Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Saratoga for Spring

The more I learn about cocktails, the more I realize that—as much as I love experimentation and fresh inventions—I am ultimately a fan of the classics. The two elements that make me love a cocktail (beyond taste, of course) are history and elegant simplicity.

I already know a number of the major libations that fit this description, but every now and then I stumble upon a monumental tipple of yesteryear. David Wondrich's tome "Imbibe!" has proved invaluable in this respect. The other day I found myself with both good rye and good cognac on hand (this isn't always the case). Thus, I was equipped to make a Saratoga Cocktail—a drink new to my brain and my gullet.

The recipe is simple as can be: 1 oz. of brandy, 1 oz. of whiskey (Wondrich recommends rye), 1 oz sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Angostura. Wondrich aptly describes the cocktail as splitting the difference between a Manhattan and a Metropolitan, except that it's much better than a Metropolitan.

I case you haven't guessed, the drink was invented in Saratoga Springs, back when that was a hot spot for bon vivants.

Return of the Creamy Girls

I paid my first visit to Death & Co., the cocktailians' hideout in Manhattan's East Village, some six months ago. At the time, I sat next to two attractive young women who were quite enthusiastic in their love of the place and their love of cocktails.

Well, that they love the place is no longer in question. I don't get to Death & Co. that frequently, because I live in Brooklyn, and only find myself near Avenue A every month or so. But I did find time to visit recently. And who did I find next to me? Those same gals, still knocking 'em back with avidity and gusto. I was told they visit about three times a week. That's loyalty.

They had not lost their buoyancy, or need to dart outside for a smoke every half hour or so, or their thirst for frothy drinks. Everything in front of them was sudsy, Pink Ladies and the like. When debating what their final drink of the night should be, I made a few unshaken suggestions, but was corrected by the wise bartender. "No," he said, "These are creamy girls." So they were. And they stayed creamy until closing time.

Beachbum Has His Own Drink

Don't know if Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, salvager of Tiki drink culture, knows it, but there's a drink named after him at the East Village cocktail cave known as PDT. It's called (what else?) the Beachbum. The ingredients include Mt. Gay Eclipse Rum, Florida Dana Silver Dry, Rothman and Winter Apricot Brandy, PDT's own Orgeat, and lime and pineapple juice.

The resultant concoction is a pleasing potion, refreshingly smooth, with a nice tartness owing to the lime and pineapple. My only caveat would be with the presentation, which goes against several of Berry's own convictions (as I understand them). It was served in a kitschy, opaque tiki glass with a large paper parasol on top. In my 2007 interview with Berry, he preached that he prefers a clear glass, since the lovely color of tropical drinks is part of their allure. He'd also rather dispense with the umbrellas and tiki mugs, since they extend a cliched vision of the cocktails that he would just as soon dispel. Quote:

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.

I agree with him. However, the I also think the tiki mug and umbrella were fun and I understood why PDT served it that way. Anyway, the important thing is: it tasted great, whatever glass it was served in.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Limoncello, Take Two

With spring, a man's fancy turns to Limoncello.

Last year, I made my first attempt at home-made liquor: a batch of Limoncello—one of my favorite alcoholic beverages and, coincidentally, one of the easiest to make. I used Luksusowa, a Polish brand of vodka made with potatoes, as my base, mainly because the recipe called for 100 proof vodka, and Luksusowa was the only brand I could find at that level. (Most topped off at 80 proof.) The recipe called for Meyer lemons as the closet equivalent to the special sort of Sorrento and Amalfi fruit used in Italian limoncello.

The procedure took 80 days and was split into two distinct periods: 40 days with the lemon peel soaking in half the vodka and 40 days with another bottle of vodka added plus four cups of sugar dissolved in water. I was reasonably pleased with the result, but found the taste of big rangy and not as refined as I would have liked. The batch definitely improved with the months, but I nonetheless resolved to try a different, less pungent vodka the next time around, chalking up the unusual flavor to the influence of the potatoes.

A salesman at a local liquor store confirmed my suspicion that the potatoes might have married strangely with the acid in the citrus. He suggested I try White Nights, a Belgian vodka which is just being introduced to the American market after an attempt by Absolut to run the company out of business in their native country. It's priced quite reasonably, and is good quality for the cost. Though it is only 80 proof, I thought it more important this time to use a grain-based liquor.

I also made a change in the citrus component. A friend suggested added the zest of a couple blood oranges to my usual component of Meyer lemons, and I've done so. The point is to approximate even close the flavor of those glorious Italian lemons. The results should be ready by the end of April. I'm keeping some of the first batch in Limoncello on hand to make a side-by-side comparison. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

We Get Mail

The other day, unbidden, a bottle of gin arrived at the door. The doorbell ran, I went downstairs, signed off with the UPS mail. My wife said, "What was it?" "Gin," I said. It was Zuidam, a Dutch-born gin that's been on the market for a few years. The company offers a dry gin and a Genever gin (the kind the Dutch drink—and that I love), both made by distiller Fred van Zuidam.

Zuidam is made in a somewhat different way that other gins. Where most potions distill their botanicals all together in a bunch, Zuidam distills each of its nine botanicals separately and then creates a blend of all nine, the way a winemaker would create a blend from various vats of wine made from different varietals. Fair enough. Sounds like an interesting approach. The nine botanicals Zuidam uses are Juniper berries and iris root from Italy; coriander from Morocco; angelica root; oranges and lemons from Spain; whole bean vanilla from Madagascar; licorice root from India; and cardamom pods from Ceylon.

I was sent the dry gin. I assumed they meant for me to try it, so I did. I first made a Gibson—a simple enough cocktail that I thought would show off the gin's qualities. First off, there was a lot going in in the olfactory department. Juniper, lemon, orange, cardamon and vanilla were all coming through strongly. There was plenty going on in the palate, too. It had a creamy mouthfeel (as the wine folks say), with a citrus pinch from the lemon and lime. A smooth, milky, silky Gibson.

Truthfully, it made me think of all the souped-up vodkas you see today. And the Gibson reminded me of a vodka Gibson or Martini. It was too slick, too surface, too whoring after my attention and taste buds. I like a more austere, subtle gin; or, if it must be showy spirit, I like a unique one like Hendrick's, which features flavors you'd never expect in vodka. The presence of vanilla should have been a tip-off as to Zuidam's approach. According to press materials, the makers are quite proud of their unusual use of vanilla in a gin. It's a flavor wine and spirit makers reach for when they want to make a sudden and unsubtle impact.

I wanted to give Zuidam another chance. I thought it might perform better as part of a richer, more complex drink, so I fixed myself a Ramos Gin Fizz. Sure enough, the riot of flavors in Zuidam worked better as part of the creamy, zesty carnival that is an RG Fizz. It was contributing an extra component to the cocktail that was not unwelcome. I will continue experimenting with the gin.

What to Do About Dolcetto

I remember well the first time I had a Dolcetto, the distinctive red grape grown in Piedmont. I was excited; I had never had a Dolcetto before. The wine store owner who recommended it was a man I respected. I loved the wine's regional brothers—Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera. How could I lose?

I poured out a glass. What a great color! Deep, rich, bright purple! Then I tasted it.

What the heck was this stuff? Spicy and acidic and slightly acrid, with a bitter finish. And what was that dominant taste? I hadn't experienced it in other wine. What fruit was that? Was it blueberry? Spicy blueberry?

Yes it was. Spicy blueberry. Some say it's prune or licorice. I say spicy blueberry. I've had several bottles of Dolcetto since that first unsettling experience, always with high hopes, and every time I've encountered that dominant, odd taste. I've never been able to warm to it, and I have no idea what sort of foods to pair it with.

The wife recently presented me with another bottle of Dolcetto d'Alba by the respectable vintner Massolino. The wine store had heartily recommended (of course). I saw it and my heart sunk. She was keen to try it, so I opened it. OK, so here we go again. The color was as beautiful as I remember. The nose was pleasantly complex and woodsy. And the palate? Well, you know. Them blueberries. Also black cherry and current, I suppose. Not as harsh as others I've tried. Admittedly well made, well integrated. But I still can't imagine why I would ever opt for this wine when there are so many other fine choices out there.

One thing I'll say for it. It's the kind of wine that I imagine is great when you drink it in its native land, where it's made. I have a suspicion that if I tasted Dolcetto in Alba, it would be a revelation, and go with absolutely everything I ate. But until that happy day...

Sunday, March 16, 2008


A bought a squat little bottle of Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye Whiskey a couple months back and, for whatever reasons, never got around to writing about it. Now, I find there's barely a shotful left, so I'm sitting down to record a few impressions before it's all gone. (I suspect my wife in its sudden disappearance.)

Tuthilltown, for those who don't known, has been the subject of a lot of ballyhoo because it is the first legally produced rye to come out of New York State in more than 70 years. (The Hudson river company also does Bourbon.) It is double-distilled and aged in American oak, is done in small batches and costs a hell of a lot for 375 ml.

So, the color is a beautiful orange-amber, the nose rich and fruity and a bit stinging. And the taste. Well, perhaps I've taken a long time to write about this is because I've taken a long time to warm up to it, and I'm still not there. This rye is sharp in character. It pierces and pricks. It's not for the lily-livered. There's a medicinal, woody quality to it. I say this all within the framework that this is a spirit worthy of respect and consideration. I just get the feeling its a young product, and will grow in subsequent bottlings. I'd love to taste a Tuthilltown 10-year-old rye when they have one.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Would Yeats Drink?

Last night, I was enjoying myself at The Hideout, a new cocktail den in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when I was introduced to a man in the liquor trade who, by way of greeting, reached into his pocket and pulled out a small white bottle of something called Coole Swan.

This, it turned out, is a new dairy liqueur out of Ireland; it was launched in the U.S. at the start of this year. It is made from "Fresh double cream from Ireland's richest dairylands, Single Malt Irish Whiskey tempered with soft charcoal-filtered spirit and...velvety-smooth chocolate, Madagascan vanilla and rich, dark cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire." Land! I will never cease to marvel to what ends mankind will go to create a new way to liquor up.

Now, I'm not a dairy liqueur man. I'm just not. But I appreciate that the Coole Swan people are trying to give a good name to what has had a bad name for so long, due to Baileys Irish Cream. And I'll admit that the stuff, for what it is, is good. It's got real depth, and after the creamy, chocolatey stuff has glided down your throat, that single malt is waiting for you in the center of the brew, leaving a nice tingly burn at the back of your throat. I can see myself in the future enjoying some winter cocktails of which this is a component.

The name is also endearing, if a bit much. It's a spin on Irish poet William Butler Yeats' famous poem, "The Wild Swans at Coole," which I recall studying and failing to understand in college. So one can feel grandly literary while tippling.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Roll Out the Barrel

So I went to a Bordeaux barrel tasting yesterday, just like Robert Parker and all the toffs at Wine Spectator do all the time. Forgive me for pointing it out, and looking positively green in the process, but I'm still fairly news to the whole wine biz and not invited to such things regularly. I didn't know quite what to expect. I actually thought we might be snaking out juice with wine thiefs from actual barrels—though I couldn't imagine how they'd get such casks into tiny Chanterelle in Tribeca.

Silly me. The wine was in bottles just like at at any other tasting, only the "2007" vintage was scribbled on the label with pen. The group sponsoring the tasting was Cercle Rive Drouite Primeurs, a roundup of right bank Bordeaux producers, so we were drinking new stuff from Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, Fronsac and therabouts. The talk of the vintage is that the weather was variable and extreme, but the season was saved by fine conditions in September and October.

There are more than 100 members of the Cercle, but only a couple dozen were present. Impressive among the Pomerols were Close l'Eglise, which was full, ripe and with big tannins—all the stuff them Pomerol lovers love. The Saint-Emilions included a rich and juicy Chateau La Commanderie: a more medium-bodied, held-back Chateau Boutisse; a very good Chateau Cote de Baleau with very pronounced tannins that spoke of a solid future; a smooth, full Chateau Quinault l'Enclos; a more even, understated Chateau Fleur Cardinale; and a full-fruited, tart Chateau de Pressace. I sensed a lot of alcohol most everywhere.

Elsewhere, the small Chateau Carignan, a Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, was an interesting quaff. It was darker and rougher that the big-talking smoothies that surrounded it. Very nice and drinkable. Not great, perhaps, but a rewarding everyday wine. The estate was bought by American importer Andy Lench last year. He described Chateau Carignan as "an everyday drinking man's claret." I'd agree.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's All Jake

Rain kept me away from Jake Walk, Carroll Garden's new wine, cocktail and cheese bar, on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday the coast was clear, so I struck out for the Smith Street tavern, which is owned and run by Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda, the married duo behind wine store Smith & Vine and cheese chop Stinky.

Both told me that I made the right choice in waiting; Friday had been a nuthouse, with people two deep at the bar. There was still good traffic on Sunday night, but light enough that I easily scored a place at the bar. Serving up drinks with Ari Form and Matt DeVriendt, managers at Smith & Vine and partners in the new venture. They were properly dressed in shirtsleeves and ties neatly tucked within their shirts. Ari makes for a particularly striking, 19th-century figure; he is the only bartender I know who sports true muttonchops.

The space is handsome, but not fussy. An L-shaped bar, tables along two walls, what looked like orange, brocade wallpaper on the fall war, a shelf for books. Halfway between nondescript bar decor and the over-designed fussiness of some of the newer cocktail dens.

There is more food to be had here than at most wine and/or cocktail joints, most of it coming from Stinky. If you are big on the classic pairing of wine and cheese, this is your place. (There is a heading for "Cheese wines.") I did not partake of anything more than olives. A lot of folks were ordering up cheese plates, though.

If you are familiar with wines on offer at Smith & Vine, then you know the wine to be had at Jake Walk. Lots of interesting, quality small producers from France, Italy, Germany, Austria and the U.S., and a good share of not-widely-known varietals. Don't look for any of the big-market names you see for sale at the corner liquor shop. (Thank God.) There are at least 30 wines by the glass. The prices by the bottle look quite reasonable. There's also plenty of beer, scotch, bourbon and, I was happy to see, rye, including Black Maple Hill.

As for cocktails, the menu list is short. About five each of spirits-based cocktails and wine-based cocktails. (Though the boys behind the bar they have the ability to make many more.) Since I know Smith & Vine's wines and Stinky's cheeses, I focused on the cocktails as the newest part of this Brooklyn mini-empire. I first chose the Cotton Cocktail, because it has rye in it, and rye's where I gravitate. Completing the drink were dry and sweet vermouth, orange bitters and absinthe. The bartender was using Wild Turkey. It was light and went down easy.

I was about to order a wine-based cocktail after that, but when I learned Ari knew how to make a Sazerac, I grew weak and regressed, falling back on my favorite drink. He made a fine example of said cocktail, though a touch too heavy on the simple syrup for my tastes. Still, it had that purity of taste and beautiful color you like to see in a Sazerac.

These drinks, as well as other cocktails around the bar, were served in a wide variety of glasses. I couldn't figure out the system and the random glassware may actually be part of the vision. I don't know. The man next to me had ordered a Manhattan and expressed mild disgruntlement at not getting it in "a proper Manhattan glass." Cocktailians. They're hard to please.

Still, the place is already off to a good start and if it doesn't stay wildly popular, I'd be surprised.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Frankly Speaking

A week back, I saw a wine colleague and asked if he was going to the coming Wine Guild Media vertical tasting of 40 years of Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling and he waved the notion off, saying "Nah! I don't like that watery upstate stuff."

I don't understand this sort of attitude. If you don't like New York State Riesling, fine. But to pass up a chance to taste the wares of a maker as historic as Frank from 2006 all the way back to 1964—that's an opportunity that would be foolish to dismiss.

I always had a fine respect and fondness for Frank's products. The wines do not rank with the great Mosel and Alsatian wines, but they are dependable, refreshing and very enjoyable. A good bargain, too. Frank was an early evangelist in America for the northern European varietals, insisting that East Coast wine need not be insipid brews derived from hybrids. The wine industry in New York, not to mention the whole country, owe him a debt of gratitude.

In attendance at the tasting was the good doctor's grandson Fred, a tall, stolid, friendly man. His presence lent to the event an air of moment. The vintages on hand were: 2006, 2005, every year from 2003 to 1998, 1996, 1995, 1988, 1987, 1985 and finally 1964. Also available were reserve wines from 2005 and 2001.

The tasting began with the lemon, good acidity and somewhat one-dimensional appeals of the 2006. The 2005 reserve was noticeably richer and fuller. By 2003, a touch of the diesel notes you see in older Rieslings began to show up. In 2002, this quality was even more in evidence, with the wine broadening and the fruit notes smoothing out.

The palates of the '90s wines continued to widen, grow bigger and offer mellower fruit. Often, the provocative, fragrant noses had more to offer than the juice itself. I found the 1995 particularly rewarding, with a very subtle, softly honeyed nose and full, rich flavor with good acidity.

I wish I could say the '80s delivered even more. But I'm afraid, with 1988, the wines became more interesting, and less enjoyable. The drinkers who don't favor this sort of wine complained early on that the wines grew progressively oxidized. (Folks who liked the wines described it as the diesel quality mentioned earlier.) By the '80s, I had to admit that oxidization had had its way. The 1988 had a strange carmel-like nose, and had an unpleasant acrid taste. 1987 was much better, but with 1985 the acrid taste was back.

And the 1964, which was the color of burnt umber? I'm sorry, but honestly it was little more than a very educational bottle of vinegar. If I was more charitable, I'd say it was sherry-like. But sherry isn't a trial to drink, and this way. I came away from the tasting still fond of the Frank rieslings, but not convinced they can age as well or as long as their best European counterparts.

At the table we'd tried further wines at the table, to go with our lovely (and gigantic) striped bass. Best were the sparkling Chateau Frank Blanc de Noirs and Blanc de Blancs, and the Rkatsiteli, made from a rare varietal. Its acidity was nicely moderated by mild, understated fruit, including mellow banana.

Good Chablis, No Waiting

How much was I enjoying the tasting of Maison Joseph Drouhin Chablis at Bar Boloud this past Monday? So much I didn't take any pictures, though I had my camera on hand.

This was my kind of tasting. Not a mad house, with hundreds of bottles and hundreds of people. Nine bottles, all from one maker, and a handle to tasters. Plus a bonafied scion from the family, young and tall Laurent Drouhin, on hand to chat.

The Chablis was magnificent, which was gratifying for Laurent to here, since he comlained that Drouhin is so well-known for the Beaune holding, that people either forget about their Chablis, or think its made for them by a negotiant using grapes culled from here and there. He said he thought part of this confusion was due to the labels on all the Drouhin wines being so similar. So, change the Chablis label!

The wines on hand were from three vintages:

*2006 vintage Chablis; Chablis Domaine de Vaudon; Chablis 1e Cru;
Chablis-Montmains 1e Cru
*2005 vintage Chablis-Séchers 1e Cru; Chablis-Les Clos Grand Cru;
Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru
*2004 vintage Chablis-Les Clos Grand Cru; Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru

The wines got better as we went back in time. The 2006 were very taut and streamlined, with the grapefruit-like fruit disappearing with each successful wine. The 2005 were noticeably fuller and riper, more open, due to a warmer vintage that year (Laurent told me). As for the 2004s, they were fantastic, with great depth, great, fine-boned structure and the onset of yeasty, petrol characteristics. As a friend there said, "This is what you're looking for." Both the Vaudésirs were particularly good.

New (Possibly Very Good) Wine Bar to Open in Brooklyn

I have complained in this space in the past about the lack of a good wine bar in the Cobble Hill-Carroll Gardens area. Well, that situation may be rectified as early as tomorrow.

Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda, the nice couple behind the nabe's best wine store, Smith & Vine, and best cheese store, Stinky, are set to open a new bar on Smith Street, just a jog from their other businesses. Patrick has talked about doing this for a couple years now, but made it seem a long way off. Guess the closing of nearby (and awful) saloon Quench was the sign he was looking for.

Joining them as partners, according to the NY Sun, will be Smith & Vine manager Ari Form, who spent four years with Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, and Matt DeVriendt, another Smith & Vine manager. Form will be in charge of the spirits program—quite a challenge with Brooklyn Social down the block and Clover Club set to open soon nearby.

Matt said the bar will pour many of the wines which are for sale at Smith & Vine. That will be handy; one can sample a vino at Jake Walk and then stroll down the block to buy it.

As for the curious name, it's just the latest clever, historically minded tavern title in town, right in the tradition of Milk & Honey, Little Branch, Pegu Club, and Death & Co. It refers to, according to Gowanus Lounge, "people who were poisoned by bootleg alcohol and left with physical disabilities. Jake was a Jamaican ginger extract with high alcohol content that was used to skirt laws banning alcohol. In 1930, manufacturers decided to add an industrial chemical to dilute Jake that turned out to be highly toxic. Victims were partly paralyzed and the resulting walk was known as "the Jake Walk.""

Yikes! Noting like a bit of gallows humor.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Two Applejacks a Day

I used to make Jack Rose cocktails with a flask of plain old Laird's Applejack, and I liked them OK. Then I got my copy of David Wondrich's "Imbibe!" in which he basically insisted that if I couldn't locate Laird's pure bonded version of Applejack, I shouldn't bother with the company's products at all, and instead opt for a VS-grad Calvados from France.

Well, that made me wonder whether the Jack Roses I'd been making were worthy of the cocktail's name. I take a Wondrich recommendation seriously. So I laid off Applejack cocktails until I found the bonded stuff. Lo and behold, I did find it the other night, at (typically) LeNell's liquor emporium in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Thus armed, I went home and conducted a side-by-side test. Was there really a difference between a Jack Rose made with regular Laird's and one made with the bonded juice?

Was there ever and how!

I got my ducks in a row and made the cocktails one after another, so I could taste them both while they were fresh and cold. The first Jack Rose was fine, an eminently enjoyable drink. (I used the recipe from David's book: 2 oz. of applejack, juice of 1/2 lime, 1/2 oz. of Grenadine, shaken.) But the second! The pleasure of the first was all on the surface. The second, with the bonded, suddenly had depth. I could taste the drink all the way to the bottom of the glass. It was as if a flat picture had suddenly coming to three-dimensional life. I will never order a Jack Rose again in a bar without first inquiring whether they have bonded Laird's behind the bar. (Great: I'm a bigger snob than ever.)

The experiment made me so excited, I went ahead and tried the other great Applejack cocktail, The Star Cocktail, with the bonded. The Star, according to Wondrich, is made with a few dashes of Angostura, 1 1/2 oz. of Applejack and 1 1/2 oz. of Italian vermouth. The result was fine, but a bit simplistic in my estimation. I tasted Applejack. I tasted vermouth. They didn't combine in a particularly compelling way. It left me with the opinion that the Jack Rose remains the king of the apple brandy cocktails.