Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Beard Awards Find Room for the Bar

From Diner's Journal, news of a needed change at the James Beard Awards:
James Beard Awards Are Late (but Welcome) to the Bar
The outstanding-wine-program category of the James Beard Awards was born the same year the food-world prizes were first given out: 1991. Now, 21 years later, the Beard Foundation has finally gotten around to honoring the other half of every restaurant’s liquor regimen.
The five inaugural nominees for outstanding bar program were announced on Monday. They include two bars from New York (Pegu Club, PDT), two from Chicago (Aviary, The Violet Hour) and one from San Francisco (Bar Agricole).
For many professionals in the spirits and cocktail world, the reaction to the advent of the category wasn’t so much “Great!” as “What took them so long?”
“It was an acknowledgment that as much time, if not more, is being spent on the bar programs these days as the wine program,” said Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. “We’re in the midst of a cocktail frenzy.”
(The food part of the program, of course, went on as usual: The finalists,announced Monday, included several New York names: David Chang and Daniel Humm for outstanding chef; Balthazar and Blue Hill for outstanding restaurant: and Isa and Tertulia for best new restaurant.)
Mr. Davis, who is a cocktail enthusiast himself — martinis, gimlets and Manhattans are his go-to drinks — does not think the foundation is necessarily arriving late to the party. “The foundation is always criticized for being too late,” he said. “But I think there’s a benefit to not jumping on trends too fast. I certainly don’t think we’ve missed the moment. The bar revival hasn’t peaked.”
“This is a collaborative process,” he added. “We have committees and judges that make decisions. You have to get a lot of people to agree” on the creation of a new category.
The folks behind the honored bars think the award will only do the industry good. “The craft bartending industry has made enormous strides in the last number of years, investing great amounts of time an effort into both education and refinement of technique,” said Audrey Saunders, of Pegu Club. “Now we’re witnessing the fruits of our labor with a true ‘raising of the bar,’ and it’s extremely gratifying to see the change in public perception that’s taken place along with it.” She added that she believed the new award “will inspire many more bars to excellence, and thus encourage further fortification of our industry.”
Jim Meehan of PDT observed that the Beard foundation was merely acknowledging what chefs have for years. “I’ve persuaded chefs, culinary schools and amateur cooks to consider the similarities between the bar and the kitchen for years,” he said. “Linton Hopkins in Atlanta, Barbara Lynch in Boston, José Andrés in D.C., Wylie Dufresne in New York and Charles Phan in San Francisco have nurtured sophisticated bar programs for years, and now we have chefs such as Daniel Humm and Grant Achatz taking it to the next level.”
A ballot listing the five nominees will be submitted to a panel of roughly 400 judges, who will vote in the bar program awards. All the winners will be announced on May 7 at a ceremony at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center..
Now that the bar program hurdle has been cleared, might the foundation created an outstanding mixologist category sometime in the future? “I would not be surprised,” Mr. Davis said.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Butterfly to Feature Eben Freeman's Greatest Hits

One of the most heartbreaking circumstances of a life sipping cocktails is finding one you love, and then having the mixologist pick up and move to a new job or new city, or having the bar close up. Suddenly, the balm you uncovered is removed and you're left mourning.

Eben Freeman has worked the bars of a great number of place over the last two decades, including Eleven Madison Park, WD-50 and Tailor. At present, he managed the beverage programs at all of Michael White's restaurants, but he is not actually behind any particular bar.

With the arrival of White's new Wisconsin-themed restaurant this summer, it will be possible to drink up all the Freeman you want in one location. The Tribeca eatery will have a special cocktail list of many of the drinks Freeman has created at his other jobs, including his famous smoked Coke highball, The Waylon, on tap.

I wrote up his plans for Diner's Journal. Read:
Bartender Will Bring His Busy Past to The Butterfly
The bar program at The Butterfly — the new Michael White restaurant scheduled to open in TriBeCa this summer — will be part Wisconsin, part Eben Freeman.
Reporting about the plans on Friday, Diner’s Journal noted that Mr. Freeman is “head of bar operations and innovation” at Mr. White’s Altamarea Group. But before holding that position he tended bars at a number of significant New York restaurants and taverns, including Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50and Sam Mason’s Tailor. After The Butterfly opens and settles into a groove, he would like to offer a separate cocktail menu that would comprise a sort of Freeman’s greatest hits.
“We’ll start out without it,” he said in an interview on Monday. “But as soon as we’re comfortable, I’d like to have all the drinks I’ve done in my career in a book behind the bar.”
That book may include: a rum punch he created 20 years ago at Caribe, a West Village restaurant where he got his start; forgotten classics like The Millionaire and American Beauty that he introduced to diners at Eleven Madison Park; The Royal Blush, a blend of vodka, sparking wine and cherry purée that was a popular favorite at WD-50 (“When you add the wine, the drink changes color from pink to red”); The Crumble, a rum drink that was an early example of the now-common technique of fat-washing spirits; and The Waylon, the bourbon and smoked Coke drink made famous at Tailor. “I would like to serve The Waylon on draft,” Mr. Freeman said.
With The Butterfly, Mr. White intends to evoke the supper clubs of his native Wisconsin. (The name comes from The Butterfly Club, a restaurant Mr. White worked at in Beloit, Wis.) The regular cocktail list is still in development. But, even at this early stage, it is certain to bear a couple of Badger State touches.
Mr. Freeman has been collaborating with the owners of Lakefront Brewery, a Milwaukee-based craft brewer. Their first creation, Birra Morini — a light lager made with herbs, including oregano, instead of hops — is already being poured at Mr. White’s Osteria Morini. The debut of a second brew, called Fernet Stout, will most likely coincide with the opening of The Butterfly.
“I thought of making an amaro stout, a licorice stout,” Mr. Freeman said. “Then I thought, Fernet being such a huge thing among mixologists, it would be stupid to call it amaro stout. I should just call it Fernet stout.” The beer is brewed with star anise, fennel seed, clove, saffron, orange peel, and lemon verbena.
And, of course, the menu will boast a brandy old-fashioned, the brandy spin on the classic cocktail that is peculiar to Wisconsin and all but the state’s official drink.
“I’d love to do a grasshopper and all those stodgy drinks, but do them well,” said Mr. Freeman.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cocktail Geeks to Meet Theatre Geeks at 2012 Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The 2012 Manhattan Cocktail Classic is upon us. And, as if the bartenders and cocktails weren't theatrical enough, this year there's actual theatre. From the New York Times:
Cocktail Conference to Mix Whiskey With ‘Macbeth’
The quality of the drinking at the site-specific Off-Broadway show “Sleep No More” is going to climb steeply at the May 14 performance. There has always been a bar at the fictitious McKittrick Hotel, where this free-form, wordless, immersive deconstruction of “Macbeth” takes place. But you can’t take your drink with you as you follow the performers over the six-floor playing space.
At the May 14 show — one of the centerpiece events at this year’s Manhattan Cocktail Classic symposium — attendees will be handed a series of drams and cocktails made with Bowmore 15-Year-Old Darkest, an Islay Single-Malt Scotch (as well as assorted nibbles, to preserve equilibrium). The libations are part of the $125 admission price.
The classic’s founder and director, Lesley Townsend, saw the show in December. (For reasons unclear, “Sleep No More” has become a hot ticket among New York mixologists and liquor professionals.) “I thought, the only thing that would make this better is if I could get a drink,” Ms. Townsend said.. You might even see an actor or two onstage with a whiskey in hand. “They’re being incredibly flexible with their art,” she said.
This year’s mixed-drink conference will take play May 11 through 15. As in previous years, its opening night gala will overwhelm the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library. Unlike in past years, Astor Center on Lafayette Street will not be the festival’s hub. Instead, most of the public seminars will be held at noted cocktail bars in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, among them Raines Law Room, Pegu Club, Dutch Kills, Death & Co., PDT, Weather Up Tribeca, Mother’s Ruin, The Beagle, The Tippler, 1534, Apotheke and Employees Only.
“We’re doing this in New York City because it has this crazy concentration of bars and restaurants,” Ms Townsend said. Seminars include:
– “The Second Annual British Invasion,” a look at classic British cocktails (expect much gin);
– “Ladies Behind Bars,” an assessment of the role of women in drinking history (among them, “widow Alice Guest who ran her public house from a cave in colonial Philadelphia”);
– “Cocktails for the Rest of Us,” which examines how the Midtown craft cocktail bar Rum House has tried to steer “Times Square tourists from Coronas and shots, to stirred cocktails”;
– and “A Suburban Tiki Safari,” which will take ticket holders to forgotten, “once glamorous bastions of faux Polynesia” in New Jersey and on Staten Island.
“Next year we’ll do an event in the Bronx, and then we can declare complete borough domination,” Ms. Townsend joked.
Also new this year is the “Industry Invitational,” a collection of talks, events and presentations — all at the Andaz 5th Avenue hotel — geared toward mixologists, bar owners and other liquor professionals. As the title indicates, attendance is by invitation only, but interested members of the beverage industry can go online to apply for entry.
Pre-sale for the public starts Wednesday at noon, on the festival’s Facebook page, where would-be ticketbuyers can access a code to use on the MCC Web site. Tickets will go on sale on the Web site itself on Thursday at noon.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Final Beer At...Caskey's Tavern

I first laid eyes on Caskey's Tavern, an old bar in Ridgewood, Queens, a couple years ago. The moment I saw it, I knew it would be the subject of one of my "A Beer At" columns on Eater. It seems somewhat fitting that it serves as the setting of the last entry in that series.

I began the column almost exactly three years ago. The first bar I visited, the nondescript Lilly Coogan's in the East Village, has since closed. Some 75 bars later, I covered taverns in four boroughs (sorry, Staten Island), from dives to Irish pubs to (ugh) sports bars, and went through about four or five Eater photographers. (They didn't necessarily love me when I chose joints in Far Rockaway and Inwood.) The column gave me the opportunity to say proper goodbyes to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge (gone) and Bill's Gay Nineties (on its way out) and discover what is arguably New York's oldest bar (Neir's in Woodhaven). Least favorite bar I visited? Tonic East. If that three-story Murray Hill frat party implodes upon itself and disappears, like that house in "Poltergeist," I'll be just fine with it.
A Beer At...Caskey's Tavern
Caskey's Tavern sits on a little bend of Fresh Pond Road, where Ridgewood, Queens, begins to turn into Glendale. It's 70 years-old and has always been owned by the Caskey family. The neon sign is worthy of comment. It's only says "Tavern"—not "Bar," as is usually the case. And the font is thick and casual, as if written by a red neon crayon. Next to the word is a tilted glass, not quite a cocktail coupe, not quite a wine glass, and whatever the contents are, they are aflame.
Inside, the old, beautifully carved darkwood bar is the main testimony to Caskey's age. That and the shuffleboard table, which the woman behind the bar said she believed was the the last one left in Queens. (The only other one I've found in the course of writing this column was at Plug Uglies.) Otherwise, the ceiling and floor and walls are on the modern, drab side. A large, bulbous, sloping jukebox sits near the door like a music-spewing Jabba the Hutt. There's evidence that at some point Caskey enlarged the place, because everything in the big room past the bar smacks of modern work, the kind of pool/darts area you'd find in any bar in NYC.
The blonde, veteran bartender, who said she worked Sundays through Wednesdays, divided her time between the Daily News and "The Godfather II" on the television. "Do you ever come here on the weekends?" asked a garrulous barfly, who was itching for some lively conversation. She looked at him like he was nuts. "No," she said. "Do you go to your place of employment on your days off? I go to a different bar, a bar where they treat me better."
Two young men came in, skateboards under their arms. They knew the bartender and greeted her warmly. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Great. We'd like two beers." "Great. And I'd like two IDs." The two gabby drinkers went out to the back patio for a smoke. "Maybe now we can hear the movie," said the bartender. I complimented her on the wonderful old bar. She said she, too, loved the woodwork, and lamented that some people actually paint over such beauty. She said she likes to watch "This Old House," because she likes to know how to do things, should she ever actually own a house.
On the long subway ride out to Ridgewood, I had been reading "The Old-Time Saloon," a reminiscence of the pre-Prohibition taverns by George Ade, a early 20th-century humorist. As I looked at the neglected, dusty bottles of spirits behind the bar at Caskey's, I thought of this passage: "Gin was the dominating theme song of most of the well-known cocktails but your typical dispenser in the saw-dust places didn't want to fuss with cocktails and he had a certain contempt for them as a weak substitute for honest to goodness liquor and fit only for dudes and weaklings."
I looked at the beer signs on the walls. "The average saloon," wrote Ade, "received from the brewery gorgeous lithographs and hugh, glittering street-signs. The better-known brands of beer were featured in highly expensive advertising campaigns."
Not much has changed.
I began this column three years ago, and today I end it. It's been fun. I have visited a lot of bars I see no pressing reason to visit again. And I have grown weary to my bones of the stultifying sameness of the Irish Pubs and the Sports Bars, and now know to avoid Murray Hill entirely. But I have encountered some gems: Molly's Pub and Shebeen, The Punch Bowl, Lucy's, Shelley's, Reynold's Bar, Milano's, Grassroots Tavern, Jackie's Fifth Amendment, Joe's Bar and O'Hanlon's in Astoria (not the one on 14th Street). To these places I will return. And I still remember Linda, the young cornfed beauty behind the bar at The Blue Room, the subject of one of my first columns. She was a dancer, newly moved to New York. I wonder how she made out.
—Robert Simonson

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tenth Annual "Tales of the Cocktail" Announces Seminar Line-Up

Tales of the Cocktail, the mother of all cocktail festivals, turns 10 in 2012. And, like Topsy, the girl has grown. In 2003, 100 people showed up. Last year, it was 22,000.

Naturally, this Tales has a few special attractions up its gartered sleeve to mark the anniversary. Among them are a few commemorative, one-off products, such as the Bitter Truth Creole Bitters pictured above.

Further below is the article I wrote about the coming festivities for the New York Times. But first, here's the entire seminar line-up:

Advantageous Drinking - Drink on the Offensive with Anu Apte   
Agriculturally Anonymous with Bobby Heugel, Misty Kalkofen, Cecilia Norman and Thad Vogler
Anise: The Treasure Of The Mediterranean with Francesco Lafranconi   
Aperitif Culture: From Italy to Argentina with Martin Auzmendi   
Bedroom Brands: How to Launch your Spirit with No Budget with Benedict Simpson   
Beertails: Mastering the Most Chemically Complex Alcoholic Ingredient as a Cocktail Ingredient with Adam Seger   
Bottle Alley:  Drinking the Panama Canal with Jeff Berry   
Bringing Service Back! with Bridget Albert   
Citrus Macerations with Don Lee   
Classic Canadian Cocktails with Shawn Soole   
Coffee:  The Missing Ingredient with Amy Zavatto   
Cognac:  The Barkeep's Forgotten Friend with Dave Broom and Tristan Stephenson
A Cook Walks into the Bar and Says... with Andrew Bohrer   
Curacao: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Favourite Liqueur Flavour with Philip Duff   
A Distiller's Dream with Charlotte Voisey   
The Drunken Botanist:  A Preview with Eric Seed   
The Emperor's New Nose:  Aroma Re-imagined with Benedict Simpson   
From Cocktail Napkin to Cocktail Bar: How to Open Your Own Bar - 3 Part Series with Philip Duff and Dushan Zaric
Fruit of the Still with Paul Clarke and Matthew Rowley
A Forager's Pharmacy with Lauren Mote   
Good to the Last Drop with Brad Farran and Nicholas Jarret
Greater Than the Sum of It's Parts: The Art of Spirits Blending with Philip Duff   
Hands on Hand Made Bitters Lab with Ira Koplowitz   
A How & Why of Flavored Spirits with David Cid   
How Every Sense is Tied to the Other with Tony Conigliaro   
I Love/I Hate...COCKTAILS! with Claire Smith   
The Ins and Outs of Cocktails On Tap with Matthew Seiter   
Leading the Dream Team with Layne Mostyn   
Making your Own Vermouth with Jackson Cannon   
Meet the Two Harrys with Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown 
Mixology Media Camp with Gary Hayward   
New World Vermouth with Paul Clarke   
The Name Game with Angus Winchester   
PISCO:  Wars & Distilled Delicacies from 1613 with Duggan McDonnell   
The Process to Perfection with Robert Hess and Audrey Saunders
Reconsidering the Gin & Tonic with Jason Wilson   
The Rise of High Proof Spirits with Chad Solomon   
Russian Drinking Culture with Dmitry Sokolov   
Salts, Bubbles, Oils, Acid, Bottles & Barrels with Andrew Nicholls   
Secrets from Incredible Restaurant Bars with Jacob Briars   
The Spirit of Spirits with Derek Brown   
Spiritual Brews From India with Rohan Jelkie   
Sporting Life II - Stories, Songs & Sketches with Allen Katz   
Sugar: How Sweet It Is! with Camper English   
A Tale of Three Cities with Sebastian Reaburn   
Talking Tequila, the Sensory Science and Descriptive Language with Don Lee   
Tangled Up in Blue with Jacob Briars   
Tasteless: How Taste Alters as We Age with Wayne Curtis   
Tasting the World's Greatest Spirits with Paul Pacult and Sean Ludford
Tiki Host to the Stars, Stephen Crane with Martin Cate   
The Top Ten Cocktails of the Last Ten Years with Charlotte Voisey   
Traditional Chinese Medicinal Ingredients with Danielle Tatarin   
True/Untrue: Exploring Bar World Myths with Wayne Curtis
The Ups & Downs of Running Multiple Venues with Franky Marshall, Tad Carducci, Susan Fedroff and Julie Reiner
A Workshop, The Making of Liqueurs with Dale DeGroff   
The World's World-Class Spirit - RUM! with Paul Pacult and Sean Ludford

And now, the article:

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Old Fashioned, and How to Make It

The Old Fashioned has come a long way in the past ten years. Until recently it was routinely manhandled by bartenders, with the requisite whiskey, water, sugar and bitters forced to cohabitate with muddled fruit and soda. Today, mixologists and cocktail historians have seen to it that the drink's austere, simple, original form has returned to the fore. But apparently the good work has not gone far enough for cocktailian layman nonpareil Martin Doudoroff. And so he came up with Old Fashioned 101, a doctrinaire one-page on-line primer on how to do the cocktail right. I must say I agree with him on almost every point. (Making ice "optional" is too hard core purist for even me.)

Here is my Times piece on the site. I hope it drove many viewers to the page.