Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hidden History of the Harvey Wallbanger

First of all, I should say that I never intended to uncover the history of the Harvey Wallbanger. The journey by which I became obsessed with discovering the origins of the popular 1970s cocktail began when, in last 2010, an editor at The Daily, the now-defunct tablet newspaper, contacted me and asked if I had any "interesting" angles on cocktail stories. I thought for a bit and said I had always been curious about the little-known 1950s-1960s bartender Donato "Duke" Antone. If you believed what you read, he was the author of the Harvey Wallbanger, the Rusty Nail, the White Russian and many more. Yet, no one really knew anything about him. And now (at least at that time, a year and a half ago), the Wallbanger was beginning to enjoy a rebirth. Why not profile Antone? They bit.

So I started my research and soon learned that—beyond the Harvey Wallbanger's Wikipedia page—there wasn't much out there about Antone. I quizzed several knowledgable bartenders. They said they assumed Antone invented the drink in the 1950s, but admitted they didn't know much beyond that. I then contacted the people at Galliano. They were interested in Antone as well, but, amazingly, had no records regarding the history of their liqueur's greatest claim to fame. I began to suspect that I was on a wild goose chase, that Antone was yet another cocktail myth cooked up a bar somewhere in the misty past and given the weight of truth through constant retelling.

Then I happened upon an obituary of the man, published in the Hartford Courant. This proved Antone had lived. It led to several other articles in the Courant. Soon the trail grew hot and I began to piece together a history, both of the bartender and the drink. My article was no longer about Antone, however. I was determined to get to the bottom of the Harvey Wallbanger story. And—with a graceful assist late in the game from David Wondrich (who had begun digging into the Wallbanger story in summer 2011)—I think I have.

There was a problem about getting the story out there, however. By the time I had my copy ready for publication, in late February 2011, The Daily was having problems. My editor hemmed and hawed but finally cut me loose, saying they didn't have the money for the piece. (The Daily ceased publication on Dec. 15.) I turned to a well-respected, historic food magazine, whose print version ended a few years ago but which lives on as an on-line presence. I had enjoyed the depth and breadth of its articles in the past. They happily seized on the article and sent me a contract—and then sat of the piece for ten months. My original editor left. Another one came in, edited the story with me, and then left as well. Finally, a third editor casually informed me that the article would not run due to "space limitations." (On-line publications do realizes they are afforded infinite space, don't they?)

Again, I scramble to find Harvey a home. To my lasting gratitude, the fine folks as Saveur gladly took it on and published it Dec. 14. You can read the article here. However, it is in a slight truncated form. If you want to get the whole story, here is the copy in its unabridged form:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mixologist of the Month: Mike Lay

The "Mixologist of the Month" columns in Wine Enthusiast often cause me to chat with bartenders I wouldn't otherwise. Which is a good thing. For this edition, I found out a thing or two about the way Mike Lay does business at Restaurant 1833 out in Monterey. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bill's Reborn as...Bill's

I was among those who were not thrilled when the landlord of the midtown Manhattan building that held the old bar Bill's Gay Nineties decided to end the owner's lease, cutting down the former speakeasy's 88-year life at a New York watering hole. Bill's Food and Drink, the much tonier replacement, opened for business this week, following an extensive renovation of the old townhouse. It's not Bill's Gay Nineties, but is does retain some aspects of the old joint, as I found in this New York Times "Starter" column:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Boite: Dear Bushwick

The Thursday Style section of the New York Times has a lovely running column called "Boite," in which a new bar is profiled in a series of piquant bullet points. I've always admired it. Recently, I got to write one. Here it is:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thanksgiving Cocktails—Not So New an Idea

I used to think that the notion of a pre-feast Thanksgiving cocktail was a relatively recent notion, the product of our cocktail-crazy times. Not so. Doing some research for this article turned up a number of old articles that proved that the question "What to drink before Thanksgiving?" was a question mulled by Americans as far back as the late 1800s. One pre-Prohibition article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated "Of course you're going to have a cocktail at Thanksgiving!" Such confidence. Here's my article in the New York Times.
Fall's Flavors Come in a New Glass
THANKSGIVING and cocktails are not as odd a match as you might think. Both are distinctly American, and have been long thought so.
Back in 1929, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, waxing indignant at the notion that the French had invented the cocktail, wrote, “Every one knows that it is as authentically American as griddle cakes and sweet ‘salads’ and pumpkin pie.”
Still, downing a bluntly spiritous drink just before you sit down to that pumpkin pie or other heavy holiday fare is not a smart move. Bright and balanced is the order of the day.
And it is one easily filled by today’s generation of mixologists, who regularly compound ingredients to harmonize with a specific occasion and season.
Seasonal is an important idea. A pre-turkey tipple ideally performs a secondary function as an aesthetic, sensory signpost, instilling all the flavors associated with fall and harvest into a single cup.
That symbolic function was partly on the mind of Julie Reiner, the owner of Clover Club on Smith Street in Brooklyn, when she recently created the Crystal Fall for the bar’s autumn menu.
“I wanted it to be the quintessential fall cocktail, the kind of thing with all the flavors that you just expect this time of year,” Ms. Reiner said. “Apple, spice, ginger.”
To portions of toasty Cognac, rich Demerara rum and nutty sherry, she added fresh apple cider, lemon juice, ginger syrup, sugar and bitters. Served over a tumbler of crushed ice, the drink is simultaneously warming and cooling, and, despite the fairly heavy liquor payload, surprisingly light.
At Clover Club’s neighbor, the JakeWalk, the bar manager Timothy Miner achieved his particular liquid orchard by using as a base Laird’s bonded apple brandy (perhaps one of the most American of spirits, if using domestic produce on the fourth Thursday of November is important to you). He added cinnamon syrup, lemon juice, Galliano liqueur and a couple of dashes of allspice liqueur. The drink is topped with freshly ground nutmeg.
“I grew up in New England,” Mr. Miner said. “I have a strong affinity to apple-picking and all that. I thought, ‘I wonder if I can make apple pie in a glass.’ ”
The drink, called Mr. October, tastes not only like apple pie, but apple pie à la mode, thanks to Galliano’s vanilla notes.
If these drinks seem a bit too complex, or modern, you can go Colonial and surpassingly simple in one stroke by pouring a Stone Fence. This centuries-old concoction is nothing more than two ounces of whatever dark liquor you choose (rye, bourbon, Scotch, applejack, rum) filled out with hard cider and served over ice. Easier than gravy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Genever by the Barrel

Cocktail bars that have their own private barrel of whiskey, personally selected by the owners from a distillery in Kentucky, have become a dime a dozen. But if you suddenly start seeing bars with their own barrel of genever, you can blame Boston-based mixologist Jackson Cannon. Cannon is a persistent fellow. After years of nudging the uncomprehending Lucas Bols, he got them to part with one of their casks. He know uses the juice to make drinks in his three Boston bars. As a result of determination, Bols has seen the light. They company is now open to rolling out personal barrels for other receptive taverns. Here's the story:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Drinking History

I am a considerably more educated man today than I was a month ago, when I started doing research for this article. Since that time, I've sampled a 1950s Chartreuse, a few blended Scotches from the 1960s, a few gins from the 1940s and '50s, a Cognac from the '60s, a Creme de Menthe from the 1940s, Bourbons from the '60s, '70s and '80s and even an aged vermouth.

Conclusion of all this learning: the old saw that spirits don't change once bottled is nonsense. They grow softer, more rounded, more integrated. Even more untrue is the notion—put forth by nearly every liquor company on earth—that they have made the same product year in and year out. The assertion is not only improbable, but impossible. Improbable, because recipes alter with changing times and changing tastes, not to mention adjusted quality standards. Impossible because no company has consistent access to the exact same grains and botanicals.

We live in a time of great, across-the-board quality in spirits. Still, based on what I sipped, it does seem that some things were done better in the past. The creme de menthe did not taste chemical, as its counterparts of today do. It was fresh and clean. It tasted like something, well, you'd want to drink. I like Gordon's Gin. It's a fine workhorse London Dry gin. But the specimen from the '50s I had was fuller and much more interesting. And the '60s Hennessy I savored had a restraint and dignity that one no longer finds in the sugar-bomb, major-label Cognacs of today. I wish I could drink more of this stuff. But, at $150 a drink, it's a pricey habit.

Here's my article from the New York Times:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Cocktail Fundraiser for Murray and Sandy

The cocktail community is a generous and industrious one.

When it became known that esteemed Seattle barman Murray Stenson was ill and needed surgery, bars instantly began organizing fundraising events. Among these was Audrey Saunders' Pegu Club. Then, when Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the east coast, bartenders and bar owners went at it again, putting together a new slew of money-making events. 

Saunders had scheduled her Murray fundraiser prior to the arrival of Sandy, choosing Nov. 11 as the date. Post-Sandy, she reconsidered, and decided that half of the money raised would go to Stenson, and half to Sandy relief. Here's the announcement I wrote in the Times:
Bartenders Pitch In for Pegu Club’s Storm Benefit
Pegu Club, the SoHo cocktail bar, will hold a “50/50″ fund-raiser on Nov. 11 to benefit two causes. Half the money raised will go toward Hurricane Sandy relief. The rest will aid Murray Stenson, a veteran Seattle-based bartender who has a heart ailment that requires medical attention. Mr. Stenson’s plight has inspired a Web-site and fund-raisers across the country, with more to come.
To work the bar during the benefit, Pegu Club’s Audrey Saunders has drawn from the cream of the New York bartending world. Among the mixologists expected to put in shifts are Richard Boccato of Dutch Kills; Meaghan Dorman of Raines Law Room; Brian Miller, formerly of Death & Co. and Lani Kai; Ivy Mix of Clover Club; Toby Maloney of Pouring Ribbons; Del Pedro of Tooker Alley; Julie Reiner of Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge; Dushan Zaric and Steven Schneider of Employees Only; Giuseppe Gonzalez of Mother’s Ruin; the bartending legend Dale DeGroff; and Pegu Club’s own Kenta Goto, Raul Flores and Timon Kaufmann.
Each bartender is expected to offer a specialty drink. Drinks will be full price. Doors open at 5 p.m. The event runs through 1 a.m.
Ms. Saunders is also adding a new drink to the cocktail list called the Sandy Relief Cocktail. It will be priced to move ($10), and all the money it brings in will go to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.

Post script: The event ended up raising more that $17,000, meaning more than 1,300 drinks were consumed over the evening's eight hours. That's not counting tips, of which I'm sure there were many. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hemingway, the Drinkingest of All Writers

Last May, I attended a seminar called "Do Not Resuscitate." The subject was classic cocktails that did NOT deserve to be revived. Among those that took a beating at the hands of the historians on the panel was the Papa Doble, better known at the Hemingway Daiquiri, a drink of great strength and little compensating sweetness. According to a couple of the speakers, when it came to mixing drinks, the sugar-averse Hemingway "always got it wrong."

Well, maybe those panelists didn't try every drink Hemingway advocated. For he liked a lot of different liquids. In his breezy new book, "To Have and Have Another" (great title!), Philip Greene takes a look at every one of them. The ones Papa drank, and the ones his characters drank (which were almost always also one that Papa drank). That's more than fifty separate libations. Take a look:
How to Drink Like Hemingway
Even a casual student of the novelist Ernest Hemingway knows the man liked to drink. But a quick skimming of Philip Greene’s new book, “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” reveals exactly how much the man enjoyed his cups.
Each chapter of the book, due out in November, is dedicated to a libation that either Hemingway or one of his characters (or both) tipped back. There are more than 50 chapters, and the drinks are listed alphabetically; you reach Page 70 before you get past A, B and C.
“I don’t know if there’s enough critical mass for a Faulkner or Fitzgerald book,” Mr. Greene said. “I think I could put together an anthology of other authors combined. But I don’t know if there’s another writer with that wide a palate.”
Mr. Greene’s interest in the Hemingway began as a teenager, when he read the short story “Big Two-Hearted River.” It first occurred to him to make a drink from one of the author’s books in 1989, when he was visiting in-laws in Florida who had a lime tree and a coconut palm tree in their yard. He took the ingredients on hand and made a Papa invention called a Green Isaac’s Special, which appears in the pages of “Islands in the Stream.” (The recipe is below.)
“I think my in-laws thought I was a little crazy,” Mr. Greene said.
If you’d rather make like the characters in “The Sun Also Rises,” the applejack-based Jack Rose is recommended. “A Farewell to Arms”? Champagne cocktails. “To Have and Have Not”? An Ojen Special (that is, if you can findojen, a sort of Spanish absinthe that is no longer made).
If you want to approach the thing from the opposite direction, just have a whiskey and soda. Someone drinks one in almost every book Hemingway ever wrote.
“Certainly, the protagonists drink drinks that he liked,” said Mr. Greene, whose day job is as trademark counsel to the Marine Corps. It follows that the chapters on the daiquiri and martini — Hemingway favorites — are considerably longer. (Mr. Greene also dispels the widely held belief that the sugary mojito was the author’s favorite.)
Incidentally, Hemingway would have known how to ride out a tussle like Hurricane Sandy. In the book, Mr. Greene, quoting the Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, describes a sailing trip in Key West, Fla., that Hemingway went on with his editor, Maxwell Perkins. They were caught in a storm and had to spend several days marooned at Fort Jefferson, in the lower Keys: “First they ran out of ice, then beer, then canned goods, then coffee, then liquor, then Bermuda onions, and at last everything but fish. Ernest did not care. He said he never ate or drank better in his life.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

A New Malört for Chicago

I've tried for years to write about Malört, the bitter Chicago curiosity, pitching the story to various publications. But none bit. Not even Edible Chicago, for God's sake! (If any food/drink magazine needs to weigh in on Malört, it's that one, but the editors didn't seem to get it.)

Perhaps part of the problem was that the niche market for the oddball liqueur was a static one. For decades, there was but one brand of the stuff: Jeppson's Malört. But now, suddenly, there has been a 100% increase in selection. That's right: there are now two Malörts on the Chicago market. The second is being made and sold by a bartender at The Violet Hour cocktail bar, in collaboration with a local distiller. It is called R. Franklin’s Original Recipe.

Then again, maybe there is still only one Malört. When writing this piece for the New York Times, I tried to contact the Jeppson's people. They did not get back to me until after the item had ran. Patricia D. Gabelick, president of Jeppson's, had this to say: "what Leatherbee is planning on producing is not a Malört. A true Swedish Malort cannot be over 80 proof. With all the additives and the high proof it certainly sounds like an Absinthe." 

Here's the

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vintage Vodka

"Vintage Vodka" is one of those word combinations you can't help but laugh at the moment you hear it. An oxymoron, no? What spirit is further from expressive whims of the seasons than the hyper-processed vodka? 

Karlsson's, the very serious Swedish vodka producer, however, is not laughing. They consider their experiment in vintage vodkas to be a worthy one. I will admit that there are differences between the 2008 and the 2009, the two vintages that have been released. But you have to pay close attention to notice them, and paying close attention to what they're quaffing is not a quality associated with vodka drinkers. Furthermore, if you chill your vodka, as most do, the differences diminish. And if you mix, as many more do, they are hardly discernible. But, what the hell? Vintage vodka. Why not, if the people want it? (And they seem to. The first vintage is all but sold out.) Particularly if the vodka is of as high a quality at Karlsson's. 

Vintage flavored vodkas, however, is where I am going to draw the line!

Here's my article: 

Vodka That’s No Small Potatoes
Vintages and vodka would seem to be mutually exclusive drinking concepts. Vintages belong to the world of wine, where weather and growing conditions can alter what ends up in the bottle from year to year. Vodka, meanwhile, can be distilled from any number of source materials, anywhere at anytime, and sold almost immediately. Nature’s many variables are not a big factor.
Karlsson’s, a boutique vodka company in Sweden, intends to give these preconceptions a good shake. The company has already earned a reputation for putting out an unusually distinctive vodka, one that tastes markedly of the potatoes from which it’s distilled. Now it has begun releasing “vintage” vodkas, each one distilled from a single potato variety, grown on a particular farm during a single season. No one, to the company’s knowledge, has done this before.
“The idea behind the company from the very beginning was to see if we can say something about what’s inside the bottle rather than what’s outside the bottle,” said Peter Ekelund, who founded Karlsson’s in 2007. “Will a vodka taste different if you pick different types of potatoes in different places?”
The company has built up a “library” of distillates, Mr. Ekelund said, each derived from different potatoes reaped from individual harvests. “We started with 30 different potatoes,” he said. “We found 15 were useless for making vodka.” The others were tested, experimented upon and cataloged. Just as with grapes, the company found that hot or wet weather can create distinct taste characteristics in potatoes.
The 2008 vintage, which sold briskly when it was released this year, used a hearty russet-skinned tuber known as Old Swedish Red, which, Mr. Ekelund said, was popular in Sweden a century ago. The 2009 vintage, to be released in November, was made with the Solist potato, a small, round, yellow specimen. (Both types are used in the seven-potato blend that constitutes the company’s standard vodka, Karlsson’s Gold.)
Jim Meehan, the cocktail authority who owns the East Village bar PDT, had a chance to taste the entire range of Karlsson’s vintage vodkas. “They’ve captured the nuances of each vodka’s terroir and typicity like a great winemaker does,” he said.
Though the variations in taste between the two vintages would probably vanish if either were mixed with tonic or soda, sipped neat they are apparent. The 2008 is earthy and robust, while the 2009 has a softer, more mellow flavor. (The company is rolling out the 2009 only now for reasons unrelated to aging, which has no effect on vodka unless it is barreled.)
Because of limited quantities — the 2009 will be released in an edition of about 1,980 bottles — the vodka does not come cheaply. The 2009 is priced at $80, which is $45 more than Karlsson’s Gold.
Mr. Ekelund hopes the vintage products will convince his countrymen to think more favorably of the lowly spud. “In my country, we have kind of looked down on potatoes as a source of food,” he said. “But it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Would Keats Drink?

Probably nothing, he was sick so much of his short life.

But that sad fact is no reason to get in the way of so silly an idea as a commemorative cocktail to mark the centenary of Poetry Magazine. (These days, it seems every event, no matter in what field, has to have a signature cocktail.)

Here's my account of the oddball libation:
Ode to a Cocktail
What would Keats drink?
On Thursday, at a celebration in Chicago honoring the centenary of Poetry magazine, guests will raise a cocktail created especially for the occasion. Named the Hippocrene — the mythological source of poetic inspiration — it is the work of Brian West, a web developer at Columbia College Chicago and cocktail enthusiast, and is primarily inspired by John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Mr. West became interested in mixology during the three and a half years he worked as Web producer for the Poetry Foundation, which publishes the magazine. When he was asked to create the drink, he said in an e-mail, he looked at the myth around the Hippocrene spring and the Pegasus, but also at a few lines from “Ode to a Nightingale.” As the tale goes, Pegasus — the winged horse that has long been the symbol of Poetry magazine — struck the mythical Mount Helicon, a peak sacred to the muses, and out gushed the Hippocrene.
The fountain is invoked in many poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale.” The lines Mr. West focused on came from the second stanza:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
“It was obvious that we needed a sparkling wine,” said Mr. West, pointing to those “beaded bubbles winking” in the stanza’s seventh line. “I was also inspired by the line, ‘Tasting of Flora and the country green,’ to add some herbal notes with gin, mint, ginger and basil,” he said.
He found both Prosecco and Korbel Extra Dry performed nicely as the sparkling wine in his concoction, and for the gin — given Keats’s British heritage, what other base spirit would have been appropriate? — Mr. West thinks Ransom Old Tom Gin, Farmer’s Gin and Small’s Gin work best. The ginger in the drink comes in the form of ginger liqueur, and the mint arrives as mint tea. The drink also includes lemon juice, grapefruit juice and grapefruit bitters. (With so many glories of the garden in this concoction, surely Wordsworth would have joined Keats in a glassful.)
The event, where the cocktail will be unveiled, will also commemorate the publication of “The Open Door,” an anthology of 100 poems collected from Poetry’s archives, published by the University of Chicago Press. The magazine was founded in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Japanese Whiskeys on the Rise

It was my first sip of Hibiki, the blended whiskey from the powerhouse distiller Suntory, that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of Japanese whiskey. That was back in 2010. I had tasted few whiskey blends that had as much flavor, depth and appeal. It remains my favorite of the Suntory products on the American market, but I've come to appreciate all four, as well as the two Nikka whiskeys that arrived late this year.

I realize that this half dozen is just the tip of the iceberg. While researching this article for the New York Times, I tasted samples of many more. (A favorite: Chita, Suntory's grain whiskey, which serves as the base of Hibiki. Unfortunately, it's not sold commercially.) I've rarely seen such consistency of quality in any liquor category the world over, not to mention elegance. Brandy Library's Flaven Desoblin was right on target when he said "Japanese whiskeys are very much the fine-wine-drinker’s take on whiskey."

Here's the article:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

It's Fall in New York; There's Drinking to Do

The New York Times has done a fall restaurant preview for eons. This year, they decided the bar scene deserved its own article. It was my privilege and happiness to construct the inaugural specimen. Here it is:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Old Tom—New Again

I confess that I didn't drink a lot of Old Tom gin before researching this article for Imbibe magazine. I vaguely considered the resurgence of this forgotten, 19th-century liquor category of gin the twee offspring of niche-obsessed cocktail geekery, and a product of limited application. I was quite wrong. Every Old Tom recipe suggested to me produced delicious results. But if I only ever use the stuff to make Tom Collins in the future, that alone will justify its place in my bar.

Here's the piece:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

New Orleans Already Bountiful Bar Scene Expands Further

Bartenders from around the U.S. have been making an annual summer journey to New Orleans for ten years now—ever since the liquor convention Tales of the Cocktail began in 2003. So it's only natural that some of them would get stuck on the place. With it's rich history of creating classic cocktails and plethora of beautiful old bars—not to mention the general joie de vivre of the place, New Orleans is made for the mixologist's temperament. The past years have seen the emigration of several notable mixers and shakers to the Crescent City—from New York, Minneapolis, Asheville and elsewhere. The direct and/or indirect result of this influx is a batch of new and worthy cocktail bars. In 2012, choosing where to drink in NOLA just got that much harder.

I wrote a roundup of a few (but not all) of the new places for The New York Times, visiting them all during the course of this years TOTC. I recommend them all. Here's the article:

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dale DeGroff Release Own Brand of Bitters

Branding bitters is not new. Writer Gary Regan started off the trend with his ground-breaking orange bitters several years ago. Now, legendary barman has followed his lead. Following a two-year effort, he has produced his own brand of cocktail bitters. I don't expect he is the last contemporary figure in the cocktail world who will slap his name on a bottle. Simon Ford, who recently left the employ of liquor giant Pernod-Ricard USA, will soon release a gin bearing his name. And I know of one bartender is in talks to lend his name to a new amaro. 

Here's the story I wrote on the new product for the Times: 

Bringing Back a Bitters With a Twist
When Dale DeGroff, the pater familias of the craft cocktail movement, was working regularly behind a bar decades ago, he liked to use a strong, spicy liqueur called Pimento Dram to accent his drinks. But in the 1980s, the liqueur, made by the Jamaican rum distiller J. Wray & Nephew, disappeared from shelves in the United States.
“When they pulled it off the American market, I just couldn’t find anything like it,” Mr. DeGroff said. “I had to leave that flavor out of drinks.”
Now he has brought it (or something like it) back, but in the form of a bitters. After two years of work with the American-born, French-based distiller and chemist Ted Breaux — the man largely behind the absinthe revival of the past five years — Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters is finallyon sale online.
The past few years have seen a bitters boom. Where there were once two reigning products, Peychaud’s (needed for a sazerac) and Angostura (needed for almost everything else), there are now dozens, with a dizzying variety of flavors that lend themselves to very specific applications. That sort of narrow profile wasn’t what Mr. DeGroff was after.
“What I was looking for was a real versatile bitters,” Mr. DeGroff said. “It’s a combination of all those baking spices that you find in Angostura Bitters — which is to say ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove — along with just a touch of anise. And there’s a touch of dried orange peel.”
On his Web site, he suggests several cocktails, original and classic, into which a dash or two of Pimento Aromatic Bitters might be dropped. He even boldly suggests that it could supplant Peychaud’s in a sazerac. (“I offer this variation with humility and reverence for the original drink,” he writes.)
For now, curious drinkers can order only a 250-milliliter collector’s edition bottle, priced around $19. Standard 150-milliliter bottles will be available for sale online in September for $10. The bitters are currently made by Mr. Breaux at the Combier distillery in Saumur, France, but production may be moved to the United States in time, Mr. DeGroff said.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The feeling of punch-drunk absurdity that sometimes overwhelms my senses at the Tales of the Cocktail convention came on most strongly this year when I interviewed the dignified Count Branca, owner of Fernet Branca, and actor Ted Lange, the "Love Boat" star and author of one of television's most famous depictions of a bartender, on the same morning. It was a dizzying trip from high to low culture. Both men couldn't have been nicer, and Lange, to my surprise, knew a fair share about the bartending art. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find out what the man who was Isaac liked to drinks. Having been flown in by Disaronno, he was duty bound to declare the liquor he favorite tipple.

Here is my account of the two meetings in the Times:

Peru and Chile, At It Again

If you ever thought the rivalry between the Pisco-producing nations was a lot of hype, attending the Tales of the Cocktail seminar "Pisco Wars: Peru vs. Chile Since 1633," disabused you of that notion. Unlike many Tales panels, the event featured a minimum of brand tub-thumping, and actually featured some healthy debate, and not a little veiled animosity. Of the two parties, Charles de Bournet, representing Chile, was the more conciliatory. By the end of the talk, he was extending an olive branch to Peru, saying history was not as important as agreeing that both countries made fine Piscos, but of a different sort. Historian Guillermo Toro-Lira, arguing Peru's side, was having not of it. "Our stance is that there is only one Pisco," he said. When moderator Steve Olson challenged anyone to tell the different between Chilean Pisco (in which water can be added) and Peruvian Pisco (where water is forbidden) in a blind taste test, Toro-Lira said, "I'll take that challenge."

Here's my write-up for the New York Times:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cachaça Looks to Its Future

Like a lot of people in the liquor world, I haven't spent a lot of time lately troubling my mind about the fate of Cachaça. Sure, it was fun falling in love with the Caipirinha several years ago. It was delicious and easy to make, and vaguely exotic. But the Cachaça folks haven't given us much of a follow-up thrill since then, and the industry battle to have the liquor recognized as a separate category by the American government (and not as "Brazilian rum") grew rather tedious after a while.

However, that campaign eventually succeeded. By summer's end, Cachaça will have gotten the respect from Washington D.C. that it so long desired. In other news, Diageo got into the Cachaça game, buying the huge Ypióca brand for $470 million. Clearly, Diageo things the sugar-cane booze has a future. Given those events, I felt it was time to reappraise the status of Cachaça in the United States.

Here's the story I wrote for the New York Times:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bar Innovations Continue to Confuse Regulators

The nation's government liquor authorities, still mired in a swamp of obsolete, Prohibition-era regulations, continue to bedevil, and be bedeviled by, the lightning pace of the innovations in the cocktail community. Seems every six months or so you read about some benighted health inspector wandering into a high end cocktail lounge and being shocked that drinks are being made with egg whites, or that bartenders are infusing spirits with various herbs and spices and fruits. They shut the programs down, forcing the bar owners to wage expensive and time-consuming campaigns to reinstate what are essentially safe and sensible practices.

Last week, it happened again, and the new East Village bar Gin Palace was the victim. The bar, which focuses on gin drinks, trumpeted its draft cocktail program in the press. It would serve Gin & Tonics and Ramos Gin Fizzes on tap. To the drink world, this was not new news. Draft cocktails have been on offer at saloons on both coasts for more than a year now, following in the footsteps of the draft wine trend. In fact, Gin Palace owner Ravi DeRossi has actually featured draft drinks at two of his previous bars. But it was Gin Palace that set the authorities off, mainly because it received so much pre-opening ink.

So now Gin Palace has to argue its case before a hearing. If the bar succeeds, as it should, a lot of other bars with draft programs should be grateful. Here's the item I wrote for the Times' Diner's Journal:

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sloe Gin's New American Cousin

Beach Plum Gin.

An American cousin to sloe gin, using the beach plums that grow along the eastern seaboard. Why didn't someone think of that before?

Well, they did, actually. Bartender Toby Cecchini vacations every summer in Cape Cod and, for the last few summers, has brought back a bunch of beach plums with him and converted them into homemade beach plum gin. But Steven DeAngelo of Brooklyn's Greenhook Ginsmiths is the first person to commercially market such a liqueur. (Apparently, he got the initial idea from reading about Cecchini's experiments.)

The stuff is delicious, particularly with tonic. I'll be drinking it often this summer.

Here's the article I wrote for the Times:
Plummy Gin, Close To Home
THE beach plum is a delicacy for the vacationing New Yorker. The scraggly bushes that bear the small, tart fruits love sandy soil and are familiar to anyone who frequents the dunes and beaches of the Northeast during July and August. Spot a jar of beach-plum jam in a kitchen pantry and you know its owner has recently returned from Cape Cod or eastern Long Island.
For those stuck in the city all summer, such preserves are hard to come by. Those folks will have to be content drinking their beach plums.
Greenhook Ginsmiths in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has introduced what the company believes is the only beach plum gin on the market. Like its predecessor, the distillery’s American Dry gin, which came out last February, the beach plum gin puts a Yankee spin on a traditionally English spirit.
“I wanted to do a traditional sloe gin,” said Steven DeAngelo, the founder of the small Greenhook Ginsmiths. Sloe gin, a liqueur associated with England, is flavored with astringent sloe berries, common in Europe.
But Mr. DeAngelo soon learned that sloe berries are hard to come by in the United States. He abandoned a plan to contract an English farmer to ship berries, fearing they would spoil even if frozen. So he cast his sights on indigenous fruit.
“I knew about damson plums, but there’s a damson plum gin on the market, so I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I learned that beach plums were close relations to damsons and sloes, but they’re native to the U.S.”
Fruit-wise, Mr. DeAngelo, who grew up in Brooklyn and has the accent to prove it, could hardly have gotten more local. Early explorers of the New York area, including Giovanni da Verrazano and Henry Hudson, mentioned beach plums in their writings. Plum Island, off the North Fork of Long Island, is named after the fruit.
But the bushes, which seem to thrive in harsh conditions, are difficult to cultivate. In time, the distiller found a crop at Briermere Farms in Riverhead, N.Y., and bought all it had: 800 pounds of plums.
The idea for the liqueur wasn’t entirely new: the New York bartender Toby Cecchini has concocted a homemade beach plum gin for years.
To make Greenhook’s version, Mr. DeAngelo macerated the fruit in its signature gin, a process that took seven months, far longer than he expected. He then removed the plums, sweetened the brew with turbinado sugar and filtered the result.
The vibrant red liquid is less viscous and earthy than sloe gin and slightly more fruit-forward than damson gin. Only 1,800 bottles were produced, to be sold in New York State alone. The gin, about $49.99, is carried by Astor Wine and Spirits, Park Avenue Liquor Shop and the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, among others.
A few Brooklyn cocktail bars and restaurants (Maison Premiere, Hotel Delmano and Marlow & Sons) were given bottles for building cocktail creations.
If you’d rather take the mixing into your own hands, you could do worse than topping a measure of the liqueur with twice as much tonic water. Mr. DeAngelo, who professes to be a man of simple tastes, likes his with Champagne. The fruit is seasonal, so the liquor will likely be a once-a-year thing. “Once we run out of this,” he said, “we probably won’t have any more till next April.”

Friday, July 6, 2012

P.J. Clarke's Owners Make a Misstep

You have to wonder about the sanity of the custodians of New York's great saloons these days. The Irish owner of the building the housed the Prohibition-era Bill Gay 90s declined to renew the lease of that beloved bar earlier this year, resulting in the longtime owner packing up, and taking all the priceless interior antiques with her. The space will soon be occupied by another faceless, trendy, upscale restaurant.

Now, the parvenu owners of P.J. Clarke's, who bought the timeless Third Avenue saloon in 2002, have seen fit to kick the joint's second-greatest asset (after the timeless bar itself)—bartender's bartender Doug Quinn—to the curb. Quinn's offense was defending some women from a groping drunk. The managing partner side with the drunk and fired Quinn and another bartender—an astounding move, given that the New York Times had called Quinn one of the best bartenders in New York City in a flattering 2010 profile.

I spoke to Quinn the day after the kerfuffle, and wrote up the incident in the New York Times. Some of his saltier comments I left out of the family-friendly pages of the Gray Lady. Let's just say he didn't hold back, and doesn't think much of Clarke's owners or the Third Avenue bar's new managers. (The Clarke's people dodged my phone calls.)

Since buying Clarke's, the new owners (who include actor Timothy Hutton) have seemed intent on branding the bar, opening branches across Manhattan and in other cities. No doubt, they didn't see the value of a single employee, or care for Quinn getting attention that they felt should have been going to themselves. True, Quinn can be a bit grandiose. He's referred to himself as the Babe Ruth of bartenders, and declares he's going to open the greatest saloon in New York. But he's popular, and good to the customers. And if the comments in response to my article, and others, are to be believed, the Clarke's reputation has been seriously dented.

Stay tuned for the imminent opening of Quinn's.

Here's the article:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Another Brooklyn Distillery, But With a Difference (Well, Several)

The founders of Industry City Distillers are five young guys with beards and a lot of toys, but no background in liquor. Yet they have created what is without a doubt the most unique distillery in Brooklyn, a borough that is collected a new liquor-maker every few months.

Like the specialists gathered together in a glossy heist films, the quintet partition themselves into areas of expertise. Peter Simon, a former yoga instructor, handles the marketing and administration. Rich Watts is in charge of design, copywriting and printing. Watts' corner of Sunset Park industrial building ICD calls home is dominated by a printing press. Zac Bruner is the resident machinist. His area resembles the room where you reported for shop class in high school. Zac designs anything made of glass or metal that the other guys ask for. If you need a custom gizmo for the still, or a special gimcrack for the fermentation tank, he's your man. Dave Kyrejko is what any conventional distillery would call the master distiller. He devised the company's original fermentation and distillation processes. Max Haimes, assistant distiller and jack of all trades, helps Dave turn out the distillery's initial product.

That product is vodka. ICD began distributing its spirit to New York liquor stores in April. That would seem like an end game to most businessmen. Not these guys. As I write these words, the bottle was called "No. 2." But by the time this article hits the street, however, it's probably sailing under the name of "No. 3" or "No. 4." You see, Industry City vodka—like everything at Industry City—is a work in progress.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Napoleon House Gets a Second Pimm's Drink

The Napoleon House's house drink has been the Pimm's Cup since the 1950s. Owner Sal Impastato favored the light-bodied cocktail because it suited the hot New Orleans climate and did not send his patrons under the table with undue speed. (Perversely, for a saloon owner, he did not want his customers to get drunk.)

Today, Napoleon House sells two cases of Pimm's No 1 a day. The bar is Pimm's' largest account in the U.S. Almost all of that goes into the making of Pimm's Cups. But this July that will change.

Impastato is using this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention to launch a new Pimm's-based libation. It will be called the Pimm's Ginger Julep. It will basically be a Julep made with Pimm's and ginger beer and, presumedly, mint. Another cooling drink well-suited to the climate. But one, I'm thinking, that will get customers drunk, and pretty fast. Also one that will take bartenders considerably longer to make. (I've watched them makes Pimm's Cups. They can whip out out in roughly five seconds.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Not Just for Wimbledon and New Orleans Anymore

I had my first encounter with Pimm's No. 1, appropriately enough, in Wimbledon. It was 1999. Business has relocated a college friend there temporarily. While visiting with him in his lush back yard, he made me a Pimm's Cup and told me he was mad about the stuff. Didn't I love it?

I'll be honest. It didn't make much of an impression at the time. I assumed that my friend was passing through an acute case of Anglophilia and had lost all sense of perspective where English-made goods were concerned.

Pimm's didn't truly leave its mark on me as a drink until 2006, when I stepped across the threshold of the Napoleon House in New Orleans. Everyone was drinking Pimm's Cups, and the bartender was making them by the half-dozen. When in Rome, I thought. 

I liked the drink immediately this time. That it was July and scorching outside, and the cocktail was light and refreshing, certainly helped stoke my affections. I've had many Pimm's Cups at Napoleon House since, as well as at other bars across the world, and at home, where I build them fairly frequently between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

It was a pleasure to report, in this article for the New York Times, that you can walk into almost any respectable bar in NYC today and order a Pimm's Cup with confidence.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cocktails to the Maks

There are two things every serious New York drink should do at least once on a Monday night. One is take in a "Tiki Monday" at Lani Kai. The second is experience one of bartender Maks Pazuniak's "Something Like This" sessions at the Counting Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The menu is different every week, featuring five of Pazuniak's original, bitter and beguiling liquid creations (and sometimes a classic or two). Monday is the only day of the week Pazuniak works at the Brooklyn bar (though he designed the place's entire cocktail menu). So if you want to experience his work first-hand, that's when you go. If you merely want to taste one of his drinks, go to the The Counting Room any night and order a Salt & Ash, or Wire & String. Or go to nearby Maison Premiere and take in a Carondelet—a remnant of his short bartending stint there.

Here's a story I wrote for Wine Enthusiast about him:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What I'll Be Drinking This Summer

By mid-June of every year, I've usually settled into a general notion of what I'll be drinking during the hot summer months. The libations that make the cut are usually dictated by one of three factors: One, undying allegiance to certain summer classics (Southside, etc.); Two, the appearance of attractive new products perfectly suited for summer sipping; and, Three, fate. By that last item I mean liquors suggested to my mind and thirst by whatever assignments I happen to be working on around Memorial Day Weekend.

Much of my past month's drinking has been framed by articles-in-progress about the Pimm's Cup, Cachaca and Old Tom Gin. As a result, there are a number of bottles of said spirits sitting around the house, making it a safe bet that there will be more Pimm's Cups, Caipirinhas and Old Tom drinks in my future. The former would have my made summer cocktail list anyway; it always does. But the addition of Old Tom to the menu in unexpected. I doubt I would have devoted much of the summer to the Old Tom Tom Collins if I hadn't been conducted some "research" into the new/old spirit. 

As I did last year, I'm dividing the list into two parts: "Classics," summer drinks that appear on my sideboard year after year: and "Newbies," fresh balms to my parched throat. 


Southside. One of the rules of thumb of summer drinks is they should be easy to make. No one likes to work hard during the Dog Days. The Southside is an exception to that rule. It's not the easiest. You have to make the simple syrup; juice the limes (or lemons); muddle the mint; shake and strain the drink well; not to mention, you must have all the necessary ingredients on hand. But it's all worth it. Few drinks simultaneously calm and stimulate the way a Southside does.

Pimm's Cup. Owing to research for a New York Times feature on this timeless British refresher, I am in position of a number of recipe variations on Pimm's Cup, concocted by bartenders from across the country. I will probably give a few of them a spin. But, on the most scorching days, I'll likely fall back on a simple Pimm's-Ginger Ale-Cucumber formulation. Whatever floats your boat, you should go for it. All Pimm's Cups end up tasting like Pimm's in the end. For a liqueur with such an easygoing reputation, it has a flavor backbone as tough as steel.

Gin and Tonic: As always. I make my G&Ts with either Plymouth or one of the classic London Dry Gins (Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, etc.), and with Brooklyn-made Q Tonic. I love homemade tonic, but the task of making it is too arduous, so I generally leave it to the experts. This summer, I might quaff a few G&Ts made with the newly available Navy Strength Gins, like Perry's Tot. Even though I know that's not exactly advisable, given the higher alcohol content, I'm a sucker for the novelty and the flavor of the stuff.


Old Tom Tom Collins: The simple Tom Collins is a perfect warm-weather drink. But the Old Tom Tom Collins—switching out the spiky London Dry for some soft and sweet Old Tom (Hayman's, preferably)—is perfection upon perfection. I do 1 1/2 oz. Old Tom, 1 oz. syrup, 3/4 oz. lemon juice, shaken and topped with soda. This drink is disarmingly smooth. Take care, or you'll down three before a half hour has passed.

Wire and String: This is a Pimm's Cup riff devised by bartender Maks Pazuniak. You can either visit the Counting Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Maks works, and order one; or make the drink yourself. It's quite easy: 1 1/4 oz. Pimm’s, 1 1/4 oz. Campari, 3/4 oz. Lemon Juice and 1/2 oz. pineapple syrup (juice pineapple, measure, add equal parts sugar and stir to combine). Add all the ingredients to a shaker and shake vigorously, but briefly. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with soda. The blend of bitter and sweet is bracing and tasty.

Byrhh: 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. This year, it was returned to the American market. Gentle by quinquina standards, it's best drunk cold, straight or on the rocks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Irish-American Whisky (?) Makes a Comeback

New bar concepts are getting more arcane and ornate. Bellocq in New Orleans has taken Cobblers, the ice-laden, 19th-century refreshments, as its focus. Demi-Monde in lower Manhattan may be as close to a soda fountain as a liquor bar can get, so much fizz and phosphate is there in their inventive drinks menu. Now there's Tradition Bar, the latest from the San Francisco team that brought you Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse. The saloon has placed its bets equally on barrel-aged cocktails and overproof spirits, two hot trends right now. On top of that, it's menu is divided in types of bar. There's a dive bar section, an Irish pub section, a hotel bar section—you get the idea.

But perhaps the most singular, the most peculiar, the most interesting aspect of the program is Traditions Bar's determination to revive the lost (and perhaps better off lost) liquor category of Irish-American Whiskey. I don't know if this is something the world was dying to see recreated. But I, for one, am curious to see how it tastes.

Here's my New York Times article on the bar:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Milk & Honey Moves On, Reservation-Free

Speculation about the uptown move of ur-neo-speakeasy Milk & Honey has been so rampant for the past year, it was a particular pleasure to land the scoop on owner Sasha Petraske's plans for his Lower East Bar—not to mention the lowdown on longtime M&H bartenders Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy's designs on the old Eldridge Street space, which they will reinvent as Attaboy. (By the way, the Attaboy cocktail found in the Savoy cocktail book will not be on the men at Attaboy because, said McIlroy, "It's a disgusting drink.")

I learned a couple other mini-scoops from Petraske when I met with him, Ross and McIlroy recently. I politely agreed not to reveal these plans, as they might through various monkey wrenches into the barman's works. But keep your eye on Petraske and company. They have some surprises in store.

So, will the new 23rd Street Milk & Honey be the same without a secret entrance and a cryptic reservation policy? A better question would be, who ever went there for those reasons? I went for the atmosphere, the bartenders and the expertly made drinks.

Here's my Times article:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Mad Men" and Drinking, Season Five, Part II: Mr. Leary, I Find Your Product Fascinating

I wrote in a previous "Mad Men and Drinking" post that I suspected there would be more drugs than drinking in Season 5, and such is proving to be the case.

Not that there's more drug-taking among the show's major characters. Not a bit. These guys will always put the booze away. But the drug episodes are the cultural signifiers in the season's depiction of 1966. They get the spotlit turns.

Nowhere was this more evident then in the "Far Away Places" episode, in which Roger Sterling is lured quite unknowingly into a very civilized LSD party in a tony Manhattan apartment. Roger is skeptical—he begins his trip with the statement "Well, Mr. Leary, I find your product boring" and heading for the bar. But his experience picks up after a while, including a Stoli vodka bottle that plays orchestra music when you open it. By the next morning, LSD has accomplished nothing less than altering his entire world perspective. He realizes that he and Jane must split—and do so amicably. More importantly, he sheds a portion of his self-centerness. "People always said I didn't understand how other people thought, and they were right," he explains. Of course, being Roger, he can't stop talking about it. By the next episode, he's become the office bore, bringing up his vast experience with LSD every chance he gets.

Overproof Overkill

A month or so ago, I was invited to a tasting of the Abelour Scotch line. The highlight was Aberlour A’Bunadh, an overproof expression which chimes in at 59.8 percent. Shortly after, I attending a tasting of the new cask strength version of the Irish whiskey Redbreast. It was held at the New York Distilling Company, which last year introduced a new "Navy Strength" gin.

While the liqueur and flavored vodka people flood the market with enough product to ensure that the general abv of available spirits is slowly decreasing, drip by drip, there's no denying that the whiskey world is currently crushing on the idea of cask-strength spirits. And in increasing numbers, the Cognac, gin, and rum folks are getting in on the act, recognizing the category's hypnotic effect on both the mixologist and the booze collector. I predict the next year will see a small rush of cask-strength tequilas. (There's only one at present.)

In general, I applaud this trend. The good ones—the Redbreast and Abelour included, as well as the soon-to-arrive Plymouth and Hayman's Navy Strength gins—are distinct, beautiful spirits. Others are simply more-alcoholic versions of their 40% brothers, but still good. But still others are simply fire-breathing excuses for distillers to milk the customer's wallet. (DeLeón cask strength tequila is very nice, but it costs $300.) Certainly, there's room for consumer abuse here. But, for now, the view is quite lovely. 

Here is my New York Times article on the subject:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Suburban Tiki

Adam Kolesar has come a long way in a short time. A couple years ago, he was a fairly well kept Brooklyn secret known as "Tiki Adam," a cocktail enthusiast who hung out at Prime Meats and invited tiki-oriented mixologists over to his apartment for geeky mix-a-thons. Then my colleague at the Times, Frank Bruni, discovered him and wrote a profile. (I grind my teeth even now at the thought that he beat me to the punch.) Now, Kolesar is selling his homemade orgeat to bars around town and sometimes tending bar at Lani Kai.

This month, Kolesar co-hosted one of the more invited events at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, a bus tour of two suburban tiki relics. The bus was late, and the air-conditioning a disaster. But it was still a fun trip back into the 1970s, the death throe years of the original tiki era.

Here's is my write-up in the Times:
Leaving Manhattan for a Taste of the Tiki
When tiki and tiki-esque bars like PKNY, the Hurricane Club and Lani Kai opened in New York in the last couple years, they had no living Manhattan models to emulate. The Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room was long gone. And Donald Trump shut down the Trader Vic’s in the Plaza Hotel in 1993.
To find tiki continuity in the greater metropolitan area you have to head over the bridges. That was the aim of A Suburban Tiki Safari, a Manhattan Cocktail Classicevent held on Saturday. Led by Brian Miller, the bartender in charge of Lani Kai’s Tiki Mondays series, and Adam Kolesar, a Brooklyn-based tiki drink enthusiast, a group of 20 or so budding rummies boarded a bus headed for Chan’s Dragon Inn in Ridgefield, N.J., and Jade Island on Staten Island.
Mr. Kolesar prepared the exacting for what awaited them. “For those accustomed to fine drinks, your expectations should be modest,” he warned. “These drinks were calibrated to the food they served, which was pretty much jazzed-up Chinese.”
Inside the bus, a tropical environment was fostered in ways intentional and accidental. Speakers piped in “The Girl From Ipanema,” Louis Prima and jazzy lounge-music versions of Henry Mancini. In the back, Mr. Miller proved you can mix up a batch of Dead Bastards (a tiki standard made of gin, rum, Bourbon, brandy, lime juice and ginger beer) at the back of a moving vehicle. Meanwhile, an under-performing air-conditioning system provided an appropriately Polynesian climate.
Chan’s was the first stop. The brown, diminutive restaurant is easily lost among the surrounding housing stock. It is still run by the same family that opened it in 1965. Jade Island, born in 1972, is hidden in its own way, as one building block in a nondescript strip mall. Its next-door neighbor is a branch of the post office. (Jade Island recently survived a near-death experience, signing a lease to stay where it is for another decade.) Both restaurants were born at “the tail end of the Polynesian craze,” said Mr. Kolesar, when the exotic tiki movement was finding its way to the common man.
Inside, the two mock tropical paradises seemed to have shared the same decorator. There were colorfully painted totems, lobby water sculptures, bamboo booths with thatched roofs, fake parrots perched in the rafters, and lighting fixtures shaped like blowfish. The large-scale menus were of the sort that offer drink illustrations and food choices from column A and column B. Behind the bar at Chan’s were two plastic milk jugs, one filled with an orange liquid and labeled zombie and one with a yellow liquid labeled mai tai. A pu-pu platter of egg rolls, shrimp toast and ribs arrived without a dish of flaming liquid at its center.
At Jade Island, the majority ordered the Pineapple Paradise, a creamy drink that was served in an enormous, hollowed-out pineapple. Despite its size, it didn’t pack much of a wallop.
“I never worry about driving here,” said Mr. Kolesar, who lives in Carroll Gardens. “The drinks are not that strong.”
On the return trip through the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan, Mr. Miller made everyone a rum old-fashioned with El Dorado 12-year-old rum. That was strong.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do Not Resuscitate

The cocktail world can get pretty sanctimonious about the Mixed-Drink Beforetimes. So it's always pleasure for the ears when some dearly held conventional truths are torn down for shibboleths that they are. During the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, the most talked-about panel was called "Do Not Resuscitate." It was packed with some of the most unassailable authorities in the cocktail demi-monde, and they dared to make such blasphemous statements as the Aviation isn't as good a cocktail as we think, and the Brooklyn is, when it comes down to it, not as tasty as a Manhattan.

Shortly after the seminar wrapped up, I met a bartender and told him which cocktails the panelists had trashed. With the mention of each drink, he got more and more agitated. At that reaction, I knew the panel had done its job.

I wrote up the seminar for the Times. Here it is:
Cocktails for the History Books, Not the Bar 
A collection of cocktail world figures lined up Saturday at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, the annual New York drinks convention, to shoot down some sacred cows. 
Many a pre-Prohibition libation has been glorified in recent years as the cocktail demimonde began to resurrect and lionize the drinks of Days Gone By. Not every drink deserved the honor. That was a point of the panelists gathered at the Andaz 5th Avenue hotel for “Do Not Resuscitate,” a seminar sponsored by Pierre Ferrand Cognac. The speakers included the legendary barman Dale DeGroff; the owner of the Pegu Club, Audrey Saunders; the mixed-drink historian David Wondrich; the owner of Fort Defiance, St. John Frizell; the tequila and mezcal authority Steve Olson; and the wandering cocktail generalists Robert Hess, Philip Duff and Angus Winchester. 
A few of the darlings of the cocktail renaissance took a heavy drubbing from the panel. Among them was the Brooklyn cocktail. Entirely obscure a decade ago, this mix of rye, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and Amer Picon (a French amaro), can now be found on bar menus across the United States. “This is not a good drink,” Mr. Frizell said with unhesitating definitiveness. As the owner of a Brooklyn bar, Mr. Frizell has seen his share of Brooklyn cocktails. Most of said concoctions bend over backwards to make up for the fact that you can no longer buy one of the drink’s key ingredients, Amer Picon, in America. “Drinking a Brooklyn makes you think, ‘Why am I not drinking a Manhattan?’ — a drink for which the ingredients are readily available,” he said. 
Mr. Degroff took aim at the aviation, a cocktail made of gin, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur from the early 20th century. Rediscovered in the early 2000s, it was one of the earliest and most celebrated reclamation projects of the mixologist community. “It was a darling of the Internet,” Mr. DeGroff said. But, “It tastes like hand soap.” And, if you use the blue-hued creme de violette called for in some recipes, “it’s more like hand soap.” 
The Papa Doble — a famous creation credited to Ernest Hemingway that contains much rum, some lime juice and almost no sweetener — also received no love from Mr. DeGroff. “Why should we have our drinking habits dictated by Hemingway’s diabetes problem?” he asked. He added, regarding the novelist’s way with mixing a cocktail: “Hemingway always got it wrong.” 
Of the vesper, the vodka-gin martini variation made famous by fictional spy James Bond, Mr. Winchester said, “I would not be sad if this drink disappeared.” He added that you couldn’t make it anyway, because one of its ingredients, Kina Lillet, hasn’t been produced for years. Ms. Saunders, meanwhile, berated the French Martini. She mainly disliked the blend of vodka, pineapple juice and Chambord for the way it made people behave. That is, badly. 
As the table’s resident agave ace, Mr. Olson trained his sights on the el diablo, a newly popular drink from the 1940s, made of tequila, creme de cassis and ginger ale. “It’s great that bars are starting to think outside the margarita when it comes to tequila cocktails,” Mr. Olson said. “But when they decide to put a different tequila cocktail on the menu, they’re moving to the el diablo. When you add ginger ale to tequila, you kill the agave. What makes it worse is a lot of that ginger ale is coming out of a soda gun.” 
A few of the drinks executed by the panel are still so little known that their deaths would be little noticed. Robert Hess lambasted the snowball cocktail, taken from the famed Savoy Cocktail Book. “When I see equal parts of ingredients in a cocktail recipe, I get suspicious,” Mr. Hess said. “It’s too convenient.” The stomach-churning, gin-based formula for the snowball boasts matching doses of Creme de Violette, Creme de Menthe, anisette and cream. “This may be the only bad cocktail in the Savoy Cocktail Book,” Mr. Hess suggested. 
Mr. Wondrich laid into the bath cure, the house drink at Chicago’s famous Pump House. Resembling an early ancestor of the Long Island Iced Tea, it called for six kinds of liquors, adding up to a full eight-and-one-half ounces of booze. “This drink should not only not be made, it should not even be thought about,” Mr. Wondrich said. 
Charles H. Baker Jr., the mid-20th-century cocktail writer and mixologist, was left bloodied and battered by the speakers. About Baker’s Holland Razor Blade — a blend of Holland gin, lemon juice and cayenne pepper — Mr. Duff said, “To say that the Holland Razor Blade is your favorite Baker cocktail is like saying you ride a T. Rex to work — it’s not possible, and it can’t be pleasant.” 
Mr. Duff further suggested that Hemingway and Baker, who were pals, may have represented the original “axis of evil,” cocktail-wise.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Local Nectar

I've been wanting to write about the quintessentially New Orleans soda flavor called Nectar for about two years now. Imbibe finally gave me license. Here's the article:

Sweet Nectar 
If Susan Dunham’s grandmother and the Lyons family hadn’t happened to attend the same church, one of the signature flavors of New Orleans’ liquid cuisine might have been lost forever. 
That flavor is something called Nectar, and you’ll only find it in the Crescent City. It was created by I.L. Lyons, a Civil War officer and pharmacist who, after hanging up his saber, moved from South Carolina to New Orleans, where he founded I.L. Lyons Pharmaceutical Products in 1866. Some time after, he invented a beguiling, bright red syrup that tasted of vanilla and almonds. He sold it to a local chain of soda fountains called Katz and Besthoff pharmacies (known colloquially at K&B), where is was served three ways: as a soda (add selzter), a cream soda (add cream and seltzer) and an ice cream soda. The local population couldn’t get enough. In the final decades of the 20th century, however, soda fountains went the way of the drive-in theater, the Lyons family had sold the company and K&B was absorbed by Rite Aid. Nectar became a dim memory. 
It would have stayed that way, but for Dunham. “My grandmother grew up on Octavia Street and knew a lot of people from her church on St. Charles Avenue,” says Dunham, president of the Nectar Soda Company. Those worthies included some descendants of I.L. Lyons. Dunham’s grandma and the Lyons ran in the same wholesome circles. They shared a poker group and made fruitcakes together. So Dunham knew where to go when she hatched the idea of bringing Nectar back to life. 
It wasn’t her first try. As the local supplier of ICEE—the makers of the ubiquitous, neon-colored frozen carbonated beverages—she had tried to convince the company to sell a Nectar flavor in New Orleans. But ICEE didn’t bite. The market was too provincial. So Dunham turned to plan B and coaxed the Lyon family into sharing the secret formula. “We had to modify it to get a standard beverage density,” she says. “It had sugar then. The plant I work with only uses high fructose syrup.” (Dunham is currently working on an all-natural version of Nectar that will use cane sugar and natural dyes.) 
At first, she made a bottled Nectar soda, but it was made in Chicago and became too cumbersome to produce. So Dunham focused on quart bottles of Nectar syrup, which run about $9.
Jeffrey Gulotta, who creates many of the cocktails and drinks for chef Josh Besh’s string of New Orleans restaurants, also recalls Nectar. “My grandmother would talk to me about when she would go to K&B to get a nectar snowball,” he says. (Snowball is New Orleans lingo for sno-cone.) “I remember a girl I dated in high school. We would go to this little place in the Lakeview neighborhood called Russell’s Marina Grille, and she would always get a nectar ice cream soda.” 
Gulotta decided to sell a Nectar ice cream soda at the Soda Shop, an old-fashioned fountain inside the National World War II Museum, which Besh opened in 2011. Gulotta wasn’t aware of Dunham’s product, so he configured his own method of resurrecting the lost potion by enlisting the sense memories of a nonagenarian war veteran. “He said he could remember it perfectly,” Gulotta says. After a few trial mixings of almond and vanilla syrups, the soldier nodded his approval. 
Gulotta compares the renewed interest in Nectar to the recent revival of absinthe. “You’re seeing a renaissance of the artisan thing in New Orleans,” he says. “There’s this exploration of local flavors. They’re coming back to the front.” 
Despite its new lease on life, Nectar seems destined to remain a Big Easy phenomenon. The syrup is only sold in Louisiana, and Dunham says she’s had little incentive to expand its base. “Ask any kid in New Orleans to describe Nectar, and they will tell you it’s bright pink and tastes like almonds and vanilla,” she said. “Put the same question to anyone from out of town, and you’ll get a blank stare.” 
—By Robert Simonson

Monday, April 30, 2012

Charles H. Baker Jr. Comes Home to Red Hook

You want to know something about 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, you ask Thomas historian David Wondrich. Have a question about tiki-master Donn "Don the Beachcomber" Beach, Jeff Berry is your man. And if you're curious about mid-20th-century, globe-trotting mixologist-journalist Charles H. Baker Jr., take a stroll down to the Red Hook, Brooklyn, bar Fort Defiance and talk to St. John Frizell. 

Since traveling the globe in pursuit of places and bars that Baker visited, and publishing his findings in the Oxford American in 2008, Frizell has been acknowledged as the world authority on Baker, his life, his bibliography and his cocktail creations. 

The apotheosis of Frizell's Baker obsession will come on May 1, when he will formally unveil at Fort Defiance a cocktail shaker that once belonged to Baker. It was given to Frizell by Baker's daughter, Pamela. Here's the story I wrote about it for the Times:  
At Fort Defiance, Saluting a Drinks Pioneer
A cocktail shaker once owned by the influential drinks columnist Charles H. Baker Jr. will soon have a place of honor at Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Today’s history-minded mixologists follow various guiding lights from the past. Some bow at the altar of the 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, the so-called “father of American mixology.” Others look to Harry Johnson, a leading barman of the late 1800s.
For St. John Frizell, the owner of Fort Defiance, a bar and cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Charles H. Baker Jr. was always a lodestar. And on Tuesday, Mr. Frizell will hold a private party to celebrate him.
A bon vivant and world traveler who married exceptionally well and drank with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Errol Flynn, Baker found time to write about the cocktails he encountered around the globe, in the pages of Esquire, Town & Country and Gourmet, where he had a column called “Here’s How.” His book “The Gentleman’s Companion,” published in 1939, has become a collector’s item among cocktail types, and occasionally you’ll find one of his liquid creations popping up on a modern cocktail list. (I am particularly fond of the Remember the Maine, a Manhattan-Sazerac cross laced with cherry heering.)
“I was given his books in 2000 by a friend of mine,” Mr. Frizell said. “This was back before anyone was talking about him. To read that book is to fall in love with Charles Baker. The problem was, the only thing I could find out about him anywhere was an obituary in The Miami Herald.”
And so Mr. Frizell decided to retrace the peripatetic writer’s footsteps, spending 2005 and 2006 going wherever Baker had gone. He published his finding in a 2008 essay in the literary magazine Oxford American.
At some point in his investigations, he became acquainted with Baker’s daughter, Pamela Johnson, who lives in Princeton, NJ. She rewarded Mr. Frizell’s interest by giving him an ornate Japanese cocktail shaker once owned by Baker. The shaker, possibly dating from the 1920s or ’30s, is footed and high-shouldered and shaped like a teapot. Painted a funereal black, it has a red handle and spout, and is decorated with the image of a fantastical, long-tailed rooster.
The party on Tuesday will mark the arrival of the shaker. Guests will be invited to build Baker-devised cocktails in the vessel. At the end of the evening, the shaker will be placed on the wall in a glass case created for the purpose. And there it will remain.
Ms. Johnson, who is in her 70s, is planning to travel from New Jersey for the event. “She is surprised by the whole thing,” Mr. Frizell said. “She loved her father, but finds this whole thing strange. I think she thinks I’m the only one who’s interested in him.”