Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What’s your VICE?

Martini’s are one of those timeless classics – like Gone with the Wind is to movies or the plays of William Shakespeare are to live theatre. In recent years, bartenders have started to experiment with the traditional recipe and have created many delicious, sometimes interesting, cocktails to entice their clientele. Everything from Cosmos to Appletini’s to Icewine Martini’s can be found on Martini lists throughout Canada these days. So, now I have a question to pose to you…

Have you ever had an Icewine Martini?

Back in 2002, Allan Schmidt, President of Vineland Estates Winery, was on a business trip in Alberta staying at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. One evening he had the opportunity to speak with their Food and Beverage Manager and commended him on the significant increase in sales of the Vineland Estates Winery Vidal Icewine. He wasn’t quite sure how they were managing to do it but definitely was not going to complain. The Food and Beverage Manager thanked him for his praise and then said, “Do you want to know how we do it?” So, it was on that night, in 2002, that Allan enjoyed his first Icewine Martini. Although this would normally be considered to be more of a female drink – the way so many of the martini cocktails are – Allan enjoyed it enough and was intrigued by it enough to want to develop it further. So, after seven years, and several nights of “perfecting the recipe”, Allan, Jim V Degasperis and the rest of the team developed VICE. The name VICE is the natural combination of Vineland (Estates Winery) and Icewine – Canada’s signature wine – and as Angela Aiello’s review on the VICE website says:

“The ratio of vodka to Icewine is perfect and it tastes absolutely delicious. VICE comes in one pre-mixed bottle and no additional prep is required. Chill and serve. My dreams have come true."

The tasting notes that were circulating around the release party on Thursday, July 30th suggested serving it chilled with half a grape as a garnish. It was not a bad combination but if you are looking to jazz up the appearance in the glass a little, what about trying a lychee garnish as there was a powerful lychee flavour in the drink. Depending on how you like your martini’s there are two ways of drinking this cocktail. If you like sweeter tasting cocktails, serve VICE straight up but if you tend to like the crisp cleanness commonly associated with Vodka martinis serving it on the rocks brings out the heat of the Vodka in a noticeable way. So, how about food? Well, like most martini’s you could enjoy this on its own very easily or, as was evidenced by the delicious food provided by Mark McEwan’s One Restaurant, VICE does pair well with a wide variety of foods. Chicken skewers were an excellent pairing; the grilled veggie flatbread pizza was great as well. Initially, I was not sure how the spicy Spring Rolls would go but the spiciness of the food added an extra dimension to VICE as did the veggie samosas.

Have you seen the commercials on TV for Bacardi’s Mojitos? Have you seen the shelves of your local liquor store filled with premixed cocktails like Vodka Mudshakes, Bloody Caesars or Strawberry Daiquiris? Well, once VICE hits the shelves of our local stores, it will be another one in the lengthy list of available products. It will be the first premixed Icewine Martini on the shelves and it is a very good example of what an Icewine Martini should be but one question I have been hearing the last few days is how does it compare to one made from scratch? In a lot of cases, the premixed versions always seem to come across as sweeter than a homemade version but, in all fairness, they are trying to appeal to a broad range of palates. They are trying to find the middle road in an effort to get the largest number of people to buy the product over and over again.

On Thursday, when I first tried VICE I did enjoy it. My preference was definitely straight up over on the rocks but, incidentally, that is how I like all of my martinis. It has been several years since I have had a made from scratch Icewine Martini and my one recollection of it was that I could definitely make a better version myself if I had both Icewine and Vodka at my house. At the time I didn’t have any Vodka around and when I did I never did test the theory but, after trying VICE, my interest was renewed in seeing if a made from scratch Icewine Martini would taste better than one made at a chain restaurant or a premixed version bought in a store. Luckily, I have a boyfriend who does private bartending on the side, loves to be creative with the drinks he makes and enjoys making me a martini on the weekend. I am sure you can imagine what the challenge for him was this weekend since I was on something of a mission to test my theory. To be fair, I had already decided that I was going to try the Icewine Martini made from scratch in both straight up and on the rocks versions. Luckily, I have a decent selection of dessert wines in my cellar so it was just a matter of choosing a Vidal Icewine from Niagara and then pairing it with an appropriate Vodka.

In our straight up version, we used the Mountain Road Wine Company 2002 Vidal Icewine and Stolichnaya Vodka. Now, with VICE, it was – in all likelihood – a current vintage of Vidal Icewine (probably 2008) and it was a Canadian Vodka but similarities could still be drawn between these two drinks. The colour was completely different – with the 2002 it was a lemon yellow colour whereas with VICE it was closer to a white sand colour – but that is something that stems from the age in an Icewine. Colour deepens with age in most wines so the deeper colour is not unexpected for me. I would expect that if an older vintage of Icewine was used to create VICE that there would be a similar colour present in the glass. While there were differences in aromas and flavours to this Icewine martini, I do believe that if an older vintage of Icewine was used in VICE, it would be a comparable product. What I was looking for between the pre-mixed version and the made from scratch version was whether or not there was similarities in style of the drinks. Between the straight up version and the on the rocks version, with VICE, the straight up version showed more sweetness in the glass, equating to an appearance of more residual sugar. When I tried VICE on the rocks, the heat of the Vodka was much more apparent so, one has to ask, does the made from scratch version show similar characteristics? The answer is yes. When we tried it on the rocks, we switched the Vodka to a Canadian (in fact, an Ontario made) Vodka called Prince Igor Vodka instead of using the Russian made Stolichnaya Vodka. Prince Igor Vodka is produced by Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits in Grimsby, Ontario and, since VICE is made using Canadian Vodka, using Prince Igor Vodka in the made from scratch version gives a fairer representation of what VICE really is. Now, my theory on why the on the rocks version brings out the heat of the Vodka is that the coldness of the ice mutes (or dulls) the sweetness of Icewine. The reason why I call this a theory is because I am not a scientist, have never claimed to be, and do not really see myself ever learning that much about science simply due to a lack of time in my daily life.

After enjoying both VICE and a couple of Icewine Martini’s made from scratch, I do believe I have reached a verdict. While most pre-mixed cocktails are either too sweet or too bland with VICE, Vineland Estates Winery has found the perfect formula for a perfect Icewine martini. It’s not too sweet and not too dry and if you have a preference either way on how sweet or how dry you like your martini’s then either add ice or take it away. VICE is versatile, great to enjoy on its own or with a variety of foods and at $49 a bottle, a great value when you consider the average price of Icewine and Vodka bought in the LCBO is $43 and $36 respectively. If the quality is there, which I firmly believe is with VICE, why would you spend $79 to make Icewine Martini’s from scratch when there is a pre-mixed version available on the market? Now, I’m not advocating completely getting away from making an Icewine Martini (or any other cocktail) from scratch because, like the Slow Food Movement with food, I do believe made from scratch is the way to go. However, in a pinch, for when those unexpected guests drop by with next to no notice, a bottle of VICE will go a long way in impressing them. VICE is currently available at the winery and through their home delivery program. Check out your local LCBO this coming fall for a more local availability and, if you are not in Ontario, contact the winery directly at http://www.vineland.com to find out where you can pick up VICE in your city.
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