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Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

Contact: Email me via www.waynecurtis.com

Twitter: @waynecurtis

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Monday
Oct212013

Field Trip: Hunt + Alpine Club, Portland, Maine

For all its exalted stature in the foodie press, Portland, Maine, has never had a dedicated craft cocktail bar. You can always get a solidly made drink at one of the better restaurants (Fore Street, The Front Room), but bar-wise it’s always been more of beer town.

Happily, that's changed. Andrew Volk swapped Portlands a couple of years back — Oregon for Maine. (He worked with Jeffery Morgenthaler at Clyde Common). Then this past summer he opened the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, right in the middle of the quaint and tidy Old Port. Yes, it’s got an ironic Brooklynesque name given the distance from any place to actually hunt or ski (see: Union Pool, Bushwick Country Club), but Volk carries it off well — it’s irony without the air quotes. The space is beautiful, bright and welcoming.

Volk tends bar along with craft cocktail pioneer John Myers, who moved from the Grill Room just across the park. Myers started out behind the stick in Washington, D.C., and moved to Maine in 2001. He’s a more or less a classicist when it comes to drink, which is good since in Maine the range of liquors is limited by the state-decreed nanny-distribution system. If you buy me a drink, I’ll tell you about the time Myers came out to my house when I lived on Peaks Island to help me drain bottles that were less than half full prior to my move to New Orleans. It was a long night; I took Myers to three ferries to send him home, one of which we missed and two of which evidently never existed. I believe we got rid of more liquor in the coffee the next morning.

The cocktail list will keep both strict cocktail constructionists and the general public slaked and entertained. Classics are well represented (Clover Club, El Presidente, La Louisiane, Tommy’s Margarita), but so too are modern adaptations, like Volk’s own gin and tonic variation made with Cocchi and quinine syrup. Fernet Branca is spread around the menu like lobster buoys around a harbor.

A private lodge exists within the lounge here — it’s reserved for lodge “members” (buffalo horns optional) who pony up $2,500 (which includes a $2,000 bar tab and access to the private space, which is sort of like a ski hut come to the city for a little urban getaway). Nobody was in residence when I visited, but it seems like it would be a good place to entertain friends and clients.

Food is second to the drink here but well considered. It’s vaguely Nordic in inspiration, with options like gravlax and pickled beet salad.

If I still lived in Portland — and I lived here for nearly twenty years, or as I remember it, twenty winters — this would be my regular haunt. I have fond memories of spending long winter days at another (now gone) bar a few blocks away, sitting at a corner table that was flooded with late afternoon sunlight. Add a handful of friends, a Scrabble board, popcorn with Siracha, and endless pints of beer, and the stage was set for lazy afternoons punctuated by physical altercations, game board over-flipping, and out-storming following arguments of how to pluralize certain obscure nouns.

I already have a table picked out at Portland Hunt + Alpine for winter afternoons. Now I just need a plane ticket and a new Scrabble board. Well that, and getting over lingering frostbite-related PTSD from walking home into knifing wind after getting off the ferry near midnight on February nights.

Or maybe I'll just go back next summer.

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, 75 Market St., Portland, ME. 207-747-4754. huntandalpineclub.com

Tuesday
Mar122013

Press releases I didn't finish reading

"Pumpkin Face Rum, a line of ultra premium rum imported from Dominican Republic, was introduced last year to rave reviews. As a result of a successful launch and high demand worldwide, Itsko Imports of Beverly Hills, California has expanded its Pumpkin Face line to include an ultra premium Cream liqueur..."

[Editor's note: Umm.. Pumpkin Face Cream Liqueur? Sorry. I only drink Neutrogena Visibly Firm Night Cream Liqueur.]

Thursday
Mar072013

Press releases I didn't finish reading

“Peligroso Tequila, known for its dangerously exceptional juice, is heating up the market yet again with the launch of the newest member of its premium tequila family—Peligroso Cinnamon. The world’s first 84 proof cinnamon-flavored tequila is infused with 100% pure cinnamon and a blend of secret ingredients...”

Tuesday
Feb262013

LQQK! For sale: 2 bottles Maker’s Mark 42% bourbon, MINT!!!!!

Maker’s Mark reports that a “relatively small amount” of its now-famous Ooops!-Never-Mind Wheated Bourbon has made it to store shelves. It’s labeled 42 percent instead of 45 percent, reflecting a short-lived belief that Maker’s fans wouldn’t really notice if they were charged the same for water as for whiskey.

The company reversed course pretty quickly, but not quickly enough to intercept trucks headed to market. MSN reports that people — and by “people” I assume they are referring to those folks who earlier traded in Beanie Babies and Transformers — are voraciously hunting it down. Empty bottles of it are cropping up on eBay for $30. The niche-within-a-niche website Maker's Mark Bottles has even started a tracker service, so collectors can report when and where they’ve found the rare bottles.

New Orleans was on the receiving end of at least one shipment. I know this because I stumbled upon seven bottles of Makers 42% on the shelf in a store yesterday. I bought two, because, well, frankly, retirement is elusive when you’re a freelancer. My plan is to sit on these beautiful golden eggs for a while, and then cash in when I’m ready to hatch them.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m ready. I’d be happy to live out my days in dim bars not worrying about deadlines, starting, say, tomorrow. So they're available — while they last! — at $500,000 for one, or two for $999,999. (Save a dollar.)You think waking up with a hangover is bad? Imagine waking up with a lifelong regret that you failed to nab these bad boys.

Contact me via the comments section.

Friday
Feb082013

Press releases I didn't finish reading

Phillips Distilling Company (Phillips) today unveils the world’s first candy bar flavored vodka, UV Candy Bar. Infused with all-natural milk chocolate, velvety caramel and peanut butter flavors, UV Candy Bar is a sippable sweet indulgence.”

Wednesday
Jan092013

Two Northeast whiskeys I'm demolishing, glass by glass

I've been putting the hurt on a couple of new mico-distillery whiskeys of late, one from Boston and one from upstate New York. Both are creditable and tasty and make me happy.

Bully Boy American Striaght Whiskey ($40) is produced by a couple of brothers in a frayed, industrial part of Boston — the first to produce liquor in Boston in years. They're also making rum, vodka, and white dog. Their aged whiskey was just released late last year and is made in a 150-gallon Kothe still with a mashbill of 45% corn, 45% rye and 10% barley. Then it went for two years in new American oak barrels with a heavy char.

Given the high rye, it's a surprisingly big and round whiskey, with hints of corn candy and only the slghtest hint of white-doggish funk, reflecting the honorable amount of time it spent in standard sized barrels. "It's kind of ppular to age stuff in small barrels, to get stuff to market faster," Will Willis told me, "but we just weren't psyched about it – it was a little too woody." I thought it shared a nicely harmonizing note or two with rum – there's a lovely, lingering sweetness.

I'm glad they gave this some time to relax instead of rushing to market. Thanks to time, Bully Boy makes for a perfectly fine sipping rum – not as complex as some longer-aged bourbons coming out of Kentucky, but still a welcome companion on a persistent winter night.

Hilllrock, located a little more than two hours north of New York City near where New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut converge, is all about the time. It claims the first approved solera-system for aging bourbon, an arrrangement whereby the whiskey starts in barrels that are later drawn down partway and used to top off older barrels and so on, until the whiskey at the bottom of the process is bottled. (This is a prety simple technology; what's more of a feat is that they it managed to find their way through the federal regulatory maze and still call this bourbon. My assumpton is that the juice has to be aged in new oak barrels for a time before it makes its way into the solera.)

It's a new distillery, so they're starting with "seed bourbon" – some aged product sourced from another distillery that mirrors the taste profile they're seeking. Distiller Dave Pickerell was at Maker's Mark for quite a run, and he knows where a lot of good stuff is hidden around the U.S. and Canada, and has the connections to acquire it. (He did much the same with the remarkable Whistlepig Rye.) The newly made whiskey at the upstate N.Y. the distillery first aged in smaller, new barrels, then blended with the seed bourbon, and then re-aged, solera-style. They claim an average age of six years.

It's quite good, and has an elegant custom bottle. There's a pleasing flinty minerality to it, with and nice spicnees on the finish, which is likely attributable to the aggressive 37 percent rye in the mashbill.Then it's all complicated with cherry notes. Is it worth $88? Well...  I prefer some of the Willett's at half that price, but this is still an excellent sipping whiskey and should occupy a place of pride at any bar.

Neither of these were as complex as some of the longer-aged whiskeys I've been sucking down lately, but both have sufficient richness – far better than the one-note of bottom-shelf whiskey, and they run circles around a lot of the thin, one-note stuff coming out of other micro-distilleries. I say: check 'em out.

Sunday
Jan062013

Elbow patch & rye: History, liquor get jiggy, sort of 

I love attending academic conferences where there’s talk of booze served with a side of ponderous throat clearing, a saucer of elbow patch, and a raising of eyebrow. So serious!

I dropped in on a few sessions at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting this week, and learned a lot about New Orleans, a lot about what profession not to pursue if you want security and income, and a lot about where the journalist and popular historian fit into the academe. (Way off to the side, it turns out, where they’re fixed with squinty stares from tenured professors who simultaneously look down on them for their lack of rigor and envy them for their wider readership.)

People joked about sessions where panelists outnumbered the audience, but that wasn’t actually a joke at the session I attended yesterday afternoon — four panelists, and three of us in the audience.

This involved three intriguing papers on various aspects of alcohol in the early 20th century France. (Mostly wine; I would have liked more than a chaser of distilled spirits.)    

But I learned about connections I wouldn’t normally have made, such as between scrap metal and wine during World War II. Chad Denton of Yonsei University (Korea) spoke of how once the global embargo put the pinch on Germany and Vichy France, a drive was launched to get the citizenry to donate their chandeliers and grandmother’s tea kettles and whatever else to the cause. But the cause wasn’t the war, at least not according to the propaganda — it was the saving of the wine crop! Scrap metals were needed to make copper sulfate to spray the vines to kill the phylloxera aphids! To make the connection, posters and leaflets promised those who brought in their copper bottles of wine in return. Of course, the metal went not to the crop but to Germany which went into bombs that fell on London. Call it blood wine.

Another connection: between breathalyzers and the centralization of power. Joseph Bohling, University of California, Berkeley, presented a paper on the shift of control from the provinces to the capital. Until the 1950s, the local constabulary in France decided if you were drunk by observing you. But with the appearance of roadside alcohol detecting technology in the late 1950s, who was drunk could be decided by Paris — taking away local decisions about whether someone was in control of their faculties to drive. (The devices got a lot of push back from the public, who understood that context mattered.) I haven't yet read a social history of the breathalyzer in the U.S., but I'm guessing it's out there it would be worth tracking down. (A few days at this conference convinced me that every topic and subject has been researched exhaustively by someone.)

Where the connection between drinking and history was not made was in conference scheduling. Today (Sunday) there are no fewer than 35 simultaneous panels, talks, and presentations scheduled at four downtown hotels. At 8:30 in the morning. In New Orleans. I suspect history will show that three people in attendence will be considered a good run.

Friday
Dec212012

In your cups: an historical tippling tour of New Orleans

Note: The American Historical Association convenes in New Orleans January 3-6, and 5,000 historians are coming to town to, well... do whatever it is that historians do when they convene. Bitch about Franklin Pierce? I don't know. Of course, what they should be doing is employing all their senses to better understand the city's past, and that includes the sense of taste. So, here's a handy check list of places to sample history by the glass. 

Little known fact: New Orleans sits on a volcano.

Yes, well, it’s special sort of volcano — no fumaroles or magma. Rather, it sits precariously on a shifting and molten bed of latent antiquity, and any disturbance on the surface invariably opens cracks that result in dramatic eruptions.

Like Hurricane Katrina, which caused centuries of simmering racial and economic imbalance to spew forth. Or the annual earthquake known as Mardi Gras, which causes eruptions of Zulus and fine, feathery Indians, which ooze down city streets like an implacable lava flow (a very slow lava flow in the case of the Zulu floats.)

Some of the city’s older and better bars are the equivalent of volcanic vents: minor outlets through which the past incessantly steams to the surface. New Orleans has long loved stiff drink and cocktails (as a port, it thrived at the intersection of Mississippi River whiskey, French cognac, New England ice, and bitters from the West Indies), and that love has only grown more tenacious over time. The city has been hit repeatedly by yellow fever outbreaks since it was first founded, but, thankfully, it avoided the lite beer and white wine spritzer epidemics. Dig down an inch or two anywhere, and you’l find nineteenth century drinks that failed to fall out of favor.

Too much work? Well, fine. Here’s a start:

Sazerac Bar, Hotel Roosevelt
What to order: Sazerac
The original “cocktail” (born ca. 1803) was a simple, stirred drink: bitters, sugar, and spirits. The Sazerac is essentially a pimped-out version dating to the latter half of the 19th century, tricked out with an absinthe rinse. It’s traditionally made with rye, sugar, and Peychaud’s bitters (a venerable New Orleans brand), with a hint of lemon and licorice. (Cognac was the original spirit, but whiskey displaced it when cognac supplies dwindled following the ruination of French grapes by a Texan aphid in the late 19th century.)

Serviceable Sazeracs can be ordered in most bars around the city — it’s the “official cocktail” of New Orleans, as decreed by the state legislature in 2008 — but the elegant steamship-moderne interior of the Sazerac Bar (dating to 1949) is a fine place to enjoy one.  123 Baronne St.

The Napoleon House
What to order: Pimm’s Cup
The Napoleon House is how people who’ve never been to New Orleans imagine the city: vaguely continental, with spalling walls graced with faded portraits of Napoleon amid strains of classical music. This restaurant and bar, housed in a Creole-inflected building dating to 1814, is famous for its Pimm’s Cup (which dates to 1840), and is made with a British gin-based liqueur, lemonade, and 7-Up, then garnished with a cucumber slice. It’s a tall and refreshing drink, perfect for summer weather but not wholly hostile to winter, either.  500 Chartres St.

Bellocq
What to order: Bonal Gentiane Quinine Cobbler
This new bar (opened in 2011) sits across a small courtyard from the lobby of a boutique hotel in a late-modern former YMCA building. The building doesn't offer much in the way of a classic New Orleans past, but the cocktail menu overflows with it.

Bellocq (named after a noted local photographer of prostitutes) specializes in classic drinks slightly updated for modern tastes. As such, the  cocktail menu abounds with obscure 19th century classic tipples, like the crusta, julep, and, chiefly, the cobbler. The cobbler was born of ice — New Orleans was a major importer of New England ice starting in the early 19th century, and much of that chilly goodness got crushed and conscripted for these delicious drinks.

Cobblers are essentially a mix of spirits and a little sugar served over pebbled ice in a julep cup, then handsomely adorned with fresh fruit for both taste and aroma. The Bonal cobbler is a fine modern adaptation of one of these classics, and a perfect example of how the past may be profitably recruited to improve the present. 936 St. Charles Ave. (Lee Circle)

Carousel Bar
What to order: Vieux Carre Cocktail
The Vieux Carre cocktail was created in 1938 by bartender Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone lounge (then called the Swan Room). He was looking for an alternative to the always popular Sazerac, which was then a trademarked name exclusive to a single bar. Bergeon’s cocktail also had a boozy, classic profile, but was a bit more layered and Gordian in its complexity. It’s made now (as then) with rye, cognac, Benedictine, vermouth, and two types of bitters.

And, no, it’s not you: the main bar was built on the chassis of an antique merry go round in 1949, and patrons revolve fully every fifteen minutes. The bar also claims a long literary heritage: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote all got into their cups here. 214 Royal St.

Arnaud’s French 75
What to order: French 75
The French 75 cocktail is named after the French 75mm field gun (1897 model), and is traditionally made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne. Except at Arnaud’s, which has been serving Creole fare since 1918. Here, it’s made with cognac. Bartender Chris Hannah argues that, well, of course, the French would have used cognac, not gin from the much-loathed British. With cognac, it’s an elegant and sophisticated sip, and a fine drink for all seasons. For a cold-weather-only drink, order a Winter Waltz, a hearty, allspice-inflected applejack and cognac cocktail Hannah invented. It's on the way to becoming a classic that future historians will document; sip it here first.

The restaurant bar, which can be entered directly from Bienville St., has the feel of a Parisian hotel bar, with lots of wood and quarter-sized white tiles on the floor. Fair warning: it’s cigar friendly, and on some nights the fog hangs thick. 813 Bienville St.


Tujaques
What to order: Grasshopper
Yes, the Grasshopper. It was invented in the 1930s by the then-owner of Tujaques for a cocktail competition in New York. It caught on. And then disappeared — and not without reason. It’s made of creme de menthe, creme de cacao, brandy, and cream. Inexplicably, the drink seems to be creeping back into fashion. (I blame ironic Brooklyn hipsters, even in the absence of any evidence.)

Still, why not try one in its place of birth? This elegant, classic bar is worth checking out for its distinguished pedigree alone. It first opened in 1856 (it’s been in its current location since 1914), and the impressive backbar, shipped from Paris, dates from the mid-19th century. Note the absence of barstools — this has always been a workingman’s riverfront bar. You stand at the bar, knock back a drink or two, you go back to work. 823 Decatur St.

Looking for more to do (drink, eat, see, hear) while in town? Download the New Orleans Explorer's Guide, an iPhone app I wrote featuring more than 150 suggestions (with photos and interactive maps) for getting the most out of a New Orleans visit. Buy here: www.NOLAexplorer.com.

Wednesday
Dec192012

Press releases I didn't finish reading

“On behalf of Pucker Vodka I wanted to share with you our Mistletoe Monday cocktail suggestions :) Every Monday for the next two weeks we'll be sharing two new specialty cocktails and two tips to keep your readers looking mistletoe ready, because you never know when the mistletoe may appear!”

Monday
Dec172012

Big Shoe embraces Fernet Branca

I spent a week in Las Vegas on an assignment recently, working on a story about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million roll of the dice to reinvent downtown Las Vegas. Slow Cocktails isn't about urban redevelopment, but I’ll link to the story —> here <— when it’s published next year. Fascinating things are happening in Las Vegas — if you’re curious, you should read this recent NYT Magazine piece about Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) and the Downtown Project.

This blog’s jurisdiction is liquor, people who make it, things to do with it, and places to drink it. So it caught my eye when walking through Hsieh’s apartment in a downtown tower just off Fremont St. — actually a warren of three linked units — and I noticed a Fernet Branca dispenser.

You might think that something like this would instantly leap out, but it didn’t. That’s because of the room where it was stationed. It was the jungle room, designed as a place for parties — a dim and grotto-like space, which was filled with plants.

Now when people say “filled with plants” this usually suggests a few potted palms and some hanging ferns. Maybe you thought of Henry Africa’s, San Francisco’s proto-fern bar.

But this room was more like a fern bar after a long regimen of XTC and steroids: basically every square inch of wall and ceiling was smothered with plants. The walls had been covered with permeable fabric covered with marsupial pouches, which were filled with soil and implanted with tropical plants with dense leaves and wispy tendrils. I met two women whose job it was to water the room every day.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Fernet Branca.

The room had a bar along the far end, and at one end of the bar was the Fernet Branca machine. This was gift to Hsieh from friends and staff — they had acquired a Jägermeister machine, then spray painted and lacquered it with Fernet labels and tweaked the bottle holders to switch from square Jäger bottles to round Fernet.

I positioned a shot glass and pressed a button, and out came a cold refreshing shot of Fernet. Well, refreshing in that freakishly refreshing way of Fernet.

Fernet is apparently more than a one-room novelty at Zappos. It’s part of the corporate culture, especially if it involves Tony. I spent part of an evening at the Downtown Cocktail Room, where Zappos and Downtown Project staffers keep office hours after hours. When my tab came, somehow I had been erroneously billed for eight shots of Fernet. Random!

Later I attended a meeting of the Downtown Project, and during it they celebrated the first-year anniversary of several staffers. They were called up on to stage, whereupon each was handed a shot of Fernet to down. Hsieh joined in. I watched carefully. He drank it all.

When I talked with Hsieh later, I asked about the Zappos/Fernet culture. He smiled, and became far more animated than when he was talking about footwear.

He’d learned of Fernet when Zappos was still in San Francisco about a decade ago. “It was sort of the secret handshake of people who worked in the service industry,” he said. “When I first moved to Vegas it was impossible to find, but it’s been slowly migrating east.”

“We know the Fernet distributor in Vegas,” he went on. “The number one consumer of Fernet here is the Cosmopolitan, and then the number three is the Downtown Cocktail Room. The wholesaler who supplies my house is number four. But if you combine three and four, we’re actually number one.”

He seemed very pleased by this fact. Tony Hsieh is well-known for the epic parties he threw at his San Francisco loft, his early success in building one dot-com fortune, and then another. (He sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion.) But he may soon also be famous for this: introducing a generation of urban planners and economic development types to Fernet.

If the new downtown Vegas takes off, I’ll wager you’ll be seeing bow-tied urban planners nationwide asking for Fernet at neighborhood bars like bartenders just off a shift. Success breeds imitation, right?