Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Finally Got My Vatan

Some time in the distant past, I was told by a clerk at Crush, the East Side wine shop, that they were getting a shipment of Sancerre from famed winemaker Edmund Vatan. I should pre-order, I was advised, because Vatan had threatened that this would be his last year making wine. Now, I don't usually pre-order, because I'm a pauper. But I bit this time. I had a little money not doing anything, so I signed on for three bottles.

And then I waited. April became May. May became June. Where was the Vatan? It was late. Crush was apologetic. They blamed the French. (It's easy to blame the French.) A strike or shipping delay or some such labor thing. Finally, last week, I strolled into the shop quite by happenstance, expected to be disappointed yet again. But, lo and behold, the Vatan had arrived. (What? No phone call?) I happily skipped out the door with my three vessels.

The clerk offered advice again: have one now, one in five years, and one in ten. Sounded OK. Especially the now part. I'm not a big one on having to wait a decade to see if the wine I bought is any good. I uncorked it on Sunday, and, can I say, my friends: it was worth waiting for.

Some say Vatan is the best maker of Sancerre around. I don't know about that. I haven't tasted every Sancerre. But I do know he makes the best freaking Sancerre I've ever tasted. Complex, wide and deep, full of subtle, nuanced fruit and minute flecks of minerality throughout. It is simultaneously mellow and easy, and bracing and edgy. Terroir all over the place. Above all, the structure is awesomely impressive. This wine holds so much inside it, because its housing is flawless.

Bad news? Now I only have two bottles left. I've got to find some more money that's not doing anything.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Case of the Sweet Sazerac

I enjoyed a good many Sazeracs while in New Orleans attending "Tales of the Cocktail." I freely admit to never having experienced this drink until exactly one year ago (last year's TOTC). Still, in the 12 months since then, it has easily become my favorite cocktail. I love the fussy preparation that goes into the making of it, the rarity of some of the ingredients (most American bars are not equipped with Peychaud bitters, Herbsaint or even Rye), and find the layers of flavors to be profound. The drink lends itself simultaneously to rapturous enjoyment and deep contemplation.

Still, being I novice, I do not pretend to know everything about this cocktail's journey through time and space. And so—after imagining I was having the best Sazeracs in my life last week—I was surprised when a gentleman at the cocktail bloggers panel informed my that no less an authority than Robert "Drinkboy" Hess has been theorizing that bartenders have been erring on the sweet side regarding their Sazeracs, adding too much simple syrup.

My mouth dropped open. Had I been enjoying bastardized Sazeracs? Did I know a true Sazerac when I saw it? Hess' theory is that bartenders in New Orleans, catering to the louche crowd on Bourbon Street, have been tarting up their Sazeracs to appeal to infantile taste buds. Could be. Could be. My mind reeled. After that, all the Sazeracs I had drunk seemed insipid. Well, not insipid, just too sugary. Hess might have something there, I thought.

Still, upon further contemplation, I had to admit, I still thought the Sazeracs were damn enjoyable. Perhaps too sweet. In fact, definitely sweeter than the more academic Sazeracs I had had in New York, or even the ones I make at home. Gotham bartenders don't use simple syrup. They're such wonks, and so tied to theory, they muddle a sugar cube, and so the sweetness ratio remains unchanged from drink to drink.

But I enjoyed those Sazeracs, too! My conclusion? I just like Sazeracs. A little variation can't destroy the pleasures of this drink. Just make sure it's properly chilled, and don't feed me any fucking Bourbon.

Maybe There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

I received a surprising e-mail yesterday. Jennifer Malone-Seixas, the sommelier at Fleur De Sel in the Flatiron district, whom I had profiled in the New York Sun July 18, wrote to tell me that five days after the article appeared, she was dismissed by the restaurant. She said there was no clear explanation. (I feel it's all right to reveal this, since she stated that her comments were on the record, even though I offered to keep them off the record.)

This struck me as strange. Past sommeliers I've profiled have received nothing but positive feedback from my "In the Cellar" columns. Making Fleur De Sel's action all the more peculiar is that Jennifer's picture was featured in Wine Spectator the very same Wednesday. Publicity for your wine program is good, no? Or isn't it?

One can't help but wonder if professional jealousy played a part. After all, the Sun chose to place the article on Page One—something they'd done only twice before with the column. And the pieces featured not one but two pictures of Jennifer.

These events are particularly ironic since part of the thrust of the article was the paucity of female sommeliers in the wine world. Now there's one less.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Gone to the Dogs

There's a rather lame-ass bar near where I live in Brooklyn. Their stock is limited, which is probably a good thing, since there aren't many drinks in the bartenders' memory bank. But people still go there because there's a really good Mexican restaurant on the second floor of the building.

It's always best to just order beer here, and one of the saving graces of the bar has been that they carry the fine Belgian brew Chimay and serve it in a real Chimay glass. But yesterday, I ordered my customary Chimay and the bartendress gave me a regular rocks glass. "Don't you have the Chimay glasses anymore?" I asked. She just shrugged and looked blankly at me.

So I drank my Chimay in the wrong glass. As I exited, however, I noticed a little dog—the bar dog evidently—lapping up water from his bowl. The bowl? A Chimay glass.

Monday, July 23, 2007

In the Cellar With Fleur De Sel

For the July "In the Cellar" column in the NY Sun, I featured Jennifer Malone-Seixas of Fleur De Sel, the intimate French bistro in the Flatiron district. I sheepishly admit that she is the first female sommelier I've interviewed since I began the column a year ago. What can I say? They're not exactly easy to find. I enjoyed talking to Jennifer. She was salty and funny and didn't pull any punches. Nor does she buy into the current sommelier dogma, viewing the elevated position and on-and-off pomposity of her profession and colleagues with considerable skepticism. It was refreshing to speak with her.

Here is the piece:

Breaking the Wine-Glass Ceiling

Jennifer Malone-Seixas stood out among her classmates when she took the American Sommelier Association's six-month "Viticultural/Vinification" course. It wasn't because she was one of just a few women in the class, or that she was the only non-industry person in the room. What really set her apart was that she took the program while pregnant.

According to Ms. Malone-Seixas, who has a talent for wry understatement, the director of the course didn't notice her condition until she handed in her final exam. Of course, baby in mind, she spat out every vintage she tasted during that half-year. That is, until the end. "When I took the exam, I did have a glass of Champagne," she said recently. "I was like, ‘Forget it!'"

In an industry dominated by men, Ms. Malone-Seixas is a rarity: a female sommelier who is not only employed by a respected restaurant, but actually runs its wine program. She has been the wine director at Fleur De Sel, chef Cyril Renaud's French bistro on East 20th Street, since November. The position follows two years at Alain Ducasse, where she was the only woman in the entire restaurant staff, and a two-week stint at Gordon Ramsay at the London. She left just before the opening.

The life of a woman wine steward is not always easy. One must frequently prove oneself, to both employers and clientele. Male diners, when first seeing her, frequently ask to see the man of the house. "It happens less here," she said. "Much more so at Alain Ducasse. They think: I'm a female, there's no way I know anything about wine. A couple times when the situation did happen, a woman would kick her husband under the table and apologize for him. But other times, I wonder if I'm to blame, when I pour the taste to the man at the table rather than the woman."

As for the people who do the hiring, while Ms. Malone-Seixas won't say there is a glass ceiling in play, she did observe that "there were quite a few women who took the ASA class with me," inferring that a concomitant percentage on New York dining floors is not in evidence. "That should be an indicator. It's curious."

Ms. Malone-Seixas's life was pointed in a completely different direction when she graduated from Vassar College with a degree in art history 15 years ago. Following commencement ceremonies, "I did what all good liberal arts graduates do and went to graduate school almost immediately after," she joked. She studied art for two more years, then got a Master's in teaching and worked for a while at the Museum of Modern Art.

After a while, however, she was itching to try something different. Her husband encouraged her to pursue her curiosity about wine. "I was always a wine drinker, but never had been interested in it in a professional sense." Growing up, there had always been good bottles in the house; her father considered Brunello di Montalcino the perfect accompaniment to any meal. "He's an Irish New York guy who wishes he had been an Italian prince," she said. She did well enough on the ASA exam for ASA president and cofounder Andrew Bell to recommend her to Ducasse. "I was like a kid in a candy store," she said, remembering the restaurant's cellar. "The tasting knowledge I built up there was invaluable." She also recalls the sheer fright of testing her newly won wine skills in such an intimidating setting. "It was nerve-wracking," she laughed. "I was so worried I was going to spill wine on people."

She no longer seems nervous. In fact, she's quite comfortable with challenges. "It adds a bit of spice to things when people are pissed. They look at the wine list" — Fleur de Sel's cellar offers nearly 1,000 choices, include pages of Bordeaux and Burgundy — "and say ‘Argh. It's so hard.' It's intense. If everyone was always happy and giving you $500 to pick a bottle, it wouldn't be a challenge."

She's also sure enough of herself to oppose certain oenophilic fads. "I steer people away from wine pairings. I don't like them, so I get very personal about it," she explained. "It's in vogue at a lot of restaurants to have a wine pairing with the tasting menu. But I think they're unnecessarily complicated. I think they're interesting in a casual way. Personally, when I'm sitting down to eat, I don't want the sommelier with me the whole time. It's not about me; it's about the wine, the enjoyment of the experience. I'm there to help people. It's not ‘Take pictures of me. I'm your sommelier.'"

Quotable Quotes

I told you I might not be done.

I just want to record a few memorable quotes from my four days at "Tales of the Cocktail" before the rye burns off and my memory slots away in the vapor.

Chuck Taggart (author of the "Gumbo Pages" blog): "Growing up in a New Orleans, I grew up in a drinking household. We had a bar in the back. My dad taught me how to make an Old Fashioned when I was 12."

Jeff Berry (Tiki drink expert and author): "When a drink is really good, you can't find the words for it, it's like music."

Wayne Curtis: "If you are an aging bartender who worked at Don the Beachcomber's and are lying in a hospital, the last face you might see is Jeff Berry saying, `What was the secret ingredient in that drink?!'"

Paul Clarke: (author of the blog "The Cocktail Chronicles"): "That's what I like about Tales of the Cocktail. You're standing in the lobby, minding your own business, and somebody hands you a drink."

Wayne Curtis: "Every spirit family has its bad relatives, and with rum it's Pina Coladas and Rum and Coke. Or worse: Rum and Diet Coke."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The City's Best Sazerac?

Twice during the Tales of the Cocktail, I've heard a local authority say he had had the best Sazerac of his life at Bayona, Susan Spicer's praised French Quarter restaurant.

One was Chuck Taggart, New Orleans cocktail blogger, who called his first Sazerac at Bayona a life-changing drink which set him on his current passion for good drinks. The other was Brobson Lutz, a doctor who has ever reason to be loyal to Galatoire's, having dined and drank there countless times, but who said his recent Sazerac at Bayona was the best he had ever had.

I have known many Sazeracs over the past few days—at Commander's Palace, The Carousel Bar, etc.—but was I missing the best? So, the last thing I did in New Orleans before catching a plane home was to have lunch at Bayona. They seated me right away, and my Sazerac came soon after. It was served in a smaller glass than usual, and the color was very vibrant (extra Peychaud's?). I drank. It was exceptional, very smooth, a bit on the sweet side. I can't say if it's the best I've ever had, but it certainly stood out and would be up there in the top three or so. I'm glad I had it.

My lunch consisted of a kind of Ceviche, a lump crab meat salad, and a pork and shrimp wonton soup. Each dish was delicate and flavorful and nearly perfect. Bayona deserves its rep. The table one over from me was a big group celebrating the 60th wedding anniversary of an elderly couple. Everyone seemed quite jazzed about the occasion—except the couple. Just another day in the marriage. There was a priest at the table; he had a chardonnay.

And, as has been the case all week, I can not go anywhere in New Orleans without running into a Tales of the Cocktail presenter. As I entered Bayona, Allen Katz exited. The night before I saw Gary Regan at Commander's Palace, sitting at the chef's table. Dale DeGroff, Charlotte Voisey, Junior Menior and Julie Reiner (of Pegu Club) were at Acme's Oyster Bar when I had lunch at the bar. Another guy, whose name I can't remember, but with whom I shared a cab to the airport, had actually been at Tipitina's when I was there Friday night. Small city.

This may be my last Tales of the Cocktail post. But don't hold me to that.

Wine for a Change

Back on Thursday, I took a break from the world of sours, fizzes, punches and such and journeyed to Antoine's restaurant to meet the owner and take a tour of the old, family-owned eatery's famous wine cellar.

Of course, the 24,000-bottle collection was completely decimated during Hurricane Katrina—not flooded, but cooked, because of the lack of air-conditioning. By the time the Antoine's people got to the cellar, it was a lost cause. The insurance company paid out, then came and collected the contents, carting them off to parts unknown. (If you see a water-stained bottle of old Bordeaux for a too-good-to-be-true price on eBay, beware.)

The owners have smartly not tried to duplicate the lost riches by going to wine auctions and such, but have started from Square One, buying wines only from recent vintages. They will then begin to age them (when they're not sold); in 30 years, they'll have a great collection again. For certain regulars, however, they've made concessions, finding and buying the Burgundy they crave and are used to.

The cellar itself is quite a site, long as a bowling alley, stretching 16 feet through the center of the city block (much of which Antoine's owns). It ends at a window on Royal Street and passersby can actually peer in from the street.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Vermouth: The Bastard Stepchild of the Cocktail

I'm using as the heading for this item the title that Ted Haigh wished to name his and Martin Doudoroff's seminar about Vermouth.

Vermouth—the second essential ingredient to any Martini, and yet your average Joe knows very little about it, aside that it comes in sweet and dry versions.

"Each one of these producers has their own story and their own mythology," said Doudoroff, "and usually it begins with some kind of immaculate conception." He examined the label of a bottle of Martini and Rossi with skepticism, calling into question the year of the firm's foundation and the awards the mixture supposedly won. "Every part of a maker's mythology should be taken with a grain a salt."

Each Vermouth recipe is a company secret. As a result, the drink is, in part, a Libation of Mystery, and many of the questions posed by the crowd could not be answered, or were answered with "Good question." Said Doudoroff: "These people are very cagey."

Ted Haigh waded in with a bit of the history of Vermouth, its rise and fall in U.S. Interestingly, he placed its downfall at the feet of the drink that made it most famous. "The Martini became the anti-cocktail," he said. "It was the deconstructed cocktail. After World War II, people began leaving out the bitters, then leaving out the vermouth and making jokes about it."

There was also a little talk about Quinquinas. Whazzat? Well, it's a term that covers such aromatized, fortified wines like Dubonnet and Lillet, products Haigh said are treated like "third class citizens." Quinquina is French for "quinine-bearing wine." The bitter constituent in Quinquinas is always quinine.

All in all, an informative and well-put-together seminar, with many tips on how to best enjoy vermouth. Most important to know is that Vermouth, like Chiquita bananas, should always be kept in the refrigerator.

No Love for Vodka

Vodka is the whipping boy is the cocktailarati. This has become clear after a few days in New Orleans. To be serious about spirits is to loathe and disdain the barbarian hordes storming the gates of our nation's taverns crying for the latest infused vodka—on the rocks, with tonic or awash in fruit juice.

Some comments I've heard and been amused by over the past few days:

Chuck Taggart (author of the blog The Gumbo Pages): "Vodka and tonic, come on! Let's have a drink that tastes like something."

Darcy O'Neil, blogger and bartender: "The vodka menus in bars are not our fault."

Wayne Curtis (author of "And a Bottle of Rum"): "Vodka I blame for what has happened to a lot of the rum industry."

James Meehan (bartender, mixologist, author): Talking about James Bond's favorite drink: "Vodka Martini. No flavor, no taste. Now I'm going to go kill some people."

I must say I am in agreement with all these folks, and would probably express myself in more salty terms. Vodka has its place, but dominance of the cocktail market should not be it.

A good idea for a panel in 2008 might be "Vodka: A Defense."

A Revelation

As I sit her in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone mustering up what little strength and energy I have left for one more day of cocktail seminars and the accompanying, non-stop imbibing, I wonder: how do they do it? Presenters are arriving down the stairs and out of the elevators, looking fresh as daisies. And yet, I know they spent the previous day and night throwing it down their throats like sailors on shore leave. (Friday night has developed a reputation as quite the bacchanalia.)

I am a lightweight, elbow-bending-wise. As much as I'd like to profess otherwise, this I know now. I enjoy cocktails very much, but I know the enjoyment stops after the second or third one (depending on the strength of the drink). After that, I need to given my insides and brain tissue a break, and perhaps lie down. I have been amazed the past couple nights as I come into the lobby around 1 AM after a night on the town and spot the hale and hearty TOTC set still standing, still laughing, still going strong carousing in the Carousel Bar. Iron constitutions, these folks have. I lift my glass to them. But, right now, that glass contains coffee.

Three Men Walk Into a Bar

The more hilarious time to be had at Tales of the Cocktail on Friday took place at 1 PM when three elderly men in seersucker and/or white suits, with the absurdly Southern names of Brobson Lutz, Prof. Kenneth Holditch and Doc Hawley gathered together in a Monteleone conference room to talk about the history of Galatoire's restaurant.

Together, the trio have sat down at Galatoire's roughly 14,000 times, downing countless Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds, and stretching their lunches well past 5 PM. They told how, in the past, the career waiters once ran the joint—in reality if not in name—and did the pouring, giving Galatoire's its once-well-deserved reputation for serving super-strong cocktails. Holditch told a story of how he once enjoyed a lunch with a reporter from Sports Illustrated who was mystified and alarmed when drinks and Cognac and finally a bottle a Champagne kept arriving at the table without anything having ever been ordered. Holditch calmed the journalist and instructed him not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Each man extolled the now-somewhat-faded tradition of regulars having dedicated waiters who served them over the course of years and decades, the two men inevitably developing a deep and jealous bond. One man mentioned often was Gilberto, whose firing a few years back over a sexual harassment case resulted in a firestorm of controversy for the restaurant. (Holditch, a retired professor, made the incredible assertion that he has "pushed" Gilberto through college by basically rewriting every one of his papers! There's a choice piece of New Orleans-style ethics for you.)

Another controversy resulted when new management decided that waiters could take on only so many exclusive clients. This resulted in a friend of Holditch being forced to accept a young server one day. He was not happy. The waiter asked for his drink order. He said "the usual." "What is your usual?" "Ask my usual waiter, Richard." The young pup asked Richard, and Richard replied, "I don't know until I look into his eyes."

It became quite clear over the course of an hour that the three men do not like the new management at Galatoire's, and believe their tradition-smashing policies are "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." For instance, people who wish to dine on the sought-after Friday before Mardi Gras may no longer hire surrogates to stand in line outside the restaurant, sometimes for days—a habit that had persisted for many, many years. Whether NoLa lawyers still send their secretaries to wait in line for the "lawyer's lunch" on Fridays, I do not know.

Holditch—a shrunken, bespectacled man who look and talks like Truman Capote's hirsute brother—is the most indignant, particularly since he wrote a book on the history of Galatoire's which the restaurant management is reluctant to display. Doc Hawley also made the point that the drinks are now poured with a little too much precision, leading to weaker libations. "Before, I would drink two Sazeracs and go outside and get in an argument with a lamppost. Now, I could drink three and go outside and preach a sermon."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Champagne No. 5

There was a surprisingly large crowd in attendance for the "Aromatics" seminar led by Pegu Club founder Audrey Saunders and London expert bartender Tony Conigliaro. People kept trickling in until the crowd stood at about 80 to 100 people. Sanders was clearly surprised and some folks had to share drinks with "loved ones."

The talk was of essences, tinctures and hydrosols and how they're used to enhance a drinker's cocktail experience. As Conigliaro put it, bartenders are currently trying to engage us on all five senses, and the nose is not to be neglected. His brainstorm was to study the world's most famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, and then try to duplicate its many fragrance notes through the use of food grade essences in a Champagne Cocktail. He found his formula in a combination of five different essences, of which the ones I remember are rose, jasmine, and sandalwood. A drop of the potion is places on the sugar cube at the bottom of the glass. Then, as the champagne begins to break down the sugar, the essences are carrying upward in bubbles to the surface and burst, releasing a perfume-like bouquet into your olfactories.

At least, that's how I understood it; an understanding of chemistry was helpful in this class. Anyway, the effect was quite remarkable and very pleasurable. I was at a disadvantage, having never caught a whiff of Chanel No. 5 (I know, it's incredible, but it's true), but the lady next to me told me that the cocktail's odor pretty much matched the perfume's.

We then were served a Ramos Gin Fizz (Thank God! I've been trying to get one of these all week!), which were prepared with a little help from Audrey's friends in the audience (and Audrey has a lot of friends). She explained that egg whites are a great carrier of frangrances, and this fizz had been topped with a drop of a tincture of cardomom. Again, a delightful result.

Other ways to aromatize your drinks are to scent your swizzle sticks or garnishes.

Does any of this make a difference with people? Well, yes, according to Tony and Audrey, who shared a few telling stories. He told of how one day, the bar staff at a place he had recently opened was moping about, dragging their feet. This state of affairs wasn't good for business, so he surreptitiously sprayed each one with an atomizer containing lemon. Within minutes, they were buzzing about, happy as clams, and not knowing why.

South America Way

Hallelujah! The internet works on the rooftop Riverview Room, somehow. The room is the location of the "South American Spirits" seminar, presented by Junior Merino and Ed Nesta. So we're in the land of Pisco and Cachaca. Each attendee is equipped with a muddler and a cup of limes.

I rode up in the elevator with an amusing bartender who works at the Swizzle Stick, a cocktail destination here in NoLa, and a popular spot with the Tales of the Cocktail crowd. Apparently, the TOTC mafia put him through a workout the evening before. "All the cocktail guys with nicknames were there last night," he said wearily.

So Pisco is a brandy, dontcha know? We're told of the grapes used to distill Pisco. It's the first I've heard about grapes this week, a reminder that there is such a thing as wine in the drinking world. Anyway, apparently, Chile and Peru like to fight about who invented it, and each country has its own way of making it, using different types of stills and aging processes.

And what's a seminar without drinks? We sampled a Pisco Sour (which includes egg whites, which will have to serve as my breakfast today); Caipiranha (which I've been alternating with Pimm's Cups as my home cocktail for most of this summer), La Rayuela (made with Picso, Damiana Liqueur, Aloe Vera juice, Quince syrup, and lime juice, topped with lime zest, and ridiulously refreshing), and Saude (which, ironically, means "Health" in Portuguese, because it contains an ounce of the prune-juice-like Acai). Saude is a ruby-red drink, a nice bit of color among all the citrus hues.

For the Caipiranha, it was audience participation time. No instructor had to tell me how to do this. We did this to the accompaniment of some percussive Latin music. First mood music of the convention. It made quite a difference. From now on, I'm demanding background music at every seminar.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thar She Drips!

Being around cocktail mavens can infect you with a kind of mania for the paraphernalia of drink history. "What? You have one of the actual copper mugs used to market Moscow Mules in 1950s? Lemme see!"

And so I beat a path to the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street because I heard that they have an original Absinthe drip, the kind that were used in the bad old days of the 19th century. As cocktail scholars know, no city in America was quite so thirsty for the green-hued monster Absinthe as was old New Orleans. And this particular bar was Destination One for the drink.

I walked into the front bar, a square-shaped deal. Salt-of-the-earth hoisters peopled the area, drinking Bud. This wasn't the place. I saw a doorway at the far right corner. I went through it, took a left through another door and found myself in a back room where people were dining. I was too intent on my mission to worry whether I was spoiling their meal.

Then I saw it. A bar, at the rear, adorned with two old green-marble pylons fixed with faucets on either side. A small plaque on the side of one said "Do Not Touch. Absinthe Drip. Since 1754." This was it! I didn't touch. I looked very closely, though. No waiter stopped me. They're used to such crazy behavior, I thought.

Have to admit. It was kinda thrilling.

Rum and Punch

I had planned to begin my TOTC day with the "Lost Ingredients" seminar and listen to the likes of Joe Fee and Paul Clarke explain how and why they had brought ingredients like Falernum Bitters and Creme de Violette back from the dead. But, egad!—the time had been changed from 10 AM to 2:30 PM, and I was faced with the sudden choice of "The Cocktail's Family Tree" in the conference room La Nouvelle West and "The Importance of Ice" in La Nouvelle East.

As much as I cotton to borderline, almost-no-topic topics like ice and its use in drinks, I opted for the "Family Tree," figuring I would beef up my cocktail knowledge more appreciably. David Wondrich manned the panel which included John Myers, James Meehan and Ryan Magarian. We were first taken a journey by Myers back to Colonial days and the drinking habits of the Pilgrims on forward. We learned of rum, Shrubs (acid fruit drinks) and Possets (hot drink made from milk curdled with ale, wine, or other liquor). Wondrich then told us of the world of punch as it traveled from merry old England, where they liked a bowl of it, to the New World, where they were always on the go and preferred a glass, and how it underwent a series of transformations. There was talk of sours, fizzes, shooters, and many other liquid combos that are tossed in glasses and given names.

Quite frankly, it was a lot of information and my head began to swim after a while. There's a reason they stretch out U.S. History over a couple years in high school.

"Rum's Punch" came next (same room). Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails," was joined by Mr. Tiki Drink, Jeff Berry, and Stephen Remsberg, an astounding gentlemen. This native New Orleanian has amassed a collection of 800 bottles of Rum, many rare. Mr. Remsberg has a future as a Bob Newhart-style comedian, should he wish it, his sense of humor is so dusty dry. Though absolutely passionate about his rum hobby and his favorite drink, Planter's Punch, he subtley sent up the topic by painstakingly setting up what he obviously considered to be the so-simple-a-monkey-could-do-it recipe for the punch.

"You will have to make a serious investment of time," he warned, speaking slowly and deliberately. "The first think you will need to get is a spoon." He held one up. "Then, you will need a jigger. This will set you back a buck and a half. Now, here's the hard part. You will need a glass. This is a 10-ounce highball. A 12-ounce will do. So will a double old-fashioned glass."

It was a good act. I was entertained. He told an interesting story of a career bartender who worked at the now-gone Bay Rock Hotel in Montego Bay (Jasper LaFronde, but don't trust my spelling), and who had come up with a slightly different version of Planter's Punch which Remsberg loved and has committed to memory. He made in front of the crowd. Only the two "civilians" in the crowd got to try it.

Berry discussed Don the Beachcomber and the amazing rum concoctions he created, drinks which saved rum was ignominy in the 1930s. And Wayne told the early, grizzly part of the rum story, all about industrial-waste molasses, drunken sailors and the sweet, flat mixes made out of the once-standard rum punch mix of "One of sour (cirtrus), two of sweet (sugar), three of strong (rum), four of weak (water)." The saying makes for a good memory tool; not such a good drink.

Things I've Learned

Here are some things I've learned on the second day of "Tales of Cocktail":

*It's hard to post items on your blog when you're attending back-to-back seminars.
*It's impossible to post items to your blog when you can't figure out how to connect to the internet when you're in the Monteleone conference rooms.
*The experts at this event know a crazy amount of intricate and obscure stuff about the history of every freakin' intoxicant on the planet.
*If you go to TOTC, you're going to hear the name Jerry Thomas about 100 times. (Then you won't hear it again until the next convention.)
*The thing to wear at a rum seminar is a Hawaiian shirt.
*There's a guy who lives in New Orleans who owns 800 bottles of rum.

I'll post more about today's seminars in detail later, but now I must have a Muffuletta Sandwich or die.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why New Orleans Is a Great Cocktail Town

$7 Sazeracs.
$5 Pimm's Cups.

Add those prices together and I still wouldn't have enough for a Sazerac in New York.

Where All the Drink Folks Meet

All the drink folks in New Orleans gathered in force Wednesday night at Todd English's restaurant Riche, located in the Harrah's hotel, which looks like something the ancient Egyptians might have built during a period when they were perpetually drunk and had misplaced their sense of taste.

There was a mess of vittles inside, everything from pasta to buffalo wines to Pâté to raw oysters and shrimp. Champagne sat chilling in ice-sculpture buckets. I saw Ann Rogers, the founder and organizer of TOTC, for the first time today. She looked fresh enough for someone with a million things on her mind. She also introduced me to a lot of people, most of whose names I have already forgetten. (I'm sure they'll come back to me over the next couple days.)

Later on, Ann started speechifying, and handed out awards to those people had taken part in all five TOTCs, among them Dale DeGroff, Jared Brown, and representatives of Borders and the Hotel Monteleone. She then wished us a good night and told us "to go out and enjoy New Orleans great bars and restaurants."

I enjoyed one—the Carousel again—and went to bed.

Drinks and Hats

Is there some correlation between a passion for cocktails and an inclination to wear headgear that I don't know about?

Now, I'm a hat-wearer, and it's a lonely life indeed. I'll walk down blocks of New York City before seeing another man in a fedora. Within three hours of checking into Tales of the Cocktail, however, I've easily encountered a couple dozen hatted men, as well as a few women, and one woman who like my new panama so much that she took down the address of the haberdashery I bought it at.

As the Napoleon House talk, I sat in a row where I was surrounded by straw hats. Panamas were everywhere, as well as short-brimmed pork-pie numbers. Everyone seemed well at ease in their toppers and quite proud of them. It was a brave group in general, sartorially speaking, filled with two-toned shoes and seersucker suits.

So, is it the cocktails? Or is it New Orleans and its old-worldly charms? Or is it a southern thing in general. I suspect a combination of all three. Hats are not only a tradition in the south, but a necessity; you have to protect yourself from the heat. As for spirits, well, people who take cocktails seriously tend to be nostalgists, yearning for a time when a well-made Martini was at the center of every sophisticated gathering, when Art Deco and speakeasies reigned, when our best novelists and journalist were tipplers. A time when people dressed well, when they wore hats.

Besides, a cocktail looks better in your hand if there's a hat on your head.

Napoleon Is In The House

There are worse places you could start your Tales of the Cocktail itinerary than The Napoleon House, the iconic saloon at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis streets. That's where I chose to attend my first official function of the week, to take in the David Wondrich-hosted history lesson about the famous tavern.

I arrived early and didn't wait for permission to order a Pimm's Cup, the NH's signature drink. Everyone there seemed to be waiting for the talk to begin, but no one was complaining, since it was a good place to wait. Soon enough, we were ushered upstairs, once the living quarters of the Impastato family, longtime owners of the building.

The gathering was a much more casual than I expected. TOTC invitees and paying guests milled about happily gabbing for a half hour or more. Finally, around 5:45, Wondrich took the floor, exuding a very personable charm. He told how, a while back, Esquire asked him to put together his list of the top ten greatest bars. Napoleon House topped the tally. Reasons? "No TV," for one. Two: they make a few simple drinks very well, rather than a lot of complex drinks badly. He then rattled off a list of "Things I don't think about when I'm at the Napoleon House." Among the items: "Blackberries, i-pods, blogs, bloggers, celebutards, Lohans" and my favorite, "vodka."

Wondrich then introduced NH owner Sal Inpastato, a modest, moustachioed man, who related his family's long history with the address. We learned that his father was a religious man and this was one of the reasons he pushed the low-alcohol Pimm's Cup. It's a "conversational drink." The recipe for the renowned thirst-quencher was taken from the back label of an old bottle of Pimm's. "Probably Pimm's itself doesn't know the recipe now, because they stopped printing that label," he said.

The drink is the bar's most ordered refreshment. (Duh.) The second most popular? The Sazerac. (Also, duh.) Interestingly, he referred to a Sazerac as a conversational drink, too, even though you can can hammered a lot quicker on rye than you can on Pimm's.

Riding the Carousel

The Monteleone Hotel was rather overwhelmed by the multitude of TOTC visitors that descended upon Royal Street mid-afternoon Wednesday. As a result, my room was not immediately ready. So I checked my bags and headed toward the hotel's Carousel Bar.

It was spining right on schedule, with a few midday drinkers in for the ride. (The circular bar slowly rotates, completing a turn round the room every 15 minutes.) Last year, I began my stay at TOTC here by ordering a Sazerac—an appropriate gesture, I thought. I followed it with a Hurricane. Both were spectacular.

I thought this year I'd begin with another New Orleans favorite, a Ramos Gin Fizz. No dice. "We're out of eggs," said the bartender. So I went with my old standby, the Sazerac. He made it in a flash, with a plentitude of shaking. I don't know what it is, but Sazeracs just taste better in New Orleans than they do in New York. Yummier, not as sharp. Maybe it's because we're so near the source of Sazerac House rye. Maybe they use a little more Herbsaint, being fond of their local liquors. Whatever it is, it goes down mighty smooth.

Cocktail Flight

My flight into New Orleans was the Cocktail flight, carrying a heavy cargo of Tales of the Cocktail panelists and seminar leaders, all of whom seemed to know each other. Among the passengers were the gregarious Dale DeGroff, "King Cocktail" himself, and his wife, Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders, rye man Allen Katz, cocktail expert David Wondrich, and at least a half dozen others.

The rain was hard, delaying our takeout. While we idled on the runway, DeGroff, responding to the New York Times Dining section, began polling his colleagues as to whether the paper had lifted its recipe for Maraschino cherries from someone.

We finally took off after a wait of about 90 minutes. There was some knowing chuckles when the stewardess announced that cocktails were offered on the flight. I would be very surprised if anyone in this crowd was gullible enough to purchase on on-flight libation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Walking to New Orleans

Well, flying actually.

Tomorrow, I take off in the bright AM to New Orleans to cover the fifth annual "Tales of the Cocktail" spirits convention. I will post my thoughts and adventures as soon as possible. Watch this spot.

Needless to say, I am quite excited. The thought of sitting at the rotating Carousel Bar in the Monteleone Hotel ordering a Sazerac or Hurricane or Vieux Carre or Ramos Gin Fizz or whatever my thirst desires just sets me a-tremble with delight. Not to mentioned the peerless food to be had in same said environs.

Tales to follow

Monday, July 16, 2007

Branching Out

Having experienced Milk & Honey, I decided to pay a call on its more public West Village cousin, Little Branch. Also owned by Sasha Petraske (who was on hand the night I visited, as he was at M&H), it has the same rigorous cocktail aesthetic, and supposedly the same strict rules about decorum—although the crowd I joined on Saturday night at 11 PM was pretty boisterous and loud. But, then, what are you going to do with a bunch of twentysomethings once you pump a couple of strong drinks in them?

The space is at the corner of Seventh and Leroy. There is a courteous bouncer at the door who asked the number of your party before you're allowed to trot the flight downstairs. The ceiling is low, the bar to the right and a row of booths line the alley-like east wall. Jazz plays. (Sasha likes his bebop.) The booths were all full, but since I was alone, I didn't want to sit in one anyway. I joined a pretty sizable line for the bar, and, since the bartender took care with each drink, it was a good 15 minutes before I got to order. I didn't mind, since I knew a good cocktail would be my reward.

The man behind the bar was either Irish or Scotch, judging by the accent, and working like a Trojan to complete a series of complex drink orders. His job was made measurably more difficult by an annoying and drunk couple who wouldn't relinquish their space at the bar. Obviously fancying themselves aficionados of the drink, they kept ordering new cocktails and invited the poor barkeep to "surprise" them. The slobs thought they were charming him with comments like "She wants something with gin. I leave it up to you," and "What's that drink do when you drink it?"

Feeling for him, I kept it simple when I made it to the lip of the bar and ordered my usual bartender-tester, a Sazerac. He responded that, of course, he could make one. I was very impressed by what followed. He used Sazerac House rye. He muddled a sugar cube rather than using simple syrup (as the bartender at the Brandy Library had). And he let the rye spend a good long time resting in ice, so I got a elegantly cooled Sazerac. Later on he told me that he likes to take a little extra time with such drinks.

I drank my cocktail slowly while I surveyed the scene. It was a young scene, with many a hapless man trying to impress many an uncomfortable woman. I feel a bit sorry for young ladies these days, the way they're made to dress, in high heels, baby doll dresses and various slip-like garments. They resemble promiscuous 13-year-olds.

When I was done, I wandered back to the bar. I believe I had earned the bartender's respect with my order, so I decided to up the ante, ordered the more obscure New Orleans classic De La Louisiane. He admitted he had never heard of it. I was a bit disappointed, but I perked up immediately after when he suggested another rye-based NoLa treat in its stead: a Vieux Carre. I nodded my ascent. He turned it out beautifully. I particularly liked the huge piece of ice he used to chill it; less diluting of the beverage that way.

Little Branch gets an A in my book.

'inoteca Sommelier Gets It But Good

Wine writer Alice Feiring goes after a doltish sommelier at the Lower East Side wine bar'inoteca in this item I ran across on the lady's blog.

I must say I feel a bit sorry for the guy, as Alice shows not a whit of mercy for his general cluenessness and preening arrogance. But then again, I've met this guy again and again at various places and I understand her irritation. He deserves what he gets, because he doesn't put the customer first, and refused to admit he doesn't know what he's talking about. Plus, the story, as told by Alice, is just hilarious. Take a look.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Library Hours

I checked out (forgive the pun) the Brandy Library in Tribeca the other night and, while I have some reservations, I was suitably impressed.

It's on N. Moore Street and you walk up what must have been a loading dock once to enter the place. I do wish that the owners of these Class Cocktail joints didn't always equate a good drink with some old Englishman's study. Brown leather chairs, hushed amber lights, books and bottles handsomely displayed. It's nice, I admit, but it's shtick, isn't it? You don't have to visit the lair of Colonel Blimp to enjoy a brandy.

(If I ever open a cocktail bar, it will be no-frills. The drinks will be the stars, not the decor.)

The "menu" was a leather-bound ledger like you might find at a hotel desk 50 years ago. It began with a listing of the Brandy Library's beliefs and rules (another rather annoying trend in drink emporiums). A small menu of foodstuffs, followed. No fries; lots of things involving Gruyere cheese. The list of available cocktails (all $13) came next, followed by the pages upon pages of brandies and scotches.

I was happy to see old favorites like Corpse Reviver, Rob Roy, Bronx, Sazerac, Brooklyn, Pisco Sour, Old Fashioned and Moscow Mule readily available. Also offered is a Stork Club, which purports to be the house drink and the famous old New York society hangout. I was told that the Side Car is the bar's most popular drink, in that it's the best-known, brandy-based cocktail.

I also liked the fact that, while there were sections for cocktails that were "Brandy-based," "Scotch-based," "Gin-based" and "Other," there was no column for "Vodka-based." We've got to teach the masses the error of their ways somehow.

Some things irked. The Martini was described as being a drink made with either gin or vodka. (Excuse me while I clear my throat.) And the Manhattan's ingredients began with bourbon. I pointed this out to the bartender, and he actually told me that Manhattan's were traditionally made with bourbon. I briefly corrected him and then changed the subject to the more worrisome detail that the lead ingredient listed for a Sazerac was also bourbon. Now, while an argument can be made for the historical validity of the bourbon Manhattan, no one can sanely maintain that a bourbon Sazerac is correct. He relieved my anxiety by saying it was a typo in the menu.

This bartender, friendly and attentive to the last, proved himself in the making of the Sazerac, which was fine and mighty strong! He also knew the whole history of the drink's invention in New Orleans, and it's status as possibly the first cocktail in history. Later on, he steered me into trying a Jack Rose, a Calvados-based libation that I have never tried. While it won't become one of my favorites, it was an intriguing, piquant change of pace, and I like the bartender for bravely directing me into uncharted waters.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Malbec on the Loire

In these times of the wine boom, something surprising comes along every day.

The other week, I blogged about a Roagna white wine that used the red Nebbiolo grape. I bought that bottle at Chambers Street Wines. At the same shop, I bought a bottle of Malbec. Not from Argentina, but from France. And not from Cahor, where one would expect to find this earthy grape in France, but from the Loire Valley!

The wine is called Pepiere Cot Pepie 2006, and it's got an asinine label sporting a drunken cartoon chicken which makes you think at first glance that you're looking at one of those worthless swills that come out of Australia. But it's a quality bottle, made by revered Muscadet winemaker Marc Ollivier. Here, he's playing around with a red grape most folks don't play around with, and the result is unlike any other malbec I've had. It's not overpowering, rustic and meaty. It's medium-bodied, with understated stewed dark fruits. The palate has an overall dustiness which is very appealing, and it's fine for summer drinking, weighing in at only 12% alcohol.

The Chambers guy was proud to say that he thought he had the only cases of this to be found in the U.S. If he still has some left, go get yourself some.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Land of Milk and Honey

I visited, for the first time, the New York branch of Milk and Honey, the London-based cocktail bar that conducts itself a bit like a speakeasy and a bit like a private club.

Milk and Honey has no phone number and no listed address. You have to know someone who's associated with the place in order to get the number. Once you have those digits, you call and make a reservation for a designated night and time. Someone calls back to confirm. It's all very mysterious and gives you a kind of tingly sensation.

Since the bar's intention seems to be to keep things on the hush-hush, I won't reveal the address here, even though it's been printed many places and is easy to find out. Let's just say it's on an obscure street and there is no signage or any other indications that it's there. You press a buzzer; there's a slight wait; then the door clicks open. Sweep aside two black curtains and you're in a narrow space, formerly a tailor's shop. Tin ceilings, low lighting, jazz music. A small bar seats four. There are three booths up front, three in back. Many coat hooks line the walls.

No one took my name and gave me instruction. Me and my friend occupied the final booth. As everything around me bespoke of civilized behavior, I didn't insist on attention, but waited patiently. It was about 15 minutes before the bartender approached apologetically and offered two glasses of champagne to make up for the lag in service. He said he was short on help that night; he was alone, in fact. Since he was so nice about it, and the place was so nice, I didn't care.

He asked for our order. I offered my usual challenge: a Sazerac. He didn't blink. We agreed on a brand of Rye and that was that. My friend wanted vodka and let the choice of drink up to the man. It took a while before the drinks came. No wonder, since the bartender obviously labors over them. Good drinks take a while to make. The Sazerac was good and, I was told later, made with actual Absinthe.

We were never rushed to order a second drink. The place is not about drinking. It's about selecting a drink, making it and then enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Blogging the "Cocktails"

Exactly two weeks from today, I will be heading down to New Orleans to attend the fifth annual "Tales of the Cocktail" spirits convention.

I have attended before, but this is the first year I'll be going armed with a spirits blog of my own. So, I just wanted to let everyone know that I plan to blog the whole event, each seminar, each spirited dinner, each celebration and whatever incidental events might crop up.

Seminars I plan to attend with some certainty include "Lost Ingredients," featuring Ted Haigh, Joe Fee and Paul Clarke; "Rum's Punch," led by Wayne Curtis; "Enter the Distologist," with Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown (with whom I traded seats on the flight back from last years TOTC), and my Red Hook neighber LeNell Smothers; "Aromatics and Their Uses," led by Pegu Club grand dame Audrey Saunders; "Prohibition's Shadow" with Robert Hess, John Hall, Ted Haigh, Chris McMillan and Dale DeGroff; "Cocktails and the Blogosphere" with Paul Clarke, Chuck Taggert, Darcy O'Neiil and Rick Stutz; "Vermouth," led by Ted Haigh (who's certainly getting around this year) and Martin Doudoroff; and "Tiki Drinks" with Jeff Berry and Wayne Curtis.

I had really hoped to attend the "American Rye Whiskey" seminar with Allan Katz, as I dearly love rye, but a writing assignment demands I be at a panel running at the exact same time. I hope Rye forgives me.

So, watch this space. It all begins Wednesday, July 18.