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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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."


Sauerkraut cocktails. Anyone? Anyone?

One of the items that made it into my suitcase back from Rumfest UK were a couple small bottles of Roots Wine. The maker of it had a stand at Rumfest, and was offering it up straight and mixed with rum. A nice little crowd gathered for much of the day, in part because he had a thatched hut (and nothing draws people at a rum event like a thatched hut) and in part because nobody could figure out what exactly this product was.

It's billed as "Real Jamaican Roots Wine," and as "the most natural drink." It's a naturally fermented drink, about the same potency as wine, and sold in a little bottle equivalent to the size of a glass of wine. And the base? Fasten your seat belt: the ingredients include ginger root, elderflower, rosehip, sarsaparilla, gingseng, burdock root, cinnamon, nettle, St. John's wort, rosemary, sage, dandelion, cola nut, honey, Demerara sugar, and water. (In case anything's missing, labels also notes "Thanks: birds, bees, flowers, sun, and moon.")

I had a couple of swigs in London, and it was... interesting. Funky. A nice palate cleanser after sipping a couple dozen rums that day. I thought someone — someone more creative then I  — might concoct an interesting cocktail with it. I bicycled up to Cure the other night to see what the mandarins there might do with it. I opened it, which was followed by a lot of sniffing and straw tasting, then a lot of brow furrowing. Kirk Estopinal mustered the brass to try something with gin. And it was... interesting. Funky. Sips all around, more furrowed brows, etc.

Then someone at the bar figured something out — "It smells like sauerkraut," he said. And, lo, it did. (That's the funk!) He set the bottle down, and everyone moved away from it. The little bottle sat alone for the rest of the night.

I still like the concept of this stuff — it's sort of like a small-batch fermented bitters (although, admittedly, without much of a bitter component). It's just that the cabbageness gets in the way.

Still curious? It's available around England but can be shipped to the United States. See Roots Wine for more info. If you figure something out, let me know.


Cocktail Ranger: Trailer Happiness, London

Trailer Happiness has occupied an uncommonly large role in my imagination since I first heard about it a few years ago. I imagined it as a sort of crowded, campy kind of tiki bar with lots of elaborate tiki drinks overseen by Polynesian statues and cluttered with kitschy art. I was thinking, "thatch." And, of course, "rum."

Well, I finally got around to visiting last month… and it turned out to be not at all as I imagined. It had a much leaner, cleaner looker to it — more like a ca. 1972 rumpus room from the American suburbs, with paneled walls and a big sectional couch. (It is, in fact, located in a basement.) I would have known this had I taken the minute or so to visit their website — it claims “the e-z-boy feel of a low rent, mid-60s California valley bachelor pad,” which is pretty much spot on.

Trailer Happiness made me, in fact, quite happy. Not only for the mood the place set (and I was here one night before it was too crowded, which it assuredly will be if you come late), but for the drinks. I got the "rum" part right. The menu is split up into “House Favorites,” “Tiki Drinks,” “Caribbean Cruising,” and “Rum Drinks,” plus “Tiki Shots” — a great selection of around 50 rums by the shot. (There are also wines, but, really, does anyone drink wine?) Standard drinks are £6.50 (about $10) with prices escalating upwards of $300 for a shot of Appleton Estate 250th Anniversary rum. (Most drinks, blessedly, are anchored at the low end.)

The staff takes great care in the making of drinks, and they’re worth waiting for. I particularly liked the Sly Mule — a mix of Appleton, honey cream, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice and ginger beer. My favorite of the night, though, was a ginger and lychee caipirissima, with Appleton, Velvet Falernum, lime, ginger juice, sugar, and lychees. In my opinion cocktails tend to be either refreshing or complicated. This one somehow managed to be both.

Another nice touch — the cocktail menus are small works of art. The current version during my visit was bound with a glossy, wallpaperish exterior, printed on heavy stock with colorful illustrations, and was sized to fit perfectly into a jacket pocket. (The newer menu, which was just about to be released, has a more restrained chocolate-brown cover with a sort of mid-1970s bit of op-art adorning it). And you don’t have to be surreptitious to slip out with it — printed on each is this: “Please feel free to steal this menu; a little bit of happiness for everyone.”

Bottom line: worth resheduling travel plans and making a lengthy detour.

Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Rd., Notting Hill, London. Phone: 020 7727 2700. Tube route: take Circle line to Notting Hill Gate; head to Portobello Rd (ask a passerby) then walk about 10-15 minutes until you arrive. It's at a corner, down steps to a basement. 


Fresh harvest of Barbados rum found... in London

At Rumfest UK last month — an exceptional two-day  affair in London with lots of tastings and talks — I came to the sad realization that we Americans must content ourselves with a rather narrow range of West Indian rums.  Represented at the Fest were two “classic rum” outfits which scout out aging casks of rums in the Caribbean and sell them in special bottlings in England (and sometimes Canada). I was especially taken with the Plantation Extra Old from Barbados, a new bottling (about $100 a pop) with big banana notes and a lush butterscotch finish. Also nice was the Rockley Still Barbados rum, a pot still rum finished in Madiera casks that reminded me of some of the heavier Demerara rums, although with a much drier finish.

A couple of other Barbados rums caught my attention: Mt. Gilboa, a pot stlll rum produced in St. Lucy, on the island’s northern tip, by the same folks who make rum for Mount Gay. The rum labeled as Mount Gay label includes a bit of pot still rum to add flavor to the column still product; Mount Gilboa is wholly from the pot still, and was a big, full, delicious rum that filled the mouth.

Also new: St. Nicholas Abbey Rum, made on the grounds of one of the most architecturally spectacular sugar estates anywhere — the main house dates to about 1658, and sits amid 400 acres of sugar cane (I’ve written about it — pre-distillery — in the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.) The rum they were offering up for sample in London wasn’t actually from the estate — St. Nicholas has been producing sugar cane rum from pot stills for about a year, but their output is still aging in barrels, and until it's ready they’re selling a robust, flavorful rum from the sprawling Foursquare Distillery. I'm looking forward to sampling their own rum when it's ready.

Among the many conclusions I arrived at during my too-brief time at Rumfest UK: I must return to Barbados, and soon. And: I must resturn to London for Rumfest next year.


Potato vodka from Superfly Distilling Co, Oregon

When I first read the name "Superfly Distilling," I thought, well, it's about time microdistilling made it to the inner city. The theme song from Shaft started thumping in my head, and, fight as I might, the image of bottles wrapped in fur-collared coats appeared in my head

But, no... it's named after a fishing fly. You know, of the sort used in fly fishing, a wholesome outdoor activity. Oregon, and all that.

The company started up last spring, and has a small still Brookings, Ore., on the coast just north of the California state line. Superfly starting shipping its first product, a potato vodka, in mid-September. It's being distributed only in Oregon to date. Next on the line: a spiced rum, a whiskey and a gin.

I haven't tried any Superfly yet, but I'm looking forward to correcting this.

For more info, visit Superfly Distilling.


Firpo's Balloon Cocktail. No, thanks!

My column in the November issue of The Atlantic is about Charles H. Baker Jr., author of A Gentleman's Companion; Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World With Jigger, Beaker, and Flask, who is famous in certain circles for the spectacular impotability of many of his drinks. For the story, I spent an afternoon with St. John Frizell, who with his wife traced Baker’s travel through parts of South America and Asia, looking for the places where Baker drank. (The Atlantic story is online here.) The story concluded that bad drinks serve a purpose — in short, they make you appreciate the good drinks.

One of the drinks that Frizell mentioned to me in the course of our long discussion was Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail.  “It was the first one I tried,” Frizell said, "and the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had. Why I went back for more I don’t know.” It was from a bar called Firpo’s, described by Baker as “Calcutta’s one smart night spot,” and the drink was so named “because the fifth one consumed is guaranteed to set us bobbing about up under the ceiling.”

The recipe calls for equal parts rye, absinthe, sweet vermouth and two dashes of orange bitters, then shaken well with a bit of egg white.

I like rye, absinthe, and vermouth. How bad could that be?

Curious, I mixed up one last night using R1 rye, Ted Breaux’s Nouvelle Orleans absinthe, Boissiere vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

And…. it was, as Frizell promised, nasty. The color was a sort of institutional grey. The taste? All muddled and confused. The thought process of former president George Bush was once described as “call-waiting thinking,” with one thought constantly interrupted by another incoming one. Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail is a call-waiting cocktail, with one taste constantly interrupted by another.  I did like getting the brief call from the absinthe. But I did not like wasting that fine absinthe by pouring everything down the drain after a couple of sips.

“This is another one to watch cannily lest our pedal extremities fold up at some totally inappropriate moment,” Baker wrote. He was wrong on this — he assumed his reader might drink one or more of these, which they won’t. Never mind five.

But I’ll give it this — it made my next cocktail, a Scofflaw, taste all the better.

Baker's book is available here. St. John Frizell's bar, Fort Defiance, opened last summer in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Frizell wrote a great story on Baker and his quest last year in the Oxford American.