Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Penguin Ice Bucket

Look at this ice bucket. Seem familiar?

I'm betting it does. For the generation that came of age after WWII, this was their ice bucket. It must have been cheap and easy to find (Woolworths? Macy's?), because everyone had one. For the generation that grew up in the '60s and '70s, this was their parents' ice bucket. It made a regular appearance every day around cocktail hour. For today's younger generation, it is a collector's item. The bucket can be found in nearly every corner antique store, going for anything from $25 to $80.

My parents owns a penguin ice bucket. I never thought much about it as a kid, though some part of me enjoyed to look of it. Penguins are soothing figures, especially to a child, and I'm sure the elegance of the Art Deco design was doing a number on my eyes as well.

The bucket seems to be held in some esteem by the drinking cognescenti. There is one on display in the new Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. Imagine my stunned reaction when I saw that knick-knack under glass.

I have the same bucket today. I wish I could say it was my parents, but no—they still own and use theirs. I bought mine at a kitschy second-hand shop. Think I got it for $10, which is a steal these days. (I would refuse to pay $80 for an item I know my mom and dad picked up for $6.99.)

I've learned something about the bucket recently that makes me feel even more proprietary about it. It was made by the West Bend Aluminum Company in West Bend, Wisconsin, not a stone's throw from where I grew up. No wonder my parents owned one!

The items official name is the West Bend Penguin Hot and Cold Server Ice Bucket. (So, what? I could serve soup in it?) I'm not judge of metals, but it's either aluminum or stainless steel. It also came in a copper-colored version, which is much more rare. The sloping handles, which look like penguin wings, and the top handle are wood on mine, but other versions had Bakelite handles, either in brown or black. Not sure which type of bucket is more valuable.

The Patent on the bucket is No. 2,349,099 and Des. 127,279. The design was filed March 13, 1941 and issued May 20, 1941; the patent was filed May 19, 1941 and issued May 16, 1944. Nonetheless, the bucket really had its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s.

About the West Bend Aluminum Company, it was founded in 1911 by young Bernhardt C. Ziegler. Sears & Roebuck was an early customer of their products. The Waterless Cooker, a large pot with inset pans, was a success for the company in the 1920s. In 1932 it introduced a "Flavo-Seal" line of heavy-gauge cookware made of up roasters, saucepans, and skillets. The factory produced war-related goods during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. In 1961, it changed its name to the West Bend Company. It continued to grow throughout the decades and was bought by Premark's Consumer Products Group in 1995. There was still a big plant in West Bend until recently, but many others as well, including "West Bend de Mexico" in Renosa, Mexico.

And then this:

In 2003, The West Bend Company was acquired by Focus Products Group, LLC, an investment and growth oriented holding company headquartered in Vernon Hills, IL, and renamed West Bend Housewares.

In early 2007, Focus Products Group acquired Back to Basics Products, an inventive housewares company based out of Utah. Back to Basics was combined with West Bend Housewares to create Focus Electrics, a new leader in innovative kitchen appliances at competitive prices. This merge strengthened and expanded both lines to bring the consumer a wider range of inventive, seasonal and traditional appliance options for their kitchen.

Focus Electrics. Doesn't have the same ring, does it? I think business still goes on in West Bend, but I'm not sure.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Cono Sur Riesling 2008

Did I say $10? Try this Chilean number on for a mere $6! That's right, $6 at Acker, Merrall & Condit Wine Merchants on 72nd Street—the Upper West Side, where one has no right to find a decent wine for less than $18. But difficult times call for difficult measures, and many wine shops in New York are putting their cheapest goods up front where people can see and buy them. No more $20 risks, say customers. But for $6, I'll take a chance.

Cono Sur (Southern Cone, as in the shape of South America) was founded in 1993. Its motto is "No family tree. No dusty bottles. Just quality wine." Hm. Anyone got a chip on their shoulder? This riesling comes from the Bio Bio Vally, the southern-most end of Chile's winegrowing regions. (Makes sense, as northern hemisphere riesling is grown in the northernmost spots.) Apparently, they were the first winery to grow the grape in this area.

This is not a complex riesling, but I found a surprising amount of things going on for such an inexpensive bottle. On the nose, there was melon, grapefruit, bubblegum, yeast and guava. It was kind of a fat nose. The body was, again, on the fat side, with medium-to-full body, but it was cut by a mineral edge that kept the wine from being flabby. I continued to find things in the glass as I tasted it, when I really had no right to: apple, honeydew, lime, lemon, grapefruit. It had a tart medium finish.

Truth is, if I had paid $18 for this wine and drank it, I would not have been surprised. I would have felt a little disappointed, but not surprised. But at $6, I've got not gripes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beachbum Berry Rides Into Gotham

Jeff Berry, aka Beachbum Berry, expert on all things tiki, rode into Tiki-dry Manhattan last week to try to turn the tide in favor of rum, pineapple juice, and tiny umbrellas. At the invitation of PDT's Jim Meehan, Berry offered a two-hour presentation on how Gotham bartenders and bar owners might introduce so-called tropical drinks into their menus with a minimum of muss and fuss. Gathered at tiny PDT to listen at his feet with barkeeps from Clover Club, Death & Co and Pegu Club (including Audrey Saunders herself, who seems to have brought her entire staff along). It was a crowded gathering.

Berry is most probably right when he assumes that Tiki Drinks are hard to find in NYC because they are laborious to prepare, plus some require the machinations of a blender, a noisy appliance which is a major mood-breaker. (Lingering ignorance as to the worth and quality of some of these cocktails is perhaps another reason why it's hard to get a Singapore Sling.) To mend this situation, he came armed with three handouts. One was titled "Exotic Drinks That Don't Take Forever to Make," which contained exactly what you think, including three cocktails with only five ingredients, and classics like the Mai Tai and Navy Grog.

A second was called "Adapt and Overcome." It offered three approached to simplifying: Stripping down (suggesting a five-ingredient Zombie which could sub for the usual complex potion); "Tikify a non-Tiki drink"; and making a familiar Tiki drink into something personal (i.e., using a base recipe as a starting point.) Here's the five-point Zombie for those who are curious:


3/4 oz. lime juice
1 oz. white grapefruit juice
1/2 oz. cinnamon-infused simple syrup
1/2 oz. 151-proof Bacardi rum
1 oz. dark Jamaican rum

The most amount of time was spent on a handout titled "Exotic Drinks With a New York Pedigree," which focused on Tiki drinks which were actually invented in New York. (Yes, they do exist!) These included the Spindrift, the Hawaiian Room (named after a popular Tiki joint in the Lexington Hotel at Lex and 48th) and the Hawaii Kai Treasure (after the restaurant of the same name at Broadway and 50th).

I should put down all the recipes of these drinks here, but I'm lazy and my fingers ache. So I'm going to feature only what proved to be my favorite and that of the Pegu Club bartenders who surrounded me: the Dead Bastard. It was invented by obscure mixology genius Joe Scialom, who worked at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo and the Marco Polo Club at the Waldorf-Astoria. It was at the latter that he invented the Dead Bastard, a variation on previous drink of his called the Suffering Bastard and the Dying Bastard. Here it is in all its tasty glory. Berry called it Tiki's answer to the Long Island Ice Tea:


1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. brandy
1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. rum
1/2 oz. Rose's lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
4 ounces of chilled ginger beer

OK, geeks, before you all jump down my throat, I know what your thinking: "Rose's Lime Juice?? WTF!" I thought the same, and asked Berry the question that no one in the room seemed not to want to (out of politeness?): Wouldn't fresh lime juice be better than Rose's?

No, said Berry. He explained that Scialom was very specific about his ingredients and he stuck with Rose's on purpose. Berry had tried the drink both ways and said it tasted better with Rose's than with fresh lime juice. I tested this. And, though it was a close call, I'm inclined to agree with Berry. The fresh lime juice lent a slight acrid edge and tiny bitter aftertaste. The Rose's gave the drink the easy-does-it tropical smoothness I think it's going for. So, I guess there's a reason to stock Rose's in the end.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Don't Like the Show? Have a Drink!

The cocktail revolution has found its way into every nook and cranny of New York culture. Proof? Go to a play at any of the city's major nonprofit theatres and what will you find at the concession stand, along with the beer, bottled water, gourmet cookies and candy? Custom cocktails.

One company has the corner on this weird niche industry. It's Sweet Concessions, founded by Julie Rose, and assisted by mixologist Brett Stasiewicz. The outfit services Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Roundabout Theatre Company and other theatres around town.

Go to MTC's Biltmore Theatre and you'll find cocktails names after Richard III and Othello—odd, since MTC never does Shakespeare. And at the Roundabout's recent revival of the period drama "A Man for All Seasons," you could order drinks called Master Cromwell, Thomas Moore, Henry VIII and Cardinal Woolsey. Historical figures! Yum!

The Thomas Moore is composed of gin, apricot brandy, rosemary-mint-infused lime juice and tonic. The Henry VIII is pear vodka, amaretto, "ginger and apple" (huh?) and sparkling wine. All the drinks are on display, like sample sandwiches at a deli, and, like those sandwiches, they don't look very appetizing after sitting around in the elements for a couple hours.

It's all very amusing and kind of inventive, in a kitschy way, but I wish the cocktails were created with as much talent and taste as are the stageworks. Stasiewicz leans heavily on the flavored liquor. Every kind of flavored vodka you can think of serve as the base of most of these drinks, with flavored schnapps substituting on occasion, and gin and rum making only occasional appearances. Other easy flavor-spikers like sparking wine and lemon-lime soda are also employed. And he seems to be drunk on achieving color effects. Look at this recipe for "The Light in the Piazza."


2 ounces citron vodka
1 ounce limoncello liqueur
1 teaspoon superfine sugar, plus more for rimming the glass
a dash of lemon juice (optional)
1 ounce sparkling wine
1 thin slice of lemon

Citron vodka, limoncello and lemon juice. And lemon slice! Talk about beating a theme into the ground. And vodka for a musical set in Italy?

Then there's this for "Mary Poppins":


Pomegranate liqueur
Peach Schnapps
Lemon-lime soda
(No measurements given)

Again vodka. Now, wouldn't Mary Poppins drink—if she drank—gin and nothing but gin? And would she ever touch her proper lips to anything as trashy as Peach Schnapps? I ask you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon Coteaux de Languedoc

I don't know about you, but the financial collapse of the world economy has hit this household pretty hard. The days of laying down $30 for daily-use wine are gone for the time being. And even though I know the great values in the wine world are to be found in the $15-$25 range, I am keeping a sharp eye out for $10-and-under gems these day. It's not easy work, what with the wicked currency imbalance between the U.S. and most everyone else, but not impossible.

Here's a Coteaux du Languedoc I found at Acker, Merrall & Condit Wine Merchants on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side. It's a bit of a cheat, since it's priced at $10.99, but I'm including it anyway, since it's so good and it's a Polaner Selections import. How often do you find a Polaner for $11?

The grape on the Domaine Gaujal de Saint Bon is the Picpoul, a varietal of the Rhone valley and the Languedoc (where this wine hails from). It's the work of winemaker Arnaud Gaujal. It's a wonderful wine for the price. It has a mineral, grassy, grapey nose, with hints of white peach and apricot. The light-to-medium body wine has a light viscosity and a stony, mineral base. Notes of unripe pear and goosebergy hover atop. Great acidity. Use for any of your white wine needs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Wisconsin Frame of Mind

I am originally from Wisconsin, and still have many relatives there. As far as cherished drinking traditions go, the state has stronger ones than most. But my feelings about them have always been decidedly ambivalent.

I am not a big fan of the one-dimensional, watery Pilseners that are favored by the citizens of the Badger State, but I recognize that they can be just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer day at the county fair. Part of me thinks the Brandy Old-Fashioned is an abomination, and part of me thinks it's a quaint regional delicacy. Some days I love it that the 1950s-style cocktail hour never died in the Dairy State (every adult I knew as a child honored it), and other days I seriously worry about the looseness with which Wisconsinites approach their daily drinking habits.

I am in a trade where I feel the enjoyment of intoxicating beverages ought and needs to go hand in hand with a healthy respect for how wines and spirits and beers are made and how to responsibly partake of them. I think most Wisconsinites (in my experience of them, which is vast) have only the thirst for booze, without the respect.

A disturbing article today in the New York Times got my mind thinking about these matters. There is a new movement afoot in Wisconsin to curb binge drinking, a habit in which the state exceeds all others. The piece reports that Wisconsin has some of the most alarming, bordering on reprehensible, drinking laws in the nation. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar if they are accompanied by an adult. Drunken drivers are not charged with a felony until their fifth arrest. And police may not administer sobriety checks on drivers suspected of being drunk.

People are resistant to changing the status quo, and there seems to a great deal of self-delusion in the rationalizations offered up by those who see nothing wrong with the state's imbibing practices. (I had boldfaced some of the more egregious examples of such in the story.) I know this behavior well. Wisconsinites do not like being told that anything is wrong; they regard such observations as an affront to their lifestyle; they also find frank discussions of serious problems acutely embarrassing. It's a stoical Midwestern thing. That's understandable, except when such avoidance of issues leads to deaths and drinking disorders.

Here is the article:

Some See Big Problem in Wisconsin Drinking

EDGERTON, Wis. — When a 15-year-old comes into Wile-e’s bar looking for a cold beer, the bartender, Mike Whaley, is happy to serve it up — as long as a parent is there to give permission.

“If they’re 15, 16, 17, it’s fine if they want to sit down and have a few beers,” said Mr. Whaley, who owns the tavern in this small town in southern Wisconsin.

While it might raise some eyebrows in most of America, it is perfectly legal in Wisconsin. Minors can drink alcohol in a bar or restaurant in Wisconsin if they are accompanied by a parent or legal guardian who gives consent. While there is no state law setting a minimum age, bartenders can use their discretion in deciding whom to serve.

When it comes to drinking, it seems, no state keeps pace with Wisconsin. This state, long famous for its breweries, has led the nation in binge drinking in every year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began its surveys on the problem more than a decade ago. Binge drinking is defined as five drinks in a sitting for a man, four for a woman.

People in Wisconsin are more likely than anywhere else to drive drunk, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The state has among the highest incidence of drunken driving deaths in the United States.

Now some Wisconsin health officials and civic leaders are calling for the state to sober up. A coalition called All-Wisconsin Alcohol Risk Education started a campaign last week to push for tougher drunken driving laws, an increase in screening for alcohol abuse at health clinics and a greater awareness of drinking problems generally.

The group, led by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, criticized the state as having lenient alcohol laws and assailed a mindset that accepts, even celebrates, getting drunk.

“Our goal is to dramatically change the laws, culture and behaviors in Wisconsin,” said Dr. Robert N. Golden, the dean of the medical school, calling the state “an island of excessive consumption.” He said state agencies would use a $12.6 million federal grant to step up screening, intervention and referral services at 20 locations around Wisconsin.

The campaign comes after a series in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel titled “Wasted in Wisconsin,” which chronicled the prodigious imbibing among residents of the state, as well as the state’s reluctance to crack down on alcohol abuse.

Drunken drivers in Wisconsin are not charged with a felony until they have been arrested a fifth time. Wisconsin law prohibits sobriety checks by the police, a common practice in other states.

“People are dying,” the newspaper exclaimed in an editorial, “and alcohol is the cause.”

Wisconsin has long been famous for making and drinking beer. Going back to the 1800s, almost every town in the state had its own brewery. Milwaukee was the home of Miller, Pabst and Schlitz. Now Miller is the only big brewery in the city.

Most people in Wisconsin say the beer-drinking traditions reflect the customs of German immigrants, passed down generations. More than 40 percent of Wisconsin residents can trace their ancestry to Germany. Some experts, though, are skeptical of the ethnic explanation. It has been a very long time, after all, since German was spoken in the beer halls of Wisconsin.

Whatever the reason, plenty of Wisconsin people say they need to make no apologies for their fondness for drinking.

“I work 70, 80 hours a week, and sometimes I just want to relax,” said Luke Gersich, 31, an engineering technician, who drank a Miller as he watched the Monday Night Football game at Wile-e’s tavern. On a weeknight, he said he might drink seven or eight beers. On a weekend, it might be closer to 12.

In Wisconsin, people often say, there is always a bar around the next corner. But drinking is scarcely limited to taverns. A Friday fish fry at a Wisconsin church will almost surely include beer. The state counts some 5,000 holders of liquor licenses, the most per capita of any state, said Peter Madland, the executive director of the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

“We’re not ashamed of it,” Mr. Madland said. He said anti-alcohol campaigns were efforts to “demonize” people who simply liked to kick back and relax with some drinks.

“It’s gotten to the point where people are afraid to have a couple of beers after work and drive home, for fear they’ll be labeled a criminal,” he said. “At lunch, people are afraid if they order a beer someone will think they have a drinking problem.”

But the drinkers have typically had plenty of advocates in the State Legislature. State Representative Marlin Schneider, for example, sees sobriety checkpoints as an intrusion on Constitutional rights of due process.

As for allowing minors to drink in bars with their parents, Mr. Schneider said the law simply allowed for parents to educate and supervise the youthful drinking. “If they’re going to drink anyhow,” said Mr. Schneider, Democrat of Wisconsin Rapids, “it’s better to do it with the parents than to sneak around.”

Technically speaking, the sale is between the bartender and the parent or legal guardian, who then gives the drink to the minor. The bartender has the discretion to decide whether the minor can drink in the establishment.

Before he owned Wile-e’s, Mr. Whaley said there were some cases where he had to say no to a parent. “I’ve had situations where a parent was going to buy drinks for a kid who looked 8 or 10 years old,” he said, “and I had to say, ‘That’s a no-go.’ ”

He also has a rule in his tavern that under-age drinkers must leave by 9 p.m. “When it gets later in the night, people don’t want a bunch of kids running around,” he said.

One recent night, a lanky, blond-haired 17-year-old boy shot pool at the bar with his dad. Both were drinking soda.

In Mr. Whaley’s view, the bar can be a suitable place for families to gather, especially when the beloved Green Bay Packers are on the television. “On game days, a buddy of mine will come to the bar with his 2-year-old, his 8-year-old and his 10-year-old,” Mr. Whaley said. “He might get a little drunk. But his wife just has a few cocktails. It’s no big deal. Everybody has a good time.”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lessegue Turns Two

I recently tasted the two offerings of what is only the second vintage (2004) from Chateau Lassegue, the St. Emilion project from Jess Jackson and vigneron Pierre Seillan.

Seillan practices a peculiar method of grape selection at the vineyard, which boasts nine different types of soil. He has divided the estate into what he calls "micro-crus," separating pieces of land by the quality of the ground and the varietals. The image of a patchwork quilt comes to mind. Then he combines the different puzzle pieces into the vineyard two's bottlings—Lassegue and Chateau Vignot—based on how well the various lots complement each other.

Both wines are good, but I was most impressed with what is meant to be the less impressive of the two bottles, the $35 Chateau Vignot, which is a blend of 68% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc and 2% Cab Sauv. There is little aging potential here, but who cares when the stuff is drinking so well right now! Seillan has tamped down the alcohol to an approachable 13.5%—a level which matches well with the easy drinkability of this wine.

The nose has understated notes of current, cherry, roots, chocolate and tar. The medium-bodied juice has soft tannins, and light flavors of current, plum and cherry. The overall effect is perhaps a bit anonymous—this is not a great terroir wine—and it does have a shortish finish, but it is harmonious in flavor and well balanced. I drank one glass after another happily. It's that kind of companionable wine. And $35 for a St. Emilion is not bad at all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Duking It Out

When I told San Francisco-based spirits journo Camper English that I planned to pay a call on the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair to sample their world-famous Martini, he scrunched up his face. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Dukes is kind of whacked," he said. "It's one of those destination places."

Well, he's right about that. The destination part, anyway. The posh Dukes has made its culinary reputation on the idea that it serves the best Martini in all of London—some say the world. This is, of course, rot, because a "good Martini" is largely a matter of taste to many people. No one can be said to serve the best. But Dukes is certainly no slouch at it. Part of the allure of the drink is they prepare the cocktail at your table, using the gin or (sorry) vodka of your choice, and to the proportions you specify. It's all very pampering and seductive.

I wrote about the American version of the Dukes ritual, at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park, so I decided next time I was in London I would have to sample the real deal.

Dukes has the discreet sophistication thing down pat. It's situated down a quiet side street off ritzy St. James, all cozy on its own private courtyard. There are no signs guiding your way. You have to know where it is. The lobby is small and strangely silent. The bar is so low-profile, you'd almost miss it. Only a small sign saying "Cocktail Bar" above a door frame gives it away. Entering is like crossing the threshold of someone's private library. Two small rooms divided by a fireplace, and a tiny bar make up the bar. Maybe 20 people could be seated at most. I was there at around 3 PM, so had no difficulty in getting a table.

The bartender was very deferential and appreciative of the gravity of his role (as he saw it). He listed the gins I might select, and I opted for Beefeater's Crown Jewel, since I'd never tried it and I knew it would soon be off the market. He rolled a cart up to my table. Into a Martini glass (considerably smaller than the fish bowl they use at Eleven Madison Park, I'm happy to say), he poured in a modicum of vermouth and then, with one hand behind his back, and one of the bottom of the frozen bottle (the way some waiters serve Champagne), he smoothly poured the Beefeater gin into the glass until it reached a point just below the rim. (No stirring with ice, my purist friends.) He then cut a section of lemon peel, twisted it over the drink and dropped it in the cocktail. To accompany the drink, I was given a bowl of cashews and some sort of small, spiced, cheese-flavored crackers. I ate a great many of these, so that the extremely strong drink wouldn't get the best of me. (They make a great show of only allowing guests to order two Martinis each visit.)

It was a good Martini. I'm not prepared to say it was the best I've ever had, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Let's put it up there in the top five, OK?

Soon enough, I got into a conversation with a Czech journalist who was there on a similar mission. We talked gin, cocktails, the scenes in New York and Prague. The bartender was soon drawn in. He said people come from all over the world to sample the Dukes Martini. He showed me around his bar, which was well-stocked. Gin and vodka Martini customers are about evenly split, he said. Ah, so.

So, "whacked"? No. A "destination place"? Yes. But there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the place is actually worth the trip.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Raise a Glass of Palin's Christmas Punch!

Sarah Palin and her running mate What's-His-Name went down to ignominious defeat Nov. 4 (Thank God!), but the Alaskan governor lives on as an ageless punch line.

The winner of the first ever Martin Miller’s Gin Masters Competition for Best Original Cocktail, held at Death & Co. on Nov. 9, was Sam Ross, from New York’s Milk and Honey, with his Palin’s Christmas Punch! Ah, yes. Lord knows Palin must hold the yuletide close to her breast, thanking God that America is a Christian country (despite all those socialists running around practicing other religions).

Wanna make it as a quencher to go along with your Moose stew this Christmas Eve? Well, here's the recipe. It ain't easy. In keeping with its Republican image, the punch is expensive, and a bit of a pain in the ass. Still, I hear it's delicious!

Palin's Christmas Punch

12 oz. Martin Miller's Gin (Westbourne Strength)
12 oz. Fresh lemon juice
10 oz. Demerara date syrup*
14 oz. Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur
1 ½ oz. Absinthe
1/2 oz. Regan's Orange Bitters #6
One bottle of dry Champagne


In a large pitcher, muddle the peel of two lemons with a little sugar to extract the oils, pour all ingredients (except champagne) into pitcher and stir briefly with ice, strain into punch bowl, top with champagne, float lemon ice** and stir and serve in punch cups. Garnish with Absinthe dates***.

*Demerara date syrup: Stir 2 parts demerara sugar into 1 part water. Drop a bag of crushed dates in and leave for three days. Strain through coffee filter to eliminate sediment

**Lemon ice: Drop lemon wheels into a small plastic container filled with water and place in freezer,voila!

***Absinthe date: With an eye dropper, drop 3-4 drops of absinthe into the top of a date

The contest was quite a bit of fun. Contestants hailed from both the UK and U.S. From Limey there was Jake Burger, Ben Reed, Jason Scott, Sean Muldoon, and Giles Looker. From the 50 states were Daniel Shoemaker, Vincenzo Marianella, Giuseppe Gonzalez, Thad Vogler, Jamie Boudreau, Erik Adkins and Sam Ross.

Judges included historian Dave Wondrich, author and bitters-maker Gary Regan, liquor store owner LeNell Smothers, journalist and blogger Paul Clarke, bar owner Sasha Petraske, Tom Sandham, editor of the UK’s ‘Class’ Magazine and Tales of the Cocktail founder Ann Rogers. (The picture above features, seated from left to right, Sandham, Clarke, Wondrich, Petraske, Smothers, Regan.) In attendance were such cocktail-circuit regulars as mixologist-blogger Jeffrey Morganthaler, roving journalist Jenny Adams and PDT owner James Meehan. Also met David Bromige, the creator of Martin Miller's, who informed me the the financial meltdown in Iceland (where his gin gets its water) will have no effect on the making of Miller's. 'Twas a crowded house. Everyone seemed to have a camera, including Jamie Boudreau, who parked himself behind the bar even when he wasn't mixing and seemed to think that was OK.

The competition went on considerably longer that it was supposed to, but, as someone observed, organizing bartenders is akin to herding cats. Each bartender was called on to create a new cocktail using Martin Miller's, build a classic gin cocktail and participate in a Gin & Tonic speed round. The English proved funnier, but were also loquacious, consistently running over the seven minutes alloted them for each drink. The Americans were typically more efficient and no-nonsense, except for Boudreau (below), who employed equipment that looked like it came for the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But, then, he's Canadian, right?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Three 2005 Bordeauxs

When the critics started going nuts for the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, I thought to myself, "Well, that's it. I ain't getting none of that stuff." Sure enough, when the bottles started to arrive in the U.S., they were either snatched up lickety-split or priced well beyond my extremely modest means. Then the monthly mailing from importer Kermit Lynch came through the mail, offering three 2005s at reasonable prices. This is my only chance to get some 2005 in my cellar, I thought. So I bought a mixed case, four of each.

I had to wait out the summer before the case arrived; the distributors didn't want to risk cooking the case. Recently I tried one of each in quick succession; the rest will be put away for a rainy day. Verdict: a good investment, particular the one Haut-Medoc, Chateau Aney.

I didn't know a thing about Aney before drinking this satisfying, understated, medium-bodied Bordeaux. Created in 1850, the Chateau Aney was given "Cru Bourgois" classification in 1932. The 2005, a comfortable 13% alcohol, has a lovely nose of red current, dark cherry, grass, brush and mild tobacco. On the palate, it was well-structured with mild-to-medium tannins, and flavors of cherry, dust, raspberry, rhubarb and more underbrush. I'm sure this is what Lynch thinks a Bordeaux should be. I agree with him.

The other two were a Chateau de Bellevue from St. Emilion and a Chateau Belles-Graves from Pomerol. I liked them less well, but that's my usual bias regarding these often overripe regions. But they're still good wines with potential. The Bellevue is organic and hand-picked and aged in new French oak. It comes in at 13.5% and is inky purple with a deep, dark cherry and plum, spicy nose. It's full-flavored, with the plum joined by blueberries, purple grapes, subtle spice and a tarry bottom.

Belles-Graves is a Lalande de Pomerol. It has a happy, harmonic nose of brush, blackberry, current and dark red fruit. The medium-bodied mouthful has black spice at its center, with fresh and baked red fruit all around it. Some tar, some dill. Not heavy-handed at all (it's only 12.5%).

Can't wait to revisit them in 10 years.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Golden Rob Roy

Go to a foreign country and you're confronted with liquors and wines you've never tried before. Pimm's "Winter" No. 3; Havana Club Barrel Proof rum; Beefeater Crown Jewel.

During my recent trip to London to sample the new Beefeater gin called "24," I had dinner at Hawksmoor, Nick Strangeway's splendid restaurant at Shoreditch, very near where Jack the Ripper did his handiwork a century or so ago. Strangeway is a friendly, beguiling guy who smokes a great many cigarettes through a long, scraggly beard that twists as it heads toward the floor. His wardrobe has a hectic set of rules all its own; he wore a bright gold sportsjacket at the 24 launch party.

Strangeway has a admirably well-stocked bar at Hawksmoor. One thing that caught my eye in particular was a unfamiliar bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth called "Ambre." What the hell? And it was not on a shelf, but out on the bar, so it was being well-used. I asked Nick about it and he bubbled with enthusiasm. It's a newish product from Noilly, sitting somewhere between the dry and sweet vermouths in taste. According to the Noilly website, Ambre is made from even more herbs and spices than are found in the dry and rouge, including orange, cinnamon and vanilla. "It makes beautiful Rob Roys," he said.

That sounded like an invitation. Sure enough, soon he was making me a Noilly Prat Ambre Rob Roy. It was a beautiful thing. Visually, first of all, it was a glass of gleaming ore. The taste, too, was golden. If a cocktail could ever taste like a color, this was it. A great Rob Roy, no question.

There's a picture of the stuff above, to the left of a gravity-driven, ice-mold contraption that Nick had which was spellbinding all around, including the Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders. (It presses ice into a perfect snowball-shaped ice cube. Nice parlor trick.)

For those out there who are now saying, "I got to get me some of that Noilly Ambre," get ready to grit your teeth. It's only available for sale at the Noilly plant in Marseillan, France. Nick only has some because he has "a friend." Let the obsessing begin.

Absinthe and Philip Roth Don't Mix

The LAByrinth Theater Company of New York is presenting a new play by David Bar Katz called "Philip Roth in Khartoum."

Here's the very interesting plot description:

A marriage in the throes of sexual and financial problems is pushed to the brink in a game of Truth or Dare at a cocktail party. Philip Roth in Khartoum examines the destructive power of truth and the devastating impact of bad sex, autism, Philip Roth, absinthe and genocide on husbands and wives during an intimate evening with friends.

Note to White Star: do not serve Philip Roth.

Oak Room Reopens November 8

The fabled Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel will finally reopen Nov. 8, after a month-plus delay. I'll be there the first day. Here's a glimpse of the cocktails that will be on offer—some of the most expensive in town.

A few observations: St. Germain on the agenda—natch!; they're going for the more modern version of the Old Fashioned, with the muddled orange and cherry; lots of rye in evidence—nice!; and their Manhattan is a perfect version, made with rye, very expensive rye. Looking good.


Stoli Orange, St. Germain, mint, lemon and simple syrup, shaken and served up with a mint leaf

Walnut infused Calvados, Benedictine, Sweet Vermouth and ‘Bitter Truth’ Aromatic Bitters, stirred and served on the rocks with a brandied cherry

Bourbon whiskey, Angostura bitters, sugar, cherry and orange wedge, shaken and served up

Blended Scotch, Blended Irish whiskey, orgeat, lemon. Shaken and served up with a peaty scotch rinse

Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, port, Licor 43, lemon, simple syrup and egg white, shaken and served in a hi-ball with one Kold-Draft ice cube

Plymouth Gin, house made ginger beer, cucumber, mint, lime, simple syrup and club soda, shaken and served on the rocks in a hi-ball

Rittenhouse Rye whiskey, maraschino liqueur and lemon. Shaken and served up with an absinthe rinse

Hirsch 22yr Rye, house bitters, sweet and dry vermouth, brandied cherry $40

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Plenty of Puglia

The November meet of the Wine Media Guild was of particular interest to me. It was a tasting of wines from Puglia—the southern Italian region I visited for the first time this past September. Charles Scicolone put together the satisfyingly wide array of wines, which included three from Piero Antinori's Puglia venture, Tormaresca, which I toured during my visit. (I was happy to see the Bocca di Lupo Aglianico tasting as good as I remember it. In September Charles, on a New York Times Eric Asimov tasting panel of Aglianico, helped place this wine in the number two spot.)

This being Puglia, the selection was dominated by Primitivo and Negroamaro. There were a couple of roses and a couple of whites, of which a Gravino Bianco 2007 from Botromagno proved a widespread favorite. The pleasurable, pear-noted, nicely acidic blend of Greco and Malvasia was liked by almost everyone in the room, old and new members alike. At $11, this balanced wine is a bargain.

There were a few interesting oddities. A wine from Vignamaggio called "Suahili" was what Charles called the first Syrah he had tasted from the region. (Tormaresca has started to plant this grape.) It was smooth and light, a commercially driven version of the grape. I don't know whether you can expect much more for $13. One of the most expensive wines in the line-up—a Tenute Rubino "Torre Testa" 2003—was made from the obscure Susumaniello varietal. You'll only find this ancient grape in Puglia. It was light with a bouncy cherry flavor. Easy to like. But $54?

The Primitivos were all over the map, from light-bodied and breezy to big and extracted, as I guess must be expected from an emerging wine region that's trying to find itself. None completely floored me, but neither were many of rank quality. Of the Negroamaros, two stood out. Vallone's "Gratticiaia" 2003 was lovely with a cherry candy taste and a beautiful color. A couple other members agreed with me, calling it their favorite. It may deserve its $70 price tag. May.

The wine of the afternoon, however, came from Charles' own cellar: A 1999 Patriglione from Taurino. It illustrated how beautifully Negroamaro can age. A gorgeous magenta color, it was soft, with a velvety texture, mellow fruit and remarkable depth. I only got two small tastes of it, but it was a prize.

Another treat came with dessert—a sweet wine made from the Aleatico grape. Drinking it was like eating chocolate-covered roses covered with honey. I mean that in a good way. It was perfumey and not cloying, and matched perfectly with the poached pear (which may have had some of the wine in the sauce.) The Candido wine is not imported. It was the gift of a representative from Candido, who was present. (That name was Italian, and long, and I didn't get it.)

While be ate, member Terry Robards regaled everyone with a story that seemed to dispel the old myth that America's Zinfindel grape derives from Primitivo grapes from Puglia. This is balderdash, said Terry, since it's been discovered that Zinfandel was grown in the U.S. before Primitivo arrived in Italy. Phylloxera wiped out Puglia's vineyards in the late 19th century, and what we consider Puglia's "native" grapes weren't introduced there until recently. So the journey of Zinfandel/Primitivo was the other way around—from the U.S. to Italy. At least, that's how I understood it. But then there's also the matter of the closely related Plavac Mali from Croatia. The more I listened, the more confused I was. Take a look of Wikipedia's take on the matter, not that it clears anything up.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Mourning Cocktail

I was recently in London for the launch of Beefeater 24, the venerable old gin distillery's new creation, and its bid to compete in the super-premium gin category—the world of Tanqueray 10 and (shudder) Bombay Sapphire.

The new gin is the work of Beefeater master distiller Desmond Payne. It's funny to think that this is the first distillate Payne has ever come up with, given that he's spent 40 years making gin, first at Plymouth, then at Beefeater. But such is the case, and it's hard to imagine a more experienced hand going at the task.

Not to take away from Payne's achievement, which is considerable, but the formula of Beefeater 24 is pretty simple. He basically took the botanical cocktail found in regular Beefeater (including Lemon and Orange peel, Juniper, Angelica Root, Angelica Seeds, Coriander Seeds, Liquorice, Almonds, Orris Root), and added three new botanicals: Japanese Sencha tea, Chinese Green teas and Spanish grapefruit peel. Tea is fairly pronounced on the nose and palate of the resultant brew, as you might guess (though it was the foundation of the familiar Beefeater bouquet that struck me first when I dunked my nose into the glass). And there's a singular, subtle tannic hit in the finish, which is very long. It makes for an interesting gin, a thought-provoking gin, and certainly a gin unlike any other I've encountered.

I was given many opportunities to sample the 24 in various cocktails, of course. I was surprised how well it showed in a basic Gin & Tonic; the tea element added an interior layer of depth to a drink that can be a pretty simple affair, taste-wise. It works really well in this cocktail. As for a Martini made with 24, my attitude made a progress through a couple nights. The first time I drank one, I liked it, but was troubled by the fact that the drink was rendered so every-so-slightly unusual that I keep thinking about how it tasted rather then simply enjoying the way it tasted. The following night, however, when I had another such Martini, I admired it much more. It had a regal bearing, a certain weight to it, and I liked the flavor edge the 24 gave the cocktail rather than being simply distracted by it. I suspect I will grow more fond of 24 Martinis as I continue to sample them.

The launch offered more unfamiliar cocktails, devised by the likes of Sasha Petraske and Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller. A couple drinks emphasized the tea aspect of 24 by adding further tea-influenced ingredients. These were not my favorites. I felt they took the wrong tack; by pointing emphatically to the tea botanicals, the libations made 24 out to be a more simplistic product that it is. (They also made for unpleasantly tannic cocktails.) My thoughts are still percolating on the matter, but I have a feeling that 24 will perform best when it takes a step back in a cocktail, adding a flavor dimension that informs, but does not bully or command, the tastebuds—exactly as it did in the Gin & Tonic.

Following these thoughts, I paged through a book of classic gin cocktails, looking for one that might welcome 24 as a playmate. I stopped at the Obituary Cocktail. Of course, I thought. Moreso than a Martini, 24 need not have the pressure of bearing the weight of the drink's success on its shoulders. It has both vermouth and absinthe to contend with. Plus the various herbs and plants in absinthe might marry well with the botanical mix in absinthe.

I mixed one up, using 2 oz. of 24, 1/4 oz. of vermouth and 1/4 oz. of absinthe (I used the Pernod, which I'm liking best these days). Sure enough, it was the best Obituary Cocktail I had ever stirred, one of dignity and profundity, one with a lot going on. I'm no great mixologist, but I figure the use of the new Beefeater 24 instead of regular gin is a change of ingredients of sorts, so I gave the drink a new name: The Mourning Cocktail. (Mourning as in Obituary, and also a play on Morning, as in when you might drink tea.)

Here's the recipe:


2 oz. Beefeater 24
1/4 oz. dry vermouth
1/4 oz. Pernod absinthe

I'll probably be writing some more about Beefeater 24 in the future—it's now on the shelves in the UK, but won't reach the U.S. until March—but those are thoughts for now. Until I see how it works in a Bijou.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What the Hell?

During a recent trip to London, I was browsing through the food halls of Fortnum & Mason, which were already decked out for Christmas. There, among the mustards and preserves, was a large, nasty display of a new beverage called Scorpion Vodka.

This is not a fanciful name. It is a literal name. At the bottom of each clear bottom, there for the disgusted consumer to flinch at, is an actual dead scorpion. Scorpion Vodka is not a joke product. Their literature seems to indicate they are deadly serious. Nonetheless, the text is inadvertently hilarious. The little stinging bugger is in fact a "farm raised scorpion." (Can't you just picture them happily scampering around the open plains right now?) They are bred in southern China, then "put through a special detoxifying process then infused in the vodka for 3 months before hitting the shelves." OK, that's good. So the scorpions won't kill us, like they usually do.

Why do it? Lotsa reasons. No. 1: "The scorpion imparts a pleasant soft woody taste to the vodka, it also effectively smoothes off the sharp edge of the vodka."

No. 2: "Alcohol infused with a scorpion is said to possess many excellent health properties when drunk, such as helping to increase libido, lowering blood pressure & helps remove toxins in the bloodstream." Uh huh.

They recommend you serve the revolting creature in a Martini. Drink the Martini, and they enjoy the scorpion, like it was a beer nut. Because "it is 100% safe to eat!" BUT, "Please be careful of the sharp stinger."

Listen, if I want a stinger, I'll order one.

The company that makes this ridiculousness is called Edible. They specialize in insects. Other products include Worm Crisps and Thai Curry Crickets. You can also take your Scorpion covered in chocolate.

Oh, did I mention that that Scorpion Vodka is monstrously expensive? A bottle the size of your thumb is 10 pounds.

Is it time yet to stick a fork in the vodka era?