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.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Carroll Gardens Gets a New Cocktail Bar

Until now the residential blocks of Carroll Gardens between the bars of Smith Street and Court Street (Clover Club, Jake Walk, Prime Meats) and Fort Defiance in Red Hook have been a desert for the cocktail thirsty. But the recent opening of Bar Bruno on the largely dry Henry Street fills that vacancy. Previously, this corner opposite the iconic Mazzola Bakery was occupied by a series of unsuccessful delis and cafes. The owner of the most recent coffee house, Cafe Marius, has take a year to convert the space into a restaurant and bar.

I had low expectations for the place, but my hopes rose when I surveyed the impressive back back. It wasn't the usual array of flavored vodka and blended Scotches, but an intelligently curated array of choice liqueurs and spirits nearly on par with the best bars in the area. A brief chat with the personable bar manager, J.T. Almon, shed some light on this happy circumstance. Almon is friends with bartender Tonia Guffey, who works the bars at Flatiron Lounge and Dram; the two grew up together in Orlando. Guffey consulted with Almon on the initial cocktail list and the selection of the back bar, and will later this year come in to train the staff.

Bar Bruno is wisely starting slow in their cocktail program; the opening list is a mere five drinks long. The presence of The Last Word shows an allegiance to classic cocktails. The other five are simple, but smart riffs on standards. Their version of a Hemingway Daiquiri is served on the rocks as a refreshing highball. A spin on a Gold Rush substitutes Dewar's for Bourbon, infused with chilis for a little heat. Their signature drink, the George Best, is an orange juice-laced riff on a Negroni. Best was a famous Irish soccer star; the joint has an odd soccer theme, with old photos of soccer teams on the walls. Cocktail go for $10. There's also a selection of beer cocktails and the usual beer and wine.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Beer At...Teddy's

A reader at Eater said the Mae West story I include in this write-up is apocryphal. Could be. Certainly, old taverns dispense their share of self-aggrandizing lies. But I found the tale in two sources. True, one of them was Wikipedia, but the other was the well-respected "Historic Shops and Restaurants of New York." It's funny: another old New York bar I've covered in this series, Neir's in Queens, also claimed a Mae West connection.
A Beer at...Teddy's
Is Teddy's an anonymous, unknown bar? Not exactly. I remember, back in the days when Williamsburg was an actual artistic enclave—when scruffy young men wore wool caps because they were cold and poor, not because it was part of the hipster uniform—Teddy's was a key artist hangout. But today this wonderful old tavern is overshadowed by dozens of trendier new watering holes. 
Teddy's is the oldest bar in Williamsburg. It's been around since 1889. For its first 30 years, it was a franchise bar serving a local brew whose name can still be seen in the beautiful stained-glass window facing the street: Peter Doelger's Extra Beer. That the sign is still there is a bit of a miracle, since Doelger's hasn't been made since Prohibition. Doelger was a millionaire beer baron, and probably a bit of a capitalist bastard; an anarchist once left a bomb on his doorstep. He also disapproved of his daughter Mathilda marrying a boxer named John West, even though that union gave the world Mae West.
One would love to picture Mae lifting one or two here at some point. But Mathilda remarried in the 1890s—wedding the son of another local brewer (sounds like daddy's doing)—so it's hard to say. Tammany Hall pols almost made good use of the place back in the day when saloons did double duty as political centers. An Alderman actually lived upstairs once.
The food served here is a relatively new phenomenon—new, meaning the last couple decades—and the weekend brunch is popular. Live bands play here Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as part of a series that goes by the rather square name of "Williamsburg Nights." Television sets are tuned to the night's game. I always considered televisions in a historic bar a desecration of sacred space. But such are the compromises that must be made to please a modern clientele, for which drinking and talking is not entertainment enough.
The patrons on a recent night seem strangely not of Williamsburg. Parents with children, older couples, a group of visiting Japanese tourists. Or maybe this is just theother Williamsburg, the one that doesn't get the press. And maybe in twenty years, when the current crop of tattoo-parlor habitues have moved on, and the hot bar of the moment is a distant memory, these unglamorous barflies will still be here. And so will Teddy's. 
—Robert Simonson

Monday, August 15, 2011

What's New

More new spirits and associated liquor products are introduced at the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans than at any other place. This year was no exception. I think I tasted more new things this past July than at any previous Tales. Here are a few of the libations that will soon find their way onto the shelves of your local liquor store.
  • Fee Brother Black Walnut Bitters: Joe Fee always arrives at each Tales with a satchel full of bottles of the company's latest invention. This year's addition: Black Walnut Bitters. Not sure of the applications, beyond offering a nice change-up for Angostura in an Old Fashioned. I'll wait for mixologists to figure that one out.
  • Lillet Rose: Building on the Lillet line of white and red aromatized wines by 50% is the new Lillet Rose. It is made by blending the wines that form the base of Lillet Blanc and Lillet Rouge, and infusing it with "Bordeaux fruits." You won't be able to get this in the U.S. until April 2012.
  • Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac: According to the Ferrand people, this new iteration of their Cognac was inspired by an old bottle of original Ferrand that was bought at auction, and was selected (from among many such old bottles) by Ferrand cellar master Christian Guerin and cocktail historian David Wondrich as being the best and closest example of the sort of spirit that was put out in the 1800s. The more questions I posed as to how such a guess at the formula was hazarded, the less I understand the process. But this much is clear: it is bottled at 90 proof, higher than most Cognacs, and in keeping with the proofs observed in those times; it is fully intended to be a mixable Cognac, to be used in cocktails; and it tastes quite good. 
  • Drambuie 15: This ancient Scottish liqueur has been trying to find a place for itself in the new drinking world for a few years now. They redesigned their bottle a couple years back, making it look less like Drambuie and more like a Scotch vessel. Now they've come out with the first-ever new expression of the producer. To appeal to Scotch fans who find old Drambuie too sweet, they've devised a drier expression that uses less honey and only employs whiskies 15-years-old or older. They're going to market it the way you would a Scotch, and are pushed a drink that uses half Drambuie and half Drambuie 15. There's a way to move product!
  • Hochstadter's Slow and Low: This is the latest from Rob Cooper, the man people who brought the people St. Germain and Creme Yvette. It's his take on an old-style Rock & Rye, which is to say, Rye whiskey sweetened with rock candy syrup. All the famed 19th century American mixologists mention this potion it at one point or another. Slow and Low uses six-year-old rye, infused with citrus, honey and horehound, and bottles at 98 proof. It could be argued that this is basically an Old Fashioned in a bottle, though much hotter and much sweeter. It's made in Philadelphia. Unlike the high-toned St. Germain and Creme Yvette, the rauchy marketing for Slow and Low aims low. (Check out the name.) No gracious sipping here. Straight shots—the "full pull" mark on the souvenir shot glass I was given was at the 2 1/2 ounce mark. 
  • Merlet Liqueurs: The Cognac-based Merlet clan has been making liqueurs for 150 years. Their line is just now reaching out shores. I tasted through their line, and found not a dud in the bunch, with the rich, dense, bright Creme de Framboise and light, but strong Creme de Poire standouts. The Creme de Cassis is infused with the same fruit twice, with the result decidedly potent.
  • Brugal 1888: The latest from the venerable Dominican rum distiller. It’s a blend of rums aged 5-14 years, first aged in American white oak and then in Sherry Oak casks from the same source that The Macallan Scotch Whisky uses in Spain. In case you're wondering, yes, Macallan and Brugal are owned by the same corporate body. 1888 is being marketing as a premium sipping rum. It certainly is a smoothy, all caramel, oak and vanilla and just a little spice. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Carroll Gardens Goes Bourgeois

As was previously reported elsewhere, a second iteration of the East Village bar Bourgeoise Pig will soon open in Carroll Gardens, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is already home to the cocktail bars Prime Meats, Brooklyn Social and Jake Walk. The venture is collaboration between Ravi DeRossi (Death and Co., Mayahuel, Cienfuegos, Amor y Amargo), the stealth force behind the East Village cocktail scene, Luis Gonzalez (chef at Death and Co. and Mayahuel) and Frank Cisneros, bartender of Dram and co-fonder of Drink, both in Williamsburg. 

"The beverage program will retain the approachability and affordability of the original's French wine cum sultry-lounge feel yet expand it's horizons, incorporating the whole of the Continent's best wine and spirits," said Cisneros. "Though whiskey, gin and rum will still abound, lesser utilized European libations such as Spanish brandies, Flemish sour beers and German eau-de-vies will play an important role in the cocktail list, which is inspired-by the individuality of each major European region."(Spanish brandies would certainly qualify as a lesser utilized liquor in these parts.)

Food-wise, there will be fondues, cheese, tapas-style dishes, a raw bar and house-made charcuterie. 

Bourgeoise Pig will take the space currently held by the Calpurnia, a curious Italian wine bar that looked like a bordello and was forever unpopulated. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Cocktail Book for Your iPad

Cocktails books can be frustrating. You're given the recipe and a few instructions, but that doesn't necessarily lead to a great drink. Much is lost or unspoken between the page and the glass. And how-to cocktail videos aren't much better, simply because they're not convenient. Who mixes a drink while sitting in front of a television or computer screen?

A new iPad book would seem to combine the pluses of these two formats and shed the minuses. I had a chance to browse through "Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn from the Modern Mixologists," and found it quite fluid and visually attractive. It was released on Aug. 11. Here's the article I wrote about it for the Times:

Mixing Drinks on Your Lap With No Spills
By Robert Simonson 
Now subway riders can use their iPads not just to catch up on the latest best seller, but to prepare for the cocktail hour that awaits them at home.
On Aug. 11, “Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn from the Modern Mixologists,” a cocktail book for the iPad, will be released by Open Air Publishing. It was created by the New York mixologists Jim Meehan (of PDT) and Joseph Schwartz (Little Branch); Rob Willey, a freelance writer who has written about drinks for The New York Times and other publications, and Jon Feldman, president of Open Air.
The book — which will be available for $9.99 through the iPad apps store — combines text with the how-to mixology videos. A reader can surf from a scholarly treatise on tequila to a list a tequila-based cocktails. Click on a specific cocktail and you’re transported to the recipe. With select libations, there’s an accompanying video of either Mr. Meehan or Mr. Schwartz building the drink at their respective bars. Specific techniques (how to stir, shake, cut a twist, rim a glass with salt, even how to adorn a Pisco Sour with a swirl of bitters) are covered in separate linked video clips.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Mr. Schwartz said. “You get the recipe, but also someone making it, so you can see how it’s put together. And you learn the finer points of different kinds of ice, how to flame an orange peel — lots of different pointers that you can access piecemeal as you need them.”
“Speakeasy Cocktails” will feature more than 200 cocktail recipes. They are divided into four sections: “Master Drinks” (time-tested formulas that work with almost any base spirit); “The Canon,” which covers classic cocktails; “Rediscovered Classics,” including old drinks that have been resurrected in recent years; and “New Standards,” libations invented by today’s crop of ambitious mixologists, including Kirk Estopinal of New Orleans’ Cure, Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard in Boston, and Kevin Ludwig of Beaker & Flask in Portland, Ore. There are videos for 15 bedrock cocktails, including the daiquiri, negroni and bloody Mary. “The drinks were picked not only because they were classic drinks,” said Mr. Feldman, “but because each had multiple components of technique to demonstrate.”
“I made a point of talking about every single thing I was doing,” added Mr. Meehan.
A number of drinks feature an “after” picture that can be rotated 360 degrees, showing how the completed drink should appear. “Some drinks look the same from every angle, like a sazerac,” Mr. Feldman said. “With the mint julep, Jim explains how you want the mint to be away from the nose. So a person making that at home can see what that drink should look like from the back.”
“In some places we wanted the text to function almost as the guy on the barstool next to you,” said Mr. Willey, “like, ‘See, you’ve really got to shake the thing.’ “

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A New Administration for El Presidente

Being out of step with history can really bring on an inferiority complex.

This is how I felt about the El Presidente. For years, I had been told—by books, by drink experts, by bartenders—that this mix of rum, curacao, dry vermouth, and grenadine was one of the classic cocktails of the 20th century, and certainly one of the two eternal libations of Cuba, the other being the Daiquiri. It was created by Eddie Woelke, an American bartender at the Jockey Club in Havana.

I've wanted to like the El Presidente, but I couldn't. Something seemed off about the mixture, unbalanced. Of course, I blamed myself. This was obviously the fault of my immature tastebuds. So many people have loved and respected this cocktail over the decades; how could they be wrong? One night, I tried to force myself to see the light. I made and drank (and thought deeply about) three El Presidentes in a row. 

I didn't see the light. I got sick.

Thereafter, I swore off the cocktail. I didn't like it, and I didn't care who knew it. But I still felt slightly ashamed of the fact.

Then, at Tales of the Cocktail, came sudden relief and insight. I attended a seminar called "Around the World on a Brass Rail." It was led by David Wondrich and Jeff Berry. Berry handled the section of the seminar that covered the proliferation of American-style cocktails in the Caribbean in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Somewhere in there, Wondrich started holding forth on the El Presidente. 

I couldn't believe my ears. Was he really saying that for years he had not liked the cocktail? Yes, he was. He had tried and tried, but disliked the taste. (He told me later that he had experienced a regret similar to mine, and had felt something must be wrong with him for not liking the drink.) But finally, he thought he uncovered the reason why. All modern versions of the recipe call for dry vermouth. Wondrich found an old recipe that called instead for blanc vermouth instead. Blanc is a style that is both white, yet sweet. The arrival of the Dolin vermouths in recent years has introduced many Americans to the blanc style. Wondrich said he mixed up an El Presidente with blanc vermouth instead of dry, and suddenly the drink appealed.

I did the same thing when I returned to my Brooklyn home. The cocktail did taste better. The acrid underpinning of the dry vermouth, which had (to my mind) always warred with the drink's sweeter components, and clawed at the lining of my stomach, was gone. Harmony reigned.

It's still not my favorite drink by a long shot. But I like it a lot better than I did. And this is why we need cocktail scholarship.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Beer At...The Hairy Monk

One question: Why's it called The Hairy Monk, and not something more Boston-y?
A Beer at...The Hairy Monk
How Boston Bar can The Hairy Monk get? In the back room, they've got a picture of Babe Ruth—the House-That-Ruth-Built Ruth, New York Yankee Ruth, that Ruth—in a Red Sox uniform. That's how Boston Bar it can get.
It's mainly about the Sox here. Red Sox banners, jerseys, news clips, metal buckets (?), little stuffed animals called Wally after the left field wall in Fenway Park known as the Green Monster. This time of year, the televisions broadcast Red Sox games. A few knick-knacks pay homage to the Celtics, Bruins and Patriots (which have given patrons many reason to celebrate in the past decade) are squeezed in here and there. But it's the Red Sox logo that the Hairy Monk puts on its t-shirts.
Sports bars dedicated to non-home teams are a freakish watering-hole subset in New York. I understand being homesick. But carving a Boston sports bar out of the Yankees rock known as Manhattan seems to me a perversely masochistic enterprise. Why does the Hairy Monk put itself through the pain? Well, apparently one of the owners lived in Boston for ten years and never got over it.
It's a decent joint, even if you don't like Boston, or don't care about the pennant race at all. They've got 19 beers on tap (Sam Adams, of course), all served in 20-ounce pints. Happy hour lasts from 11 AM to 7 PM, making it pretty damn hard to miss. There's a set of tables in the back room, where you can order Irish breakfast "all day every day"—though I have no idea who would want to do that. I could have used a bartender less taciturn, but then he was doing double duty as barkeep and waiter.
I didn't get the feeling that everyone in the place gave a damn about Beantown. A few barflies were intent on the game. But most seemed like young office cogs unwinding after work, arguing about the best was to get trashed. Me? I read the Ted Williams obit pasted on the wall. 
—Robert Simonson

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bols Brings Out a Barrel-Aged Genever

Bols' relaunch of its traditional Genever recipe in 2008 has been one of the more successful liquor campaigns in recent years, capturing the imagination of both drinkers and bartenders, and doing more to introduce Americans to "Dutch gin" than any other brand. Now, the huge Dutch liquor outfit is coming out with a barrel-aged version, geared specifically toward the American market. Barrel-aging genever is not a new idea; it's common practice with Korenwijn, an expression of genever that contains more malt wine. But, says Bols, the new product has a higher alcohol content and a different mash recipe than do Korenwijns. 

Here's my article from the Times: 

Aged Genever: A Dutch Spirit With an American TouchBy ROBERT SIMONSON
Dutch genever is taking a tip from American Bourbon.
In September, Lucas Bols will introduce a barrel-aged specimen of the Dutch liquor known as genever, the company’s signature rendition.
The elixir is derived from a rye, wheat and corn distillate triple distilled in copper pot stills, which is then blended with a potpourri of botanicals including cloves, anise, licorice and juniper. From there, it’s aged in a mix of old and new French barrels for 18 months.
“In our archives we have found some recipes from the 19th century,” said Bols’s distiller Piet van Leijenhorst. “One of the recipes we have used for our Bols Genever already in the U.S. and another of these proved to be perfect for Bols barrel-aged genever.”
The barrel-aged genever will initially be available only in the United States, for $50, and Bols is being blunt in its appeal to American tastes, comparing the barrel-aged genever to bourbon and encouraging drinkers to enjoy it in the context of classic whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned. This is not altogether marketing spin. Many bartenders and cocktail experts have long contended that genever—a malty, sweetish, full-bodied beverage—has more in common with whiskey as it does with it lighter, London-based stepchild, gin.
“I think it’s great,” said Jim Meehan, who runs the East Village cocktail bar PDT, and who has tasted the new genever. “It’s another weapon in the arsenal. It has a very corny flavor. It would be good for someone who likes young bourbon or whiskies.”
Aging genever is not an altogether alien notion. Korenwijn, an expression of the liquor of more recent vintage which contains a higher percentage of malt wine, is traditionally aged in cask.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Royal Wedding in Cocktaildom

I've taken on many roles in my 25-year career as a journalist. I never expected that one of them would be what used to be quaintly referred to a Society Writer. But here it is, my first—and very probably my last—Vows column in the New York Times. I suspect that many of my relatives and friends will care more about this byline than anything else I've written.

Of course, the wedding is one from the drinks world, or it wouldn't make much sense my writing it. On July 4 in Seattle, Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders married all-around cocktail philosopher Robert Hess. Then, on July 23, they got married all over again in New Orleans, at the "Plymouth Gin Bartender's Breakfast" at the Tales of the Cocktail convention. It was meant to be a surprise ceremony. But, by midnight that night, I think I may have been the only person who knew of it who had kept his mouth shut. Still, as far as I could judge in my informal polling of the celebrants, about half to two-thirds of the crowd were taken aback.  The ceremony was performed by the dueling distillers act of Desmond Payne (of Beefeater) and Sean Harrison (of Plymouth). The wedding party included such cocktail luminaries as Allen Katz, Julie Reiner, Chad Solomon, Christy Pope, Gary Regan, Anistatia Miller, Jared Brown and David Wondrich. Dale DeGroff gave the bride away.

The Seattle wedding was a much more tranquil affair, held near a lighthouse on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound on a bright, breezy day. Still, there were signs of Bacchus along the edges. Someone had a water gun that sprayed Negroni shots into people's mouths. (Pictured below.) Francesco Lafranconi brought a bottle of Hennesy Paradis (which will cost you about $600) that lasted about a half hour.

The bar program, it's safe to say, was unbeaten in American weddings of this or any year. Executed by some of the best bartenders in the nation, as well as the entire staff of Seattle's Rob Roy, it included almost every cocktail that can be found on the Pegu Club menu, as well as two drinks invented by Hess (including the Trident), one by DeGroff and one by longtime Pegu barman Kenta Goto. The Rob Roy folks spent the entire night before the wedding batching cocktails. The morning of, they carted an actual ton of craft ice over to Vashon Island. (That means the ice and batched cocktails took the ferry.) For teetotalers, there were fancily infused waters, a non-alcoholic Moscow Mule, and Mexican Coke.

One element of the New Orleans bash that did not make it's way into the Times piece was an encounter with adult film legend Ron Jeremy, who was in town promoting his new rum. I told him about the wedding, that he had somehow missed. "Was it a big deal?" he asked. "Are they big in the industry?" I intimated they were. "I should have played my harmonica," he said. Around 3 AM, he took to the stage and did just that.

Here's the story: