Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lewis Black on Wine

The problem with so much wine journalism is that it's a conversation between a wine professional and a wine expert. It's all very safe and insular and wonky, full of conventional wisdom and tired dogma. Yawn. (Actually, that's the problem with journalism of every stripe.)

That's why I like talking to outsiders about wine. And comedian Lewis Black is about as outside as your can get.

Here's the interviews I conducted with the unbridled Black for Wine Spectator:

Wine Talk: Lewis Black
Apoplectic "Daily Show" comedian is a big !$@%-ing wine fan

By Robert Simonson

Lewis Black began his show business career as a playwright, writing more than 40 plays before he discovered his true niche as a stand-up comedian with a knack for red-faced sarcasm and apoplectic fury at the follies of mankind. He makes regular appearances on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, was nominated for an Emmy Award for his 2006 HBO special Red, White, and Screwed, and received a Grammy award for Best Comedy Album for 2007's The Carnegie Hall Performance. Black recently spoke with Wine Spectator about how red wine has found its way into his kitchen, his tour bus and his dressing room.

Wine Spectator: Who first introduced you to wine?
Lewis Black: The real introduction came from my brother, who has since passed away. He lived in France, working for a company that used to exist called Digital Equipment Corporation. We traveled to St.-Émilion. I started thinking, "Oh, this is why he moved here." He's one of the first people I knew who got a barrel; this was 15 years ago.

WS: What kind of wines do you like best?
LB: It's tough for me not to like a wine.

WS: What about white Zinfandel?
LB: True, but I drank it at one time, early on. When I was in late-stage high school, my friends and I didn't like beer. We drank Manischewitz, to be honest. When Gallo came out with those jumbo bottles, we drank that. We did Lancers, Boone's Farm. The first time I thought I'd moved on to something better was with [sacramental wine] Cribari.

WS: Now that you're more sophisticated in your tastes, what do you drink?
LB: I like the Ribera del Duero wines. Most of my friends like the French and California wines, and I bring in these Spanish wines. I do like California Cabernets. The Robert Foley Claret, I'm mad for that. I like Malbecs. The horrifying thing about wine is you'll try a $15 Malbec and say, "Well, that's a very good-tasting bottle of $15 wine." But then if you try a more expensive Malbec, you'll think "Holy shit!"

WS: So you're a red wine man?
LB: I lean toward red. In whites, I like the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand. And here's why I like them—and this is psychotic, but it's true. Many of them have a slight grapefruit taste, and I feel like it's really kind of a breakfast drink.

WS: I heard you have a private barrel at the new Manhattan urban winery, City Winery.
LB: Yes. I also bid on an Australian wine dinner. I actually went to Australia, and, you know what? They're cheating! When I was in Australia, it was like "You guys are keeping the good stuff!" You try their wines down there and you say, "Really? THAT'S a Shiraz. Screw you! That is not what you're selling us!" That was an eye-opener.

WS: Do you collect?
LB: I collect only on a vague level. The problem is I collect and then I drink it! I just think, "Look what I've got!" I have a tour bus when I work. On the bus we have a wine refrigerator. And comedians usually have a rider in their performance contract, so I usually ask for a bottle of wine wherever I perform. Initially, I just asked for a bottle of red wine. And then I realized, "I can't get bottle after bottle of Kendall-Jackson wine!" So I revised the rider and made it a $40 to $50 bottle of wine.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Beer At...Nitecaps

My latest candidate for "A Beer At...," the regular feature I write for Eater, is this lonely, rather foreboding bar on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. It looks like a kind of an outpost in a barren desert of decaying industry. Not a tree or bush in sight. Just miles of traffic and auto shops to fix those cars when they break. Yet Nightcaps doesn't have much competition. Much of Midwood is Orthodox Jewish, so there's no a lot of call for drinking establishments.

Midwood: There’s not much to look at on the Midwood stretch of Coney Island Avenue. But that doesn’t stop the denizens of Nitecaps from periodically emerging from their drinking den to take a gander at the four-lane traffic and un-beautiful industrial landscape. Once back inside, they have to wait another ten minutes for their eyes to adjust. For Nitecaps, which is near Avenue H, is a dark bar. Dark like a cave. Dark like a mineshift.

Wait a while and your eyes slowly begin to discern shapes of things you didn’t know were there. There, in the corner: an old metal coat rack. On a shelf below it: forgotten piles of New York phone books. Behind the bar: a small fish tank housing a solitary fish. And there, tucked in a space to the right of the door: two neatly kept dart boards, with just enough space in front of them to hold a game.

Those dart boards are not just dart boards. They are Nitecaps' heart and soul. In the cement-and-pavement center of Brooklyn, there are certain bars known as Dart Pubs, and Nitecaps is one of them. The joint is on the Gotham City Darts League circuit, and competitive games go down there on Mondays and Tuesdays. The tavern has frequently emerged victorious. Large, odd trophies, with gold dart boards at their crests, line the back of the bar. The bartender said the owner has many more in her office. (Pool is also popular here, but it takes a back seat to darts.)

A patron told me the bar is at least 20 years old, but—judging from the old, warped, wooden bar, and the aging appearance of the rest room doors—I’d add at least 20 more years to that estimate. From the outside, it looks like a kind of fortress, with a rugged gray façade and two small windows that emit no light. Large words on the front promise “Food” and “Spirits.” But this is a beer place; the available brands are written in magic marker on a piece of white paper taped to the wall; only two are on tap. There are spirits, but it’s doubtful that any but a few of the bottles stir from their shelves. And the food on offer is limited to Cheetos. (However, I do hear there’s a big spread on dart nights.)

A strange face is likely to get a friendly grilling here. One imagines few people other than extreme locals and dart lovers seek out the protecting walls of Nitecaps. Then again, who knows? After Coney Island Avenue shuts down for the night, this lonely bar is about the only game in town, darts or no.
— Robert Simonson

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Chateau du Rouet Cotes de Provence Rose 2008

The wife brought this one home, as a treat for herself on Mother's Day. And a nice choice it was, at $11.

It's a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah with real chracter. The color was extremely pale, a faded rose or, almost, peach. The emphasis is not on fruit, though there is fruit there, but on other characteristics: acidity, floral and herbal notes, stones. Very elegant and to the point. Would go best with delicate dishes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New York City Wineries

My first article for Decanter magazine appears in the June issue of the London-based publication. It's about a couple of the new New York City-based wineries, the scruffy Angels' Share in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the tony City Winery in SoHo. Both places now have their own wine out. Can't wait to taste both.

Here's the article:

Few labels surprise wine-savvy New Yorkers. A Chardonnay from Virginia? Had it. A Cabernet Sauvignon–Shiraz blend from India? That too. But this year more than a few eyebrows may cock at the sight of bottles that read ‘Made in Manhattan’, or ‘Made in Brooklyn’.
The locavore trend, which has infected every part of the New Yorker’s diet from greens to cheese to beer, has finally hit the cellar. Urban wineries have arrived, in places as far flung as San Francisco, Kansas City and, now, New York. Former music impresario Michael Dorf has erected the sleek City Winery in Tribeca. And Mark Snyder, another music industry refugee (he designed sound for acts like Billy Joel before becoming a wine distributor), has created the more rustic Angels’ Share in Brooklyn’s desolate Red Hook district.

‘It’s very timely,’ said Leslie Townsend, former director of Astor Center, the liquor education institute connected to Manhattan’s Astor Wine & Spirits. ‘People want to reconnect with the things they’re consuming.’

LeNell Smothers, owner of LeNell’s, a liquor store near Angel’s Share often identified as the best in New York, also believes urban wineries are viable propositions. ‘The whole eat and drink local slow-food movement has become part of New York City fashion,’ said Smothers, who bottles and sells her own rye whiskey. ‘It’s sexy to support local projects.’ She plans to carry Angel’s Share wines at her store, as does the celebrated nearby restaurant The Good Fork.

While often lumped together, City Winery and Angels’ Share are as different in character as the neighbourhoods they call home. Snyder sources grapes solely from the nearby North Fork of Long Island, and has enlisted the skills of Californian winemakers Abe Schoener and Robert Foley to create idiosyncratic wines in a drafty, bare-bones warehouse near the Brooklyn Waterfront. The wines will be made available to the public through restaurants and wine stores. Snyder hopes they will serve as examples of what can be done with Long Island fruit.

Michael Dorf’s approach is as much about wine lifestyle as wine. Subscribing to the ‘wines are made in the vineyard’ theory, he has trucked in grapes from California, Oregon and elsewhere. Barrels are privately owned by winery members who pay $5,000/£2,025, plus fruit and barrel costs. Moreover, the winery is part of a larger complex that includes a coffee bar, cheese case, restaurant and music stage. A music line-up will feature artists drawn from Dorf’s connections as former director of the downtown Manhattan concert venue The Knitting Factory. A fifth of the wine stock will be available to customers by the glass and bottle. Snyder expects his first bottling in April (perhaps a rosé or Sauvignon Blanc); Dorf in May. Both men are hazy on prices, but pledge to price ‘competitively’, to introduce people to the wines.

But New York City wines have a hook beyond low cost and local appeal, according to Belinda Chang, sommelier at The Modern, a wine-destination restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art. ‘90% of a wine sale is what you can tell the guest about the wine, and these have a pretty great story. If the quality is there, people will definitely want to try them.’

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What to Do With the Astoria

I was at Dutch Kills, Sasha Petraske's new joint in Long Island City, Queens, where they feature various Queens-themed drinks, including the Astoria, which was invented back in the 1930s.

"Yeah," I said to the bartender, "basically a Martini with orange bitters, right?" (More like it than you might think. Some experts think the original Martini sported orange bitters, actually.)

"Except we do ours 1 to 1, gin to dry vermouth," he replied.

Oh, I thought. Interesting. Might give me a reason to order it. Some other time. But I had to run that night.

Later, I went home and thought of mixing up an Astoria for myself.

I first looked in Harry McElhone's "Barflies and Cocktails." It was there, but asked for 2/3 gin and 1/3 dry vermouth. Hm. The Savoy Cocktail Book asked for the same ratio. So I looked in the Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. It asked for the opposite: 2/3 dry vermouth and 1/3 gin. Old Tom gin, actually. What the heck? Is Dutch Kills just trying to split the difference between warring recipes with their 50/50 mix?

Anyway, I mixed one up according to the DK formula, using Dolin vermouth and Beefeater. Not bad. Not great. All said and done, I'd rather have a Martini. Which I sorta did. But not quite.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A California Chard I Like

The words "California" and "Chardonnay" in one sentence do not naturally excite my interest. I imagine a big, oaky, butterball; wince; and then reach for the Riesling.

Shafer's 2007 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, however, is an impressive exception. The white by the famed Napa producer of Cabernet is hardly low-key: it clocks in at 14.9% alcohol. And it's got plenty of oak; the wine spent 14 months in 75% new-oak barrels, of which 85% were French and 15% American. (The overall barrel regime includes 25% stainless steel barrels.)

But there are some important deviations in the viticulture and vinification that make all the difference. The wine is drawn from small-clustered clones selected for low yields. The juice matures on the lees for the entire 14 months, resulted in more varied and profound flavors. But most importantly, the wine undergoes no malolactic fermentation. I believe the lack of malolactic allows the Chard to keep a lot of its natural acidity, and prevents it from combining with the effect of the wood to become too smooth, too buttery and slick.

The color is sunshiney, yellow crossed with green. It's a full nose: yeast, some butter, and grass in equal amounts, with touches of tropical fruit, guava and ginko. The palate has melon, tangerine, green apple and white flowers, and it all stands up straight due to the wonderful acidity. It's a great wine with outstanding structure and solidity. Almost worth the $48 it costs to buy a bottle. Bring it down to $35 and I'd call it a bargain.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sweetener Flexibility Is Everywhere

Anyone who follows the cocktail scene knows that mixologists fixate on the proper sweetener for each individual drink. Sugar? Demerara sugar? Organic sugar? Simple syrup (1 to 1 sugar to water ratio? 2 to 1?)? Agave syrup? Honey? Maple syrup? They'll experiment until they feel they have it "right."

Well, this obsession is apparently not limited to the alcohol world. I was getting an iced coffee at the new Coffee Peddlar high end java joint in Cobble Hill, and noticed that my choices of sweetener were many—including even simple sugar and agave syrup! Can this really make any difference in coffee? We certainly are becoming specific in our gourmandism, aren't we?

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Beer at... Shelley's

For my latest "A Beer At..." column for Eater, I ventured out to Queens, to Woodside, a former stomping ground on mine. One has no problem finding a bar in Woodside, though if you're looking for something other than an Irish Pub, you may run into difficulties. The one I prowled, Shelley's, was exceedingly pleasant.

A Beer At...Shelley's

At Shelley’s, perhaps the most non-descript of the many Irish Pubs that dot Woodside, Queens, there is a free buffet every day at 5 PM. One recent evening, it consisted of a single tray of rigatoni with sausage and peppers. It was gone by 6 PM.

The pasta was inhaled by a dozen or so middle-aged and older working-class men who, judging by their watery blue eyes and pinky complexions, can call the Emerald Isle their motherland. Shelley’s is a welcoming place that appreciates its patrons, and the free dinner is only one way it tries to entice and excite the barflies. “Kegs & Eggs” are offered on Sunday mornings, with $2 Bloody Marys. A hand-written sign reads, “You must leave ID to play beer pong.” Betting pools are offered for every sporting event. One chart tracking the 2008 baseball season was graffitied with the epithet “Phuck the Phillies.”

On May 16, Shelley’s will hold its first annual pig roast. It will take place on a cement patio, in the rear of the bar, just past a room containing a pool table and a dartboard. It’s a bleak place that looks like the back of someone’s tool shed. Old men in baseball caps retreat there to sit in white plastic chairs and smoke cigarettes. The attractive and cheerful blonde bartendress said they had to go to New England to find a grill in which to roast the hog.

The barmaid treats the men at the bar—some slowly sipping their Buds and cranberry-and-vodkas into gradual oblivion—with care and a smile. She likes to travel and wistfully mentioned Prague as her next destination. A quartet of visiting Scots and Brits give her a nice tip when they learn she’s of Scottish origin. “They’re staying in Woodside,” she says with a shrug. “They haven’t been to New York yet.”

There are a number of framed old photographs of 19th century Woodside on the walls—tepid competition to the six television screens atop the back of the bar. The black-and-white pictures make the neighborhood look like something desolate and hardscrabble, a Wild West town. Not a scrap of that Woodside remains outside Shelley’s door. Even Shelley’s isn’t the same Shelley’s. The bar was called K.C. Moore’s not long ago. But, before that, it again apparently went by Shelley’s for some time. It was owned then by a well-known local figure, Ed Fowley, who bought it in 1965. It was named Shelley’s when he bought it. For all that, it feels nicely broken in.
—Robert Simonson

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Next St. Germain?

How do you follow up a smash like St. Germain?

Well, if you're Robert Cooper—the creator of that industry-wowing, elderflower-informed liqueur, which has become a staple behind every hip bar over the past two years—you do it with Creme Yvette.

Creme Yvette was a defunct proprietary liqueur made from parma violet petals, berries, vanilla and other flavors and spices. It was once manufactured by Charles Jacquin et Cie in the United States, who purchased the brand formerly made by Sheffield Company of Connecticut. But it went out of circulation in 1969, just as Cocktaildom's Death Valley Days began. Since then, it has become one of those elusive, ungettable products that spelunking mixologists yearn after in order to properly make certain pre-Prohibition cocktails.

Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz helped relieve the agony a little while back when he brought out his Creme de Violette, causing all cocktail geeks to jump up and down like children because they could now make a proper Aviation. One would think that would have deterred Cooper from bringing Creme Yvette back from the dead. Does the world need two violet-flavored liqueurs? I must admit, when Cooper told me he was looking into Creme Yvette a year or so ago, I was skeptical of the product's potential draw.

Creme Yvette is not yet on the market, but Cooper has been toting around samples of the purple stuff to various bartenders and bar owners to see what they think. One made its way to my door.

With the first smell and sip, I began to think that Cooper's efforts may have been worth it. First of all, it's not a ditto of the Creme de Violette, so this is not a question of two identical products on the market. It's color is a deeper purple. The Violette is actually the color of violets. This is more the shade of blueberry juice.

The berry notes continue all through the product. In addition to the requisite violet scent, you get a rich variety of berry flavors on the nose and the palate, along with vanilla. It's a fairly rich, viscous product, with a surprising amount of depth.

I tried it an Aviation and a Blue Moon, and was pleased. The color is gave the Blue Moon was quite spectacular; a beautiful, sunset-worthy streak of light lavender. But it was an obscure cocktail out of Harry McElhone's "Barflies and Cocktails" that really sold it for me.

According to the book, the Ping-Pong Cocktail was invented by James G. Bennet at the Broken Glass Cafe in St. Louis, in 1901. It's equal parts Sloe Gin and Creme Yvette shaken with a teaspoon of lemon juice, and strained into a cocktail glass with a cherry garnish. It doesn't sound like genius, does it? But the Sloe Gin and Yvette play nicely together. It's not a fragrant, berry overload, as you might expect. And it shows that Yvette can work in largish amounts, which I had doubted up until then.

I also suspect Yvette will work beautifully in egg-based, frothy libations

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Mexican and the Dutch

New York City has seen two major cocktail bar openings in the the past month: Phil Ward's Mayahuel in the East Village and Sasha Petraske's Dutch Kills, in Long Island City. Both are excellent and merit a visit, and both trailblaze in their way. With Mayahuel, Ward brings the cocktail revolution to tequila, and, with Dutch Kills, Petraske brings the cocktail revolution to, well, Queens.

Both worlds had long been underserved by the minds of today's mixologists. Sure, bartenders respected tequila and all, but who was really going out of their way to create a new raft of cocktails using the South-of-the-Border liquor as their base? Few, really, aside from Ward, who made the Oaxaca Old Fashioned a staple over at his previous perch, Death & Co. Gin and whiskey were the ones getting the major workouts, with rum put to the task here and there.

Petraske, meanwhile, is a geographical frontiersman. The business formula he employs at Dutch Kills is basically the same one found at his Little Branch, Milk & Honey and White Star (Old World vibe, gentlemanly bartenders, classic cocktails), but it's set in Queens, which has been completely ignored by the mixed drinks renaissance until now. (The Bronx and Staten Island remain ignored, but that's another issue.)

Dutch Kills is located on Jackson Avenue, a lonely desolate boulevard in lonely, desolate (at least at night, but pretty much in the day, too) Long Island City, the westernmost nabe in Queens. The ugly, industrial facade has been untouched. There's a larger than usual (for Sasha) neon "Bar" sign outside, so kudos for visibility! Inside, there's room to spare. The high-ceilinged, dark-wood place goes back, back, back, past a multitude of booths, past the back, ended in a sawdust-strewn room with benches and a piano. It may be my favorite of Petraske's always beautifully designed spaces. It's pleasant to be in a bar large enough that not everybody in the place knows you're there.

For his opening menu, Petraske has kept it simple and straightforward, pushing cocktails with a Queens theme. These include libations only a cocktail geek would know have been around for 75 years: the Astoria (basically a Martini with orange bitters); the Flushing (a Manhattan with Cognac); and the Queens Park Swizzle (a beauty with rum, lime, mint, bitters and plenty of ice).

Mayahuel, names after an Aztec god, is a cozy place more typical of the cocktail dens of our time. It's in the thick of Cocktail Central—the East Village, that is—on E. 6th, and takes up two floors of a former Moroccan restaurant. The floors are quite different in character. The top is all cushions and luxury; perfect for executive types who like to spend money, and couples on dates. The bottom floor, which lies down a couple steps from the entrance, is more to my taste: a tight little bar, two inviting arches wooden booths, a couple hidden stools in back, and a cantina feel lent by a profusion of lovely tilework. I may like the space better than any other EV bar. It just feels right.

I'm treating my visits to Mayahuel as part of a continuing education course in tequila. It's a spirit I need to learn more about, and there are few who have more to teach that Ward. He's very specific about the kind of tequila he puts in each cocktail, from Blanco to Reposads to Anejo, as well as which brand of each category to use. Mezcal is put to work as well. Dozens of tequilas are also offered straight up—golden opportunities to try various liquors that are not usually available by the pour. And, for those who'd rather pass on tequila, there are sangrias, beer-based cocktails and the usual back bar. (As a perverse gesture, I'm tempted to order Martini here at some point.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Two More Old Scotches

The single malt scotches of advanced years keep advancing, looking to seize that luxury market. The latest through the mail slot are the Laphroaig 25-year-old and the Ardmore 30-year-old. Both run $500 a bottle.

The Laphroaig 25 Year Old was aged in Oloroso Sherry and American Oak casks. It was bottled in 2008 at cask strength (51.2% ABV). As you might expect from this Islay scotch, it's got flavor a-plenty. The nose in particular is powerfully multifarious. I almost ran out of paper making notes on it. The mellow, medium amber-gold liquid gave me buttered toast, burnt brown sugar, butter toffee, green buds, saline, brine, smoke and iodine. You could smell it all the live-long day and keep coming up with things.

The palate breaks off in two distinct sections. It has a creamy feel at first. Smooth caramel leads to coffee which then leads to sharper flavors such as burnt sugar, green branches (the kind that bend, but won't break) and a kind of greenness I associate with young red wines. The last thing you're left with is an intense flavor of tangy rock salt. This stays with you and builds up after a number of sips, leading to a not altogether pleasant finish. However, it's very possibly I may became accustomed to it.

The Highlands Ardmore 30 Year Old is aged in former bourbon barrels and handmade quarter casks. Only 1,428 bottles are available. I liked it less (though it's hard to turn up your nose at any scotch of such a high water as these). It is light in color, sunny yellow. The nose is light, too. Compared to the Laphroaig, in fact, it's almost nonexistent. But it's pleasant, a gentle Highland breeze with clover honey, brush, wildflower and heather notes. The taste is mild at first, lightly candied and creamy. It then quickly takes a hairpin turn to flavors of crackling spice, cocoa, pepper, brine and grass, broadening and broadening as it goes. Boy, does it get broad. It's an interesting journey. It's a light, but sharp whiskey.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Beefeater 24 Hits the U.S.

Six long months after I first tasted Desmond Payne's new gin Beefeater 24, I've finally written about it. (Well, for print. I've written about it several times on this site.) Why the wait? Well, because I live in America and it took it that long to get here! Actually, at various points, it was suppose to debut March 1, then April 1. May 1 ended up being the money date.

Here's the piece I wrote about it for Time Out New York, as well as a new Beefeater 24 cocktail recipe provided by Joachin Simo over at Death & Co.

Holy juniper!

Englishman Desmond Payne has done nothing but make gin his entire adult life; first at Plymouth, where he helped resuscitate the reputation of that venerable spirit, and then at Beefeater, where he has been master distiller since 1994. So considering that—after 40 years of closely adhering to other people's botanical recipes—he has finally created a premium gin of his own, attention must be paid. Beefeater 24, which launches stateside this month, is the product of a year and a half of experimentation. An arch-traditionalist, Payne did not veer far from Beefeater's classic cocktail of nine botanicals, created by James Burrough in the 1860s. Payne added only three ingredients to the mix, but that trio makes all the difference. Spanish grapefruit peel complements the spirit's already strong citrus character. However, it's the inclusion of Chinese green and Japanese sencha teas that gives the spirit its distinctive personality, combining two defining English culinary traditions—gin and tea—in one elegantly perfumed product. Beefeater 24 (named for the number of hours the neutral spirit is steeped in the botanicals) makes for a particularly thought-provoking martini, with a noted tannic hit at the beginning and a remarkably long finish. And it adds a welcome new element to the often too-simplistic classic, the gin and tonic. If you're feeling more adventurous, a newly minted libation using the stuff can be found at Death & Company (433 E 6th St between First Ave and Ave A, 212-388-0882), where Joaquin Simo is serving the Kew Gardens Cooler (muddled cucumber, Aperol, grapefruit juice and tea-infused syrup). Only one question remains: Do we do teatime later, or cocktail hour earlier? A 750ml bottle is $30 at most liquor stores.—Robert Simonson

Kew Gardens Cooler
From Joaquin Simo of Death & Company

In a cocktail shaker, lightly muddle two thin cucumber slices. Add:
• 2 ounces Beefeater 24
• 1/2 ounce Aperol
• 3/4 ounces grapefruit juice
1/2 ounce Scarlet Glow syrup*

Shake briefly with 3 ice cubes to chill, then strain over crushed ice in a highball glass. Garnish with a cucumber ribbon (use a vegetable peeler to carve out a thin seedless slice of cucumber, then skewer it with a cocktail pick).

*Scarlet Glow syrup
Heat 1 cup water on the stovetop. Add 1 cup of sugar and stir to dissolve. Bring to a boil, then add 4 to 5 tablespoons of Scarlet Glow tea (hibiscus and elderflower tea made by In Pursuit of Tea). Remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to steep for 45-60 minutes, then strain the syrup into an airtight container and refrigerate. The recipe makes approximately 1 1/2 cups of syrup. It should keep in the refrigerator for 1 1/2 weeks.

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Two, Part III

One of the funniest and most disturbing drinking moments in Season 2 of the AMC series "Mad Men" comes when Sterling Cooper ad exec Don Draper and his Wife Betty are having a couple neighbors over the dinner.

Don employs her 8-year-old daughter Sally as barmaid, having her make the adults drinks. She first innocently gets Don his Old Fashioned. As she leaves, Don playfully scolds "Muddling mean you smash the fruit up."

Next, Sally comes in with a question about the ladies' orders: Tom Collinses. "OK," instructs Don. "That's gin and soda. And the orange and cherry go on the top. Try to drop them in right there on the top." Sally trots off.

Not a bad description of the drink, fit for a kid's understanding. But she's a kid. The thing about the scene is you don't blink. If you have parents from that era, that is. My parents studiously observed cocktail hour every night at 5 PM. They never asked me to prepare their cocktails. But I wouldn't have been surprised if they had, and, if they had, I would have made them and thought myself lucky to be involved in the adult fun. Today, such activity would get child services on you like a cheap suit. And they'd be right to throw the book at you.

Apparently, the scene inspired someone enough to create the above illustration. Gotta admit. Pretty funny.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Domaine de la Cadette Bourgogne 2005

This bottle seemed like a potential find. A white Burgundy from importer Kermit Lynch for only $11! Sure, it's only a Appellation Bourgogne Controlee, but still.

The Chardonnay has a grassy, herbal nose. The wine inside is has good acidity and is light in the mouth. The flavor profile is limited, grass, grape, lime and grapefruit. But it's in an Old World Burgundy style. It's not much, but for the price, it's a decent Burgundy table wine. I'd still recommend it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pichon-Baron Pichon-Lalande Showdown

Meetings of the Media Wine Guild are typically pleasant and edifying. It's not usual, though, that they are historic. But the one held April 27, 2009—which featured vertical tastings, from 2000 to 2006, of neighboring Pauillac domains Chateau Lougueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (hereafter referred to as simply Baron and Lalande)—was just that.

And it's not me who called it historic. It's the managers of those two fine Bordeaux properties themselves, who were in attendance. "We have never done this tasting before," said Christian Seely, manager of the Baron site. Gildas d'Ollone of Lalande concurred.

So why should they even think to do such a tasting in the first place? Well, there's good reason. The two Chateaus are side by side, and are historically linked. They were once part of the same property, owned by Pierre de Rauzan. As I understood the story from Seely, this changed when the Baron married into the winemaking family. Rauzan gave them the estate, which was rechristened Chateau Pichon Longueville. Of the children the marriage produced, the daughters divided the estate into the two Pauillac Chateaus we know today, while the sons got 60 acres of vineyards around Château Margaux.

It was amusing to see the two grand men diplomatically making the cases for their wines. Though they behaved civilly enough to one another—and I was told that whatever rivalry there once was has subsided—you could tell the gentleman eyed each other with a certain modicum of underlying suspicion and jealousy. Seely, English, curly-haired, bow-tied (his signature cravat) and smiling, was the the more canny as self-marketing, peppering his speeches with wry asides and self-deprecating humor. The old, white-maned Frechman's d'Ollone's dignity was coiled more tightly; humor was not an arrow in his quiver.

Though both Chateaus share the same undulating ground and gravelly soil, there are appreciable differences in their wines. Baron wines typically use somewhere around 65% Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend, and very little Cabernet Franc. Lalande used to employ something along the lines of a 45-35% mix of Cab vs. Merlot, but in recent years has inched the Cab up to around 65%.

There was much to like in the offerings of both vineyards. Obviously, these are world class wines, so there were no bad bottles, just ones that were comparatively better than others. Overall, I preferred the Lalande wines, mainly because I found more depth and variation in the various vintages. The 2000, in particular, had a mushroomy, barnyard nose, and earthy palate of mushrooms and green olives that positively stood out among its brother bottles. The Baron wines routinely furnished inviting and enjoyable notes of cherry, berries and other red fruit, with greener notes as the wines got younger. (The 2006 was extremely extracted.) The Lalandes, however, often gave out enticing, more challenging flavors of charcoal, pencil lead and darker fruit. To put it another way, the Barons with bright, the Lalandes were moody. (However, it may be that, money-wise, the Barons are the bargain wines; the Lalandes are considerably more expensive.)

But that's just my opinion. I was informed later that a table of the Guild's senior members, Bordeaux purists all and Cab nuts, were liking the Baron wines best.

There was little debate, however, as to the wine of the afternoon. That was the Lalande 1985, served with lunch. As one member said, "it sang." An amazing wine, smooth and integrated, with touches of mellow mushrooms and green brush, and beautiful character and depth. Mature, but alive. It was heavenly. Seely even jokingly admitted he would not dare to show the Baron 1985 against it.

Also served with the meal were the Baron 1989 (amazingly full, juicy and lively for a 20-year-old wine); the Lalande 1989 (a deep nose, an even palate of rose and dark fruit, and lots of depth); and a 1990 Baron (too hot, just too much, with extracted fruit and diffuse flavors). A member also contributed a double magnum of a 1975 Lalande. This was fairly good, nice and silky, but a bit tired and not nearly as impressive as the 1985.

The room was well-attended. Any extra table was needed. And talk was excited and non-stop. We must have more showdowns like this in the future.

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Two, Part II

For anyone who watches the AMC series "Mad Men" partly to enjoy the way the characters heedlessly enjoy themselves, Season 2 was a difficult one. The men and woman still smoked and drank and caroused with abandon, but this time around the bill came due and it was a whopper.

This was particularly true of the characters' drinking. The cocktails were still classic. The glassware and ice buckets were beautiful. The bars were atmospheric. But, beyond that, little else was pretty.

Last year, Roger Sterling, one of the partners in the Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper, was the man who paid the price for his lifestyle, suffering two coronaries after one too many cigarettes, one too many Martinis and one too many chippies on the side. This year, the much younger Don Draper learned you can't do whatever you want to do and get away with it. The first episode of the season finds a doctor telling Don to slow down, for his health's sake. Typically, Don takes no head. By episode 5, "The New Girl," he's gotten involved with the wife of a comedian, Bobbi Barrett. While on a night ride to a trysting place, Don, drinking from a bottle while at the wheel, totals the car and nearly kills himself and Bobbi. He is forced to turn to his former secretary Peggy Olson to bail them out, give Bobbi a place to hide while she heals, and lie to his wife about the accident. In the series to date, this is the most humiliating situation the otherwise in-control Don has ever found himself in. On the surface, he seems to learn nothing from it.

Since Draper is good at covering his tracks (and holding his liquor), he gets away with this malefaction (for the time being). The easygoing, feckless and guileless Freddie Rumsen is not so lucky (that's him above, in the brown hat). Freddie is a senior copywriter and an outright lush. His years of drinking show on his bloated, red face. Yet, he's a harmless drunk, amiable, and fairly decent at his job.

Freddie's career ends in the excellent episode 9, "Six Month Leave," when, having drunk too many Bourbons just before a presentation for Samsonite, he unconsciously pisses his pants and then passes out. It's a hilarious and horrifying scene. In the world of "Mad Men," this would have been forgiven and forgotten, but jealous tattletale Pete Campbell rats on Freddie to controlling, teetotaler Head of Accounts Herman "Duck" Phillips, who insists Freddie be fired.

Don resists, but has no choice when Roger sides with Duck. We learn a lot of Sterling Cooper's history during Roger and Don's kiss-off lunch with Freddie. Apparently, Roger's father (presumedly the original Sterling of Sterling Cooper) drank more than Roger and Don put together, and used to come in in the morning with his shirt on inside-out.

Perversely, after telling Freddie he needs to go somewhere and dry out, Roger and Don try to console him by taking him out on a goodbye bender. What kind of mixed message is that? It's that sort of jumbled men's code that ultimately led to Rumsen's doom.

As for Duck, he falls off the wagon soon afterwards, when he finds out he shouldn't expect to be made a partner at Sterling Cooper. The effect is not attractive. After downing two straight Martinis in a lunch with a couple old London colleagues, Duck begin to plot his takeover of Sterling Cooper via a merger with a London agency.

Meanwhile, through all this, Don's wife Betty, lonely and depressed, drinks more and more red wine in solitude.

The overall message: drinking is a lot of fun, until it stops being a lot of fun.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Beer at...O'Keefe's Bar & Grill

My latest in the "A Beer At..." series that I write for Eater takes me to downtown Brooklyn to a bar that looks so simply like a bar a picture of it should be next to the word "bar" in the dictionary.

A Beer At...O'Keefe's Bar & Grill

There may be better taverns in New York than O'Keefe's Bar & Grill on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn, but few have better signs. The large red neon "Bar" and "Grill" above the entrance possesses a powerfully anonymous urban iconography rarely seen outside of film. (The only place it says O'Keefe's on the facade is in small, dark letters on the glass doors.) Curiously, though a bar called O'Keefe's has been at 64 Court for 90 years, the sign was not originally theirs. It once hung over a bar called the Savoy at 41st and 9th in Manhattan. "The owner thought it would be the perfect sign" explained a bartender.

O'Keefe's unbeatable location—just steps from Borough Hall—lends it an amazing tidal pull on the working professionals in the area. Come quitting time, the lawyers and politicos and jurors quickly file in, one by one. The place is spacious, deep, clean and airy, which helps to dissipate the claustrophobic effect of the 10 large televisions. Most of these are devoted to sports. But two are diplomatically set on CNN and Fox, so as to present both political persuasions of the folks doing work on nearby Adams Street. On a recent night, Silver-bearded Wolf Blitzer solemnly weighed the threat of the Swine Flu outbreak, while bug-eyed Glenn Beck mocked Obama's first 100 days by holding a swirling red siren aloft.

Most of the seats at the long wooden bar are occupied by 5:30 p.m The two sweet, wholesome-looking young barmaids huddle in their bus station, taking turns making smiling passes through the long room. An older woman sips red wine and reads a book. Three young louts dressed entirely in grey sweats put their feet up. Four blue-shirt-gray-pants defuse over beers. A woman with her child heads to the table furthest back to celebrate a birthday. A limping grifter tries (and fails) to exchange a roll of quarters for a $10 bill. The driver of the B75 parks his bus outside and slowly strolls in to use the restroom. O'Keefe's is an outlet for myriad neighborhood needs. It also has a small reputation for buffalo wings, which can be had for the low price of 40 cents per on Mondays. Apparently, they used to be 30 cents apiece. The economy hits you everywhere.
—Robert Simonson

Previous "A Beer At..." Installments