Monday, October 29, 2007

When Is a Davis Bynum Not a Davis Bynum?

When it's a Rodney Strong.

On a recent trip to the Russian River Valley, I sought out the Davis Bynum winery. The night before, I had enjoyed one of his well-known Pinot Noirs and was suitably impressed. I thought I'd get me some myself to bring home.

But when we passed the place on the map, there was no David Bynum Winery. Just a place called River Bend Ranch. A local told us that, yes, this indeed was the Bynum place. We ventured into the tasting room and got our explanation. Last summer, Bynum, who is in his 80s, sold his "brand" and inventory to winermaker Rodney Strong, who will now bottle wine under the Bynum name. Bynum did not sell the winery itself, and will have nothing to do with the wines that will now be made under his name. Rodney Strong owner Tom Klein plans to make the Bynum wine from a number of
vineyards in Russian River Valley that he owns, along with "additional
negotiated grape contracts within the AVA." Rodney Strong Vineyards "luxury winemaker" Gary Patzwald will actually make the wine for the brand. To all of which my reaction is: WTF?

I don't know about you, but selling Bynum wines not made by Bynum and not even made on the Bynum land sounds kinda fishy to me, like someone's pulling a fast one. I asked if the new Pinot Noir made under the River Bend Ranch name was made by Bynum with Bynum grapes and was told "yes." So that's the wine I bought. And, what's more, is was a steal at $26, about half of what Bynum's wine cost last year.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Claar Winner

It's not often I go on about an American Cabernet. Most are too extracted and huge for my tastes. So Claar Cellars' 2001 Cabernet-Merlot blend came as a surprise to me.

Claar's located in Washington's Columbia Valley. Washington's not a state you associate with Cab, making this wine's success even more of a surprise. It's beautifully understated, the way Napa Cabs would be if everyone down there weren't so insane for fruit and power. The palate shows currants, purple grapes, spice and broad tannins, with a touch of candy in the background. The 13.7% alcohol level keeps everything at an agreeable level and makes the wine a welcome addition to dinner, as opposed to bullying all the food off the table. And it's only about $15.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Trip to Forbidden Island

In my recent interview with tiki drink expert Jeff Berry, he mentioned three places in the U.S. where you can sample the original concoctions conjured up by Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber's. As one was in L.A., one in Ft. Lauderdale and one in Alameda, CA, I figured my chances of getting to any of them soon will next to nothing. (I'm not a warm climate guy, preferring the gloomy, intemperate East Coast.)

But life's full of surprises. Last weekend, I went out to visit my brother in San Francisco after he proffered an unexpected invitation. I mentioned Berry and the tiki drink world and Forbidden Island, the authentic place located in Alameda, and he grew intrigued. "Do you want to go there?" he asked. Turns out Alameda was less than a half hour drive away from where we were staying. And so on Saturday night we journeyed on the long, low-lying Richmond-San Rafael Bridge across San Pablo Bay, skirted Berkeley and Oakland and went through the Webster Street tunnel to Alameda, a large island community east of San Francisco and known primarily for it Naval Base.

Alameda is an interesting place. It looks like a slice of middle-class California, circa 1940, held in time. Americana. Forbidden Island is located on Lincoln Avenue, the island's main drag. It's not a big place, but it looks like you expect it to—basically, a faux hut, colored dark brown.

The interior is dimly lit. The long room has a bar stretching along the left side and a series of thatched-roof booths on the right. Further back are some tables and chairs. A jukebox is stuffed with tropical-themed music; nothing from after 1960 that I heard. There are tikis here and there, and various posters and album covers on the wall of artists in Hawaiian or the like. The walls are made to look like dark wooden beams and thatch is everywhere. The lamps about the booths are made up like tiki versions of jack o'lanterns. No question, they've got the mood right.

The menu was a pleasure to peruse. It was divided in a series of categories: house specialties, grogs, bowls and Don the Beachcomber specialties. Mr. Berry was listed among the "thanks yous" at the bottom. I was hard to decide. There are so many classic tiki drinks that I have never tried. The drinks have anywhere from one X to fives Xs next to them to indicate their potency. I concluded I should start with a classic, and ordered a Navy Grog, supposedly Frank Sinatra's favorite drink. Strangely, the grogs were the only drinks on the menu where the ingredients weren't listed. I talked my brother into ordering a lost Donn Beach classic called Missionary's Downfall, made of fresh mint, lime, pineapple, and a dash of peach.

A young, cheerful waitress took our order. Interestingly, the bar staff was populated only by women that night, including the bartenders mixing the drinks (which they did expertly and more speedily than I had expected). I asked if the owner, Martin Cate, was in. Sadly, he was not there that night. I would have liked to have spoken to him.

The Navy Grog was excellent, a more mature drink than I expected, balanced with just a touch of fruit. The Missionary's Downfall was a surprise. The mint and lime dominated, making for a slightly bitter beverage, though not in a bad way. It put the lie to the idea that tiki drinks are all about strong rum and sweet fruit. Everything was served in clear glasses, not tiki mugs or coconuts, so you could enjoy the color of the drinks. The waitress said people can bring in their own tiki mugs, which the bar will keep and bring out whenever that patron comes in. But, she said, they may discontinue the practice as they've already got a shelf of mugs and are running out of room to keep them.

For the second round, I ordered a Painkiller, which the waitress said was the bar's most popular drink. According to the menu, it was invented at the Soggy Dollar Bar on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. It's made of a "creamy blend of pineapple, orange and coconut with a hint of spice. Made the authentic way with Pusser’s Navy Rum!" Creamy it was, and frothy and delightful. Like a tiki milk shake. And it came with an paper umbrella! I thought those things were verboten in today's tiki world.

My brother ordered the Classic Mai Tai, and I know it must sound boring to say that the most famous tropical drink in the world is the best one we had, but, well, it was. It was fantastically delicious! I beautifully integrated mix of fruit flavors and fine rum. A masterpiece.

That was all we could handle, leaving so many tempting drinks on the menu left untried. Forbidden Island was a completely satisfying experience from every point of view: taste, aesthetics, service, professionalism, atmosphere. I recommend it. We went early in the evening. I guess it gets crowded later on and there are lines. I recommend arriving at 6 or 7 PM.

Now, how do I manage a trip to Ft. Lauderdale?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Out West, They Grow Them Big

A week or so back, when I was trolling wine stores looking for some Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, I had a most pleasant chat with a distributor who was pouring some fetching wines at Morrell Wine. I liked her opinions, so I pulled a Sonoma Coast Flowers Pinot off the shelf and asked her if she enjoyed the winery's products. "Not really," she said. "I've never really liked them." Why? Too big? "Yeah. Too big."

I then asked her what Pinots on the shelf she did like. She pulled down the Arcadian Pinot Noir 2004 from the Santa Rita Hills. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was one of her own wines. But she said, with seeming sincerity, that it was being underrated, was as good as any of the more touted west coast Pinots, and at $30 was a steal.

I was curious, so I took one home. Arcadian's winemaker is Joe Davis and the winery's credo appears to be low production and wines in the Burgundian model. OK so far. The wine's alcohol level of a whopping 15.8%, which didn't thrill me, but I liked the honesty of the back label description, which mentioned the many hot days the vintage endured and admitted "we find this wine to be much different in texture and balance from anything we have produced previously."

The wine was tight and meaty upon opening and needed a good hour to breath. Tons of concentrated blackberry-like jammy fruit was right there at the front but right under it was a carpet-thick layer of tannin. My tongue had to stand up to this boy with every sip. At times I liked the roughness of the wine, other times I felt like yelling "uncle." After a few hours, it really broadened out. I had to admit it had character to burn. But I also felt I would enjoy it more if I laid it down a few years and let it mellow and integrate itself.

I'll look for Arcadian again. But maybe not in such a hot year. Any of those coming up, I wonder?

A Spin on Pimm's

Pete Wells' New York Times article about the appeal of Ratafias continues to occupy my mind, some two months after it appeared in the New York Times. After my initial attempt to make a nectarine version of this homemade beverage—made from wine, vodka, vanilla bean and fresh fruit or vegetables—I went on to experiment with mangoes and cucumbers.

The mango brew was fine. The mangoes could have been riper (you really need ripe fruit for ratafias), and my experiment to use less vanilla bean didn't really succeed in making the potion take less strongly of vanilla. But the cucumber ratafia was a marked improvement. I opted for cucumbers because of something I read in Wells article. He mentioned a restauranteur from the Southwest who used a cucumber ratafia as part of a special recipe for a Pimm's Cup. Now, they didn't mention the details of the recipe, but I love me a Pimm's Cup, so I decided I'd act first and figure out the drink later.

The cucumber ratafia was more subtle in flavor than the fruit ratafias; somehow, the vegetable was less affected by the vanilla than the fruit was.

I didn't know how to integrate the ratafia into a regular Pimm's Cup, so I had do some guesswork. The recipe I typically use calls for 1.5 oz. of Pimm's and 4 oz. of ginger ale, with a cucumber slice for a garnish. Nice and simple. I figured the Pimm's ratio should remain the same—it is a Pimm's Cup after all and the liquor shouldn't be shunted aside. I decided to lessen the ginger ale dossage by 1 oz. and fill in the cavity with 1 oz. of ratafia.

Damned if my first guess didn't do the trick. The drink was beautiful. The ratafia added a new layer of complexity to the drink, without complicating things too much. I'll probably experiment with ratios a bit more, but my feeling is that this is the right mix.

For anyone who's interested, I made the ratafia this way:

1 bottle dry white wine
1/4 cup vodka
1 cup chopped cucumber (peeled)
1/4 vanilla bean

Put in a jar, cover and store in fridge for 3-4 weeks.

A Talk With the Tiki Master

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Berry, the Tiki Drink expert nonpareil, for I found Jeff to be among the most personable, easy-going and funny cocktailians I have met. That is fitting, I suppose, since his field of expertise are tropical drinks associated with a life of laid-back ease. You can check out the piece here. Or, if you like, here's the complete text:

"Sippin' Safari"

By Robert Simonson

Oct. 23, 2007 | For many years, so-called tiki drinks were the punch line of the cocktail world. The quasi-Polynesian tropical concoctions served in the kitschy mugs and adorned with paper parasols couldn't get any respect in a world of elegant martinis and stately manhattans. Not anymore.

In recent years, as the cocktail revolution has gathered steam, mixologists and drink historians have taken the time to reexamine the zombie, the mai tai and their brethren. What they discovered was a lost universe of finely honed drinks boasting complex flavors and requiring as much skill to execute as any libation in the bartender's lexicon. Leading the charge has been Jeff Berry, aka Beachbum Berry, a former screenwriter-turned-cocktail expert who has gone to great lengths to uncover the lost recipes and bar histories of one of the defining drinking trends of the mid-20th century.

In his most recent book, "Sippin' Safari," Berry relates the origins of a bygone rum-soaked world, including the lives and adventures of its pivotal figures and cocktail creators, such as Donn Beach (aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt), founder of the once phenomenally popular Don the Beachcomber chain, and Trader Vic (aka Victor Jules Bergeron). Berry talked to Salon about his life as a South Seas alcohol archaeologist.

Q: You explain the phenomenon of umbrellas in drinks in "Surfin' Safari." Hawaiian bartender Harry K. Yee used them instead of sugar cane sticks, because they were easier to clean up. Do you approve of them as garnishes, or do you find them silly?

A: Here's my thing. I'm trying to be an evangelist for these lost drinks that were actually worthy, that could actually hold their own against all the other alcoholic inventions in this country. Then, someone has a visual image in their mind and says, "Are you talking about those drinks that come in those mugs with the umbrella?" It kind of works against me.

As much as I love tiki mugs -- and I have a whole collection -- I don't serve drinks in them. I want to see the drink in a glass. It's a legitimate drink in the same way a manhattan is. I want to see a zombie in a nice, tall, frosted glass where I can see the color of the drink.

Q: How did you develop an interest in tiki drinks?

A: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the late '60s and there were a ton of these places. My parents liked Chinese food so they would go to this place, Ah Fong. It had opened in the early '60s as the Bora Bora Room, but whoever opened it spent so much money on decor that they went broke soon after they opened. There was this guy named Benson Fong, who was a Chinese restaurant magnate back then; he would move his Cantonese crew into Polynesian places if they couldn't recoup their costs, and rename them Ah Fong.

Anyway, as a 10-year-old I'd walk in the door and it was just completely all-encompassing and enveloping, this Hollywood-art-directed Polynesian theme. It was amazing to my young eyes. You just wanted to live there. And these people around me were drinking these exotic drinks. When I got old enough to drink, I sought these places out. And of course they had all disappeared at that point.

Q: Yes, most of the tiki palaces are gone now, aren't they?

A: In L.A., there were so many of them for so long that a few have survived. I couldn't afford to go to any of them when I got out of school. Trader Vic's Beverly Hills location lasted right up until this year. Don the Beachcomber, the original, was there; it lasted until 1984. I lived around the corner from it at one point, but I couldn't afford to go until their last year, when they were advertising an all-you-can-eat lunch for $4.95. I finally got to go in and see that celebrity chopstick case.

Q: Why do you think there isn't a major tiki bar in New York, which is supposed to be the cocktail capital of the U.S.?

A: Doing all my research, I found out that that cliché about New York thinking the tiki trend was tacky, and being above it all -- that's not true. New York had a ton of these places. It had the Hawaii Tai on Broadway, the Luau 400, which was very expensive, and they had a Trader Vic's in the Plaza Hotel, which Donald Trump famously got rid of when he bought the hotel. I think New York just burns through trends faster than other places.

Q: The most famous tiki drink is probably the zombie. But my chances of going into a bar and getting an authentic zombie are pretty slim, aren't they?

A: Slim to none. The problem with the zombie is nobody knew how to make it. Donn Beach was a victim of his own success in keeping it a secret. Everybody says, "Oh, the zombie, that's an awful drink. It's just eight different kinds of rum. It's just a gimmicky, crappy drink." And the reason for that is because people were guessing. They were all just trying to guess what was in this thing, because Donn wouldn't publish the recipe. The reason we know that Trader Vic's mai tai is a good drink is because, despite the fact that there were a million awful mai tais out there, he printed the recipe himself.

Q: Most tiki drinks have a rum base. What do you think of the theory that rum's place in the drink world today has been supplanted by vodka? So many popular fruity drinks are now built on top of vodka.

A: Yes. Not only that, but the rum market has been trying to become vodka for so long, that vodka has not only supplanted rum, but it's changed rum into becoming blander. It's "Bacardi: The mixable one." Rum really did have its day, though, from the 1930s, when the Don the Beachcomber thing got going, all the way into the late '70s, because even after the tiki bars died, there was still the piña colada and the frozen daiquiri. Cruise ship drinks, I guess you could call them.

Q: You sought some of the tiki master bartenders who worked at the classic bars to get their stories. I bet they were surprised that anyone cared about their experiences.

A: Yeah, they were. For most of them, it was just a job and when the Polynesian thing dried up they just moved on to something else. Very few of them had a sense that this was anything else than just a way to make a living.

When I was writing the first books, it was incredibly difficult to get any information out of them. Their whole life was based on not giving these recipes out to anyone. They wouldn't give recipes out to anyone. I'd ask, "What's in this?" and they'd say, "Fruit juice." None of these guys had made one of these drinks in 40 years, but they would not part with the recipes.

Q: Over the course of the years, you pried the secrets out of them.

A: It gets easier with every book.

Q: You've said that there are only three places in the United States where you can still drink Don's original concoctions.

A: The Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles -- you can still get Don the Beachcomber drinks there. You have to know what drinks were served at Don's in order to pick one off the menu. A rum barrel or a panang or a montego bay.

The Mai Kai is in Fort Lauderdale. And the reason you can get Don's drinks there is the owners of the Mai Kai, when they built it in 1956, they poached a bartender from the Don the Beachcomber in Chicago specifically so they could get Don's recipes. They just tweaked the names of the drinks a little bit. The Navy grog became the yeoman's grog, like that.

The third place is a new place. I have not actually been there yet, but I've met Martin Cate, the guy who runs it. It's called Forbidden Island [Tiki Lounge] and it's in Alameda, which is in the San Francisco Bay Area. They're real Don drinks -- which he got from my books mostly.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Cocktail Incompetency: Patsy's

One would think that a restaurant and bar that has been around 60 years—stretching way back to the days when cocktails were king—would know how to mix a drink.

But if I've learned anything in recent years, it is to assume nothing when you belly up to a bar. I entered Patsy's, the old Frank Sinatra hangout in midtown Manhattan, thinking I could get a decent old school cocktail. After scanning the not-too-impressive collection of bottles behind the bar, I decided not to challenge the rather dim-looking bartender too much and requested a Manhattan. But I like my Manhattans with rye, so first I asked if they stocked any rye.

He pointed to Canadian Club and said, "This is rye." Uh, no it isn't. It has rye in it and I know a lot of people use it as they would use rye. But that ain't rye. Then he pointed at an anonymous bottle I didn't recognize that didn't feature the word "rye" anywhere on the label. "This is rye," he said. I was suspicious that he didn't know his ass from his elbow at this point. Then he pointed at a bottle of Cutty Sark and said "This is rye." Yikes! Mayday! Bail out!

I resorted with a bourbon Manhattan, made with Wild Turkey. It was OK.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In the Cellar at Tommaso's

With my October "In the Cellar" column at the New York Sun, I decided it was time to verture out of Manhattan. And so I took to subway to deepest Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to pay a visit on Tommaso Verdillo, owner of Tommaso restaurant and perhaps the finest wine collection in Kings County (River Cafe would be the only real competition).

Tommaso was a joy to talk to, and continued to chat with after the interview was over, while my wife and I enjoyed dinner at this place. The wife immediately took a shine to the place, which gladly lacks the glitz and pomp of most Manhattan restaurants. We may return for our anniversary with some dollars, so we can raid his low-priced collection of Barolos and Barbarescos.

Here is the text:

In the Cellar: Top Wines, Rock-Bottom Prices

Not every bottle in the three cluttered cellars of Tommaso's Restaurant, the improbably epicurean Bensonhurst haven of fine wine, is on the wine list. Owner and chef Tommaso Verdillo has received far too many gift bottles over the years to make a complete tally possible. Many of the presents have come from the winemakers themselves — offerings made during one of Mr. Verdillo's numerous tours of Italy and elsewhere.

Other estimable oenophiles have also been generous."Want to know who gave me this wine?" Mr. Verdillo said, pointing to a 1970 and a 1978 Barolo from Pio Cesare, the great Piedmont producer. "This is left over from one of Robert Parker's dinners. He just left it. I let him bring his own wines. He couldn't drink them all, and said ‘They're yours.'"

Mr. Parker, the world's most powerful wine critic, is a friend of Mr. Verdillo. "I used to meet him in Paris every January," Mr. Verdillo, a jolly figure of effusion and affability who has been known to serenade his clientele with operatic arias, said. "After he did his annual tastings in Bordeaux, we'd go on eating binges."

The critic has said Tommaso's serves possibly his favorite Italian food in America. Fairly often, the Maryland-based writer, with friends in tow, heads north for a night of choice imbibing at the eatery's windswept perch on 86th Street and Bay 8th Street.

Mr. Parker does not eat at Tommaso's simply because he is a loyal friend to the owner. He knows the same thing a lot of wine industry folks do: For top-shelf wines at rock-bottom prices, Tommaso's can't be beat. Long before the rest of the world hopped onto the Bacchus bandwagon, Mr. Verdillo decided his restaurant needed a serious wine program. He educated himself with courses in viticulture and vinification and attended early editions of Vinitaly, the Italian wine fair held every year in Verona. One by one, he befriended the great vintners of Piedmont, forging friendships with the likes of Bruno Giacosa. At a time when few people in New York cared much about Italian wines, Mr. Verdillo was investing deeply in fine vintages of Barolos, Barbarescos, and Super Tuscans.

Mr. Verdillo could charge steeply for his bottled treasures, but has chosen to keep the markup around 100% of what he initially paid (as opposed to what the wine is worth now). Thus, a magnum of Gaja Sori San Lorenzo 1990, which goes for $1,200 at the wine-centric Manhattan restaurant Veritas, can be found for less than half that amount at Tommaso's.

"If it cost me $50, I'd sell it for $100. I'd rather people drink," he said. "I'd rather share it with people. The Giacomo Conterno Monfortino 1990 for $400? That's an absolute steal! You won't find that for that price anywhere."

Of course, the bargains Mr. Verdillo uncovered in the '80s and early '90s are gone now, leading him to invest more selectively in recent vintages by his favorite makers. "Once they're gone, they're gone," he said of his cellar holdings. "I'm not buying them anymore. I don't have the clientele for it. Conterno doesn't need me to sell his wine, and I don't need to sell them at those prices."

Sometimes he despairs of the current runaway wine market. "I'm almost hurt by it. You can't share this stuff with people, it's so expensive. Wine was meant to be drunk! How can I say, You should drink this fabulous bottle of wine. But you have to give my $600 for it. It's a bargain, but you have to pay $600?'"

Even if Mr. Verdillo scraped together the money to buy a case of '89 Petrus, he said it wouldn't sell at Tommaso's. "Who's going to come here in Brooklyn to buy it?" he said. "Cru and Veritas, those are the places where people would go and spend $7,000 on a bottle."

While the customers at those restaurants may be willing to spend that kind of money, the people who work there know better; they grab the D train to the 18th Avenue stop in Bensonhurst. "The guys from Cru come here to drink," Mr. Verdillo laughed, referring to the Burgundy-rich Greenwich Village restaurant. "They raid my cellar quite often."

There is no end, in fact, to the list of wine-world heavyweights who have made the pilgrimage to Bensonhurst. Piedmont wine titan Angelo Gaja has been there many times. Bruno Giacosa's daughters have visited; one daughter roomed upstairs for a month one summer. Legendary Barolo wine producer Aldo Conterno has been a guest. The maker of the cognoscente's most favored wine glasses, Georg Riedel, dined there with his son. "He was very autocratic with that boy," Mr. Verdillo said of the Austrian glassmaker. "That kid sat up straight. Very dignified. And I'm the opposite of that. I'm not a dress-up kind of guy. Very casual." And then, of course, there are Tommaso's numerous less-celebrated regulars. "People want to drink old wines at reasonable prices," he said. "They come here for that."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Pinot That Walks Like a Cab

In a few days, I'll be flying out to Sonoma County to visit my brother. In preparation for our visit to wine country, I thought I'd spend a few nights drinking wines from the area. I decided to focus on the Pinot Noirs of the Sonoma Coast, since it's not an area I spend a lot of time thinking about. I picked up a Chasseur Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2005 at Acker, Merrall & Condit on the Upper West Side and a Flowers Andreen-Gale Cuvee Pinot Noir 2004 at Beacon Wine & Spirits a couple blocks away. (That was my limit, since those two bottles put me in the hole to the tune of $90.) The unsmiling owner at Beacon always seems confident in his inventory. "You like this?" I said, holding up the Flowers. "I always like it," he monotoned, not looking up from his paperwork.

I drank them over the course of a few days and, while I admired them in the way a commoner admires a king, I can't say I loved them. Why? Well, let's just say they came on too strong. The Chasseur had an alcohol level of 14.5%, the Flowers 14.1% (though that seemed like a fib to me). They had all kinds of fruit, were majestic and balanced. Bright cherry, plum, perfume, all that jazz. A bit more spice and tobacco on the Chasseur, while the Flowers came off more polished and elegant.

But, in the end, as I enjoyed my glass with some approving nods, I felt I had been more bullied than seduced into a good opinion. To me, pinots this strong just seem out of whack with the varietal's inate character. The Flowers was so muscular, it had many of the characteristics of a California Cab. Both wineries brag of Burgundian methods, but their wines of Cali all over.

Once again I proved to myself, I'm just not a California boy.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Creme and Syrup

Every time I visit LeNell's liquor store in Red Hook, I seem to spy a bottle or two that I convince myself I need in order to have a complete liquor cabinet. Yesterday, I went in for some sweet vermouth, but exited not only with the vermouth but some Creme de Cassis and Fee Brothers Red Passion Fruit Cordial Syrup. I had been looking for a Creme de Cassis other than the typical brands founds in most shops, and LeNell's had a 375 ml bottle of Jules Theuriet that looked promising. As for the Fee's, I have plenty of their bitters, but had never before noticed this peculiar product.

I bought both not knowing what exactly I was going to do with them when I got home, but I was sure I'd come up with something. Everyone knows the classic Cassis cocktails the Kir and Kir Royale, but I didn't have any wine or Champagne on hand. Besides, I wanted to try something out of the ordinary. I leafed through my cocktail books and came up with the Arnaud, a drink dating to the 1920s and named after French actress Yvonne Arnaud. It required:

1 oz. gin
1 oz. dry vermouth
1 oz. creme de cassis.

Couldn't be simpler. I stirred the trio with ice and strained it into a chilled cocktail glass. The drink had a certain appeal, but was a bit too much on the syrupy side for me. The Cassis dominated without question. It still seemed like a liqueur, not a cocktail.

From there, I wasted no time experimenting with the Passion Fruit Syrup. Rather than raid the library once again, I decided to consult the bottle's label for ideas. The Fee Brothers suggested a Hurricane and a Tonga Punch, but both were a bit complex and required ingredients I didn't have. I wanted something simpler. So I tried the third option: something I'd never heard of called a Royal Romance. It asked for:

1/2 oz. Fee's Red Passion
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
1 oz. Gin

For my stomach's sake, I was glad I was staying in the gin family. I shook the liquids as instructed and strained the mixture into a cocktail glass. The Passion Fruit Syrup, like the Cassis, was in the foreground of the drink's taste profile, with the orange of the Grand Marnier close behind. Again, it was somewhat enjoyable, but the mix of orange and passion fruit flavors made my stomach churn a little. The combination wasn't as harmonious as it ought to have been.

I can't say I cared for either of these drinks much, but I'll continue to play with my new toys. I rarely give up on any mixer. Cassis will come in handy, I have no doubt. The Fee's will be more of a challenge. There are all those tiki drinks, of course though they take patience and a ton of products. If nothing else, Fee's says it can also be used as a dessert topping, or to spice up my morning coffee.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shades of Grayz

Grayz, the peculiar high-end restaurant on E. 54th Street run by celeb chef Gray Kuntz, is selling itself as a kind of non-stop, swanky cocktail party. So, of course, I had to go. Indeed, there isn't much food to speak of. A dozen small plates of fancy finger food and three entree-size offerings. The focus is the cocktail and wine lists.

The first page lists Grayz' "signature" cocktails and, to be frank, the descriptions of many of them made me feel a bit queasy. The Irish Day, for instance, is made of Jameson's Irish whiskey, pomegranate molasses, apple and lemon juice, cracked pepper. Sounds like a liquified spicy baked apple. And the Loretto is composed of Maker's Mark, Nieport 1986 colheita port, bliss maple syrup and (urp) bourbon-roasted pineapple. What's with all the fruit and tree sap?

I zeroed in on the drink that seemed most appealing, the Agave Agave. Herradura Silver, St. Germain elderflower syrup, agave, lime, mint. No surprise: it turned out to be Grayz' most popular cocktail. The concoction proved refreshing, piquant and light. It was served in a Martini glass and the lime slice floated on top. Just right for the Indian Summer New York is suffering through right now. From there I went on to the second-most-bouyant-sounding drink, the Tornja, made of Mac de Oro Cachaca, grapefruit marmalade and syrup, orange bitters, and lemon juice. This was served in a rocks glass with a huge wedge of orange stuck to the side, like the flag on a mailbox. I approved of this drink as well. Bracing, tart and sweet. Both drinks were $12.

The help was quite obliging and seemed rather nervous; the place has only been open a couple weeks and has been the focus of much snarky press. The bartender said their version of a Rockefeller Manhattan was also popular, but since it had a base of bourbon, I wasn't too keen. In fact, no rye-based drinks were featured, though they had (one) rye in stock, and there were too many vodka drinks for my taste.

My friend has two Cucumber Gimlets, which he enjoyed throughly. Made of Bulldog Gin, Cucumber, lime juice and simple syrup, it seemed to me to be a rip-off of the Cucumber Collins that Hedrick's rep Charlotte Voisey has been mixing up lately, just with lime in the place of lemon juice. But the use of lime instead of lemon really made a different, tipping it over to the far side of tartness. A drink in its own right, if essentially a riff.

Place has potential. I'll be back

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Brandy Old Fashioned

I am uniquely qualified to write about this very singular drink, since I grew up in the Milwaukee area. In almost every other place in the thinking world, if you order an Old Fashioned, you will get something made with a base of rye or bourbon. In Wisconsin, if you don't specify your poison, you will get an Old Fashioned made with brandy.

This has been the case as long as anyone can remember. The sweet, fruity drink (oranges, cherries and either Club Soda or Seven-Up are involved) may be Wisconsin's most popular cocktail. It's certainly popular. Wisconsinites also drink Manhattans made with brandy, and something called "Brandy and Seven." All, usually made with Korbel brandy. For many years, more brandy was drunk in the Badger State than in the rest of the other 49 United States combined.

People have puzzled for years over the origin of the sui generis mixture and been unable to come up with a plausible theory as to its history and popularity. My parents and relatives fell dumb when asked to explain the drink.

I was left wondering until I stumbled upon a 2006 article in the Isthmus, a Madison, Wisconsin, alternative newspaper, in which the author, one Jerry Minnich, makes a convincing case for unlocking the mystery. The money paragraphs are these:

I came upon the answer to this mystery in a most serendipitous way. I had
just finished reading The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. It is the story of
the building of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, a book enlivened by
the concurrent story of a psychopathic serial killer. (A real page-turner, if you're
looking for some good summer reading.) Several new products were introduced at
this fair, including Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat. But the book says nothing
about brandy.

Then, in surfing the Internet, I came upon the single clue that broke the mystery
wide open. The California Korbel brothers—Francis, Josef and Antone—were lumbermen
who started making brandy in 1889. Business was slow until, four years later,
they introduced their brandy to the popular Columbian Expo. Popular? It drew 27
million visitors -- one quarter of the nation's population. According to the
Chicago-area Northwest Herald, June 8, 2004:

"Korbel's big break came in Chicago with his wine and brandy being featured at
the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The many Germans who saw the world's fair in
Chicago became Korbel's best brandy customers. Word certainly spread. Even
today, because of its large German population, neighboring Wisconsin buys the
most Korbel brandy of any state. The battleship Wisconsin was christened in 1899
with a bottle of Korbel Viking Champagne."

Eureka! This explains everything! The German population, which was much higher
in 1893 than it is today. The popularity of brandy. And the brand dominance of
Korbel. It might also be a marketing lesson in the importance of brand

As a Wisconsinite might say, "Well, thar you go." Strange as it may seem, until recently, I had never tasted this flagship drink from my native state. So, on my recent sojourn to the Midwest, I made a point of ordering up a Brandy Old Fashioned. The place was venerable old Nelson's Hall on remote Washington Island. I didn't think I could get more ur-Wisconsin than that. I asked the young waitress if the bartender knew how to make a Brandy Old Fashioned. She didn't bat an eye. "Of course," she said.

It came. It was colorful, sweet and topped with an orange slice and two maraschino cherries. And it wasn't a trashy, slop drink. It was actually quite delicious. Sure, too sweet. Sure, too eager to please. Sure, a drink for people unsure whether they want to taste the alcohol. But a tasty drink. I understood suddenly why they were drunk in such numbers. This cocktail should not be sneered at. It works, for what it is. It does have the class or sophistication of a Manhattan or the depth of a Sazerac. But it's a local delicacy, and in our time of increase homogenization, such things should not be sneezed at.

Here's the recipe recommended in the Isthmus article:

Brandy Old-Fashioned (From the Avenue Bar)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 dashes bitters
1-1/2 ounces brandy

Spoon sugar into one 6-ounce
cocktail glass. Add bitters. Dissolve
quickly with a splash of 7-Up, then
add brandy, followed by ice cubes.
Top off with 7-Up, and garnish with
an orange slice and a maraschino
on a toothpick. (Good bartenders
skewer the orange slice from
bottom to top with the cherry in
the middle, which they call a

See more here.

Read more about Brandy Old Fashioneds here.

Sampling the Sonoma Harvest

Last week, I attended a lunch at the James Beard House held by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and the Sonoma County Vintners. It was their way to show off the new harvest and possibly stir up some press and tourism. Tyler Colman of organized the event and Murphy Vineyards owner Jim Murphy and Ravenswood Winery winemaker Joel Peterson were the speakers.

The lunch itself was of interest in that it was composed mainly of ingredients flown in from Somoma. Drakes Bay Oysters were followed by Corn and Cauliflower Soup with Dungeness Crab and Coconut, then Liberty Duck Confit, Heirloom Tomato and Lavender Coulis and Merlot Jus Tierra Farm Marrowfat Bean Ragu and Braised Red Chard, and finally Crane Melon Sorbet with Wild Coastal Huckleberries and Florentine Crisps. These were served with a series of Sonoma wines, including a lovely Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee sparkler from Carneros, a full, grassy 2005 Baletto Pinot Gris from the Sonoma Coast (which went perfectly with the soup), a grassy, metallic 2003 Murphy Goode Fume Blanc Reserve from the Alexander Valley, and a series of Zinfandels from Ravenswood and Bucklin, including a 1995 from the former.

The most interesting part of the event, however, was the tasting of six sets of grapes flown in from Sonoma. Placed on individual long white plates in front of each guest, they included clusters of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah from Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel from Russian River Vally, Cab Sauv from Alexander Valley and Cab Sauv from Sonoma Mountain.

The grapes were uniformly delicious, sweet and complex in their flavors. They beat table grapes to hell. The Zin grapes were the biggest of the six, with a ripe, cherry-raspberry taste to them. The Sonoma Mountain Cab grapes were warmer, fuller and more tannic than the Alexander Valley ones, which were more neutral and soft in their flavor. If winemakers have to spend their fall days sampling grapes like these, their jobs are pretty sweet.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Cool as a Cucumber

I stopped in Smith & Vine wineshop in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, the other day and who did I see but mixologist and Hendrick's Gin rep Charlotte Voisey mixing up some Cucumber Collinses for the people. This was the second time in just a few months that I had caught Voisey in this act; she did the same service at LeNell's in Red Hook.

I liked the Cucumber Collins she made just as much as I had liked it in Red Hook. And I thought to myself: I can't very well count on Charlotte to turn up every few months at a neighborhood wine shop to keep me in Cucumber Collins. I better learn how to make the damn thing.

So I bought a cucumber, went home, and looked up the recipe on the web. This is what I found, courtesy of

Cucumber Collins
1½ oz Hendrick’s Gin
3 oz cucumber puree
Shake and strain over fresh ice in a Collins glass, garnish with a long cucumber rod.
(To make a batch of cucumber puree: blend 1 cucumber with 3 oz fresh lemon juice and 3½ oz simple syrup.)

I had all the ingredients, so went to work. It was a snap, and tasted just as refreshing as it had at Smith & Vine. I do have a confession to make. I didn't have Hendrick's on hand (which, as you all know, has a distinctive cucumber flavor to it), so I used Stoli. (Sorry, Charlotte. I was thirsty.) The Stoli did just fine. And it's easy to whip up a batch of the puree and just store it in the fridge for a few days.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Torres, Torres, Torres

I only had a hour to spared Sept. 20 Wines from Spain tasting in Chelsea, so I imagine I probably tasted less than five percent of the wines on offer.

But that doesn't mean my visit was a waste of time. Perhaps it was dull of me, but upon arrival, knowing time was of the essence, I zoomed over to the Miguel Torres table to taste what Spain's most famous vintner had to sell. Torres' wines are not hard to find, but usually its the same one or two that pop up in wine stores, the Rhone-like mix of the Gran Sangre de Toro being the most common.

The Gran Sangre de Toro was on the table in Chelsea, but so were six others, including three whites which were all impressive in their way. The Nerola White was a mix of 80% Xarello and 20% Garnacha Blanca, offering a palate of citrus, spice and oak. The Gran Vina Sol was a New World blend of 85% Chardonnay and 15% Parellada (to keep the thing Catalonian). Full and elegant with a deep flavor profile. Finally, the Vina Esmerelda was made of 85% Moscatel and 15% Gewurztraminer, resulting in a perfumey, rich wine. The Torres family does white well.

The Torres rose DeCasta, made of Garnacha and Carinena, was also a treat, more balanced between fruit and acidity and just plain more advanced than most roses.

Other than that, I tasted a lot of Albarino, because I love Albarino, but was impressed by almost none of it. What is it with this grape? When it's good, it's great. Nothing like it. But so much of what's out there right now is indifferent and bland, with little kick or depth to it. It's disappointing.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Cafe Carlyle, Bemelmans Bar: A Comparison

I had chance to visit the Cafe Carlyle and Bemelmans Bar, both in the Carlyle Hotel, the other night, as this lousy picture (of the latter tavern) will attest. (Imagine it as tobacco-smoke-stained Impressionist painting. Suddenly, it looks pretty classy, doesn't it?) I was at the Cafe to see Eartha Kitt, and then sequed to Bemelmans across the hall to soak in more music—and to sample what I had heard was an inspired cocktail list.

The brusque bartender at the Cafe Carlyle did not have the ingredients on hand to make a Sazerac, but at least he knew what the drink was. And his Manhattan was finely honed. Furthermore, the wines-by-the-glass list featured the luscious Prince Poniatowski Aigle Blanc Vouvray 1990 which has been making its way through town. The bartender was surprised to see it on the menu and had to go rooting around in the basement to find a bottle. It was worth waiting for, a ripe, rewarding glassful.

The Bemelmans was packed, an convivial scene. Did you know there's a cover charge to sit at the friggin' bar at this place? Ten ever-lovin' bucks! Well, I sat anyway, and ordered something called the Carlyle Punch, which has a secret recipe. All the bartender would reveal was that is has a base of rye, and all I could see was that he topped it with a spray of seltzer. I sensed some grenadine in there somewhere, and a fruit juice of unknown variety.

The drink was good, getting better as I reached the bottom. I noticed the Gin-Gin Mule was still on the list, a remnant of the long-gone Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club) era. Brian Van Flandern, former head mixologist at Per Se, was recently drafted to "snazz" things up, whatever that means. Don't know if he's responsible for the punch.