I have never previously ranked or put together a list of my top beverage experiences before, but then I can’t recall ever having as full and exciting a year of cocktails, spirits and wine as I had in 2016! This mirrored and in some cases overlapped my top dining experiences of 2016 with the beverage experiences being major contributors to those final rankings. Unlike my restaurant listings, these rankings are not limited to restaurants. Bar, winery and distillery visits also played major roles, affording extra-special experiences and tastings. The final rankings here were influenced by food only in so far as the food may have affected the enjoyment of the beverages. For example a great wine pairing is the result of synergy between wine and food and can’t be truly had without both being stellar independently and especially together. I enjoyed many a great pairing of food and wine in 2016, but for this list, only the most exceptional pairings were included. Other restaurant inclusions occurred due to the quality of individual wines, which had not necessarily been specifically paired for the meals. In most of those cases, the wines were special bottles that had been brought to the restaurant by me or others just for the occasion.
Not included on this list, despite the fun I have playing with cocktails myself are the cocktails I make at Rascal & Thorn, my wannabe private club/home bar (#rascalandthorn on Instgram). That said, I would like to acknowledge a few products that were new to me in 2016 that I really hd fun with. While I really enjoy playing and creating my own riffs and cocktails, I have really got into Shake, Stir, Sip by my friend, Kara Newman. It is a very approachable and useful book of cocktail recipes based on equal proportions. The recipes are excellent and I highly recommend the book for anyone with more than a passing interest in making cocktails. My favorite cocktail from the book, previously unknown to me is the Mildred Pierce, a refreshing citrus and mezcal delight originally created by New Orleans bartendress Abigail Gullo. Three new-to-me spirits that brought my bar extra pizzazz in 2016 included Giffard Pamplemousse Liqueur (see the Mildred Pierce), Plantation Pineapple Rum and Ancho Verde, all of which offered fresh flavors for cocktail creation.
Edmundo Dantes 15 Year Old Cuban Rum
Cuban rums are legendary, but are difficult to find in the US. That is less the case in Key West, thanks to its proximity to the motherload. The Edmundo Dantes, purportedly a favorite of the late Fidel himself, was shared as part of a private dinner that was part of my Travel With Doc Miami/Key West trip last April. It was smooth, complex and heavenly with a heady perfume, a very, very special rum. Hopefully, we’ll have a bit of an easier time coming across more in the near future.
Richmond, Virginia Cocktail Crawl
Richmond, Virginia is a very happening, very cool small city with lots going on in the world of food and drink. I had the pleasure of a tour of some of the finer spots for both from the charming local food writer, Robey Martin. The food was great, but the cocktail culture is one of the finest I’ve encountered in the US with places like Heritage RVA, The Rogue Gentleman, Southbound, The Quirk Hotel, Rapp Sessions and others, using a combination of craft local spirits and creative imagination along with more traditional influences. A stay at the gorgeously renovated, centrally located Quirk Hotel took all possible stress out of the crawl.
I didn’t make it to many bars in NYC this year. Most of my urban cocktailing in the city occurred in restaurants. This was not a conscious decision, but more a matter of circumstance and timing. One bar that I did visit and had a fabulous time at was the classy, Japanese inspired Bar Goto from the amazing Kenta Goto. Kenta wasn’t there the night I visited, but the bar was in the assured hands of Mathew Resler. Bar Goto is small, dark and intimate. It’s cocktails are elegant, beautiful with a restrained aesthetic sensibility and above all delicious. It also has excellent bar food to go along with the drinks.
Selosse in Denia
This is an offshoot of another experience, even more highly ranked on this list. The Selosse was purchased off the wine list at Kaia Kaipe for a very reasonable fee then carried with the original intent to carry home as a souvenir. A late evening arrival in Denia and a light dinner of arroces changed that thought pattern and the bottle was broken open to enjoy at the moment and enjoy it, we did. The Selosse was yeasty and elegant with fine bubbles an a touch of citrus. This was simply a matter of celebrating our good fortune and our good times together. For that, it was all the more precious.
As wines go, sherry is probably even more of an acquired taste than most, but once acquired, it is hard not to love them and their incredible versatility with food. I’ve previously had the pleasure of visiting the illustrious Bodegas Hidalgo in Sanlucar de Barrameda, but on this trip, my latest Travel With Doc excursion to Spain, we visited the superb Bodegas Tradición in the heart of sherry country, Jerez, from whence sherry gets its Anglicized name. We tasted the gamut of their outstanding products, supplemented with some fine embutidos and topped off with a visit to their own outstanding gallery of Spanish art.
The Modern – NYC
The first of the wine focused restaurant meals on this list, the meal included fine restaurant cocktails, some well chosen wines from the restaurant list and a couple of special bottles from my cellar to celebrate my son’s 25th birthday. In this case, the wines, from 1991 included a Dominus and a Vega Sicilia. Both shone brilliantly, while the food proved more than worthy.
It was fun and instructive to taste a range of sherries from one producer at Bodegas Tradición, but the wine pairings at Aponiente – Angel León emphasized a wide variety of quality sherries in different styles, each of which was a dynamic match with the food for which it had been chosen. The sherries were not the only kinds of wine poured, but they were the most prominent and showcased the diversity of styles within.
Mezcal has become one of my favorite spirits both straight and in cocktails. At Hoja Santa, they have a great selection worthy of both approaches. With two dinners this year at Hoja Santa I got to explore the genre in depth and enjoyed them on their own and as a pairing with the food.
It’s great stuff by itself and in cocktails and in the middle of a great barbecue in NYC in front of Eleven Madison Park with the Crooners crooning? Hot damn!
Rye whiskey is hot and there are few that I like more than Whistle Pig, which is now based relatively nearby in Vermont. All of their aged product comes from Canada, though they have begun to make rye in Vermont. We were treated to a grand tour and tasting that ran the gamut of their bottlings including some stuff not on the market. It was a great tasting and a fun experience.
Bar Termini is a bit of an odd duck in that it is a caffé/cocktail bar, however, it does both with extreme elegance and a bit of Italian flair as envisioned by London bar legend Tony Conigliaro. Their series of pre-batched Negronis are extraordinary, but the magic of the place is the real sense of La Dolce Vita charm that it exudes.
Dandelyan in London is the epitome of a cool bar with a beautiful space, and imaginative, beautiful and above all, delicious cocktails. It was our first cocktail stop in London and one that I can’t wait to return to. This Ibérico Sour actually used the Ibérico “pechuga” Mezcal collaboration between Jose Andres and Del Maguey. It was absolutely marvelous!
The Broken Shaker
Miami and cocktails go hand in hand and nowhere more-so than at The Broken Shaker at The Freehand Hotel on Miami Beach. Add a cocktail workshop run by the extremely talented and supremely affable Randy Perez after a private tour of the facilities by the legendary Elad Zvi and the results were pure, delicious, quaffable magic.
Great Jazz, an intimate setting, wonderful company and pure pizzazz, made this a nightclub experience to remember! The cocktails were as much fun to look at and consider as they were to drink, and they certainly were much fun and very easy to drink. This was one of the most enjoyable bar experiences I’ve ever had.
Wine and food are made to go together. Kaia Kaipe in Getaria, the outstanding coastal fishing town in Spain’s Basque Country, near San Sebastian, is one of the very best places in the world to put the two together. Their wine list is extraordinary with sensational wines from sensational vintages at what are actually extremely reasonable, approachable prices to experience viniferous greatness. The food is pretty damn good too! We splurged on some older Rioja from stellar vintage’s, both white and red, and even bought a bottle of Jacque Selosse Champagne to go! This is as great a place to try a special, old vintage wine as anywhere.
Eleven Madison Park
My wife and I were married in 1986. Not long after the vintage was released, I bought a case of Lafite Rothschild to cellar away for special occasions. Thirty years later, we cracked this bottle at our Anniversary dinner at Eleven Madison Park. The bottle and the evening were extraordinary, especially augmented by another bottle from 1986, the Leoville Las Cases, opened by my son using hot tongs, wines from their cellar and some superb cocktails including their rolling Manhattan cart. It was truly a special evening and a special celebration with all of our children in attendance.
Ah, Betony, a great restaurant and cocktail bar, sadly now departed. My lunch experience in June prior to the World’s Fifty Best Restaurant Awards in NYC was special for the food, but even more for the cocktails, as that was my primary reason for being there. I got to try their full range of libations including their best of class, aged Milk Punch. What made this bar special was not just its imagination, but its dedication to the details and the quality of the underlying ingredients. This was uncompromising and showed up in the glass with some of the most delicious cocktails I’ve ever sipped. I will absolutely miss this place, but look forward to the next steps from the individuals who made it sing.
The restaurant was certainly an interesting experience to say the least, but that is not what made this list. The four of us each brought wines. Mine, a 1982 Cos D’Estournel and a 1992 Dominus were pretty darn special, but the star of the evening, the experience that made it all so magnificent was the 1964 DRC Grands Echézeaux contributed by Steve Plotnicki. It was a true giant of a wine, of a kind I may never get to experience again. This was aged Burgundy at its most extraordinary.
Pairings at Quique Dacosta
My experience at Quique Dacosta in Denia, Spain was seamless, especially when it came to the pairing of wine and food. The food was utterly magnificent and the wines, were each individually delicious and interesting. Together, however, both were even better, achieving true synergy in wine and food pairing above anything else I had ever experienced, especially given the complexity and sophistication of the food. Much thought and skill had gone into the pairings, which were not designed just to intimidate with famous names.
I had arranged a special visit and tasting at Sipsmith Distillery this past summer through my good friend, the legendary bartendress and cocktail giant, Audrey Saunders. I fully expected to taste some superb gins, but I could never have expected the experience poured for me by the great storyteller, master distiller and consummate “Dude,” Jared Brown, the master distiller behind the Sipsmith line. Jared, a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges regaled me with his fascinating life story, the development of Sipsmith and a full tasting of the spectacular Sipsmith line of gins as well as several superb cocktails including his sensational 4 ingredient Negroni mixed using a “Cuban pour” technique and his London Cup, a Sipsmith improvement on the venerable classic, Pimm’s Cup. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget!