Thursday, July 31, 2008

How Tasty!: Musings on Tastings and Tasters

This article was first published on July 28, 2008, as a part of the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Blog. It was addressed to the contingency of cocktail bloggers and anyone who cared to read along.

There is no better joy than to see a grown man or woman take a sip of something so utterly breathtaking, words fail to to express the glow of inner peace. Ah, the ineffability of Elysian elixirs. We would love it if they rejuvenated our tired bones and sere skin, or offered us a brief glimpse into the future, but alas, they can only delight, and sometimes intoxicate.

The Tasting Room

Tastings at Tales of the Cocktail were by far the easiest and sometimes most fun method of getting to know a new spirit or being reinvigorated by an old favorite shaken up in a new way. It was also a surefire way to observe firsthand the crazy world of PR, Marketing, and Sales, and meet the people who are their driving force.

Catdaddy: a love affair begins

Our favorites were, in no particular order (but for very particular reasons):

Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, from Piedmont Distillers, for its sweet kick in the pants (love the way it mixes with the peach-infused Midnight Moon Moonshine and sweet tea); there was even duck confit and crackers for those of us who like a little food with our cocktail;

All the Chartreuses, especially the rare and mind-blowing Elixir Végétal, of which Antoinette Cattani, President of Cattani Imports, touted its curative effects for combating ague. “One dose of this, and a good night’s sleep, and your fever is as good as gone.” We only wish it was available in this country, but the Fed’s won’t allow it because the recipe is secret and the FDA only allows full disclosure of all ingredients that enter this country. Oh well. Next time we’re in France . . . ;

Chesterfield Brown, of Mount Gay

Mount Gay, for the stentorian Chesterfield Brown, the master mixologist who explained to us every step in the distillation and bottling process of each and every rum available at the tasting (we liked the Barbados Sugar Cane Brandy Aged Rum); and

Clément Créole Shrubb Liqueur, for its beguiling orange essence, and that you can sip it all by its lonesome without being disturbed by an alcohol-heavy, or too sweet, aftertaste. As a mixer, it excels.

Tasters, Supertasters, and the Unfortunately Named Nontasters

Darcy S. O’Neill, from Art of Drink, led us on an oral and mental journey of our taste buds in the session titled “Sensory Perception in Mixology/What your taste buds are telling you.” Most of us are Tasters, that is, we have a a certain number of receptors on our tongue (papillae) that tell us if the food we are eating is bitter (our ancestors equated bitter food with poison). Nontasters have fewer taste buds, so they don’t have as strong an aversion to bitter foods and sometimes gravitate towards fatty and sweet foods more easily. Supertasters have a great number of bitter taste-bud receptors on their tongues, and usually hate bitter (and too sweet) foods and drinks. As a result, these people tend to be “picky” or “fussy.” Most children are supertasters, their buds not yet compromised by the effects of a lifetime of challenging their palates.

We put little strips of paper on our tongues that would inform us of our taster status. Supertasters have a huge avesion to the taste of the paper, and want to spit it out immediately, gagging in the process. Tasters scrunch up their faces wrily and complain for the next ten minutes how bad their mouth tastes. Nontasters chew the paper and swallow it as if it were the bitten-off end of a wrapped straw.

What we discovered is that we are not the same . . . which is a good thing! We balance each other: One keeps the other one from over-seasoning food and over-sweetening (or over-bittering) the cocktails. The other encourages more herb and spice play in the kitchen from the first and challenges him to make and shake an occasional cocktail with more zing. We also learned that mood plays an important role in what we are, well, in the mood for when we sit at a bar hoping the bartender will understand without words our very needs. So, offering “flavorful drinks to low-key people” might cheer them up a bit, while perhaps it would be best to avoid too much bitter flavors in a cocktail for a gaggle of “cheerleaders whose team just won the State Championship.”

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, So I Make My Own!

Our hats off to Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles for the “Making Your Own Cocktail Ingredients” session. What a pleasure it was to see all these amazing mixologists relate their tales of the sometimes Hurculean labors it took them to perfect their particular liqueurs, syrups, and bitters. For those of you who were not present, we were treated to Paul’s Falernum #10, a well-balanced blend of rummy spiciness, and Erik Ellestad’s orgeat (Erik, of the Underhill-Lounge in cyberland, was gracious enough to let us take a bottle home with us!), an incredible sweet, almond syrup used in drinks such as the Mai Tai. Jamie Boudreau’s recreation of the unattainable Amer Picon was a bittersweet delight (he calls his “Amer Boudreau,” natch), and we wanted to take some home with us, but the recipe is available on the Web. He was also a hilarious speaker. The 50-50 Manhattan used Jon Derragon’s (of PDT) recreation of the defunct Abbot’s bitters. The flavor bowled us over and made us love the Manhattan all over again (not that we ever fell out of love, but it’s always good to surprise your palate with a new twist on an old classic). And a big surprise which had the whole room abuzz was the Bacon-infused bourbon from PDT. One sip and there was no doubt that infusions had jumped to a new level. Now whether you like it or not is another story. We already have an idea for a cocktail.

We now pose two questions to ourselves:

1. What flavor sensations can we exploit in our own liqueur, syrup, or bitters?; and

2. What will be next year’s new big thing that’ll be on everyone’s tongue (both in spirits and buzz), and will have every mixologist clamoring to play with (and perhaps inspire to recreate)?

Tune in next year, and in the meantime, start steeping, mixing, infusing, and, most important, sipping.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mixology Monday: Inspired by Our Trip to New Orleans

The Doublemint Julep, a Cocktail Buzz favorite

The Swizzle Stick Bar in New Orleans at Café Adelaide in the Loews Hotel made Paul a Mint Julep that was just the way he likes it: sweet and boozy, mint stroking the side of his nose with every sip. The only thing missing was the veranda.

So, when we got home from Tales of the Cocktail, we were excited to whip up a variation of our beloved mint julep using ingredients from our terrace garden. Normally, when we want to spice up a julep, we make a Doublemint Julep (no, we don’t use gum). Here is the recipe:

Doublemint Julep
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

The addition of peppermint to your julep will add a zing that’ll wake up your palate. Pair with a lamb sausage appetizer or a spicy grilled lamb chop.

3 ounces bourbon (we like Virginia Gentleman these days)
1/2–1 ounces simple syrup (depending on your sweet tooth)
4 large spearmint and 4 large peppermint leaves
spearmint and peppermint sprigs for garnish

In a julep cup, muddle leaves in syrup. Fill with crushed ice and then add the bourbon. Garnish with mint sprigs.

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Mmmmmmmmm. The peppermint really brings out the bourbon’s characteristics—it’s a bourbon-forward drink, but the balance of mint and sugar is aahmazingly addictive.

Now for the new recipe. Besides spearmint and peppermint, we have a chocolate mint plant and an herb called stevia (which is one of the sweetest known plants on the planet). We created a mint julep using these two herbs using the following recipe:

Chocolate-Mint Julep
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces bourbon
8 medium chocolate mint leaves
1–2 medium stevia leaves
chocolate mint sprigs for garnish

In a julep cup, muddle leaves in a little water. Fill with crushed ice and then add the bourbon. Garnish with mint sprig.

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If you like your mint juleps not too sweet with a hint of chocolate (and we do mean “hint”), then you might like this Chocolate-Mint Julep. But if you like ’em sweet, then perhaps it won't meet your expectations. Regardless, give it a try and maybe you can come up with a way to perfect the recipe.

P.S. Doublemint Juleps pair wonderfully with lamb meatballs. Click here for our video demonstration.

photo © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Water Spirits, the Elevator Muse, and the Lure of the French Quarter

This article was first published on July 18, 2008, as a part of the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Blog. It was addressed to the contingency of cocktail bloggers and anyone who cared to read along.

The French Quarter, at Night, and still 90°

Now that we all are gullet-deep in the throes of cocktail passion, we need to take a step back and a deep breath, and share some advice.

1. WATER: Keep drinking it (there’s Fiji aplenty). If you don’t, you will of course dehydrate and become a lump of blathering goo.

2. ELEVATOR: Give yourself five extra minutes before pressing the little button that will take you to your next seminar, tasting, and tryst. Also, remember that you may meet some remarkable people in that little cramped car. Talk to them, engage them, and for Pete’s sake, if they engage you, talk back!

3. BREAK TIME: Like water, you need breaks to survive your time here. Hang by the pool (another great opportunity to meet some new people), walk around the French Quarter (and maybe beyond . . . there is actually life beyond this gorgeous haunted place . . . try a streetcar up the Garden District, you’ll love it!).

4. FOOD: Nibbles at a tasting do not comprise a meal. Take time to try a restaurant that a friend has recommended. Try some beignets and Po’ Boys and coffee with chicory, like at the Café Du Monde.

And speaking of food, our Spirited Dinner at Stella! was a meal blessed by the gods and goddesses of this famed city. Chef Scott Boswell, who we chatted with after the meal, along with Bar Chefs Phil Ward and Joaquin Simo (Brian Miller unfortunately was not present), created a gorgeous meal and cocktails that paired perfectly with every bite. Our favorite pairing was the second course: Lobster Roe Agnolotti with Edamame puree (Chef used edamame from his own garden, right next door to the restaurant!), Louisiana Jumbo Lump Crab and Cognac-Soy Crème, paired with the “Gypsy Woman,” a stirred cocktail made with Don Julio Blanco Tequila, Martini & Rossi Bianco Vermouth, Green Chartreuse, and Bitter Truth Celery Bitters. One word: incredible!

Our table companions, Curt Goldman and Kummi Kim, were a delight and we chatted for three hours about everything under the glowing white moon. Curt is the CEO of Cadre Noir, and he is the importer of the original triple sec called Combier, which he says removes the pith from the orange, creating a smoother more well-rounded liqueur. We can’t wait to try it! Kummi is from New York (just like Curt) and works for La Esquina, a highly touted Mexican Restaurant on the Lower East Side. The time just flew by, and before we knew it, the meal had ended, on such a high note.

The St-Germain Redux (Beefeater Gin, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, Club Soda, Champagne, twist of grapefruit)

This morning’s breakfast at Brennan’s, sponsored by U’luvka Vodka and Alana Brennan, was a charming and fun way to start the day. We braved the sultry streets at 9am to get a seat at nicely appointed tables. We met some great folks there and had a meal rich in calories, steeped in New Orleans tradition (Southern Baked Apple with Double Cream, Egg Hussarde/Egg Sardou Split, and Bananas Foster, with a Bloody Mary made with U’luvka vodka). Thank you Ann Tuennerman for all you’ve done!

Egg Hussarde/Egg Sardou Split

The days have been so chock full of events that it’s hard to pick a seminar or tasting since so many overlap. We have enjoyed a seminar called Making Your Own Spirits: A look into modern nano distilling, and countless tastings so far. On schedule for today is one we can’t wait to attend, Sensory Perception in Mixology/What Your Taste Buds Are Telling You.

That’s all for now . . . and don’t forget, H2O is your best friend!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Buzz About Pairings, Spirited Dinners, and the Apprentice Program

This article was first published on July 12, 2008, as a part of the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail Blog.

Many people ask us how we come up with our cocktail–appetizer pairings. Easy—we love to eat, we love to drink. Things happen when you combine the two; our faces give away the results. (Frowns and other wry facial contortions equal bad—smiles accompanied by oohs and aahs equal good.)

Well, that’s what got us started, but it’s not that simple anymore. Now we taste-test cocktails with appetizers for at least a week, sometimes longer (you actually do get tired of eating pigs in a blanket three days in a row). Our latest duo, El Zete (rhymes with Pete) paired with Chorizo Sobres (little deep-fried envelopes of chorizo, peaches, and scallions) took two weeks of boozy mixology and kitchen antics to achieve a pairing that made us imbibe with gusto.

Cocktail hour is important to us. It’s that magical, crepuscular time of the evening during which the two of us reunite and talk about the day’s adventures. Since we get out of work late (Happy Hour is already over at most watering holes), we started combining appetizers with our cocktails to get a jump-start on dinner, and to assuage the twisted moans of agony emanating from our growling stomachs. Who doesn’t love an appetizer? Heck, sometimes when we go out to dine, that’s all we order.

Some of the food–cocktail pairings on the menus of the Spirited Dinners sound tantalizing as all get-out. [Spirited Dinners is a Tales of the Cocktail event that showcases the talents of New Orleans chefs pairing their cuisine with cocktails created by guest bar chefs.] The one we’ve opted for will be at Stella! with food created by Executive Chef Scott Boswell, and cocktails created by two of our favorite mixologists in the world, Bar Chefs Brian Miller and Phil Ward, both of Death & Company in New York City. The menu, as expected, has some outrageous things on it, like the first course: “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” (Tempura Chinese Jellyfish (!) with Spicy Red Peanut Chili and Local Summer Melon Kimchee). Wherever and whenever are we going to get to try something like that? And, of course, paired with the Fresa Brava (Herradura Silver Jalapeño-Infused Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon juice, simple syrup, strawberry), our taste buds have never been more ready for this marriage (which certainly won’t be banned in the French Quarter, thank you very much). Says Ward, “It’ll be neat to see who shows up for this [Spirited Dinner]. I’d never had jellyfish before, but with the peanuts, we knew Tequila would go well with it, and the strawberries complete the peanut-butter-and-jelly element.”

Joaquin Simo making customers happy at Death & Co., NYC

Another of our favorite bar chefs is Death & Company’s Joaquin Simo (known for his food–cocktail pairings in New York City), who will be assisting Phil Ward for the Stella! Spirited Dinner. Simo believes that Miller and Ward have created cocktails that will “challenge conventional notions about pairings.” Although the menu is filled with rich foods, this dynamic duo have opted to create drinks that are, for the most part, “stirred and boozy rather than citrusy.” Simo shares his coworkers’ philosophy regarding pairings. “I don’t always want to use acidity to cut through rich or fatty dishes—I love using big boozy stirred drinks that demand to be sipped where most people would reach for that bottle of big red.” When asked what he’s most excited about, Simo touts a drink called the “Gypsy Woman.” “The peppery, vegetal tequila [in the Gypsy Woman] is getting it’s edges rounded off with the vanilla and oregano notes in Bianco vermouth, and the herbal dimension gets gloriously deep with the addition of green Chartreuse and the Bitter Truth celery bitters. A savory cocktail with a depth no dirty martini could ever hope to compete with, this should be a welcome foil to the gentle sweetness of the crab and the lobster roe pasta.”

Visitors to Tales will be seeing a lot of Simo. He was chosen as one of the eighteen bartenders to participate in the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail’s Cocktail Apprentice Program, founded by Ward and Miller, thus enabling gifted bartenders, like Simo, the opportunity to work alongside influential and high-profile mixologists. The Program sprang from a conversation that Ward and Tales founder Ann Tuennerman had. As Ward said, “We realized Tales was getting bigger every year, and they needed more help. This gives these young bartenders, up-and-comers, the chance to be a part of this event, the Grand Poobah of the industry.” Simo (a native of Quito, Ecuador) cut his teeth at his family’s home in Miami, where his father, a classically trained pastry chef, owned a French bakery, and his mother, who came from a long line of cooks, created elegant meals (“always a salad course”) for all her food-lovin’ sons. After pouring endlessly through the pages of cookbooks and food magazines, and making dishes repeatedly just to perfect them, he got older and, because of his curious culinary mind, began to see how food can combine (and, with more practice, combust) with booze. Years later, we find him standing behind the bar at Death & Company, impeccably groomed, well-mannered, and knowing exactly what you need, even if you think you have no idea what you want. And although he’s learned plenty from legend Gary Regan, it’s Phil Ward and Brian Miller who have been his sherpas, coaches, and spirit guides. “Death & Co has been a remarkable place to work, learn, and play. The bar of professionalism is incredibly high and I’ve never worked at a place where the staff was so ego-free about the job.” While apprenticing, Joaquin Simo is excited to meet fellow bartenders, both new-to-mes, like Josie Packard, and friends of yore, like Tom Waugh and Jim Kearns.

Another fellow bartender that Simo will get to spend plenty of time with is Maxwell Britten, another chosen Apprentice, who will be Simo’s roommate during their stay in New Orleans. Britten is head bartender at Jack the Horse Tavern in Brooklyn Heights, having recently taken over the position from his mentor, Damon Dyer. He met Dyer at a bizarre catering gig at a Russian wedding in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. When Dyer got the job as head bartender at Jack the Horse, Britten serendipitously started as a busboy. Like any eager young man wanting to soak up all that is around him, he would stay late and watch Dyer ply his art, falling in love with the first cocktail Dyer made for him, a Manhattan. Britten learned from him step by step how to run a bar. He quickly moved on up to waiter, continuing his tutelage under Dyer, and when some bartenders weren’t working out, Dyer asked him to join him behind the bar. So when Dyer left to pursue other bartending/mixology opportunities, Britten took over, chopped off his longish hair, and developed a classic bartender “look,” complete with tight, pressed shirt, and a slight templar curl clinging ever-so-slightly to his forehead.

Maxwell Britten serving up libations at Jack the Horse Tavern, Brooklyn

Britten’s story begins in Tucson, Arizona, where his Dad owned a restaurant and was a wine writer for such publications as Wine Spectator. Just as with Simo, living in a foodie house definitely has its pluses, thus his dad was instrumental in steering his son towards a life in the food-and-beverage biz. Another big influence was Britten’s abuela (he has Cuban blood) who was the original Bacardi agent. She introduced his grandfather to none other than Ernest Hemingway, and during several rounds of Daiquiris at La Floridita, would regale him with tales and more tales. Hearing about cocktails and wine and spirits naturally influences a young mind, and Britten’s first attempt at clandestine mixology resulted in what he and his friend would label the “Shitty Idea Punch,” a mixture of a little bit of everything. You can guess the results. So, itching to spread his wings, the young Britten boarded a train and headed to New York City. On his way, he had a ten-hour layover in New Orleans while Tales of the Cocktail was in full throttle, but he didn’t know it. It would take him three more years to make it to New Orleans and he shows his enthusiasm with a great big smile.

Now that he is head of the Jack the Horse bar, his new cocktails comprise at least half the menu, which he likes to make sure shows the diversity of the spirits at Jack the Horse. He works closely with Tim Oltmans, owner and chef of Jack the Horse, who is a big influence, in preparing the cocktail menu. Regarding his “Charleston Riff,” a sweet blend of Plymouth Gin, Kirsch, Dry Vermouth, Punt E Mes, Luxardo Maraschino, and Grand Marnier, David Wondrich noted, “the proportions are perfect.” (1 ounce of gin, and a half ounce of everything else.)

What excites him about the Apprentice Program is the opportunity to meet people. “I work alone at the bar, which sucks. Working alongside the best bartenders of the world will open up a lot of windows for me, allow me to make friends with people I’ve never met before, like Ted Haigh, Robert Hess, Tom Bulleit, Angus Winchester, and Jeff Berry. I’m also excited to meet all the European people I’ve been reading about.”

So if you see some of these young and soon-to-be influential Apprentices at the bar, walking around town, or while sitting next to them at a seminar, let them bend your ear for a spell. You may just learn something.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Philadelphia Freedom, Shine On Us

The Dried Cherry Manhattan, at Tangier
All the rain and thunderstorms took their toll on us this Independence Day weekend—we had to get away. So after Pricelining a hotel, we hopped in the car and drove down to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and Revolutionary War historiana. There we discovered Polish food (hot red borsch and pierogi filled with cabbage and mushrooms) at the restaurant cum bar and disco, the New Wave Cafe; quaint-beyond-belief streets with quaint-as-hell townhouses; and a general aura of calmness that permeated the sultry alleyways and main thoroughfares of this truly lovely (and clean!) city.

We also discovered a colorful, Eastern Mediterranean–inspired restaurant, Tangerine, where we had one of the most inspired Manhattans we’ve ever imbibed, the Dried Cherry Manhattan (cherry-infused Woodford Reserve Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and a dash of bitters, garnish with a bunch of bourbon-soaked dried cherries on a pick). It’s a bit pricy at $15 (Pennsylvania has some truly messed-up liquor laws forcing bars and restaurants to charge too much for a tipple), but truly worth every penny. It paired beautifully with the Shortrib Spanikopita appetizer (shredded beef, spinach, feta, pine nuts), and even though we wanted another, we decided to get some bubbly and finish our meal with some hamachi, arugula and manchego salad (with honeyed almonds that were crunchy bursts of happiness), and the perfectly tender octopus salad. Our waiter, Seth, was a gift from the food gods. He, a whiskey and wine connoisseur, helped us with our choices and made sure we were taken care of.

The next morning, we trekked on down to Bridget Foy’s for a full-meal-deal brunch of eggs, real bacon, potatoes, good coffee, wheat toast, and some fruit. Diner food? No way. This meal tasted as fresh as a just-laid egg and kept us satisfied until the early evening hours back home in Brooklyn.

But before we hopped back in the car and headed to the NJ Turnpike, we stopped at AIDS Thrift and found a whole bunch of blue glasses called “Dots” that we already have a slew of (but you know how it is—how can you pass up a great offer for something you like). Plus a pair of jeans. All for $18. Now where can you find that in NYC?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lovin’ the New Spirits That Haunt Our Home

We’ve been loving the new sweet vermouth we picked up recently. It’s called Carpano Antica by mixologists and bartenders alike, and changes the flavor profiles of the cocktails that call for this slightly sweet, red/amber–hued fortified wine.

Last night we made ourselves one of our favorite cocktails, The Oriental (click to see our video on Cocktail Buzz in which we pair it with sweet potato crisps). We used one of our favorite ryes, Rittenhouse, and a 60-proof triple sec. The lime was oh so fresh (don’t ever use limes that have started to turn golden near the middle and edges when you cut one open—it won’t have the powder-fresh sweet lime aroma and taste). Man, what a difference. Although we love the Orientals that use your average sweet vermouth, the Carpano Antica brings out the inherent rye flavor and smell characteristics to the fore. It’s the Montgomery Clift of vermouths (Clift, a supremely gifted and generous actor always made his other actors shine). So check out our Oriental page for the recipe and make one tonight. If you want to get a bottle of the Carpano Antica, Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits in Manhattan on 505 Park Avenue at 60th Street. { UPDATE: Carpano Antica is now available at many spirits shops, including Astor Wine & Spirits. Ask your local shopkeeper to stock it if he or she currently does not. }

The other spirit that has been haunting us is Rubi Rey White Rum (spanish for “king of gems,” an apt moniker). The lovely Jenna at Truth Be Told PR sent us a bottle, so when it arrived on our doorstep like an orphaned child, we immediately took it into our loving arms and made a few cocktails (after sipping it of course, with just a skosh of water to open up its rich profile). Rubi Rey is smooth and has a beguiling finish. Compare it with a cheaper common, rum and you’ll experience the difference. (You might have an epiphany and never use the cheap stuff again.)

So what did we make with the Rubi Rey? Well, Paul was craving the taste of absinthe the other night, so Steve found a recipe for a Third Rail (probably named so because it packs a high-voltage charge):

Third Rail
(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)

1 ounce Rubi Rey White Rum (or another quality light rum)
1 ounce calvados (French apple brandy)
1 ounce brandy (or cognac)
dash of absinthe

Stir for 30 seconds in mixing glass half-filled with ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Kapow!
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Steve was so inspired by this that he created a mule-type highball (recipe to be divulged once we perfect the ratio and come up with a great name, so stay tuned). { UPDATE: The drink is called Lancaster's Mule. Click here and scroll for the recipe. }

photo © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz