Monday, October 17, 2011

Cowboy Cocktails



2 oz. Bourbon
1/2 oz. Punt e Mes
1/2 oz. Berentzen Apfelkorn
1/4 oz. Simple syrup (optional)
1 dash Angostura bitters

Build in a rocks glass and stir well. Add a single large hunk of ice and garnish with a wide strip of tangerine peel.

I like whiskey. It goes well with so many things, including cowboy movies. However, I should point out that Westerns weren't always my thing. When I was a young kid, I'd usually lean toward films featuring either robots or guys with swords.* Westerns struck me as dull, plodding, and one-dimensional, so I pretty much avoided them.

But somewhere in my high school years I discovered a few of Clint Eastwood's flicks from the 70's and 80's and it sparked a mild interest in the genre. Running across movies like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider led me to explore his earlier stuff, mainly the iconic Sergio Leone films like A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good The Bad and the Ugly. Eastwood was probably a gateway figure for a lot of people unacquainted with Westerns...he certainly was for me.

These "Spaghetti Westerns" seemed like the antidote to my indifference toward traditional cowboy movies. To me, they corrected everything that was wrong with all the other Westerns: The characters weren't clip-art versions of good guys and villains. The camera work was nontraditional. And the music was both jarring and beautiful. These European reimaginings of American folklore were what made me a fan of the Western (or at least some of them), and I've been trying to find good ones ever since..

Back to whiskey (this is a boozeblog after all, not a film appreciation site). I'm always on the lookout for ways to drink whiskey. Simply dumping some in a glass (one of my favorite approaches) is efficient, but not terribly inspired. Finding other stuff to mix with whiskey is challenging as well as rewarding, and most cocktail enthusiasts enjoy the task.

Speaking of cocktail enthusiasts and their tasks...

A while ago, a bunch of them (including yours truly) gathered for the weekly virtual boozefest known as Thursday Drink Night. As is usually the case, lots of recipes got thrown around, and the one above was my contribution that particular night. Whiskey was the starting point, and since whiskey often makes me think of Westerns, I wanted to give a nod to the guy who came up with the signature sounds everyone knows from the Leone/Eastwood films. A splash of Punt e Mes as a hat-tip to Italy paired up fine with a good belt of Bourbon, so the foundation was laid. A dose of one of my favorite underused cocktail ingredients, Berentzen Apfelkorn, gave it a little dimension and the trusty ango/simple combo fleshed it all out.

Oh, and as a final note, whiskey goes great with TV shows about cowboys too. I find it's a great accompaniment for episodes of Deadwood (Provided some sheepf***ing c***sucker doesn't drink it all without my knowledge).

*which are still probably my favorite types of movies.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Bibulous Bibliography: Playboy's Host & Bar Book/Bar Guide


A while ago I found myself the recipient of two books published by Playboy, the venerable purveyor of adult-oriented diversions (as I've mentioned before, when people find out you're into cocktails, they tend to give you stuff like this). Most people of a certain age are familiar with the Playboy brand, and as tempting as it is to do a historical walk-through of this iconic entertainment empire, I'll save you the sociological analysis of its place in the cultural landscape...we all pretty much know the deal.

So what about the books? To start, Playboy's Bar Guide and Playboy's Host & Bar Book are essentially the same book, save for a few key differences. They're both written by Thomas Mario, who, as Ted Haigh notes in his column from the September/October 2009 issue of Imbibe was a man who had considerable experience with eating and drinking:

"...Mario, whose real name was Sidney Aptekar, was the food and drink editor of Playboy for three decades or so, starting with its first issue in 1953. In 1971 he authored the wildly popular Playboy's Host & Bar Book...In fact, Aptekar (who died in 2003) was quite a guy. In 1944, he wrote the Kitchen Confidential of its day, The Faces in the Aspic. The United Nations pegged him to supervise all post-World War II refugee feeding operations in Europe. Later, he authored a nationally syndicated newspaper column 'What's Cooking?' which is when he first used his nom de plume, Thomas Mario."

The larger of the two, Playboy's Host & Bar Book contains numerous drink recipes as well as sections on spirits, wines, beer, bar tools, hors d'ouvres and party tips. In many ways it's similar to The Esquire Handbook for Hosts which predates it by a little over 20 years. (It's fun to compare both books side-to-side, as each one offers a snapshot of entertaining guidelines of the era. Some things remain constant, while others change pretty drastically...1971 was definitely a different year than 1949.)


If you can find it for a reasonable price, the Host & Bar Book is worth picking up. The edition I have is hardcover, printed on quality paper and has a handful of color photos. The drink recipes (which comprise the bulk of the book) range from established classics to "Who the hell would drink that??", but that's par for the course for a lot of bar guides....the same can be said about the Savoy Cocktail Book. (I heard one well-regarded bartender once remark about the Savoy Cocktail Book: "A lot of the drinks in there are crap. Just because a drink is old, doesn't mean it's good.")

For me, half the fun with books like these is foraging for the good stuff and sometimes discovering a hidden gem. The Host & Bar Book is a decent place to start hunting.


Playboy's Bar Guide, published the same year as the Host & Bar Book is basically a smaller, paperback version of the drink recipes section of its larger counterpart. It's clearly intended to be a pocket-sized Mr. Boston's-type handbook, and it definitely would fit under the bar without much trouble. As mentioned above, it lacks some of the info contained in the Host & Bar Book, but does give a nod to its namesake publication by including many illustrations of LeRoy Neiman's playful "femlins" that could be found in the pages of Playboy for many years. Little touches like this make you realize it wasn't that long ago when liberally sprinkling images of nude cartoon women throughout a book wouldn't have been considered an editorial misstep.

If you find it for a buck or two, grab it. It's a handy little guide on its own, and makes a nice companion piece to the Host & Bar Book. Used copies of both can be found at Amazon, Powell's, Alibris, etc.

Oh, here's a drink (which appears in both books) I took for test spin:

Devil's Tail

1 1/2 oz. Golden rum
1 oz. Vodka
1/2 oz. Lime juice
1/4 oz. Grenadine
1/4 oz. Apricot liqueur
1/3 cup crushed ice
Lime peel

Put rum, vodka, lime juice grenadine, apricot liqueur and ice into blender. Blend at low speed 10-15 seconds. Pour into prechilled deep-saucer champagne glass. Twist lime peel above drink and drop into glass. Powerful but pleasant rather than pugnacious.

This drink is actually a heck of a lot tastier than it might appear at first. It follows the Daiquiri blueprint, and provided you use decent quality ingredients it ends up being bright, tart, and excellent for warm-weather drinking. The only change I'd suggest is leaving the blender out of the equation. I liked it better shaken and then poured over crushed ice.

Monday, September 12, 2011

One (or two) For The Road


It's been a fun couple of weeks for Dr. Bamboo's Mystical Traveling Bar and Road Show. For two consecutive Fridays I've loaded the Bamboo Wagon full of spirits, mixers, barware, ice and other drink-making paraphernalia in order to bring cocktails to the masses. It's a great way to evangelize good drinking and also field test which booze-hauling methods work best (initially documented here.

First up, I had the pleasure of spending a few hours making drinks for the thirsty crowd at Gallerie Chiz. The Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators celebrated the opening night of their cocktail-themed show "Drawing Under the Influence", and the group decided to supplement the usual beverage offerings with freshly-made cocktails. I was helped immeasurably by the efforts of Nathan Lutchansky, Pittsburgh-based spirits expert and proprietor of the PLCB User's Group site, which documents the ever-changing and seemingly logic-free universe of alcohol sales in Pennsylvania. Nathan graciously donated his Friday night to help keep the gallery goers well-lubricated by wielding both his considerable bartending knowledge and his Shaker of Ultimate Power, which is one of the largest pieces of drink-making equipment I've ever laid eyes on. I'd love to get one just like it, but I would have to call it something else, since two Shakers of Ultimate Power existing at the same time just doesn't sound right.

The event was a success, and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the generous product donations from Hiram Walker and award-winning locally-made vodka Boyd & Blair that made our cocktail menu possible. Speaking of the cocktail menu, here's one of the drinks we served up, created by Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators member Gina Antognoli Scanlon:

Gina's Grapefruitini (as served at the DUI opening)

3 parts Freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice
2 parts Boyd & Blair Vodka
1 part Rosemary simple syrup

Shake well with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with a small rosemary sprig

Rosemary syrup: Combine one cup water and one cup sugar with two sprigs of rosemary. Heat on stove on low heat until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove rosemary and store in refrigerator until cool.

(if you want a more pronounced rosemary flavor, leave the sprigs to steep in the syrup for at least a half-hour before removing).

The second event was the "Quickie Cocktail Class", which takes place each month at the Pittsburgh Public Market. Chef and local-food enthusiast Elizabeth Schandelmeier Gilgunn invited me to help create and serve an array of cocktails showcasing local ingredients, and as luck would have it, the PPM was celebrating its 1st Birthday, so everyone was feeling festive (which is code for "in a drinkin' mood").

Despite temperatures in the 90's, we soldiered on and delivered cool, rejuvenating cocktails to the attendees. This one was a crowd favorite, and turned out to be an ideal choice for a wickedly hot and humid late Summer afternoon:

Watermelon SMASH

3 oz. Watermelon/lemon balm puree
2 oz. Boyd & Blair Vodka
.5 oz. Mint simple syrup

Shake well with ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filed with crushed ice. If you're feeling adventurous, take half a lime, scoop out the pulp, and place round-side down on top of the ice. Fill with a small amount of overproof liquor and light on fire.

Elizabeth offers up the following recipes to make this drink complete:

Watermelon puree:

One lovely baby watermelon, sweet and in season
A bunch of lemon balm or lemon verbena, leaves only

Peel and cut your watermelon into chunks (remove seeds, if you’ve got ‘em. Put watermelon and herbs into a food processor, pulse a few moments and then run on full speed until smooth.

Mint syrup:

1 cup sugar (I use raw)
1 cup water
Big bunch of mint (I used a variety called Kentucky Mint)

Add sugar and water to a big-enough pot and bring to a boil, stir until sugar dissolves. Lower heat to a slow simmer and reduce until desired consistency is achieved (this will depend on what you are doing with the syrup; thinner is better for things like candied fruit rinds, thicker is better for things like sweet cocktails). A thin syrup is ready after 10 minutes or so, a nice thick syrup is achieved after reducing approximately 45 minutes. (Oh yeah, don’t let this stuff burn! Remember, we are not making candy and burnt sugar STICKS!) When your syrup is ready, turn off heat and add your mint. Cool to room temperature. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator. The longer the herbs sit in the syrup, the stronger the flavor. Strain syrup before using.

For additional drink recipes and info and photos, check out this post over at Elizabeth's site Let's Blog About Food.

Where will the mobile hooch stand turn up next? Only Dr. Bamboo knows for certain.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Moonlighting: Sept.'11


Once again I feel compelled to direct you to a couple other places where you can aim your eyeballs at more of my words and pictures concerning booze and related topics. Proceed with all due haste! (or take your time...they'll probably still be there).

First up, everyone's favorite retro renaissance man Java brings forth another issue of Bachelor Pad Magazine stuffed to the gills with top-notch midcentury fiction, cartoons, movie reviews, lifestyle tips and the usual boatload of talented temptresses. Oh, and there's also a few thoughts on cocktails courtesy of yours truly...


This was the class I dreamed of in college.

I also check in over at for my monthly musings on the adult beverage scene. This time around I ponder a few key differences between casual drinkers and booze nerds (Hint: If you've ever brought your own bitters to a bar, you're probably a booze nerd).


Wearing these would make us all so much easier to spot.

Remember kids- Don't drink and draw!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Greatest Drink Book Ever Published (Pt. 2)


Once again I'm paging through Cocktails for Two in my mission to share the splendor that is the Greatest Drink Book Ever Published. For this installment I've selected the Shamrock, an apparent tribute to Ireland, based on both its name and green color.

Speaking of green, this drink does an admirable job of being just that. Chartreuse and green crème de menthe are key ingredients and certainly do their part color-wise. But I found myself perversely wishing they had also thrown in some Midori to blow the green right off the chart.

Here's the recipe as written:

SHAMROCK Stir one part Irish whiskey with one part dry vermouth, three dashes of green Chartreuse and three dashes of green crème de menthe.

(according to the photos and the little symbol next to the recipe, this drink is served in a cocktail glass)

So how does it taste? It's lousy. Don't make it.

Sure, the drink is unfortunate. But as we've learned in the previous GDBEP post, the recipe is only half the fun. There's also the photo to consider.


Fun Fact: she's also Annette o'Toole's stunt double!

Let's see what we've got: Green-eyed redhead holding a drink (the most enduring symbol of Ireland, as we all know). Tam o' Shanter-style hat and matching scarf (in case of inclement weather inside the pub), and a nice splash of tartan to drive the point home. As with many of the ladies pictured in this book, blazing red nail polish is the order of the day, and in case we still weren't quite clear on the Irish connection, our lovely model is standing in front of a green backdrop. The expression of fright/surprise is a nice touch, as are the very visible fillings in her teeth. If it weren't for the relatively restrained use of makeup, I'd say the shot comes off as a fine portrait of prescription medication abuse.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cocktailing: The Early Years

If you hang around booze geeks long enough, eventually you find yourself discussing a topic that's become a perennial favorite: what kinds of stuff you used to drink before you got turned onto a wider spectrum of adult beverages. (Despite what they'd have you believe, in their youth, cocktail nerds weren't sneaking off into the woods to make Negronis or lounging around the frat house basement trying to find the perfect Singapore Sling recipe).

No, like most other people, their teens and early twenties were the age when most drink enthusiasts were only dimly aware of spirits. Hard liquor was likely something you knew only from advertisements, your parents' liquor cabinet, or whispered, cautionary tales of how somebody's brother got completely wasted that one time drinking way too much (insert liquor brand here).

I'm no different. I was actually a latecomer to the drinking scene, not really getting my feet wet until a year or so before I was legally entitled to do so. Prior to that, I'd have a couple beers now and then, but didn't really go much for the hard stuff. That changed sometime during my sophomore year of college.

Of course, this is not to say that I woke up one day and decided to responsibly explore the world of spirits and cocktails with a scholarly approach. Nope. I had a brief trial-and-error period with various things and when I ended up shelling out for my first honest-to-goodness bottle of giggle water, I ended up going with Jack Daniels. Why? Simply because it was a name I was aware of, and I knew you could mix it with Coke. No experience required.

And like most other college students, I drank my share of beer too (pretty much any brand was acceptable), and I often ponied up $2.99 for my weapon-of-choice, MD 20/20 (a surprising variety of flavors!). However, when it came to the hard stuff, I stayed loyal to only a few brands: The aforementioned Jack Daniel's, Bacardi rum (whichever one was cheapest), and bottom-shelf vodka. All three could be dumped into Coke and that pretty much covered my cocktail ambitions at that time.

But this isn't really so much about what I drank as how I drank it. While at school, my two main concerns cocktail-wise (aside from catching a nice buzz) amounted to:

1) How can I take booze with me to places where I'm not necessarily supposed to have it?

2) How can I bring along enough booze so that I won't be stuck somewhere needing a refill?

Fortunately, I had two weapons in my arsenal that weren't remarkable in any way individually, but when combined, provided the perfect traveling drinking rig: The Sports Bottle and Jean Jacket.

Obviously we aren't talking Batman-grade technology here. These were just a couple of things I already owned that I realized could suit my needs quite well. Neither was expensive or appeared special in any way, which were key parts of their simple charm. They were just a couple commonplace items any college student could use to roam around campus clandestinely hauling hooch. Here's how it worked:

First up, the sports bottle. It was made of heavy, durable plastic and came with a screw-on cap and sturdy re-usable straw (see Fig. 1 below). Virtually every convenience store and gas station with a soda fountain had them and they could be gotten for less than a buck (or sometimes free) by buying a large soft drink. It held somewhere between 24 and 32 ounces.


This was my shaker and glass in one convenient package. To make a drink, I first poured in whatever liquor I had handy (No measuring...I just eyeballed it until it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/4 to 1/3 full, depending on how festive I was feeling). If I had ice handy, I'd toss in a handful and top everything off with Coke or Pepsi (see Fig. 2 below) and give it a few gentle swirls. Brutally simple and effective.


The other half of the combo was a bit of outerwear made by Levi's that everyone I knew referred to simply as a "jean jacket."* You don't see them too often these days, but for a while it seemed like half the world owned one. It was cheap, durable, and comfy. It came in different colors. It was machine-washable. You could layer other stuff under or over it when it got cold. John Bender wore one, and if that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is.

All these things made it a great garment, but for me it's greatest feature was two enormous pockets located on the lower inside front of each of the jacket's sides. They were big enough you could stash surprisingly large items in them without being noticeable from the outside. I often used those pockets to carry a magazine, snacks and my Walkman, and it didn't take long for me to realize a sport bottle filled with a giant rum & Coke fit perfectly in there as well (see Fig. 3 below).


So once I had the bottle/jacket combo established, I was off to the races. I could easily smuggle my oversized cocktail anywhere. One one of my favorites places to do so was the student movies, where alcohol was not permitted, but somehow always managed to be in abundance.** It worked great in a bunch of other situations too, and if I got caught (which I never did, by the way), I could just toss the bottle. My net loss would have been a couple bucks worth of booze and a drinking vessel I could replace at the nearest Speedy Mart.

Sophisticated? Certainly not. Clever? Not terribly. All it really amounted to was a big flask tucked into a coat that hid things well. But it got the job done and then some.

I no longer drink cocktails out of sports bottles (usually), and I don't have a jean jacket anymore, but I still occasionally get nostalgic about my early days of cocktailing when what my drinks lacked in style and preparation they more than made up for with ingenuity and longevity.

* According to their website, Levi's calls this item a "trucker jacket", but I have never heard anyone use this name. They also now make it in all kinds of frou-frou materials and styles, which is the very antithesis of the jean jacket in my opinion. I remain unconvinced.

** I was clearly not the only one who regularly did this...the lecture hall where they showed the films would always be littered with bottles and cans after the crowd left. Make whatever judgments you like, but at least I get points for not being an inconsiderate slob who leaves his empties all over the place.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Random Observations


So here it is a few weeks after Tales of the Cocktail. Much as I did two years ago, I find myself sifting through notes and compiling a loose collection of info from the event. It's difficult to do justice to a five-day booze extravaganza with just a few words, but hopefully what I've listed below can help illustrate a small fraction of what takes place. Just like last time, I call this handful of disjointed thoughts...

Random Observations

- If seeing a bunch of people wearing seersucker suits, vividly-colored bowties and brimmed hats with deadly seriousness unnerves you, then Tales of the Cocktail may not be the event for you.

- My advice to anyone attempting to schedule a meeting with anyone for a specific place and time during Tales is to scrap that idea immediately. Just sit in the lobby of the Monteleone for a bit, and whoever you want to see will eventually walk by (Okay, they might be staggering or crawling, but you'll see them nonetheless).

- While we're talking about the Monteleone lobby, do not be surprised if while you're there someone produces a full, sealed bottle of booze from a backpack or purse and gives it to someone else. In most cases, the person offering up the bottle is a brand rep, and the other person is someone who happened to mention they liked the particular brand the rep works for. I tell everyone I like everything, just to be on the safe side.

- However, if you see someone produce a half-full bottle from their backpack or purse, it's harder to determine where it originally came from. But they'll likely share it with you, so go strike up a conversation.

- It's been said before, but it bears repeating: The people in the Cocktail Apprentice Program are a truly vital component of Tales and need to be recognized for their efforts. They work like crazy, get little rest, and generally grind themselves to a nub so we all can enjoy nifty drinks throughout the event. Big thanks go out to all of them.

- Speaking of the CAP folks, I was lucky enough to get a brief guided tour of one of the "backstage" areas where they prepare the drinks. I don't think you can grasp the scope of what they're doing until you see a floor-to-ceiling wall of lemon crates. I wish I could have hung around, because I'm pretty sure later on Jackie Chan crashed through it.

- Telling someone in New Orleans you're a vegetarian will get you the same reaction as telling someone in Pittsburgh you don't care about football.

- Whoever put a Walgreen's a half-block away from the Monteleone has my deepest gratitude. I know New Orleans is famous for its world-class restaurants, but Clif bars and Gatorade from the big W are what kept my engine running most days. Plus, the people-watching there is sublime.

- Thanks to branded keycards, every time I unlocked my hotel room I thought about gin. Actually, it had nothing to do with keycards...I just think about gin a lot.

- You know some serious cocktailing is taking place when a local remarks he can't understand how so many people can be drinking hard liquor at ten in the morning,

- Someone described all those unorthodox drink-making techniques involving iSi whippers, sous vide, liquid nitrogen, lasers, etc., as the "'Gee whiz!' school of bartending." That is now my favorite bit of cocktail terminology.

- Seeing the look on people's faces who are trying to board the Monteleone elevators on any floor other than the lobby or the roof is priceless.

- I ate a crappy meal at a crappy sports bar purely because I was in a hurry and it was convenient. But they had beer, so it was still kinda worth it.

- If you enjoy hearing two different bar bands playing two different classic rock covers at arena-level volume 20 feet away from each other, then the French Quarter is your kind of place.

- I don't know what the current homicide rate in New Orleans is, but I'm fairly certain a few of the murders last month were committed by Monteleone staff trying to get from point A to point B around tipsy, oblivious Tales attendees clogging the high-traffic areas.

- Whoever says that Bourbon Street has the highest concentration of boisterous drunks in town has never been to the Spirited Awards ceremony.

- Security measures at the swag room continue to be top-notch. I thought the retinal scanner was a nice touch.

-Craft distillers like to talk about their products and how they make them. A lot. On the off chance you're feeling lonely at Tales, find someone who works at a small distillery and ask them how their product differs from other similar products.

- Apparently, attending Tales of the Cocktail without a smartphone is equivalent to attending a Phish concert without can still enjoy the show, but everyone will look at you with a mixture of pity and suspicion.

- Liquor companies continue to shell out absurd amounts of money to promote themselves at Tales of the Cocktail. I know there are no easy solutions to the US debt crisis, but I think one approach could involve telling multinational spirit brands that they can use Montana as "The World's Biggest Tasting Room" and watch the cash roll in.

- If you blew up the Monteleone during Tales of the Cocktail, 97% of the world's moustache wax supply would instantly disappear.

- I saw two guys almost come to blows debating the merits of the seamed vs. seamless Yarai mixing glass.

- Watching someone start their morning with a brisk treadmill session in the hotel gym is inspiring. It inspired me to hit the pool and grab a drink.

- Holding a tasting session for a very popular liquor brand in the smallest room in the hotel goes from "intimate and convivial" to "potentially fatal mosh pit" rather quickly.

- Media access was severely restricted this year, which resulted in many fine cocktail writers being noticeably absent. I don't know if this was intentional or simply an oversight, but let's hope the situation improves next year and we can look forward to a greater volume and variety of coverage.

- Judging from the faces and sounds they were making, I can only assume that for many people, consuming oysters is analogous to a sex act. (Note: this also applies to oyster po' boys.)

- Speaking of sex acts, adult film icon Ron Jeremy was in town promoting his namesake rum. I actually got to see him late one night in my hotel on the TV in my room.

- People are still obsessed with ice. Round ice, clear ice, Martian volcano ice, you name it.

- Someone created vodka that tastes like cupcakes. Which reminds of the saying, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

- There's always room for one more gin & tonic.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Barrel-Aged Cocktails...Patience, Grasshopper!

Why dump a perfectly good cocktail like a Negroni or Manhattan into a wood barrel for a couple of months?

1) It’s fun in an old-world mad-scientist kinda way.
2) It may make your cocktail luxuriously smooth and even add a bit of wood character.

For over an hour, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Gable Erenzo and Naren Young hit the highlights of this relatively new approach (with roots in older practices) to fiddling with cocktails. Booze nerds like these guys are always on the hunt for ways to improve your drinking experience, and barrel-aging cocktails is one of the latest methods that’s gaining popularity in cocktail programs worldwide. Here’s a few informational nuggets they shared…

~ Bottled cocktails originated in the Jerry Thomas era as way for customers to take drinks “to-go” and enjoy later. Being that I’m New Orleans as I write this, I can’t help but think the “go cup” phenomenon here somehow owes its existence to this earlier incarnation.

~ In the early 1900’s, the Heublein company sold pre-made cocktails that had been aged in wood.

~ A few years ago, Tony Conigliaro began experimenting with aging cocktails in glass, prompting modern bartenders to rethink the concept and apply it in new ways, using different materials, spirits and processes.

~ Experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails coincided nicely with the internet making it easy to contact distilleries and procure their used barrels.

~ Much as single spirits do, aging a cocktail in a barrel will allow it to pull distinctive characteristics from the wood. However, using new barrels can be risky because too much wood flavor can be imparted very quickly. Score another point for recycling!

~ It easy to overage a cocktail, but if that happens, it’s not a lost cause. Often simply introducing more fresh cocktail to mix can salvage the batch.

~ While experimentation is encouraged, using ingredients like eggs, cream and citrus should be avoided. But I’m sure our intrepid bartending community is already hard at work coming up with a way to get around this though.

~ Generally speaking, lighter, unaged spirits like gin, vodka, unaged Tequila etc., seem to yield the best results.

~ For those not inclined to wait several weeks for a barrel-aged cocktail to reach maturity, you can get quicker results (and satisfy any latent gadget jones you may be experiencing) by using smoked wood chips and an iSi whipper to infuse your cocktail. I’ll need to track down specific instructions for this asap.

Now go find some barrels!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Classic Hotel Bars

Being that I’m staying in a hotel and doing a fair amount of drinking in a nearby hotel containing a well-known bar (that’d be the Carousel bar at the Monteleone) I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t attend the “Classic Hotel Bars” seminar.

The focus was mainly on the hotel bars of London, with occasional detours to other cities. Anecdotes abounded, histories were revealed, and as expected, cocktails were served. Here’s a sampling of the wealth of information that was provided…

~ Unlike most “regular” bars, working in a hotel bar makes you realize you have to think beyond local drinking preferences. Your are catering to a varied clientele, and have to be prepared to meet a broad spectrum of expectations drink-wise.

~ Hotel bars have spawned great bartenders, great drinks and great bar guides. Every time you name-drop someone like Jerry Thomas or Hugo Enslin you have a hotel bar to thank. Likewise the Savoy Cocktail Book or Charles Baker’s Around the World With Jigger, Beaker and Flask. Ever had a Pina Colada or Hanky Panky? Just two of many classic cocktails that originated in hotel bars.

~ The Savoy was the first hotel in England equipped with electricity. ( I like to think having a world-class bar on the premises played a role in this).

~ The Criterion bar (which still exists) is the location where Sherlock Holmes and Watson first meet. It also has the distinction of being the first “American style” bar in England.

~ Until recently, bartending in the UK was not considered a reputable occupation, and doing so in a hotel bar was even less prestigious. Fortunately this perception has reversed in recent years and many hotel bars in the UK are leading the way in quality cocktail-crafting.

~ Part of what makes a good hotel bar experience is the idea that it is not only just a drink stop, but also a place where you are taken care of. Some “regular” bars certainly provide this, but it should be a priority for hotel bars.

~ Martini enthusiasts owe it to themselves to make the pilgrimage to Duke’s, which is famous for its exacting, signature Martini preparation which uses no ice, shaking, or stirring. All the ingredients are kept chilled, and are simply, elegantly combined in the glass. Ian Fleming was a regular there, and was fond of these. If they were good enough for him, they should be good enough for you.

~ The Connaught Hotel is another London cocktail destination famous for its attention to detail and tailoring of drinks to the customer’s preference. Connaught bartender Ago Perone says of his customers: “We are not there to tell them what to drink” and puts that idea to practice by offering a selection of bitters for patrons to choose from when ordering a Martini.

~ The concept of the fine cocktail experience goes hand-in-hand with that of the fine dining experience. If a hotel has a top-tier restaurant on he premises, then the bar must be of similar caliber.

Book your room now! (or at least swing by for a cocktail).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: The Carousel after 5

The Carousel Bar at the Monteleone is a hub (figuratively and literally) of activity during Tales of the Cocktail. During the day it’s both a convenient meeting place and a handy spot for a quick drink to fortify yourself before venturing out to other watering holes. This makes it a very busy place during the day, and finding a spot to sit or even stand takes a little effort and patience.

But after 5, things change a bit. Everything slows down a little and the crowd thins out. Some no doubt head for dinner. Some probably look to take things uptempo and head to a livelier bar. Some take a nap and/or a shower before considering their next move.

This is when I like the Carousel best. The lights seem a little dimmer, the music a little softer, and the drinks a little smoother.

This is also when I’m more aware that the Carousel moves. Not just moves, but turns, slowly revolving and treating me to a gentle magic carpet ride that always brings me back to where I started. It makes me feel slightly sorry for the folks in the chairs around the edge of the room…they’re missing out on the fun.

I also have a theory that a moving bar helps keep things civilized. It’s hard to get rowdy when you’re on a slo-mo merry-go-round. It likely has something to do with being rocked as a baby, but I’m not going to question it too deeply. All I know is that bars come in many shapes and configurations, but I’m coming to the conclusion that round is ideal. And if your round bar also revolves and is decorated in an old-time amusement park motif, then all the better.

The one other thing I like about the Carousel is the array of unobtrusive mirrors placed behind the bar. You can easily ignore them if you like, but I happen to think occasionally seeing your reflection aids in self-reflection. Plus, you can tell if someone is sneaking up behind you. Genius, as far as I’m concerned.

So I think I’ll have one more round. And one more go ‘round.

Tales of the Cocktail: the First 24

The first 24 hours surrounding Tales of the Cocktail. is a hectic and joyous period. No matter when you arrive and begin your activities, that first day or so is always an intense, gleeful mixture of anticipation, participation, and disorganization. Here’s a few thoughts and observations from my initial 24:

~ I know it doesn’t rank very high on the list of existential dilemmas, but I always have trouble deciding whether my first drink during Tales of the Cocktail should be at the Carousel Bar or on the plane to New Orleans. (Yes, Tales officially begins when they board your section of the plane. Wasn’t that covered during orientation?)

~ Speaking of which, why does a can of Coke always taste better on a plane? I think it has something to do with altitude. And maybe that an attractive woman opens it for you. And maybe that mine had whiskey in it.

~ Not to beat the plane thing to death, but when did commercial airline flights become flying produce stands? The guy in the seat in front of me brought an entire bag of plums as a snack, and the woman two seats over had a banana and a sack of strawberries. I really had to fight the urge to muddle something.

~ After flying all day, stepping out of the airport shuttle in the middle of the French Quarter is a bit like landing on Mars…if Mars had a bar every 15 feet

~ Some hotels have a basket of fruit or a flower arrangement waiting in your room as welcoming gesture. Mine had a bottle of gin. I think I prefer that option.

~ Never, ever, underestimate the simple, restorative properties of a nice shower. With gin.

~ In most busy places, you can cause a riot by throwing fistfuls of cash into the crowd. In the Monteleone lobby you can achieve the same result with bottles of obscure bitters.

~ I was starting to get uncomfortable with the New Orleans heat, then I went to the Beefeater party and saw a ballerina dancing inside a plastic bubble. Remember: it can always be worse.

~ I’m not exactly sure how using goats and cows to promote your product works, but I predict that all the PR and marketing types will pounce on it, and we’ll be seeing a lot more livestock at future cocktail events.

~ I didn’t think it was possible to make an Airstream trailer any cooler-looking, but putting retro tattoo designs on it is a decent start.

~ Drinking in a big crowd can be fun. Drinking in a big crowd while wearing a whimsical sailor hat and surrounded by old tanks and fighter planes is bonus fun.

~ I know the local bars and restaurants make a ton of money during Tales, but whoever is selling mutton chop sideburns and tiny hats is making the real cash.

~ Did I mention the showers already?

~ Based on how crowded the Kahlua bar at the Monteleone is, I’m guessing next year we’ll be seeing a satellite event titled “Tales of the Coffee” where everybody gets jacked up all day and then has to spend the next morning drinking booze to get settled down.

~ While it’s probably not ergonomically correct, sitting on a nice, cool marble floor and leaning against a nice, cool marble wall is an ideal way to use a laptop computer. A nice, cool cocktail helps too.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 6)


With Tales of the Cocktail officially kicking off in less than two days, I have time to sneak in just one more preemptive strike before the madness gets in gear. This time I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Jonathan Pogash. In addition to being a top-notch bartender, Jonathan also consults on cocktail matters with bars and restaurants worldwide as well as several spirits brands. As if that didn't keep him busy enough, he's also swinging by Tales of the Cocktail this year to moderate the panel discussion "The European Bartending Perspective."

I didn't want Jonathan to give away the store, so I asked him to just tease us a bit with some of the topics that will no doubt be discussed...

~What are one or two of the biggest differences between bartending styles in Europe and the US?

There are more similarities than there are differences, really. When developing this seminar we had a ball debating the topic. One difference is cocktail menu style and layout.

~ Guest bartending (where bars encourage members of their staff to visit other bars and work a shift or two) is a popular phenomenon in the US. Does this sort of thing happen in Europe as well?

I know several American bartenders who have been welcomed with open arms behind bars across the pond.

~ Do the drinking habits of the average European bar patron differ from that of their American counterparts? If so, how do those differences affect how bartenders approach their technique?

The main difference is that of US cocktail lounge vs. UK pub and cocktail bar.

~ Are there any specific drink ingredients that tend to be staples of the cocktail scene in Europe that may be unfamiliar to most American drinkers?

With the way our world is now, most ingredients are available on both continents. Except for the fact that sodas are made differently in Europe than in the US (i.e. Coca-Cola).

~ Do bartending techniques and philosophies in Europe differ from country to country? (For example, are there subtle differences between the way bartenders practice their craft in Italy vs. France?)

Let's see what Simon Difford has to say about this one!

"The European Bartending Perspective" happens from 3:30 to 5:00 pm July 21 in the Grand Ballroom North at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. It is currently sold out, but check with event organizers in case there are any cancellations.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 5)


Rolling along with the pre-Tales "Cavalcade of Booze Knowledge" (tm) I got the chance to grill Christine Sismondo on her presentation "The Bad Boys of Saloons.''

If you don't know Christine, she's the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, as well as Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History. She also contributes drink columns for Report on Business and Eye Weekly magazine. She kindly let me toss a few questions her way regarding her upcoming seminar.

What were the main characteristics that distinguished these types of places from their more upmarket counterparts?

There was an "anything goes" ethic in play. The main idea was to do whatever it took to get patrons in the door and keep them there. Many of the drinking establishments during this period (the 1850's-1900's) were what were called "tied houses", which meant they were affiliated with a particular beer company. Due to the exclusive nature of their relationship with one specific brewer, their profit margins were very low, so there were a lot of frauds and scams happening in order to boost the bottom line.

What were some of the drinks commonly found in these places?

In addition to whatever the house beer was, there were a lot of drinks that were basically un-aged white whiskey with other things added to make them palatable. These could contain a multitude of flavoring agents as well as drugs like camphor, for instance.

Can you describe the types of people who frequented these types of bars?

There was a popular perception that these types of places catered to the worst people engaging in the worst drinking behavior. The impression was that it was just immigrants getting plastered, and that dovetailed with the general demonizing of whatever the most recent wave of "just-off-the boat" people was. The truth is that you were just as likely to encounter questionable behavior and poor drinking habits in the upscale bars. As a matter of fact, you were quite likely to find well-heeled citizens slumming in these places, but that's a story unto itself.

What prompted the creation of these types of establishments? Was it simply an attempt to offer cheaper booze and undercut the competition?

The thing to keep in mind is that everyone was in the booze business during this time period. Grocery stores, pharmacies, soda fountains, and almost any merchant you can think of sold some type of alcohol. In the 1840's the average person drank twice as much alcohol as today. It was part of daily living, and was considered good for you. With that kind of consumption, the demand for booze was high, and sales were unregulated as well. The result was a tavern, grog shop, or liquor vendor within easy reach almost anywhere.

Could you find these places in almost any city or town? How widespread were they?

There were times where cities or counties would go dry, but even then there were ways to get booze to the public. It was pretty commonplace, even in places where the law stipulated there was to be no liquor sold.

Due to their illicit nature, were these places able to weather prohibition any better than the higher-profile reputable joints?

These places were generally fly-by-night joints, so they were used to being under constant threat of shutdown. Since they were accustomed to closing and reopening at a moment's notice , prohibition really didn't impact them...although everyone was forced to get creative during that time.

"The Bad Boys of Saloons" happens from 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm July 21 in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone. Go here to purchase tickets.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 4)


Continuing with the pre-Tales festivities, we check in with Ed Hamilton. Ed is a noted authority on rum, and has written about various sugar cane spirits for a number of magazines and newspapers. He has also written two books on the subject, and is probably most familiar to rum enthusiasts for his work at the Ministry of Rum website.

In a little over a month from now, Ed will be escorting us through the tasting /seminar "6 Rums You'll Probably Never Have the Opportunity to Taste Again." He didn't want to give too much away beforehand regarding these mysterious rums, but he did let a few things slip...

Is this the first time that a rum tasting of this kind has been held at Tales of the Cocktail? Or anywhere else?

Yes, to my knowledge.

Have any of the rums you're showcasing ever been bottled for sale before?


What are some of the reasons these aren't made available for mass consumption?

Low production. There’s only a little bit of these rums around anywhere.

How much blood, sweat and tears went into rounding up all these great rums and getting them in the same place at the same time?

I’m lucky to have good relations with a lot of distilleries, so the hard part will be getting them transported to New Orleans.

How many of these (if any) have you sampled previously?

I’ve sampled rums from all of these distilleries before, but these will be unique as every barrel is different.

Would anyone in their right mind mix with any of these, or are they strictly intended for sipping?

I wouldn’t recommend mixing any of them, though any of them would make a great rum old fashioned.

"6 Rums You'll Probably Never Have the Opportunity to Taste Again" happens from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm July 21 in the Grand Ballroom South at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Go here to purchase tickets.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 3)


Next up in this series of pre-Tales dispatches is a brief Q &A with Wayne Curtis. Wayne is a freelance journalist who has written for many fine periodicals including The New York Times, Saveur, The Atlantic and Travel+Leisure. However, booze geeks likely know him best as the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails.

This year Wayne will be heading up the presentation "Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks and How to Mix Them", and he graciously let me pepper him with questions concerning this period in American drinking.

You wrote in And a Bottle of Rum that rum played a big part in the drinking scene during the early days of the US. What were some of the other things people were drinking at that time?

Mostly cider, lots of beer, and whiskey was starting to come in, but it remained hampered by transportation issues (no trains or canals from beyond the Appalachians until nearly the mid-19th century). Rum was cheap and easy to find in port cities since there was lots of trade between the 26 British colonies (of which 13 elected to break off and declare independence.)

Could you briefly describe the role alcohol played in the day-to-day life of the average person in colonial America? For example, was it common to consume alcohol with every meal? Was it mainly consumed recreationally and socially?

Beverage alcohol was medicine, provider of comfort, salve, healer of all ills including chilblains. You had some in the morning to start your day properly, then you had some more spirit when you took a lunch break, and there was no better way to cement the bonds of friendship and catch up on the news than having a slug of rum or cider at night at the tavern.

What is an example of a popular alcoholic beverage that could be found in a pub/tavern during this time period?

Punch, of course -- taverns almost always had punch bowls and ladles and cups. But tavern owners were creative and mixed up what they had to create potions that would distinguish them from their competition. Shrubs were popular -- this was a way of preserving berries or stone fruits into the winter by soaking them in vinegar. Pour out a little of that, add sugar, some rum, and you could turn a dark February evening into a taste of summer. Which was sort of a remarkable thing in an era before refrigeration and air-express shipping.

How much distilling was done at home vs. commercially?

Home distilling was far more common then than now -- because if you lived on an isolated farm, you had to make most everything you needed. So small stovetop contraptions would provide a bit. And rural folks knew other tricks, like leaving a pail of hard cider out in the barn during the winter, and then scraping off and discarding the ice periodically, which would increase the proof and result in a sort of crude applejack. (Water freezes before alcohol.) In the cities, with the proliferation of taverns and distillers, there was less home-distillation. Remember that in New England alone, there were something like 160 commercial rum distilleries cranking out product on the eve of the American Revolution. You didn't have to go far to find a tot of rum, especially in the seaboard cities.

Were the drinking habits of the wealthy markedly different from the poor?

Everybody drank, and heartily, but the rich drank better, of course. They could afford imported Madeira and port to mix in their punches. And they would drink rums from the West Indies, which most contemporary accounts suggest tasted far better than the rums made in New England.

What types of drinking vessels were the most commonly used (glass, metal, earthenware, etc.) and what drinks were traditionally served in them?

Glass was favored by the upper crust -- elegant punch glasses and the like were more expensive to obtain, and when you had them you took good care of them. Otherwise, it was whatever you had on hand -- be it pewter mugs or crude earthenware or more refined ceramic tankards, or sipping out of the ladle. You'd find a real mix of vessels around the colony, with the poorer imbibers obviously using the cheaper earthenware.

Were there any drink ingredients or preparations being used at that time that we would find surprising today?

Flip is most surprising -- it was made by mixing up rum, beer, and a sweetener like molasses in a pitcher, then stirring it with a piece of iron that had been heated to red-hot in a fireplace. The mess would foam up and sputter, and the end product had a distinctive taste... strangely, a bit like Starbucks coffee, from all the grains in the beer being burned.

"Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks and How to Mix Them" happens from 10:00 to 11:30 am July 21 in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone. Go here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Days of Wine and...More Wine.


No cause for alarm. This isn't turning into a wine blog.

I just thought I'd take a small, one-post detour into wine territory since I found myself attending the Pittsburgh Wine Festival recently. Now normally when I go to a gathering where adult beverages are served, I'm usually looking for a cold beer or a colder Martini. But I'm amenable to the occasional glass of wine, so when the opportunity came up, I took it.

But before we go any further, I should mention a couple of items just so we're all on the same page:

1) I know squat about wine.

2) That being the case, at no point in this post will there be tasting notes.

You see, a big reason I wanted to hit up this event was in order to remedy item #1 above. And since I'm approaching this whole enterprise as a rookie, the last thing I'm going to do is attempt to describe and evaluate a bunch of wines when I have neither the experience nor vocabulary to do so effectively.

Back to the event: Normally, finding myself in situation like this would result in my lurching randomly from vendor to vendor, hoping to stumble onto something I liked, and also remembering to write down its name for future reference. However, I have a secret weapon.

A good friend of mine is studying to be a sommelier, and I enlisted her help in plotting out a plan of attack. She kindly reviewed the vendor list and provided me with detailed written instructions on which vendors and specific wines would be good to try. This information proved crucial, and I printed an extra copy for my stalwart companion who dubbed it our "cheat sheet."

Now that a battle plan was in place, we laid siege to Heinz Field, the very same venue where I previously pillaged the liquor offerings at the Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival. Erupting from the elevator with my wristband held high, I embarked on 4 (or so) hours of wine education, and my observations of the proceedings are as follows...

~ The event took place on Cinco de Mayo. I'm betting there were a lot of people who thought starting the evening with wine and ending with Tequila would be a seamless transition. I'm also betting the next morning many of them were proven wrong.

~ Despite the event being located in two very large lounge areas, it was still incredibly crowded by the third hour. I recommend attending the first session unless you are an intensely extroverted person who thrives in loud, sardine can-like environments.

~ There was a truly astounding amount wine on offer. I don't have hard numbers, but suffice to say if you attempted to sample even a tenth of it, paramedics would be involved.

~ As far as I could tell, I was the only dork running around with a clipboard furiously taking notes on the various wines I tasted. I guess everyone else's memory was better than mine. Or maybe they just didn't want to look like they were going to ask someone to take a survey.

~ The attendees were a relatively diverse group, and it was nice to see people of all shapes, colors, sizes and ages. There was a noticeable upscale vibe, with much of the crowd using the event as an opportunity to show off their shiny new jewelry, formalwear and trophy wives.

~ Despite this, there was the occasional scruffy-looking oddball.* I found it refreshing, and my favorite attendee was a guy in a tie-dyed t-shirt emblazoned with the National Bohemian mascot. I'm not certain this guy actually knew where he was, but he seemed to be having a good time.

~ In a feat of engineering and creativity, the PLCB managed to erect a temporary but fully-functioning State Store on the premises in case anyone wanted to purchase a bottle of something they sampled during the event. Maybe someday they can bring this same know-how to bear and figure out how to open their stores on Sundays.

~ Domestic vendors and imported vendors were placed in two completely separate locations, but you could travel from one to the other on chauffeured golf carts provided as courtesy. This was a nice touch, and proved that you do not actually have to be playing golf to enjoy riding on a golf cart while hammered.

~ Unlike similar events showcasing beer and spirits, there was virtually zero swag given out by vendors. This was disappointing, because I really wanted to get my hands on one of those Château Margaux baseball caps I see all the kids wearing.

~ Kudos to the venue for providing ample food & water throughout the evening. Based on how several of the attendees looked and sounded a few hours into the event, I'm guessing there would have been a hell of a lot of pizzas being delivered to Heinz Field had the organizers not kept the grub in good supply.

~ I had the good fortune to run into local wine guru Sean Enright, who helpfully directed me to a handful of really good wines to try. As with many things, recommendations from people in the know are a great way to get acquainted with stuff you're unfamiliar with.

And speaking of wines I thought were pretty good? Here are a few in no particular order...

Bertani Villa Arvedi Amarone '06
Terlato Boutari Naoussa '07
Marchesi Di Barolo Dolcetto '09
Château Moncontour Vouvray Predilection '09
Cono Sur sparkling brut
Blue Coast Château Vignelaure '05
Valckenberg Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett '08
Grapes of Spain Genium Cellar Ecologic Priorat '06
Terlato Gaja Magari '07
Vineyard Brands Château Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge '08

All things considered it was a very decent event. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what they put together next time around.

But I'll still likely require a cheat sheet.

* I fall firmly into this category.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 2)


As promised earlier, I'm posting a few pre-Tales items designed to prime the collective pumps of those headed for New Orleans this July. But even if you aren't attending the boozapalooza known as Tales of the Cocktail,you still might want to stop here now and then in the weeks beforehand to soak up some random hooch-centric knowledge.

This salvo comes courtesy of Paul Clarke, whose name is familiar to cocktail enthusiasts of all stripes. In addition to writing about cocktails & spirits for Imbibe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and, he is also considered the godfather of cocktail blogging, having documented his love of adult beverages at his site The Cocktail Chronicles since 2005.

At Tales of the Cocktail this year, Paul will be presenting the seminar "As American as Apple Brandy", and he was kind enough to let me fling a handful of questions at him regarding this little-known but historically significant spirit.

Are apple brandy and applejack the same thing? I often see the terms used interchangeably.

Historically, applejack and apple brandy were pretty much the same thing. The term "applejack" was slang, a word usually hung on rougher, coarser versions of the spirit (especially in the early days, when techniques like freeze distillation were sometimes employed), and until very recently, brandy distillers typically bristled at the use of "applejack" to describe their product. The term mostly lost its sting after Prohibition, when there were still several brands around (this ended in the 1950s, when Laird's became the only producer in the U.S.), and in the 1970s, Laird's reformulated their applejack from a straight apple brandy into a blend with neutral spirits, with a little apple wine added to the blend.

Do you remember where you first encountered apple brandy?

When I first started exploring the classic-cocktail landscape, I came across references to the Jack Rose, one of the most basic and still engaging applejack cocktails in creation. I'd just assumed that applejack was extinct along with Old Tom gin and other once-common bar ingredients, but with a little searching I found applejack in a Seattle liquor store; today, many Jack Roses later, I still find American apple brandy one of the most interesting and engaging spirits in the bar.

How popular was apple brandy in the early days of the US?

Keep in mind that apple brandy is simply distilled cider, and there were stretches during the Colonial era and well into the 19th century when cider was the most widely consumed beverage in America. So, apple brandy was huge -- it was easy to produce locally (which was especially helpful on the frontier, where shipments of rum -- the other important spirit of the colonial era -- could be relatively expensive and hard to find), and it predated the advent of Bourbon and possibly even the birth of American rye whiskey. Laird's has been distilling apple brandy since 1698, and in the 1830s, there were around 400 distillers of applejack in New Jersey alone. That was bigtime booze for the era.

It's my understanding that apple brandy was traditionally made in the northeastern US. Was/is it made in other parts of the country?

New Jersey is American apple brandy's ancestral homeland, and Laird's is still based there today (though since suburban sprawl long ago displaced the state's orchards, their brandy is now distilled in Virginia), but today there's apple brandy being made pretty much wherever apples are grown. Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon has been making apple brandy for years, and St. George Spirits and Germain Robin in California make exquisite apple brandies. There are also apple brandies made in Michigan, Indiana and Connecticut, and I hope that soon we'll be able to purchase apple brandy made in my home state of Washington.

The apple brandies I've tasted seem to have a whiskey-like character. Are there any whiskey-based cocktails that work well when apple brandy is substituted?

There's a reason applejack is sometimes referred to as "apple whiskey." American apple brandy has the woody bite that you find in Bourbon & rye, along with a mellow richness that can really make the other ingredients in a cocktail come together. I'd suggest almost every whiskey-based cocktail would work well with apple brandy, and if you mix equal parts of the two? Damn. Case in point: the Star Cocktail, which is simply an apple-brandy Manhattan (make it with orange bitters and you've got a Marconi Wireless), and the Diamondback, which is rye whiskey, apple brandy and Chartreuse. Also, there's the American Trilogy, a more contemporary drink which is rye whiskey, apple brandy and orange bitters. And apple brandy even mixes well with other spirits, such as in the Pink Lady, in which it stars with gin, lending a deeper, richer backbone to the drink.

What are some of the differences between American apple brandy and other related products like Calvados?

While there are similarities between Calvados and American apple brandy, the differences are big enough to think about them as distinct spirits. Calvados producers are limited to using certain types of apples (typically the tarter styles used for cider), but American producers can use any style of apple, and often use sweeter varieties more commonly thought of as table apples (an example is the apple brandy from Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon, which is made entirely from Golden Delicious apples). Laird's, the largest producer, ages their brandy in used bourbon barrels, whereas Calvados producers use various styles of oak barrels, which results in a different finished product. American apple brandies are also usually bottled much younger than Calvados (though there are exceptions among some older American brandies), which results in a very different character in the glass. There are other differences, but this should give you an idea of how similar, yet different, these styles of apple brandy can be.

Has the renewed interest in cocktails over the past few years helped apple brandy become more commonplace? Is it possible to find it in bars these days?

The cocktail renaissance has helped almost all spirits (with the possible exception of vodka), and apple brandy has definitely benefited. Not only can you find applejack and Laird's bonded apple brandy in many (if not most) craft-cocktail bars, but there's been a slow but steady increase in the number of startup distillers trying their hand at apple brandy. The best years for American apple brandy may be before us.

"As American as Apple Brandy" happens from 1:00 to 2:30 pm, July 23 in the Grand Ballroom South at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Go here to purchase tickets.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tales of The Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 1)


Thanks to a variety of planets aligning, I'll be attending Tales of the Cocktail this July, and as in previous years I'll be doing my level best to soak up as much booze-centric information as possible. If you're one of the seven people who read this blog regularly, you may remember my wrap-up from the first year I went to Tales, and also some observations from my second time around. I'll be endeavoring to do likewise again in a couple of months' time.

However, this year I'll be doing things a bit differently. Yes, I'll still be shambling around like a slack-jawed ape trying vainly to process the sensory orgy that is a 5-day hoochfest placed smack in the middle of downtown New Orleans. But this time I'm coming armed with three things I didn't have back in '09: A laptop computer, a Facebook account and a Twitter account.

See, the goal for me this time is to send back a few dispatches from the field in a somewhat timely fashion, rather than relying on my faulty memory and a stack of smeared handwritten notes to provide a post-mortem. Provided my dubious technological skill set doesn't fail me, I intend to report in as faithfully as possible throughout the event.

I'll also be doing a handful of posts and updates in the weeks leading up to Tales, so if you're the kind of person who enjoys stuff like sneak previews and movie trailers, then you should probably go wherever they have those, because here I'm just going to be discussing seminars with names like "A Critical Design Analysis Of The Hawthorne Strainer (With Emphasis On Metal Fatigue And Fluid Dynamics)" and "The Solera Method: A Noble Tradition...Or Just Plain Cheatin'?"

But if that kind of thing sounds up your alley, then you can periodically check in here, and also look for @DoctorBamboo on Twitter. If Facebook is your thing, then go here. Of course the best option is to actually come to New Orleans and meet me for a drink. We'll put it on Morgenthaler's tab.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Greatest Drink Book Ever Published

Booze geeks debate endlessly on the merits of various drink books, but is there one that definitively rises above the rest? Strong arguments can be made for such venerable tomes as Jerry Thomas' Bar-Tender's Guide , David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks and The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock. What about Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology or Jones' Complete Bar Guide? Or Dale DeGroff's The Craft of the Cocktail or Charles H. Baker's The Gentleman's Companion- Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask? (Which frankly deserves some sort of recognition for the length of its title alone)

Yeah, they're all good, but as far as I'm concerned, the greatest drink book ever published is a slender yet sumptuous offering titled Cocktails for Two.


This is the cover. And it only gets better.

This book came into my possession via Rick Stutz, who knew I would appreciate its charms. Written by Helen Spence with a host of contributing photographers, it is simply an astounding work.

It's really impossible to do proper justice to this book with words. Cocktails for Two needs to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. It's a mere 127 pages long, but almost half the book is full-page color photographs of men and (mostly)women in various costumes and settings that reflect different drinks. Now that I think about it, maybe "reflect" isn't the right word. Perhaps "interpret" is more accurate.

The remaining half is mostly recipes with a few pages devoted to cocktail-making fundamentals and brief overviews of base spirits. There are actually a fair number of vintage (and decent) cocktails sprinkled throughout, but the real treasures are the "Who in God's name was drinking these?" drinks.

I should mention at this point that this book was published in 1982, and it absolutely reeks of the early 80's...both aesthetically and in the recipes selected for inclusion. And when I say "reeks" I mean that in the best way possible. Cocktails for Two is a glorious fusion of post-Disco-era visual style and drink recipes that have more sugar and colors than a box of Fruity Pebbles. Remember Isaac from The Love Boat? This is the book he had behind the bar.

Of course the efficient thing to do would be to set up a Flickr account and just post scans of all the photos. But that would be reckless and irreverent. The intensity of this book is such that it needs to be consumed slowly, page by page. Which is why I'll be doling it out in small doses.


All aboard the S.S. Emesis!

The photo above accompanies a drink called the Commodore. I'll get to the drink in a sec, but for now let's just marinate in the picture: Clearly soused blonde hugging a pole (For support? Part of a "come-hither" strategy?). Hot-rod nails and matching lipstick in the process of being stripped away by a roaming tongue. Naval officer's uniform that appears to be stolen, and dangerously unsecured ropes framing the whole tableau. And look at the size of that drink. This looks like either an ad for a nautical-themed gentleman's club or a publicity still from an 80's teen sex comedy. Which is to say it's awesome. The whole book is like this, folks.

As for the drink itself, here it is exactly as written in the book:

COMMODORE Shake four parts rye with one part fresh lime juice and two dashes of orange bitters. Add sugar if required.

(Next to the recipe are drawings of a cocktail glass and a rocks glass, so I guess you can use whichever one strikes your fancy. )

I admit I haven't actually made this drink yet. When I do, I'll report back and let you know whether it's as good as the photo that accompanies it. But somehow I doubt that's possible.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What I've Learned: Year Four


Looking at my calendar, I realized that February had come and gone, which means I've been blogging about cocktails, booze, and other related subjects for 4 years. If boozeblogging operated like high school or college, it's possible I'd be graduating now. But since this sort of thing appears to have no fixed endpoint, I suppose I'll keep at it.

What I've Learned in my Fourth Year of Boozeblogging

~ The number of people I know who celebrate Repeal Day is almost equal to those I know who celebrate Christmas.

~ Putting cinnamon sticks in a nut grinder will result in poorly processed cinnamon and a broken nut grinder.

~ One of the great pleasures of boozeblogging is stumping spellcheck on a regular basis.

~ Apparently absinthe was a fad...and it's over. (Translation: Someone outside of Manhattan is now aware of it).

~ If someone offers you the chance to bartend at an actual bar, take it. Regardless of whether you enjoyed the experience or not, you will realize that making drinks at home and tending a bar are very different things.

~ Speaking of which, bartending is hard work. If you are at a bar, don't provide your bartender with unnecessary grief. Wait your turn, use your inside voice, and keep your hands to yourself. ..Y'know, the same stuff you should've learned in preschool.

~ Oh, and tip, you cheap bastard.

~ If you ever wanted to constantly know what, where and when all your friends are drinking, join Facebook and Twitter.

~ Buying eleven bottles of apfelkorn in one go is worth it just for the look of disapproval/puzzlement on the clerk's face. *

~ One of the great unexpected benefits of boozeblogging is getting pen pals from around the world. If you had asked me four years ago if I thought I'd have friends in places like Sweden, Brazil, Australia and the UK because of a cocktail blog, I never would have imagined it.

~ I would rather have a lousy drink in good company than the other way around.

~ Compared to a few years back, there are a ton of cocktail-centric events happening all year long. I wish I had the time and money to attend more of them. (Note to self: Get more time and money)

~ Cocktail geeks will begin making and selling their own drink ingredients if they feel the market is not meeting their needs.

~ I have no idea what oleo-saccharum is, but I keep seeing it mentioned, so I guess I'm gonna have to go find out.

~ Mail that sloshes and gurgles will brighten almost any day.

~ Tiki-style drinking has clearly expanded beyond a small cadre of nerds in Hawaiian shirts trying to decipher decades-old recipes. Skilled, conscientious bartenders are evangelizing good tiki drinks all over the place, so let's enjoy them while we can.

~ I continue to be amazed at how poorly some liquor brand reps handle their outreach to the cocktail writing community. Many brand reps do an admirable job promoting their product(s), but a troublingly high number still conduct their business in a lazy and clueless fashion. Here's a tip: The speed at which I delete your press release is roughly equivalent to the time you spent crafting it and bothering to find out who you're sending it to.

~ If somebody opens up a place near you with a cocktail program comprised of all-original drinks that use homemade and seasonal ingredients, you should go there.

~ Likewise, if such a place has a guest bartender from another city stop in for a night, make a point of dropping in for a drink and meeting that person. I guarantee you'll learn something.

~ Unexpectedly finding a set of actual old-fashioned-sized old-fashioned glasses is a real treat. Thanks, Target!

~ This is the fourth year in a row I'm mentioning it, but it bears repeating: My fellow boozebloggers remain an inordinately friendly, supportive, and generous bunch. Both in person and online, virtually every one of them I've had the pleasure to know has been gracious and positive, and I'm looking forward to another year in their company.

*It was at a ridiculously cheap closeout price. What was I supposed to do...just leave it there?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Potable Pariahs: Jägermeister


What can be said about Jägermeister that hasn't already been said? To say it's a product with a reputation is a colossal understatement. Love it or hate it, the name "Jägermeister" definitely elicits a reaction. For those who have tried it, Jägermeister has likely become either a beloved denizen of their liquor cabinet (or freezer), or a much- loathed concoction akin to poison. For those who haven't had it, its stigma precedes it, and very few people try it for the first time without having first been exposed to a litany of horror stories. Regardless, it's probably second only to Tequila for prompting regrettable decisions.

I could go on at length about attractive young women in blaze-orange wigs and sparse outfits dispensing vials of the stuff at nightclubs and festivals. I could explore the phenomenon of how it became the de facto beverage in certain precincts of the heavy metal music scene. I could clumsily profile its loyal customers. But if you've been anywhere alcohol has been served over the last 20 years or so, you've seen Jägermeister, you've seen how it's marketed, and you've seen who's buying it. You've probably tried it too. I make no judgments.

Among the cocktailing crowd, Jägermeister is largely sneered at, hence my deeming it a Potable Pariah. Booze nerds usually pass it by in favor of similar products like Fernet Branca, Averna and Unicum, which are seen as more distinguished examples of the category. Whether it's contempt for the nature of its marketing, disdain for the type of person who typically consumes it, or simply the taste of the product itself, Jägermeister is a tough sell for discriminating drinkers.

Now before we delve into the nuts & bolts, I need to come clean about a family connection to Jägermeister, as well as my personal feelings about the product itself. (I believe legal-type folks call this "full disclosure" or something. If you want to skip the human-interest stuff, then just jump over the next three paragraphs).

Jägermeister was (and is) made in a town in Germany named Wolfenbüttel. This also happens to be the very same town where my father spent the early years of his life before emigrating to the US with his mother. I mention my grandmother because she was no doubt was well aware of the town's best-known export, since she kept a bottle of it in her kitchen at all times. No, my grandmother wasn't doing shots while cranking Motörhead...she used it for its original purpose as a digestive aid (see "What is it?" below). We have Pepto-Bismol, my grandmother had Jäger.

Not that she would have backed down from a line of shot glasses if need be. My grandmother was, as they used to say, a tough old broad. She had a husband killed in WWII, leaving her a single mother who had to leave her home and start over again in a foreign country. She pulled it off, and managed to both raise her son to adulthood and live into her eighties despite eating every single thing you weren't supposed to. My memory of her is that of a robust, coarsely elegant woman who loved children, smoked cigarettes with an old-fashioned filter, and could bake to rival any pastry chef. She could also crack walnuts open with one bare hand. In her later years she resembled an oil drum topped by a head of curly, steel-colored hair that she cut herself, but this did nothing to diminish her dignified aura. She took crap from no one, yet was terrifically generous. Imagine Yoda with Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, and you have a pretty good picture.

So if your conception of the typical Jäger consumer is a fraternity basement dweller or a tattooed hairfarmer at Ozzfest, take a moment to consider that long before those guys discovered it, an elderly German lady had it within arm's reach right next to the sugar and coffee. I think of her every time I have some, and always offer up a silent toast.

Then there's the product itself. I happen to actually like Jägermeister. I say "like" not in the sense that I enjoy downing a bunch of it in record time because it gets me nice and hammered. I mean I like the way it tastes, and I sometimes pour myself a nice cold glass of it and slowly sip away while doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book. That, of course, isn't the scenario the Jägermeister marketing team is going to base their next promotion around, but that's okay with me. They've done fine so far by swaddling race cars and women's breasts with their logo, so they clearly don't need to switch up their strategy anytime soon...Jägermeister is, if nothing else, a marketing masterpiece. Billed first and foremost as a party fuel par excellence, it can nonetheless be enjoyed by people who don't start their day with a Red Bull IV drip and a naked snowboard run.

Now that that's all out of the way, let's get to it.

What is it?

Jägermeister is a herbal liqueur that falls in the of subcategory of bitters. This means that is it is ideally intended to be consumed as a digestif. It's a nearly-opaque, auburn-tinged brown color, and comes in a squat, short-necked green glass bottle. It has a sweet, licorice-forward flavor that many people find unpleasant, and some compare unfavorably to cough medicine (particularly if not chilled). The proprietary recipe developed in 1934 contains a combination of several herbs, roots, barks, fruits and spices. It is 70 proof.

Why does it suck?

As I mentioned above, there are a number of reasons folks are leery of Jägermeister. A lot of people just plain hate the way it tastes. Cocktail geeks in particular tend to look upon it with derision, generally favoring other similar products in the amari family, which can be more conducive to mixing. In this sense, despite being relatively sweet for bitters, Jägermeister has an aggressive flavor profile that makes it challenging as a cocktail ingredient.

How can we fix it?

I was initially inclined to treat Jägermeister like some willful, savage beast that needs to be domesticated before inclusion into the civilized milieu of a cocktail. I'd considered a number of methods, like employing only tiny amounts (using it as a rinse, gently placing a few drops on the surface of the drink), or altering it in some way (making a syrup out of it, doing a reduction). But then I realized the fundamental flaw in my approach: I was trying to fix something that didn't need to be fixed.

Instead of trying to subjugate it, I needed to celebrate it. I was trying to make it yield, and thereby become stripped of its Jäger-ness. It was at that point I understood that something as nobly brash as Jägermeister shouldn't be tamed. It's not supposed to be liked by everyone, and that's a cornerstone of its appeal. If you somehow made it palatable to nearly everybody, it would cease to be Jägermeister. And that's something I won't be party to.

So I revisited an off-the-cuff drink I made awhile back when that big scandal involving Sandra Bullock and then-husband Jesse James was the hot gossip item. I usually don't pay attention to celebrity tabloid stuff, but I got a huge kick out that one for one simple reason: It involved someone named Bombshell McGee.

As far as I'm concerned, "Bombshell McGee" is a phenomenal name. It's the name you'd give a cartoon character...someone like Yosemite Sam's brother-in-law. Say what you will about the woman herself, she's got a great name. It still brings a smile to my face when I think about it, just as it did back then when I made up a drink in her honor:

Bombshell McGee

1 oz. Sailor Jerry spiced rum
1 oz. Kahlua
.75 oz. Jägermeister
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Build in a rocks glass over ice and top with a splash of club soda. Stir and garnish with an orange twist.

My intent was to make something akin to a low-rent Negroni. I also wanted something that used ingredients almost any bar or club would have handy. My last goal was to make something that was tasty, but also a little rough around the edges...unpolished, but not unwelcome. And I think it's a recipe where Jägermeister is perfectly at home.

Which brings us to the question of Jägermeister's redemption. I maintain it needs no redeeming. Regardless of how you elect to consume it, you'll either embrace it or you won't...that's just how Jäger is. You don't have to like it, but please don't ask it to be anything other than what it is.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mystery Drink


Pirate's Punch

1 1/2 oz. Dark rum
3/4 oz. Light rum
1/2 oz. 151-proof rum
1 1/2 oz. Fresh pineapple juice
1/2 oz. Fresh orange juice
1/4 oz. Fresh lime juice
1/4 oz. Grenadine

Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a tall, ice-filled glass. Garnish with an orange slice and Maraschino cherry.

~ adapted from "Phillip Collier's Mixing New Orleans: Cocktails & Legends" by Jennifer Adams & Michael Terranova, 2007

I'd have thought that by now every drink's history would have been documented. Between the internet and the community of earnest, hardworking booze nerds who spend their days ferreting out the details of where a drink was first made and by whom (or why...or when...), I figured most cocktails had at least a vague backstory attached to them that could be scrounged up with a little effort. Even if a specific creator or date is unknown, many drinks can at least be traced to an appearance in a book or bar somewhere.

Turns out that some drinks may like to keep their pasts hidden.

For quite some time I've had the Pirate's Punch bookmarked in my copy of Mixing New Orleans, where it appears next to a brief piece on Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, the landmark French Quarter watering hole. When I decided to take it for a test drive, one of the first things I did was to contact the author and see if she had any knowledge of its history. The redoubtable and accommodating Ms. Adams apologized and regretted to inform me she knew nothing of the drink other than it being served at Lafitte's. However, being that the Pirate's Punch is a rum-based concoction, she suggested I contact Martin Cate, the rum guru, proprietor of Smuggler's Cove and all-around swell guy for a possible lead.

His swift reply was, "Never heard of it."

Undeterred, I took my search online and did a cursory look-see. I quickly found out that if you type "Pirate's Punch" into the search engine of your choice, you will receive numerous recipes with that name, but bearing little resemblance to each other. You can even find ones that contain Hawaiian Punch as an ingredient. Vodka too.

Not much in the way of provenance though.

At this stage of the game I could have made the decision to turn this into a project and investigate further. As attractive as the prospect of playing Junior Sherlock was, I didn't want to harangue all my drink geek pals (which I do plenty of already), nor did I want to simply call up Lafitte's and pester some overworked member of the staff. Those people are very busy, and the last thing they need is some dork on the phone asking about their drinks so he can feel somewhat informed as he draws a funny picture.

So I decided that a little mystery is a good thing. If someone out there knows anything about this drink and wants to send it my way, I'm fine with it...but I'm also fine with sipping away and imagining some colorful origin story that may or may not have any connection to reality. Often the made-up stuff sounds better anyway.

Speaking of sipping, I won't abuse you with my usual clumsy tasting notes, but I will point out that the terms "dark rum" and "light rum" can be interpreted very widely, and you could spend the next week and a half experimenting with various ones to see which combos you like. For what it's worth, I found the combination of Ron Atlantico Private Cask and Oronoco made a crisp, citrus-forward version that still showcased the rum flavors well and would be great as a hot-weather drink. And any excuse to use the ol' Lemon Hart 151 is OK by me.