Thursday, August 28, 2008

Taking It Sloe

I tastes Plymouth's great Sloe Gin for the first time along with a lot of other journalists and bloggers, at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, and was blown away by its flavor and quality.

Time Out New York gave me the chance to write at length (well, not at length—nothing at TONY is at length) about the liqueur, which was finally introduced by Plymouth to the U.S. market last May. Here's the item:

Sloe and steady

Scan the back shelves of old New York dives and you might spot a dusty bottle of something called sloe gin. The liqueur, given its tart, plummy flavor and vibrant ruby hue by an infusion of sloe berries (a wild fruit native to England), was a popular cocktail component in the early 20th century. But in recent decades, the only varieties found on the U.S. market were wretched, no-name swills full of artificial flavor and coloring. Playing starring roles in fratboy drinks (like the Alabama Slammer and the Sloe Comfortable Screw) only hastened sloe gin’s exit from respectable cocktail lists. But earlier this summer, the Plymouth distillery—which previously doled out a benchmark variety of the ancient spirit in the U.K. and Australia only—began shipping the nectar to the U.S. Plymouth has released a mere 1,000 cases for 2008, and due to high demand at bars and restaurants, they are fast disappearing from liquor store shelves. Your best chance at a sip may be the city’s tonier bars. Clover Club (210 Smith St between Baltic and Butler Sts, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-855-7939) is boasting a sloe-gin-and-rum-based punch; and Death & Company (433 E 6th St between First Ave and Ave A, 212-388-0882) has a few sloe-gin cocktails on the menu, including the dangerously drinkable, blackberry-topped Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Just don’t order a Panty Dropper, or you’ll be shown the door.
— Robert Simonson

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Bar Fit for Discerning Wisconsinites

Readers of this blog know its author is from Wisconsin and has a guarded affection for that state's peculiar drinking habits.

I've sometimes wondered if I am alone in my arms-length respect for the Brandy Old Fashioned, a refresher that only Badger State Boosters seem to relish. The answer, it seems, is no. There is a bar in Madison—that oasis of civility and sophistication—that revers the Brandy Old Fashioned not only unconsciously, but self-consciously. It's name? The Old Fashioned, of course.

This bar was founded by the quintet of Tami Lax, Patrick O'Halloran, Marcia O'Halloran, Daniel Moment and Robert Miller only three years ago. It purports to pay homage to all things Wisconsin. And it does, be those things bratwurst, summer sausage, Norwegian salmon, walleye, cheese curds, Door County cherries, the Friday-night Fish Fry made with lake perch, "Green Bay chili" or various local cheeses.

And beers. Dozens! Here you can actually get such antique favorites at Blatz and Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. Plus dozens of local artisanal brews, including New Glarus Spotted Cow (a favorite of mine).

Then there is the spirit list. You've gone to saloons with a lengthy Martini list. This, my friends, may be the only bar that boasts an Old Fashioned list. Not just the classic Wisconsin Old Fashioned ("Muddled. Always. With Korbel."), but four other styles: the Bourbon Old Fashioned (made with Maker's Mark); Orange Rum Old Fashioned (Clement Creole Shrubb); Apple Jack Old Fashioned (Laird's, of course; don't know if it's bonded); and Gin Old Fashioned (Bombay Sapphire. Sorry—ick!).

They also used Bombay Sapphire in their in their Gibson. This practice must be stopped. Otherwise, though, they seem to have their heart in the right place. Next time I head to the Midwest, it will be my first stop.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Riedels on Spirits and Beer

Meeting a lot of Riedels lately.

In July, I met up with Georg Riedel in New Orleans and spent a civilized half hour talking about the Riedel glassware's new Bar Series, it's first organized foray into the spirits world, with dedicated glasses for everything from tequila to single malt scotch.

And yesterday, I met George's son, Maximilian, who goes by Maximilian, as only the scion of a vaunted European company like Riedel could. A slight, wiry man with an easy way of talking, he said he was wearing his father's lederhausen. "So he is in a way with us," he said.

The occasion was a lunch at Blaue Gans, Kurt Gutenbrunner's Austrian eatery on Duane Street in lower Manhattan. I and a clutch of other journalists were there to test and enjoy Riedel's newish line of beer glassware. The atmosphere was appropriately, and perhaps excessively, Bavarian. A German dance team of three provided entertainment. A spry old man of roughly 70 was doing some nimble knee and foot slapping that I would not attempt, even on a good day.

Both Maximilian and Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver spoke several times about the nature of good beer and the nature of good beer glassware. Oliver—dressed in a blue blazer adorned with the Brooklyn Brewery crest, and looking like a member of some booze-oriented yacht club—was quite cutting on the subject, comparing most commercial beers to the loaves of spongy Wonder bread you find in the supermarket. "That is not bread," he said. "It is not made the way bread is made, and it is not made from the stuff that bread is made of. Bread should not stick to the roof of your mouth. You should not be able to roll bread up into a ball and throw it across the room. I used to wonder why they called the edges crust, because they weren't crusty, until I found out that was sprayed-on food coloring."

There are three glasses in the line: one for lager, tall and slightly tapered at the bottom; a squat, modified tulip-shaped glass for pilsners; and a wheat beer glass, which looks exactly the way you expect a wheat beer glass to look: tall and a bit bulbous at the top. Wheat apparently has more protein in it than does barley—thus, the thicker head of foam.

We tested various German and Brooklyn beers in these glasses against the same brews drunk out of plastic cups and the bottle itself. Riedel is fairly peerless in the way it markets its products, which makes a reporter skeptical. Does every kind of alcohol need its own glass, really? But you have to hand it to them: wines, and now beers, do tend to smell and taste better when drunk out of one of their crystal vessels. After drinking a Bitburger out of the bottle and then out of the pilsner glass—the lip of which deposits the liquid neatly on the tip of your tongue—you begin to think of a beer drunk straight out of the bottle as a beer not drunk at all. Certainly not a beer enjoyed beyond the liquid's intoxicating effect.

The beer glasses are actually designed and produced by Spiegelau, which used to be Riedel's main competition. But Riedel bought Spiegelau in 2004. Spiegelau does retain some creative and administrative autonomy, though, and it was thought the Bavarian company was the best choice to create the beer line.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Gin & Tonic Taste Test

As many I encountered at "Tales of the Cocktail" already know, the New York Sun charged me to put together a Gin & Tonic blind tasting, to take place at The Clover Club the day after the convention. Much to my surprise, the guest tasters David Wondrich, St. John Frizell and Julie Reiner—all presenters at TOTC—managed to drag themselves to the tasting the afternoon after flying back to NYC. Not just drag themselves, actually. They look fresh as daisies.

Anyway, the piece ran a couple weeks back. Here it is, with the results.

The Best Gin for a Summer Elixer

By Robert Simonson

Before the mojito, before the caipirinha, the gin and tonic reigned supreme as a hot-weather drink, quenching summertime thirsts at taverns and backyard parties the world over. Born of practicality — the quinine in the tonic once helped combat malaria in the British Empire, while the gin made it easier for authorities to throw the bitter elixir down people's throats — it survived simply as a delectable liquid marriage.

Although more complicated drinks might be the tipples of choice for today's drinkers, the seemingly elementary G&T is enough of a classic to provoke debate on how best to serve it up. Favored gin-to-tonic ratios vary from 1-to-1 to 1-to-4. Britishers prefer lemon as a garnish, while Americans go for the more familiar lime wedge, which some simply shove into the glass, while others squeeze it over the drink. And then there's the question of tonic choice.

In testing how six gins (three classics, three newer brands) performed in a gin and tonic, a recent tasting panel opted for one part gin to two parts tonic, poured into a glass filled to the brim with ice and topped with a squeezed lime wedge. While new boutique tonics such as Q and Fever-Tree are preferred by many professionals in lieu of mass-market items such as Canada Dry, they're not always readily available to the average consumer, who might not live or work near a Whole Foods (but they could be worth a trip, as Charlotte Cowles writes today). Our control tonic: small, individual bottles of Schweppes, to ensure a fresh pour.

On the panel were myself; a cocktail historian and author of "Imbibe!" (Penguin), David Wondrich; a former bartender at Pegu Club and a spirits journalist, St. John Frizell, and mixologist and bar owner Julie Reiner, whose new Brooklyn saloon, the Clover Club, provided the setting for the tasting.

#1 (tie)
Profile: One of the classic exemplars of the London Dry Gin style, a Tanqueray Gin & Tonic is considered by many the benchmark for the drink. If you got through college without hearing someone pompously order a "Tanq & Tonic," you went to a dry school.
Comments: Panelists liked this one at first sip, finding it "balanced, fresh and tasty," with a "sharp cleanness" (Wondrich), and a palate not "overly juniper"-oriented (Reiner) with "a lot of lime rind" (Frizell). Said Wondrich, simply, "It's a very good Gin & Tonic."

#1 (tie)
Profile: This two-century-old spirit, produced in its namesake British port town and long associated with the British Navy, has recently made a comeback. Possessing a "Protected Designation of Origin" all its own, it is prized by spirit pros for its complexity of flavor.
Comments: As Plymouth is not usually a go-to gin for G&Ts, the panel was slightly surprised by the spirit's strong showing. But the words said it all. It was "perfectly right. A little bit a pepper and spicy citrus," (Frizell) with a "long, long finish. It keeps going and going." Just "very nice" (Simonson).

#3 (tie)
Profile: Bottled in London since 1820, Beefeater stands alongside Tanqueray as another standard-bearer of the London Dry style, a habitual choice for many Martini and Gin & Tonic drinkers.
Comments: Though not coming out on top, Beefeater did respectably with the panel, making a Gin & Tonic that was "nice and bright" (Frizell), "clean" and "appealing" (Wondrich) and "refreshing" (Reiner). Added Julie: "Mmm."

#3 (tie)
Profile: Junipero, which debuted in the 1990s, comes from the Anchor Distillery in San Francisco, the same folks who make Anchor Steam Beer. Made in small batches, it has won some converts, even among traditionalists.
Comments: Of the younster gins sampled, Junipero performed the best with the tasters. It was deemed "juicy, citrusy," though "not as clean and cutting," (Wondrich), while all noticed the "good deal of juniper in it" (Frizell). All in all, though, the Junipero Gin & Tonic was "pretty well-balanced," even if the finish lasted "the least amount of time." (Frizell)

Profile: This recently rolled-out gin has an unusual source: the giant E.&J. Gallo Winery. Softer, fuller and less dry than classic gins, the company has emphasized its shying away from what they call gin's "harsh" taste profile.
Comments: The remaining new gins—often called "botanical gins" because they play a bit fast and loose with their flavoring ingredients—took a drubbing from the panel. New Amsterdam reminded tasters of "hair tonic," (Simonson) "Fruit Loops" (Wondrich) and "something like violet" (Reiner). Frizell was more forgiving, saying "I don't dislike it. It kind of smells like a cheap Gin & Tonic."

Profile: This contemporary invention out of Portland, OR, has captured a won a lot of attention for its atypical cocktail of botanicals emphasizing lavender and anise seed, as well as its round, smooth delivery. The makers purport to have been influenced by the heavier (and older), Dutch style of gin.
Comments: There was no love in the room for the young gin from the Pacific Northwest. "This is just weird," was the first remark, with taste notes of "some flavor like mugwort," "swampy, musty, Grandma's attic" following (Wondrich). "It grabs you by the throat" (Reiner) and was "aggressive," (Frizell) and "the finish it bitter" (Reiner). In short, an Aviation Gin & Tonic didn't fly.