Monday, October 31, 2011

Bellocq, New Cocktail Bar from Cure Team, to Open in New Orleans

Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, two of the men behind Cure (above)—arguably the best cocktail bar in New Orleans and one of the best in the country—are opening a new cocktail lounge in NOLA this fall. It will be called Bellocq and will be situated inside the Hotel Modern. 

Named after John Ernest Joseph Bellocq, a photographer who secretly photographed the madames living in pre-prohibition New Orleans, the bar will feature live music from international artists, burlesque and original cocktail creations that evoke the city's past. Most interesting to drinkers, however, is the focus of their cocktail menu. They will be dedicating their list to just one genre of pre-Prohibition cocktail: the Cobbler.

The Cobbler was was a very Royal of drinks in 19th century American. The Sherry Cobbler, in particular, won international fame. In days of old, this class of beverage was typically marked by a straw, some adorning fruit, a bit of sugar and a glassful of tiny ice. The liquor in the drinks at Bellocq will vary, but the style of each cocktail will remain the same. The cobblers will be served in metal glassware with real straws, made of actual straw, to replicate how cocktails were served in the 19th century.

The Hotel Modern is located on Lee Circle, near St. Charles Avenue. Opening is set for late November.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Other Acid

I had my first vinegar cocktail back in 2008 at PDT. It was called Paul's Club Cocktail, invented by Jim Meehan. Gin, simple syrup, a shrub made of concord grapes and a dash of Ricard. Relatively simple, but it was a revelation at the time. I liked it immediately. Vinegar has been a cultish ingredient in the cocktail renaissance for a few years now, but lately the trend has blossomed. I began noticing vinegar drinks in greater number a few months ago, shortly before and after having attended a seminar on the subject at Tales of the Cocktail in July. Two of the speakers at that seminar—Kelley Slagle and Ashley Greene—are quoted in the below article, which I wrote for the Times.
Make Mine a Vinegar Solution
Like many restaurants, Saxon & Parole likes to tantalize a diner with an amuse-bouche. But at this new Bowery restaurant the waiter doesn’t deliver a lightly grilled scallop or some tuna tartare on a slice of cucumber. No, he hands you a glass of vinegar.
Well, not quite. Saxon & Parole’s palate cleanser of choice is a shrub, which is not a leafy bush in this case, but a genus of sweetened vinegar-based beverage that has its roots in Colonial days. Lately the beverage director, Naren Young, has been assembling a pomegranate shrub, from pomegranate seeds and a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses left to macerate in cabernet vinegar and water, topped with a float of fino sherry.
Make no mistake: the piquant shot will prime your senses plenty for the coming meal. As Kelley Slagle, a former beverage director at Hearth and a shrub advocate, put it, “Vinegar’s the Zamboni for the tongue.”
In the public mind, vinegar doesn’t send off terribly positive vibrations to the drinker. It’s what wine turns into when it goes bad. But a collection of mixologists across the country are reaching back through the centuries to reclaim vinegar’s more palatable past.
“You can trace vinegar drinks back to the 18th century” in America, said Wayne Curtis, the liquor writer and historian. “The berries and fruits came and went so quickly, that people used vinegar as an acid to preserve them.” With the addition of sugar and water, refrigeration-bereft American pioneers had a tart, bracing beverage. Of course, it wasn’t long before someone realized that shrubs made dandy mixers. “You threw in some rum or whiskey, and that has a nice effect as well,” Mr. Curtis said.
Crack a 19th-century cocktail book, and you’ll find a shrub or three. But vinegar lost its position in the back bar early in the last century. Not until recently have restlessly inventive bartenders fetched it up from the pantry, embracing it as “the other acid,” an alternative to same-old-same-old lemons and limes.
And some have gone beyond simple shrubs — “the darling of vinegar cocktails,” in Ms. Slagle’s estimation. They’ll deploy vinegar straight in some drinks, as does Cabell Tomlinson, beverage director at Frankies 570 in the West Village, whose Tossed and Turned is a Dark and Stormy derivative pricked with balsamic vinegar. Or they’ll use a flavor-intense shrub reduction called a gastrique, as does Lynn House, the mixologist at the Blackbird restaurant in Chicago, who uses an apple cider vinegar gastrique in her Cognac-based Oz cocktail.
This fall, Peels, just across the Bowery from Saxon & Parole, will introduce a switchel. Modeled on a popular early American cooler, it combines molasses, ginger, apple cider vinegar, apple cider and dark rum. Ashley Greene, the bartender responsible for that drink, has also been toying with Manhattans, lacing them with a tincture of white wine vinegar and fennel seeds. “If you add a tiny bit,” Ms. Greene said, “it brightens up the acidity in a way that’s really attractive.”
Nonalcoholic vinegar beverages are also back from the dead. At Peels, the beverage director Yana Volfson has a short list of un-spiked shrubs, including raspberry, cranberry and beet versions. So does the Queens Kickshaw, an Astoria restaurant.
“We were making our own pickles in house,” said Ben Sandler, the owner. “The pickling liquid was being thrown away. Shrubs were a way to reduce waste, but also make something delicious.”
Jen Snow, a spokeswoman at Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side smoked-fish store, told a similar eureka story born of thrift. “We pickle and cure beets when we make our beet, apple and herring salad, and we use the pickled beet juice that results from that step to make a shrub drink,” she said. The beet-lemon shrub was introduced last year and sells well.
Mr. Curtis attributes mixologists’ growing fascination with vinegar to “the restless search for something people haven’t done, and scouring history books.” That may well have been the genesis, but bartenders have found other reasons not to sour on the ingredient.
“For one thing, it’s shelf-stable,” Ms. Slagle said. “I’ve never had a shrub go bad. Flavor-wise, it has a lot more complexity than citrus.”
Noah Ellis, who regularly keeps two or three vinegar cocktails on the menu at Red Medicine, his restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., likes the acid’s talents as a fire-delivery system.
“Instead of throwing in a chile in a drink and muddling it, if you use just a little bit of chile or ginger in vinegar, it is a good carrier of that heat,” he said.
Vinegar is also a potential cost saver. “You don’t have to use a lot,” said Damon Boelte, the beverage director at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where you can order a Sidewalker, a beer-and-apple-brandy cocktail laced with apple cider vinegar. “You can buy one bottle per season.” (Bonus: vinegar doesn’t have to be squeezed every day.)
Many bartenders have found that their acidulous concoctions have received a surprisingly warm welcome.
The Celery Gimlet — Naren Young’s drink made of gin, lime juice, celery juice, green Chartreuse, chardonnay vinegar, celery bitters and a lightly pickled celery-strip garnish — is the most popular cocktail at Saxon & Parole. Still, it pays to tread lightly in drink descriptions.
“I never flat out say vinegar on the menu,” Ms. House said. “I use words like shrub or gastrique. Most people are shocked when they find out what the secret ingredient is.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Beer At...The Pig 'n' Whistle

My latest Eater column:
A Beer At...The Pig 'n' Whistle
The way Irish pubs crowd the Theatre District, you'd think that George M. Cohan and his fellow Hibernians still dominated the New York stage as they did in the first decades of the 20th century. One of the oldest is the Pig 'n' Whistle, which, the sign says, was founded in 1969. This is one of a handful of bars in the City that go by that name, most under the same ownership. It was founded by John Mahon, who ran an Irish music hall in London, and Peter Magee, who owned a bar in the Bronx, also called the Pig 'n' Whistle. The website brags that the original location was in a W. 48th Street townhouse owned by President Taft, and that the place "quickly became the meeting place for New York's literary and banking elite." What bankers and writers were doing hanging about that part of midtown—or hanging out with each other—I have no idea.
The new location, on W. 47th near Time Square, is the meeting place of tourists and sports fans. Or maybe just tourists who are also sports fans. Anyway, no bankers. To my left at the bar was a Englishman who groaned or grunted with every triumph and failure of Manchester United. To my right were two strapping young German girls, sipping slowly through their glasses of Stella Artois, the ubiquitous Budweiser of imported beer. "Vat is that duck beer?" one asked the bartender. She meant the Goose Island IPA. The tap handle did kind of look like a duck. The bartender gave her a sample. She ordered a Boddington's instead. There is a long menu of Martinis, not a single one made with gin or vermouth. Also a Pig 'n' Whistle Ale on tap. But the bartender didn't know who made it for the bar, so I opted a pint of duck beer.
The guests over at the Doubletree Guest Suites across the street seem to like the Pig 'n' Whistle. Who can blame them? In the costly world of Times Square, it ranks as a cheap date. It's clean and there are t-shirts if you feel the need to take away a souvenir. A mother and two heavily-made-up daughters were given a whole booth, even though they announced their intention to only drink coffee. Most everyone else came in to watch the soccer game. The bartender killed the sound on the television when the commercials came on, but forgot to put it back on when the match returned. Nobody seemed to notice; they kept watching the game. The Englishman ordered another foamy Boddington's, "the cream of Manchester." He handed the barkeep a fifty. She held it up to the light. "It's OK," he said. "I just made it."
—Robert Simonson

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Danish Drinking in the East Village

I have heard from a few colleagues recently that the cocktail scene in Copenhagen had come into its own. I took in the news and then sighed heavily, knowing my chances of experiencing it anytime soon were narrow. But living in New York is great that way. Very often, the thing you want to experience will come to you, rather than you having to go to it.

On Oct. 5, PDT, the East Village speakeasy, played host to Nick Hobbernagel Hovand, a bartender at the Danish cocktail bar Ruby—which, like PDT, has a secret entrance. For the occasion, Hovand, a friendly chap in a brownish-reddish scruffy beard, came up with a guest menu of five drink, all of them served at Ruby.

The theme of the menu was "Salt and the Sea." Indeed, salt could be found in four of the five beverages. Hovand explained that he simply wanted to have the menu stand out from PDT's usual choices; salt isn't necessarily a staple ingredient at Ruby.

I tried two drinks. The first, the Rapscallion, has been on the Ruby menu since it open in 2007. It's a Manhattan riff featuring 2 parts Talisker Scotch, 1 part Pedro Ximinez sherry and a dash of Richard, which is used like bitters in this case. It's a simple, silky, sweet drink, but complex in taste. The ingredients almost war with one another, but stop just short. Instead, you get an ever-intriguing interplay of flavors.

I preferred my second choice, the 866, an on-the-rocks sipper made up Dild Aquavit, Campari, Grapefruit juice and salt. Dild is a modern Danish brand of Aquavit unavailable here. Its key note is not caraway, but dill. It has a fragrant, freshly cut nose and a taste to match. The drink was refreshing and piquant and only slightly bitter. I know from Beta Cocktails how well salt can play with Campari, and it did the same trick here. But, really, it's the unexpected taste of dill that makes the drink. For some reason, I thought the cocktail would go wonderfully well with pickled herring.

The rest of the menu is below.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Byrrh to Return to U.S. Shelves

Byrrh is a French aperitif, a 125-year-old red-wine-based quinquina that thrived in the early 20th century. It was created by two brothers with the poetical names of Pallade and Simon Violet, and initially marketed as a health drink and sold in pharmacies. It's popularity declined after World War II, despite an heavy ad campaign. (It's hard-to-pronounce name couldn't have helped.) In 1961 the business was sold to CDC who made Dubonnet and Cinzano, which was later merged with Cusenier. In 1977 the brand was bought by Pernod.

Byrrh hasn't been seen on the American market for many years. But, as with many another European aperitif and digestif in recent years, it is now on its way back, it's return instigated by the demands of mixologists, the passion of liquor aficianados and the diligence of quixotic importers like Haus Alpenz. That house, run by Eric Seed, is in fact the one brining Byrrh in.

Byrrh is gentle by quinquina standards: fairly sweet, only mildly bitter—it reminds me of Bonal (another Haus Alpenz import) a bit—and has a fuller body than some aperitifs. The red wine used as the base hails from the Languedoc Roussillon—in the past the source of tons of very middling plonk, but lately the home of vintners of fine, affordable and experimental reds. It's generally drunk cold, straight or on the rocks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Not Wine-Barrel Finished—Wine-Barrel Matured

Barrel-finishing has grown so common in the Scotch world as to have become cliched. Nearly every distillery from the Highlands to the Lowlands, it seems, now rolls out whiskys that were finished in Port barrels, in Sherry barrels, in Sauternes barrels, or whatever used wine barrel you care to mention. Some of these experiments are warranted and rewarding. Most are simply "interesting," or just plain outputting, and smack of publicity-seeking stunts aimed directly at the completist whisky collector's wallet.

And so I approached Auchentoshan's new 1999 Vintage Bordeaux Wine Matured Limited Edition with suspicion. Much as I love Auchentoshan, it looked like more of the same trend. But there's a difference here. The distillery didn't just toss some of its aged distillate into another barrel for a few months, called it "finished" and slap a different label on it. This whisky was aged in its Bordeaux barrels the entire time. A full 11 years, in fact. So this commitment began long ago, with the distillers tasting the juice from time to time until they decided it was time to release it.

It's a beautiful, and unusual, Scotch. The color is what strikes you first. That French red did its work, giving the whisky a unique and lovely burgundy hue. It is, unsurprisingly, winey on the palate, a beguiling marriage of the Scotch and wine characteristics, like Auchentoshan wrapped in a Bordeaux cloak. The wine notes don't feel temporal and pasted on, like they do in so many barrel-finished Scotches. It's bottled at cask strength (58%), so it gives quite a kick; water is recommended.

The price is $99.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ken Burns' "Prohibition" Premieres Tonight.

"Prohibition," the new six-hour, three-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres tonight on PBS, with the second and third parts airing on Monday and Tuesday. 

That Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933, is far from a dead issue in the U.S. was aptly illustrated just weeks ago when California struck down an age-old law that prevented bartenders from creating infusions. Loopy laws like this have lingered for decades on state government books, all part of the long, irritating hangover perpetrated by the Volstead Act. 

"Sunday blue laws date back to the colonial era," said Ben Jenkins of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which devotes a lot of time, money and lobbying to junking Prohibition-born laws. "But keep in mind Prohibition outlawed all alcohol in the United States. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the 21st Amendment gave states the power to regulate alcohol. As states began making laws, as a practical matter most banned Sunday sales at that point." (They are called Blue Laws is because the Puritans in Massachusetts printed them on blue paper.)

Over the last ten years, states and localities have steadily been repealing Sunday bans across the country. Georgia was the latest state to roll back its Blue Law banning Sunday alcohol sales, becoming the 15th state since 2002 to pass such legislation. Pennsylvania is advancing a bill right now that would increase the number of stores the state allows to open on Sundays. Other states likely to repeal Sunday sales bans in upcoming legislative sessions include Connecticut, Texas, Minnesota, Indiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Another leftover from Prohibition are state bans against liquor sales on election days. Delaware and Idaho dropped their bans in 2008; Utah in 2009; Indiana in 2010; and West Virginia this year. 

Tennessee recently became the latest state to repeal its statewide ban against liquor tastings by passing legislation allowing tasting events at restaurants, bars and liquor stores. States likely to repeal tastings bans in 2011 or 2012 legislative sessions, include North Carolina, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The only downside to this trend: reporters such as I will soon be robbed of juicy stories about the ridiculous enforcement of weird, antiquated liquor laws. 

As for the documentary, Burns and Novick do a nice job with the subject, though the telling is a bit sedate and, um, sober. The filmmakers deploy the patented Burns mix of still photographs, well-lit talking heads, celebrity voice-overs and chapter-designating titles. The episodes are nicely divided into "A Nation of Drunkards," "A Nation of Scofflaws" and "A Nation of Hypocrites." It's engrossing enough, but could have used a little more fizz, given the subject. This might have been accomplished by including a few liquor history experts along with the usual assortment of academic historians and stentorian authors. (What, Ken, don't you have my number?) And surely there are more inventive devices than the dramatic, close-up pourings of beer and whiskey into glasses. Saw that coming a mile away.

For Tea Party advocates out there, fair warning: Burns and Novick draw a clear and politically charged line between the fate of the unbending, overreaching, intolerant temperance forces and today's political action groups. If the Tea Party didn't borrow the Anti-Saloon League's playbook, then they're doing a nice imitation.