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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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.


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?”