Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fresh Summer Produce Makes a Cocktail Swing: Part III: Watermelon and The Gin Stevie Cocktail

A seasonal miniseries showing you how to use farm-fresh ingredients in your cocktails.

by Steve Schul

Steve shares his love for using seasonal ingredients in his signature cocktail.

I just love watermelon at its peak during the summer, when one bite into a slice sends pink juice dripping down your chin. When its sweetness reminds you instantly how much you loved it last summer. I definitely wanted to make a cocktail with watermelon, but in a way I had never heard of before. My inspiration came from an old Imbibe Magazine recipe for Watermelon–Sake Popsicles. What overgrown child doesn’t love an ice-cold popsicle on a hot summer’s day, and if it’s watermelon, even better. And with sake? Well hip, hip hoorah.

I think we all get crazy for watermelon in the summertime because of the uniqueness of its sweetness. Sure, its texture is unmatched by any other fruit I can think of, the slightly rough structure that collapses with just a little pressure, shooting forth a big burst of honeysweet goodness. So I decided to make ice cubes inspired by the popsicles, plop some of those into a tall glass, and tickle the cubes with the herbaceous tastes of basil and spearmint, and anoint with a generous portion of Hendrick’s gin, graced by lovely cucumber and rose notes. With each sip, the watermelon–sake ice cubes slowly melt, and with each consecutive sip, you are taken on a journey from tart booziness to slushy sweetness. I know that to make these drinks requires a little effort beyond regular mixing skills, but do believe me when I say they will delight all the guests at your cocktail party. Make sure you have plenty of everything so that each person gets at least two drinks, three for the heavy hitters.

Paul and I love to pair our Gin Stevies with another summertime favorite—heirloom tomatoes. We dice them and dollop generous portions on freshly toasted baguette to create the perfect bruschetta. Take a bite, and follow with a generous sip of this tall summer cooler bursting with flavor.

{ For the recipe and to watch our video pairing the Gin Stevie with Bruschetta, click here. }

The Story Behind the Bruschetta and Those Delicious Heirloom Tomatoes

Every summer we drive up to the North Shore of Boston, to a lazy little little town called Pride’s Crossing, to visit our friends Jim and Lou, and their Dalmatians. Paul was friends with Jim about twenty years ago. They lost touch with each other, as most peripatetic souls do, but were reunited several years back while having dinner in a Boston restaurant. We read about Orinoco and its Venezuelan-inspired menu in a local dining guide and thought we’d give it a try. The restaurant, in a gentrifying part of town, seemed magical. The wait staff enchanted us with mouth-watering descriptions of seasonal fare. At dinner, Paul was telling Steve all about his long-lost friend, Jim, and how for a few years they shared laughs and tales of growing up closeted in their respective New England towns, and while the tale of Jim was being told, there was Jim, with a friend, dining in the same restaurant. After much hugging, and wide-eyed disbelief at the serendipity of coincidence, Jim invited us up to his home. “You’d be crazy not to come.” So of course, we canceled the balance of our hotel reservation and headed up to Pride’s Crossing, but not until the owner of the restaurant, after witnessing this miracle reunion, invited us over to his table for desserts as he regaled us with tales of growing up a foodie in Venezuela.

Heirloom tomatoes can add an unexpected flavors to your summer cocktail party.

We decided to sleep off the effects of the dinner and met up with Jim the next day. As we followed behind him on Route 127 to his home, we turned up a private lane, and following a forest-lined narrow road, entered the gates to the property. The theme from “Dynasty” filled our mind’s ears as we gazed with jaws agape at the enormity of the house and the grounds filled with gorgeous flowers at every turn. Their estate is dubbed “Sunset Rock” and the house sits right next to a bluff overlooking Salem Sound and all the cays that dot the ocean. Lou and Jim are both inveterate gardeners, Jim focusing on the floral landscaping, Lou, the edible. Lou’s obsession with heirloom tomatoes is a blessing to his all his guests. If we visit late enough in the season, we always end up with arms full of these ripe juicy beauties. One summer, after making our friend Evangeline’s tomato tart (it was featured in the August 31, 2003, New York Times, so you know it has to be good!) with Lou’s tomatoes, we still had a bunch left. So we diced them all, bought a loaf of bread, and presto, instant bruschetta. Bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKEH-tuh) is a classic Italian appetizer made with six simple ingredients: bread, tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil. In our version, we’ve added the slightly hot and bright zing of red jalapeños . . . it brings out the sweetness in the Gin Stevie and other drinks. Heirloom tomatoes in all their variety add a saturation of color and act as a perfect foil to the watermelon, basil, and mint. Be forewarned: the appetizer course may last a while—your guests won’t be able to get enough of this dazzling duo.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hibiki Japanese Blended Whisky Is Smooth and Accessible

The other day I attended an intimate whisky tasting in one of the private rooms at the relatively new Midtown restaurant Aureole. Tanya Thomas of Truth Be Told introduced Seiichi Koshimizu, master blender for Suntory’s Hibiki 12-year blended whisky, and after a gentle and informative PowerPoint lecture (translated by the lovely Akiko Katayama), the wait staff at Aureole surprised us with a four-course meal. I say surprised because Tanya promised us “light fare.” If light fare is Foie Gras Torchon, Walnut-Crusted Soft Shell Crab, Mangalitast Pork Strip Loin, and a Dark Chocolate Torte, then I say so be it (and please keep the invitations coming).

Aureole’s chef designed the dishes specifically for pairing with this smooth and nuanced Japanese blended whisky. The plating of the Foie Gras was artistic to say the very least: a swath of English Peas, as if the artist used a paint spatula to spread the bright green puree across the plate, creating a boundary between the cherry compote and the foie gras, which was kissed with some anise hyssop leaves. Also on the same plate were little cubes of almond paste dusted with what looked like pepper, but it could have been grains of paradise or some other dark ground spice (I should have asked). Separately, all the elements were chock full of flavor, but mixed together, and spread atop a little Chilie Chocolate Croissant, the dish sang when sipped with a bit of the Hibiki.

Similar to Scotch whisky, the Hibiki, when diluted with a little water, gives off an aroma akin to waffles and maple syrup, which made me instantly like it. Master Blender Koshimizu informed us that, to him the nose of the whisky reminded him of fruit, particularly plums, raspberries, pineapples, and honey. The sweetness definitely lasted through the long finish, and “truth be told,” I kept asking for more as the meal progressed. The secret to the flavor lies in the wood used to make the aging barrels, Mizunara, or water oak, which creates a softer, smoother spirit. We were also treated to the 21-year Hibiki, which easily provided us a nonstop sipping orgy. Slightly fruitier and smoother, this potable would go well with chocolate, but might be good for just sipping on its own, whereas the 12-year, when diluted pairs better with rich, well-seasoned fare.

The Hibiki is expensive (over $60 a bottle), but if you are a Scotch or Irish whiskey enthusiast who enjoys seeking out new whiskies, by all means seek this one out. It’s a sipper and will sure to last you through several seasons of pure enjoyment. And also check out Aureole located adjacent to Times Square where the chefs create gorgeous dishes that challenge perceptions, yet somehow manage to find balance, flavor, and progression.

— Paul Zablocki

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fresh Summer Produce Makes a Cocktail Swing: Part II: Plums, or Did I Hear Someone Say Slivovitz Sour?

A seasonal miniseries showing you how to use farm-fresh ingredients in your cocktails.

The Slivovitz Sour will feel like you’re drinking velvet. Just make sure you have some party food on hand as a go-with.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terrain, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is known to most New Yorkers as The Polish Neighborhood. Most of the stores on the blocks of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues have signs that flaunt lots and lots of consonants, taunting you with their utter lack of assonance. Honestly, how does a culture get away with putting szcz in a word, and expect you to pronounce every letter? Thank god kielbasa is easy to pronounce. Our love affair with Greenpoint began many years ago, before the car was totaled, when, on a lazy late Sunday afternoon, we motored North to the neighborhood that beckoned us with its siren’s promise of stuffed cabbage, prune pierogi (plums are practically synonymous with Polish confections) and meaty tubes of unpronounceable Polish sausages. Steve once got a round of good-natured laughs from a lovely menagerie of middle-yeared panie behind the counter at Polam International market when he asked for some kiełbasa wędzona and it came out sounding like vagina. They quickly taught us how to pronounce the name of the sausage properly, then helped us pick out some succulent ones. We usually get a variety pack of smoked weselna (wedding), which is terrific accompanied by some hard-cooked jajki (eggs) and perhaps a little horseradish or mustard condiment; and some wiejska (village) for grilling (our favorite way to prepare them).

Near Polam are some pastry shops that remind Paul of the Polish bakery his grandmother used to work at a long time ago, smelling of resting bread and powdered sugar. It is not uncommon for marbled babka (sweet yeast cake), makowiec (poppy seed cake), and pączki (doughnuts filled with prune) to end up in our shopping bags, and usually for less than two or three dollars.

You’re probably asking where the Polish liquor store is. Rest assured, it’s across the street. Upon entering, we always see the same group of thirtysomething Polish guys in either Greenpoint grunge or immigrant hip-hop, engaged in a heated discussion with occasional gentle jabs, pointing us to the bottles of Żubrówka (bison grass vodka), Jeżynówka (blackberry-flavored brandy), and Krupnik (honey liqueur). Some of our earliest cocktails, like the Z Martini and the Silesian cocktail, shine because of these three unique spirits. But one spirit that we mix more than any other is Slivovitz, otherwise known as plum brandy, śliwowica to Poles, or rakia in the Balkan region. Perhaps you’ve seen a bottle at your grandparents’ place, hidden under the sink, awaiting babci’s cocktail-hour thirst. Our go-to brand is Polmos from Poland. It’s extremely smooth, and because its character is slightly muted (it really tastes like plums), unlike some spicier Balkan slivovitzes, it mixes well.

We make this enticingly tart cocktail with Slivovitz simply called the Slivovitz Sour. It’s chock full of fresh dark plum puree and lemon juice, and sweetened with some maple syrup, which plays off the gentle muskiness of the plum, adding a light richness to the drink. The mouthfeel is velvety. With every sip you get a slight sweet-tart pucker. Perfect with aggressively spiced salty or meaty party food, the Slivovitz Sour pairs well with pigs in a blanket, bacon-wrapped dates, sweet-potato crisps, and even chips with salsa. And depending on the ripe plums you puree, the drink can be orangey-pink to a deep magenta. We just had one last night with some chips and salsa and almost ended up eating the whole bag of tortilla chips.

If you’re not pairing the Slivovitz Sour with a little nosh, you may want to adjust the ratio of lemon juice to 3/4 ounce for a plummier, less tart drink. But we warn you, if you serve it to your guests, you better have some nibbles on hand to satisfy their craving for something salty. If you only have a bag of pretzels in the house, offer it up post haste.

Slivovitz Sour
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

2 ounces slivovitz (plum brandy)
1 ounce plum puree (darker, sweeter plums work best)
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce maple syrup
lemon wheel

Shake with ice for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon wheel. If you’re using a rakia or a Balkan slivovitz from, say, Macedonia, your drink may taste as if you added aromatic bitters. This is not a bad thing at all. And if your plums are not dark and sweet, you may need to add a little more maple syrup to the drink, or less lemon juice. Your choice, as always, dear cocktail enthusiast.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

People Are Jazzed About Tales of the Cocktail

Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans’s annual five-day summer celebration of all things spirituous, is gearing up for its July 21–25 celebration. We asked you what you are looking forward to most from Tales of the Cocktail 2010, and here’s what you told us. (We will continue to update this post as you send in the things you’re most excited about Tales of the Cocktail this year [].)

Stephan Berg, one of the masterminds behind The Bitter Truth bitters and spirits, waxed enthusiastic about Tales this year. “Oh we are excited, because we just got nominated as best new product with our Celery Bitters.” We love his celery bitters and have been tinkering with it recently in a cocktail riff on the Vesper we call Clear.

(created by Cocktail Buzz)

1 1/2 ounces gin
1 ounce vodka or a light ginger-infused vodka
1/4 ounce elderflower liqueur (such as St-Germain)
dash or two of Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
splash of soda
grapefruit peel

To build in a highball glass, add the spirits. Then add ice. Top with soda. Stir until chilled. Express grapefruit peel over the drink and rim the glass with the outside part of the peel. Discard or add to drink.

Tiare Olsen, who muses about spirits, and especially tiki drinks, on her blog A Mountain of Crushed Ice, gave us her list of things she’s most looking forward to:
Its first and foremost about three things for me:
  1. The people — meeting my friends and making new friends;
  2. New Orleans — love that city!;
  3. Party and having a good time (that includes great cocktails and the best food in the world).
As a codicil, she added, “Then of course, interesting sessions.”

Sarah LeRoy of Piedmont Distillers, the makers of Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon, Catdaddy, and Lightning Lemonade, was excited about the visibility of Piedmont’s products at this year’s Tales:
Of course, I think the Piedmont Distillers Tasting Room is a must attend event. After months of Catdaddy recipe creations by mixologists from across the country, we’ll have King Cocktail himself Dale DeGroff, editors from Mutineer Magazine, Paul Tuennerman (aka Mr. Cocktail), and Joe Michalek (Piedmont Distillers Founder) judging the top 3 recipes from the Catdaddy Bar Chef Challenge. They’ll pick the winner of the Golden Mason Jar trophy. But it’s not just the “experts” who will have their voices heard – everyone who comes to the Tasting Room will get to vote on their favorite cocktail too.
The Tasting Room is on Thursday, July 22, from 4:30–6:00pm, so it’s a great way to kick off your evening before you head out to the Spirited Dinners. Sarah and the gang will be in the Royal Room on the bottom floor of the Monteleone (near the parking deck entrance). Be sure to tell them Steve and Paul sent you their way!

Danny Ronen, spirits writer, rep, barman, and all around great guy, responded by saying:
Strangely, the things I’m actually most excited about are all not part of Tales itself:
  • Volunteering with some friends before Tales begins;
  • Exploring NOLA: the Garden District, Uptown, 9th Ward;
  • BBQ in a local park; and
  • Seeing friends and colleagues from around the world — that means YOU kids!
That’s so sweet of Danny to refer to us as kids. He’s either delusional or knows that flattery will get him everywhere.

Libation Girl Carmen Operetta, who’s always on the lookout for the latest trends in cocktailing on her Libation Diaries blog, gushed about how much she loves Tales:
I’m so excited to return this year! Last year was my first and words can’t describe how fantastic it turned out! This year I’m interested in attending the Dita Von Teese+Cointreau burlesque show!!

Also, I will actually have the time to visit the Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC) and eat more of the native cuisine (maybe not the seafood) and do a little shopping.

There will be so many interesting events, seminars, and dinners to attend this year; therefore I’m getting prepared now to get hopefully the full experience of TOTC!
Kara Newman, food/wine/spirits writer, is excited about the following seminars she will be attending:

  • Art of the Aperitif (after reading Paul Clarke’s SF Chronicle article on this topic, I’m curious about quinquinas!);
  • From Convicts to Cocktailians: The Release of Australian Flavour (because I love armchair travel, and I’ve never been to Australia);
  • The Smooth & Creamy History of the Fern Bar (Martin Cate is always entertaining . . . and this topic sounds delightfully recherche!)
But Kara is especially jazzed about signing copies of her first book, Spice & Ice.
I presented a panel on spicy cocktails with the same title at Tales two years ago, so this feels like coming full circle! Some of the same bartenders who were on that panel (Adam Seger and Danny Valdez), and the drinks they presented at Tales, are in the book too. It might sound sentimental, but it just feels right to be bringing the book here.
Kathy Casey, the talent behind Kathy Casey Food Studios and The Liquid Kitchen, and many other food and cocktail adventures, is very excited about her seminar Creative Cocktails and the Power of Brainstorming. And of course, she and her crew can’t wait to see old friends again, and make some new ones.

Francine Cohen, editor of Inside F&B, has the following to say:
I can hardly wait to return to New Orleans for Tales! Picking my favorite things would be like picking my favorite spirit – impossible since there’s so much that is good.
We may no longer have the constant buzzing of the vuvuzelas in our ears now that the World Cup has ended but it will be replaced by an even livelier buzz – the happy sounds of new and old friends greeting one another and the constant spirited chatter that fills the halls of the Monteleone, envelops the Carousel Bar, permeates Old Absinthe house, and wafts across the pool.
This year’s Pro Series seminar lineup is even more exciting to me than it has ever been as there’s a lot of attention focused on the business of the bar business with presentations on consulting, intellectual property, wisely crafting deals, effective operations, and more. As the industry talent grows from bartenders to bartender/businessmen this kind of information is invaluable.
I’m also looking forward to supporting the Cointreau Apprentice Program and poking my nose around behind the scenes and reporting on the goings-on in so everyone knows (even if they’re in a bit of an alcohol induced haze) just what it takes to put together such a great time.
And lastly, I’m jazzed about all the fun evening events from the Beefeater Welcome Reception to the Diageo Happy Hour to the Bombay Spirited Dinner to the Cowboy Mouth and Rebirth Brass Band concert DonQ organized to benefit the Greater New Orleans Foundation’s efforts to clean up and restore the Gulf Coast area impacted by the oil spill, to the Spirited Awards and the Bartender’s Breakfast.
I’m exhilarated and exhausted already just thinking about it!
Thuhuong Tran, a New Orleans native who we met at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and who watched us pour some Catdaddy cocktails at last year’s Tales tweeted, “I am most excited about trying all the different spirits and liqueurs and seeing all the peeps I’ve met in the past!”

And someone from responded that he or she was “excited about Tales of the Cocktail in general! The Spirited Dinners series sounds like an amazing way to experience NOLA.”

We also received a nice note from Dinah Sanders and Joe Gratz. They write on their blog, and apologize that they will not be able to attend Tales this year. They included in their note:
Alas — a bit sorry not to be infusing our cash into the wounded New Orleans economy as well as missing the cocktail nerdy fun.
Tickets to the events mentioned can be purchased here.

[Buzz note: Words cannot describe how horrible the Gulf oil disaster is; our hearts go out to all who are dealing with this fiasco on a daily basis.]