Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hidden History of the Harvey Wallbanger

First of all, I should say that I never intended to uncover the history of the Harvey Wallbanger. The journey by which I became obsessed with discovering the origins of the popular 1970s cocktail began when, in last 2010, an editor at The Daily, the now-defunct tablet newspaper, contacted me and asked if I had any "interesting" angles on cocktail stories. I thought for a bit and said I had always been curious about the little-known 1950s-1960s bartender Donato "Duke" Antone. If you believed what you read, he was the author of the Harvey Wallbanger, the Rusty Nail, the White Russian and many more. Yet, no one really knew anything about him. And now (at least at that time, a year and a half ago), the Wallbanger was beginning to enjoy a rebirth. Why not profile Antone? They bit.

So I started my research and soon learned that—beyond the Harvey Wallbanger's Wikipedia page—there wasn't much out there about Antone. I quizzed several knowledgable bartenders. They said they assumed Antone invented the drink in the 1950s, but admitted they didn't know much beyond that. I then contacted the people at Galliano. They were interested in Antone as well, but, amazingly, had no records regarding the history of their liqueur's greatest claim to fame. I began to suspect that I was on a wild goose chase, that Antone was yet another cocktail myth cooked up a bar somewhere in the misty past and given the weight of truth through constant retelling.

Then I happened upon an obituary of the man, published in the Hartford Courant. This proved Antone had lived. It led to several other articles in the Courant. Soon the trail grew hot and I began to piece together a history, both of the bartender and the drink. My article was no longer about Antone, however. I was determined to get to the bottom of the Harvey Wallbanger story. And—with a graceful assist late in the game from David Wondrich (who had begun digging into the Wallbanger story in summer 2011)—I think I have.

There was a problem about getting the story out there, however. By the time I had my copy ready for publication, in late February 2011, The Daily was having problems. My editor hemmed and hawed but finally cut me loose, saying they didn't have the money for the piece. (The Daily ceased publication on Dec. 15.) I turned to a well-respected, historic food magazine, whose print version ended a few years ago but which lives on as an on-line presence. I had enjoyed the depth and breadth of its articles in the past. They happily seized on the article and sent me a contract—and then sat of the piece for ten months. My original editor left. Another one came in, edited the story with me, and then left as well. Finally, a third editor casually informed me that the article would not run due to "space limitations." (On-line publications do realizes they are afforded infinite space, don't they?)

Again, I scramble to find Harvey a home. To my lasting gratitude, the fine folks as Saveur gladly took it on and published it Dec. 14. You can read the article here. However, it is in a slight truncated form. If you want to get the whole story, here is the copy in its unabridged form:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mixologist of the Month: Mike Lay

The "Mixologist of the Month" columns in Wine Enthusiast often cause me to chat with bartenders I wouldn't otherwise. Which is a good thing. For this edition, I found out a thing or two about the way Mike Lay does business at Restaurant 1833 out in Monterey. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bill's Reborn as...Bill's

I was among those who were not thrilled when the landlord of the midtown Manhattan building that held the old bar Bill's Gay Nineties decided to end the owner's lease, cutting down the former speakeasy's 88-year life at a New York watering hole. Bill's Food and Drink, the much tonier replacement, opened for business this week, following an extensive renovation of the old townhouse. It's not Bill's Gay Nineties, but is does retain some aspects of the old joint, as I found in this New York Times "Starter" column:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Boite: Dear Bushwick

The Thursday Style section of the New York Times has a lovely running column called "Boite," in which a new bar is profiled in a series of piquant bullet points. I've always admired it. Recently, I got to write one. Here it is:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thanksgiving Cocktails—Not So New an Idea

I used to think that the notion of a pre-feast Thanksgiving cocktail was a relatively recent notion, the product of our cocktail-crazy times. Not so. Doing some research for this article turned up a number of old articles that proved that the question "What to drink before Thanksgiving?" was a question mulled by Americans as far back as the late 1800s. One pre-Prohibition article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated "Of course you're going to have a cocktail at Thanksgiving!" Such confidence. Here's my article in the New York Times.
Fall's Flavors Come in a New Glass
THANKSGIVING and cocktails are not as odd a match as you might think. Both are distinctly American, and have been long thought so.
Back in 1929, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, waxing indignant at the notion that the French had invented the cocktail, wrote, “Every one knows that it is as authentically American as griddle cakes and sweet ‘salads’ and pumpkin pie.”
Still, downing a bluntly spiritous drink just before you sit down to that pumpkin pie or other heavy holiday fare is not a smart move. Bright and balanced is the order of the day.
And it is one easily filled by today’s generation of mixologists, who regularly compound ingredients to harmonize with a specific occasion and season.
Seasonal is an important idea. A pre-turkey tipple ideally performs a secondary function as an aesthetic, sensory signpost, instilling all the flavors associated with fall and harvest into a single cup.
That symbolic function was partly on the mind of Julie Reiner, the owner of Clover Club on Smith Street in Brooklyn, when she recently created the Crystal Fall for the bar’s autumn menu.
“I wanted it to be the quintessential fall cocktail, the kind of thing with all the flavors that you just expect this time of year,” Ms. Reiner said. “Apple, spice, ginger.”
To portions of toasty Cognac, rich Demerara rum and nutty sherry, she added fresh apple cider, lemon juice, ginger syrup, sugar and bitters. Served over a tumbler of crushed ice, the drink is simultaneously warming and cooling, and, despite the fairly heavy liquor payload, surprisingly light.
At Clover Club’s neighbor, the JakeWalk, the bar manager Timothy Miner achieved his particular liquid orchard by using as a base Laird’s bonded apple brandy (perhaps one of the most American of spirits, if using domestic produce on the fourth Thursday of November is important to you). He added cinnamon syrup, lemon juice, Galliano liqueur and a couple of dashes of allspice liqueur. The drink is topped with freshly ground nutmeg.
“I grew up in New England,” Mr. Miner said. “I have a strong affinity to apple-picking and all that. I thought, ‘I wonder if I can make apple pie in a glass.’ ”
The drink, called Mr. October, tastes not only like apple pie, but apple pie à la mode, thanks to Galliano’s vanilla notes.
If these drinks seem a bit too complex, or modern, you can go Colonial and surpassingly simple in one stroke by pouring a Stone Fence. This centuries-old concoction is nothing more than two ounces of whatever dark liquor you choose (rye, bourbon, Scotch, applejack, rum) filled out with hard cider and served over ice. Easier than gravy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Genever by the Barrel

Cocktail bars that have their own private barrel of whiskey, personally selected by the owners from a distillery in Kentucky, have become a dime a dozen. But if you suddenly start seeing bars with their own barrel of genever, you can blame Boston-based mixologist Jackson Cannon. Cannon is a persistent fellow. After years of nudging the uncomprehending Lucas Bols, he got them to part with one of their casks. He know uses the juice to make drinks in his three Boston bars. As a result of determination, Bols has seen the light. They company is now open to rolling out personal barrels for other receptive taverns. Here's the story:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Drinking History

I am a considerably more educated man today than I was a month ago, when I started doing research for this article. Since that time, I've sampled a 1950s Chartreuse, a few blended Scotches from the 1960s, a few gins from the 1940s and '50s, a Cognac from the '60s, a Creme de Menthe from the 1940s, Bourbons from the '60s, '70s and '80s and even an aged vermouth.

Conclusion of all this learning: the old saw that spirits don't change once bottled is nonsense. They grow softer, more rounded, more integrated. Even more untrue is the notion—put forth by nearly every liquor company on earth—that they have made the same product year in and year out. The assertion is not only improbable, but impossible. Improbable, because recipes alter with changing times and changing tastes, not to mention adjusted quality standards. Impossible because no company has consistent access to the exact same grains and botanicals.

We live in a time of great, across-the-board quality in spirits. Still, based on what I sipped, it does seem that some things were done better in the past. The creme de menthe did not taste chemical, as its counterparts of today do. It was fresh and clean. It tasted like something, well, you'd want to drink. I like Gordon's Gin. It's a fine workhorse London Dry gin. But the specimen from the '50s I had was fuller and much more interesting. And the '60s Hennessy I savored had a restraint and dignity that one no longer finds in the sugar-bomb, major-label Cognacs of today. I wish I could drink more of this stuff. But, at $150 a drink, it's a pricey habit.

Here's my article from the New York Times: