Sunday, 29 March 2009

Nobody's perfect...

Classic cocktails are classic because they were good enough to stand the test of time. They pleased the palates of the masses. They caught the popular imagination. They provide us with a ready-made drinks list. There are hundreds, if not thousands of mixed drinks found and lost and found again throughout the decades, centuries, even millennia (anyone whipped up a batch of hypocras lately? Great stuff). 

But the classics provide us with something even more essential. They testify to countless bartenders testing and re-testing recipes -- rebuilding them to suit shifting tastes, ingredients, technologies, and fads. It is said in the kitchen that you don't truly know a dish until you've cooked it a thousand times. How many thousands of times, by how many thousands of bartenders, has the Manhattan cocktail been tested and varied? And we still find points to debate (I don't give a damn what anyone says, I like my Manhattans shaken until the bitters turn foamy. The right way to make a drink is the one the pleases the drinker). It is this foundation of knowledge that supports the platform for debate. It also supports the platform for creativity an experimentation. Know today's classics and you are capable of creating tomorrow's. 

Unfortunately, the following drink is not likely to live up to any of what I just said. It was delicious. It was fresh and balanced. Perhaps it needed a dash of orange bitters. Perhaps I should have marinaded the strawberries in Cointreau. 

Apero Frais
40ml Beefeater Gin
20ml Carpano Antica or other sweet vermouth
20ml Aperol
2 fresh strawberries

Combine gin, vermouth, Aperol, and one strawberry in an ice-filled shaker. Shake very hard. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the other strawberry.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

1000 words...

Her favorite bar snack is Goldfish.
She likes her martinis wet and her kibbles dry.
Bartender, there's a cat in my drink.
It was her third and she was feeling a little fuzzy.

Got a caption for this shot?

Saturday, 21 March 2009

In The News: Death of a Moonshiner, Hemingway's friend the bartender...

It's a sad tale, but worth reading to the end of this article. This man was not just "part of a dying breed" he was a bit of a throwback (and possibly a big Dukes of Hazzard fan).  

If you're interested in more reading on the subject of moonshine. Try this book, written by a man who spent his life catching them back in the day. 

Eric Felton's portrait of bartender Gerald Murphy in the Wall Street Journal is a must-read. So is his piece on Fish House Punch

How are Houston bars drumming up business as recession-shocked customers start drinking at home? 

Gary Regan plays with Galliano Authentico and Navan in his Cocktaillian column in the San Francisco Chronicle. If you haven't been reading it faithfully, catch up now. Here's the archive.

Jason Wilson hits the rye in Washington. Isn't it wonderful having a President in office who drinks again?

Mixing in Milano circa 1930

Prohibition in the United States had a global effect, scattering bartenders from America around the world. Sure, there were still a lot of drinks poured in the US, but many of the best mixologists moved to places where they could legally practice their craft. And they took their training, knowledge, recipes, and libraries with them.

Long after Gaspari Campari took his inspiration from Antonio Carpano to create both his bitters and a great drink, the Torino-Milano which later became known as the Americano, what were they drinking in the center of Italian fashion? 

I recently found this interesting recipe booklet:

Friday, 20 March 2009

Noilly Prat Ambre Vermouth.

Lately, I've been hearing a tired refrain from the staunch traditionalists: Noilly Prat has ruined their packaging with a redesign. Never mind that the  new bottle is more elegant, equally easy to hold, and has a classic look to it. It's curvaceous. It's sexy. 

But to be honest, my mind wasn't on the packaging when I got my hands on one of the new Ambre bottles.  My first thought was, "AMBRE!!!!!" 

Noilly Prat has been producing this wonderful fortified aperitif wine since 1986, which is why it is known as 'the baby' at the distillery. After all, Noilly Extra Dry was born in 1811, and Noilly Rouge came along in 1956. 

The Ambre lands somewhere between the two, with the richness of the sweet, but the dry complexity of the dry without the sharp edges. Underneath, it is distinctly reminiscent of a fine marsala wine. It is superb in a Manhattan or on its own on the rocks. 

If you haven't encountered Ambre, that's because until recently it was only available at the distillery in Marseillan which is from a global perspective the middle of nowhere. You can fly into Montpellier in the south of France. Rent a car. Drive past Sette, home of some of the best oysters in the world. Then you continue down the coast to an enormous lake that fronts onto the Mediterranean Sea, but is far saltier and produces even better oysters. On the downwind edge of this lake, catching a perennial salt-laden breeze is Marseillan and Noilly Prat. The barrels sit out in the sun for decades. The vermouth rests in them for eighteen months of its journey from vineyard to bottle. We lasted twenty sweltering minutes before we begged for shade. Incidentally, over 50 percent of France's annual chamomile harvest ends up in those bottles (which is why French vermouth was also known as chamomile vermouth at one time -- but that's one of those secret parts of the secret recipe so don't tell anyone). 

So, what is it I really like about the new Noilly Ambre packaging? I like the implication that it might become more widely available. They may have been happy selling something like 40,000 bottles (or was it cases? I'd had a few drinks at the time) a year at the distillery, but it's just not fair to the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, there is a source outside the distillery other than the cafe across the harbor from the distillery (where we once bought it upon discovering after driving all that way that the distillery was closed for a bank holiday). 

(Sun-baked barrels in the Noilly Prat barrel yard.)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

"Bernard"? That's "Mary" to her friends....

How did you get a drinks book published in a male-dominated field if you happened to be a woman? Slap some quotation marks around a male nom de plume and you're in business!

After ordering a copy of The Universal Cookery Book (in just about the worst condition I've ever seen a book) I made a surprising discovery. Following is a pic of 100 Cocktails by "Bernard", 1958. Below it is the copyright page from The Universal Cookery Book.

Knickerbocker Hotel Update

We could never verify that anyone named Martini di Arma di Taggia worked at the Knickerbocker, much less made a martini there for John D. Rockefeller and placed an olive in it to counter the harshness of American gin (though that's the legend of the martini getting an olive, and formerly one of those birth of the martini stories that cropped up decades after the drink was born). 

But the Knickerbocker is still of great interest. Harry Craddock moved through New York after working in Chicago, prior to taking his post at the Savoy in London. In New York he wasn't head barman, but just another bartender at the Knickerbocker. 

In its short life as a hotel, 1906 to 1920, the Knickerbocker hosted a who's-who of pre-Prohibition celebrities. Opera tenor Enrico Caruso famously leaned out his window and led the crowds below in a sing-a-long of the US national anthem on Armistice Day. Maxfield Parrish was commissioned to create a 30-foot painting titled Old King Cole for the Knickerbocker Bar (which can be seen today at the St. Regis Hotel). 

But all of that is ancient history. Our dear friend Audrey Saunders brought it to mind recently when she sent us a New York magazine story about the Cedar Tavern, a venerable Greenwich Village pub whose owner saw green and demolished it to put up condominiums. 

The connection between the two? The bar. The three of us, along with many other late night miscreants, used to frequent the Cedar Tavern in the early morning hours for prime rib and manhattans while admiring the ornate bar rumored to have come directly from the Knickerbocker Hotel (click here to see a photo of it). Then one night, Audrey and Anistatia got behind the bar and found a small plaque that confirmed it. 

The bar is now on its way to Texas, according to this report.

A real shame as there's a possibility that the Knickerbocker Hotel will be re-opened if the economic downturn hasn't put Dubai-based real estate development company Istithmar's plans on ice. My fantasy? They get the bar back form Texas. They come up with an equally striking painting, since the King Cole Bar isn't about to give up their namesake art, and they bring the bar back to its original splendor. Oh, and they re-open the private entry from the Times Square subway station.

One other tidbit on the subject. The Knickerbocker's former bartender wrote a cocktail book after the hotel closed. Check back here for more information about that, as we will be reprinting it in partnership with EUVS some time this year. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

In The News... A Layoff at Cheers. Drinking is Good for You.

Eddie Doyle, bartender at the Bull and Finch, the Boston Tavern that inspired Cheers has been laid off. Read more here.

Dr. Malcolm Lloyd, a respected clinical research is scheduled to appear on Good Morning America this week and say that people who drink in moderation live longer than those who don't.

Murray Stenson gets the Last Word in today's Seattle Times. Read more here (and check out the video). 

Meridith Ford Goldman predicts a return of classic whiskey drinks in The Atlanta Journal Constitution with a nod to Rob Chirico. Read more here. 

Maple syrup hits $70 per gallon. Bloomberg blames PDT and Beyonce. Read more here. 

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sunday Morning Eye Opener...

When your corpse needs more than mere revival there's nothing like French toast. Sure, Eggs Benedict is the ultimate hangover brunch when someone else is cooking, but who wants to stand over a steaming bain marie whisking butter, lemon juice, etc, just to make the sauce? Far too complicated. 

Try this for simplicity:

Red Hook French Toast
4 slices of baguette (or just about any other type of bread, enough to serve two people)
2 eggs
50ml whole milk
30ml Red Hook Rye 
a pinch of cinnamon

Whisk the eggs, milk, whiskey, and cinnamon together in a bowl. Add the bread one slice at a time, turning each slice over in the batter so that it is evenly coated. Let it rest while you bring a frying pan up to medium-high heat. Add butter to the pan and quickly add the French toast. Before you flip it over, sprinkle a little more cinnamon on top. This will have a very different visual effect than the cinnamon that was mixed into the batter. Cook until lightly browned on both sides. 

Top with butter and maple syrup. And be sure the orange juice is fresh squeezed. After all, the best spirits deserve only the best mixers.

There are endless variations on this recipe. Try replacing the whiskey with 25ml Cointreau, and topping the French toast with confectioners sugar and fresh berries. Good quality dark rum and tequila are both delicious. 

If you feel like cooking with good spirits is wrong, just think of it as molecular egg nog. 

Saturday, 7 March 2009

If you still like piña coladas...

But there was much more to the story. There was much more before the story. The drink had been around for a long time in one form or another for over a century. Or two. Pineapples and rum? The combination was all the rage in London  and in France at the turn of the 19th century. It was noted that Caribbean sugar plantation owners found the combination smoothed the rough edges of their aguardiente. 

I still stand by that Mixologist article. The piña colada as we know it came from those San Juan barmen. They ended the confusion as to how you make a piña colada by bashing out thousands and thousands for celebrities, holiday-makers, and other key influencers. Was there an earlier recipe? Or two? Or three? Yes. And all of them were different. 

To read our full ramble on the subject in German in the current issue of Mixology, that ever-elegant drinks industry magazine from Berlin. Or you can click over to the Musings page here on Martini Place to read the English version.

Origin of the word cocktail

There are innumerable stories of the origin of the word cocktail. There's the Mexican Princess who made a cocktail for  visitor to her father's court. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a princess in the history of Mexico with a name remotely like Cocktail. Mexico did however have a long history of rum production when it was under Spanish rule. But that's a separate historical footnote. 

Was it named after a type of race horse? A tavern keeper who stirred drinks with a feather? Was it from the barrel dregs? From cock ale?  A garnish of mint? The foam that descended down the side of the glass? (These last two were suggested as drinkers pondered this question in the mid-19th century.) 

Looking at the 1806 definition: a drink made with spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters...vulgarly called a bittered sling. Yes, I'm paraphrasing here, just to get to the point.

A bittered sling. So what separated the cocktail from the sling was the bitters? Add bitters to a sling and it becomes a cocktail. So far so good. Now, let's take a closer look at the bitters bottle. 

Some early dasher bottles were made by pushing a short length of feather shaft through a cork. Modern bitters dasher bottles are still made in this shape. The feather would have to be a large one to give a large enough diameter for dashing bitters through. A rooster's tail feather perhaps? 

So, the difference between a sling and a cocktail in that first definition was a dash of bitters through the cock's tail. 

Just what we needed--another birth of the cocktail theory.

In case you're wondering, that's Eben Freeman holding one of his beautiful old bitters bottles at Tailor in New York City.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Close shave with a new blade!

I finally tried out the saber Lenell Smothers gave me ages ago. I've sabered Champagne bottles with a Coast Guard parade sword, a cleaver (many many times), a chef's knife, a dinner knife, the handle of a soup spoon, the heel of a pint glass (nothing like a pint of Perrier Jouet at the end of a sweltering summer evening shift behind the bar). But as many times as I'd seen these purpose-built Champagne sabers, I'd never tried one. Until now. 

The bottle had rested in the fridge for a couple of weeks, so I was confident it wouldn't explode. Ago Perrone, bartender at London's Connaught Hotel was mixing with me. We'd had a round of Martinis made with Gancia Bianco and Regan's Orange Bitters. This round I wanted to try a variation on the classic Champagne cocktail.

When I stepped to the door with the bottle and cutlass, Ago started laughing. He kept laughing even as the neck came away from the bottle in one swift motion with less than half a glass lost. He said Italians think this French custom is a bit showy and silly. 

Then we broke out the Hine 1976, brown sugar infused with a hint of ginger as I'd recently made a batch of candied ginger,  and Regan's (again). Filled with the Blason Rosé, topped with a lemon twist, it made a memorable cocktail. Thanks Lenell!

[Sabering disclaimer: this is a very dangerous activity. Don't try this at home. This goes double for any attempt to saber a cava or American domestic sparkling. Those are generally packaged in saber-proof bottles.]