Monday, August 29, 2011

Beta Cocktails

At this summer's Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans, in a room off the lobby of Hotel Monteleone, was an impromptu bookstore featuring only books about beer, spirits and cocktails. The pop-up book shop is a feature of every Tales. This year, the best-selling tome was, somewhat predictably, David Wondrich's "Punch." The second-best-selling volume, however, was a dark horse: a thin, square, white, self-published item called "Beta Cocktails."

"Beta Cocktails" is the second coming of "Rogue Cocktails," a tiny book put out a couple years ago by two New Orleans bartenders with the intense names of Kirk Estopinal and Maksym Pazuniak (called Maks for short). They then worked at New Orleans' much-vaunted cocktail den Cure. (Kirk is still there, while Maks has moved to New York.) Their intent in putting out the booklet was to shake up the working cocktail paradigm by introducing some truly radical recipes that relied not on the usual liquors and liqueurs, but Italian amari and bitters.

I stupidly did not buy a copy of "Rogue Cocktails" when I first saw it in July 2009. But I sampled a few of the cocktails therein at Cure, and was duly impressed by their originality. They frankly amazed me. One used Angostura bitters as its base, the other Peychaud's bitters. As anyone knows, these products are typically employed by the dashful. Kirk and Maks' drinks used full ounces. I also tried something called The Start and Finish (by Rhiannon Enlil, another name that's hard to wrap your tongue around), which combined Averna, Lillet Blonde, dry vermouth, absinthe and orange bitters. It was remarkable.

When Maks started making drinks at Williamsburg's Counting Room, I started bugging him about publishing a new run of "Rogue Cocktails." He told me he had a new version of the cocktail book in the works. It took him more than a year to finally get it together. Beta Cocktails made its debut at the Tales book store. (I, in fact, bought a copy just minutes after the books had been delivered by Maks and Kirk.)

As David Wondrich says in his introduction, most new cocktail books are disappointments. They're either compendiums of old recipes you already have, or new ones that don't quite work or fail to impress the senses. Beta Cocktails is an exception. The lion's share of libations in this book are not only worth the effort, but little short of stunning. And—the authors' somewhat self-important introduction notwithstanding—even two years on, the recipes remain inventive and eye-opening, both in culinary and philosophical terms. (Fellow mixologists and some journalists may have caught on to their ideas, but the general public is still largely uninitiated. Bartenders often make the mistake of thinking a cocktail trend is over when they are through with it.) Based on this slender book alone, I rate Estopinal and Pazuniak among the five or six most talented mixologists in the country.

The drink here may seem a bit daunting at first, so unorthodox are many of the ingredients. But it you stock up on a few vital bottles that appear again and again—Campari, Cynar, Punt e Mes, Carpano Antica, Fernet Branca, Aperol, Green and Yellow Chartreuse, Peychaud's bitters, orange bitters and lots of Angostura bitters—you'll be in business. That list may look foreboding. But take my word, these cocktails are balanced and highly palatable.

About 20% of the cocktails are carryovers from "Rogue Cocktails." These include some of the best ones in the book: the vibrantly red, Peychaud's-based cooler Gunshop Fizz (by Kirk and Maks); the rum and Cynar concoction Art of Choke (Kyle Davidson); Start and Finish; Angostura Sour (which is actually a classic by Charles H. Baker that is getting some renewed attention); The Search for Delicious (Kirk), a blend of Cynar and Punt e Mes which uses lemon juice, orange bitters, sea salt and FIVE lemon twists to achieve the deliciousness is seeks; and Warning Label (Maks), a mix of Cynar, high-proof rum and Punt e Mes, with orange and grapefruit bitters and a Campari wash. It tastes like liquid bitter chocolate with flecks of dried cranberry, the rum softening the bite of the Cynar, vermouth and Campari.

Some of the drinks read like academic experiments. Yet the Campari "Martini"—just a glass of Campari garnish with an orange twist and spiced with a heavy pinch of salt—is actually very good, an object lesson on how a simple addition (salt) can open your mind to a liquor you thought you knew.

Maks and Kirk invited other bartenders from New York and elsewhere to contribute recipes to "Beta." In theory, I'm not in favor of this; I think it dilutes the intention and force or the original "Rouge" concept. Still, some of the newcomers' drinks are worthy. Toby Maloney's Eeyor's Requium, using Fernet, gin, Cynar, Campari and Dolin Blanc, fits in seamlessly. Don Lee's DLB—Rhum Barbancount, Fernet, lemon juice, and heavy doses Angostura bitters, Angostura orange bitters and Peychaud's bitters—is a potent potion on par with what I've come to expect from this talented bartender. To taste Tonia Guffey's 2 Cups of Blood, I had to visit Guffey herself at Dram, because the cocktail contains Suze, a French liqueur which is not imported to the U.S. Sure enough, she had some behind the bar. Employing a full 3/4 oz. of Bitterman's Mole Bitters, as well as Punt e Mes and Mezcal, the cocktail tasted headily of smoke and chocolate.

Beta Cocktail can be bought through the website It costs $18. There are, thus far, roughly 300 copies of "Beta Cocktails" in circulation. There should be more.


ER said...

Couldn't agree with you more about the two books (rogue and beta). I haven't been to Cure but have had the pleasure of trying Maks' concoctions in Brooklyn.

Tony Harion said...

Great write up, fully agree!
Both Rogue and Beta are great books, and express a lot of what I believe is the best part of modern cocktail geekery, the discovery of unexpected flavor combinations.

I remember well the first time I had the Star and Finish at Cure, I could not see the combination working out so beautifully.

It’s incredible how they managed to compile a list full of grace and brutality into a gentle balance.