Jerry Cooper on Off-the-Beaten Track Spirits

Jerry Cooper owns Swirl on Castro, a wine/spirits retail store and wine bar in the Castro district, and is an active participant in the wine and spirits world. He judges for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Panel, The SF International Wine Competition, and the SF World Spirits Competition.

My Cheers to a Splendid and Spirited 2009!

and a toast to all my friends!" Ok, if the truth be known, I just might join Tara Reid in rehab by the end of the month. As they say, "'tis the season," and for those of us who pride ourselves on being urban cocktailians, this is definitely the season to raise our glasses for a celebratory toast, over and over again.

As we are gunning up for the big New Year's parties, with glasses in hand, let's look at some off-the-beaten-path adult beverages. I am growing weary of the word "artisan," but we will take a peek at some handcrafted spirits that have recently landed in town that I am forecasting will soon be ingredients for the new 2009 cocktails (and stocked at your home bar).

Dark, rich, and divine

Nocino (no-CHEE-no) della Cristiana Walnut Liqueur (200ml, $24) is produced by a really sweet husband-and-wife couple in Napa Valley, Giorgio and Manbin Monteverdi. This labor of love is based on a traditional Swiss recipe using green (unripe) walnuts, grape brandy, and is infused with spices from around the world (with no artificial ingredients). It's super concentrated and nearly indescribable--closer to a digestivo than liqueur. Sip after dinner with cookies, and try adding Nocino (1 tbs. per cup) to sweetened whipped cream and serve over pecan or pumpkin pie.

Ring my belle.
Second on my shopping list is Belle de Brillet Liqueur (375ml, $30), a heavenly pear elixir from France. This Poire Williams au Cognac is sweet but not too too--and what's truly amazing is that it tastes exactly like freshly cut pears dosed with just a hint of Cognac. Ten pounds of pears are used to produce one 375ml bottle, no lie. I am not a sweet liqueur consumer (too many Grand Marnier hangovers in my youth), but I could take a bath is this stuff--and since it's only 30 percent alcohol, I can sip this to my heart's content on school nights. Serve neat (my preference, why mess with perfection?) or mix with cava or prosecco (don't mess with my Champagne) for celebratory bubbles. Someday I have got to try the ultimate (I imagine) pairing: Belle de Brillet and crêpes flambées. Find a bottle of this stuff, you can thank me later.

Pass the bong

My recommendation on the "green" list; the artisanal (I know, I know) vodka called Crop Harvest Earth (750ml, $32.50). Okay, now, let's put on our Birkenstocks and talk about this. This is a true USDA-certified organic product, distilled "with great care" from certified-organic grain grown on America's plains, and distilled in Princeton, Minnesota. We took this vodka on a taste test, and it passed with flying colors. Crop is very clean and pure, with good depth and character, great viscosity, and some real twang on the finish--comparable in style to Ketel One.

Also interesting is the fact that Crop is distilled "so efficiently" that no carbon treatment or charcoal filtering is required. I think we are safe to assume that this is good for the planet; less charcoal must be better, right? They also make a cucumber vodka and a tomato vodka. With so many vodkas on the market, and even with our ringing endorsement, we are not sure this will be a big hit outside Berkeley and Madison But I say go for it. Ask for it by name: CROP.