Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Other Punch Book

Dan Searing is either the bravest or most unlucky author in the cocktail world at present.

Searing, a Washington D.C. mixologist and partner in the bar Room 11 (and the host of a weekly soiree, begun in 2009, call The Punch Club), has just come out with "The Punch Bowl," a compendium of punch recipes and punch history. This comes about eight months or so after David Wondrich released his "Punch," the first major work in decades (maybe ever) studying the once-popular form of libation. Wondrich's influence in cocktail circles is such that the book's arrival has resulted in high-end cocktail bars across the nation tacking a punch or two onto their cocktail lists. In New York, for example, there were, a couple years ago, maybe three or four places where one could order a traditional punch. Today, there are dozens. There are even a couple (Drink in Williamsburg, Cienfuegos in the East Village) which are devoted almost exclusively to punch.

So what can Searing offer that Wondrich hasn't already provided in his scholarly work? Or, put differently, why would anyone need two books on punch? Well, the books are actually vastly different in character. Searing has basically provided a very attractive recipe book. There are brief sections at the front about the history and proper service of punch, but they are cursory when put next to Wondrich's text. The meat of Searing's book is the formulae for the 75 punches (some modern, but most drawn from ancient cocktail books, including Jerry Thomas') he's chosen to feature. They are easy to follow; a line or two of introduction to Fish House Punch or Spread Eagle Punch or whatever, then straight on to the ingredients and how they're compounded. Searing's volume is also a highly decorative work, full of glossy and attractive color photographs, not only of many of the punches but also of some ancient punch bowls.

In short, "The Punch Bowl" is a book for those civilians out there who simply want to learn to make punch. "Punch" is for the mixologist and cocktailian wonk who desires to learn the subject up and down, and in depth. As I am sometimes one of these people and something the other, I am happy to have both books on my shelf.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What I Will Drinking This Summer

One of the frustrations of magazine writing is the feckless fluctuations in the endless "best of" lists. I don't mean the "Best of 2011" type articles. Since each of those deal with a separate year, it makes sense that the honorees would be different from list to list. No, I mean the things like "Best French Fries in New York" or "Best Pizza in New York," where Di Fara tops the list one year, but Totonno's emerges triumphant the next. What? Di Fara suddenly went sour in that twelve-month period, leaving room for Totonno's to sneak onto the throne? Where was Totonno's the previous year, if it's so good? It stunk the year before, and now it's great? 

Of course, the magazines do this because they can't just print the same damn list of the same damn suspects year after year, can they? Even if that would be telling the actual truth, it would would be too boring. But this seeming editorial necessity breeds factual fraudulence. 

I bring this up because last year I posted an item titled "What I Will Drink This Summer." I considered I doing the same thing this year. But, then I thought, well, I'll probably just be drinking the same things. It's not like Gin & Tonics and Pimm's Cups stopped being tasty and amazingly refreshing summer quaffs. I'm not going to leave them off just for novelty's sake. So, what I've decided to do is compose a similar but slightly altered list. It includes a number of things I listed last year, because I still drink those things every summer. But there are a few additions, things I've discovered since then, as well as some adjustments to previous entries.


Southside. When the weather starts getting warm, this is usually the first summer drink I order. I think I had my first in May this year. One has to be careful asking for them in cocktail bars. A few errant souls serve them up in a coupe. I know there's room for argument here, but this mix of gin, limes, sugar and mint is a sipping drink, not something you throw back. It's best served in a high ball over ice. The colder the better

Pimm's Cup. I still opt for ginger ale over lemon soda. But I've since found that, if I make it with homemade, fresh lemonade, it's damn good. For a variation, I like the Spy Cup over at Northern Spy Food Company in the East Village.

Gin and Tonic: I put this classic drink in the "new" category last year because I was making them last summer with Beefeater Summer, a new expression of the London dry gin made with hibiscus, elderflower and black current. Alas, they discontinued the Summer this year, so I can't use it. But there's always regular Beefeater, so who's complaining. I always make my G&Ts with either Plymouth or one of the classic London Dry Gins (Beefeater, Bombay, Taqueray, etc.) I've tried many of the so-callled new-world gins. Most of them just don't play well with tonic. They're too soft, or too oddly flavored.

Rose: My favored label of last summer—2009 Channing Daughters Rosato di Refosco, made in Long Island with a Friulian grape variety—has fallen off the list, because the 2010 isn't nearly as good. I recently took a trip to South Africa, so I've been turning to Mulderbosch's reliable rose, drawn from Cabernet Sauvignon, a lot. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Washington State-born Charles and Charles 2010 rose, made from Syrah.


Becherovka and Tonic: I cited this last year, and then was embarrassed when the Czech liqueur didn't appear on the U.S. market as scheduled. But now it's safely on the shelves. So try this winning concoction. It's addictive, and wonderfully different.

Cocchi Americano: Now one year old in the U.S., and I still can't get enough of it. It's Lillet with bite, with extra personality. Drink it straight on the rocks, or with some soda water and an orange slice.

Zucca Rabarbaro: I've grown fond of this rhubarb-flavored aperitif from Milan, which reached these shores just last fall. Drink it as the Milanese do, over crushed ice, half Zucca, half soda water. Lovely.

Americano Cocktail on Tap: You can get this mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda on tap at the new bitters bar Amor y Amargo in the East Village. The taste is fantastically fresh. I've never had one better.  

Aperitifs in General: In researching my recent article on aperitifs for the Times, I became so attached to these light before-dinner drinks that now they're pretty much all I drink. For the life of me I can't imagine why anyone would indulge in a heavy, alcoholic cocktail, or big, red wine, in warm weather. Give them a rest until the fall. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bartenders Sick of All Bartending Trends

In its recent summer cocktail issue, Time Out New York took it upon itself to interview 52 of New York's most distinguished bartenders. Each subject was given a variance on five to eight boilerplate questions. Among them were "What cocktail trends would you like to see die?" and "Soapbox Time: What pisses you off?" The answers—which made for fun reading—included what seemed like every cocktail trend and bar behavior in the current mixed-drink universe. Reading all 52 interviews and tallying the grievances, the best bartenders in town collectively hate these things (and asterisk indicates that more than one bartender weighed in against this offense):

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Among the Old Bottles

The annual Wine Media Guild, in which members cart along bottles from their personal cellars to supplement the dinner's lubricants, is always a welcome opportunity to drink wines I wouldn't normally have access to. My elders and betters in this club have been collecting since the 1970s, when good wine could still be had on a middle-class income.

We're talking mainly Bordeaux and Burgundy here, because these men and women are traditionalists. So, ninety percent of the old bottles I sampled during the three-hour-long dinner were old-school Claret. The evening began well with a 1982 Chateau Fourcas-Hosten from the Listrac section of Bordeaux. Listrac doesn't necessarily inspire excitement among wine lovers, but this house is known as a source of good value wine. The elegant 1982 bore that rep out. It was restrained and very dry, with lovely notes of dried current, cherry and rose petals.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Beer At...The Punch Bowl

For a liquor history buff, few excitements match the discovery of an old bar you never knew about. From the outside, The Bronx's The Punch Bowl looks like just another unlovely Irish pub. Inside, however, it's a feast for the eyes and the imagination. There's been a bar at this location since 1901—that is, since there's been a building at this location. And ample evidence of the joint's layered history lies inside. I recommend you take the 1 line all the way to the end, save one stop, and find out for yourself.

Here's the column:

Monday, June 13, 2011

All-in-One Bar Gadgets, Yesterday and Today

Americans love all-in-one gizmos. You know, those things they advertise on local, late-night TV, that chop, slice, dice and make Julian fries. It's just how we're built, and the reason why we can't get enough of Swiss Army Knives. 

The drinking world is no different. Contraptions that can do it all for you—open bottles, measure, squeeze, mix, chill, whatever—date from the time cocktails met the Industrial Revolution. Recently, I received an example of the latest prototype in this genre. It's called Bartule, and it combines in one package a corkscrew, a bottle-opener a jigger, a juicer, a coaster (which can also function as a salt rimmer, we are told) and an ice bucket. "The Bartule," relates a press release, "is the only bar accessory that provides consumers with an all-in-one party solution when throwing great social events." It also comes in six colors.

The Bartule is a nifty-enough looking piece of merchandise. I would recommend it more for wine-lovers than cocktail lovers, though. For wine, all you need is a corkscrew, coaster and ice bucket (if it's a wine to be chilled). To mix drinks, you need much more than a jigger and a juicer—notably, a cocktail shaker and bar spoon.

Nonetheless, I was rather pleased with the item. That is, until I visited a nearby flea market in Manhattan and happened upon this little beauty from the 1950s.

It's called a Drink-Dialer and it was made by a company called Apex. I haven't been able to find out much about the company but apparently they also produced a similar device called a Chip-Chop.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Christina Bini Will Not Back Down

The Florentine mixologist Christina Bini caught a lot of flack last year for the curious cocktail program she delivered at the quirky Tribeca Italian restaurant Il Matto. Cocktails made of tomatoes, lettuce, ricotta cheese and vermouth-soaked stones didn't exactly fit the accepted New York model.

You'd think the relatively quick closing of Il Matto (it lasted less than a year despite some good reviews)  would have chastened Bini. But the blonde bartender is made of sterner stuff. The owners of Il Matto have returned to the same space with a new restaurant called White & Church, and the new iteration bears an even more focused emphasis on Bini's creation. Bini has upped her game to meet the challenge. Of particular notice is a whole section devoted to cocktails with insects. That's right: insects. Grasshoppers and bees and such. 

Any bartender in this town who thinks their concoctions are brave should take a look at the cod-infused gin and eggplant cream-filled libations below before their next boast:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pusser's Rum Brings the Pain to Painkiller

In its single year in business, the Lower East Side Tiki bar Painkiller has arguably achieved greater name recognition than any other new tavern that has opened in the last 12 months. Constant press and regular accolades have been its lot. Question cocktail enthusiasts in Portland, Atlanta or Los Angeles and they're recognize the word as not only the name of a classic Tiki drink, but also the instantly classic Tiki bar that took the drink for its name.

But the bar's legal reign as Painkiller has come to an end. Owing to a federal law suit brought by Pusser's Rum Ltd., the bar will be henceforth know at PKNY. Pusser's has also demanded that Painkiller turn over its website address and stop selling the rum concoction know as Painkiller (which, according to them, has to be made with Pusser's).

Where does a British Virgin Islands rum manufacturer get off telling a Manhattan bar what to do? Well, it seems the 31-year-old company holds two U.S. trademarks, one for "alcoholic fruit drinks with fruit juices and cream of coconut and coconut juice," and one for "non-alcoholic mixed fruit juices," which they market as "Pusser’s Painkiller Cocktail Mix"—a product I have no familiarity with, and which, I'd hazard a guess, is far less known among cocktailians than is the Painkiller bar. 

According to the Lo-Down site, in the lawsuit filed April 12 in U.S. District Court, plaintiff Pusser’s Rum Ltd., "sued tiki bar owners Giuseppe Gonzalez and Richard Boccato, claiming irreparable harm to its brand, unfair competition and unfair business practices, according to court documents on file in the Southern District of New York." 

That Pusser's successfully copyrighted the Painkiller cocktail name is a curious thing. According to Tiki expert Jeff Berry, the Painkiller (a blend of pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream, rum, cinnamon and nutmeg) was invented in 1971 by George and Mari Myrick of the Soggy Dollar Bar, in the British Virgin Islands. Jerry O'Connell, who currently owns the Soggy Dollar, told Berry that the Myricks originally made the drink with Mount Gay and Cruzan dark rums. But now Pusser's—founded a decade after the drink was created—is the official, legal rum of this libation. Because of Pusser's legal action, Berry himself initially thought the company invented the cocktail.

Pusser's may have won the battle here, but it may lose a very long, painful war. It's legal strongarming of Painkiller has already inspired some bad blood within cocktail circles. Gonzalez and Boccato are extremely popular figures in the cocktail world, and their friends are faithful. Within hours of the announcement of the bar's forced name change, various bartenders and industry figures proclaimed on Facebook their antipathy toward Pusser's, and said they were thinking of boycotting the rum.

There is also a Facebook page called "Bartenders Against Pusser's Rum." At press time, it had 90 members. UPDATE: There are 250 as of 4 PM ET. Also, the page has changed its name to "Bartenders Against Trademarking of Cocktails." There is, however, a newer Facebook community called "Bartenders and Cocktailians Against Pusser's Rum." It has 70 people who "like" it as of 5:30 PM. The Pusser's Rum Facebook page, meanwhile, has 76 members.

Monday, June 6, 2011

New York Distilling History, Before the Current Boom

New York City distilling has been a hot topic over the past year or so, what with the advent of new micro-distilleries such as Kings County Distillery, New York Distilling Company and Breuckelen Distilling. At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Allen Katz and Tom Potter, partners in New York Distilling Company, gathered to remind the audience that Gotham has had a long relationship with distilled spirits, even if the names and products involved may not be as storied as those of New York City brewing history.

According to Katz, the first distillery in New York City was built in 1640. It was on Staten Island, and likely produced applejack. The town was still a Dutch colony back then, of course. A few decades later, rum was the tipple of choice. American rum from this era is associated with New England, but New York had its share of production. Katz said there were 16 rum distilleries in New York by the 1720s.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Beagle Brings Birthplace of Barrel-Aged Cocktails to New York

Barrel-aged cocktails became a thing after Portland, Oregon, bartender Jeffrey Morganthaler began experimenting with them and selling them in late 2009. That happened at Clyde Common, the bar and restaurant in the Ace Hotel in Portland. 

There are many places where one can purchase a barrel-aged cocktail in New York now. But on May 10, one was opened by an actual partner in Clyde Common, Matthew Piacentini. Called The Beagle, it's located at 162 Avenue A in Manhattan's most drinkingest neighborhood, the East Village.

"There were ceratin aspects about Clyde that I liked," said Piacentini. "But it's absolutely a Portland restaurant and I wanted to make absolutely a New York place." One thing he wants the Beagle to share with Clyde, however, is "that the food and bar program will be given equal billing." 

"With the Beagle, we started with the bar," he continued. "It was the driving force. Everything had to, not defer to the cocktails, but nothing could take away from it." The chef is Garrett Eagleton, a veteran of that Clyde Common. Piacentini, who lives in New York now, and was most recently the bar manager at inoteca e liquori bar, hired a colleague from there, Dan Greenbaum to help created the bar program.  

Two barrel-aged cocktails are in the works. Piacentini doesn't see the point in aging liquors that have already seen some wood, such as whiskey and brandy. So he is concentrating on white spirits. One cocktail already in barrel is the Tuxedo No. 2: gin, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, orange bitters and absinthe. A second is a "white" Manhattan, using high-proof Buffalo Trace white dog, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.

The Manhattan will be made through an interesting, multi-barrel process similar to the solera system used to make sherry. A week or so after one barrel is filled with Manhattans, another barrel will be similarly prepared. When the first cask is ready, half of it will be emptied out, and the cavity will be filled by part of the younger contents from the second barrel. Theoretically, this will result in a constant supply of a consistent product. 

The cocktails should be ready by late June or early July. There will also be a variety of classic and original crafted cocktails and a selection of "pairing boards," in which a food is paired with a particular liquor; i.e. Sweetbreads and Calvados, Lamb Neck and Rye, and, most intriguingly, Braised Celery and Gin. Mmm. Celery.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Take Two Before Dinner and Thank Me in the Morning

Every article about a broad category of liquor requires some, well, research. Meaning, a lot of sipping and sampling. In some cases (Canadian whisky, liqueurs) this can be a bit trying. In others (white whiskey, Cognac), it can be hit-or-miss interesting. And, when you're lucky (barrel-aged cocktails, eye-opener A.M. cocktails), it can be slice a heaven. File aperitifs under the latter category. The last month, in preparation for the following article on before-dinner drinks for the New York Times, I've sipped at an aperitif or two before every dinner. How Americans do without these appetite-stirring bitter drinks, I don't know. And yet they do. Aside from Campari, few aperitivi are actively exploited in the Land of the Free. Instead, we hit back brain-muddling and tongue-numbing cocktails before dinner. Even in hot weather. Hopefully, with the new influx of European americanos and vermouths and amari and quinquina, that will change. If Cocchi Americano doesn't become a national craze, there is no justice. 

Here's the article:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pilsner Urquell Four Ways

Who knew one could get all fancy about Pilsner Urquell?

Hospoda, a new restaurant that recently opened in the old Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has brought back some of the eastern European flavor to what was once a heavily Czech area of the city. The place has a fine liquor list, topped by Becherovka, and a smattering of wines. But the drinking program's distinction lies in its treatment of the Czech Republic's home brew. Tanks of Pilsner Urquell are shipped over cold; according to the restaurant, they are the only people in the U.S. who go to this bother. All other tanks are shipped room temperature.

There are no other beers on offer. Instead, Hospoda serves the Urquell in four different way, based on the amount of head they give you. Here's how they describe it:

Creme Urquall (Hladinka): the classic way of draughting Czech pilsner, with a thick creamy head and a full, balanced flavor.
Slice (Snyt): drawn from the tap with a substantial four-finger foam to impart a refined bitterness and velvety mouth-feel.
Sweet (Mliko): a rich and original all-foam specialty designed to impart the beer with a hint of satisfying sweetness.
Neat (Cochtan): rarely seen, even in the Czech Republic, this headless beauty offers razor sharp bitterness that cuts straight through the heaviest meals.