Friday, February 27, 2009

Brandy Old-Fashioneds in Imbibe

I've written about the Wisconsin state drink, the Brandy Old-Fashioned, many times on this site. Imbibe, however, recently gave me the opportunity to weigh in on the drink's provenance in print. The article appears in the new March/April issue as a back-page "Quench" feature. I guess, at this point, I could be called the leading journalist authority on this weird, but tasty cocktail. An odd claim to fame, but I'll take it.

Where Brandy's Always in Fashion

Every evening at 5 sharp my father used to fix my mother the first of a few Old Fashioneds she would enjoy during the cocktail hour. I never thought much of it while growing up in Milwaukee; to me, she was just sipping on a boring drink with a fuddy-duddy name. Many years later, however, when I developed a respect for this venerable classic cocktail, I realized that Mom hadn’t actually been enjoying a whiskey-based libation. Turns out, she was a brandy drinker.

Ask for a Brandy Old Fashioned in New York, San Francisco or Seattle, and you’re likely to receive a puzzled, skeptical look. Put in your order at any bar in the Badger State, however, and your bartender will get right to work.

Wisconsin loves brandy. For many years the state consumed more of the brown spirit than anyone else in the U.S., only recently falling behind Maryland (for reasons unknown). Not surprisingly for a population better known for its beer intake, Wisconsinites don’t go for fancy, expensive brandies. Their favorite brand is Korbel, which, with its light body and limited flavor profile, makes for an adept mixer. In fact, of the 360,000 cases of brandy produced by the California-based winery in 2007, some 150,000 went to America’s Dairyland. Many of those went to a Madison tavern aptly called The Old Fashioned, where, on an average weekend night, 200 Brandy Old Fashioneds grace the bar. “You go to Wisconsin and they say, ‘Oh, Korbel makes a champagne, too?’ ” says Margie Healy of Korbel.

But the ritual surrounding the Brandy Old Fashioned goes beyond an insistence on Korbel. Wisconsinites, while sometimes indiscriminate in how much they drink, are deadly specific about what they drink. Each cocktail begins roughly the same: an orange slice and a cherry, muddled in a rocks glass with sugar and Angostura bitters; pour in the brandy and add ice. A call for “sweet” means it’s topped off with 7-Up or Sprite; “sour” gets you sour mix instead of soda pop. And “Press” is finished with a combination of 7-Up and soda water. Jennifer DeBolt, general manager at the Old Fashioned, says that some patrons request their drinks be finished with pickled mushrooms or pickled brussels sprouts. In the northern part of the state, garnish specification is apparently a must.

Why Wisconsin laps up so many barrels of brandy has long been a subject of speculation. The most plausible theory I’ve encountered was laid out in a 2006 article in the Madison paper The Isthmus. Reporter Jerry Minnich pointed out that the wine-making Korbel brothers exhibited their new brandy at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which attracted 27 million visitors, many of them from neighboring Wisconsin. (Not incidentally, nearby Minnesota also likes brandy, and Illinois and Michigan are no slouches.)

So if the how and why of Wisconsin’s brandy affinity make sense, what explains the origins of the misbegotten Old Fashioned? No one seems to know, but the use of brandy in what is traditionally a whiskey cocktail isn’t really that random. After all, an even older whiskey cocktail, the Sazerac, began life as a brandy drink and, structurally, the Brandy Old Fashioned resembles a 19th-century Cobbler.

Ultimately, as with many drinks, the Brandy Old Fashioned’s appeal is a matter of context. “To me, [this cocktail] conjures up the supper club,” said Wisconsin-based wine importer Rebecca Cecchini, mentioning another of the state’s treasured culinary traditions. “There’s always the Friday night fish fry, and it starts with the Brandy Old Fashioned.”

—Robert Simonson

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Voice From The Colony's Past

Sometimes the way to dig up culinary history is just to get the ball rolling and see who responds.

Recently, I did a small write-up on the Colony Martini, a version of the classic cocktail that was served at the Manhattan Cafe Society watering hole known as The Colony. The Upper East Side boite's heyday was from the 1920s until about 1960, and the Turkish bartender, Marco Hattem, was famous for shaking his gin Martinis with a bit of absinthe.

One imagines that everyone once connected to the Colony is now lying out in Greenwood Cemetery of something. But yesterday, I was contacted by one Max Gabay, who said he was a 15-year-old bar boy at the Colony, working the bar with is mother's cousin, Hattam, after school!

Max gave me some insight into how things were done at the Colony's bar. "The gin we most used at the time I was there was Gilbey's Gin. I used to fill about 50 clear-stemmed Martini glasses, and 50 red-stemmed Manhattan glasses with shaved ice at the start of the busy hour, to have them chilled at each end of the small bar. I also did set-ups for other drinks, but, as a teen, I did not handle any alcohol."

He also confirms that there was, indeed, a small elevator that was used to hide the liquor during Prohibition days.

Fascinating. The shaved ice and chilling of the glasses shows a seriousness in Hattam's preparation of cocktails. But, of course, the indentification of the gin used is the most tantalizing fact Max provides. Gilbey's was an old brand by the time the Colony came into being. It was founded in the 1850s by Walter and Alfred Gilbey, who first established themselves as London wine merchants. They soon after got into the gin business, and established branches in Ireland and France. The company also produced rum, rye and scotch. The name lives on, though the family is no longer involved.

There's an old Gilbey's ad from the 1950s above.

Friday, February 20, 2009

One Beer, 5,999 to Go

Today I began a new column for the New York-based foodie blog Eater. It's called "A Beer At...," and it's my way of finding out what's inside every single bar in New York City. Not the established ones, the well-known, the celebrated, the popular, the crowded, the landmarks. The other ones. The ones that don't look so special on the outside, but may very well be special on the inside. Or not.

I began with Lilly Coogan's, an Irish Pub on First Avenue that gets my vote for the least-interesting-looking bar in the East Village. Here's the text:

It’s difficult to drink in the East Village and be untrendy. Nearly every watering hole has some kind of preening personality. There are haute cocktail emporiums, organic bars, iconic dives, sophisticated wine bars, neo-speakeasies and taverns with beer and whiskey lists as long as your fourth-story walk-up. Even un-hip bars can be ineffably hip in their utter unhipness.

Lilly Coogan’s, however, may be the single wholly unpretentious saloon in the 10003 zip code. It’s nestled on the absolute uncoolest block of the East Village, the one on First Avenue with the McDonald’s and the Dunkin’ Donuts. The bright red façade says Faux Irish Pub, but about the only thing Irish about the place is the Guinness on tap. The interior is general in the extreme. There’s a small bar, with PBR on draft and a liquor front line made up entirely of flavored vodka. The jukebox is a random cherry-picking of hits from the last 40 years. The mildly horrifying video game Big Buck Hunter invites stool-jockeys to “Hunt Moose,” “Hunt Elk,” “Hunt Big Horned Sheep.” (Big Horned Sheep?) A mocking sign on the wall reads, “On this site in 1897 nothing happened.” One guesses: not in 1997, either.

The free hot dogs makes one think of the uber-dive Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen, though the shriveled weenies actually look less appetizing that the ones of offer in Ninth Avenue, if that’s possible. (It’s probably a good thing that Dunkin’ Donuts is next door.)

Lilly Coogan’s is good place to drink if: you want to spend $5 or less a quaff; you don’t mind throwing a hand of darts from time to time; you don’t want to check what you’re wearing before you enter; you don’t care how other people in the bar look; you don’t like crowds; you plan on laughing early in the evening and crying later on; you loathe the typical East Village rat.

Come to think of it, those are not bad criteria for entering a bar.
—Robert Simonson

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saying Goodbye to LeNell's 1.0

As a way of bring the closure of LeNell Smothers celebrated "Likker" store to a fitting end, I went down to interview her a couple weeks ago for for an "exit" interview. The text follows. The glamorama, '20s-style flapper photo is courtesy of Ms. Smothers herself.

Lady Bourbon Leaves Brooklyn

by Robert Simonson

In these lean economic times, store closings are hardly news. But in the past five years, LeNell's liquor shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn has been much more than just a store. Almost immediately after opening, on September 13, 2003—the birthday of its owner Tonya "LeNell" Smothers—it became Valhalla for New York City's spirits obsessed. And when its doors close for the last time, this Friday, February 21, drink aficionados around the metropolis will mourn the loss of one of their favorite clubhouses and canteens.

What made LeNell's such a destination? For starters, no new niche liqueur or spirit had really hit the market until it found a place on one of is shelves. Whereas most booze joints kept six bourbons on hand, Smothers featured dozens. She offered nearly a dozen kinds of bitters instead of the usual Angostura, and stocked a wide variety of regional Italian amari. In time, Smothers herself became a sought after expert on all things intoxicating: she conducted sold-out whiskey seminars and was considered a prime source for journalists tracking down liquor trends. The tattooed, chicken-owning Alabama native even became a distiller, producing the small-batch Red Hook Rye once a year.

All this, however, was lost on her landlord, who in 2007 decided not to renew LeNell's lease. Smothers has waged a long, valiant battle to stay put, but to no avail. She hopes to reopen a shop, as well as an adjoining bar, in a new location. For now, however her days in the wilds of Red Hook are numbered. Smothers spoke with SAVEUR about what she's learned over the past six years and what she has planned next.

When you opened LeNell's, in 2003, did you ever anticipate that the store would become such a destination?

I don't think I ever expected the level of response that we got. I've always believed that if you put your heart and soul into something, people will be drawn to anyone with passion, that we would draw some interest. But I had no clue the store would take off the way it did.

Especially in this location, at the water's edge of formerly industrial Brooklyn.

Well, I had looked in Manhattan for a year before I decided to come to Red Hook. It was still one of those neighborhoods where people raise their eyebrows and say, "Red Hook?" And in my opinion, it still should be that [laughs]. It's not exactly a mecca of small-business development. But there's a sense of community here that I love. I hope to find that wherever I end up.

Has your selection changed much over the years?

If you look at the pictures of when the store first opened, it was pretty threadbare in here. I laugh when I look at what little stuff I started with. Of course, the bourbon was always the focus. But a couple years into the business, I decided to expand our bitters selection, so we did all the amari and went crazy with that. Our biggest seller has always been red wine. People don't expect that. I'm equally passionate about wine and spirits, but we've made more of a name for ourselves with the spirits side, with the whiskey.

Let me put you on the spot: which are your favorite bourbons?

I always answer this question the same way: it's like asking me what my favorite sex position is—you take it however you can get it! [laughs] A lot of times people will get upset with me when I won't answer that question. I'm not trying to be cheeky. It really is how I feel. I don't think there is a bad bourbon out there. There isn't bourbon I wouldn't drink.

So, what bourbon do you think works best in an old-fashioned or a manhattan?

It depends on what you want to do with your whiskey. I don't care if you make an old-fashioned with a $200 bottle of bourbon, if that's what you want to do. I don't believe there's any whiskey that's too sacred for a cocktail. The first thing I did when I opened my first bottle of Red Hook Rye is I made a cocktail with it. It was eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head good.

You're still hoping to find a new space?

Oh, I haven't given up. It's just going to take time, and I'm being very specific about what I want, and I'm a much smarter businesswoman than I was six years ago. When I signed the lease on this space, I didn't have any legal advice. I was pinching pennies so much just to get this business started. I started this business with $75,000.

That sounds like a lot of money.

It's like half of what every retailer friend of mine said I would need. All of them said, "You'll never do this for below $150,000."

What are your immediate plans now?

I'm going to London and Amsterdam. I'm going to London first to judge a whiskey competition with Whiskey magazine and going to the awards dinner. We won Retailer of the Year, U.S., Single Outlet, for the third year in a row, which is kind of ironic. I'm going to this awards dinner, and we decided to shut the store down! I've made arrangements to do some work with [the London bar] Montgomery Place and will do one night at Jake Berger's place, Portobello Star. I may do some kind of seminar at Montgomery Place with some bartenders. We haven't decided what. Then I'm going from there to Amsterdam, where I'm training with Philip Duff [a beverage consultant] for a month.

Training? For what?

He's going to polish up my bar skills and take this '80s bartender into the modern day. My goal with finding a new space is to find a space for the store and a bar. That's how I got started in the business in the first place: bartending.

Anything else?

While I'm in London, I'm going to be working on photography for my egg cocktail book. I've got two book ideas up my sleeve. I'm going to do the history of eggs in drinks first. And then I want to write the next big whiskey book, but that's going to take a lot of time and travel and effort. No one's done a Michael Jackson–type whiskey book in ages.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Monkey Business

Tonight I set my mind to creating a drink that used absinthe that I liked. Simultaneously, I was wondering what to do with the new blood orange liqueur Solerno. I ended up joining the two with gin. Gin goes well with a bit of absinthe, and it has proven companionable with Solerno. Perhaps the three of them would play nice together.

I combined the gin and Solerno in a one-to-one ratio, and then added a spoonful of absinthe. I always feel absinthe performs best when in a minority role. It proved delightful. Light, yet strong. A fruity edge, but not too pronounced.

One thing bothered me. The drink had almost no color whatsoever. An anemic light green. A colorful garnish might do the trick. But I thought there must be a better solution.

Mulling over the drink, I realized it bore some similarities to the Monkey Gland, a favorite of mine. I had only substituted blood orange liqueur for the fresh orange juice. Also, I had left out the spoonful of grenadine. Maybe I should put that ingredient it back in. It would solve the color problem.

I did so, and viola: a much better drink, and a much more attractive one, with a pretty, rose-colored hue. Given that it's stirred, as opposed to shaken, it amounts to a more elegant, urbane version of the Monkey Gland. I've opted for no garnish to retain the sleek appearance. I call it the Monkey Business, basically because I was monkeying around when I came up with it.

Here's the recipe:

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Solerno blood orange liqueur
1 barspoon absinthe
1 barspoon grenadine

Stir over ice. Drain into chilled cocktail glass.

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Part V

In Season One, Episode 4 of "Mad Men," the character Roger Sterling, talking to Don Draper, makes the following speech:

"You don't know how to drink, your whole generation. You drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it's good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because it's what men do. Your kind, with your gloomy thoughts and your worries, you're all licking some imaginary wound. Boo-hoo."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Visit to Prime Meat's Tap Room

It took five tries to score the Brooklyn restaurant Frankies 457 on a night when the speakeasy of their new venue, Prime Meats, was actually open for business. Prime Meats is just a few doors down from Frankies on Court Street. When open, it will contain a dining room, retail outlet and bar. For now, however, only the bar, called the "tap room," is open to the public, and only on select nights.

To get to the tap room, you have to pass through Frankies into its backyard garden space. You then turn right and enter a large kitchen space (below).

And walking across the kitchen, you climb a short flight of stairs at the far end of the room.

Finally, you push open this ornate wooden door, with its frosted, beveled glass, into a tavern from another century, where lights are low, furnishings are made of heavy dark wood, the bar is sculpted, the punch bowls are chiseled, the wallpaper is painted and chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

Apparently, the saloon is mainly being used by Frankies to park its patrons as they wait for a table. I was an oddity, wanting, as I did, to only visit the bar and have a drink or two. But they readily accommodated me.

The tap room is doing a number of things right already. By keeping the cocktails $9, they're undercutting much of the competition, even in Brooklyn, where elite mixed drinks usually start at $10 or more. (A previous tap room menu I've seen had cocktails at $8, so the price may have already gone up since the tap room's soft "opening.") Additionally, the owners are keeping things simple, not overwhelming the buyer with too many choices. There's a short list of classic cocktails that everyone can recognize, including the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Champagne Cocktail and Martinez. Then there's a page of seven or so new inventions.

I was surprised to see Damon, a former employee at LeNell's liquor shop behind the bar. A tall, blonde guy with a friendly air, he said he was the author of the new drinks, as well as the homemade bitters used in many of the drinks. He let me try a couple of these bitters. The Buddha's Hand Bitters have more of an edge the most people expect from their bitters. They pack a serious acidic, bitter bite. I suspected the bitters might easily have their way with a Manhattan, and I was right. The change in bitters dominates the flavor of the drink. I can't say whether I loved the alteration; the bitters are somewhat bullying. But they certainly make the drink stand at attention, and you pay attention, too. (I also tasted the homemade Bartlett pear bitters, which were equally strong.)

It's cool to be able to order a glass of punch in a bar. There is one offering, at $6 a glass. (Places like Clover Club and Death & Co. offer punch, too, but only by the bowl.) It wasn't the most delicious punch I've ever had, but it was a delight to watch the bartender ladle out a helping from the crystal punch bowl behind the bar, and to then drink it out of a antique punch glass.

Of the originals, the popular favorite seemed to be the Loganberry Scramble, which derives its personality from Loganberry liqueur, a cordial made in Oregon from the little-known Loganberry. The berry's flavor—a combination of deep sweetness, bitter edge and nutty notes—dominated the cocktail, which is based on rum and is filled with lots of crushed ice.

A few other drinks on the menu looked interesting. I have an objection to the Fourth Degree, a simple libation made of gin, vermouth and absinthe. Last time I checked, that was called an Obituary Cocktail. (The proportions could be wildly different in the Fourth Degree, however.) And, as much as I am not sold on absinthe, I'm curious about the Absinthe Crusta.

The crowd was young and fascinated with the drink-making process, as people who frequent such places usually are. Conclusion: another nice new drinking place in South Brooklyn. Now, can someone just open one on my side of the BQE?

What I Bought at LeNell's

As many of you out there know by now, LeNell's, the one-of-a-kind liquor store nestled in the southwest corner of Red Hook, Brookyln, is facing its final days. After a year long battle with a landlord who refused to renew the legendary shop's lease, all legal efforts have failed. LeNell Smothers will closes her doors on Feb. 21, after six celebrated years.

I have long depended on LeNell's being there as a nearby source for otherwise-hard-to-get items, such are various obscure bitters, liqueurs, amari, intoxicants and, of course, nearly every brand of bourbon and rye one need bother with. Now, I'm going to have to haul myself into Manhattan to Astor Wine & Spirits to gather the provisions needed for the wide variety of mixed drinks I have an interest in.

I visited the shop recently to interview LeNell for an article in Saveur. I took the opportunity to indulge in one last raid on her pantry. Alas, I probably should have done this a month earlier. Smothers has not been renewing orders, wisely hoping to run through her current stock before she closes up. Shelves are all but bare. The wine is nearly gone. The bourbon selection is depleted, with only the most pricey bottles remaining. Thus, I was disappointed in several of my goals. I was not able to gather a new supply of Luxardo Maraschino Cherries, or purchase some Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur or St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.

But I took what I could get. That included a bottle of John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum, some Luxardo Amaro Abano (which I've recently tasted in some cocktails and liked), Rittenhouse 100 (not super hard to find, I know, but it was there), a bottle of Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters, and a carton of seltzer chargers for my soda siphon. Not a bad netting.

LeNell's still looking for a new home. If you've got one, give her a yell.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Colony Martini

I recently purchased a 1945 book-length assessment of The Colony, written by a Gourmet writer with a flowery writing style and a name to match: Iles Brody. The Colony, for those who don't know, was the first haven of New York's Cafe Society, an Upper East Side restaurant that from the speakeasy days of the 1920s through the 1950s was the gathering place of bluebloods, artists, gourmands, royalty and celebrities. The Stork Club and El Morocco pulled off the same trick later, but The Colony was first.

Being of a drinking frame of mind, I turned to the chapter about the Colony's bar first. It was ruled by one Marco Hattem, a Turkish gentleman who was with the place for decades and was beloved for his gentle, soft-spoken ways. Hattem began working at the Colony during Prohibition, a situation which caused him to create the boite's most lasting liquid legacy. The Colony, you see, thumbed its nose at the Volstead Act, as did all the smart places in Manhattan at the time. If people wanted booze, they were served it (and some of these people were upstanding citizens named Vanderbilt and such.) He kept all the bottles in an elevator. If the Feds paid a call, he pushed a button and sent the liquor to the top floor.

Marco was dealing with bathtub gin. As Brody tells the story, "to take away the dreadful, raw taste of that poor gin, Marco added to his Martinis a dash of absinthe (later, when there was no more real absinthe, he added Pernod)." A nice trick. Basically an Obituary Cocktail minus the vermouth.

Whaddaya mean, no vermouth, you say? Didn't he say "Martini"? Yes he did. But Brody is not a terribly precise writer. His description would lead the reader to assume the inclusion of vermouth. But research into all known recipes for the Colony Martini shows that vermouth plays no role. Additionally, almost every recipe I've found for a Colony Martini runs this way: 3 oz. gin, 1 barspoon of Pernod, 4 dashes of orange bitters.

Orange bitters? Brody didn't say anything about that! Who's right here? The book, or everybody else? (The book, by the way, calls this drink the Colony Special.) Who knows? So, I decided to conduct an experiment. If I couldn't find out which recipe was the correct one, I could at least decide which one made the better drink. I stirred up two Colonys, one with the orange bitters, one without, and tasted them side by side. I used regular Bombay Gin, thinking it was a brand Marco would have had access to after Repeal. And since he originally created the drink with absinthe, I opted for that, rather than use any substitute.

So, no contest. The bitters makes the drink. The gin-absinthe combo isn't bad. The two liquors go together, and there's no question the absinthe adds something. (I tried to imagine how thankful I would be for the absinthe if I were drinking rotgut gin.) But, in the end, it was just gin and absinthe. Not much depth. The addition of the orange bitters increased interest manifold. The anise and orange flavors played with each other on the surface of the gin, and kept you interested.

One more step was needed. According to Brody, Hattem did something that is unspeakable to most Martini drinkers, once he has assembled the gin and absinthe. He shook it. "At other places, and at home, Martinis are usually just stirred," writes Brody, "because tradition has it that they get cloudy if they are shaken. Marco terms this a gross superstition, shakes his Martinis merrily, and pours them into their appropriate glasses where they glitter like crystal."

I tried this (minus the bitters). My Martini did not glitter like crystal. It was as clear as soup, and tasted similarly. If this is what the Colony swells were drinking, I feel sorry for them.