Monday, February 27, 2012

What Happened Was..

In pursuit of a story, I've been down few rabbit holes as strange and foreign as the one I fell down to get this Imbibe story on the Haitian drink called akasan. 

Start with a reporter who speaks one language (English), roaming the streets of a neighborhood where they mainly speak another (French). Add shops that advertise the drink in question, but don't actually carry it. Throw in a few more that are known for the drink, but turn out to be shuttered. Then toss in a fair number that appear to be illegal fronts for businesses that are obviously not dealing in food and drink. Finally, finish with interviewees who all give you a different history for the drink. It originated on this island. No, that island. It's made with this. No, it's made with that. It's popular. It's unpopular. People drink it to get nourishment. People drink it to get thin. 

In the end, I felt I finally got to the bottom of it. Sort of. Maybe. Anyway, this is what I wrote for Imbibe:
Cornmeal Surprise
By Robert Simonson
The Ultimate Bakery Shop is a clean, well-lit Haitian shop in the heavily Caribbean Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush. Inside, the cases are stocked with hot bread, cakes, patties, pies, fudge and tarts. Opposite is a refrigerated case teaming with plastic bottles, none of them labeled and most filled with brightly colored fruit juices freshly squeezed in the store. But there’s one bottle with a dull, creamy hue. I ask the bakery’s owner Michelle Baptiste what it is. Akasan, she says. “It’s cornmeal, sugar, milk and that’s it,” she explains in charming Creole cadences. “We make it every day.”
A number of curious Caribbean drinks can be found in the tiny family bakeries and restaurants along Flatbush Avenue and the surrounding streets. These include mauby, a sweet, subtly spicy drink with a bitter, root-like aftertaste which is made from buckthorn bark; sorrel, a spicy beverage made from a breed of hibiscus and associated with Christmastime; and Irish Moss, a gelatinous mix of milk, spices and a species of red algae thought to be an aphrodisiac. 
But while these can be found in many island nations under various names, akasan is entirely a Haitian phenomenon. (The French-inflected pronunciation lays a heavy emphasis on the last syllable: a-ka-SAN.) And in New York, a Flatbush bakery stands as the best prospect to score a bottle. “All of the Haitian bakeries will carry akasan,” says Regine Roumain of the Brooklyn-based Haiti Cultural Exchange. “Whenever my mom goes to the bakeries, she picks me up a bottle or two.” 
The origins of the beverage—which often goes by the name AK-100 (a play on words, as “san” is Creole for “one hundred")—are as murky as the drink itself. But it has served as a staple of the Haitian diet for as long as anyone can remember. Very likely, akasan was born out of necessity. “It’s been a drink for centuries,” says Baptiste. “Haiti is a poor country. They have to make the best of everything that they have. This is a way to make the most of cornmeal.” 
The thick, sweet, smoothie-like drink can be served hot or cold. In Port au Prince, Haiti, women in the markets often carry containers of hot akasan on their heads and call out their wares. In Brooklyn, however, it’s typically served ice-cold. “It’s a very easy drink to make,” says Baptiste. “You boil the cornmeal, add the sugar, add the milk and add flavoring,” which usually includes vanilla, cinnamon sticks, star anise and a pinch of salt. 
Some recipes call for ripe corn kernels, which are soaked overnight, then boiled, puréed and strained, but most formulas use cornmeal that’s sold in many Haitian stores under the name akasan. When milk or evaporated milk is not in the budget, the drink can be made with water. Baptiste also sells a chocolate version and says she sells about 100 bottles of akasan a day. 
If yesteryear’s Haitians used akasan to supplement their nutritional intake, today’s Brooklynites have found the smoothie-life quaff useful not to put the pounds on, but to take them off. “Everybody drinks it, especially people on diets,” says Baptiste. “They drink it in the morning, so they don’t have to eat anything else until lunch. It’s not a lot of calories.” 
Romain, however, isn't drinking akasan to get fat or get thin. She just likes it. “They’ve commercialized it a bit now, so you can buy it in cans,” she shrugs, but that’s not for her. She’ll just wait for her mom's next run to Flatbush.

Gosling's Lays Further Claim to the Dark and Stormy

Gosling's Black Seal Rum, which has made a lot of noise in recent years about the classic cocktail the Dark and Stormy being its own and nobody else's—it has two trademark certificates on file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and defends them, often to the annoyance of mixologists who would like to reserve the right to choose the rum they put in a cocktail—has found a new way to cement its claim on the mix of rum, ginger beer and lime. It has put it all in a ready-to-drink can.

The 8.4 oz can is all Gosling's—Gosling's Black Seal Rum and Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer—and is 9% alcohol. Already available in Bermuda, the product will soon arrive in the U.S. It will first be launched in Maine, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Maryland and California. 

The cocktail-in-a-can think is nothing new. Herradura introduced a line of canned tequila cocktails in 2009, including the Paloma and Margarita. There have been other examples over the years. But the Gosling's is the first I know of that involves a so-called "trademarked" cocktail.

No word on whether Pusser's Rum is working on a canned Painkiller cocktail. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Fleet's In!

What does the over-saturated American spirits market need? Navy Strength Gin, of course. 

No, seriously, we do. Bartenders have been asking for this quintessentially British, overproof product for years. Drinkers, too, like me. But if you wanted it, you had to smuggle in a bottle of Plymouth. No longer. New York Distilling Company's Perry's Tot is already here. And Plymouth and Hayman's versions will be here by the end of summer. (Also, I've been informed, there is a Colorado-produced navy strength gin available. But it's sold only in some western and southern states.)

Gin Ahoy! A Navy-Strength Fleet Arrives
As this year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, perhaps its appropriate that it be the annum when America becomes awash in navy strength gin.
As the name hints, navy strength gin is a powerfully alcoholic expression of the juniper-informed spirit, typically clocking in at 57 percent alcohol by volume. (Regular London dry style gin typically ranges between 40 percent and 45 percent.) Beginning in the early 19th century, it was supplied to the British Royal Navy by distillers such asPlymouth. The declared reason for the high alcohol content was that that was the proof level at which the ship’s gunpowder could still be fired should it accidentally get soaked with booze.
Today’s mixologists aren’t so worried about their gunpowder. They do, however love overproof spirits, leading for a call in recent years for navy strength gin to breach America’s shores. That cry has been answered in triplicate. By the end of 2012, three versions of the hearty gin will be available. The first out of the gate is, in a twist, an American product: Perry’s Tot, released last December by the New York Distilling Company, of Brooklyn. Royal Dock Gin, made by the same British company that produces Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, is expected to arrive in April. And Plymouth, arguably the most famous of the navy strength gins, is set for a late summer launch.
Allen Katz, one of the founders of New York Distilling, remembers his first sip of navy strength. “My first introduction was a trip to Plymouth about six years ago. I was familiar with the name but not its history. I thought, for 57 percent alcohol, this is very drinkable. I remember the pleasantness of the spiciness.”
Both Plymouth and Royal Dock claim a long history with wetting the whistles of the British admiralty. However, official ties with the Royal Navy ended shortly after World War II. For a time afterward, Plymouth would provide “commissioning kits” to new ships. According to Simon Ford, director of trade outreach and brand education at Pernod Ricard USA (Pernod owns Plymouth), the kits “were a wooden chest that held gin, tonic and bitters.
“There were glasses, a ‘glug glug jug,’ used for mixing the drinks, and a pennant that the captain would fly to let visitors know they could join for drinks.”
“If they started commissioning new ships,” Mr. Ford added, “we would probably make commissioning kits for them again.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

Researching this article on cocktails that use smoke as a flavor ingredient was like pulling a loose thread on an old sweater. It just kept coming. Every drink I found led to two others that I hadn't known about. In the end I mentioned examples of smoked cocktails in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Yountville, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Chicago.

There were so many that I didn't have room in the article to mention them all. Left out were the Amaro at The Aviary in Chicago, in which the upturned glass soaks up the fumes of a smoldering barrel stave; the Smokin' Bone at Fatty 'Cue, which used smoked pineapple juice; and Embers Only, a smoky Old Fashioned variation at Bobo in the East Village.

The trend is not necessarily new. As I mention in the story, Eben Freeman was working with smoke Coke syrup at Tailor five years ago. Smoke Signals, an early example of smoked ice, was created by Evan Zimmerman at the Teardrop Lounge in Portland soon after. And Andrew Bohrer, the original bar manager at Seattle's Mistral Kitchen, helped come up with the Courting Rachel two years ago. But the trend really picked up a head of steam this past fall.

Are these drinks really worth the bother or their ornate preparations? Well, as with any drinks trends—vinegar cocktails, barrel-aged cocktails, fat-washed cocktails, draft cocktails—it depends on who's behind the bar. In the hands of a bartender who knows what he's doing, they can be sublime. In the hands of an amateur, they're often unbalanced and just plain curious. The best specimens I tasted were made by Derek Brown and his people down in D.C.

Here's the New York Times story, accompanied by some splendid photography.
Where There's Smoke, There's a Bartender
ON a recent episode of the satirical IFC show “Portlandia,” a preening mixologist creates an over-the-top cocktail with egg shells, a rotten banana and “charred ice.”
Good joke, but not completely absurd. Charred ice has not been spotted in any mixing tins, but smoked ice cubes are falling into cocktails in Boston, California and, yes, Portland, Ore.
Mixologists have been using mezcals and peaty Scotches to slip a little smoky flavor into their potions for some years. But today many bartenders will settle for nothing less than actual smoke.
At Craftbar in Manhattan, the beverage director, Hayden Felice, is smoking the Campari in the house Negroni. For the Smoked Sicilian Manhattan at the Bristol, in Chicago,bourbon is given a cherry-wood treatment. At Rogue 24, R. J. Cooper’s restaurant in Washington, D.C., the mixologist Derek Brown pumps cassia-bark fumes into a blend of mezcal, maple syrup and maple bitters called Where There’s Mezcal. And the Smoky Margarita at Bottega in Yountville, Calif., has no less than three sources of smoke: smoked tequila, smoked jalapeño simple syrup and oak-smoked salt on the rim.
Sound a bit byzantine? It gets better. At Mr. Brown’sColumbia Room in Washington, a new drink called Ghost Dance gets going when aromatic sweetgrass (also called bison grass) and a star anise pod are set smoldering under an upturned glass. After the vessel has been thoroughly “rinsed” with the vapors, this Sazerac variation is completed with Calvados, Fernet-Branca and simple syrup.
But even that process takes a back seat to the Smoker’s Delight, served at Todd Thrasher’s bar PX in Alexandria, Va. Mr. Thrasher takes three or four different kinds of tobacco, steeps them in hot water for five minutes, strains it, adds sugar and reduces the mixture. He mixes a few drops of this with bourbon, honey syrup and lemon juice. Mr. Thrasher created the cocktail for his business partner, who had just quit smoking.
“I think it adds another nuance of flavor,” Mr. Thrasher said. “Smoke has always been in food. In cocktails, unless you used mezcals and Scotches, you don’t get it. It’s me trying to move beyond really sweet and really dry cocktails.”
There are as many ways to deliver embers to alcohol as there are woods to burn. The most common tool (and the simplest method) is the smoke gun. Stuff wood chips in the device’s chamber, light them, and the smoke snakes through a tube to its desired target.
This is how Amber Johannson, at Mistral Kitchen in Seattle, treats the bourbon for the Courting Rachel, her take on an Old-Fashioned. After filling a decanter with smoke, she chases it with the mixed drink, then pours the result over rocks.
Craftbar has a smoker in the restaurant, which Mr. Felice uses to give near-frozen Campari an hourlong apple-wood singe. For their Mexican Piano cocktail, Tim Zohn and Ethan Terry at AQ in San Francisco take a blowtorch to a bay leaf and immediately pour ice over it to trap the smoke in the glass. They then pour in the cocktail, a mix of tequila, lime juice and huckleberry-tarragon syrup.
For customers, the appeal of these drinks may go beyond flavor to something more subliminal.
“The first thing you think about is camping,” said Mr. Brown, the mixologist. “It has an emotional impact.”
Eben Freeman, the director of bar operations and innovation at the Altamarea Group, is familiar with the notion.
“I’m sure that people will argue it’s some sort of caveman reaction,” he said. “That sense-memory thing is part of its appeal. I think it’s also a matter of the American palate, which has changed and is on such a fast learning curve. You overload that palate, so you need stronger and stronger flavor experiences.”
Mr. Freeman should know. Those smoke signals bartenders are reading can arguably be traced back to Tailor, the bygone SoHo restaurant where Mr. Freeman was the barman. Tailor’s best-selling drink was the Waylon, a simple but bewitching mix of bourbon and smoky Coke. Drafting off the chef Sam Mason’s root beer float, made with smoked vanillaice cream, Mr. Freeman did the same to Coke syrup, smoking it first with cherry wood, then alder, then feeding it through his bar’s soda gun.
“A lot of things that people scoffed at when they happened, they’re doing a lot now,” Mr. Freeman said. “It’s been a delayed effect.”
Like Mr. Freeman, many of the mixologists now playing with fire took their tip from the kitchen, adopting processes and equipment once reserved for the chef.
“We saw them playing with blowtorches and wondered why they should have all the fun?” Mr. Zohn said.
Bartenders are also finding new nonflammable ways to introduce a fireplace aura. Lapsang souchong tea, which Mr. Thrasher said “smells like Laphroaig tea,” is a favorite. He mixes some with single-malt Scotch, lemon juice and honey syrup to make his Sherlock Holmes cocktail.
Greg Seider, owner of the Summit Bar in the East Village and a cocktail consultant, uses a secret ingredient he calls Bonfire (a Lapsang souchong nettle tincture) to season the Restoration, a drink at Le Bernardin made with butter-infused Calvados and caraway agave.
Mr. Terry said there might be one other hidden appeal in all these elixirs. “There’s not a lot of smoke in bars anymore,” he said. “These drinks take you back a little bit. It makes it feel a little more like a bar.”
Something to mull over beside the hearth.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Who Owns Agave?

As with the various appellations of origin that rule the wine world throughout Europe, the AOs that fix where tequila and mezcal can be made have proved a double-edged sword. On the positive side, they set up borders and standards by which Mexico's ancestral spirits may be created. But, like the official wine-growing regions, they were set up by governments preoccupied with political concerns that often trumped cultural realities.

What this means is that some AOs in the Mexican system were granted as a favor to some political bigwig, while other states that ought to have been included were left out of the deal. As a result, the country ended up with a set-up in which the borders of the AOs do not necessarily accurately reelect the historical traditions of spirits production in Mexico. Of Mexico's 32 states, about 27 produce agave, the plants that are the base of tequila, mezcal and other native Mexican spirits. Less than half of those states are AOs. And so many small distillers who have been making mezcal generation after generation, but whose lands lie outside the AOs, have not been able to call their mezcal by the name of mezcal.

This unfair situation will likely be exacerbated should a new piece of Mexican legislation, called NOM-186, be passed into law. If it is, those unlucky producers would also not be able to describe their agave spirits using the word "agave."

The NOM (the acronym stands for Norma Oficial Mexicana) is being sponsored by the Mexican National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, a trade organization known as CNIT, which is composed of more than 60 tequila producers, including some of the industry's largest, such as Jose Cuervo, Herradura, Sauza and Partida. It's a long, complex, and multi-pronged piece of legalese, but it's central thrust is to take control of the word agave, and reserve it for the use of the tequila, mezcal and bacanora (another mezcal-like spirit that has its own AO) producers who work with the official AO borders.

Now, since the terms "tequila," "mezcal," and "bacanora" are already regulated by law, why should anyone worry about the way "agave" is employed? Well, because it, too, has become a coin of the realm, as far as the marketing of Mexican spirits is concerned. As CNIT's director general, Francisco Soltero Jiménez, told me, "The word agave has been made popular. Some people have realized this and, knowing that they can not use the names tequila, mezcal and bacanura, have used agave to say to the consumer that they are the same at tequila, mezcal and bacanura. The consumer is misled when they see the word agave."

NOM-186 would severely legislate the use of the word. Distillers inside the AOs who make agave spirits, but don't make tequila, mezcal or bacanora, could not use the term. And nobody who makes booze outside the AOs could. Agave would, in effect, be branded.

The problem with this, say opponents on NOM-186, is that agave is at the root of many other indigenous Mexican distillates. Example: raicilla, a traditional, mezcal-like liquor common to Jalisco, a province known for tequila production. These liquors, in the NOM was made law, would have to call their products "agavacea aguardiente" or "distilled agavacea," obscure terms that smack of the science lab. The same would hold true for agave spirits made outside the AOs, including many artisanal specimens that are mezcals in all but official name.

This is all in the name of the consumer, argues CNIT. Mr. Soltero said that the legislation is meant to combat "problems that, from our point of view, are misleading consumers. These misleading actions are affecting the protected names of products like tequila, mezcal and bacanura, which here in Mexico are a very important part of the culture and identity of the people."

But, to opponents like Phil Ward, the owner of New York's agave-focused bar Mayahuel, NOM-186 will eventually perform the opposite of what CNIT says is it's intended function: to protect the customer. "They say they don't want people to be deceived," said Ward. "But by their rationale, there are going to be bottles of mezcal that are made from agave that can't be called mezcal or agave. They're replacing a deception with a deception."

Mexican bartenders, too, are upset by the legislation. Added Pedro Jiménez, the owner of Pare De Sufrir, a popular mezcal bar in Guadalajara, "These little producers—who have worked for centuries in these spirits, way before any AO was established—won’t be able to use the word agave to describe their spirits, even though they are made from this plant."

There is more bad news in the NOM for small agave distillers. The legislation also states that makers of agave liquors that are not tequila, mezcal or bacanora could no longer practice their trade within the AO borders. "Anyone can grow any kind of agavaceae in Mexico and this would remain the same," said the CNIT's Soltero Jiménez. "But they would not be able to use them to produce spirits from plants that come from the protected areas, since this would lead to confusion and deception."

So raicilla, made for generations in Jalisco, could no longer be made in that state.

And there's more to handicap the distiller working outside the AOs. According to the proposed regulation, spirits using the term "agave distillate," which would indicate liquors using 100% agave sugars, could only be bottled at alcohol levels between 25% to 35%.

"This is completely against what these people do," said David Suro-Piñera, the founder of Siembra Azul Tequila and Tequilas Restaurant in Philadelphia, and a vocal opponent of the legislation. "These producers produce a high-proof product, not less that 40% and typically 55% alcohol." If you want to make spirits at the ABV, you have to keep your agave content to 51%. "They are pretty much forced to make mixtos," said Suro-Piñero. "You don't have to be an expert to raise your eyebrow at this."

This part of the measure, said Patricia Colunga, a professor at theCentro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán who has degrees in biology, ecology and botanics, "has nothing to do with the declared objective of the NOM-186 to give accurate information to consumers and to prevent the offering of adulterated liquors to the consumers. Instead, it has the evident intention to push the artisanal mezcal makers and their high quality distillates from their traditional market niche so they cannot present any competition."

Ward agrees with Colunga that the real thrust of the bill seems to be the undermining of Mexico's small agave distillers, the sort whose artisanal bottlings have been embraced in recent years by American and Mexican drinkers and bartenders.

"I think it's big companies trying to squash the little companies," Ward said. "Think of what microbrews have done to the big beers in this country. Now you see the big companies coming out with craft brew. Instead of adjusting by making special brands of tequilas, the large tequila companies are trying to squash it. This is tequila saying 'No, we're not going to adapt.'"

The NOM is particularly galling to its opponents in that few, if any, of its dicta would affect the members of the CNIT, which is backing the bill. "I think that a NOM with the objectives that they declared should have been written with the cooperation of producers who would be regulated," contended Colunga.

Colunga also thinks the NOM, if it is meant to create truth in advertising, should also address the way tequila is labeled. Under current Mexican law, a tequila may call itself tequila if its contents include at least 51% agave sugars. (These are commonly known as "mixtos" and considered inferior products by tequila mavens.) The passage of the NOM would mean that a big tequila brand with just a tad over half agave inside the bottle could advertise itself as agave, while a small mezcal maker working outside the AOs, and using 100% agave, would have no rights to such a boast.

"This very clearly would nullify the consumers ability to compare, in an objective way, the quality of these products with those that are produced within the areas protected under the AO Tequila, Mezcal and Bacanora, in order to make an informed choice by assessing contents, quality and price," said Colunga. "Mexican Official Standard for Tequila does not demand explicit and detailed labeling of 'mixed tequila' or 'tequila-rum.' When a consumer buys one of these products, he is not informed explicitly that it is made with only 51% Agave sugars, and the raw matter from which the remaining 49% alcohol was obtained is never revealed."

The NOM, detractors say, would also hinder biodiversity, since it will encourage the grown of only certain agave plants, the ones that by law can be used to make tequila and mezcal. "There are over 200 species of agaves in the world and more than 120 are endemic of our nation," said Pedro Jiménez. "The spirits that the NOM-186 wants to protect are made out of around only 10 species of agave, so that would also be a wrong information. There are at least 39 species of agaves used to make traditional mezcal in our country. So more than 200% of them would be cut off."

Here is a more concise write-up of the issues I wrote for the New York Times' Diner's Journal. A decision on the bill is expected in the weeks to come.

The agave industry in Mexico has experienced a series of hard knocks in recent years. Over-manipulation of agave plants, designed to speed along the plants' slow growth, had resulted in fields of sickly plants. And the price of an agave has dropped to a record low, leading to the migration of veteran farmers, who take their long knowledge on how to raise the finicky plants with them. Meanwhile, trade agreements between Mexico and the United States continue to allow the bulk of tequila to be bottled Stateside absent of any Mexican oversight of regulation.

These practices have led some spirits writers to despair that tequila, just as it is cresting in popularity, is doomed to become the next vodka—a category robbed of quality, character and diversity by the shoddy, corners-cutting practices of big corporations trying to reach the widest audience possible as quickly as possible.

To people like Colunga, NOM-186 would be another nail in the coffin on Mexico's liquid heritage.

"Hundreds of these producers have already been excluded by the AO Mezcal and are voided from commercially naming their mezcals with the term that, based upon their legitimate and historical right, they should be able to use: mezcal," Colunga told me. "These producers have been forced to commercially use the terms Agave distillates or aguardiente, resulting in a strong barrier for the commercialization of their spirits. Therefore they are not being able to transmit to the consumer the great tradition that lies behind their product through the historical concept of mezcal.

"In addition to this barrier poised by exclusion from the AO Mezcal, now they intend to set two more by prohibiting their use of the word agave and by prohibiting the indication to the consumer of their content of 100% of sugar obtained from the sugar of Agave plants. This will mean the exclusion of hundreds of traditional artisanal mezcal producers from the alcoholic beverage market." 

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Beer At...Sophie's

Can you tell I've done too many of these columns? My review of Sophie's, or "What Wrong With Most New York Bars":
A Beer At...Sophie's
While there are something like 6,000 bars in New York, as the intro to this column states, sometimes if feels like there are just six, only they are repeated every block or so. Much like the city itself, which has been slowly but surely scrubbed clean of telling and characterful detail over the last two City Hall administrations, a certain homogeneity has gripped New York's regular-guy watering holes. Originality and personality are in short supply.
Many's the time when, in service of this column, I've walked into a bar and thought, "Wait, haven't I been here before?" There's the Jägermeister dispenser behind the bar. There's the big piece of cardboard taped to the mirror tracking the NBA/NFL/MLB pool; the lotto cards; the "Big Game Hunter" video game (surely the most popular video game in the New York saloon world); the seven television sets; the dusty, obscure trophies on a high shelf; the rows and rows of every flavor of vodka Stoli, Absolut and Grey Goose have ever put out. If it's Tuesday, it must be trivia night. If it's Friday, there's karaoke. If it's Sunday, it's the big game.
On the walls there's that iconic picture of the construction workers having lunch on an I-beam high above the city streets; the "Oh, my goodness! My Guinness!" poster; the pictures of the great Irish poets; the map of Ireland; the fading World Trade Center imagery; that damn poem about the wind being at your back, and the road rising to meet you; the mirrored pictures bearing the name of some beer company or other; the 1927 Yankees, or the 1961 Yankees, or the 1986 Mets, the 1990 Giants, the 1994 Rangers; that shot of Frankie and Dean and Sammy in tuxes, laughing their asses off; Frank Sinatra's youthful mug shot; the framed pictures of Kennedy or Reagan or Bush. In three years of bar-hopping for this column, I've never once seen a picture of Clinton or Obama on a bar wall.
Sophie's, a small bar on side street in the East Village, is burdened by none of the above mundanity. But it's a type of New York tavern, predictable in its own way. Looking at the storefront and the old walls inside, you know that the space has been a bar for a long time, even if it hasn't always been Sophie's. Probably was a speakeasy during Prohibition. And probably it was a beer hall bankrolled by a local brewery before that. Its clientele is very likely a classic East Village mash-up of old drunks and young hipsters. And, indeed, most of this is confirmed through a few questions with the barman.
Still, the place has personality, it can't be denied. The decor is spartan and much of the furniture looks—and holds up—like the kind of unwanted kindling you seen set on the sidewalk outside tenement stoops. The bartender doesn't know why it's called Sophie's. This isn't surprising. Bartenders never seem to know anything about the history of the bar they work in. Still, it didn't take me much research to find out the previous owner, an old Ukrainian woman, was named Sophie Polny. (The owner since 1986 is Bob Corton.)
One odd touch is the bar, which looks ancient but is not original to the room. For this was the second location of Sophie's, and when the old gal moved, she brought her bar with her. Before Sophie moved in, the space was called the Chic Choc, owned by Virginia Chicarelli and a person named Chocolate. You can still see the words "Chic Choc" (in my opinion, one of the worst bar names ever) on the cement threshold of Sophie's.
Back in 2008, a scare went up that Sophie's was going to close, and the downtown media raced to sing the praises of the old dive that had once catered to the likes of barflies named Jimmy Tokens, Johnny Red, Caveman and Degenerate John. But, four years later, it's still here, hanging on. And it still has no sign. Never did. And no Big Game Hunter.
—Robert Simonson

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lowcountry, Where the Martinis Are Made With Bourbon

From the Times
Bourbon All the Way at Lowcountry
A “Wild Negroni,” made with bourbon at Lowcountry.Leah Linder
With the arrival of its new executive chef, Oliver Gift, Lowcountry, the West Village restaurant specializing in the comfort food of the American South, has revamped its food and cocktail menus.
Always bourbon-focused, Lowcountry takes its love for America’s own whiskey to new extremes on the new list. You expect a julep to have bourbon in it, and no one blinks when a Manhattan or Old Fashioned does. And such is indeed the case here.
But Lowcountry’s Sazerac, traditionally a rye cocktail, is also bourbon-based, giving it a milder bite that usual. So are the Dark and Stormy and the sweetish Margarita, with bourbon and Jim Beam’s black cherry-infused bourbon liqueur Red Stag, respectively, kicking out the usual rum and tequila. The house Negroni cuts the bitterness of the Campari by finding room for a little Wild Turkey American Honey, a bourbon-based honey liqueur. And Wild Turkey 81, blood orange and walnut liqueur are the components of something called the Winter Martini. (As of yet, there are no bourbon gimlets.)
As on the previous menu, there is a wide selection of bourbons by the glass, as well as bourbon flights. For $25, you can purchase bourbon pairings for your appetizer, entree and dessert.
“We are a bourbon bar and southern restaurant, and it’s important to us that we stay true to this specialty in our cocktail menu,” explained Chad Harper, Lowcountry’s bar and floor manager. “We offer classic drinks like martinis, margaritas and negronis, that are familiar to customers, but give them our own twist by making them with bourbon because it’s an indigenous American spirit, that’s very popular in the South.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lani Kai's Tiki Mondays Holds an All-Star Game

Since it debuted last year at Lani Kai, "Tiki Mondays," a weekly cocktail showcase manned by mixologist Brian Miller (formerly of Death & Co.), has slowly but surely established itself as both the premier tiki event in New York, and a popular industry gathering place. Roughly half or more of the people you see any given Monday are bartenders, journalists or other professionals affiliated with the cocktail world. This is partially because Miller brings in a different guest bartender every week. Cameos have been made by the likes of Dale DeGroff, Allen Katz, Phil Ward, and Joaquin Simo.

For the event on Monday Feb. 13, Miller has assembled a "Tiki All-Stars." "We're bringing back past first mates and teaming them up for an hour and half each behind the stick," said Miller. "Each first mate will be responsible for creating one drink each for the menu. So it will be a menu of 10 drinks, served by all. Our sponsors that night are St Germain and Partida Tequila. All tips are going to charity and each sponsor will be donating money as well. The charity is the Barman's Fund." 

Here the line-up:

Adam Kolesar (better known as "Tiki Adam") & Joe Desmond: 6:00 - 7:30
Julie Reiner (Lani Kai's owner) & Brad Farran (Clover Club): 7:30 - 9:00
Jim Wrigley & James Menite (Crown): 9:00 - 10:30
Lynnette Morrero (Astor Room) & Richie Boccato (Dutch Kills): 10:30 - 12:00
Phil Ward (Mayahuel) & Jim Kearns (Peels): 12:00 - 1:30

Brian Miller and Ryan Lliola will be barbacking.