Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dale DeGroff Release Own Brand of Bitters

Branding bitters is not new. Writer Gary Regan started off the trend with his ground-breaking orange bitters several years ago. Now, legendary barman has followed his lead. Following a two-year effort, he has produced his own brand of cocktail bitters. I don't expect he is the last contemporary figure in the cocktail world who will slap his name on a bottle. Simon Ford, who recently left the employ of liquor giant Pernod-Ricard USA, will soon release a gin bearing his name. And I know of one bartender is in talks to lend his name to a new amaro. 

Here's the story I wrote on the new product for the Times: 

Bringing Back a Bitters With a Twist
When Dale DeGroff, the pater familias of the craft cocktail movement, was working regularly behind a bar decades ago, he liked to use a strong, spicy liqueur called Pimento Dram to accent his drinks. But in the 1980s, the liqueur, made by the Jamaican rum distiller J. Wray & Nephew, disappeared from shelves in the United States.
“When they pulled it off the American market, I just couldn’t find anything like it,” Mr. DeGroff said. “I had to leave that flavor out of drinks.”
Now he has brought it (or something like it) back, but in the form of a bitters. After two years of work with the American-born, French-based distiller and chemist Ted Breaux — the man largely behind the absinthe revival of the past five years — Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters is finallyon sale online.
The past few years have seen a bitters boom. Where there were once two reigning products, Peychaud’s (needed for a sazerac) and Angostura (needed for almost everything else), there are now dozens, with a dizzying variety of flavors that lend themselves to very specific applications. That sort of narrow profile wasn’t what Mr. DeGroff was after.
“What I was looking for was a real versatile bitters,” Mr. DeGroff said. “It’s a combination of all those baking spices that you find in Angostura Bitters — which is to say ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove — along with just a touch of anise. And there’s a touch of dried orange peel.”
On his Web site, he suggests several cocktails, original and classic, into which a dash or two of Pimento Aromatic Bitters might be dropped. He even boldly suggests that it could supplant Peychaud’s in a sazerac. (“I offer this variation with humility and reverence for the original drink,” he writes.)
For now, curious drinkers can order only a 250-milliliter collector’s edition bottle, priced around $19. Standard 150-milliliter bottles will be available for sale online in September for $10. The bitters are currently made by Mr. Breaux at the Combier distillery in Saumur, France, but production may be moved to the United States in time, Mr. DeGroff said.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The feeling of punch-drunk absurdity that sometimes overwhelms my senses at the Tales of the Cocktail convention came on most strongly this year when I interviewed the dignified Count Branca, owner of Fernet Branca, and actor Ted Lange, the "Love Boat" star and author of one of television's most famous depictions of a bartender, on the same morning. It was a dizzying trip from high to low culture. Both men couldn't have been nicer, and Lange, to my surprise, knew a fair share about the bartending art. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find out what the man who was Isaac liked to drinks. Having been flown in by Disaronno, he was duty bound to declare the liquor he favorite tipple.

Here is my account of the two meetings in the Times:

Peru and Chile, At It Again

If you ever thought the rivalry between the Pisco-producing nations was a lot of hype, attending the Tales of the Cocktail seminar "Pisco Wars: Peru vs. Chile Since 1633," disabused you of that notion. Unlike many Tales panels, the event featured a minimum of brand tub-thumping, and actually featured some healthy debate, and not a little veiled animosity. Of the two parties, Charles de Bournet, representing Chile, was the more conciliatory. By the end of the talk, he was extending an olive branch to Peru, saying history was not as important as agreeing that both countries made fine Piscos, but of a different sort. Historian Guillermo Toro-Lira, arguing Peru's side, was having not of it. "Our stance is that there is only one Pisco," he said. When moderator Steve Olson challenged anyone to tell the different between Chilean Pisco (in which water can be added) and Peruvian Pisco (where water is forbidden) in a blind taste test, Toro-Lira said, "I'll take that challenge."

Here's my write-up for the New York Times:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cachaça Looks to Its Future

Like a lot of people in the liquor world, I haven't spent a lot of time lately troubling my mind about the fate of Cachaça. Sure, it was fun falling in love with the Caipirinha several years ago. It was delicious and easy to make, and vaguely exotic. But the Cachaça folks haven't given us much of a follow-up thrill since then, and the industry battle to have the liquor recognized as a separate category by the American government (and not as "Brazilian rum") grew rather tedious after a while.

However, that campaign eventually succeeded. By summer's end, Cachaça will have gotten the respect from Washington D.C. that it so long desired. In other news, Diageo got into the Cachaça game, buying the huge Ypióca brand for $470 million. Clearly, Diageo things the sugar-cane booze has a future. Given those events, I felt it was time to reappraise the status of Cachaça in the United States.

Here's the story I wrote for the New York Times:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bar Innovations Continue to Confuse Regulators

The nation's government liquor authorities, still mired in a swamp of obsolete, Prohibition-era regulations, continue to bedevil, and be bedeviled by, the lightning pace of the innovations in the cocktail community. Seems every six months or so you read about some benighted health inspector wandering into a high end cocktail lounge and being shocked that drinks are being made with egg whites, or that bartenders are infusing spirits with various herbs and spices and fruits. They shut the programs down, forcing the bar owners to wage expensive and time-consuming campaigns to reinstate what are essentially safe and sensible practices.

Last week, it happened again, and the new East Village bar Gin Palace was the victim. The bar, which focuses on gin drinks, trumpeted its draft cocktail program in the press. It would serve Gin & Tonics and Ramos Gin Fizzes on tap. To the drink world, this was not new news. Draft cocktails have been on offer at saloons on both coasts for more than a year now, following in the footsteps of the draft wine trend. In fact, Gin Palace owner Ravi DeRossi has actually featured draft drinks at two of his previous bars. But it was Gin Palace that set the authorities off, mainly because it received so much pre-opening ink.

So now Gin Palace has to argue its case before a hearing. If the bar succeeds, as it should, a lot of other bars with draft programs should be grateful. Here's the item I wrote for the Times' Diner's Journal:

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sloe Gin's New American Cousin

Beach Plum Gin.

An American cousin to sloe gin, using the beach plums that grow along the eastern seaboard. Why didn't someone think of that before?

Well, they did, actually. Bartender Toby Cecchini vacations every summer in Cape Cod and, for the last few summers, has brought back a bunch of beach plums with him and converted them into homemade beach plum gin. But Steven DeAngelo of Brooklyn's Greenhook Ginsmiths is the first person to commercially market such a liqueur. (Apparently, he got the initial idea from reading about Cecchini's experiments.)

The stuff is delicious, particularly with tonic. I'll be drinking it often this summer.

Here's the article I wrote for the Times:
Plummy Gin, Close To Home
THE beach plum is a delicacy for the vacationing New Yorker. The scraggly bushes that bear the small, tart fruits love sandy soil and are familiar to anyone who frequents the dunes and beaches of the Northeast during July and August. Spot a jar of beach-plum jam in a kitchen pantry and you know its owner has recently returned from Cape Cod or eastern Long Island.
For those stuck in the city all summer, such preserves are hard to come by. Those folks will have to be content drinking their beach plums.
Greenhook Ginsmiths in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has introduced what the company believes is the only beach plum gin on the market. Like its predecessor, the distillery’s American Dry gin, which came out last February, the beach plum gin puts a Yankee spin on a traditionally English spirit.
“I wanted to do a traditional sloe gin,” said Steven DeAngelo, the founder of the small Greenhook Ginsmiths. Sloe gin, a liqueur associated with England, is flavored with astringent sloe berries, common in Europe.
But Mr. DeAngelo soon learned that sloe berries are hard to come by in the United States. He abandoned a plan to contract an English farmer to ship berries, fearing they would spoil even if frozen. So he cast his sights on indigenous fruit.
“I knew about damson plums, but there’s a damson plum gin on the market, so I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I learned that beach plums were close relations to damsons and sloes, but they’re native to the U.S.”
Fruit-wise, Mr. DeAngelo, who grew up in Brooklyn and has the accent to prove it, could hardly have gotten more local. Early explorers of the New York area, including Giovanni da Verrazano and Henry Hudson, mentioned beach plums in their writings. Plum Island, off the North Fork of Long Island, is named after the fruit.
But the bushes, which seem to thrive in harsh conditions, are difficult to cultivate. In time, the distiller found a crop at Briermere Farms in Riverhead, N.Y., and bought all it had: 800 pounds of plums.
The idea for the liqueur wasn’t entirely new: the New York bartender Toby Cecchini has concocted a homemade beach plum gin for years.
To make Greenhook’s version, Mr. DeAngelo macerated the fruit in its signature gin, a process that took seven months, far longer than he expected. He then removed the plums, sweetened the brew with turbinado sugar and filtered the result.
The vibrant red liquid is less viscous and earthy than sloe gin and slightly more fruit-forward than damson gin. Only 1,800 bottles were produced, to be sold in New York State alone. The gin, about $49.99, is carried by Astor Wine and Spirits, Park Avenue Liquor Shop and the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, among others.
A few Brooklyn cocktail bars and restaurants (Maison Premiere, Hotel Delmano and Marlow & Sons) were given bottles for building cocktail creations.
If you’d rather take the mixing into your own hands, you could do worse than topping a measure of the liqueur with twice as much tonic water. Mr. DeAngelo, who professes to be a man of simple tastes, likes his with Champagne. The fruit is seasonal, so the liquor will likely be a once-a-year thing. “Once we run out of this,” he said, “we probably won’t have any more till next April.”

Friday, July 6, 2012

P.J. Clarke's Owners Make a Misstep

You have to wonder about the sanity of the custodians of New York's great saloons these days. The Irish owner of the building the housed the Prohibition-era Bill Gay 90s declined to renew the lease of that beloved bar earlier this year, resulting in the longtime owner packing up, and taking all the priceless interior antiques with her. The space will soon be occupied by another faceless, trendy, upscale restaurant.

Now, the parvenu owners of P.J. Clarke's, who bought the timeless Third Avenue saloon in 2002, have seen fit to kick the joint's second-greatest asset (after the timeless bar itself)—bartender's bartender Doug Quinn—to the curb. Quinn's offense was defending some women from a groping drunk. The managing partner side with the drunk and fired Quinn and another bartender—an astounding move, given that the New York Times had called Quinn one of the best bartenders in New York City in a flattering 2010 profile.

I spoke to Quinn the day after the kerfuffle, and wrote up the incident in the New York Times. Some of his saltier comments I left out of the family-friendly pages of the Gray Lady. Let's just say he didn't hold back, and doesn't think much of Clarke's owners or the Third Avenue bar's new managers. (The Clarke's people dodged my phone calls.)

Since buying Clarke's, the new owners (who include actor Timothy Hutton) have seemed intent on branding the bar, opening branches across Manhattan and in other cities. No doubt, they didn't see the value of a single employee, or care for Quinn getting attention that they felt should have been going to themselves. True, Quinn can be a bit grandiose. He's referred to himself as the Babe Ruth of bartenders, and declares he's going to open the greatest saloon in New York. But he's popular, and good to the customers. And if the comments in response to my article, and others, are to be believed, the Clarke's reputation has been seriously dented.

Stay tuned for the imminent opening of Quinn's.

Here's the article: