Vodka tasting parties a smash hit on Seabrook Island

Sharon Carter (left) and Jeri Finke collaborate on vodka-tasting parties.

One of the hottest tickets on Seabrook Island is a vodka tasting party for 20 people, so says Maryann Bannwart, who called to tell us about this creative fundraiser that is wowing lucky invitees.

Maryann recommended we be in touch with one of the organizers, Jeri Finke, to tell us more and provide recipes that might come in handy with holiday entertaining ahead.

Name: Jeri Finke

Age: Older than I feel!

Residence: Seabrook Island

Occupation: Retired after 30 years on Capitol Hill

Family: Fred, Wessel Smudge and Beggar Pete

Q: You and a group of friends have become known for hosting vodka tasting parties that have become very a popular auction items to raise money for the Seabrook Island Green Space Conservancy. What was the inspiration for the idea?

A: When we lived in the Washington, D.C., area, there used to be a Russian restaurant in Great Falls, Va., that would bring out Stolichnaya vodka bottles frozen into a big block of ice and pour the icy vodka into special “sipping” glasses.

The restaurant did simple infusions, such as strawberry or blueberry. It was something different and fun at the time, and we just took that idea up several notches to offer the party for the Conservancy fundraiser. We’ve offered the party for the past four years in a live auction, and it has gone for more than $3,000.

Q: How do they work?

A: This year we offered 32 vodkas at the tasting: 17 straight and 15 home-infused flavors that Sharon and I work on throughout the year to take advantage of local produce and when ingredients are in season.

For the vodkas we offer straight, I do a lot of online research and try to find ones that you would not ordinarily see in a typical bar. We end up with vodkas from boutique distilleries from around the world, sourced from grapes, rice, oats, potatoes, honey, and apples to name a few. (Of course, we offer Charleston’s own corn-based High Wire.)

We use Stolichnaya for our infused vodkas. Popular flavors this year included blood orange, fennel with a splash of lemon, cucumber-dill, roasted ginger with sea salt, pineapple with apple blossom honey, and peanut butter cup.

The vodka is served ice-cold in my collection of antique cordial glasses. Sharon and I load up the dining room table with all-homemade food for “grazing” and also pass appetizers and desserts throughout the party.

The live music — violin and cello duo this year — completes the atmosphere.

Q: You do this with four other folks. Who are they and what are their roles?

A: Sharon and Glenn Carter and Bob Norris join my husband, Fred, and me in donating the party to the Green Space Gala. Sharon is a passionate, unbelievably great cook, who always has something special up her sleeve.

This year it was her grilled shrimp and pork belly towers. Glenn, Bob and Fred don the aprons and serve as bartenders during the party. They study the vodkas beforehand so are helpful in directing people to smoother vodkas or to those with more of a bouquet or bite. They probably have the most fun of anyone at the party!

Q: We’re also told the tablescapes are magnificent. Tell us about one of those themes and how you did the tablescapes.

A: Whether it’s this vodka tasting or a simple dinner party, setting the table is as much fun for me as the cooking.

This year, the party was all about green for the Conservancy. I bought two dozen 3-4 inch pots of ferns and other houseplants and put them in small baskets and copper pots at different levels on the table with lots of pillar and votive candles.

Q: What’s the first hors d’oeuvre to disappear?

A: It’s a race whether the alder-smoke salmon, cured beef tenderloin with apricot ketchup, Sharon’s charcuterie selection or the Dijon confetti shrimp disappear first. Of the food we pass during the party, Sharon’s grilled lamb pops are gone as fast as she can get them on the tray and passed.

New to the menu this year and quick to disappear were my deconstructed deviled egg, served in the actual eggshell, with smoked trout and corn sabayon.

Q: Tell us about your love of cooking. Who or what sparked your interest initially and what or who has influenced your style over the years.

A: Sharon and I would both say that helping in the kitchen was part of our chores growing up and that we learned to cook from our mothers and grandmothers. They made very basic food, but learning your way around the kitchen young and mastering the most basic foods and techniques serve as our foundation for the recipes we tackle now. We both read cookbooks like a good novel, and when we travel, finding the special restaurants and secrets of the local cuisine make the trip.

This very simple, make-ahead appetizer recipe always seems to be a hit:

Ingredients

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 1/2 pounds of fresh, shelled shrimp

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1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped green onion

Directions

Whisk together vinegars, olive oil and mustard. Cook shrimp in boiling, salted water 2 to 3 minutes, depending on size and being careful not to overcook. Drain and immediately toss with mustard sauce, seasonings, parsley and onion. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Ingredients

5 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 pound of dark chocolate, such as 60 percent bittersweet

3/4 cup of heavy cream

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

1 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Directions

In a double boiler, melt the butter and bittersweet chocolate over barely simmering water. Remove from the heat. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil over medium heat; remove from the heat and stir in Grand Marnier and the corn syrup. Combine the hot cream with the chocolate mixture in a bowl and stir to blend. Cool completely.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the mixture thickens enough to roll into balls. On a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, place scoops of the chocolate mixture into small round balls using a teaspoon or melon baller. Roll the truffles in nuts, powdered sugar, cocoa or coconut. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

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