Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lemon Hart Goes Red

Next time you go searching for the always-hard-to-find Lemon Hart 151 rum (a critical ingredient in many tiki drinks), don't look for the familiar bright yellow bottle. The sought-after product has a new importer, and they have changed the label. The new red look was displayed at the recent Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. Can't say I like it better. But can't say I like it worse. One definite improvement: the "151" is good and prominent, rather than hiding in the corner, as it did on the old label.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Beer At...Wheeler's

My latest column at Eater
A Beer at...Wheeler's 
It was a cool night in Sheepshead Bay. But every man in Wheeler's was wearing a t-shirt. And not necessarily the kind with words or an image on it. That would be too fancy. Just a plain white T, some of them the sleeveless sort known colloquially as "wife beaters." This was all the better to show off tattoos, celebrating the wearer's allegiance to Brooklyn or various girlfriends, on muscled-up biceps. There's a Bally's across the road from the bar. I was pretty sure some of these guys used it.
Wheeler's, founded in 1979, is a port in a storm for old school Sheepshead Bay. You won't find many of the Russian immigrants who have taken over the neighborhood in the last decade or so. Though you'd expect a joint as old and isolated as this to have long ago matured into an old man bar, the clientele is pretty young. They're mainly Italian-Americans, and they all seem very comfortable with one another, sending calls down the bar to friends—"Hey, Mick! You play this song? This is Mick's song!"—and offering bear hugs. And though Wheeler's clearly has a regular crowd, the bar did not make an outsider feel unwelcome. (And, believe me, as the only person in the bar wearing a shirt with buttons, I stood out.)
This place is local in the extreme. The television was showing not a major league game, but a Cyclones match that was taking place only a mile away. One patron, confined to a wheelchair, regularly rolled out onto the sidewalk for a long, leisurely smoke. There he sort of held court, taking to whomever entered or exited the bar. Most conversations were about some guy that both of the talkers knew. This guy was either a stand-up gent, or had recently pulled some unbelievable horseshit. One man spent twenty minutes on the injustice of a parking ticket he'd just gotten. It was OK, though, because Jimmy was gonna fix it. "Jimmy's my get out of jail free card," said the guy. I gathered Jimmy was a cop.
All the "Hale Fellow" camaraderie aside, my favorite person at Wheeler's was the incongruous bartender, a sore thumb if there ever was one. Tall, bone-thin, with greying blonde hair and a long, sorrowful, Scandinavian face, he wore a white shirt and black tie. He spoke little and smiled not at all. He could have easily been cast as a saloon keeper in a Eugene O'Neill play. I ordered a Brooklyn Summer Ale, which he took forever drawing it into one of the odd assortment of glasses that Wheeler's uses to deliver booze to its customers. I liked him tremendously.
—Robert Simonson

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dram Goes Dive

This is the best solution I've encountered to the bartender exodus that occurs every July during Tales of the Cocktail. 

Dram to Temporarily Ditch the Cocktail
By Robert Simonson
Dram, the cocktail bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is celebrated for its rotating murderer’s row of star mixologists. But its owner, Tom Chadwick, was confronted with a personnel crisis.
Most of his bartenders were planning to take the same week off to attendTales of the Cocktail, the drinks convention that attracts the country’s top bar talent to New Orleans each summer.
“I really couldn’t find reliable coverage for the week of Tales,” Mr. Chadwick said. “I didn’t want to have too many outside bartenders, since the execution and operation of a bar like this has a lot of moving parts. And closing the bar seemed like a rather severe solution.”
The fix? From July 20 to 23 — nearly the exact run of Tales — Dram will be supplanted by a pop-up dive bar called 86’d, which is to be run by two of Dram’s lesser-known staff members.
“Our door guy, Reggie Cunningham, and I used to work at the Bushwick Country Club together,” said Mr. Chadwick, mentioning the Brooklyn bar known as one of the wellsprings of the pickleback phenomenon. “We’ve been reminiscing about our dive bar experiences. My server, Reba Thomas, who has been at Dram since Day 1, is also a dive bar vet.”
Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Thomas will play hosts at 86’d. Artisanal cocktails will be 86’d from the menu. Replacing them will be some some of the bêtes noires of modern mixologists: noncraft domestic beer (Coors, Miller High Life), Jägermeister, shooters and the aforementioned picklebacks. If you must have a cocktail, you may avail yourself of a déclassé White Russian or Salty Dog. Prices take a dive, too. Drinks start at $4 and top off at $8. As for food, there are two choices: Reggie’s Boiled Peanuts ($2) and Reba’s Homemade Pimento Cheese.
Patrons might also get friendly chit-chat, something that is often missing at the city’s fanciest cocktail joints. “Reba and I had a chance to work together behind the bar one weekend night,” Mr. Chadwick said. “I really liked her skills as a bartender — a sincere interest in engaging them in conversation and making sure they were having a good time. I would make the drinks and she would interact with the guests in a geniality and charm I miss in cocktail bars, mostly because we’re always heads down focusing on the technical aspects.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

D.C.'s Derek Brown Reveals Rogue 24 Cocktail Menu

With about two weeks to go until Washington D.C.'s highly anticipated new restaurant Rogue 24 opens, Derek Brown—the District's most vaunted mixologist mind—has unleashed his cocktail program. The creations are designed to go with the food of chef R.J. Cooper, who plans a 24-course tasting menu, with diners sitting around an open kitchen. (The restaurant offered New Yorkers a pop-up preview at LTO on the Lower East Side earlier this summer.)

"I've always been curious about new methods of delivery and texture," said Brown. "I want the cocktails in the salon to present a narrative and to incorporate new techniques and ways of thinking about cocktails, but stick firmly to the principles I've gleaned from the classics." He also said he was interested in "a story embedded in the cocktail."

Creativity and a narrative can be found in a menu entry called Three Martini Lunch. The cocktail consists of three smaller-than-usual Martini glasses. The contents look identical, each as transparent as the next. But the first is a classic gin Martini, the second a Daiquiri made of filtered aged rum and clarified lime juice, and third a "white" Manhattan made with white dog, Dolin blanc vermouth, apricot eau de vie, orange bitters and smoky Scotch. "It's about getting people to try these classic cocktail all over again," said Brown. "If you see the Daiquiri on the menu, you might think of something with strawberries in it coming out of those slushy machines. Here, you get to try it anew." 

Last Night's Party, meanwhile, tells a tale through edible visuals. Ingredients are arranged to look like a messy morning-after scene as a swank bash. The top edge of a glass filled with Coteaux Champenois is edged with a paste of creme di cassis made to look like lipstick traces. Another champagne glass nearby appears to have fallen over and broken. The shards of "glass," however, are really pieces of crystalized cassis. The glasses are paired with an ashtray with cavier in it, and Crème Fraîche that looks like a cigarette. 

Brown's Pimm's Cup (seen above) comes in solid form. "We take Pimm's and turn it into jelly. We infuse cucumbers with gin." Meyer lemon foam, micro-orchids and ginger beer complete the picture. "Solid cocktails are nothing new, but there is certainly room for elaboration," said Brown. "I had an idea: what does a Pimm's Cup looks like under a microscope."

Brown is aware that some of these processes may not necessarily strike the cocktail-savvy as new. "RJ is fond of saying that nearly all experimenting has been done, and it's now time to apply those experiments. It's using all the tools available to me to delight the guest and offer them an experience." 

Brown will train Rogue 24's cooks to make the cocktails, which will be put together at a particular station. 

For the less adventurous, there will be beer and wine. Cocktails will be about $12-$14, with some of the more elaborate drinks such as "Last Night's Party" being a little pricier. Here's the complete list:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Beer at...Finnegan's Wake

Every city in America has a bar called Finnegan's Wake (usually full of people who have never cracked the book). This is New York's:
A Beer at...Finnegan's Wake
I thought it must be Ladies' Night at Finnegan's Wake. And I do mean ladies, because every woman at the bar was of a certain age or older. They came in in twos and threes, unencumbered by men, and wrapped up in floral prints. They drank beer and sipped glasses of white wine that the bartender filled to the brim. One poured melting ice from a bar glass to cool down her Martini. None of them were unfamiliar with the place, a pub as Irish as they were.
A tiny, middle-aged Asian woman came in with a clutch of bootleg DVDs. I've seen these sort of hucksters in bars all my life. Usually they're chased out by the owner. But at Finnegan's Wake, the woman's reception was warm. The trio of ladies at the end of the bar looked through her stock. No sale. But the two film industry lushes nearby, who had been dropping names like James Gandolfini all night, were willing customers. "Hangover Part 2"? Yes. "The Dilemma"? Definitely. "The Adjustment Bureau"? OK. They bought about 12 movies. Then one went out for a smoke, jostling the lady with the ash-blonde bouffant hairdo next to him. He apologized by warmly shaking her hand and introducing himself. He was that kind of drunk, the sort that endeavors to remain civilized by constantly shaking hands with strangers. He did the same thing to the identical woman 20 minutes later. She asked for her check soon after.
Two-thirds of Finnegan's Wake is given over to dining. At 8 PM one recent weeknight, there wasn't a table to be had. The diners were obviously regulars, gray around the temples, thick around the waist. They sat in married couples of one or two. Occasionally a grown son or daughter was thrown in. And, as at the bar, plenty of ladies enjoying a drink and a talk and tossed green salad, or a dish of steamed vegetables that looked remarkably fresh. (Don't worry pubsters—you can get your bangers and mash and burger here, too.) The staff is constant. The owner, Anthony King, who opened the bar on the corner of First Avenue and 73rd Street in 1972, brags on his website that the kitchen workers have been with him a total of 130 years, and he has seen waitresses through college. He even praises his wonderful landlord. There's a first.
—Robert Simonson 

Friday, July 1, 2011

In Praise of Liquor Label Fussiness

The makers of Jack Daniel’s, the number one whiskey in the world, recent rolled out a new bottle image and simplified label, thus messing with what is arguably the most recognizable look in the liquor world. The new vessel is still boxy, but a more sharp-shouldered and smoother around the neck. The label, meanwhile, loses about half its text, including the words "Old Time" and "Quality."

I'm sure the market department could expertly argue that all that verbiage was a vestige of the past, and had no further practical purpose. And they'd be right. But value can not always be quantified. The ineffable and the extraneous can actually be that thing that quietly and inexplicably lends your product character, and you shed it at your peril. 

Me, I have always adored the copious amount of information that is crammed onto the labels of the liquor world's more historical elixirs. The are reminders of the bygone days when the look of a bottle of booze wasn't that much different from the vials of prescription medicine you'd obtain at the local apothecary. (This makes perfect sense, since the histories of booze and health-giving tonics have often crossed paths.) What's more, some of the more mysterious markings on a bottle are reminders of the liquor in question's long past, while also lending the liquor a certain mystique. What does "Old No. 7" mean? Nobody at Jack Daniel's knows. Yet they leave it on the label. Because it's a good marketing tool, yes, but also (presumedly) because it is part of Jack's legacy. 

Some of my favorite bottles on the shelf are those with the most crowded labels: George Dickel, Fernet Branca, Angostura Bitters, Bombay Gin (not the Sapphire), Pimm's No. 1.  They are works of graphic art that double as curious historical documents. 

Many old brands have been revamping their looks in recent years in an effort to make themselves newly sexy to the cocktail maker and the cocktail drinker. To my eyes, the revamps are always in the direction of sleekness, simplicity and a slick vulgarity. They go from bottle to branding device, and everything ends up looking like either a new-generation Scotch bottle or an elephantine perfume container.

The decision to change the Jack bottle was, of course, market-driven. "Given the worldwide economic situation and the increasingly competitive environment for premium spirits brands, we recognize the importance of having Jack Daniel's continue to stand out in the marketplace," said Jack Daniel's Managing Director John Hayes in a statement.

It already stood out.