What it is

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

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Quote of the week: Alison Schneider

“Sometimes, you think two barrels are going to go together well, you think they’ll get along, but they’re like bachelors who have lived alone for twenty years, and when you move them in together, they pace circles around one another. They won’t blend.”

— Alison Schneider, winemaker and brandy blender at Jepson Vineyard in California, quoted in Max Watman’s forthcoming book, Chasing the White Dog. (Due out February 16.) 


An early look at Banks Five Island Rum

Banks Five Island Rum will be rolling into bars and liquor stores over the next couple of months. It’s named after noted explorer Sir Joseph Banks, and is the product of John Pellaton (former president of Hine Cognac USA) and his partners. It’s not a rich amber rum, like you might expect, but an intriguing, intense white rum bottled at 43 percent ABV, with a suggested retail price of $25 to $28. He’s planning to roll it out nationally over the next year.

I sampled a dram with Pellaton when he was in New Orleans with his family engaging in some holiday cheer. We met at Bar Uncommon, presided over by the inimitable Chris McMillian. On first sniff, I was pretty sure that it was an agricole rum — the aroma was pleasingly vegetal and grassy. But Pellaton shook his head and smiled a little. It’s not from fresh sugar cane, he said. This flummoxed me.

I let the silence hang, and eventually he started confessing, saying it was actually a blend of rums from five distilleries, each aged between three and twelve years then filtered. The rums are from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana (well, four islands plus one, I guess) and a “secret island.” More silence, more inscrutable nodding.

Eventually, it came out — the fifth island was Java — the largest Indonesian island, and a place where Banks the explorer spent some time. The rum blend actually contains Batavia arrack, which at last explained some of that pleasing funk I was picking up.

Banks is a lovely rum, fairly dry and with a big mid-palate taste, although the exceedingly long finish was complicated for me — it was gingery and peppery, which was nice, but also a little bitter and puckery. I’ll give Banks the benefit of the doubt, though: I’d just had a Campari cocktail before sampling, so that may have led me astray. I look forward to trying Banks again with a fresh palate.  

McMillian made us a daiquiri with it — quite nice. It had the robustness of a daiquiri made with an aged rum, but with that lovely alabaster luminescence of a white rum daiquiri. (I don’t like my daiquiris to look like the Mississippi River.) I'm guessing with its extremely full body, this will make a nice addition to tiki drinks and other exotics. It’s not be “arracky” enough to substitute for the fuller Haus Alpenz Batavia Arrack, but I’d like to try them side by side.

Banks, in fact, might be edging into a new category of rum. I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s not a navy rum like Goslings (another blend), nothing like a Demerara rum, and didn’t even compare with a medium-bodied rum like Mount Gay. Banks grazes alone in its own pasture, and seems perfectly happy being there.

Banks Five Island Rum will be appearing in selected markets starting in February. For more information, check Banks Five Island Rum.


Bridget Albert highlights shrub, a colonial favorite

In the pre-electricity, pre-refrigerator, put-potatoes-and-cabbage-in-the-basement, salt-the-meat-and-stick-it-in-a-cask days — we’re talking 18th and early 19th century here — it required considerable ingenuity to keep the taste of the summer season alive through the bleak months of winter. I wrote about one approach in my history of rum — how colonials used to capture the flavor of seasonal fruits and berries in a “shrub,” which was basically an infusion preserved with vinegar. Doled out sparingly during the cold months, a glass of shrub could be enlivened with a dollop of brandy or rum. A sip would bring to mind fond memories of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries or other small heroes of the warm weather months.

I also wrote in the book that “vinegar-based cocktails may not be the trend of the moment.” I possibly spoke too soon.

Last week at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, author and mixologist Bridget Albert gave a talk on how to use the fresh flavors of the summer throughout the year. One of the superb drinks she served was a pisco shrub, a rich, complicated concoction with a Christmasy tang. And not even a hint of vinegar.

Albert, who’s the author of Market Fresh Mixology, called shrub “kind of like a souped-up salad dressing,” which I assure you is less appealing sounding than tasting. She said shrubs lent themselves to just about any sort of fruit — she leaned toward stone fruits — and you could be equally creative with additonal spices. Her pisco drink used a cherry shrub, which she made with this recipe:

Cherry  shrub
1 c. white sugar
1 c. water
3 pints fresh cherries
2 c. white vinegar
spices (be creative; Albert used allspice in her cherry shrub.)

Mix everything in a saucepan, then boil until the sugar is dissolved. Let simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool and steep overnight. Strain into sterile glass jars.

The flavor is intense and concentrated — a couple of jars will last a while. Dole it out a little at a time to spark up your winter drinks. Here’s Albert’s great idea:

Pisco Shrub
1.5 oz Pisco
3/4 oz cherry shrub (use any kind of fruit shrub)
juice of one lime
ginger ale

Add first three ingredients to tall glass with ice. Top off with ginger ale. 


Press releases I didn't finish reading (#4)

“In honor of Elvis’s would-be 75th birthday this Friday, January 8th, Three-O Vodka has put together a few cocktail recipes that will help you remember “The King.” For a more complete celebration, try pairing your cocktails with some of Presley’s favorite foods – peanut butter & banana sandwiches, sweet potatoes, cheeseburgers, and burnt bacon.”


Gulliver's Cocktails

From eighty-six ounces to two ounces.... the biggest and the smallest cocktails get the gimlet eye in the February Atlantic Monthly.

Don't have the patience to read more than 140 characters these days? Here's my two-minute recap, complete with colorful, easy-to-figure-out pictures:


Field trip: Recreating an extinct rum

Professor Remsberg“The subject of tonight’s seminar will be to find out what works as the best replacement for the Lowndes rum,” said Stephen Remsberg, owner of what’s likely the best private vintage rum collection in the world. He offered this pronouncement a few minutes after the tiki authority Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, his wife Annene, and I showed up for a visit to Remsberg’s house last weekend. You can loosely translate that first sentence from Remsbergese into, “Let’s drink some rum.”

The reason for finding a substitution of Lowndes is two-fold. First, it was specifically called for in several essential tiki drinks, most notably Don the Beachcomber’s Zombie Punch — the original Zombie about which the Beachbum wrote in some detail in Sippin’ Safari. Second, you can’t find Lowndes today for love or money. I’ve had only one sip if it, and it was in this same room — a couple of years back Remsberg turned up a mini of Lowndes, and it was sacrificed to make an “original original” Zombie, crafted wholly of pre-1934 ingredients. (See Martin Cate’s account of that night here.)

After a few moments of idle talk about the Jamaica planter’s punch boom of the early 20th century, and some nostalgic reverie triggered by sipping another now-extinct rum — the intriguingly layered Appleton Punch rum commonly available until the 1970s — we moved on to the task at hand. Stephen first made a Don the Beachcomber’s punch using readily available Myers’s dark rum as the Jamaican substitute for Lowndes.  Remsberg made it Donn’s way with crushed ice and a five-second turn in a milk-shake blender. We drank. There’s no denying that it’s a great drink just as is. It’s simple but no less glorious for its simplicity.

But could it be improved — or made more authentically like the original punch?

Stephen’s been a fan of Smith & Cross rum since it debuted in the U.S. last year. It’s part of Eric Seed’s portfolio of imported spirits, and is a big, traditional Jamaican rum, made in a pot still and bottled at Navy Strength (114 proof). Drill down further and you’ll learn it’s a blend of two traditional types of Jamaican rum, Wedderburn and Plummer. (Professor Remsberg explained that Jamaican rums were historically classified into five categories based upon the concentration of cogeners, and these two — named after old island plantations — were in the middle of the range and generally the most highly regarded.) 

Recent acquistions at the Remsberg liquid museum.After we consumed our control group, Remsberg crafted a second round of Donn’s punches, this time with an ounce each of Myers’s and Smith & Cross. We drank. And it was clearly a different bit of business. The second had more depth, and definitely a bit of lumber to it. I preferred the second to the first, but not hugely so, and didn’t think it necessarily merited spending the extra money on the better rum for this drink. Remsberg more or less agreed with this assessment.

But not the Bum. He thought the second version far superior, with much more complexity and range, which he suspected was heightened by the higher proof of the Smith & Cross. The second drink, he said, was much closer to what you would have tasted had you sidled up to the bar at Don the Beachcomber’s a half-century ago. And I don't doubt him.

So what’s the price of authenticity? By my calculations, about $8 — roughly the cost difference between Myers’s and Smith & Cross. The night's theorem — that a fifty-fifty mix of the two rums produces a credible replica of a flavor profile that’s been lost — has been tested, found to be reproducible, and may be entered into your laboratory notebook.

Test on Thursday. Class dismissed.

Learn more about Smith & Cross and Eric Seed’s other uncommon imported spirits at Hauz Alpenz.


The case for first Mondays in New Orleans

Let's say you're planning a trip to New Orleans. (And if you're not, you should be.)

So when should you go? Well, anytime of the year is pretty good if your goal is to explore the city's bars and cocktail culture. Although April, May, October, and November are pretty spectacular.

But they've discovered air conditioning here, so summer's are fine, really, especially if you learn to move really slowly. July and August in New Orleans strike me a bit like January and February when I lived in Maine — don't spend a lot of time outdoors, because by doing so you risk death.

More importantly, what time of the month should you plan your trip? That's easy — try to plan around the first Monday. That's usually when the Museum of the American Cocktail schedules its lecture nights. (Subject to football schedules, Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, etc.... best to check the schedule at the MOTAC website.)

This series, organized and well run by Chris and Laura McMillian, has been great. They've brought in folks like Jeff Berry, David Wondrich, H. Ehrmann, Bobby Gleason, Dale DeGroff, John Myers, and a host of others leaders in ther field, each talking for an hour or more about their passion. Well, that and serving up great drinks. It's a good deal — $30 for three or four well-crafted drinks, a bit of minor noshing, fine entertainment, and a graduate level cocktail education.

Tomorrow night's speaker is Bridget Albert, author of Market Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season. She'll be talking about how to extend the season using preserves and whatnot. I'm planning to attend (as usual), and if I remember to take notes (never a safe bet at these events) I'll post a bit about what she has to say in the next couple days.

But... wait, there's more! Monday nights are also Glenn David Andrews night at d.b.a. at 618 Frenchmen Street, a reasonable cab ride from the museum.  If you've never seen Andrews — trombonist, vocalist, New Orleans native son, wild man — it's worth the trip for that alone. I find it hard to characterize his shows. Some nights they're heavy on the traditional New Orleans (danceable) jazz; other nights he's trending a bit more toward funk or gospel But he always stages an amazing show, putting out 110 percent even when the place is just a fraction full. There's no cover, but be generous when Andrew's tip bucket goes around. His shows start around 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Side note: The spirits selection at d.b.a. is very good; the mixed drinks, not so much. Stick with something delicious on the rocks.

Great drinks, interesting conversation, and the big New Orleans sound. It's actually made me look forward to Mondays.


Quote of the week: Jack Robertiello

“The outlook for someone coming into the vodka market with a luxury product featuring crystal and other flashy ingredients is not good. There are only so many saps in the world.”
— Jack Robertiello, quoted in "The Vodka Bubble Bursts," in the The Daily Beast.


Basking in the shadow of mezcal

I spent last Sunday kicked back on a neighbor’s couch watching the New Orleans Saints blow a 17-point lead and lose their second game in as many weeks. As I did this I sipped Sombra mezcal. I had brought a bottle to enhance my enjoyment of watching what I assumed would be a lively Saints beatdown of the pitiful Bucs; I thought the Sombra would make a fine celebratory drink.

As it turns out, Sombra works pretty well for numbing pain. One shot, two shot, three shot, more!

And it’s also very tasty. Mezcal has joined the parade of low-status spirits that have been lent renewed respect over the past few years (grappa, cachaça, Zima…. just kidding about the Zima). Much of this is thanks to Rob Cooper and his Del Maguey line of single-village mezcals, including his legendary pechuga, which you might know as The Mezcal That’s Made With A Dead Chicken. Or sometimes, The Mezcal That Costs $200 a Bottle If You Can Find It.

At any rate, mezcal has come a long way since I was in college, when holding up a bottle with a worm in it and lording it over my friends was a sign of worldly sophistication.

I got a bottle of Sombra to evaluate for an end-of-year review that ran in the December issue of Men’s Journal. (It's not online.) That assignment ran to all of 50 words. I can scarcely sneeze in 50 words. So let me add a bit more here.

Despite its unique appearance and lack of a prominent Del Maguey mark (look at the small print along the bottom of the label), Sombra is, in fact, another Rob Cooper product. His Mexican mezcal magicians make it; it’s then imported and marketed by a trio of entrepreneurs, including Richard Betts, a master sommelier best known for his tenure at Little Nell’s in Aspen. (The other two are Dennis Scholl and Charles Bieler.) They’ve decanted their mezcal into recycled glass bottles that are more rounded and elegant than the no-frills Del Maguey vessels, but what’s inside is of equally outstanding quality, the result of organic Espadin agave grown at high altitude in Oaxaca, and traditional methods of roasting, crushing, and distilling.

As for taste, two words will carry the freight: Big Smoke. It’s got an amazingly redolent smokiness, but one that doesn't overwhelm in the least — it’s like comfort food for anyone who’s spent time around a campfire. The smoke fades fairly swiftly, though, and it leaves you with a smooth, dry finish It’s without doubt among the smoothest, most sippable mezcals I’ve ever enjoyed — or at least among those not involving the unconscionable death of innocent poultry.

I recently pedaled my bottle up to Cure, one of my favorite New Orleans bars, where owner Neal Bodenheimer brought out a few Del Magueys for taste comparisons. We put the Sombra up against the San Luis del Rio, Chichicapa, Santo Domingo Albarradas, and Minero. And the results were encouraging. None who sampled Sombra thought it was out of its league or dumbed down. It actually came out in the top two of my favorites — neck and neck with the long-finishing Santo Domingo. I’d happily drink either in any circumstances, although preferably when the Saints are winning.

The good news? Sombra sells for about $50 a bottle vs. about $70 for the Del Maguey Santo Domingo. I’m looking forward to celebrating with it next month.

Sombra is part of the Classic and Vintage Artisinal Spirits Portfolio, created earlier this year by Domaine Select Wine Estates and representing other fine products like Averna, Tuthilltown, and Rhum J.M.  


Bespoke glassware

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Studio Inferno, a glass studio in an old industrial building in New Orleans's Bywater neighborhood. A number of glass artists work here, making everything from trivet-sized vitreous versions of the city's iconic sewer and water covers to oversized glass sculptures.

But the guy who really got my attention was James Vella, who has his studio on the second floor, just across an open hallway from roaring furnaces. He does wonderful sculptures, including some large and amazingly realistic trout and salmon, but I was more mesmerized by his glassware, which of course were better suited for cocktails.

A glass, no matter how beautiful, can't salvage a mediocre drink. But a a great drink can become a celebratory event when served in an outstanding glass. And Vella had them, by the dozens. Last year he handcrafted about 200 coupes, and a small selection of these remained They were elegant and wonderfully balanced, but a bit overly large for my tastes.

I did end up with a couple of glasses — which my wife bought me for Christmas, secretly, when I wasn't looking, presumably a few minutes after I had marched up to her and waved them around and said, "This is really cool." One was a reproduction of style of glass Vella and his wife had seen in the Czech Republic — a sort of double old-fashioned glass, with benefits. One benefit was a three-level spiral of glass near the lip, to provide a little grip for those icy drinks condensing on the outside. And around the base were a series of fin-like nubbins and a bottom lip —  which together served built-in coasters, keeping the rings off the furniture. (At least that's the theory, which remains to be tested in a New Orleans summer, when everything sweats.) It's a thin-walled and wonderfully light glass, feels great in the hand, and has a wee rounded pedestal inside which seems to highlight those perfect inch-and-a-quarter cubes I pry out of my spongey trays.

I also got an elegant tiki set, if there can actually be such a thing. It consists of a tall glass styled after a segment of bamboo, a sugar-cane-like stirrer, and an umbrella, all of hand-blown glass. I have yet to christen it with a drink, as no sufficiently momentous occasion has yet arisen.

Vella says he's open to making just about any type of glass that you can muster the words to describe, or you can just turn him loose. (Check out his Zulu chalice.) Vella said if I ever saw a photo of a handsome old cocktail glass in yellowing and faded magazine spread, I should just tear it out and bring it in and he could make me a set. And I just may take him up on that.

James Vella, Vella Vetro Art Glass, 3000 Royal St, New Orleans. 504.481.8875.