Friday, August 17, 2007 Cocktail Contest Announced Winners

The summer cocktail contest inspired by my recent interview with cocktail blogger Paul Clarke concluded, with the winners being announced today.

The were winners in the gin, vodka, rum and "other" categories. The grand prized went to the Ice Tea Classic. It goes like this:

1 to 2 parts Earl Grey-infused vodka
2 parts lemon soda (Editor's note: We used Limonata)
a sprig of mint
a thinly sliced lemon
a splash of simple syrup (optional)

To make Earl Grey-infused vodka: For a 750 ml bottle, steep 4 tea bags for four to five hours (or until it's brewed-tea color; don't let it sit too long, or it will get bitter and tannic).

To construct cocktail: Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour one to two parts vodka (depending on how strong you like it [Editor's note: Uh ... we used two]) over ice. Add two parts lemon soda as a mixer. (Folks who like their iced tea sweet may want to add a splash of simple syrup [Editor's note: We didn't]). Add a sprig of crushed mint and one or two thinly sliced rounds of lemon as a garnish.

Sounds nice. But I wonder if I'm going to plunk down money for Earl Grey-infused vodka just to make it. Or if I'm going to plunk down mone for vodka period.

Update: Whoops. Of course, as a reader just reminded me, they mean vodka infused with tea, not a special product on the market. Sometimes, the brain doesn't compute. Still, I have to buy the vodka.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In the Cellar at Antoine's

My August "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun takes a break from the restaurant scene in Gotham and spotlights one of the oldest and historic cellars in the nation, the bowling-alley-like wine hall at Antoine's in New Orleans. The generations-old restaurant is busy rebuilding its list after the complete destruction wrought by Katrina. At present, they're at 8,000 bottles, up from zero, but not near the 24,000 bottles the cellar can hold. Read and enjoy:

Starting From Scratch

The wine cellar at the New Orleans restaurant Antoine's, a 167-year-old, family-run establishment located on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, is a spacious, 165-foot long corridor that ends at a small window looking out on Royal Street. Frequently, surprised strollers peering through the pane of glass will catch a sommelier pulling a bottle from one of the many bins. But anyone who happened to glance in during the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have unknowingly witnessed something heartbreaking. For two weeks following the storm, temperatures in the electricity-deprived cellar reached 105 degrees during the day, dipping a bit at night, and then bouncing back into the triple-digits each morning. By the time the owner of Antoine's, Rick Blount, finally returned to New Orleans to crank up some generators and self-contained air-conditioning units, he was the proud owner of 14,000 bottles of vinegar. "We tasted a bunch of them," Mr. Blount, who is the great-great-grandson of the restaurant's founder, Antoine Alciatore, said. "We just sat back here with a corkscrew. Every 10th bottle wasn't actually good, but you could chug it down. But nine times out of ten you couldn't even drink it."

The same scenario played out in other cellars in New Orleans, a city blessed with many old restaurants equipped with rich and rare wine collections.

Since the cellar's contents were insured, Mr. Blount loss was not a financial one Â-- well, not entirely. The restaurant's policy covered wines lost to spoilage, but it reimbursed only the bottle's original cost, not its value at the time the hurricane struck. "For every bottle of wine we had, we got paid what we bought it for," Mr. Blount said. "It had nothing to do with what it was worth." The difference between the inventory Antoine's had on the books and the provided replacement funds was about $100,000, he said.

What happened to the cellar contents after that is something of a mystery. According to Mr. Blount, the spoiled bottles were collected and carted away in a dump truck. They were then sold to an unknown buyer, put into two shipping containers and sent off to parts unknown. "Somebody's got that wine in a collection somewhere," he said. "It didn't get thrown away."

Mr. Blount was not allowed to bid on or buy back any of the old bottles. "We had a really nice collection of old Bordeaux," he said. "I would have liked to have bought at least one of every one of them and just put them on display."

One might assume that Mr. Blount, faced with an empty cellar, used the insurance money to frequent auction houses in hopes of replicating the decimated list of classic French wines. But he did exactly the opposite. Fearful of buying somebody else's junked wines, he treated 2005 as Year Zero and restocked his cellar with brand new vintages. "I said, Â'Let's start with wine that was bottled after Katrina. That way, I know,'" he said.

Mr. Blount and wine director Matthew Ousset also decided to venture beyond the Antoine's old stomping grounds of Bordeaux and Burgundy and purchase New World wines from all corners of the globe. The cellar, which has a 24,000-bottle capacity, is now one-third full, and growing. Of course, in a city as bound by ritual and loyalties as New Orleans is, tradition cannot be completely thrown out the window. "I have made exceptions to the general rule," Mr. Blount said. "I have a few customers who have specific interests. So, if there's one particular customer who wants one particular thing and has asked us to stock that, we've gone out and bought some stuff."

Antoine's has been up and running since December 29, 2005, but has faced significant challenges since reopening. At present, Mr. Blount is engaged in a battle with the city over the zoning of the restaurant's real estate holdings, which cover much of a city block. The dispute includes the long, narrow cellar. "It goes under several lots," he said. "My great-grandfather and my grandfather bought the majority of the property. They cut this tunnel through a bunch of buildings. In the 1800s nobody cared. My great-grandfather owned it all and he built his buildings wherever the hell he pleased. There was no such thing as a building code. Today I'm fighting with the City of New Orleans because the buildings aren't built with respect to the lot lines."

On top of that, Mr. Blount has an "egress problem." Fire codes say that no point in a storeroom can be more than 100 feet from an exit. The window on Royal Street sits 107 feet from the cellar door. Mr. Blount can only laugh. "I'm seven feet out of compliance," he said.

Well, can't he just move the door, which is positioned a few feet down a small side hall, seven feet closer? No, he answers. The building, its door included, is a landmark, and can't be altered.

So, there you have it. Antoine's wine cellar is not only one of the biggest and the oldest in America; it's also the most complicated.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Glass of Bitters

There are singular bars with singular drinking traditions through the 50 states, but I feel that I recently experienced one of the most peculiar and individual in the land.

I'm talking about Nelson's Hall, perhaps the leading business and certainly one of the only bars on Washington Island, a dollop of land found in Lake Michigan at the top of the Door County Peninsula. (It's in most atlases; go take a look.) The isle, home to the second oldest Icelandic settlement in the U.S., and to a few hundred souls, is still a fairly isolated place, reached only by ferry from Gill's Rock, Wisconsin.

Nelson's Hall was built in 1899 by Danish immigrant Tom Nelson. Tom was a nut for Angostura Bitters. He drank a pint a day, claiming it contributed greatly to his health and longevity. (He did live to 90.) But Nelson was a sly fox. When Prohibition came along, he earned a pharmacist's license, and managed to remain open by telling the Feds that all he was doing was dispensing bitters as a stomach tonic. Nelson's Hall never closed. It claims to be the only bar in the U.S. that remained open during Prohibtion. (I would dispute this. I know of a number of others who, through various forms of chicanery, managed to stay afloat, the famed McSorley's being one.)

Tom's inventive mind led to something called The Bitters Club. To join, one must visit Nelson's and down a shot of Angostura. A witnessing waitress then wets her thumb in the emptied shotglass and plants her print on a Bitters Club membership card, dating and signing it as well.

Because of this odd tradition, Nelson's sells a good deal of Angostura. It claims that (another dubious assertion) that it sells more Angostura Bitters than any establishment in the world. Could be, could be. But Angostura goes in a lot of drinks, and is used by bars that serve a lot more people each day than does Nelson's. Of course, nobody at those other bars drinks the stuff by the glass.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Paper of Record Confirms LeNell's Uncertain Future

The New York Times, a little slow on the uptake, reported on the uncertain future of Red Hook favorite, LeNell's liquor store, in today's paper.

It's a through and very colorful article (nice job, Mr. Wilson), so take a look. My favorite part is this:

The owner herself, LeNell Smothers, a salty, 36-year-old Southern fixture in this Brooklyn neighborhood historically known for its drinking men, has spiced her language even more of late, greeting a reporter this week with a tirade of obscenities.

“I don’t appreciate being ambushed,” she said, more or less, before calming down and explaining why this year, her fourth, will be her store’s last at 416 Van Brunt Street.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cocktails on

My first gig covering the wine & spirits beat on came out today—an interview with cocktail blogger Paul Clarke, whom I met and interviewed while at "Tales of the Cocktail" in New Orleans. A nice, genial guy and a good interview to boot. Here it is:

It's always cocktail hour somewhere

By Robert Simonson

How do you know that cocktail blogs -- that is, Web sites whose mono-obsessional authors natter on about nothing else but carefully mixed intoxicants, their ingredients and their histories -- have come into their own? Well, at the preeminent annual cocktail convention in the nation, Tales of the Cocktail (this year held July 18-22 in New Orleans), said bloggers claimed ownership of their very own seminar. Called "Cocktails and the Blogosphere," the event trained a spotlight on New Orleanian Chuck Taggart, who writes about music, food and politics as well as sazeracs on his blog, the Gumbo Pages; Rick Stutz of Kaiser Penguin, so named because, I quote: "It is a well-known fact that penguins are members of high society and enjoy fine cocktails"; and Darcy O'Neil, a professional bartender who peppers his Art of Drink blog with chemistry lessons he learned in college.

But the man moderating the panel -- and one of the godfathers of cocktail bloggers everywhere -- was Seattle native Paul Clarke. Clarke launched his site, the Cocktail Chronicles, in May 2005, when his ramblings on the best ryes on the market were still but a slurred voice in the cyber-wilderness. Now, he has been joined by more than 100 blogs dedicated to the art of the carefully considered libation. Their creators include bartenders, mixologists, lowly journalists such as Clarke and what the spirits mafia call "Cocktailians" (loosely defined as individuals who are enthusiastic about cocktails and know how to mix a mean specimen of such).

Clarke's efforts have earned enough attention to land him regular writing gigs for Imbibe magazine and He recently talked to Salon about the art of mixology, reviving lost ingredients and how to mix the ultimate martini, over a bowl of gumbo and a (gasp!) beer at the French Quarter's Acme Oyster House.

You began the Cocktail Chronicles in May 2005. Did you know of anyone else blogging about booze back then?

To the best of my knowledge, only one purely cocktail-oriented blog existed then. That was It's now very sporadically updated, so it's not very active. There were a couple of other people who blogged about a number of things, with cocktails being among them. Chuck Taggart has been blogging on the Gumbo Pages since before there was blogging, about everything from food and politics to music and cocktails. But his cocktails, especially his originals, are absolutely fantastic. He is very conversant in spirits and liqueurs. For me, he was a big motivation. I thought, "Here's someone who's blogging, but he actually knows what he's talking about."

In my day job, I'm a journalist and I work as an editor part time in a small publishing company. When I started my blog, I thought it would be nice to write something without an editor looking over my shoulder. I didn't have to worry about a word count, a deadline; I could write about a topic I want to write about; I could use the voice I want to use. I didn't do it to broadcast my message. But then people actually read it, which constantly surprises me.

When did the drink bug bite you?

I think it was in 2003. My wife's family is a big foodie family. Any time we have a big gathering, there's a massive amount of cooking going on. My mother-in-law is a trained chef; my sister-in-law went to baking school. I'd always think: "What am I going to do except sit here and eat everything?" Then, one time, I was reading a cocktail recipe in the New York Times and thought, "We have a dinner coming up. I'll make a drink." It was like the clouds opened and the Jesus light came down. I'd always been interested in cocktails, but I didn't know anything about them. Every time I'd try to make myself a martini, it was terrible.

Why was that?

In retrospect, I see everything I was doing wrong. I was using a gin that was not very good. And I was using a lousy vermouth and not much of it. I wasn't using bitters, and I was shaking the cocktail. Now when I make a martini, I use a decent gin, a lot of vermouth and a good vermouth, and a little bit of orange bitters, and stir it nicely. It's lovely.

So you prefer a classic martini style, the way it was made in early decades of the 20th century?

Circa 1930s -- exactly. I always thought my drinks sucked because I used too much vermouth, that the two or three drops I used were too much. Then I realized that I actually needed it to be one-third vermouth -- and I'm happy as a clam.

Who have been some of your inspirations and mentors?

I was very fortunate to come across a couple of things right off. Knowing that I liked the drinks printed in the New York Times, I found out that Williams Grimes wrote a book in the '90s, "Straight Up or On the Rocks," which I still, to this day, think is the best book about cocktails ever written. Grimes is an excellent researcher. He's a really good bullshit detector. And one of the things about cocktails is there is a lot of bullshit about drink origins. The answer to the question of who invented a drink is often that it was made by a guy in a bar -- which is the font of all bullshit.

Then I came across David Wondrich's "Esquire Drinks." He'd talk about a Manhattan made with rye whiskey. I thought, what the hell is rye? I'd heard of it in "The Lost Weekend," where Ray Milland is drinking it. I never recalled having had it. I went out and bought a bottle of rye that very day, and that bug bit me, too. I'd had a bourbon Manhattan and thought, Well, that's all right. When I made a rye Manhattan, it was an "Oh, my God" moment. I understood why the drink was so good.

The Pacific Northwest, where you live, seems to be a hot spot for sophisticated cocktails.

Well, in that region, food is a very big thing. I think part of it is the abundance of fresh seafood, and surrounding the cities, you have very vibrant farming areas. And with good food, you get wine. Washington and Oregon have a fantastic beer community, so I think the interest in cocktails has been sailing along behind it. In Seattle, we have two wonderful bars with bartenders and owners who take what they do very seriously. One is Zig Zag Cafe where Murray Stenson is the bartender. The other one is Vessel, which is where mixologist Jamie Boudreaux works.

You have a popular feature on your blog called Mixology Mondays, in which you invite visitors to share their experiences mixing different cocktails. What sparked that idea?

It was April 2006. It had been almost a year since I began my blog, and in that time, a handful of other drink blogs had started, and we would e-mail each other. I was always looking at events like Is My Blog Burning? -- which is a food bloggers event -- and Wine Blogging Wednesday, where a bunch of wine bloggers pick one Wednesday a month and talk about Chardonnay or whatever. So I thought it would be cool if cocktail bloggers had something like that. The first Monday, about eight people did it -- it surprised me. I think the most we've had was 30.

You also appeared on a "Lost Ingredients" panel at Tales of the Cocktail. Is that something you're particularly interested in?

When I first started getting into cocktails and collecting the old bartending manuals, often I'd find that a recipe called for something I didn't have. Right away -- and maybe it's just the contrarian in me -- that would spark my curiosity, especially if it was something I couldn't get now. I had to have it. What's the reason everybody wants absinthe? Because until recently, they couldn't have it.

Anyway, there are sometimes ingredients I want try, but I can't buy them online. So the only alternative is to make them myself. Things that don't require distillation I can do. For example, Falernum is one of the ingredients I've played with. It's a really obscure kind of syrup, originally made in Barbados, and typically used to flavor classic Caribbean punches. It enjoyed a heyday in the United States roughly from the 1930s to the 1970s as part of the tiki drink movement. It matches very well with rum. And it is commercially available, but it's hard to find. I just happened to find a recipe online at, so I went ahead and made my own. It was really easy. You just soak some lime zest, some cloves, some ginger and some rum and strain it out and you're there. It tasted all right.

That was about the same time I started up my blog. I was proud of myself, and I typed it up: "Hey, I made this thing." The three readers I had at the time, one of them happened to be Murray Stenson in Seattle. He wrote and said, "I have some of the real stuff. Do you want to come down and have a taste test?" I came down and tried the stuff and realized how far off I was. But that kind of sent me on the path.

Obsessively digging up obscure ingredients and recipes and historical information that has been forgotten seems to be a big trend in cocktail circles right now.

Yes, and one thing about having a blog is, when you post something, you realize how many other people out there are trying the same thing. You start getting e-mails from people, especially from bartenders. I know the Falernum recipe I eventually settled on after two years of messing with it is being served at a bar in Seattle and a bar in Eugene, Ore. I've talked to bartenders in New York who have played around with my recipe as a starting point for their own.

On your blog, you list everything in your liquor cabinet. It's quite an extensive collection -- including over 17 types of rye, 12 types of brandy and 29 types of rum. Where do you keep it all?

By last fall, I had overtaken all the top shelves in the kitchen, so my wife graciously gave me the hall closet, which is pretty big. I put in shelves and I thought: It will take me forever to fill that up. But I did it pretty quickly.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

LeNell's Red Hook Rye Made Need New Name

It looks like the rumors about LeNell's, the celebrated wine and "likker" store in deepest Red Hook, may be true.

An item on Grub Street quotes an employee as saying that the shop, one of the pioneers in the rebirth of the Red Hook nabe, is leaving its location on Van Brunt street, and is looking for another place. Maybe in Red Hook, maybe not. The store wants to remain loyal to the area, according to the item. But rents will be rents, and Red Hook developers are still suffering under the delusion that they're hawking townhouses in Sutton Place or something.

It's been enjoyable to have so much hard-to-find liquor in one convenient location. I will miss LeNell's if it moves away. And Red Hook will lose one of its only high-end businesses willing to stay open until midnight.

Good Fork; Good Sazerac

The "Tales of the Cocktail" crowd—for being such an insular, clannish little band—has long tentacles. I was dining the other day at The Good Fork, thought by some to be the best restaurant in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. My wife and I parked ourselves in a banquette near the door. The wine list was impressive for such a small place, but I still had a taste in my mouth for cocktails left over from New Orleans.

I asked the waitress, plaintively, if they stocked rye in their bar, expecting to get a response in the negative. I almost fell on the floor when she said yes. And imagine my stunned surprise when she said their bartender made a great Sazerac. I glanced over at the man behind the bar, a tallish gent with close-shorn salt-and-pepper hair. "His name isn't St. John, is it?" "It is," said the waitress, surprised.

This same St. John I met at Vaughan's Lounge in the Bywater section of New Orleans. We chatted between sessions of jazz trumpeteer Kermit Ruffins. He is one of the Pegu Club's many bartenders. And here he was, in the farthest corner of Red Hook, tending bar.

I went up and reintroduced myself. St. John, it turns out, tends bar at The Good Fork Tuesdays and Fridays, and the bar there is friqhtfully well equipped. (No surprise, I guess, since they're situated just a few feet from LeNell's great liquor store.) He agreed with the scuttlebut that the Sazeracs in NoLa were on the sweet side. So I let him do his stuff to see how his fared.

The resulting drink was impressive. It reminded md of the one I had at Bayona in New Orleans: a vibrant color, chilly as snow and served in a small tumbler. Moreover, it was very well integrated, one of the best mixed Sazeracs I've had. I noticed he had taken a great deal of time and care stirring it. I approached him later and asked his other secrets. He had one or two, which I won't share here, in case he wants to keep them private. But, if you're in Red Hook of Tuesday or Saturday and are looking for a good drink, grab one of the four stools at The Good Fork.

Sun Won't Set on Sun Story

There are yet more repercussions from the profile I wrote in the New York Sun two weeks ago of the Jennifer Malone-Seixas, the former sommelier at Fleur De Sel. As she previously informed me, and I reported here, she was dismissed by said French bistro just five days after my article appeared on the front page.

Since then,, the widely read foodie blog, has picked up the story (in a rather sensational manner, if I may say). And now Grub Street has added to the debate by mentioning Ms. Malone-Seixas' situation in its interview of Ania Zaweija, the female sommlier at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Their first question: "Have you faced the same prejudices that Jennifer Malone Seixas, the recently departed Fleur de Sel sommelier, says she experienced? For instance, customers demanding a male sommelier?"

And so we have a good old-fashioned debate going, which is healthy, I guess. If only it had been sparked merely by the article and Ms. Malone-Seixas' comments in it, rather than be her loss of her job. Anyway, take a look.