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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.