Thursday, November 29, 2012

R.I.P. - My Pappy is Dead

The Van Winkle family collection (missing Van Winkle Reserve Rye)
Anyone who is mildly into bourbon has heard the name "Pappy Van Winkle".  If not, you must be living under a rock.  Bourbon is all the rage these days and the Van Winkle brand is the golden goose of the bunch.  A little history lesson for ya...  Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle made his mark as a whiskey salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons in the late 1800s, later purchasing the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in 1910 and forming Stitzel-Weller that distilled his own bourbon whiskey - Old Rip Van Winkle amongst other brands like Old Fitzgerald and W.L. Weller.  Prohibition hit and the Old Rip brand did not resurface until after 1972 when the distillery and its brands were sold off.  The Van Winkle family retained the rights to the Old Rip brand.  Julian Van Winkle Jr resurrected the Old Rip Van Winkle brand shortly after Stitzel-Weller sold, buying up stocks of his family's whiskey, a wheated recipe that imparts a smooth, sweet flavor.  In 1981, Julian Van Winkle III took the reigns of the family business.  In the early 90's, with whiskey an afterthought in a burgeoning rum and vodka market and many whiskey distilleries struggling, he saw opportunity.  He bought up barrels of his family's whiskey that had sat for years aging in charred oak barrels and introduced a premium aged bourbon under the Pappy Van Winkle name with the bottle bearing an image of his grandfather.  Boom!  Last year, Julian Van Winkle III won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional and it was well deserved.  Today, the Van Winkle family keeps the Pappy Van Winkle brand alive through a partnership with Buffalo Trace. 

Each year, a limited quantity of 7000 or so cases is released and states and their distribution channels are allocated a limited amount to sell to consumers.  Last year the chances of getting a bottle were somewhat slim.  Today it's damn near impossible without paying, in many cases, double what you would've paid last year or more.  It's the bourbon industry's hottest commodity, coming in bottles of 10, 12, 15, 20, and 23 years of age and fetching suggested prices of anywhere from $50 to $300 per bottle.  You've got to get lucky and/or have some cash to burn to get your hands on your bottle of Pappy.  But it wasn't always this way...

I remember a mere 2 years ago walking into Total Wine & Spirits, seeing a bunch of bottles of Pappy gracing the shelves, and purchasing one for my buddy, Chadzilla, for his birthday.  No frenzy, no fuss, no muss.  This year, I was at Total Wine & Spirits the day they got a few bottles in stock.  The Pappy Van Winkle 15yr bottle, a favorite of mine, last year sold at Total Wine & Spirits for a well-deserved and respectable $69.99.  This year?  Try $149.99.  The 20yr, a great bourbon at $89.99-$119.99, is now $199.99.  The 23yr somehow held the selling price of $299.99 on Total's shelves.

So why the price hike?  Well, like I said, bourbon is all the rage these days.  Pop culture has embraced bourbon whiskey and distilleries are producing like no tomorrow.  This is great for the industry.  After all, bourbon is the only spirit classified by Congress as a distinct product of the United States of America.  That means you can't get Chinese, Italian, Latvian, French, or Russian bourbon.  This juice must come from the good ol' US of A in order to bear the "bourbon" name.  More business is great for this American industry.  It creates more jobs.  But now what used to be a prize savored by enthusiasts has now become mainstream society's object of affection.  The Pappy that I once knew and loved is dead.  He's buried far underneath a pile of pop culture television shows and celebrities that have taken this prize usually reserved for appreciative enthusiasts and placed it in the limelight, many just to say they're the big man for drinking the best stuff.  Well, they broke rule #1 of Pappy Club and that don't talk about Pappy Club!

We make fine bourbon.
At a profit if we can,
at a loss if we must,
but always fine bourbon.
- Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle   

It's pretty simple math, really.  Take something that is limited and blab about it in the media where millions are exposed to it and...BOOM...demand far exceeds supply even more than it ever had with a cult following.  And what happens when demand exceeds supply?  Yes, that's right - prices increase.  You can't fault the producers.  They pay taxes on this whiskey as it ages in charred, white oak barrels for 10-23 years.  Why shouldn't they make the boku bucks?  Thing is, they really don't.  The ones who benefit are usually those on the distributor level or on the consumer level where people flip bottles on eBay and elsewhere for ridiculous amounts because there are those people out there ready to spend, spend, spend, who just HAVE to have the most expensive product out there.  After all, it must be the best if it costs the most, right?

Thing is - when it comes to Pappy Van Winkle bourbon - it is the best.  As frustrated as I've become with the chore of sourcing a bottle, I simply can't say it's not the best bourbon on the market.  I love the stuff.  I'm more than happy to have stocked up on bottles of the 15yr last year at a fair price.  I enjoy the hell out of them every time I pour a dram of Pappy, usually reserved for special occasions.  A bottle of the precious 23yr lasted me nearly 2 years, kept hidden away on my home bar to be poured in celebration only.  The 20yr expression is my favorite bourbon whiskey of all time.  I love that juice.

When I say "the best" I'm purely stating my personal opinion on the flavor of the bourbon whiskey that's in the bottle.  Is it the best value?  At the prices bottles of PVW are fetching today the answer is no.  I had a hearty laugh when the clerk at Total Wine told me the 15yr would be $150 this year, more than double it's cost on the very same shelf the previous year.  That was pure comedy to me.  But sadly, it was also confirmation that my Pappy is dead.  Part of what made PVW the best was that it was priced at a premium but that premium was still a somewhat accessible price.  The sensationalists who want to shell out $150 for a bottle of Pappy 15yr can have at it.  I'll happily take 6-7 bottles of Old Weller Antique, a bourbon made from the exact same wheated recipe as Pappy that is aged differently (age, rickhouse location) but bottled at the same exact proof, for the same $150 price.

Yup, you won't find me chasing after any Van Winkle bottles this year.  I've got a few stashed away in my bourbon bunker and I'm finding so many bourbons under $30 that I love that I really don't care to spend the extra dough.  I'm enjoying more and more great rye whiskeys for short money too.  I'm also loving other limited releases of single barrel and small batch bourbons like those the good folks at Four Roses are producing.  These days, there's a lot of fantastic stuff out there to be sipped and savored, too much to be chasing the ghost of a whiskey that was once

My Pappy is dead.  He was great and I loved him.  Still do.  But he's buried in the back of my bourbon bunker now.  I've moved on. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Dutch: Hurricane Sandy Relief Dinner

Living in South Florida, we are no strangers to hurricanes.  So, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast leaving millions in New York and New Jersey without power, it hit home.  Outside of residents, many businesses were affected and some totally destroyed.  As the storm exited and slow steps to recovery began, many chefs from the tri-state area and beyond took to Twitter to encourage diners to eat at their local establishments to help by supporting the businesses and the employees who count on those paychecks.

When my Cobaya co-conspirator, Frodnesor of Food For Thought, saw that Cobaya alumni Chef Andrew Carmellini (The Dutch NYC, The Dutch Miami, Locanda Verde, The Sausage Boss) had to cancel a dinner event, he offered our assistance in any way to put together a dinner to help raise funds for recovery efforts.  Chef Carmellini loved the idea and suggested we get local chefs onboard too.  About 72 hours and 384 emails later, we had all but dotted the I's and crossed the T's on a great plan to raise money for NYC Food Flood, an effort to aid Sandy victims started by Carmellini and fellow chefs Marco Canora, Seamus Mullen, and George Mendes.  An insane lineup of badass local chefs and generous auction prizes assembled quickly.  It was a hurricane of awesomeness in and of itself.

The all-star lineup of chefs who graciously donated their time, money, and talent in the kitchen were none other than Chef Aaron Brooks (Edge Steak & Bar), Chef Michelle Bernstein (Michy's), Chef Brad Kilgore (Route 9, Exit 1), Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog (gastroPod, Freehand), Chef Andrew Carmellini, Chef Conor Hanlon, & Chef Josh Gripper (The Dutch), Chef Richard Gras & Chef Antonio Bachour (J&G Grill), and also Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods had his gang from his food truck, AZ Canteen, park on the property to welcome guests wtih a couple bites.  What do all these chefs have in common besides rallying to support our fellow Americans affected by Hurricane Sandy?  Yup, you guessed it.  They are all Cobaya alumni!

In addition to these chefs donating their time they also donated gifts for the silent auction to raise additional dollars for the charity.  Other area chefs and businesses like Chef Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Harry's Pizzeria, Cypress Room *coming soon*), Bliss Spa, The W Hotel South Beach, South Beach Food & Wine Festival, The Bazaar, neMesis Urban Bistro, Miami Wine & Food Festival, Wolfe's Wine Shoppe, and Bourbon Steak also donated items to be auctioned off in support.  Oh, and we can't forget the fantastic welcoming cocktails provided by Bar Lab and The Dutch's own Rob Ferrara.

Perhaps the coolest part of the event for me though was my parents' spur-of-the-moment decision to fly down from Boston to take part in it.  It was awesome to get to share this great experience with them.

Unfortunately, I didn't get more than a couple of not-so-great pictures of the event and the dishes served.  I went for pure enjoyment.  To see more pictures of the dishes served, check out this link, courtesy of Food for Thought.  Anyways, here's how it all went down...

Guests arrived and were treated to an Andouille & Seafood Gumbo as well as a mini Cabrito Burger from AZ Canteen.  The gumbo was served up hot and hearty with nice flavor and a bit of heat.  My folks and I initially decided to pass on the burger for fear of filling up too quickly.  After all, there were passed canapes and then another 7 courses on the way.  However, there was only so many times that burger could float by without us giving into temptation.  It was well worth it.  The goat burger was juicy and flavorful which made me want another but I held tough.

The night started with cocktails in the grove
From the truck we were escorted to the back of The W property and into the grove area where the silent auction was set up along with the Bar Lab & Rob Ferraro cocktail bar where I had a fantastic Smokey Old Fashioned.  It was made with bacon-infused Knob Creek Rye mixed with a touch of maple syrup and BBQ as well as Angostura bitters.  I'm real picky about my Old Fashioneds but this one nailed it.  Perfect balance of the spicy liquor and sweetness of the syrup.  Chef Aaron Brooks' canapes were passed around and were my favorite bites of the night.  Each one was a huge home run!  Trout caviar sat on top of potatoes with a little squeeze tube of horseradish stuck in their sides to squirt as you popped the bite in your mouth.  Mini foie gras hot dogs with plum chutney exploded with flavor.  Lamb ribs slathered with a Thai BBQ sauce were tender as hell and came loose from the bone without much effort.  A bite of hamachi with pickled aloe vera and a bit of heat from some serrano chile was refreshing and fiery at the same time.  We were off to an awesome start!

After making a few initial bids we were seated outside on the terrace, 55+ diners enjoying the best of Miami weather.  Chef Michelle Bernstein was up first with a tuna crudo on top of burrata and a crostini.  Fresh and clean.  Then came Chef Brad Kilgore's lamb tartare profiteroles, the lamb being chopped nicely to be mixed with a creamy almond anglaise and some dill that added a fresh flavor that I loved.  Dad and I also loved Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's smoked mussels that were served with a trio of baby carrots with different textures and a carrot emulsion.  I loved the way the smoky and briny mussels played with the earthiness of the carrots.

Agnolotti with truffle
Chef Andrew Carmellini and Chef Conor Hanlon were up next with a masterful agnolotti dish.  The pasta was pillowy soft and packed with bolognese bianco and black truffle and then topped with more shaved truffle.  The beauty was that the truffle was subtle in flavor and added to the richness of the bolognese.  Delicious!  Chef Richard Gras originally planned for roast squab but adapted on the fly to a lamb belly dish served with parsnip puree that ended up being a great dish.

A cheese course consisting of a blue cheese macaroon got us ready for dessert.  I'll put my usual disclaimer here: I am not a dessert guy.  I don't have much of a sweet tooth.  However, the dueling dessert pairing by Chef Antonio Bachour and Chef Josh Gripper was a beaut!  Chef Bachour's side of the plate held a log of flexible caramel-chocolate along with some compressed apple, toasted caramel brioche, a nutty almost peanut buttery powder, some lavender petals, and caramel ice cream.  Chef Gripper's side of the plate showcased a lemon-lime coconut cake amongst compressed pineapple, lemon curd, and caramel-lime crema.  I really enjoyed the way the richness of Chef Bachour's dish was balanced by the acidity of Chef Gripper's dish.  It made for a delicious pair.

Wow, what a night!  It is incredibly humbling to be a part of Cobaya and be able to assist with an event like this that raises funds for those who are in need after a storm like Sandy.  The way the chefs here rallied together was just awesome.  Even more humbling was the support of our Guinea Pigs who pledged their support through buying tickets to the event and bidding on the many items up for auction.  At the end of the day, we were able to raise about $17,500 for NYC Food Flood!  Here's a HUGE thank you to Chef Carmellini and all of the chefs and donors who took part of the dinner and all of the people who supported this initiative thru ticket purchases and the silent auction.  Another GIGANTIC thank you to Elli Jafari, Katya Segovia, Jacque Burke, Patricia Jones, and all of the other staff at The Dutch who made an awesome event look easy to pull off AND who we learned donated their time for the night.

Learn more about NYC Food Flood here.

Here is a list of charities involved if you would like to assist with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Cobaya for a Cause: November 18th @ The Dutch, Miami Beach, FL

Local Miami Chefs to Join Andrew Carmellini for Dinner & Silent Auction November 18, 2012


Miami is no stranger to hurricanes, and when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast last week, thousands of businesses and residents were left struggling for survival.  In an effort to provide relief for the victims of ‘Sandy’, chef Andrew Carmellini and his team at The Dutch at W South Beach Hotel & Residences have teamed up with Cobaya – Gourmet Guinea Pigs, the organizers of Miami’s premier underground dining events, to gather renowned Miami chefs and businesses to join them in a five-course dinner and silent auction taking place Sunday, November 18, 2012.

“We got rocked up in New York, some much worse than others. Many people like myself have roots in both the tri-state and South Florida, so I knew I could count on the culinary talent of Miami for help. Cobaya has been instrumental in this rally,” says Carmellini.

Priced at $250 per person all-inclusive, the special evening will bring together some of our region’s most notable chefs including Antonio Bachour (J&G Grill), Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s), Aaron Brooks (Edge Steak), Jeremiah Bullfrog (gastroPod and the upcoming Freehand), Richard Gras (J&G Grill), Brad Kilgore (Exit 1) and Andrew Zimmern’s AZ Canteen joined by The Dutch’s stellar culinary team, chef de cuisine Conor Hanlon, pastry chef Josh Gripper and head bartender Rob Ferrara. Guests can expect signature dishes and chef favorites for each course, expertly paired with wine and cocktails and Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink will be on hand to pour his Michael's Genuine Home Brew and help out in the kitchen. . The evening starts at 7:00 p.m. with cocktails by BarLab and canap├ęs in the lush Grove at W South Beach followed by dinner on The Terrace at The Dutch.

All of the participating chefs are Cobaya alumni in one way or another, and we are thrilled by the incredibly generous and unhesitating response by local chefs to the call for help. We hope that our group of guinea pigs responds in the same fashion. We have a block of tickets that we are taking requests for and will conduct a lottery this Friday November 9, 2012 to fill available spots. Though this is pricier than our usual Cobaya events, it is a stellar lineup and a worthwhile cause, and we hope you feel the same.

We also encourage you to come ready to bid on some fantastic items for the silent auction, which will feature an array of items from hotel stays (W corner suite!!)  and spa days to autographed cookbooks (Schwartz's "Michael's Genuine Food", Hedy Goldsmith's "Baking Out Loud") and dinner certificates (The Dutch, Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Harry's Pizzeria, Edge Steak & Bar, Bourbon Steak, The Bazaar, and more!). Cobaya also will be contributing four guaranteed seats for a future Cobaya dinner to the auction.

ALL PROCEEDS from the dinner and silent auction will go directly to NYC Food Flood, a fund started in concert by Carmellini and fellow New York chefs, Marco Canora, Seamus Mullen and George Mendes, joining efforts to generate funds directed to relief efforts in their own backyard. You can follow NYC Food Flood on twitter @NYCFoodFlood.

To request seats, please email your request to and specify how many spots you would like. We will be conducting a lottery to fill our available spots on Friday November 9, 2012. You will then need to book your seats via PayPal by Monday November 12 (a link will be made availably on the Cobaya website). So please respond quickly if you're interested.

Please help Cobaya support this worthy cause.

The Dutch is located inside W South Beach Hotel & Residences, 2201 Collins Avenue, in Miami Beach, Florida, 33139.