Friday, July 31, 2009

A Beer At…Smolen Bar and Grill

My main discovery in visiting the South Slope outpost Smolen Bar and Grill—Tyskie, a Polish beer, on tap is mighty tasty. And begin served beers in special liter glasses in kinda cool.

A Beer at...Smolen Bar and Grill

Smolen Bar and Grill, at Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street in Brooklyn, flies so far under the radar that, from a certain point of view, it barely seems open at all. They have a phone number listed, but it’s not in service. And, on a recent night, only the lights around the bar were flicked on, leaving one to feel along a dark corridor to where the barmaid promised the bathroom was.

The corner building, at 708 Fifth, is built like a brick bomb shelter, a couple small windows indicating life might be stirring inside. A huge red-and-white sign, with figures of eagles on either side, screams that you’re in the right place. The sign’s design scheme is odd for a bar, but not for a Polish bar, which this is. Inside you’ll find a miniature of the red-and-white Polish flag, a picture of Polish Pope John Paul II and —best of all—the excellent Polish beer Tyskie on tap. It’s served not in pints, but half-liter glasses. Also on draft is something called Pat’s Special Brew, named after the owner. But I was told that nobody liked it, and it was not popular.

On an average night, you’ll probably find a few Polish-Americans bending elbows here, survivors of this once predominantly Polish neighborhood. But the evening I went, my company was a sextet of thin, talkative hipsters and a 69-year-old bartendress in whose mouth butter would not melt. This lady couldn’t tell me much about the place, except that it was so old she remembered her parents taking her there when she was a child. Also, while the ornate, oddly sectionalized wooden bar is original, there used to be a grill (no more) and a row of booths along the south wall, where several sets of tall tables and chairs now stand. I’d venture a guess that somewhere under those acoustical tiles overhead is a tin ceiling and either a wooden or tile floor lies beneath the yawning expanse of linoleum.

Once the hipsters left en masse, I had Smolen to myself for a good hour. I watched TV. I could have been in Pat’s den.
— Robert Simonson

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Sippling News

Everyone's writing about tequila these days. Everyone's writing about Phil Ward. [Esquire and Details via Alcademics]

Tyler Colman mixes it up with Anthony Dias Blue of The Tasting Panel, the latest episode in the ongoing Robert Parker-wine ethics flap he uncovered a couple months ago. [Dr. Vino]

California's wine industry isn't liking the recession very much. [NY Times] This may lead, Eric Asimov speculates, to the decreased use of new oak. (Let's hope.)

The Daily News asks Gotham bartenders which drinks define their neighborhood. The defining cocktail in The Bronx? Jameson and a beer! Jesus, somebody open up a decent bar up there. But the state of things in Staten Island is worse: A shot of Jagermeister is dropped into a glass of Red Bull and chugged. [Daily News]

Mad Men Season 3 on Its Way

Season three of "Mad Men" is set to debut on Aug. 16. And judging by this, the first shot from the season that I've seen, the characters haven't given up their bibulous habits. I see two Martinis on that table, and Don Draper looks like he's just finished one his beloved Old Fashioneds.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Visit to Sazerac Bar

For me, the main source of excitement at this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans was that I would finally get to see the famed Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. The celebrated lodging place and its more celebrated watering hole had been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, and, since I had never set foot in New Orleans until 2006, I never laid eyes on what was once the most famous place in the world to order that most wonderful and New Orleanian of drinks, the Sazerac.

Therefore, I was dumbfounded when, asking various folks at the convention if they had seen the Sazerac Bar yet, I was routinely greeting by non-computing expressions and answers like "No. Why?" Few seemed to understand what a fantastic and historical bar has been resurrected.

The historic downtown New Orleans property is now part of the Waldorf=Astoria. It opened in 1893 as the Grunewald. In 1923, it was rebranded The Roosevelt in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. It kept that name until 1965 when it was bought and rechristened with the infinitely duller name of The Fairmont. Thank God someone came to their senses and brought back the old label. (Grunewald just doesn't have the same majestic ring, does it?)

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the hotel's Blue Room and Sazerac Bar were the places to go in New Orleans to find and converse with the powerful, the elite and the everyman. The bar was nearly as famous for its Ramos Gin Fizzes as it was for its Sazeracs. The former was the favorite of one of the bar's most steady patrons, demagogue Huey P. Long.

The bar is one of the most beautiful Art Deco spaces I have ever seen, from the tile floors to the long, American walnut L-shaped bar, from the illuminated, etched glass panel situated at the center of the mirrored back bar to the Paul Ninas murals that punctuate the walls. The combined effect of the decor and the atmosphere of gay sophistication elevates civilization just that little bit more. Drinking at that bar, you feel like a swell, a mensch, a man a culture, a hail fellow well met, a member of the Family of Man, someone who's doing the best he can and deserves a drink.

Having not seen the bar before the renovation, I had no idea how faithful the revamp had been. But Jeff Berry, who had paid a call on the bar just days before Katrina, assured me: the only thing that was changee was that the television had been removed.

I've never seen so many Sazeracs made as I did during my two visits to the bar. There is never a time when a barman is not making that drink. The house version uses Sazerac Rye and Herbsaint, in addition to the requisite Peychaud's bitters and sugar. I'd prefer a different rye and a brand of absinthe, but to each his own. I did have to caution the bartender not to make the drink too sweet, however. All in all, a good Sazerac, but I've had better.

More care seems to be taken with the Ramos Gin Fizz. I watched my man prepare mine, and he couldn't have been more careful if he had been a jeweler in Antwerp. The result was beautiful. Quite simply the best Ramos Gin Fizz I have ever had.

The drink menu is quite simple. I was told that the bar reached out all the way to New York to put it together, bringing in Julie Reiner (Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club) as a consultant. She wisely focused on the classics, with a couple originals tossed in.

The menu was a damn sight more complicated in the past, as the picture below illustrates. This is just one page of what was a lengthy drink menu.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Your $10 Recession Wine of the Week: Chateau Lamothe de Haux Bordeaux Blanc 2008

My local wine store recommended this Chateau Lamothe de Haux as a good buy. I raised an eyebrow. A decent Bordeaux Blanc as a decent price is hard to find. What were the chances that a $13 bottle would be anything but thin, acidic stuff.

But I was surprised. This little known chateau has produced a fine bargain in its 2008 Blanc, made up of 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon and 20% Muscadelle, with fifty percent of the juice left on the lees for three weeks. This is a bottle of lemon sunshine, with notes of white melon and grass. It's not quite complex, just above simple, and with a enticing mineral-metallic base. It delivers quite enough interest for the price, and no more than one would want on a lazy summer day.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

OLD Old Overholt

I recently interviewed celebrated rum aficionado Stephen Remsberg for an article on Swizzles for the New York Times. So, on a recent trip to New Orleans, I decided to put a name to a face and visit the Big Easy lawyer—and his 1,300-bottle collection of old and rare rums.

Remsberg did not disappoint, either in his spectacular collection (only a fraction of which (say, 400 bottles) was on display on the shelves behind his home bar, or in his hospitality. He first poured me a 1933 Bacardi, which was fading a bit, but still more complex and enjoyable than most of what Bacardi purveys today. He then showed me was Lemon Hart Demerara 151 can be. Later on, he turned me on to El Dorado, a Guyana brand of rum that he endorsed as an undersung, well-crafted bargain. I had to agree.

Perversely, the most interesting sipping experience at the Remsberg bar was not a rum, but a rye. Remsberg is mainly a rum man. But he has in recent years explored a new liking for ryes. The lawyer has a lot of connections by now. When people stumble upon an old bottle of booze, they call him and say "Hey, Steve..." One day one such person said he had a line on an vintage bottle of Old Overholt. Prewar. That is, Pre-World War I!!

Out came of larger-than-usual bottle of 1911 Overholt. All it said on the label was the name of the brand and the year. Those were simpler days. And here's the kicker. You know that familiar, enjoyably roughhewn, fruity then slightly spicy Overholt taste? Well, Goddamit if it doesn't taste the exact same after nearly 100 years in the bottle! It was as lively as when it was born. But for one agreeable change—the rougher edges have smoothed out a bit. Overholt may be a workhorse rye, but you gotta hand it to it. It's got legs.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jamie Kutch and His Pinot

I spent a fair amount of last spring delving into the world of Wall-Streeter-turned-Sonoma-Winemaker Jamie Kutch and his prized boutique Pinot Noirs. Kutch is making Pinots that are not typical of the big California style and much to my liking. Here's the resultant article, which just came out in the July/August issue of Imbibe.

Jamie Kutch’s Stock Is Rising
How a former Wall Street trader is securing his spot in California’s wine world
Story by Robert Simonson

Jamie Kutch doesn’t lack confidence. A tall, muscular man with close-cropped hair, he looks a little jockish and gives off a slightly swaggering energy that he picked up during his decade as a Wall Street trader. His patter is the smooth line of someone who’s spent hours on the phone convincing people to buy something they hadn’t necessarily planned to, but these days he’s traded in selling stocks for a more understated career in winemaking.

In 2005, Kutch, now 35, abandoned his $250,000-a-year Wall Street career in favor of an unsalaried position working as a novice California winemaker. His sole tools were a decade’s worth of wine tasting, a reputation as a fevered habitué of wine chat rooms, and the practical tutelage handed down from winemaker mentors like Michael Browne and Robert Rex. (Well, that and $150,000 in savings.) “It’s the best single decision I’ve made in my life, no question,” he says.

Other people seem to agree. Kutch scored a 93 in Wine Spectator with his first release, a 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. His 2007 vintage is considered his best yet and has been given the nod of approval by Robert Parker. By April, it was nearly sold out, leaving the thousands on his waiting list disappointed.

Kutch (pronounced “Hutch”) keeps production on his three lines of Pinot Noir low and practices minimal intervention, using natural yeasts and punching down the grapes with his bare feet. For the 2007 vintage, his third, he produced only 600 cases, having sold off 10 out of 34 barrels because they didn’t meet his standards. With the reviews he’s gotten, he could easily raise prices, but he’s kept his three offerings in the $40 to $50 range. He says he has yet to make much money on his wines, pouring most of the revenues ($88,000 in 2008) back into the business. He and his wife, publicist Kristen Green, live in a 900-square-foot apartment in San Francisco and drive a 2002 Honda he calls “vineyard-dusted brown.”

As a barnstorming winemaker with limited finances, Kutch does not own a vineyard, but, like many fledgling vintners, he buys grapes from well-regarded, existing estates, such as McDougall Ranch, Kanzler Vineyard and Spring Hill, which is now in the process of planting five acres of Pinot Noir earmarked for him. In April, Kutch nailed down a commitment for Pinot Noir grapes from Anderson Valley’s prized Savoy Vineyard, a coup that will likely result in a new Kutch bottling for the 2009 vintage. In the next few years, he hopes to secure his own vineyard and release a couple new wines, one of them possibly a Chardonnay. “I’ve read all these novels where the characters have second chapters and I thought, ‘Those are people in books,’ says Green, who has gamely thrown herself behind her husband’s new career by handling his label’s publicity. But family members say not to write Kutch’s success off as a simple fairy tale. “Jamie is a perfectionist,” says his uncle Donald Moonjian. “Unless it’s going to meet 100 percent of his expectations, he’s not going to do it.”

Perfection, for Kutch, basically means Burgundy. At a time when most California Pinots have become increasingly big and bruising, he’s made his name crafting Pinots in the French model. “I got bitten by the Burgundy bug,” he says. “And that’s high acidity, low alcohol—it’s more earth and soil than fruit-driven … the approach that wine is meant to be consumed with food.”

Kutch first discovered the joys of wine—and, specifically, wine with food—while a student at Fordham University, where a gregarious professor named Gerard Reedy noted Kutch’s budding interest in wine and invited him to dinner. “We had Champagne, Sauternes with foie grois, Burgundy with lamb chops,” recalls Kutch. “It was an experience I had never had.”

After that, the stock trader and wine maniac remained perpetually intertwined. While working the NASDAQ board at Merrill Lynch, Kutch spent a good deal of work hours burning up online wine chat rooms and finding a way to justify his obsession by tracking down choice cases for his cellar-building bosses. “It was similar to what we would do in our trading,” recalled Nelson Barriocanal, a former fellow trader at Merrill Lynch. “He would put together several different investors and buyers to fill in the wine order. That way, he could participate in the buy and everyone else would subsidize it a little bit.”

Kutch might still be a trader if it weren’t for winemaker Michael Browne. In 2005, Kutch was making the rounds of the chat rooms when he sent Browne—a California Pinot-making star—an e-mail note of adulation about a Kosta Browne Pinot he had tasted, saying, “You’re living my dream.” Browne recognized Kutch’s yearnings. Once intent on becoming an architect, Browne leaped from restaurant grunt work into a collaboration with Dan Kosta as a lauded guerilla winemaker. Browne offered to mentor Kutch.

“He planted the seed,” said Kutch, who was trading technology but fantasizing about enrolling in winemaking classes at UC Davis. Two or three days after Michael sent that e-mail, Kutch found out about a job opening at a trading company in San Francisco, and feeling the location alone would get him a step closer to his goal, he and Green moved.

In San Francisco, he lived a double life. He worked his trading job during the red-eye West Coast market hours (4 a.m. to 2 p.m.), then drove up to wine country after work and on weekends to labor with Browne. Within six months, he quit the trading job and dove into the deep end of winemaking, helping Browne with everything from pushing down wine bins to sorting grapes during harvest. “I learned by doing,” Kutch says. “Michael did a great service for me. He assisted me in getting started and opened my eyes to how [winemaking] gets done.”

With Browne’s help, Kutch bottled his first vintage, using fruit from Amber Ridge in the Russian River Valley. Browne had been buying fruit from the vineyard and put a few tons aside for Kutch to purchase. He bottled the wine at Robert Rex’s Deerfield Ranch winery (where he’s capped every vintage since) and tapped the Sonoma business Paragon Labels for the labeling. He created a 400-strong mailing list for his first vintage by returning to his old haunt, Robert Parker's chat board, and relating his winemaking journey as it happened. The vintage was sold out before it was even made.

After that, he was on his own. He quickly put his hard-driving Wall Street skills to use for the most central task: securing quality fruit. “He had to make sure he got the right grapes,” said Barriocanal. “Pinot Noir was pretty popular, so it wasn’t an easy task. He really pounded the pavement. That requires being aggressive and not afraid to pick up the phone and take rejection. In trading, people may not be responsive the first time you approach them, but you have to be persistent.”

“I’m an ex-New Yorker—maybe a little pushy,” Kutch says. “I tried to give as many options as I could to get the fruit. I said, ‘I’ll pay you in advance. I’ll show you my bank account.’ ” Karen London took notice.

“Jamie called me out of the blue,” recalls London, a Petaluma farmer who, with her husband Chris, sells grapes to highly regarded wineries, such as Patz and Hall, Nickel and Nickel, and Talisman. “I invited him out and fell in love immediately. Jamie is young, like us, and it’s hard to find younger individuals in this industry, because it is very expensive to get into and it’s a lot of hard work. He’s by himself, and he’s motivated.”

But others in the comparatively laid-back California winemaking world have sometimes bristled at what they see as Kutch’s brashness, as well as his marketing prowess. He managed to garner press even before his first vintage was released and is the subject of a recently completed documentary by filmmaker Stefan Sargent titled Pinot: Escape from Wall Street. “He’s a star,” says Sargent, explaining why he made a film about Kutch. “He doesn’t care what people say, what they think about him. He doesn’t really care too much about what people think about his wine, as long as he loves it. He’s got the passion.”

Kutch, who admits that he and Green are still “New Yorkers by a mile,” doesn’t apologize for blowing his own horn. (He also admits it doesn’t hurt having a publicist in the family.) “How do you not tell the story? You could make the greatest wine in the world and if no one’s out there talking about it, that wine would never be discovered. Being small, I think we have to work extra hard to get the story out.”

What no one disputes is that Kutch backs up the hype with results. His 2007 McDougall Ranch Pinot Noir is a masterful wine, with a dusty, rose-perfumed nose and a focused, elegant, yet earthy palate of cherry, grapefruit and vine-like notes. The Sonoma Coast bottle, meanwhile, is light-bodied at 13.2 percent alcohol, with a balanced blend of spice, tobacco, plums and cherry—a wine of easy, but not shallow, personality.

“I’m driven to quality,” says Kutch, who is fond of saying he makes his wines for a test market of one: himself. He’s also not concerned about making a fortune from his wines. “I have never in my entire thinking of this project thought about money. I need to make money to make this work, but it’s all about making great wine. I don’t think like Wall Street. I think great wine and passion, and the other things will follow.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Drambuie Gets a New Look

A did a double take recently when I spotted a liqueur with a familiar name, Drambuie, and a quite unfamiliar bottle.

Sure enough, the honeyed Scotch product has been given a new look. Gone is the squat, opaque bottle of yesterday. Here is a clear, taller vessel which the makers candidly admit is meant to resemble a typical Scotch bottle. (It's those scotch drinkers that they're after.) And for the first time you can actually see the lovely color of the elixir inside.

The redesign comes at the 100th anniversary of the widespread commercial availability of Drambuie. (The stuff was actually created 260 years ago.) I'm a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist and usually hate to see the old ways pass. But, I have to admit to the handsomeness of the new bottle.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Visit to Cure

Cure has been open for only six months, and is in an out-of-the-way New Orleans neighborhood called Freret. I didn't have high hopes upon visiting on a recent Friday. Three hours and four cocktails later, however, I was ready to call Cure the best cocktail bar in the city, and one of the best in the country.

I met the co-owner and head bartender, Neal Bodenheimer, briefly. He's a native New Orleanian who lived in New York for several years and came home after Hurricane Katrina. Cure lives inside an old firehouse and is as slick and swank as any night spot in Manhattan, though the lonely intersection it anchors gives it the feel of a frontier outpost.

The website says, "Inspired by the historical period when cocktails grew out of medicine and home remedies, our idea at Cure is to reintroduce our guests to another time where the experience of having a cocktail and a bite to eat was both healthful and enjoyable."

This view in born out in the cocktail list, which is one of the more unusual and inventive I have seen. Cure is serious about bitters and Italian amari and believes they should play starring, not supporting, roles in drinks. One drink uses Peychaud's bitters as its base, another is built on Angostura. I tried the former. It was brisk, biting and delicious, not to mention a gorgeous color. Similarly, you'll find many drinks utilizing Averna, Cynar, Aperol and similar products.

I first tried a special called The Art of Choke, which featured Cynar, Flor de Cana 4 rum, lime juice, green Chartreuse, mint and demerara sugar, serves on the rocks. This is one of the best uses I've seen Cynar put to, simultaneously herbal and sweet, with the rum offering a nice earthiness in which to plant those greens. From there I went to a kind of amari-based Sazerac called the Black & Bluegrass. In it, Sazerac rye, was joined by Averna, Aperol, Peychaud’s bitters, Angostura bitters and a grapefruit twist. Couldn't have been better. Looking at the ingredients of some of these drinks, it's hard to believe they work. But Cure's bartenders somehow find the right agents to count the astringent characteristics of the amari.

A Praha Punch came next: Evan Williams single barrel bourbon, Tiffon VSOP, fresh lemon juice, raw apple cider vinegar, soda, St. Elizabeth's allspice dram. Deceptively simple and absolutely refreshing. The only misstep of the evening was the Defend Arrack, which tried to sell an Arrack base through the drafting of Marie Brizzard Apry, lime juice and allspice dram. The effect was interesting, but ultimately acrid and offputting.

Others at my table, meanwhile, were raving about the Start & Finish, a combo of Averna, Lillet, Obsello absinthe, Noilly Prat dry vermouth and orange bitters serves on the rocks. A took a sip. It was dry and deep and dark. A fascinating drink you could get lost in.

I wish I had had time to visit again and make my way through some additional selections. Cure is making a name for itself by exploring the lower, darker end of the cocktail keyboard. There are some surprising bright chords down there.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Wine Store in Red Hook

Some time after the irreplaceable LeNell's closed on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, it looks like the neighborhood is going to get a new wine store to fill the alcohol gap. The place will be called Botta de Vino and it'll sit right to the left of the popular bakery and cafe, Baked. A choice spot.

They have a website up already, which doesn't tell you much except that they'll be open seven days a week. The shop says it will be devoted to the BYOB ethos: "Our wonderful small town community has several new restaurants awaiting your visit. Most of them with the exception of Home Made, The Good Fork and 360 are BYOB. Botta de Vino will be featuring a selection solely devoted to this style. These wines will be low to mid range in price so that you can enjoy a well rounded meal with the company of a quality red, white or rose."

Could be good. Doubt it will be a patch on LeNell's, though.

The former home of LeNell's (below), by the way, has now been empty for five months. What a smart little landlord was hers.

RELATED UPDATE: Lenell Smothers, giving up on New York, plans to open a cocktail B&B in....Mexico.

The Lillet of Summer

Lillet Blanc has donned a new label for the summer. Nifty.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Sipping News

Eric Asimov is surveying the wine scene in Spain. [NY Times]

Camper English has a lot of muddlers. [Alcademics]

Obama gave Berlusconi a gift of North Carolina wine. What I want to know is: was Berlusconi grateful? (I've had North Carolina wine.) [Dr. Vino]

A tribute to Rosewater. [Imbibe]

Some of Germany's top winemakers don't like the editor of Germany's most famous wine tasting guide, Gault Millau, very much. [Decanter]

A Visit to Napoleon House

I am never long in New Orleans before a pay a call on Napoleon House and order a Pimm's Cup. I love an old bar with history. And I dearly love an old bar with history that is also known for one particular drink.

At the Napoleon House, it's the Pimm's Cup. A peculiar drink for such a manly bar to be famous for, but there you have it. The bartenders here doll them out by the dozens. I would wager that hundreds are sold every day and that the bar has the biggest Pimm's account in the U.S.

However, the past couple years I have grown dissatisfied with the Napoleon House's Pimm's Cups. I remember being wowed the first time I sipped from this superbly refreshing mixture of Pimm's No. 1, lemonade and cucumber slice. But last year, the drink fell flat on my taste buds.

This may be because fresh-made lemonade is a bit of labor to make, so I tend to make my Pimm's Cups with ginger ale. This is a perfectly acceptable variation on the drink, and I have come to love it. Now, when I get a Pimm's made with lemonade, I'm always a bit let down. Ginger ale add more zip to the drink to my mind, whereas lemonade just sits there.

I have other problems with the Napoleon House Pimm's Cup. Their "house-made lemonade" sits in giant jugs until it's needed for the drink. So it's lost a bit of freshness before it's poured in the glass. The same goes for the cucumber slices, which I imagine are all cut up in the morning, and look a bit sad by mid-afternoon. It's not too much to ask for a fresh slice of cucumber to be cut with each drink.

Then there's the execution. A Napoleon House bartender will typically get an order for three or four Pimm's Cups at a time. He'll set the glasses up, one by one next to each other, then grip the Pimm's bottle in one fist and the lemonade jug in the other and star pouring away, filling up one glass, then the next, then the next. It's a very imprecise pour, so there's a fair amount of inconsistency to their Pimm's Cups.

Recently, I bellied up to the Napoleon bar and asks for a Pimm's Cup and specified ginger ale. The bartender said "OK," but them promptly forgot and made my with lemonade. It was passable at best.

A Beer At...The Rum House

My latest "A Beer At..." column for Eater took me to the heart of Times Square:

A Beer At...The Rum House

The Rum House, at 228 West 47th Street, is one of the few low-down, no-frills, on-the-cheap bars left in the Theatre District. But, unlike fellow survivors like Jimmy’s Corner, it’s never been particularly celebrated. It’s also an example of that midtown rarity: a hotel bar with a discernible personality. The Rum House is part of Edison Hotel, and, like the Café Edison—its diner neighbor just across the lobby—it seems to belong to an earlier, most raffish Times Square era.

Demi-curtains cover the lower half of the windows looking onto West 47th Street. A piano bar—or rather, an organ bar—dominates one side of the snug space. And huge, wooden circular chandeliers, with lanterns hanging off them, give the dark space a vaguely nautical feel. There are no glistening, six-ounce dirty martinis ordered here. Just cheap beers served by a kind, blonde waitress with a seen-it-all centeredness. She’s worked here as long as anyone can remember and is not easily fazed.

It’s all fairly uncool, and even if you’re a dive-loving ironist, you might find the Rum House on the humdrum side. On a recent night, a group of roving young fabulousi waltzed in and, essaying the utter unhipness of the place, turned on heel and waltzed right out. Then again, soon after another 20-something pack passed through the wooden breezeway and decided to remain. But these turned out to be theatre geeks, a tribe for which unhipness has never been a dealbreaker.

Ready to entertain the geeks, and sundry businessmen, was Karen Brown. Brown performs most nights, pumping away at the muffled organ and lending her flutey voice to standards that range from “Fly Me to the Moon” to “Margaritaville.” There are many framed photos behind the organ of a younger Brown posing with the likes of Christian Slater, Mel Brooks and a very-embarrassed looking Nathan Lane.

Brown prepares herself with a veteran Broadwayite’s fussiness. The first thing she did upon arriving was turn off the TV and unplug the jukebox. (The latter is an interesting specimen. Each song it plays takes about 20 seconds to reach full volume, arriving like a train coming out of a long tunnel. It’s very dramatic, in its way.) Brown then adjusted her single spotlight, set out her latest CD for purchase and dropped a five-dollar bill inside a gigantic fish bowl that serves as a tip jar. On a recent night, the eve of her birthday, she accepted gifts and flowers with the magnanimous equanimity of a queen.

The geeks ate up her set. They clapped, fox-trotted a bit, and order more vodka and cranberries. But not rum. Say, bartender—Is much rum served at The Rum House. (I had to ask.) “A few.”
— Robert Simonson

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Manhattan Cocktail Classic Is Coming

New York will finally have it's own cocktail convention, when the newly announced Manhattan Cocktail Classic (nice name, though it sounds kinda like a gold boozy golf tournament) takes over the town in May. Prior to that, they'll be a "preview" event the weekend of Oct. 3-4, at Astor Center (above). The event will be run be former Astor Center director, Lesley Townsend, and feature a cast of characters familiar to any cocktail maven (Wondrich, DeGroff, etc.).

Here's the piece I wrote for the New York Times, published yesterday.

An Event to Mix With the Masters


THE cocktail masters who have gained prominence in the last decade have gleaned great wisdom in a bottle of whiskey. Now they plan to share what they’ve learned with New Yorkers at a cocktail conference.

The event, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, will be held in May, but a two-day preview will be held at the Astor Center, in NoHo, on Oct. 3 and 4.

The preview will feature eight seminars taught by members of the event’s board, which includes the writers Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, F. Paul Pacult, Doug Frost and Gary Regan; the bar owners Sasha Petraske, Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner; and the consultants Charlotte Voisey, Steve Olson, Simon Ford, Allen Katz and Andy Seymour.

The seminars are for “professional audiences and enthusiast audiences,” said Lesley Townsend, the conference’s director and former director of the Astor Center, which holds classes and seminars on food and drinks.

As of now, the schedule includes a class on old and new gin cocktails, led by Mr. Regan, a spirits columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle, and Ms. Saunders, the owner of the Pegu Club in SoHo; an examination of Cognac and Armagnac led by Mr. Pacult, the editor and publisher of a newsletter on spirits, Ms. Voisey, a cocktail consultant, and Ms. Reiner, owner of the Flatiron Lounge in Chelsea.

A panel about rye whiskey will be led by Mr. Katz, the director of mixology and spirits education for the distributor Southern Wine & Spirits of New York; and a study of the cocktail in New York from 1810 to 1920, will be led by Mr. Wondrich, a writer for Saveur and Esquire magazines and the author of “Imbibe!”

Tickets for each event, which will go on sale in about three weeks, will be $45 to $95. A Web site,, has more information.

Samples of spirits and cocktails will be served at each seminar, and a bar will be staffed by noted New York bartenders and mixologists.

Ms. Townsend said she will probably enlist more cocktail experts outside the five boroughs at future conventions.

But for now, she said, “this is about our amazing local talent, about what we’re doing here.”

Here's the complete list of the eight seminars (subject to change):

- Gin Cocktails, Old and New - Gary Regan, Audrey Saunders
- Agave: A Panel Discussion - Steve Olson
- History of the Cocktail in New York, 1810-1920 - Dave Wondrich
- The Call of the Rye - Allen Katz
- Choosing Glassware for Cocktail - Dale DeGroff
- The Ultimate Cognac & Armagnac Clinic - Paul Pacult, Julie Reiner, Charlotte Voisey
- New York's Effects on the Global Cocktail Scene - Charlotte Voisey, Simon Ford
- Sherry: Not Just for Cobblers - Andy Seymour

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Visit to Tujague's

So, when recently in New Orleans, I went to Tujague's, one of the oldest continually operating bars in the United States. It's been on its corner of Decatur Street facing the French Market since 1856. I always meant to pay a visit, but somehow, during past visits, the chance always escaped me. So I made a point of it this time around.

The neon signage is peerless. The ceilings are high. The mirror behind the old bar is as big as an elephant, and was 100 years old already when it was shipped from France in the mid-1900s. It's a rare bar that has a brass rail, but no stools at all. So you stand there, one foot on the rail, like those suited, mustachioed ruffians seen in old photos of yesteryear.

In various glass cabinets are numerous mini-bottle of every liquor and liqueur you can name, some old, some new. They are a reminder of how Tujague's got through Prohibition; bartenders kept dozens of such little receptacles in their aprons, ready to dispense liquid illegality into waiting cups.

The bar area is not huge. 30 people would fill it up. But there were only a handful of locals when I visited. I ordered a Sazerac, my usual drink when testing the waters at a New Orleans bar. Big Easy taverns tend to reach automatically for the Herbsaint when this drink is mentioned, even though original ingredient absinthe is now available. I guess old habits, and local brand loyalty, die hard.

I was a pain, and asked for absinthe. I also said "not too sweet," because everyone lays on the simple syrup these days. I didn't think I needed to give specific instructions on the Peychaud's Bitters. Maybe I should have. Because I was handed the reddest Sazerac I've ever seen. It was fine. Nothing special. And still too sweet. I wish people took more care when making this drink. It's not like the bartender was busy.

Someone next to me order a Grasshopper. Somewhere down the line, the idea became established that this is a signature drink at Tujague's. But the locals at the other end of the bar, upon spying the mint green mixture, said "What's that?" So that sort of put the lie to that bit of conventional wisdom.

I wandered around the dining rooms with my drink and found more cabinets full of small bottles. I also found a few interesting frames artifacts. Among the more amazing: a signed photograph of Julian Eltinge, now unknown, but during the early 20th century the most famous female impersonator in American, and a Broadway star; and a sheet from an old register proving that young Cole Porter and his family from Peru, Indiana, were frequent guests during a visit in 1902.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New York Rules, Apparently

One feels a bit sheepish around out-of-towners boasting that New York City has the best cocktail culture in the nation (even if one knows that this is true). Folks from other estimable cities do tend to brandish the most enormous chips on their shoulder when confronted with the (to their minds) outrageous myth of Gotham's cultural superiority in various departments.

So one learns to keep one's trap shut and extol the virtues of the West Coast, the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, etc. And they all do have virtues to extol, believe you me. But then one's confronted with factual circumstances like the results of the Spirit Awards at this Tales of the Cocktail, which just concluded in New Orleans. Among the winners: Pegu Club, Clover Club, PDT—all in New York.

Here are the results:

Best American Bar: Pegu Club, NY

Best Hotel Bar in the World: The Merchant Hotel Belfast

Best Cocktail Writing 2009: David Wondrich

Best New Product: Bols Genever

Best American Brand Ambassador: Simon Ford, Plymouth Gin

Wolds Best Drinks Selection: The Merchant Hotel Belfast

Amercian Bartender of the Year: James Meehan, PDT, NY

Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book: Dale de Groff, The Essential Cocktail

World’s Best Cocktail Menu – The Merchant Hotel Belfast

International Bartender of the Year: Tony Conigliaro, UK

World’s Best New Cocktail Bar: Clover Club, NY

World’s Best Cocktail Bar: PDT, NY

Tales of the Cocktails Helen David Life Achievement Award: Peter Dorelli, London

Now, I tend to think that all awards are stuff and nonsense. Is there really a "World's Best Cocktail Bar"? I don't think so. So take it with a grain of salt. But, you have to admit, New York's got something to offer.

Meanwhile, I've got to find a way to get myself to Belfast.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Some Planter's Punches

Recently, I spoke to Stephen Remsberg, the courtly New Orleans lawyer and rum collector. And whenever I think of Remsberg, I think of Planter's Punch, which he has called his favorite drink. I remember well a witty, and self-deprecating demonstration he once gave on how simple it was to built a glass of this tasty punch.

Over the past few evenings, I've tried a few version of the drink, which has as many interpretations as there are days in the year. I began with a recipe attributed to Dale DeGroff, then moved on to the Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide, publishing in 1972. Vic offered four different formulas, including two attributed to himself. Lastly I gave a whirl a version published by David Embury in 1948, republished in Wayne Curtis' book "A Bottle of Rum." Here are the recipes, and what I found.


1 oz. dark rum
1 oz. light rum
1/2 oz. curacao
2 oz. orange juice
2 oz. pineapple juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/4 lime juice
1 dash grenadine
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake all ingredients well with ice and strain into iced Collins glass. Top with small amount of soda. Garnish with orange slice and cherry.


1/2 lime
1 dash rock candy syrup
1 dash grenadine
1 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. dark Jamaica rum
2 oz. soda

Squeeze lime juice over ice cubes in a planter's punch glass; save lime shell. Add remaining ingredients. Stir. Decorate with lime shell, fresh mint, and a fruit stick.


3 oz. dark Jamaica rum
1/2 oz. grenadine
Juice of one lime
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon bar sugar

Stir all ingredients except soda thoroughly with ice cubes. Strain into a 12-ounce glass filled with shaved ice. Fill glass with soda. Stir gently.


3 oz. Jamaica rum
1 oz. sugar syrup
2 oz. lemon juice
2-3 dashes Angostura bitter

Shake the ingredients vigorously with crush ice and pour, without straining, into a tall glass. Pack the glass to the top with more crushed ice, fill to within one-half inch with soda water, then churn with a bar spoon until the glass starts to frost. Decorate with fruit.

DeGroff's punch is probably the outright tastiest. Irresistible, really. No surprise there, since, to Dale, a top priority is always that a drink should taste good. The addition of pineapple juice and curacao do the trick in spades.

Trader Vic's version No. 1 I found the most disappointing. An outright failure, actually. Much too much lemon juice, and too little sweetener, make this cocktail too acidic, while the meager measure of rum and too ample contribution of soda water down its impact.

Vic's version No. 2 is much better. More rum, more sweetener, less lemon juice—it's all to the good. And the additional grenadine give the drink a pleasing ruby hue.

Embury's I would call a classicist's Planter's Punch—nice and simple. The large dose of dark rum and 1 ounce of syrup easily take on the 2 ounces of lemon juice, and the hearty spurt of Angostura lends a nice edge. I'd put it up with DeGroff's in palatableness, though the taste profile is quite different. It also gets points for being terribly easy to make at home. But, really, all except Vic's No. 1 are worth a try.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Not a Neon Sign You See Every Day

In the window of a Peruvian restaurant on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.