Saturday being New Year's Eve on the Chinese calendar, you may wish to usher in the Year of the Snake with a suitable beverage. I have a suggestion: Johnnie Walker Red with green tea – not separately, but mixed, as in a cocktail. Does that sound like venom? It's not. It's quite brilliant.
If you've ambled up to a bar in Hong Kong or Shenzhen, you may be familiar with the drink. Scotch whisky and cold green tea is the Sino equivalent of gin and tonic and something of a national cocktail. I grant that this is not saying much for a country whose bartenders broadly condone such abominations as Coke and cabernet. (China is not exactly a superpower in the field of mixology.) Before I tried it, the prospect put me in mind of that quip by British essayist Charles Lamb: "Brandy and water spoils two good things." Here was a cocktail that sounded like much less than the sum of its parts.
In China, you can find just about any Scotch deployed for the purpose, from such smooth blends as Chivas Regal to smoky Laphroaig single malt. Call me picky, but experimentation has taught me that this is one drink that begs for a specific brand, namely Johnnie Walker Red Label, the popular blend in the square bottle with a slanted label. The spirit's creamy roundness and earthy peat character work hand-in-glove with the earthy-herbal flavour of the tea. There's just something about Red and green.
So compelling is the drink that Johnnie Walker itself has begun to endorse it as a signature, not only in China but globally, in a manner more typical of mix-happy vodka distillers. "When I first heard that this is how it was being drunk in China, I was, not horrified, but very surprised," Ewan Gunn, Johnnie Walker's global brand ambassador, told me recently. "I actually was going out there not long afterward. One of the first things I did was find a place to try it. I was blown away."
It's a simple concoction but easy to screw up. Brew the tea as you would normally, then let it cool to room temperature. The proportions are crucial. You want one part whisky to three parts tea, served over ice in a tumbler (though, alternatively, using hot tea makes for a nice winter warmer).
Like me, Gunn does not favour the common Chinese practice of sweetening the tea. Sugar imparts a confected quality and renders the whisky toothless: You want to feel the bite. After all, this is the year of the snake.
Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Côtes du Rhône 2010 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $18.95
The producer, Alain Jaume, delivered nicely with this concentrated red from a great Rhône vintage. Ripe, supple, cherry-like grenache gets structural support from spicy, tannic syrah and mourvèdre, with herbs running all the way through. Perfect for roast leg of lamb. Available in Ontario. The very good 2009 sells for $20.15 in Que.
Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Cabernet Franc 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.99
Tinhorn does a splendid job with cabernet franc, bringing the Okanagan Valley's ample grape-ripening sunshine to bear on this herbal red variety. The wine is full-bodied, with a core of raspberry laced with tobacco, black tea and spice on a tight, well-structured frame. Great for grilled lamb chops or braised beef. Available direct from the winery through www.tinhorn.com.
Fattoria La Ripa Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
This is one beautifully chiselled Chianti, delicious now and suitable for five to 10 years in the cellar. Tightly structured, with a sweet cherry core, it reveals layers of underbrush, tobacco and spice. Bonus: It's organic. Available in Ontario.
Spadina Una Rosa Signature Nerod'Avola 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
This Sicilian red is sure to have broad appeal. Full, luscious and smooth, it journeys through plum, vanilla, baking spices and leather, with good acid lift on the finish. It would flatter rich red meats, especially stews. $23.99 in Nfld.
Villa Tonino Inzolia 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Classically used to produce fortified Marsala, the white inzolia grape gets the lighter treatment in this dry table wine from western Sicily, Marsala's home. Smooth yet with fresh acid lift, it offers herbs, lemon, melon and mineral nuances. Light seafood is in order. Available in Ontario.
Emiliana Novas Carmenere CabernetSauvignon 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Produced from organically grown grapes, this is a robust red with strong flavours of dark-roast coffee and herbs. It would shine with big hunks of red meat, ideally grilled steak. $17.99 in B.C., $18.15 in Que., $15.99 in N.S.
Vina Tarapaca Gran Reserva CabernetSauvignon 2010 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
It's subtly sweet, with a candied-fruit quality answered by juicy acid and herbs. Pair it with rich meats, such as roast lamb. $18.99 in B.C., $20.15 in Que.
Tilia Cabernet Sauvignon 2011(Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
Tilia is a value-priced line made by the prominent Catena family, known for topnotch malbecs. This chunky, full-bodied red shows smooth cassis and chocolate along with toasty oak and mouthwatering acidity. A bargain, and suitable for hearty red meat dishes. Available in Ontario.
Duck Shoot Pinot Noir 2010(Australia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
The amusing graphic of a carnival duckshoot game is a clue that this is not the sort of serious pinot that would excite big-game Burgundy hunters. But it shows decent varietal character, and that's saying something for an under-$20 pinot. There's a confectionery quality to the berry-like fruit as well as a pleasant earthy nuance. Try it with pork or grilled salmon. Available in Ontario.