Monday, November 28, 2011

Vodka Takes a Positive Turn

Big Vodka continues to breed the worst habits among drinkers, convincing them that the most desirable qualifier in liquor is "smooth," that a 17th distillation actually means something, and inundating than with ludicrous, infantilizing new flavors like marshmallow.

But a happier trend can be found among America's craft distillers, which have in the past couple years have emphasized their vodkas' source material and provincial bonafides. Message: our vodka tastes like something and has, perhaps, a terroir of sorts. Vodka is still vodka, of course, but this embrace of specificity, instead of packaging, is certainly a step in the right direction.

Here is a brief article I wrote for the December 2011 issue of GQ about three of the newer, better vodkas out there.
This Year, the Choice Is Clear
For the last decade or so, the badge of honor in the vodka world was how many times you distilled. Three times, five times, ten. The more flavorful rough edges sanded off, the better. It was a breakneck race toward smooth, anonymous nothingness. Not any longer. The best new American craft vodka makers want to actually taste like something. Taking a tip from locavore trends, they proudly trumpet the provinciality and specificity of their source material. Here are three small-batch vodkas you won't mistake for one another. 
BOYD & BLAIR, Glenshaw, PA. Made from local spuds, this vodka is rich, round, creamy and slightly sweet. The savvy B&B recently made a play for bartenders' hearts by releasing the 151 Professional Proof, perfect for infusions. (Don't worry: Consumers can buy it, too.) ($32) 
DRY FLY VODKA, Spokane, WA. Dry Fly is one of a number of vodka distillers that now boast of using wheat from local farmers. Fashioned in a German-made pot still, it's a lightly bready, balanced, understated dram. ($32) 
SPIRIT OF THE HUDSON, Gardner, NY. Long before wine, whiskey and summer homes took over, the Hudson Valley was known for its apple orchards. That's what Tuthilltown uses to make this light, unusual and appealingly fruity spirit. If there's a way to drink an Appletini without shame, this is it. ($35) 

—Robert Simonson 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Getting Your Thanksgiving Bar in Order, Part III

Here is the third and final piece of Thanksgiving drinking advice I wrote for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog.
Q. A number of the people coming for Thanksgiving have a taste for, well, "girly drinks." (I'm sorry, but you know what I mean). Is there a cocktail that will I can make for both them and also those with more, er, sophisticated tastes? 
A. By "girly," I'm assuming you mean a drink that is on the sweet side. And possibly pink. And very possibly a Cosmopolitan. I can't help you on the latter two points. The discerning drinkers at your gathering aren't going to touch a pastel-hued libation, no matter what the pedigree. But a bit of sugar shouldn't be a divisive issue. Contrary to popular belief, a sweet drink need not be a unsophisticated one. Much of the history of cocktail creation has been striking the right balance of liquor, sweetener and acidity (usually in the form of citrus). 
You might want to start people off with a simple Champagne cocktail. French bubbly satisfies every taste, from the frivolous to the dignified. If the serious imbibers balk, remind them that this is what Victor Laszlo drank. And he won both World War II AND Ingrid Bergman. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Getting Your Thanksgiving Bar in Order, Part II

Here is the second of the Thanksgiving drinking queries I tackled for the New York Times. The reader asked for suggestions on how to make a wealth of different cocktails from a poverty of bottles. I was happy to point out that you don't need to buy out the liquor store to attain a liquid variety at home. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to this article from the cocktail industry reaffirmed my belief that many in the industry favor the simplicity of the classics over the increasingly ornate drinks being produced today. 

Can You Recommend a Few Nice Cocktails That Use the Same Spirits?


Q. Can you recommend a few nice cocktails to serve before dinner? We don’t own a lot of liquor. So, ideally, we’d have the option of three to four cocktails that use the same liquors (so that we can get away with only buying a bottle or two). — TLD, Boston

A. The rococo, nine-ingredient inventions of today’s mixologists notwithstanding, you can do surprisingly well, variety-wise, with just a few elixirs. Get yourself a bottle of quality London dry gin and some dry vermouth, then pick up a dozen lemons and limes each (fresh squeezed juice is always best), and you’re set for successive rounds of martinis, gimlets, rickeys, fizzes and Collinses.

It you’re brown spirits people, buy a good rye or bourbon (depending on your tastes) and some sweet vermouth, plus a bottle of Angostura bitters, as well the aforementioned citrus (add an orange or two), and you’re in for an evening of manhattans, old fashioneds, whiskey sours and, yes, Collinses. And, don’t forget, that vermouth makes a great pre-dinner cocktail on its own and is nothing to be scared of.

Furthermore, if somewhere in the back of your bar or kitchen cupboard you find a bottle of Scotch your brother gave you a few years back, and some stray, neglected standbys like Cherry Heering, Cointreau, Bénédictine and grenadine, you’re good to go for a few other less famous, but no-less-classic, cocktails, like the ward eight, blood and sand, Bobby Burns and white lady. Enough possibilities? Get mixing!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Getting Your Thanksgiving Bar in Order, Part I

One of the happiest assignments that have fallen my way in months came last week when the New York Times asked me to field Thanksgiving cocktail queries from readers. I love the idea that there are people out there who consider the pre-feast tipple an intricate part of the day, and want to get it right as much as they want the bird to achieve a perfect brown. I also like having a direct line to inquiring cocktailians.

Here's the first question that came my way:

What Are Some Festive Cocktails That Are Easy to Make for a Big Group?

By Robert Simonson

Q. My future in-laws always have a holiday cocktail contest. What are some sure-to-please recipes which are festive, and relatively easy to put together for a big group?

A. For a pre-cornucopia cocktail to get the gathered into a convivial mood, the temptation is to go with something brown and warming. It’s fall, there’s a nip in the air, and a harvest-like scene awaits on the table. Something in the whiskey or port family seems in order. But you’ve got a heavy dinner ahead of you. The last thing you need is an equally heavy drink.

With that in mind, here a few recommendations that split the difference. (All of the below are stirred drinks, and thus readily made in large batches.)

Simplest solution first. I’ve always found a batch of Negronis — equal parts London dry gin (I recommend Beefeater or Plymouth), sweet vermouth and Campari — makes for a light and enticing opening act to any meal. The gin won’t weigh you down, and the Campari will enliven your appetite. Also, the drink’s as easy as a martini to make.

Negroni1 ounce London dry gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Orange peel, sliced.

Stir over ice and strain into a glass, preferably one filled with ice. Garnish with a fat swath of orange peel.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christina Turley Goes Home

With a name like Turley, you can't hide from the wine world for long.

I first met Christina Turley in her short, but celebrated, pose as the sommelier of several of David Chang's New York restaurants. She got a lot of attention during that time, as only a beautiful woman with a winning personality holding a bottle of wine can. Last year, she returned to the family farm to take up her part in the Turley wine dynasty. (Her father is vintner Larry Turley, her aunt Helen.) Here's a profile I did of the young turkess for Imbibe.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Liquor Program at Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema Up and Running

Word that the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, intended to make moviegoing just that much more fun by serving drinks was handed down a month or so ago. Last weekend, the spigots were finally opened, with drinks being served in the street level cafe and at the upstairs lobby bar.

We're not just talking wine and beer here. There's a good-sized selection of quality spirits, including Lagavulin Scotch and Fernet Branca. And bar manager Jen Marshall went so far as to embrace that popular trend, barrel-aged cocktails. Two are on offer: a Negroni, and a Manhattan made with corn whiskey, Dolin Blanc and Dolin Rouge vermouths, and orange bitters. Each of them are aging from six to eight weeks, and were batched late September, so they will be ready in a few weeks.

I haven't been, but apparently service is a thing to see. People crowd the bars only just before the show after all, so the bartenders must do about 150 covers in 30 minutes with every screening.

Among the current specials is a "Rum Punch" to accompany a viewing of Johnny Depp's "The Rum Diary."