Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mixologist Vs. Bartender

This from Francis Lam at Gourmet:

Dear Mixologist:

Imagine going into a busy kitchen on a Saturday night and not seeing any cooks. Instead, the sauteologist and the grillologist are working in perfect sync, behind the expeditologist. Over in the corner, the coldappsologist tosses salads. And keeping it all together are the unheralded, the unseen, the fearless of dirt and hot water: the dishwashologists.

Here’s a message to all the mixologists out there: Dude, you’re a bartender. It’s okay; it’s cool. Bartenders are cool.

Okay, so you’re the gal that found yourself a piece of fruit and some obscure booze and you want to set yourself apart from all the unemployed actors who pour vodka tonics all night long? Sure, but remember that the classic cocktails that inspire you were all invented by bartenders.

I get that you’re doing something seriously and you want to make that known. I’m into that. I’m into the pieces of fruit and the obscure booze. I’m into the work and creativity you put into it. It’s interesting. It’s dignified. But while you can be doing something unique, something intensive, you’re still not doing something new. If you’re not inventing a new profession, why do you insist on a new word for what you do? That’s just being pompous. Being pompous is not the same as being dignified.

And your actor friends aside, what’s wrong with being a bartender? Bartenders tend the bar. They take care of the whole thing, meaning both the liquor rack and the bar room. They pour drinks, they mix cocktails, they talk to people. They have regulars who come to see them, to drink their drinks. They give that broken-hearted bastard an ear and a dram and a kind word. They keep a birthday party happy. They lube up a first date. Some bartenders have the gift of pardon (which, by the way, is only one of the many phenomenal songs written about bartenders). They make a bar worth going to.

Why would you want to give all that up to sound like someone who’s just a nerd about mixing drinks? You’re never going to be heading home from work, the sun threatening to come up after another night at the bar, thinking about a song called “Some Mixologists Have the Gift of Pardon.”

One point I'd like to add to this. "Mixologist" does have one thing going for it: it's a good synonym for "bartender," and we journalists need as many synonyms as we can get, so we don't have to say "bartender" every other line.

The Improved Cynarata; Or, Thank You Mr. Fee

I didn't meet Joe Fee, of Fee Brothers Bitters, until the second to last day of Tales of the Cocktail. Tall and lanky, wearing a safari hat and looking like a scout leader, he was standing outside the Hotel Monteleone. I had heard for a couple days that he had a stock of bottles of his new Rhubarb Bitters and was handing them out. I buttonholed him only to find out he had given his last bottle away. Curses!

Did I give up? No! I took him card and contacted him upon getting home. Yesterday the Rhubarb Bitters came through the mail. At first glance, the product sounds pretty silly. Do we really need Rhubarb bitters? But it doesn't take long to figure out that rhubarb's natural combination of sweet and tart flavors is a natural for cocktails.

Tasted on its own, the bitters have a nice, slightly spicy flavor, with the rhubarb up front and some cloves and other dark flavors in the back. But I did not sense a great deal of complexity, so I was skeptical. Until I tried them in a drink. I just happened to be making myself one of my refreshing Cynaratas just after I tested the bitters. I looked at the drink, I looked at the bitters, and before thinking to much, I shook a dash of the rhubarb stuff into the drink.

Eureka! The Cynarata, as refreshing as it was, was now every better. A new and complimentary layer of flavor had been introduced. The bitters married perfectly with the various flavors in the Cynar. And no wonder! One of the 13 herbs and plants used to make Cynar is, yes, rhubarb! (This, I just discovered.)

So here's the new recipe for a Cynarata:

3/4 oz. Cynar
4 1/2 oz. sparkling limon soda (Rieme Sparkling Limonade, if you can find it)
A dash of Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters

Mix ingredients with ice in a tall glass. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.

I feel, perhaps, after encountering so many ridiculously complicated drink at Tales—involving infused this and that, and ingredients that you must make at home, and take the better part of a school year—that this drink must seem incredibly simple-minded. But scoff not! It's delish.

So, thank you Mr. Fee! Your product has perfected my drink.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Madeira Lovers Crazy; Rueda Fans Not So Much

Last month, I went to a couple wine tastings, one for Rueda whites, one for Madeiras. The two events couldn't have been more different. The tasting for the Spanish wines was in a large hall in Chelsea and was sparsely populated. You could have swung a cat and not hit anyone. The Madeira event was held in a small Park Avenue restaurant and was mobbed. All sorts of thirsty journos were kept waiting in a narrow hallway for as long as a half hour while the Madeira presenters tried to set up, working with what little space they had. Once the hoard was unleashed, there was no getting at any of the good stuff. These were serious Madeira junkies. They were rabid.

I preferred the Rueda tasting, to say the least. Don't get me wrong. I love Madeira, but I hate fighting for it, or anything for that matter. I sampled some of the older ones on offer (1901, etc., plus some bottles made entirely from the rare Madeira varietal Terrantez), and found time and room to try some of the very nice wines of Bartholomew Broadbent (son of famed Christies wine director John Michael Broadbent, and looks just like his father). But I got out soon after I noticed liquor store owner Lenell Smothers at my elbow, pretty in pink. "You a Madeira fan?" I asked. "Honey, I'm a fan of everything," she said.

I could enjoy the Rueda line-up at leisure. I understand why it was underpopulated. Many wine writers and buyers don't give much time to white wine, let alone Spanish white wine. Rueda's hardly sexy. It's still got to work out a reputation for itself. But these whites from central Spain, made mainly from the Verdejo grape, can be enjoyable brisk and food-friendly. I've drunk them often with simple Spanish of Mexican food.

I began drinking. The wines were light and grassy, with citrus notes. Some were too tart and metallic. There started to be a sameness to everything. I kept waiting for a great Rueda to knock me out of the doldrums. Things looked up with an Azumbred 2007 Verdejo. It had more fruit and tropical notes with a metallic base, and a long finish. I was told the wine was from vines 60 years or older.

Protos was coming out with only its second vintage. There was a ton of citrus. The wine took its acidity to the edge without plummeting over into unpleasantness. It was mouth watering. Even more singular was an El Bufon 2007 Verdejo: strong, full, with gobs of grapefruit and lemon, it was unlike anything else in the room. I suspected wood, but the pourer said there was none involved in the aging. She also said everyone thought there was. A couple other interesting points: the vintner is a woman (couldn't get the name) and the grapes are picked at night.

But my favorite was the Ermita Veracruz 2007 Verdejo. There was a cute painting of a bird on the label. Animal labels are usually a bad sign, wine-wise—but the juice was fantastic. Made from a single vineyard with vines no younger than 25 years old, it was bright, with high acidity, and tingly citrus. Very good. A long finish. It sang. The winemakers knew they had something special. They poured with pride.

There were also a fair share of Sauvignon Blancs at the event, but for the most part they were undistinguished, and many tasted exactly like the Verdejos.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tonic Taste Test

At a recent Gin & Tonic blind tasting I set up for the New York Sun, St. John Frizell, one of the tasters and a spirits journalist and former bartender at The Pegu Club, brought me a small can of the kind of Schweppes Tonic Water that can be bought over in Britain. I'd been told it is vastly different from the U.S. stuff by both Yankees and Brits alike, and indeed it is. Well, maybe not "vastly," but it's different.

First let's start with the ingredient lists. Here's the American Schweppes: "Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup and/or Sugar, Citric Acid, Natural Flavors, Sodium Benzoate (preservative), Quinine."

Now, here's the British product: "Carbonated Water, Sugar, Citric Acid, Flavourings (including Quinine), Sweetener (Sodium Saccharin)."

Notice how the High Fructose Corn Syrup drops right out of the list in England. However, Saccharin does make a strange appearance in Old Limey. Not sure what to make of that.

Anyway, the two products do taste different. The American tonic water is sweeter, more like syrup, and less bitter. The British tonic is brisker, less syrupy, and definitely leaves a distinct bitter aftertaste.

Going from there, I decided to see how the two performed in a Gin & Tonic. I made the American G&T the way it usually is, with a wedge of lime squeezed over the top. Many people have told me that the British take their G&T with lemon, so I decided to make the G&T with the British tonic with a wedge of the yellow fruit. I built both with Plymouth, since that tied with Tanqueray for the top spot in the Sun tasting (and I had no Tanq on hand).

The Yankee drink was a familiar treat, brisk and refreshing. Try as it might, the sweetish tonic couldn't mask the greatness of the Plymouth. The British drink was more streamlined, more of a bracer, with the bitter quality of the tonic marrying with the lemon to create a lasting pucker. I liked it. Though I thought I'd like it better with a lime—a sort of Hands Across the Ocean approach. The best of both worlds.

The Curious Case of Death's Door Gin

You could have knocked me down with a feather when Brian Ellison handed me a bottle of Death's Door Gin at "Tales of the Cocktail." Pasted right there on the bottle was a map of a land I've known since my childhood: Wisconsin's Door County peninsula and Washington Island. What did the Badger State's version of Cape Cod have to do with gin? Fish boils, sure. Cherry wine, certainly. But gin?

It got stranger. Death's Door Gin (named after the treacherous strait of water that separates the tip of Door County from Washington Island, and which has sunk many a ship in its time) is a recent product, made solely from wheat grown on Washington Island as well as juniper berries picked on the sparsely populated, largely rural isle. The wheat is grown by father and son farmers Tom and Ken Koyan, whose ancestors have lived on the island since the 1850s. It's distilled at the Cedar Ridge Vineyards, Winery & Distillery in Cedar Rapids, WI, and extension distilleries in Madison, WI. And the whole enterprise is connected with the Washington Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School on the island, where chef Leah Caplan created the flavor profile of the gin. Brian and his sister-in-law Jill are on the marketing end.

I spoke to Brian, who said, oddly enough, that Death's Door's goal is to be a regional product, available mainly in the Midwest. Curiously and refreshingly modest. (Death's Door fits right in in a state where the odd drinking traditions include the Brandy Old Fashioned and drinking Angostura Bitters by the glassful.) Death's Door also makes vodka and a wheat ale.

Armed with only the mini-bottle given to me, I experimented at home with the liquor. Death's Door being a seemingly laudable enterprise, supporting local farmers and all, and hailing from my home state, I wanted to like it. The gin appears to belong to the relatively new category of gins called "botanical gins," called so because the makers get creative with the botanicals, not relying as heavily on the traditional and defining element of juniper. I got lavender, fennel and cardamom from Death's Door, along with a fuller body than one associates with, say, the London Dry style.

I only had a couple ounces to work with. That meant my experimenting was limited to one drink. And what drink do you make gin with, if not a Martini? I built it up, four parts to one of vermouth. Sorry to say, Death's Door does not make a good Martini. The odd botanical profile threw the drink out of whack. It was a Martini that wouldn't stand up stand. It was a confused drink.

To be fair to Death's Door, I will experiment more (if I can find a way to get the stuff in NYC). The website offers several recipes (tellingly, one of them is not a Martini). But I have begun to wonder about the new wave of gins. Gin has two bedrock drinks, historically: the Martini and the Gin & Tonic. If a new gin is not good at making those drinks, why is it around? Why not just give the job to vodka, the odd-job spirit of the booze world?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Problem of Snobbery

During the Juniperlooza seminar at "Tales of the Cocktail" I sat next to nice young man from southern California. Over the course of the event I learned he was a bartender at a high end place that subscribes to the all the recent movements and advances in the cocktail world.

He assured me his bar served only good stuff, and then added, "I won't serve any Cosmopolitans." I asked him what he would do if someone came into his bar and ordered a Cosmopolitan. He said he'd politely refuse and offer to make them something very like a Cosmo but more classic, such as Daisy using similar ingredients (though presumedly not Vodka).

I stress that this fellow seemed a very nice person in all respects. But his remark regarding Cosmopolitans was as fatuous as they come, and typified one of the more disagreeable aspects of the modern drink world. When I took the Beverage Alcohol Resource class in Manhattan (run by Dale DeGroff, Paul Pacult, David Wondrich, Steve Olsen and Doug Frost), the instructors stressed that bartenders, bar owners and the like are employed in a service industry. They noted a bar "not far from here" where customers asking for a beer will be instructed to take their business elsewhere, and made clear that they thought this sort of behavior the enemy of their cause.

What point could there be to refusing to make a Cosmo? I know the cocktail has become a bit of a punch line at this point, owing to it's use on "Sex and the City," but it's a perfectly legit drink, and one of the few modern classics of the past 20 years. I'd argue that it has, in fact, done a good deal to propel interest in the cocktail movement in recent times. I don't order them much anymore, but I admit freely that I still remember the first time I had a Cosmo, and it is a good memory.

I could see remonstrating a bit over a request for a Frozen Daiquiri or an Appletini, but preparing a Cosmopolitan should hardly ruin your day or your bar's good name. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer, and welcome to his or her tastes whenever they enter a public house. I, for instance, have never like Bloody Marys, no matter how well they are prepared. Am I right in my tastes? Arguably. Am I within my rights in my tastes? Undoubtedly.

For this young bartender, I quote a good rule of thumb of Kingsley Amis from the recent collection "Everyday Drinking": "Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naive—or worse."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Bartender Personality and Others

Darcy O'Neil of the Art of Drink has a very interesting and quite well-written essay on his blog just now in which he contemplates the nature of the Tales of the Cocktail event. I had the opportunity to meet Darcy while I was down there and we had a short conversation in the lobby on why gin goes well with tonic. I had asked many people at Tales their take on this, because I was preparing for a Gin & Tonic tasting in New York City the day after the convention.

Darcy gave me the most original answer I received, and I'd be lying if I said I remembered half of it. Darcy has a diploma in chemistry and you can tell when he talks. Most of us know that certain liquors go well together. He knows why, in terms of science. I listened, fascinated. I always did well in science in high school, but it wasn't because I really understood it. Must have been memorization.

Anyhoo, I, too, have often wondered why Tales is what Tales is: so buoyant, so joyful, so inexhaustable, so drenched with Joie de Vivre and Hale-Fellow-Well-Met, so replete with back slaps and guileless grins and happy-go-lucky semi-raucousness. It can't just be the booze, or the fact that there's a party everywhere you turn. Booze can make you surly just as soon as giddy, and there's nine bad bashes for every good one thrown.

Darcy boils it down to this: Tales' personality is essentially the bartender's personality. I'll let him speak:

One of the comments I constantly hear about Tales is how friendly everyone is. Well, as a large number of the participants are bartenders, whose job it is to talk to people, it makes for a very social, friendly, environment. Plus, these are the top bartenders in the world so they are good at what they do.

Being a great bartender requires a unique personality. You have to be able to handle a fast paced environment, have physical stamina, enjoy the company of strangers, flirts and wierdo’s, function counter to the human bodies natural clock (i.e. late nights). You need to maintain a coherent thought process for making the dozens of different cocktails and taking orders fired at you non-stop, for hours on end. Then throw in a little math, add an owner who is constantly stressing, maintain your sense of humour, deal with drunks, take very short breaks, if any, plus a dozen other things, and there you have it, the bartender.

Bartending isn’t for everyone, but the people who do it well have a list of qualities that make them perfect for large gatherings.

That all sounds about right. Makes me think I should have been bartender rather than a journalist. Writing is a solitary profession, about as far as you can get from bartending as possible. And as much as I love reporting, and as much as I relish many aspects of Tales, being a journalist at such an event as Tales of the Cocktail is to feel forever the straight man, the staff photographer at a flea circus, the court reporter at a sensational trial in a Kangaroo Court.

It is perhaps no wonder that reporters over the decades have long sought out the comfort of the barstool, and the ear of the bartender. After a day spent in your head, staring at the typewriter, it's a nice break when the circus comes to town.

On the Town With Lucius Beebe

Lucius Beebe is little remembered today. But for a long time, from the 1930s until his death in 1966, he was the personification of various (mainly French) terms which are (sadly) no longer in popular use: Gourmand, epicure, boulevardier, bon vivant, flaneur, etc. A columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune in the '30s and '40s, he was remarkably elegantly turned out and a tad decadent for a journalist. Walter Winchell called him "Luscious Lucius." And he frequented the culinary and society centers of the day: The Colony, "21," El Morocco, The Stork Club and more. Today, he is perhaps best known for having coined the term "Cafe Society," a group of which he was undoubtedly a member.

He was also a prodigious drinker, of wine, cocktails and just about everything.

While in New Orleans recently, I dropped by Crescent City Books and picked up the Holiday Magazine Book of the World's Fine Foods. It's a huge coffee table book that offers a wonderful view onto what eating and drinking and entertaining was in the U.S. circa 1960.

Beebe wrote four chapters in the book: ones of caviar, one on top cuts of meat, and a "Spendthrift Tour" of both New York and San Francisco. Imagine: Holiday paid him to spend as much money as possible on food, drink and lodging over a long weekend in both cities. Journalism certainly has gone downhill since then. I can't get any of my publications to pay my way across town.

Anyway, the article in a fascinating study in how people (well, Lucius) consumed comestibles in those great bygone days of Yankee glory. Here are a few sections:

An additional reason I cleave to the St. Regis over the years, and perhaps a trivial one, is that it has never attempted to charged me for ice service to my apartment. One of the most miserable of petty larcenies, the practice of charging four bits for cube ice and highball set-ups, came into existence during the years of World War II and has never ceased to arouse me to a state of rage...

At the St. Regis you will be officially registered in which Chief Bartender Fernand Petiot set two three-ounce martinis in front of you, and you hoist the first one of the day in the direction of the Fiddlers three behind the back bar.

Notes the size of the Martinis in those days: Three ounces. The correct size still, by my lights.

For breakfast:

We find that the Madison Avenue Longchamps a few blocks from our hotel is suited to more expansive whims. Here out-of-season strawberries or melon, liver and bacon, creamed codfish or shirred chicken livers, together with fine hot French croissants and superlative coffee, come to about $3.50 each and assure confidence until the noontime martini looms on the horizon.

The noontime Martini! Beebe and his companion never stop drinking during this essay of the happenings of four days. A lot of Martinis, and usually Champagne with dinner. He favors Bollinger. He dines as The Colony, "21," Quo Vadis, Sardi's, Le Pavillon, Baroque, the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel and Luchow's. My God! What a town New York was then.

The bill at Henri Soule's Le Pavillon—the restaurant of its day—comes to a whopping $109.25. This was in 1960, remember! A fortune! There he had only one Martini at the bar, because..

A minimum of two wine and a limited number of spirits is de regueur; and it's better to be able to walk out.

His wines that night were a Grands Echezeaux Burgundy from Romanee-Conti and a bottle of Dom Perignon 1947.

According to Lucius' account, tipplers had to wait until 1 PM on Sundays to be served alcohol, and waited upon that bell anxiously. For some reason, he favored Gibsons over Martinis at Sardi's. And at Luchow's, it was tall steins of dark Würzburger Hofbräu all the way. Twelve of them!

Lucius' tab for the whole weekend came to $750, picked up by Holiday. Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In the Cellar at Tabla

Well, quite a lot of cocktail posts, haven't there been?

Time for some wine. A month ago, I met and interview Leo Barrera, the wine director at Danny Meyer's Indian restaurant on Madison Square, Tabla. I'd been to Tabla before and been impressed by their emphasis of bracing white wines, such as German rieslings, that go well with spicy food. Leo's story is quite inspiring. From Mexico—hardly a land of wine—he studied in New York State and just never moved back. Like many of Meyer's wine professionals, he began his career at the Gramercy Tavern, and moved up and over.

Here's the story:

From Mexico to India, the Wine Way


Leo Barrera, the wine director at Tabla, Danny Meyer's temple to Indian cuisine, was born into the hospitality business. His family owned hotels first in Acapulco, Mexico, where he was born, and then in Cancun. Growing up, he was a south-of-the-border version of Eloise. "Until my teenage years, I resided in hotels," he said.

He was not, however, born into a world where wine held great sway. "We don't really drink wines," he said of his native Mexico. "We have a small wine industry in Baja. But for the most part, we drink beer, tequila, and brandy. The big Spanish brandy outfits have branches in Mexico. I've looked at the figures. We drink a lot of brandy."

His Mexican heritage, however, came in handy when he was put in charge of the wine program at Tabla, after stints at Gramercy Tavern and Craftsteak. Confronted with chef Floyd Cardoz's inventive Indian cuisine, he realized he was not entirely in alien territory.

"My first introduction to Indian culture was 'In Light of India' by Octavio Paz," Mr. Barrera said, referring to the book-length rumination about India by the Mexican writer and poet, who was his country's ambassador to India between 1962 and 1968. "He deduced that moles" — the traditional Mexican sauces that date back centuries — "are actually derived from curries in India. At the time, India and Mexico had a lot of exchange, cultural and commercial. The basic mole, it's ground spices mixed into a sauce. If you look at it in a very simple way, that's what a curry is."

Thus feeling a natural affinity for Tabla's cuisine, Mr. Barrera, 30, knew where he stood, wine-wise. He also know he had his work cut out for him, because another commonality between Indian and Mexican cuisines is that, in the popular imagination, they both match up best not with wine, but with beer. "People don't see this as a wine destination because of the perception of beer going with the food," Mr. Barrera said. The restaurant's ardent regulars, however, know better. When Mr. Barrera began work last October, he was surprised at how many of his patrons realized a German Riesling was just the thing to go with rice-flaked halibut served with watermelon curry, or a Shiraz was perfect to wash down a pulled-lamb sandwich served on nan bread.

He went about trimming the list from more than 300 selections to a comparatively compact 250, retaining its accents on German and Austrian Rieslings (a full page) and Rhone varietals drawn from France, California, and Australia. At the same time, he added 20 wines from Spain and Portugal, a region he's passionate about. And he brought in some smaller producers, working with twice as many wine distributors as his predecessor did, in order to lend greater variety to the cellar.

Mr. Barrera also wanted to change a few minds on the matter of demi-sec wines — a big bogeyman in the collective consumer mind-set, which equates sweet with insipid. "I feel there is absolutely nothing wrong with residual sugar in the wine," he said. "As a child, I drank aqua fresca. Whatever fruit was in season was made into a drink." During a recent trip to Mexico, he accompanied a lunch with a tall glass of watermelon water. "That's what they have in the middle of a hot day. There's a sweetness behind those drinks, and sweetness works well with spices."

Mr. Barrera's mind rarely rests in its pursuit of beverages that marry well with Tabla's spicy menu. Also in charge of the cocktail program, he is not neglecting that area. At the back of his cellar, on a wire rack, sits a collection of boutique gins. These constitute his new "project," due to be unveiled in the near future. "I find that gin, at least in theory, should work really well with the food because of the botanicals," he reasoned. He thinks a gin cocktail and appetizer pairing might make for a good match. "Cardamom, ginger — a lot of those spices are in the cooking."

And then there are those bottles of Mexican wine in the cellar that he hasn't sampled yet. Might India's and Mexico's cuisines meet yet again, this time in the wine pages of Tabla? Mr. Berrera is not committing himself. "I'm very proud of my Mexican heritage, but I'm an equal-opportunity wine guy," he said. "If the wine is tasty, I don't care where it's from. But if the wine is not up to standards, I'm not going to put it on the list, no matter where it's from."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Images From the Museum of the American Cocktail

After being homeless in New Orleans for three years after Katrina struck, the Museum of the American Cocktail finally reopened recently. It's actually a museum within a museum, a one-room affair inside the larger Southern Food and Beverage Museum on the Riverwalk Marketplace mall along the waterfront.

It could be called the Ted Haigh Museum, so many of of the antique items in the display cases come from the cocktail historian's collection. Others belong to Dale DeGroff and Jeff Berry. The latter contributed mainly Tiki stuff, of course. When I visited, it was hard to get a word in edgewise with Haigh, who was entertaining some Spanish gentlemen who wouldn't stop asking questions—questions Haigh was more than happy to answer at enormous length. But I did find time to mention that there was no indication that the Berry items came from his collection. Haigh suddenly remembered that the tags with Berry's name had come in and quickly set about putting them in the place in the cases. My small contribution to the Museum.

Haigh mentioned that one item he's really like for the Museum is an intact 19th-century cocktail shaker. Hear that? So, if you've got one, cough it up, man! History's at stake here.

Sazerac Watch: Part Two

Saturday, July 19, my last full day at "Tales of the Cocktail," I managed to sample two more New Orleans Sazeracs.

The first was at Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a classic bar on Bourbon Street. I admit I was a bit foolhardy to order the drink. The tavern is largely a laid-back beer place. But I couldn't help myself. The bartender used a bit too much Pernod (no one seems to have gotten into the Absinthe groove yet in NOLA), but he showed respect for the drink by putting it into a rocks glass, as opposed to a plastic cup, the vessel of most other drinks he was serving.

The second was at Mr. B.'s Bistro, a Brennan family joint right across from the Hotel Monteleone. It had been recommended for its food and the traditional New Orleans chow didn't disappoint. I liked my bartender. He was respectful, attentive and serious, without being pompous. I asked that my Sazerac not be too sweet and he obliged by taking great care with the drink. He used Old Overholt, Herbsaint and Peychaud's bitters, eschewing the Angostura that some favor. It was a princely drink, second only to the Sazeracs I had had at the International House Hotel the night before.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Field Guide to Spotting Cocktailians

Female cocktail pros and enthusiasts comes in all forms, but the men of the mixed-drink field share a surprising number of characteristics, making them fairly easy to spot in a tavern, liquor store or other traditional territories. Having observed them closely over the past five days, I have developed this guide to help you discern whether you are looking at a Bud Man or a guy who has 15 different of bitters in his cupboard.

Shared Cocktailian Characteristics (spot three or more on one individual and you may have a fruit-muddling, ice-breaking Daisy-maker on your hands):

*Headgear. Typically these are short-brimmed, straw or felt pork pies, often one size too small for the person's head, but you may also see cowboy hats, bucket hats, caps, pith helmets and safari hats.

*Short-sleeve, retro shirts, either Hawaiian, Cuban or of the two-tone leisure sort typical in the 1950s. Shirts bearing cocktail-related art (painted or embroidered cocktail shakes, martini glasses, etc.) are also popular.

*Facial hair. Beards, goatees, muttonchops, Van Dycks, long sideburns are all possible signs.

*Ruddy cheeks and/or nose. No explanation needed here.

*A vest worn buttoned and without a jacket.

*Tattoos. More commonly found among bartenders.

*The lack of a necktie. A notable exception to this rule is the specimen who not only have a tie, but also a pocket corner, tie-clip, French-cuff or white-collared shirts and two-tone shoes.

*Evidence of little bottles containing unknown spirits, tonics, bitters and potions stored in various pockets.

When you see any of the below, you do not have a Cocktailian:

*Tucked-in shirt.

*Plain black or brown dress shoes.

*A sweater.

*A briefcase.

*Someone who looks at their watch a lot.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What Cocktail and Theatre People Have in Common

Prior to the last five or six years, when I began to write about wine and spirits, I spent most of my energies covering the New York theatre world. Two very disparate universes, I've always thought. But while observing this year's Tales of the Cocktail tobaggon ride, it dawned on me that thespians and cocktailians have one in common (beside a certain exhibitionism and tendency toward hyperbole): as much as they love what they do for a living, they're less interested in the actual work than they are in getting to the after party.

It's a humorous maxim in the theatre that putting on plays is nothing more than an excuse to throw a cast party. Similarly, there's no better way to connive going to a slew of cocktail soirees than to stage a cocktail convention. Every day of this past week, I watched with wonder as libation pros and amateurs alike reached the end of a heavy day of seminars and activities, and then repaired to go out to a party! Time and again I met people in the lobby who, while somehow standing upright, blithely told me tales of having been out the previous night until well past midnight. 3 AM was the hour most commonly cited. It seemed to be the honorable time by which one could hold his head up high and say that he had partied with sufficient heartiness.

Such bashes usually began at 10 PM at the earliest. The Audrey Saunders-Simon Ford bash Saturday night began at midnight. I saw rye authority Allen Katz the morning after. He said he had been up until 3 AM. (Of course.) Mixologist Charlotte Voisey told me 6 AM was the hour she retired. She told me this at 11 AM. (Your truly went to bed at 1 AM. Laugh at will.)

All in all, I took a novel approach to this year's convention: I drank less. I discussed this approach the first day with Jeff "Beach Bum" Berry, who said it had taken him years to wise up and come up with this radical program. Of the drinks passed out at every seminar (usually three to four), I took one sip to get the idea and then put it down. I did the same thing with the drinks offered at the various product-sponsored parties. The main exception was the party at International House Hotel for B.A.R. grads, where the drinks were so good I had five and finished each one.

The plan worked out well. No morning fell on me like thunder. I was certainly tired quite a bit, but never in need of antidote. I learned well the lesson of my first day at my first Tales of the Cocktail, in 2006. At the end of the day, I wrote down all the drinks I had downed in full, just for memory's sake. The next morning was not friendly to me. I felt as though I had been run over by the St. Charles Street streetcar. I look at the list I had recorded. It read:

1 Sazerac
2 Hurricanes
2 Pimm's Cups
1 Bayou Bash
1 Absinthe

Plus about five other drinks I can't recall at this moment. They had tasted great at the time. And I never felt ill the hours of daylight, right up until the very end; quite the contrary. What can I say? I was not used to event in which people handed me drinks wherever I went, and made them so delectably.

The Appletini is Dead!

Whatever anybody did at this year's "Tales of the Cocktail," it's hard to believe it was more fun than marching with the New Orleans Funeral Band that perambulated from Harrah's casino to Cafe Giovanni on Saturday night at midnight.

The "funeral" was for bad cocktails, and you would know that the libation chosen for dusty death would be a vodka concoction. The Appletini—every young urban woman's friend, every cocktailian's bete noire—was delivered the death sentence, and its sweet and simple-minded body was carried aloft in a plain, pine coffin and all about danced and strutted for joy. (Don't be surprised if you go home and find the corpse very much alive in your local bars.)

A good couple hundred people were in the parade. Having just come from a quick visit to Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, blogger Gabriel Szaszko ( and his wife lovely wife Joana and I arrived on the scene at the exact moment the band struck up. I assumed a position up front near the players and high-stepped it down Canal Street. Most others walked. Funny: the cocktail crowd aren't dancers, by and large. The band was in uniform and in fine fettle. Many cameras were aloft taking films. All waved handkerchiefs emblazoned with the Plymouth Gin logo. (How could anything go down this week without some sort of bold product endorsement?)

The parade ended at Cafe Giovanni, where there was to be the final event of the night, a "Bartender's Breakfast" hosted by Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders, Willy Shine, Aisha Sharp and Plymouth's man, Simon Ford. Guest bartenders throughout the night were to include Dave Wondrich, Gary Regan, Francesco Lafranconi, Allen Katz, Jacques Bezuidenhout, Kenta Goto, John Deragon, Don Lee, Chris Patino, Matt Gee, Leo DeGroff and more. There were some pretty girls in colorful, skimpy costumes, and long tail-like trains, whose job, it seemed, was to saunter about with low-burn seductiveness and sway their hips to the music. They were as much a part of the decorations as any balloon. Where is such talent found? And what purpose does it serve? New Orleans is a curious town.

There was a band inside, too. But the atmosphere wasn't as joyous as it had been on the street. Tired as I was, I had no intention of staying to the bitter end in the wee hours as many, I'm sure, did.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sazerac Watch: Sweet, Dry and Just Right

As has been my tradition in New Orleans, I've tested a few restaurants on their Sazerac performance this year, and the results have been pretty damn sorry. Abysmal, in fact.

First off, apologies on these lousy pictures. Taking pictures of cocktails in dark restaurants ain't easy. My first failure was served to me at Jacques-Imo's Cafe, a very loose-limbed, funky and excellent restaurant in the Uptown neighborhood, right next to the famous Maple Tree Bar. They must have sloshed the simple syrup in out of a bucket, it was so tooth-achingly sweet. And I can't be sure, but I think they shook my Sazerac. It foamed like a rabid dog. (See above.)

The second disaster was at Coop's Place, a dive-like place on Decatur that serves excellent downhome New Orleans cuisine. To avoid my Jacques-Imo experience, I cautioned the bartender not to make the drink too sweet. "Why would it be sweet?" he replied. "There's no sugar in it."

Say what? I reminded him of the little matter of the sugar cube that's part of the recipe. He said they didn't make them that way; just put in a drop of syrup. OK. Worth a shot. But his Sazerac (below) was too dry and arid. It was missing a major component, and was quite difficult to drink.

But all was made well later that night at a party, when I had not one but two excellent Sazeracs, beautifully balanced and with a surface as still as an icy pond. Of course, I had to rely on a TOTC cocktail pro to do the trick.

Drink a Cocktail, Get a T-Shirt

It may be possible to attend an event at "Tales of the Cocktail" and not receive a t-shirt, but I wouldn't bet on it.

"I'm Over the Cocktail"

That's what a 20-something girl said to me in the elevator last night. She said it with a certain weariness, and added she was off to get some shots. I was surprised to hear her say it. At "Tales of the Cocktail," it seems, there is not one participant or attendee who ever gets tired of talking, thinking and drinking cocktails ever. Me? Well, it's Day Four and I think I reached the saturation point sometime today. Right now there's a Tiki Block Party over by the Harrah's, and, as much as I'd like to support Jeff Berry, the Tiki Titan who put it together, I need a break.

That said, the convention has been edifying and entertaining. The excitement and energy surrounding the event seems to have ramped up somewhat. Every seminar I've been to has better attended that last year's (more on the specific seminars later), and presentation has been polished up in some cases.

Enthusiasm—never in meager amount at this shindig—brims over at every corners. I'd like to think that this is, in part, due to a heavy contingent of cocktail bloggers in attendance. There are a couple dozen at least, including Chuck Taggart (Gumbo Pages), Gabriel Szaszko (Cocktailnerd), Craig Mrusek (Dr. Bamboo), Marleigh Riggins (Sloshed), Rick Stutz (Kaiser Penguin), Jeff Morgenthaler, Blair Reynolds (Trader Tiki), Seamus Harris (Bunnyhugs) and, of course, Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles, who in some ways has become the den leader of the cocktail bloggers. Extremely nice and open people, all, and fond of wearing hats as a group, I'm happy to say. Taking nothing away from the cocktail professionals, who, it goes without saying, are passionate about their field, bloggers are perhaps, it can be argued, more passionate, as they have little or no monetary incentive behind what they do. They'd probably write about cocktails if you told them they had to pay for the privilege.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Sazerac Has Landed

So, I'm here. New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail. Got up at 4 AM and flew through Charlotte. Bleary eyed, yes, but one ends up bleary eyed at this event anyway, right?

The first big event of the week was the official christening of the Sazerac as the first ever Official Cocktail of New Orleans. That's right—New Orleans has an official cocktail. Let other places have their birds and flowers—NOLA wants a cocktail. As some of you may know, TOTC's fearless founder Ann R. Tuennerman has been pushing this measure through the state capital. That's right! It was actually a bill passed by lawmakers. The guy was presented the bill was there: Senator Edwin Murray, dignified in seersucker.

The New York Times' Eric Asimov wrote a funny piece about the matter today. He confessed he doesn't like Sazeracs (What?!), and thought the Ramos Gin Fizz was a better choice for an official cocktail. But he's insane. Sazeracs are heaven. And Ramos Gin Fizzes, as good as they are, are much too difficult to make to be an official cocktail.

History was represented, of course. The drink is 150-years-old, after all. There were some cool Sazerac artifacts on a table, including this ancient bottle of Peychaud's Bitters.

Sazeracs, mixed up by a hardworking Phil Ward (Death & Co.), were passed around liberally. So were Punch & Judys. This last is the invention of Charlotte Voisey and is the 2008 Cocktail TOTC Competition winner. It's got a heaping helpful of ingredients (10!), including Cognac, rum, gin and three different juices. Almost on the Tiki side of things. Good, too. Dense.

Of course, half the room wasn't paying much attention to what was being said on the dais. To happy to see each other. A administrative tip: next year, don't hand out the drinks until the speeches have concluded! The crowd will stay focused that way.

The Riverside room the event was held in got really crowded really soon. I'm not claustrophobic, but I felt like I could be if I stayed, so I dashed out after the announcements. And left without trying a Sazerac cupcake! How'd that happen?!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Orleans Bound

It's that time of year again, when every spirits experts and spirits journalist hops a plane and heads for the Big Easy to talk cocktails, think cocktails, make cocktails and drink cocktails.

"Tales of the Cocktail," now in its sixth year, will run July 16-20. For the first time since I've been attending, I will be there for the duration of the event. Last year I blogged the hell out of it. I may or may not this year, as I am on assignment for Saveur and must attend to paying, as opposed to elective, writing concerns. But I wouldn't be surprised if I post an item or two.

I will be there mainly as an attendee, not having risen to the level of a presenter quite yet. (And, frankly, I'm not at all sure I want to rise to that level. More work, less fun.) But I will make a cameo supporting appearance of sorts at St. John Frizell's
Sunday seminar "The Gentleman’s Companion: The Life and Times of Charles H. Baker, Jr.," all about the noted cocktail author. Some months ago I made Baker's recipe for Orange Bitters, and it came out quite well. St. John, who lives nearby, noted that he had never made that particular bitters of Baker's. So I gave him a bottle, which he said he'd use in the talk.

Needless to say, I am very proud.

Friday, July 4, 2008

When Wine Writers Gather to Party

The Wine Media Guild held their annual dinner June 16 at I Trulli Restaurant in Manhattan and I was happily in attendance. Everyone was asked to bring a choice bottle from their cellar, and I'm sure glad they were asked! For the WMG has a goodly number of veteran members and they possess some damn fine cellars full of treasures that make your eyes glisten with greed.

I arrived late, which could have been a bad thing, but turned out to be a very good stroke of luck indeed, because it forced me to seize the one available chair left. This was next to wine writer and educator Charles B. Rubinstein, a senior member of the Guild whom I had never met before. He proved good company, AND came equipped with a 1958 bottle of Gaja Barolo. That's right: a bottle of Barolo made by Gaja's daddy.

The evening began with some milling about. There was a table of pinot noirs for the taking. WNYC radio personality Leonard Lopate was in attendance for some reason. I was told he was the guest of our esteemed president Patricia Savoie. I watched him from time to time throughout the evening; he studied the room as if he might paint it.

The main business of the evening was the induction of the first honorees of the new Wine Writers' Hall of Fame. These worthies were Burton Anderson, Hugh Johnson, Edward McCarthy, Robert M. Parker, Jr., Frank Prial, Jancis Robinson, Kevin Zraly, and, postumously, Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker. (One Guild member stood up and shocked me by saying he had known well Schoonmaker, who was publishing books in the 30s and died in 1976! I would just like to point of here that Schoonmaker was born in Spearfish, South Dakota, simply because I like the fact.)

Prial was supposed to attend, but bowed out at the last moment. That left McCarthy (Mr. "Wine for Dummies") and Zraly as the two inductees present to receive their honors in person. They were introduced by, respectively, the leonine Charles Scicolone, and Wine & Spirits' Philippe Newlin. McCarthy's comments were touching and humble. Zraly ("Windows on the World") talked very fast and excitedly; one could see how he would make for an inspiring teacher.

After that there were just food and wine. Rubinstein also brought something labeled Pietro E Elena Riserva di Nozze 1999, of which he was very proud. He explained that the Piedmont winemaker who made it bottled the wine specifically for his son's wedding and that we wouldn't find it in any store. I didn't catch the name of the winemaker. The varietal Charles wasn't sure of. It was enjoyable, light and leafy, with notes of tobacco, tart plum and charcoal.

Also at my table was a 1982 Chateau Montrose from Saint-Estephe. It had a wonderfully fragrant barnyard nose. There was great breadth to the palate. Deep dark fruit, dark cherry and currents, and beautifully soft tannins. Heavenly smooth. I thought I was drinking just fine, until somebody said: Forget the Montrose! Get a load of the 1978 Haut-Brion that John Foy brought!

As good as the Montrose was, he was right. The Haut-Brion was the best thing I had that night. It began with a fascinatingly metallic, rusty nose, with touches of mustard and sulfer. The palate was equally complex. It came off like velvet rust on the palate, the texture of a very soft cat's tongue. It tasted of violet perfume, elegant and accomplished. Hmm. All my descriptors of this wine sound kind of crazy! But that's what I got. Good wines aren't simple.

There was also a 1981 Cheval Blanc with tasted of sour cherry backed by strong, but soft tannins; a 1974 Latour which was tart, piquant, with still a lot of fruit. And someone produced a Riesling Eiswein from Nahe that isn't being made anymore due to Global Warming. So we were drinking of an extinct species, which was both exciting and depressing. It was a Preis Goldener Staatsweingut Bad Kreuznach 2000. Nice stuff.

And then there was that Jerobaum of Stag's Leap Cask 23 1994 on the front table that everyone said must be a prop and was probably empty. But then it was suddenly opened and passed around near the end of the evening. Turned out, Zraly brought it.

I was a bit like a jack-in-the-box most of the night. Once I had tasted all the wines at my table, I kept popping up and prowling the other tables for likely bottles, filling my glass and then bringing back my bounty. This proved very helpful for a couple young ladies at my table, who were pinned in by the wall and relied on my expeditions to widen their understanding of the night's offerings. I was happy to share and felt quite the hunter-gatherer.

OK. But what about that Gaja? Rubinstein theatrically waited until the end to open the bottle and when he did the supplicants gathered round. I'm glad I was sitting next to him or I wouldn't have gotten any. The color was amazing. Absolutely pure rose. The wine was beautifully light. Dusty and floral on the palate. Purring tannins. I could see from other reactions at the table that it was not to everyone's liking, but I thought it was drinking beautifully.


As much as I think that the cocktail world's current fascination with secret, speakeasy-like spaces is a somewhat sophomoric phase that the industry must eventually outgrow, you have to admit that this peephole in the front door of Fort Greene's The Hideout is pretty cool.