I Don’t Hate Vodka

“Why do you have to hate on Vodka? What did vodka ever do to you?”

This is the statement Tony Abou-Gani, author of Vodka Distilled, opened up with in the Spirits Academy vodka seminar a few weeks ago. Ask me what I would have told you had you asked me if I liked vodka two minutes prior to that statement. I would have told you I hate vodka, I can’t stand it, and I don’t understand why its still the number one selling distilled spirit in the world.

Gypsy Queen Vodka Cocktail

Why did I hate vodka? Because since I have been old enough to drink, the only drinks I ever hear ordered at bars are vodka-redbulls, vodka-cranberries, and vodka-sodas. Vodka this, vodka that. Shots of vodka (ugh…college days). No wonder I hated vodka, I didn’t know how to drink it! Why add vodka to orange juice? I’ll just have the orange juice, thanks. I just didn’t get it, and when I started discovering cocktails, I wanted anything but vodka in them to prove I was better than that.

It’s not just me, its a growing trend in the mixology world to hate on vodka right now since we don’t want to be associated with the vodka-redbull fad. I think all of us enthusiasts think we’re too cool for it. Tony told us a story of one time recently that he went to a great cocktail bar in town. He asked the bartender what vodkas they had available as he didn’t see any on the back bar. The bartender told him (in a wonderful snobby voice) that they had two, “and in his opinion, that was two too many”. Okay, maybe this hatred has gotten out of hand. Too good to have vodka at your bar? You’ve crossed the line.

Gyspy Queen

Needless to say, after a wonderful presentation, an awesome 11-vodka tasting flight, and another 6 flavored vodkas tasting, my mind has been changed about vodka. (And yes, we were spitting all of those vodkas. C’mon.) I was so excited when I went home that night to tell Andrew all about my new appreciation for vodka. He immediately went to our vodka stash and presented a tasting of all the vodkas we had in the cabinet. Unfortunately, our selection was pretty pitiful:

Vodka Collection

Seriously, all we had was vodka in a gun-shaped bottle, a plastic bottle of “Potters” (I highly do not recommend), a vodka in a skull bottle he had signed by Dan Akroyd, and another one shaped like a fire extinguisher. Most of these were left over from college or gifts; shows you what kind of vodka drinkers we are! (Shortly after, I purchased a bottle of Belvedere, one of my favorites from the tasting.)

The Cocktail

So I have come to realize that our hatred of vodka stems from Americans not knowing how to drink vodka. There’s a lot of great cocktails out there with vodka in them, and no I’m not talking about the strawberry martini made with strawberry-flavored vodka. These are real cocktails that use vodka to enhance the flavor of the overall drink, not hide it. I will admit…I’m still not a vodka drinker. That tasting I did of straight vodkas was pretty hard for me, so I know I wouldn’t enjoy straight vodka poured over ice (as most skilled vodka drinkers do), but I have learned how to appreciate it in our cocktail culture.

Tony’s book has lots of classic cocktail recipes in it, so Andrew made me this “Gypsy Queen”cocktail I’m sharing with you on this post. I absolutely loved it! It is very easy to make, but be careful, it is boozy! (It is actually straight booze, no mixers added.) Since it has benedictine in it, think of it as an herbal-floral concoction that has flavor and fruitiness but is not necessarily sweet. If you are a new cocktail drinker, this might be a little strong, so order another classic vodka-based cocktail, like a moscow mule or harvey wallbanger next time you’re out at a bar.

Gypsy Queen Cocktail CaretoPair.com


2 oz vodka of choice

1 oz Benedictine

2 dashes Angostura bitters

thin slice of lemon peel (for garnish)


In an ice-filled mixing glass add vodka, benedictine, and angostura bitters. Stir until very cold. Strain into a chilled low-ball glass. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel.

How to Rediscover Vodka

Okay, so I hope my spiel above has changed your mind about vodka. If you know its still not your cup of tea, no worries. As I said, the tasting I did in my class was tough as I don’t particularly enjoy drinking vodka straight. However, it was so cool to taste the differences between the different brands; if you have the opportunity to taste through 3 or more in a sitting, do it (but make sure you’re spitting those out, no need to get plastered from it!). My favorites from the tasting were Russian Standard, Belvedere, and Zyr–they were all different, but all appealing. Others, that I’ll leave unnamed, were awful to me. But that’s just my preferences, yours could be completely different.

Also–next time you’re at a mixology bar, don’t be afraid to order a vodka-based cocktail. Try to keep it classic though, like a gypsy queen, moscow mule, harvey wallbanger, cosmopolitan, or lemon drop. Hopefully these drinks will change your mind about vodka, as my mind has certainly been changed.

A Little Info on Vodka

  • Vodka can be made from anything that contains fermentable sugars, but most are made from wheat, potato, or rye
  • Its highly debated whether vodka originated in Poland or Russia (no one knows the factual answer)
  • Historically Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Greenland all have a rich heritage and tradition with vodka production, so we call these countries the “Vodka Belt”
  • Vodka struggled in America for the first part of the 20th century. The first vodka distillery built in America was Smirnoff, which was built in 1934. It was unsucessful at first and had to be marketed as “white whiskey”.
  • Ian Fleming invented the vesper cocktail through his James Bond series, and we can thank him for the vodka martini, as the classic martini was gin-based prior to his phenomenon





Bolognese Sauce and Barbera

Confession: I am in love with Bolognese sauce. I don’t really think that needs to be a confession, it is more of a proclamation. Of love. Yes its that bad. I’m not really even sure of the first time I had it, or the “aha!” moment I had when I decided I love it, but I just know that if I’m at a restaurant and its on the menu, no other dish stands a chance.

Bolognese Sauce on CaretoPair.com

What makes bolognese sauce so good anyway? When I made this recipe that I’m about to share with you, it all came back. For me, its the ground beef. So simple and familiar, but in this sauce it is turned into a celebrity. And the tomatoes. I bought special Italian canned tomatoes, and it really made the dish. So flavorful, my mouth is watering while I write this.

Now, lets talk about Barbera…have you ever even heard of this grape varietal? Its not too popular with us Americans, but grows really well in Amador County, California. I recently went there on a trip (its about an hour south of Sacramento…total gold rush area, very historic) and barbera was all the rage. Amador is known for its zins, but barbera was a refreshing alternative. My friend that went with me quickly decided this was her new favorite grape varietal, and I don’t blame her!

Chiarlo and Pasta

The Wine

Barbera is a high-acid, relatively light bodied grape indigenous to Italy. It is from Piedmont, a region in northwest Italy that is more famous for its big Barolos and sweet moscato d’asti. Compared to these infinitely better known wines, Barbera is kind of looked over to us Americans, especially since we don’t see them available in the grocery stores or even in liquor stores. As I was looking for a bottle of this at Total Wine, I counted 3 from America and 5 from Piedmont…not too much of a selection in a sea of other Italian wines.

Michele Chiarlo and Bolognese

But barbera deserves some recognition—it’s a great little grape, it works hard to produce some incredible flavors, and it is relatively affordable to us consumers! When I said it was high-acid before, that means it makes you salivate after your first sip, making you immediately want more. This makes this wine incredibly good with food, which for purposes of this blog, makes it my friend.

Bolognese Sauce on CaretoPair.com

The Pairing

Ohhhh Bolognese sauce. I must admit, before this first attempt, I had never made it before. I was so excited to try this recipe from a pretty legit Italian Cookbook I recently came across, and I cannot believe the outcome after my first try. YUMMMMMMY!

This is a no-brainer pairing. When I first tried the Bolognese sauce, I couldn’t believe how much acidity there was from the Italian tomatoes I used. Every bite I took, my mouth was just salivating for more. See a commonality? I had to match this high-acid dish to a high-acid wine. Mhm. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Beyond that, I can’t really explain much more, you are just going to have to buy a bottle of barbera, find 4 hours out of your day to make this sauce (its completely worth it, I promise), and see for yourself!

Simmered Bolognese Sauce with Farfelle
Servings Prep Time
4Servings 5minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4Servings 5minutes
Cook Time
Simmered Bolognese Sauce with Farfelle
Servings Prep Time
4Servings 5minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
4Servings 5minutes
Cook Time
Servings: Servings
  1. Heat oil, butter, and chopped onion in a large dutch oven and cook over medium heat. Stir the onion until it is translucent.
  2. Add chopped celery and carrot, and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring to coat the vegetables in the butter mixture.
  3. Add ground beef and a large pinch of salt. Stir and crumble until the beef is cooked through.
  4. Turn the heat to low and add the milk. Let it simmer, stirring until it has evaporated completely (you don't want the sauce to be soupy). Add a pinch of nutmeg and stir.
  5. Add the wine and also let simmer until completely evaporated.
  6. Add the tomatoes and stir, coating all of the other ingredients. Turn the heat down even lower so that the sauce simmers incredibly slowly--only an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface at a time.
  7. Cook uncovered for at least 3 hours (the longer the better--I let my sauce simmer for 4 hours). Keep an eye on it and stir from time to time, ensuring that the heat is not too high and that the sauce doesn't evaporate too quickly. If the sauce evaporates too quickly, you may add a half cup of water at a time to prevent burning. When complete, however, no water should be remaining.
  8. Make the pasta and toss with the sauce. Do not merely add the sauce to the top of the pasta as most of us think this is the correct way--but adding the pasta to the sauce allows the flavors to meld better.
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Pair Ahi Tuna Salad with Japanese Lager

Ahi Tuna Paired with Japanese Lager

Oh my goodness, what a week. First, I apologize I haven’t posted in 3 weeks. Second, I’m engaged! Yay! I don’t intend to make this blog too personal…but I just have to share a picture!

I don't think the picture does the ring's shininess justice

I don’t think the picture does the ring’s shininess justice

Andrew proposed on the top of mount charleston during the sunset. The view was absolutely gorgeous. I don’t think he could have done any better…

charleston sunset

Anyway, a lot has happened in the last 3 weeks that has interfered with this blog. However, some of the experiences will lead to some GREAT future blog posts. But for now, here’s a great recipe Andrew, my new fiancé, and I made that was simple, healthy, and made for a really good Sunday evening dinner on a hot night:

Ahi Tuna Salad and Sapporo

The Pairing

Pairings do not have to be complicated. This pairing that I’ve chosen for the Tuna Salad is the simplest I’ve chosen for the blog so far. But I did it on purpose; to show that you don’t need to make things complicated if you don’t want to!

There are three Japanese lagers that are readily available to us Americans—Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi. What is the distinction between the three? Not much…the difference is very subtle. BUT the thing these three have in common, which is the most important to this pairing, is that they are very dry. What in the world does that mean? Think about taking a sip of beer. The beer can be refreshing—it is high in carbonation and doesn’t really leave any lingering taste in the back of your mouth after you finish that sip. That defines a dry beer—one that is refreshing and finishes clean. Actual flavor is low which makes for a great pairing with light dishes. Japanese beers are notoriously “dry” because there is a high amount of rice used to make them. It also makes them great with spicy foods and sushi.

Ahi Tuna Salad and Beer

I chose these Japanese beers with this salad because, although the dish wasn’t crazy spicy, it fit the theme. This salad is light, healthy, and in a way, refreshing. Drinking a Japanese lager with that enhances the whole experience!

The Recipe

Andrew and I decided to try this Ahi Tuna Salad recipe on a whim; as I mentioned earlier, it was a 100 degree day and all we wanted was something easy to make and fresh. I found it over on The Enchanted Cook’s blog. This recipe was pretty easy, you just need to make a trip to the store for those ahi steaks and a few oddball ingredients that we didn’t have. The whole meal took less than 30 minutes though! Enjoy this with any of the Japanese Beers I suggested or any other light lager that is rice-based and not too hoppy.

Ahi Tuna Salad CaretoPair.com

Other Pairing Suggestions

  • Kirin Extra Dry, Saporro, Orion, or Asahi Japanese Lagers
  • Rogue Brewery’s Morimoto Soba Ale
  • Champagne (Brut)
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Seared Ahi Tuna Salad with Sesame Dressing
Recipe type: Salad
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2
  • 2 Ahi Tuna Steaks (I had to use frozen since I live in the desert, but try to get fresh ones)
  • 4 Cups mixed salad greens
  • 2-3 Tbsp shelled edamame seeds (optional but definitely worth it)
  • ½ diced red bell pepper
  • fresh lime (optional)
  • 2 Tbsp Sesame Seeds
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • kosher salt
  • ¼ Cup plus 1 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • ¼ toasted sesame oil
  • 1½ Tbsp tahini paste
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tsp finely minced fresh ginger
  • ½ tsp salt
  1. First make the dressing. Whisk together rice vinegar, sesame oil, tahini paste, honey, garlic, ginger and ½ tsp salt until well combined. Proportions make about ½ Cup sauce total, make more if you want to really drench your tuna steaks in them.
  2. Assemble the salad: Place salad greens, red bell pepper, and edamame in a bowl along with a little of the dressing. Mix them all together to coat with the dressing. Place mixture on two plates.
  3. MIx together the sesame seeds and red pepper flakes in a bowl. Sprinkle the Tuna Steaks with Kosher salt, then dredge them in the sesame mixture, covering both sides. Pat the sides of the tuna with your hands to make sure the seeds stick to it.
  4. Heat the canola oil in a pan until it becomes very hot! Sear the steaks on each side for approximately 45 seconds. Remove from the pan, slice, and place on top of the salad. Squeeze lime over steaks right before eating. Use the remaining dressing as a dipping sauce or drizzle more over the salad.


White Chocolate Cheesecake Paired with Framboise


White Chocolate Cheesecake and Framboise

Once upon a time a girl who didn’t really like to make desserts made an incredible dessert. And everyone lived happily ever after. That’s how I feel about this beautiful dish I made.

I really don’t like making desserts. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good dessert now and then, but I just don’t really crave them on a daily basis. I think it is because all of the beer and wine I drink that doesn’t go with dessert…hehe

But trust me, this dessert is 10 times more delicious than it looks…and I think I did pretty dang good with the pictures! If you are like me and don’t usually make beautiful-looking desserts, this is the recipe for you to try. It was fairly easy, and sticking all those raspberries on top was a piece of [cheese]cake.

Raspberry White chocolate Cheesecake

The Pairing

Ahhhh….Framboise and White Chocolate Cheesecake. What a match made in heaven. I think I’ve been saying that about a lot of my pairings, but its the way I feel about them all! Framboise is French for “raspberry”, but this is a Belgian beer. Framboise is a type of fruit lambic, and if you think this is a relatively new invention, think again–lambic is the oldest beer style in the world that is still in production today.

Lambics are funky–unlike other beers, wild yeast and a whole lot of bacteria are invited into the beer. Its not harmful, but it sure does create a completely different flavor profile compared to what you’re used to. Expect a lot of acidity and slight “sourness” when you try a lambic for the first time. Dare I say these beers have more in common with wine than with beer? Yes, especially when you add fruit to them.

Cheesecake and Framboise Pairing

Lindeman’s Framboise, the most widely available fruit lambic in our wonderful country, was a great accompaniment to this cheesecake. Even though there are beautiful raspberries on top of this dessert, it is in no way a “raspberry” dessert. If it was, I wouldn’t be suggesting the Framboise with it, it would be too much raspberry and the flavors would cancel each other out. So don’t go pairing this beer with your next raspberry pie or something (is that a thing?).

The truth of this dessert is that its very mild. The white chocolate is very subtle and absolutely perfect. The Framboise adds a sweet fruity touch to the entire meal–a paring I would call PERFECT! And my friends who don’t really like beer OR cheesecake loved it too. This is definitely a crowd pleaser!

White Chocolate Cheesecake and Framboise

The Recipe

I loved this cheesecake. Its definitely in my “keepers” section of my recipes as it is simple to make and simple to decorate. In fact, the cheesecake in the photos even collapsed in the middle…something you don’t want your cheesecake to do…but was easily covered up with the raspberries! If you’re new to the cheesecake-baking-business, this is a great recipe to start out with!

White Chocolate Cheesecake Paired with Framboise
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6
  • ¼ Cup and ½ Cup Sugar
  • ½ Cup Butter, softened
  • ½ tsp and 1 tsp Vanilla
  • 1 Cup Flour
  • 4 pkg (8 oz each) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
  • 16 oz White Baking Chocolate, melted and slightly cooled (I used Girardelli's)
  • 4 Eggs
  • 1 pint Raspberries
  1. Preheat oven to 300 F
  2. Beat ½ C sugar, ½ tsp of vanilla, and butter in a small bowl with an electric mixer. Add flour little by little, mixing on low speed until well blended.
  3. Press mixture firmly onto the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan and prick with fork
  4. Bake for 25 minutes until the edge is lightly browned
  5. Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, ½ Cup sugar, and 1 tsp vanilla in a large bowl until well blended.
  6. Add the melted chocolate and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat on low speed after each addition. Be careful not to overblend as this will cause air pockets in the batter.
  7. When the crust is done cooking in the oven, pour the cream cheese mixture over it.
  8. Bake for about 1 hour or until center is almost set. When finished, run a knife along the rim to loosen the cake. Let the cake cool before removing the rim of the pan.
  9. Top with raspberries and store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.