Thursday, January 29, 2009

More NYC Neighborhood Cocktails

If you're a bartender and you're thinking of creating a cocktail called the Gravesend, you better hurry. Brooklyn neighborhoods, as cocktail names, are at a premium.

My current feature in Time Out New York about the new breed of libations named after NYC nabes has unearthed yet more drinks with localized labels. I had bemoaned in a previous post that there was no cocktail named after my Brooklyn neighborhood: Carroll Gardens. I was wrong. Bartender Joachim Simo of the East Village's Death & Co. wrote to notify me that he himself had invented a Carroll Gardens cocktail a year ago, and it's been on the menu at both D&Co and the Flatiron Lounge.

Furthermore, Joachim's colleague Phil Ward has a cocktail called the Buskwick.

Here are the recipes for those who want to try them at home:

Carroll Gardens (Joaquin Simo)
2 oz Rittenhouse rye
1/2 oz Punt e Mes
1/2 oz Nardini Amaro
tsp Luxardo Maraschino

Squeeze lemon twist over the drink, wipe the rim with the peel and discard.

Bushwick (Phil Ward)
2 oz Rittenhouse rye
3/4 oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino
1/4 oz Amer Picon

Stir over cracked ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Part IV

"Mad Men," having established early on in the first season that its character drink copiously, and free of care, litters latter episodes with less alcohol. Still, the references to booze and cocktails get increasingly more detailed and specific.

The character of ambitious secretary Peggy Olsen shows her sophistication in Episode 11 by ordering a Brandy Alexander—though her reaction that it's not as sweet as it should be perhaps shows she does not drink them as often as she boasts. The cocktail is appropriate. A young Brooklyn girl like Peggy would probably go for a classic "girl's drink" like the Brandy Alexander, and they did remain popular in the 1950s and 1960s. (The Beatles drank a lot of them.) Peggy's date, meanwhile, orders a nice glass of Reingold beer.

Later in the episode, Peggy is seen at home having a glass of red wine. It's Chianti, as we can tell by the pot-bellied bottle bound in straw casing. These bottles of cheap Italian vino were ubiquitous at the time. (They would become a laughable cliche, code for bad red wine, in the years to come and, then, in the 21st century, be reborn as retro hip.) It's likely that the average New Yorker would not have access to a great variety of fine wine in 1960. Chianti was an available option, and a cheap one. Peggy only makes $35 a week.

Episode 12 is entitled "Nixon vs. Kennedy," and its centerpiece is an office party in which the staff watches the election returns and generally behaves badly. These office antics are, of course, fueled by liquor. The moment the bosses are on the elevator, the workers push out a cart topped with many bottles, included a generically labeled "Vodka" bottle that the "Mad Men" art department keeps dragging out. The booze, however, quickly runs out, and the executives ask office manager Joan Holloway what stores lie in the supply closet. Actually, they ask, "What do we have too much of?" She replies, "Rum, Creme de Menthe."

Eeesh. Well, they take what they can get and it all goes into a water cooler dispensing vile green elixir.

It's no surprise that there's a lot of rum left in the supply closet. The tiki drink craze was still in full force in 1960 (though waning), so rum would be around, but the Sterling Cooper men are basically either Martini or Whiskey drinkers, with the lightweights going for beer and sometimes vodka. They don't go for Navy Grogs or Zombies.

At one point, copywriter Paul says he has a bottle of absinthe stashed in his office. It's acknowledged that it's illegal by one character. Still, it's highly unlikely that Paul would have gotten his hands of some absinthe, 45 years after it was banned in the U.S. In fact, it's doubtful that anyone in the office would have even remembered what it was, any more than they would have been going around ordering Old Tom Gin and Brandy Crustas. This could be chalked up to the fact that Paul is a would-be writer and more than a little pretentious. Or—my guess—the writers of "Mad Men" had been reading too much about the absinthe rebirth and were desperate to sneak in a reference to the old alcohol.

One last note: In Episode 10, Roger Sterling mentions an offer to take mistress Joan to The Colony. I love how dedicated "Mad Men" is to evoking the glory restaurants of New York's past (place both still living and dead). So far, characters have made visits to the Four Seasons, Rattazzi's, P.J. Clarke's and Toots Shor. So far, no one's mentioned The Stork Club, which is probably for the best; the famed nitespot was past its prime by 1960.

Red Heering

I took my recent interest in Cherry Heering and wrote a small item for Time Out New York about it. The research gave me a good excuse to go around town and try some of the new libations folks are making with the stuff.

Red Heering
By Robert Simonson

The cocktail revolution—with its backward-looking sensibility and obsession with arcane ingredients—has helped to blow the dust off various old booze brands that for decades had marked time on the back shelves of liquor stores. One such revitalized product is Cherry Heering, the brandy-based cherry liqueur that was invented by Dane Peter F. Heering, and is one of Denmark’s biggest contributions to the bar. Today’s barkeeps are exhuming classic Heering drinks, such as the 1920s-era Blood and Sand (Scotch, Heering, sweet vermouth and orange juice), while also creating fresh concoctions. “Heering is hot,” says Jonathan Pagosh, who uses the liqueur in his fruity Johnny Appleseed (cognac, Heering, muddled Fuji apple and lemon juice), $13.50 at Bookmarks Lounge at the Library Hotel (299 Madison Ave at 41st St, 14th floor; 212-204-5498). Phil Ward of Death & Company (433 E 6th St between First Ave and Ave A, 212-388-0882) pairs Heering with rum, cream, egg yolk and bitters in his Le Gigot Flip, an adult cherry-vanilla shake ($13). But Heering central may be Clover Club (210 Smith St between Baltic and Butler Sts, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-855-7939), which boasts not only the Curtain Call punch (Heering, applejack, Grand Marnier, red wine, lemon and orange juices, and figs; $45 serves 4–6), but also the timeless Singapore sling and Remember the Maine (both $11). While the sling is Heering’s greatest claim to fame, a case can be made that the more obscure Maine is the best use Heering has ever been put to. A cross between a manhattan and a Sazerec, the mix of rye, Punt y Mes vermouth, Heering and absinthe is a sipping drink of remarkable depth and texture.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Got a Neighborhood? Here's Your Drink

I started noticing the geographic specialization of cocktail names a couple years ago, when I read about the Red Hook, a seeming spin on the Manhattan that added Maraschino liqueur to the rye and sweet vermouth. Then I learned about The Slope, an invention of Julie Reiner. Another spin on the Manhattan, this one added apricot brandy. Hm, my reporter's brain hummed. A trend?

Little did I know. I suggested a story to Time Out New York about such locally named drinks and began to investigate. I found a Greenpoint, a Cobble Hill, a Bensonhurst, a Little Italy, a Brooklyn Heights, an East Village Globe Trotter. Someone said there was a Williamsburg (I never found it). Brooklyn, it seems, is running out of neighborhood to name drinks after, though, strangely, there is no Carroll Gardens cocktail, even though the nabe is surrounded by new cocktails on add sides (the Cobble Hill to the north, Red Hook to the south, The Slope to the east).

The wellspring of most of these concoctions, I learned, is Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey, where a few years back all the bartenders decided to challenge each other to create new spins on the Brooklyn cocktail (rye, sweet vermouth, Amer Picon, Marascino liqueur). Enzo Errico was the first out of the gate with the Red Hook. The Greenpoint (created by Michael McIlroy), Bensonhurst (Chad Solomon) and Cobble Hill (Sam Ross) followed.

(My estimation that it was a riff on the Manhattan was wrong, but, hey, the Manhattan and Brooklyn are so similar is their bases. It was an easy mistake to make. I should have been tipped off by the name: Red Hook is part of Brooklyn, not Manhattan.)

It took a lot of doing, but I finally gathered all the threads together into an article, which Time Out has run today with a lot of pictures. Here it is:

Local flavor

By Robert Simonson

The New York bartenders of the 19th and 20th centuries showed their hometown pride by giving the world the Bronx cocktail, the Brooklyn, and most famously, the Manhattan. Mixologists of the aughts have gotten even more specific: Drinks are being named after Gotham neighborhoods at a furious rate—most of them descended from those granddaddies, the Brooklyn and the Manhattan (though the Bronx cocktail’s mix of gin, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and orange juice was a sensation a century ago, it doesn’t seem to be inspiring many tributes these days). Of course, the whole idea of geographical cocktails is arguably a misapprehension. The Manhattan, after all, wasn’t named after the island, but in honor of a swanky club. The Bronx, one story goes, commemorates the zoo, not the home of the Yankees. Still, all that backstory doesn’t mean you can’t show your NYC pride by raising one of these libations skyward.


One of the most profound mixed drinks of all time, it was reputedly created at the Manhattan Club on Madison Square in the 1870s. By the next decade, it was ubiquitous and wildly popular. Virtually any competent barkeep can make one work; the Manhattan has never gone completely out of style. Try one in the dignified setting of Bemelmans Bar (The Carlyle, 35 E 76th St at Madison Ave, 212-744-1600; $16.75).


2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
Dash of Angostura's bitters
Cherry garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up (no ice) and garnish with a cherry.


A classic creation of Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club (77 W Houston St between West Broadway and Wooster St, 212-473-7348; $13) and one of the high priestesses of the cocktail revolution. “I named it the Little Italy as I was using the Manhattan cocktail as a frame for it, and wanted to give a nod to the ingredient Cynar,” she says. This Italian-American Manhattan is bitter, sweet, classic and dramatic—like the people.


2 oz Rittenhouse 100-proof rye
1/2 oz Cynar
3/4 oz Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth
Luxardo cherry garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up and garnish with a Luxardo cherry.


“I love Manhattans, and am always playing around with them,” says Julie Reiner, Slope inventor and owner of Flatiron Lounge (37 W 19th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves, 212-727-7741; $13) and Clover Club (210 Smith St between Baltic and Butler Sts, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-855-7939; $11). “Not much of a story, but that’s it.” The Slope is richer than a Manhattan, owing to the apricot brandy and Punt y Mes—a liquid fruitcake (in a good way).


2 oz Rittenhouse rye
3/4 oz Punt y Mes sweet vermouth
1/4 oz Apricot brandy
Angostura bitters
Cherry garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up and garnish with a cherry.


“It first popped up in the 1910s, probably as a response to the Manhattan,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich. As for the drink, it’s like a Manhattan, just a bit rougher and more complex. Sort of like Brooklyn itself. The once-popular Amer Picon, a bitter-orange cordial, has sadly been off the American market for decades. Try the version at Weather Up (589 Vanderbilt Ave between Bergen and Dean Sts, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; no phone; $11). There’s no Amer Picon, which results in a slightly sweeter drink. But three fourths of a good cocktail is better than none.


1 oz rye
1/2 oz sweet vermouth (early recipes use dry vermouth)
Dash Amer Picon
Dash maraschino liqueur
Cherry garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up and garnish with a cherry.


The recent streak of NYC-named cocktails began in 2004, when Vincenzo Errico (Milk & Honey) concocted the Red Hook as a 21st-century answer to the Brooklyn. The drink so wowed other bartenders that they countered with their own riffs. The maraschino defines this one; it’s a Brooklyn with a cherry center. Try it at Little Branch (20 Seventh Ave South at Leroy St, 212-929-4360; $13) or White Star.


2 oz rye
1/2 oz Punt e Mes sweet vermouth
1/2 oz maraschino liqueur
Maraschino cherry garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up and garnish with a cherry.


Michael Mcilroy, a regular bartender at Sasha Petraske’s taverns, created the Greenpoint as a response to Errico’s Red Hook. The moniker plays on the hue of the chartreuse, which is the key to this beautiful creation, planting a core of herbal notes in a Brooklyn framework. Coincidentally, Mcilroy ended up living in the namesake neighborhood. Order it at Little Branch or White Star (21 Essex St between Canal and Hester Sts, 212-995-5464; $10).


2 oz rye
1/2 oz Yellow Chartreuse
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
Dash orange bitters
Dash Angostura bitters
Lemon peel garnish

Pour liquid ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into cocktail glass, serve up and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.


Maxwell Britten, head bartender at Jack the Horse Tavern (66 Hicks St at Cranberry St, Brooklyn Heights, 718-852-5084; $10), was well aware of the Red Hook, the Greenpoint and every other borough-inspired drink out there when he invented this spin on the Brooklyn cocktail last year. “The idea came after many nights watching the seasons out the window of the bar,” he says. It’s a complex, yet calming wintertime treat, a Brooklyn edged by the bitter Campari and warmed by sparks of cinnamon and allspice coming off the Abano.


Campari in a spray bottle
1 1/2 oz Rittenhouse 100-proof rye
1/4 oz Luxardo Amaro Abano
1/2 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz Noilly Prat dry vermouth
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters

Spritz glass with Campari. Pour remaining ingredients over ice and stir. Strain into a cocktail glass, serve up.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An Unlikely Success

This recipe stopped me in my tracks as I was paging through my Beverage Alcohol Resource manual, and not just because the name of the drink is The Dreamy Dorini Smoky Martini—though that name is enough to give one pause.

I was surprised to find it, one, because it's a vodka cocktail and B.A.R. chieftains are not known for their endorsement of vodka, and, two, it's the creation of Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders, another non-vodka lover. With those twin endorsements, I felt I had to give it a spin. Here's the formula:

1/2 oz. Laphroaig 10-year Scotch or other peaty Scotch
2 oz. Vodka
2-3 drops Pernod.

Shake well over ice. Serve up in Martini glass with lemon twist.

Mighty particular on her scotch, isn't Audrey? Well, I didn't happen to have Laphroaig on hand. Truth to tell, I usually don't have more than two single malt scotches on hand at any given time. A bar, I ain't. So I used one of my favorites, Cragganmore, which is a Speyside, not an Islay like Laphroaig. So sue me. And, since the B.A.R. guide was published before there were so many absinthes on the market, I used Pernod's absinthe.

Anyway, I think Audrey has something here. You can impose any flavor on vodka, of course, and the mistake most mixologists make with the spirit is to smother it in flavors, usually fruit flavors, until you're not aware that they's liquor in the drink at all. That is not the case here. The scotch and Pernod accent the vodka, both in color and flavor. The drink is still clear, so you don't forget you have a white spirit in your hand. And the scotch and Pernod are in small enough amounts that the only suggest themselves, like a fog creeping in along the edges of an otherwise clear night.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cooling and Chilling Just Like a Snowman

I first saw the super-geeky Japanese Ice Presses in London, at Nick Strangeway's restaurant Hawksmoor. He has been sent, gratis, one of the expensive contraptions, which turn a block of ice into a perfect sphere. These huge round ice "cubes" look mighty impressive as the single cooling agent in a rocks glass. All and sundry gathered around to watch the thing, agog.

I next saw the golden magic machine a couple weeks ago at PDT, James Meehan's place in the East Village. James was introduced to the spheres by Johnny Iuzzini, who also came up with the drink, the East Village Globe Trotter, that will first feature the special ice. He has ordered a few presses and plans to wow the Gotham cocktail populace with by plopping the icy orbs into cocktails. I suspect he will wow them. I wrote a quick item about the phenom for Time Out New York's drink blog. Here is is:

Anyone who knows cocktail wonks knows they are obsessed with ice. The frozen water found in mixed drinks must be the right size and the right shape. It must be fresh and carry no odors. You must not skimp on the crushed ice in a Derby and the numerous tiny chunks in a proper Cobbler must be the approximate size of a ball bearing.

Well, sheriff, there’s a new ice cube in town. It’s big, it’s round, and you only need one.

In the next couple weeks, Jim Meehan of the East Village neo-speakeasy, PDT will introduce the latest in cocktail coolers: a perfectly spherical piece of ice about the size of a decent snowball. They are made with a costly Japanese ice press. Just place a large chunk of ice between two gold metal cylinders, each with a half-sphere cavity in the center. As the ice melts, the press closes in on itself, creating the ball of ice inside. The process is slow, taking a couple of minutes to produce each globe.

Meehan plans to showcase the ice in a new drink, fittingly called the East Village Globe Trotter. The drink, made of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth and Benedictine, is a riff on a famous New Orleans nip called a Vieux Carre. He expects the ice ball to catch eyes and catch on. Or, in other words, what comes round, goes around.—Robert Simonson

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Part III

Episodes 7, 8 and 9 of "Mad Men" are not as thrilling as the previous six, in regards to the drinking on display, and its historical interest. But, as usual, there are bottles and glasses and bars worth commenting on.

There is more and more vodka turning up on the series. I find myself wondering if this is accurate. Certainly, vodka burst onto the American scene after World War II, but was it so widely enjoyed by 1960, the year "Mad Men" takes place? In episode 7, the character Roger Sterling babies his ulcer with a glass of milk laced with Smirnoff. And later in the episode, he and main character Don Draper finish off two bottles of generic vodka. That's a lot of flavorless booze.

Well, could be. I just came across this ad for Smirnoff from 1961. It talks of how "American by the millions prefer" vodka. Also, ad men would be on the cutting edge of things; they would have been among the first to jump on the vodka bandwagon. And here's another ad from 1960, pushing Smirnoff as a choice for Martinis. "Wherever men and Martinis are extra dry." OK, so "Mad Men" has it right.

Nonetheless, Martinis are enjoyed with gin during a long lunch later in the episode. (I'm assuming it's gin; there are olives and no mention of vodka is made.) "Easy on the vermouth, says Sterling, typical of Martini drinkers of that era who liked their drink as dry as possible. Draper also makes a funny comment at the table: "Drinking milk. I never liked it. I hate cows."

Many restaurant references in this batch of shows, including Four Seasons, then in its first flower of fame, Chumley's and P.J. Clarke's. A long scene in Episode 8 takes place at Clarke's, and it pissed me off that the show, which is filmed in L.A., didn't go to the bother of setting the shot in the real Clarke's. The bar is still there adn looks very much like it did in the 1960s, and the filming could have been set up easily. The set they constructed instead looks nothing like Clarke's. (That's an erroneous image from the scene above.) The characters drink beer while they're there.

Also mentioned is Rattazzi's, a haunt at 9 E. 48th Street which is almost forgotten today. It was named after owner Dick Rattazzi, opened in 1956, and was popular with ad men of the day.

There's also a scene in episode 8 where the closeted gay art director played by Bryan Batt drink Sambuca con le Mosca ("Sambuca with flies"). It's a traditional Italian drink with three espresso beans floating in the drink. The scene takes place in the Hotel Roosevelt near Grand Central, apparently a virtual den of iniquity back in those days.

NOTE: as a history geek, I must point out an major anachronism in these episodes. Sterling Cooper, the ad firm, is working with the Nixon campaign. In episode 7, at a meeting, it is mentioned that Kennedy has not yet been selected as the Democratic nominee. In the next episode, which takes place soon after, the characters dance to Chubby Checker's hit "The Twist." The Democratic convention was July 11-15, 1960, placing the episodes sometime before then. Checker's "The Twist" was released on Aug. 1, 1960.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Another Speakeasy in South Brooklyn

Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, restaurant Frankie's 457 climbs on the cocktail bandwagon this week. The popular eatery and wine bar has opened Prime Meats on Court Street. Aside from a dining room, and a small retail booth, the place will have a "tap room" on the second floor.

The tavern, per Eater, has an "1890's bar, 1870's chandelier, antique punch bowls, and hand painted wall paper. The seating in the back of the tap room looks as if it came from an old schoolhouse. The dining room space next store is almost a mirror image of the tap room (as far as size goes) minus the bar, and it will be ringed by plush red banquettes."

The cocktail list (below) has some classics, like the Martinez, Old-Fashioned, Champagne Cocktail and Manhattan, and some odd twist on classics like the Applejack Sazerac and an Absinthe Crusta. Some are made with homemade bitters. There's also a punch that, based on the price of $5, is served by the glass.

Imbibing With Georg

I am very pleased to begin 2009 with my writing debut in Imbibe, a handsome and well-edited Portland-based magazine I have long admired. The piece is about Georg Riedel, the reigning emperor of stemware. Looking at it from a certain perspective, the glassmaker has had as big an impact on the wine-drinking world, and has as much a hand in the wine revolution of the past decade or so, as any vineyard owner or winemaker. Think of it. The average Joe can remember few if any of the souls that actually make the wine he loves. But everyone knows the name of Riedel.

I met with Georg Riedel several times: at Tales of the Cocktails, where he was marketing his new lines of spirits glassware; in the Finger Lakes region, where I participated in a tasting to determine what was the best vessel for an proposed official Finger Lakes Riesling Glass; at his glassware showroom off Union Square; and at a dinner at the Modern restaurant at MoMA honored his late father, the wine glass innovator Claus Josef Riedel. I also met and got to know his son, Max, who runs the business in the U.S.

The article's not available on the Imbibe website, so I'm posting it here. Here's the article:

Georg Riedel, armed with the old world manners of his native Austria and soft-spoken, accented English, greets four dozen guests as they enter a private dining room at the Modern in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. With his high forehead, thoughtful coun-
tenance and perfect posture, Riedel has the look of a career diplomat. Ever dapper, he wears a business suit with a black tie, setting off his rosy complexion and sharp blue eyes. Maximilian, his 31-year-old son and heir apparent to the Riedel glassware empire, looks equally elegant in a red tie. red and black: the Riedel colors.

Near the entrance is a Warholesque portrait of Georg’s father, Claus Josef Riedel. though he died in 2004, Claus is actually the man of the hour: the event is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invention that sparked the Riedels’ ascent to the top of their industry, the Riedel Burgundy Grand Cru glass. With that creation, Claus set the company on its future path by proposing that the shape and design of a glass could materially affect the way wine is received by the nose and palate.

The guests quiet as Georg knocks his glass against a microphone—the loudest noise he’ll make all night. “I am between two giants,” the diminutive man says with a self-deprecating air. “My father, Claus, and my son, Max. i am just happy to be squeezed in the middle.”

This kind of modesty belies the fact that under his leadership, the Austrian company has come to command the wine-drinking world. Over the past year alone, the glassmaker, who turned 60 in December, has seen his company expand in key ways. Already armed with more than a dozen different lines of wine glasses, Riedel (pronounced “REE-dle”) has extended its domination of modern drinking by introducing a Bar series sporting specific glasses for grappa, bourbon, tequila and other spirits; and a trio of beer glasses, released through Spiegelau—a former competitor that Riedel absorbed in 2004.

Though Claus can be credited as the progenitor of the Riedel revolution, it is the analytical, driven Georg who took the battle to the doorstep of every restaurant, wine bar and liquor store in the western world (and, increasingly, Japan, China and India). Friends describe him as a cultured perfectionist who is single-minded in his commitment.

Larry Stone, general manager of Rubicon Estate, calls him “very persuasive and very ordered. He’s a serious person who’s passionate about what he does and has been for most of his adult life.”

And not only wine connoisseurs harken to the Riedel name. A wine drinker who can’t tell a Bordeaux from a Burgundy may very well recognize a glass made by Riedel Glass Works. Now in its 11th generation, the Austrian glassmaking family has made itself famous to all—and nearly indispensable to some—through the philosophy that each grape varietal requires the right glass to offer the full expression of a wine. It’s a notion that’s hotly debated among winemakers, journalists and other professionals. But whether you buy the theory or not, there’s no denying that Riedel’s campaign has elevated the role a glass plays in the wine-drinking experience.

“There’s a practical impact to what they’ve done,” says Robert Bohr, the wine director at Cru, a wine-centric Manhattan restaurant. “The ample-sized glass that’s elegantly designed is now the base minimum that a restaurant can provide. And I think that’s a good thing. If you went into a two-star restaurant and they gave you a cater-
ing glass, you’d be floored.”

The Riedel dynasty began in the late 17th century with Johann Christoph Riedel, a glassmaker from Bohemia. For centuries, the company produced a wide range of glass goods: windowpanes, chandelier parts, colored glass beads. And wine glasses. Things changed in 1957, when Claus Riedel assumed control of the company and answered
the call of a wine-loving Italian nobleman.

According to Riedel lore (many of Georg’s sentences begin with “The story goes...”), one Conte Odazio asked Claus to create a glass suitable for Piedmont reds. Claus came up with the Burgundy Grand Cru. Its enormous bell and closed mouth ran counter to the decorative, flare-lipped glasses of the time. According to Georg, Odazio raved
about the glass to Italian merchant Richard Ginori, who then featured it in his tony shop on Via Condotti in Rome. Wallis Simpson, the wife of Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, saw the glass and bought 60. At a 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels, another Riedel glass was awarded a “Grand Prix.” Riedel’s rep was made.

The Burgundy glass, as well as the equally famous Bordeaux Grand Cru glass, were eventually folded into the Sommelier collection, the company’s first wine-specific line of stemware, introduced by Claus in 1973. Georg entered the family business that same year, though it wasn’t always a certainty that he would. “My papa was not such an easy person that you would have jumped on the opportunity to come to this business,” he says. “He was a patriarch. Everything had to go as he would have it and there was
very little dispute about it.”

Nonetheless, Georg—who lives with his wife Eva in Kufstein, Austria—took his father’s concept of “wine-friendly glassware” and ran with it. In 1979, he shrewdly opened a subsidiary in the United States, foreseeing that it would become Riedel’s biggest market. Traveling the world—with a case containing four wine glasses for his personal
use—he earned the support of winemakers like Robert Mondavi and Angelo Gaja. “I understood the potential of the winemaking in America,” he recalls. “I saw the investments there.”

At the turn of the 21st century, when Americans were becoming entranced with wine and wine culture, Riedel was poised to capitalize on the phenomenon. Its glasses started to be seen more widely in department stores and fine-dining establishments; Target began carrying them in 2006, the same year that U.S. sales hit $60 million, their highest annual figure so far. More glassware lines were introduced—five between 2006 and 2007 alone, each one’s design overseen by either Georg or Maximilian. Today, six European plants produce 150,000 pieces a day.

“I am selling tools,” says Georg, explaining his populist marketing approach to what is essentially a luxury item. “So why shouldn’t we, as a toolmaker, sell tools to everyone who wants one?”

Such success has inevitably prompted increased scrutiny, as well as some grumbling: Does all this specialized glassware really do what the Riedels claim? Are they true visionaries, or merely smart marketers? “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the glasses,” says Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times. “They’re great. But the idea that every sort of wine requires a specific glass is nonsense.”

In 2004, Gourmet published a blistering broadside by Daniel Zwerdling called “Shattered Myths,” which asserted that scientific studies had debunked the notion that glassware makes a difference in tasting wine. It also condemned the idea of the “tongue map.” The map—which claimed that the salty, sweet, sour and bitter taste buds
are located on different parts of the tongue—was a conceptual tool the Riedels once used to explain how the differing deliveries of liquid imparted by their glasses influenced taste.

It’s clear the criticism stings, though Riedel has not given up on the idea. “There are scientific backgrounds on why there are differences in the aromatics and the quality of the aromas,” he maintains.

“But the effect on the palate is impossible to explain, especially once you swallow it. How is it possible that from different glasses the perception changes? But it does change! There is no doubt.”

To prove his point, Georg (who’s on the road six months a year), Maximilian and other Riedel associates maintain a steady schedule of tasting demos; very often, former skeptics speak of being converted by these seminars. But the tastings also provoke criticism. “People do this because they know how it’s going to work,” says Asimov. “It’s one of the reasons winemakers want you to taste their wine in their presence, because there’s a psychological disposition to like them better as they tell you the story.”

Other aspects of Riedel’s growth have fueled further cynicism. For example, the introduction, in 2003, of the popular stemless glasses known as the “O” series struck some observers as going against much of what Riedel preached about creating vessels that served the wine.

“The O line throws me for a loop,” says Tyler Colman, author of the popular wine blog Dr. Vino. “Having your fingers touch the balloon, it does warm the wine. But I also find it gets goobery fingerprints all over the glass.”

Regional glass lines have been equally scrutinized, such as the Oregon Pinot Noir glass, created in 2006 at the request of some of the state’s vintners. “Overlaying place on top of grape variety is a recipe only to fill up your cabinets,” argues Colman.

And yet Riedel can’t seem to resist promoting the concept. In August 2008, he traveled to New York’s Finger Lakes area to consider what shape glass would work best for the wines of this developing viticultural region. Bob Madill, general manager at Sheldrake Point Winery, organized a tasting, and then spent some time afterward quizzing guests at the event. “I don’t think they came away thinking, Riedel glasses are the only glasses,” he says. “They came away thinking a glass makes a difference. That’s a big piece of information to a lot of folks.” It may be the only piece of information needed to keep the Riedel train steaming ahead.

Which begs the question: Where does the proliferation of glassware end? What if a burgeoning, but young, wine-growing area—like, say, Virginia—approached Georg Riedel about making a new glass? Would he accept the challenge or gracefully decline? Ever
the diplomat, Riedel smiles mischievously and says, “I would listen carefully.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

From Tuscany With Love

Tuaca's a curious animal. With its small clear bottle and amber color, it looks at first glance like a beer. Perhaps a Mexican beer, given the name and the font on the label. But Tuaca is an Italian liqueur from Tuscany, and it is getting a big marketing push right now.

I confess I knew nothing of this beverage when it arrived in the mail last month. The oracles of publicity tell me it is a liqueur of ancient provenance, possibly created during the Renaissance for none other than Lorenzo the Magnificent, great art patron and ruler of Florence. They further tell me that G.I. Joes stationed in Livorno during WWII drank their fair share of the stuff, and it arrived in the U.S. in the late '50s. This all sounds like a bit of eyewash, but who knows?

So, what is it? "A premium Italian liqueur with a hint of citrus and vanilla." Hint, my eye. This silky, viscous stuff is all about orange and vanilla. There's no avoided the two tastes as it coats your throat. The drink is brandy-based. It's basically a kind of Italian Grand Marnier, with vanilla thrown in. Just not as good.

If I was in Livorno, sitting at a cafe and it was a really hot day, and someone brought me a chilled shot of Tuaca, I'd probably think it was great. But, you know, I'm not.

Like all liqueurs out there now, Tuaca wants to be claimed and loved by the cocktail crowd. The website suggest plenty of drinks to try. Some are well left alone, like the Tuaca Dreamsicle, made of Tuaca, triple sec and vanilla ice cream. (Not a drink to breed good habits among the young.) Tuacacolada, Tuacarita, Tuaca Sour and Tuaca and Cola kind of explain themselves. Many of the cocktail recipes add Triple Sec to the Tuaca, which, to my mind, is like bringing coals to Newcastle. How much orange flavor do you need in a drink?

A Tuscan Mule sounds a bit more promising. A spin on the Moscow Mule, it substitutes ginger ale for the ginger beer. Still, this could be a good drink. Overall, however, I'll leave it to the bartenders to come up with better Tuaca libations than this, ones that aren't so keen on using as much Tuaca in a cocktail as possible, or in keeping things sweet and syrupy and appealing to the "Sex and the City" crowd. Tuaca has such a dominating flavor, in a cocktail it should back a backseat to another anchor spirit.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Being Frank about Franc

I seem to drink a lot of Cabernet Franc.

Why is this? Well, part of the reason is my natural attraction to undersung varietals. And Cab Franc is that. Part of it is because of the price. When I'm in the mood for a French red, and don't have the do re mi for a Bordeaux or Burgundy or Chateauneuf-du-Pape (which is often), I reach for a Loire red as a better value for my limited bucks. Another reason is my longstanding interest in the wines of Long Island, where Cab Franc grows well. And, finally, importer Kermit Lynch seems to love the Loire, and, as a subscriber to his wine mailings, I sometimes pop for a case of his Cab Franc offerings. Usually, I am not disappointed, though I have to admit, making your way through a case of the often astringent grape can be a challenge.

So, when I learned that the first 2009 tasting of the Wine Media Guild would be Cab Franc from all over the world, it was like Darth Vader saying to me, "Robert, it is your DES-tiny." Two good speakers were on hand, Long Island winemaker Roman Roth and restauranteur Paul Grieco, owner of Hearth and Terrior in the East Village. Roth was the epitome of European reserve and modesty. Grieco was the epitome of American bravado, even if he is from Canada.

The talented and smart Grieco a member of a brazen breed I like to call the Wine Jocks. These folks, usually men, usually young, approach their enthusiasm for wine the same way sports fanatics talk about last night's game. Every opinion that is thought is also expressed, and forcefully. Attitudes are personal. Cockiness and machismo abounds. I've seen many speakers at Wine Media Guild lunches. Grieco is the only one I'd ever seen who actually worked the room. He didn't stand where he was seated and speak from there. He paced and gestured. I think some members were a bit stunned by this behavior, but the talk was all the more effective for his animation and lung power.

From Grieco I learned a lot about Canadian wine. To you and I and the man on the street, Canadian vino means one thing basically: Ice wine. That's what we see on the shelf. Paul said there is much more to Canadian wine, and there are some great makers, but America sees little of it, because Canadians drink most of it themselves. Also, winemakers sell most of their wine to the government, which then distributes it to the public. (There are no independent liquor stores.) With a guaranteed buyer like that, there is little incentive for vintners to sell wine to the U.S., where they would make considerably less money.

There were four Canadian Cab Francs in the tasting, but, sadly, none of them were impressive. I found them all too flowery and pretty. Grieco called them "mediocre."

There were many French bottles. The thing with Loire Cab Francs, it seems to me, is there's a lot of sameness. With most Chinons, say, you'll get the cherry flavors, the dustiness, the green notes. And then you'll get them again and again, bottle after bottle. It takes great artistry for a wine to stand out. The best among the French wines, I'm happy to say, came courtesy of a WMG member, importer Frank Johnson. His Jean-Paul Mabileau Cuvee Graviers 2006 Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil was the wine of the day in my opinion: understated, with a dignified nose and palate, and nicely balanced. Others seemed to think so to: both bottles were finished by the end of the lunch.

Johnson told me he sampled Mabileau's 2007, and, not liking what he was tasting at all, asked "How many 2006s do you have left." He bought them all.

Of the Long Island Cab Francs, my favorite was the Shinn Estates. To me, this maker rarely falls down with this varietal. Just the right amount of fruit vs. vegetal notes, and well-structured. There was a $60 job from Schneider Vineyards. I don't really think a $60 American Cab Franc has much reason for being, and, while the Schneider 2005 was rich and big and not bad, it wasn't worth three Jacksons.

The surprise of the tasting were three Canadian Cab Franc ice wines that were served at the end. Grieco said these have become a big hit in the Far East market, where ice wines are loved and red is a lucky color. The best by far was a Pillitteri Estates Winery Icewine 2006 with a fascinating, original nose of rhubarb and strawberries, and similar notes on the palate.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Part II

I've just finished watching episodes 4 through 6 of season one of the AMC series "Mad Men." The drinking is just as prevalent as in the first three episodes of the 1960-set series, but the references aren't as specific. Just lots of brown liquor poured from cut-glass decanters into glass tumblers being downed by ad execs in gray suits and narrow ties. Our hero, Don Draper, continues to take his Canadian Club straight in the office, and order Old Fashioneds when on the outside, including one during a memorable scene set in the Tea Room at the Pierre.

Episode 6, entitled "Babylon," provided the most interesting cocktail cameos. Early on, Draper and his boss Roger Sterling try to woo potential clients from the Israeli Tourism Board with a tray crammed tight with a dozen Mai Tais. The tiki drink has played a fairly big role in the series so far. This marks its second appearance. Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency, must have some great bartender on staff. Whipping up 12 Mai Tais is no easy task.

Aging ad executive Freddy Rumson is the biggest lush at Sterling Cooper. He begins drinking at breakfast, in one scene pouring himself a Screwdriver, using a bottle of Smirnoff. This is historically accurate, as Smirnoff would be the most easily accessible vodka available at that time, when the vodka revolution was in its infancy.

The episode ends at the Gaslight, the beatnik hangout on Macdougal Street that thrived in the early '60s in Greenwich Village. Draper, his bohemian mistress Midge and her long-haired pal Roy take in some readings and music there over shots of Jack Daniels. A bottle of Jack Black is pictured as well. This rung a little false. My impression has always been that such places were known for the espresso drinking. Indeed, the Gaslight's rep was as a "coffee house."

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Absinthe Backlash Begins

It was bound to happen. You knew it. There were too many articles about the once-forbidden elixer. About 47 new brands were dropped on the market at once. Cocktail geeks wouldn't shut up about it. And then there's that clown down at Apotheke making homemade, flaming absinthe every hour on the hour. (Like there aren't enough brands to choose from already.) A liquor has to taste incredibly good to withstand that kind of publicity without inspiring contrarians like myself and, now, Eric Konigsberg at the New York Times.

Konigsberg just authored a long piece on the Green Goddess which is basically a long, hilarious slam on the booze and the trend. A sample:

Now it is legal, and so we are in the midst of what appears to be an absinthe mini-craze. But to follow the arc of this craze, like others that have come before (remember cigar bars?) is to see just how quickly something that was once illicit — and acquired notoriety because of that very illicitness — can lose its sheen of mystery and become, well, rather uncool. Once the naughty aura of the forbidden fruit is removed, all that remains is a grasp at unearned sophistication.

Konigsberg is too mean by half, and he purposely avoids talking about Absinthe's virtues. The good versions of the stuff have a complex and interesting flavor profile you won't find elsewhere, and it makes for an irreplaceable accent to many fine cocktails, including my beloved Sazerac and the wonderful Remember the Maine. But I know what he means. Absinthe is just not that good. It's begin poised to play with the big boys of booze, but it can't begin to compare with the classic, seducing, impossible-not-to-love tastes of other liquors, like scotch, bourbon, gin, or even various liqueurs and amari. Konigsberg puts it as bluntly as possible:

The first, Lucid, came in a dark bottle with cat’s eyes on it and had what Mr. Bergougnoux called a “classic absinthe taste.” It tasted like licorice.

Remember: licorice jelly beans are always the last to go.

The second absinthe, Tourment Vert, was listed on the menu as containing the maximum legal amount of thujone. It tasted like mouthwash.

I have listened to spirit experts tell me for a year that Absinthe is going to explode in the next year or so. I'm here to tell you the Absinthe trend will not explode; it will implode. Brands will appear and disappear. And the stuff will go from being the Next Big Thing to being just one more bottle in the back bar. Which is probably where it belongs. It's an interesting addition to a bar. It's not a star player. 19th century France didn't have the variety of drinks we have today. It if had, Absinthe wouldn't have been as big a deal.

As the bartender at a recently opened New York saloon that prominently features Absinthe told me, when I asked him if first-timers ordered the drink: "They do. Until they realized they don't like Absinthe. Then they order something else."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Old Wisconsin Beers

Some years ago, I bid on and won on eBay a pack of old Stork Club matches. I was a bit obsessed with the swank Gotham club at the time. The owner sent the prize to me, using some other old matchbooks as packing material. I didn't pay much mind to the extraneous items, tossing them in a box, where they remained until this past weekend, when I gave them a closer look.

The matchbooks are all from old Wisconsin taverns. (The owner must have lived in Green Bay. How he ever got to the Stork Club, I've never know.) It's a quaint collection, and not just because the matchbooks are from places called Chubby's Corner Bar and the Ten-O-One Club. Each book was furnished by a now-extinct local brew, making the throwaway items historical artifacts.

Gettelman's is one of my favorite lost beers, mainly because I well remember it's catchy slogan: "Get—Get—Gettelman's!" It was brewed in Milwaukee. "Fritzie," an advertising character with a Tyrolean hat on his head, was a Gettelman trademark. The beer was last produced in 1971.

Braumeister Pilsner was another Milwaukee beer. It's tagline was "Milwaukee's Choicest."

Whoever decided to nickname Old Imperial beer "Little Imp" was a marketing genius.

Knapp's "Bohemian Style Beer" was brewed at Knapstein Brewing Company is New London, WI. It shut down in 1958.

The Athelsane-based Boesen Distribution Company handled Black Star and Red Stripe beers, and encouraged us to "Give Them a Trial."

Friday, January 2, 2009

I Love The Orkney Islands

I remember that, during a college-years trip to Scotland, I was inexplicably drawn to the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of the country. I couldn't say why. Perhaps it was the ancient ruins, perhaps it was the sweaters, perhaps it was the remoteness of the place, but I knew I would like the Orkneys.

Now I know the attraction: It was the scotch. Unconsciously, I knew there was great scotch there. Recently, I tried and loved the new 40-year-old Highland Park. Now, I have tried and loved the new 16-year-old Scapa. What scotch whiskey comes out of this windswept clutch of rocky isles! Spicy and saline and wonderful.

The Scapa distillery was founded in 1885 and uses a rare Lomond pot-still. The 16-year old is made in first-fill American oak casks. The distillers use water from the heather-scented Lingro Burn spring and distill it in two pot stills with a slow fermentation for up to one hundred hours.

What an involved series of experiences are wrapped within one sip of Scapa 16! It is a light butterscotch hue. This is a hint, for the nectar is also dominantly butterscotch on the nose, with some tangerine, brine and spice thrown in there. It is candy smooth upon first taste. We get that butterscotch again. But then comes a bracing attack of spice to wake you up and remind you you're drinking scotch, not soda pop. That phase then calms down to a silky smooth caramel flavor and finish as long as a country mile.

A great scotch whiskey. Not as much of a hair-raising spice box as Highland Park. But as good in another fashion. At $75, a relative bargain, I'd say.