Monday, June 29, 2009

Some Wines From Michigan

I know they make wine in all 50 states, now, but that doesn't mean I have to try them all.

Still, when Shawn Walters, the winemaker from Forty-Five North Winery, in Leelanau County, northern Michigan, contacted me and asked if I would like to sample his wines, I was intrigued. The winery seemed to have a good reputation. They made a couple Rieslings, which always gets my attention. I had recently tasted some pleasing wines from Pennsylvania and Virginia, so there was hope. And it's hard to tamp down my natural curiosity. So I told him to send them on.

A little background. Forty-Five North is owned by the memorably named Steve Grossnickle, who used to have an ophthalmologist practice in Indiana, and bought property in Leelanau County in 1983, while a farm intended for grape growing was purchased in 2006. The name of the place translates Grossnickle's ambitions: Bordeaux also lies at the 45th parallel, albeit 4500 miles to the east.

Walters sent me bottles from both their first (2007) and second (2008) vintages, and, from what I tasted, there's more than a bit of beginner's luck going on here. All the wines made for fine, suitable drinking, and a couple were more than fine.

All the whites were extremely light in hue, owing to the northerly climate, I should imagine. Nearly water white. The 2008 Semi-Dry Riesling had good acidity and was well-focused. The nose was appealing: white melon, white peach, nectarine, apricot, and grassy fields. The palate showed high fruit, but not big fruit, if you know what I mean—lime, lemon, gooseberry, white cranberry and lemongrass. (This wine is now sold out; I'm not surprised.)

As for the Select Harvest Riesling 2008, honey and pear scents were evident. In the mouth, there were lovely flavors of Barlett pear, tangerine, white peach and honeysuckle. It had a medium finish. Not a lot of depth, but perfectly pleasing.

Of the reds, I liked the Cabernet Franc 2007 as a bright, light, summer red of medium body and medium finish. It had a full fruit nose of cherry and plum, with some spice, cocoa and chocolate. It was light going down. The palate mirrored the nose. Red and black cherries and plum mingled with flavors of cocoa and chocolate, plus some green notes hidden there in the middle.

But the prize, perhaps, of all the bottles I tried was the Pinot Noir Rose 2008. I've tried a lot of disappointing roses made from Pinot Noir; this wasn't one of them. Very likable, it began with a cherry-strawberry-raspberry-gooseberry nose. The acidity was good, but modest in its effect; overall this was a fruit-forward wine, sporting flavors of strawberry and Prince Ranier cherries. A touch of creaminess and a little tannic edge added to full and interesting flavor profile. At $18, it's a good, if not fantastic, buy.

The alcohol levels on these wines were low—below 12%, with the exception of the Cab Franc (13.5%)—allowing you to enjoy them over dinner well into the third glass.

Not every wine worked. The Pinot Gris was simple and lacked dimension. But if I lived in upper Michigan, I'd be awfully thankful to have this winery around.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Beer At...Reynold's Cafe

My latest "A Beer At" column for Eater took me all the way up to 204th Street and Broadway, to the frozen-in-time Reynold's Cafe:

A Beer At... Reynold's Cafe

The jukebox at Reynold’s Café played a Spanish ballad one recent rainy Saturday afternoon. It then played “Maria” from “West Side Story,” sung by Johnny Mathis. This Washington Heights corner tavern is just that kind of place. If it was once, like the neighborhood, an Irish stronghold, the bar is now shared by more recent Hispanic immigrants. Unlike the two gangs in “West Side Story,” however, the bar’s patrons—mostly old men—long ago made their peace. The groups don’t exactly intermingle, but neither do they fight. And there is room for joking. As one garrulous Irishman said from the bar, for all to hear, “Since I’m in a Spanish bar, I wanna say My Irish mother said that on her mother’s side, she can trace her lineage to Seville.”

The Gaelic quaffers tended to favor the question-mark-shaped, wooden bar. They wore windbreakers and baseball caps and drank bottled beer. (There is nothing on draft at Reynolds Café.) The longnecks saved their places when they went outside for a smoke, which was often. The Hispanic men drank wine, convened around small round tables, and wore nattily dressed in suits, Cuban shirts and straw hats. What both sectors seemed to have in common—unless I am very much mistaken—was gambling. There was an intense examination of newspapers, and much cash brandished in hand and counted. A lumpen, bald man never left off the video poker game in one dark corner. Could this explain the presence of odd illustration on the wall entitled “The Gamblers” and the old photograph of a bygone casino?

The barkeep, wearing a short-sleeved, button down shirt, a proper tie pulled up to the collar, and a shiny black toupee, seemed the sort to keep a secret. He said, in an Irish brogue, that the bar dated from Prohibition and the current owner has run it for 45 years. Nothing was said about the mounted deer head above the bar, or the more alarming bits of taxidermy: a bobcat’s head and a full-length ferret. The men’s room, used frequently, is behind an exceedingly narrow wooden door at the end of the bar. The ladies’ room is not as convenient—it’s down a flight of stairs as tight as those that lead below deck on a ship. No matter. There were no women about.

More Mathis played: “Chances Are.” The Reynolds crowd is not an unsentimental one. An elderly Puerto Rican handyman, employed by the bar to do odd jobs, is treated by the regulars as some sort of mascot, back-slapped and hailed from across the room. And the playing of the weepy anthem of selfless love, “Angel of the Morning,” might lead to a spontaneous sing-a-long. The original version, not the later cover by Juice Newton.
—Robert Simonson

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stick to Swizzles

I can't tell you how sick my wife is of hearing me say, with utter seriousness, the word "Swizzle." For the past few weeks, I've been researching this category of West Indies cocktail—talking with bartenders about Swizzles, soliciting recipes for Swizzles, sampling Swizzles. Each time I mentioned a new tidbit of information on the topic, my better half would roll her eyes and walk into the other room.

You can't blame her. It's a funny word. And cocktail people can start to sound a little touched in the head when they start talking with deadly earnestness about things like garnishes and the right kind of ice. Still, she was impressed when she finally sat down and tried a properly made Queen's Park Swizzle.

I was fortunate enough to write about Swizzles for the New York Times Summer Drinks issue. Here's the piece.

It’s Not So Mysterious: The Secret Is in the Swizzle

By Robert Simonson

WHEN Katie Stipe, a bartender at the Clover Club in Boerum Hill, gets an order for a mojito, she recommends that the customer try a Queens Park Swizzle instead.

“We steer them to it as a far superior version of the same sort of drink,” she said. Indeed, the cocktails share many ingredients: rum, citrus, sugar, mint. So why bother converting a customer? What makes one different from the other? Well, the swizzling, of course.

A Queens Park Swizzle is the best-known representative of a crushed-ice-laden and slightly mysterious cocktail category. The genre was born in the West Indies, probably in the 19th century, but has become increasingly popular in New York bars of late. Among other noteworthy examples are the Bermuda Swizzle (still wildly popular on that island) and the Barbados Red Rum Swizzle, a onetime staple at Trader Vic’s.

These drinks are not shaken or stirred, but rather swizzled with a genuine swizzle stick. Now, if you’re picturing one of those colorful plastic doohickeys that bars and resorts stick into their drinks as a combination advertisement and souvenir, stop right there.

The implement in question is an actual stick. It is snapped off a tree native to the Caribbean. Botanists call it Quararibea turbinata, but it is known to locals as the swizzle stick tree. The sticks are about six inches, with small prongs sticking out at the end, like the spokes of a wheel without the rim, and they are used as a kind of natural, manually operated Mixmaster.

These are halcyon days for behind-the-bar theatrics, and nothing lends the bartender’s art a touch of razzmatazz like a deftly deployed swizzle stick. “It takes a little showmanship,” said Stephen Remsberg, a New Orleans lawyer known for his extensive rum collection (1,300 bottles) and knowledge of rum drinks. “You insert the swizzle stick in the drink. And with both hands moving in coordination, simultaneously backwards and forwards, you simply rotate the shaft of the swizzle stick between your palms as quickly as you can.”

It is believed by some that the success of any swizzle lies entirely in the mixing prowess of the bartender.

“There really isn’t any difference between a simple rum punch and a swizzle except the technique used for making them,” Mr. Remsberg said. All agree that one thing happens when the drink is prepared in this way — and has to happen, for it to be a swizzle. “With the ideal swizzle you get a nice frost on the outside of the glass,” Ms. Stipe said.

Beyond that, what the method contributes to the drink — aside from a lively sideshow — is somewhat open to debate. Wayne Curtis, a cocktail authority and the author of “And a Bottle of Rum,” suspects that the stick’s significance is mainly cultural and ritualistic. Not that that’s a bad thing. “Ritual is fine,” Mr. Curtis said. “There’s a lot of ritual in the cocktail world.”

Richard Boccato — who put the Queens Park Swizzle on the menu at Dutch Kills, a new bar in Long Island City, Queens, that he owns with Sasha Petraske — thinks there’s more at stake. “The act in the swizzling is what makes the drink aesthetically pleasing to the guest,” Mr. Boccato said. “They enjoy watching it, for sure, but it’s also something that integral to the preparation. It’s very much what brings the drink together.”

But Mr. Petraske regards swizzling as simply a more controlled way of stirring. “It’s a way of not disturbing the muddled stuff that’s at the bottom,” he said. “Aside from that, I can’t think of any difference it makes.”

The swizzle is just that kind of cocktail. The more you chase after its essence, the less you understand. The cocktail expert David Wondrich said, “Vague answers are all you’re going to get.” That’s perhaps just as well, because it seems a shame to invest too much analysis in a practice so pleasingly theatrical, and in a drink that’s so easygoing and refreshing. “It’s almost like an adult snow cone,” Ms. Stipe said.

There’s one additional mystery surrounding the swizzle. Despite the demands of the cocktail craze, a real swizzle stick is not easily found in New York. Nearly every bar that serves swizzles gets the needed tools through some Caribbean connection. Mr. Boccato brings some sticks back from Martinique every time he visits his father, who lives nearby on St. Lucia.

“I’m surprised no one’s come out with a plastic version,” Mr. Curtis said.

While you're at it, take a look at the other fine articles in the section, including a A to Z guide to home bartending and a look at the lives of sober bartenders. And Eric Asimov looks at the problems in New York's beer scene.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Brunch at the Clover Club

If the cocktail world has an official brunch place, it's Brooklyn's Clover Club. In the year that it's been in operation, the bar has established itself as the place to dine and drink, at least for those brave souls in this universe who actually get up on Sunday mornings. I've encountered several local bartenders of note who've said they make it a habit of getting their Sunday eye-opener, and some sort of fatty meal, at the Smith Street tavern.

It's taken me this long to finally check out this scene, partly because I despise the concept of brunch, and partly because of a lack of interest on my wife's part (there's little on the seafood-and-pork heavy menu that she can eat). But Father's Day was my trump card. You can't say no to a Daddy's request on a certain Sunday in June, and my wish was to have brunch at Clover Club.

We arrived at opening time, 11 AM. Which was good, because our drink order—a Ramos Gin Fizz for me, a Queen's Park Swizzle for the Missus—was safely the most complex of the morning, and our being the only table about gave the bartender plenty of time to lavish loving care on our drinks. Both came out smashingly well. I do love a Ramos Gin Fizz in the morning. The rest of the tables ordered Bloody Marys and Mimosa variants almost exclusively. (When will people end this self-imposed, two-drink limitation on themselves during the morning hours? I can't think of two drinks that bore me more.)

I began with the Bacon Tasting, because that's what everyone talks about. It's become the brunch's signature dish, and a kind of signal for the sort of culinary decadence you should expect here. Three styles of bacon: maple, black pepper and duck, served on toast.

It was savory good, as expected, though I could have done with less bread and more bacon. (Actually, less bread could be a rally cry for the whole menu. I never lacked for several slices of it.)

From there, I went on to the Baked Eggs With Truffle and Leeks. It's actually truffle butter, and parmesean cheese is in there, too. Very rich, as you might imagine, though it's nicely set off by a light arugula salad on the side. I had no complaints about this dish. The serving seemed on the small side, but it left me completely full.

My wife had an omelette she enjoyed and my son loved the house-made marmalade that came with the baguette (and he doesn't like marmalade). I also liked that you could order a simple egg, for $1.50, made any way you like. Simple is good sometime. And every good old-school bar should make hard-boiled eggs available on request.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Sipping News

Not every grape is suited for sparkling wine. [NY Times]

Time Out New York reviews Long Island City's new Dutch Kills.

Bittermans, the German bitters makers, is partnering with America's The Bitter Truth to bring their bitters Stateside. The official release is in July.

A bit of old style wine advertising from Sonoma. [Dr. Vino]

Burgundy house Joseph Drouhin is relaunching its Chablis wines under the Drouhin Vaudon banner. [Decanter]

Jamie Goode likes Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon. Well, don't we all?

The Man Who Sold America The Pimm's Cup?

I own an old book by Maurice Zolotow called "It Takes All Kinds." It's a collection of profiles of odd New Yorkers, published in 1952. One of the profiles is of one Jim Moran (1908-1999), an inventive and irrepressible publicity man.

According to this account, he was hired in 1949 to concoct a stunt that would get the Pimm's Cup—then without much of a following in the U.S.—into the newspapers. His scheme went like this. He contracted the services of band leader Alvino Rey, radio actor Herbert Evers, movie actress Ann Staunton and musical actress Nancy Andrews (using money as a lure, I imagine). He instructed Evers and Staunton to enter the posh East 55th Street Manhattan joint called the Little Club on June 15 around 2 AM and begin demanding Pimm's Cups. Fifteen minutes later, Rey and Andrews entered and ordered Pimm's Cups as well! Only Andrews specified, in a loud voice, that she wanted hers with a spring of mint.

At this request, Staunton pretended to high dudgeon! She argued that everyone in the world with a brain knows that a Pimm's Cup is only properly taken with a cucumber, not mint! Mind your own beeswax, answered Andrews. Evers exclaimed, "You can't talk to my friend like that!" Rey told Evers to back off. Then the food fight began! Staunton flug a cucumber at Rey. Rey punched Evers in the face (or pretended to). Evers fell down. The police were called. Rey was taken to the station house, where he was released on $500 bail (by Moran, in a beard).

The "incident" made the front page of the World-Telegram and the third page of the New York Sun, and got two columns in the Daily News. After that, it broke nationally, and everyone knew about the Pimm's Cup.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hold the Mayo!

Sometimes I think today's ambitious mixologists are too much Mr. Hyde and not enough Dr. Jekyll in their strivings for something new. There are a lot of kooky drinks out there. But, then again, who can say with any sureness from which corner that critical "Eureka!" will come.

With that in mind, and without comment, I submit for your consideration the P.B.L.T. (Plymouth gin, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato), the creation of D.C. mixologist Gina Chersevani. I have never tasted one. But if you have a free afternoon, and feel like drinking your lunch, give it a go. Or, better yet, visit Gina and have her make you one.


1 oz Plymouth™ Gin
1 cube of lettuce water
1 cube of tomato water
Spray vinegar on one side of glass and stick dehydrated bacon dust on side.

First spray vinegar on a glass and dip in dehydrated bacon dust, then place a lettuce water cube, tomato cube, then pour the Plymouth Gin over top.

Tomato Cubes

16 oz of fresh tomato juice (either in a juicer or done in a blender and then strained)
1 teaspoon of white pepper
1 pinch of fleur de sel
4 oz of fresh lemon juice
4 dashes of Tabasco

Combine all ingredients together and fill ice trays. Makes about 24-30 cubes

Lettuce Cubes

14 oz of lettuce water (2 large heads of iceberg lettuce, that has been juiced in a juicer)
1 teaspoon of white pepper
1 pinch of fleur de sel
4 oz of lemon juice

Combine all ingredients together and fill ice trays. Makes about 20-24 cubes

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Sipping News

The New York Times reviews Phil Ward's Mayahuel.

So does Time Out New York, again positively.

Eric Asimov writes about Shinn Estate Vineyards, whose Long Island wines I like fine. I was just drinking their rose last night. Substantial, deep red, dry yet full.

Alice Fiering bemoans how blogs (like this one? like her own?) have devalued writing and caused publishers to expect copy in exchange for "exposure," as opposed to money. I know from what she speaks. But I also embrace the positive side of blogging, the immediacy, the freedom, the personal tone.

The annual Tales of the Cocktail Spirit Award nominees were announced, Camper English among them.

St. John Frizell's new Red Hook joint, Fort Defiance, will open this weekend. Liquor license to come in July.

Dr. Bamboo has a very bad Martini.

Pork, and Other Bar Food

With the ratcheting up of quality in the cocktail and wine worlds, bar food has also improved itself. I don't know about you, but I can't stand pretzels and beer nuts. I only eat them if I need some fuel and there're not other victuals in site. Happily, I haven't had to make that choice in quite a while. The new New York bars have wonderful food menus. Inventive pickle and olive plates are epidemic, artisinal cheese plates are de rigueur, and pork products (yum) are everywhere.

I co-authored a piece on this trend, with Joshua M. Bernstein, for Time Out New York. The items from Mayahuel, Sweet and Lowdown, Beer Table and Draft Barn are of my origination.

The Best New Bar Food

By Joshua M. Bernstein and Robert Simonson

Pass through the dining room of Anthos to reach Anthos Upstairs (36 W 52nd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves, 212-582-6900), the loungey companion to Michael Psilakis’s high-end Greek destination. Like the setting, the prices are relaxed, offering bargains such as the BFT ($12): luscious pork belly, feta and fresh tomato slices layered on thick griddle-cooked bread.

Eat it with: Try a glass of 2008 Domaine Skouras Zoë rosé ($10). “The agiorgitiko grapes complement the pork’s smokiness,” says owner Donatella Arpaia, “while the moschofilero grapes’ minerality cuts through the richness.”

Pacific Standard

While brew spot Pacific Standard (82 Fourth Ave between Bergen St and St. Marks Pl, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn; 718-858-1951) is lauded for its Cali beers, the San Francisco–made It’s-It Ice Cream sandwiches ($4) are equally craveable: vanilla ice cream squashed between two oatmeal cookies and coated in chocolate.

Eat it with: Though the Young’s Double Chocolate Stout ($6) is a natural mate, co-owner John Rauschenberg prefers the Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA ($6) for its “refreshing counterbalance.”

Beer Table

The rustic porky schlenkerla sausages ($16) from Beer Table (427B Seventh Ave between 14th and 15th Sts, Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-965-1196), served with new potatoes and pickled onions, are among the most satisfyingly earthy of the city’s links.

Eat it with: Smoky sausage calls for a smoky beer. Schlenkerla Marzen ($10) is a beech-wood–tinged example of a German brew genre literally called “smoke beer.” Beer Table’s sausages are made with malt from its brewery, so how could they not go together?

Bar Blanc Bistro

Bar Blanc Bistro (142 W 10th St between Greenwich Ave and Waverly Pl, 212-255-2330) has gotten a revamp, with a new name and a notable bar menu hawking low-cost, high-concept snacks like the addictive crispy pig ears ($6). The swine is first braised in pork stock, white wine and herbs, then sliced into strips and deep-fried. They’re haute cracklings—and an ideal drinking accomplice. Every day except Saturdays, bar snacks and drinks are half off until 7pm.

Eat it with: The dark Grimbergen Dubbel ($7) is a hearty, full-bodied beer with a touch of yeast; smoke and sweetness offset the fried, bacony flavor.


The ample cochinita (pork bellies, $12), braised to juicy, crispy-edged perfection, is one of chef Luis Gonzales’s most ambitious dishes at tequila-focused Mayahuel (304 E 6th St between First and Second Aves, 212-253-5888). It’s also one of the best.

Eat it with: The mescal-laced Slynx ($13) has a bewitching smokiness that contrasts beautifully with the bellies’ sweet papaya-mango mustard.

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Chef Akhtar Nawab of the Indian-nuanced Elettaria (33 W 8th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves, 212-677-3833) recently unveiled his very own hot dog ($2.50): a snappy Franken-sausage hewn from pork shoulder and beef brisket, served on a homemade bun.

Eat it with: A Cannonball Run ($12; $6 on weekends from 3 to 8pm), Elettaria’s take on a strawberry daiquiri, has an acidity that balances the spicy meat.

Allen & Delancey

At romantic downtown haunt Allen & Delancey (115 Allen St at Delancey St, 212-253-5400), Tuesday’s half-priced drinks are accompanied by chef Kyle Bailey’s “happy night” menu, offering finger foods such as our favorite “chicken nuggets of offal”—sweetbread poppers ($8). The plump delicacy is coated in panko bread crumbs, then fried to a crunch that contrasts with the lush center and goes awfully well with the creamy buttermilk dressing.

Eat it with: The Jalisco Trail No. 1 ($6.50), bright with blanco tequila and fresh lime juice, is a clean companion to this fried bite.

Draft Barn

Ask the bartenders at Gowanus beer palace Draft Barn (530 Third Ave between 12th and 13th Sts, Gowanus, Brooklyn; 718-768-0515) whether pickled herring ($7) is good with beer, and they’ll shrug, “Of course.” Savor one briny morsel, paired with fat slices of onion, and you’ll forswear pretzels forever.

Eat it with: Pauwel Kwak ($9), a fruit-rich Belgian amber, will have you going back and forth between the beer and the herring—compatible in their peasant characters—trying to decide which you like best.

Sweet & Lowdown

Custom pickles are the beer nuts of Obama-era bars. The mixed pickle-and-olive plate ($4) at Lower East Side wine bar Sweet & Lowdown (123 Allen St between Delancey and Rivington Sts, 212-228-7746) is a modest but thoughtful assortment, including tart cornichons, salty kalamatas and meaty caper berries.

Eat it with: High in acidity, pickles work with a surprising number of wines. But the smooth, melon notes of the Amrita Cuvee ($12), a complex white blend out of Oregon, counter the tang particularly well.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Some Liverwurst With Your Gimlet?

A website called Ephemeral New York has posted this 1930s add from Brooklyn-based Stahl-Meyer promoting their "Cocktail Liverwurst," a bar snack idea that seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. Love the fish-shaped toothpick holder. But what do fish have to do with liverwurst?

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Beer at...Shannon Pot

When I used to work in Woodside Queens, I would pass by the Shannon Pot every day when I transferred from the G to the 7 train. This week I finally paid a call on the bar, which enjoyed an evocative situation, on a corner just before the elevated subway tracks.

A Beer At...Shannon Pot

The décor of roughly 80 percent of the bars in NYC is dictated by two things: the promotional crap that liquor companies throw at them; and the trite Irish knickknacks picked up by the owner. The Shannon Port, at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Davis Street in Long Island City, follows this model of accidental interior design. Framed map of Ireland, check. Display “Champagne” bottle of Budweiser, check. Plastic leprechaun figures, check. Mock “kangaroo crossing” sign from Cooper’s Brewery, check. “God Made the Irish #1” license plate, check.

Despite all this, Shannon’s manages to eek out a personality all its own, starting with the visually impressive, unintentional collage of 11 neon beer signs in its Tudoresque, paned front windows—something that one of the artists over at nearby P.S.1 might had wished they’d come up with. An old scythe, mounted on the wall, is a bit of a non sequitur. The parody of a baseball shirt that reads “Werksux,” on sale for $12, was designed by the owner, who likes to hold down a stool at the far end of the old, battered, wooden bar, where he conducts expletive-laden, Cliff-Clavin-like arguments about the nature of the Franco-Prussian War, and when Napoleon died.

The Shannon Pot was opened only a decade ago, but it feels like it has been rooted to its corner, directly under the rumbling tracks of the 7 train, for much longer. The presence of elevated trains seems to make anything nearby feel ancient, I guess. Anyway, shows like “The Third Watch” and “Law & Order” seem to think so. They come here sometimes when they need a backdrop for died-in-the-wool, blue-collar New York. The high ceilings are covered in dingy tin and there’s a funny room in back that look’s like somebody’s pantry.

You can eat here. (Shannon Pot is officially a “bar & grille.”) The usual Ould Sod suspects are on the menu: bangers and mash, Irish potato soup, shepherd’s pie, and the requisite “signature” burger. You can get a bucket of five different beers for $20 if you’re so inclined. The left-hand portion of the room, up a step and separated by a wooden partition and a brass railing, is reserved to dining, giving the joint a slightly more genteel air. Things get busy at lunch. On weeknights, the bar is sparsely populated, the quiet domain of regulars.

I’m told that, on weekends, the hipster art crowd invades and completely alters the vibe of the place. A sign of this mild cultural war can perhaps be seen in the bathroom, where the owner has taped up a sign saying, “Do not add any tags to this door. Please respect my party.” We should all respect one another’s parties.
—Robert Simonson

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Couple Dubonnet Drinks

Liquor publicists e-mail me cocktail recipes very often. Most of the time, I pay no mind, because these formulas are rarely of the highest order. Typically, they find a way to recommend using a good 2 or 3 ounces of the promoted intoxicant, combined with vodka and some other ingredient that they just happen to also represent. Viola! Marketing as Mixology!

But when a couple recipes from the Dubonnet people came through the wire, I paid some attention. Why? Well, because that bottle of Dubonnet of mine just sits there. Doing nothing! I want to use it, I do. But how many Operas and Deshlers can I drink?

Also, the press missive had an attractive angle. It was promoting the use of local ingredients, specifically windowbox herbs—of which I have many. And I dearly love using them. (I know this is ironic, since, in this effort to utilize local food, I am working with an apertif wine that is imported from France, but hey....)

The second of the two recipes, a Dubonnet Mint Julep, was the less exciting of the two because, well, it was a Dubonnet Mint Julep. Not that it wasn't delicious. It was absolutely delicious! But I knew exactly how it would taste before I even made it. Not much excitement there. But, as I said, very good, so give it a try (I used simple syrup instead of sugar, and lessened the proportions because I wasn't interested in getting blotto so quickly):

2 oz. Dubonnet Rouge
3 oz. bourbon
1 teaspoon sugar
Handful of mint

Muddle mint with sugar then add ice, Dubonnet Rouge and bourbon. Stir rapidly to mix. Serve in a julep cup.

The first recipe, called Summer Thyme (hee hee), was much more interesting. As you might guess, it involves thyme: one spring shaken up with the Dubonnet, vodka, lemon juice, salt and pepper; and one spring as garnish. Here's the formula:

Summer Thyme
1 oz. Dubonnet Rouge
2 oz. vodka
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

In a cocktail shaker, combine Dubonnet Rouge, vodka, one thyme sprig, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Shake vigorously with ice. Pour into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice and garnish with a lemon slice and second sprig of thyme.

The taste, I must say, is remarkable. This is a vodka cocktail that has real personality, and the thyme makes all the difference, going beautifully with the flavors of the Dubonnet, and adding endlessly intriguing herbal notes. (Thyme must be one of the secret components in Dubonnet's makeup.) A very elegant drink.

Now I know what to do with my Dubonnet.

Lemon Hart, Ahoy!

Renowned Tiki drink master Jeff "Beachbum" Berry is a lovely fellow, but he has one annoying habit. He'll be schooling you on the make-up of some wonderful, forgotten tropical drink from Tiki's storied past, and when he gets to the rum component, he'll say, "Now, the best rum for this particular drink is Lemon Hart. If you can find it, use it. Of course, you can't find it."

After this observation, the sound of teeth grinding can distinctly be heard.

I have been searching for an opportunity to taste Lemon Hart from the first time Berry mentioned the name of the old rum. There is a Demerara version, in 80 and 151 proof, and a Jamaican version. Lemon Hart, if you can believe it, is actually a guy's name. (What mother names her son Lemon?) Way back in the late 18th century, he became the first supplier of rum to the British Royal Navy—which I'm betting was a pretty lucrative gig.

The Demerara rums can be pretty readily found in the U.S—so I'm told. But either I'm blind or they ain't on the shelves of the liquor stores I frequent (and I frequent good liquor stores). So, when I heard last week that there would be a rum tasting event at the New York Yacht Club, I asked, "Will you have Lemon Hart there?" Yes was the answer, and I signed on.

c entering the grand Model Room at the NYYC, which its Hall-of-the-Mountain-King fireplace and soaring ceilings, I, like a heat-seeking missile, whisked past the Bacardi, the 10 Cane, the Mount Gay, the Cruzan, to a table in the corner that seemed to be serving only one thing: Lemon Hart Demarara 151 proof rum, by itself or in a punch. "The bartenders stole all the 80," shrugged the man behind the table.

He offered me a glass of punch he had made from the Lemon Hart. No, no, no, I said. I want the stuff straight. OK, he replied, but be careful, it's strong. He wasn't kidding! The 151 is lethal. Hot. Very hot. But great, with flavors of burnt caramel and (am I dreaming this because of the name?) lemon. Then, I tasted the punch, which was excellent, telling me that Lemon Hart makes for a great mixing rum, as Berry had indicated.

Lemon Hart's Jamaica rums were not on hand, and remain the Holy Grail. For some reason, they can only be had in Europe. (Who makes there weird decisions?) Looks like I know what to do on my next trip at a London or Paris Duty Free shop.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

That Was Then

I've been doing some research lately in preparation for an article on the resurrection of the lost liqueur Creme Yvette. Robert Cooper, the man behind St. Germain, is responsible for the reclamation. While he's been true to the original recipe of the violet cordial, he's updating the label. Since the new label is now 100% approved yet, I won't show it here. But take a look at what the Creme Yvette label used to look like.

Kinda adorable, ain't it? I love the line "A world wide reputation of Excellence in the preparation of Pousse Cafe & Blue Moon Cocktail." And the wonderful illustrations on the side: a pussy cat for the Pousse Cafe and a half moon for the Blue Moon. It's all so quaint and charming.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Sipping News

After an avalanche of protest, The European Commission has dropped a plan to allow rosé wine to be made by blending red and white wines. Thanks God! [New York Times]

Tyler Colman to discuss his book "A Year in Wine" at James Beard House. [Dr. Vino]

Martin Cate
, of Forbidden Island fame, plans to open a new rum bar called Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco. Fall 2009 is the target date. [Trader Tiki]

Camper English writes about the cocktails of Charles H. Baker Jr. in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Time Out New York takes a look at the theatre crowd hangout, Bar Centrale.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Room For Everyone

At a recent wine event, I was seated next to the manager of a prominent Manhattan wine store know for its selection of classic French wines. We were having our dessert, and were musing how it would have been nice to conclude the feast with a nice sweet wine. This led him to relate how the folks at Chateau D'Yquem are always promoting the idea that the classic Sauternes should not be relegated to the end of the meal, but is appropriate from soup to nuts. With this he cracked a wry smile, communicating how ludicrous the idea seemed to him.

It seemed ludicrous to me, too. And it brings up an annoying habit I have often encountered among wine and spirit makers. That is, they want it ALL! It's not enough for them to be the best wine with lamb, the best wine with oysters, the best wine with fois gras. They think people should be downing their vino with every course, at every occasion. The Champagne people have been banging this drum for years, saying their bubbly is not just a special-occasion beverage, but a quencher for all times. (They, it seems to me, have the best case to make where this kind of monolopy-grab is concerned.) The spirits industry, too, has been trying to shed its cocktail-before-dinner image, encouraging people that gin and bourbon and tequila are do be enjoyed throughout a meal.

Most of these campaigns are born of greed, of course, not common sense. I can't think of a more unpleasant and dizzyingly rich experience than coating my mouth with luscious Yquem over a two-hour dinner. As splendid as that manna is, I imagine its saturating flavors would get in the way of the subtler flavors of any meal, and the volume of honeyed elixir would leave you a bit leaden at night's end. As for the "cocktail dinner," I've always thought it a patently bad idea. Spirits are bullies. They don't compliment food as well as wine does; they dominate the proceedings. There's simply no use pretending otherwise. And they get you drunker far quicker, so that, by mid-meal, you wouldn't really care or notice what you're eating or drinking.

Furthermore, I think distillers and vintners are doing themselves a disservice by promoting the supposed versatility of their products. They may imagine that it will result in greater sales and visibility. But it will also lead to a diminishing of their profile and a lessening of prestige. If Champagne is right for every food and every hour, it ceases to be special. And Sauternes and other sweet wines only heighten their attractiveness and allure by keeping themselves the exclusive treasure that is saved for the end of the festivities. (The best is always saved for last, right?) Cocktails have their own "hour"—a much better position than being an also-ran parvenu at the dinner table. A specialist is more highly thought of than a general practioner. Why become common when you've got a lock on a certain niche? Didn't Beaujolais do that in the '80s and '90s with the Nouveau campaign? And look at its dismal reputation now, only just recovering its dignity.

So Champagne, Yquem, Cocktails: recognize your uniqueness and embrace it. Part of the wonderfulness of the drinking world is there's a perfect drink for every human experience.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Old-Fashioned Makes a Comeback

My first assignment from the Dining Section of the New York Times appears today. And nothing could have made me happier than to make my debut writing about a subject dear to my heart: the Old-Fashioned, a drink, I am glad to say, that is quite popular around New York these days. I mention a few places in town where you can get a good one; I recommend them all.

Take a Sip of History


THE old-fashioned may finally be earning its name.

One of the most venerable of whiskey-based cocktails, it has a history that stretches back farther than the martini’s. For decades it has suffered under the reputation of something your grandmother drank — overly sweet, fruit-laden and spritzed-up. But grandma wouldn’t recognize what’s happened to it lately.

The old-fashioned is one of the most requested mixed drinks at some of New York’s newest and most self-consciously artisanal drinking dens, including Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; Elsa in the East Village; Rye in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Jack the Horse in Brooklyn Heights; and the White Slab Palace on the Lower East Side.

Cocktail aficionados say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer drink.

“The old-fashioned is one of the original cocktails, in the true sense of the word,” said Damon Boelte, bar director at Prime Meats. “It’s kind of like having a Model T on your menu.”

It’s so old that it was called a “whiskey cocktail” until late-19th-century parvenus like the martini and manhattan forced purists to order an “old fashioned” whiskey cocktail. But while the martini and the manhattan came through the cocktail dark ages of the 1970s and ’80s with much of their dignity, the old-fashioned developed a personality disorder.

Its majestically austere profile (basically a slug of rye with minuscule touches of water, bitters and sugar) was tarted up with a muddled orange slice and maraschino cherry, and a diluting dose of soda water. This rendition has its advocates, and remains popular in supper clubs across America. But it sends shudders down the spines of the new breed of cocktail classicists.

“A bastardization of the original drink,” said Kevin Jaszek, a bartender at Smith & Mills in TriBeCa who designed the cocktail list at Elsa.

Disciples of the cocktail renaissance, like Mr. Boelte and Mr. Jaszek, have restored the old-fashioned to what they feel is its rightful form — “back to integrity,” as Julie Reiner put it. The Clover Club, her Boerum Hill bar, opened last June with an entire menu section devoted to the old-fashioned and its variants.

Yes, variants. Devotees are not completely doctrinaire in their recipes, varying the type of bitters or sweeteners used.

And old-fashioneds built on bourbon (PDT in the East Village), rum (the Oak Bar) and tequila (Death & Co. in the East Village) are not unheard-of. Just keep that maraschino cherry well away.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Sparkling sake. That's something new.

Gekkeikan, the world’s best selling producer of sake, sent me a couple bottles of the stuff recently. Zipang is the name. Which, a little internet research tells me, is the name of a twenty-six episode Japanese anime television series, so we kind of know where the product's heart is.

Sparkling sake shouldn't come as such a surprise. Certain restaurants and sommeliers have been pushing sake as a dinnertime wine substitute for years. Sparkling wine—spakling sake. Why not?

The product is "naturally carbonated," and comes in at a very light 7% alcohol. The attached press recommended I try it chilled in a champagne flute, so I popped open a bottle and did so. Simple is the first word that comes to mind. Very simple. The ingredients are rice, water and yeast, and that is what you get. It's a light, fizzy, slightly rice-flavored beverage. The advertised tropical fruits I could not locate (not without having the idea put in my head, anyway).

Frankly, I found the drink dull on it own. Refreshing, probably lovely on a sunny terrace on Spain when I might be thinking of absolutely nothing. But in my kitchen in Brooklyn, dull. So I decided to "zip" it up and make it the base of a Champagne cocktail. Why not? Aren't all new sparkling alcoholic beverages basically chasing after Champagne's tail, anyway?

This was much better. A nice change, and I could picture it going lovingly with sushi. A couple problems, though. Zipang doesn't have the bubbles it needs to eat away at that Angostura-saturated sugar cube, so the lump kind of sat down there half-dissolved. Perhaps plain loose sugar might be better in this case.

If I were the Zipang people, and were contemplating going back to the drawing board, I'd think about getting a bit more of a flavor profile and some more fizz into this baby. As it is, though, I can see some mixologists playing around with it nicely. And it might very well become popular with fairer sex. (I hope I offend nobody by saying that.)

Also....hey, whaddaya know—I finished the bottle while typing this.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Two Southsides

I don't remember the impetus, but some nights ago I fixed myself a Southside.

I don't usually give the Southside much of a thought, except when I'm at the "21" Club, where it's the official drink. Don't know why. I guess I've always considered it a rather uninteresting refresher. Plus, I think it's association with bluebloods has hurt its rep. WASPs have never been known for their exquisite taste in comestibles. With them, the blander the better. So, their favorite cocktail must be a bore, right?

But I must have not had the ingredients necessary for anything more complex, so I made a Southside.

Imagine my surprise when I slurped up a dose of a superior libation. I loved the Southside I made. In fact, I was in love with it. I wanted another. Immediately.

So what happened? Well, first, the recipe I had used from from the Beverage Alcohol Resource, whose five-day intensive course I had taken in spring 2008. I had never tried the recipe before. When I gazed at the formula, I remember thinking: I don't remember the Southside being this complicated. Here's what I saw:

2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
2 lime wedges
1 ounce simple syrup
2 sprigs of mint

Muddle on of the mint sprigs with the limes, lime juice and simple syrup in the bottom of a bar glass. Add the gin and shake well. Strain into a goblet over crushed iced and stir until the outside of the glass frosts. Top with soda and garnish with the sprig of mint.

As I sipped and sipped, enjoying myself thoroughly, I thought: lime? Wait a minute. Is lime right? I checked in a couple other cocktail books. Sure enough: most specified lemon, not lime. And none of them said anything about lime wedges being muddled. Is that why I suddenly liked the drink so much—because it was a different drink?

So I decided to conduct a taste test. I'd make a Southside with lime, and one with lemon, and see which was better. I tried to keep the recipes as close as possible to one another. I used the B.A.R. recipe for the lime version, and a Harry McElhone one for the lemon. I used simple syrup in both, and the same amount of mint. However, I did not use wedges of lemon for the second; the wedge thing seems to be unique to the B.A.R. version.

So, what did I learn? I learned I like me a Southside cocktail! Honestly, the two weren't much different. By a very small margin, I liked the lime rendition better; the play or sweet and tart was more tantalizing, somehow. But I didn't dislike anything about the lemon drink.

Then, finally (did the drinks job my memory? Is that possible?), I remembered where I had first derived my sense of the Southside. It was from a pocket recipe guide from the Museum of the American Cocktail. It called for lemon juice, and no ice at all. And it was served up, in a Martini glass.

The Cocktail Chronicles informs me that the drink I've been liking is actually a Southside Fizz. OK. I'll accept that. But why does B.A.R.—a group of guys that ought to know their stuff—call it a plain Southside? (Others do, too.)

I wonder what I'd get if I ordered a Southside at "21"?

Like many cocktails with a long past partly shrouded in the mists of time, there seems to be a lot of variation with the Southside. Just know this. If you're playing host to me and I ask for a Southside, I want the once with the ice.