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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Is the national cocktail revival running out of steam?

Not that I’ve seen, and certainly not in San Francisco. Three eagerly awaited cocktail bars are opening soon, including one officially opening tonight. That’s the report, anyway, from H. Joseph Erhmann, who gave an erudite state-of-the-cocktail report last night at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. A bar owner so famous he goes by just one letter, H is the owner of Elixir in San Francisco, one of the pioneering bars leading the way toward green, organic, and quality ingredients in cocktails.

The three bars H singled out were:

  • Smuggler’s Cove, which officially opens its doors tonight amid considerable hoopla (it’s already gotten favorable notice in a splashy piece in the New York Times), is a shrine to all-things-rum founded by Martin Cate, lately of the much-revered Forbidden Island in Alameda. It’s located at 560 Gough St. (at McAllister).
  • The Comstock Saloon is slated to open in January at 155 Columbus Ave. The folks behind this renovated historic bar are Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin, formerly of another celebrated San Francisco bar, Absinthe. Look for lots of classic cocktails made with fresh ingredients and housemade syrups.
  • Bar Agricole — a restaurant and bar — will open sometime in February at 355 11th St. Thad Vogler of Slanted Door and Heaven’s Dog is the man behind this, and he’ll expand out his fresh-market approach to cocktails and their ingredients; plans call for a indoor garden, and the use of specialty small-batch spirits from local distilleries.

H also riffed on the disparate San Francisco and New York cocktail styles, which he said were until recently far more distinctive, with New York noted for its spirit-heavy vintage drinks, and San Francisco for its market-fresh drinks that employed the abundant, excellent local citrus and herbs, along with vegetables and other fruits.  He says those distinctions have been blurring since Bourbon and Branch opened in 2006, bringing a more “spirits-forward” approach to west coast cocktails. 

My takeaway: a trip to San Francisco is long overdue.


Quote of the Week: Hal Boyle

“The cocktail party isn't a feature of modern living. It is a factor in modern dying. Anyone who has ever stood upright at a cocktail party (and who ever gets to sit down at one?) can never forget the sinking feeling in his arches, the popping out of new varicose veins, the slow numbness as of death creeping over him.... The Martini, the most dangerous instrument at any cocktail party, certainly has mowed down more people than the Gatling gun.”

— columnist Hal Boyle, 1955


A very bitter book

What took so long?

With the resurrgence in cocktail bitters in the last few years, I figured that someone would eventually write a book on the topic. Yet none seemed forthcoming. Then this cropped up in the Publisher's Marketplace newsletter, which covers book deals:

Brad Thomas Parsons' BITTERS, the history and mystery of how this concentrated alcoholic infusion of aromatic plant roots, bark, herbs, spices, and fruit was first used as a tonic to remedy ills, but has since gone on to be an essential element in quality cocktails, along with more than 100 recipes for homemade bitters and classic and contemporary cocktails using them, to Aaron Wehner at Ten Speed Press, for publication in Fall 2011.

I've never met Brad, but I gather he's an editor at Amazon in Seattle, which is a good place to get well acquainted with cocktails, and I know Ten Speed Press puts out some beautiful books. Bitters has a rich and colorful history — any story that brings together Simón Bolivar, early cocktail history, gastrointestinal distress, and Trinidad offers a potential home run — and I hope Parsons hits it. I just wish we didn't have to wait two years to find out.


Judging spirits with the company they keep

Competitions in the spirits world generally fall into one of two categories. Either the spirits themselves are sipped neat and judged for their inherent qualities, or cocktails in which they are featured are judged for the skill of the mixologist who combined them with other ingredients. (For the moment I'm going to forget about flair or speed competitions. Actually, I'm going to forget about these permanently.)

Both approaches are useful, yet both approaches come up short. Comparing gins sipped neat always feels like an academic exercise to me since I rarely drink gin neat. And if I'm trying new cocktails made with gin, I tend to wonder, would this actually be significantly better using Aviation rather than Gordon's?

Paul Pacult apparently wondered, too. He, along with Wine Enthusiast's David Talbot, and Spirit Journal managing editor Sue Woodley are launching a series of three events under the umbrella of the “Ultimate Beverage Challenge.” These will be staged at the Astor Center in New York City next year, in March, April, and June. The first will be a spirits competition, and the last a wine competition. Both are tweaked to refine and improve existing judging methods, but neither are radically different from competitions taking place elsewhere.

But the second event — called the Ultimate Cocktail Competition — relates most to the real drinking world, and strikes me as the most overdue. In this, spirits will be judged side by side in various standard cocktails. “UCC is going in the opposite direction of how all other cocktail competitions are conducted," Pacult says in a release. "We’re going to evaluate spirits categories in the context of how they taste in representative cocktails. For instance, gins will be tasted in five classic gin cocktails against other entered gin brands. So, one gin might be recognized as the 'Best Gin in a Gin & Tonic' while another might garner 'Best Gin in a Dry Martini' honors and yet another might win as 'Best Gin in an Aviation.' This unique methodology will trail-blaze a new era of spirits and cocktail evaluation.”

Pacult's being aided in this by, among others, Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. 

Stay tuned for more information. The web site listed on the release is, but as of this morning it's a broken link. [UPDATE: The link is working now.]


Press releases I didn't finish reading (# 2)

 “El Jimador Tequila is breaking new ground in the U.S. spirits industry by offering the first authentic tequila cocktail in a can.”


Cocktail Ranger: London Cocktail Club

J.J. Goodman is a talented and gregarious young bartender with terrifyingly large reserves of energy and the retro-groovy flair of a reincarnated Austin Powers. Goodman and some partners opened up the London Cocktail Club not long ago as a place to showcase their mixological talents. They didn’t have much money, so they took a sort of hermit-crab approach: they found space and they moved in.

In this case, the available space was the lobby of the Art Theater, a low-key peformance space in a basement near the heart of London’s theater district. It’s scarcely marked — they call it a “Victorian speakeasy,” a concept that makes my brain stutter — but you can find it with just a street address, a little Googling, and by paying attention walking down the block. They serve drinks before shows and during intermissions — theatre patrons “don’t drink as much as I’d hoped,” Goodman told me — but the bar is also open when the theater is not.

The space is low-ceilinged, compact and casual, with some leather chesterfields and a four-seat bar. It has the feel of a gentleman’s club as envisioned and created by underfunded university students — and I mean that in a good way. The crowds tend toward the young and hipsterish.

The cocktail list is fun to peruse, and offers a respectful detour through the old familiars (Vesper, old-fashioned with orange bitters) before setting off into new terrain, where the owners strut their stuff.

Alas, I never got past the detour. The unexplored territories alarmed me more than a little (Cachaca and cream? A “martini” with vodka, pineapple juice, and Chambord?), and I opted to remain on familiar ground, which I found comforting and pleasing. If you get to the new territories send me a postcard — I’ve been more curious in retrospect than I was when actually there.

Also a little alarming: Flair. A couple of the barmen when I visited gave in to occasional outbreaks of flying bottles and shakers, which I find never enhances my drinking mood.

Bottom line: Stop by for a drink to support the next wave of bartender, but no need to linger long.

London Cocktail Club, 6-7 Great Newport Street, Covent Garden, London.


Quote of the week: Hemingway

"'This is a good place,' he said.
"'There's a lot of liquor,' I agreed."

Jake Barnes, upon arriving at a bar in the first chapter of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.


Cocktail Ranger: The American Sector, New Orleans

The making and drinking of great cocktails has become cultish in the past few years. Where to go, what to drink, what not to drink. (hint: rhymes with wodka) — so much to know!

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing — those who first saw the Beatles in a basement bar in Liverpool probably felt cultish — but I hope it's not where the cocktail revival ends up. I'm hoping it eventually comes squinting out of the speakeasy basements and finds its way into the mainstream. The ultimate goal, as I've said before, is one day to be able to walk into any airport bar and get a well-made old-fashioned. That won't happen if the making of great drinks remains a cult endeavor.

I'm always looking for evidence that good drinks are moving into the light of day Most often, I'm disappointed. It seems that more and more aboveground bars are now hitching their trains to the cocktail revival and are claiming to be serving classics, but then deliver luridly colored drinks that somehow manage to be too sweet, too sour and too artificial tasting, and all at once. This does not advance the cause.

But here's some good news: I did find an example of a mass-market bar heading in the right direction the other day. Granted, it's not TGIFridays or Margaritaville. It's the restaurant in the brand new wing of the huge National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It's called The American Sector., and is a big, brightly lit affair designed for volume. It's also one of a half-dozen restaurants in town overseen by celebrity chef John Besh. The food's quite good, not surprisingly. But I was also impressed by the drinks.

To start with, there's a nice, large list, which includes $7 cocktails like the Blood & Sand, Sherry Flip, Herbsaint Frappe, and Pimm's Cup. For another dollar, you can get a Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, or Mint Julep. But Besh's people also did some digging in local archives, and came up with drinks from a 1940s cocktail menu at the Blue Room at the old Roosevelt Hotel (which has recently reopened in a nicely refurbished state). These are priced at $9.50 and include the Aviation, Big Mamou, and Creole Cocktail.

I went with the Creole— a mix of Southern Comfort, lime juice, Benedictine, and sweet vermouth. Anything with Southern Comfort sends up alarms; it's really easy to make a treacly mess of it. But this was nicely balanced, full and complex, and tasted just like a classic should. On future trips, I'm aiming to work my way through the list, starting with the Sazerac, which, of course, is the baseline cocktail for judging any bar in New Orleans.

And this was a nice touch -- for $6, you can order a "Sector Soda," which comes in a quart siphon bottle filled with a house-made flavor like lemon-grape, cherry, or nectar. (On nectar: it's a New Orleans thing. If you have to ask, you won't understand.) I had root beer, which was way more interesting and complex than most anything I've had out of a can.

Bottom line: worth checking out.

The American Sector, National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA, open daily 11 to 11. Restaurant & bar is open to the public; no museum admission needed.


Quote of the week: Audrey

“We need to get back to a point where things are fun again. We kind of got really heavy. And it’s good, the last couple years we’ve had all the kids out there, learning. But now that everybody gets it, there shouldn’t be any more paying homage to the bartender.”

— Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders, in a New York Times article about her new bar (The Tar Pit, opening in December in Los Angeles).


Press releases I didn't finish reading (#1)

"Created in San Francisco, the birthplace of the original martini, Devotion Spirits is set to unleash the groundbreaking power of the first-ever 80-proof, four column distilled vodka with the benefits of protein that is made in the United States.  Whether enjoyed on the rocks, mixed, stirred or shaken, Devotion Vodka provides for the smooth, delicious ultra-premium vodka taste discerning mixologists (professional or novice) are seeking.

"The patent pending proprietary solution found only in Devotion Vodka will transform the cocktail. While bar shelves are cluttered with vodkas from around the globe in every imaginable flavor, Devotion is the first and only vodka which literally provides a drink with a real protein boost.  This revolutionary spirit will create a new beverage category, while also defining a new generation of vodka aficionados who devote themselves fully to everything they do in life."