Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Wine at Olana


It's always a pleasure when one walks into a restaurant, peruses the wine list and finds the wine director's taste is very much in line with one's own.

This happened, somewhat unexpectedly, when I paid a recent visit to the Madison Square area's Olana, a new addition to the eating scene this year. As I waited for my dining partner, I looked over the wines by the glass. This is usually a quick job for me. By-the-glass lists, meant to appeal to the widest array of people, are typically the terrain of the homogeneous and the unexciting. If I find one wine I like, it's a miracle. At Olana, I had a tough time choosing.

Should I get the Martinsancho Verdejo from Spain, which I love? Or the Millbrook Tocai Friulano, another favorite, not often seen on wine lists. An Austrian Gruner Veltliner looked promising, as did a pinot noir from northern Italy, and a Merlot from Bedell in Long Island.

Finally, I settled on a rose made from Merlot by Long Island's Channing Daughters. This winery almost never disappoints me. I'm beginning to think the winemaker Christopher Tracy some sort of genius. Sure enough, the rose was inspired, from its color (a beautiful rose-salmon) to its depth and character.

Upon sitting down, owner Patrick Resk tried to stump the table by producing a 2007 Kerner from Kofererhof. Far from unfamilar with this German hybrid grape, I often count it a favorite (and a value), if handled well. This one was, a round, viscous treat from the Alto Adige. I do like a man who appreciates the northern climes of Italy, where its hard for winemakers to escape the influence of terroir. Resk then brought out a 2004 Punica Barrua from Sardinia, a smooth (which is not to say bland or innocuous), fullsome, round wine that was a perfect accompaniment to Braised Short Rib sandwiches we were eating.

Punica Barrua is a joint-venture between Sardinian winery Cantina Sociale di Santadi and Tenuta San Guido, home of Sassicaia. So it's no suprise the wine is a success, if one of an international character, as opposed to a Sardinian one. The blend is 85% Carignane,10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot. The wine spends 18 months in Allier oak barriques, a third of which are new, an third of one harvest's use, and a third of two harvests' use. The blend is selected from the finest lots and bottled without fining or filtering. It rests in bottle twelve months prior to release.

Both of the above wines were off menu. It would be good if they went on the menu.

Olana divides the wine list into New World and Old World, wisely catering to both the fruit-forward friendly crowd and those (like myself) who like to see a little more varied expression in their wines than a pronounced fruit character. Selections from Piedmont, Friuli, Alsace, Alto Adige and Sardinia always provoke my interest, and they were to be found here. The California line-up entranced me less, but that's just me. No wine-growing region can send me into a quicker sleep than predictable, popularity-seeking Cali.

Olana has a fine circular bar which ought to be more of a destination if people knew of the wine selection here—not large, but select. Perhaps some additional care in shaping the cocktail list (too short and too much emphasis of vodka and intrusive garnishes) might amend that situation.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Mad Men" and Drinking


Forgive me for being a bit behind the times (I always am), but I finally got around to watching "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner's wonderful AMC series about a group of advertising executives in early 1960s Manhattan.

I had been interested in this gleaming sliver of New York history long before the program came along, that golden age from 1945 to 1965 when the city was the prosperous capital of the world, stylish, progressive, modern, its chest puffed out with well-earned pride. I've watched with fascination such films as "The Apartment," "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," "The Best of Everything," and the Doris Day-Rock Hudson flicks (as well as the retro pieces "Good Night and Good Luck," "Down With Love," and "Far From Heaven"; I will be taking in "Revolutionary Road"); read novels of the period; and visited what hot spots from the time that are left relatively intact in the City. Also, certainly, my interest in cocktails has caused me to focus on that era, the last of the 20th century when people drank with ease, assurance and style, and had ready access to great bars and great bartenders.

The metropolis throbbed with ingenuity and activity then, and its citizens (well, the privileged white ones, anyway) fully enjoyed their status in the world community as leaders in fashion, business, theatre, art, literature, technology, almost everything. In retrospect, the period is rendered particularly poignant, and near tragic, in that it was so brief, and because its players had no idea that assassination, war and cultural revolution would dash it all to pieces by the end of the 1960s.

Much has already been written about how constantly the liquor and cigarette smoke flows in this show. It does, indeed. No scene passes without a puff or a swig. The execs don't just keep bottles in their desk drawers; they have home bars in their offices, right out in the open: glasses, bottles, decanters, ice, the works. Workers help themselves in the middle of the day.

Jon Hamm plays the lead role of Don Draper, an impossibly handsome and assured man of deep cynical talents and mysterious past. He drinks Old Fashioneds, regularly. Sometimes classic, sometimes with muddled fruit, depending on the joint. A good solid drink for him. Of what base, I'm not sure, but when his new secretary (played by Elizabeth Moss) is being drilled by her boss, she's told that Draper's drink is rye. "That's Canadian, isn't it?" she says. "Better find out," says her boss. No doubt, the line is a reference to Canadian Club; in later scenes, he's seen with a bottle of the stuff in his office. Sad to think that Draper is resorting to that blended swill, but the stuff was common and popular at the time, and often passed as rye.

In the second episode of the first season, there's a scene where Draper and his boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), are dining with their wives at Toots Shor's. I don't know if the art director did research into what the interior of Toots Shor's looked like (you can see parts of the real thing in "The Sweet Smell of Success"), but it's exciting to think that he did pattern the booths on the real deal. Mrs. Draper (January Jones) is drinking vodka Gimlets, a fact she later regrets. ("Lobster Newberg and Gimlets should get a divorce. They're not getting along well.") Draper has his Old Fashioned. Sterling is having (many) Martinis with olives, served in glasses which, to my eye, looked a tad too big for the time. Sterling's wife, I don't know; maybe a Collins of some sort; leastways, it was a highball.

In the same episode, Draper is entertaining Rachel Menken, a perspective client (and soon-to-be lover) at an uptown restaurant. She drinks a Mai Tai, in an era-appropriate opaque tiki glass. Interesting to think that the cocktail was a relatively recent invention in 1960, devised as it was just after WWII.

There's a confusing scene in the third episode, set at the Draper's suburban home during a party. Betty Draper is fixing up a pitcher of refreshments for everyone, pouring in Blue Hills bourbon, ice and then seltzer. (Blue Hills is a brand that did exist. Beyond that I know little.) Mint is nearby in a bowl. She then arrives in the next room with a tray of silver-plated cups and announces she's offering Juleps. The presence of seltzer had me wondering, and the cups didn't look frosty enough, or necessarily abundant with crushed ice or mint. Still, people were perhaps were not so exacting in their mixology back then—certainly not housewives in the suburbs.

In the same episode, Draper raids a garage fridge while putting together a playhouse for his daughter. He drinks a great many cans of Fielding beer. Again, I can discover very little about this brand. There was a Fiedling made in Halifax. The full name was Fielding's Fine Bradshaw Beers. The beer was made at the White Castle Brewery, which was founded by Daniel Fielding, and was bought out by Samuel Webster & Sons in 1961. I doubt this is the beer "Mad Men" was referencing.

As Mark Simonson pointed out, the can looks exactly like the Hamm’s beer label of the time, but with green instead of blue. (Yes, Mark is a relation, a cousin, and an expert on typeface. He spied the Fielding beer in a separate, wonky, font-driven investigation of his own.)

Hamm's beer. Jon Hamm. Perhaps an inside joke? Is anyone named Fielding involved in the "Mad Men" series?


Friday, December 26, 2008

Instant Tom & Jerry!


Christmas makes me think of Tom & Jerrys. I can't help it. My parents would hand out hot mugs of the stuff every yuletide like clockwork, even (now that I think of it) to us underage youngsters.

My parents never made Tom & Jerrys from scratch. They used a mix, easily found in Wisconsin stores, but which I've never seen outside the state. I recall it as a powered mix. While on the phone with my father recently, I asked if the product was still available. Yes, he said, but only at Christmastime, and there was no powered mix that he could remember; just a liquid, refrigerated version. Before I could say stop, he volunteered to ship me out a container.

It arrived a few days later, in the sort of plastic tub that is usually used for sour cream or yogurt. Mrs. Bowen's Tom & Jerry mix. There's a sweet picture on the container of a steaming mug superimposed on a winter scene of a log cabin in the snow. The weird brew is made in Wisconsin, natch.

Having sampled the superior Tom & Jerry of Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club, I had my suspicions. How good could this stuff be? Or, rather, how bad could it be? But I had it. It had traveled all those miles. It was worth a try. I opened it. It was half filled with a gloppy, tan, gelatinous substance that looks like the caramel swirls you see in certain store-bought ice creams. Did it always come this way? Had my father helped himself to half of the contents before sending it, to save on postage?

There were recipes on the back of the container, not just for Tom & Jerrys, but for Egg Nog, and "Kid's Egg Nog." The Tom & Jerry formula asked for a tablespoon of the glop, 3/4 oz. brandy, 3/4 oz. rum, hot water and a sprinkling of nutmeg. I did as ordered. It was easy enough, and the smell of the resulting potion reminded me of Christmases past. It didn't taste bad. It didn't taste good. It was just kind of uninteresting. A slightly creamy, somewhat hot mix of brandy or rum. It was crude. No wonder Tom & Jerrys never captured my imagination when I was younger. This prefabricated cocktail wasn't built to impress.

I asked my wife if she's like a sip. She recoiled as if from the maw of a snake, its fangs dripping with venom. "No!" she said. "Always hated that stuff!" The wife knows what she likes. And hates.

And so I moved on to my own little holiday tradition: a Blue Blazer on Christmas Eve, for its festive quality, and on Christmas morn, a Ramos Gin Fizz, an egg-based, morning drink far superior to the Tom & Jerry in my opinion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Deciphering Cyprus


What do most of know about the wines of Cyprus? Precious little, I'd bet. But going to a recent tasting of Cypriot wines in Manhattan recently, I learned a lot in a little time, mainly because people kept whispering facts into my ears are regular intervals. Cyprus' wine-growing tradition is one of the oldest in the world. Check. Phylloxera never penetrated the island's shores, so vine here still have European rootstock. Check. Ancient kings sipped Commandaria from jewel-encrusted goblets thousands of years ago. Check.

Ah, yes, Commandaria. If you know anything about Cyprus, it's probably that name. Commandaria is Cyprus' special fortified wine, made from native Mavro (red) and Xynisteri (white) grapes, using the same methods Richard I and Turkish Sultan Suleiman II encountered centuries ago. The grapes are dried on straw for ten days, then fermented very slowly, for two to three months, before spending two years in barrel. A sort of Sherry-like Solera method is used, with a little older wine left in each barrel as new wine is poured in. (This is somewhat ironic, since, to my tastes, Commadaria is closer to Port in character, with lots of date, fig and mature fruit flavors.)

There were three Commandarias on hand. Every winemaker out there seems to make one. Keo's St. John Commandaria, a famous brand, was begin served, but I'm afraid its thunder was stolen a bit by the presence of Etko's Commandaria Centurion. If I am to believe the pourer, this delicacy is aged fully 100 years, meaning whoever put it in barrels probably died sometime back in the 1970s or so. Another report on the wine says it is made from a cuvee ranging in age from 30 to 100 years. That sounds more believable. (Though 100 years makes for a better story.)

The flavor was remarkably similar to the younger Commandarias, only with more subtlety and finesse. Figs, dates, raisins, currents, every wrinkled fruit you can think of. It goes for $150 a bottle, making it a nice present in case you're looking or something to give me.


I'd love to say something good about the regular still wines, but I'm afraid I found most of them only acceptable, with over-aggressive acidity and underdeveloped fruit. The Xyniesteris can come off a lot like Vihno Verdes, which isn't too bad, and which I might like better if I were drinking it while lounging on a Cyprus beach.

One happy exception was a Keo red wine called Heritage. It is made from the Maratheftiko grape, which, I am told, is highly volatile, acidic and tannic, and needs some time in barrel to settle down. Hence, the new release is a 2001. The wine was impressive, with muscular acidity, a great deal of depth, understated fruit and plenty of green and earthy notes throughout. It had a real character of its own. It's complex and gave me plenty to think about—mainly that I'll have to keep on considering Cyprus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Two More London Bars


One more post regarding my recent trip to London town. While there, I had the chance to sample London cocktail culture. Not as much as I'd like, but some. I've already blogged about Dukes Hotel and Hawksmoor. I also found time to visit the Connaught Hotel's new Connaught Bar, and the Dorchester Hotel's bar.

As we stepped out of our London cab onto the posh, spotless streets of Mayfair outside the Connaught, I commented to Camper English, "Ah, the hushed sounds of wealth being enjoyed." The Connaught Bar beats anything in American for poshness. It used to be called the American Bar but was recently remodeled. (What? Are Americans that unpopular over there now?) It sparkles and shines and glitters. And that's just the clientele! The space is divided into three sections, the innermost containing the bar, an alcoholic dream in silver and glass.


Ago Perrone is in charge. Ago, Ago, Ago, that's all I heard from the time I told people I was going to London. Go see Ago. Some sort of London bartending god, is he. He served us personally, suave as could be. For the life of me, I can't remember the first two palate refreshers that were foisted on us, but they were good. I remember being brought a superlative Gin & Tonic made with Beefeater 24. That was followed up by a series of Martinis made with various bitters: grapefruit, ginger, cardomon, coriander, vanilla, lavender and licorice. I was doubtful of the potential of these whimsical ointments, and was proved right, I'm sorry to say. The licorice was downright unpleasant, the lavender too floral, the cardamom too spicy, masking all over flavors in the drink. The ginger seemed to work best.


During the last hours of my final night in London, I went on my own to the Dorchester, which was a few blocks along Hyde Park from my hotel. This is where mixologist Charlotte Voisey got her start, I'm told. Sleek and modern, its swerving, curving bar matches equally sloping lines in the seating and in the patterns on the floor and ceiling. No walking a straight line here. The bar is black, as is much of the decor, accented by pointy red glass stalagmites. Mirrors behind the bar and on top of some tables. It was relatively uncrowded when I arrived near closing time, the action at the bar dominated by a well-clad silver-haired old fox and his game, clingy, loud, young blonde girlfriend.

There were many classics on the menu, including the Blood and Sand, Martinez, Mary Pickford, and Brooklyn; some "Twinklers," drinks with Champagne or Prosecco; and Classics Revisited, new spins on old recipes. I had time for only one drink, so I chose from this page the Bourbon Cobbler: Makers Mark, bitters, absinthe, passion fruit and orange juice. It was excellent. A beautiful, refreshing drink. Fourteen pounds, yes (meaning $25), but what can you do? London has New York's hotel bar scene beat solid.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Terra Andina Reserva 2007


This Chardonnay comes from the Valle de Limari in Chile, and it might not have hooked me if it were pricier, but at just over $10, it's a buy.

The yeasty, buttery, full grapey nose gives way to a round wine of good acidity, and flavors of melon, eucalyptus, vanilla and green apple. It's nicely balanced. Not my style, as Chardonnays go, but certainly not as bad as some more overblown Cali Chards that go for three times the money. I'd drink it again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Into the Woodford


Here's an item from this week's Time Out New York about Woodford Reserve's newly released and limited edition 1838 Sweet Mash. I like the bourbon as a change of pace, though I rather understand why, after distillers started adding sour to the mash, they kept doing it.

Barrel fever

It takes a lot to stump a roomful of whiskey aficionados. But at a recent tasting event, bourbon brainiacs—who know everything from the minimum percentage of corn used in legal varieties to how many times different brands char their barrels—were at a loss to explain what “sweet mash” is. Why it came up? Bourbon maker Woodford Reserve had just released a third offering in its Master’s Collection series, the Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash. Every other bourbon in the U.S. is created using a sour mash, a process in which the detritus of a previous distillation—grains, yeast, water—is folded into a new batch. But long before secondhand mash became the industry standard, the liquor was made using fresh ingredients only—a sweet mash. Woodford’s new product revives this erstwhile method and, according to the distillery, the 1838 is the only such whiskey on the market. “The process is riskier, which makes it more expensive,” says Woodford master distiller Chris Morris, offering his theory as to why modern distilleries eschew the method. The resultant elixir is lighter in body than its status quo counterpart, with a high cinnamon-clove spiciness and unusual fruit notes of berries and apples. If you want to sample this lost breed, you’ll have to hustle. Woodford only made 1,045 cases, and has no plans to make it again. $89 for 750 ml at Park Avenue Liquor, 292 Madison Ave between 40th and 41st Sts (212-685-2442), and Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St at 4th St (212-674-7500)
— Robert Simonson

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Choice for a Cup of Holiday Cheer


I recently attended a holiday dinner sponsored by Plymouth Gin at the Lever House and was fairly knocked out by the cocktails concocted to go along with the meal. These were all the work of Lever House's beverage director, the rather spectacularly named Rainlove Lampariello. I had never heard of the fellow. I felt less shamefaced about this when I learned that the estimable Plymouth spokesman Simon Ford was also in the dark about the man. Both Ford and I agreed that Rainlove had rung the bell with each of the five drinks he had devised for the evening. This was saying something, since, for my part, I don't really think much of the whole spirits-with-dinner concept.

The best drink of the night by far was a spin on mulled wine called "Sanguine." Over the course of a few weeks, I pried the recipe from Lampariello. I recommend it as being as good as any Yuletide punch or toddy you can come up.

This recipe was created for a large party, so adjust measurements as you see fit. Or make a big batch and invite some friends over. I'm recommending the Plymouth gin, because it's what Rainlove used and it worked well in my opinion. But any decent London Dry gin would work as well, I suppose.

SANGUINE

2 oz. chilled Plymouth Gin
3 oz. reduced mulled red wine
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice

To make the mulled wine, combine in a pot:

3 bottles of red wine
1 bottle of Plymouth gin
1 quart of Orange Juice.
1 pint Simple Syrup
Orange rinds
A sachet, about the size of a baseball, containing equal amounts cardamom, red pepper corns, star anise, salt, cloves, allspice, and coriander.

Slowly cook over a low flame until reduced to 1 quart of liquid. Take out orange rinds after one hour or liquid will become bitter.


Sounds like a bother, I know, but if you have the spices on hand, it really isn't that difficult. And it's very much worth it. A lovely drink.

Rainlove has since left the Lever House, I'm sad to say. He's now at the new Rouge Tomate.

Monday, December 8, 2008

They Sell No Bitters Before Their Time


At this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention, one of the greatest stirs was about the presence of a new Angostura product on the premises. The bitters company, which has surfed through the decades on the strength of one fantastic, one-of-kind item, was ready to roll out its new orange bitters. And if you could find the p.r. rep, she might pull a bottle out of her big black bag and give you one.

I found her, and got her last bottle. I couldn't have been happier if I had been Little Jack Horner pulling a plum out of my Christmas pie. It's a great orange bitters of enormous depth, very likely the best on the market.

It took something close to forever to pin down the bitters' inventor, Peter Traboulay, for an interview, and a few days more to decipher his accent upon transcribing our conversation, but I got it done. Here's the story, just now published on Saveur.com:

After 184 Years, Angostura Visits the Orange Grove

by Robert Simonson

Plenty of snacks and drinks—Snapple, Doritos; take your pick—are wolfed down because they come in so many different flavors. And their parent companies can't stop themselves from rolling out a new product, a new twist on the old formula, every few months or so. Why have one flavor when you can give the people 23?

But there are other companies that are content to innovate at a slower pace. Take Angostura: back in 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert, a German expatriate living in revolution-torn Venezuela, put together a potent mix of herbs and spices he called "amargo aromatico" and used it to provide relief to soldiers suffering from fever and other ailments. Folks found that it hit the spot, in more ways than one. The world over has since come to know the small bottle with the oversize, densely worded label as an indispensable tool in the building of many cocktails.

And that was that: on one, singular product was an empire built. Angostura has dominated its niche industry for a century and a half, enduring as many another once popular bitters (Boker's, Abbott's, and Hostetter's, for instance) fell into disuse or obscurity. The company saw no reason to fix what wasn't broken or to improve on what already seemed perfection.

Now, though, the bitters scene is changing. In 2008, Angostura introduced its first new concoction in 184 years, Angostura Orange Bitters. To understand the effect that has had on the cocktail world, imagine how mechanics might react if WD-41 suddenly appeared.

One might well assume that Angostura jumped into the orange bitters game in reaction to the recent swelling of the category. A popular ingredient in the late 19th century—some historians believe it made appearances in classic gin martinis—orange bitters had all but disappeared from bars by the mid-1900s. But during the cocktail revolution of this past decade, several new varieties of orange bitters have hit the market, include Fee's, Regan's, and the Bitter Truth.

Peter Traboulay, who formulated Angostura's new bitters, says his company was not chasing trends, though. It had been playing around with orange recipes for 20 years but had never struck a formula that satisfied company standards. When Trabouley decided to get serious about making an orange bitters, he first sampled the product of every past failed experiment. "I reviewed what was done before," he said. "That gave us a platform to take it further." Two years ago, he began creating recipes for new versions, more than 15 in all. He narrowed the list down to two finalists, which he then tested with 30 leading London bartenders. The result was inconclusive. "They were split down the middle, because the differences between the two were very subtle," he said. Trabouley broke the tie by letting the bartender who won the Angostura International Cocktail Competition make the ultimate selection.

The Angostura that reached the shelves earlier this fall is composed of 15 ingredients, including five orange oils and six different spices. "We didn't want to take away from anyone's mind that this is orange," Traboulay said, explaining the result he was after when creating the bitters. "We wanted a complex array of orange flavors and a complex array of spice. We never wanted just one flavor." Most reviews of the product have agreed that Angostura's version of orange bitters possesses a depth and complexity not found in competing products. Whereas some other orange bitters have a light, simple taste, Angostura's has a tangy, woody bite and a long finish.

Traboulay said that the world would not have to wait until the 22nd century for Angostura to stir again, as he's toying with other fruit-based bitters. Another new addition to the Angostura model might come to light in two years or so—possibly a peach bitters.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

75 Years of Resumed Drinking in America



Dec. 5, 2008, was the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. And so parties were thrown. Dec. 5 is the liquor biz's Independence Day, its Bastille Day, its May Day. And the industry's pro go at it with the same combination of seriousness and frivolity with which they attack every occasion.

I attended a party sponsored by DISCUS at The Back Room, perhaps the most difficult to find of all the neo-speakeasies in New York. I recognized it as the former home of Lansky's Lounge, a joint run be scions of Ratner's kosher restaurant during the late '90s and early '00s as a last ditch effort to save the family business. You descend a flight of unpromising stairs on Norfolk Street near Delancey, walk through a dank subterranean alley, and go up another flight of metal stairs and open a door to the right.

As the Back Room, the decor is much plusher and upholstered. Decadent Victorianism, I'd call it. Large oil paintings, fireplace, fabric on the walls, etc. There were various drink stations at which men in vests and arm garters were serving up Probition-era cocktails in white porcelain tea cups. A smart jazz trio played on the upper floor of the split-level pad. And historian and journalist David Wondrich was on hand to make a batch of bathtub gin. Instead of raw alcohol as his base, DISCUS had provided him with vodka, to which he added essence of juniper or some such. What kind or vodka? "I don't know," he laughed. "With vodka, I'm not too particular about the brand." Too true. (However, it looked like Skyy as the brand being utilized.)

I tasted the result. Kind of reminded me of Bulldog Gin. I'm not kidding.



I sampled a variety of drinks, including a Girl Friday (unfamiliar to me, it contained gin, sloe gin, lime juice and couple other things) and a regular Manhattan (to which the bartender added his own homemade, marinated Maraschino cherries. He might have warned me that the cherries still had their pits.) In news that will break the hearts of the folks over at Riedel—who would have you believe that the glass makes a big difference in the enjoyment of the drink—none of these libations tasted the worse for wear for being serves in tea cups. They were delicious across the board.

The best drink of the night, however was the Mary Pickford, served by this gentleman below. It contained light rum, pineapple juice, grenadine and Maraschino liqueur, shaken over ice, strained and garnished with a bourbon-soaked cherry (no pit). This was a frothy treat, light, flavorful and potent. Nice to see America's Erstwhile Sweetheart getting some attention.



In attendance were Southern Spirits man Allen Katz, Pernod's Shawn Kelley, and journalists Julie Besonen, Liza Weisstuch, and Michael Anstendig, as well as many brand ambassadors of all stripes.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Big Tattoo White 2007


If you've been following this newish feature of mine, I know what you're thinking. "What's the deal? Every Recession wine you recommend is a white wine!"

Well, yeah. In case you haven't notices, red wines, in general, are overpriced and overrated. In hard times, the less-popular (with snobs and collectors, anyhow) world of the white grapes is the place to seek. When I find a good red under $10, I'll let you know.

So here we have the Big Tattoo White 2007, the work of Alex and Erik Bartholomaus of California. It's an interesting blend: 75% riesling with 25% gewurztraminer thrown in.
Grapes are sourced 31% from Monterey County, 44% from Santa Barbara County and 24% from Anderson Valley. (They used to source from Germany when the company began a few years back.)

The gewurz makes for a more fragrant, more viscous wine than would otherwise be the case. The nose hits you with grape, white peach, apricot, gooseberry. The mouthfeel is fuller up front and then becomes drier as it goes along. Again apricot and peach, as well as lychee. There's a nice metallic-stone back with the wine. Pretty good for $10 (as sold by LeNell's in Red Hook).

Which Category Do You Fall In?

The New York Times has a lengthy, amusing, occasionally insightful but ultimately rather (ahem) muddled piece about the state of modern mixology in today's Dining Section. The author, Oliver Schwaner-Albright, in attempting to dissect the many and various flourished trends in the drink world, divides mixing philosophies into eight categories: Pre-Repeal Revivalists; Neo-Classicists; Farm-to-Glass Movement; Liquid Locavores; Home Brewers; Minimalists; Molecular Mixologists; and Faux Tropicalists.

As with any of these sort of features that try to impose order on what is essentially chaos (that is to say, "life"), it makes for fun reading, but doesn't quite work. He's right about many of the trends he identifies—they are happening. But it's difficult to classify participants. The bartenders and bar owners I know (including many mentioned in the article) ten to resist labels. They overlap in their interests. (The author, to be fair, admits as much in his introduction.) They're a little of this, a little of that. For instance, Jim Meehan, chief mixologist of PDT, is categorized as a Neo-Classicist, but I'm sure he's also interested in the classic drinks the Pre-Repeal Revivalists focus on, and he's also shown interest in the exotic drinks of the Faux Tropicalists.

I also has a few historical quibbles with the piece. (Forgive the nit-picking, but I know the territory so well, I can't help myself.) The article states that Julie Reiner's Clover Club has revived the punch bowl fad of the 19th century. True, but Death & Co was doing it before that and deserve credits for bringing the concept back, at least in New York. Under Minimalists, I would have listed influential author and historian David Wondrich as a guiding spirit; he's well-known for his preference for classic, five-ingredients-or-less cocktails. Finally, it's impossible to talk of the Faux Tropicalists without mentioning author Jeff "Beachbum" Berry." He is the undisputed leader of the movement to bring back quality, authentic, tiki drinks. The movement frankly wouldn't exist without him.

Nonetheless, as I said, it's entertaining reading. There are also fun pieces on cocktail geekdom (featuring Paul Clarke) and—oog—the comeback of the White Russian. Here it is:

Let 100 (O.K., 8) Bartending Philosophies Bloom

By OLIVER SCHWANER-ALBRIGHT

TEN years ago, cocktail seekers would have been hard-pressed to find a bar that used fresh juice in sour mix (never mind adding microplaned zest), and ordering an Aviation would have earned a cold look instead of a refreshing but potentially lethal mixture of gin, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur.
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Stuart Isett for The New York Times

NEO-CLASSICIST Murray Stenson making magic at Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle.
The Pour

Today drinkers don’t need to search far to find bartenders who not only squeeze their own citrus, but make their own bitters, have an encyclopedic knowledge of drinks and stock spirits imported, on the sly, in a suitcase.

But as the number of ambitious bars has proliferated, so have their ways of doing things. Interviews with dozens of bartenders around the country suggest that the cocktail movement is becoming so diverse and sophisticated that it encompasses several distinct approaches and philosophies.

Some bartenders fastidiously devote themselves to resurrecting century-old recipes, while others use chemicals and modern techniques. Seasonal fruits and fresh herbs come to the foreground at certain bars, but play a minor role in other establishments that try instead to wring maximum effect from the bottles on their shelves.

Sometimes, these approaches overlap. A bartender might add in-season blood oranges to a 19th-century-inspired punch, for instance. And there’s some danger to naming distinct schools of thought in an industry whose practitioners can’t even agree whether to call themselves mixologists, bartenders, bar chefs or some other name.

Nevertheless, some of the leading bars in the country may be placed in one of the following categories.

PRE-REPEAL REVIVALISTS

Philosophy: This school is inspired by the late 19th and early 20th century, when bartending was a public and flamboyant art. Commonly if incorrectly called pre-Prohibition (some great drinks were invented during the dry years), the pre-repeal revival represents a complete aesthetic, from dress (arm garters and waistcoats), to décor (mahogany, gaslights), to language (menus that read like broadsheets), to grooming (the waxed mustache).

Guiding spirit: Jerry Thomas, author of “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion: The Bartender’s Guide,” first published in 1862.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the Clover Club in Brooklyn, Julie Reiner (also of the Flatiron Lounge in New York) has revived punch and with it, the punch bowl. Sasha Petraske, of White Star and Milk & Honey in New York, gave the speak-easy ethos an edgy, downtown cool.

NEO-CLASSICISTS

Philosophy: Often confused with pre-repeal revivalism, neo-classicism updates long-forgotten cocktail recipes by bringing in such cutting-edge techniques as fat washing (infusing a high-proof spirit with a fatty ingredient, like brown butter). Just as important are the atmospheric decisions: the person making a classic cocktail might be wearing jeans and a T-shirt and playing Talking Heads on the iPod.

Guiding spirit: The online Cocktail Database (www.cocktaildb.com), the most complete resource for all manner of mixed drinks, past and present.

Bars, Bartenders and Drinks: Audrey Saunders infuses gin with tea for the Earl Grey MarTEAni at Pegu Club in New York. Other practitioners include Jim Meehan at PDT in New York, Charles Joly at the Drawing Room in Chicago, Daniel Hyatt at the Alembic Bar in San Francisco and Murray Stenson at Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle.

FARM-TO-GLASS MOVEMENT

Philosophy: Rather than being structured around a primary spirit, like whiskey or bourbon, farm-to-glass drinks are driven by produce, usually seasonal fruit or herbs: persimmons in fall, anise hyssop leaves in spring. The movement is at its fullest flower on the West Coast, with its 12-month growing season, and in restaurants, where there’s a daily bounty of produce and other ingredients not normally seen in bars.

Guiding spirit: Scott Beattie, whose “Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus” (Ten Speed, 2008) is shaping up to become the indispensable cookbook of farm-to-glass cocktails. (Interestingly, Mr. Beattie identifies more with the liquid locavore movement.)

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the two Hungry Cat restaurants, in Hollywood and Santa Barbara, Calif., the Rhumpkin is made from rum and kabocha squash syrup. Other locations include Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., and T’afia in Houston.

LIQUID LOCAVORES

Philosophy: Nine craft distilleries operate within the city limits of Portland, Ore., and it’s a point of pride for some bartenders there to fashion a drink around local spirits. Northern California also has a surfeit of craft distilleries, and Chicagoans craft drinks with the gins made by the city’s North Shore Distillery.

Guiding spirits: Craft distillers like Miles Karakasevic of Charbay in St. Helena, Calif., and Lee Medoff and Christian Krogstad of House Spirits in Portland, Ore.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., Scott Beattie’s Meyer Beautiful incorporates Charbay Meyer lemon vodka. At Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., Kevin Ludwig rebuilt the Negroni around Krogstad aquavit from House Spirits.

HOME BREWERS

Philosophy: It’s no longer uncommon for bars to make their own bitters, but some take the craft to the next level, devising their own recipes for fortified wines and other infusions.

Guiding spirit: Tenzing Momo, a store in Seattle that has rare and exotic dried herbs, spices and mixers.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: At the Bel Ami Lounge in Eugene, Ore., Jeffrey Morgenthaler serves a gin and tonic made with his own recipe for agave-sweetened quinine syrup. Daniel Shoemaker at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Ore., crafts his own vermouth, falernum, blueberry shrub (a kind of cordial) and 15 bitters.

MINIMALISTS

Philosophy: A minimalist cocktail typically contains no more than five ingredients, and changing any one of them (rather than adding a different flavor) results in a new cocktail. It’s a firm but respectful pushback against the sometimes baroque concoctions inspired by classic drinks recipes.

Guiding spirit: Ice. The proper ice is to the minimalists what a ripe white peach is to the farm-to-glass movement. The Violet Hour, in Chicago, uses eight kinds, depending on the drink.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: Toby Maloney of the Violet Hour prepares three iterations of the martini: “wet” (two parts gin to one part dry vermouth), “lopsidedly perfect” (gin with more dry than sweet vermouth) and “double reverse perfect” (more sweet vermouth than dry). Greg Best at Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta tries never to use more than four ingredients. Other exponents include Jamie Boudreau at Tini Bigs in Seattle and John Gertsen at Drink in Boston.

MOLECULAR MIXOLOGISTS

Philosophy: Strictly speaking, molecular mixology refers to the application of science to the bar, and the use of stabilizers and other compounds for surprising effects. Some prefer the term “progressive cocktails,” pointing out that many of their techniques are old-fashioned, such as smoking or infusing. Still, most drinks pack a gee-whiz punch, as seen in the current fascination with solid, edible cocktails.

Guiding spirits: Modernist chefs like Ferran Adrià, Wylie Dufresne and Heston Blumenthal.

Bars, bartenders and drinks: Eben Freeman at Tailor in New York tops his variation on the Blood and Sand with foamy orange juice stabilized by Versa Whip and xanthum gum. The Manhattan at José Andrés’s Bar Centro in Los Angeles is garnished with a solidified sphere of cherry juice.

FAUX TROPICALISTS

Philosophy: Faux tropical bars start with the proposition that the Mai Tai and Singapore Sling were once respectable cocktails. Mixing fresh juices, homemade syrups and a dozen or more other ingredients, these bars seek to restore the reputation of tiki drinks.

Guiding spirits: Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic.

Bars, Bartenders and Drinks: Martin Cate’s Forbidden Island in Alameda, Calif., offers a Don the Beachcomber formula called the Nui Nui, with fresh citrus, pimento liqueur, cinnamon and vanilla syrups, and aged Barbados rum. Luau, which opened in Beverly Hills in October, revives recipes from a bar of the same name opened in 1953 by one of Lana Turner’s seven husbands.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Trip to the Beefeater Distillery


My world seems to be a gin world lately. I go to Martin Miller's Gin cocktail contests and to Plymouth Gin events. During my recent trip to attend the launch event for the new Beefeater 24 product, I had the opportunity to tour the fabled Beefeater distillery—the only gin distillery still operating within the borders of old London town. (It was founded in 1820.)

Guess how many people it takes to run this place? What do you think? 100? 200?

Seven.

I about fell over when I heard that one.

One of those seven is Beefeater's master distiller Desmond Payne, and it was he conducted the tour.



We met in Payne's splendid little office, when hangs a portrait of Beefeater founder James Burrough, and Payne made many deferential comments of quintessential English self-effacement about how he felt Burrough watching him at all times. There were a number of old Beefeater products on display. Like Heinz 57, which once produced many foodstuffs, but now is only known for ketchup, Beefeater once rolled out a whole line of alcoholic beverages, including Sloe Gin, and aniseed, black current and clove-flavored liquors. None stuck except the London Dry Gin.



Also on display was Beefeater's latest innovation, Beefeater 24. Already part of the family. It's released in the U.S. in March.



Payne took us to a room where visitors can sample the botanicals that go into regular Beefeater. These include: Juniper, Angelica Root, Angelica Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Liquorice, Almonds, Orris Root, Seville Oranges, and Lemon Peel. Also available to touch and smell were the three extra things that go into Beefeater 24: Japanese Sencha tea, Chinese Green teas and Spanish grapefruit peel.



Then it was on to the distillery itself. The incredibly long-necked pot stills were quite a sight to see. Beefeater does something interesting that other ginmakers don't, in that it lets the botanicals steep in the neutral spirit for 24 hours before the distillation process began. I got to stick my head inside one of the stills where the soup of herbs and berries had been soaking for a few hours. It's an intense, fragrant odor one isn't likely to forget soon. It knocks you back a bit. Desmond said he sometimes took the raw, yellowish alcohol inside these still and mixed himself a drink with it.

We then walked into a further room where the distilled spirit is collected. Payne keeps track of every batch, checking it regularly to decided where to cut it off and what parts of the distillate to use. We were able to sniff Beefeater gin collected at 10 AM, 10:30 AM, 11 AM, etc. The differences were remarkable. The first carried mainly the citrus elements. The second was noticeably more mature. Payne said that each botanical comes through at different times in the process.



The the worlds of wine and spirits, there's nothing like seeing how the stuff is actually made at the place where it is made. I came out of the tour feeling I understood Beefeater gin, and gin in general, much better than I had going in.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Penguin Ice Bucket



Look at this ice bucket. Seem familiar?

I'm betting it does. For the generation that came of age after WWII, this was their ice bucket. It must have been cheap and easy to find (Woolworths? Macy's?), because everyone had one. For the generation that grew up in the '60s and '70s, this was their parents' ice bucket. It made a regular appearance every day around cocktail hour. For today's younger generation, it is a collector's item. The bucket can be found in nearly every corner antique store, going for anything from $25 to $80.

My parents owns a penguin ice bucket. I never thought much about it as a kid, though some part of me enjoyed to look of it. Penguins are soothing figures, especially to a child, and I'm sure the elegance of the Art Deco design was doing a number on my eyes as well.

The bucket seems to be held in some esteem by the drinking cognescenti. There is one on display in the new Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. Imagine my stunned reaction when I saw that knick-knack under glass.

I have the same bucket today. I wish I could say it was my parents, but no—they still own and use theirs. I bought mine at a kitschy second-hand shop. Think I got it for $10, which is a steal these days. (I would refuse to pay $80 for an item I know my mom and dad picked up for $6.99.)

I've learned something about the bucket recently that makes me feel even more proprietary about it. It was made by the West Bend Aluminum Company in West Bend, Wisconsin, not a stone's throw from where I grew up. No wonder my parents owned one!

The items official name is the West Bend Penguin Hot and Cold Server Ice Bucket. (So, what? I could serve soup in it?) I'm not judge of metals, but it's either aluminum or stainless steel. It also came in a copper-colored version, which is much more rare. The sloping handles, which look like penguin wings, and the top handle are wood on mine, but other versions had Bakelite handles, either in brown or black. Not sure which type of bucket is more valuable.

The Patent on the bucket is No. 2,349,099 and Des. 127,279. The design was filed March 13, 1941 and issued May 20, 1941; the patent was filed May 19, 1941 and issued May 16, 1944. Nonetheless, the bucket really had its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s.



About the West Bend Aluminum Company, it was founded in 1911 by young Bernhardt C. Ziegler. Sears & Roebuck was an early customer of their products. The Waterless Cooker, a large pot with inset pans, was a success for the company in the 1920s. In 1932 it introduced a "Flavo-Seal" line of heavy-gauge cookware made of up roasters, saucepans, and skillets. The factory produced war-related goods during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. In 1961, it changed its name to the West Bend Company. It continued to grow throughout the decades and was bought by Premark's Consumer Products Group in 1995. There was still a big plant in West Bend until recently, but many others as well, including "West Bend de Mexico" in Renosa, Mexico.

And then this:

In 2003, The West Bend Company was acquired by Focus Products Group, LLC, an investment and growth oriented holding company headquartered in Vernon Hills, IL, and renamed West Bend Housewares.

In early 2007, Focus Products Group acquired Back to Basics Products, an inventive housewares company based out of Utah. Back to Basics was combined with West Bend Housewares to create Focus Electrics, a new leader in innovative kitchen appliances at competitive prices. This merge strengthened and expanded both lines to bring the consumer a wider range of inventive, seasonal and traditional appliance options for their kitchen.


Focus Electrics. Doesn't have the same ring, does it? I think business still goes on in West Bend, but I'm not sure.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Cono Sur Riesling 2008


Did I say $10? Try this Chilean number on for a mere $6! That's right, $6 at Acker, Merrall & Condit Wine Merchants on 72nd Street—the Upper West Side, where one has no right to find a decent wine for less than $18. But difficult times call for difficult measures, and many wine shops in New York are putting their cheapest goods up front where people can see and buy them. No more $20 risks, say customers. But for $6, I'll take a chance.

Cono Sur (Southern Cone, as in the shape of South America) was founded in 1993. Its motto is "No family tree. No dusty bottles. Just quality wine." Hm. Anyone got a chip on their shoulder? This riesling comes from the Bio Bio Vally, the southern-most end of Chile's winegrowing regions. (Makes sense, as northern hemisphere riesling is grown in the northernmost spots.) Apparently, they were the first winery to grow the grape in this area.

This is not a complex riesling, but I found a surprising amount of things going on for such an inexpensive bottle. On the nose, there was melon, grapefruit, bubblegum, yeast and guava. It was kind of a fat nose. The body was, again, on the fat side, with medium-to-full body, but it was cut by a mineral edge that kept the wine from being flabby. I continued to find things in the glass as I tasted it, when I really had no right to: apple, honeydew, lime, lemon, grapefruit. It had a tart medium finish.

Truth is, if I had paid $18 for this wine and drank it, I would not have been surprised. I would have felt a little disappointed, but not surprised. But at $6, I've got not gripes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beachbum Berry Rides Into Gotham


Jeff Berry, aka Beachbum Berry, expert on all things tiki, rode into Tiki-dry Manhattan last week to try to turn the tide in favor of rum, pineapple juice, and tiny umbrellas. At the invitation of PDT's Jim Meehan, Berry offered a two-hour presentation on how Gotham bartenders and bar owners might introduce so-called tropical drinks into their menus with a minimum of muss and fuss. Gathered at tiny PDT to listen at his feet with barkeeps from Clover Club, Death & Co and Pegu Club (including Audrey Saunders herself, who seems to have brought her entire staff along). It was a crowded gathering.

Berry is most probably right when he assumes that Tiki Drinks are hard to find in NYC because they are laborious to prepare, plus some require the machinations of a blender, a noisy appliance which is a major mood-breaker. (Lingering ignorance as to the worth and quality of some of these cocktails is perhaps another reason why it's hard to get a Singapore Sling.) To mend this situation, he came armed with three handouts. One was titled "Exotic Drinks That Don't Take Forever to Make," which contained exactly what you think, including three cocktails with only five ingredients, and classics like the Mai Tai and Navy Grog.

A second was called "Adapt and Overcome." It offered three approached to simplifying: Stripping down (suggesting a five-ingredient Zombie which could sub for the usual complex potion); "Tikify a non-Tiki drink"; and making a familiar Tiki drink into something personal (i.e., using a base recipe as a starting point.) Here's the five-point Zombie for those who are curious:

ZOMBIE

3/4 oz. lime juice
1 oz. white grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. cinnamon-infused simple syrup
1/2 oz. 151-proof Bacardi rum
1 oz. dark Jamaican rum

The most amount of time was spent on a handout titled "Exotic Drinks With a New York Pedigree," which focused on Tiki drinks which were actually invented in New York. (Yes, they do exist!) These included the Spindrift, the Hawaiian Room (named after a popular Tiki joint in the Lexington Hotel at Lex and 48th) and the Hawaii Kai Treasure (after the restaurant of the same name at Broadway and 50th).

I should put down all the recipes of these drinks here, but I'm lazy and my fingers ache. So I'm going to feature only what proved to be my favorite and that of the Pegu Club bartenders who surrounded me: the Dead Bastard. It was invented by obscure mixology genius Joe Scialom, who worked at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo and the Marco Polo Club at the Waldorf-Astoria. It was at the latter that he invented the Dead Bastard, a variation on previous drink of his called the Suffering Bastard and the Dying Bastard. Here it is in all its tasty glory. Berry called it Tiki's answer to the Long Island Ice Tea:

DEAD BASTARD

1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. brandy
1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. rum
1/2 oz. Rose's lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
4 ounces of chilled ginger beer

OK, geeks, before you all jump down my throat, I know what your thinking: "Rose's Lime Juice?? WTF!" I thought the same, and asked Berry the question that no one in the room seemed not to want to (out of politeness?): Wouldn't fresh lime juice be better than Rose's?

No, said Berry. He explained that Scialom was very specific about his ingredients and he stuck with Rose's on purpose. Berry had tried the drink both ways and said it tasted better with Rose's than with fresh lime juice. I tested this. And, though it was a close call, I'm inclined to agree with Berry. The fresh lime juice lent a slight acrid edge and tiny bitter aftertaste. The Rose's gave the drink the easy-does-it tropical smoothness I think it's going for. So, I guess there's a reason to stock Rose's in the end.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Don't Like the Show? Have a Drink!


The cocktail revolution has found its way into every nook and cranny of New York culture. Proof? Go to a play at any of the city's major nonprofit theatres and what will you find at the concession stand, along with the beer, bottled water, gourmet cookies and candy? Custom cocktails.

One company has the corner on this weird niche industry. It's Sweet Concessions, founded by Julie Rose, and assisted by mixologist Brett Stasiewicz. The outfit services Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Roundabout Theatre Company and other theatres around town.

Go to MTC's Biltmore Theatre and you'll find cocktails names after Richard III and Othello—odd, since MTC never does Shakespeare. And at the Roundabout's recent revival of the period drama "A Man for All Seasons," you could order drinks called Master Cromwell, Thomas Moore, Henry VIII and Cardinal Woolsey. Historical figures! Yum!

The Thomas Moore is composed of gin, apricot brandy, rosemary-mint-infused lime juice and tonic. The Henry VIII is pear vodka, amaretto, "ginger and apple" (huh?) and sparkling wine. All the drinks are on display, like sample sandwiches at a deli, and, like those sandwiches, they don't look very appetizing after sitting around in the elements for a couple hours.

It's all very amusing and kind of inventive, in a kitschy way, but I wish the cocktails were created with as much talent and taste as are the stageworks. Stasiewicz leans heavily on the flavored liquor. Every kind of flavored vodka you can think of serve as the base of most of these drinks, with flavored schnapps substituting on occasion, and gin and rum making only occasional appearances. Other easy flavor-spikers like sparking wine and lemon-lime soda are also employed. And he seems to be drunk on achieving color effects. Look at this recipe for "The Light in the Piazza."

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA

2 ounces citron vodka
1 ounce limoncello liqueur
1 teaspoon superfine sugar, plus more for rimming the glass
a dash of lemon juice (optional)
1 ounce sparkling wine
1 thin slice of lemon

Citron vodka, limoncello and lemon juice. And lemon slice! Talk about beating a theme into the ground. And vodka for a musical set in Italy?

Then there's this for "Mary Poppins":

PERFECTLY PERFECT

Vodka
Pomegranate liqueur
Peach Schnapps
Cranberry
Lemon-lime soda
(No measurements given)

Again vodka. Now, wouldn't Mary Poppins drink—if she drank—gin and nothing but gin? And would she ever touch her proper lips to anything as trashy as Peach Schnapps? I ask you.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon Coteaux de Languedoc


I don't know about you, but the financial collapse of the world economy has hit this household pretty hard. The days of laying down $30 for daily-use wine are gone for the time being. And even though I know the great values in the wine world are to be found in the $15-$25 range, I am keeping a sharp eye out for $10-and-under gems these day. It's not easy work, what with the wicked currency imbalance between the U.S. and most everyone else, but not impossible.

Here's a Coteaux du Languedoc I found at Acker, Merrall & Condit Wine Merchants on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side. It's a bit of a cheat, since it's priced at $10.99, but I'm including it anyway, since it's so good and it's a Polaner Selections import. How often do you find a Polaner for $11?

The grape on the Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon is the Picpoul, a varietal of the Rhone valley and the Languedoc (where this wine hails from). It's the work of winemaker Arnaud Gaujal. It's a wonderful wine for the price. It has a mineral, grassy, grapey nose, with hints of white peach and apricot. The light-to-medium body wine has a light viscosity and a stony, mineral base. Notes of unripe pear and goosebergy hover atop. Great acidity. Use for any of your white wine needs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Wisconsin Frame of Mind

I am originally from Wisconsin, and still have many relatives there. As far as cherished drinking traditions go, the state has stronger ones than most. But my feelings about them have always been decidedly ambivalent.

I am not a big fan of the one-dimensional, watery Pilseners that are favored by the citizens of the Badger State, but I recognize that they can be just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer day at the county fair. Part of me thinks the Brandy Old-Fashioned is an abomination, and part of me thinks it's a quaint regional delicacy. Some days I love it that the 1950s-style cocktail hour never died in the Dairy State (every adult I knew as a child honored it), and other days I seriously worry about the looseness with which Wisconsinites approach their daily drinking habits.

I am in a trade where I feel the enjoyment of intoxicating beverages ought and needs to go hand in hand with a healthy respect for how wines and spirits and beers are made and how to responsibly partake of them. I think most Wisconsinites (in my experience of them, which is vast) have only the thirst for booze, without the respect.

A disturbing article today in the New York Times got my mind thinking about these matters. There is a new movement afoot in Wisconsin to curb binge drinking, a habit in which the state exceeds all others. The piece reports that Wisconsin has some of the most alarming, bordering on reprehensible, drinking laws in the nation. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar if they are accompanied by an adult. Drunken drivers are not charged with a felony until their fifth arrest. And police may not administer sobriety checks on drivers suspected of being drunk.

People are resistant to changing the status quo, and there seems to a great deal of self-delusion in the rationalizations offered up by those who see nothing wrong with the state's imbibing practices. (I had boldfaced some of the more egregious examples of such in the story.) I know this behavior well. Wisconsinites do not like being told that anything is wrong; they regard such observations as an affront to their lifestyle; they also find frank discussions of serious problems acutely embarrassing. It's a stoical Midwestern thing. That's understandable, except when such avoidance of issues leads to deaths and drinking disorders.

Here is the article:

Some See Big Problem in Wisconsin Drinking

EDGERTON, Wis. — When a 15-year-old comes into Wile-e’s bar looking for a cold beer, the bartender, Mike Whaley, is happy to serve it up — as long as a parent is there to give permission.

“If they’re 15, 16, 17, it’s fine if they want to sit down and have a few beers,” said Mr. Whaley, who owns the tavern in this small town in southern Wisconsin.

While it might raise some eyebrows in most of America, it is perfectly legal in Wisconsin. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant in Wisconsin if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian who gives consent. While there is no state law setting a minimum age, bartenders can use their discretion in deciding whom to serve.

When it comes to drinking, it seems, no state keeps pace with Wisconsin. This state, long famous for its breweries, has led the nation in binge drinking in every year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began its surveys on the problem more than a decade ago. Binge drinking is defined as five drinks in a sitting for a man, four for a woman.

People in Wisconsin are more likely than anywhere else to drive drunk, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The state has among the highest incidence of drunken driving deaths in the United States.

Now some Wisconsin health officials and civic leaders are calling for the state to sober up. A coalition called All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education started a campaign last week to push for tougher drunken driving laws, an increase in screening for alcohol abuse at health clinics and a greater awareness of drinking problems generally.

The group, led by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, criticized the state as having lenient alcohol laws and assailed a mindset that accepts, even celebrates, getting drunk.

“Our goal is to dramatically change the laws, culture and behaviors in Wisconsin,” said Dr. Robert N. Golden, the dean of the medical school, calling the state “an island of excessive consumption.” He said state agencies would use a $12.6 million federal grant to step up screening, intervention and referral services at 20 locations around Wisconsin.

The campaign comes after a series in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel titled “Wasted in Wisconsin,” which chronicled the prodigious imbibing among residents of the state, as well as the state’s reluctance to crack down on alcohol abuse.

Drunken drivers in Wisconsin are not charged with a felony until they have been arrested a fifth time. Wisconsin law prohibits sobriety checks by the police, a common practice in other states.

“People are dying,” the newspaper exclaimed in an editorial, “and alcohol is the cause.”

Wisconsin has long been famous for making and drinking beer. Going back to the 1800s, almost every town in the state had its own brewery. Milwaukee was the home of Miller, Pabst and Schlitz. Now Miller is the only big brewery in the city.

Most people in Wisconsin say the beer-drinking traditions reflect the customs of German immigrants, passed down generations. More than 40 percent of Wisconsin residents can trace their ancestry to Germany. Some experts, though, are skeptical of the ethnic explanation. It has been a very long time, after all, since German was spoken in the beer halls of Wisconsin.

Whatever the reason, plenty of Wisconsin people say they need to make no apologies for their fondness for drinking.

“I work 70, 80 hours a week, and sometimes I just want to relax,” said Luke Gersich, 31, an engineering technician, who drank a Miller as he watched the Monday Night Football game at Wile-e’s tavern. On a weeknight, he said he might drink seven or eight beers. On a weekend, it might be closer to 12.

In Wisconsin, people often say, there is always a bar around the next corner. But drinking is scarcely limited to taverns. A Friday fish fry at a Wisconsin church will almost surely include beer. The state counts some 5,000 holders of liquor licenses, the most per capita of any state, said Peter Madland, the executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

“We’re not ashamed of it,” Mr. Madland said. He said anti-alcohol campaigns were efforts to “demonize” people who simply liked to kick back and relax with some drinks.

“It’s gotten to the point where people are afraid to have a couple of beers after work and drive home, for fear they’ll be labeled a criminal,” he said. “At lunch, people are afraid if they order a beer someone will think they have a drinking problem.”

But the drinkers have typically had plenty of advocates in the State Legislature. State Representative Marlin Schneider, for example, sees sobriety checkpoints as an intrusion on Constitutional rights of due process.

As for allowing minors to drink in bars with their parents, Mr. Schneider said the law simply allowed for parents to educate and supervise the youthful drinking. “If they’re going to drink anyhow,” said Mr. Schneider, Democrat of Wisconsin Rapids, “it’s better to do it with the parents than to sneak around.”

Technically speaking, the sale is between the bartender and the parent or legal guardian, who then gives the drink to the minor. The bartender has the discretion to decide whether the minor can drink in the establishment.

Before he owned Wile-e’s, Mr. Whaley said there were some cases where he had to say no to a parent. “I’ve had situations where a parent was going to buy drinks for a kid who looked 8 or 10 years old,” he said, “and I had to say, ‘That’s a no-go.’ ”

He also has a rule in his tavern that under-age drinkers must leave by 9 p.m. “When it gets later in the night, people don’t want a bunch of kids running around,” he said.

One recent night, a lanky, blond-haired 17-year-old boy shot pool at the bar with his dad. Both were drinking soda.

In Mr. Whaley’s view, the bar can be a suitable place for families to gather, especially when the beloved Green Bay Packers are on the television. “On game days, a buddy of mine will come to the bar with his 2-year-old, his 8-year-old and his 10-year-old,” Mr. Whaley said. “He might get a little drunk. But his wife just has a few cocktails. It’s no big deal. Everybody has a good time.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lessegue Turns Two

I recently tasted the two offerings of what is only the second vintage (2004) from Chateau Lassegue, the St. Emilion project from Jess Jackson and vigneron Pierre Seillan.

Seillan practices a peculiar method of grape selection at the vineyard, which boasts nine different types of soil. He has divided the estate into what he calls "micro-crus," separating pieces of land by the quality of the ground and the varietals. The image of a patchwork quilt comes to mind. Then he combines the different puzzle pieces into the vineyard two's bottlings—Lassegue and Chateau Vignot—based on how well the various lots complement each other.

Both wines are good, but I was most impressed with what is meant to be the less impressive of the two bottles, the $35 Chateau Vignot, which is a blend of 68% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc and 2% Cab Sauv. There is little aging potential here, but who cares when the stuff is drinking so well right now! Seillan has tamped down the alcohol to an approachable 13.5%—a level which matches well with the easy drinkability of this wine.

The nose has understated notes of current, cherry, roots, chocolate and tar. The medium-bodied juice has soft tannins, and light flavors of current, plum and cherry. The overall effect is perhaps a bit anonymous—this is not a great terroir wine—and it does have a shortish finish, but it is harmonious in flavor and well balanced. I drank one glass after another happily. It's that kind of companionable wine. And $35 for a St. Emilion is not bad at all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Duking It Out


When I told San Francisco-based spirits journo Camper English that I planned to pay a call on the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair to sample their world-famous Martini, he scrunched up his face. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Dukes is kind of whacked," he said. "It's one of those destination places."

Well, he's right about that. The destination part, anyway. The posh Dukes has made its culinary reputation on the idea that it serves the best Martini in all of London—some say the world. This is, of course, rot, because a "good Martini" is largely a matter of taste to many people. No one can be said to serve the best. But Dukes is certainly no slouch at it. Part of the allure of the drink is they prepare the cocktail at your table, using the gin or (sorry) vodka of your choice, and to the proportions you specify. It's all very pampering and seductive.

I wrote about the American version of the Dukes ritual, at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park, so I decided next time I was in London I would have to sample the real deal.



Dukes has the discreet sophistication thing down pat. It's situated down a quiet side street off ritzy St. James, all cozy on its own private courtyard. There are no signs guiding your way. You have to know where it is. The lobby is small and strangely silent. The bar is so low-profile, you'd almost miss it. Only a small sign saying "Cocktail Bar" above a door frame gives it away. Entering is like crossing the threshold of someone's private library. Two small rooms divided by a fireplace, and a tiny bar make up the bar. Maybe 20 people could be seated at most. I was there at around 3 PM, so had no difficulty in getting a table.


The bartender was very deferential and appreciative of the gravity of his role (as he saw it). He listed the gins I might select, and I opted for Beefeater's Crown Jewel, since I'd never tried it and I knew it would soon be off the market. He rolled a cart up to my table. Into a Martini glass (considerably smaller than the fish bowl they use at Eleven Madison Park, I'm happy to say), he poured in a modicum of vermouth and then, with one hand behind his back, and one of the bottom of the frozen bottle (the way some waiters serve Champagne), he smoothly poured the Beefeater gin into the glass until it reached a point just below the rim. (No stirring with ice, my purist friends.) He then cut a section of lemon peel, twisted it over the drink and dropped it in the cocktail. To accompany the drink, I was given a bowl of cashews and some sort of small, spiced, cheese-flavored crackers. I ate a great many of these, so that the extremely strong drink wouldn't get the best of me. (They make a great show of only allowing guests to order two Martinis each visit.)

It was a good Martini. I'm not prepared to say it was the best I've ever had, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Let's put it up there in the top five, OK?

Soon enough, I got into a conversation with a Czech journalist who was there on a similar mission. We talked gin, cocktails, the scenes in New York and Prague. The bartender was soon drawn in. He said people come from all over the world to sample the Dukes Martini. He showed me around his bar, which was well-stocked. Gin and vodka Martini customers are about evenly split, he said. Ah, so.

So, "whacked"? No. A "destination place"? Yes. But there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the place is actually worth the trip.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Raise a Glass of Palin's Christmas Punch!


Sarah Palin and her running mate What's-His-Name went down to ignominious defeat Nov. 4 (Thank God!), but the Alaskan governor lives on as an ageless punch line.

The winner of the first ever Martin Miller’s Gin Masters Competition for Best Original Cocktail, held at Death & Co. on Nov. 9, was Sam Ross, from New York’s Milk and Honey, with his Palin’s Christmas Punch! Ah, yes. Lord knows Palin must hold the yuletide close to her breast, thanking God that America is a Christian country (despite all those socialists running around practicing other religions).

Wanna make it as a quencher to go along with your Moose stew this Christmas Eve? Well, here's the recipe. It ain't easy. In keeping with its Republican image, the punch is expensive, and a bit of a pain in the ass. Still, I hear it's delicious!

Palin's Christmas Punch

12 oz. Martin Miller's Gin (Westbourne Strength)
12 oz. Fresh lemon juice
10 oz. Demerara date syrup*
14 oz. Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur
1 ½ oz. Absinthe
1/2 oz. Regan's Orange Bitters #6
One bottle of dry Champagne

Method

In a large pitcher, muddle the peel of two lemons with a little sugar to extract the oils, pour all ingredients (except champagne) into pitcher and stir briefly with ice, strain into punch bowl, top with champagne, float lemon ice** and stir and serve in punch cups. Garnish with Absinthe dates***.

*Demerara date syrup: Stir 2 parts demerara sugar into 1 part water. Drop a bag of crushed dates in and leave for three days. Strain through coffee filter to eliminate sediment

**Lemon ice: Drop lemon wheels into a small plastic container filled with water and place in freezer,voila!

***Absinthe date: With an eye dropper, drop 3-4 drops of absinthe into the top of a date


The contest was quite a bit of fun. Contestants hailed from both the UK and U.S. From Limey there was Jake Burger, Ben Reed, Jason Scott, Sean Muldoon, and Giles Looker. From the 50 states were Daniel Shoemaker, Vincenzo Marianella, Giuseppe Gonzalez, Thad Vogler, Jamie Boudreau, Erik Adkins and Sam Ross.



Judges included historian Dave Wondrich, author and bitters-maker Gary Regan, liquor store owner LeNell Smothers, journalist and blogger Paul Clarke, bar owner Sasha Petraske, Tom Sandham, editor of the UK’s ‘Class’ Magazine and Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Rogers. (The picture above features, seated from left to right, Sandham, Clarke, Wondrich, Petraske, Smothers, Regan.) In attendance were such cocktail-circuit regulars as mixologist-blogger Jeffrey Morganthaler, roving journalist Jenny Adams and PDT owner James Meehan. Also met David Bromige, the creator of Martin Miller's, who informed me the the financial meltdown in Iceland (where his gin gets its water) will have no effect on the making of Miller's. 'Twas a crowded house. Everyone seemed to have a camera, including Jamie Boudreau, who parked himself behind the bar even when he wasn't mixing and seemed to think that was OK.

The competition went on considerably longer that it was supposed to, but, as someone observed, organizing bartenders is akin to herding cats. Each bartender was called on to create a new cocktail using Martin Miller's, build a classic gin cocktail and participate in a Gin & Tonic speed round. The English proved funnier, but were also loquacious, consistently running over the seven minutes alloted them for each drink. The Americans were typically more efficient and no-nonsense, except for Boudreau (below), who employed equipment that looked like it came for the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But, then, he's Canadian, right?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Three 2005 Bordeauxs


When the critics started going nuts for the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, I thought to myself, "Well, that's it. I ain't getting none of that stuff." Sure enough, when the bottles started to arrive in the U.S., they were either snatched up lickety-split or priced well beyond my extremely modest means. Then the monthly mailing from importer Kermit Lynch came through the mail, offering three 2005s at reasonable prices. This is my only chance to get some 2005 in my cellar, I thought. So I bought a mixed case, four of each.

I had to wait out the summer before the case arrived; the distributors didn't want to risk cooking the case. Recently I tried one of each in quick succession; the rest will be put away for a rainy day. Verdict: a good investment, particular the one Haut-Medoc, Chateau Aney.

I didn't know a thing about Aney before drinking this satisfying, understated, medium-bodied Bordeaux. Created in 1850, the Chateau Aney was given "Cru Bourgois" classification in 1932. The 2005, a comfortable 13% alcohol, has a lovely nose of red current, dark cherry, grass, brush and mild tobacco. On the palate, it was well-structured with mild-to-medium tannins, and flavors of cherry, dust, raspberry, rhubarb and more underbrush. I'm sure this is what Lynch thinks a Bordeaux should be. I agree with him.

The other two were a Chateau de Bellevue from St. Emilion and a Chateau Belles-Graves from Pomerol. I liked them less well, but that's my usual bias regarding these often overripe regions. But they're still good wines with potential. The Bellevue is organic and hand-picked and aged in new French oak. It comes in at 13.5% and is inky purple with a deep, dark cherry and plum, spicy nose. It's full-flavored, with the plum joined by blueberries, purple grapes, subtle spice and a tarry bottom.

Belles-Graves is a Lalande de Pomerol. It has a happy, harmonic nose of brush, blackberry, current and dark red fruit. The medium-bodied mouthful has black spice at its center, with fresh and baked red fruit all around it. Some tar, some dill. Not heavy-handed at all (it's only 12.5%).

Can't wait to revisit them in 10 years.