Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Manhattan Cocktail Classic Announced Schedule for May Convention

Manhattan Cocktail Classic gave us a preview in October. Now comes the main event of the newly created annual New York cocktail convention, running May 14-18, at the Astor Center and other locales all around town—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, even in New York Harbor itself.

Here's the piece I wrote for the New York Times' Diner's Journal yesterday. Below find the entire seminar schedule. Curacao, eh? I guess I don't known as much as Curacao as I ought to. (The ones with asterisks are repeats of seminars from last fall. I recommend Petraske's.)

Seminars for Astor Center
The Big Orange: Curacao & The Cocktail Steve Olson, Dave Wondrich

Glasses & Tools: How Do You Choose the Right Glass for a Drink?* Dale DeGroff

Ultimate Beverage Challenge WinnersPaul Pacult & the team

Cocktail Royalty: The Martini FamilyAngus Winchester

Cocktails for the Home Cocktail Party*Sasha Petraske

Mastering the Art of Bartending: Everything You Need to Know Before Even Picking Up a BottleGary Regan, Dushan Zaric, Simon Ford, TJ Lynch, and Aisha Sharpe

From the Farm to the Glass: Sustainable Farming and Organic Spirits and CocktailsMelina Shannon-DiPietro, Yale Sustainable Food Project
Joseph Magliocco, Crop Harvest Earth Organic Vodkas
Allen Katz, Southern Wine & Spirits

Preserving with Liquor for Killer-Cocktails All Year Round: Twelve Months of Local Ingredients Behind The Bar Francis Schott & Mark Pascal, Mixologists, Bar Owners & Hosts of The Restaurant Guys Radio Program

The Sherry Cocktail*Andy Seymour

Wood for Thought: Playing Master Blender with Single Malt Scotch Whisky Sam Simmons, The Balvenie Ambassador USA (East)

When It‘s Cocktail Time in Cuba Phil Greene and Charlotte Voisey

What Does it Take to Win a Cocktail Competition? Gary (Gaz) Regan

Spice: The Fennel Frontier Tad Carducci, Tippling Bros.

Spirits and Agriculture TBD

American Drinks Invade Europe Dave Wondrich, Fernando Castellon, other panelists

Gin's of England Desmond Payne (Master Distiller, Beefeater Gin) & Sean Harrison (Master Distillery, Plymouth Gin)

The Harry Johnson StoryAnistatia Miller & Jared Brown

Famous Hotel Bars and Men and Women Behind Them Elayne Duke, Mixologist and Spirits Ambassador for Diageo, and other special guests

Booze Biz 2.0 – Beyond Slinging Drinks Moderator: Francine Cohen – Editor in Chief, Inside F&B
Jason Littrell – Death & Company, Louis 649, Cain Luxe
Gianfranco Verga – Manager, Louis 649
Dushan Zaric – Employees Only, Macao Trading Company
Additional industry professionals to be announced

Chasing the White Dog in Manhattan Junior Johnson (Legendary Moonshiner), Joe Michalek (Founder of Piedmont Distillers) and Max Watman (Author of “Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine”)

Drink Punch and Be MerryDave Wondrich

Complex Cocktails for Busy Bars moderated by Cheers editor-in-chief Liza Zimmerman

Distillation for Flavor – Past, Present and Future Merlin Griffiths, Gin Expert

Bar Myth Busters Don Lee & Alex Day

The Spirited Whey: Monk-Inspired Cocktails and Cheeses Diana Pittet & Kara Newman

And How Many Bubbles Would You Like in that Cocktail? Dale DeGroff & Doug Frost

The Agave Session: The Magical Elixirs of Mexico* Steve Olson

Bartenders, Bloggers, and Brands Lindsey Johnson, Jason Littrell, TBD Bloggers

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Class Returns to the Empire State Building

TGI Friday's. Heartland Brewery, Walgreen's. The Empire State Building, Art Deco symbol of all that is New York City, has had to put up with a lot of low-rent tenants in recent years. But now, with the opening of the Empire Room, the skyscraper finally has a drinking and eating destination as classy as itself.

The new bar is run by Mark Grossich, the same guy behind Grand Central's Campbell Apartment (Grossich has a thing for Gotham landmarks, it would seem). It officially opened yesterday. The space, all 3,500 square feet of it, was formerly a postal substation. Now it's filled with brushed stainless steel, a curved marble bar, equally curbed leather stools and circular chandeliers.

The cocktail menu, created by Jonathan Pogash (who also did the menu at Campbell Apartment, Library Bar and others), includes some classics created before the Empire State was built (Clover Club, Ramos Gin Fizz) and some created after (Moscow Mule). There's a Prohibition Punch, featuring Appleton Rum Estate VX, Gran Gala VSOP, passion fruit juice, and Moet & Chandon Champagne. And the signature cocktail, the Empire, includes Bluecoat Gin, Dolin Dry Vermouth, Royal Combier Liqueur, fresh lemon juice, raspberry-orange marmalade and Moet. The latter will run with $16. The punch $15. The others $13.50.

Below is the list of "House Specialty Cocktails."

Laird’s Applejack, Yellow Chartreuse, Punt e Mes and fresh lemon juice 
Blueberry and raspberry puree, maraschino liqueur and sparkling wine 
Sombra mezcal, dry vermouth, Combier orange liqueur, white crème de cacao, aromatic and mole bitters 
Berry tea-infused Plymouth gin, lemon juice, honey syrup and fresh muddled blackberries 
Old Overholt Rye whiskey, peach puree, Mathilde peach liqueur and fresh mint

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Beer At...Molly's Pub & Shebeen

For this week's "A Beer At..." column on Eater, I was kind to myself and visited one of the best Irish pub's in America.

A Beer At...Molly's Pub & Shebeen
First, I know that Molly's is not exactly an anonymous watering hole. Some treasure it as the finest Irish pub in the five boroughs. But, God help me, I've never passed through the squat Tudoresque frontage, so I figured it was high time I hoisted a beer at this mainstay of old, hard-drinking Third Avenue.
The address, 287 Third, has held a bar since 1895, excepting Prohibition years—and even then, who can tell. The working, wood-burning fireplace was in place long before the joint was called Molly's (actually, Molly Malone's first) and long, long before present owners Peter O'Connell and John Ronaghan took over in the 1990s. The hearth is a big draw in the cold winter months. If you don't find yourself feeling cozy trodding the sawdust-strewn floors in this low-ceilinged nest of woody nooks, you don't know how to be cozy.
The fireplace is cherished by locals, but a handfull to the management. "The chimney catches on fire pretty regular," the bald, spotlessly polite Irish bartender says. A chimney sweep is all but on retainer. Where does one find a chimney sweep in New York? The bartender shrugs. "The owner knows."
The line of dark booths, peopled by a mix of familiars and tourists, are littered with just-served and just-devoured Shepherd's Pie. Molly's is known for the dish. Hamburgers, too, though no one seemed to be ordering them when I was there. To wash it down, there's Irish, Irish and Irish. Guinness, Harp, Smithwick's. Murphy's Stout and Murphy's Red are represented by two enormous taps. Don't look for Smutty Nose here.
A wild-haired, grab-bag lady at the end of the bar is obviously an established barfly, a drunken barnacle unlikely to exit anytime before closing hour. But when a French lady sitting next to her digs into her Shepherd's Pie, the boozehound admits she has never tried the dish, and has no idea what it might be like. "You should," says the French woman, scooping up a forkful and handing it to the lush. She warily takes it, holds the hot, steaming food one inch from her month and says, "I might. I may taste it someday"—as if the matter were still in question.
She tries some Pie, utters no verdict. Suddenly, the barfly, too, is speaking in French. The bald bartender, who has an Irish accent as thick as treacle, walks to their end of the bar. And he breaks in very passable French. Gallic, not Gaelic, briefly permeates the air at Molly's Shebeen. A portrait of Brendan Behan, looking half in the bag (that is, normal), gazes down from the wall, no doubt amused. Behan never drank at Molly's, of course. Died in 1964. Seamus Heaney has, however. Booth near the door. Regular customer.
—Robert Simonson

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Sipping News

Julie Reiner will open a new tropical cocktail joint in the former Tailor space in SoHo. [Diner's Journal]

Chicago Grant Achatz posts a video about the meals he prepared in three cities for Absolut vodka. [Eater]

Sasha Petraske to consult on cocktails at Stephen Starr's new Mexican restaurant El Rey. [Grub Street]

Germany still wants to ram a four-lane, mile-long bridge through Mosel country. [The Pour]

Camper English posts some amazingly exhaustive, amazingly blurry photo coverage of the 42Below Vodka Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand. [Alcademics]

Eric Asimov looks at some small wine shops. [NYT]

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kosher for Passover Gin

What is permissible to drink at a Passover seder is terribly important to me. Having a Jewish wife, I am assured of attending two seders every year, and something is needed to get one through those four-to-five-hour ceremonies. 

I don't think I alone in my desperation. Otherwise, why would people be inventing things like Kosher for Passover gin? Obviously, there's a call for such a product. And No. 209 gin out of California was the first to answer it. The new gin bows this year. I wrote about it for Tasting Table:

A More Spiritual Spirit
The drinking options at the seder table keep getting better and better.
In the dark ages, the only option was sticky-sweet Manischewitz. Then a quality revolution gripped the wine world, and the seder's ceremonial cups became less of a trial and more of a pleasure.
Now, thanks to Distillery No. 209's new Passover-friendly gin, spirits lovers have something to celebrate.
To make kosher gin a reality, master distiller Arne Hillesland replaced No. 209's usual base spirit with a sugarcane vodka from a kosher-for-Passover distillery in South Africa.
Hillesland further altered his recipe by replacing cardamom (a no-no for Passover, since the herb comes in a pod) with California bay leaf, which has a strong menthol flavor. The resulting gin is similar to the standard 209, but the kosher version has a slightly sharper flavor and more viscous mouthfeel.
The costly process of making a kosher alternative--which includes hiring a mashgiach (a kosher supervisor) to oversee production--raises the price to $39 a bottle, about $4 more than the regular No. 209. But so far people have been willing to pay the premium: Hillesland says sales have been brisk.
So this year, have a martini (or one of these cocktails) with your matzo brei. Just remember to mix it with kosher-for-Passover vermouth--yes, it does exist.
—Robert Simonson
No. 209's usual base is corn-derived.

To ensure that the California Bay Leaf Hillesland used in the gin was kosher, and wasn't touched by any suspect machinery, the distiller actually picked the leaves from the trees himself.

The Kosher-for-Passover No. 209 will only be available in New York, New Jersey and California this year. Hillesland made 800 cases. He thinks they'll sell.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Beefeater Releases a "Summer" Gin

Beefeater is on a line-extending jag.

Just a year and a half after launching the tea-tinted Beefeater 24, the venerable old London dry gin firm is back with yet another new product.

Called Beefeater Summer, the recipe—like the 24—hews pretty close to Beefeater's classic botanical mix, but adds three ingredients: elderflower, hibiscus and black currant. The official launch will be in June.

"I wouldn't dare change [the original] recipe and it's not my job to do that," chief distiller Desmond Payne told a recent gathering. "On the back of the success of Beefeater 24, we looked at a seasonal variation. We've bottled it weaker: it's 80 proof. It's quite aimed at the consumer." 

There are limited release whiskeys all over the place. Seasonal gins? Well, why not. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Modern and Sixpoint to Handle Some Hot Rocks

A team of staff members from The Modern will be heading down to Red Hook's Sixpoint Craft Ales brewery to take part in a two-day beer-making class. The result will be the Manhattan restaurant's third proprietary beer with the Brooklyn beermaker.

The beer already has a name: Dr. Klankenstein. (A bit clunky, but memorable.) It will be a "stone" beer, an ancient brewing technique that entails superheated rocks being thrown into the mash to caramelize the malt.  It will be Sixpoint's first stone beer.

Look for Dr. Klankenstein (ask for it by name!) in May. On tap, of course. Because Sixpoint doesn't do bottles.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Are All Great Nouveau Mixology Trends Actually Illegal?

I got an e-mail newsletter today from the East Village vegetarian restaurant Counter, which has a notable cocktail program. Two items caught my attention. One: Counter had culled a good deal of praise from its trading in Popsicles Cocktail last summer. Two, the Liquor Authority caught some of that press, fined Counter $1,000 and forced it to end its frozen booze days.

This reminded me a story a few years ago of a bar in Virginia that hit it big with beer popsicles—until the authorities learned of it, and informed the bar that arcane Virginia law (since repealed) prohibits frozen beer, and shut the practice down.

I exchanged a few e-mails with Counter and was told this: "In NY state liquor has to be made from the bottles that it comes in. Premade drinks are illegal, premade sangria is illegal, infusions of any kind are illegal. Frozen drinks are legal as long as they're made in a machine. Liquor laws are Prohibition laws. We got caught because the Popsicles got a ton of press."

"Infusions of any kind are illegal." This recalled to me a February article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how California liquor sheriffs had begun descending on Bay Area bars, warning them they were breaking the law by altering alcohol by infusing it with fruits, vegetables and spices. Even Sangria was suspect, in their opinion.

The above attitude would also seem to make homemade bitters a no-no—and every ritzy cocktail bar in NYC and elsewhere has a batch of those.

And then there's the whole recent brouhaha surrounding a health inspector finding that the Pegu Club was actually serving raw egg in one of its cocktails, and ordering it (temporarily) to stop. But tons of bars in NYC slip egg into mixed drinks. Many classic drinks call for them.

It's all made me wonder. Has the 21st-century cocktail renaissance flowered either in complete ignorance or through impudent flouting of the law of the land? It would seem to be, partly, so. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Civilians Encouraged to Mix Behind Bar at Louis 649

Anyone who quotes "Ratatouille" is bound to get my attention. Love that movie.

"ANYONE CAN BE A MIXOLOGIST" cheers a press release from East Village cocktail hole Louis 649, a spin on the movie's Chef Gusteau's motto. To that end, the bar is holding the first ever Louis 649 Consumer Cocktail Competition. Bartenders need not apply; only civilians.

The recipe submission guidelines are these:

1) Submission deadline is April 18.

2) Send all recipes to

3) With submission, please include a detailed recipe with measurements, the type of glass to be used, whether the drink should be served “Up” or over ice, whether it is meant to be stirred or shaken, your full name, email address, phone number, current city and your occupation.

4) Be creative, but not over the top. Please remember, we have to make this cocktail all Spring.

5) You must use one of the following spirits as your base ingredient:
- Beefeater Gin
- Bercherovka Herbal Liqueur
- Chivas 12yr
- Jameson Irish Whiskey
- Luksusowa Vodka
- Martell Cognac
- Pernod Absinthe
- Plymouth Gin
- Ramazzotti Amaro
- Ricard Pastis

6) All other ingredients are up to you, but refer back to Rule #4

As you can see from rule #5, this is a Pernod/Ricard backed event (those are all Pernod products), though the idea came from Louis 649. That takes a bit of the experimental latitude out of things. Still, that's a wide variety of base liquors. 

On April 21, ten semi-finalists will be invited to Louis 649 to prepare their cocktails in front of a panel of bartenders who will then decide the winning cocktail based on criteria the recipe’s creativity, ease of preparation, flavor and balance.

The prize for winning? Your cocktail will be highlighted on the upcoming spring menu and credited to you. The winner will also receive Plymouth Gin Bartending Kit, a one-year subscription to Imbibe (a good magazine featuring some very intelligent writing, I here) and a $100 Gift Card to Louis 649. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bad News From Beaujolais

We all have wines we reach for when we don't want to be disappointed, dependable standbys who impress year after year. For me, Terres Dorees, Jean-Paul Brun's daring Beaujolais winery, has long been such a wine. If I wanted good Beaujolais, both red and white, and for a good price, I knew a bottle of Brun's would never fail me.

So, I was shocked when I recently sampled Brun's 2008s and found them...awful.

The 2008 vintage was a tough one, the pourers told me. The weather was wet and there was a large loss of crop. The region was hit by hailstorms in August of that year. The conditions show in the usually redoubtable Beaujolais Blanc and Beaujolais L'Ancien Vieilles Vignes, which were both vegetal and sour, with very little fruit.

Brun is not alone, however. I tasted a few other Beaujolais from 2008 and recoiled from one bad, acrid, fruitless glass after another.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: Ulysse Collin Blanc de Blanc NV

When we think of Champagne, we tend to picture old, historic houses that have been having at the bubbly for centuries. New Champagne makers are an odd notion. But they do exist. 

I sampled the startlingly good wares of such a creature, Ulysse Collin, at the recent Polaner tasting. Olivier Collin's first vintage was only in 2004 and he's already a rising star, his wine praised left and right. The Blanc de Blanc NV (coming out of the 2005 vintage) was gentle and dry, yet with a sparkling clarity. It reminded me how simple a joy, yet subtly complex an experience, good Champagne could be. Pure enjoyment. It's not cheap; looks to run about $80 a bottle. But worth it, if you're in the mood to splurge.

In 2003, Collin recovered 4.5 hectares of vineyards that his family had rented out for years to Maison Pommery, and part of the family cellar, also rented out elsewhere. The Blanc de Blancs comes from a 1.2 hectare plot called Les Perrières, where the vines are around 30 years old. This plot has a shallow, poor topsoil 10 to 50 cms deep over the rocky subsoil of soft chalk with carbonated silex or onyx, which, I am told, is a rare geological combination in Champagne. Collin hopes to be completely organic in the years to come, but presently, owing to financial restraints, he uses a mix of organic and conventional practices.

He's aging the Champagne longer each year: 10 months in 2004, 12 in 2005, 13 in 2006. And he made a second wine in 2006, a Blanc de Noirs from a plot called Les Maillons near the town of Sézanne. I didn't get to taste that.

Collin made only 5,500 bottles of the 2004, but in 2005 he increased this to 9,000, and in 2006 he made 10,000 bottles of this wine and 5,000 bottles of the Blanc de Noirs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Paddy's Day: Drink Your Pickle Back!

The Pickle Back, while being the current trendy drink of the moment, also appears to be the heavily promoted new official shot of St. Patrick's Day. And why not? The pickle brine chaser is traditionally (or, at least, lately) preceded by a shot of Jameson, the popular Irish whiskey that must just be tickled to death about this bizarre new practice.

The press has covered the once-secret bartender's ritual pretty well, with items appearing in Tasting Table, The Bachelor Guy, NY Barfly and Down by the Hipster. This week, it's in the New York Post and the New York Times, where the estimable Toby Cecchini examined the topic, discussing how Jameson came to co-op the trend and revealing that insiderey bartenders now call it "the Pisky Whickle." Me, I think "Pickle Back" works just fine. I'd feel silly asking for a Pisky Whickle.

(Above swell picture from the Times article.)

Angostura Bitters Distributor Contact OTP

I received this message from Mizkan Americas, the new distributor of Angostura Bitters, in response to my recent post on the coming end of the Angostura shortage:

Mizkan Americas is the exclusive distributor of Angostura Bitters in the United States. After a shortage of bitters due to a severe problem with the bottle supply in Trinidad, where bitters is manufactured, Angostura Bitters is in the US! Mizkan Americas has 6 container loads that have landed and are at our US facilities across the country. We began shipping bitters to distributors around the US in March and are working as quickly as possible to get product to all of our valued customers. Orange Bitters, a new Angostura Bitters offering, is also available in the US and will be shipped as ordered.

The Rum They Drink in "The God of Carnage"

"The God of Carnage," the Yasmina Reza comedy of bad manners about four adults behaving like children, has been a hit on Broadway for a year now, and I've wondered for some time why the rum industry hasn't taken advantage of the fact that, in this high-profile production, the characters partake very liberally and vocally of a bottle of high-end rum.

The exact rum in question is English Harbor Reserve 10 Year Old, an Antigua rum that everyone in the play roundly praises as nectar from the Gods. According to the Internet, a bottle of the stuff, which is a blend of 10- to 25-year-old rums, goes for a whopping $177.

Liquor makes regular appearances in Broadway plays and musicals. As a plot furtherer, there's nothing like it; people tend to do things and say things while under the influence that they wouldn't otherwise. But rum is a peculiar choice. Reza's play was originally set in France (the playwright is French), where, perhaps, rum is a more popular drinking choice than it is here. But in the U.S.—and the Broadway production of "Carnage" is set in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn—when someone pulls out a fancy bottle for straight sipping, it's usually Scotch or Bourbon. Maybe Cognac, if the drinkers are more old-school dignified. But rum? Who does that, except the most schooled liquor enthusiasts?

Given the uniqueness of the situation, I advise the rum industry to make hay of the situation, before the play closes and the moment is lost.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Sipping News

The new Brooklyn Bridge Park will feature an elevated wine bar. [Brooklyn Paper]

Malcolm Gladwell has penned a fascinating piece on how larger cultural attitudes and habits toward drinking influence how alcohol effects different people. [The New Yorker]

How important is it that a red wine be a dark color, asks Eric Asimov. [The Pour]

Where are the cheap, and good, California wines? Good question. [NY Times]

Cocktail sweeteners are getting more varied. [Fine Cooking]

Herradura Bringing You Tequila in a Can

Herradura, the 140-year-old tequila now owned by Brown-Forman, will be blanketing the U.S. with some new products over the month few months, some artisanal and craved by aficianados, some low-brow and craved by party girls, and one practical and craved by anyone with a sweet tooth.

On my recent trip to Mexico, I was tipped off to bring home some of Herradura's Antiguo line of tequilas, told they couldn't be had in the U.S. Little did I know that the Antiguos had started creeping into the States late last fall. They're not yet in New York, but will be soon.

The line was created in 1995, and differs from the Herradura tequilas and Herradura's entry-level El Jimador line in three ways. One, it's first distilled in pot stills, then column stills (the Herradura and El Jimador are twice pot-still-distilled). Two, it's aged slightly longer than the El Jimador, but spends somewhat less time in barrel that the Herraduras. More critically, after the second distillation, Antiguo undergoes a carbon filtration, the liquor sent through coconut shells.

As someone at the tasting I attended commented, the wine-bottle-like packaging seems to indicate Herradura is after the female market, and the smoothness of the product, a result of the filtration, tells me they want to capture the vodka drinkers. That said, there's no denying this is a fine group of tequilas, particularly the rounder Reposado, which has flavors of caramel, coconut and pineapple, and the Anejo, which is a full, fruity specimen, with cantaloupe, vanilla and toast tastes. The Antiguos are priced around $29-$39 each.

The new practical item of Herradura's own agave nectar. Agave nectar is everywhere these days, preferred to simple syrup by some bartenders, and poured by consumers over everything from cereal to pancakes. (Amusingly, there is no market for this stuff in Mexico.) Herradura's version is darker and denser than most, and very nice indeed.

And then there the New Mix line. Folks, there's no other way to say this. It's tequila in a can. Actually, tequila cocktails in a can, with an alcohol content of 5%. There are three flavors—Margarita, Spicy Mango Margarita, and Paloma—and Mexicans love this stuff already. In the last ten years, four and a half million cases moved. The cans, which have labels that make them look like soda from a distance (except for the mark at the top of the can that says "21+"), will be here before summer.

Herradura freely admits the target market is women. They're not bad, even if you feel kinda low-rent drinking them. The best is the Paloma. The Paloma is Mexico's favorite cocktail: tequila and Fresca, with a squirt of lime. Since soda pop is already involved, this drink is easily replicated in a can.

It's easy to look down one's nose at the New Mix drinks. But, truth be told, if I was invited to an outdoor barbeque, and I saw a  bunch of New Mix on ice in metal bucket, I'd reach for one.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Master of the "Hard Shake" Coming to New York

He's talked about in bars across New York. His skills are heatedly debated. His cocktail shaking techniques are controversial, either adhered to slavishly or actively doubted.

All this, and Japanese bartender Kazuo Uyeda has never actually been to the U.S. to explain his philosophy!

Until now. Uyeda will make his first New York appear in May, taking part in a two-day seminar. I wrote the following post for the New York Times' Diner's Journal. Read:
Though living and working half a world away, the Japanese bartender and cocktail-shaking philosopher Kazuo Uyeda has managed to inspire many a Manhattan barroom argument. Most of them have centered on what is called the hard shake, an ornate and controversial method of shaking drinks devised by Mr. Uyeda.
Soon, bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts can question the master in person. On May 3 and 5, Mr. Uyeda, 65, will be making what is being billed as his first appearance in New York. The event, which will take place at the Hiro Ballroom in Chelsea, is presented by Cocktail Kingdom, a company run by Gregory Boehm that sells Japanese barware, among other drinking accouterments. Communicating through an interpreter, Mr. Uyeda will explain his barroom philosophy and demonstrate his techniques to anyone willing to pay $675 for the privilege.
Audience capacity is 110. Also speaking will be Stanislav Vadrna, a Slovakia-born disciple of Mr. Uyeda.
Simultaneous with the seminar, Mud Puddle Books, an imprint owned by Mr. Boehm that specializes in reprinting long-out-of-print cocktail manuals and recipe books, will publish the first English-language version of Mr. Uyeda’s book “Cocktail Techniques.”
Those interested can contact the Cocktail Kingdom’s Web site.
According to the Web site, the ticket price includes admission to both days of the event, an AG cobbler shaker, lunch on both days, cocktails during the event, admission to an after-party on Day 2 with a guest, and other gifts.

I will be attending the seminar. Afterwards, I'll report back on whether the Emperor wears clothes or not.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Herbsaint Scholar

I first encountered Jay Hendrickson at the 2009 Tales of the Cocktail where he was a speaker at a panel about New Orleans pharmacists who had had an impact on the cocktail world. He was speaking about pharmacist J. Marion Legendre, the man who invented Herbsaint. When he took the stage, he reminded me, with his unironic moustache and limp brown hair and glasses, of the drummer from Cheap Trick, and he spoke in an unrelenting and very soft monotone that made me wonder how he had ever been allowed behind a lectern. Yet he knew everything about Herbsaint and a lot more besides. Plus, he had an amazing collection of old bottles and liquors. I thought, who is this guy?

I found out when Imbibe gave me the opportunity to profile Hendrickson. And the story was worth uncovering. It's published in the March/April issue. Here it is:

The Informant

By Robert Simonson
In 2005, Stanley Schwam was invited to speak on a panel about bitters at Tales of the Cocktail, the tippling convention that takes place in New Orleans every July. He knew something about the subject. For 40 years, he worked for the Sazerac Company, which purchased Peychaud’s Bitters decades ago. At the end of the seminar, Schwam was approached by an unassuming-looking man with lank brown hair, plain moustache and oval-shaped glasses. “Ever seen one of these?” he asked, pulling out an old bottle of Herbsaint. Of course Schwam had. Sazerac had owned the anise-flavored liqueur since 1949. Then he did a double take—the date on the vessel was 1934, the year Herbsaint was introduced. “Where did you get that bottle?” he asked.
Jay Hendrickson, the mystery man in the moustache, had found it on eBay. It’s just one of his many Herbsaint keepsakes. He also owns Herbsaint bottles from the 1940s and ’50s, miniature and full-size; Herbsaint recipe booklets and old labels; bottles from the Prohibition-era drug store owned by J. Marion Legendre, the man who invented the popular absinthe substitute; examples of long-discontinued Herbsaint relatives like Legendre Anisette and Legendre New Orleans Bitters; even the original, pre-Herbsaint Legendre Absinthe. “He’s got a lot of things we don’t have,” admits Kevin Richards, Herbsaint’s brand manager. “The best we can do is scour eBay to try to get our hands on our own.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Barrel Aged Cocktails in Portland

In the mid-20th-century, it was not uncommon for large liquor makers to offer completed cocktails in bottle form. One could buy pre-mixed Sazeracs, Martinis and Manhattan in bottle form, along with several other popular drinks. I myself own an ancient mini-bottle of Gordon's Martini Cocktail. This sort of marketing approach is still in practice, uses for popular, party-time libations like the Mojito and Margarita.

I've always considered the whole idea of pre-mixed cocktails somewhat trashy (Cocktails for the Lazy and Incompetent?) and unappetizing. However, the estimable Portland bartender and mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler is currently experimenting with an interesting twist on the concept.

At Clyde Common, the Portland bar where he is bar manager, Morgenthaler is offering cask-aged versions of such cocktails as the Manhattan, Trident and Negroni. He poured large doses of the necessary ingredients for each into used three-gallon Tuthilltown whiskey barrels and ages them in the basement of the bar for up to two months. For the Manhattan, for instance, he put together a barrel's worth of Beam rye, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, Angostura bitters and house orange bitters.

Morgenthaler said he got the idea from Tony Conigliaro in London, who ages Manhattans in glass bottles.

The Barrel-Aged Manhattans are currently on the Clyde Common drink menu. I can almost imagine what effect the whiskey-cured wood would have on the cocktail. What a whiskey-barrel-aged Negroni would taste like is harder to conjure.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Angostura Shortage May End Soon, But Orange Bitters Will Have to Wait

In January, Giselle Laronde-West, a spokeswoman for the Angostura bitters company in Trindad (and a former Miss World!) told the press that the shortage of the essential cocktail staple, which has plagued New York since last December, was near an end. I don't know. I still don't see it on the shelves of my local grocery stores or boutique food shops. And bar owners tell me they can't get their hands of any new stock. Recent reports have blamed the whole problem on a dispute with Angostura's bottle maker. The company says a new bottle supplier from China is on board.

Still, there may a light at the end of the tunnel. Hoping to find out something new, I went to the Angostura website. Among the company's many Pollyanna-ish press releases—no releases between Nov. 22 and Jan. 13 (wonder why!), and NO specific mention of the shortage anywhere!—I found a few tidbits of information.

Vodkas and Their Differences

And, yes, there are differences—a truth known by anyone in the liquor industry with a little sense. But one that is frequently forgotten— partly because our government insists on characterizing vodka as a "colorless, flavorless, odorless" beverage; partly because cocktail zealots like to insist that vodka is a blank canvas and brings nothing to the table, taste-wise; and also partly because the huddled masses who do love vodka, and guzzle copious amounts of it, don't exactly drink for taste, but simply to drink, get drunk, all while covering up the character of their Belvedere and Grey Goose with a fruit salad's worse of juice.

That there are subtle, and sometimes dramatic, differences in flavor and odor between one vodka and another was driven home recently by a daylong seminar hosted by Absolut. This was, indeed, the company's intention. The liquor company invited a few dozen prominent industry bar owners and bartenders to the gathering, hoping the shake them out of the rigid thinking regarding America's favorite intoxicant. Among the assembled: Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club), Jim Meehan (PDT), Giuseppe Gonzalez (Dutch Kills, Painkiller), Eben Freeman (late of Tailor, now roving entrepreneur), Eben Klemm, Toby Cecchini, Dale DeGroff, Franky Marshall (Clover Club), Jeremy F. Thompson (late of Raines Law Room), Lynette Merrero (Rye House), Gary Regan, as well as a handle of journalists such as myself, who were cheerfully tolerated.

Central to the event was a blind tasting of 12 different vodkas. To Absolut's credit, only two of these were Absolut products; it takes a fair amount of confidence and guts to put yourself up against your competition in such a public forum.

I spoke to many of the participants following the tasting, and quite a few were surprised by the findings, not the least of which was how poorly leaders like Grey Goose (hot and sweet) and Ketel One (soft with an abundance of solvent-like notes) showed. A spicy, fruity, well-balanced vodka from Poland called U'luvka impressed some in the room, most of whom were unfamiliar with it. It is distilled from an unusual blend of rye, wheat and barley. The vodka Tito's had a disappointing reception from many who remembered liking the Texas brand when it debuted a decade of so ago; the corn-based recipe has evidently changed, with the company buying a lot of its distillate from other parties. In a blind tasting, the highly singular and meaty Karlsson's, made from Swedish potatoes, came off as even more unusual than I remember upon first encountering it. Still, Zubrowka, a Polish vodka made from Bison Grass, was the weirdo of the bunch, bringing out tasting notes of "hay," "talcum powder," "coconut," "plastic" and "menthol." It's apparently drunk with apple juice in its native land.

Absolut, for the record, came off well, being called creamy, buttery and with distinct grain flavors, and with none of the sweetness that marred other vodkas. The addition of sugar—a fairly common practice—is called "rounding," we learned. How's that for an innocent-sounding term?

The main lesson of the tasting—or re-learned lesson, since many of us in the room knew it already—is that the biggest difference between the flavors of various vodkas derives from the source material, and that difference is easily detected, if you pay attention. Vodka can be distilled from anything, but the most common raw materials are grain and potatoes, with a few using molasses and grapes and other things. Grape-sourced vodka typically has a fruitier character; grain-sourced has the expected bready, yeasty and, yes, grainy notes, with the rye vodkas having more bit and spark than the barley or wheat ones; and potato-sourced vodka has a rounder, sometimes buttery flavor.

So, now that we've all been reminded that vodkas are many and varied, what does the cocktail world do with this information? More thoughts on that in a subsequent post.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Prime Meats Takes Home the Gold

I reported last year that Prime Meats, the Carroll Gardens bar and restaurant, had achieved the strange distinction of selling more of the teeny tiny German bitters Underberg than any other establishment in the U.S. At the time, they served the herbal, after-dinner digestif out of specialized, long-stemmed glasses provided by the German makers of the elixir.

Well, Prime Meats has graduated to the big time now. They've sold so much Underberg that the company has rewarded them with a set of gold, long-stemmed glasses. (Not real gold; just gold colored, and metal.) Neat! And totally weird.

Personally, I like the glass ones better. You can see the drink.

A Visit to La Opera Cantina

I had a list an arm long of cantinas I wanted to visit on my recent trip to Mexico City. I got to exactly one. I was close to visiting La Covadonga, a huge and old cantina, but our local Mexican guide, a chic and pretty young native, talked it down so as tacky and "creepy," we decided to avoid it.

The one we did visit, however, was exceptional, and unique. The opulent La Opera, right the Centro Historico, opened in 1876 and reminded me more of the grand, wood-paneled, high-ceilinged cafes of Vienna and Trieste than a Mexican cantina, which one always expects to be charmingly scruffy. The place is grandly of the Guilded age. The wooden bar (which was carved in New Orleans!) is mammoth, about 20 feet tall and 10 feet deep. 

Cushioned banquettes surround large central pillars and roomy booths line the walls. The walls are covered with brocade wallpaper and the ceiling is edged with ornately gilded, embossed, Art Nouveau tin. Mirrors abounded, lending added grandeur to the room. A tuxedoed Mariachi band, including an ancient, blind man playing something like a zither, serenaded the drinkers. "La Opera" was stamped on everything, from the windows to the floor mats to the packets of free, green mints. (Though, for some reason, carved into the backs of each wooden chair was the letter "B.")

We were shown a bullet hole in the ceiling directly above one of the booths opposite the bar. It was reputedly put there by Pancho Villa. We didn't believe it. It was too neatly placed, too centered. (Of course, this detail is the one thing all travel guides mention about La Opera.)

We became fascinated by a trio of old, dignified men in suits who held court in the first booth, near the entrance. They looked so comfortable, so supremely confident, we deduced that they had been meeting in that booth regularly for years. Someone suggested they were part of local organized crime. I didn't think so. But they were movers and shakers of some sort. Perhaps powerful lawyers of politicians; La Opera has always been a political watering hole. 

I ordered a shot of Herradura Antiguo Reposado, a tequila I am told cannot be had in the U.S. (I found out upon returning that is was only recently introduced in America.) I did not get a chance to eat anything, though I hear the food is good. A good place to linger. Sadly, we had to be on our way after a single drink.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Knob Creek Bourbon Shortage

This month, I make my debut in Malt Advocate, the nation's leading whisk(e)y magazine, with an article on last year's Knob Creek shortage. The article's probably the closest I've come to a piece of quasi-investigative journalism in a while, and it was fun to put together, and a please to talk to (and in some cases, visit) the folks at Knob Creek, George Dickel, Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark, Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill. 

In the table of contents, I'm referred to as "new writer Robert Simonson." Funny to be called "new" after 20 years in the biz. But I'm new to MA, I guess. And who knows? Maybe people will think I'm 26 or something and start hiring me "youth-oriented" articles.

In order to give the folks over at Malt Advocate a chance to sell a few magazines, I'm just going to print a teaser of the full article here. Once the next issue is out, I'll print the whole thing.

When Knob Creek Went Dry
By Robert Simonson
Press is hard to come by in the whiskey trade. Unlike wine, which has a new vintage to talk about every single year, spirits, once established, get few opportunities to net additional ink. "Jack Daniel's: Still Here" does not a headline make. So publicity opportunities must be created. The most common way to do this is to release a limited edition whiskey—a strategy that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. 
There's a new technique in town, however, and it draws on the inverse phenomenon: instead of a new product making its debut, an old one goes missing. 
In June 2009, Knob Creek had it's biggest media splash in years crowing over a temporary shortage of its 9-year-old, Jim Beam-produced bourbon. Full-page, full-color print ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal showed an upturned bottle of Knob Creek dispensing its last drop. "You may experience may experience something of a shortage at your local liquor store very soon," read the copy. "But not to worry, the next batch will be bottled and on the shelf in November." Some liquor journalists were sent empty Knob Creek bottles in expensive packaging, and consumers could buy t-shirt bearing the line, "I survived the drought of 2009." The news resulted in a wealth of stories, both in print and on the web, and the Knob Creek website reportedly saw a 69% increase in traffic from June through September 2009 over the same period the previous year.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Visit to The Chambers Hotel

Ma Peche, the new Midtown location of the Momofuku empire, which is situated in The Chamber Hotel, a swanky habitat on an otherwise downscale block, has started serving lunch, I hear. But that's not what brought me to E. 56th Street on a recent evening. It was to try mixologist Don Lee's new cocktails.

Don Lee, formerly of PDT, is Momofuku chef David Chang's drink man, and goes where Chang goes, Lee follows. That includes Ma Peche. The mezzanine has been serving drinks since late last year, including three original Lee creations: a 7 Spice Sour, a Pikesville Mule and a Sesame Old Fashioned.

The Chambers has that kind of sleek, cold, ultra-modern look that you find in a lot of boutique Manhattan hotels. Not my style, but there it is. One takes an elevator to the mezzanine, where there are an arrangement of precious chairs, tables and couches, and gigantic coffee table art books. There's no bar. You have to take a seat and be served by a waiter to get a drink, which makes everything a lot more formal than I'd like.

I'm a great fan of the drinks Lee devised for the Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village, particularly the Celery & Nori. He has a way with eastern flavors and ingredients that leads to unique libation. So I was excited to try the Ma Peche creations. I didn't opt for the Sesame Old Fashioned, mainly because I knew that I'd like it, if that makes sense. I wanted to try the drinks I wasn't sure of.

I started with the 7 Spice Sour, which was a winner. Its base is a togarashi-infused momofuku "private label" honjozo. Added are yuzu/lime juice and simple syrup. As I understand it, togarashi is a common Japanese spice mixture made of—yes—seven ingredients: chili pepper; madarin orange peel; sesame seed; poppy seed; hemp seed; nori; and ground sansho. I do not know for sure if this is the mixture that Lee used. The drink had a nice bite to it, owning to those spices, which plays well with the sourness of the citrus.

I then moved on to the Pikesville Mule, which, I'm sorry to say, did not come off well. The cocktail is made of Rittenhouse rye, lemon juice, ginger syrup and Peychaud’s bitters—apparently an unhappy marriage of ingredients. There was too much lemon in the mix, making the drink too sour, and the ginger syrup was more spicy than sweet. Plus, Peychaud's seemed to be the wrong bitters for this mix. The aftertaste was acrid and bitter. Perhaps I should have gone with the Old-Fashioned after all, which includes toasted sesame infused Hennessy VSOP, caramelized simple syrup and Angostura bitters. Ah well. A reason to return.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Secret to Circular Ice

Last summer, my son, who loves water balloons, as any kid does, returned home from the park with one un-bursted water ballon in his hand. For reasons only known to the kid mind, he wanted to put it in the freezer, "to see what happens." Seeking the path of least resistance, as parents often do, I let him. And forgot about it.

The next day I was sitting at the dinner table, relaxing after a fine repast. I don't remember if I had an Old Fashioned in my hand, but I think I did. My son said, "Let's see the water balloon!" He retrieved the frozen orb encased in pink plastic from the freezer. It was hard as a rock and vaguely oval-shaped. He was pleased as punch. Then the rubber of the balloon snapped and tore open. We peeled it away. Inside was a beautiful, smooth planet of ice, lined with fine creases. About the right size for an Old Fashioned glass. I looked at my wife, whom I think had the same idea I had at the same time.

You see, I had recently penned an article for Time Out New York about spherical ice. The bar PDT in Manhattan had purchased a Taisin Japanese ice press. The Taisin uses the natural forces of gravity and temperature to turn frozen chunks of ice into perfect spheres. Those globes look mighty nice at the bottom of a sipping drink and will keep you Old Fashioned or whatever cool until the cows come home. Problem is: the device costs a couple thou. A journalist does not typically possess a stray 2 Gs to drop on an ice gadget. Nor can he afford a Kold-Draft ice machine.

I looked at my son's experiment and saw the answers to all my ice problems. I went to the corner store and bought a packet of water balloons. (Fifty for 50 cents.) I filled them slowly with water, varying the size and shape as best as I could, placed them in a bowl and put the bowl in the freezer. The next day, I had beautiful, smooth, substantial ice balls, perfectly suited for rocks glasses, slow-melted and aesthetically pleasing. And for a penny a piece. It was a miracle of sorts. I have never stopped making my water-balloon ice since.

And, no, they don't taste faintly of rubber or latex. They taste like ice. 

Until recently, I thought I was alone in this genius conception, and I kept the secret to myself. But the other day I discovered that San Francisco-based cocktail journo Camper English has actually come up with the idea independently and beat me to the post. (That's a picture of his frozen balloons, looking almost exactly like mine.) Damn his eyes! Still, I like to think, however, that I'm the first east coast scribbler to hatch the notion.

Illy's Top Barista Coming to NYC to Kick Coffee Butt

I don't generally write about coffee. But that doesn't mean I don't care deeply about it. A finely honed espresso has been an important part of my life since I first journeyed to Rome in 1999. 

Brooklyn cafes furnish such a wide variety of roasts and styles nowadays, from La Colombe to Cafe Grumpy to Gorilla to Gimme! to Oslo to the parvenu Man About Campus Stumptown. But Illy still has a place in my heart as an early espresso idol. 

I remember the Italian coffee giant having a pop-up cafe in SoHo five years ago. However, it hasn't had a particularly flashy presence in the city since then, and the coffee momentum has been hijacked by the American indies. 

It appears that Illy has had enough of that. The Treiste-based company is dispatching its top barista, Giorgio Milos, to America as the company's "U.S. barista in residence." His mission: "to literally set the record straight—among consumers and the trade alike—about what coffee in the pure, Italian way is all about. In illy's view, it's time to hit the reset button, because things are getting way out of hand."

Ooo. Them's fightin' words! And that's only the beginning. Read:

"He'll preach to both end of the spectrum, helping neophyte enthusiasts learn how to pull great shots and steam milk, and argue to growing hordes of urban hipster coffee snobs why chasing a single origin bean all over the city is a waste of time. And explain why the standard espresso method, using specific levels of heat and pressure (invented by illy's founder in 1933, and still the blueprint) needn't be messed with."

This is gonna be good.

I will be meeting with Giorgio on March 15 and report back soon thereafter. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Sipping News

Chartreuse takes advantage of its current popularity, hoisting up the price. [Alcademics]

The Alcohol Beverage Control in California suddenly decides to let San Francisco bars that all infusions are actually illegal. [San Francisco Chronicle]

Prepare to have your head removed from your shoulders if you mention a Vodka Old-Fashioned in some circles. [eGullet]

Chilean wine industry suffers following earthquake, with tanks busted, barrels broken and buildings collapsed. [Dr. Vino]

Beam releases Old Crow Reserve, an extension of a very old brand. [Cowdery]

Heavy on the Corned Beef Extract, Bartender, and Light on the Cabbage Water

Holidays bring out the wacky in bartender. Having only just survived an onslaught of Godawful cocktail ideas for Valentine's Day, here come the specialized St. Patrick's Day libations.

I'm sure there will be more contrived abominations between now and March 17, but surely the Corned Beef Collins takes the cake. This delicacy comes from Richard Blais. I'll say nothing. Just read the recipe.

Corned Beef Collins 
1 ½ oz Michael Collins blended whiskey
2 oz Fresh sour mix 
2 oz Club soda
1 eye droplet of Corned beef extract (corned beef drippings from pan)
1 splash Cabbage water
Corned beef spices and cabbage oak, aroma
Shake whiskey, corned beef extract and sour mix with ice. Pour into Collins glass and top with club soda. Smoke corned beef spice blend (bay leaf, black pepper, coriander, salt, mustard seed) with oak chips and present smoke suspended in covered, inverted glass. To serve, remove glass to infuse the air with the smell of corned beef and enjoy!

Of course, in today's cocktail world, you just know there will be some purists who will actually be most horrified by the inclusion of Sour Mix.

Joseph Drouhin Goes Organic

Twenty years after Philippe Drouhin first began introducing organic practices to his Burgundy vineyards, the producer has been awarded organic certification for all grapes grown within its vineyards beginning with the 2009 vintage. 

The Drouhin vineyards have actually been organic for years, but official regulations require a three-year “conversion” period during which the rules of organic production are applied and verified in the vineyards. The certification process began in August 2006. Philippe Drouhin, one of the four siblings running the winery, and the one in charge of the company‘s 73-hectare estate, including 38 hectares of Chablis, began introducing organic practices back in 1990, shortly after joining the family firm. So consumers won't notice a sudden change in the taste of the wines. Only difference is, it's official now.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Visit to Cantina La Estrella de Oro

Personal Mission One on a recent trip to Mexico was to visit as many true cantinas as possible. I knew I'd find plenty of the old bars in Mexico City. I did not expect to encounter a peerless example of the breed in Coatapec, a small city of 50,000 in the heart of coffee-growing county in the Vera Cruz province.

I was in Mexico to tour the coffee fields and plant of Kahlua, and it was our guide Pablo Zacarias that led us to the cantina. If I hadn't been in Pablo's company, I probably would have been too intimidated to enter La Estrella de Oro, which is obviously the province of the locals, and, more specifically, old male locals. The broad front room seems to be put to little purpose other than silent domino games. The bar proper is in back and all of its 100 years tell on it. The plaster walls are faded and peeling, the wooden bar battered, the mirror behind it dirty and scratched, the various bottles of booze layered with dust. A half dozen Mexican men in jeans and cowboy hats sat hunched at the torquoise-and-cream-tiles bar, their routine disturbed by the intrusion of a dozen Americans.

But we stood our ground and quietly asserted our right to enter. (Or, rather, Pablo secured approval for our presence.) We took up residence in old white plastic chairs around a couple round tables and ordered a round of beers. I took an Indio, a local dark beer I was not familiar with; nothing special, just OK. I would have gone for a tequila or mezcal, but the dust on the bottles didn't flood me with confidence in their contents. Nonetheless, a bottle of mezcal, decent but not great, made its way to us, the label suspiciously modern. (Some more adventurous members of our party swigged from a local liquor infused with "donkey herb.")

Old pictures and newspaper clippings paper the walls. Pablo, translating for another guide who spoke only Spanish, gave me the joint's history. La Estrella de Oro dates back a century and was once a celebrated cantina. The train tracks used to run on the street right outside, and the bar was a regular stop for politicians and the stars of Mexican cinema who were en route to Mexico City from the coast. Old pictures show it to have been much more spruce back then. It was founded by a Spaniard, who, having no children, left it to an employee. That employee's son now runs it. It is a treasured local landmark. You'd never know it to look at the place. But it does reek or authenticity and true Mexican culture.

Few wanted to leave the cantina, but we had dinner reservations. The dinner that followed was fine, but we probably should have stayed put and bought some freshly made tamales offered by the old woman who made the round of the cantina tables.

I walked by the place the following morning around 8:30 AM. There were just opening for business.

(Thanks to Lew Bryson for the middle photo.)