Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tasting the Wine, Beer, and Cider of California’s Conejo Valley

Ladyface Ale Companies Conejo Valley Brewery

When you’re in California, it’s pretty easy to find a nice glass of wine or a cold craft beer.  Conejo Valley is no different.  During our weekend getaway to Conejo Valley, we tasted what the area, a short jaunt from Los Angeles, has to offer. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Tasting Tour of Kingman’s Craft Desert Diamond Distillery

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery

During our California and Arizona Route 66 road trip we spent a day exploring Kingman, Arizona.  Kingman is known for being an important railroad and Route 66 stop.  Kingman also has an airport which used to be the site of a large World War II training center.  Next door to that airport is Desert Diamond Distillery, Kingman’s craft distillery.  Of course we had to stop in for a tasting and a tour!

Our first impression of Desert Diamond Distillery when we walked through the door was that it looked like a cool place to visit and hang out.  Desert Diamond Distillery isn’t just a place to visit for a tasting and leave.  They also create cocktails with their craft spirits, like the Blueberry Mojito made with their Gold Miner Dark Rum or the Desert Sunrise with their Gold Miner Agave Rum with orange, mango, and pineapple juices, so visitors are encouraged to sit down and stay awhile.

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery Spirits

We started our visit with a tasting flight while we learned about the spirits Desert Diamond Distillery has been crafting for almost six years.  All of D3’s spirits are sugar based and start with molasses.  A tasting flight starts with a taste of the Gold Miner Rum, a white rum.  The Gold Miner Rum has a bite that is to be expected from a white rum, but it is also smooth and has a slight sweetness. 

Next was the Gold Miner Vodka, which starts with the white rum.  It’s pretty unusual to encounter a vodka that is sugar cane based.  It’s also pretty unusual to encounter a vodka made at a craft distillery, which we learned later on the tour.  That’s because their still is a two column still with enough steps to reach the higher alcohol content needed to make vodka.  If you don’t think it’s possible to make a sugar based vodka that tastes good, you’ll have to taste Gold Miner Vodka.  It’s one of the most unique vodkas you’ll taste, and it tastes like vodka.

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery Still

Desert Diamond Distillery’s Gold Miner Dark Rum also starts with the white rum.  The white rum is aged over French and American oak chips.  Some compare the taste of the dark rum to a good bourbon.  When Desert Diamond Distillery was first starting out, they wanted to test their products against the competition to see if they were doing it right.  In 2011, they entered their spirits at the 2011 SIP Awards.  They received a bronze for the white rum, a silver for the vodka, and a silver for the agave rum.  But the biggest winner was the Gold Miner Dark Rum, which received a platinum medal.

Desert Diamond Distillery first bottled their Gold Miner Barrel Reserve Rum in 2012.  This aged rum starts yet again with the white rum, which is aged in lightly toasted new wood barrels for 42 months.  It’s like a white whiskey.  Each barrel makes approximately 400 bottles, and each batch is numbered.  During our visit, we tasted number eight.  Barrel number seven won the second gold medal D3 has won for their aged rum at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery Testing Station

Our final tasting was of the Gold Miner Agave Rum.  At the time D3 crafted their first agave rum, agave nectar had recently become a popular ingredient.  Agave nectar is added to the Gold Miner Dark Rum and it is meant to be enjoyed straight as an after-dinner drink.  It is sweet and has a nice aroma.  The thought was to market the agave rum to women, but it has become a huge hit with all genders.

After our tasting flight, we took the behind the scenes tour to learn more about the distillery’s history and process.  Desert Diamond Distillery is a family affair.  John Patt is the master distiller.  He owns the distillery with his father, Peter Patt, who gave us our tour.  John’s mother, Deborah, is the manager and gave us our tasting tour.

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery Distillation System

When Desert Diamond Distillery opened in April 2010, there were probably less than 100 craft distilleries in the country.   (According to Fortune there were about 50 in 2005 while in 2015 there were almost 800.)  John Patt took a distilling course from a German company that made stills.  In the meantime, he was already building a distillery on the Kingman airfield.  After he completed his training, he was planning on purchasing just a still, but since he already had a place set up, the company offered him a fully integrated computerized system that could make any kind of spirit.  They like to call their system the Cadillac of stills.  Even the cleaning process is computerized, taking two minutes instead of hours to manually clean, giving them more time to work on their craft.  This Cadillac of stills is also what allows them to make vodka, something not many craft distilleries can do.

Tasting Tour Kingman Arizona Desert Diamond Distillery Aging Barrels

It’s a lot harder to make a profit as a craft distillery than a craft brewery.  While craft breweries can charge a lot more for their beer than the big guys, the same cannot necessarily be said for craft distilleries, plus the taxes distilleries have to pay are pretty hefty.  Peter told us that in order to have a chance of making it long term, a distillery has to offer a good, aged product.  Desert Diamond Distillery has won medals for their barrel reserve rum four years in a row, so they’ve got a good start.  Judging by the barrels they’ve got aging currently, that run will continue.

Be sure to make Kingman a stop on your Route 66 road trip and fit in a taste and a tour at Desert Diamond Distillery.

Thank you to Go Kingman for hosting the Kingman portion of our trip along Route 66 and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Stop in at Desert Diamond Distillery along Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona for a tasting and a tour.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Get Your Sips on Route 66: Kingman Arizona Wineries

Stetson Winery You Are Here Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Northwestern Arizona wine country.  It just kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  The Route 66 town of Kingman, Arizona might seem like an odd place for wine tasting, but right now they’ve got two exceptional wineries and the hope and goal are that there will be a few more wineries opening in the near future so that Kingman will become a full-fledged wine country with multiple Arizona wineries.

The two wineries in Kingman, Arizona which are open to the public currently are Cella Winery and Stetson Winery.  These two Arizona wineries have a connection, but are very different, providing variety and contrast for wine tasting.

Cella Winery Glass Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Cella Winery was the first of the two wineries to open in Kingman.  Cella Winery is owned by Carlos Cella.  Cella’s parents were from Tuscany but immigrated to Argentina after the war.  Growing up in Argentina, Cella made wine, cheese, and tomato sauce with his family when he was a kid.  At the time, he viewed wine making as a chore, not a pleasure.  As a young adult, Cella moved to California, where he owned a body shop for 35 years.  When he retired, he decided to return to the traditions of his family and make wine.

Cella Winery Grape Crusher Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Cella is old school when it comes to making wine.  Almost every step of the process, from vine to bottle, is by hand.  The only electric machine he uses is a destemmer.  All of the grapes that go into Cella wines are crushed in a small hand-operated grape crusher.  Every bottle is corked by hand.  Every bottle is labeled by hand, which you’ll notice if you look carefully at the bottles that line the shelf as the labels aren’t perfectly straight or perfectly aligned.  All of the wine is made in the garage behind the tasting room.  The operation is similar to what you would expect in an Italian home making wine for personal use, except Cella’s wines are award-winning.

Cella Winery Wine Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Cella Winery is also not pretentious.  When explaining to a customer that blends are not fermented as blends, but rather are rather single varietals that are blended before bottling, Cella demonstrated by creating a blend from various bottles right in front of us.  He was so confident in his off-the-cuff blend that he let us all taste it.

Cella makes both estate wines made with grapes grown on his 10 acres in Kingman which were planted in 2008 and California wines made with grapes from his 25 acres in Temecula which were planted in 1990.  The estate wines include a Malbec, Zulma’s Moscato, which won first place at the 2015 Kingman Wine & Food Festival, a competition of Arizona’s best wineries, and a Late Harvest Chardonnay, a sweet high-alcohol wine.  The California wines include the Ruby Blend made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel, a Syrah which won second place, and the Gina Mia White Blend of Viognier, Muscat, and Chardonnay.

Carlos Cella Cella Winery Tasting Room Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

We’re used to starting with the lighter white wines and moving on to the bolder and heavier red wines when wine tasting.  It’s a little different at Cella Winery.  It’s best to start with the red wines, then finish with the white wines, which are on the sweet side. 

Cella’s love for his craft is easily apparent, and it is also contagious, especially when you see how much work and personal attention goes into the wines of Cella Winery.

Stetson Winery Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

A short drive away from Cella Winery is Stetson Winery, Kingman’s second winery which opened in 2012.  Stetson Winery is owned by Don and Jo Stetson.  Don Stetson and Carlos Cella used to be partners, but they had conflicting ideas.  Even though Stetson and Cella split to create their own separate wineries with completely different visions, they are still friends and the split has created the beginnings of a new Arizona wine country.  

Stetson Winery Tasting Room Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Stetson Winery is both a winery and event center.  The wine tasting room is in a large space that can also be used for weddings, holiday parties, and other events.  The grapes used to make Stetson’s wines are not grown on site.  The grapes for the three white wines and one rosé are from Southern Arizona near Willcox.  The grapes for the four red wines are from Paso Robles and Napa Valley.  However, Stetson’s Zinfandel, Unbridled, coming out in February 2016, is made with grapes grown on the property.  We got to taste a preview and it is good.  Stetson Winery contracts with vintner Eric Glomski to craft their wines.

Stetson Winery Wines Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

Stetson Winery embraces Arizona’s Wild West past and Kingman’s Route 66 legacy with their fun wine names and labels.  For instance, the Cultured Cowboy Chardonnay, a smooth Chardonnay with a pear flavor, features the silhouette of a cowboy holding up a glass of white wine.  The Root 66 Red is a play on grape vines growing along Route 66 and is a slightly spicy blend of six varietals.  One of my favorites was the Pink Pistol, a rosé blend with aromas of rose water and watermelon, and the perfect shade of rose petal pink.

Stetson’s wines are like Napa wines but for half the cost.  The Hop in the Cab Darlin’ Cabernet Sauvignon made with Napa Valley grapes is a very bold Cabernet.  But unlike the bottles of Cabernet that sell in Napa for $60 or more, Stetson’s sells for $29 a bottle.

Unbridled Zinfandel Stetson Winery Route 66 Kingman Arizona Wineries

While Stetson currently only has one wine made with grapes grown on the property, they are planning on making more locally grown wines and will introduce a new wine every year.

There is already another winery in the works in Kingman.  If Kingman can get five or six wineries making good wine, Kingman will have a bona fide wine country to attract wine lovers to this Route 66 town.  They’re certainly off to a good start with Cella Winery and Stetson Winery

Thank you to Go Kingman for hosting the Kingman portion of our trip along Route 66 and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Cella Winery and Stetson Winery are two Arizona wineries in Kingman, Arizona off Route 66 and the start of a new wine country in Arizona.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Local Beer For Your Manitowoc "Making A Murderer" Adventure

If internet discussion is a gauge to how many people have watched the documentary Making a Murderer, than I assume everyone on earth has watched the 10 part Netflix series. That means, assuming someone is reading this, that you have watched or at least heard of the show. Don't worry, I won't spoil anything for you. What I am here to do is get you ready for your journey to the actual city of Manitowoc.

"What is there to do besides look at a salvage yard?" 

"Do all of the folks in town sound like they came straight from the Fargo movie set?"

"Can I get a good beer after all of these questions have been answered?"

No matter how you feel about the shows outcome, it's time to discover this now famous city - outside of the salvage yard.

So lets dive in. One of the major features of Manitowoc is its location on Lake Michigan. While most of the documentary revolved around rural Manitowoc County, the cities of Manitowoc and Two Rivers border one of the greatest of lakes. That fact alone makes Manitowoc a draw for outdoor enthusiasts looking for boating, sailing or even paddling adventures. When you're out on the water, salmon fishing is very popular in Manitowoc. Manitowoc holds a Salmon Derby every summer, so if you want to test your sport fishing skills, make sure you look out for the dates of the derby.

The SS Badger coming into Manitowoc Marina photo via Rich Evenhouse
Beyond the recreational water fun, Manitowoc has a very unique Lake Michigan feature, a car ferry. The SS Badger offers daily service in the spring, summer and fall from Manitowoc to Ludington, MI and back. For anyone wanting to get back and forth between the 2 states, the car ferry is the most direct route and adds a little fun to your trip (plus you get to avoid Chicago traffic).

Just because it isn't Florida, doesn't mean there isn't a beach!  photo via Aaron Carlson
Getting in the water isn't your thing? Manitowoc also has a fantastic marina to relax at. Watch the sun rise on the breakwater or watch the boats go out for a daily catch. Down the street from the marina is a docked WWII US sub that you can tour along with the Wisconsin Maritime Museum that it is attached to. There is no museum that tells the history of Great lakes shipping like this museum. If sand is your idea of a good day, Two Rivers has miles of beach to spend building castles or skipping rocks.

With your recreation covered, it's time to tackle a little food before we get to the beer. You have never had a burger and fried cheese curds, until you have had them from Late's. Honestly, I don't care where you are from, your burger is just a little worse than the one you would be eating from Late's. Not a burger fan, try the double brat on a kaiser roll.

After you're done with that, your dessert is waiting for you at Beernstens Confectionary (yes if you're a fan of the show it is that Beernsten family). The ice cream sundaes and candy are the food of your childhood dreams. The buidling, and benches and snack bar area are all from a happier more simple time. Situated in the old downtown of Manitowoc, Beernstens is perfected located to walk to from any shopping or the marina.

The now infamous Manitowoc County Courthouse photo via Jimmy Emerson
But as always, our focus is filled with local booze filled dreams. And Manitowoc doesn't disappoint when it comes to the local beer department. For people stopping here on a Netflix quest, the local microbrewery is right across the street from one of the major features of the documentary, the Manitowoc County Courthouse (double bonus).

The Courthouse Pub is housed in a fantastic turn of the 20th century building. Before prohibition the building was a local beer hall. During and after prohibition the building was expanded and became a restaurant. Now the history of the building thrives as not only a restaurant, but also as the only microbrewery in the city. Conveniently located, the Courthouse Pub is impossible to miss (the courthouse dominates the area) and is steeped in history.

"But what about the beer?"

The Courthouse Pub has a rotation of around a dozen regulars and seasonal brews available at the brewery and for take out in a growler. Most of the time there are about 5 brews available on tap. Most of the brews have a fun name associated with justice (I will not comment on Manitowoc justice), and many of them are an innovative fun take on traditional beer styles. That's one of the reasons I love microbreweries, without the constraints of large production a microbreweries beer can be a little more "fun".

Fantastic beer awaits your stop at the Courthouse Pub
The secret to success though at the Courthouse Pub is that the traditional beers produced there are top class. You can't be innovative if you don't nail the originals and my favorite beer there is the Munich Helles. Many breweries don't bother with a true original like this light marzen style beer, but those who do have a lot to live up to. The Courthouse Pub does a wonderful job keeping this beer free of "over-bitterness", while still giving it a nice malt bill.

Another top beer for me at the Courthouse Pub is the Black Peppered Lager. For me it's a cross between a saison and a lager. It has all the body of German lager, medium boldness and easy to drink with a spicy finish that adds to that body. It's a very fun lager that doesn't go overboard in multiple flavors.

The team at the brewery has done a nice job of using seasonal fruits and veg as well, wait veg? yes there is a butternut squash ale that I unfortunately have only heard about from folks who have had it. I have had the summer raspberry ale though and can confirm that it is one of the few raspberry flavored ales that doesn't either taste like sweat socks or wine cooler. It's subtle in fruit but there beyond the aroma. Ability to use fruit and veg is important, and the Courthouse Pub nails it.

So there's a little taste of the Manitowoc I know. How does he know so much you may ask? Well, I've been traveling to Manitowoc my whole life. I was born there and it has been a place that I've gone back to with joy ever since I can remember. I haven't lived there since I was a baby, but I can confirm that I do say "yah" a lot and may even slip in a "dontchya know". If you told me 2 months ago that any of these things would have actually been pop-culture references (beaches in Manitowoc county, the county courthouse, Manitowoc) I would have called you nuts.  It really is a good town to make a stop in, especially on a Great Lakes tour, but more than anywhere, don't drink and drive after your solid local beer, I've heard the sheriffs department is tough to deal with.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Budapest’s Ruin Bars: If You Build It, They Will Drink

Szimpla Ruin Bar Passageway Budapest Hungary

We recently had the chance to visit Budapest, Hungary during a European river cruise with Viking River Cruises.  We would only be in Budapest for 24 hours, which isn’t much time, but we knew we had to squeeze in a couple visits to Budapest’s ruin bars (also known as ruin pubs, or romkocsma in Hungarian).  If you haven’t heard of the ruin bars of Budapest, you’re not alone, but if you’re interested in local bar and drinking culture, a visit to one or more ruin bars should be on your bar bucket list.

What is a Ruin Bar?

Shoes of the Danube Bank Budapest Hungary

A ruin bar is a bar built in an abandoned building or space.  But there is more to the story.  Budapest had a bustling Jewish community before World War II.  During the German occupation, Jews were moved into ghettos and the Arrow Cross Party abused, attacked, and murdered many of the Jews of Budapest.  There is now a memorial, Shoes of the Danube Bank, to the Jews who were lined up along the Danube River, ordered to remove their shoes, shot, and carried away by the river current.  Other Jews died in death marches and labor camps.  A large portion of Budapest’s Jewish community died during the Holocaust.

Jewish Quarter Mural Budapest Hungary

A number of buildings in the Jewish Quarter remained abandoned for decades.  After they were saved from being demolished, somebody had the idea to utilize these neglected spaces and make them something fun and trendy.  In came ruin bars, which helped revitalize Budapest’s seventh district.  Ruin bars are found in what were once abandoned buildings or spaces, and some have outdoor areas with picnic tables and beer taps.  During a Budapest ruin pub crawl, travelers can enjoy the colorful, alternative, and slightly gritty neighborhood with its street art and murals.

Budapest’s Original Ruin Bar

Szimpla Trabant Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

Szimpla Kertmozi is Budapest’s original ruin bar.  An old abandoned factory was converted into an open-air pub and reception space when Szimpla opened in 2002.  The opening of Szimpla started an alternative movement and 2003 to 2004 saw the boom of ruin pubs.

Szimpla is the funkiest ruin bar we visited.  It isn’t a one-room bar.  When you walk into Szimpla, natural light streams into the passageway.  To the left and right are separate rooms and cozy alcoves selling wine, beer, and spirits and offering a place to socialize with friends.  Near the back is an open space where concerts, shows, and events can be held.  Beyond that is a garden area with an old communist-era Trabant car that is now used as a seating area.  There are oddities hanging on the walls and from the ceilings, with something new to discover at every turn.

Other Budapest Ruin Bars

Kuplung Outdoor Area Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

Kuplung is another ruin bar in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter.  This one used to be an old car repair garage, but now it has a nautical theme with a giant whale in the bar and a whale mural outside.  The main bar is one large open space, but outside there are picnic tables with a view of the whale mural, all reached after passing through a long graffitied alleyway. 

Kőleves Kert Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

While some ruin bars are hidden and not readily apparent, requiring a stroll down an easily ignored alley, you’ll stumble upon others just by wandering through the Jewish Quarter.  During our stroll through the seventh district we happened upon Kőleves kert, which means Stone Soup Garden, an open-air bar.  This is a family-friendly ruin bar where both adults and children are welcome.

Kuplung Alley Entry Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

Corvintető, located on the rooftop of an old department store, has a view of the city and is also an underground dance club.  Grandio Bar is a ruin bar in a plant filled garden connected to the Grandio Party Hostel.  Instant is huge, with 26 rooms, seven bars, two gardens, and seven stages.  Other ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest include Dürer Kert, Fogasház, Super8, and Rackskert

What to Drink at a Ruin Bar

Pálinka Ruin Bars Budapest Hungary

When in Hungary, especially at one of Budapest’s ruin bars, be sure to order pálinka.  Pálinka is a traditional fruit brandy served in a shot glass.  If you order pálinka made with grapes, it is customary to drink it straight.  This kind of pálinka is called törköly and is one of the oldest types of pálinka.  It tastes like Italian grappa and can be pretty harsh.  If you order pálinka made with a fruit like apricot, plum, or cherry, you can order it with honey, which makes it a much smoother and more delicious drink.  Other drinks of choice include local Hungarian beer or wine, or a fun cocktail.

Kuplung Strawberry Daiquiri Ruin Bars Budapest Hungary

If traveling to Hungary’s capital city, be sure to visit the Jewish Quarter and one or more of its many ruin bars.  Even if you’re only in the city for one day, set aside time to visit Budapest’s ruin bars as they are unique to this European city.

Thank you to Viking River Cruises for hosting our trip to Budapest and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

A guide to the ruin bars of Budapest, Hungary.