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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Press releases I didn't finish reading

“Many people are wondering how to spice up their social gatherings with fine flavored vodkas that won’t burn a hole in their wallets.”


Invitations I didn't finish reading

The inaugural Beverage Blowout is being held this October. It’s billed as “Las Vegas’s premier party in appreciation of the beverage industry.” The invite solicits sponsors for several categories (at left), some of which were evidently unearthed from a time capsule buried at a casino (now lost) ca. 1988. The list is intriguing, but I’m chiefly dissapointed in the lack of a “bar poet” category. The event is the brainchild of a marketing outfit called Precision International, which may explain the obstacle course.


World Cocktail Day: Finally, an excuse to drink, dance and carry on in New Orleans 

What happened 206 years ago this month?

As if I had to ask. Of course, it was the date of the first printed definition of the word ”cocktail.” And because so few days exist on the calendar in which one can celebrate by drinking extravagant cocktails and dancing and generally carrying on, World Cocktail Day was established in 2006. It honors that most American of American inventions, the cocktail. (Or the most British of American inventions, if you believe David Wondrich. But he’s a known liar.)

Many fraudulent holidays exist, of course, such as World Estuaries Day (September 3), National Biscuit Month (Sepetmber), National Melba Toast Day (March 23) and Canadian Toilet Flange Day (October 7). These exist only on press releases. No drink or gaeity is involved.

World Cocktail Day, I am pleased to report, is not an ersatz holiday. Indeed, this year’s milestone will be marked with a fabulous Swing Ball at the Museum of the American Cocktail on the Mississippi River. Live in New Orleans? Take the bus or streetcar. Don’t live in New Orleans? Fly and catch a cab.

The ball will feature the outstanding Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Quartet. She has a voice that can fill a city block, and it still has energy enough to wander down a side street or two. She plays traditional New Orleans jazz. This doesn’t mean smooth jazz, and it doesn’t mean Dixieland jazz. (The latter was a soul-less, stripped down version of the real thing, the Herman’s Hermits to the Beatles.) It means jazz you can serioiusly dance to.

Dancing will make you hungry, of course. Do not fear: there will be food. Noshing will be provided by Cure, Cafe Adelaide, and the Windsor Court Hotel.  

Eating will make one thirsty. Do not fear. there will be drink. Some of the city’s best bartenders will be mixing up outstanding cocktails, including Chris McMillian, Rhiannon Enlil, Kimberly Patton-Bragg, Nick Deitrich, and the inscrutable Chris Hannah.

Good food and drink invariably makes one thoughtful and inquisitive. Do not fear: there will be education. You can browse the museum with food and drink in hand. When questions arise about early 20th century drink, you can ask, oh, say, DALE DEGROFF. Have a tiki question? Why not ask JEFF “BEACHBUM” BERRY.  Oh, yes, they’ll be there, and ready to chat.

Also: be sure to welcome Jeff Berry to New Orleans. He and his wife, Annene, moved here last week. New Orleans is where tiki inventor Don the Beachcomber grew up, so Berry's move here is like the return of a salmon to the ancestral river. A salmon wearing an aloha shirt. Or whatever.

You might ask, what sort of second mortgage will be required to afford such a glorious event? A very small one, friends. The cost: a mere $30, including all food and drink and dance, for those who order in advance. (It’s $40 for procrastinators.)

Will I be there? As if you had to ask.

Friday May 18, 6pm to 9pm, Southern Food and Beverage Museum (Riverwalk Marketplace, at foot of Julia St.) For info, call 646.696.0862. To order tickets online, head to


Iceberg spotted off Manhattan

Next Monday Camper English and I are leading a seminar about exotic cocktail ice at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York.

I thought it would be a supremely clever idea to serve Zacapa rum over 10,000 year old ice, marking one end of the ice history spectrum. (On the other, more modern end, we’ve got two-inch pefrectly clear ice cubes and a demo of how to make hollow ice spheres, just like the cool kids at Aviary.)

And I thought, how hard can it be to have an iceberg shipped down to NYC? Right?

Well, it turns out that it takes some doing. Here’s the process:

1. Do you have a friend who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland? Good.

Convince them that it would probably be fun and a little adventurous to go to the coast near where an iceberg has run aground. This actually doesn’t require a lot of looking, because in the spring icebergs that have calved off Greenland glaciers head toward their certain demise in the warm Gulf Current. Around Newfoundland, they get all panicky and confused and run aground, just like those tropical sea turtles mesmerized by hotel lights. Once the icebergs get hung up, they start to break up into pieces ranging from the size of a suburban house to the size of a toaster. These are called “bergy bits.” Really.  

2. Have your friend convince a fishermen that it would actually be fun and a little adventurous to go to the mouth of the harbor and haul out a piece of ice about the size of a dorm refrigerator. This might involve the a bottle of rum or two. Screech is preferred.

3. Take the ice and hack it down so it fits in a big plastic picnic cooler you’ve purchased at Wal-Mart. Yes, they have Wal-Marts in Newfoundland.

4. Seal it with a whole role of duct tape.

5. Take it to the FedEx. Remain calm when the FedEx people shake their heads mournfully when you declare the contents as “ice,” then tell you that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires “prior clearance” for ice.

Call the FDA. Explain your problem to the nice lady who answers the Prior Clearance hotline. Your explanation will be followed by a long silence, then the lady will say “Do you mean iceberg lettuce?” When you explain further, the lady will say, “Oh, you mean like an iceberg floating in the sea?” Say, yes, and after another long silence, she’ll tell you that, no, you don’t need prior clearance for that. She'll say to have the FedEx person call her.

6. Back at FedEx the next morning, fill out four (4) additional lengthy, detailed forms involved in shipping an iceberg. This includes a form to be filed with the NAFTA people. Really. You’l know all about these forms owing to the increasingly aggravated and annoyed emails and texts from your friend, or former friend — it's not quite clear where things stand. Pay more than $300 to ship ice overnight to New York.

7. Track the shipment on the FedEx website. It’s being sent to a cold storage place in Queens, where you convinced someone that it would be fun and a litte adventurous to accept a cooler of iceberg ice and keep it in their walk-in frezer for the weekend. When the cooler misses the FedEx connection in Maspeth, slap forehead and say, “Shit!” Then be thankful when an afternoon van picks it up and delivers it.

8. A couple of days later, board flight to New York. Go to room where ice seminar will be held. Open the cooler and hope that enough bergy bit remains to hack up with ice picks and put into about 75 glasses. (If you're from the FDA and are reading this, these are "decorative" ice pieces, as per the form.)

Also hope it’s ice from the lower part of a glacier. Because then the air bubbles are so compacted from the sheer weight of the glacier that they pop and fizz as the ice melts. And then you can lean forward and inhale 10,000 year old air as it’s released from its icy tomb, where it’s been waiting for you since before written history began.

In a hotel ballroom. In midtown Manhattan.

Hope to see you on Monday at Manhattan Cocktail Classic.


Question of the day: Where do I get a loggerhead?

Like many of you, I own two loggerheads, one for mugs, and one for pitchers. These are an essential bit of equipment for making flip, a drink popular in the 18th century and consisting of rum, beer, and molasses. The loggerhead is like a magic wand that turns a nasty, treacly soup into something heavenly.

The loggerhead is essentially an iron rod that’s been forged with a heavy bulb at one end. It was originally made for shipbuilders to keep tar pliable in cool weather — the loggerhad was heated in a fire, and then was used to stir a firkin of stiffening tar. Somewhere along the line, it was conscripted into the making of hot drinks. Loggerheads became standard equipment at taverns, kept in the fireplace so anyone in the mood for flip could send up a geyser of hissing steam.

How does this actually work? And more to the point, how does it taste? Well, if you’re in New Orleans you could stop by the Museum of the American Cocktail on Monday May 7 at 6:30. I’m giving a talk on colonial drinks, and I’ll be making a flip. Get you some.

But where does one get a loggerhead? That's not so easy. I've seen one or two at historical museums in New England, but an antique loggerhead is all but impossible to find. If you search for “loggerhead” an eBay, you'll end up with a wall of turtle illustrations so overwhelming cute it will curdle your stomach for a week.

So I set out to have one made. My first loggerhead was forged by an ironmonger I met at a folk art festival in Maine. I told him what I needed. He was of the opinion that he could not possibly make an acceptable loggerhead without having some rum first. I brought back some Zacapa, and he sipped judiciously. His eyebrows made a little dance. He took another sip, this one somewhat less judiciously. He promised to make me a loggerhead.

A few months later, one showed up in the mail. It wasn’t quite as awesome as I’d imagined. (Perhaps I should have given him some Sailor Jerry.) He’d essentially just doubled back the rod at the head, giving it more of a nubbin than a bulb. I could easily get it red hot and it worked fine on a single mug. But I wanted something more substantial for a pitcher.

Yankee Doodle douchebag at 2011 Tales of the Cocktail. (Photo courtesy of Bart Everson).So I paid a call to ironmonger and artist Rachel David, who lives and works in New Orleans. She makes some pretty amazing stuff, including sculptures and other handiwork for homes and business (she was crafting an interior railing woven with iron lady slippers when I visited). She agreed to make me one.

A few weeks later I drove back to her studio to pick it up. And it was… awesome, with big, round head somwhere between the size of a baseball and a tangerine. It feels great in the hand. I don’t have a working fireplace in New Orleans, so I’m reduced to the plebeian method of heating by blowtorch. But it works splendidly.

If you want your own loggerhead — and I realize that’s a rhetorical inquiry because, seriously, who doesn’t? — you could check with Rachel David about crafting one. Or maybe two. She can be reached via her website at Red Metal.

Tickets for Monday’s seminar are available online through


A drink with The Boss

Get the flash player here:

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.]

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