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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Twitter: @waynecurtis

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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.


Quote of the week: Harry Johnson

“Some bartenders find it diffitcult to keep insects out of the mixing bottles, although it is an easy matter if they take a small china or glass dish, pour some water into it, and place the bottle containing the syrup, cordial, etc. in the center of it, which thus prevents the insects from getting to the bottle.”

— Harry Johnson, in Bartenders' Manual (from Mud Puddle Books' 2008 facsimile printing of 1900 edition of 1882 guide).


From the crypt: phosphates, fancy syrups, and more

One of the glorious aspects of the cocktail world is that it happens to be populated by folks from all walks of life, each bringing their own expertise — graphic designers, historians, engineers, collectors. Take Darcy O’Neill, for instance. He brings a chemist’s point of view, and I’m always fascinated by what he shows up with at the bar, metaphorically speaking. His seminar on the science of taste at Tales of the Cocktail ‘08 remains one of the more intriguing I’ve ever attended.

He also manages to find and explore niches that few others have bothered with (for instance, drinks of the 1600s at TOC ‘09). Now he’s turned his attention to a whole class of lost beverage that hasn’t had much love from the cocktail geeks: phosphates and sodas.

These weren’t alcoholic drinks, but they often found a way to mate with spirits — especially during and after Prohibition. He recently collected his research in an e-book called “Fix the Pumps” — a phrase drawn from soda jerk lingo and translated as, well… you gotta go buy the book.

Among the great stuff within: a detour through the history of ginger ale, and how it was traditionally spiked with capsicum to give it more bite since the sting of ginger faded quickly in the bottle; why vanilla soda was called cream soda (it was the “cream of the crop,” or the best); and how Orange Crush really started with oranges being crushed in the glass — like a muddled wedge in an old-fashioned. (Or some old-fashioneds, not Ted Haigh’s.)

The information on phosphates was terra incognita for me, and Darcy was a great guide. Here’s his matchbook version of these archaic and forgotten drinks:

Phosphoric acid was considered a general tonic, aphrodisiac and stimulant of the nervous and cardiovascular system. Pharmacists regularly provided it as an over-the-counter pick-me-up or bracer. It was most commonly prescribed as acid phosphate—a mixture of phosphate mineral salts and phosphoric acid. The acid phosphate was served by diluting it with water and adding sugar to improve palatability. It wasn’t long before people acquired a predilection for this acid mixture and it quickly found its way into sodas. The belief that phosphoric acid, and the phosphate salts, helped all manner of ailments only encouraged its adoption.

He also writes about long-lost fountain drinks, like the Lactart (made with lactic acid derived from milk), Elixir of Calisaya (a relative of tonic water). and Aromatic Spirit of Ammonia, which would be used, a few drops at a time, in a fountain drink like Coca-Cola. Darcy assures us this is nowhere near as terrifying (or nasty) and it sounds.  

The e-book also contains a slew of recipes for “fancy syrups” (elderberry mead, kola celery tonic), punch syrups (malaga milk punch, Tivoli punch), and a whole lot of intriguing sounding sodas, like almond sponge, lime slip, and maple frostbite. I’m looking forward to trying these out, then experimenting as to which spirits  go well with each drink. I'm putting on my laboratory coat as I type.

“Fix the Pumps” is available as an e-book (PDF format) for $8.99. If there’s enough interest, Darcy says he’ll consider publishing it as a paper book. Here's hoping there is — it would be a welcome addition to my shelves.


Press releases I didn't finish reading (#3)

"Jägermeister, the brand known for consumer level innovative marketing programs and promotions, will once again be recognized as the official and exclusive spirit sponsor world’s premiere stadium off-road motorcycle circuit: the 2010 Monster Energy® AMA Supercross, an FIM World Championship. Jägermeister is the first distilled spirit to sponsor AMA Supercross."



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.]