Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sad, Sad News

This e-mail, sent out by LeNell Smothers, owners of the great Red Hook liquor store, was recently reprinted on Read it and weep.

Our lease is officially up this month. I know it will take months for a formal eviction should it come to that. Sad to say that the space that we had a draft lease for fell through this week. It was for the vacant lot across the street next to the Good Fork. This lot is co-owned by Jimmy Buscariello and Greg O'Connell (who owns quite a bit of Red Hook including the Fairway building). We had architectural drawings, had agreed on basic lease points, and I've been thinking all along that we were just finalizing details...

The space included the store on the first floor and the bar on the second. After discussing this project for nearly a year now, I get a visit from Greg recently telling me that he has just realized constructions costs will be more than he wants to pay. He won't entertain thoughts of my partnering in building out the space. Just flat out pulled out at the last moment...which happens to be a few days before the end of my current lease. I'm in shock. I really thought this deal was practically done when Greg had me pay an attorney to draft a lease. Rarely is LeNell speechless. I am.

The other space we thought was workable in Red Hook, turns out to be a dud, as well. The owner has been telling everyone that we are moving into the space. Months ago I asked him for lease points and told him that I could not agree to anything less than a 10 year lease. Today out of nowhere, he tells me that he only wants to sign a five year lease. I won't do it. It's just not good business sense at this point. I refuse to keep working to pay someone else's mortgage while I barely pay myself and have no hope for me and my hardworking staff to get ahead.

So folks, I just don't know the future. I had really hoped to announce that we had a lease signed for this lot across the street and was so eager to break the news to you. I'm really just in shock. Storefronts in Red Hook sit vacant, vacant lots side idle, landlords daydream, and proven businesses like mine get put through hell. A boss of mine told me years ago, "If you can survive in New York, you can survive anywhere." Well, I think I've proved myself long enough. Maybe it's time to head back South. Own a real home, eat real bar b que, and have a life. LeNell is broken.

When you come in and I'm dazed, bitchy beyond normal, on the phone like a lunatic, please don't take it personally. Everything I've worked so hard for is hanging in the gallows."

Hard to know what to say. I've depended on LeNell's for some many hard-to-get bottles over the years. When no one else has it, they do. If I had the money and the real estate, I would call LeNell right now. Alas.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Monkey on Top

Another drink I'm regularly obsessed with is the Monkey Gland, a Jazz Age concoction of gin, orange juice, grenadine and absinthe. I make these at home all the time. So much are they part of my cocktail mindset that, recent, when called upon the scholars at the Beverage Alcohol Resource to create a new cocktail, I used the Monkey Gland as my template and came up with something called the Star Monkey (star anise was involved).

Still, I realize the cocktail is still pretty obscure. Or is it? I went to Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park the other day and what did I see in the very top spot of the cocktail menu? Yes, the Monkey Gland, in all its glory. That place is hence one cool joint, in my opinion.

Cocktail Incompetency: P.J. Clarke's

It pains me to post this, as I adore P.J. Clarke's for the old school New York tavern it is. But a bad drink is a bad drink.

I was excited to see that Clarke's had Pimm's Cup on the chalkboard as one of its regular featured cocktail. The Pimm's Cup is one of the cocktails I'm mildly obsessed with. And summer was coming on, so I thought: why not?

What I got was the worst Pimm's Cup I've ever drunk. Far too much Pimm's (I'm sure the bartender thought he was doing me a favor by going heavy on the booze), too little Ginger Ale, and no cucumber slice at all! Instead, a friggin' forest of mint! What the hell? If I wanted mint, I'd have ordered a Julep or a Mojito.

Can't wait until I can get to the Napoleon House and get a proper Pimm's Cup.

Monday, May 19, 2008

An Episode With Cynar

I was enjoying a drink at Milk & Honey's miniscule bar a month ago when I noticed a mural painting of the Cynar logo on the wall. It had been distressed so as to look decades old. Sasha Petraske, the owner, was on hand, so I asked him if he had painted the image because of his love of the Italian apertif. "God, no. I just have always loved the logo. I think Cynar is what they make you drink when you go to hell."

For those who don't know, Cynar is a bitter liqueur made from 13 herbs and plants. But nobody really cares about 12 of them. They only know the 13th: artichoke. Cynar makes sure you don't forget it's derived from artichokes by putting a big picture of the green vegetable on the label.

Sasha's comment made me wonder if Cynar could ever be a component of a successful cocktail. I got my answer this weekend at Death & Co., where I noticed a drink on the menu composer of Gin, Vermouth and Cynar calle "Cynartown." (I'm pretty sure that was the name.) I asked head bartender Phil Ward about it, and he seemed to have no reservations recommending it. He was the anti-Sasha. "I love Cynar," he said.

The potion was composed of two ounces Beefeater Gin, 3/4 ounce Carpano Antica, and 1/2 ounce Cynar. It was smooth and silky, a elegant mix of herbal flavors. It went down quick, as did the two cherries that came with it. There's hope for Cynar yet.

The Birth of the Cynarata

The Kabinetts of Dr. Riesling

I went to the Wines of Germany 2008 tasting last week ("Riesling & Co. World Tour 2008"!) This event never seems to include the stars of Deutschland, aside from the wonderful, dependable Dr. H. Thanisch. Just lesser-known strivers, mainly. (One of my favorites from last year, Balthasar Ress of Rheingau, was missing this time around.)

But the gathering serves as a decent yardstick of what to expect from the coming vintage. Everyone I questioned seemed happy with the 2007 vintage, saying the weather had been good all through. The man monitoring the Leitz table said that many of the Spatlese and Auslese grapes had in 2007 been declassified and were fed into the vintage's Kabinetts, making them fuller and richer and, according to him, more representative of the Kabinett style of Riesling. He also said this was done in part to counter of glut of Ausleses and Spatleses on the market.

Indeed, the Leitz Kabinetts did seem to have more to offer than I am used to in these wines. The stars of the wines I tasted, however, was the entire line-up at Marcus Moliter, a Mosel winery that is unique in Germany in that it goes for natural fermentation. Only naturally occurring yeasts are used. The wine is filtered, but not fined. The grapes are picked late and left on the lees for months.

The results are hard to argue with. The 2007 Bernkasteler Backstude Kabinett was refreshingly tart and metallic. The 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, from slate soil, spoke distinctly of apricot and honey, and the 2006 Auslese from the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr was simply beautiful.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Robert Mondavi Dies

Robert Mondavi, the father of the modern California wine industry, died Friday at the age of 94 after an impossibly long and productive life. I'm reading "The House of Mondavi" right now, and through that narrative one is as astounded by this great man's many personal missteps as by his achievements, and by the striking elements of Greek tragedy to be found in his story. Still, his achievements were monumental and there's no denying that the wine world would be a very different place without him.

Here's the Times obit, which ought to be twice as long as it is.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Experimenting with Baker's Bitters

As I was fixing up my homemade Amer Picon a couple months back, I noticed that on the same sheet that bore the recipe for said amaro (given to me by a worker at LeNell's) there was a recipe for an orange bitters by Charles H. Baker, Jr., the author of the well-known (among cocktail people, anyway) "The Gentleman's Companion." It didn't look so hard, so I decided to give it a shot.

The first stop involved soaking in grain alcohol (I used vodka) for 15 days: chopped up dried orange peel, and 1/2 drachm ("Drachm"?! Jesus Christ! Had to look that one up!) each of cardamom, caraway and coriander seeds. After 15 days, I poured off the spirits through a cheese cloth and sealed them again. I then took the seeds and peel, put them in pan, muddled them a bit, covered them with boiling water and simmered for five minutes. The whole mixture was then bottled and set for two days. I then drained it off and added it to the spirits. Burnt sugar was added for color. The whole shebang was then filtered an extra time and allowed to sit until it was clear.

I tried it. Smelled good. Tasted good. I was amazed how relatively easy it was to make bitters. I always imagined the stuff impossibly complicated. (The really good ones probably are.) I'm told this was the recipe that Gary Regan used as the base for his orange bitters. Trying Baker's bitters next to Regan's and the Fee Brothers orange bitters, I realized it was a bit simplistic. Both of the others had more depth; Regan's was more bitter and herbal, while Fee's highlighted the bright orange flavor. But Baker's was pleasant. The cardamom comes through strongly, and the potion had a light touch.

I then wondered what to do with the stuff. Were there some old recipes that called specifically for it? I consulted St. John Frizell, a NYC bartender and writer who will be presenting a seminar on Baker at this years Tales of the Cocktail. When he gave me the obvious answer—use them in any drink that calls for orange bitters—I realized how dumb my question one.

I gave Baker's bitter three tries. Once in a Martini, served the old-fashioned way, when it's thought that orange bitters were part of the drink. Then as part of a Pegu Club. And finally as a component of a Bourbon Crusta. All three worked splendidly, and I really felt the delicate flavor of the bitters was an asset, complimenting each drink like a gentle grace note. I was quite pleased.

I also realized how much improved my mixing skills were after taking the B.A.R. course two weeks back.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Amer Picon Taste Test

OK, so more on my homemade Amer Picon.

Being reasonably satisfied with the homemade brew I made based on Jamie Boudreau's recipe for the hard-to-get digestive, I took my clear, unmarked bottle to Jake Walk, a local cocktail joint of my acquaintance where I know they have a bottle of real Amer Picon. By real, I mean the version of the amaro that has been produced in France in recent years—a recipe I am led to believe is different from what was sold in the early 20th century.

As I understand Boudreau's story, he created the homemade Amer Picon to match the taste of the currently sold amaro. But when he took it to the Tales of the Cocktail convention and had some experts try it against a flask of the original, they decreed it matched the Real McCoy.

Ari Form and Matt DeVriendt were on duty when I passed through the door at Jake Walk, and, spotting my plain, bottle-shaped bag, knew what I was up to. They produced the Amer Picon and we taste-tested it next to my home-brewed potion. First of all, color. My stuff was visibly lighter than the legit Amer Picon, with an orangey-brown hue. Then the taste. The store-bought Amer Picon was deeper in flavor with more herbal, bitter and chocolate qualities. The brighter citrus and orange flavors came through in mine—not surprisingly, given at the orange bitters and tinctures that went into it. They were definitely different beasts.

They concluded my stuff to be a success, and we agreed that, while both were good, the homemade stuff—supposedly the original flavor of Amer Picon—was better suited to mixing cocktails. It had more vim and life and wasn't as heavy. It would marry better with other flavors. It would float to the top and sparkle, not weigh the drink down.

Is this the end of my Amer Picon obsession? Maybe not. I have a friend going to Europe soon and she promised to bring me back a bottle of the drink. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I Am in Love With This Spoon

Anyone who's interested in wine and spirits and cocktails, is interested in the equipment and paraphernalia that surrounds the creation and service of these libations. The more arcane and unique the tool, the brighter the gleam in the eye the drink nut.

The above is a spoon-straw. It was served with my Mint Julep during a recent visit to Little Branch. Said drink was piled so high wish shaved ice, a straw was the only way I was going to get at the Bourbon. I fell in love with it immediately. It's made of metal, in case you can't tell. The handle is hollow, opening at the top and behind the spoon. The thing is not only eminently useful, it adds a handsome accent to the drink.

I'll be honest. I was so enamored with the knick-knack I was ready to swipe it. Then I saw in the cocktail menu that the spoon-straws were for sale for the low-low price of $2. So I came by the item honestly and it now adorns my homemade Juleps.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Night With Abe

A number of weeks back, I was invited to to a wine dinner at the swank and narrow Lower East Side hotspot Stanton Social (sharing plates, scarce reservations). The host was Crush Wine & Spirits, my fave wine shop in Manhattan. The subject was Abe Schoener, the former Greek philosophy professor turned maverick winemaker behind the Scholium Project line of California wines.

Schoener is a wine-philosopher, if such a beast exists, and his background shows in the name he's given to his enterprise (it means "a modest project, undertaken for learning") and his wines, which are called Naucratis, The Prince in His Caves, Scheria and Babylon, among others. This would all be insufferably precious and pretentious—the press release for the event mentioned Jasper Johns and Aristotle—if his wines weren't so good.

Schoener gathers grapes from different small vineyards in Cali for each wine he makes. The nature of the grapes dictates the wine he makes, and he tries not to interfere with the natural fermentation process as much as possible. Additionally, he hardly a slave to the prevailing varietals in California. Among whites, he goes for Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Verdehlo; reds are Syrah and Petite Sirah.

The winemaker himself is an unmistakable character. Burly, with a buzz cut, thick glasses and wearing a loud plaid shirt, he could have been in installation artist with a Chelsea dealer. The din at Stanton Social was almost deafening (why do young people like to shout over dinner?), so Abe took turns sitting at each table discussing the wine and fielding questions. I learned that the winemakers of Friuli, particularly Kante, are an inspiration; this was quite apparent after tasting a few of his heady, mineral whites, in which extended exposure to the lees was marked. He also said his profit margin was thin, since he produced only small amounts of each wine. (This accounts for the high prices. The Verdehlo, at $21, is the cheapest.) He additionally mentioned his plans to start producing wine in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Other things he said:
*Every wine is an experiment
*He first finds the right vineyards, then decides what grape to plane
*He doesn't top off barrels. He feel wine should be exposed to oxygen. Because of this attitude, he often loses wine to spoilage.
*He thinks Sauvignon Blanc is the number one grape in California.
*He makes wine "for 600 people."

We were all handed a glass of the Verdehlo, vinified in stainless steel, and dubbed "Naucratis," when we walked in. It was one of my favorite wines of the evening, with a nice balance of minerality and fruit, a juicy drink, but not too juicy. The wine had just been bottled a few days before.

The Sauv Blanc called "La Severita di Bruto" was metalically fresh, flinty and sharp, with tart notes of lime. Very good. Another Sauv Blanc, "The Prince in His Caves," spent 30 days on the skins and it showed. It was tropical and thick and wildly fragrant. This reminded me most of Friuli's whites. (The name has something to do with an monastic Italian prince who worked a couple small vineyards in solitude in the late 20th century.)

From there, we went on to the reds. While Schoener's red wines are respectable and make for good drinking, I don't feel they measure up to the inventive eccentricity of his whites. This may be because of his choice of Petite Sirah, which I think is rather limited grape in terms of flavor and textural possibilities. I'd like to see what he could do with some of the more obscure northern Italian varietals, like Ruche, Refosco and Lagrein. I also have a suspicion he'd make a great wine with the Pecorino grape.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Drink Itself

I visited Weather Up, Katheryn Weatherup's (love that name) new cocktail den in Prospect Heights a few weeks back. Everyone I've met, who doesn't know she owns the bar, thinks Weather Up is some 19th-century tavern expression. You know, "the weather's up, so I need a stiff one." Kathryn and Sasha Patraske, who devised the cocktail list, joked that they are happy to foster this misapprehension.

The place, located on a deserted stretch of Lafayette in Brooklyn, right down the street from a gas station and McDonald's, has a white-tile facade, like the inside of a bathroom. No sign. Cozy inside with a few tables and a handful of seats at the bar, and more of that tile on the ceiling and lots of amber light.

Weatherup was on hand, a tall, willowy Englishwoman with a lots of hair and a long interesting tattoo on her back, conveniently framed by an elegant backless dress.

There are only a few featured cocktails as of yet. One is named after the owner—the so-called "signature drink" that cocktailians seem to feel is so important to the success of any bar these days. It is the most expensive drink on the menu, at $15, mainly because its base is Cognac. The remainder is composed of Amaretto and lemon juice.

The menu jokes that there is a limit of two Weather Ups per customer. Except this is no joke. If you want to know how lethal a cocktail can be, try one. It packs a mighty wallop, belied by its fancy-dancy presentation, in a wine glass with a long twirling orange twist. The almond and apricot flavors of the Amaretto dominate, fooling you into the ideal that you're drinking something lightweight. All the while, the Cognac's landing a sucker punch.

I was a little unsteady on my feet after one. Do NOT go for two. You have been warned.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Amer Picon Packs a Punch

With May comes the fruition of the many potions I embarked on in April. You'll hear about my homemade limoncello and orange bitters attempts in days to come. But for now, let's return to that version of Amer Picon I began in early April. As you may recall, it is based on the well-known recipe devised by bartender Jamie Boudreau.

I could have whipped this baby up in a day if it weren't for Boudreau's insistence that an orange tincture of 40 days of age was required. I dutifully waited the 40 days, shaking the damn thing up every morning. I then mixed it up with the required amounts the Italian amaro Ramazzotti (easy to find), Fee Brothers Orange bitters (ditto) and Stirring Blood Orange Bitters (not easy to find at all!). The resultant potion was a deep tobacco-juice brown. But damn if it didn't taste authentic, and close to what I've heard Amer Picon should taste like.

I set about making myself a Liberal. (The cocktail, I'm mean; I'm already a liberal.) Rye, sweet vermouth, Amer Picon, orange twist. Very nice. I was happy to know I could now make these on a regular basis. Then I tried one more recipe I had been eyeballing for some time: the Amer Picon Punch. This required a whopping two ounces of the sacred stuff, plus 1/4 ounce of lemon juice and 1/4 ounce of Grenadine, served in a high ball over iced and topped with soda water and "seasonal fruit."

As loathe as I was to dispense in one go with so much of my new elixir, which was so hard won, I went for it. And wow! What a drink! I didn't really believe a drink so heavily based on an amaro could be that fantastic, but it was amazing. Potent and layered, yet light and refreshing, with the juice and fruit (I used an orange slice) drawing out hidden flavors in the Amer Picon. I could drink these things all day, particularly during the summer.

I must get to work on my next batch to ensure I can.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

One Derby, Three Juleps

I am back, readers, from my B.A.R. exam and I can't remember when I last felt so utterly exhausted. I'll have more to say about the experience in coming weeks, but for now let me talk about how, beverage-wise, I well honored the Kentucky Derby today.

I kinda like horse-racing, as sports go, but I do not get to the track very often. In fact, I've been to exactly one horse race, and that was harness racing, which, as I understand it, is an equine sport that slightly embarrasses true horse-racing fans.

BUT, I like the idea of the Derby. The pomp. The dressing up. The betting. The sporting life. And the iconic drink, The Mint Julep. Feeling like a more skilled drinkmaker after going to B.A.R., I made myself a Julep with a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon I just bought. I'm growing fresh mint in my window, so I'm well ahead of the game. I realize, however, that I'm not yet a master of the crushed ice needed for the drink. My cocktail seemed a little watery.

Later, while in Manhattan, I stopped by Little Branch in the Village. They were ready for me. The sharp barkeep offered to make me one of three different Juleps. I chose one called a Jersey Julep. It featured Apricot Liqueur. Apricot Liqueur has been on my mind since Tuesday, when Robert Cooper—who invented St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and who took the B.A.R. course with me—bought a bottle at Astor Place Wine and Spirits and gave me a sip. Yum. The drink was tasty, if a bit off-balance. The bourbon and apricot didn't quite meld. And the bartender knew his ice. The glass was topped by a veritable mound of shaved ice, which never melted!

On the way home, I stopped by Jake Walk in Brooklyn. I was shocked to heard from the Bartender that my Julep was the first that had been ordered that day. What is wrong with these people? I perfectly good excuse to drink a special cocktail and they blow it? They made it differently here, not building it, but gently shaking it, and serving it on the rocks. Still, it tasted as a julep should, and put my to shame.