Thursday, July 19, 2007

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.

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