Upcoming Wine & Spirits Seminars

For those of you who don’t know, not only do I spend time working on my personal beverage blog, but I also have the glitzy position of Director of Marketing & Education at the Divine Wine Emporium here in the shoreline village of Niantic, CT. With fall coming up, it means we start rounding up guest speakers from different wine and spirits companies to tell good stories and of course, pour samples for us to try.

So let me be a shill and give some press to Divine Wine today. Our calendar is filling up fast, and we are getting the festivities started tomorrow night. The guest speaker programs are typically free, while our in-house educational sessions require a fee of some kind. Here’s a rundown of what we have coming up, and if you are in town give a call to Divine Wine at (860) 691-1053 to RSVP for any of the programs below.


Thursday, September 20th, 7:00pm (Cost: $0): Single Cask Nation & More. Josh Hatton, founder of Single Cask Nation and Northeast Regional Manager for ImpEx Beverage, will be talking whisk(e)y with us. He has seven whiskies in total to share, two of which come from Single Cask Nation. Other products include Kilchoman and Isle of Skye from Scotland and Ohishi from Japan. Josh is a great guy, who I got to know back in March at a trade tasting with Skurnik Wines & Spirits.


Wednesday, September 26th, 7:00pm (Cost: $0): Piazzo Winery. We welcome this outstanding producer of Piedmont wines to the classroom. We already carry the Piazzo Barolo, and we will be tasting a range of other wines from the region (expect this to be a red wine-leaning seminar). Marco, the grandson of Armando Piazzo who is heavily involved at the winery, will be our presenter for the evening.


Wednesday October 10th/17th/24th, 7:00pm (Cost: $100 for the three sessions): Wine 101. The Boss himself, Ken Turcotte, Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET Advanced Level III is running his tremendous foundation wine course that he has taught to nearly 1,000 students over the last 16 years. He covers everything from field to bottle in a fun, casual setting over three Wednesdays in October. The tuition covers all study materials and wines that will be tasted.


Thursday, October 25th, 7:00pm (Cost TBD): Gin Lane 1751. Geoff Curley, founder of Gin Lane 1751, is extremely passionate about gin and works to not only build his brand, but to promote the gin category. He will be offering a full seminar on gin, complete with sampling four products, and providing practical know-how in the form of cocktails, classic and modern.

Anything Goes: Recapping Gin Class

You know it wasn't that long ago that I gave you an overview of what to look for with gin. I also shamelessly plugged a class that I led this past Friday, where we had a great night of education and fun. As we tasted through our lineup of gin, there seemed to be a common theme on display:

Anything goes.

That's right. Gin can show itself in a near-infinite number of ways. Sure, the foundation botanicals such as juniper will be present, but anything that grows in the ground can go into a gin. Aside botanical choices, there is an increasing number of barrel-aged gins that are on the market. Barrel choices (new, used, ones that held Sherry/Bourbon/wine, etc) further impact the flavor of your gin.

The funny thing about all of these permutations of gin is that they are generally categorized in two styles.


  • London Dry Gin: All flavorings must be added through redistillation of a neutral grain spirit. If this process is followed in another part of the world outside of London, it will be noted as [insert location here] Dry Gin. Examples: Tanqueray London Dry Gin, Bluecoat American Dry Gin, Bruichladdich The Botanist Scottish Dry Gin.


  • Distilled Gin: Flavorings may be added after the redistillation process. Examples include Hendrick's and Brockman's.

Let me share with you what we tasted on Friday. I have several here for you that are definitely worth seeking out. Sometimes the best way to get to know gin is to give them a shot. I have given you an idea of what to expect in each one.

Aviation Gin ($29): This Oregon brand works with a local spice company to source its botanical recipe. Aviation contains juniper, coriander, anise, sweet orange peel, lavender, and cardamom. With the price of Hendrick's Gin creeping up to $45, Aviation can step right in as a less expensive alternative. Even though the flavors are different from the cucumber and rose petal notes of Hendrick's, Aviation has the same softness on the palate and muted juniper flavor.

Edinburgh Seaside Gin ($39): A Scottish Dry Gin, the Seaside used to be a seasonal/specialty product. It became so popular that it ended up landing as a year-round offering in the core range of products. Aside from juniper, coriander, and cardamom, local vegetation found on the Scottish coastline is included. Scurvy grass (loaded with Vitamin C to prevent scurvy back in ye olden days), ground ivy, and bladderwrack (a seaweed that has a name that's just fun to say) are all in this gin, along with Grains of Paradise (an aromatic floral-peppercorn berry native to West Africa). Sea salt and grassiness are noticeable. Citric notes come through thanks to the scurvy grass and the coriander; Indian and Eastern European coriander can have varying levels of citrus aromas and flavors.


Berkshire Mountain Distillers Ethereal Gin Batch 13 ($35): I always like to include a local or regional spirit in my lineups. This gin comes from western Massachusetts; the Ethereal is a varying recipe, changing with each batch's release. Throwing something like this is always fun to do as it really tests your senses. Sage, rosemary, and citrus came through in this one for me. Others noted some black licorice. A great conversation starter that would be great to break out at a party full of gin geeks like us!

St. George Spirits Botanivore ($35): For those who are fans of the pungent Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire, this is a fantastic American take on their products. Not only does St. George capture the strong juniper nose, but the earthy angelica roots and the anise comes through cleanly, too. In addition to these botanicals, there are another sixteen in the recipe, including bay leaf, cilantro, caraway, dill, and ginger just to name a few. St. George also has two other gins: The Terroir (with lavender and herbs, very approachable) and The Dry Rye (made from a spirit based on rye instead of wheat). All three are available in a gift pack that your friendly local retailer might be able to order for you!

St. George Spirits Dry Rye Reposado ($42): Our barrel-aged example for the night. Take the Dry Rye described above, where the botanicals are simple, but assertive (juniper, citrus peels, caraway, black peppercorns). Then age in French and American oak barrels that previously held Grenache and Syrah wines. The result is a complex array of flavor; the barrel imparts just a touch of apricot and strawberry jelly to go with the botanicals, the aromatic citrusy quality of the rye, and a noticeable (but not overwhelming) woodiness. This is a great entry point for you to try a barrel-aged gin.

Gin: You Win

As a consumer of alcoholic beverages, notably in the spirits category, you are in a great position. So many of the classics are being revived thanks to the craft spirit industry combined with a new appreciation for cocktails. Rye whiskey is certainly one of them as the style was on life support as recently as twenty years ago. Tequila has re-emerged thanks to the popularity of margaritas. But perhaps no spirit has seen the benefit of the craft spirits industry and cocktails more than gin.

Gin: not just a card game played by Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam

Gin: not just a card game played by Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam

Gin started out, like the majority of spirits, as a way to cure various ailments of post-Renaissance era Europe. The juniper berry, the main (and most distinct) flavor and aroma of gin, was thought to help with stomach issues and also help fend off the pestilence known as Black Death. Juniper-based tonics were thought to originate in Holland, but when William of Orange took the throne of England in 1689 its popularity spread throughout the country. Since his first point of order was to declare war on France, brandy was no longer available. To find a new source of revenue, William encouraged distillation, production, and sale of gin. By the way...William allowed anyone on the street to do this.

The guy responsible for the Gin Craze in England, for better or worse.

The guy responsible for the Gin Craze in England, for better or worse.

As a result, 12 million liters of product was being distilled in London alone, a city with a population of 600,000 people. Think about that for a minute. There was half a liter of gin for every man, woman, and child (yes, child) to consume each week! Gin took over London in a negative way, with criminal activity, lack of economic growth (since everyone was hammered on gin and not working at their jobs), and overall chaos consuming the city. Gin production was lacking so much in oversight, you had recipes that included alum, sulfuric acid, turpentine! Add a sweetener to disguise the chemicals, and you were in business!

It took a good forty years to get under control, but in 1761 government regulations made it so that the major distillers were the only ones permitted to produce gin. A dry style, the type we are familiar with today, was developed by the early 1800s. Juniper berries remained a major part of production, but other botanical elements like coriander, angelica, and orris roots became the "big four" ingredients in a wheat-based distillate in the modern style of gin. While those four ingredients formed the base of gin, today's distillers have taken some interesting alternative approaches to creating a wide range of examples that have clean flavors and intense aromatics not necessarily dominated by juniper. Citrus peels, berries, cucumbers, rose petals, cinnamon sticks, cardamom...anything from the spice rack could conceivably end up in your gin, much better than discovering turpentine in there!

For the longest time, I was not a fan of gin. Maybe I was too young the first time I tried it and I wasn't ready for the onslaught of aromatic power. Today, I couldn't be a bigger advocate of gin. Tanqueray, one of the most juniper-forward gins out there and my first sample of the spirit way back when, can be polarizing with its sharpness and piney aromatics. Some of you love it. Others can't stand it, but that leads to a thought that all gin is made in that style. Fortunately for you, the resurgence of this spirit once considered to be the scourge of London has led to some innovation where you can find a level of juniper that agrees with you. Its transparency of flavor is fantastic for cocktails. The martini is a classic (remember...if your martinis have vodka in it, those are "vodka martinis"). Gin and tonic with a lemon or lime is a simple way to enjoy it. You can go big with a French 75, where Champagne is involved in the recipe. The huge range of styles of gin as your base material combined with other mixers leads to countless permutations of cocktails. Gin is light and refreshing...perfect for the warm days we have coming up here in the northeast. Hell, if you like your gins neat, you can now find barrel-aged examples, which is a whole other animal to deal with.

Is this a comprehensive guide to gin I just presented you? No, not at all. If I get all the cocktails out there in this post, that's admittedly cutting into our future discussions. Additionally, I will be going into more details on production when I run my Gin 101 course at the Divine Wine Emporium on June 2nd, 7:00pm (how's that for a shameless plug!). I can't give away all my secrets.

What I can give you today are some gins to get started. You claim you do not like gin, but that just means you haven't found the right one yet. I am here to introduce you to some gin that will help you gain an appreciation for this flavor-packed white spirit. Gin won me over in the end, and one of these will win you over, too.

Bluecoat American Dry Gin ($27): This is an American take on the styles created by Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, and the like. Bluecoat, made by Philadelphia Distilling, uses juniper, coriander, angelica, and citrus peels to create a balanced, yet lively gin. This is our house gin as the price is completely reasonable when compared to the larger brands.

Hendrick's Gin ($36): This Scottish gin is infused with cucumber and rose petals after the distillation process is complete. Aside from the typical ingredients, elderflower and chamomile are part of the recipe. As a result, Hendrick's is floral with the juniper tempered on the nose. The palate is soft and gentle. This is always the gin I recommend to those who claim they don't like gin.

Brockman's Gin ($35): Another Scottish gin, Brockman's infuses blueberries, blackberries, and almonds. This is very different from the two listed above, but this fruit-forward style can be a fantastic ingredient in a cocktail like a Negroni. The strong berry notes are a nice foil to the bitterness of Campari and a great way to start a cocktail party.

Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill "Tom Cat" Barrel-Aged Gin ($50-ish)

Want to try a barrel-aged gin? This is the way to go. Caledonia uses a corn-based spirit instead of the traditional wheat for gin. The second distillation includes honey since this Vermont distiller is also a beekeeper. After just three months in barrel, the gin shows a richness on the palate that is not typical of gin thanks to the corn base and honey combination. The juniper still comes through; any more time in barrel would kill the aromas. This is a real treat...seek this one out if you are into aged spirits!

A Salute To My Other Side

With a last name like Ambrosini, it is obvious that Italy makes up my family background. Italian culture didn't necessarily rule my house as a kid, but it certainly made an impact on me. Wine was not a huge part of my upbringing, but it was present here and there, mostly on special occasions. Food, on the other hand...that was an Olympic sport at Casa delle Ambrosini, as well as at the homes of my extended family (that will get a post on its own someday, because it is a well-deserved epic tale of eatery).

Photo credit: Rick Steves

Photo credit: Rick Steves

But today, I focus on the other part of my own cultural makeup. That is correct, I am not 100% Italian. My family history also traces back to one of Europe's most popular battlegrounds, Belgium. Yes, Belgium. Outside of my own family, I know of no one else in my social circle who is Belgian, and I love it. The reason for a post about Belgium today is that my one surviving grandparent (my father's mother) just celebrated her 92nd birthday this week. A Belgian native, she came to the U.S. in rather dramatic fashion, being whisked away as a teenager from the perils of World War II by my grandfather. They fell in love, started a family in pre-gentrified Brooklyn, New York, and the rest is history.

This story compelled me to learn more about this "Low Country," both as a kid and as an adult. I did research projects for grade school on World War II (where my grandmother was an unbelievable resource). I went to Belgian cafes and restaurants; Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia is one that immediately comes to mind as a great place for beers and Belgian cuisine.

Here at Flight School wine is a big part of what we discuss, but wine is not made in any real quantity in Belgium. It is, however, consumed at a rate of about 30L per capita (or three times that of the United States). Perhaps this explains my affinity for adult grape juice, but let's not forget about those delightful Belgian beers.

Trying to describe and pinpoint one style of Belgian beer is nearly impossible, sort of like blanketing "Italian wine," because you have a ton to choose from in the Belgian category. You could find any of the following: Trappist-style and Abbey-style; Blonde, Pale, Strong Pale and Strong Dark; Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel; Saison, Lambic, Flemish Sour Brown and Flemish Red...the list goes on. Now I am no authority on such subject matter, but if you need a resource I highly encourage you to visit the Beer Advocate style page. You will get to know all of the differences in styles and see examples from a wide range of producers.

As for spirits, Gin and fruit liqueurs are what you will typically find here in the United States. Prior to gin, Belgium was producing the predecessor to gin known as Jenever, which a distilled malt wine that has a richer, earthier flavor than gin's refreshing aromatic character. Within the last year, I encountered Belgian gin for the first time...and I couldn't have been happier to have done so.

From a food standpoint, mussels cooked in beer are one of my favorites. Sausages, pommes frites, and countless other seafood are delicious, too. You also can't forget about a huge array of chocolate and pastries for dessert.

So I raise a glass to my grandmother today with some tasty choices for you to try.

Saison Dupont ($10, 750 mL): Golden, citrusy, yeasty, and light-bodied with a touch of hops. An easy one to knock down, and the first Belgian beer I ever tasted.

Chimay Cinq Cents ($11, 750 mL): Peachy, malty, and loaded with green herbs and spices. While on the richer side, it is well-balanced with zestiness and refreshment.

Ommegang Dubbel Abbey Ale ($10, 750 mL): This is a sort of New World take on an Abbey-style ale, brewed with licorice, coriander, and orange peel. Very refreshing despite 8.5% abv and a fine way to usher yourself out of the winter.

Domaine des Quatres Routes Muscadet ($14): I had to throw a wine in somewhere, and this light-yet-creamy Loire Valley white wine makes a great partner with steamed mussels (mentioned above as a Belgian food staple) or clams.

Belgin Speciale Dry Gin & Dry Hop Gin (about $25 each): I would put the Speciale up against any of the larger brands. 17 different botanicals are used, but I definitely notice the cloves, thyme, and cardamom in this. Very clean and fragrant. The Dry Hop Gin adds a substantial amount of Belgian hops to the recipe, resulting in a fuller-bodied gin with a pleasant bitterness. The Dry Hop can be consumed either in a cocktail or on its own.