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 liqueur (5)


Big Shoe embraces Fernet Branca

I spent a week in Las Vegas on an assignment recently, working on a story about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million roll of the dice to reinvent downtown Las Vegas. Slow Cocktails isn't about urban redevelopment, but I’ll link to the story —> here <— when it’s published next year. Fascinating things are happening in Las Vegas — if you’re curious, you should read this recent NYT Magazine piece about Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) and the Downtown Project.

This blog’s jurisdiction is liquor, people who make it, things to do with it, and places to drink it. So it caught my eye when walking through Hsieh’s apartment in a downtown tower just off Fremont St. — actually a warren of three linked units — and I noticed a Fernet Branca dispenser.

You might think that something like this would instantly leap out, but it didn’t. That’s because of the room where it was stationed. It was the jungle room, designed as a place for parties — a dim and grotto-like space, which was filled with plants.

Now when people say “filled with plants” this usually suggests a few potted palms and some hanging ferns. Maybe you thought of Henry Africa’s, San Francisco’s proto-fern bar.

But this room was more like a fern bar after a long regimen of XTC and steroids: basically every square inch of wall and ceiling was smothered with plants. The walls had been covered with permeable fabric covered with marsupial pouches, which were filled with soil and implanted with tropical plants with dense leaves and wispy tendrils. I met two women whose job it was to water the room every day.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Fernet Branca.

The room had a bar along the far end, and at one end of the bar was the Fernet Branca machine. This was gift to Hsieh from friends and staff — they had acquired a Jägermeister machine, then spray painted and lacquered it with Fernet labels and tweaked the bottle holders to switch from square Jäger bottles to round Fernet.

I positioned a shot glass and pressed a button, and out came a cold refreshing shot of Fernet. Well, refreshing in that freakishly refreshing way of Fernet.

Fernet is apparently more than a one-room novelty at Zappos. It’s part of the corporate culture, especially if it involves Tony. I spent part of an evening at the Downtown Cocktail Room, where Zappos and Downtown Project staffers keep office hours after hours. When my tab came, somehow I had been erroneously billed for eight shots of Fernet. Random!

Later I attended a meeting of the Downtown Project, and during it they celebrated the first-year anniversary of several staffers. They were called up on to stage, whereupon each was handed a shot of Fernet to down. Hsieh joined in. I watched carefully. He drank it all.

When I talked with Hsieh later, I asked about the Zappos/Fernet culture. He smiled, and became far more animated than when he was talking about footwear.

He’d learned of Fernet when Zappos was still in San Francisco about a decade ago. “It was sort of the secret handshake of people who worked in the service industry,” he said. “When I first moved to Vegas it was impossible to find, but it’s been slowly migrating east.”

“We know the Fernet distributor in Vegas,” he went on. “The number one consumer of Fernet here is the Cosmopolitan, and then the number three is the Downtown Cocktail Room. The wholesaler who supplies my house is number four. But if you combine three and four, we’re actually number one.”

He seemed very pleased by this fact. Tony Hsieh is well-known for the epic parties he threw at his San Francisco loft, his early success in building one dot-com fortune, and then another. (He sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion.) But he may soon also be famous for this: introducing a generation of urban planners and economic development types to Fernet.

If the new downtown Vegas takes off, I’ll wager you’ll be seeing bow-tied urban planners nationwide asking for Fernet at neighborhood bars like bartenders just off a shift. Success breeds imitation, right?


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.]


New & notable: Iconic Brands 

Like goofy liquor packaging? You should come to the WSWA convention! Why do Russians keep trying to sell vodka in gun-shaped bottles? What's up with all the strange tequila bottles? A number of bottle manufacturers also hawk their services here, each promising to craft a unique bottle that will cause whatever new vodka it is you’re touting to fly off the shelves. It's hard to not get a little jaded.

Yet... I liked Iconic Brands, and purely for its marketing verve. They were rolling out three products in three very different bottles, all cool. And they’ve got some experience in innovative packaging — one of the Iconic principals was involved in the launch of Kah Tequila, which comes in colorfullly painted Day of the Dead skulls. (And is also embroiled in a longstanding lawsuit with Crystal Head Vodka over that packaging.)     

Iconic had three new spirit lines: Apocalypto Tequila (below left), playing nicely off the Mayan-end-of-the-world meme (um, maybe look for unsold bottles at a deep discount at Costco in early 2013). Three variations of Deadhead rum (above, left, spiced, three-year, and seven-year; evidently sourced from the Foursquare Distillery on Barbados). And Flashbang (at right), a quartet of similarly bottled liquors: tequila, whiskey, vodka, and an herbal liqueur. I only tried one spirit — the Flashbang herbal liqueur, which is a more refined Jägermeister.

The Iconic line somehow manages to walk the fine line between understated and over-the-top. The Apocaplyto was in a well-crafted bottle that looked like an ancient terra cotta Mayan head sculpture. The Deadhead rums were in wonderfully produced shrunken heads bottles. What do shrunken heads have to do with rum. Nothing! But I’d still love to have one of these on my back bar.

The most intriguing was the Flashbang line. The bottles look like hand-grenades. But not nasty combat hand grenades — rather, the civill unrest kind. The sort of greandes that produce noise and a bright flash to allow riot troops to move in and break up crowds. “They aren’t meant to kill,” said Neil Harris, the president of Flashbang. “Just to disorient. Which is pretty much what alcohol does.”

Harris said the idea didn’t so much come from street protests as from video games, which he said commonly employ these stun grenades. (I’ll take him at his word, not being a video game guy.) Doesn’t that put him at risk of charges that he’s targeting the underage market? He quickly pointed out that the majority of video game users are between the ages of 22 and 29 (something else I’m taking at his word). Which, as it happens, is exactly the market he’s trying to reach.

I can’t speak to the qualito of all the products (although the herbal liqueur was perfectly fine), but I can speak to the packaging: pretty damn great. 

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]


Trend watch: Krugy, the first commercial sperm cocktail

"Hello y'all, my name is Krugy."

The annual Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association convention, this year in Las Vegas, is where producers with new products try to hook up with distributors, who will make them famous and rich. Like the guys behind “Adult Chocolate Milk,” which I mocked two years ago and now taunts me from behind the cash register at my corner supermarket and dozens of other places I shop. I'll report more fully about the convention when I catch my breath, but for now, a mention of the most unique product I found.

It's called Krugy. It's a vanilla-caramel cream liqueur (15% alcohol). It comes in an indivudual serving container. And that container is a goofy looking plastic sperm. The head has two beseeching eyes, the tail is trasnparent so you can see the creamy white substance jiggle about when you move it.

I know!

It’s amazing to me, too, that it's taken this long for someone to come up with this.

I can't yet report on how it tastes. In fact, I may never be able to — at least not until I figure out if the psychotherapy should come before or after I drink it.


Ben├ędictine, then and now

I returned two days ago from an arduous 10-day research trip to France, mostly in the region around Cognac. I’ll be reporting more on this over time — a little bit on this blog, but mostly in magazine pieces that I’ll link to when they eventually appear.

I started out, without sleep and packed in the swaddling of jet lag, by immediately heading to the Benédictine Distillery in Fécamp, France, on the Normandy Coast. The distillery is mid-19th century interpretation of a architecturally confused 16th century castle (think: Gothic and Renaissance mash-up). It had a great atmosphere -- the infusing and blending rooms look as if they should be run by short, silent, hunched men in brown robes. In truth, no one was around — but perhaps only because I was there on a Saturday.

A couple of discoveries: Benédictine  — which I’ve always liked, being a fan of the herbal and slightly medicinal — also sells Benédictine Single Cask, a product that takes traditional Benédictine and cranks it up to 11. It’s available only at the plant, and is essentially the same stuff — the same 27 ingredients and aged four months in oak casks — but bottled slightly higher proof (43 versus 40 percent). Somehow, it contains significantly more concentrated and potent flavors. I imagine you will consider this either good news or bad news, depending on your view of Benédictine. For me, it was very good news.

Another discovery: Benédictine mixed with fresh grapefruit juice and ice is just shy of awesome. I’d never had this combo before — and, in fact, it would never had occurred to me to mix them. I see online that others have — including a drink that also features gin and called the Antibes.(Jason Wilson mentioned it last year here.)

It's an odd combination but one that generates small magic. In fact, it tasted like medicinal Gothic and fresh-fruit Renaissance mash-up. And that works for me. 

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