Brace yourselves — this post isn’t about wine. Shocking, right? But it is about alcohol and buying it online.
I’m pleased to introduce you, our First Vine customers and blog readers, to Federal Spirits, an online-only purveyor of American craft spirits. Owner Charles Benoit is an international trade attorney who did some work for the American Distilling Institute. In the process he got to know some of the craft distillers, many of whom didn’t sell their product outside the states where it was produced.
Does all this sound familiar? It’s pretty much the story of how we started First Vine.
Federal Spirits is now the second internet-only alcohol business in DC, offering delivery to your door (provided you’re over 21, of course). First Vine and Federal Spirits are both lucky to be selling at a time when people are more interested in how their food is produced, where it comes from, and the people who make it. Just like with our wines, each producer has a story that helps customers feel a connection to them and to the spirits they make.
Cy and I met Charles a few weeks ago. He reached out to let us know that learning about First Vine had made it easier for him to set up Federal Spirits, and he gave us a bottle of Atelier Vie Toulouse Red Absinthe from New Orleans as a thank-you. It just happened that Cy and I had been planning a New Orleans-themed dinner, so we were happy to have the makings of a welcome cocktail.
I looked on Atelier Vie’s website for drink recipes and found the Toulouse Red Sazerac, a version of the official cocktail of New Orleans (declared by the Louisiana State Legislature in 2008) made with Toulouse Red. The cocktail is famous not only for its flavor but for the way it’s made. Instead of measuring a specific amount of absinthe into the cocktail, you pour a splash of absinthe in the glass and swirl the glass to coat the bottom and sides, pouring out the excess. Then you add the other ingredients (whiskey, simple syrup, and bitters). This gives the drink a little more character than mixing the absinthe right in, you get the different flavors at different points in your sip.
(The Sazerac is a wonderful cocktail — think of the absinthe flavor as a grown-up version of all those black jelly beans most of us wouldn’t eat as kids. The licorice flavor and herbs are just the right accent for the sweetness and the whiskey. If they ever make this into a jelly bean flavor, it’ll be on my wish list.)
I e-mailed Jedd Haas, President of Atelier Vie, for food pairing ideas. He suggested that since fennel is one of the predominant herbs in Toulouse Red, a savory fennel appetizer would be a great accompaniment.
We’re lucky to have the kind of friends who take food ideas and go with them. Our friends Eric and Brett made a dip with fennel and Parmesan from a Martha Stewart recipe, and it was great with the Sazerac. They didn’t puree it, which gave it a nicer texture. I’ve simplified it even more, since Martha puts the dish in the oven to roast — if you’re making this in warm weather (and I hope you will), you may not want to use the oven if you don’t have to. And if you’re not in the mood for a cocktail, you can pair the dip with Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon ($13) or Cave la Vinsobraise Grenat ($13). (I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about wine, but I can’t help myself…)
(Makes lots of hors d’ouvre-sized servings)
3 fennel bulbs
1 large onion, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
Water, beer, or vegetable stock
Trim the stalks of the fennel where they meet the bulb, and trim off a little of the root end. If there are fronds on the fennel, finely chop 2 tablespoons of the fronds and set them aside. Go over the outer part of the fennel bulbs with a vegetable peeler, removing the tough parts and any discolorations. Then cut the bulbs in quarters through the root end and cut out the core from each piece. Cut the fennel into 1/2-inch pieces.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large non-stick skillet that has a lid. When the oil is shimmering, add the onion and fennel, along with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and some pepper. Stir for a minute to coat everything. When it’s all sizzling, put on the cover and turn the heat down to low. Cook without touching it for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, remove the lid and stir in the garlic. The onion and fennel may be starting to brown a little, that’s OK. If there’s a lot of browning and you see a lot of brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan, then add a couple of tablespoons of water, beer, or vegetable stock and stir everything up. Get it all back to sizzling, put the lid on, turn the heat down and cook for 15 to 20 minutes more, until it’s all very soft.
Remove the lid and turn up the heat to medium-high. Get everything nicely browned, and then add a little more liquid to the pan and stir to get up the brown bits and moisten it all. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese. Put the lid back on for a minute to let the cheese melt. Stir, taste for salt and pepper, and transfer to a serving dish. Let it cool for a couple of minutes, then drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle the chopped fennel fronds on top.
Toulouse Red Sazerac
(makes one cocktail)
Ingredients: 2 ounces whiskey (preferably rye whiskey), 2 dashes bitters (preferably Peychaud’s, since they’re from New Orleans), 1 tablespoon simple syrup (bring equal volumes of sugar and water to a boil, stir to dissolve, and let cool), Toulouse Red Absinthe, ice, twist of lemon
Equipment: 2 rocks glasses, strainer
Fill one of the rocks glasses with ice and let it sit for at least 5 minutes. Then, combine the whiskey, bitters, and simple syrup in the other rocks glass and stir. Pour the ice from the first glass into the whiskey mixture. Add a splash of absinthe to the chilled glass and then, over a bucket or the sink, swirl the glass to coat the bottom and sides with the absinthe. Pour out the rest. Strain the whiskey mixture into the absinthe-coated glass, then add the twist of lemon.