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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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.


A proper toast to the Titanic

Today is April 15, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic following that unfortunate encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. You perhaps saw something about this in your newspaper this morning. Or, if you're under the age of 35, on your Twitter feed. (Note: the Titanic was an actual ship. It actually sank, and 1,500 people actually died, and, no, Leonardo DiCaprio was not among them.)

i decided to mark the occasion by fishing out of my freezer a five-pound slab of iceberg ice, and hauling it in a small cooler to my favorite watering hole in New Orleans.

Yes, I know. Who among us has not absent-mindedly forgotten that we've stashed a five-pound slab of iceberg ice in the back freezer (note: it's behind the frozen broccoli florets). This I obtained from a guy in Alaska. In the past, I've had iceberg ice from Greenland. (Another note: I'll be serving Zacapa rum with iceberg ice from Greenland a month from yesterday — May 14 — at a seminar at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in NYC.) But I digress. Anyway, about that iceberg ice: today is the day to use it.

I bicycled with my wee iceberg up to Cure. Fate was smiling, as one of my favorite bartenders — Rhiannon Enlil — was working tonight. If fate had been this cooperative a century ago, that ship would never have gone down, and Kate Winslet would never have debased herself with that embarrassingly vapid splayed-arm-thing on the ship's bow. 

I explained my mission to Rhiannon. She responded with alacrity and cunning, whipping up two memorial cocktails in short order. The first, the Starboard Side (named afther the side of the ship struck by the vile iceberg) included Bushmills for the shipyard, Pimm's for the crew, and a couple of dashes of Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters because, well, it's an excellent and elegant bitters. Also, some smoked salt tincture for the briny deep. It was good, but it lacked a certain something — I wasn't getting any notes of the steerage passengers below deck playing fiddles and doing lively jigs.

Round two, however, had everything — the stately dining room with stuffed shirts and the freakishly happy Irishmen belowdecks. Rhiannon named it the Harland and Wolff, after the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. The reccipe follows below and it features Bushmills plus Smith and Cross naval rum.

This is a wondrous tasty drink, made all the more excellent by being served on a slab of iceberg ice in a rocks glass. The ice looked like a miniature iceberg, all angular and unsettled, as if just briefly detained from its mission of roaming the seas and sinking ships. And it was filled with tiny bubbles — each bubble containing a bit of air entombed for 10,000 years or longer, much of that time held hostage beneath a glacier a mile thick. As a result, the oxygen was compressed, and as the ice melted in the glass the bubbles popped and crackled. Also, it reeked of mastodon (well, at least in my feverish mind. Jig dancing will do that to you).

Hail, Titanic! You taught us about hubris and human frailty. And hail, anonymous iceberg! You reminded us that prehistory can suddenly overtake the present, and do so without warning on a still and quiet night.

Harland and Wolff
1-1/2 oz Bushmills
1/2 oz Smith & Cross Navy Strenth Rum
3/4 oz Dolin Blanc vermouth
4 dashes smoked sea salt tincture (or substitue a small pinch of smoked sea salt)

Stir in mixing vessel (without nasty refrigerator ice), then pour over a jagged piece of pristine iceberg ice that calved from a 10,000-year-old glacier and then was plucked from the sea by a doughty fisherman. Either Alaskan or Greenland icebergs will do, although Greenland is preferred for reasons of historic authenticity.

New & notable: Purgatory Vodka

Yes, a vodka. This is a category I usually don’t have much to say about. (“Um, crisp and clear! Tastes like ethanol.”) But this vodka, made in Alaska, is distilled from a mix of 20 percent denatured hemp seeds from British Columbia, and 80 percent barley. I assumed this was yet another marketing gimmick, something to convince stoners to put down their bongs and try a cocktail.

But…. it’s actually quite good. (It won the convention's “best new product” as voted by the media attending.) One of the issues I have with vodka is that I find it often lacks depth — it’s all surface taste. Yet Purgatory had layers and performed some curious acrobatics in the mouth without denying its vodka roots. (I’ve had other interesting vodkas, but the makers were imitating rum by playing up a carmelized, butterscotch note.) I brought back a bottle, and will be endeavoring to learn more about what to do with it in cocktails in the coming days.

[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.]


Future foretold: Liquor worth noting (and not) in 2012

It’s been a little over a week s since I flew back from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention in Las Vegas. And it’s taken about that long to process what I saw. It’s a massive event — there’s the sprawling exhibition floor, then catacombs of hospitality suites hidden off muffled hallways, and all this is topped by the meringue of some 30 floors of smaller hospitality suites in the hotel tower above. All serving copious amounts of liquor.

I managed to see and occasionally sample about half of the thousands of liquor items being pimped here. I stopped by dozens of suites, and I walked down the aisles of the main exhibition hall with a studied briskness, always scanning out of the corner of my eye for any new products of note. Walking through a convention hall without making eye contact is a very technical skill. Highly trained booth minders have developed fierce and uncanny stares, which hypnotize and draw in the unwary like sunlit morning dew luring insects into a Venus fly trap. The unwary then end up hearing a 20-minute sales pitch for Original Lithuanian Flavored Vodka. Not that this happened to me.

The WSWA show is by and large a speed-dating affair. Spirits producers — both new microdistillers from North America and representatives of major producers from abroad hoping to crack the U.S. market — flock here to attract the miserly attention of distributors, to get them to fall in love with their product and put it on the shelves of every liquor store in the land. It's sort of like a convention of unpublished authors tending booths hawking their brilliant novels  — the brilliance of which is sometimes discernible only to themselves — intent on finding a publisher to bring it to an audience larger than their immediate family.  Again, not that this has ever happened to me.

There was lots of wine as well, but, really… who drinks that? What is that, like old grape juice? I focused on spirits, and along the way saw far too many novelty liqueurs and pre-packaged cocktails. Plus a lot of vodka, and a lot of tequila in nubbly bottles. In short, the noise-to-signal ratio is pretty overwhelmingly in favor of noise.

I spent two full days browsing and sipping and seeing what was out there, what was worth paying attention to, and what was best ignored. Over the next few days I’ll post about some of these discoveries. First, I’ll focus on “Best of Show,” or what I thought to be new and good. Then I’ll post some examples of a category that might best be called “Did You See How High That Shark Jumped?”


Whiskey shoot-out at the WSWA corral

The main exhibition hall at the liquor wholesaler's convention in Las Vegas last week was filled with makers and marketers of spirits looking for love (or at least distribution agreements). Among them were folks from a company called Western Flavored Whiskey. Their bottles have a round, frontierish look, and the labels are like old western wanted posters, except that the wanted are apparently naughty cowgirls, some with pneumatically enhanced breasts that could stop a steer. The whiskey is offered in four flavors: honey pepper, peach, amaretto and orange.

Of course cowboys drank flavored whiskey. You must have missed that day in seventh-grade history class. But like it or not, you’ll be seeing more flavored whiskey on the market. The cocktail revolution will not be un-flavorized.

The next morning, walking way on the other side of Caeser’s Palace, I passed a hospitality suite for a company called Real American Whiskey. It sells flavored whiskey. It's sold in round, frontierish bottles, and has labels with a western theme and a pair of comely rodeo cowgirls, who it turns out are mother and daughter. It's offered in four flavors: honey pepper, peach, amaretto and orange.

I mean, what are the odds?

So I stepped inside and asked a company employee about the link between Western Flavored Whiskey and Real American Whiskey. She blinked a few times and looked confused, then poured me a shot of orange-flavored whiskey. What other company, she asked? Really, the exact same flavors?

How embarrassing! It’s like two people showing up at the Academy Awards in the same Versace.

Just to make sure, she hollered across the room to a man in a suit, who wandered over. I asked about the other company, and his eyes narrowed to slits. These slits said, wordlessly, “Oh, them.

It turns out that one of the partners in RAW whiskey had worked with WFW as a consultant. Or so they claim.

As often happens in the liquor trade, they had a falling out. And so the consultant and his partner decided to go off on their own and launch their own brand of flavored whiskeys. Using the exact same flavors of his former client. Including honey pepper. Side note: What the hell with honey-pepper? I tried both honey-peppers whiskeys, and I’m here to tell you they both tasted off-the-charts wrong, although in bizarrely different ways.

One other thing also seemed clear: the cocktail revolution will not be un-litigated.


Mardi Gras goes year round with King Rex Spirits!

“Our product has been out for only an hour and a half!” enthused Diane Svehlak, the president of King Rex Spirits.

Just that morning her company had rolled out a series of New Orleans-themed spirits at a splashy WSWA hospitality suite at Caeser’s in Las Vegas. Green, gold, and purple beads were draped about the room like a St. Charles Ave. oak, and a guy who evidently received the “wear-your-Blues-Brothers-outfit” memo was blowing on a saxophone.

New Orleans spirits?

Well, yes… rum, vodka, and bourbon, sold in are elaborate Mardi-Gras themed bottles. But let’s let the press release do the heavy lifting:

The designs include unique crystal jewels, but also feature an interesting shape face showcasing an intricate colorful painted texture mask seen at Carnival. The exquisite bottle capsulation is as regal as any King's crown with each bottle neck painstaking design for the ultimate ease to speed pour. Each designer bottle identifies the category of spirits by their Carnival color of purple "Justice" King REX Ultra-Premium Vodka, green "Faith" King REX Ultra-Premium Silver Rum, and gold " Power" King REX Ultra-Premium Bourbon.

But, wait, there’s more! Press a button on the bottom of each bottle, and they light up with little LEDs in the base — purple for vodka, green for rum, gold for bourbon. The light will supposedly run for 40 hours. I thought this was just a cool novelty, but I was told it was a “value proposition.” Just when I think I’m getting on top of this liquor trade, I find I have much to learn!

(But I have a long memory — King Rex is apparently hubristic enough to venture where late liquor magnate Sidney Frank failed to tread. He rolled out fancy LED bottles with his Coyopa Rum in the early 2000s, but had to abandon it when customers started returning them to liquor stores for refunds when the lights ceased to function. This is not a way to endear yourself to the front-line retail troops.)

Svehlak — who’s based in California but “loves New Orleans” — explained to me that the company wanted a mask on the bottle, and it came down to choosing a Venice theme or a New Orleans theme. They opted for New Orleans.

The company is a essentially a marketing company that sources spirits from wherever. The vodka, she said, is from “the midwest” (Archer Daniels Midland? MGP?).The bourbon is from “back east” (my guess: LDI in Indiana.) And the rum is from Puerto Rico.

I sampled each. The bourbon (a blend of six- and eight-year old whiskeys) was fine, if unexceptional. The white rum was hot, one-dimensional, and undistinguished. The vodka was mid- to bottom-shelf vodka, which is to say, without character.

One of the cocktails they’re promoting is the SazeREX: Absinthe rinse, bourbon, sugar, Peychaud’s, lemon twist but no slice. Fine so far. But then, like an unwelcome surprise ending in the remake of a classic movie, there’s this: it calls for a garnish of dried jicama, fennel, and peach chips.

It turns out that Svehlak is also president of Dress the Drink, which “produces artisanal gourmet garnishments and blends that are unique in visual and flavor profile for the food and beverage industry and Home Entertainment industry.” Dress the Drink sells a $49 cocktail garnishing kit. This may explain, but does not excuse.

Those of you chomping at the bit to get you some King Rex will need to keep chomping. Although Svehlak told me she'd lined up distributors in 12 states in the first 90 minutes since announcing (with a goal of soon being in 30 states), getting into the stores will take a little time. The public kick-off will be in July, and Svehlak expects the product to be on shelves by August. She also said she'd be hosting at a tasting room at Tales of the Cocktail in July to give New Orleans a glimpse of what’s coming. (The folks at Tales seemed mystified by this when I asked them to confirm.)

Also, start saving your pennies now. The expected retail price per bottle: $69.99.


Press releases I didn't finish reading

“For the past ten years, Van Gogh Vodka ( has been considered a pioneer in the world of flavored vodkas thanks to their constant innovation and ability to create vibrant and authentic flavors.  Crafted in small batches in Holland, Van Gogh is most famously known for their unique Double Espresso flavored vodka.
“Now, Van Gogh Vodka is proud to introduce their own take on an American classic – PB&J – transforming its timeless flavor into a delightfully smooth peanut butter and raspberry jelly flavored vodka.”


Trend watch: Krugy, the first commercial sperm cocktail

"Hello y'all, my name is Krugy."

The annual Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association convention, this year in Las Vegas, is where producers with new products try to hook up with distributors, who will make them famous and rich. Like the guys behind “Adult Chocolate Milk,” which I mocked two years ago and now taunts me from behind the cash register at my corner supermarket and dozens of other places I shop. I'll report more fully about the convention when I catch my breath, but for now, a mention of the most unique product I found.

It's called Krugy. It's a vanilla-caramel cream liqueur (15% alcohol). It comes in an indivudual serving container. And that container is a goofy looking plastic sperm. The head has two beseeching eyes, the tail is trasnparent so you can see the creamy white substance jiggle about when you move it.

I know!

It’s amazing to me, too, that it's taken this long for someone to come up with this.

I can't yet report on how it tastes. In fact, I may never be able to — at least not until I figure out if the psychotherapy should come before or after I drink it.


Field Trip: Herbs & Rye, Las Vegas

Are there any specials on steak tonight, I asked the bartender at Herbs & Rye a couple of nights ago. No, he reported mournfully. We'd missed the first happy hour. And we were too early for the second.

It was 10:30pm. On a Saturday night.

A few things you should know about Herbs & Rye. 1) Happy hour runs from 5pm until 8pm, and then again from 12am until 3am. That's when you can get deals on steaks. 2) It's located well off the Strip on an unlovely bit of strip mall highway. Draped across the front is a banner with the Coors Light logo. 3) You can order a 120-ounce steak. It costs $320, but if you eat the whole thing by yourself they'll give you $200. And 4) It has the best drinks in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is trying to figure out how to integrate craft cocktails with mass cocktails. Mostly, you get mass cocktails in the city, and these are never drinks to write home about. Also: they're really expensive on the Strip. A few places are upping their game, mostly because they know that customers flying in from New York or Los Angeles or Chicago are expecting more than sweet, overpriced slurries. Some are starting to succeed. (More about this later — I hit about a dozen Vegas bars two months ago in the course of research for a forthcoming magazine story.)

Herbs & Rye gets it. It was opened in 2009 by Nectaly Mendoza, who had tended bar elsehwere around town and wanted his own place where he could do his own thing. The interior has done up in a sort of steakhouse-bordello-speakeasy style — although nicer than you'd expect from the exterior. The menu is one of those Charlton-Heston-Ten-Commandment-sized tomes in padded faux leather. A lot of the offerings are steak-related — although the best deal may be the $10 flatbreads, which we ordered. They were sizeable and tasty. (The food got a really bad rap here when it first opened, but I've been plenty satisfied with what I've eaten on two visits this year.)

But, the cocktails? The list fills three glorious folio-sized pages of the menu. And it's one of the best curated, best designed lists I've seen. It's done by era — starting with the Gothic Age of American Drinking (up until 1865), then on through the Golden Age (1965-1960), the Old School Age (1890-1919), Prohibition (1919-1933), Years of Reform (1933-1945), Dark Ages of American Drinking (1949-1999), and the Revival of American Drinking (to present). Note: No drinks are offered from the Dark Ages.

We started with some classics — a Clover Club and a Scofflaw. They were perfectly crafted and well-executed: coupes were placed on black cocktail napkins before us on the bar, then poured from outsized shakers. (Why is it that I like it when bartenders place one hand behind their back when they pour a drink with the other? Maybe it's just a positive feedback loop from past experience.) Then a Ford cocktail, made with gin, dry vermouth, Benedictine, and orange bitters. It was almost perfectly clear and I feared he'd forgotten the Benedictine, but the taste came shining through, nicely balanced. It nearly made up for missing happy hour(s).

The only unsettling thing: the two wide-screen TVs behind the bar were playing the movie Casino. And that scene where mobsters barge in and shoot up the bar with machine guns? It somehow lodged in my subconscious, so that whenever anyone walked in the door, I flinched and eyed the exits. But that was a small price to pay for fine drinkery.

Herbs & Rye, 3731 W. Sahara Ave. (702) 982-8036. Our cocktails were $9 each.