Party in a glass? Perhaps

Calling the concept a cocktail party in a bottle may be stretching it a bit, but it's close.

While there are plenty of enticingly-colored concoctions on the market that can go straight from bottle to stemmed glass without any more work than removing the top -- Hpnotiq, Remy Red and Amarula Cream come easily to mind, they don't have quite the fulsome lifestyle concept of Cocktails by Jenn.

From its unabashed emphasis on targeting young, socially active women to its clever Web site that acts as a sort of national party central clearing house, the two-year-old Danville, CA, company pushes pre-made cocktails as central to a fun lifestyle.

Its stock in trade is a quartet of 100 milliliter single-serve vodka martinis in various flavors and colors, sold in totes designed to look like designer handbags, plus an enameled charm featuring such things as a shoe, a martini, an airplane, a ring, a cell phone and an ice cream sundae.

The cocktail flavors -- cosmopolitan, tropical blue lagoon, lemon drop and appletini, and limited-edition seasonal flavors such as key lime and chocolate peppermint -- carry a suggested retail price of $15 for the collection, or $20 for a 750 milliliter bottle of any of the flavors.

How is the company doing? Well enough for Barton Brands, a division of beverage giant Constellation Brands, to have noticed it and purchased the company last October. Since then, marketing efforts have pushed distribution to 31 states and the PR rhetoric to new heights.

Take this, for example:

"More than a beverage, Cocktails by Jenn embodies the spirit of friendship and quality time with girlfriends – whether it’s a relaxing girl’s night at home watching movies or a rocking girl’s night out on the town. This 'girlfriend inspired' brand prides itself on focusing on the fulfillment that these relationships bring to a woman’s life and the notion that anything can be accomplished with the encouragement and support of girl friends."

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New American whiskey for sale ... ooops, too late

Unless you have a personal connection in Denver, forget about trying what may well be America's newest whiskey.

Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, aged two years in oak casks, is sold out a mere six weeks after its first release.

"We just didn't have enough product to put in all the stores that people would like," said Jess Graber, majority owner and manager of Stranahan's. "We had commitments for a lot of our inventory."

The Denver distillery produced its first cask in April 2004. By law, whiskey must age two years in oak casks before it can be sold commercially. The distillery produced 1,000 cases of the aged whiskey in 2004. Projections call for 3,000 cases of the 2005 product will be available.

The whiskey sold at a suggested retail price of $54.95.

Stranahan, co-founder of Flying Dog Brewery, is a major investor in Graber's whiskey business. (Curiously, they met when volunteer firefighter Graber helped battle a blaze at Stranahan's barn.) His brewery supplies mash for the distillery.

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From garden to glass

As I aimed the spray of water at the sprawling herb garden, just emerging from a prolonged period of heavy rain but already threatening to wilt under the hot early summer sun, I mentally ticked off everything I was going to do when the crop reached its peak.

Creating herb blends to perfume the smoke of the barbecue grill. Brightening the routine tossed salads in need of some new tastes. Finding just the right chopped leaves to blend into artisanal chevre cheeses from the local farm stands.

And, of course, infusing vodka.

Not that there is any shortage of flavored vodkas on the market. 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. Likewise with some gins, rums and even whiskies.

It is just that I prefer my own infusions, free of chemicals and trickery. Buying such concoctions may be fine for ease of use but, just as a home cooked 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 -- coffee beans submerged in the glass. That is known as serving the anise-flavored Italian liqueur con mosche, literally "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. Liqueurs concocted on farms, in monasteries 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 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, such as I do when I create my Summer Salad Vodka

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 reminiscent of a summer salad. (For an extra kick, 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 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, kiwis, mixed fruit salad or melons.

Remember to run your infused liquors through a small-screen sieve 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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Italian fizzy aperitif goes American

Aperol Soda, a low-alcohol drink popular in Italian cafes, now is available in the U.S.

The fizzy, bitter-orange-flavored aperitif is a mere 3% alcohol. It was introduced in 1995 and became an immediate success on the Italian market.

Aperol Soda is an offshoot of Aperol, an aperitif developed in 1919 by the Barbieri brothers whose 11% drink found a niche in a domestic market that had largely been ruled by higher alcohol aperitifs.

Today, the Aperol brands are owned by the Campari Group.

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The Vodka Report: In the Pink

From the pink gowns Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell wore in the iconic 1953 film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" to biker chick Pinky Tuscadero on TV's "Happy Days" to current pop singer Pink, the color pink has always said FEMALE!, albeit in many different ways.

I recently reported on p.i.n.k., a Dutch vodka infused with both caffeine and guarana, selling at $40 per 750ml bottle. As noted, the gimmick is using the Brazilian guarana bean that contains a natural form of caffeine, 2 1/2 times stronger than the caffeine found in coffee or tea.

Now comes Pinky vodka, a Swedish product infused with a dozen botanicals, including violets, rose petals and wild strawberries. At 80 proof, like p.i.n.k., Pinky sells for $30-$33 per 750ml bottle. It's imported and distributed by Liquidity brands.

As usual, there is other news on the vodka market. Snow Leopard, for example.

This particular big cat, which lives in remote, icy areas of Asia, is the inspiration for a new premium vodka, launching exclusively at the famous Harvey Nichols Wine Shops in London and a small handful of London's landmark bars.

Snow Leopard is made with spelt, a grain traditionally used by Polish distillers, now made at Polmos Lublin, one of Poland's leading distilleries. The company has pledged to donate 15% of its profits to the Snow Leopard Trust, an organization created to protect the future of the animal. The vodka is sold at $60 and up per bottle.

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A sidewalk pleaser from the Big Apple

Eben Klemm whips up a better cocktail than he does a name. Witness "The V(ini).

It's the cocktail selected as the best among all served at New York City's 20,000+ sidewalks cafes (that covers Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island), as chosen by the Consumer Affairs Department in the city's first-ever Sidewalk Cafe Drink Contest.

Klemm is director of cocktail development at B.R. Guest Inc., which runs Vento Trattoria in Manhattan's Meatpacking District where the drink was unveiled.

Says Klemm, "A lot of places will make watermelon martinis all year round. I only make it when it's fresh."

"The V(ini)" got its V from Vento and its (ini) from martini. The recipe for the pink pleaser:

1 oz. citrus vodka
1 oz. limoncello
Juice of ½ lime
1 oz. fresh watermelon puree

Add all ingredients to shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with orange twist.

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Electrobar not pretty, but it does the job

A can of pressurized carbon dioxide, a laptop computer and a series of pumps and hoses. Not terribly high tech, but good enough to whip up a cocktail to your specifications.

The device is the Electrobar, invented by Chris Yahn, 22, of Wheeling, WVA.

What started as a senior thesis project for Wheeling native Chris Yahn could become a replacement for the neighborhood bartender.

Yahn created the machine last year, his final at DeVry University in Columbus, OH. He recently picked up $10,000 by winning an entrepreneurial contest sponsored by West Virginia University, not bad for a $1,600 investment he now hopes will make him wealthy.

Yahn said the project required about three months of programming. He estimates about 50 hours went into creation of the machine's prototype.

"I pretty much took all the initiative," Yahn told the Charleston Daily Mail newspaper."I did all design work, all programming, all the electrical design."

A Dell laptop computer inside the cabinet stores the drink information. An operator uses the computer monitor atop the cabinet to send signals to the control board. The liquid comes out of a spigot attached to the machine's top, putting the precise amounts of ingredients in the cup. The pressurized carbon dioxide controls the flow of alcohol through the pumps and hoses. All the ingredients are poured in simultaneously.

"Basically, all the person has to do is put ice in the cup," Yahn said. "The machine does the rest."

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The Vodka Report: A periodic reality check

New vodkas and vodka flavorings are as common as toadstools after a spring rain. Yet, they keep on being introduced to the market as vodka maintains its status as the No. 1 selling spirit in the world.

Here are some of the latest offerings:

• p.i.n.k. -- The first caffeine- and guarana-infused vodka stays in the usual strength range at 80 proof for this Dutch-made spirit. The concept is based on the trend of mixing alcohol with "energy" drinks. David Mandell, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who now is president and CEO of an organization called High Energy Holdings LLC, worked with several partners to create p.i.n.k. Clarendon Flavor Engineering developed a process to extract the natural intensity component from the guarana bean, while removing its dark color and tart flavor. The Brazilian bean contains a natural form of caffeine, 2 1/2 times stronger than the caffeine found in coffee or tea.

“While traveling through Brazil on government business, I witnessed the power of guarana and its widespread popularity,” Mandell told HappyHours.com. “The bean is now being used in sodas, juices, work-out drinks, vitamins, and a host of foods. For us, it was a perfect ingredient for p.i.n.k.”

The suggested retail price for a 750 ml bottle is about $40.

• Absolut Ruby Red -- This grapefruit-flavored vodka is initially aimed at the summer market, but the company obviously would hope it gets enough of a following to still sell year-round even at a reduced level.

It has a floral aroma with pungent grapefruit notes. As always, Absolut is marketing it through parties, celebrity-centric TV shows and a Web page offering drink recipes using the new vodka.

The suggested retail price is about $30.

• Diaka -- Although the company hasn't set a firm suggested retail price, its PR people are calling this Polish-made spirit the world's most expensive vodka because of its unique diamond filtration method.

Diaka, an acroym for diamond vodka, is filtered using up to 100 diamonds of up to a carat in size to give it clarity and smoothness. It also has crystals in the bottle itself, although they're not diamonds.

This all reminds me of my earlier report on the introduction of Diva, a triple distilled wheat-based vodka filtered through Nordic birch charcoal then filtered again -- through such precious gems as diamonds, emerald and rubies, we are told. A glass tube in the bottle is filled with 48 crystals that can be used as a garnish. They include cubic zircona, smoky topaz, pink tourmaline, amethyst, citrine and peridot. Suggested retail price: $60 a bottle.

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New Kentucky distillery under construction

Kentucky is about to get another distillery.

Ray Jamieson, a lawyer in Memphis, TN, and his son, Hugh, are building a new bourbon distillery in Fulton County, western Kentucky.

The facility is projected to produce bourbon and other distilled spirits by fall, according to Jamieson. The $770,000 project will employ about 15 people.

Jamieson said he expects a 2,500-barrel bourbon production in the first year and 5,000 barels annually after that.

Plans call for a visitor's center and production building, both of which are projected to be completed in about six months.

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