Monday, April 30, 2012

Charles H. Baker Jr. Comes Home to Red Hook

You want to know something about 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, you ask Thomas historian David Wondrich. Have a question about tiki-master Donn "Don the Beachcomber" Beach, Jeff Berry is your man. And if you're curious about mid-20th-century, globe-trotting mixologist-journalist Charles H. Baker Jr., take a stroll down to the Red Hook, Brooklyn, bar Fort Defiance and talk to St. John Frizell. 

Since traveling the globe in pursuit of places and bars that Baker visited, and publishing his findings in the Oxford American in 2008, Frizell has been acknowledged as the world authority on Baker, his life, his bibliography and his cocktail creations. 

The apotheosis of Frizell's Baker obsession will come on May 1, when he will formally unveil at Fort Defiance a cocktail shaker that once belonged to Baker. It was given to Frizell by Baker's daughter, Pamela. Here's the story I wrote about it for the Times:  
At Fort Defiance, Saluting a Drinks Pioneer
A cocktail shaker once owned by the influential drinks columnist Charles H. Baker Jr. will soon have a place of honor at Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Today’s history-minded mixologists follow various guiding lights from the past. Some bow at the altar of the 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, the so-called “father of American mixology.” Others look to Harry Johnson, a leading barman of the late 1800s.
For St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Charles H. Baker Jr. was always a lodestar. And on Tuesday, Mr. Frizell will hold a private party to celebrate him.
A bon vivant and world traveler who married exceptionally well and drank with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Errol Flynn, Baker found time to write about the cocktails he encountered around the globe, in the pages of Esquire, Town & Country and Gourmet, where he had a column called “Here’s How.” His book “The Gentleman’s Companion,” published in 1939, has become a collector’s item among cocktail types, and occasionally you’ll find one of his liquid creations popping up on a modern cocktail list. (I am particularly fond of the Remember the Maine, a Manhattan-Sazerac cross laced with cherry heering.)
“I was given his books in 2000 by a friend of mine,” Mr. Frizell said. “This was back before anyone was talking about him. To read that book is to fall in love with Charles Baker. The problem was, the only thing I could find out about him anywhere was an obituary in The Miami Herald.”
And so Mr. Frizell decided to retrace the peripatetic writer’s footsteps, spending 2005 and 2006 going wherever Baker had gone. He published his finding in a 2008 essay in the literary magazine Oxford American.
At some point in his investigations, he became acquainted with Baker’s daughter, Pamela Johnson, who lives in Princeton, NJ. She rewarded Mr. Frizell’s interest by giving him an ornate Japanese cocktail shaker once owned by Baker. The shaker, possibly dating from the 1920s or ’30s, is footed and high-shouldered and shaped like a teapot. Painted a funereal black, it has a red handle and spout, and is decorated with the image of a fantastical, long-tailed rooster.
The party on Tuesday will mark the arrival of the shaker. Guests will be invited to build Baker-devised cocktails in the vessel. At the end of the evening, the shaker will be placed on the wall in a glass case created for the purpose. And there it will remain.
Ms. Johnson, who is in her 70s, is planning to travel from New Jersey for the event. “She is surprised by the whole thing,” Mr. Frizell said. “She loved her father, but finds this whole thing strange. I think she thinks I’m the only one who’s interested in him.”

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Room Service Elevated at The James

Either hotels are getting really lazy and really cheap, or they sense that inside every patron is a bartender screaming to get out. From the Times:
At the James, Mix Drinks in Your Room
New York hotels seem intent on converting their guests into bartenders.
The new NoMad hotel, at 28th Street and Broadway, recently introduced abottle service program that comes complete with liquor, mixers, bar tools and a cart. Now, the James, in SoHo, has gone the minibar one better, offering its guests everything they need to open a cocktail lounge in their room.
The tiny, tacky mini-bottles that are the mainstays of hotel minibars around the world are not for the James. Instead, the hotel equips each room’s “pantry” with 375-milliliter vessels of liquor, including international staples like Grey Goose vodka as well as local brands like Tuthilltown’s Hudson Whiskey; bottles of Fever Tree tonic water and ginger ale; and a replica of a vintage cocktail shaker — the kitschy, retro kind with drink formulas are printed on the side. There’s also a book, “American Bar,” with more than 200 cocktail recipes.
If you want to try out something more complex than a vodka and tonic, call down to the desk and a tray of bar accouterments ($28) will be delivered to the room. Thus equipped with bitters, and beakers of simple syrup and Lillet Blanc, among other things, you are ready to make a Corpse Reviver 2, Old Havana, Blood and Sand, Moscow Mule and other libations. Charges, in addition to the tray fee, are based on how much liquor you use. Like the book? You can buy that, too.
“You’ve got enough to make four people a good, solid, stiff drink,” said Sims Foster, vice president of restaurant and bars for the Denihan Hospitality Group, which owns and runs all the James hotels. “And it won’t cost you any more than it would at a bar.”
If you turn out to be all thumbs as a bartender, don’t worry. Real bartenders still work at the James. And the person who brings up the tray can give you a few lessons.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Last Meal (and Drinks) on the Titanic

This story, written for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog, isn't exactly a liquor story. Except that during this recreation of the final dinner ever feasted on by the first class passengers of the Titanic, we drunk a good amount of fine Champagne (Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top), Muscadet, Burgundy and Sherry. (Gotta love those pre-WWI toffs and their Sherry-love.) Plus, among the ten courses—drawn from the recipes of Escoffier) there was something called a Punch Romaine. Neither quite food nor drink, it was a rum-based, shaved-ice palate cleanser served in the middle of the meal. I ate it with a spoon. (Somebody should really revive the idea of the mid-meal palate cleanser.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bottle Service Gets Its Good Name Back

Nomad, the swank new hotel at 28th and Broadway in Manhattan, is trying to reclaim bottle service as a thing fine, decent, liquor-respecting people might do. Particularly those people who enjoy the chance to mix their own cocktails in a public setting. From the New York Times:
Bottle Service Goes D.I.Y.
By Robert Simonson
Bottle service doesn’t have a good reputation in self-respecting bartender circles. It conjures up images of ill-mannered but well-moneyed night trollers loudly swilling $500 bottles of Grey Goose vodka in the cordoned-off V.I.P. corners of ostentatiously swanky clubs and lounges. It’s not the style of drinking a genteel bartender condones.
Leo Robitscheck (above), the beverage director at the newly opened NoMadhotel and restaurant, on Madison Square Park in Manhattan, thought that reputation was partly undeserved. “I think the idea of bottle service traditionally might have been a good concept. It’s communal, it’s social, with you and your friends getting together around drinks. It gets a bad name because it’s usually terribly overpriced and badly executed.”
NoMad’s reimagining of bottle service begins with its sleek, black, wheeled bar carts (part of a return to tableside carts that the Dining section noted this week). The bar carts were designed by Mr. Robitscheck and built by Regency Cart Services in Brooklyn. The top is indented with a crescent-shaped garment tray. A drawer below contains the jiggers, mixing spoons and other tools you may need to build your drink. Another pivoting drawer, which opens on either side of the cart, holds custom Kold-Draft ice. A crank on the side lowers or elevates the work surface to the height desired by the customer. There are also bottles of bitters, and various vermouths and sweeteners.
These accouterments are obviously not needed if all you’re doing is emptying the contents of a bottle into glasses. But at NoMad, the service comes with more than just a bottle. Your spirit of choice arrives with three pre-mixed cocktails. If you opt for gin, for instance, you’ll also get three vessels containing the makings of a negroni, a southside and a gin-gin mule. Order tequila, and you’re good to go for an el diablo, a rosita and a tequila smash.
A NoMad bartender—called a “librarian,” since the service is available in the lounge area called The Library — can mix your drinks if you wish, but Mr. Robitscheck expects most people will want to do it themselves. “The inner bartender comes out to play,” he said. (There’s also a recipe card with instructions on how to make further cocktails with the booze on hand.)
Bottles service starts at the relatively low price of $250. “For us, it’s not about gouging people and making tons of money,” said Mr. Robitscheck, who is also bar manager at Eleven Madison Park, which is owned by the two partners who run the NoMad restaurant. He notes that, drink for drink, the service is “priced cheaper than our cocktails” (which average $15 at NoMad.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Season Five: There Are Other Drugs

The crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce held onto the 1950s and held back the 1960s for as long as they could. They kept their haircuts, their conservative suits, their drinking habits and reflexive sexism and racism intact, despite growing signs of restlessness in the country to which they attempt to sell product.

But with Season Five of "Mad Men," which debuted on March 25 after a 17-month-long hiatus, the younger generation and repressed minorities are through being patient. It's the summer of 1966. Riots are commonplace. Blacks demand equal rights. Women, too. Everyone, really. With his new, swinging, French-Canadian wife on his arm, Don Draper, now 40, is starting to look a little old, and a little lost. And he knows it. He refers to himself jokingly, but knowingly, as "The Man" in one episode. The beatniks who razzed him about working in advertising in 1960 didn't bother him. But the hippies will.

As for his elder partner Roger Sterling, he seems from another, now all-but-lost world completely. He flails about trying to find his place in the new world order of SCDP, where Don has a black secretary, the hiring of a Jew is no longer an eyebrow-raiser but a commonplace, and clients ask for endorsements by The Rolling Stones.

The preferred forms of intoxication in the mid-late '60s are also changing. Booze isn't cool. It's old school. Weed is where it's at. We see it partaken of in the opening double episode "A Little Kiss," and in the second episode (though called Episode 503) "Tea Leaves." In the former, the band hired to play at Don's surprise birthday party smoke a joint on the balcony, and are joined by account man Ken Cosgrove, who apparently is liable to recite poetry when under the influence. In the latter, marijuana is everywhere backstage at a Stones concert. Don passes, but the increasingly smarmy media head Harry Crane, whoring after youth culture and trying to stay hip, takes a toke. I predict as the season moves on, liquor will continue to take a back seat to other drugs.

Even within the confines of SCDP, regular imbibing is somewhat frowned upon. The disapproval comes mainly from the ambitious and hardworking Pete Campbell. Pete has as big a chip on his shoulder as ever, and is growing increasingly impatient with the lax behavior of senior partner Roger Sterling, who last season nearly capsized the firm by letting his one account, Lucky Strike, get away. (He smokes Camels now.)

With Don cutting back, Roger is the biggest drinker in the office now. Some clients, like Mohawk Airlines, still "love his pickled guts," much to Pete's chagrin. But the more Roger drinks, Pete makes clear, the less Campbell likes it. "No more drinks!" he cries in frustrating in "A Little Kiss." Pete clearly does not intend to sail the company down a river of vodka. At the same Mohawk lunch where Roger down two "lethal" Martinis in cut time, Pete barely sips his. He does open a bottle Champagne when Mohawk is signed, but that's for ceremony's sake.

"When is everything going to get back to normal," asks Roger at one point. Answer: never, Roger.

As Roger is downing the most drinks, Roger gets the best liquor lines. When Pete comes to announce that he has good news, he asks "drinking good news?" "I had drinks with Mohawk," he tells Peggy in "Tea Leaves." "I sat down with two of them and, I swear, by the end I thought there were three." Of the two main execs at Mohawk, "I know Hank from the war. He likes vodka. And Jack likes Jack." Roger keeps Smirnoff vodka and Chivas Regal in his office bar.

Beer is making regular appearances in the first few episodes—perhaps a signifier of the growing movement toward broader equality. Peggy drinks a ton of Rheingold at home in Episode 504, "Mystery Date." Joan, preparing for the return of her GI husband, Greg, buys some Schaefer. The rough new copywriter with the Jewish name and the Brooklyn accent, Michael Ginsberg, helps himself to a mug of beer at a bar after a client presentation. The sudsy refreshment stands in distinct contract to Don's whiskey neat.

Other stray liquor proclivities: Henry Francis, Betty's white-shoe husband, opts for a brandy at the end of the day in "Tea Leaves." Joan asks for a Gin Fizz at an Italian restaurant where her husband, mother and in-laws all opt for wine—a sign, perhaps that she, too, with her traditional ideas of marriage, motherhood and happiness, is falling behind the times. But she does manage to kick her awful hubby out the door in episode three, so maybe it's not all darkness for her in the future.

Scottish Theatre, Scottish Booze

I go to a lot of theatre, and am routinely disappointed by the bar found therein. The liquor choices are predictable and mundane. The skills of the bartenders are nil. You can't order a drink any more complicated than a gin and tonic. And when "custom" cocktails related to the show are featured, they are typically dispiriting vodka creations of overpowering sweetness. (I won't even get into the prevalence of alcohol-filled sippy cups.)

A class apart is E:Bar, the bar at the theatre complex 59E59 Theatres on the east side of Manhattan. Because the executive producer is a Scot, and because the theatre often hosts British and Scottish artists, the bar has a single malt collection to match nearly any bar in town. And the prices are in keeping with those bars. Here's a piece I wrote about it for the New York Times:
A Theatre Bar Fluent in Scotch
By Robert Simonson
The Scotch lover bellying up to a New York theater bar at intermission is lucky if he can score some Dewar’s White Label. At E:Bar, in the Midtown theater complex known as 59E59 Theaters, that same thirsty theatergoer can choose among 20 single malts. There are the bottles you would expect at any halfway decent bar, like Glenfiddich and The Macallan. But E:Bar also stocks also peaty Islay Scotches including Lagavulin, Bowmore and Ardbeg; the smooth, triple-distilled Lowlands whiskey Auchentoshan; and two briny specimens from high up in the Orkney Islands, Highland Park and Scapa.
This generous selection of nectar will likely sit just fine with the artists involved in “A Slow Air” and “Federer Versus Murray,” two Scottish plays that begin performances on Wednesday as part of Scotland Week 2012, a promotion of Scottish culture that runs from April 6 to 14 in several cities in the United States and Canada. 59E59 participated in its first Scotland Week last year, hosting a single show, “The Promise,” starring actress Joanna Tope.
Asked if Ms. Tope appreciated the tribute to her homeland’s native spirit, the 59E59 executive producer Peter Tear and the bar’s manager, Alberto Rosario, only laughed, as if the question needn’t be answered. “She and her husband have a house near Oban,” in Scotland, Mr. Tear said. “They’re used to nursing a whisky by the fire.” (E:Bar has Oban whisky, too.) As for the actors in the new plays, they have gotten wind of the bar’s offerings. “They come over on the trip expecting the best,” Mr. Tear said.
The thespians can thank Mr. Tear for 59E59’s unusually robust back bar. A Scot, he was born in a few miles from Kilmarnock, which for many years was home to a huge Johnnie Walker plant. Mr. Tear’s uncle was the whisky’s marketing manager in the 1950s. When the theater was being developed, Mr. Tear remembered, the bar area “was earmarked to be a cookie and coffee bar. Being a good Scot, I thought, that ain’t going to happen.”
E:Bar opened in early 2004. When it began hosting the annual theater festival Brits Off Broadway — which occasionally featured a Scottish play or two — Mr. Tear began adding Scotches to the bar menu. The collection grew from there.
“Many of our patrons are surprised to find these whiskys in a theater bar,” said Mr. Rosario, who began his career at 59E59 as a bartender six years ago. “Coal Ila and Scapa are good sellers.” All the Scotches cost $12 to $14 a dose.
59E59’s bar opens an hour before curtain, and you don’t have to buy a ticket to drink there. The best time to visit may be post-show, when the performers file in to relax with a wee dram. “We want the actors to mix with the patrons,” Mr. Tear said.