What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the cocktail front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, 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

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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!”


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?


Press releases I didn't finish reading

"As part of your coverage of food & drink during the holidays, I thought your readers might be interested in a specialty drink from Devotion Vodka, which recently debuted the world’s first-ever sugar-free and gluten-free flavored vodka family."


Field trip: Frankie’s Tiki Room, Las Vegas

Frankie’s don’t give a shit.

Frankie’s don’t give a shit if you think it’s too dark inside. Fuck you if you don’t like the video poker embedded in the bartop. You don’t like that they free pour when making drinks and don’t use laboratory vessels to ensure consistency? Go back to fucking San Francisco. Don’t like cigarette smoke? Frankie’s don’t give a shit. Go to Wendy’s.

Frankie’s is a neo-retro tiki bar that serves up great, postcard-worthy tiki cocktails, and does so in a place that has more of a crusty, neighborhood hangout sensibility than you’d expect in always-slick Las Vegas. It’s close enough to downtown and The Strip that it requires only a few minutes to get there, but it’s far enough away to make it feel like an oasis (granted, an oasis at midnight), providing respite from the constant, conning hustle.

And that makes this pretty close to an authentic tiki bar, even though it’s been tiki only since 2008. It feels like the 1950s here, complete with smoky haze, lack of preening, and a leave-it-at-the-door attitude. It’s also got a killer interior, designed by the grandson of the designer behind Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.  

I sipped a couple of tall drinks, including the Lava Letch served in one of the bar’s fine custom tiki mugs (“collectible designs by some of the world's top lowbrow artists”). I’ll admit the drinks weren’t perfect — a bit too sweet for me, but not bad.

The sound track was distantly Hawaiian, accompanied, more proximately, by a raspy, smoke-tortured laugh. This laugh had character — a long, leisurely roll of vexed amusement that dissolved into thorny rattles of a phlegmy staccato, which floated around the room for a long while, mingling with the cigarette smoke.

You don’t like hearing a laugh that reminds you of emphysema? Frankie’s don’t give a shit. You don’t like it, go to the Mandarin Oriental.

1712 W. Charleston, Las Vegas. 702-385-3110. Open 24 hour.


Loggerhead, sugar cone, sugar snips. Must be time for a cocktail


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Something's been lost in contemporary cocktail culture. It’s no longer the subculture it was a few years ago, one of those hidden cultural cul-de-sacs filled with quirky individual passions — people obsessed about tinctures or 19th century history or defunct tiki bars or whatever.

Cocktail culture at some point in the last few years crossed the Rubicon, and now sits squarely in pop culture territory. Too often it attracts new adherents for no other reason than it’s where the cool kids hang out. I mean, who doesn’t want to hang out with the cool kids? So, to fit in, callow newcomers learn a couple of bartending tricks and then grow their Edwardian mustaches. They set their flame on low, and fuel it not with a deep-seated curiosity about bitters or the sociology of ancient saloon life. Rather, they're driven by a deep-seated desire to drink free liquor and get laid.

So last night, it was nice to see some old-fashioned flint-and-tinder flames again, both literal and metaphorical.

I’d gotten an invitation to stop by from Nathan Dalton, the bar manager for Felipe’s, a Mexican joint which has great margaritas made with fresh limes, but it's a place you don't see on those must-visit lists for craft cocktail pilgrims doing the stations of the cross in New Orleans. He said was hosting a small party at his house with colonial cocktails, and thought I might want to check it out.

Well... obviously. I got to his house about 10:30. It’s a eggplant-hued shotgun far out in the Bywater. I walked in, and then, in classic shotgun style, walked through the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. I turned left at the bathtub, whereupon I entered an extraordinary bar. A great collection of intriguing liquor cluttered tiered shelves, and there was an assortment of quality bar tools spread on a tall, long table.

And there was a loggerhead. And a sugar cone. And wonderful antique set of sugar scissors. (Read more about early sugar ritual and culture here).

Nathan was making up a Rattleskull when I arrived, with brandy, rum, wine, and porter, garnished with fresh nutmeg. He made mimbos and bombos, and grog and a lovely Stone Fence with a delicate hard cider and Appleton rum, with some sugar snipped off to round off the tartness.

I helped out with the second round of flip. The loggerhead — an ironmonger friend had crafted it for him and his wife — met the propane flame, and heated for about a half hour. We shut off the lights from time to time, and eventually the loggerhead's head glowed a soft crimson all the way through. It looked like Jupiter viewed through a powerful telescope. We killed the music, and then the loggerhead went into a pottery pitcher full of rum, molasses, and Guinness. It hissed and sputtered and put up a fight as will happen, but eventually it capitulated, leaving a cappuccino-like foam on top. (The liquid-to-loggerhead proportion was a bit too askew to properly caramelize the sugar and burn the grains. But it was still tasty.)

Sometime after midnight we got taking about Campari and then the conversation turned to cochineal, and Dalton got animated all over again. “I got some cochineal!” he said, having recently returned from a trip to Mexico. “You want to eat some bugs?”

He left the room and moments later returned with a sack about the size of three pound bag of flour filled with tiny dead insects. He said he paid $185 for it. We palmed a few — dried, they’re not much bigger than apple seeds — then popped them in our mouths. They were bitter, pleasingly so.

“You’ve got to watch this,” Dalton said, and then mixed some bugs into a cup of water. It instantly turned a deep ruby color, like a shot of Campari. “Now watch this,” he said, sounding more excited than Bill Nye the Science Guy, and squeezed in a bit of lime juice. And it instantly turned a golden yellow — the pH level could change the color, he said. Someone suggested adding baking powder to to try to turn it back to red. Dalton ran off to find some, but none was found. The liquid remained gold. We stared at it, thinking maybe hard looking would bring it back.

It didn’t — nor did the chalk we found. So I finished my Stone Fence, and departed a short while later. I bicycled six miles home through a warm New Orleans night. And I did so feeling more encouraged about where cocktails can take us than I have in a long, long time.


Press releases I didn't finish reading

"Winter is officially here! I wanted to share some holiday cocktails that are sure to warm you up in the next few months.

"Many of you may know Pucker as a simple addition to your favorite cocktail. Not anymore! Pucker has recently launched a whole new line of vodka flavors that will take your cocktail from boring to bold in seconds flat."


Field trip: Holland House, Nashville, Tenn.

I was in Nashville last week, and I was thirsty.

I’ve long wanted to visit Patterson House, the neo-speakeasy created by Toby Maloney and partners, which I’d heard had a Violet Hour vibe. So I walked up looking for a barstool at 7pm on a Friday. A knot of about 20 people, many of whom were beefy middle-aged men in blazers, lingered on the steps and in the anteroom. I could hear laughter and clinking glasses behind a curtain. I found a host, and she reported what I already knew: “There’s quite a wait.”  She extended her pronunciation of “quite” to several seconds to emphasize the amount of patience required before my thirst would be slaked.

I drove across town, hoping for better luck at the Holland House Bar & Refuge in East Nashville. The Holland House is a restaurant and craft cocktail bar in one of those appealing older neighborhoods where residential and commercial still have a close acquaintanceship. It opened in 2010, not long after Patterson House. (Question: Is all of Nashvillle’s creative energy in coming up with names consumed in the titling of albums?)

I easily found a seat at the bar, which forms a square around a pyramidal temple of liquor. The sacrificial tableau is enhanced by four bedposty columns at the corners of the temple. The pair of crones to my right questioned the bartender (“What do you need eyedropper bottles for? Why does that Scotch [Laphroig] smell like turpentine?”) and the hipsterly couple to my left then questioned the bartender (“What Willet bourbons do you have?”), suggesting that the place attracts both cocktail fans and those who don’t yet know they’re cocktail fans. The bartenders were prompt and attentive, and one was apparently sent over from central casting (newsboy cap, plaid shirt, suspenders, backhanded flourish in bitters dispensing).

The drinks list occupied two menu pages, and consisted of a lot of re-imaginings of classics and some wanderings off the reservation. I had a Dandy If You Do, with bourbon, citrus, amaro and Benedictine, which has the potential to be tongue-tied, but was crisp, neat and articulate. And delicious. I also ordered a Black Lemon Old Fashioned, with blackberries, lemon, bitters, and Bulleit, which was tasty but slightly callow and somehow in need of some maturity.

Other drinks on offer: a cobbler made with gin or vodka, St. Germain, honey, and a house-made lemon soda; and a new wave tiki drink with tequila, citrus, Aperol, and ginger.

The crowd here also seemed to skew toward beefy, middle-aged men in blazers, but my neighbors along the bar cleared that up, and may have explained the wait at Patterson House: it was parents weekend at Vanderbilt. And when parents come to town, how do you distract them from the fact that all their earnings are being spent on keggers? Easy: you take them out for a nice cocktail.


The Inebriator: at the intersection of brilliant and stupid

This has been getting some press since the end of summer, but I've been holed up in the woods. Yet that doesn't make me marvel less now that I'm out.

The Inebriator Arduino Powered Ccoktail Machine is equal parts fascinating and idiotic. A highball glass mounted on a sort of gurney that scuttles crab-like under upended bottles, returning from time to time to a gun station for mixers The drink demonstrated herein seems heroically unpotable (is that blue curacao added at the end?). Be scared:

I also liked the commentary from engineers about the device at the end of a recent article in Design News (“Serving the 21st Century Design Engineer”). It's a bit like eavesdropping on bartenders debating stepper motors and decelarators, although without well-wrought stories or the alcohol. Here's one:

The machine is very impersonal and I don't really see the point behind it. The entertainment behind it is loss by the robo-tech appearance. I'm an advocate for robots that perform tasks too dangerous for humans but making drinks for social events just doesn't seem right. Although the machine has no appeal to me, I agree with using the Arduino Mega2560 microcontroller platform in managing the Inebriator's extensive I/O.

All that being said, I want one.


Road trip: Four Roses by any other name

I detoured a bit out of my way yesterday to see the new Four Roses Visitors Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. I was envisioning a big and bold center, like their single-barrel whiskey — perhaps a scaled-down version of the Jack Daniels facility, which is loud and modern but informed by tradition.

The Four Roses “campus” is one of the most beautiful I’ve visited — it’s set down a narrow rural road, and features several Mission-style structures — arriving here is like coming upon a lost compound built by Spanish missionaries, albeit missionaries endowed with a deep understanding of industrial equipment. The structures are uniformly painted the trademark Four Roses yellow, like the label of its best known product.

The new visitor center opened last month as part of a $2.9 million expansion. It’s on a rise above the old visitor center, in a new building that’s also Spanish Mission style.

Sort of. But I wonder: when did we lose the knowledge of how to recreate mission style architecture? The new building lacks the élan and the proper proportioning of the earlier buildings on the grounds. And it’s made with a sort of cheap stucco cladding atop a faux granite plinth, which makes it look like a building from a new mall in an outer suburb. There's also a parade of small shrubberies in front, lending the impression of a waiting line for small shrubbery convention. And it’s weird because none of the other buildings have any design elements like this.

Ooops. My bad. For a moment, I thought this was an architecture blog.

But inside, the center was equally undistinguished - I was hoping for a more of a museum with artifacts of the company’s history. But it’s mostly a swag shop, with tee-shirts and refrigerator magnets, all emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. The new center brought to mind the lobby of a La Quinta hotel. Not a crappy La Quinta, mind you, but one of the good, well-maintained ones in a big city. One with a swimming pool.

Happily, you can buy bourbon in the shop. Unhappily, there was nothing I couldn’t find on my supermarket’s shelves beck home. I asked about the special limited edition bourbon that was bottled to celebrate the opening of the new center, and was available only at the distillery. Sadly, it sold out about two weeks after it went on the market in September. “And you just missed the cask strength limited release bourbon,” the clerk told me, making a frowny face. “That sold out maybe three days ago.”

Don’t get me wrong  — it’s a very nice visitor center, and a great gateway for those who know nothing about bourbon and are just starting to learn. It meshes well with the other Bourbon Trail distilleries, a fine remote campuses for teaching Bourbon 101. But for those looking to expand on an existing base — or pick up some otherwise unavailable expressions — it’s probably not worth the detour. Insert frowny face here.


Road trip: To the Source

Party Source — a great liquor store with an unfortunate name — is in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the river from downtown Cincinnati. It’s Wal-Mart huge, which is to say, it’s large enough to distort space and time. In fact, the beer aisle is so long you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

But I didn’t come for beer. I came for bourbon. Hey, it’s Kentucky! And Jay Erisman, the store’s spirits manager, has been mighty helpful to me on the phone more than once as I’ve worked on whiskey stories.

So when my southbound migration back to New Orleans took me through the city last night, a subtle change in gravitational/magnetic fields hit me as I crossed the Ohio River, and my car was inexplicably pulled off the highway.

The store — perhaps this will not come as a surprise to you, but it was to me — is actually a party store. Which is to say a lot of floor space is given over to streamers and paper plates and balloons and cheeses and crackers and bagel crisps. But mostly it’s wine and beer and liquor. And one long, lavish and utterly beguiling aisle devoted to whiskey.

I walked slowly and quietly down the aisle, and paused from time to time to give thanks, as if in a sanctuary devoted to grain. The Party Source is well known locally for the single barrels it selects from various distilleries in the region, then privately bottles. But it’s also well supplied with output from  microdistilleries, and has a good sampling of harder-to-find bottlings from the bigger houses, like the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve.

In the end — who do I see about getting that hour back? — I picked up a bottle of the five-year, 114 proof Willett private bottling ($35), and a bottle of the elusive Weller 12-year ($25). And for good measure I picked up a bottle of Scarlet Ibis rum ($25), because, well... do I need a reason?

I wasn’t the only customer paying obeisance and getting lost while wandering the wheated plains. A pair of hipsterish 30-something guys were also wandering around slowly, and pointing out bottles as if at treasures in the Louvre.

“I don’t know why I’m so stuck looking at whiskey,” one of them said.

And his friend replied, “Um, because it’s delicious?”