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 books (9)


Hello, New Orleans!

Tales of the Cocktail — the drinking world’s equivalent of the Davos Economic Summit — kicks off in the Crescent City in just over a week’s time.

If you’re headed south to tipple, sniff and swill, allow me recommend an iPhone/iPad app published earlier this month to help you get even more out of a visit. It’s called New Orleans Explorer’s Guide. I know a fair amount about it because I wrote it.

In a former life, before I discovered that drinking heavily could be a wise and excellent career move, I was a guidebook writer for Frommer’s. So writing this app was a bit like stepping back in time. I was pleased to learn that I still knew how to pedal the bicycle.

The app is designed to serve as a travel guide for those headed to New Orleans. It features about 150 entries, ranging from museums (including the Museum of the American Cocktail, of course) to great parks to the restaurants I like to frequent. I’ve also got about 25 of my favorite bars listed. (By the way, if your thirst is mightier than that, I can recommend another app — New Orleans’ Best Bars — by my friend Todd Price.)    

The app was published in conjunction with Sutro Media, and has lots of handy features, including interactive maps showing you how to walk to where you want to be, or, to make life easier for TOTC attendees, how much the average cab fare would be. (Tap once more and the app will call the cab for you.)  

The cost of New Orleans at your fingertips? A mere $2.99.

New Orleans Explorers Guide can be purchased directly through iTunes. Reviews and ratings are much appreciated — until I get at least five ratings, the app exists in the iTunes equivalent of a musty bar that sells only Bud Lite. Help usher me into the classier sort of neon-edged joint with aged rum where I belong!


Proof: Prohibition caused the hangover

It's New Year's Eve tonight, which of course means the peak of hangover season. I'm pretty sure the word "hangover" gets used more in newspapers, magazines, and online the week between Christmas and New Year's than in the other 51 weeks combined. It's commonly said that hangovers have been around as long as alcohol, but, in fact, they haven't. They've technically been around only since 1904, when the word was first used to describe the after-effects of drinking. But when did usage really take off? The moment drinking was banned in the United States.

Above is a chart from my favorite new time waster, Google Ngram, which allows you to plot the frequency of words and phrases appearing in the massive data base of Google Books (some five million books spanning five centuries). The chart shows the frequency of "hangover" from 1900 to 2008. Note that it twitches to life at the beginning of the last century, but really doesn't take off until the 1920s, when Prohibition kicked in. Hmm. And it's curious that hangover references have dropped noticeably in the past decade, corresponding with the cocktail boom and more widespread consumption of the hard stuff. Proof of responsible drinking, or a statistical aberration?

Also interesting: the graph appears to track the mental state of someone coming awake on New Year's Day, from flat line to working one's way gradually to an upright position to suffering a few early setbacks before rejoining the living. Then evening arrives and the couch beckons. Coincidence?

Whatever. Hope everyone has a happy new year.


Unpacking punch

No one has yet written the definitive account of the fall of punch. I don't mean how it was displaced by the cocktail in the 19th century, but rather how it became subject to ridicule and humiliation in the mid-20th century. Somehow — and no one is sure how — it became the drink of old ladies at bridge parties, and callow youth at frat rushes. And then, because it had no choice, it died.

So seeing it come back to life and even edge into fashion — starting at the fringes of the cocktail movement at low tables in dark bars, then making its way to mainstream popularity — has been intriguing. And you know it's likely here to stay when David Wondrich focuses his considerable research and writing skills on the subject, as he has in his new book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.

David was in New Orleans this week, and a gave talk on Monday night to about fifty folks who turned out at the Museum of the American Cocktail. (Some well-placed New Orleans restaurateurs were in the audience, so I think we can count on punch making its way from local bars like Cure — where they have a nightly punch on offer — to more restaurants in the coming weeks.)

The talk and tasting covered  four centuries of punch history, much of it sloppy. (Punch, not David.) Wondrich's thesis is that punch was the proto-cocktail, and that London was really the source of the mixed drink as we know it today. (For a brief recap of this history, see my story that ran last June in The Atlantic magazine.) 

Prior to punch, British topers drank medicinal liquors ("like crappier Jägermeister, if you can imagine such a thing," Wondrich said), but nothing in the way of awesome. That started to change around 1600 to 1620, when British sailors, tired of being given onboard rations of stale beer, started mixing juices and spices like nutmeg with commonly available spirits they picked up in ports.

The beauty (and horror) of punch is that no ingredient seems to be out of bounds — wine and beer was mixed in (the poor person's version with beer; the rich person's with wine), along with all manner of citrus  and various other whatnot, like egg whites and calvesfoot jelly. Punch houses cropped up widely in England, where the first celebrity mixologists were minted.

Wondrich made and served three fine punches as he spoke. There's something liberating about watching someone make drinks by opening and unpending whole bottles into a bowl, especially with mixology today being so much a matter of drops and dashes. He made a classic 18th-century style rum punch, a cognac-based punch royal, and a nicely spiced hot genever punch, which was also based on an 18th century recipe. (You can find all three recipes here.)

Given the quality of spirits a couple of centuries ago, today's punches are surely more refined than you would have sipped back then. But don't get all high-endy when making them, Wondrich warns. Long-aged spirits are especially problematic in punches, since the oak tends to mud wrestle with the spices, often with unfortunate results. "You want spirits that are rich in texture, but not heavily aged," Wondrich advised.

Another bit of helpful Wondrich advice, especially with the pox of holiday parties upon us: "You should always bring your own ladle to a punch party."


Herbert Asbury on The Professor

Adam Elmegirab performed a fine public service when he manually entered and posted online a 1927 story by Herbert Asbury about America's ur-über-bartender. The story was entitled, simply, "Professor Jerry Thomas," and it ran in The American Mercury, the journal that H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan founded in 1924.

It's classic Asbury — a less-than-academic but fun-to-read account by the author of Gangs of New York and The French Quarter. Sample passage: “Briefly, Jerry Thomas was a bartender. But what a bartender! His name should never be mentioned in the same breath with that of a frowsy gorilla who, in the dark days of Prohibition, may be found lounging behind the bar of dingy basement speakeasy, sloshing luke-warm ginger-ale into a dirty glass half filled with raw alcohol, and then calling the unspeakable concoction a drink.” (I trust that I do not have to point out here that The Frowsy Gorilla would make an excellent name for a new speakeasy.)

If you don't have time to read the piece, above is a handy sort-of-summary by Wordle, a website that has done more for me than even YouTube in consuming what could have been otherwise productive time. Above is a word map of the 100 most common words in Asbury's story, with size relative to frequency. (Click image to view.) Wordle summarizes so you don't have to.


Boozehound as newshound

Jason Wilson’s wonderful new book, Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, is one of the best spirits books I’ve read in a long while. I enjoyed it on every level — the research, the storytelling, and the deft chronicling of the recent spirits revolution (and how it's all related to a long and pleasantly tattered history of drink).

But my favorite part is Wilson’s efficient debunking of myths. He’s got a chapter entitled “Romance: They Pour it On,” but all through the book he takes a long look the gap between spirits marketing and reality, and reports back what he sees.

He puts St. Germain elderflower liqueur under a particularly powerful microscope. The brand's marketing material includes details about beret-wearing farmers handpicking mountainside elderflowers during a frightfully brief flowering season. Then, the company writes, “after gently ushering the wild blooms into sacks and descending the hillside, the man who gathers blossoms for your cocktail will then mount a bicycle and carefully ride the umbrels of starry whilte flowers to market.”

Really? Wilson pressed about this on several occasions. He asked St. Germain chief Rob Cooper if he could visit during harvest, and he even swore he’d keep the actual destination secret. But: no. I’m afraid that’s not possible. But soon. Perhaps never. Does never work for you? At an event where Cooper was presenting, and still showing slides of the bicycle riders and their flowery cargo, a woman from the audience asked if it was true, because she’d lived in France her whole life, and she “had never heard of anything like this.”

Wilson writes: “Cooper promised that day, and pretty much every time I’ve seen him since, that one day he’ll invite members of the press to meet his elderflower pickers in berets. Three years on, that has never happened.”

I’m all for a good story when it come to liquor — a good story truly can improve how something tastes. But, seriously, it works much better if the story has a small foothold in reality. Otherwise, it tastes fake.

Meantime, if you'll excuse me, I’m pretty busy. I’m reading a new press release for Elit Vodka, a drink of “astonishing and unprecendented purity”  that “revives imperial tradition by unveiling a centuries-old, secret recipe.”


“Where's Chris?” A modest iPhone app proposal

Screenshot from "New Orleans Best Bars"Information on where to go and what to drink has been gradually migrating from print to the web and now to mobile apps. Earlier this year, my friend Todd Price released his excellent iPhone guide to New Orleans bars, listing dozens of great places to drink, complete with photos to give you a sense of what you’re getting into before you get there. I’m looking forward to downloading similar guides for other cities.

But what I really, really want? An app that tells you which bartender is working where, and when.

Consider this a free million-dollar idea to any app developers out there, although, if successful, don’t be alarmed if my lawyer contacts you re: my small commission.

Think about it: the cocktail boom depends on good bartenders. This isn’t beer, with tap jockeys pulling a big handle and pushing a sudsy, cold one across the bar. A great microbrew is a great microbrew no matter where you drink it — assuming reasonably mindful handling of the kegs, the beer’s the same everywhere.

Not so with cocktails. Every great cocktail is a great cocktail only because the person making it knows what he or she is doing, and, more to the point, they care what they’re doing. The number of skilled, attentive bartenders is growing fast, but they’re still vastly outnumbered by hacks who can’t even get a rum and coke right. Walk into the right bar on the wrong night, when the wrong people are working, and a stellar evening quickly slumps into the mediocre.

In New Orleans, I now have a pretty good handle on who works what nights, and a little texting can clarify any confusion. But schedules shift, and then what do I do when I travel to distant cities? Who can be trusted? If I parachute into Portland, I want to know: Is Jeffrey Morgenthaler on? Where’s Daniel Shoemaker? Is Blair Reynolds working? And if I parachute into, say, Houston, where I know no one, I just want to know: where I can get a decent drink from a capable bartender.

The solution? An iPhone app that automatically updates who is working where, all in real time. If I were to develop it, I’d call it “Where’s Chris?”, since that’s the question with which I often begin a night out in New Orleans. (Hannah or MacMillian, your choice.) I’d make it GPS-enabled so a bartender, once registered, wouldn’t have to do anything more — just walk into work, and the app would note his or her presence at the bar and put it out there for the world to know.

A toper like me could then check in, see who’s working where, and plot one’s night accordingly. No more mediocre drinks. It could also include a rating system and a place for customers to add suggestions, like “Be sure to order the Calvados Cocktail,” to help those showing up for the first time. And social-network it, so I know whose recommendations to trust.

Bartenders would lure in their regulars more easily, and tips would rise. Of course, it would also alert those customers they might not wish to lure in, but, hey, can’t blocking technology take care of that somehow?

App developers: please inform me when you have completed and released this program. Also, send contact info so my people can invoice you more easily.


From the crypt: phosphates, fancy syrups, and more

One of the glorious aspects of the cocktail world is that it happens to be populated by folks from all walks of life, each bringing their own expertise — graphic designers, historians, engineers, collectors. Take Darcy O’Neill, for instance. He brings a chemist’s point of view, and I’m always fascinated by what he shows up with at the bar, metaphorically speaking. His seminar on the science of taste at Tales of the Cocktail ‘08 remains one of the more intriguing I’ve ever attended.

He also manages to find and explore niches that few others have bothered with (for instance, drinks of the 1600s at TOC ‘09). Now he’s turned his attention to a whole class of lost beverage that hasn’t had much love from the cocktail geeks: phosphates and sodas.

These weren’t alcoholic drinks, but they often found a way to mate with spirits — especially during and after Prohibition. He recently collected his research in an e-book called “Fix the Pumps” — a phrase drawn from soda jerk lingo and translated as, well… you gotta go buy the book.

Among the great stuff within: a detour through the history of ginger ale, and how it was traditionally spiked with capsicum to give it more bite since the sting of ginger faded quickly in the bottle; why vanilla soda was called cream soda (it was the “cream of the crop,” or the best); and how Orange Crush really started with oranges being crushed in the glass — like a muddled wedge in an old-fashioned. (Or some old-fashioneds, not Ted Haigh’s.)

The information on phosphates was terra incognita for me, and Darcy was a great guide. Here’s his matchbook version of these archaic and forgotten drinks:

Phosphoric acid was considered a general tonic, aphrodisiac and stimulant of the nervous and cardiovascular system. Pharmacists regularly provided it as an over-the-counter pick-me-up or bracer. It was most commonly prescribed as acid phosphate—a mixture of phosphate mineral salts and phosphoric acid. The acid phosphate was served by diluting it with water and adding sugar to improve palatability. It wasn’t long before people acquired a predilection for this acid mixture and it quickly found its way into sodas. The belief that phosphoric acid, and the phosphate salts, helped all manner of ailments only encouraged its adoption.

He also writes about long-lost fountain drinks, like the Lactart (made with lactic acid derived from milk), Elixir of Calisaya (a relative of tonic water). and Aromatic Spirit of Ammonia, which would be used, a few drops at a time, in a fountain drink like Coca-Cola. Darcy assures us this is nowhere near as terrifying (or nasty) and it sounds.  

The e-book also contains a slew of recipes for “fancy syrups” (elderberry mead, kola celery tonic), punch syrups (malaga milk punch, Tivoli punch), and a whole lot of intriguing sounding sodas, like almond sponge, lime slip, and maple frostbite. I’m looking forward to trying these out, then experimenting as to which spirits  go well with each drink. I'm putting on my laboratory coat as I type.

“Fix the Pumps” is available as an e-book (PDF format) for $8.99. If there’s enough interest, Darcy says he’ll consider publishing it as a paper book. Here's hoping there is — it would be a welcome addition to my shelves.


A very bitter book

What took so long?

With the resurrgence in cocktail bitters in the last few years, I figured that someone would eventually write a book on the topic. Yet none seemed forthcoming. Then this cropped up in the Publisher's Marketplace newsletter, which covers book deals:

Brad Thomas Parsons' BITTERS, the history and mystery of how this concentrated alcoholic infusion of aromatic plant roots, bark, herbs, spices, and fruit was first used as a tonic to remedy ills, but has since gone on to be an essential element in quality cocktails, along with more than 100 recipes for homemade bitters and classic and contemporary cocktails using them, to Aaron Wehner at Ten Speed Press, for publication in Fall 2011.

I've never met Brad, but I gather he's an editor at Amazon in Seattle, which is a good place to get well acquainted with cocktails, and I know Ten Speed Press puts out some beautiful books. Bitters has a rich and colorful history — any story that brings together Simón Bolivar, early cocktail history, gastrointestinal distress, and Trinidad offers a potential home run — and I hope Parsons hits it. I just wish we didn't have to wait two years to find out.


Firpo's Balloon Cocktail. No, thanks!

My column in the November issue of The Atlantic is about Charles H. Baker Jr., author of A Gentleman's Companion; Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World With Jigger, Beaker, and Flask, who is famous in certain circles for the spectacular impotability of many of his drinks. For the story, I spent an afternoon with St. John Frizell, who with his wife traced Baker’s travel through parts of South America and Asia, looking for the places where Baker drank. (The Atlantic story is online here.) The story concluded that bad drinks serve a purpose — in short, they make you appreciate the good drinks.

One of the drinks that Frizell mentioned to me in the course of our long discussion was Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail.  “It was the first one I tried,” Frizell said, "and the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had. Why I went back for more I don’t know.” It was from a bar called Firpo’s, described by Baker as “Calcutta’s one smart night spot,” and the drink was so named “because the fifth one consumed is guaranteed to set us bobbing about up under the ceiling.”

The recipe calls for equal parts rye, absinthe, sweet vermouth and two dashes of orange bitters, then shaken well with a bit of egg white.

I like rye, absinthe, and vermouth. How bad could that be?

Curious, I mixed up one last night using R1 rye, Ted Breaux’s Nouvelle Orleans absinthe, Boissiere vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

And…. it was, as Frizell promised, nasty. The color was a sort of institutional grey. The taste? All muddled and confused. The thought process of former president George Bush was once described as “call-waiting thinking,” with one thought constantly interrupted by another incoming one. Firpo’s Balloon Cocktail is a call-waiting cocktail, with one taste constantly interrupted by another.  I did like getting the brief call from the absinthe. But I did not like wasting that fine absinthe by pouring everything down the drain after a couple of sips.

“This is another one to watch cannily lest our pedal extremities fold up at some totally inappropriate moment,” Baker wrote. He was wrong on this — he assumed his reader might drink one or more of these, which they won’t. Never mind five.

But I’ll give it this — it made my next cocktail, a Scofflaw, taste all the better.

Baker's book is available here. St. John Frizell's bar, Fort Defiance, opened last summer in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Frizell wrote a great story on Baker and his quest last year in the Oxford American.