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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Entries in bars (44)


Field Trip: Hunt + Alpine Club, Portland, Maine

For all its exalted stature in the foodie press, Portland, Maine, has never had a dedicated craft cocktail bar. You can always get a solidly made drink at one of the better restaurants (Fore Street, The Front Room), but bar-wise it’s always been more of beer town.

Happily, that's changed. Andrew Volk swapped Portlands a couple of years back — Oregon for Maine. (He worked with Jeffery Morgenthaler at Clyde Common). Then this past summer he opened the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, right in the middle of the quaint and tidy Old Port. Yes, it’s got an ironic Brooklynesque name given the distance from any place to actually hunt or ski (see: Union Pool, Bushwick Country Club), but Volk carries it off well — it’s irony without the air quotes. The space is beautiful, bright and welcoming.

Volk tends bar along with craft cocktail pioneer John Myers, who moved from the Grill Room just across the park. Myers started out behind the stick in Washington, D.C., and moved to Maine in 2001. He’s a more or less a classicist when it comes to drink, which is good since in Maine the range of liquors is limited by the state-decreed nanny-distribution system. If you buy me a drink, I’ll tell you about the time Myers came out to my house when I lived on Peaks Island to help me drain bottles that were less than half full prior to my move to New Orleans. It was a long night; I took Myers to three ferries to send him home, one of which we missed and two of which evidently never existed. I believe we got rid of more liquor in the coffee the next morning.

The cocktail list will keep both strict cocktail constructionists and the general public slaked and entertained. Classics are well represented (Clover Club, El Presidente, La Louisiane, Tommy’s Margarita), but so too are modern adaptations, like Volk’s own gin and tonic variation made with Cocchi and quinine syrup. Fernet Branca is spread around the menu like lobster buoys around a harbor.

A private lodge exists within the lounge here — it’s reserved for lodge “members” (buffalo horns optional) who pony up $2,500 (which includes a $2,000 bar tab and access to the private space, which is sort of like a ski hut come to the city for a little urban getaway). Nobody was in residence when I visited, but it seems like it would be a good place to entertain friends and clients.

Food is second to the drink here but well considered. It’s vaguely Nordic in inspiration, with options like gravlax and pickled beet salad.

If I still lived in Portland — and I lived here for nearly twenty years, or as I remember it, twenty winters — this would be my regular haunt. I have fond memories of spending long winter days at another (now gone) bar a few blocks away, sitting at a corner table that was flooded with late afternoon sunlight. Add a handful of friends, a Scrabble board, popcorn with Siracha, and endless pints of beer, and the stage was set for lazy afternoons punctuated by physical altercations, game board over-flipping, and out-storming following arguments of how to pluralize certain obscure nouns.

I already have a table picked out at Portland Hunt + Alpine for winter afternoons. Now I just need a plane ticket and a new Scrabble board. Well that, and getting over lingering frostbite-related PTSD from walking home into knifing wind after getting off the ferry near midnight on February nights.

Or maybe I'll just go back next summer.

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, 75 Market St., Portland, ME. 207-747-4754.


In your cups: an historical tippling tour of New Orleans

Note: The American Historical Association convenes in New Orleans January 3-6, and 5,000 historians are coming to town to, well... do whatever it is that historians do when they convene. Bitch about Franklin Pierce? I don't know. Of course, what they should be doing is employing all their senses to better understand the city's past, and that includes the sense of taste. So, here's a handy check list of places to sample history by the glass. 

Little known fact: New Orleans sits on a volcano.

Yes, well, it’s special sort of volcano — no fumaroles or magma. Rather, it sits precariously on a shifting and molten bed of latent antiquity, and any disturbance on the surface invariably opens cracks that result in dramatic eruptions.

Like Hurricane Katrina, which caused centuries of simmering racial and economic imbalance to spew forth. Or the annual earthquake known as Mardi Gras, which causes eruptions of Zulus and fine, feathery Indians, which ooze down city streets like an implacable lava flow (a very slow lava flow in the case of the Zulu floats.)

Some of the city’s older and better bars are the equivalent of volcanic vents: minor outlets through which the past incessantly steams to the surface. New Orleans has long loved stiff drink and cocktails (as a port, it thrived at the intersection of Mississippi River whiskey, French cognac, New England ice, and bitters from the West Indies), and that love has only grown more tenacious over time. The city has been hit repeatedly by yellow fever outbreaks since it was first founded, but, thankfully, it avoided the lite beer and white wine spritzer epidemics. Dig down an inch or two anywhere, and you’l find nineteenth century drinks that failed to fall out of favor.

Too much work? Well, fine. Here’s a start:

Sazerac Bar, Hotel Roosevelt
What to order: Sazerac
The original “cocktail” (born ca. 1803) was a simple, stirred drink: bitters, sugar, and spirits. The Sazerac is essentially a pimped-out version dating to the latter half of the 19th century, tricked out with an absinthe rinse. It’s traditionally made with rye, sugar, and Peychaud’s bitters (a venerable New Orleans brand), with a hint of lemon and licorice. (Cognac was the original spirit, but whiskey displaced it when cognac supplies dwindled following the ruination of French grapes by a Texan aphid in the late 19th century.)

Serviceable Sazeracs can be ordered in most bars around the city — it’s the “official cocktail” of New Orleans, as decreed by the state legislature in 2008 — but the elegant steamship-moderne interior of the Sazerac Bar (dating to 1949) is a fine place to enjoy one.  123 Baronne St.

The Napoleon House
What to order: Pimm’s Cup
The Napoleon House is how people who’ve never been to New Orleans imagine the city: vaguely continental, with spalling walls graced with faded portraits of Napoleon amid strains of classical music. This restaurant and bar, housed in a Creole-inflected building dating to 1814, is famous for its Pimm’s Cup (which dates to 1840), and is made with a British gin-based liqueur, lemonade, and 7-Up, then garnished with a cucumber slice. It’s a tall and refreshing drink, perfect for summer weather but not wholly hostile to winter, either.  500 Chartres St.

What to order: Bonal Gentiane Quinine Cobbler
This new bar (opened in 2011) sits across a small courtyard from the lobby of a boutique hotel in a late-modern former YMCA building. The building doesn't offer much in the way of a classic New Orleans past, but the cocktail menu overflows with it.

Bellocq (named after a noted local photographer of prostitutes) specializes in classic drinks slightly updated for modern tastes. As such, the  cocktail menu abounds with obscure 19th century classic tipples, like the crusta, julep, and, chiefly, the cobbler. The cobbler was born of ice — New Orleans was a major importer of New England ice starting in the early 19th century, and much of that chilly goodness got crushed and conscripted for these delicious drinks.

Cobblers are essentially a mix of spirits and a little sugar served over pebbled ice in a julep cup, then handsomely adorned with fresh fruit for both taste and aroma. The Bonal cobbler is a fine modern adaptation of one of these classics, and a perfect example of how the past may be profitably recruited to improve the present. 936 St. Charles Ave. (Lee Circle)

Carousel Bar
What to order: Vieux Carre Cocktail
The Vieux Carre cocktail was created in 1938 by bartender Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone lounge (then called the Swan Room). He was looking for an alternative to the always popular Sazerac, which was then a trademarked name exclusive to a single bar. Bergeon’s cocktail also had a boozy, classic profile, but was a bit more layered and Gordian in its complexity. It’s made now (as then) with rye, cognac, Benedictine, vermouth, and two types of bitters.

And, no, it’s not you: the main bar was built on the chassis of an antique merry go round in 1949, and patrons revolve fully every fifteen minutes. The bar also claims a long literary heritage: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote all got into their cups here. 214 Royal St.

Arnaud’s French 75
What to order: French 75
The French 75 cocktail is named after the French 75mm field gun (1897 model), and is traditionally made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and champagne. Except at Arnaud’s, which has been serving Creole fare since 1918. Here, it’s made with cognac. Bartender Chris Hannah argues that, well, of course, the French would have used cognac, not gin from the much-loathed British. With cognac, it’s an elegant and sophisticated sip, and a fine drink for all seasons. For a cold-weather-only drink, order a Winter Waltz, a hearty, allspice-inflected applejack and cognac cocktail Hannah invented. It's on the way to becoming a classic that future historians will document; sip it here first.

The restaurant bar, which can be entered directly from Bienville St., has the feel of a Parisian hotel bar, with lots of wood and quarter-sized white tiles on the floor. Fair warning: it’s cigar friendly, and on some nights the fog hangs thick. 813 Bienville St.

What to order: Grasshopper
Yes, the Grasshopper. It was invented in the 1930s by the then-owner of Tujaques for a cocktail competition in New York. It caught on. And then disappeared — and not without reason. It’s made of creme de menthe, creme de cacao, brandy, and cream. Inexplicably, the drink seems to be creeping back into fashion. (I blame ironic Brooklyn hipsters, even in the absence of any evidence.)

Still, why not try one in its place of birth? This elegant, classic bar is worth checking out for its distinguished pedigree alone. It first opened in 1856 (it’s been in its current location since 1914), and the impressive backbar, shipped from Paris, dates from the mid-19th century. Note the absence of barstools — this has always been a workingman’s riverfront bar. You stand at the bar, knock back a drink or two, you go back to work. 823 Decatur St.

Looking for more to do (drink, eat, see, hear) while in town? Download the New Orleans Explorer's Guide, an iPhone app I wrote featuring more than 150 suggestions (with photos and interactive maps) for getting the most out of a New Orleans visit. Buy here:


Field trip: Holland House, Nashville, Tenn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Field Trip: Pura Vida Tapas, Atlanta 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Field Trip: Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston

Sometimes you luck into the right drink at the right spot at the right time.

I was the happy beneficiary of such happenstance last weekend on a BoBos in hell swing through Houston. It had been a long day — I was in Galveston with my wife on assignment for a couple of nights, then we decided to head up to the city for an evening before driving back to New Orleans.

We first spent some time developing chronic museum leg at the amazing Menil Colllection, then trolled a half-dozen or more antique shops along Westheimer looking for bargains. (Success: a 1950s bamboo couch for $300.) Late in the afternoon, we set out for one last bit of errand running.

Some shopping experiences you should never attempt at the end of a long day. This was one of them. Two words: Meatballs. Lingonberries. That, and lots of dishware, bedding, lighting fixtures, kitchen stuff etc., all with unpronouceable names involving umlauts.

Then: Anvil. We arrived around 10pm. And the refuge part of its name was possibly never more deserving. It's situated in a late 1950s former Bridgestone-Firestone tire store, but not that you could tell. No car lifts or tire racks. It's open and airy but still has a certain intimacy — and it's been furnished with a lot of funky reclaimed material, like an old freight rail track for the bar's foot rail, and a meat locker door leading to the rest rooms.  

The idea behind the bar is to recapture the flair of the classic era of drinking, without being beholden to any narrow concept of classic. The cocktail menu has many familiar friends — Pimm's Cup, Pisco Punch, and a Sazerac ca. 1840 (made with cognac rather than rye). The rest of the menu was mostly classics-inspired originals, broken out by base spirit. These included something called the Paper Airplane (Swedish punsch, Fernet, lemon, ginger beer, orange bitters), and Pliny’s Tonic (London dry gin, lime, cucumber, mint, habanero tincture). Let's just say that those inclined toward amari and bitters will not have a dearth of choices here.

I went with the Black Betty, made with fenugreek-infused rye, Bonal, Campari, and Xocolatl mole bitters. It wasn't nearly as bitter I thought it might be, but walked the tightrope over the valley of bitter death with much aplomb.

But my wife hit the trifecta with the Turtle Blues — right drink, right place, right time. It was a tall drink, built around Flor de Caña rum, lengthened with lemon, honey, jasmine, and thyme. On the menu it sounded a bit like a Grateful Dead concert in a glass, but it avoided wallowing in the herb garden. It was light, refreshing, and utterly without cloy. The menu touted it as “spring in a glass,” and that was pretty much spot on.

The long day was quickly reduced to a smudgey spot in our rear-view mirror. And I'll give it this: the Turtle Blues is even a cure for that low-grade, lingering mental paralysis that afflicts BoBos who've had to chose between the Svalka and the Rättvik wine glasses.  

Anvil Bar & Refuge, 1424 Westheimer Rd.,Houston, TX, (713) 523-1622, Drinks about $8 to $10.


Field Trip: Clough Club, Vancouver

You can’t turn your back on Vancouver for a bloody instant.

I was here last October, and saw what needed seeing, barwise. Now I’m back a few months later, and the place has had the temerity to open more good bars. Bastards.

And here’s a new one that came as a bit of a surprise. Not because of how it looks, not because of what they serve, but because of who owns it.

It’s called the Clough Club, and it’s part of the Donnelly Group. If you’re not from Vancouver, that means nothing to you. In short: it’s a very successful chain of upscale bars and restaurants that’s basically the liquor-based version of Starbucks in downtown Vancouver. That is, they seem to have a bar on every corner. (If the name has “public house” after it, it’s assuredly a Donnelly establishment.)

OK, I exaggerate. They have 14 bar/restaurants. And they’re all nice, beautifully designed (many in a sort of faux rustic style), yet have been unexceptional when it comes to cocktails.

Until now. The whole group seems to be stepping up its game and gearing up to serve better classic and craft cocktails — the Hanky Panky is the special this week at many of the bars. And the Clough Club, which opened two months ago, is emerging as the chain’s new flagship for well-made cocktails.

Like the other Donnelly spots, it’s a lovely space, this one shoehorned into a narrow spot that formerly housed part of a barber shop. There’s a serpentine white marble bar along one wall, a floor of small white tiles, a stamped tin ceiling, and dark wood all around. (Check out the ancient back wall, which looks like it’s made of narrow strips of veneer; actually it’s comprised of the narrow edge of two-by-fours, a testament to the cheapness of lumber hereabouts at one time.)

The main room maybe seats 20, and there are alcoves tucked around in the back if you’re with a few friends. A choice spot: the four stools at the back bar, next to the three cocktail-aging barrels; it’s a bit cramped but allows a nice porthole view of the room and the goings-on behind the bar.

The drink menu, which focuses on brown spirits, still isn’t all that adventurous by New York or San Francisco standards, but it’s well-grounded. And Clough Club offer a growing array of barrel-aged cocktails (negroni, boulevardier, adonis, vesper, manhattan), and a nice cocktail list of originals and borrowed drinks (including favorites from New Orleans’s Chris McMillian and Kirk Estopinal, and Seattle’s Jamie Boudreau).

I had time for just one drink, and ordered up the house specialty, the Clough Club Cocktail. It’s made of bourbon, amaro, lemon, egg white, agave, and Peychaud’s, and served in a coupe. Verdict: Tasty. I’d drink it again. And again.

The hospitable bartender the other night was Christian Brown, and he suggested those with an interest in craft cocktails aim to arrive early, when he and his staff have time to talk and make a proper cocktail. Later on, especially on weekends, the place can flirt with bedlam.

Hey, it’s a Donnelly restaurant. But it’s headed in a good direction.


Field Trip: Vitascope Hall (Hyatt Hotel), New Orleans

Chain hotel bars aren’t usually my destination of choice — too predictable, too mediocre, too many people wearing laminated convention badges around their necks and laughing their scary, fake laughs. But I’m happy to make an exception when I see something being done right.

I stopped by the revamped Hyatt Regency New Orleans during its re-opening ceremony a few weeks ago — it had been closed more than six years, ever since Katrina blew out many of its upper windows (pictures of the hotel became an iconic NOLA image) and the failed levees flooded the ground floor. Wandering through the third floor atrium lobby — which is haute John Portman if you’re a pop architect geek — one of the bars (not yet open) caught my attention. A holy mess of liquor bottles were neatly enshrined within a tall glass dividing wall. And they weren’t the mass market bottles you might expect. Here was Old New Orleans Rum, Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette, St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram, and a few other cocktailian favorites. This clearly wasn’t my parents’ Hyatt Hotel.

Later I made a call to Alex Hill, director of food and beverage, to find out if the bottles were just chum for the craft cocktail crowd. Perhaps once lured inside they’d be gaffed with Popov and Malibu. But, no. The drinks list was actually a couple notches above what you’d expect. “Our goal was find someone local, someone who understood the cocktails,” Hill said. They didn’t want to call in a NYC-based brand ambassador with a big spirits brand to help get the cocktail program launched. They wanted to find someone who understood local history and nuance. And — after a visit to Tales of the Cocktail and a chat with Ann Tuennerman — they found Rhiannon Enlil.

Now, I’ve known Rhiannon for a few years. I often bike up to Cure early on Sundays, when it’s slow and she’s usually working and we can chat. So I may be biased. But, seriously, that woman knows her way around a cocktail. They'd be hard-pressed to find anyone better.

The idea was to improve the cocktail program, but not to go overboard with the craftiness. “We didn’t want a ten minute ticket time on a drink,” Hill said. “We have to be a bit quicker.”

I went back a few days later to see how it panned out. The bar is called Vitascope Hall, after New Orleans’s first movie theater. It’s a big, open, modern, angular spot, with lots of televisions for the sports crowd. (Not coincidentally, it’s the closest hotel to the Benz-O-Dome.) You can download a Vitascope iPhone app and, in theory, tap on the music you want to hear over the bar’s sound system. In reality, the playlist seemed to be stuck on the “Worst Shit of the 1980s” channel. I was told the system’s not quite up and running yet.

Rhiannon had flirted with some 40 different potions in crafting the new cocktail list, which ultimately listed nine drinks (including two punches, one serving four and one six). They use about 20 different house mixes (syrups and infusions), and six different bitters. Most seemed to strike a perfectly reasonable compromise between ease of preparation and taste.

My favorite: the Saratoga Trunk, a big and tasty drink served over crushed ice. It’s a twist on a late 19th century classic, made with Four Roses Single Barrel, Laird’s Applejack, Carpano Antica vermouth, and Fee’s whiskey barrel bitters. One word: Yum. (Is “yum” actually a word or just a random phoneme?)

Other drinks anchored in the past include the Place d'Armes (Rittenhouse Rye, house-made grenadine, lemon, lime, orange, mint) and the Rum Daisy (Cruzan and Goslings rum, lemon, cranberry syrup, clove, soda water).

There’s also food, of course. Another word: disappointing. We ordered mussels with lemongrass, curry and green onion, and while the flavor was good, some of the little bivalves were sadly desiccated, some unopened, and some — maybe 70 percent — just right. And the cheese plate struck me as designed for a palate brought up on grocery store domestic Swiss. It could have aimed higher.

Still, for a big chain bar, this struck me as a three steps forward, one step back The cocktails far outpaced most other chain hotel bars I’ve endured lately, and my hat’s off to them for not taking the easy route and just implementing a bland, could-be-anyplace corporate cocktail program.


Field Trip: The Keefer Bar, Vancouver

Call me a cynic, but my cocktail expectations weren’t very high when I went to Vancouver last month. I knew liquor supplies were controlled by the province, and nobody I knew seemed thrilled about the local spirits offerings and the management thereof. (In fact, a brief Campari shortage struck Vancouver while I was visiting, and Negronis were being struck off cocktail lists.) I figured, well, let’s see what can be done with a limited palette.

And then I went to The Keefer Bar.

Visiting this cramped, narrow and relatively new bar (it opened February 2010) showed what can be done with limited space and a limited backbar. (Although, it’s not nearly as limited as I’d feared — BC seems far better endowed in amari, for instance, than a lot of U.S. control states. I’m looking at you, Maine.)  

The Keefer is in Vancouver’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the most vibrant. (If you’re here during the day, check out the beautiful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, just down the block.) The Keefer has been decked with a nod to a Chinese apothecary, with Asian medical illustrations set in backlit panels, and a pleasingly dusky gloom to the place. The bar’s owner wanted it to look like back alley joint in Hong Kong. OK, so it’s an alley that’s also home to a feral modern designer. But it’s a great mix.

Now may I draw your attention to the jars or roots, fungus, herbs, and spices that line the upper shelves? Those were obtained at the Chinatown market a couple of blocks away. And they’re not just decorative — they’re the basis of many of the more intriguing cocktails served here.

I’ve seen a lot of cocktail menus in my travels, but The Keefer has one of the most original I’ve seen — not just in the cocktails included therein, but the whole concept and design. (Ask to see an old one — they stopped circulating because so many were being swiped). It has the ratty look of an ancient Asian medical brochure you might find at a back alley clinic. It's sort of partially decomposed and looks if it might actually communicate a fatal disaease. (I mean that in complimentary way.) It’s read from back to front. And it has a small glossary, explaining cocktail ingredients like astragalus and yun zhi (“contains large quantities of Beta-glucans that stimulate the immune system.”)

And now allow me to introduce you to Danielle Tatarin (above), the manager and one of the sages behind the bar. She’s the instigator for a lot of remarkable neo-medical infused drinks served here. Among them the Opium Sour (bourbon, grapefruit, tamarind, and poppyseed tincture), China Doll (vodka, yuzu marmalade, grapefruit, sparking wine, red ginseng tincture), and the Dragonfly (dragon fruit gin, sake, ginger syrup, lemon, and magnolia bark tincture.)

Tatarin runs a tight ship, even on busy nights when burlesque dancers crowd the stage in front of the window (hint: Thursdays) and the bar is packed. I’m headed back to Vancouver in February 2012. And I’m pretty sure I know where I’ll be within an hour of touching down.

The Keefer Bar, 135 Keefer Street, Vancouver (604) 688-1961