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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A drink with The Boss

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Here’s a quandary: what drink should you make when Bruce Springsteen drops by?

I was faced with that dilemma last Sunday when a small group of us — my wife, my stepson and his girlfriend, and my Alaskan niece and her husband — all ventured to Jazzfest. We, along with 100,000 of our dearest friends, immediately headed to the huge Acura stage to wait four hot, sunny hours for the Springsteen show. (Bonus: we got to hear sets by Trombone Shorty and Dr. John while waiting.) Somehow we managed to worm our way up to the front of the general admission area and set up base camp. That is, if by “base camp” you mean a square of approximately seven-and-a-half inches of lawn.

Once this was secured, I set out on a foray in search of a nice cocktail. This is no small feat at Jazzfest. The choice is mostly lite beer (although some hidden vendors sell Foster’s), overpriced wine, and slushy, sweet daiquiris served from machines the size of commercial clothes washers.

So instead I angled for the stand selling Mango Freeze — which, if you’ve never been to Jazzfest, is an amazingly refreshing sort of mango sherbet. I got two styro bowls, mashed them upside down atop one another for insulation, then put my head down and began the long and wearying trek back to base camp. (Process: place your hand lightly on back or shoulder of person in front of you, repeat “’scuze me,” “just stepping through,” “sorry to bother,” about 12,000 times until you find your people.)   

Now, bringing liquor into Jazzfest is illegal and frowned upon by the authorities. Unsmiling people search your bags as you enter to prevent this. And I can’t encourage or condone stupid and juvenile efforts to sneak in liquor. But, somehow, back at base camp, through inexplicable and possibly miraculous circumstances, I found myself in possession of two flasks of Banks Five Island Rum. Also — and these must have been left in my daypack from a previous event — I found a battery-powered swizzle stick, a large plastic mixing cup, and a small bottle of Bitter Truth Orange Bitters.

I know. What are the odds?

Anyway, big scoops of mango freeze and a gurgling freehand pour of rum went into the mixing cup, along with a bit of water to loosen it all up. Then came the hum of a battery powered mixer, followed by a fragrant rummy and mangoish aroma. Banks Rum and mango are perfectly cordial mates, but a bit simple in their outlook. So in went some generous dashes of complicating bitters. Then, strangely, I found six paper cups in my pack. I poured all around, and we all toasted The Boss.(Side note: a benefit of becoming dehydrated in the parching sun is that you don’t ever have to pee.)

Then: Bruce came on stage, accompanied by a flood of powerful high school memories. My mango cocktail fortunately helped me manage and direct these to a good place. And about halfway through his two-plus hour show Bruce waded into the crowd and ended up on a small stage about eight feet to our left. He ascended and sang “Waiting for a Sunny Day.”  Then he stepped out on the railing about a foot from the stage.

What happened next is a matter of some conjecture among our party. Some believe he spontaneously chose to crowd-surf, or possibly he lost his balance and decided just to go with it. However, others of us are pretty certain he spotted a delicious mango and rum drink being served below, and thought to himself, “That looks pretty damn good! I wouldn’t mind one of those myself.”

OK, now… how’s this for all the fucking bad planning in the world?

I totally forgot to pack a seventh cup.  

So Bruce left, aided by a very nervous looking security guy who grabbed him by the ankle and reeled him back in. Adding insult to injury, a few minutes later a fan handed him a can of Miller Lite. He took a sip, and poured the rest down his back.

Sunny Day
1 big glob of Mango Freeze
1 pretty hefty pour of rum
5 or 6 or 11 dashes of bitters or whatever

Flash blend with battery powered cocktail stirrer. Serve in paper cups. Garnish with stray grass clippings and that gritty debris that collects in the bottom of your daypack. Save a little for The Boss. Don’t forget the seventh cup.


Parade of Horribles: Not-liquors of 2012

Since I got home earlier this month I've been sifting through my notes from the Wholesale Wine and Spirits Association convention in Las Vegas, flagging some of best products I found as I staggered through hundreds of acres of liquor vendors. I’ve posted about a handful of my favorites over the past couple of weeks.

Now, for the other stuff.

Most of this comes under the category of Not-Liquor. This category arose one afternoon when I was shuffling my weary way across the convention floor and I spied a substantial sign at the end of an aisle reading “NOT LIQUOR.”

My initial thought was, “Well, thank god! An honest dealer!” It’s about time somebody selling some crappy flavored spittle made from neutral grain spirits manned up and admitted what they were actually selling: Kid drinks that will give you a hangover.

Then I neared and discovered that my aging eyes were failing me. This was, in fact, “NUT LIQUOR,” or what’s billed as a “69 proof peanut butter vodka... blended to taste like the inside of a peanut butter cup with no harsh aftertaste.”

Well, never mind.

From that moment on, however, the category of Not Liquor only grew larger in my mind. If a Nobel Prize was awarded for Valorous Attempts at Disguising the Taste of Liquor, these would be the nominees for 2012:

Wild African Cream. Sold in a bottle with a velourish leopardskin skin. (“The packaging incorporates an alluring, yet soft-to-the-touch leopard print coat that adds prominence in any setting. Through the tactility of the packaging, Wild Africa Cream aims to invoke the consumer to not only look at the bottle, but touch it …”) Tastes like Bailey’s, but, um, more African?

Desiree Cupcake Vodka. I'll let the marketing material speak for itself: “It’s like vanilla pound cake, but with a creamy, eggy finish.”

Creamy-Creation. These are frozen drinks (12.5% alcohol) sold in metal foil pouches that you unscrew and squeeze out like a frozen pop. I had root beer float, which tasted like a root beer float. But more so.

The pouches have a small hole in one corner to clip on to a lanyard, so you can affect the stylish conventioneer look while out drinking. A company spokesman explained to me that it was designed such that women could wear them around their necks while dancing. They don’t have to put their drink down on some skeevy ledge or table. “And they don’t have to worry about somebody slipping drugs into their drink.”

Trend-watch: roofie-resistent cocktails. Coming to a bar near you.

Choco-Lat: A “Deluxe Chocolate Liqueur.” Nominated for name alone. Sounds sort of French. But not.

Choco-Noir Chocolate Raspberry Wine Specialty: Berries. Chocolate. Red wine. In one bottle. All that need be done now is figure out how to add callow sex. Then tens of thousands of people could stay at home alone on Saturday nights and watch TV.      

Twist in a Glass: Winners of the Unclear on the Concept Award: cocktail glass-shaped beverage containers sealed with a foil covering and containing mixer with no liquor.

So… you buy the individual mixer in its own glass, then buy some liquor and stir it in. Except that these were all filled to the brim, so there was no room to add liquor without pouring out about one-third of the mixer. “I was wondering why everybody was holding them up and commenting on how full they were,” said a booth person. Also: winner of the Literally Not Liquor Award.

Skitka Vodka: It’s billed as “The Original Fruit Candy Vodka,” but don’t be confused: Skitka has nothing at all to do with Skittles® candies. Pay no attention to the promotional packages at the booth featuring little packs of Skittles. Nor that the vodka comes in five goofy flavors (Orange You Glad, Strawberry Feels, Grape Escape, Lime Wired, Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy), not unlike a best-selling candy.  

I asked about the genesis of the idea, and was told it arose from something the founder saw on Pintrest about how to mix vodka and Skittles. When she asked her college-aged kids about this, it turned out that — um, duh!everybody knew about Skittles vodka.  “Turns out it was all over the internet,” she said. “There are, like, 300 YouTube videos on how to make it. We created this because of demand.” (I know you’re curious. Here’s one.)

How did these vodkas taste? I don’t know. I wasn't offered a sample, and didn't ask for one. I was told, with portentously raised eyebrow, that only 10 bottles of Skitka existed in the entire known universe. And here they were right in front of me.

Whoa. I took a respectful step back.

When will it be more generally available? No word on that either. WSWA is all about lining up distributors and chasing the dream. But allow me to add one thing: I was at WSWA two years ago and made fun of a silly new product called Adult Chocolate Milk. It’s now available in 40 states.

Skitka Vodka: Winner, Not Liquor of the Year, 2012. Congratulations! Also winner, in a walk, of the No, Of Course We’re Not Marketing to Underage Drinkers Award.


Nutmeg adventures, cont’d

A couple of months ago I wrote about the curious side effects of large doses of nutmeg in The Atlantic. The magazine recieved a lot of letters about it. I'd like to be flattered by this, but the majority of missives were complaints about my choice of words when I noted that "Nutmeg will fuck you up." (This outpouring has caused me to recalibrate my mental image of the average Atlantic reader.)

Other letters have arrived directly via my freelance website. In fact, this one arrived last week, entitled "Man, Are You Ever Late to the Party!" More that 50 years late, evidently. It was from a man named Robert McManus. And he was OK with my printing his letter with attribution:

In 1959, a fraternity brother at Yale told me you could get high on "2 tbsp of nutmeg in a glass of hot water."  So I tried it.  I gulped this down in my room about 6 p.m. My buddies all watched with scientific interest for a while, but after half an hour or so, I pronounced this recipe a fraud, and we all went to dinner.

Around coffee time, I very suddenly felt as if someone had "slipped me a mickey" (as they used to say).  I barely made it back to my room and my bed.  My buddies all went out to a movie.

I then had alarming dreams, which I later learned to describe as "psychedelic."  Giant clanking machines made of copper!   Then, I was drifting down through the hole in a giant alabaster dome!  Down below, I could see pillows in vivid colors like turquoise, magenta and saffron! Not inherently scary stuff, but it was really scary to me at the time. (Think of the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Disney's "Dumbo.")

When my buddies came back from the flicks they woke me up and announced with some alarm that my face was green.  I staggered to the mirror and, I swear, it was true: I've never been, or seen anyone else, of such a hue. They insisted on taking me to Grace-New Haven Hospital (as it was then called), where the resident on duty in the ER announced it too late to pump my stomach, and asked me with little empathy WTF had I done this?

Me: "Gee, I wanted to see what it was like."

"Well, you're the only guy who knows," he sniffed.  He told me to check in at the Yale Infirmary in the morning if I didn't feel normal.

I didn't, and spent five days in the infirmary while nurses and doctors contemplated me, a medical oddity: tunnel vision, dizziness, yellow stools, low-grade temp.

Actually, the effects lasted for months, and arguably for years, because I was scared shitless that I had permanently scrambled my brains. (Obviously untrue, since I later became an international lawyer in Washington, DC, and was for a time general counsel of a major federal agency.  What could be saner that that??!!)

Your piece in The Atlantic indicated at the end that you wrote it while still Under The Influence.  I wish you well, but I certainly agree with your parting advice.

My parting advice? Deploy nutmeg principally as a garnish on punch, and leave large-scale ingestion to the young and foolish.


Mad Men drove the cocktail revival? 

File under: Britches, Too Big.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm got the star interview treatment in the April issue of Playboy. He talks about sex, stardom, blah, blah, blah, and a bit about cocktails:

“I live in a neighborhood with a nice bar with off-the-beaten-track labels, so you can be adventurous and try something new every night. In the past four years or so, due in no small part to the success of our show, I think the world of specialty cocktails has grown up. It's a lot easier to find a fancy bar where a bartender takes ten minutes to make one drink. There are a ton of places in L.A. that do that now.”

“Due in no small part to the success of our show?” Granted, Mad Men has done much to raise the profile of the martini and other classics. (See The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook for an inventory of drinks and recipes.) But as with many accounts of cocktail history, Hamm's analysis runs aground on the shoals of chronology, since the roots of the craft cocktail revival preceded the show's premier in 2007. I suppose the opposite case could be made: the cocktail revivial has fueled the success of the show. Not that I'm making that case. My britches fit me just fine.


New & notable: Kai Young Coconut Sochu

The WSWA convention* is in large part a festival of flavors, many artificial and regrettable. (Report to follow on Skittles® flavored vodka. Seriously.) But every so often I sipped something that made me say “Hmmm!”, and not in a way that triggered a flight or fight response.

I stopped by the Kai suite in large part because I was curious about their Coconut Pandan Vodka. I've written about pandan leaf before here and here, and have lobbied in its favor as an ingredient in cocktails. But this was not what I had in mind — it tasted too dense and faux-coconutty, and lacked the crisp freshness that I enjoyed in pandan leaf tea.

But then I was offered a glass of the Young Coconut Sochu, which I agreed to sip mostly to be polite. I've long been of two minds about coconut-flavored liquors. For the most part there's no excuse for flavored spirits — you can make drinks with fresh fruits or produce easily enough, yielding a brighter flavor. But coconut is is one of the few for which a theoretical case may be made, since using fresh coconut in a drink is a vexing endeavor, requiring tools and patience, with the end result often thin and unsatisfying.

On the other hand, the slightest whiff of coconut liquor invariably brings to mind cheap motels and unfamiliar shampoos in little bottles. Most just smell and taste artificial and crappy.

OK, Kai Young Coconut Shochu is not exactly new — it's been around for at least a year or two — but was new to me. It's distilled from rice, then flavored with coconut water and bottled at 48 proof. I sipped. And...  it actually tasted fresh and lively, without cloy or that lamentable New-Jersey-flavoring-factory aftertaste. It was subtle and nicely structured. It tasted of the tropics, but not in the Lifesavers Tropical Fruit Flavors kind of way. It stood up to a second sip, then a third. It made me want to get a bottle and start playing around with tiki drinks.It stood out like a palm tree in a vast desert of fake flavors.

[*Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


Press releases I didn't finish reading

“I wanted to introduce you to two new rums from Enrique Iglesias – ATLANTICO Reserva and ATLANTICO Platino!  Just as the weather starts warming up, so do the cocktails!”


New & notable: Iconic Brands 

Like goofy liquor packaging? You should come to the WSWA convention! Why do Russians keep trying to sell vodka in gun-shaped bottles? What's up with all the strange tequila bottles? A number of bottle manufacturers also hawk their services here, each promising to craft a unique bottle that will cause whatever new vodka it is you’re touting to fly off the shelves. It's hard to not get a little jaded.

Yet... I liked Iconic Brands, and purely for its marketing verve. They were rolling out three products in three very different bottles, all cool. And they’ve got some experience in innovative packaging — one of the Iconic principals was involved in the launch of Kah Tequila, which comes in colorfullly painted Day of the Dead skulls. (And is also embroiled in a longstanding lawsuit with Crystal Head Vodka over that packaging.)     

Iconic had three new spirit lines: Apocalypto Tequila (below left), playing nicely off the Mayan-end-of-the-world meme (um, maybe look for unsold bottles at a deep discount at Costco in early 2013). Three variations of Deadhead rum (above, left, spiced, three-year, and seven-year; evidently sourced from the Foursquare Distillery on Barbados). And Flashbang (at right), a quartet of similarly bottled liquors: tequila, whiskey, vodka, and an herbal liqueur. I only tried one spirit — the Flashbang herbal liqueur, which is a more refined Jägermeister.

The Iconic line somehow manages to walk the fine line between understated and over-the-top. The Apocaplyto was in a well-crafted bottle that looked like an ancient terra cotta Mayan head sculpture. The Deadhead rums were in wonderfully produced shrunken heads bottles. What do shrunken heads have to do with rum. Nothing! But I’d still love to have one of these on my back bar.

The most intriguing was the Flashbang line. The bottles look like hand-grenades. But not nasty combat hand grenades — rather, the civill unrest kind. The sort of greandes that produce noise and a bright flash to allow riot troops to move in and break up crowds. “They aren’t meant to kill,” said Neil Harris, the president of Flashbang. “Just to disorient. Which is pretty much what alcohol does.”

Harris said the idea didn’t so much come from street protests as from video games, which he said commonly employ these stun grenades. (I’ll take him at his word, not being a video game guy.) Doesn’t that put him at risk of charges that he’s targeting the underage market? He quickly pointed out that the majority of video game users are between the ages of 22 and 29 (something else I’m taking at his word). Which, as it happens, is exactly the market he’s trying to reach.

I can’t speak to the qualito of all the products (although the herbal liqueur was perfectly fine), but I can speak to the packaging: pretty damn great. 

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


New & notable: 123 Tequila

This lovely, well-balanced, fresh-tasting tequila is made by an artisinal distillery about a half-hour north of Guadalajara. It's disitlled using certified organic techniques, both on the agave and production sides. (This includes the use of only natural, airborne yeast in the fermentation.) “We’re trying to bring out the true beauty of agave,” the producer told me, which struck me as not overly hyperbolic in this case. It's available in silver, aged and anjeo (hence 1, 2, 3) in limited U.S. markets since late 2011, but is looking to expand.

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


New & notable: Dzama Rum

A number of rum imports from non-traditional locales have tried to make it into the North American market, but most fail to gain any traction. A lot of these are built around big marketing ideas, the idea being to get cool hunters to try the latest novelty. (I’m thinking of Starr African Rum in the red bottles.) The product seems to be an afterthought.

Not so with Dzama Rum from Madagascar (home to five rum distilleries), which will be rolling into limited U.S. markets next month.

When I first sipped I expected the worse, but was more than pleasantly surprised. It was a rich, complicated rum that, to my mind at least, managed to capture some sort of exotic terroir. Dzama makes a vanilla rum (with a whole bean encased in the bottle, seen at left) plus two unflavored rums. The Cuvee Noire (90 proof) was smooth and tasted of honey and vanilla (the man in the booth claimed it had no additives, although I’m skeptical). But the real winner for me was the 104 proof rum, with a spicy taste up front and lively, sweet finish. It somehow seemed to capture then attenuate into the distance the essence of rum. The retail price of the overproof is expected to be about $50.

 [Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


No lime, no salt: Steve Olson on tequila & mezcal

Steve Olson calisthenically blew in and out of New Orleans yesterday amid Vesuvial thunderheads and torrential rains to present a talk on "The Magical Elixirs of Mexico." His 90-minute talk was packed —both house-wise, with scarcely a seat available at the Museum of the American Cocktail, and with detailed information about some of the 280 species of agave known, and the varied, arcane processes of making these distinctive distilled spirits.

The short version: the spirits industry in Mexico is incredibly old — very likely predating any known distillation in India or China. But it's also incredibly vibrant and new: some 42 different species of agave are used today in tequila and mezcal production, up from about 28 just a few years ago. And that's resulting in a whole new range of flavors as terroir — or the geography of taste, once the province of wine — continues its steady encroachment into the spirits world.

Olson — a noted spirits expert and one of the brains behind Viktor & Spoils, a new tequila bar in New York  — ran us through a marathon of varied tastes. We sampled some 10 different types of Mexican spirits, plus two cocktails showcasing how these might be deployed. (The biggest cup at every seat last night? The spit cup.)

The two most memorable samples of the night: The rough-edged, complexly smoky Del Maguey Single Village Santa Caterina Minas (from Oaxaca, and made in a crude ceramic and bamboo still), and the Don Julio 1942, a representative of a new class of tequila — the extra anjeo, aged for three or more years. Sipping one then the other was like bouncing down a rutted, rocky road whooping and hollering, then suddenly finding yourself quietly barrelling down a newly paved highway with the windows up. Both different. Both full of charm.

Olson also offered up a engagingly discursive history of the margarita/tequila daisy, which we enjoyed while sipping a drink called a Smoky Daisy, essentially a margarita with mezcal to add smoke. I'm sorry you couldn't be there. But here: make one up and pretend.

Smoky Daisy

1-1/2 oz Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila
1/4 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz agave nectar

Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into coupe (or serve over ice in rocks glass) and garnish with a lime wheel.

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