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