Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Modern Writers Don't Drink Well.

The amusingly named New York Post journalist Justin Rocket Silverman recently penned an article asking contemporary writers how they are carrying on one of the age-old traditions of their profession: drinking.

Answer: not very well. The five authors he quizzed admitted to drinking, but in terribly bad taste. They themselves didn't say they drank in bad taste; that's my judgment, based on the libations by which they whet their whistle.

Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the "Gossip Girl" books (I know, I know) said her favorite drink was a Ginger Provincial, a specialty cocktail at The London Bar. It's made with ginger-infused Smirnoff shaken with orange liqueur, lime and white cranberry juices.

Douglas Rushkoff ("Media Virus," "Ecstasy Club," etc.) drinks Margarellas—Margaritas made with vodka instead of tequila. Rushkoff said the drink was invented by his friend, Timothy Leary. A girlfriend later told him he was actually drinking Kamikazes.

"Girlbomb" author Janice Erlbaum guzzles Key Lime Martini, which is—you guessed it—made with vodka. Vanilla vodka to be precise, with lime juice and a little cream. It is the signature drink at the hotel where her husband and she got married, the W Hotel in Union Square, so I guess she has an excuse.

Kenji Jasper ("Snow," "Dark," etc.) finally breaks up the vodka trend with his Dakota Grand, which he says he invented himself. Not much of an invention, though: it's Mount Gay rum and orange juice. I imagine that's been tried before a time or twenty.

Finally, Michael Malice ("Overheard in New York") prefers a gin gimlet. Finally, something a bit sophisticated. And no vodka.

A pretty pathetic showing, all around.

Some Thoughts on the Death of the Sun

The cavalry didn't come. There was no airlift. The governor didn't call. And so, today, Sept. 30, 2008, the New York Sun issued its last edition, after seven years of trying to make a go of it as an "alternative" (read "conservative") New York broadsheet.

I never agreed with the Sun's editorial page. It's headlines often made me cringe. Yet, I owe the paper much and, through four years of contributing to its pages, came to respect it. Whereas toward the beginning my tone was sheepish when I told people I wrote for the Sun, in the last year or two I announced my affiliation in clear tones and with a little pride. For the Sun was a quixotic effort, the work of idealists and romantics. It bore many of the earmarks of the upstart magazines and literary journals of New York's past. Its creators were passionate, and its young and overworked staff members tireless.

Moreover, most of the editors I worked with displayed faith in their writers, listening to their ideas for stories, and respecting their copy. This is much more than I can say for the editors of other newspapers and magazines in this town. Detractors and supporters alike often queried me about the quality of the writing in the Sun's pages. It was no mystery why the writing was good. The editors hired talented reporters and critics to write about things they knew and cared about, and then didn't fuck around with the result too much. That simple.

I wrote mainly for the Arts pages and the Food pages—the sections that became the two most praised parts of the paper. David Propson, a kind and intelligent man with an aversion to replying to e-mails, brought me in at the suggestion of then-theatre critic Jeremy McCarter. Propson was the cultural editor back then and he was trying to beef up the theatre coverage and give the Times a run for its money. I was to write theatre features, and began with one on director Kathleen Marshall in June 2004. Soon after I was attracted to the Sun's daily profile, a feature that shone a light on all sorts of characters in the City.

The daily profile allowed me to talk to the oddballs and curiosities that have always attracted my attention: The guy who takes care of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree; the last working glover in the metropolis; the owner of Li-Lac chocolates in the Village; Murray of Murray's Cheeses; a guy who plays piano accompaniment for silent films at Film Forum; the men's room attendant at the "21" club.

It was a story about "21"'s glorious, Prohibition-era wine cellar that led then-food editor Ruth Graham to take a chance on my writing a monthly column called "In the Cellar," in which I looked at the wine collections of many a famous restaurant in New York. Each told a story. Il Buco's cellar may have been the inspiration of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amantillado." Tommaso's in Bensonhurst is stuffed with great, but cheap bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco that the owner bought back in the '80s before prices skyrocketed. The cellar at the tiny Babbo is ridiculously spacious. Daniel's cellar is decorated by designer graffiti. The wine at the Oyster Bar is stuffed in a maze of ancient walk-in fridges and prison-like cages. I met sommeliers passionately championing Austrian wines, Spanish wines, Israeli wines, everything you could think of.

I also began to cover the cocktail world while at the Sun, pressed on by most recent and final food editor, the ever-enthusiastic Jayanthi Daniel.

Often the sommeliers and other various wine and spirits people I talked to were ignorant of the Sun's food and drink coverage. When I showed them what we did, they were always stunned by the quality of the reportage. Thereafter, they picked up the Sun every Wednesday. Many told me, without solicitation, that they preferred the coverage to any other food pages in town. I'm biased, but I had to agree. Between Paul Adams, Bret Thorn, Peter Hellman, and a few others, the writing was lively, smart and fun.

That said, I often wondered whether the Sun's leadership ever noticed. I got the feeling that the Sun often didn't know what it did best, so focused was it on getting its political agenda across. It's food pages were praised throughout the City, yet when times became tight, the editors cut the food coverage from two pages to one a week. The coverage of the arts and the restaurant scene should have resulted in a wealth of advertising—despite the Sun's low circulation numbers. Yet the art and food sections were rarely sullied by the presence of more than one or two small ads. I am no expert on advertising and how its sold, but nonetheless this seemed to me a missed opportunity of gigantic proportions.

I will miss the Sun, and not just because they paid me promptly. My editors always gave my every story idea a full airing. They were worked off their feet, but they made time for free-lancers. And the resultant article was given good play; the quality of the accompanying photographer was always high. If the City's rival publication desire to properly honor their fallen brother, the best way they can do it is the snatch up the former writers and editors who have now been set loose.

And, yes, that is a hint.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Old Cynar Commercials

These are kinda wonderful. Old Italian commercials for Cynar, from 1967 and 1977. The 1967 one is incredibly long for a commercial, like a mini-sitcom. It ends with an imagine of a dignified old man serenely drinking Cynar in the middle of a busy thoroughfare as cars whiz around him. Here's another one from the same time period, starring the same guy. The premise seems to be a mini-drama played out over two minutes, featuring some minor societal headache, and Cynar being posed at the end as the answer to all ills. The actor is Ernesto Calindri, a well-known Italian film and television actor who began doing the Cynar spots in the 1960s.

Enough With This Garbage

I know that today's mixologists are desperate to be original, but I think the garnish frontier has gotten out of control.

I went to an event at Astor Center recently. It was put forth as "The 2008 Classic Martini Challenge." This was a bit of a misnomer, since the blind Martini tasting in the lab room was really a blind gin tasting, with no vermouth in sight. (The winners were: #1 Tanqueray Rangpur; #2 Broker's Gin; #3 Zuidam Gin—peculiar results, indeed, since those three gins have completely different flavor profiles.) Meanwhile, the other room used was given over to gin-based creations put forth by the competing gins—only a handful of them spins on the Martini formula.

Whatever. I made my way through these 18 concoctions. Some were winning, some were indifferent, some were God awful. (My personal favorite was Citadelle Gin's Ginger Poire Fizz. This was surprising in two respects. One: I'm not crazy about Citadelle. Two: I'm generally opposed to overly fussy cocktails, and this one was a fussbudget indeed, made of Pear liqueur, minced ginger, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, seltzer and nutmeg. But it worked and was luscious. It didn't make the finals, though. Jim Ryan's Carte Blanche, using Hendrick's, topped both the media and the public tallies.)

Anyway, of the drinks that did not work for me, most were ruined by the injudicious and often just plain idiotic use of bizarre and intrusive garnishes. Bitter shavings of nutmegs spoiled a few libations (not a pleasant dusting, but nasty shards). A huge clumsy hunk of cucumber was plunked in another. One was littered with lime leaves, which got stuck in my teeth. The Bulldog Gin's Lip Lock Cocktail came with a slice of candied ginger. The DH Krahn Gin's Jack Horner cocktail was topped with hyssop flowers, which I was told were delicious, and were not. (The above picture, Broker's Gin and absinthe, was one of the few drinks not to employ any flourish.)

After a while, I began to flinch each time a bartender finished off a drink, wondering what kind of vegetation he was going to throw between me and my drink. I didn't encounter a single garnish that day that really, truly worked. Most made drinking the cocktail a chore. And that should never happen. A garnish is there to either add an additional flavor nuance or to provide visual flair in a way that doesn't take away from the main attraction: the enjoyment of the drink.

Oldtimers refer to garnishes as "the garbage." In this case, that bit of slang is dead on.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Three Wines You Can't Get

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Apulia, the heel in the boot of Italy, to sample some of increasingly good wines coming out of the area. Apulia was previously known mainly for low-quality bulk wine. Arguably the biggest new force in the province is Antinori, the vaunted Tuscan winemaker, who ten years ago staked out a claim in Apulia, first buying land in the north, near Basilicata (christened Bocca di Lupo, seen above), then a bigger plot in the south (called Messeria Maime). Together, the two vineyards go by the name Tormaresca.

Tormaresca trafficks in the native grapes of the area: Primitivo, Negroamaro and Aglianico (best known as a grape of Campania, but also grown in north Apulia). Overall, I was impressed with the Tormaresca wines. Antinori's winemaker Renzo Cotarella seems to have struck a nice balance between varietal integrity and modern winemaking styles. Sometimes he erred on the side of a too-International style, as with the Neprica, which is 40% Negroamaro, 30% Primitivo and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Other times, he hit the mark, as with the 100% Aglianico, which is named Castel del Monte, after the nearby eight-sided castle built by Frederick II back in the 1200s. I tried the 2003, 2005, 2006 and the 2001. I may have liked the 2003 best. It was jet black in color, earthy, appealingly rough and rustic (though I've tasted rougher versions of this grape), with lots of dark fruit. A very good expression of the grape. And, at 13.5% alcohol, not too overwhelming.

Tormaresca also grows a lot of Chardonnay, in both the Bocco and Messeria vineyard. These produce agreeable wines, particularly the fuller, richer "Pietra Bianca," which adds a portion of fat Fiano to the mix.

However—and I hate to be perverse here—three of my favorite wines in the Tormaresca line-up are bottles that, as of yet, never make it outside Italy: their rose, dessert wine and a unique chilled red wine.

The rose is called Calafuria, and is made from the Negroamaro grape. Unlike many roses these days, it had a definite character. The minerality was admirable, contributing to a firm structure. Tormaresca would be wise to start sending it to the U.S. post haste. I think it will find a market. The Kaloro is the winery's only sweet wine, made from the local DOC Moscato di Trani (seen drying in the sun below). It was light and sweet as you expect Moscato to be. But it also had a strong, stony minerality, owing to the area in which the grapes are grown. This leads to an unusually balanced dessert wine.

The third wine was the most unusual. It's called Fichimori and is a red wine made from Negroamaro that is meant to be served chilled. The grapes are picked when they are very ripe, leading to as juicy and fruity a wine as possible, and left in contact with the skins for only a brief time, eliminated most tannins. The alcohol is only 12.5%. It's a wonderfully refreshing, simple wine, and made for a nice alternative from a rose or a Beaujolais, as far as summer reds go. Apparently, the young Italians love it. I doubt Americans would cotton to it, though it's a shame, since it means I won't be able to get it here. And, of course, it's of paramount importance that I get the wines I want.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What's in a Name?

No one can accuse today's cocktail lounge owners of waxing dull when they christen their bars. Jake Walk in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was named after a Depression-era disease born of greed, bad liquor and dipsomania. And it's doubtful you'd ever catch a restaurant putting out a shingle as macabre as Death & Co.

Some joints call themselves after once-classic, now nearly forgotten cocktail (The Pegu Club, The Clover Club), while others choose the name first and think up a cocktail to go with it later (Jake Walk, Weatherup). Do these namesake libations actually make for good drinking, or just good copy? To find out, I put in some very casual research, spread out over a number of night.

Starting from the top, a Pegu Club at the Pegu Club makes for great drinking! This mix of gin, orange curacao, lime juice and bitters—invented at a British Colonial Officer's Club in Ragoon—is stunningly presented here under a blanket of fine ice and an ornately engraved lime wedge. (I've tried to created this icy effect at home and failed miserably.) It is brisk, bright and refreshing—and very popular, if my bartender was to be believed.

The eponymous drink of Julie Reiner's newly opened Clover Club in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is a frothy, egg-based potion that was once the title tipple of a group of some riotous Philadelphia swells. Reiner makes the frothy concoction with the original raspberry syrup—not its dreaded latter-day substitute: Grenadine—and to the mix she adds vermouth, an ingredient found an early printing of the cocktail, but missing in action. The barkeep's vigorous shaking integrated Mr. Gin and friends beautifully. It may look like breakfast, but it makes a good dinner.

Prospect Heights' Weatherup is named after its owner, Kathryn Weatherup, and so, thus, is the drink Weatherup. The most expensive cocktail on the menu ($15), it is composed of a kingly amount of Cognac, balanced with Amaretto Lazzaroni and lemon juice and decorated with a huge spiral of orange peel. The menu's jest that no more than two are allowed per customer is no joke: this drink will knock you down. Tasty, but approach with caution.

The Jake Walk's signature drink was compiled by cocktail historian David Wondrich, no less. It is made of equal parts reposado tequila, white rum, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and fresh lime juice, with 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters. The resultant refreshing concoction tastes, somewhat paradoxically, almost exactly like a pink grapefruit—which is perhaps both its appeal and its limitation. But hey: it tastes good, and the gals I was drinking with uttered no complaints whatsoever.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Char No. 4, Take 1

Funny how things get exaggerated in cut time. I knew that Char No. 4, the new Smith Street bar, boasted more than 150 kinds of whiskey. In the past week, however, people have excitedly told me they have more than 200, more than 300!

Anyway, they have a lot. And most of them are displayed and backlit on a towering series of shelves behind the bar. They look to be arranged alphabetically, not by whiskey type. I must say, it's a soothing sight, all that white light flowing through all that amber liquid. One warms oneself in the glow. The joint, only a few days old, was only moderately busy, and no one was dining. I suspect people don't yet know that they serve food. (A lot of pork and such stuff, much of it sounding tasty.)

A small, hard-bound book lists all the whiskeys available. They're divided into various categories, including Bourbon, Rye, Corn Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch, Japanese Whiskey, etc. One can have a sample in 1 ounce and 2 once servings—a good thing, because some of these babies are expensive, and a 1 ouncer really cuts down on the cost. There are a goodly amount of liquors that can be had for $6 or less. (There's also beer and a compact wine list, for those who step into Char No. 4 and don't want whiskey, but I can't imagine who those dunderheads might be.)

I chose a George Dickel Barrel Select, at $6 on ounce. I like Dickel's stuff. Nice and smooth, and this proved to be in that tradition. They served it to me in a tumbler that looked a bit like a Riedel "O" series wine glass, with a glass of ice on the side, though, curiously, not with any water until I asked for it. After that, I was determined to try something I was totally unfamiliar with. I saw two whiskeys on the shelf that were in clay jugs, hillbilly style. I tried the Henry McKenna, which the waitress said the owner has just gotten in. A 150-year-old brand, I learned soon after. It was fruity and enjoyable. Lots of apricot in the nose (if I may say so without being pilloried as pretentious.)

This would be a good place for show-off Wall Street big-spenders (if there are any of those left after this week), because there are plenty of ways to throw money around here. You don't have to look far to find an aged, rare whiskey that costs $100 an ounce. Most of these are in the Bourbon category. (Single malt scotches, by comparison, are considerably less expensive, which doesn't seem right somehow. It's the American way to jack up prices to the ceiling, isn't it?) Celebrate local LeNell Smother's own Red Hook Rye is available at $75 a shot! They also have Dickel's No. 8, which is currently very hard to come by due to a production shortage. It goes for $25 a shot.

Char No. 4's off to a good start, but they still have some kinks to work out. That water thing, for instance. Most erudite whiskey lovers know to drop a bit of water in their liquor before drinking. It helps to fully elicit the whiskey's aromas and flavors. People don't have to do this, but the water should be there as an option. And the owner have the Dickels—a Tennessee whiskey—listed under the Bourbons. I pointed this out, and the waitress said they were aware of the error. If you're going to specialize in one kind of alcohol, you're going to attract a lot of wonks like me. So you better have your ducks in a row.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

White Star, Green Liquor

I passed by White Star—Sashe Petraske's new absinthe joint on the Lower East Side—a few times before I realized it was the place I was looking for. Another of the currently popular no-sign bars. (Honestly, when will this increasingly infantile trend reach its natural end?) The small place is on the south end of Essex Street, just before the lane runs out of steam. Not much in the way of decor at this point. The bar, white marble, up front near the door, is the main feature. That and the two absinthe drips on top of the bar.

Better than television, those absinthe drips. I could watch them in operation for hours—the cool, iced water slowly passing from the transparent basins through the silver faucets, gradually dissolving the sugar cube placed atop the serrated absinthe spoon, which is in turn balanced over a glass half filled with the potent herbal green liquor. Mesmerizing. And, based on their stares, most of the customers felt the same way.

Sasha was pouring out only the Swiss Absinthe Superieure Kubler. He said he would expand to include more brands in the future, saying "Watch this space." He also had some rather blunt words for some of the other major absinthe brands out there, comments I won't include here if case he'd like those opinions kept private. He and his fellow bartenders kept the drips filled with fresh ice at all times, to ensure the chilliness of the aqua.

Absinthe—served the way that would be familiar to any 19th-century Frenchman—was being dolled out gratis that night, and two came my way. That was about one too many. Dilute it as you like, this stuff still packs a punch, and gets you drunker faster than any other legal intoxicant I know. I got about half way through my second glass and decided to call it a day before I started seeing visions of Edgar Degas.

But, truthfully, another thing kept me from finishing my second helping. And that is, well, I just don't love the stuff. I like the idea of it very much—the history, the romance, its exotic nature, and, above all, the way the drink is prepared. (Those ingenious drips are half the fun and half the attraction where absinthe is concerned, in my opinion.) It's all beautiful. I also love a dash of absinthe as a component in cocktails that claim their base liquor elsewhere. But just absinthe and water and sugar? You pretty much have to be in love with the dominant flavor of anise to want absinthe more than once in a while. And I am not in love with that flavor, which I am well aware is the defining aspect of many a liqueur the world over. Good absinthes have layers of flavor, but layers within that limited herbal spectrum. One absinthe lover described it to me as "liquid springtime," which is great, unless you're longing for a little summer, winter and autumn in your drink.

This, I suspect, might be the difficulty in making a go of an absinthe bar (though, certainly, Sasha intends for people to drink other things as well at White Star). I also doubt the market can support a couple dozen new brands.

Still, I must admit I got a bit of a thrill standing there knowing I was inside the first New York bar that was legally selling absinthe by the glass, in the traditional manner, in nearly a century.

One side note: Sasha mentioned he would open a place in Long Island City sometime in the future. Name: Dutch Kill.

Nice Choice for the New Year

Goose Bay of New Zealand has made a nice reputation for itself with a couple decent kosher versions of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, the two varietals for which the island nation has become renowned. The Sauv Blanc has has become a particular favorite among the kosher crowd, being both toothsome and affordable.

Now, Goose Bay has come out with a 2007 Pinot Gris, it's first stab at this great. I was skeptical upon opening it, but was stunned when it turned out to surpass the Sauv Blanc in quality. This is a beautifully balanced wine, full (well, fullish) and rich from its brief exposure to a bit a oak—and due to the natural tendencies of the grape—which does well in cool climates; and yet with a subtle minerality in the finish. The palate has lemon, lime, pear, eucalyptus, vegetal notes and honey as it warns up. Some may call this a flaw, but it offers no impediments between itself and enjoyment. It's an easy wine to like. Yet there's nothing simple about it.

The price is just under $20. Kosher wine just keeps getting better.

Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Mix a Bronx

Had the chance to review 1934's "The Thin Man" the other night and it provided direct evidence of one-time robust popularity of now almost-forgotten The Bronx Cocktail. In Nick Charles' (played by William Powell) introductory scene, the detective is demonstrating how every drink should be shaken to a different rhythm: a Manhattan to a Fox-trot beat, a Martini to a Waltz, and a Bronx to two-step time. Imagine that: a Bronx mentioned in the same breath as those big boys. (For the moment, we shall put aside Nick's recommendation that a Martini and a Manhattan be shaken, and not stirred.)

The film also testifies to the fact that Rye had not yet taken a swan dive in popularity. Witness this exchange:

Nora: (to Nick, who is holding a drink) Is that my drink?
Nick: I don't know. What are you drinking?
Nore: Rye.
(Nick downs the drink.)
Nick: Yup. That was yours.

While we're talking of Nick & Nora, who are the two jokers seen above, splashed on walls all over town? "Norah," indeed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Cocktail Walking Tour of Manhattan

I had some of the most fun I've ever had writing about wine or spirits putting together a walking tour of New York City cocktail history. Drinking and history are two of my favorite subjects, so combining the two was a rare pleasure. Having only 1,000 words at my disposal (a luxury there days), I had to curtail my survey. But I hit some high notes in the tour, including the (arguable) birthplaces of the Metropolitan, Manhattan, Rob Roy, Widow's Kiss and (in its American debut) Bloody Mary.

I reader wrote in to the Sun saying the Bloody Mary bit was incorrect, citing the old story that actor George Jessel invented the drink. While many agree that Jessel had something to do with the cocktail's foundations, most also agree that it was Fernand Petiot who built on George's vodka and tomato juice and made the drink what it is today.

Here's the piece:

Looking at New York's Liquid Past


With new cocktail dens such as White Star and Apotheke opening every other week, modern cocktail history is being made on the streets of New York City, even as I write this sentence. But whatever delectable potions today's mixologists come up with, they have much to live up to. There are few cities that compete with Gotham when it comes to cocktail history.

The revived cocktail culture of the 21st century has brought along with it a mini-boom of bibulous historians, turning once obscure bartenders such as Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson into demigods of America's rich mixology heritage. For them, and in toast to the commencement of the fall drinking season, we offer this local walking tour of tippling history. Keep in mind, this tour is not meant to be comprehensive, but is rather a selection of historical sites.

And, one caution: Do not drink and walk. Walk first, then drink.

Bemelmans Bar, Carlyle Hotel

35 E. 76th St. at Madison Avenue, 212-744-1600

For the blue-blooded patrons of this snug piano bar, the traditional cocktail hour never went into eclipse. The Bemelmans — named for Ludwig Bemelmans's whimsical murals — is one of the last classic hotel bars in a city that used to have dozens. Adding contemporary currency to its cocktail profile were recent stints by bartenders Dale DeGroff, now a famed consultant, and Audrey Saunders, founder of the West Village's Pegu Club.

King Cole Bar, St. Regis Hotel

2 E. 55th St., between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-753-4500

Jog a block west to Fifth Avenue and 20 blocks south (okay, take a cab if you like) to the St. Regis Hotel. Part of the problem with a Manhattan cocktail walking tour is that developers in the city tear down old hotels and bars with reckless abandon. Many of the places where famous drinks were first purveyed no longer exist. A happy exception is the St. Regis's ritzy King Cole Bar, with its celebrated Maxfield Parrish mural, "Old King Cole," from which the bar takes its name. Fernand Petiot, a former bartender at Harry's New York Bar in Paris, came here in 1934 and brought his invention, the Bloody Mary, with him. Oddly, they called it the Red Snapper at the King Cole. They still do today.

'21' Club

21 W. 52nd St. at Fifth Avenue, 212-582-7200

Walk down Fifth Avenue and hang a right at 52nd Street to the '21' Club, one of the last former Prohibition-era speakeasies that still operates as a drinking establishment. No famous cocktails were born here, though the restaurant still promotes the almost-certainly apocryphal story that it is the birthplace of the Southside, a gin concoction with mint leaves and lime juice. (I'll give them this: A lot of Southsides are drunk here.) Stand at this age-old wooden bar, and you can easily imagine how cocktails were enjoyed back in the day.

Algonquin Hotel

59 W. 44th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-840-6800

Walk down Sixth Avenue to 44th Street and turn right. Inside, the Algonquin doesn't look much like it did when such famous lushes as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley made it their second home. But it's a survivor. They serve a drink called the Algonquin Cocktail, consisting of whiskey, dry vermouth, and pineapple juice. (Not my cup of tea, but hey — the cocktail's more than 60 years old, so it must be popular with someone.) This is also where Benchley supposedly once said, "Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."

Times Square

Walk to Broadway and down two blocks south to the Crossroads of the World. Unsurprisingly, a lot of drinking history occurred at this intersection. On the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, you can still see the Mansard-roofed beauty that once was the Knickerbocker Hotel. The bar was so favored a watering hole of uptown swells in the first two decades of the 20th century that it was called the 42nd Street Country Club. (It was also the original home of Parrish's "Old King Cole" oil painting.) Its main importance in cocktail history, though, lies in the once-prevalent claim that its head bartender, Martini di Arma di Taggia, invented the martini in 1912. This is balderdash, since mentions of the drink had been appearing in print for decades prior to that. But give ol' di Taggia a quick salute, anyway.

Directly opposite Broadway was the Hotel Metropole, another popular way station for actors, politicians, and the like. Its house cocktail was the Metropolitan, which is basically a Manhattan, but with brandy standing in for the rye. It hasn't retained the fame the Manhattan has but is still a damned decent drink.

Madison Square

Hop on the N, R, or W subway line and take yourself down to Madison Square. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, before Times Square fully bloomed, this was where the action was — socially, theatrically, politically, and alcoholically. On the corner of 23rd Street and Broadway was the exclusive Fifth Avenue Hotel (1859-1908), a Republican haunt purported by some to be the birthplace of the Rob Roy (basically a Manhattan made with Scotch). Up the street, between 24th and 25th streets, was the Hoffman House (1864-1915), a Democratic lair that had a world-famous bar. Here was christened the Hoffman House Cocktail, which looks suspiciously like a 2-to-1 gin martini, and a Hoffman House Fizz, an ornate, creamy affair now on the menu at Brooklyn's Clover Club. Up at 30th Street and Fifth Avenue, on the southwest corner, was the Holland House Hotel, the progenitor of the Calvados-based Widow's Kiss.

Walk to the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street for some serious cocktail history. There are naysayers to every tale of cocktail origin, but an argument that the Manhattan cocktail was invented at the Manhattan Club remains fairly strong. The Club sat at this corner, in the Leonard Jerome House, built in 1859 and now long gone.

Before we leave the area, walk down to the southwest corner of 22nd Street and Broadway, the current location of Restoration Hardware. Here, according to David Wondrich's book "Imbibe!" (Penguin), Jerry Thomas, celebrity bartender nonpareil and author of America's first published cocktail guide, owned a popular saloon in 1866.

There's more to cocktail history in Manhattan, of course. But, by now, you've run out of leg-power, and I've run out of space. So, swing down to 37 W. 19th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, to the Flatiron Lounge, where the bartenders can mix you a shining example of any of the libations mentioned above. Tchin-tchin.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Go Godello

Back in July, I was invited by Wine & Spirits to participate in a wine tasting. They chart their wine ratings slightly differently from other wine magazines, who typically keep things pretty insular. They invite two or three outsiders to join them in sampling a batch of wines, and the ratings are derived from the combined opinions of those present.

I was in attendance, happily, for a tasting of Spanish Albarinos and Portuguese Vihno Verdes. Good for me. I love those wines. We tasted many a good example during the afternoon, but the only time we all voted in favor of a wine was when a Godello was served. Godello's a little known grape native to the same basic area at Albarino, which it resembles in many respects: rich, aromatic, viscous.

Wish I could recall the name of the Godello we rated so highly. But when I saw a bottle soon after in a store, I snatched it up. It was a Vina Godeval Cosecha 2007. It was splendid. It had a nose of lemon, honey and flowers. Lemon, line, gooseberry, grass and white flowers hit the palate. Nice mineral edge. Vibrant acidity. Just a great little white, a pleasure to the senses.

Godeval made its first Godello in 1986 and had something to do with saving this grape, which almost went extinct in the 1970s. Good save!

Friday, September 5, 2008

My Rocks Glass Runneth Over

I'm beginning to feel a little spoiled over here in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. I already has a fine wine store in Smith & Vine and a top of the line liquor store in LeNell. Then wine and cocktail bar Jake Walk opened up on Smith Street in March. A few months later, Julie Reiner's spendiferous Clover Club opened a few blocks to the north. There was no not getting a good cocktail on Smith.

But it doesn't stop. A few doors down from Clover Club, at 196 Smith, comes Char No. 4, a whiskey bar extraordinaire. I just rode by the joint and they said they'd be open for biz next Tuesday, Sept. 9. Char No 4 will feature more than 150 whiskeys, all American. Bourbons, Ryes, Tennessee Whiskey, stuff from states you never thought made whiskey. There will also be a "tight wine list" (one of the owner's a sommelier) and Southern-style food.

The place was supposed to open Sept. 15. But, said my source, "We kinda got done."