Friday, December 31, 2010

A Taste of Malört

I was sitting at the bar at The Violet Hour when Toby Maloney, the founder of the Chicago cocktail haven, instructed the bartender to pour me a shot of Malört. "This will make you feel like a wimp for liking Fernet Branca," he said. I took a sip and shuddered. It was, indeed, a stronger customer than Fernet, more bitter and austere and raw. But I did not dislike it, and I could see getting used to it, particularly if my life was hard, and I needed something harder to drink to make existence more endurable.

It was only natural that I should first sample Malört in Chicago. The only distributor of Malört in the United States is the Carl Jeppson company of Chicago. The company is named after a Swedish immigrant who popularized and sold the liquor in Chicago. (It's been made for Jeppson in Florida since the 1970s, but is still mainly seen and consumed in Chicago.)

Malört is a liqueur derived from wormwood, the infamous botanical long associated with Absinthe. It is Swedish in origin, even though Maloney led me to believe that the drink was favored by the Poles that once populated Wicker Park, the neighborhood Violet Hour is in. (The word malört is the Swedish word for the wormwood plant.)

Malört has enjoyed a small resurgence of late, with Chicago mixologists toying around with it and using it in cocktails. Not everyone is a fan, however. When I mentioned the intoxicant to Lynn House, the respected mixologist at Chicago's Blackbird, she shivered. "I can't stand the stuff," she said. "It's popular right now, against my wishes."

(Photo courtesy Cocktail Database.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Barrel Aged Cocktails Go National

As hesitant as I was to make Jeffrey Morgenthaler a national figure (joke), I wrote this lengthy piece on barrel-aged cocktails for the New York Times. Readers of this blog know that I've been slightly obsessed with this trend for some time, first interviewing Morgenthaler about his brainstorm back in March, and recording since then their arrival at Summit Bar and Dram, among other NYC bars. Many others publications and sites have caught on since then. Still, the trend is still young, only just arriving in Chicago and other places.

The article also gave me the chance to write about my experiment of making barrel-aged cocktails at home. (I flatter myself that I'm the first journalist, and maybe the first non-bartender, to try this trick.)

On the very day this article ran, I happened to be in Chicago and got the chance to taste the barrel-aged Manhattans at Girl & The Goat mentioned in the text. I preferred the two-month-old ones made with Rittenhouse Rye about the one-month-old made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon. I also found out that The Violet Hour has just put a barrel-aged Manhattan on their menu. Toby Maloney aged the cocktail in a 55-gallon barrel that previously contained Goose Island Stout—a twist I had not encountered before. The beer barrel informed the drink in a headier, and more positive, way, I thought, than had the whiskey barrels used by others, giving the drink more layers. Maloney served the Manhattan with a touch of Cocchi Americano, to softer the impact. But I preferred the beer-laces Manhattan straight.

Six-Week-Old Martinis, Anyone?
WITH the precision mixologists take these days in building their more ornate creations, customers have grown used to waiting a few minutes for a drink. For the latest innovation in elite libations, however, they’ll have to wait six weeks or so.
Barrel-aged cocktails are being poured at bars from San Francisco to Boston. They are exactly what they sound like, complete cocktails aged in barrels, just as if they were wine or whiskey.
At Dram in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an aged Martinez, a 19th-century cocktail founded on gin and sweet vermouth, can be sampled. At the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Roof Club, there’s an cask-seasoned star cocktail, made of apple brandy and sweet vermouth. Temple Bar, near Boston, takes its time with a Negroni.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Laid Back Punch Palace for Me Hearties in Williamsburg

To tell you the truth, after this fall, I'm about punched out. Everywhere I've turned this fall, I've been ladled out a crystal cupful of Dickensian liquid or handed a copy of David Wondrich's new book "Punch." The Drink—of which Brooklyn bar I write in the below NY Times item—is the second bar in NYC this year to devote itself to punch (the first being Cienfuego in the East Village). And I mean devote itself, not just put a punch or two on the menu. There are no cocktails at The Drink. Just beer and punch. Of course, they'll make you a Martini if you insist. And I may insist.

Punch Pushes Cocktails Off the Menu at the Drink in Williamsburg

One of the unavoidable drinking trends of the fall has been punch. Hardly a cocktail bar has opened in New York in the past few months without giving a nod to the crystal bowl. Forty Four at the Royalton Hotel, 1534 on the Lower East Side and SoHo’s Lani Kai have all made room for punch in their programs. But the recently opened The Drink in Williamsburg has so devoted themselves to the format that the flowing bowls have actually knocked individual cocktails off the menu.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hot Tiki Drinks Just in Time for Christmas

Just published this item on the Times' Diner's Journal blog. If I didn't have a family—and one that  would kill me if I went out drinking on Christmas Eve—this is where I'd be on Dec. 24.

Hot Tiki!
By Robert Simonson
Starting this week, the painkilling will run both hot and cold at the Lower East Side tiki bar Painkiller.
Most drinkers associate tiki cocktails with huge heaps of shaved ice. But that, said Painkiller’s co-owner Giuseppe Gonzalez, is only part of the Polynesian playbook.
“Hot drinks are actually a very classic tiki thing,” said Mr. Gonzalez, noting that a good 20 percent of the classic concoctions found in the books of the tiki archeologist Jeff Berry are designed to be served warm. “It’s an escapist mentality that tiki bars try to inspire, so a lot of bars have hot drinks all year round no matter what. Trader Vic’s always had their famous Coffee Grog on the menu.”
Painkiller will offer the Coffee Grog — a mix of hot java, rum, a special batter and spices — as well as the 151 Buttered Rum and Hot Zombie. Mr. Gonzalez will also be doing a hot mai tai, his own invention. “It’s a deconstruction of the drink. Instead of lime juice, we just squeeze a lime wheel in there. There’s Curacao, house-made orgeat, a double measure of Jamaican rum, top that off with hot water and give that a float of almond cream.” Another spin on an old standby will be the warm Sazerac, “primarily because Donn Beach, the inventor of tiki, is actually from New Orleans, and the Sazerac is, to me, a drink that only gets better as it gets warmer. So why don’t we just serve it warm?”
Painkiller will likely start the new menu of hot drinks on Christmas Eve, “primarily because I’m going to be open,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “I’m a new bar and I got bills to pay, brother.” He will also be staffing the shakers on Christmas day, for those who choose to seek their cup of yuletide cheer outside the house.
The new year, meanwhile, will bring a reworked menu at Painkiller. “We’ll have a Painkiller top 10,” he said. “We’ll have staff picks, which don’t have to be tiki. Just to give people the impression that, yes, you’re in a tiki bar, but hey, we’re good at anything. We can make anything for you.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don Julio Debuts Redesign

Collectors might want to think about stowing away every single liquor bottle they have after it's empty. Because in a few years time, the way things are going, every famous booze out there is going to be boasting a new bottle design, thus rendering the older bottles antiques of sorts.

The latest to revamp is Don Julia tequila. All three vessels—Tequila Don Julio Blanco, Reposado and Añejo—will boast modernized looks, each bearing a different profile. (The Silver is at right.) It doesn't look so very different from the old bottle. A bit trimmer, the cork a different shade, and the label's not as busy.

Don Julio was founded in 1942 by Don Julio González-Frausto Estrada. The brand was purchased by Diageo in 2005.

A Nightcap at the Opera

A chance to attend a cocktail competition at the Metropolitan Opera is not something one receives every day. So when Allen Katz (above, flanked by Tyne Daly and Kevin Denton) extended an invitation to such a perverse cultural mash-up, I immediately accepted. Every time I talk to Katz, the director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, I learn something new. He makes gin (or plans to); he sings; he lived in Italy for two years; he was an intern to Stephen Sondheim. In this instance, I found out about his passion for opera. Here's the account I wrote up for the Times:

Mixing Cocktails and Opera
By Robert Simonson 
An hour before the singers in the Metropolitan Opera's Dec. 10, 100th-anniversary performance of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" bent an elbow at the Polka Saloon, a single mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, bellied up to the Grand Tier's Revlon Bar for a round of cocktails. 
Ms. Graham was one of the judges of an unusual competition that saw some of the city's more prominent mixologists mix it up with the uptown opera crowd. She was joined by cocktail book author Gaz Regan; actress Tyne Daly, an opera fan who will play Maria Callas in an upcoming Broadway revival of the play "Master Class"; and Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

This Borough's Not Big Enough for Two Gins!

Anyone who lives in Brooklyn has, some time in the last couple months, encountered Brad Estabrooke's new Breuckelen Gin, the first new gin to be distilled in Kings County since Prohibition. Far fewer are aware of the existence of Brooklyn Gin, another new gin which, its name notwithstanding, is made in upstate New York by a guy who lives in Florida. 

Now one distiller is suing the other, citing the liquors are "phonetically identical" and that mix-ups have caused the firm "irreparable harm." But the suit is not brought by who you might think. The Florida guy is telling the Brooklyn guy to cease and desist naming his gin after the borough. 

According to Brooklyn Paper, which broke the story,
It all started in April, 2010, when Brooklyn Gin owner Angel “Joe” Santos — who really does own a posh waterfront condo in Miami Beach — filed papers to legally trademark the name Brooklyn Gin, eight months before Estabrooke. He finally started selling bottles in June 2010 — two months before Estabrooke did, according to the lawsuit, though Estabrooke’s website and lawyers claim that he was making and distributing his Breuckelen Gin months before Santos.
The real trouble began brewing in August, when Santos visited New York bars to hawk his liquor. But at Fatty ’Cue and Peter Luger in South Williamsburg, workers told him that a rep from his company had already come in with the stuff.
But they hadn’t; those reps, it turned out, were hawking Breuckelen, not Brooklyn.
That’s when Santos called Estabrooke for a classic mano-a-mano sitdown at Brooklyn Bread Cafe in Park Slope. Santos wanted a settlement, but the sides were far apart, so Santos hired a lawyer.
“If this is happening at a bar level,” he said. “It’s going to happen at a consumer level.”
This move, I predict, will backfire on Santos. Brooklyn—both its foodies and its food entrepreneurs—prize authenticity and locality. Not only are they not going to take well to a product being called "Brooklyn" that's not made in Brooklyn, but they react with high dudgeon to any legal move from an outer-borough force that tries to take down a local boy. Even if Santos wins the suit, he won't win any hearts, or accounts, in Brooklyn. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lani Kai to Begin Serving Brunch This Weekend

Lani Kai, Julie Reiner's new Hawaii-flavored cocktail bar in SoHo, will follow the example of Reiner's Cobble Hill joint Clover Club and begin serving brunch this weekend.

Lani Kai will serve brunch on Saturday and Sundays from 11am to 4pm. Among the dishes include Baked Eggs with Truffle and Leeks; Hawaiian-style smoked and roasted Kalua Pork with Cheddar Grits and a sunnyside up egg; Pressed Spam & Cheese sandwich; a Bacon Tasting of thick-cut maple, black pepper and duck bacon slices; and a surf-and-turf, mix & match riff on eggs Benedict: buttery poached Lobster Benedict alongside The Pacific Islander, poached egg on English muffin with Kalbi short rib, Kimchi butter and Hollandaise sauce.

The drink choices include just about anything you can order at Lani Kai at night, as well as a variety of Fizzes, Cobblers and Bloody Marys familiar to anyone who patronizes Clover Club. 

Merlot Is the Perfect Holiday Wine—Wait, No, Grenache!

I've been getting lots of press releases lately trying to convince me that such and such is the ultimate and appropriate liquor or wine to drink during the holidays. It's made it hard to know what to drink.

This missive came through the other day, touting Merlot's claim to the Christmas throne:
"Merlot has the ideal flavor profile and structure to pair well with the widest spectrum of foods. For the holiday season, Merlot – once relegated to the category of has-been wine, is making a strong comeback and pairs beautifully with turkey, roast beef, Christmas ham … to name a few."
I was intrigued. But then, five minutes later, this e-mail came through and I was confused again:  
"Grenache, the ultimate Christmas wine. This year, sommeliers and chefs around the world are encouraging wine lovers to embrace Grenache as the archetypal Christmas wine. There are in fact many Grenache-based Christmas classics, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Priorat – which go perfectly with turkey and trimmings, but usually slip into the glass ‘anonymously’ because Grenache does not get credit on the label."
Can the vintners in Bordeaux and the Rhone please get together and work this out before the 25th? I've got shopping to do.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ladies Bathroom at Beauty & Essex Way Better Than Men's

I shall soon be filing a discrimination suit against the new Lower East Side restaurant and bar Beauty & Essex. For the amenities in the Ladies Bathroom far and unfairly exceed those in the Men's Bathroom.

I'm speaking specifically about libations. I don't normally expect to be served liquor when I visit the restroom. But when I find out that the fairer sex are getting flutes of rose sparkling wine, that fresh towel and perfumed hand soap just don't seem so special anymore.

But, seriously, there is an actual bar and an actual bartender in women's bathroom at this new joint. (See above. No, I didn't go in myself. I sent a field correspondent.) The specific wine in question: Lucien Albrecht Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose, which will run you about $20 a bottle in the store.

So is it too much to ask for two fingers of Scotch in the men's bathroom? Just asking.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Weather Up Tribeca Opens for Business

It's been a long wait for Weather Up Tribeca, the cocktail lounge on Duane Street that first promised to open on Halloween. These things take time, and sometimes liquor licenses don't arrive as promptly as you would like.

But on Saturday, Dec. 4—Repeal Day Eve, as it would happen—the offshoot of Prospect Heights' Weather Up quietly swung open its doors for business. The capacious space (plenty of room behind the long bar for the mixologists to work their magic) was about half-filled by 10 PM, and doubtless invited in more revelers before midnight. The fishy menu of oysters and haddock ceviche was already on offer, as was a compact cocktail list, seen below.

The Via Vero was brought over from Dutch Kills, another property co-owned by Weather Up Tribeca co-owner Richard Boccato. The Revolver, a west coast drink invented by Jon Santer, makes a surprise appearance. There's also a Weather Up Jr., a spin on the strong signature drink of the Brooklyn boite. Still based on Cognac and Amaretto, Jr. substitutes dry vermouth and Champagne for Sr.'s lemon juice. I didn't try it, but Jr. sounds like the better drink. The average drink price is $14.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Another Reason Too Many Cocktail Will Make You Sorry in the Morning

Prior to researching this article for the New York Times, I had for some time nursed the notion that I'd like to try my hand behind the bar. I know how to make a good drink, am versed in many recipes, have observed bartenders at work for years, like the idea of service and barside conversation very much, and own a vest and several hats. After hearing countless tales of physical woe from the best barkeeps in the nation, I'm not so in love with the idea. After all, these guys are having a hard time avoiding aches and pains in their 20s and early 30s. What would be the situation for someone like me who's, uh, not in his 20s?

The Bartender Appears to Be Shaken Up

By Robert Simonson

“WHEN we first started Varnish, we began sustaining a bunch of injuries,” Marcos Tello said. “I had a huge, constant knot in my forearm. Chris Ojeda developed tennis elbow. Matty Eggleston popped a tendon in his hand. We were all sidelined with all these injuries.”

Varnish is not a football team. It is a stylish, speakeasy-style cocktail bar that opened early last year in downtown Los Angeles. And the men Mr. Tello mentions are fellow bartenders, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-30s. But in these heady days of behind-the-bar showmanship, when theatrical agitations of shakers filled with heavy-duty ice are becoming the norm, the mixologist’s physical lot is not so terribly far removed from an athlete’s.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Del Posto's New Cocktail List Spares No Luxury

As a compliment to their new four-star status, Del Posto has unveiled a new cocktail list which doesn't skimp on excess. Drinks begin at $13—the going rate for a craft cocktail in NYC these days—but soar all the way to $34.

Why so pricey? Well, the most dear of the drinks employ luxury mixers such as Rhum Agricole Clement and Hennessy Extra Old Fine Champagne Cognac XO. And one, a modest old Vesper, is garnished with gold leaf. If you choose to eschew unneeded extravagance, the list has many true-to-the-standard classics that hover in the $15-$18 range, including a Jack Rose, Vieux Carre (a drink that's making a real comeback lately), Aviation, Ward 8 and Martinez. Also nice to see the modern classic The Breakfast Martini on the menu. And the Quina Martini, using Bonal Gentiane Quina, looks very intriguing.

Here's the list: