacial ice so compressed it turns blue from lack of oxygen. The rectangular, blue-coated bottle was created in Germany, sculpted to resemble a rugged glacier.

Inside: Slightly sweet, a tipoff that potatoes are the main ingredient. "Freezing" didn't release any more flavor, but either way it entwined well with Noilly Pratt dry vermouth for a pleasing cocktail.

Peconika ($27.99)-- The unofficial house vodka of the Governor's Mansion in Albany is a mix of 80 percent Midwestern grain and 20 percent potatoes grown near Long Island's Great Peconic Bay. It was introduced to the public in 1999, and just two years later won a double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The elegantly ribbed, frosted bottle provides a glimpse of a pastoral scene painted by a Hamptons artist.

Inside: This quadruple-distilled liquid is remarkably smooth; absolutely no hint of the ethyl alcohol present in many competitors. From the freezer, it's crisp, with a velvety mouthfeel. The grain/potato mixture provides the body of the former and the clean hint of sweetness of the latter, both of which endured in a martini.

Liquid Ice ($30.99) -- Five organic grains (wheat, oat, barley, corn, rye), distilled four times and filtered three times through charcoal and lava rock to get rid of those harsh alcohols called fusil oils. The Snake River runs under the Idaho distillery, providing water from a pure aquifer. The amazing bottle looks frozen inside a rectangle of ice.

Inside: Remarkably smooth, especially when chilled. There is almost a smoky quality to the bouquet and middle taste.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

The onset of warm weather often finds imbibers on the prowl for something different, something sunny, something to prove that life isn't one endlessly repetitive cycle.

They could be toasting the coming of summer with maple sap vodka. Or, a beer/brandy hybrid. Perhaps Alabama amber moonshine. Even a beer/bison-grass vodka mix or a shot of erguotuo.

The architect Mies Van Der Rohe said, "It is better to be good than to be original." In the spirit world, it's fun -- and sometimes profitable -- to be both.

My latest contribution to that universe is the Marteani. No, not a spelling error. But more on that in a bit.

On the home front, the rise in micro-distilleries is giving birth to specialty concoctions. In St. Johnsbury, Vt., for example, Duncan's Spirits (vermontspirits.com) is cooking up one vodka made from maple syrup and another from milk sugar. In Mountain View, Calif., Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries (www.essentialspirits.com) makes the aforementioned beer/brandy hybrid called Bierschnaps.

Nearly every country has its version of homemade spirits -- poteen in Ireland, shochu in Japan, some types of absinthe in Switzerland -- but here in the U.S. of A. it's good old moonshine, that mash distillation celebrated in song and story.

Kenny May of Union Springs, Ala., wanted to carry on his late daddy's passion for making moonshine whiskey. Trouble is, his daddy, Clyde, spent time in a federal prison for making it. (Actually, he spent time behind bars for getting caught making it.) So, Kenny decided to use the family recipe as the basis of his 90-proof Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey (www.crbrands.com), a legal tribute he came up with after his dad passed on.

He became his state's first legal manufacturer of amber lightning and now sells his product in more than 160 stores in Alabama as well as on the Internet.

The Alabama Legislature just passed a resolution naming it the official state spirit. Mighty nice of them, considering Kenny actually has his product cooked up by a company in Kentucky. At least they use Alabama water in every batch to give it that touch of authenticity.

Quirky concoctions certainly are not limited to our soil.

The major French brewer Kronenbourg (www.brasseries-kronenbourg.com), for example, is in the midst of a domestic launch of something called Vodoi. It's a creamy beer flavored with vodka made from bison grass, sometimes called vanilla grass, grown in Poland. They're aiming it at the trend-setting dance club crowd for now and hoping it will catch on enough to go international.

And in China, they're crating up bottles of their national spirit, erguotuo, for shipment to the United States.

The top grades of the 104-proof clear liquor distilled from sorghum grain will be sold initially in the Los Angeles area, although lesser versions have been available in very limited quantities in various parts of the country, usually snapped up by ethnic Chinese communities before they can make their way onto the open market.

Finding these mini-brands may be difficult. If your favorite liquor store can't get them for you, you can always check with the American Distilling Institute (www.distilling.com) for details or e-mail the distillers directly. Liquor sales laws vary from state to state, so you may get a legal education in the process.

Meanwhile, you can whip up your own creations at home for restless friends or family. For starters try my ...


The growing popularity of both vodka and green tea is the foundation for this quencher.

In a metal cocktail shaker, combine three ounces of Arizona Green Tea with Honey and Ginseng with three ounces of your favorite vodka, preferably a quality all-grain distillation (Smirnoff, Absolut, Blue Ice, etc.), since the potato vodkas tend to be too sweet in a mixture such as this.

Add six drops of Angostura Bitters and a splash of Galliano liqueur, or the more herbal Strega (www.strega.it) if you like a drier drink, plus a handful of ice cubes, stir briskly, then strain quickly into a frosted martini glass before the ice melts. Twist the juice from an orange slice into the drink and let it meander through the solution on its own. Garnish with an orange slice and a mint leaf for color.

Enjoy the summer.

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Long Holiday Season For Whiskies

The portal is about to open on a season dear to the Gaelic and Celtic folk of Ireland and Scotland and, indeed, their millions of descendants all over the U.S.

March 20-21 brings in Alban Eiler, known elsewhere as the spring solstice or vernal equinox. Weather be damned, it means spring has arrived and will last until June 21-22, the longest day of the year, when we will encounter Alban Heruin, or the summer solstice.

In between, we have such frolics as St. Patrick's Day on March 17 and Tartan Day on April 2. My sense of history sometimes can be a bit addled, but I think I know this one.

St. Patrick's Day celebrates the patron saint of Ireland driving the snakes into the sea where they became sharks, politicians and TV reality show producers.

Tartan Day celebrates that moment in 1320 when King Robert the Bruce and his Scottish parliament sent off a letter called the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope in Rome asking him to get the English off their backs. It worked so well that England rules Scotland to this day.

Both historic events, as well as the arrival of Easter, spring and a bunch of other traditional religious and secular days, will in this span be marked in many communities with once-a-year church attendance, parades, festivals, dances, silly hats and drink specials at your favorite pub -- featuring Scotch and Irish whiskies, in particular.

The line between Scotch and Irish distillations is blurry for some (although they, along with Canadians, spell whiskey without the "e.'') The difference comes primarily in the malting stage.

For Scotch whisky, malted barley is dried over peat (turf) fires, which allows the smoke to penetrate the grain and create its signature smokey flavor. For Irish whisky, malted barley is dried in closed ovens and never comes in contact with smoke.

In addition, Scotch whiskies usually are distilled twice, Irish whiskies three or four times, thus increasing their purity and smoothness. In some instances, further aging in used bourbon or sherry casks or a bit of blending creates a crossover

taste between the two categories. As is the case with most such things, there is no right or wrong, best or worst. There is only personal preference.

Bushmills, for example, is an Irish whisky preferred by many. It is turned out in the town of the same name by the world's oldest whisky distillery, located in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Sir Thomas Phillips founded it in 1608 under license from James I of England. His business descendants obviously are doing something right.

Their products (10-, 16- and 21- year-old single malts; Black Bush, aged 8 to 10 years then blended with a small portion of a delicate sweet single grain whiskey; Bushmills Cream, a sweet Irish cream liqueur concoction, and Bushmills Original, aged five years) all are smoothed out by aging in used bourbon or sherry casks, a touch also employed by some other Irish and Scotch distillers.

In a recent tasting, Black Bush ($34.99 retail for a 750 milliliter bottle) -- so called because of its black label -- stood out for me with its clear honey coloring and rich, seductive depth reflective of the sherry casks in which it's aged and the small portion of a delicate sweet single grain whiskey added to it.

Among other popular Irish brands are Jamesons, Powers, Clontarf, Kilbeggan and Tullamore Dew. Virtually all offer a range of ages and strengths.

On the Scotch side of the equation, we run into a situation something akin to the vodka market: so many labels you need a directory to keep track.

Scotch export sales keep rising each year, with the U.S. still the leading consumer but places like China, India and the emerging economies of former Soviet Bloc nations in Eastern Europe increasing demand.

Atop the heap is Glenfiddich, the top-selling Scotch whisky in the world. The company made a particular splash last spring when it re?leased its 1972 Vintage Reserve, a mere 519 bottles extracted from just two numbered casks that had been aging nearly 30 years. Such events are treated with great reverence and jubiliation in the whisky world.

The No. 2 distiller, The Glenlivet, is just now shipping limited amounts of its 15-Year-Old French Oak Reserve ($49.95) to retailers in time for Tartan Day. It's a much-anticipated Scotch originally limited to sales only in select major markets, but I was able to acquire a bottle for a tasting.

This is a distinctly non-peaty Scotch, instead offering a sherrylike nose from being aged in Limousin oak casks usually reserved for wine. That smooths the bite, adds a hint of spice, and provides a long, creamy aftertaste. Several of our tasters who are not Scotch regulars were enhusiastic about this offering.

Happy holidays.

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Is Grey Moose the next niche filler?

For many people, smaller is better when it comes to innovation in spirit-making.

The boutique liquor business is catching on all across the nation. The latest clear spirit is being distilled up in Maine, and the American version of Europe's eau de vie brandies is gobbling up all sorts of homegrown fresh fruits in many states.

While the giant spirits conglomerates and distributors such as Allied Domecq, Diageo and Brown Forman battle each other for the lion's share of the market, the less obtrusive mammals are carving out successful little niches of their own.

For the past five years, a Long Island company has been using local potatoes and Midwest grain to create Peconika vodka. Up in Minnesota, Shakers Original American Vodka, a grain alcohol produced in the town of Benson since the beginning of the year, already is the best-selling vodka in the state.

Not that the niche operators are restricting themselves to hard liquor. In various parts of the nation, lighter alcoholic beverages are being produced. Two quick examples:

In Jacksonville, Vt., the North River Winery operation makes 11 different fruit wines, many of them certified organic. The operation has grown from a mere 2,500 gallons a year in 1985 to 20,000 gallons today. In Richmond, Mass., not far from the historic Hancock Shaker Village tourist attraction, John Vittori is putting out his own line of wines made from grapes trucked up from Long Island, NY, as well as a line of sweet and hard ciders from his own apples at the Hilltop Orchards/Furnace Brook Winery operation.

Meanwhile, back on the liquor trail, potato farmer Don Thibodeau is cranking out the spuds on his Green Thumb Farms near Freeport, Maine, to fuel creation of a boutique vodka product due on the market next spring.

Thibodeau's vodka, says the Associated Press, will be produced in small batches from his 525-acre spread and, if need be, from potatoes grown elsewhere in the state. The operation will be Maine's first commercial distillery. White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston makes spirits, but its alcohol is imported.

Thibodeau's product will be aimed at the high-priced "super premium" niche with the likes of Belvedere, Chopin and Grey Goose. A name has been chosen for the new product, but is being kept secret for now.

Grey Moose, anyone?

Beyond vodka, the brandies or brandy-like spirits are on the rise, led by the work of master craftsman Jorg Rupf. He makes Hangar One viognier grape vodka and various fruit brandies in a former aircraft plant in Alameda, Calif.

There are more than 50 such small operations in 16 states using nearly any kind of fruit or organic matter to create vodkas and eau de vie (water of life) brandies -- places such as Westford Hill Distillers in Connecticut, Clear Creek in Oregon and Bonny Doon in California.

The reasons people get into a business that is hard to promote outside one's immediate area are numerous.

Steve McCarthy, for instance, tells the Bloomberg News Service he was inspired by the palate-cleansing bite and enticing fragrance of eaux de vie he'd tasted at business dinners in Europe. So, in 1985, he began distilling fruit from his family's Oregon pear orchard. "The market didn't know eau de vie from eau de toilette," McCarthy told the news service. The market knows it now. He distills 8,000 gallons a year of a dozen aromatic spirits for his Clear Creek line, known particularly for its apple brandy.

California grape grower Ansley Coale met vacationing Hubert Germain-Robin, offspring of a French cognac-making family, and struck up a partnership that has resulted in a pricey, cognac-style brandy made from pinot noir grapes (Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO, $100; Anno Domini, $350).

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Hiking the American Whiskey Trail

Wine trails are commonplace attractions now that every state in the union has wineries. Whiskey trails are another thing entirely.

In various states, tens of thousands of visitors annually visit various wineries that cooperate in tourist-oriented wine trail groupings. Each trail has its individual attractions, but all emphasize winery visits, festivals, B&Bs, dining, sight-seeing and the like.

Now, we have the American Whiskey Trail, a much longer trek to fewer places, but a fascinating concept nonetheless.

The new project, sponsored by the industry group known as the Distilled Spirits Council, includes seven historic sites and six operating whiskey distilleries spread over a five-state area from New York to Tennessee by way of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.

If that seems a slightly awkward construct, perhaps it is. But it shows the erratic progression of whiskey making throughout America history.

From the north, the American Whiskey Trail begins at historic Fraunces Tavern Museum in Manhattan where Gen. George Washington (shown above) bade farewell to his troops in 1783 and ends at the site of the new George Washington Distillery Museum on the grounds of private citizen Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va. There they refer to that site as the gateway to the trail. Geographic chauvinism obviously is dictated by where you live.

Distillers and wholesalers have do nated more than $1 million over the past four years to the Mount Vernon historic organization to reconstruct the once-bustling distillery at its original site. An interactive museum will be added by 2006.

Numerous historic stops on the Trail have a George Washington whiskey connection.

In addition to the spots already mentioned, the Trail includes Gadsby's Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Va., where early American leaders often met to discuss issues of the day and where at least twice Washington attended the annual Birthnight Ball held in his honor; Woodville Plantation in Allegheny County, Pa., built by Gen. John Neville, a Revolutionary War figure and close friend of Washington, and the Oliver Miller Homestead in South Park, Pa., which was a focal point of an 18th century dispute in which President Washington dispatched troops to enforce federal law taxing distilleries and whiskey.

Other historic sites are the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown, Ky., which has a collection of rare whiskey artifacts dating from pre-colonial to post-Prohibition days, and the West Overton Museums in Scottdale, Pa., a former distilliery center and part of what is billed as the only pre-Civil War village in Pennsylvania still intact.

Among the first Europeans to prac tice their whiskey making skills in this country were the Scotch-Irish of western Pennsylvania.

They were not alone in distilling whiskey, but they were among the feistiest and most productive. When the Continental Congress put a tax on whiskey production, they refused to pay, thus touching off the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 to 1794.

So acrimonious was the dispute that President Washington sent troops to quell the uprising. When the whiskey makers continued to resist, he and Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson cooked up a deal to break up the concentration of resistance. Jefferson offered 60 acres of land as an incentive for moving to the Kentucky region (then part of Virginia), building a permanent structure and growing corn.

Many took advantage of the offer but found that no family could eat 60 acres' worth of corn a year, and it was too perishable to ship out for sale. The Scotch-Irish instead used it to make whiskey in place of much of the wheat and rye they were used to employing. Coincidentally, the presence of massive limestone for mations filtered and "sweetened" the water, which helped make a smoother distilled spirit, the one that came to be called bourbon for the Kentucky county in which it was produced.

The definition of whiskey, by the way, is a liquor produced from the fermented mash of grains such as barley, corn, and rye. That would include the likes of Canadian or Scotch whisky (no "e''), Irish whiskey, rye and bourbon.

Bourbon, however, is a special case. All bourbons are whiskies, but not all whiskies are bourbons. The legal definition of bourbon was codified in 1964 by a congressional resolution requiring that it be a minimum of two years old, at least 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), made from a mash of at least 51 percent corn, and aged in charred new oak bar rels, where the wood and the car bon give it that golden brown color and some of its flavor.

The operating distilleries open to the public as part of the Trail are Jim Beam in Clermont, Ky., Maker's Mark in Loretto, Ky., Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, Ky., Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Ky., George Dickel in Tullahoma, Tenn., and Jack Daniel's in Lynchburg, Tenn. It also includes two rum distilleries in Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands.

A touch of irony: Today, no bourbon is produced in Bourbon County.

For online information about historic sites on the American Whiskey Trail:

American Whiskey Trail
Fraunces Tavern Museum
Gadsby's Tavern Museum
Woodville Plantation
Oliver Miller Homestead
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
West Overton Museums

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One (or more) Singular Sensations

Infusion can be a two-way street.

When you're sitting at the bar of the Bugaboo Creek restaurant in bustling Crossgates Mall just a few miles from the soaring capital city spires of Albany, N.Y., you can see juicy blocks of fresh-cut pineapple floating in a lighted glass vat of Grey Goose, imparting its sweetness and tang to the vodka.

Solid to liquid.

When you're sitting in the dark cozy bar at Vorelli's in Cape Cod's funky Provincetown, Mass., you can see crisp green beans floating in the restaurant's famous tank of Bloody Mary mix, soaking in the essences of vodka, tomato, garlic, peppers and spices.

Liquid to solid.

Of course, in both cases the infusion also is happening in the opposite direction. It's just that the ways described are more obvious.

Infusions are arguably the biggest thing in the world of alcoholic beverages these days. The major money is found in handling infusions at the mass-production level in factories or distilleries, not at the local bar no matter how much of a signature gimmick is created. Virtually every commercial brand of vodka, for example, offers versions infused with various fruit flavorings. The ubiquitous Grey Goose, the superstar seller among vodkas, is among those pushing its vanilla flavor as well.

But vodka does not stand alone. Spiced rums from such makers as Captain Morgan, Bacardi and Myers's and even some sweeter versions of gin -- such as Tanqueray Malacca -- are growing in popularity.

Buying such concoctions may be fine for ease of use but, just as a homecooked meal can be more enjoyable than a takeout spread, doing your own infusing is a lot more fun. It certainly can lead to a more enjoyable cocktail party conversation than simply opening a bottle.

For example, a friend insists the only way to drink sambuca is with three -- not two, not four, but three -- offee beans submerged in the glass. That is known as serving the anise-flavored Italian liqueur con mosche, or "with flies." I have always been tempted to slip a few brown-coated M&Ms into his drink to see if he really knows the difference.

Of course, I could simply buy a bottle of negra sambuca, already infused with coffee essence. But that would kill the conversation.

Infusions have been around for nearly as long as alcohol has been part of the human experience. Liquers concocted on farms, in monastaries and in laboratories give testament to the boundless imagination of amateur and professional chemists. Mead makers of the Middle Ages infused their honey
liquor with herbs and spices. And, the strength of alcohol was long believed to counteract the toxic parts of certain substances favored as medicines throughout the centuries.

Alcohol can be infused with botanicals, marinated with macerated fruits, or stirred together with other potions. It can be dotted with flecks of pure gold, cloves, grains of pepper, sprinklings of cinnamon. The mixtures can be festive, imaginative, wonderful introductions to grown-up spirits. They can be used as dessert toppings, as baking ingredients or -- as many tavern owners and restaurants know -- excellent appetite-boosters and after-meal relaxers.

They can be flavored with nuts, fruits, exotic plant extracts. They can be orange, blue, black, white, red, pink, yellow, green or any other color.

Benedictine is generally regarded as our oldest multi-infusion alcohol, invented in A.D. 1510 at the Benedictine Abbey in the Caux district of Normandy, France. The sweet, aromatic liqueur is flavored with more than 20 plants and herbs from a closely-guarded secret recipe. (A popular modern variant is B&B, a combination of Benedictine and brandy.)

If you're interested in doing some of your own infusing, the best strategy is to begin with the simplest recipes.

Get a trio of small (half-pint or so) sealable jars and run them through the dishwasher to sterilize them. Pour each about two-thirds full of a decent grade of vodka (Absolut, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Ketel One, etc.) and begin the infusing process.

Use small amounts of liquid to get a better handle on the proportions of infusing material that suit your taste.

Like a particular chili pepper, such as those hot little Asian numbers? Bruise one ever-so-slightly to allow some of the oil to seep out and let it steep in a sealed jar of vodka for about 10 days. Shake it occasionally during that time, but don't unseal the jar.

Want to try a citrus style? Juices of lemons, oranges and limes are the most acidic and share their essence very well. Feel free to mix them if you're a "limon" sort of person.

If you want to try a complicated cocktail in a bottle, raise the number of ingredients to four or five. For example, begin with cubes of peeled, seeded fresh cucumber, add a quarter teaspoon of dried dill or a sprig of fresh thyme, a grind of fresh cracked black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to create a refreshing infusion reminscent of a summer salad. (Add two drops of Tabasco hot sauce or Tabasco green pepper sauce when you serve the drink.)

If your tastes run toward the sweeter side of the scale, your vodka or gin can be infused with virtually any fruit. Simply bruise the fruit so its sugars and acids will leach out during the incubation period. You can speed the process by pouring the liquor over fresh-cut strawberries, kiwi, mixed fruit salad or melon.

Remember to run your infused liquors through a small-screen seive before serving. Many a nice drink has been spoiled by the residue left from stems, seeds, leaves and skins.

One last tip: The infusing materials don't always have to be tossed away. Think of how nice some of those pieces of fruit will taste after sitting in a vodka or gin bath for a few weeks.

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No Thanks, But I'll Take the Cash

SAN FRANCISCO -- Next time you're in town, don't be surprised if no one offers to buy you a drink. They may be afraid Bezuidenhout is catching.

This story began this summer at Harry Denton's (above) Starlight Room on the 21st floor of downtown's Sir Francis Drake Hotel, north of Union Square. That's where Jacques Bezuidenhout is mixing a drink called Drinking the Stars.

Mr. B. (shown below), perhaps San Fran's top chic-bar drink mixer, has come up with a concoction of infused Armagnac and Dom Perignon in a huge champagne flute. A nice little champagne cocktail and a nice little price of $650 a pop.

That is not a typographical error. $650. It's one of a group of what he calls "million-dollar cocktails" that range from $80 to $650 a drink. They combine such super-premium spirits as Louis XIII de Remy Martin Cognac and Herradura Seleccion Suprema tequila. And, what they're mixed with is exotic, too, with such items as walnut liqueur and a South African red-herb rooibos tea put into use.

Impressive ingredients, but $650? Actually, the drink is offered in two sizes -- $375 for a 750 ml bottle of 1966 Dom Perignon Champagne and $650 for a magnum, which is equal to two bottles.

Bezuidenhout infuses 1979 Chateau de Ravignan Armagnac with Madagascar vanilla bean, orange peel and raisin, which sweeten the liqueur. He pours the spirit into flutes, then adds the champagne. The Armagnac and the remaining champagne are left at the table and customers can mix their own followup glasses.

Other examples from the list:

• The least pricey of the quartet at $80 is something Bezuidenhout labeled the Heavenly Dram: Macallan's 25 Year Old single malt Scotch with Garvey Pedro Ximenez Sherry 1860. The smokey, fruity Scotch is combined with the raisin-like sherry, lemon juice and honey-flavored simple syrup.

• The Elegancia cocktail, priced at $90, utilizes the aforementioned Herradura tequila plus Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes, a sweet wine, floated on top and the drink finished with the rooibos tea and orange bitters.

• The Angels Share starts with Louis XIII de Remy Martin Cognac, Domaine Charbay's Nostalgie Black Walnut Liqueur and Porto Rocha 20 Year Old Tawny. The cool thing with this drink is that Bezuidenhout coats a snifter with green Chartreuse VEP, a 110-proof herbal liqueur, before making the drink, creating heat and coolness at the same time.

The SF Gate Web site asked Bezuidenhout who buys these drinks.

"Exactly who you'd expect," he says. "Mostly celebrities, musicians and wealthy men looking to impress their dates. ... It's a status thing, and most people can't afford to indulge."

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