Giving a Fig for Fine Spirits

I’ve got an aunt who likes to tell me that being a movie critic must be the best job in the world. You get to watch movies all day and write about them. What could be better, right? Real life film critics might add a few caveats, like the low pay, job insecurity, fierce competition, long hours and constant struggle against obsolescence, but hey, point taken. There are perks.

The same goes for most cultural journalists. Besides doing what we love, there are usually little extras that come with the job — review copies, advance screenings, press showings, and so on. It’s all pretty swell. But when it comes to freebies, one thing is certain: There’s no beat like the booze beat.

That’s something I learned when an invitation landed in my inbox to attend the winner’s circle of the New York International Spirits Competition on December 3 at the tony 3 West Club in Midtown Manhattan, a venue that happens to be in the same building as the Women’s National Republican Club. It was an especially pleasant surprise because, though I’ve done a couple of liquor-related pieces before, it’s not a regular subject of mine — yet.

My invitation came from Nahmias et Fils, a new micro-distillery in Yonkers, N.Y., specializing in mahia, a fig liqueur native to Morocco and traditionally distilled by Jews (the Moroccan slivovitz, as it were). For their efforts, Nahmias’s mahia took home a silver medal in the liqueur category, and got to present it to an audience of press and trade representatives along with passel of other winners.

In the interests of full disclosure let me say that I am grateful to Nahmias for reaching out to me, even if I didn’t receive any actual goods from them, aside from a small taste. Now let me say, all possible conflicts of interest aside, that their stuff is terrific. It’s made completely from figs with a little bit of anise, and the flavors are wonderfully balanced. It’s easy to overdo it on anise, and I could see how a well-intentioned fig spirit might come out tasting like some off-brand sambuca. Thankfully that’s not the case here. The fig flavor stands out and the anise is present without being overpowering.

While fig liqueur was one of the more unusual offerings on display, the NYISC gave awards to high quality liquors in a bunch of categories. With limited time and a beginner’s palate I stuck to the boozes I know best — gin and whiskey. One of the top-placing gins in the room was a silver-medalist from the Swedish distillery Wannborga (which also took home the “Sweden Distillery of the Year” award). A London Dry style, the Wannborga gin was a delightful and delicate bouquet of herbs and spices including, apparently, coriander and white pepper. Like many of the medalists Wannborga also offered a taste of their products in cocktail form, though with spirits of such high caliber it seemed a shame to cocktail them down. In this case, the gin was a cocktail all its own.

Other gins I tried included the Ingenium Dry Gin from New England Distilling, which also took home a silver medal, and a bronze-winning gin from Persian Empire, a distillery from Peterborough, Ontario that is also responsible for pomegranate and sour cherry liqueurs. Most interesting, perhaps, was a barrel-aged, silver-winning gin from the Corsair distillery of Tennessee, which is aged in spiced rum barrels and carries an odd yet pleasingly spicy finish.

My final stop of the evening was at the Colorado Gold table, home to a silver medal-winning vodka. I declined to try it — why drink vodka when you can drink gin, I reasoned — but I did sample three of their whiskeys, between which you could satisfy all cravings for sweet, spicy, and mild. By mixing their corn whiskey with lemonade, the guy there told me, you could hardly taste the alcohol at all — and it was true. Then again, you could hardly taste any alcohol just drinking the whiskey neat.

Needless to say, most of these spirits cost plenty and many aren’t widely available. Nahmias mahia, gladly, is carried by various New York liquor emporia, though it’ll run you about $37 a bottle. Thankfully, with the major gift-giving holidays just around the corner, we booze nerds might hope for the aroma of figs to come wafting out of our Hanukkah stockings. It certainly wafted me home that night.

Watch a video from the 2011 New York International Spirits Competition:

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Giving a Fig for Fine Spirits

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