Wednesday, September 30, 2009

City Winery Wine: Actually, Not Bad!

While I always liked the idea of Michael Dorf's City Winery—the bar, restaurant, music hall and working winery situated in the heart of Tribeca—I was also more than a little skeptical of the kind of wine the place would turn out. A music impresario who fell in love with wine and suddenly decided to make his own? Hmm. Of course, my feelings about the possible product didn't matter in most cases, since I would never taste it; most of the barrels are privately owned by celebs and rich enthusiasts who have the bucks to heavily invest in their passion for vino. But Dorf said early on that some barrels would be reserved for use in the restaurant and be served by the glass. I was intrigued, but would the resultant wine actually be good-good, or just good-interesting?

I tried a few times last spring to sample one of the house wines, but the staff could never tell me if the stuff was actually ready to serve yet. So I gave up on the quest for a bit. The other day, however, I renewed my mission, and scored. There was Zinfandel, there was Chardonnay, there was Rose. What would I like? Since it was 11:30 AM (hey, you sieze your opportunities when they arise), I went for the white.

I was poured a nice, ample dose of a sunny, golden liquid. It was 100% Chard, I was told, from Lake County, California, fermented in steel tanks, unfined and unfiltered. For seeing no oak, the white still possessed a ripe roundness. It's was pleasingly medium-full in body, with some impressive acidity supporting the flavors of green apple and pear. I have to say it was rather well done for a first try, quite fresh and attractive. Nice job.

The homemade hooches are given snappy names. The Chard is called Downtown White, while the red has the much cooler name of Van Dam Zin (named after nearby Van Dam Street). I didn't try the Zin, because it was a whopping 15.5% alcohol. I sniffed a bruiser and I didn't want to spoil the pleasant impression left by the Chard. Another time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How Many Creme de Violettes Do We Need?

At the Winebow tasting in New York last week, I was informed by the men manning the spirits section of the hall that the distributor had added a Creme de Violette to their portfolio.

An item from the large French distillery, Pages (which is part of the Verrenne company), the liqueur is called Page Parfait Amour, which is a category of liqueur unto itself which seems to take many forms, but in this case uses violets from the south of France in its distillate. (It was presented to me as a Creme de Violette.) Add this to the Creme de Violette put out by Haus Alpenz last year, and Creme Yvette, the proprietary brand that will be reintroduced by Robert Cooper this fall, after a 40 year absence on the market, and that's three Creme de Violettes (or purple liqueurs, anyway) to make your Aviation cocktails with.

Page Parfait is one of the many liqueurs that have been bought up in recent years by Jean-Pierre Cointreau. Yes, he's one of those Cointreaus, only he hasn't had anything to do with the famous liqueur that bears his name since his family divested themselves from Remy Cointreau in 1990. But he's kept busy, acquiring a liqueur here, a Champagne there and such.

Verdenne has been around since 1923. It is the third leading French producer of fruit liqueurs and crème liqueurs. In 1997 Védrenne merged with the Pagès Distillery.

I found the Parfait Amour to be less violet-driven than the Alpenz, but not as heavily fruity as the Yvette. It's somewhere in the middle, and light in body. Quite good.

Also on offer at the show (but not available to buy in the U.S.) was the Pages liqueur Verleine Velay Verte, a vibrant, green-tinted herbal liqueur that many compare to Chartreuse, though the flavor is actually quite different.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In Praise of Don Lee's Celery & Nori

One of the best new cocktails in New York has got to be the Celery & Nori at the Momofuku Ssam Bar in the East Village. This is a bit ironic, since it's a drink you can't get by itself, but must order as a companion to a meal. (Momofuku is too small and too popular a restaurant to waste one of its precious bar stools on a mere tippler.)

The drink is the work of Don Lee, late of PDT, but now in charge of Momofuku's growing drinks program. Lee, of course, is the man who rocked the cocktail world with his technique for "fat-washing" bourbon, resulting in the Benton's Old Fashioned, the massively popular (and much imitated) PDT staple.

Several of the original cocktails at Momofuku have a Asian bent. There's the Sake Lemonade, and the Reverend Palmer, which is grounded on Ceylon black tea-infused Elijah Craig bourbon. But, by Lee's own admission, the most interesting cocktail on the menu is the Celery & Nori (sometimes call the Celery & Nori Old Fashioned). A lot of new cocktails today give you a sense of déjà vu. They taste like something else you've had before. But I've never quite tasted anything Celery & Nori.

The drink is made of nori-infused Laird's apple brandy, celery syrup and celery bitters (nori, by the way, is the Japanese name for various edible seaweed species you see wrapped around your sushi rolls). It's a serious "up" drink, like a Sazerac, though not nearly as moody. You're meant to sip it, take your time. The aroma tickles your nose, like the first breaths of springtime. There are leafy, slightly minty notes, which go nicely with the apple flavors from the Laird's. Unlike most new drink, upon having one, I immediately wanted to have another.

Wish I had taken a picture of it. (That photo up top is of another Momofuku cocktail.) Guess I was enjoying it too much to think that far ahead.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tanqueray Now Also Functions as a Lamp!

Even as the Great Recession rages, elite packaging of prestige spirits continues to veer toward the absurd.

I've seen more elaborate packages that this one, newly designed by Jeremy Scott for the premium gin Tanqueray Ten, but few that have an odder visual effect. Is it just me, or does the box, when opened, make the gin look like a lamp? And the inside pattern of the box rather looks like wallpaper, right? It's a tiny Tanqueray living room.

Darkness from Argentina

I doubt that famed French wine consultant Michel Rolland will ever overcome the portrait painted of him in the film "Mondovino" of a cackling, smoking Machiavelli, coaxed winemakers into the fruit-forward, oak-heavy International Style of wine from the back of his chauffeur-driven car. That portrayal was perhaps unfair. Certainly, the filmmaker of "Mondovino" had an agenda (one that I freely admit I share) against the homogenization, Parker-ization of wine, and in favor of the individual expressive of terroir and character.

But one thing's undeniable: if you saw the film, the image stayed with you. Rolland cut's an unforgettable figure. It was certainly my first thought when a bottle of Clos de Los Siete came through the mail. This Argentinean wine is Rolland's 20-year-old project. In 1988, along with six Bordelais partners, he touring the wine regions of Argentina looking for a vineyard location to make wine. He and he collaborators settled on a region 100 km sound of Mendoza, in the heart of the Uco Valley. The land was prepared, rocks removed, gullies filled, dirp irrigation installed.

The first vintage was the 2002. The name Clos de Los Siete refers to the seven partners. However, Roland's name is the only one that's one the label. Clearly, the winemakers think his is a marketable brand. No doubt it is.

The 2007 has just been released. And it's just as big, as juicy, as inky and oaked a wine as you'd expect, not only from Argentina, but from Rolland. The blend is 48% Malbec, 28% percent Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Syrah. An international marriage of Argentina and France, then. The alcohol level is 14.5%.

The nose is powerful, hitting you with spice and blackberry and black current. Blackberry, in fact, is the keynote of the whole affair. It comes up strongly on the palate, along with tobacco, dark cherry, pepper, spice and clove. It's a big mouthful, smooth overall with a touch of roughness at the back. There's a nice acidity to lift up the overall heaviness of the juice. One could say it's sufficiently balanced. I was surprised to read there had been no filtering or fining. It's rough edges were few.

But there are not surprises here. This is absolutely the sort of wine you'd expect from Rolland. I could have, perhaps, made a tasting note similar to the one above before even opening the bottle, by simply relying on my expectations given the place of origin and the author. Furthermore, I would take issue with the press materials that state "Clos de Los Siete's Distinct Terroir Shines Through." I detect no terroir in this wine. It could just as easily been made in Australia, Napa, Languadoc, Chianti.

I make no denial that this isn't really my kind of wine. However, it's a good example of its type. There is skill in play here and it may very well appeal to the sort of enthusiast who revels in big South American reds. Certainly the price ($19) places it in the realm of a bargain.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Sipping News

Dr. Bamboo, out of stubborn contrariness, samples several of the available—and by cocktail snobs, deeply loathed—spiced rums.

Germany wants to build a ghastly bridge across the river Mosel, and through some famous vineyards, all to cut a half hour from the commute from Frankfurt-Hahn airport to Belgium and Holland. The proposed highway will run above a clutch of other fabled sites, including the vineyards of Zeltingen, Graach, Wehlen, and Bernkastel. Said American importer Terry Theise about the politicians pushing the project: "This is a de facto statement about what they cherish or don't cherish, and to go ahead with this is a philistine's judgment. [The Mosel wines] constitute a symbol of Germany's contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity. It does not seem wise to devalue such a thing, or to risk desecrating it for the sake of a motorway." [Slate]

Guinness is 250 years old. [Serious Eats]

Ft. Defiance has reopened in Red Hook. [Village Voice] And, turns out, the DOH was wrong to close it in the first place. [Eater]

A Visit to Minetta Tavern

Keith McNally's redo of the classic Minetta Tavern has been getting a lot of attention lately, most of it good (the reviews), some of it bad (the flap about the difficulty of scoring prime-time reservations) So, I decided, somewhat counter-intuitively, it was high time I stopped by to check out the drink program.

A large, bald men was guarded the door. (They're all large and bald, aren't they?) A bouncer/doorman is a relatively rarity in the New York fine dining world. But I guess if you're hot....

I asked if I could get in and have a drink at the bar. "It's pretty packed in there. Try in 20 minutes." The guy was pretty pleasant and sincere about it, so I went across the street to the Rabbit Club and had a beer. No bouncer there. 20 minutes later I tried again. The doorman remembered me and squeaked me in. (I have found if you treat bouncers decently, and talk to them in an even, reasonable, friendly voice, you will go a long way.) The man was right; the place was densely packed. Every stool was taken, and what slim excess bar space there was was packed with well-toned, well-dressed flesh.

The bartenders were three in number, and mature of age. No whippersnappers. They knew what they were doing and worked cheerfully and efficiently. Cocktail-wise, there were six classics (Blood & Sand, Champagne Cocktail, Tom Collins, Martinez, Hemingway Daquiri, etc.) and 10 "house cocktails." A Maple Leaf Sazerac stood out (maple cordial instead of sugar) and a Rhubarb Sophie (vodka, cucumber, agave nectar, rhubarb bitters, lime juice). But I went for the Dodd Cocktail, mainly because it involved bourbon and egg white. It also has absinthe, lemon and peach bitters. The bartender shook the concoction dry and then with ice, and served it up in a martini glass.

It was good, as you might expect. But with each sip, it seemed more and more one-note. It's depth didn't grow, but shrank. Not bad, but I'll have to try a few more to see where this cocktail program is. All drinks are $14, making Minetta more expensive, per drink, that the city's best cocktail dens.

I like the general vibe of the place though. It still feels like the classic tavern it always was, what with the caricatures, murals, tin ceiling and tile floors. But now it's spruce and vibrant, not drab and sad. And it pulsates with a kind of urban evening entertainment you can only find in New York. It's a Gotham hot spot in the best, most romantic sense of the term.

Underberg Enjoyed By the Glass in Brooklyn

I don't know whether it's a nod to its dedication to German cuisine, or classic cocktails, or both, but Prime Meats, the Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, bar and restaurant, has taken to serving Underberg bitters by the glass.

You know Underberg. It's that little tiny bottle in the green and white label. It comes from Germany, where it's been manufactured as a digestif and curative since 1846. The bottles are single serving only and meant to be downed in one gulp at the end of the meal. The potion is made from a selection of the aromatic herbs from 43 countries, and definitely puts the "bitter" in bitters.

Underberg's a kooky little company. They've got their one product and their ride it hard. Promotional literature reads like something you might taken away from an evangelist's tent. (I love how they harp on the fact that it will make you feel "bright and alert," like some 19th century Bavarian schoolchild. Other gems: it works "pleasantly, with a calming effect; as a relaxant in stressful situations"; "The Underberg herbs are a gift of nature.") All of its elements, including shape of the bottle, colour, packaging and the Underberg name are trade marked and copyrighted.

And there's tons of paraphernalia. You can buy an Underberg belt, a Wild West-like item that has holes all around it not for bullets, but little Underberg bottles. When Prime Meats signed on to the Underberg bandwagen, they were given a circular iron rack to rest the bottles in, sort of like the old wire racks that used to hold hard-boiled eggs at some taverns. They were also given a ton of dedicated Underberg glassware. This is an incredibly tall, thin, aperitif glass. It was created by the founder Hubert Underberg, together with glass blowers from Murano, and first displayed at the 1867 World Exposition in Paris. That was a good move by Hubert. There's no mistaking who's enjoying a glass of Underberg at a restaurant. Those beakers stand out a mile.

I watched one diner at Prime Meats order his after-dinner Underberg. The waiter served the towering crystal with care, pouring the black bitter liquid in the small cavity near the top. The patron—it seemed to me—solemnly contemplated the glass for a good 30 seconds, not moving or saying a word. He then seized it by its stem, downed it quickly, and returned the glass to its place. After dabbing his lips with a napkin, he left.

It was impressive, and vaguely continental. It could catch on, folks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Priorat Find

I won't pretend to have tasted every new wine at the recent Martin Scott fall portfolio showing a week ago, but of the wines I did taste, there was one find that stood out.

This was the new Ferrer-Bobet, a youthful new vineyard in the Priorat region of Spain. It's run by two friends, Sergi Ferrer-Salat (who was at the tasting, a tall, gangling young man with curly black hair and thick black glasses; a picture of the young hip winemaker if there ever was one) and Raul Bobet. They preach respect for Priorat's terroir and are committed to showing it in their wines. The duo are using some of the oldest wine in the Priorat region, including 100-year-old Grenache and Carignan wines. The wines are at high elevations and primarily lie on slate soil (known as "llicorella" locally, and a type of slate soil supposedly only seen in Priorat). The height allows for optimum ripness while preserving acidity. Each parcel is vinified individually. The wines are aged in French oak barriques for a minimum of 15 months and bottled unfined and unfiltered.

These guys seem to put a lot of thought into everything. Their winery building is itself both a wild modernist thing and a gesture toward environmental harmony. Perched on a cliff overlooking a steep valley, its curved lines look like the hull of a ship about to set sail into the Spanish air. Only one story, housing the visitor center, is visible to the eye. Most of the winery is located underground, like some top-secret lair. Alien could have designed it, then left Earth, leaving us mortals to wonder what they were up to. Yet, it melds seamlessly into the landscape, like just another rocky outcropping.

Six years of work produced the two men's first two bottlings: Ferrer Bobet 2005 and Berrer Bobet Seleccio Especial. The 2006s were on offer at the Martin Scott event. I found both to be marvelously well-balanced, structured wines, fresh-tasting with deep and complex fruit and soil flavors, marvelously redolent of their terroir. On first taste, they reminded me of the wines of another nearby producer, Capcanes, located in the southeastern appellation of Montsant, particularly their excellent Peraj Ha'abib, which also uses Grenache and Carignan. The Ferrer Bobet is 70% old Carignan and 30% Grenache with 15% alcohol. The Seleccio Especial is 95% Carignan and only 5% Grenache. It is aged in barrels 18 months and in bottle 11 months. Again, it is 15% alcohol, yet the wine is nimble on its feet.

The leading wine magazine in Spain has called Ferrer-Bobet the best wine in Spain for two years running. They don't seem as well known in the U.S. yet. That can't last, particularly since the entry level wine is priced well below what it goes for in Spain.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Visit to the Seelbach Bar

The Seelbach Bar, located just to the right of the soaring lobby in Louisville's grand old downtown Seelbach Hotel, has two claims to fame that make it a worthy visit for the tavern collector. One: F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly frequented it before he found fame. He found enough favor with the bar that he gave the hotel a solitary mention in "The Great Gatsby." (In the novel, it's where Tom and Daisy Buchanan got married.) The owners of the Seelbach play up this slim connection to literary notoriety shamelessly. There's even a suite named after Fitzgerald.

The Fitzgerald link may be true, but the problem is the Seelbach Bar of today looks nothing like the Seelbach Bar Fitzgerald knew. His bar was opulent and grand, with a lot of white marble along and behind the bar. The marble was all removed during prohibition. Today's Seelbach Bar is a homey, wood-laden cove; welcoming, certainly, and with a curious bi-level charm, some tables placed on a wraparound mezzanine that looks down a mere six feet on the tables in the center. It has a vaguely maritime feel to it. I don't know if I'd call it one of "The 50 Best Bars in the World," as the Independent of London did, but it's appealing enough. Certainly a step or two above most hotel bars.

The Seelbach Bar's second claim to fame is the Seelbach Cocktail, a drink invented in 1917, just before the clock struck midnight and Prohibition began. According to Ted Haigh's book "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails" (recently rereleased), the libation would be lost today if not for the exertions of cocktail historian Gary Regan. In 1995, the hotel's restaurant director Adam Seger found the recipe for the forgotten drink, and decided to start making it again. Seger intended to keep the formula a secret (always a blueprint for disaster; note all the work Jeff Berry had to go through to discover all the secret recipes to the great tiki drinks of old), but Regan convinced him to let him published it in his 1997 book "New Classic Cocktails."

A Seelbach is made of bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and five whopping ounces of Champagne. I did not order a Seelbach Cocktail, perhaps foolishly, though I did taste one. My fellow journalist Liza Weisstuch was drinking one and gave me a sip. I was rather unimpressed, finding it a bit insipid and weak. I suspect the Champagne was of low quality.

I decided, instead, to spend my money on straight bourbon. Like most of the top bars in Louisville, the Seelbach touts its bourbon selection. And it is a lengthy and impressively list. Proof, another bar down the road, had an even more impressive list. But I was perpetually frustrated upon visiting Louisville bars. When I travel, I like to search out the drink, the liquor, the dish that I can't get anywhere else. I'm obsessed with the regional delicacy, the local poison. But, try as I might, I could not find a bourbon in Louisville that I could not easily get (not just by the bottle, but by the glass) in New York. The bartender at Proof suggested Noah's Mill as a whisky unobtainable in Gotham. No. I could think of three places in my neighborhood alone where I could order a dram. He offered a couple other idea. No, and no. Every name was familiar to me.

Getting past my irritation, I settled on Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and was pleased.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Roman Roth Riesling, Take 2

I'm a big fan of vintner Roman Roth's mission to draw fine riesling out of the Long Island soil, so I was inordinately excited when a bottle of his 2008 Grapes of Roth Riesling came through the mail. This is only the second riesling vintage for Roth, the first debuting last year.

The fruit source for the 2008 Riesling is 68% Split Rock Vineyard, located just east of Greenport, located on the far end of the North Fork (one does taste that maritime influence, and 32% is from Martha Clara Vineyards, located in the warmer Riverhead area. Roth describes the grapes as being perfectly ripe when he picked them. This would explain the marked increase in alcohol content. The 2007 came in at a super-low (for American wines) 9.6%. The 2008 graduates to 10.8%.

The project appears to be maturing, with significant differences in the two vintages. Fermentation was done in stainless steel. After racking , the wine sat on the fine lees till mid-January and was then filtered. Some Süssreserve was then added from the same lot.

If there is a common thread to Roth's riesling this early on in the game, it their metallic edge. One of the first things I wrote down while tasting this wine was "metal shavings." I didn't look at my 2007 note before tasting the 2008, but when I did check back I saw that I have written the same note, "metal shavings," last years. It's not a descriptor I use often, so that aspect of the juice must speak loudly to my palate.

I found the 2008 to be less fruity and instantly appealing than the 2007, but arguably more interesting. I wondered if it might change in a month or two, growing into something more complex. Most of the fruit came on the nose: light honeysuckle, lime, lemon, gooseberry, green apple, light tropical notes, white raspberry. When it passes the lips, lime and lemon are pretty much all you're going to find in terms of fruit, maybe some quinces and kumquat. The mineral and metal aspects dominate, all but swamping the fruit. It's a tight and controlled wine, very disciplined. Not that any of this is bad. It's a well-made wine, one suited to seafood and fish. But a touch more fruit to round it out wouldn't have hurt. I look forward to what Roth will fine in his grapes next summer.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Beer at...Denny's Steak Pub

I've often gotten off at the Church Avenue stop on the F line, on my way to doing some food shopping along Borough Park's 13th Avenue. Each time, I've taken a long look at Denny's Steak Pub, which anchors the intersection of Church and Beverly and wondered about the place. This week, I finally ventured in for my latest "A Beer At..." column for Eater.

A Beer at...Denny's Steak Pub

Like many other old, outer-borough bars in this city, Denny's Steak Pub in Kensington has a disused kitchen in the back. You can still get a $5 pizza heated up if you like (and not a bad pie for the price), but if you're looking for the steak that gave Denny's its middle name, keep looking. Maybe it's at the bottom of that bowl of stale fritos on the bar.

Denny's got its first name from Denny Ryan, the original owner, since deceased. His son runs it now. Though the corner tavern, which sits right above the Church Avenue F train stop, looks old as hell, it's actually the bar's second coming. The original Denny's was at Seventh Avenue and Ninth Street in Park Slope—there's a black and white picture above the old cash register. The register survived the move. The "new" Denny's is 39 years young, founded in 1975.

It's small inside. Brick pillars and arches, and dark linoleum give the place a snug, warm air. There's pool, if you've got the quarters, and darts, if you don't. Players range from a drunk hotshot who could hit four balls in with one shot, even with a load on; to a Yuppie greenhorn who managed to knock the cue ball clear off the table. Four televisions play whatever game's on. Turn away from the bar and look at the corner near the door, however, and you might catch James Stewart and Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." (Hitchcock? WTF? Maybe Denny's is deeper than it looks.)

It's hard to tell if people have left at Denny's. They'll abandon their drinks on the bar for a half hour while they take a very long smoke outside. And everyone seems to smoke. "Where's Jay?" said the bartender, looking down at a half-drunk Bud and a $10 bill. "Did he go?" He didn't. Jay came back in 15 minutes and had another. It's a middle-aged, blue-collar crowd mainly, but that doesn't mean they're narrow-minded. Everyone joined in the birthday celebration of one half of a very out, 40-something lesbian couple, singing along with ABBA, giving and receiving kisses and yelling at the television when a Yankees-Blue Jays brawl emptied both benches. "Wait! They're fighting!" "My God, they're fighting!" "Of course they're fighting! But what for?" "My God, it's a free-for-all!" (They said the same things five minutes later, when the melee was replayed, thinking it was a new brawl.)

The next inning, the losing Yankees hit a few runners in. The pool-playing Yuppie came up to the bar for shots. The bartender poured generously. "What are these? Rally shots?" asked the disbelieving, but happy man. "No," said the bartender. "Regular shots."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Wine List For You!

With its starkly modern new design, enomatic wine bar and so-hip-its-square new new, SD26 may be trying too hard to shake off the stuffy, staid image of its previous incarnation San Domenico. But I had to admit that its new wireless wine list caught my attention.

That's right, SD26 has dispensed with the traditional, leather-bound wine book in favor of a 9-by-5-inch gizmo that looks a lot like my son's DS player. You start out by pressing "red," "white," "rose" or whatever, then go on to country, region, varietal and other categories until you see what your choices are. There are helpful descriptions of various wine-growing areas and grapes, as well as tasting notes on the wines. The devices, of which SD26 has 30, contain about 1,000 wine choices.

Similar computerized wine lists have already been seen at restaurants like Adour and wine bars like Clo. But those were embedded into tabletops and bars. According to the wine director, Jason Ferris, SD26 is the only restaurant in New York to be equipped with the new hand-held objects. (I expect that exclusivity will last about a month or two.) Called Smartcellar, the machines were designed by Incentient.

Ferris said there are no paper wine lists, should a customer balk at using the computerized wine list. This surprised me. Many of San Domenico's patrons skewed elderly and I expect some of them will follow owner Tony May down to Madison Square. I can't imagine they're all cotton to having to undergo a computer tutorial in order to purchase wine with dinner. There are a lot of iPhone and blackberry users out there, true, but there are a lot of computer illiterates as well. (I lie somewhere in the middle.) Having to teach each and every customer how to use the Smartceller will be time-consuming and gum up the sommeliers' busy schedule. (The new SD26 is a huge place with many seats.) Me? I'd have a few paper wine lists stashed away somewhere just in case.

But, hey, my son's gonna lost that Smartceller. Next time I go to SD26, I'm handing that wine list right to him and have him pick something out. Now, if they could just put Lego Battles on the thing to keep the boy busy the rest of the evening, my wife and I could have a dinner in peace.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mad Men and Drinking, Season Three, Part II: Don Draper Makes an Old Fashioned

Perhaps the most cocktail-centric moment in the entire history of the AMC series "Mad Men" comes in "My Old Kentucky Home," the third episode of the third season. That lead character Don Draper likes Old Fashioneds, we know. In a central scene in this episode, we actually get to see him make one.

Trapped at a country club event thrown by his boss, Roger Sterling (mint juleps are served—it's a Kentucky Derby theme), Draper escapes to the club's bar room in search of liquid relief more to his liking. There he hops behind the bar and has at the bottles and equipment like a pro. Or, at least, like a man who knows what he wants.

First he grabs two rocks glasses and plops a good-sized sugar cube in each. He then takes out the Old Overholt—the first time this rye brand has been featured on the show. He soaks the cubes with a good amount of bitters (Angostura, I assume, though the bottle he used was unmarked and didn't have Angostura's distinctive oversized label). That done, he takes a large mixing glass, fills it with ice to chill. Draper pours in about four ounces of rye and tops that with soda water. He then muddles away at the two glasses, which now contain a cherry. (He is not seen putting those in.) He gives the bar glass mixture a quick stir with a bar spoon, and then pours the contents, ice and all, in even amounts into the rocks glasses, and drops an orange slice on top of each drink. When he hands one of the cocktails to his only companion in the room, a southerner named Connie (who may or may not be Conrad Hilton).

Not the most graceful way to make an Old Fashioned. All that unneeded soda, no jiggering, too much bitters and the sloppy transfer of the whisky and ice into the glasses. But probably an accurate example for the time, considering it's a depiction of a regular 1960s guy making himself a drink in the way he's become accustomed to it. Anyway, Connie called it "a hell of a cocktail."

Otherwise, the episode saw various members of "creative" at Sterling Cooper trying to hatch ideas for a Bacardi campaign called "Bacardi Beach."

In episode five, "The Fog," Don, while waiting for Betty to give birth to their third child, shares a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label with an expectant father prison guard in the "solarium" at the hospital. The Walker label and bottle hasn't changed much over the years. Later, Peggy Olson has a Bloody Mary at lunch with Herman "Duck" Philips, a Draper antagonist from season two who makes a reappearance.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Visit to Ft. Defiance

Too many of the menus at the new cocktail meccas are overly complex. They read like the multi-page, laminated menus you find at entrenched Greek diners; too many sections, categories and choices, confusingly arranged. So the clean and simple bill of fare at Red Hook's Ft. Defiance is a welcome deviation from the norm.

I'm sure owner St. John Frizell, a former bartender at Pegu Club and The Good Fork (as well as a fellow journalist), could make you any drink you cared to order, but he's listed only nine on his debut menu, three of them being twists on that neglected and somewhat disdained standard, the Tom Collins. (Simple drink for a simple menu—makes sense.) Similarly, the wine list is compact, 12 choices in all; there are only four beers (Six Point and Abita among them) offered on draft; three cheeses and meat apiece; and the lunch menu boasts four sandwiches only.

The key to the success of Ft. Defiance's approach—and it is a success—is every item is selected with care and, in the case of the cocktails and the food, meticulously prepared. The delicious coffee, each cup individually dripped, comes from North Carolina's Counter Culture. The egg creams are made with a sophisticated seltzer system set up by a Brooklyn seltzer man whose father used to own egg cream carts all around the city. The Tom Collinses benefit from homemade lemonade made with that seltzer. (The seltzer, available for $1, is delicious on its own, with a crystalline purity that led me to think of it as the Vodka of Seltzers.) The bread for the muffuletta, which is patterned after the famous version of the New Orleans staple made at Central Grocery, is made with bread specially supplied by Brooklyn's Royal Crown. Wherever you look at Ft. Defiance, you see the results of careful forethought.

I've had the muffuletta sandwich three times and can attest to its excellence, and its resemblance to the same sandwich as served in New Orleans. (For the uninitiated, the muffuletta is large circular sandwich, typically served in quarters or halves, owning to its great size. Inside are layers of capicola, salami, mortadella, swiss, and provolone, covered with a marinated olive salad, though the ingredients can vary.)

The cocktail list reflects the places visited by Frizell, who is an authority on Charles H. Baker Jr., the globe-trotting mixologist and cocktail writer of the mid-20th century. The Colonial Cooler, a type of Pimm's Cup, was invented at the Sandakan Club in British West Borneo in 1926; the Bardados Buck came to life at the British Club in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1930. The Prescription Julep, one of the most expensive drinks on the list ($10), comes from a 1957 copy of Harper's Monthly "via David Wondrich." It used Cognac and rye and, if my eyes did not deceive me, a splash of Gosling's rum on top. Frizell serves it with a sprig of mint and a cherry. It's a powerful and satisfying drink to be approached with caution and a smile.

There's plenty to simple refreshment to be found among the cocktails. The Watermelon Gin Punch, a Frizell invention, was was made for summer, as is the Tom Collins and the Cucumber Collins. (I did not sample the SUMO Collins.) Moreover, Ft. Defiance is more relaxed than many other cocktail joints I've been to in recent months. There's no hauteur or pretense. The vibe is a corner hangout where they just happen to do everything well.

I'm happy I got to Ft. Defiance as many times as I did in the past few weeks, because today, intending to lunch there, I was greeted by a sign saying the place had been closed down by the Department of Health for a very curious reason. The DOH decreed on Sept. 11 that "a restaurant with gas equipment—and no gas service—cannot be allowed to operate." Apparently, Ft. Defiance has been trying to hook up its gas for weeks, but to no avail. Frizell expects to open within a week.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sommelier Smackdown

I was invited recently to an event at the Midtown restaurant Nios called a "Sommelier Smackdown," a title which was about half right. On one side, trying to find the best wine pairings for each course of a three-tier meal was Emily Wines, the San Francisco sommelier, whose first New York wine program Nios is. On the other side, however, was Jim Meehan, the owner of the East Village speakeasy PDT.

This is not what you'd call a fair fight. Not that Wines and Meehan aren't both talented—they are, abundantly. But, to my mind, 9 times out of 10, nothing marries better with a meal than wine. Not beer, not spirits, not cocktails. Also, inviting Meehan to a "Sommelier Smackdown" is like asking Johnny Appleseed to complete at the annual orange festival. Wine and cocktails are just too different.

Still, all parties seemed game. And it was designed as a lark to begin with, so why carp. So off we all went to the first course, a corn risotto. Emily Wines—who has the most professionally advantageous name is the history of specialized labor (and it is her real name)—poured a Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2007. It was round and buttery, not the sort of Chard I typically like. But I had to admit is was a good partner to the risotto. I like a bit of butter on my corn, don't you?

But Meehan countered with a surprisingly sophisticated creation. (Not surprising in its invention, since Meehan has plenty of that, but in the way it perfectly coupled with the food.) The cocktail was called an Imperial Silver Corn Fizz. It was a combination of homemade corn water (you read that right—corn water), Makers Mark bourbon, honey syrup, champagne and egg white, shaken into a frothy concoction that was pale yellow at bottom, white on top. If there was such a thing as creamed corn whiskey, it might taste like this lightly sweet, absolutely unusual drink. The crowd adored it. I told Meehan the drink was good enough, and strange enough, to become a permanent fall-time edition to the PDT menu. People will take about his corn water the way they talked about Don Lee's bacon-infused bourbon.

For the next course, a rack of lamb with grilled figs and fingerling potatoes wrapped in jamón serrano, Wines, with be-baubled neck, leaned over with a bottle of 2006 Gai'a Estates Agiorgitiko, a well-chosen, light-bodied, dark-colored, woody Greek with bark-like tannins. Meehan was on less-certain ground, offering The Senor Smackdown, a mix of tequila, lime juice, Dry Sack sherry, Benedictine, fig jam, and lime zest, shaken. It was a great cocktail, which easily sucked me down into its intoxicating world, but it felt out of context. The fig connection was not enough to tie it in.

Meehan bounced back a bit at dessert, which was a rose petal panna cotta with pomegranate foam. His Raspberries Reaching cocktail was one of the most beautiful and elegant mixed drinks I've ever laid eyes on. Maybe too beautiful. Fragile, even. Trimbach Framboise eau-de-vie, 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú, pomegranate liqueur, and a few drops of rose flower water, were its ingredients. A rose petal was its garnish. An almost magically floral drink, a fine match was such a delicate dessert. Wines' parry was, I felt, her major slip-up of the evening. Trying a bit too hard, she topped a perfectly fine off-dry sparkling wine from the Savoie region, NV Patrick Bottex Cerdon de Bugey "La Cuille," with rosewater and floating pomegranate seeds. The seeds made it a frustrating business getting your mouth to the wine, which, frankly, would have suited on its own. There's a wine for every dish, I say. Trust it. Don't adorn it.

Everyone voted, assignment a numerical score to each contestant per course. When the tallying was done, Emily won, 216 to 205. Meehan was the first course; Wines the second and third. But Meehan's Imperial Silver Corn Fizz was without question the drink of the evening.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"The Best Gibson I've Ever Had"

That's the response I've heard twice in one week upon serving different guests that simplest of drinks, the Gibson—or, as it is better known to the world, a Martini with a cocktail onion.

I was a bit taken aback by these laurels. But I had to admit: the Gibsons were damn good, better than any I'd every had in a bar. What made them so perfect? The gin? The vermouth? No, though I did use Plymouth gin and Dolin dry vermouth, so I was working with, arguably, the top ingredients on the market.

What's left, of course, is the onions, the only other ingredient in the drink.

A couple weeks back, I went on one of my periodic home-scientist kicks. Having run out of Luxardo maraschino cherries, and disgusted with the sort of garnishing cherries and onions that could be had in the market, I decided to make my own. Hardly a new idea. Bartenders and home enthusiasts have been making their own maraschino cherries for years now. (Onions, not so much.) I quickly whipped up two different recipes for cherries, one taken from the New York Times (ridiculously simple, but good), one from Sloshed (brandied cherries, really). Both turned out well, and were easy to make.

The onions were another matters. First of all, pearl onions aren't always the easiest thing to find. Second, you have to sit down and peel the tiny skins off every one of those bloody white orbs, which takes a bit of time. Finally, there aren't many recipes for cocktail onions out there, and the one I settled on was hardly what you would call a snap.

It was adapted from "Raising The Bar," the 2004 book by Nick Mautone, former manager of New York's Gotham Bar and Grill, and Gramercy Tavern. It called for 13 ingredients. I might have thrown up my hands right there, but, by some bizarre twist of fate, I actually had every one of the ingredients on hand, including the fresh rosemary, from a pot of the herb that I grow on my windowsill. (Why I had juniper berries in my spice cupboard, I can not tell you. I don't remember ever buying them.) And so I worked away:

1 pound, pearl onions
1/2 cup, sherry vinegar or white vinegar
1/2 cup, cider vinegar
1/2 cup, water
1/2 cup, salt
1/4 cup, sugar
1/2 teaspoon, mustard seed
24 juniper berries
12 peppercorns
6 allspice berries
1 rosemary branch or
1 teaspoon, dried rosemary
1 dried chile pepper
1 cup, dry vermouth

Add all of the remaining ingredients except the vermouth to a medium-size saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the onions to the saucepan, reduce the heat, and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the onions to cool in the liquid. Stir in the vermouth. Transfer the cooled onions and liquid to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator.

This is worth the effort, I promise you. The resultant onions are easily 50 times more flavorful than any you would buy in the store. They possess layers of flavor rarely found in pickled objects of any sort. What's more, the smallest raw pearl onions on the market are still about four times bigger than the largest you will see in store-bought jars. So the influence a single onion has on a Gibson is profound. The garnish genuinely contributes to the character profile of the cocktail. It's not merely a surprise treat you get at the bottle of the glass; its impact is felt from the first sip. Gibsons are no longer all about gin-soaked onions, but also onion-tinged gin. And that's a good thing—trust me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Night They Devalued Champagne

Alice Fiering has a long, probing article in the Wall Street Journal Magazine about just how bad things have gotten in the most luxurious of wine regions, Champagne. Seems the recession has proved many of bubbly's fans to be fair weather friends at best. $10 bottles of Prosecco are the popular dates at liquor stores, while the Cristal and Krug have become unlikely wallflowers waiting, somewhat desperately, to be asked to dance.

According to the article, sales are off 50 percent for the basic stuff, and down 85 percent for the fancy. The Champenois aren't used to courting their customers, but they've been forced to cut prices and deploy some inventive marketing to keep the buyer interested during times when a bottle of the best stuff might be best used to buy a week's worth of groceries:

What Moët Hennessy is really looking to do is to get into the conscious dreams of those living in regions that they’d never given much thought to. Mark Bodi, chairman of New Hampshire’s liquor commission, was delighted when Moët suggested it sponsor stores within state wine stores, based on the dutyfree-shop concept. To kick off the partnership, an increased order of 2,000 cases of the company’s champagnes were shipped north to sit on fancy backlit shelving. In politics, the nation follows New Hampshire— could this be a bellwether for champagne? Their sales are up in the pilot store in Hampton, N.H., by 30 percent.

The bright side to all of this is that consumers are in for a bargain or two, particularly around the holidays, should the recession persist (which it surely will). Additionally, perhaps we are through, for a time, with the decadent silliness that became rampant during the boom years. Examples pointing out by Fiering:

Perrier-Jouët’s By and For line released a $70,000-a-case champagne they referred to as bespoke, and Veuve Clicquot teamed up with Porsche Design to make Vertical Limit, a $70,000 cellar that looked like a high-tech iron maiden and held 12 magnums of vintage champagne, going back to 1955.

Daniel Lorson, communications director of the trade organization Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), told Fiering, “The bling-bling side, the artifi cial luxury side of champagne, is dead. It’s now about authenticity.”

How can that be bad?

Eben Freeman Leaves Tailor

The main reason that cocktailians go to SoHo restaurant and bar Tailor—bartender and mixologist Eben Freeman—has vanished.

Freeman, it was announced, has left Tailor and begun to consider other opportunities "in the US and part-time abroad in Asia." Asia! (Today's barkeeps certainly do get around.)

Tailor's been having its share of trouble in recent months. Sam Mason's eatery went bankrupt in May. It was then closed to the public in July and August while the staff focused on revamping the restaurant and regorganizing and designing a new menu. The Tailor Bar remained open during this time, but perhaps Freeman—who has been with Mason since the latter opened WD-50 back in 2002—saw the writing on the wall.

According to a press release, one new Freeman project will be "a global collective to inspire bar culture called the Cocktail All-Stars that has already made stops at Singapore’s World Gourmet Summit, Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotels, in Jakarta with the Ismaya group, and upcoming in cities like Sydney and Shanghai. Fellow bar stars such as Linden Pride and Julian Serna of Sydney’s Rockpool, Richard Gillam of London, Ryan Fitzgerald of San Francisco’s Beretta, and Jim Meehan of PDT have also made appearances under this banner. Freeman’s collaboration with Sam Mason has also continued through his involvement in the All-Stars: they recently hosted a series of experimental dinners in Hong Kong inspired by childhood memories."

Another item on the busy Freeman’'s agenda is an upcoming bar line, including glasses, carts, and tools, which he is creating with NYC designers AvroKO.

Nobody's just a bartender anymore, are they?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Need for Mead

The daily dispatches from my particular and peculiar work front regularly draw quizzical looks from my wife. (You say stuff like "There's a rum event at the New York Yacht Club tonight" with a serious face, and see how people react.) But when I told her that some mead had come through the mails, you'd have thought I had just confessed to her the name and nature of my imaginary friend.

But, it's true. I recently received some mead. Two bottles, in fact—one straight mead, one flavored with blueberries. They came from the Maine Mead Works, which has decided that that sticky, sweet, yellow stuff shouldn't all be wasted in tea and on our morning toast. The company is based in Portland and has been making mead only since the late 2008. Ben Alexander, who founded the winery with Eli Cayer (who began experimenting with mead-making in 2002), says he expects his products to be available in New York by the end of 2009. At present, the juice is only on store shelves in Maine.

Mead, of course, is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages known to man, a prehistoric drink that was made everywhere civilization could be found. (The earliest archaeological evidence for the production of mead dates to around 7000 BC.) It's also one of the simplest. It's fermented honey and water, basically.

Mead hasn't seen much popularity in recent centuries, which the deeper allures of grapes and grain all but pushing it off the map. But, these days, when an adverturous drinking crowd will latch on to any new/old idea, it may be time for a mead comeback. To get their winery going Alexander and Cayer sought the advice of Dr. Garth Cambray, a mead maker from South Africa who opened Makana Meadery in 2001.

Having no prior experience with mead, I expected the elixir would taste primarily of, well, you know, honey. I was quite surprised to find that the Maine Mead Works signature bottling, Honeymaker Dry Mead, tasted remarkably like wine. Dry white wine. The honey notes are there, to be sure, on the nose and the palate, but they are light and subtle. And they are not alone. You also get whiffs of beeswax, starfruit, straw and fresh mown grass. It's a very fresh nose. The palate brings forth clover, grass, wildflowers, more wax. It's a little like some Muscadets I've had, and a few of the more waxy Friuli whites. I could easily see drinking it with any dish I'd eat alongside those wines. It's not a strange wine at all, and I mean that in a good way. One doesn't think, "I'm drinking mead" the whole time.

The Honeymaker Blueberry Mead is a medium ruby-purple in color. I'd love to say it's distinctly different from the Dry Mead, but really it has the same characteristics as the regular mead, but with a berry overlay. It reminded me a bit of Dolcetto, but, beyond that, it's not that much more compelling, and, given the choice, I'd reach for the Dry Mead for a dinner companion. The blueberries make the flavored wine harder to pair with foods.

There's also a semi-sweet mead, which I did not try. The Maine Mead Works is doing some interested work, and I believe their work will improve over time. Moreover, they should be thanked for bringing this ancient quaff back into our world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Rathskeller

The U.S. is filled with places that call themselves rathskellers. You can't visit a college town without finding one. But an actual rathskeller, a cellar beer hall patterned unironically after the German model? Those are harder to find.

One breathtaking survivor of this genre of drinking hole sits, relatively unused but perfectly preserved, in the basement of the old Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The hotel was founded by the German Seelbach brothers in 1886. In 1907, they expanded to include the Rathskeller. Beautiful and cavernous (it could swallow up a party of 1,000 easily), it is decorated with rare, beautifully colored Rookwood Pottery from Cincinnati, which render the room a work of art in itself. The grandly arched ceiling are help up by a series of columns ringed by Rookwood pelicans. (Pelicans were a sign of good luck.) Tile designs on the Rathskeller's walls depict walled cities in the Rhenish region of Germany, where the Seelbach brothers, Otto and Louis, were born. Above the oak bar is a ceiling made of fine-tooled leather and painted in a heraldic design with the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The space had to be closed during Prohibition. It reopened in 1934 and was a USO during World War II. Legend has F. Scott Fitzgerald visiting the place. Currently, it is used for private functions and doesn't operate regularly as a bar. This, to me, seems a crying shame. I have rarely seen a bar of more unique character. It would be more than a pleasure to drink under its tiled ceilings. It would be a transporting experience.

The Sipping News

Gary Vaynerchuk, video blog wine reviewer with a 10-book deal and a million fans, had made his name one to remember. [NY Times]

Recession-time sales are down in Champagne land. [The Guardian]

Brian Miller at Death & Company is mixing up a melange of gins he calls "a gin Zombie." [Beachbum Berry]

Moonshine is back and figured it out.

The Mai Tai is now Oakland's official cocktail. [Alcademics]

The New York Times examines the anatomy of the much talked-about "hard shake" and doesn't make much difference in the resultant cocktails. Eric Asimov, meanwhile, wonders how new this new shaking style is.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bourbon Casks, Madeira Casks

Which casks to use? That's one of the pivotal questions facing Scotch producers. Unlike bourbon distillers, who must use a new cask made from a specific kind of wood and charred a particular way, Scotch makers have a fair number of options. It just needs to be oak. Some go for used Sherry casks. Many opt for used Bourbon casks. Less common choices are new oak, rum casks, port casks, beer casks and madeira casks.

The new Balvenie Madeira Cask 17-Year-Old was aged in (only one guess here, people)...Madeira casks. It's not that simple, however. It was first stashed in traditional whiskey oak barrels, then transferred for a final period to casks previously used for fortified Madeira wine. It's the latest in a series that has seen Balvenie release whiskey aged in Islay casks, new oak, Sherry casks, and Rum casks. The Madeira has a definite influence on the scotch here, lending it a silky, rich, honeyed texture and flavor. There's spice there, but it's tempered. Instead, the smooth caramel and orange flavors dominate. A relaxed, comfortably confident scotch.

The new Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph 1991, another new release, was aged mainly in Bourbon barrels. Every new whiskey these days is accompanied by a heavily embroidered story, but this booze's tale is more singular than most. A limited release of 1,500 cases, it is non-chill-filtered; all comes from one kind of barley, called "Triumph"; and all from casks filled back in 1991. Glenlivet doesn't grow Triumph anymore, so you won't see any more of this. According to Glenlivet, they were roaming around their 52 warehouses looking for something special to bottle when they stumbled upon the Triumph cache. (Doesn't it sometimes seem to you that liquid treasures are just lying everywere around the world's whiskey warehouses, just waiting to be rediscovered? Distillers sure are forgetful. It's like, "Oh, yeah, that! Forgot we had those 21-year-old barrels of priceless whiskey! Silly me. Well, let's bottle it."

This is a fine whiskey, savory, but ineffably light. It somehow floats in your mouth, somewhere between your tongue and your teeth. The nose is sweet and floral, with figs, raisins, vanilla and honey; complex, like a well-made pastry. Nutmeg, allspice, caramel and orange are on the palate. But, again, a little touch with every flavor.

The Glenlivet is priced at $80, the Balvenie is $120.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Purple Haze

My article about the newly resurrected liqueur Creme Yvette is in the September/October issue of Imbibe. Creme Yvette is the latest potion to come from the inventive and busy mind of Robert Cooper, the man that gave the world St. Germain two years ago. Unlike St. Germain, the new product is not a new creation, but a reclamation of a once widely available violet liqueur. It was no problem for Cooper to bring the stuff back, as his family owned the rights to the name and recipe.

But I say too much. Go ahead and read the article (for the recipes, go to the Imbibe website, or, better yet, buy the damn magazine, you cheapskate!):

Yes, Yes Yvette

By Robert Simonson

Growing up as a scion of the venerable Philadelphia-based Charles Jacquin et Cie liqueur company, young Robert Cooper became fascinated with the defunct products that lined the “memorial” wall in the office of the company’s plant manager. “I kept asking questions about this unusual product called Crème Yvette,” he says. “Nobody thought much of it.”

But if the folks at Jacquin weren’t that interested in the purple-hued, violet-scented liqueur—which plays a role in such classic cocktails as the Blue Moon—others were. “I started getting e-mail from cocktail experts like David Wondrich and Dale DeGroff,” Cooper continues. “They knew the Yvette brand was in my family. They kept chipping away at me. Finally, I decided, ‘What the hell?’ ”

Cooper resolved to revive the elixir. He could afford to gamble: His most recent venture into distilling had been the popular elderflower-flavored liqueur St. Germain in 2007. And he had no problem locating the recipe: The formula for Crème Yvette had been in the family since Cooper’s grandfather acquired the rights to it from Sheffield of Connecticut back in the 1930s. However, much else had changed since Yvette was taken off the market in 1969. “We couldn’t track down the same raw materials,” says Cooper. The original suppliers had faded away. So, new purveyors of the needed ingredients were found. He sourced dried violet petals from Provence, and the berry maceration (a mix of blackberries, red raspberries, wild strawberries and cassis) from Burgundy. A spice blend of honey, orange peel and vanilla completed the flavor profile. (The influence of the berries and vanilla, and a more viscous mouthfeel, set it apart in terms of taste from the more violet-dominated Crème de Violette already on the market.) Armed with a few old bottles from his family’s stash, Cooper was able to test the new liquid against the original.

The revived Crème Yvette is expected to start hitting the market in early fall, to the delight of many a bartender. “I think we’re in a time where we are all so committed to classic cocktails and their origins, we want to know more,” said Michael Madrusan, a bartender at New York’s Little Branch. “Crème Yvette’s return brings with it answers to questions which, without Rob Cooper’s efforts, we would not have access to.”

The enthusiasm of the cocktail crowd aside, Cooper is realistic about the potential pull of his latest project. “Without taking anything away from Crème Yvette, I don’t think it’s going to have the same broad appeal St. Germain has had,” he says. “St. Germain has a very approachable flavor. It’s so user-friendly in cocktails. Crème Yvette doesn’t have anywhere as near the same versatility. I see it as being a welcome reintroduction.”

There’s just one thing Cooper was unable to discover during his years of research and experimentation: Exactly who was Yvette? “I have been searching for the answer to that question for years now. Nobody seems to know.”

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cognac Grapes, Only Much Cheaper

Over the years, I have found that one of the best bargains to be had in the wine world comes from Gascony. This region is best known for producing Armagnac, but also has a considerable, and largely uncelebrated wine industry. Did I say considerable? How about huge? It is actually France's largest producer of white Vin de Pays, with a production potential of more than 80 millions bottles per year. Given that, it's amazing how few people know anything about the area, particularly when so many Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne wines are affordable and surprisingly satisfying. This fact was driven home again the other night when I enjoys a bottle of Uby Cotes de Gascogne that set me back all of $11. It was bracing and refreshing, with plenty of citrus, grassy and mineral notes.

Gascogne wines are typically made of two grapes, the highly acidic, neutral Ugni Blanc (which is the same as the Italian Trebbiano) and the more flavorful Colombard. (The Uby was a 50-50 blend.) These varietals are famous for being two of the grapes legally allowed to go into the making of Cognac and Armagnac, with Ugni Blanc typically making up the lion's share of the mix. I think it is because of this fact that people tend to look down their nose on the region's still wines. Why would you settle for the plonk at the beginning of the still when you have the chance to taste the nectar that comes out of the other end?, the thinking seems to go.

It is likely this underrating of the Wines-That-Could-Be-Cognac keeps the prices of Cotes de Cascogne down. I have never seen one that went for more than $20. They're not considered to be terribly complex wines by some people, but I actually find they have more to offer the taste buds than is typically thought. And they certainly go well with almost any kind of fish or seafood or light chicken dish. You can hardly do better on a hot summer day. As other formerly obscure wines are discovered by the buying public, and thus start to inch up in price until they no longer offer value for the money, it's nice to see the Cotes de Gascognes is still handing out simple happiness for a sawbuck or so.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bad Liquor Advertising


A Beer at...169 Bar

Some readers at Eater objected to my featuring the Lower East Side's 169 Bar in my "A Beer At..." column, arguing that it was too well known and trafficked to rate as an "anonymous watering hole." True, it's had more write-ups than some of the taverns I've featured in this series. But if someone's recently elevated it to the pantheon of Gotham drinking halls, I missed it.

A Beer at...169 Bar

A friend of mine who should know said the 169 Bar, which sits on a foreboding corner of East Broadway where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown, has the personality of a New Orleans bar. I can see that. The place gives off that slightly off-kilter eccentricity and good-time atmosphere I've encountered at a number of Big Easy drinking holes. Chinese lanterns; $5 Tarot card readings; a pool table with leopard-skin felt; television sets that play "Dr. Strangelove" and some peculiar movie with talking badgers, rats and iguanas. It's kooky, but in a casual way.

An aquarium is occupied by a single, huge, pale orange fish. A sign taped to the outside reads: "Hello, my name is Jeff. I'm a fish. I know you think it's funny as shit, but I don't drink beer, cocktails or shots. If you see anyone pouring a drink in my tank, could you do me a favor and punch them in the face?"

Perhaps the confusion about the fish's dietary preferences is owing to the Patron bottle which functions as a sort of filter at the bottom of the tank. There are lots of empty old Patron bottles around the low-ceiling place. "It's what the owner drinks," explained the young bartender, who had a face so sweet and innocent she could have been a farmer's daughter. (The owner is a New Orleans native—wouldn't you know it.) The patrons at 169 are similarly youthful, though they look like they've seen a fair bit of life in their time. Few of them would look out of place at a roadhouse. This is a significant shift, no doubt, from the days when this former dive serviced what Bowery bums there were left in the city. (Some accounts place a bar here as far back as 80 years ago.)

Perhaps as a nod to 169's former clientele, the bar boasts an archetypal array of canned, blue-collar brews. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schaefer's, Schmidt's, Piel's. Stroh's, Schlitz. Every old man beer you thought was long dead—it's here, with plenty of salted peanuts in the shell to make you thirsty for more. Old-style rotary fans, mounted upside-down behind the bar, keep everything cool. The only indication that the happy vibe here every gets interrupted are the signs pleading for help in fighting the local community board. 169 Bar wants to open its backyard garden, but it has been thwarted by people who "live in billion $ condos, two doors away. Apparently, the low murmur of the dirty renting masses, consorting in that dirty way we do, would be two [sic] much an effrontery."

I hear you, 169. Keep fighting that good, dirty fight. The bums of yesteryear would want you to.
—Robert Simonson

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Three Canadian Dessert Wines

People who don't like dessert wine are insane.

There. I said it. And I'm not sorry. In this country—where extra sugar, extra corn syrup, extra sweeteners of every kind known to man are poured into our coffee drinks, our sodas, our snack foods, our donuts, cakes and cookies—what could be more ridiculous than denying ourselves a delicious sweet wine, which is made sweet not through cynicism, to sell more product, as is the case with the above products, but is rendered sweet through natural, time-honored processes and fine craftmanship.

An odd sort of snobbery and bias has, up until know, kept Americans from embracing sweet wines. Somewhere in the misty past, they were taught that dry wines are serious and sweet wines are silly, and they've held onto those words as a sacred truth every since. No doubt, the advice was born to help consumers steer clear of brands like Blue Nun and Manischewitz, but consumer have lumped traditional dessert wines, as well as semi-dry rieslings, into that unsavory lot.

And so they rob themselves of the delights of such categories as Canadian Icewine. When I was offered the chance to taste three top examples of these wines, I barely blinked before accepting. Two of the wines were from Inniskillin. If a wine lover knows just one thing about Canadian Icewine, chances are it is this unforgettable name, alliterative name. Inniskillin may arguably be Canada's most prestigious winemaker. It was founded on July 31, 1975, in Ontario by founders Karl J. Kaiser and Donald J.P. Ziraldo, who produced their first Icewine in 1984. The tall, thin bottles of silky nectar have been easily fetching high prices. (They're often kept behind the liquor store counter, so I guess they are catnip to thieves.)

I tasted Inniskillin's Niagara versions of Vidal (2006) and Riesling Icewine (2007). (The winery also makes Icewine in the Okanagan Valley in the province of British Columbia, and a Cabernet Franc Icewine in Niagara.)

Being a riesling fiend, I thought I would prefer that, but I found myself liking the Vidal more. The burnished-brass-colored wine had a delectable mix of apricot, spice and grapefruit on the nose, and a palate of ripe apricot and pear, cinnamon, allspice, golden raisins, and pink grapefruit, with brown sugar top notes. Simply beautiful. The riesling was a lighter affair. First of all, it had a sunny yellow hue. On the nose, there was honey, honeydew melon, clover, cloves, daisies and (forgive me) sunshine. It was rich like the Vidal, but brighter somehow, with less spice and tropical fruit flavors. Green apple and golden raisins dominated. I see the Vidal as appealing to more tastes.

As much as I liked the Inniskillins, I could only drink so much before I felt a diabetic seizure coming on. This, however, was not the case with the third bottle I tasted: Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine 2007. Founded it 1993 in Niagara, Jackson-Triggs has developed a high reputation for fine wines, winning copious awards along the way. The Icewine is pure heaven. It has a light apricot color. Ripe pear, spice, apricot, peach , papaya, kiwi and mango greet the nose. The taste brings mango, apricot, peach, pear, meyer lemon, a bit of tangerine. It is dense, luscious and smooth. Butterscotch and caramel sneak up on you in the finish, which is long.

I drank the small bottle in one sitting. It was easy. I smiles all the way.