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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

Contact: Email me via www.waynecurtis.com

Twitter: @waynecurtis

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Tuesday
Nov272012

Press releases I didn't finish reading

"Winter is officially here! I wanted to share some holiday cocktails that are sure to warm you up in the next few months.

"Many of you may know Pucker as a simple addition to your favorite cocktail. Not anymore! Pucker has recently launched a whole new line of vodka flavors that will take your cocktail from boring to bold in seconds flat."

Thursday
Oct182012

Field trip: Holland House, Nashville, Tenn.

I was in Nashville last week, and I was thirsty.

I’ve long wanted to visit Patterson House, the neo-speakeasy created by Toby Maloney and partners, which I’d heard had a Violet Hour vibe. So I walked up looking for a barstool at 7pm on a Friday. A knot of about 20 people, many of whom were beefy middle-aged men in blazers, lingered on the steps and in the anteroom. I could hear laughter and clinking glasses behind a curtain. I found a host, and she reported what I already knew: “There’s quite a wait.”  She extended her pronunciation of “quite” to several seconds to emphasize the amount of patience required before my thirst would be slaked.

I drove across town, hoping for better luck at the Holland House Bar & Refuge in East Nashville. The Holland House is a restaurant and craft cocktail bar in one of those appealing older neighborhoods where residential and commercial still have a close acquaintanceship. It opened in 2010, not long after Patterson House. (Question: Is all of Nashvillle’s creative energy in coming up with names consumed in the titling of albums?)

I easily found a seat at the bar, which forms a square around a pyramidal temple of liquor. The sacrificial tableau is enhanced by four bedposty columns at the corners of the temple. The pair of crones to my right questioned the bartender (“What do you need eyedropper bottles for? Why does that Scotch [Laphroig] smell like turpentine?”) and the hipsterly couple to my left then questioned the bartender (“What Willet bourbons do you have?”), suggesting that the place attracts both cocktail fans and those who don’t yet know they’re cocktail fans. The bartenders were prompt and attentive, and one was apparently sent over from central casting (newsboy cap, plaid shirt, suspenders, backhanded flourish in bitters dispensing).

The drinks list occupied two menu pages, and consisted of a lot of re-imaginings of classics and some wanderings off the reservation. I had a Dandy If You Do, with bourbon, citrus, amaro and Benedictine, which has the potential to be tongue-tied, but was crisp, neat and articulate. And delicious. I also ordered a Black Lemon Old Fashioned, with blackberries, lemon, bitters, and Bulleit, which was tasty but slightly callow and somehow in need of some maturity.

Other drinks on offer: a cobbler made with gin or vodka, St. Germain, honey, and a house-made lemon soda; and a new wave tiki drink with tequila, citrus, Aperol, and ginger.

The crowd here also seemed to skew toward beefy, middle-aged men in blazers, but my neighbors along the bar cleared that up, and may have explained the wait at Patterson House: it was parents weekend at Vanderbilt. And when parents come to town, how do you distract them from the fact that all their earnings are being spent on keggers? Easy: you take them out for a nice cocktail.

Tuesday
Oct162012

The Inebriator: at the intersection of brilliant and stupid

This has been getting some press since the end of summer, but I've been holed up in the woods. Yet that doesn't make me marvel less now that I'm out.

The Inebriator Arduino Powered Ccoktail Machine is equal parts fascinating and idiotic. A highball glass mounted on a sort of gurney that scuttles crab-like under upended bottles, returning from time to time to a gun station for mixers The drink demonstrated herein seems heroically unpotable (is that blue curacao added at the end?). Be scared:

I also liked the commentary from engineers about the device at the end of a recent article in Design News (“Serving the 21st Century Design Engineer”). It's a bit like eavesdropping on bartenders debating stepper motors and decelarators, although without well-wrought stories or the alcohol. Here's one:

The machine is very impersonal and I don't really see the point behind it. The entertainment behind it is loss by the robo-tech appearance. I'm an advocate for robots that perform tasks too dangerous for humans but making drinks for social events just doesn't seem right. Although the machine has no appeal to me, I agree with using the Arduino Mega2560 microcontroller platform in managing the Inebriator's extensive I/O.

All that being said, I want one.

Saturday
Oct132012

Road trip: Four Roses by any other name

I detoured a bit out of my way yesterday to see the new Four Roses Visitors Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. I was envisioning a big and bold center, like their single-barrel whiskey — perhaps a scaled-down version of the Jack Daniels facility, which is loud and modern but informed by tradition.

The Four Roses “campus” is one of the most beautiful I’ve visited — it’s set down a narrow rural road, and features several Mission-style structures — arriving here is like coming upon a lost compound built by Spanish missionaries, albeit missionaries endowed with a deep understanding of industrial equipment. The structures are uniformly painted the trademark Four Roses yellow, like the label of its best known product.

The new visitor center opened last month as part of a $2.9 million expansion. It’s on a rise above the old visitor center, in a new building that’s also Spanish Mission style.

Sort of. But I wonder: when did we lose the knowledge of how to recreate mission style architecture? The new building lacks the élan and the proper proportioning of the earlier buildings on the grounds. And it’s made with a sort of cheap stucco cladding atop a faux granite plinth, which makes it look like a building from a new mall in an outer suburb. There's also a parade of small shrubberies in front, lending the impression of a waiting line for small shrubbery convention. And it’s weird because none of the other buildings have any design elements like this.

Ooops. My bad. For a moment, I thought this was an architecture blog.

But inside, the center was equally undistinguished - I was hoping for a more of a museum with artifacts of the company’s history. But it’s mostly a swag shop, with tee-shirts and refrigerator magnets, all emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. The new center brought to mind the lobby of a La Quinta hotel. Not a crappy La Quinta, mind you, but one of the good, well-maintained ones in a big city. One with a swimming pool.

Happily, you can buy bourbon in the shop. Unhappily, there was nothing I couldn’t find on my supermarket’s shelves beck home. I asked about the special limited edition bourbon that was bottled to celebrate the opening of the new center, and was available only at the distillery. Sadly, it sold out about two weeks after it went on the market in September. “And you just missed the cask strength limited release bourbon,” the clerk told me, making a frowny face. “That sold out maybe three days ago.”

Don’t get me wrong  — it’s a very nice visitor center, and a great gateway for those who know nothing about bourbon and are just starting to learn. It meshes well with the other Bourbon Trail distilleries, a fine remote campuses for teaching Bourbon 101. But for those looking to expand on an existing base — or pick up some otherwise unavailable expressions — it’s probably not worth the detour. Insert frowny face here.

Friday
Oct122012

Road trip: To the Source

Party Source — a great liquor store with an unfortunate name — is in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the river from downtown Cincinnati. It’s Wal-Mart huge, which is to say, it’s large enough to distort space and time. In fact, the beer aisle is so long you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

But I didn’t come for beer. I came for bourbon. Hey, it’s Kentucky! And Jay Erisman, the store’s spirits manager, has been mighty helpful to me on the phone more than once as I’ve worked on whiskey stories.

So when my southbound migration back to New Orleans took me through the city last night, a subtle change in gravitational/magnetic fields hit me as I crossed the Ohio River, and my car was inexplicably pulled off the highway.

The store — perhaps this will not come as a surprise to you, but it was to me — is actually a party store. Which is to say a lot of floor space is given over to streamers and paper plates and balloons and cheeses and crackers and bagel crisps. But mostly it’s wine and beer and liquor. And one long, lavish and utterly beguiling aisle devoted to whiskey.

I walked slowly and quietly down the aisle, and paused from time to time to give thanks, as if in a sanctuary devoted to grain. The Party Source is well known locally for the single barrels it selects from various distilleries in the region, then privately bottles. But it’s also well supplied with output from  microdistilleries, and has a good sampling of harder-to-find bottlings from the bigger houses, like the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve.

In the end — who do I see about getting that hour back? — I picked up a bottle of the five-year, 114 proof Willett private bottling ($35), and a bottle of the elusive Weller 12-year ($25). And for good measure I picked up a bottle of Scarlet Ibis rum ($25), because, well... do I need a reason?

I wasn’t the only customer paying obeisance and getting lost while wandering the wheated plains. A pair of hipsterish 30-something guys were also wandering around slowly, and pointing out bottles as if at treasures in the Louvre.

“I don’t know why I’m so stuck looking at whiskey,” one of them said.

And his friend replied, “Um, because it’s delicious?”

Monday
Oct082012

Field Trip: Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge, Syracuse

Al’s has some 820 different bottles of spirits arrayed on a towering wall of shelves reached via rolling library ladder.

Do I need to write more? Yes? OK, then:

Al’s is on South Clinton Street in downtown Syracuse, part of a row that’s lined with beer and shot joints of the sort that attracts college students like flies to simple syrup. You can get a $1.50 Jack and coke across the street. But Al’s is classier, and has a solid, durable, and masculine feel to it, like an old-time saloon, with high ceilings and a little neon, but without getting all cute about it. You get the feeling Al’s could take a punch then come up smiling.

Al’s has a long and stout bar that makes for a manly place to hang out, and it’s got seating areas fore and aft  of the bar with those durable leather couches that look like the distant cousins of catcher’s mitts. They appear as if they could take a punch, too. Up front there’s an 8-foot projection screen, making Al’s a good place to catch a game. A manly game. Note: not soccer. When I left, someone was setting up for a weekly trivia game. I didn’t stick around to find out if the questions were manly questions or if the loser got punched in the face.

About the spirits: there are a lot of them. Did I mention there are about 820 different varieties? That’s what Jim the bartender told me, and a quick scan of the shelves gave me little reason to doubt his claim. This includes 100+ American whiskeys, and about 80+ scotches. It’s a fine selection, and had I the time I would have enjoyed working my way through some very excellent whiskies, including Elmer T. Lee, Basil Hayden, WhistlePig, and Tuthilltown. He reported that he moves a lot of Smooth Ambler Old Scout, which is indeed a fine bourbon. He does this through hand-selling, he said, and I like a place that takes the time to highlight the little-known good stuff. Jim said that if a distiller or distributor stops by with a bottle, and they like the way it tastes, they’ll find room for it on the shelf.

I ordered a Manhattan, part of my long term Manhattan project to assess the current state of this historic cocktail. More on this later. Jim asked for my bourbon preference (they also have a whole lot of ryes) and suggested Redemption High-Rye Bourbon from Indiana. He built it in a rocks glass, without first mixing it in a glass or tin. It was capped with Gary Regan’s Orange Bitters (good), but the first sip tasted mostly of bitters since it hadn’t been subjected to much too-and-fro (bad). And it was served over sloppy crescent ice with a bright red cherry (meh). It was also lighter on vermouth than I’d like. Overall, I’d give it B-.

Food here is strictly college fare — chicken nachos, buffalo chicken wraps, that sort of thing — but reasonably cheap ($5 to $8) and offers ballast where ballast is called for. It’s open until 2am, and you can order eats until 1:45am, which is essentially a public service.

Also, it’s just a few blocks from the freakishly interesting Niagara Mohawk Building (right). Which means that after you’ve had a few drams, you can wander down and repetedly shout “Surrender Dorothy!” and make jokes about flying monkeys. Don’t dismiss this as a stupid frat boy activity until you’ve tried it.

I Googled around to see if there was a fancy cocktail lounge in Syracuse, but didn’t turn anything up. If anyone has suggestions, let me know.

If not, that’s OK. I’d be happy to wander back into Al’s next time I’m in town, and try some more whiskey.  

321 South Clinton Street Syracuse, NY 13202‎; (315) 703-4773; alswineandwhiskey.com

Friday
Aug102012

The Great Pander, Uncaged: Bicycle Edition

Note to readers: St.-Germain is releasing a limited edition, faux-vintage, one-speed bicycle, which looks really, really cool. Don’t you think it would be really cool to have one of these to ride around your city, especially if your city were flat, like, say, New Orleans?

Also, St.-Germain liqueur is really, really good in cocktails. You should buy some, and then buy some more. It tastes like French alpine elderflowers, only better. 

Note to St.-Germain PR reps: Please contact me for the particulars as regards shipping.

Monday
Jul302012

Tales of the Cocktail: A little grey around the temples isn’t a bad thing

Kimberly Patton-Bragg, reading her story at The Sporting Life II.The tenth annual Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans has concluded. The fog has begun to lift. And the general topography of the landscape is starting to come into view.

Yes, more sophisticated cocktail-making techniques and products were rolled out, as they are each year. More awards were given to bartenders by their fellow bartenders.

But this tent revival for the cocktail craft also seemed have more confidence in itself and its mission than in years past, when it often seemed to be looking more beseechingly for approval from the world at large. It’s generally a sign of a maturing movement is when the gulf between reality and parody starts to narrow, and everyone’s OK with that. To wit: Hey, Mister Mixologist, did you have to go to college for this? Everyone loved this video and talked about it, yet it could have a been a documentary shot at Tales.

One more sign of a maturing movement is that it starts to explore a broader, often more literary understanding of itself — of looking where it fits into a larger culture beyond.

And that was true this year. The highlights for me this year weren’t the erudite disquisitions on techniques and ingredients. Rather, it was some of the more freeform presentations about cocktail culture.  

The “I Love/I Hate Cocktails” debate on Saturday was outstanding. A group of esteemed panelists (including Max Watman, Toby Cecchini, Angus Winchester, Jacob Brier, and Allen Katz) each spent a few minutes debating, not-quite-Oxford-style, whether cocktails were a worthy art form, or just a hyped-up trend that obscured the underlying goodness of straight spirits. Its was a showcase for some great writing and analysis.

My favorite hypothetical question, from Max Watman: “The cocktail is not a refreshment. You've all been here a few days. Do you feel refreshed?”  

The Sporting Life II — held at the Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse and hosted by Allen Katz — had more the feel of an open-mike event, with luminaries performing original works as well as historic writing about cocktail culture.

Among the most memorable: Anne Louise Marquis’s chronicle of a night behind a bar, and how it feels to be a woman constantly hit on by increasingly drunken (and pathetic) guys. Yes, it’s a set-up for cheap humor, but Marquis brought gave it an uncommon depth and burnish that made it sing.

Then there was Dale DeGroff, who showed off his acting chops in recreating Dylan Thomas’s last hours before dying of alcohol poisoning — and then debunking the myth that the poet expired on a barroom floor after 18 shots of whiskey. Nice touch: serving the audience a shot of Jameson as he performed.

But the single most extraordinary presentation of the conference was by Gaz Regan. With slides and music, Regan talked movingly of his parents — the best publicans he ever knew — who owned and ran pubs in England. His performance was only nominally about drinks and drinking, but also everything about it. And about death and letting go. I noticed a lot of discreet wiping away of tears in the audience.

It's not cool to cry at a cocktail conference, of course. Yet, in the end, Regan reminded us of how drinking and powerful emotions have always been linked. Foams and tinctures and exotic spirits? That’s just a sideshow.

Saturday
Jun232012

And your favorite bar myth is…

Ever wonder whether it’s true that you should always toss out your vermouth a month after you’ve opened it?

Well, have I got a seminar for you! A month from now at Tales of the Cocktail I’ll be hosting a panel with two eminent cocktail experts to weigh, dissect, destroy and/or enshrine myths that circulate as freely as bad drinks at a sports bar. Some of these are fueled by enthusiasm, ego and ethanol. Others by ennui and inertia.

Our aim? To sort.

Fact: here. Fiction: there.

On the panel will be estimable drinks historian David Wondrich. Did Jerry Thomas really fling flaming Blue Blazers horizontally? We’ve got a couple of tankards and an asbestos suit to find out.

Also on hand to address myths of cocktail science is the estimable Dave Arnold of the French Culinary Institute. You know, the guy who rigged up thermocouples inside cocktail shakers to find out if the Japanese hard shake produces results all that different from the one-handed lame shake of the flirting bartender. (Question: have you heard as much about the hard shake after it was put throught the paces at that Tales seminar three years ago? Didn't think so.)

And I’ll be batting clean-up, taking on various and sundry beliefs, like the one about having to shake a Ramos gin fizz for ten minutes to enter cocktail valhalla.

Myths: be scared. Be very scared.

We’ll leave plenty of time for the audience to ask questions about what they’ve heard over the years, both up and down, and across the bar. If you’re planning to be in New Orleans, come by with questions. We’ll take them on.

Oh… wait. This just in. The seminar has apparently sold out! And has been for weeks.

So if you’re got questions, throw them at me here and now, electronically. I’ll make sure we’ll take them up, do the research, and report back forthwith after Tales concludes.

Leave questions in the comments section below. Of if you’d rather not parade your ignorance for the world to see, email me directly: curtis@waynecurtis.com.

True/Untrue: Thursday July 26, 3:30pm, Sonesta Hotel (Grand Ballroom North), New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail.

Monday
Jun112012

Field Trip: Pura Vida Tapas, Atlanta 

New Orleanians generally consider Atlanta to be their affluent, arrogant and stupid uncle. This stems mostly from a genetic hatred for the Falcons. But it’s also because when we visit, we’re stupefied by the endless interstates and ceaseless traffic and soulless “townhouse” developments that ring the core. And the feeling that there isn’t much of a core. New Orleans, in contrast, is basically all core.

I’ve been driving north from New Orleans to Maine all this week, and I made Atlanta my first stop, thinking I should pay a visit to our wayward uncle. It had been a while. Maybe we could make amends.

I asked James Ives, a bartender I admire who works at Cure and Bellocq in New Orleans, where I should get a drink when I hit town. He used to live in Atlanta and worked at Holman & Finch. One of the places he mentioned to me was a tapas restaurant called Pura Vida.

So I Google-mapped it. And then I searched for “hotel.” And, lo, one popped up about 50 feet away, called the Highland Inn, where I found a room for $50. Deal: done. If there’s a holy grail in the cocktail travel world, it’s having a place to flop a one-minute walk away from where you drink. I wasn’t even dissuaded by the questionable TripAdvisor reviews. How questionable? Let’s just say it’s rarely a good sign when someone feels the need to defend a place by saying “Bed/sheets/towels were clean.”

Anyway, Pura Vida is the Poncey-Highland area, which is a residential area that arose during the first great streetcar suburb era — this was on the famous Nine Mile Trolley line, developed at the end of the 19th century. The neighborhood consists of smallish lots, bungalows, and non-chain commercial businesses on the main streets. And lots of trees.

Pura Vida is a supremely comfortable spot, with most of the dining on one side of a wall. A large, solid bar and a few tables are on the other. I immediately established a beachhead at the bar where I met manager Paul Calvert, who’s personable and very talented.

His spring cocktail menu (it was about to switch to summer) had the feel of a understated travelogue filled small, Bakeresque adventures. It’s predominantly a classics-with-a-twist menu, with offerings like a tequila Sazerac, and a Manhattan variation with sherry and Carpano. Also, a lot of drinks in the key of bitter. which is my favorite key. And the selection of spirits is outside the ho-hum usual, including Ragged Mountain, Scarlet Ibis, Five Islands, and Matuseleum rums, Encanto pisco, and Bellringer Dry Gin.

I started with a Floreciendo, a high-speed collision of Del Maguey mezcal mixed with Carpano vermouth, St. Germain, Campari, and rosewater, then garnished with a flamed orange twist. I ordered it in part because I’d just come off eight hours on the road and this sounded like something that could cut through the highway grit. But also because it seemed like a nervy maneuver — passing on the shoulder? — that might go badly awry.

It didn’t. It was flawless and exactly what I needed. The drink was so robust it stood up to (and even complemented) the chipotle mushroom plate I ordered.

Next up:an off-menu drink Calvert told me about (it was on last summer’s menu) called Le Petit Mort. I was curious because it seemed to be another high-wire act. It was built around Niesson rhum agricole blanc, which I’ve found generally doesn’t like playmates beyond sugar cane syrup and a bit of lime. But Calvert forced it onto the playground with Pineau de Charentes, lime juice, Herbsaint, and green Chartreuse. And the rhum agricole actually played nice, sharing its flavors and even letting some of the others (notably, Chartreuse) set the rules on some sips.

I departed weary but pleased, and made the short jaunt next door to the hotel. No vast parking lots or highway interchanges or fast food restaurants were in sight. (I’m still convinced that early streetcar suburbs remain the pinnacle of urban evolution.) As for the hotel, let’s just say that the bed, sheets, and towels were clean.

The best part of my evening? Realizing that my annoying uncle actually had some redeeming qualities.

Pura Vida Tapas, 656 N Highland Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306, (404) 870-9797. For a pdf of the current cocktail menu, click here.