Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Chianti Standout

Returning to the Italian Wine Masters tasting at Vino 2010—of which I acclaimed the undersung 2005 Brunellos in a previous post—I'd like to say something about the 2006 Chiantis, both regular and Riserva. More good news here. As has been well reported, the year was a great vintage for Tuscany, with conditions near perfect, with grapes achieving ideal ripeness and sugar levels. And the proof was in the bottles being poured at the Waldorf.

I had no complaints tasting the offerings of the wonderful houses of Isole e Olena (light, yet deep, and well balanced), the ever-dependable Fontodi (soft tannins and a light juiciness) and Castello di Ama (the rougher, spicier Vigneto Bellavista vineyard and the fuller-bodied Vigneto La Casuccia). Castello de Ama was also pouring the best Olive Oil in the house, hands down, fruity and complex. Many Italian wine houses manufacturer an olive oil just to get in on a good racket, and the results are negligible. Not so here. The oil was as good as their wine, and the owner (who was pouring) was right to boast of it as the best oil in Chianti.

Small Casaloste also showed well with its Riserva Don Vincenzo 2006, which was fresh and supple. But they also had a wonderful bargain wine up their sleeve, a 2004 Riserva Casaloste they're selling for only $45 a bottle. It was the best Chianti I had at the tasting, beautiful and deliciously deep and mature. Only 8,000 bottles were produced.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Painless Painkiller

Here's an update on the upcoming New York tiki bar Painkiller, written for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog a few days ago.

An Island Cocktail Lounge, Manhattan Island
If you like piña coladas, free hot dogs and a live-and-let-live approach to life, Painkiller, a tiki bar due to open on the Lower East Side this spring, may be your cup of rum.
Richard Boccato, the veteran bartender and bar owner who will run Painkiller with his Dutch Kills colleague Giuseppe Gonzalez, said he hoped to kick off a new era in tiki culture with the bar.
“We’re not trying to do a classic tiki bar,” Mr. Boccato said. “We’re not going to build our father’s or grandfather’s tiki bar. We want to foster the inception of a New York tiki culture. We’re not taking you off the island of Manhattan onto the island of Oahu. We’re staying right here.”
Patrons should expect some “thatch and some bamboo,” as they would at any tiki bar, he said. “But you should also expect some graffiti and some subway tiles and things that are more reminiscent of the Bowery circa 1978. We’re trying to do an amalgamation of that.”
In preparation, Mr. Boccato and Mr. Gonzalez went on a multinational research trip, visiting acmes of tiki culture in California; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Puerto Rico; and London. Among the more than 20 bars they inspected on the whirlwind 10-day tour were Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and Mark Peel and Jay Perrin’s Tar Pit in Los Angeles, where, until recently, Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club was a partner. Along their travels, they hit upon some themes that may prove novel in New York’s sometimes doctrinaire cocktail world. Standing at the bar — anathema at some of the more exclusive Manhattan cocktail bars — will be allowed. There will be free hot dogs, a la Rudy’s, the celebrated Eighth Avenue dive. And there will be a place on the menu for the piña colada, a drink that has never been celebrated by the cocktail elite.
“We took a look at the different piña colada situations that are going on” in Puerto Rico, Mr. Boccato said. “We thought about things in a different way. We pretty much do what we do behind the bar with our shakers and ingredients. But there’s really something to be said about the machine thatblends it all together and keeps it cold. It was eye-opening.”
The opening menu will feature 15 to 20 drinks, including some classics by tiki trailblazers like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, as well as some original creations, and a “Scorpion Bowl” menu. There will a half dozen booths and an equal amount of stools, but nobody need feel pressured to sit.
“We’re not going to restrict standing,” Mr. Boccato said. “We don’t want to have anything less than a convivial, festive environment. If there are people standing, so be it. If there are people cursing, so be it. This is not Tiki Chic. This is not Sleepy Tiki. This is New York City Tiki.”
Above all, Mr. Boccato wants Painkiller to be a painless experience for the customer. “This is almost a natural progression into something that’s no less historically valid but a little bit more lighthearted, more relaxed,” Mr. Boccato told me recently. He said that what the rum expert Jeff Berry “and other tiki-philes will tell you is that to them the essence of tiki is really an escape, it’s almost a retreat, coming into a bar and feeling you’re somewhat removed from your life. That’s the reason people go to dive bars. So why not have a beautiful Polynesian setting to help you along the way?”
Mr. Boccato expects Painkiller to be open “between the Ides of March and April Fool’s Day.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

More on Fernet Branca

Here's a short piece I wrote on the rise of Fernet Branca in NYC for Tasting Table, including a couple new recipes from Damon Boelte of Prime Meats, who is likely the King of Fernet in these environs:
Branca Busters
So many cocktail trends amount to what sounds like a dare, leading enthusiasts toward bolder and more challenging flavors. You like tequila? Then you should try mezcal. Bourbon's great, but have a sip of this right-off-the-still white dog.
In New York these days, the latest dare seems to be Fernet Branca. This 150-year-old, famously bitter Italian amaro--and purported hangover cure--has been showing up in cocktails in bars and restaurants all over the city.
Fernet Branca has traditionally (and mysteriously) been the fetish of the San Francisco set. But sales jumped 50 percent in New York during 2009, and there's been a similar bump in Boston.
Lucillia Crowe, vice-president of marketing for Infinium Spirits, which handles Fernet in the United States, gives credit to evangelizing bartenders. "Mixologists are traveling around and getting all over the place," she says. "It's a kind of bartender's handshake: 'Do you know it?'"
Chief among these preachers is Damon Boelte, the bar manager at Brooklyn's Prime Meats. He has the aggressively herbaceous elixir play the role of both eye-opener--in the Fernet-laced Italian Fizz on the breakfast menu--and nightcap, in the make-a-man-of-you Waterfront cocktail, which not only contains Fernet but also its more feminine sister, Branca Menta.
In terms of volume, San Francisco still holds the Fernet crown. But New York, says Crowe, "is gaining.

Mostly Mintless Julep
1.5 oz Buffalo Trace Bourbon
.75 oz Benedictine
.25 Branca Menta
.25 raspberry syrup
Serve on crushed ice on a silver julep cup. Garnish with raspberries and mint.
2 oz Chairman's Reserve rum (St. Lucia)
1 oz lime juice
.75 oz simple syrup
.25 oz Branca Menta
Shake all ingredients except for Branca Menta. Rinse a cocktail glass with Branca Menta and strain ingredients into the glass. Garnish with a single mint leaf.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Beer At...Blarney Cove

A fine old dive on a perfectly forlorn block of E. 14th Street was the subject of my latest Eater column:

A Beer at...Blarney Cove
Blarney Cove, a hard-drinker's retreat on a dark stretch of East 14th Street beyond Avenue A, has the right name. It is a cove, a long narrow inlet not much wider than the roller-shutter-framed door by which you enter. The joint does, however, go back a mile, only running out of bar toward the end, where a few tables, video games and a couple restrooms are swallowed up in the circa-1970s darkness. There's one bathroom for each sex, though the night I was there, the only person who could have used the women's room was the bartender, a friendly blonde in glasses, a black top and black beret, who looked like she should be serving espressos to Kerouac at the Gaslight. The men's room has surprisingly high ceilings and an industrial sink. Somewhere along the line, the hot and cold faucet handles were replaced by screws.
The bartendress proudly calls the Blarney Cove "one of the last dives in the neighborhood," and no one at the bar seemed to object. She said she was actually a photographer by trade, and really more of a customer than a bartender. But she occasionally helped sling drinks during the holidays, and, when a position opened, she took it, it being hard times and all.
The main bartender is a former cop called Popeye, his importance signified by a framed portrait of the cartoon sailor behind the bar. Also back there are an assortment of odd cubby holes which provide homes for some of the better liquor bottles as well as a mean-looking shillaly hanging from a hook—though I think it's probably reached for as seldom as the fancy booze is. Blarney Cove's regulars may be grizzled and sozzled, scarred and unshaven, but they're a gentle and chummy crowd, perfectly willing to engage a stranger in a conversation about the Yankees' fortunes, and the miracle of an abandoned scarf that, though made of acrylic, feels just like cashmere.
Drafts number four and are what you expect: nothing more exotic than Yeungling. A lonely nod to modern culture is a framed poster of the 2009 Paul Rudd film "I Love You, Man," bolted to the wall. The beatnik bartendress doesn't know why it's there or when it arrived. No scene in the film was shot in the bar. "It does look kinda permanent, doesn't it?" she ventured. Kind of like the Blarney Cove.
—Robert Simonson

Review: Suntory Yamazaki Hibiki 12 Year Old Blended Whiskey

With so many fine Scotches, Irish whiskeys, Bourbons and Ryes out there, I admit I haven't given much thought or time to Japanese whiskey over the years. I don't think I've necessarily been alone in this. The U.S. profile of Japanese whiskey is hardly a towering one. But all oversights are amended eventually over time, and a combination of a visit to Whiskeyfest and the arrival of a few Suntory Yamazaki bottles through the mail afforded me the opportunity to have a good long sit-down with whiskey from the Far East.

Suntory is, of course, the Japanese whiskey distillery that even people who don't know anything about Japanese whiskey have heard of. The Yamazaki distillery dating back to the 1920s. They produce (for U.S. consumption, anyway) a 12-year-old and 18-year-old (introduced in 2004) single malt whiskey, made from malted barley sent through copper pot stills. The distillate is aged in oak barrels, usually used Bourbon and Sherry casks, but also some Japanese oak barrels. Though Japan has seen Scotland as its model since the beginning, the resultant whiskeys are very much their own thing, and taste, in my view, little like Scotch. This partly has to do with the vast differences in climate between Scotland and Japan, and partly to do with the distinctive influence of the Japanese barrels.

Overall, I find the Yamazaki single malts to be less spicy and densely flavored than their counterparts in Scotland. The 18 year old is a light whiskey, yet viscous and candied. The Sherry and Bourbon influences come through. There's cinnamon and nutmeg hidden in there, but they're easy to overlook. And to me there seems to be a hollowness at the center. Still, this is a good dram that few would complain of. And I could see it being a more agreeable companion to a steak dinner than a Scotch would be.

Any criticisms of Suntory single malts, however, seem to evaporate as the whiskey ages. I was also sent some Yamazaki 1984, which arrived on U.S. shores last fall, the first vintage Yamazaki offered here. Just as I like the 18YO vastly more than the 12YO, I liked this immensely more than the 18. It has a deep orange color, and the nose is sweet and luxurious, with orange, caramel, and mellow spice. The palate is silky smooth. The spice is subtle and burnished. Burnt orange, toast and marmalade. Beautiful stuff.

But now to the main event.

Last year, Yamazaki introduced to the U.S. its blended Japanese whiskey, the 12-year-old Hibiki. And it's a winner. It feels weird for me to say I prefer a maker's blended whiskey to their single malt, but I do here. It is smooth beyond words, yet not simple or superficial. Toffee, light caramel, cream, orange and apple and Sherry come through, and enough subtle spice to power several batches a of Christmas cookies, plus the subtle but defining influence of Japanese plum liqueur barrels, in which some of the distillate was aged. (A hint of Slivowitz, I have to say.) A solid, studied, complicated whiskey, yet completely approachable and just plain fun to drink.

If I like the 12 this much, think of what awaits inside a bottle of the 17YO Hibiki, which exists, just not on Yankee soil.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Sipping News

Plenty of wine woes out there today. A French judge handed out suspended jail terms and hefty fines to 12 wine industry figures for selling millions of bottles of fake pinot noir to US winegiant E&J Gallo. The wine was sold under Gallo’s Red Bicyclette pinot noir label, even though it was made from far less expensive grape varieties. [Chicago Tribune]

Dan Berger of the Press Democrat innumerates all the ways California wine makers can manipulate their wine, including the addition of water and grape concentrates.

Napa is grappling with a wine surplus, its 2009 vintage far from selling out. [NY Times]

Audrey Saunders is no longer a partner at the much ballyhooed L.A. tiki bar The Tar Pit. Marcos Tello is taking temporary command of the drink program. [LA Times]

The 2005 Brunellos

That the 2004 Brunellos and Brunello Riservas were showing great promise and maturity at the recent Vino 2010 Grand Tasting of Tuscany wines was no surprise. But that the 2005 Brunellos were performing so well was.

I tasted the 2005 from five favorite producers—Uccelliera, Casanuova delle Cerbaie, San Filippo, Mocali and Col D'Orcia—and found them all delicious, balanced and ready to enjoy right now. The pourers (who were in many cases also the makers) agreed. These weren't Brunellos for the ages, but they were a right-here-right-now treat. And a bargain, too. Because the vintage was unheralded, and because of the ailing economy, you'll get these wines at a good price. They're absolutely worth it, particularly the San Filippo, which is only $50. The wines are to be released in March.

And if you don't mind spending more money for your Brunello (about twice as much money, actually), you won't go wrong with the 2004 Riservas. They're long and dense now, but will be fantastic in a few years.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Two Single Malt Irish Whiskeys

You don't see too many single malt Irish whiskeys. Single malts are Scotland's thing. Ireland has traditionally gone for blending, not just of different grains, but also products of both pot and column stills; plus triple distillation. Scotch: rough; Irish: smooth. But single malt Scotches hold a certain appeal as a terribly authentic and pure tipple to a certain breed of customer. And lately, Ireland—whose whiskeys become more popular in the American market with each passing year—has been savvily getting more into the single malt game.

A big new entry in the Irish single malt category this year was Tullamore Dew Single Malt 10 Year Old. And it's been getting pretty high marks all around. It comes in at 40% and is matured in Bourbon, Dry Oloroso Sherry, Madeira and Port Casks. The result is very pleasing. It has a deep fruit nose, rich, with cherry, vanilla, toffee and caramel. On the palate, you get some iodine, tangy spice and heat, but also round fruit flavors of cherry, orange and apple. It has a prickly, tingly finish that stays with you. I haven't met a person who doesn't like it yet. It goes for $30.

Another single malt I recently tried is rarer still than the Tullamore (which send 400 cases to the U.S. in 2009), but made by a quixotic producer that's been at it for years. It's the Knappogue Castle 1994 Master Distiller's Private Selection. This Irish whiskey producer based in County Clare is known for its aged single-malts. American and single-malt enthusiast Mark Edwin Andrews started making them when no one else in Ireland was, buying barrels of single malt from Bushmill's and others, who were using the stuff for blending. It's first bottling was the 1951, put out in the mid-1960s, but mainly distributed among friends.

Knappogue started selling in Ireland in the 1970s. The last bottling was in 1987. Andrews died five years later. His son, also names Mark, started the business up again in 1997, buying barrels just as his father and putting vintage stamps on each. He achieved his father's dream of selling Knappogue Castle in the U.S.

Knappogue is now releasing a 1994. The source whiskey was triple-distilled one batch at a time in copper pot stills in February of 1994, aged in bourbon oak casks which were singled-out and selected by the master distiller last fall, and bottled in December of 2009.

The Knappogue has a bright, light lemon-orange color (no caramel coloring is added) and a lovely, mildly spicy, citrus and, yes, orange-licorice nose. Tasting it is quite an experience. I've never tasted a whiskey as orange-y as this. Miles and miles or ripe, sunny orange, tangerine, tangelo, orange zest—whatever round orange citrus fruit you care to mention. It takes some getting used to, it's so different. But once you do, you love it. There're other things in there, like vanilla and milky caramel, apple, banana, and every candied cherry, but they mainly serve to lend depth to the central flavor. It wonderfully mellow with a long, long finish. 

They only made 1,000 bottles of this. Even at that it only costs $100. I'd say it's worth it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tales of Two Pinot Noirs

A few years back, I was in the Russian River Valley, and decided to pick up a few famous pinot noirs that I knew I wouldn't be able to get my hands on in stores in New York: Among them a Martinelli and a Merry Edwards, both 2004 vintage.

I sat on them for three years. But then, recently, faced with a special occasion that called for a nice bottle, something told me to called Merry Edwards and see if it wasn't time to open that pinot. "Funny you should call," said the woman at the winery. "We just opened some 2004s, and they were drinking very well." That settled it. I opened the bottle of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2004 "Klopp Ranch."

Since I bought the Edwards, I've become less enamored of the fuller, high-alcohol style of pinot found in California. And this bottle was 14.4%. Still, there was no arguing about it—this made for wonderful, elegant drinking. I enjoyed every sip. The color was a beautiful, mature, ruby-purple, and the full, very fragrant nose was perfumed and floral, with rose, violet, blackberry, blueberry, heather, brush and plum all in there.

The body was not as big as I feared. I'd call it medium-full. It had a silky fell, with soft fruit and very little (or extremely well integrated) tannin. Red cherry and sweet beach plum sang throughout, the only roughness (and I could have used more) being a little tinge of tobacco in the mid-palate. There was a medium-long finish. Something told me the wine was just beginning to fade, but overall the whole affair was refined and lovely. If you have any 2004 Edwards pinots, drink them now.

This made me a little too excited. And cocky. The next weekend I decided it was time to break out the Martinelli Water Trouch Vineyards. Also a 2004, I reasoned it was ready, too. Really, I just wanted to drink some more good pinot noir. I didn't even call the vineyard this time.

Maybe I should have. I'm not saying the Martinelli was bad. It wasn't. My wife certainly thought it was out of this world. But this wine is what a feared the Edwards would be: elephantine and over-saturated. The alcohol was a bruising 15.5%. The powerful dark-fruit nose hit you back against your chair. It was big and smooth in the mouth. Super ridiculously juicy. It tasted like cherry and plum juice that had been cooked down to make the mix more intense. A pinot on steroids. There was a lot of good fruit involved, you could tell. But it had been pimped out too much. I sure this sort of pinot is prized by many. Just not me.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rum and Punch: Two Trends for 2010

I was at an industry event for the Guatemalan rum Zacapa, talking over the cocktail scene with a couple collegues. We were discussing how it seemed that, after gin and absinthe and tequila had all recently gotten their moment in the spotlight, it now appeared to be rum's turn. "Yeah," said one man, "I wonder what will be next?" We thought for a moment. "Nothing," another finally said. "Rum's it. It's last. It's the last major liquor category to be rediscovered."

Late last year, the New York Times ran a big feature story on how rum had come of age in America, and was being newly rediscovered by U.S. drinkers and drink makers. The piece focused mainly on west coast places like Martin Cate's Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco and Audrey Saunder's Tar Pit in Los Angeles. But the article's looking pretty prophetic as far as New York is concerned. 2010 is not even two months old and we have already learned that, before spring is over, we well see Painkiller, a new tiki-rum place on the Lower East Side run by Richard Boccato and Giuseppe Gonzalez of Dutch Kills fame; and, as part of the new East Village Cuban restaurant Cienfuegos, two rum bars overseen by mixologist Charlotte Voisey. No longer can anyone say, "Why isn't there a decent rum bar in New York?"

To my mind, part of this gravitation toward rum is an either intentional or subconscious desire to chill out a bit. The cocktail scene can get rather arch sometimes, with it's insistence on the right way of doing things, its ingredient and behavior snobbery and its sometime rococo new cocktail creations. Rum is all about relaxing and taking it easy.

Both of these new bars also seem to tangentially embrace what I feel is another dawning trend of 2010: Punch. Now, I know that a lot of cocktail geeks out there will balk at that statement, saying "Punch was so 2008." True, Death & Co. and Clover Club have been doing punches for a couple years now in New York, and Prime Meats serves a different punch by the glass every day. But the punch thing never really took hold. It was an isolated, intermittent side show, found only in the most fanatical corners of cocktaildom.

This year may change that. One of the rum bars at Cienfuegos will focus on rum punch. And Painkiller is going to have a Scorpion Bowl menu. That would all be fine and good, but the real clincher to this being a punch year is the arrival of David Wondrich's new book on the matter. Wondrich created quite a stir with his last opus, "Imbibe!," basically an exhaustive history of cocktails in 19th-century America. Fans will be waiting anxiously for his next volume. (I don't know what the title is yet, but I'm guessing, maybe, "Punch!").

Wondrich recently gave a little preview on what the book will contain during a well-attended lecture at Pegu Club on Jan. 25. He had just turned in his manuscript two days beforehand.  He talked about the history of the brimming bowl, and made a few sample punches (there's one below), including one made with ambergris, which anyone who has read "Moby Dick" knows is a once-treasured byproduct of sperm whales. Though something in me tells me that punch will be a harder sell to the general public than individual classic cocktails were (it's labor intensive, requires special equipment, and you need to lay out a fair amount of money to make a good-sized bowl), I'm still betting that the book will inspire plenty of bars to start offering punch.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Bitters Maker of Brooklyn

Brooklynites, these days, have forged a reputation for making just about everything needed for a bar from scratch. Beer, spirits, wine, not to mention the various infusions, potions, sweeteners and such that one finds behind the best bars. The only this missing from the borough-wide, liquor-industrial complex is bitters. Oh, yes, many bars make there own house bitters. But there's no non-bar-owning entrepreneur that specializes in bitters production.

Louis Smeby, a 28-year-old from Minnesota with a newsboy's youthful face, is out to seize that territory. A waiter at The Modern who lives in the South Slope, he has been whipping an alarming number of original bitters in his kitchen, and has managed to place them at such estimable watering holes as Gotham bar & Grill, Braeburn, PDT, The Vanderbuilt, Buttermilk Channel, Quarter bar, White Star, and The Modern, among others.

The bitters are sold under the name A.B. Smeby Bittering Company. Smeby had the interested idea of applying the now-entrenched dining and drinking notion of seasonal menus to the world of bitters. He produces different potions based around the flavors found in each season. So the bitters available from him in the winter may not be the ones available in the spring. "Also important to the concept is the size of the bottle that I sell the product in," he said in a recent interview with Off the Presses. "It is a 2 ounce bottle. Bitters have a shelf life, especially when they are made with all-natural products."

Smeby says that most of the brands of bitters sold commercially are full of adjuncts, additives, and artificial ingredients that help maintain their shelf life, "but also offer a very synthetic tasting product. To add to this, they are all sold in bottle sizes too large for their flavor to be maintained before the product is finished, leading to inferior product at the end of the day."

The bars using Smeby's bitters so far seem to be taking them on a drink-by-drink basis, as they find applications for them. The Modern has used his Spiced Cranberry, Black and White (which actually tasted like a classic New York Black and White cookie), Vanilla and Forbidden Bitters in specialty cocktails. PDT has used only the Lemon Verbena bitters on the menu, but owner Jim Meehan thinks the Hibiscus Rose are great, too.

Some of the flavors Smeby comes up with boggle the brain. Apple Cinnamon with Molasses; Licorice-Nectarine (a favorite of mine, though, as of yet, I have no idea how to use it in a cocktail); Highland Heather; and Cherry Vanilla. Semby puts the most stock behind his Forbidden and Diesel bitters. The latter he promotes as a possible substitution for Angostura. I made an Old-Fashioned with it and found the result striking. It added a certain punch to the drink, familiar yet persuasive in its own way.

Smeby's ingredients are mainly locally sources (Lemon Verbana comes from Long Island), but he does go out of his way for some vitals. His cranberries come from Wisconsin; Buddahs Hand Lemons from California; nectarines from the west coast. Most of his spices and seasonings are bought from very small companies that specialize in only two to six products.

The Modern sent over the following original recipe, which I found equally winning:

Devil in White
1.5 oz. Death's Door White Whiskey
1.5 oz. Dolin Vermouth Blanc (not the dry!)
5 dashes A.B. Smeby Black & White Bitters
Stir all ingredients over ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with two cherries.

Smeby has recently started filling orders to clients in Eugene, Oregon, and Albuquerque. He hopes to take his bitters to the retail market sometime in the future. In the meantime, you'll have to visit one of the above bars to sample his wears.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dry Dock Wine Shop to Open in Red Hook Tomorrow

Dry Dock, the new wine and liquor store on Van Brunt Street, in Red Hook, a couple blocks from Fairway, will officially open tomorrow, Feb. 11.

I got a sneak peak at the store today. Looks like they have a decent selection of wine; I'm guessing about 200 different labels, including at least one selection from the nearby Red Hook Winery. Reds dominate, with whites relegated to the back of the shop. The liquor selection, too, seems fairly broad. A wide selection of bourbons and ryes seems to indicate they are somewhat intent on filling the hole left by the late, lamented LeNell's.

On a Snowy Day, Might as Well Dream of a White Christmas

With a blizzard currently pelting New York City, one might as well make the best of it and pretend it's Christmas, and not mid-February. Offering an assist in this illusion is the East Village's Summit Bar, which currently has a cocktail on the menu called Christmas Morning. The mix is wintery and warming enough: Santa Teresa Rum, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, lemon juice, egg white, and whiskey barrel bitters. But its the last stop that really transports you to Dec. 25—a shower of nutmeg sent through a mold shaped like an evergreen. Joy to the World, folks.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Can Grüner Be Both Good and Cheap?

A publicist from the Midwest recently began sending me some Austrian wines, including some Rieslings, but mainly bottles of Grüner Veltliner. Now, you don't have to work too hard to sell me on the virtues of Grüner. I love Grüner. Among the white wines of the world, it is so distinct, with its crisp minerality, citrus, and white pepper bite, and it goes so beautifully with almost any food.

Then again, I don't drink much Grüner at home, or when out. That's because good Grüner costs $30 or more a bottle, making it an occasion wine. And, try as I might, I've never been able to find any value Grüner that's halfway decent. It think this is one of the reasons why the varietal has not caught on faster with the public. (That, and the difficult-to-pronounce name.) Critics loves the wines, but they're expensive, so, outside trend-setting urban bubbles like New York, you don't see much GruVe being downed.

This truth came back home as I went through the Austrian bottles that came through the mail. I wasn't getting the tingly sensory hit that I know Grüner can deliver and, sure enough, all of the bottles retailed under $20. One was the ubiquitous Grooner brand. (You can always tell a bargain GruVe by the goofy, cartoonish label, and this one has the goofiest.) Others included LOIS Gruner (made by the estimable Fred Loimer) and Domaine Wachau. None of them greatly impressed. The LOIS tasted like Grüner—green apple, lime, mineral, grass. That is, while is stayed in your mouth. The finish was not long, leaving one with the sense of an insubstantial experience. The Wachau had little dimension and another short finish. And I've always felt Grooner, from winemaker Meinhard Forstreiter, to be a watery underperformer. When I see it displayed prominently at otherwise knowing wine stores, my heart drops. Any of these could be passed off as Pinot Grigio and I doubt anyone would notice the difference.

This is not the way to sell an unfamiliar grape to the people. One can find a good $10-$12 bottle of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc if one tries hard enough. Surely, it's possible to do the same with Grüner Veltliner and get this great varietal more of a following.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Egg on Their Face

Today, the New York Times gets into the thick of the whole raw egg-Pegu Club-DOH debacle that shook the New York cocktail word a couple weeks back. And it finds: drama, intrigue, mystery, fear and possible abuse of authority. (This is my interpretation.)

Backstory: a Department of Health inspector walks into the cocktail lounge Pegu Club on Jan. 19 and sees someone order the signature drink the Earl Grey MarTEAni, which contains egg white. Supposedly, the customer was served one, but was not informed by the bartender that there was raw egg in the drink. So the inspector slapped the joint with a health citation and sent the cocktail world into a tizzy.

The first thing we learn from the Glenn Collins' great, and fascinating, article is that owner Audrey Saunders immediately “86’d the Earl Grey” rather than knuckle under to the DOH's demand she make the drink with pasteurized eggs.

But it turns out Pegu may not have violated any law at all. Elliott S. Marcus, an associate health commissioner, told the Times use of raw eggs is not illegal in the city, that "shell eggs or foods containing shell eggs" must be heated to 145 degrees or greater for 15 seconds, "unless an individual consumer requests" a preparation with raw egg. Otherwise "The bartender has to make a positive, affirmative statement" if there is raw egg in a cocktail. But, he added, if a customer orders from a menu that identifies raw egg in a dish or drink, that can serve as notification.

But wait. There is a notice on the Pegu menu. Everyone who's been there has seen it. It goes "we take the greatest care in the storage of our organic eggs. Please note, however, that like sushi, the consumption of raw eggs can be hazardous." So why was Pegu cited? Well, supposedly, according to the inspector, because the customer who asked for the MarTEAni didn’t order it from the menu and the bartender didn’t mention raw eggs were in it. Sounds like a big eavesdropper, our inspector. Also sounds ridiculous. Obviously, if a person orders something as specific as an Earl Grey MarTEAni, he has been to the bar before, and has ordered it before, and knows it has raw egg in it. 

But it get murkier still. According to the Times, "the bartender on the night of the inspection, Kenta Goto, said that no MarTEAnis were served while the inspector was present. The inspector who signed the violation sheet, Nathalie Louissaint, could not be reached for comment."

The DOH seeems to have admitted some sort of error already,  saying the inspector was wrong to list the infraction at 28 points and reissued it at 7 points, a more minor violation that does not require a court appearance or a reinspection.

Perhaps cocktailians need not fear an egg prohibition, since it begins to seem clear that the DOH has egg on their face in this matter. And, even if the Department continues in this foolish vein, we all have a weapon: step up to the bar and demand your drink be prepared with a raw egg.

PDT Adds a Quartet of Winter Drinks

James Meehan, lord of the East Village cocktail corridor known at PDT, has added a quartet of new creations to his winter menu, one devised by the man himself, the others by Kevin Diedrich and Brian Shebairo.

Meehan's, called the Mezcal Mule, is just what you'd expect—a homage to the Moscow Mule (which always means ginger beer is involved) using the increasingly popular Mezcal as its base. Also involved are lime juice, passion fruit puree, agave syrup and cucumber slices. It's finished off with a piece of candied ginger picked to a slice of cucumber and a pinch of ground chili. Sounds warming. 

One of Dietrich's libations, the Hot Buttered Pisco, sounds even more toasty-making. It's a—grab on to your hat here— Irish coffee/Hot Buttered Rum hybrid prepared with compound Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream butter and aromatic Peruvian Pisco spiced with vanilla, orange, clove, allspice, cinnamon, star anise and black pepper. Holy man. 

Dietrich's other new creation is called Crimson Tide. Built on a base of wonderful Lemon Hart Overproof Rum, it has an unusual sweetener in a mixture of 1.5 sorrel to .5 Canton. Lime is the citrus, and the drink is served in a collins glass topped with club soda. 

The final addition, Lake George, comes from PDT/Crif owner Brian Shebairo, who came up with this cocktail last summer while vacationing along the sunny shores of—where else—Lake George. It includes Jameson Irish Whiskey, Glenlivet 12 Year Scotch, lemon juice and Drambuie. Meehan said "He had planned to prepare Prince Edwards and Cameron’s Kicks, but read the recipes wrong. Fortunately, he documented his mistake." Looks like an inadvertent twist on the Rusty Nail to me. The Drambuie people will be very happy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Unlikely Boast

A recent Brooklyn real estate posting, peddling a two-story brick corner building in Williamsburg, including this eye-catching boast: "It houses the last intact pre-Prohibition bar in north Brooklyn, crafted by German cabinet makes of Cuban mahogany."

Judging by the picture, there's not doubt it's an old bar, and a beautiful one. But the last intact pre-Prohibition bar in north Brooklyn? Bars were hardly chopped into kindling when Prohibition came along. Many taverns continued to operated as speakeasies. Show me an old wooden bar in New York, and I'll show you a bar that served drinks on the sly in the 1920s. There are plenty of old saloons in north Brooklyn; thus, there are plenty of pre-Prohibition bars inside those saloons. One that comes immediately to mind is Teddy's on Berry Street. 120 years in business certainly places them in business well before Prohibition. And it seems to me Peter Luger's has a nice old bar. And Bamonte's is 110 years old and still have its old bar.

No one ever said realtor's were known for their honesty.

Chateau Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier Meet in New York

Wine Media Guild member Mark Golodetz was responsible for one of my favorite guild tastings since I joined the organization: a vertical tasting, from 2000 to 2006, of neighboring Pauillac domains Chateau Lougueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. On Jan. 22, he performed a similar feat, lining up a notable double-header of two famed Bordeaux Chateaux, both Grand Cru Classe de Graves from the Pessac-Leognan region: Chateau Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier.

Tastings focusing on a particular grape, or a particular region, or grape within a region, are fine. But they aren't hard to come by in the wine world. Something like this is special, and truly educational, allowing you to examine a couple wine houses, near to each other is basic style and geography, over the years. Having the winemakers on hand makes the event doubly illuminating.

Speaking for Domaine de Chevalier was pink-faced, white-haired, jovial owner Olivier Bernard (right). He became head of Domaine de Chevalier in 1983 at the age of 23. The speaker from Haut-Bailly was tall and thin Cellar Master Gabriel Vialard, once of Smith-Haut-Lafitte, who has been charge of the cellars since 2002. In addition, the owner of Chateau Haut-Bailly, Robert Wilmers, attended. He sat next to me, and, in his genteel, patrician grayness, seemed every inch the old banker and power broker he is. Wilmers bought Haut-Vailly a decade ago and calls himself strictly a "Bordeaux Man."

For the pre-lunch tasting, both Haut-Bailly and Domaine de Chevalier provided seven red vintages: 2001, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06 and 07. Chevalier also furnished three white wine vintages, including a 2001 which was an absolute highlight. It was a beautiful, dignified, steel-and-mineral wine, restrained, with a perfect, pinpoint structure. A masterpiece.

Chevalier has almost 94 acres of vines, of which red varieties are 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, the balance being 2.5% Cabernet Franc and 2.5% Petit Verdot. Haut-Bailly, located on a small hill, has 74 acres of vines planted. It still has fifteen percent of its 100-year-old vines dating from the pre-phylloxera period –- a mixture of Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a point of pride for Haut-Bailly, as well as it should be. The majority of the estate, meanwhile, is planted with 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 6% Cabernet Franc.

In his introduction, Mark described Bernard as a man from which you hae to coax information. But I didn't find him shy. Once he got going, he ended up speaking more than anyone, and was very free with this philosophical aphorisms, such as "I want to make wine from the fruit," and "Never too much, but always enough," as well as "We are not talking about drinkability enough today" and "Oak is for people who don't have enough terroir." 

Both Bernard and Vialard emphasized terroir, and their unflagging respect for it. Bernard said he only wished to bring out the wine the soil intended. "It is easy to make big wine. But it is not Bordeaux, sorry. Extraction is very well paid in Bordeaux. I like to talk about concentration, not extraction, which is a human effort." 

Needless to say, everyone in the guild was in happy agreement with the winemakers, and chuckled at their shots at the tastes of "a certain wine critic." Wilmers said Haut-Bailly would change "over his dead body."

The wines of the two houses showed their marked personalities. Overall, Haut-Bailly seemed less fruit-oriented and more restrained. Chevalier was more immediately appealing, even in off-years, while Haut-Bailly's charms were more subdued and subtle. I thought I was imagining things when I found myself more attracted to the 2002s, rather than the famous 2000 and 2005 vintages (fine as they were, particularly the 2000 Haut-Bailly). But a few fellow drinkers confirmed my preference. 2002 may not be a great vintage, but right now these two Graves were drinking splendidly. The Chevalier had a wonderful, sweet tobacco nose, good composition, nice depth and subdued fruit. The Haut-Bailly had a full fruity nose, and a sweet-tough taste of dark fruit and tobacco skin.

Another surprise was how nicely the little-heralded 2007s were tasting. The Chevalier was a bright, dry, plummy delight.

With lunch, their 1990 red vintages were served. I'm sorry to say these were a bit disappointing, a bit watery and faded. But the restaurant got wind of Wilmers' presence and served him some of Haut-Bailly's 1983, which they had in their cellar. He gave me a sip. That was pure heaven, wonderfully deep and silky. A dream. I didn't feel too bad taking a draught. I'm sure old Wilmers has a dozen bottles of it in his cellar.

Monday, February 1, 2010

New Rum Bar at Carteles to Focus on Punch

The rum lounge attached to the new East Village sandwich shop Carteles will focus on rum punch, Charlotte Voisey, the mixologist who will be charge of the drink menu, told Off the Presses. "It's about showcasing great rums that work in great punches." 

Furthermore, there will also be a rum cocktail bar downstairs, to be opened later on. Taken together, the three parts of the enterprise—Carteles, cocktail bar, punch lounge—will go by the name Cienfuegos. At present, the upstairs rum punch lounge—which will have 60 seats and emphasize table service—does not have an independent name.

Voisey expects the new bars will help school New Yorkers on the world of rum, which, to many drinkers, doesn't extend much beyond Bacardi. "The attention spent of rum should certainly provide an education yes," she said. "And in terms of rum events and a home for rum in New York City, yes that is what we hope to provide."