Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Aughts in Cocktails

Confronted regularly with so many new cocktail creations, as I have been over the past few years, I've often fell to musing, "Which of these libations are for the ages?" It's easy enough to decide if something is a good-tasting cocktail or not; that can be ascertained on the spot. But that doesn't necessarily equal staying power. Are we currently sipping, unknowingly, what will be considered by future generations to be our Martini, our Manhattan, our great contribution to the bar?

I had the opportunity to dwell on this matter in a very public way recently, writing a list of lasting libations for the Dec. 30 edition of the New York Times. Some of the entries—Audrey Saunders' Gin-Gin Mule, Don Lee's Benton's Old Fashioned, Phil Ward's Oaxaca Old Fashioned—were easy choices. I had long regarded them as modern classics which will have their place in coming histories of 21st-century drinking, not only because they are great drink in and of themselves, but because the embodied and/or kicked off significant mixology trends. Others I had originally thought to included—Salvatore Calabrese's Breakfast Martini and Julio Barmejo's Tommy's Margarita—I was forced to nix when I discovered from their authors that they were, in fact, created in the '90s, not the '00s. To back up my conclusions, I consulted with a couple dozen cocktails authorities on the East and West Coasts, as well as London.

Here's the article:

A Decade of Invention, and Reinvention


WHEN you hoist a leg over a barstool these days, you’re as likely to find Tom Edison as a Tom Collins. Light bulbs have been popping up behind the bar, with more cocktails developed in the last 10 years than probably any decade since Prohibition. Some of them have emerged as modern classics, standing out not only as culinary creations, but also as signposts of the decade’s most significant mixology trends.

GIN-GIN MULE This Audrey Saunders invention is often the first thing that cocktail pros mention when asked about new classics. “Bartenders all over the world tend to know the Gin-Gin Mule,” said Gary Regan, author of several cocktail books, including the recent “Bartender’s Gin Compendium.” Ms. Saunders — a leading light in darkened bars — created it before founding her SoHo bar, Pegu Club. Essentially a gin-based version of the ginger-minty Moscow Mule — one of the few vodka cocktails still granted respect by the avant-garde — the drink was a symbol both of the cocktail crowd’s enthusiastic reclamation of gin and its curled-lip repudiation of vodka. (Gin is also the base of Ms. Sauders’s Earl Grey MarTEAni, an early and influential example of the tea-infusion trend.) By decade’s end, the Gin-Gin Mule could be found on cocktail menus across the country — as could gin.

BENTON’S OLD-FASHIONED Don Lee, formerly of PDT in the East Village, credits Eben Freeman, the mad-scientist mixologist of the recently demised Tailor, with opening his eyes to “fat washing” liquor. But it was this instantly cultish concoction, which infuses bourbon with Allan Benton’s Tennessee bacon, that revved up interest in that technique, which melds flesh and firewater. Created by Mr. Lee in 2007 at PDT, it perhaps best epitomizes the advent of savory cocktails, which draw herbs, spices and vegetables, including chilies, into the world within the glass.

OAXACA OLD-FASHIONED Tequila didn’t play much of a role in the early years of the cocktail renaissance. And mezcal, tequila’s rough-hewn relation, had none at all. Both are used instead of bourbon or rye in this south-of-the-border twist on the Old-Fashioned, with terroir-specific agave syrup instead of sugar. Invented in 2007 by the tequila specialist Philip Ward at Death & Co. in the East Village, this drink quickly appeared on menus across the country and became a harbinger of the Mexican spirits’ ascendancy. It’s now just one of many tequila- and mezcal-based drinks at Mr. Ward’s bar Mayahuel.

RED HOOK COCKTAIL Rye whiskey roared back in the last decade after decades in eclipse. With it came new homages to pre-Prohibition rye-based cocktails like the Manhattan and the Brooklyn. This mix of rye, sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur, created by the former Milk & Honey bartender Enzo Errico, inspired at least a dozen more sub-riffs by other ardent cocktail classicists, with almost all the drinks named after Brooklyn neighborhoods, including the Greenpoint (which uses Chartreuse), the Cobble Hill (Amaro Montenegro and cucumber slices) and the Bensonhurst (maraschino liqueur and Cynar). New spins on the Old-Fashioned (see above) were nearly as common.

ST-GERMAIN COCKTAIL If you didn’t notice that, starting in 2007, St-Germain was in about half of the new drinks you were cradling, you just weren’t paying attention. The elderflower-based elixir with the sui generis floral flavor almost single-handedly invigorated the moribund liqueur category. Suddenly semi-forgotten potions like Drambuie, Cherry Heering and Chartreuse (the current mixer of the moment) were being dusted off and tarted up. And every new liqueur wanted to be as big as St-Germain when it grew up. A list of new St-Germain cocktails could fill a few columns, but the mix of the liqueur, Champagne and sparkling water known as the St-Germain cocktail was perhaps the most common, mixed by high-end watering holes like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and the Zig Zag Café in Seattle. Unusually, the recipe came not from a bartender’s brain, but the company’s marketing department. “It doesn’t happen that often that a drink that comes from a manufacturer gets so well received,” said Ann R. Tuennerman, founder of the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans.

ABSINTHE DRIP When a liquor that has been unavailable for nine decades hits the shelves again, it creates a stir. For many cocktail mavens, absinthe, the Victorians’ embalmer of choice, was the missing piece to so many liquid puzzles. Bottles began reappearing on our shores in 2007, after it was realized that a nearly century-old ban had actually been overturned decades ago. By the end of the Bush administration, absinthe was even being made in America, like St. George from California and Trillium from Oregon. Soon, it was not unusual to find an absinthe water drip at the end of the bar, slowly clouding a glass of the green liquid with dissolved sugar, the classic way to drink absinthe. It would only be old hat if you happened to be Degas.

BARTENDER’S CHOICE Ten years ago, the suggestion that a barkeep name your poison would have been greeted with a withering fisheye. But “Bartender’s Choice” is an option seen on cocktail menus from the Varnish in Los Angeles to the Violet Hour in Chicago to any of Sasha Petraske’s joints in New York. Bartenders nationwide have raised their level of skill and scholarship. Customers have followed them with an increased sense of adventure and a willingness to swallow whatever they dish up.

Friday, December 25, 2009

I Wonder About This Stuff

Ever since Chanterelle closed down in Manhattan, I've wondered what had become of the wonderful wine celler. Now I know. From Wine Spectator:

Unfiltered found a bright spot in the unfortunate closing of New York's famed French restaurant Chanterelle: Much of the wine from the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning cellar was purchased by fellow award recipient Nice Matin, also in New York. Nice Matin acquired more than 700 bottles, including standouts like the Latour 1970, Château Yquem 1976 and Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1976. But it's not only bottles of French origin. Also included were New World cult wines such as Cabernets from Harlan in California and Quilceda Creek in Washington. Nice Matin, however, didn’t get the entire stock. New York's Barbounia bought more than 300 of Chanterelle’s bottles from nearly 200 different producers to add to its cellar, including several Dujac Burgundies. Unfiltered was sad to see Chanterelle go, but we’re happy to see its wines have found some new homes.

Now can someone just find out what happened to Montrachet's wine collection. Did it all just go to Corton?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jill DeGroff Art to Hang in Red Hook's Sunny's Bar

Original artwork from bar-world caricaturist Jill DeGroff will hang in Sunny's Bar in deepest Red Hook, Brooklyn, come next month. The show, which will run for a month, will commence on Jan. 15. It will feature originals of the drawings currently to be seen in Jill's new book, "Lush Life," a compendium of etching depicting the greats of the cocktail demimonde. Given the subject matter, Sunny's—which is only open three nights every week, and is reportedly a favorite of Jlll's hubby, master mixologist Dale DeGroff—is exactly the right sort of "gallery" for an exhibition.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tom and Jerrys, Going Once, Going Twice...

In these days of cocktail ascendency, when one guy's Silver Gin Fizz may be just as good as the next guy's, you need a gimmick to set your joint apart. Bar Henry has found a good one. Not content to just make Tom and Jerrys—an unusual and arcane drink as it is—it limits the number that may be purchased, and theatrically counts them down as they are snatched up. Here's the write-up I did for the NYT's Diner's Journal:

A Time to Whisk

In the month that Bar Henry has been open, the restaurant at 90 West Houston Street in the Village has won attention for it unusual wine policy, in which bottles opened by diners are made available to others by the glass while they last. Now the subterranean bistro is applying the same “get ’em while you can” approach to cocktails.

Actually, just one cocktail. On Dec. 10, the bar manager, Patrick Costigan, started offering 10 — count ’em, 10 — Tom and Jerrys a night, served on a first-come, first served basis. On certain busy nights, he’ll be more generous, portioning out 12 or 15. But it’s always a limited number. The numbers 1 to 10 are written in wax pencil on a large mirror opposite the bar, and each digit is crossed out (by the customer, if he or she so wishes) as the limited-edition libations are ordered. On the first night, Mr. Costigan said, the 10 Tom and Jerrys sold out in less than an hour.

So why not just make more Tom and Jerrys, if people want them so much? “It’s too much prep to be making them throughout the shift,” Mr. Costigan said.

Indeed, the drink is hardly a snap. To make the base batter, eggs must be separated, beaten and folded back together. The batter is spooned into a mug, which is fortified with brandy and whiskey (or sometimes rum), warmed up with hot milk, and adorned with grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Mr. Costigan prepares the eggs beforehand, but he does every every other step on the spot, presenting the $14 result in a heavy, ample mug. By the time he’s done spooning and mixing and frothing and grating, everyone at the bar has noticed. “There’s a ‘What’s that?’ factor to the drink,” he said.

Once a ubiquitous accompaniment to yuletide celebrations, the eggnog-like Tom and Jerry dates to 1820s England, where, legend has it, it was invented by the noted boxing journalist Pierce Egan. During the late 19th century, elaborate Tom and Jerry punch bowl sets were common. The drink persevered in certain pockets of the Midwest but otherwise died out as people shrunk from its calorie count and the excessive assembly required. With the ongoing cocktail renaissance, the drink has been somewhat reclaimed.

The most famous purveyor of Tom and Jerrys in New York in recent years has been Audrey Saunders — whose cocktail bar Pegu Club is right across the street from Bar Henry. “The Pegu Club is good for us,” Mr. Costigan said. “We’re good for them.”

A bartender at the Pegu Club said the bar would begin serving its version of the drink some time on or after Christmas. Shall we say whisks at 50 paces on Houston Street on Jan. 1?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More to Lazio Than Meets the Est!

Lazio must get the least love of any Italian wine region save, perhaps, Molise and Luguria. For decades, it's been regarded as an uninspired lake of Frascati and Falesco's ubiquitous Est! Est! Est! Having visited the region and tried a number of its wines in 2005, I knew this was not true. So I was happy to accept an invitation to taste some more Lazian bottles at SD26.

The discovery of the tasting for me (and, evidently, for its host, Food & Wine wine editor Ray Isle) was the native red grape Cesanese. It's grown only in Lazio, with a little planted in Tuscany. There are two sub-varieties, of which Cesanese d'Affile is the better. The best wines made with the grape come from the towns of Piglio and Olevano Romano. Though it has a character all its own, Cesanese reminds me a lot of the Cabernet Franc and other red wines of the Loire Valley. It has that lightness and those striking green notes. But, I have to say, talking generally, I like it better. Based on the two I tasted, its herbaceous strokes have more depth of flavor—the greens are less green, as it were—while the fruit is more immediately appealing and the overall package a terrifically friendly food wine. I wanted a bottle with my dinner that very day.

We tasted two Cesaneses: Damiano Ciolli's "Cirsium," which spends 12 months in barrels sur-lie, and 30 months in bottle; and Compagnia Di Ermes "Attis," which is first aged in steel containers and then spends a year in French oak barriques. The color of both these wines is striking. It's a very attractive dark brick-red. It's a color with real character. I'd like a tie that color.

The wines were very different from each other, yet, as Isle pointed out, identifiably the same grape. The Attis was a bit dull on the nose—muted cherry and mulberry that seemed to just lie there. But inside the mouth it was bracing and arresting, savory green notes tied up with cherry and green plum and spice. Great acidity and medium-bodied and ready to make nice with anything you'd choose to eat. I liked the wine very much, but would have to say it took a back seat to the Cirsium. This had a more enticing nose, with brighter fruit, charcoal dust and dusty cherry and plum. The palate was wonderfully different and complex. It was silkier and softer than the Attis, and broader; Dried fruit, lavander, currents and an ever widening finish. I don't know where this grape has been all my life, but it won't be absent from now on.

Among the whites (which is mainly what Lazio does), I liked the Marco Carpineti "Moro," a 100% Greco wine that had an intense, dried fruit, viscous, perfumed taste that one person accurately compared to "trail mix"; Tenuta Le Quinte's "Orchidea," made of 85% Malvasia Puntinata and 15% Grechetto, that had a mellow nose of lemon, bread and flowers, leading to a richish, slightly oily mouthful of more lemon and bread, offset by strong acidity; and the peculiar, but winning Moscato Di Terracina "Oppidium," a bottle of Moscato di Terracina that had a saturated nose of honeyed, fruity floralness and an almost bizarre, but forever compelling taste that can best be described as edible flowers.

Another note about Lazio wines. These bottles are all about drinking; drinking now, and drinking while eating food. They're what wines are supposed to be about. No trophy or cellar bottles here. And that's a good thing.

Only 10% of Lazio's wines leave the region. This tasting showed that more should take the trip.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top Brooklyn Bars, All Jumbled Up

The Village Voice's Sarah DiGregorio has put together a top-ten list of Brooklyn's best bars.

First of all, I need to state that I hate lists like this. They're essentially meaningless, utterly subjective and usually negate their rankings by pitting apples against oranges. But I feel compelled to comment. (That's why they put these damn things together, to get readers riled up, right?) First, old school dive bars like Smolen Bar and Grill, Sunny's, Montero's and Denny's shouldn't even be talked about in the same breath as egghead, artisinal cocktail and beer joints like Clover Club and Beer Table. They're not even in the same room. It's like saying the pyramids and the Flatiron Building are two of the best buildings. More specifically, I like Brooklyn Social, but it makes better cocktails that Clover Club, Weather Up, and Quarter? And Beer Table would be on anyone's short list.

Anyway, here's the crazy list.

10. Palace Cafe (206 Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint, 718-383-9848)
9. KeBeer Bar and Grill (1003 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brighton Beach, 718-934-9005)
8. Smolen Bar and Grill (708 Fifth Avenue, Greenwood Heights/Sunset Park, 718-788-9729)
7. Freddy's (485 Dean Street, Prospect Heights, 718-622-7035)
6. The Brooklyn Inn (148 Hoyt Street, Boerum Hill, 718-625-9741)
5. Tip Top Bar and Grill (432 Franklin Avenue, Bed-Stuy, 718-857-9744)
4. Sunny's Bar (253 Conover Street, Red Hook, 718-625-8211, open Wed., Fri., and Sat.)
3. Brooklyn Social (335 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens, 718-858-7758)
2. Montero's Bar and Grill (73 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn Heights, 718-624-9799)
1. Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, 718-963-4140)

Our 14 runners up, in rough order of preference:

Irish Haven (5721 Fourth Avenue, Sunset Park, 718-439-9893)
Clover Club (210 Smith Street, Carroll Gardens, 718-855-7939)
Denny's Steak Pub (106 Beverley Road, Kensington, 718-435-2156)
Ruby's Bar and Grill (1213 Boardwalk West, Coney Island, 718-372-9079)
Quarter (676 Fifth Avenue, Greenwood Heights/Sunset Park, 718-788-0989)
Weather Up (589 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights)
Beer Island (3070 Stillwell Avenue, Coney Island)
Barcade (388 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, 718-302-6464)
Botanica (220 Conover Street, Red Hook, 718-797-2297)
Franklin Park (618 Saint Johns Place, Crown Heights, 718-975-0196)
Union Pool (484 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, 718-609-0484)
Beer Table (427 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, 718-965-1196)
Moonshine (317 Columbia Street, Red Hook, 718-852-8057)
Sycamore Bar (1118 Cortelyou Road, Ditmas Park, 347-240-5850)

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Beer at...The Ready Penny Inn

I don't mention it in the column, but I love the name of this place. The Ready Penny Inn. Classic.

A Beer at...The Ready Penny Inn

Bobby sips at his vodka and Dole pineapple juice. Judging by the advanced stage of his slurring, it is his tenth. Barmaid Helen, wearing a tight red t-shirt that says "I Need a Stiff One," shoves the weekly football pool under Bobby's nose. Bobby—who's 60 if he's a day—begins to carefully scribble his mark in one of the squares. "My daughter writes better than you," said Helen. "Of course, she doesn't drink a bottle of vodka a day." Another patron asks Helen why she didn't call him a cab last night. "There isn't a cab that would have you," she answered back.

Take a seat at the Ready Penny Inn in Jackson Heights, and you're bound to get some of Helen's lip. No one seems to mind, though, because there's a tenderness behind the jabs. She the sort of tough bartenderess who secretly nurses and looks after her regulars. And she takes it as well as she dishes it out. Like the time the owners TP'ed her car and posed for a picture in front of it. She got them back by framing the picture with the caption "Just married. We're gay" and hanging it behind the bar. They didn't like that. Next time, they put a "For Sale" sign on her car. "This is a friendly place," Helen said in her brassy Irish accent. "I've worked here 11 years and there have only been five fights. And I started three of them." Won? "Always!"

On 73rd Street between 37th Avenue and Roosevelt, the Ready Penny is the odd man out—a rustic Irish pub surrounded by flashy Indian and Bangladeshi businesses. It's seen the street change a lot in its 40 years, though the area's always been a mix of different peoples. Inside, the joint feels like a cocoon, despite its spare furnishings. TVs are on, music plays, yet it seems quiet. A bottle blonde laughs at the jokes of a raspy-voiced man. A student reads a book over his Smithwick. A black businessman in a suit serenely watches the game in silence. A middle-aged Beck's drinker enters warily into a conversation with a sober younger man about the nature of reality. "Losing touch with reality is a gradual process," the younger man intones. A dollar is taped above the bar; written on are the words "Ducky Should Not Bet With Eddie." For about ten minutes, Helen and her fellow bartender Linda go out for a smoke and leave the inmates in charge of the asylum. Nobody moves an inch.

After serving him two more vodkas, Helen called Bobby a cab, stretching the cord on the old phone across the back bar as she automatically pours another Beck's for the man who has drunk nothing but, and has never had to ask for a new round. Bobby leaves two dollars on the bar, totters to the door and is led by someone to his waiting car. Ready Penny Inn is kind to its drunks. To strangers, too.
—Robert Simonson

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Rhum Clément to Introduce Rum Sweetener Clement Sirop to State

Perhaps taking its tip from the way mixologists are insisting on agave syrup as the only proper sweetener for tequila-based cocktails, the savvy Matinique Rhum Agricole producer, Rhum Clément will in January introduced to the U.S. market Rhum Sirop (see above), a cocktail sweetener made from pure sugar cane. Until now, the stuff was only available to the denizens of the small French island.

The Sirop (the spelling is native to the island) is made of sugar cane that doesn't meet A.O.C. standards and thus doesn't make the cut for rum production. Like simple syrup, its cooked down with water into a viscous fluid. The color comes from the cooking process. There is also a spiced version of the Sirop and it's this product that Rhum Clément will be importing. I tasted it and its just heavenly. Wonderfully complex with a luscious mouth fell. A 750ml bottle will go for $15. Bottles will be available in January.

Recently, managing director (and Clément family descendent) Benjamin Melin Jones sat down with me to taste through the company's rum line. I had already been a fan of the company's popular Creole Shrubb, as well as the fine Premiere Canne Rhum Agricole Blanc (both around $32 and a bargain as such) long before the recent change in bottle design. The new bottle shapes, I believe, are meant to catch the eye of the scotch and Cognac drinker.

I can see why the distiller would want the attention of brandy lovers, because the Clément Cuvée Homère and Clément X.O. both boast characteristics found in the finest Cognacs. The Cuvée Homère goes down like velvet sandpaper, a bit of spice riding atop the buttery smoothness. It's composed of aged rums taken from the 2001, 1997 and 1992 vintage (though that mix will change soon, as certain vintages become scarce.) It runs $100 in stores.

The X.O. meanwhile enjoys an incredible blend of 1976, 1970 and 1952 vintage rum. (Think of that before you flinch at the $140 price tag.) It's a beautiful rum meant for deep contemplation, with toast, honey, vanilla and spice notes, and a lot more notes I could mention if I hadn't been enjoying it so much at the time. (Sadly, the 1952 component will be coming out soon, but no doubt replaced by something as good.) I've have never contemplated spending $140 for a rum, but I'm beginning to think I might break that law for a bottle of my own of this elixir.

Jones also treated me to a sip of pure 1976 vintage rum. Such single vintage are not available in the U.S., though that mike change in the future. This one was amazingly lively and bright for being 33 years old. Orange, lemon, orange peel, spice and a lot more.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Half Century of Heineken

I love Tommy Rowles, the bartender at Bemelmans Bar on the Upper East Side. With 51 years of experience, he a living repository of New York drinking history. But I can't fathom his seeming lack of interest in what he does or makes. Half a century making mixed drinks, serving the elite and at one celebrated moment working alongside Audrey Saunders, and he still things Heineken is a good thing to drink and that a good Martini has no vermouth in it. I guess it's a simple case of a old dog having learned his tricks long ago, when Martinis were preferred super dry and Heineken was an exotic foreign beer.

Anyway, at least he's honest and free of pretense. Here's an interview with him in today's New York Times:

Drinks for Truman, a Beatle and the Next Guy In

It was the year the Brooklyn Dodgers split for Los Angeles. The year “Gigi” swept the Oscars. The year American Express introduced its charge card. The year the young Dubliner Tommy Rowles went wandering into Bemelmans Bar, looking for a bathroom and ending up behind the bar. Fifty-one years later, Mr. Rowles, 69, is still at it, pouring drinks at the chic Madison Avenue boîte in the Carlyle, under the New York whimsicalities of Ludwig Bemelmans, the artist who created Madeline. Mr. Rowles drives in daily from Pearl River across the Hudson. His shift: 11 a.m to 6 p.m.

Who comes into a bar at 11 o’clock? Oh, this is the Carlyle. We don’t talk about our guests.

Favorite libation: All I drink is Heineken.

Easiest drink to make: A martini. Just don’t use vermouth.

The road to the bar exam: I came here in ’58, with $80, from Dublin. I was 18. I left school at 14. My dad died when I was 2, my mom cleaned houses. She was educated. She taught English literature, but they paid her more to clean houses than to teach. In The Irish Echo I found a room for rent on Madison and 96th. I was looking for a job in an Irish bar, but I walked down Madison. There were no bars on Madison. I had to go to the bathroom because I had been up late drinking beers. I walked into the Carlyle. A guy said, “What do you want?” I said: “Mind your own business. I want an Irish bar.” We talked. He said, “Do you have black socks and black shoes?” I said, “Who doesn’t have black socks and black shoes?” He said, “Come in tomorrow.”

Most memorable moment. My fourth customer was Harry Truman. He came in and asked me, “Go outside and tell me what you see.” I looked outside and I saw six guys with cameras, four guys with microphones and a reporter with a pad and pen. He said, “If you had to walk 15 blocks with these guys following you, you’d need a drink too.”

Best tip: A wedding party finished and came in here. They drank and gave me $500. I said, “Excuse me, no, this is hundreds.” They said, “It’s O.K.”

Echoes of Camelot: I served Bobby and Teddy, but not Jack. When they know they’re running, they don’t go into bars. Jackie came in. She was not a drinker. She was class.

Happy hours: The friendliest person I ever served was Paul McCartney. And Jack Lemmon. Remember him in “The Apartment”?

Greatest sorrow: My wife, Elizabeth, died on New Year’s, five years after a heart attack and two massive strokes. We married in ’68. We met at the City Center Ballroom. She had a white dress on. I said, “I’m going to marry you.” She said: “In your dreams. In your dreams.” I knew when I met her, but it took me a long time to persuade her. The only way I’d get married again is if she was reincarnated.

Greatest joy: My girl, she’s 37. She’s having a baby. I hope it’s a girl. Girls are great for dads and granddads.

Hobby: [He makes a beer-drinking motion.]

Where you’ll find him at his hobby: Doyler & Dunney’s in New City. You go in there, the bar is good, the service is great, the food is great.

Exercise secrets of a bartender: I’m a walker. If you drink beer, you have to walk. I walk four miles weekdays with a partner.

Most amazing revelation: There’s no recession on the Upper East Side, I can tell you.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fernet Branca Love on Rise in New York

The other day I went to my local Brooklyn liquor store for a bottle of Fernet Branca. I needed it for research; I was testing some drinks that were to be included with a coming article of mine. I don't typically buy Fernet for pleasure. Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against it; I love many an Italian amaro. But I appreciate Fernet more than I actually enjoy it.

Anyway, when I was at the checkout, the cashier mentioned how they had had trouble lately keeping Fernet in stock. At one point they had run out and had to quickly order a new and larger shipment. This surprised me. Fernet's always been an acquired taste, and San Francisco acquired it long, long ago. But New York's never been know as a Fernet town to my knowledge. I consulted with Damon Boelte, the bar manager down at Prime Meats. Damon likes Fernet, both the regular and the Menta, and I know that he showcases a couple Fernet based drinks at his joint. I asked if he shopped at the liquor store in question. He affirmed he did, and probably contributed to its depletion of stock. But, I wondered, is that all? Or is there more to the story?

I contacted Laura Baddish at the Baddish Group, which reps Fernet Branca in the U.S. to see if sales of the bitter had spiked in New York. Eureka! Indeed they had. Baddish said sales of Fernet Branca had increased in the New York metro area by more than 50% since January 2009. That's some climb. She said the increase is due to the number of outlets buying the product (on and off premise), and the amount being sold by those who buy is increasing as well.

It could very well be that a lot of overzealous, inventive, amaro-loving bartenders are mainly responsible for the uptick in Fernet sales. But I suspect it's a little more than that. As far as I can see, people seem to like the Fernet-based drinks going around. And once you develop a taste, you may ask for it at another place, which is then forced to carry Fernet; or you just bring the Fernet home and drink it there. But 50% is 50%. Something's going on.

So, as a Fernet-loving city, does this means we're all sophisticated and stuff?

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Situation at Summit

The new East Village cocktail bar Summit has gotten a lot of press in the few months it's been open. I'm going to give it a little more.

I paid my first visit a few days ago and was waited upon by owner Greg Seider himself, a friendly fellow with a laid-back mein who eschews arm garters and vests for a white t-shirt. The debut menu was still be handed out to customers, but Greg informed me that the winter menu would be unveiled the next night. Though I was a day early, he gave me a sneak sip of two coming attractions. I am writing this post because one of the drinks was incredibly good, simply one of the best new cocktails I've had all year.

It's called, queerly enough, the Situation, and one could be in worse situations. It sits upon a base of raisin-infused Rittenhouse rye. To that is added caraway seed-infused agave syrup. (Seider swears by agave as his sweetener of choice.), lemon juice, Fee's whiskey barrel bitters, and a combo of Fee's and Regan's orange bitters. It's shaken and poured over ice. To this frothy end are added a sprinkling of rye-saturated golden raisins, which makes for a nice little dessert at the bottom of the glass.

Now think about those ingredients: rye, caraway seeds, raisins. What do they remind you of? That's right. Raisin rye bread. That's the idea Seider began with. Not that the drink tastes like something you want to wrap around a piece of pastrami. But it's an ideal, warming winter drink. It's goes down like a dream, no flavor out of place. Seider admitted is was one of the favorite drinks he had ever come up with.

The other drink was called She Loves Me, She Loves Me not. Unsurprisingly, rose petals play a part. They're muddled into the Pisco-based cocktail, which is served up and topped with a couple edible pedals. It was a sight to see Greg pull out a plastic contained filled with fresh rose petals from the fridge. Now there's an ingredient you don't see every day. And he had buckets of them, in different shades, too. The petals give the drink a pink hue, which will undoubtably appeal to the ladies. Folks, your Valentine's Day cocktail has already arrived.

I'd like to also say that it's nice to see a New York bar owner actually behind the bar for a change.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Top of the Morning to You!

Sometimes my job treats me very well.

For a recent article in the New York Times, I was forced to explore at various bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan the world of morning and afternoon cocktails. I drank Clover Clubs and Ramos Gin Fizzes and Bourbon Milk Punches and Corpse Revivers and many another drink you've never heard of, all while munching of various comestibles, which only rarely didn't feature bacon. Decadence was never so civilized.

It's been a pleasure in recent months seeing some of the best cocktails bars in New York City throw open their doors before the sun goes down. And it's been a convenient pleasure, since more of the trailblazers in this movement—Clover Club, Ft. Defiance, Prime Meats—are an easy walk from my home.

Here's the article:

The Final Frontier? It’s an Eye-Opener

By Robert Simonson

ON a recent Sunday, at Clover Club, six young women giddily compared impressions of their mixed drinks. Nothing unusual in that. People come to this tavern in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, expressly to indulge in finely honed cocktails. But the sun, slanting brightly through the front windows, glinted off the iced glasses. And at the next table a young couple coddled their newborn. It was noon.

Drinking at brunch is nothing new, of course. But brunching at places where people go mainly to drink is.

Clover Club is one of several bars known for alcoholic alchemy that are exploring daylight drinks that go beyond the bloody mary and the mimosa.

At Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, you can begin your weekend with a New Orleans-style bourbon milk punch. A meal baptized with a Breakfast Cocktail, made of Old Tom gin, dry vermouth and orange marmalade, is available at noon Saturday and Sunday at Henry Public in Cobble Hill. And Mayahuel of the East Village has decided that many of its tequila and mezcal-based concoctions are well suited for brunch.

Among the bars letting the sunshine in out West are the Alembic in San Francisco and the Hungry Cat in Los Angeles. At both you are on sound footing ordering the ornate Ramos Gin Fizz, arguably the most storied of the forgotten morning drinks and certainly the most complicated (it has eight ingredients, including orange flower water).

“I found that cocktail-wise, there was a lack of variety” during the day, said the Clover Club’s owner, Julie Reiner, whose trailblazing brunch is a favorite of brownstone dwellers as well as bartenders. “People focused on having a great bloody mary, but other than that, there wasn’t much.”

The shift in hours has been driven by both passion and necessity. “Everybody always talked about brunch as a reason to go drink early on Sunday,” said Phil Ward, owner of Mayahuel. “But most places I’ve ever been, they’ve never had anything I wanted to drink.” Mr. Ward conceded, however, that he had another motivation. “The more you’re open, the more profit you make.”

Establishing a brunch trade often requires a few new hires because most bartenders, like vampires, are not morning people. “My night staff, heaven forbid they should ever have to work brunch,” Ms. Reiner said, laughing.

The notion of sunrise tipples is an old one. In the 19th century, it was not unusual for a gentleman to begin his day with a bracer at a tavern. “You always read about these ‘eye-openers,’ ‘fog-cutters,’ ‘phlegm-cutters,’ ‘morning glories,’ ” said St. John Frizell, who owns Fort Defiance. “They were arguably more popular than cocktails at night.”

But as the 20th century rolled along, a stigma was attached to daytime drinking. Perhaps because of this, “eye-openers” are among the last classic drinks to be resurrected by the current cocktail renaissance. “It’s kind of the last frontier for cocktails,” Mr. Frizell said.

What makes a morning drink? The category can be divided into two families: the nutritional and the effervescent — these drinks either feed you or wake you up. The nutritional contain ingredients associated with breakfast, like eggs (the Ramos Gin Fizz), milk (Bourbon Milk Punch), coffee (Irish Coffee) or juice (the bloody mary). The wake-ups take on a dose of Champagne (the mimosa or French 75) or cava (used in Phil Ward’s Agridulce Royale), or just plain seltzer (as in the Italian Fizz — a Fernet-Branca and sweet vermouth mixture — at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn). Otherwise, said Ms. Reiner, daytime drinks veer toward “lighter liquors,” like gin, or “lighter flavors,” like lemon juice.

As bar owners loosen their twilight image, so are their customers loosening their inhibitions. “They don’t feel that there is any taboo anymore,” said Tim Staehling, the general manager of The Hungry Cat, which also has a bar in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It’s ‘Bring it on.’ ”

While the revolution has begun, the old guard hangs in. Most bar owners admit that half their daytime drinks are bloody marys, although they offer three or four versions. The mimosa, though, has been blackballed. “The thing with a Champagne drink in the morning is the effervescence of the wine helps to clean out your mouth of that layer of gunk from the night before.” Mr. Frizell said. “When you add orange juice, you’re just adding a new layer of gunk.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

F. Paul Pacult Founds "Ultimate Beverage Challenge"

Hot of the Heels of New York getting it's own cocktail convention in the new Manhattan Cocktail Classic comes news that New York will in 2010 play host to a new wine and spirits competition.

Called Ultimate Beverage Challenge (UBC), it was founded by well-known spirits journalist, author, educator and critic F. Paul Pacult (above), wine and spirits publishing industry veteran David Talbot, and Spirit Journal managing editor Sue Woodley. The trio will be tacking not only spirits, but wine and cocktails in a three-tiered event stretched over four months.

The first competition will be the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, which will test all distilled spirits categories, including shochu. It will take place March 1-3, 2010. The second chapter is called the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, in which spirits will be judged on how well they perform in classic cocktails. That occurs on April 12-14, 2010. Finally comes the Ultimate Wine Challenge, for the evaluation of fine still, sparkling, and fortified wines, which will be held on June 7-11, 2010.

Like the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, all the competitions will take place at the Astor Center in the East Village.

The new competition is setting great store by a new method of judging liquor, and a new way of approaching award-giving. Many competitions have recently come under fire for the profligate way they doll out medals (notably in a recent, lengthy article in Malt Advocate in which Pacult was interviewed). If fact, at many bouts, it's hard for a bottle to walk away without a medal, rendering the awards nearly meaningless as consumer yardsticks.

In a press statement, David Talbot said, “We’ll be using a unique multilevel scoring system, designed for UBC by Paul, which is based upon the 100-point scale. UBC results will more consistently and accurately recognize benchmark and superb products, setting them apart from the merely average. Producers will gain the maximum benefits for products that win high scores because those products will have earned authoritative accolades rather than ubiquitous medals.”

The UBC plans to be very precise in its judging. Spirits will be "served in proper glassware at ideal serving temperatures. Vodkas will be served to judges chilled. Cask strength whiskeys will be judged both with and without water dilution.” The cocktail competition, meanwhile, will "evaluate spirits categories in the context of how they taste in representative cocktails," Pacult stated. "For instance, gins will be tasted in five classic gin cocktails against other entered gin brands. So, one gin might be recognized as the “Best Gin in a Gin & Tonic” while another might garner “Best Gin in a Dry Martini” honors and yet another might win as “Best Gin in an Aviation” The wine contest, finally will accentuate "the ever-expanding list of wine regions, nations and terroir influences as well as grape varieties and varietal combinations."

Judges will include many of the names that often pop up in places where people get together and talk seriously about booze, including Jacques Bezuidenhout, Tad Carducci, Charles Curtis, Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Ethan Kelley, Don Lee, Jim Meehan, Steve Olson, Nick Passmore, Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Andy Seymour, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan and David Wondrich, and more.”

If you wish to have your intoxicant judged by these worthies, however, you will have to pay for the honor. As with other wine and spirits competitions, there are fairly hefty entry fees: $445 each for 1 to 5 spirit products from one company entered at one time; $395 each for 6 or more spirit products from one company entered at one time. All fees must be paid and all products must be entered with proper classification code two weeks (Monday, February 15, 2010) prior to Ultimate Spirits Challenge. One can apply online, by mail or by fax beginning January 4, 2010.

To find out more, check out

An Alternate Theory on the Origin of the Term "Bourbon"

Why is called Bourbon called Bourbon?

The assumed information has always been that it was because the whiskey was primarily producer in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Even today, you'll meet people who insist that Bourbon can only be made in Bourbon County. That's not true and hasn't been for some time. What's more, there are actually no Bourbon distilleries inside the borders of the modern Bourbon County. That's partly because the Bourbon County of today is hardly the Bourbon County of yesteryear. The modern county is a farily dinky thing, where the old Bourbon took up geography now divided up by 34 counties. As Chuck Cowdery wrote in "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey":

When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the American Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region Old Bourbon. Located within Old Bourbon was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped. "Old Bourbon" was stencilled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. Old Bourbon whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted. In time, bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, has come upon another theory as to Bourbon got it's name. Morris is a smart guy who does a lot of independent historical research out there in Kentucky. On a recent visit to Woodword, he caught my dear when he began talking about some siblings called the Tuscara Brothers, who controlled the flow of river traffic along the Ohio River back in the early 1800s. I couldn't gather the whole gist of his argument at the time, so I asked him to e-mail the basic theory to me:

Before 1803 travel/commerce west of Louisville was non-existent because Spain/France controlled the territory. Therefore barrels of whiskey were not being shipped down the Ohio River, nor east upriver and over the mountains. There were no barrels of whiskey (a general statement) because the whiskey tax (1791 - 1802) taxed spirit directly off the still - so it was sold and consumed immediately. Once the world changed in 1803 (Louisiana Purchase and tax repeal) distillers began to barrel whiskey for shipment west - ultimately to New Orleans and on to the East Coast markets. Every barrel of whiskey had to pass the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville (named for France's Bourbon King). Distilleries were located in many of Kentucky's original counties - among them Jefferson, Nelson, Woodford, Lincoln, Fayette and Bourbon. Barrels from each county ended up at the Falls, were transferred around the Falls, and loaded on new boats to travel west. So why did this unique Kentucky type of whiskey come to be called "Bourbon" instead of "Woodford", "Jefferson", etc? Simple - the Falls of the Ohio were controlled by a community of French ex-pats. A community of 300, called Shippingport (now part of western Louisville) controlled by the Tuscara (sic) Brothers. They were loyal to the then exiled House of Bourbon and chose the promote the name "Bourbon" out of a sense of French pride.

Jefferson, Nelson, Woodford, Lincoln, Fayette and Bourbon countries were indeed among the original Kentucky counties, all founded between 1780 and 1789. (Jefferson, Lincoln and Fayette were the original three counties.) I will take his word on the idea that distilleries were found in many of these counties; he's a precise man not given to comments that haven't been well thought out beforehand. Also, to give credit where credit is due, Morris say his info is a collaboration between Mike Veach of the Filson Historical Society and himself. The Filson has been collecting and preserving stories of Kentucky and Ohio Valley history and culture since 1884.

Could the Bourbon name simply be an example of French chauvinism? I'm no expert in Kentucky history. Anyone out there care to weigh in?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Sipping News

There's something about the lowly Wisconsin classic, the Brandy Old-Fashioned, that make cocktail writers want to pen essays in its honor. I wrote my own lordly take on the peculiar refreshment in Imbibe magazine earlier this year. Now I see Mssr. Toby Cecchini has composed an ode in none other than the New York Times. Was there ever a local speciality more reviled, yet celebrated? Toby! Fellow Wisconsinite! We should meet for a round of BOFs. I'm buying. [NYT's T Magazine]

The new web-zine has been publishing for a week or so now. On the last day of November, Camper English weighed in with a primer on bitters. I hate him, however, for recommending Bitter Truth's Celery Bitters when it's currently impossible to get them in New York.

The pissant, parvenu, party crashers who tactlessly invaded Obama's first White House state dinner also own a bankrupt Virginia winery that uses plastic cups in the tasting room! [Dr. Vino]

Shane C. Welch, the owner of Six Point brewery in Red Hook, grew up in Milwaukee. I like his beers even more now! [NY Times]

Jamie Goode's decided Nebbiolo is a wonderful grape. He's just finding this out?

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Distinction of Sorts

When I first noticed a couple months ago that the Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, bar Prime Meats had begun to serve Underberg Bitters by the bottle and by the glass, I thought, "There's a quirky little gimmick. It will probably catch on with a few dozen liquor geeks such as myself." After all, a medicinal, German-made concoction of aromatic herbs with a distinctly 19th-century vibe?—how wide could its appeal be?

Well, apparently, pretty wide. I stopped by to pick up a few of the individually sized bottles the other day (for post-Thanksgiving imbibing), and the barkeep, Damon Boelte, told me an astounding fact: Prime Meats now sells more Underberg Bitters than any other establishment in the entire United States! Not just New York City, but the whole U.S. of A.

The stuff has really caught on. Prime Meats goes through six cases a week. Damon couldn't tell me how many bottles were in a case, but, since the bottles are small, there are a lot! "The Underberg people are very happy with us," he said, with a droll smile.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Don't Get Them Confused

At the George Dickel distillery in Tennessee. Proper labeling always helps.

Smith & Vine Expands to Storefront Next to Trader Joe's

Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda, the husband and wife team behind the ever-expanding Smith & Vine empire in Brooklyn (a wine store, a cheese store, a cocktail joint and counting) will open, in a couple weeks, their second wine shop.

It will be called the Brooklyn Wine Exchange and will be ideally located right next door to the Cobble Hill Trader Joe's on Court Street. (That's the storefront, above, to the left of the picture, with Trader Joe's in the near distance.) It will thus be able to capitalize on the wine needs of the grocery store's habitues. (Unlike the Trader Joe's in Manhattan, this store does not have an affiliated wine shop one door over.)

Watson said the new stop will focus New World wines, meaning vino from the Americas, Australia, New Zealand on the like. Smith & Vine tends to focus on small, artisinal vintners from Europe, though it does have a small selection of American wines. Given Watson & Pravda's good taste—and my general aversion to the big bodied, International Style of most South American and Australia wines—it will be interested to see what sort of inventory they come up.

The Brooklyn Wine Exchange will also have an education area where wine classes will be conducted. It will not be a ditto of Smith & Vine, but have a character of its own. Watson & Pravda have long conducted occasional wine classes, but they have been off-premise, in nearly restaurants.

UPDATE: Opening is probably on Saturday, Dec. 5.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Six Singles

In the world of single malt scotch, the holidays are when the limited releases are, well, released. The Classic Malts Selection has come out with a bunch of new get-them-while-you-can varieties. I already posted something on the Caol Ila Unpeated 10-year-old, my favorite of the group. Here are a few notes on the delicacies:

PORT ELLEN 30-YEAR-OLD: Port Ellen is a so-called “ghost distillery,” and thus highly prized and sought after by scotch enthusiasts. The distillery closed in 1983. What we see today are allocations of an ever-shrinking stock of whisky remaining in barrels. It's not surprising, then, that this is priced at $375. It's probably best that this scotch will be drunk by scotch connoissuers, because this is a challenging dram, perhaps not best suited for the average drinker. It's not a lean-back-and-relax scotch. It's a sit-up-and-take-notice scotch. The nose is heavy on the salt and iodine, with pepper and brush as well. The taste is intense and spicy, like hot peppers or spiced hot peat. There's a real briney-salty streak in the center, and a slightly bitter aftertaste. Not immediately appealing, this is for the seasoned taster.

OBAN DISTILLER'S EDITION: This scotch, from the famed maker on the west coast of Scotland's mainland Highlands, was double-matured in Montilla Fino wood. It has a beautiful orange-amber color. This is the opposite in character to the Port Ellen. It's a smooth and creamy treat. Orange, caramel, vanilla and apricot are seasoned with spices that are mellow and Christmasy—clove and allspice. This scotch is easygoing and satisfying. Cost is $100.

TALISKER 25-YEAR-OLD: Talisker, so unique, so utterly balanced, which that peculiar hot spice to it, may be my favorite scotch. So I loved sampling this. The 25-year-old was matured in American and European Oak refill casks, with just 5,862 bottles available. On the nose, it's pear, pear, and ripe pear. Also peach, salt, and brine. This is a very peaty scotch, so if you don't like peat, it's not for you. There is honey and fruit (including more pear), but they're in retreat. Towards the finish, it mellows out. It comes in at $200.

BRORA 30-YEAR-OLD: I am not overly familiar with Brora, so this was a pleasant discovery. It's another "ghost distillery," on the Sutherland coast, having shut down in 1983. There are only 2,598 bottles worldwide. The Brora 30-Year-Old is vatted from a mixture of American Oak and European Oak refill casks. Such an attractive scotch. The nose is honey and nectarine and fig backed by a hint of pepper. Drinking, it's smooth in the basement, spicy on the roof. The liquid is fleshy in the mouth, cream and caramel, structured, yet loose in its long finish. After finishing my sample, I was ready to go out and buy a bottle. But it's $400. So I guess I'll just ask for one from Santa and hope.

DALWHINNIE DISTILLERS EDITION: This version of the Highlands scotch was double-matured in Oloroso Sherry casks. It's a light orange-gold. You'll find that orange on the nose, too, as well as it's citrus friends. This scotch has a light-medium body. It's nicely balanced, even and dry, with caramel, allspice, cooked pear, vanilla and nut notes on the tongue. It has a long, spicy finish. $75 is your price.

ROYAL LOCHNAGAR SELECTED RESERVE: You've got a deep amber color here from this small Highland distillery. As you'd expect from such a color, it has a rich nose of toffee, candy corn, caramel and butterscotch. It's rich and oily on the tongue, with flavors of smooth burnt orange, caramel, maple and honey. This whisky will coat your mouth. Royal Lochnagar doesn't make a lot of scotch. It has just two small stills, and its typically not sold in the US. Thus, the price—$210—is understandable.

New Yorkers and Wisconsinites Suffer as Law Enforced at UES Bar

New Glarus Spotted Cow is one of the best microbrews produced in Wisconsin. I've drunk it there many times while visiting relatives. I've even been to New Glarus. Nice town, with a Swiss heritage. There are actually more Swiss restaurant there than there are in New York City. But I did not know I was only allowed to drink it there. Why should I assume such a thing? I can think of a half dozen bars in New York City where I can get a New Glarus easily.

Apparently, I've been breaking the law all this time. Or, rather, the people selling Spotted Cow have been breaking the law. On Nov. 6, there was a raid at Mad River, an Upper East Side sports bar popular with University of Wisconsin alumni. They had gotten wind that New Glarus was sold there. Indeed it was! They found 50 cases of the stuff, landing the owners of Mad River in hot water.

New Glarus brewery, which has a small production, does not distribute its delicious beers outside of Wisconsin. It's only licensed to sell in Wisconsin, and distribution rules are very strict because of liquor taxes.

So what do we have here? No distributor outside of Wisconsin, so....I see a couple of diehard Wisconsinites driving cross-country from the Dairy State to the Empire State with a vanful of New Glarus that they bought at the Pick 'n' Save. Road trip! It's a scene that belongs in Will Ferrell film.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Coal Ila Goes UnPeated

The Classic Malts Selection portfolio has come out with a new batch of limited selection whiskys, including bottles from Oban, Talisker and the rare Port Ellen. Every single one of them is worthwhile (and I'll get to saying a bit about each in a minute), but I think the star of the new collection may be the Caol Ila Unpeated 10-year-old.

The 10-year-old part is interesting enough. This 163-year-old distillery has never released a whisky that young before. But it's the "unpeated" part that makes this such a special and unusual treat. Without the peat, you take about the smoky quality one expects from Islay scotches. (Caol Ila is the Gaelic name for the Sound of Islay, which separates the island from Jura.)

Unpeated scotch dries the malted barley without burning peat. This method is not traditional to Scotland. A natural cask strength single malt, it is actually the fourth limited release of unpeated Caol Ila but it is the first that’s been aged for ten years. It was aged in first-fill Bourbon oak casks filled in 1998. Only 6,000 bottles were produced.

When one gets to tasting a few scotches in a row, they can begin to, ahem, blend together until one has a little difficulty distinguishing one from another. There's no danger of that with the Caol Ila Unpeated. It's its own thing. With the peat and smoke gone, you can focus on other characteristics in the whisky. It's got a laserlike intensity to it. It's hot and focused, yet floral and exceedingly easy to like. Typical scotch flavors like caramel, vanilla and butterscotch take a back seat, yielding the stage to more to more fruity notes like lemon, pear, melon, lime and mint. The scotch is vibrant with the sort of flavors that wake up the senses. This may sound strange, but one feels after drinking it the way one feels after brushing one's teeth in the morning: the mouth is alive and awake. You feel refreshed.

Often, these limited releases put themselves out of reach with their high prices. Happily, Caol Ila Unpeated goes for an affordable $60.

I'll be looking at the other Classic Malts releases in a future post.

Tippling Brothers to Design Cocktail Program at Ink 48

The Tippling Brothers will be devising the cocktail program for the bar at the swank Midtown West hotel, Ink 48, OTP has learned. The Brothers, Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay, just came off unveiling the cocktail list at the new Williamsburg tapas joint Bar Celona.

The building is located way over on 48th and 11th Avenue, on the site of a former printing house (hence the name). It's billed as an "urban retreat" and features a roof-top lounge, open-air gardens, and views of Time Square and the Hudson River. It's one of the Kimpton line of boutique hotels, which include the Muse Hotel on 46th. That roof will be one of the places where you can sample the Tippling Brothers concoctions.

Together since 2006, Carducci and Tanguay have created cocktail programs for Mercadito Cantina and, in Philadelphia, Apothecary Bar & Lounge.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Malted Wheat White Whiskey

I figure that headline is enough to get you to read this item.

Wheat whiskey we know. White whiskey is a growing market. But malted wheat white whiskey?

This product, surely unique (for now) in the liquor market, comes from Death's Door, the Wisconsin micro-distillery that already produces a vodka and a gin, and, for my money, it's the best thing they've done.

I encountered it at Bar Celona, the new Spanish-influence cocktail and tapas bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Tad Carducci of Tippling Brothers is in charge of the cocktail program. I had had a couple drinks, and was about to clear out when a colleague recommended I try the Albino Old-Fashioned. Well, "Old Fashioned" are two words (one word?) that always catch my ear. So I stayed and had another. Am I glad I did. It was one of the most original and delicious spins on the old drink I had ever had. It was composed of white whiskey, sugar, bitters, brandied cherries and grapefruit peel, and was as mellow and smooth as a southern California day.

I asked what whiskey was being used and the bartender showed me what appear to a clear bottle, the kind waiters plunk down in trendy bistros as your water decanter. Looking more closely, there were a few words on it, near the bottom, in black. "Death's Door Whiskey." Then, in smaller letters "Made with wheat from Washington Island, Door Country, Wisconsin." To me, the simple bottle is one of the great design triumphs in modern liquor packaging.

My colleague and I thought that this might be the first appearance of the product in a New York bar, but we weren't sure.

Death's Door rolled out the whiskey last year. It's not just another moonshine jumping on the bandwagon. It's an unusual un-aged combination of 20% malted barley and 80% organic hard red winter, all grown grown in Washington Island, which lies in Lake Michigan just off the Door County peninsula in Wisconsin. It sits in stainless steel barrels for three weeks and then oak barrels for 3 days, at which point it’s bottled.

The result has a beguilingly fruity nose of melon, a few vague tropical traces and baked sweet breads. (Not sweetbreads, but sweet breads.) It's strongly flavored, but mellow, as I saw, and soft, with muskmelon, golden raisins, baking spices, apple, maybe some white pepper. It's not hugely deep, but it's hugely appealing. And it has a long finish, a nice companion on a cold night.

I made a Old Fashioned for myself at home using the stuff. It wasn't as good as the one at Bar Celona (I didn't follow their exact specifications), but it was damn good.

While were on the subject of Death's Door, the company has wisely listened to their marketing people and debuted some new bottles. It miles beyond the old, dull, high-shoulder wine bottle with a simple map of Washington Island on the label. Death Door's Brian Ellison tells me I'm the first to see the new bottle, even before the new distributors. Which means you, readers, are the first enthusiasts to eyeball it on the Internet.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review: 'Tis the Season

An annual sign that the holidays are around the corner is the new release from Woodford Reserve's's Master's Collection. This year's product, Seasoned Oak Finish, is the fourth in a series of experimental, limited release bourbons, the first three being the Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish and Sweet Mash.

I had the good fortune to visit the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky to sample the new bourbon out of barrel, before it was bottled. The difference with this distillate, as was the case with the Sonoma, is the wood. Altering the wood is a significant move, since much of the flavor and all of the color of bourbon whiskey comes from the barrel. Woodford is the only bourbon maker that created its own barrels. Thus they have complete control over what sort of vessel they store their liquor in. This freedom allowed master distiller Chris Morris to pick up the phone one day and ask the coopers if they had any wooden staves that had been sitting around in the open air for a time. As chance had it, they did. They had some white oak that had been seasoning in the elements for from three to five years. By some stroke of luck, there were enough staves to make the amount of whiskey Morris needed for his Master's Collection.

And so the barrels were raised from the seasoned oak. According to Morris, the Seasoned Oak Finish uses the oldest oak ever employed in making a whiskey. The booze spent eight months in barrels, and, owing to both that and the age of the wood (most wood for bourbon is aged no more than five months), the whiskey came out much darker than is typically the case with Woodford. The method sort of takes a backwards approach to aging. Instead of letting the whiskey sit for years, it was the wood that did the time. The new dram is not technically bourbon, since the barrel is not made strictly to the government codes the rule the making of bourbon.

As Morris drilled a hole in a barrel containing the new brew, the liquid poured out a deep orange-amber. The nose was potent: maple syrup, molasses, orange, fig, pear, dark chocolate and spice. The wood has certainly done its work. The taste was robust. There was the usual spark that you get from Woodford's high component of rye, but also smoke, dark cherries, clove and molasses. The spice at the beginning smooths out at you reach the finish, though the tongue keeps tingling all along.

What I have heard among my media compatriots is that this is their favorite edition of the Master's Collection. I would have to agree that its the most successful (though I still do like the Sweet Mash quite a bit). I can certainly seeing it making a potent Manhattan. You don't even need to add the cherry; it's already in the whiskey. And the overall fruitcakey character of the liquor is certainly in keeping with the season.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Through the Years With Bastianich

Joseph Bastianich's wines may be the most visible wines from Friuli in New York, owing to the man's standing as a restauranteur. The man co-owns, with chef Mario Batali, Babbo, Del Posto, Esca and Otto, among others. At each and every one of these eateries you'll find Bastianich's wines well featured on the wine list, with his flagship bottle, Vespa Bianco, the most well represented.

At the Nov. 4 meeting of the Wine Media Guild, Bastianich treated the assembled to a vertical tasting of his Vespa Bianco, beginning at the beginning, with 2001 and running up to the current vintage, 2007, with only 2003 and 2005 missing in action. It was amusing to see Joseph there at Felidia, where the WMG always meets, because the restaurant belongs to his mother, Lidia Bastianich, who showed herself a true mother by watching over and praising her young. Also on hand was Lidia's daughter, Tanya, an Italian art history expert. It was a family affair.

Vespa Biano is what Joe called his "field blend," patterned after blended wines from the family's native Friuli, in northeast Italy. It's primarily a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, with some Picolit thrown in. The grapes are vinified separately in both steel and oak, and left for almost a year on the lees. The wine is then bottle-aged for another year and a half.

Now, I adore Friulian wines. But to be honest, Bastianich is my fallback. I like the line in general, particularly the 100% Fruilano, but I don't find in them as much depth of character as I do in the work of my favorite Friuli winemakers, such as Gravner, Villa Russiz and Schiopetto. Still, it's respectable wine, and certainly worthy of a examination like this.

I found the bottle I liked best first off: the 2001. It was aging nicely. There was little fruit left, mainly some lime and kumquat. It was the diesel and metallic characteristics the shone most brightly, plus a little not unwelcome oxidation. Joe told me he felt the wine could age 10 more years. The crowd favorite, meanwhile, was the 2004. Not surprisingly, it was a warmer, rounder wine, the flavors of lemon and lime, even if the nose was shut down a bit.

The 2002 was from a wet year. It was more muted than 2001, but had good acidity, some metallic notes, and nice lemon and lime. 2006 was softer and almost watery, with succelent lime and gooseberry notes. I felt the Chardonnay was showing more strongly. Joe called it more "showy" than the other wines. And 2007, which is out now, had the most aromatic nose, full and fruity. The palate was soft, with flavors of lime, tropical fruit and flowers. Here, the Sauvignon was most forward. It's still a young wine, though.

We also tasted two Tocai Plus wine, 2003 and 2005, which I felt had a great deal more personality. These are made from 100% Friulano, and are much more interesting as food partners.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: The Only Grecomusc' in the Whole Wide World

Grecomusc'? What the hell? I stared at the strange bottle on the table at Smith & Vine. Did someone misspell Greco? Or was that a fanciful name for the wine, made up by the vintner, Campania's Cantina Lonardo?

The clerk told me, no, Grecomusc'—apostrophe and all—was the name of the grape varietal. I felt suddenly ignorant. I'd never heard of it. So I bought it and went home and consulted the library. Nope, nope, nope—none of the major reference guides mentioned it. The clerk was wrong. It was probably plain old Greco di Tufo. But, just to be sure, I consulted the website of Polaner, the wine's importer. And what do you know? Grecomusc' is a grape! But I didn't feel dumb for not knowing about it anymore. Told the site:

Grecomusc', so-called in the local dialect, is a super rare, indigenous varietal grown only in Irpinia. It is a cousin of the grape Greco, and is grown on 70 year old vines in volcanic-clay soils. Cantina Lonardo is the only producer to bottle this grape individually (whereas others usually cultivate this grape alongside the ubiquitous Greco). This estate parcel is grown entirely on ungrafted rootstocks. It is located about 350-400 meters above sea level.

The only producer of the grape to bottle it as is, not as a blending agent! Wow. Talk about singular.

For such a rarity, it was cheaply had. Only $12. Still, at that price, it might still be a hard sell. I mean, I love this stuff. I'm going to go buy more. But I can see how few others would. This wine—fermented with native yeasts, and aged four months in five hectoliter tonneaux, followed by two months in stainless steel—is the opposite of fruit forward. The nose very nearly repels. It smells of burnt rubber, oil, ginko, with almost zero fruit. It is an intense and intriguing nose. The mouthfeel is fullsome, strong, aggressive. There is fruit here, but on the raw side: unripe grape, green plum, white melon, white current. Add some white flowers, diesel, lighter fluid, fingernail polish, and saltiness, and you've got a sensory challenge on your hands. As Polaner admits, this is almost a "tannic white." (As it warms up, some ripe pear hidden at the center comes out.)

I've called it as a saw it, and the picture may not sound pretty, but take my word: this is a great and unique wine which will go with innumerable dishes, its acidity cutting through the fattiest thing you can serve, and its body standing up to hearty food. It's rustic and muscular, yet dignified and elegant.

Cantina Lonardo, a small, 11-year-old winery, also makes some Aglianicos, which are advertised as "old and soulful." I will be looking for them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bowmore Trio Takes in $21,600

The Christie's rare spirits auction—only the second the auction house has held since New York State rolled back a law in 2007 forbidding such sales—took place on Nov. 14, and, as expected, a trio of Bowmore scotches were the prize pigs.

Making up the triumvirate were a 1964 Bowmore newly-released Gold Bowmore, a White Bowmore (released in 2008) and a Black Bowmore (released in 2007). The set fetched $21,600.

Other sales included $13,200 for a Macallan 55-Year-Old, in a Lalique decanter; and $5,400 for a Hardy Perfection Cognac. Forty lots were offered in all, with 28 lots sold. The grand total for the spirits section of the auction was $74,184.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Beer at...Overlook Lounge

I have always regretted not having had the chance to drink at Costello's, the Third Avenue saloon made famous by New Yorker writer John McNulty, and frequented by every writer in the New Yorker stable. I know I would have adored it. I had thought the place was gone forever, every bit of it, but a visit to the Overlook Lounge showed me that a very slender connection to the Costello era yet exists. I don't think anyone at The New Yorker, however, then or now, would choose the Overlook as their watering hole. It's a fine place for a beer or a game or a burger. But not much more.

Here's my Eater "A Beer At..." column:

A Beer At...Overlook Lounge

How quickly the character drains from things in 21st-century New York.

I'd passed by the Overlook Lounge on E. 44th Street, near Third Avenue, many times over the years. And, aside from wondering at the slightly unusual name, I thought it a typical tavern. I did not know until walking inside that this was the last vestige of what was once one of the most storied saloons in New York history: Costello's, haunt in the 1940s and '50s of New Yorker writers such as James Thurber, who covered its wall with his iconic cartoons in order to pay off a bar tab, and John McNulty, who immortalized its regulars in innumerable stories for the magazine.

Costello's was at Third and 44th. It's long gone, torn down in the early '70s to make way for a skyscraper. Tim Costello, Jr., son of one of the owners, moved east to 225 E. 44th. The Thurber drawings had vanished (no one knows what became of them), so Tim Jr. invited Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo and his pals at the National Cartoonist Society to cover the back right wall with their doodles. The second Costello's closed in 1990; the space reopened as the Turtle Bay Cafe. Then that shuttered, making way for the Overlook, which, for better or worse, the owners named after that mountain lodge where Jack Nicholson goes crazy in "The Shining."

In a well-meaning gesture to honor the address' history, the Overlook owners in 2005 asked Bill Gallo, then in his 80s, and his buds to return and cover the left hand side of the bar with illustrations. They did. The right wall is still the winner, though. It takes you right back in time. There's Steve Canyon, with his rock-solid jaw. Fred Flintstone, Bullwinkle and, for God's sake, Dondi. Also, forgotten cartoon figures like Boner from Mort Walker's "Boner's Ark" strip. A caricature of W.C. Fields toasts the Bicentennial with a double-necked martini glass. Another caricature captures erstwhile mayor Abe Beame. (I wonder how many of the patrons know who Beame was anymore.) Suffusing all is a bygone, hilariously sexist point of view, with plenty of willing and dim buxom women. One wonders, "If Abe Lincoln only had four scores in seven years, he must not have been much of a ladie's man."

The newer mural, on the left, has its charms—many more New Yorker cartoonists than in 1975, and second appearances of Hägar the Horrible and the Lockhorns and, for some reason, Nixon. But each character is made to utter some advertisement for the bar, like "Here I am at the Overlook!" They're all pitchmen now. Either way—right wall or left wall—none of it is Thurber caliber. The murals feel like wan attempts to recapture a more glorious artistic past.

Not that anyone really pays much attention to the drawings. (How could they with a small TV nestled in every booth, keeping you distracted?) Most of the crowd keeps to the bar up front. The ceiling is covered with hundreds of Christmas ornaments to keep up "an every day is Mardi Gras" atmosphere, according to the bartender. The menu heralds the "best pommes frites in the city." There's a sign taped to a busted juke box saying "No more dollars. You like lose it." The bar offers darts and a roof deck. There's karaoke on Tuesdays and a picture of what appear to be Osmond and Rachel Ray singing at the Overlook.

It's an OK bar, I guess. They do a brisk trade, obviously. But it just seems like such a missed opportunity, like a museum that has the Venus de Milo in the back, but gives prides of place to the museum director's salt and pepper shaker collection. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of McNulty lately, but scanning the history of Costello's on the back of the menu only makes me realize what's lost, not appreciate what's there. A bar that can trace its lineage to writers like Hemingway and O'Hara, but chooses to paper its walls with 20 flat panel TVs and two 9 x 9 projection screens just depresses me. But, then again, who knows? Maybe they are the best pommes frites in New York.
— Robert Simonson

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review: Macallan on the Fly

Macallan recently (OK, not so recently—July) released upon the world its 1824 Collection, "a new family of single malts developed exclusively for the Global Travel Retail market." (Their capitalization, not mine.) That means whiskey for Duty Free shoppers, Ducky! That's right, you can't get this outside the airport. So pay attention to the names and look for them. Because they're all good.

The three expressions (there are four, actually, but I haven't tried the Limited Release, probably because, well, it's so limited) are Macallan Select Oak, Macallan Whisky Maker's Edition, and Macallan Estate Reserve. I began with the Reserve. I shared it with the wife. After a sip, I asked her what she thought. "Good," she said. (The wife keeps it simple.) I agreed: "Good." That doesn't sound like much, but, really, there's very little to criticize about this Scotch. Using specially reserved Sherry-seasoned hogshead casks, this whisky's nose is caramel and butterscotch all the way. It's a smooth dram, very even, on the soft side with a little spice hit at the front, then smoothing out to butter, apple and caramel at the end. Mature and round. Lovely.

The Whisky Maker's Edition is drawn from booze distilled from barley grown on the Macallan estate. It's even smooooother than the Reserve. There's spice, but it comes in the mid-palate this time. A nose of caramel, candied orange and pumpkin spice (possibly, or maybe I'm just thinking of Thanksgiving early) leads to a taste of orange and maple candy. It's smooth as silk at the end, with a pleasantly light burning aftertaste.

Whereas the Reserve and Maker's seem like brothers of a sort, the Select Oak comes off as its own man. The distillers use three cask types: American oak seasoned with Sherry or Bourbon, and first-fill European oak casks seasoned with Sherry. The Sherry makes its presence known. This is lighter in color. It's bright and citrusy on the nose, with light caramel, nectarine and toffee. The Scotch has a much lighter body than the previous two. Again, it's bright, bright, bright. The spice is light and consistent throughout. Peach, ripe orange, Meyer lemon, cinnamon, vanilla bean. It makes you happy.

The prices say that the Reserve ($165 for 700 ml) and Maker's ($99 for 1 liter) are your prizes, but at $53, the Select Oak is a bargain. So, if you're switching planes and need to get shed some foreign moolah before loosing on the exchange...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Three, Part V (The Last)

Season Three of "Mad Men" concluded on Sunday with a series of seismic endings and beginning, Don and Betty Draper calling it quits on a seemingly picture-perfect marriage that was always bases on lies and surface realities, and Don and his partners at Sterling Cooper deciding to bolt the firm and begin their own, leaner agency rather than cheerlessly slave under the unappreciative yoke of new owner McCann Erickson. Honesty, respect and hard, but cleansing words and confrontations were the order of the day, with most everyone coming out at the end of the episode perhaps exhausted and feeling a bit swatted around, but also reenergized and replenishished. (Perhaps not Betty, but her capacity for happiness is questionable at best.) It was a reboot everyone in the Sterling Cooper universe needed badly.

The two previous episodes before the finale has to do with Don's past as Dick Whitman finally being discovered by Betty ("The Gypsy and the Hobo") and the impact of the Kennedy assassination ("The Grown-Ups"). With so much pivotal events going on, there wasn't much time for well-considered drinking. Certainly, characters were imbibing. "The whole country's drinking," said Pete Campbell to his wife, in the wake of the Kennedy shooting. But it was a shot here, a belt here. Nothing fancy. Nothing pretty. It was nerve-steadying drinking, sorrow-drowning drinking.

And so we saw Don throwing back plenty of Canadian Clubs, neat, particularly as he was hastily, desperately putting together the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce so as to at least purify his working self, even as his married self was going down for the last time. At home, the bottle of whiskey was seldom absent from his side. When Betty confronted him with "The Box," filled with incriminating evidence of his hidden, buried past, he was so shaken that, for the first time in the history of "Mad Men," Don could not fix himself a drink. Betty did it for him. After being banished to Baby Gene's room, the bottle of Canadian Club (with a different label than in earlier seasons) was always on the end table.

Roger Sterling, meanwhile, was forced to soldier forward with his daughter's wedding, scheduled, as fate would have it, for the day after Kennedy was killed. Only about half his guests showed up, dutifully raised their Champagne coupes. It was good to see Roger and Don bury the ax in the finale, even if it was done out of necessity, the two men needing each other in order to strike out on their own. It allowed for a familiar scene from seasons past to once again occur: Sterling and Draper sharing a drink at a dark bar after hours, Don with his rye, Roger with his Martini. Just like old times.

The season ended with the rogue members of the newly born agency—Draper, Sterling, Bert Cooper, turncoat Brit Lane Pryce, copywriter Peggy Olson, accounts man Pete Campbell, media director Harry Crane and office manager Joan Harris—setting up temporary shop at the Pierre Hotel. Pete's wife Trudy came in with a box of sandwiches and a cake for the hungry, busy ad men. Guess it'll take a little while to set up those office bars again. But then, it's the dawn of a new era. America's about to become very different. The Beatles are on their way, women's liberation, the Civil Rights movement in full flower, drugs, student protests, an unpopular war, Nixon, and more crushing assassinations. The office bar? Very old school. Very square. It'll get no respect from the new generation. Draper and Sterling may still by their poisons, but it won't make them cool anymore. To the kids in Central Park, they'll just be The Man. Uptight, locked in, responsible for everything bad with American. They might want to take a tip from Peggy and start puffing on something other than a Lucky Strike.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Survivor of the Hindenburg

Of the 97 people aboard the Hindenburg, all but 35 survived that famous 1937 disaster. Plus one of their beers.

The New York Post reports that "a charred bottle of beer that survived the explosion of the Hindenburg will be auctioned off this month for an estimated $7,500. Although its contents are undrinkable, the unopened bottle of Lowenbrau would be the most expensive brew ever sold. Leroy Smith, a New Jersey firefighter found the beer along with a pitcher shortly after the airship burst into flame over Lakehurst in 1937, killing 38. Smith buried six bottles and the pitcher after police sealed off the scene of the wreckage. He returned later to retrieve the souvenirs."

Fast thinking, Smith. And morbidly opportunistic, too.

The relic is being sold by Smith's niece, Rhea Longstreet, to whom he gave the bottle and jug in 1966.