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 home bar (8)


Loggerhead, sugar cone, sugar snips. Must be time for a cocktail


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Something's been lost in contemporary cocktail culture. It’s no longer the subculture it was a few years ago, one of those hidden cultural cul-de-sacs filled with quirky individual passions — people obsessed about tinctures or 19th century history or defunct tiki bars or whatever.

Cocktail culture at some point in the last few years crossed the Rubicon, and now sits squarely in pop culture territory. Too often it attracts new adherents for no other reason than it’s where the cool kids hang out. I mean, who doesn’t want to hang out with the cool kids? So, to fit in, callow newcomers learn a couple of bartending tricks and then grow their Edwardian mustaches. They set their flame on low, and fuel it not with a deep-seated curiosity about bitters or the sociology of ancient saloon life. Rather, they're driven by a deep-seated desire to drink free liquor and get laid.

So last night, it was nice to see some old-fashioned flint-and-tinder flames again, both literal and metaphorical.

I’d gotten an invitation to stop by from Nathan Dalton, the bar manager for Felipe’s, a Mexican joint which has great margaritas made with fresh limes, but it's a place you don't see on those must-visit lists for craft cocktail pilgrims doing the stations of the cross in New Orleans. He said was hosting a small party at his house with colonial cocktails, and thought I might want to check it out.

Well... obviously. I got to his house about 10:30. It’s a eggplant-hued shotgun far out in the Bywater. I walked in, and then, in classic shotgun style, walked through the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. I turned left at the bathtub, whereupon I entered an extraordinary bar. A great collection of intriguing liquor cluttered tiered shelves, and there was an assortment of quality bar tools spread on a tall, long table.

And there was a loggerhead. And a sugar cone. And wonderful antique set of sugar scissors. (Read more about early sugar ritual and culture here).

Nathan was making up a Rattleskull when I arrived, with brandy, rum, wine, and porter, garnished with fresh nutmeg. He made mimbos and bombos, and grog and a lovely Stone Fence with a delicate hard cider and Appleton rum, with some sugar snipped off to round off the tartness.

I helped out with the second round of flip. The loggerhead — an ironmonger friend had crafted it for him and his wife — met the propane flame, and heated for about a half hour. We shut off the lights from time to time, and eventually the loggerhead's head glowed a soft crimson all the way through. It looked like Jupiter viewed through a powerful telescope. We killed the music, and then the loggerhead went into a pottery pitcher full of rum, molasses, and Guinness. It hissed and sputtered and put up a fight as will happen, but eventually it capitulated, leaving a cappuccino-like foam on top. (The liquid-to-loggerhead proportion was a bit too askew to properly caramelize the sugar and burn the grains. But it was still tasty.)

Sometime after midnight we got taking about Campari and then the conversation turned to cochineal, and Dalton got animated all over again. “I got some cochineal!” he said, having recently returned from a trip to Mexico. “You want to eat some bugs?”

He left the room and moments later returned with a sack about the size of three pound bag of flour filled with tiny dead insects. He said he paid $185 for it. We palmed a few — dried, they’re not much bigger than apple seeds — then popped them in our mouths. They were bitter, pleasingly so.

“You’ve got to watch this,” Dalton said, and then mixed some bugs into a cup of water. It instantly turned a deep ruby color, like a shot of Campari. “Now watch this,” he said, sounding more excited than Bill Nye the Science Guy, and squeezed in a bit of lime juice. And it instantly turned a golden yellow — the pH level could change the color, he said. Someone suggested adding baking powder to to try to turn it back to red. Dalton ran off to find some, but none was found. The liquid remained gold. We stared at it, thinking maybe hard looking would bring it back.

It didn’t — nor did the chalk we found. So I finished my Stone Fence, and departed a short while later. I bicycled six miles home through a warm New Orleans night. And I did so feeling more encouraged about where cocktails can take us than I have in a long, long time.


Road trip: To the Source

Party Source — a great liquor store with an unfortunate name — is in Bellevue, Kentucky, just across the river from downtown Cincinnati. It’s Wal-Mart huge, which is to say, it’s large enough to distort space and time. In fact, the beer aisle is so long you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

But I didn’t come for beer. I came for bourbon. Hey, it’s Kentucky! And Jay Erisman, the store’s spirits manager, has been mighty helpful to me on the phone more than once as I’ve worked on whiskey stories.

So when my southbound migration back to New Orleans took me through the city last night, a subtle change in gravitational/magnetic fields hit me as I crossed the Ohio River, and my car was inexplicably pulled off the highway.

The store — perhaps this will not come as a surprise to you, but it was to me — is actually a party store. Which is to say a lot of floor space is given over to streamers and paper plates and balloons and cheeses and crackers and bagel crisps. But mostly it’s wine and beer and liquor. And one long, lavish and utterly beguiling aisle devoted to whiskey.

I walked slowly and quietly down the aisle, and paused from time to time to give thanks, as if in a sanctuary devoted to grain. The Party Source is well known locally for the single barrels it selects from various distilleries in the region, then privately bottles. But it’s also well supplied with output from  microdistilleries, and has a good sampling of harder-to-find bottlings from the bigger houses, like the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve.

In the end — who do I see about getting that hour back? — I picked up a bottle of the five-year, 114 proof Willett private bottling ($35), and a bottle of the elusive Weller 12-year ($25). And for good measure I picked up a bottle of Scarlet Ibis rum ($25), because, well... do I need a reason?

I wasn’t the only customer paying obeisance and getting lost while wandering the wheated plains. A pair of hipsterish 30-something guys were also wandering around slowly, and pointing out bottles as if at treasures in the Louvre.

“I don’t know why I’m so stuck looking at whiskey,” one of them said.

And his friend replied, “Um, because it’s delicious?”


Mullet home bars, Deco-style


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Last week I was in Houston and happened upon this antique store on Westheimer Rd. It majors in Art Deco and minors in home bars. Cool home bars. The kind that fold in upon themselves like Transformers and hide their liquid stores and shakers and glassware from prying eyes. What you got in there? Who needs to know? It's just ordinary, innocent furniture. Prohibition? Never heard of it.

These are the ultimate mullet bars: Business up front. Party in the back.

Someday I will buy one. Last Sunday was not that day.

Added bonus: The store is just a few blocks from Anvil Bar & Refuge.

Pride and Joy Antiques, 1727 Westheimer Rd., Houston. (713) 522-8435.


Spiced rum and vanilla: Think fresh!

I have a short post over at about the making of a basic but tasty spiced rum.

The hardest part about the process, at least for me? Paying $6 for a single slender, skanky looking vanilla bean. I mean, that’s a lot to shell out for something that looks like a desiccated bit of intestine removed from an Egyptian mummy.

I bought this bean at Whole Foods, where I had the option of buying a different but equally skanky looking bean for $13. (What’s the difference between a $6 and $13 vanilla bean? I’ll leave that for others to determine.) 

Spiced rum needs vanilla — it beautifully balances out the other spices (allspice, clove, black pepper, etc.), which tend to poke you about the mouth with their sharper edges. I wondered, though: how different would the end result be if I mellowed the rum with a bit of vanilla extract instead? I mean, it’s the same thing — they both capture the flavor of vanilla by extracting it from a pod with alcohol. And the extract would be a lot less pricey.

So I made one batch with a vanilla bean. And other with some vanilla extract.

And the difference? The frugal me is saddened to report that the vanilla bean batch was superior. Quite a bit so, actually. Both batches had notable vanilla notes, but the fresh bean batch had a rounder, fuller, more beguiling flavor. It tasted like the tropics; the extract version tasted like something that had been imprisoned against its will in a container for many years.

I’m a big fan of cheap shortcuts when they work. This one doesn’t.


A bartender's half-dozen

Tony Abou-Ganim spoke last night to an overflow crowd at the Musem of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. His topic? "Stocking & Tending Your Home Bar." As the title would suggest, it was more like a Cocktail 101 introductory class than the usual 300-level advanced seminar in bitters chemistry that the Museum typically hosts.

Abou-Ganim noted that his approach was inspired by David Embury, the author of the 1948 classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Embury urged his readers to master a half-dozen cocktails. Why? Allow me to quote Mr. Embury:

The average host, who makes no pretense of being an expert on liquors, can get along very nicely with a knowledge of how to mix a half dozen good cocktails. In fact, if he can make only two or three and always makes them well he will stand much higher in the regard of his guests than will the indiscriminate chop-suey dispenser who throws together a little of everything that chances to be laying around loose with no regard whatsoever for the basic function to be performed by each ingredient.

God, I love to quote Embury. Anyway, here are the Embury Six:

  1. The Martini
  2. The Manhattan
  3. The Old-Fashioned
  4. The Daiquiri
  5. The Side Car
  6. The Jack Rose

Abou-Ganim started with a similar list, then improvised and added one. Here are the Abou-Ganim Seven:

  1. The Martini
  2. The Negroni
  3. The Margarita
  4. The Manhattan
  5. The Daiquiri
  6. The Mojito
  7. The Cosmopolitan

Both are fine lists, and either would help chop-suey dispensers up their game. Abou-Ganim's list, of course, reflects some shifts in recent years. The Margarita and Mojito both need to be listed no matter what the haters say. People love them, and for reasonable reasons. It's great to see the Martini, the Manhattan and the Daiquiri soldier on a half-century later. But where's the Old-Fashioned? Inexcusable. That's always seemed like a perfect training ground for any aspiring cocktail maker — make a good Old-Fashioned reliably, and you understand balance. And a shame about losing the Side Car (which has actually rallied of late) and the Jack Rose (a small round of applause for the return of Laird's bottled-in-bond, please!). But something has to give.

I was particuarly happy to see the Negroni surface on Abou-Gamin's list — that wouldn't have been on anyone's list five years ago, but it's had a great revvial. It's my fallback drink, and I enjoy making it with different gins, each of which bring subtle variations. But I guess I wouldn't include it on a homework list only because it's so easy — 1:1:1 gin:vermouth:Campari. It's pre-balanced.

That brings us to the Cosmopolitan. Sigh. I don't get the Cosmo and I never have. It's an OK drink, and I don't hate it as much as those speakeasies that evict you if you but order it. But it feels like a piece of reproduction furniture. It starts with the elements of a classic, but fails to assemble them with the same elan and flair. And putting it on a list just encourages others to keep making it. Blue pencil, please. Gone.

Compiling these lists is like balancing a budget — if you add one thing, something else has to go. I guess my six would look like this:

  1. The Martini
  2. The Old Fashioned
  3. The Daiquiri
  4. The Manhattan
  5. The Mojito
  6. The Margarita

Each of these are simple, but none are trival — all require paying attention to slight variations in spirits, citrus, or vermouth. (OK, the mojito has pretty ample room for error, but it's a good training ground for working with fresh greens.)

Here's the bottom line: If you can make those six perfectly every time, the building blocks are in place to go much higher.


Thailand notes: cocktail with pandan leaf

The best part about traveling abroad? Coming upon an unexpected flavor that shows up unannounced from nowhere. A couple days ago I was given a glass of iced tea in Chiang Mai. It was pale green like green tea, but had a subtle and otherwordly flavor, like celery but sweeter and more complicated. It's from the leaf of a screwpine tree, and looks a bit like a sugarcane leaf. Mr. Google tells me it's used medicinally, including as a diurectic. (Hey, nothing wrong with being regular. And gin started as a diuretic.)

That night I asked the charming bartender (pictured) at the D2 Bar in town if he had any pandan tea. He did. I asked if he made any cocktails with it. He did not. Then he asked me if I liked martinis. Well, sure. So he made me a pandan “martini” with vodka and triple sec. And it was... okay. The ethereal pandan taste came through, and the vodka certainly didn't interfere with it. But he started with a pandan syrup, and combined with the triple sec, it ended up.... well, like most everything here, too sweet.

But I'll look for it at the Asian markets when I get back — I'm told it's sold frozen but not fresh in the U.S., which sounds hopeless for cocktails, but I'm hoping the enterprising Vietnamese community in Louisiana might have some in production for the local markets. Worth playing with if found.


Aisha Sharpe on the big batch

It wasn’t a pretty image: Aisha Sharpe of Contemporary Cocktails was explaining how to make a lot of caipirinhas for a lot of people. “We used the bottom of one bucket to muddle limes and sugar in the bottom of another,” she said. Sharpe, along with her colleague Justin Noel, were speaking at the Museum of the American Cocktail last night on a topic that New Orleanians always pay attention to: how to serve large amounts of liquor to large groups. Call it, “Secrets of the Service Bar, Or How to Stay Fresh While Going Big.”

Sharpe suggested that home entertainers would do well to understand the differences between the front bar and the service bar. At the front bar, customers expect the bartender to make their drinks fresh and from scratch, one drink at a time, and are willing to wait. But those sitting at tables — where there’s little diversion and where time moves slower — customers want their drinks now. That’s where the service bar goes into action, cranking cocktails out in volume and with speed. Those throwing parties at home who don’t want to spend all night making drinks one at a time for guests can learn a lot from this.

Question is, can you do size and speed while still keeping drinks fresh? Short answer: yes. It’s simple logistics. Pre-muddling lime slices and sugar and lining them up in 50 rocks glasses is one way. Keeping a tub of pre-made limes and sugar is another — as long as they’re properly pre-muddled to coax the flavor out of the rinds. (The bucket-on-bucket action Sharpe described was in the context of another of bit of advice: be ready to troubleshoot when dealing with large groups. “Be prepared for everything and assume nothing.”)

Another possible approach: involve the customer by setting up a do-it-yourself system, and recruit them to do the muddling. The end result is the same: speed and quantity without having to sacrifice quality.

Another bit of advice for party-throwers: pre-batch only a part of your cocktail, and then adapt this to provide variety. For instance, prep fresh lemon juice mixed with gin. Then add mint syrup and a mint garnish for a Southside cocktail. Or champagne and simple syrup for a French 75. Or club soda and simple syrup for a Tom Collins. You can also opt to get fancier with other syrups, like a five-spice syrup, which Sharpe used last night for a layered and interesting daiquiri. Minimum work, maximum selection.

My favorite drink of the night was the first served: a bourbon punch (punches are another easy crowd solution — properly presented, a punch is festive and has curiously magnetic properties). If you’re expecting to serve 12 drinks, multiply the recipe below by 12 — although Sharpe’s advice is to taste, taste, taste as you’re going along, and adjust accordingly. Some ingredients, like bitters or ginger juice, tend to intensify and dominate when batched, so go easy at the outset.

Bourbon Punch
(per portion)

1 oz Maker’s Mark
.5 oz Navan
1 oz apple cider
.25 oz maple syrup
.25 oz lemon juice
1/2 barspoon ginger juice
2 dashes angostura bitters

Garnish: pomegranate seeds and grated nutmeg. Serve in bowl with ice block.


Bespoke glassware

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Studio Inferno, a glass studio in an old industrial building in New Orleans's Bywater neighborhood. A number of glass artists work here, making everything from trivet-sized vitreous versions of the city's iconic sewer and water covers to oversized glass sculptures.

But the guy who really got my attention was James Vella, who has his studio on the second floor, just across an open hallway from roaring furnaces. He does wonderful sculptures, including some large and amazingly realistic trout and salmon, but I was more mesmerized by his glassware, which of course were better suited for cocktails.

A glass, no matter how beautiful, can't salvage a mediocre drink. But a a great drink can become a celebratory event when served in an outstanding glass. And Vella had them, by the dozens. Last year he handcrafted about 200 coupes, and a small selection of these remained They were elegant and wonderfully balanced, but a bit overly large for my tastes.

I did end up with a couple of glasses — which my wife bought me for Christmas, secretly, when I wasn't looking, presumably a few minutes after I had marched up to her and waved them around and said, "This is really cool." One was a reproduction of style of glass Vella and his wife had seen in the Czech Republic — a sort of double old-fashioned glass, with benefits. One benefit was a three-level spiral of glass near the lip, to provide a little grip for those icy drinks condensing on the outside. And around the base were a series of fin-like nubbins and a bottom lip —  which together served built-in coasters, keeping the rings off the furniture. (At least that's the theory, which remains to be tested in a New Orleans summer, when everything sweats.) It's a thin-walled and wonderfully light glass, feels great in the hand, and has a wee rounded pedestal inside which seems to highlight those perfect inch-and-a-quarter cubes I pry out of my spongey trays.

I also got an elegant tiki set, if there can actually be such a thing. It consists of a tall glass styled after a segment of bamboo, a sugar-cane-like stirrer, and an umbrella, all of hand-blown glass. I have yet to christen it with a drink, as no sufficiently momentous occasion has yet arisen.

Vella says he's open to making just about any type of glass that you can muster the words to describe, or you can just turn him loose. (Check out his Zulu chalice.) Vella said if I ever saw a photo of a handsome old cocktail glass in yellowing and faded magazine spread, I should just tear it out and bring it in and he could make me a set. And I just may take him up on that.

James Vella, Vella Vetro Art Glass, 3000 Royal St, New Orleans. 504.481.8875.