The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]

A Guide To Drinking Tequila In Mexico

tequila While tequila is typically thought of as something you took too many shots of during a crazy night out, the drink actually has a deep cultural meaning, rich history and a proper way to be sipped. To help you get better acquainted with the libation, here is a guide to drinking tequila in Mexico.

History

Originating in the northwestern state of Jalisco, tequila is North America’s first distilled and commercially produced alcohol. It is distilled from the blue agave plant, which produces sugar and is native to Jalisco. Tequila’s roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the Aztecs fermented sap from the local agave plants, long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. Then, when the brandy the Spaniards had brought with them ran out, they began to distill the agave plant to make tequila.

By law, tequila can only be called “tequila” if it is made in Jalisco. The first qualifications for the drink were written in 1947, and have been constantly updated ever since. If you’re looking for top-shelf tequila, make sure it’s made with 100% blue agave.How It’s Made

According to tequila distillers Daniel Osuna and Alfonso Pelayo Osuna, there is a very specific process for making tequila. First, the agave is cultivated for seven to eight years, before the spines are cut off and the piñas are transported to the distillery. Once this is done, there are four steps in the production process.

1. The piñas are roasted in the oven. This is to change the starch into fermentable sugars and to soften the piñas’ texture to be able to extract their juice.

2. Now comes the sugar extraction, where the largest amount of sugar within the agave is extracted.

3. Fermenting is the most important stage in the process for obtaining the desired characteristics of the tequila. The sugar is isolated to allow it to change to alcohol and for the pleasant aromas to appear.

4. Finally, the product is distilled. This is when the tequila is refined for perfect flavor and aroma in oak barrels. The alcohol absorbs the oak, allowing the tequila to have perfect body, softness and texture.

blue agave Classifications

There are two basic classifications of tequila, “100% blue agave” and “tequila mixto” (mixed). Mixed tequila contains at least 51% blue agave, with the rest typically coming from cane sugar. Other ingredients you may find in this type of tequila include caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar based syrup. This type does not need to be made in Jalisco. The other classification, 100% blue agave, will read “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave” on the bottle. If it simply says “tequila,” it’s probably mixed.

From the two classifications there are five sub-classifications:

  • Tequila Silver – Blanco – Plata – White – Platinum: This type of tequila is in its purest form. It usually isn’t aged, with the true flavors, intensity and sweetness being present.
  • Tequila Gold – Joven – Oro: This type of tequila is usually mixed, with added colors and flavors. Most times, this type of tequila is inexpensive and used for mixed drinks in bars; however, there are exceptions to this, like when silver tequila is mixed with a reposado and/or añejo tequila. By doing this, you’re still keeping the product 100% blue agave.
  • Tequila Reposado: Known as an “aged” or “rested” tequila, the drink is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from anywhere between 2 to 11 months. It’s usually gold in color and has flavors of agave and wood. Sometimes, the tequila will be aged in a barrel that once contained a different spirit like whiskey or wine, giving it some of those tastes, as well.
  • Tequila Añejo: This “extra aged” tequila is aged for at least one year. The liquid usually takes on an amber color that is more smooth, dark and complex than the other sub-classifications.
  • Tequila Extra Añejo: Known as “ultra aged,” this tequila is aged for three years or more. The extended aging gives it a very dark color, and the flavor is often hard to distinguish between other high-quality aged spirits. After the aging process, distilled water is added to dilute the tequila.

The Difference Between Tequila and Mescal

Today, majority of mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Unlike tequila, there are five varieties of agave mezcal can be distilled from. Additionally, while tequila is double and sometimes triple distilled, mezcal is usually only distilled once to give it a stronger taste. Currently, more than 500 different brands of tequila are on the market, while mezcal boasts only 100.

To make mezcal, the sugar-rich core of the agave plant called the piña, is baked in a rock-lined pit oven over charcoal. It is covered with layers of palm-fiber mats and dirt, giving the drink a strong, smoky flavor. Locals in Oaxaca drink mezcal to calm their minds and lift their spirits, as well as stimulate their creativity. Moreover, the libation is made by hundreds of small family businesses called “palenques,” which preserve traditional methods of mezcal production.

barrels How To Sip Tequila

Typically, tequila is sipped slowly and enjoyed without salt and fruit. People began doing shots in this fashion because, in the past, the liquor was so strong drinkers needed to take the salt and lemon or lime to make it smoother. Specifically, tequila used to be made with 55 to 60º of alcohol, while today it is made with 38 to 40º, or 80 proof. To properly enjoy tequila, you should follow these steps:

  • Purchase the bottle of your preference
  • Pour a small portion into a globe glass, which keeps the aromas inside for you to enjoy
  • Swirl the drink around like you would a fine wine
  • Smell the tequila with your left nostril, then with your right nostril, to discover hidden scents
  • Tap a small sip and swirl it around your mouth, swallow and take a deep breath. You’ll hopefully be able to taste some flavors of wood and melchonte, or cooked agave.
  • Drink slowly and enjoy how the flavors and aromas interact with your senses

Distillery Tours

The Tequila Express (or Tequila Train) is a Mexican regional train service that operates from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to the municipality of Amatitán, Jalisco. Why is it called the Tequila Express? Because passengers will be given tequila tastings, ride through blue agave fields and end at the Tequila Herradura distillery at the San José del Refugio Hacienda. Prices are $850 M.N. (about $65 USD) for adults, and $480 M.N. (about $37) for children 12 and under. Children under 5 ride free. You can purchase tickets on Ticketmaster’s Mexico website or call 333-818-3802.

[Images via Photomag, Mexico Tourism Board, Mexico Tourism Board]