Taste 5: Cider

What goes around might indeed come around, but in the case of cider, a once quite-traditional drink in America, the renewed interest is crazy – people are drinking the stuff up like it was colonial times.

Consumers seem to love that it’s not quite a wine (though it’s made similarly, from orchard fruit, usually apples), not quite a beer, but something in between, with lower alcohol than many wines and less heft than what’s oft confronted in craft beer.

Produced for centuries in England and France, cider is typically made by pressing and mashing just-picked apples into juice and then adding yeast to kick off a wine-like slow, cool fermentation. The fermented apple juice is then aged, sometimes in wood barrels, which can add subtle notes of spice and vanilla, just as in wine.

In the United States, cider was consumed in great quantities all the way up to Prohibition, which drove many cider apple farmers to plant sweeter apples to eat.

The hold-up in making traditional cider these days has much to do with the scarcity of traditional apple varieties, as well as a nagging perception that cider is bound to be sweet. The best new examples in our view are dry, tannic and complex, with just a subtle jolt of fizz, inspired by the ciders traditionally made in Normandy, as well as England’s West Country, with a New World twist.

Bittersweet apples are high in tannin and sugar but low in acidity, while bittersharps are high in tannin, sugar and acidity. Some favorites types include Muscat de Bernay, a bittersweet from Normandy; Nehou, a tannic bittersweet also from France; and Roxbury Russet, an ancient American cider apple that’s sweet yet complex. Gravensteins, first planted in Sonoma County in 1811, are another lovely choice.

In this Taste 5 we picked two favorites, because two of the five were so different, yet equally compelling.


Our bold, adventurous favorite was William Tell Hard Apple Cider with Pinot Grigio (ciderbrothers.com) made by Cider Brothers in Lodi. We liked that yes, of course, it was cider-esque, but it had an element of surprise, which once revealed, turned out to be Pinot Grigio. This is their signature cider, which they keep light and bright, using five types of apples from the Walla Walla Valley, including Granny Smith and Red Delicious.

Our other favorite was much more classic in style, dry, tawdry and full of crisp apple flavor. Horse & Plow Heirloom Cider ($15, horseandplow.com) comes from Sonoma County, where the producer also makes wine from organically farmed vineyards. For this, they fermented different kinds of heirloom apples separately, then blended and bottled it all together for a traditional and delicious result.

Taste 5: Absinthe


Beware the wormwood. Or at least that’s what enough government bodies decided was scary enough to ban Absinthe altogether, entirely, from our lives, for decades of time. It was St. George Spirits in Alameda that cranked up the Absinthe machinery again, on December 21, 2007, on the anniversary of Prohibition’s Repeal, the first legal producer in the United States since 1912.

Once thought to be hallucinogenic, this high-proof herbal liquor was banned by the federal government in a prohibitionist frenzy because of the wormwood. Wormwood contains thujone, a chemical compound detractors suspected was the culprit that sent imbibers into wild, green-fairy-filled delusions and made them crazy. There’s been a longing for it ever since.

It was around the same time that Absinthes from France and Switzerland started making their way back into America as well, with Lucid, Absente and Kubler among the first. The Europeans continue to make most of the Absinthe found in bars and store shelves.

It’s known for its strong essence of anise, and indeed most producers are incorporating handfuls of botanicals into their version of the spirit, from star anise to fennel. Traditionally, it has been enjoyed with a sugar cube, melted slowly into the glass. But the sugar might have been a lazy way of cutting through the spirit’s harshness, when not well made.

Related, anise-based spirits made without wormwood include the popular Pernod, which is a brand of pastis, very popular as a summertime quaff in the countryside of France.

It’s better straight, with just a couple of ice cubes, which will help develop a louche layer and cascades of oils wafting off. Then more water is best added. Anyhow, we tasted through several straight up like a couple of Rimbaud-ready rock stars.

Duplais Swiss Absinthe Blanche Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger

Duplais Swiss Absinthe Blanche we found to be a well-integrated, complex smooth operator, the recipe based on 19th-century French distiller P. Duplais’s distiller’s manual. It uses both Pontarlier and Swiss wormwood, comingling them with a bitch’s brew of botanicals also grown in Switzerland. The water? From the Alps, of course. Clear in color, we loved it all on its own, no ice or sugar required.

Our runner-up, Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger, is based on a recipe that dates back to 1897. We were lured in by its powder keg of cinnamon and nutmeg, warming notions that gave us comfort despite its intensity. Pontarlier and Swiss wormwood figure in, but the most interesting side note is that Emerson, Lake and Palmer used the same painting found on the label for their 1970s-era album, “Brain Salad Surgery II.” If that doesn’t make you want to take a sip, nothing will.

Taste 5: Ginger Beer and Ale

Ginger Beer and Ale

Okay, so as two Americans brought up during the golden age of soda, before Tab was deemed cancer causing and high-fructose corn syrup invaded every other sugary can, ginger ale was often thought of as the cure to whatever ailed you, whether that be childish fever or very grown-up morning-after hangover.

It took a certain sophistication, and introduction by a good barback, ideally, to help discover the tangy, spicy and sophisticated complexity that can be ginger beer, a wholly different category more common to Europe and Australia.

Bundaberg Fever Tree

According to the makers of one of our two favorites of this Taste 5, Bundaberg, ginger beer is made from dried ginger root ground to a crumbly flour. Then something disgusting sounding, a wort, is made by combining the ground ginger with cane sugar and water. The whole is heated and fermented with yeast, yep, just like beer. Bundaberg then ages the concoction, which is fully concentrated at this point, giving it time to mellow and mature. Water is added before bottling to dilute the heady stew.

We loved its gentle ginger-y qualities and inviting spiciness, making us feel anything but sick. Instead, rather alive. Nice.

Our other favorite ginger experience was a bit of a surprise, though I don’t know why. Fever Tree ginger ale has long been a quality product and we’re big fans of just about everything they do. I guess just in tasting a line-up of five ginger drinks it was more of a revelation. We’ve probably taken it for granted all this time – classic in its proportion of gingery spiciness with refreshingly smooth carbonation and length. Made from ginger sourced in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, it’s yummy, for sure. Get the rum, a Dark & Stormy is your logical next step.

Taste 5: Cava and Prosecco

In the world of Champagne alternatives, there’s American sparkling wines, made often in a methode Champenoise style; there’s Cava, the class of Spanish sparklers also made in a traditional method; and there’s Prosecco, one of the hottest segments in the marketplace right now, and Italy’s gift to the bubbly world.

Cavas and Proseccos are often much cheaper than their French and American sparkling counterparts, meant to be quaffed and not overly pondered, but we found in our Taste 5 some higher-end offerings as well.

Top Picks
Maybe we just have expensive tastes, but our winner ended up being the Segura Viudas Cava Brut Reserva Heredad, made from the first pressings of the producer’s higher-quality base wines. It’s then aged on lees for over two years. It ranges in price at around $25, which is an amazing price for the quality and intrigue of this fine Cava. We just loved its mix of honey goodness on the palate and floral prettiness.

Our runner-up, funny enough, is another Cava and another Segura Viudas: the Segura Viudus Brut, a fresher, fruitier option that was equally delicious if not quite as showy. The fact that it can be found for around $10 makes it a screaming deal and a wine well worth stocking for your next party.