Saturday, May 22, 2010

Highlights from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, with Recipes To Delight All

Damon Dyer (center) will be happy to mix you a cocktail.

The Gala

Our hearts were beating fast as we arrived at the steps of the New York Public Library at 9:45PM, sweat already beading up on our foreheads. Was it the anticipation of knowing what lay ahead, nonstop cocktails of all hues and expressions flowing into our eager gullets followed by some inexhaustible supplies of hearty chow? Perhaps, but adding to our perspiring pates was the unseasonal humidity. God, it was just awful. Especially arriving at a gala wearing light wool suits. We would have to make the best of it and find a drink immediately.

And find a drink, we did. Plenty of them. In cocktail-party parlance, we were fashionably late for the the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. Or so we thought. As we entered through the grand doors, we were assaulted by a barrage of brass-band blowings and glowing faces all decked out in their Friday finests. It seemed as if attendees had been there for hours, already on the road to satiety.


There was Damon Dyer, bartender extraordinaire, effortlessly whipping up some smile-inducing creations at the main bar underneath the rollicking band. And Danny Ronen, the San Franciscan mixman, with new facial hair, handing out bottles of spiked Coca-Cola. Jason Littrell, NYC barman, gadded about, shaking hands and proffering his signature dazzling smile. And there was another Damon, Damon Boelte of Prime Meats, greeting us with a wave across the main floor, his lovely lady by his side. We also ran into imbibing friends Anthony and Regina, recently transplanted to Queens, who implored us to immediately head up to the third floor to get some of that good grub. (Hanna Lee, who’s PR firm was responsible for the festivities, also advised us to do the same, and “work your way down.”) We should have listened instead of detouring to the Bulleit Bourbon booth, because we were not allowed up to the third floor where it was rumored air conditioning and giant turkey legs abounded. “Too many people up there right now,” was all we heard. We were starving, and all that was available in the heat-stroked hallways were plates of cheese and nuts. When we finally made it up to the top, it was like Geraldo opening the hidden vault of Al Capone . . . nada. Heidi Merino, talking to Combier’s Scott Goldman, flagged us down, looking lovely and festive in a jazz-inspired dress. “There may still be some bread,” she suggested, but man cannot live on bread alone. We would have to grab something when we could no longer drink another cocktail. Or at least have one with an edible garnish.

One of our on-line friends, Stephenie Jerzy, who, with partner Samantha Harrigan, writes the Cocktail Culture blog, and who works as Public Relations Manager at NOVA Marketing, was there representing Pernod Ricard. She contacted us about meeting at the gala, and as we walked about from booth to booth, she texted us as we were at the Catdaddy booth chatting with our friend from Piedmont Distillers, Sarah LeRoy. Stephanie was on the second floor near the Belvedere Room. As we turned to go down the hall, we ran into Francine Cohen, New York’s answer to a Culinary Encyclopedia and the mother of Inside F&B, looking gorgeous. After chatting with her for a moment, and meeting a few of her cocktail friends, we walked farther down the hall and ran into Jaime Salas, at the Milagro tequila table. Always happy to see a smiling face, we talked about his new job as ambassador for Milagro and had a few tastes of the different expressions on offer. The reposado, muy delicioso. After thanking Jaime, we were confronted with the evening’s burning question: Would we be able to finally make Stephanie Jerzy’s acquaintance?

Missing each other in between texts and crowds of gleeful imbibers, we decided to work our way to the Ground Floor “Stork Club,” where a new band promised danceable grooves in cooler environs. We hit temperate pay dirt. Since we can’t resist a good band and a dance floor, we decided to shimmy and shake, as we checked the iPhone only to see that Stephanie was in the room as well, by the Tanqueray bar, in a “grey dress.”

The Band at the “Stork Club” (Stephanie Jerzy, where are you?); Steve and Paul.

Ladies & Gentleman, after three drinks on an empty stomach, searching for a lovely lady in a grey dress in a room filled with hundreds of happy-folk was more difficult than finding a bottle of Becherovka.

Although we never met Stephanie that night, we always have her texts. Until the next time we’re in Connecticut or you’re in NYC, Stephanie. Promise. So in the end, despite the humidity and the hunger, we had a ball, as did everyone else it seemed. Leaving the gala, we decided that the food cart waiting out front for our growling stomachs was a sign. Tender dark meat grilled to perfection between a folded pita. Dinner was served. After devouring the skewered snack, we hopped in a cab and headed back to Brooklyn, a quiet place that would keep us cozy until the next day of imbibing and seeing old friends.

One of the great joys of cocktail circuit get-togethers is running into old and new friends, those people who share your enthusiasm for the alchemy involved in stirring up a classic or shaking up something new and unexpected. We were looking forward to the next few days at the Astor Center, where the bulk of the lectures and seminars took place, and were happy to run into such notables as spirits writer Robert Simonson, and Phil Ward, who we met years ago when he was head man behind the stick at Death & Co. Now Phil has his own place, Mayahuel, a tequila bar and restaurant near Death & Co. that extols the virtues of this south-of-the-border specialty. Phil is a supreme alchemist. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing him whip up something out of the blue, you’ll understand why we dub him as such.

Moonshine in Manhattan

Moonshine is hot right now, as well it should be. It’s steeped in American Folklore, going all the way back to Colonial Times. Also known as White Dog, this clear, primarily corn distillate is currently popping up on bar menus across the country faster than the General Lee could outrun Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane. Sarah LeRoy invited us to hear legendary race car driver, and former teenage bootlegger, Junior Johnson wax nostalgically for the days of when he and his pappy kept folks happy during the glory years of outlaw hooch. Introduced by author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, Max Watman, and welcomed by Joe Michalek, former New York City dweller and head of Piedmont Distillers, Junior Johnson explained how his daddy’s moonshine biz was self-contained; all the rye and corn were grown on the farm, while the still kept it all cooking. He told the crowd he never was caught running white dog while behind the wheel, but finally got caught when he pulled in to home base only to have the feds waiting for him. Ultimately he was pardoned by none other than President Ronald Reagan who once received a baseball cap with a chicken logo on it from Mr. Johnson. Luckily for us, we get to taste the echoes of his daddy’s recipe in the Moonshine that bears his name.

Paul (unseen) and Erin salute the Kitty Carlisle Cocktail at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic’s Chasing the White Dog.

We attended the lecture with our friend Erin Cox and her friend Brian Cleary, who, it turns out, had an ancestor who ran hooch across the Canadian border back in the day. Both of them, as well as the crowd of listeners, got to taste our cocktail, the Kitty Carlisle (drinks flow so freely at these lectures, you may not be able to finish all of them!), a drink we made last year for Piedmont Distillers at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans for a lunch pairing with Bourbon House. Just as we all finished our last sips of this sweet and sour delight, made with Piedmont’s flavored Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, we were served a highball called a Moonshine Mule that slaked everyone’s thirst while still providing a nice buzz to carry us through the end of Junior, Max, and Joe’s talk of the current state of legal and illegal moonshine and the development and bottling of their smooth white dog, Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon.

Moonshine Mule
(courtesy of Piedmont Distillers)

1 1/2 ounces Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon
1 ounce ginger beer
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup

Add ingredients to a glass, then ice, and stir until cold.

❤ ❤ ❤
Asked if he had any regrets in the ’shine trade, Mr. Johnson humbly spoke. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about bootlegging. It was getting people what they needed to get by.”

Junior Johnson, Brian, and Paul sharing tales of moonshine at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic’s Chasing the White Dog lecture.

❤ ❤ ❤

All that talk of Moonshine led us to our experimental bar (aka, the kitchen in our apartment) to create some new Catdaddy cocktails for a contest sponsored by Piedmont Distillers. We came up with two, both simple, and both using absinthe. Here are the results.

Kitten with a Whip
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine
2 teaspoon absinthe (we used Lucid)
1/2 ounce egg white (or 1 medium egg white)

Shake vigorously without ice for about a minute. Then add ice and shake again for a another minute or until your arm feels like it’s going to fall off. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.

(created by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine
2 teaspoon absinthe (we used Lucid)
1/2 ounce lemon juice

Shake in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass.

Catdaddy is now available in New York City! If your local watering hole or liquor store doesn’t yet have it, tell them Empire distributes it. They should have no problem stocking their shelves with it so you can make these and other delicious cocktails (see “Catdaddy” in the side bar to the right).

Steve enjoys a Sauza Tequila cocktail while waiting for Gary Regan’s lecture to begin.

Gary Regan Rocks

If there exists a master of ceremonies of the Cocktail Kingdom, Gary Regan would fit that moniker nicely. Born in England, and currently living outside the city, Upstate, he brings to every event an aura of color. Bright and saucy rainbow colors as he peppers his speech with profane pronouncements. He did not fail to both entertain us and instruct us in his lecture titled “What Does It Take To Win a Cocktail Competition.” We’ve never won a cocktail competition, but we have come in third for one, and were a runner up in the very competition Gary was about to dissect. He would begin by limning the Most Important Questions to ask yourself before entering a cocktail competition.

Gary Regan shows us “What It Takes To Win a Cocktail Competition.”

1) Who is the sponsor and what do they want, i.e., what are the contest’s criteria?

Gaz Regan’s Big Cocktail Competition asked its entrants to use at least one Heaven Hill Distilleries spirit in the making of their cocktails: Rittenhouse Rye, Dubonnet aperitif, Lunazul Tequila, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, or Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. After that, the most important criterion mandated that the recipe be simple, not filled with esoteric ingredients and endless instructions on how to prepare. Gary made a point to tell the crowd gathered that although a cocktail may be delicious, if it wasn’t easy to assemble, then out it went. To illustrate his point he showed us some recipes who’s instructions bordered on more complex than an organic chemistry lab assignment. This would not do and he lamented, “I wish I had the time back it took me just to read the instructions.” Although we all laughed at his remark, we realized how much it rang true. If your drink can’t follow the rules of a contest, then perhaps you shouldn’t enter it.

Gary also pointed out that if the contest asks you to make a drink with a particular ingredient, do not mask this ingredient. It may seem obvious, but many of the entrants’ recipes did just this.

2) Who is judging the competition, i.e., what do the judges like?

Well, if you have any inkling as to what the judges are looking for, and in this case the sole judge was Gary, then you have a leg up. If you know Gary, and he was quick to point this out, he loves boozy cocktails. And it was no coincidence that most of the winners (and runners up for that matter) fell into this category.

Another thing Gary likes is a good story, and he asked us to tell him how we arrived at the cocktail. “This is what the bartender should be good at: telling stories,” and most notabley A. J. Rathbun of Seattle, winner in the Lunazul Division, did just that. By telling a story, you instantly create a feeling of sharing and community that welcomes in the imbiber.

Two of the winners, Phil Ward (we are big big fans of his winning drink), and Ted Kilgore of Taste by Niche in St. Louis, were on hand to collect their prize: a mandala-like original collage crafted by Gary, a perfect nod to bartenders’ stories.

Philip Ward accepts his mandala from Gary Regan.

Here are the winners.

Cat’s Meow
{ Dubonnet Division }
(adapted from a recipe by Ted Kilgore, Taste by Niche, St. Louis)

45 ml (1.5 oz) Dubonnet rouge
15 ml (.5 oz) Grand Marnier
15 ml (.5 oz) fresh orange juice
1 flamed orange zest, as garnish*

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

The Final Ward
{ Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey Division }
(adapted from a recipe by Philip Ward, Mayahuel, New York)

20 ml (.75 oz) Rittenhouse rye whiskey
20 ml (.75 oz) Luxardo maraschino liqueur
20 ml (.75 oz) green Chartreuse
20 ml (.75 oz) fresh lemon juice

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Persephone’s Exiliar
{ Lunazul Division }
(adapted from a recipe by A. J. Rathbun, Seattle)

60 ml (2 oz) Lunazul Blanco Tequila
30 ml (1 oz) PAMA pomegranate liqueur**
15 ml (.5 oz) freshly squeezed orange juice
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Cupid’s Revenge Cocktail
{ PAMA Division }
(adapted from a recipe by Brent Evans, Costa Mesa, California)

45 ml (1.5 oz) brandy
15 ml (.5 oz) Cointreau
15 ml (.5 oz) PAMA pomegranate liqueur
15 ml (.5 oz) Luxardo maraschino liqueur
15 ml (.5 oz) fresh lemon juice
splash of champagne
1 maraschino cherry, as garnish

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Float champagne on top. Garnish with maraschino cherry.
Friskey Eve
{ Bernheim Wheat Whiskey Division }
(adapted from a recipe by Forrest Cokely, Hi Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, California)

22.5 ml (.75 oz) Bernheim Wheat Whiskey
22.5 ml (.75 oz) Rittenhouse Rye Bonded
22.5 ml (.75 oz) PAMA pomegranate liqueur
22.5 ml (.75 oz) Dubonnet rouge

Shake over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Shape the orange twist into a heart, and float it on the cocktail.

* A flamed orange zest takes a little practice. Using a vegetable peeler, cut a wide swath of peel from an orange. Light a match, and squeeze the peel between your thumb and finger through the flame over the drink. The oils in the peel being expressed will make the flame sizzle and pop, leaving a redolent and tasty residue floating atop the cocktail.

** Some drinks combined ingredients from different divisions. One in particular, the Friskey Eve, used four! Very clever.

A cocktail sippers paradise: Gary Regan shares with us the insider tips to win a cocktail competition.

All of the drinks were excellent, surprising even, and after five of them, the remnants of our tastings sat on our table in an array of cocktail colors that define our age, burnished reds and glowing ambers. A sight to behold. Congratulations to all the winners, and thank you, Gary. We couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a late Monday afternoon, or any time of the day, for that matter. Bottoms up!

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