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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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Wednesday
Jan202010

The National Angostura Reserve: 15.5 million bottles 

The news about the looming shortage of Angostura bitters has yet to provoke a reaction like that of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, in which a panicked citizenry rampaged down the streets screaming. This is mysterious to me since the shortage, unlike the Welles invasion, is apparently real. This crisis has arisen due to changes in Angostura’s ownership, cashflow problems, production stoppages, and whatnot. You can read about it here, here, and here.

This is not the first time an Angostura shortage has threatened civilization as we know it. In 1944, German U-boats targeting cargo ships in the Caribbean and on trans-Atlantic routes led to an Angostura drought throughout Europe. When Ernest Hemingway left Cuba to report on the war, he filled a suitcase with “innumerable two-ounce bottles of Angostura bitters” to address the situation, a humanitarian mission for which Hemingway has not been adequately recognized. 

My guess is that panic has been muted to date in part because everyone knows how much Angostua actually still exists in the world in the form of untapped reserves. These reserves include bottles with yellowing labels in the back of your aged parent’s liquor cabinet, others sticking up from behind the spices at your aunt’s house, and the many thousands of bottles (hundreds of thousands?) on college campuses purchased by students who thought it would be cool to drink Manhtattans, but quickly realized their callow taste buds couldn’t yet handle anything more assertive than Bud Light.

Just how big are these reserves?

I have attempted to calculate the amount. Here are the assumptions on which my calculations are based:

  • Number of households in US based on US census data: 105 million (Source: U.S. Census figures)
  • Percentage of Americans who drink alcohol: 64%  (Source: 2006 survey.)
  • Percentage of these alcohol-consuming households with a bottle of Angostura bitters on hand: 30% (Source: wild ass guess.)
  • Percentage of these with a second bottle of Angostura in another cabinet which they’d forgotten about sometime during the Clinton administration: 10% (Source: wilder ass guess.)
  • Bottle size: 4 ounces (Source: my liquor cabinet.)
  • Percentage of Angostura bitters remaining in each bottle: 70% (Source: average of the three bottles uncovered in my liquor cabinet, and, no, you can’t have one.)

Factoring all this in, I come up with an Angostura National Reserve of 15.5 million untapped bottles hidden in cabinets and cupboards around the nation.

People of America: There is no need to panic.

What we are faced with is simply a matter of logistics, of moving supply to meet demand. An ambitious collection drive would do it,  modeled after the scrap metal drives of World War II, which effectively mitigated the steel shortage.

I urge bartenders in the major cities to set up collection bins at their places of employ, and encourage patrons to bring in their old Angostura bottles to help us get through this time of need. Those who participate would be rewarded with a nice Manhattan.

Buck up, drinker.

We can do it.

Sunday
Jan172010

The Benjamins: fuzl’d, raddled, jambled, & c.

Among Benjamin Franklin’s many feats — how the man found time for sleep I don't know — here’s one for which he has gone all too unheralded. In January 1737, Franklin published in his Pennsylvania Gazette a comprehensive inventory of euphemisms for the word “drunk.”

You know, fuzzled, cocked, or jambled. 

Or gone to Barbados — or gone to Jericho, France, Jersusalem, Geneva, or Concord. Some terms are hopelessly obscure: tipium grove, nimptopsical, got the hornson, Prince Eugene, and he makes indentures with his leggs. Some of my favorites are distinctly visual, including got a brass eye, drunk as a wheel-barrow, pigeon-eyed, and got on his little hat.

And I love the Anglo-Saxony terms that make no sense when read but make perfect sense when spoken aloud: burdocked, buskey, dagg’d, fuzl’d, hiddey, priddy, raddled, jambled, and wamble-cropp’d.

In honor of Franklin’s birthday today, I republish the whole list (after the jump). Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go put on my little hat.

Click to read more ...

Saturday
Jan162010

Jonathan Miles signs off Shaken & Stirred

Jonathan Miles closes out his tenure as the "Shaken & Stirred" columnist for the New York Times, where for the past four years he's been covering the where and what of the New York bar scene — a fascinating but vexing time to try to stay on top of fast-moving trends. He made it look easy, and I'm sure he endured a lot of conversations that began, "So, you get paid to drink?" Trying to marshall widely varied trends into something concise and intelligent is not an easy thing, and there's no good answer to that question. (Either yes or no, and you get eye-rolling and grief for being either a slacker or a liar.)

Miles's final column does a great job wrapping up what's happened over the the past decade in the drink world in a tight and tidy package that doesn't preen. An excerpt:

"No, the real story was in rediscovered in drinks like the aviation cocktail, a sublimely floral combination of gin and maraschino liqueur (and later, as cocktail historians dug deeper into its origins, the violet-flavored crème de violette) that was a Web sensation before bars like Milk & Honey started featuring it on cocktail lists...

"These were artisanal drinks with history and gravitas and a contrapuntal range of flavors — sweet, sour, savory, bitter — that hadn’t been balanced in generations. They’re representative of a lost American art — the art of the cocktail, as practiced by pre-Prohibition bartenders — that, after the ’00s, can no longer be called lost."

Friday
Jan152010

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.) 

Thursday
Jan142010

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.

Tuesday
Jan122010

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. 

Friday
Jan082010

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.”

Wednesday
Jan062010

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:

Tuesday
Jan052010

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.

Sunday
Jan032010

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.