Ask the bartender: what’s your favorite NYC tiki memory?

Tiki pirate gnome outside Apt 13 on the last Tiki Monday held there

Tiki pirate gnome outside Apt 13 on the last Tiki Monday held there

I was asked to write an obituary for NYC’s tiki scene. But I found it alive and kicking, in some unusual spaces. You can read my article on Thrillist (The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again, and Fall Again) of NYC’s Tiki Scene), and I hope you find some new favorite places to indulge in a Mai Tai. I surely had a blast researching it and immersing in NY’s thriving tiki pop-up parties. But my favorite part was reminiscing with the tiki-literati about their experiences, most of which couldn’t fit into the already-dense article, unfortunately. For example, I asked each of the following individuals (admittedly, not all bartenders) for their favorite NYC tiki memories. Here’s what they said:

Mahalo-ween. It was a Halloween event – it was on a Monday that year. We did a Tiki Monday, and it was such a fun event. That’s the one I have the photos for. I had a photographer come in …it was the people who came to it, we had an all-star cast of characters that attended the event. It was awesome and so much fun.” –Julie Reiner, co-owner and beverage director, Clover Club

“If you ask anyone, all the best memories involve Julie and Brian, because that synergy is unique among tiki. I don’t think anyone has the level of collaboration they had on a weekly basis. He would have Damon [Boelte] come in and do a Famous Grouse tiki night. Eight tiki cocktails with a Scotch base is crazy! To have that unique take every week. It was like a family that developed around that event with that amalgam of enthusiasts, casual participants, industry – it became a must-attend kind of thing. Julie’s willingness to let enthusiasts behind the stick – I did two or three Mondays With Miller. It’s extremely nerve-wracking to have Julie as your cocktail waitress!” – Adam Kolesar (“Tiki Adam”) and owner of OrgeatWorks

I don’t have a favorite memory. I’m too concerned that there is no Tiki bar in NYC and when I say that, I’m referring to bars that take the craft of Tiki cocktails seriously – like Three Dots & A Dash and Smuggler’s Cove.” –Brian Miller

My favorite tiki memories would not be from Painkiller, it would be from the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That is in my opinion the most sacred manifestation in physical and spiritual essence in America should be. It’s been owned and operated by the same family for the same 50 years and there is not a place in there that does not exude tiki spirit, from the decor, staff, cocktails, nightly performances – every time I go there it prompts lasting memories for me of that genre. Sadly, I can’t really say that my favorite tiki memories took place in the bar formerly known as Painkiller.” –Richie Boccato, proprietor, Dutch Kills

“One of the first bars to have a specialty cocktail menu dedicated to quality classic tiki drinks was Elletaria, a now-defunct Asian-fusion restaurant that was in the West Village.  Before that, we pretty much had to make these drinks (and their component ingredients) at home.  In these earlier years, making drinks at home and then having one specific place to go for the specialty tiki night allowed us to get to know a group of “tiki-regulars”, many of whom continue to be some of our best friends in NYC.   This group has become our NYC “ohana” (or “family”) and we continue to get together to celebrate events, holidays and until recently, Tiki Mondays with Brian Miller.  Aside from seeing our regular group of friends, a big part of what we loved about Brian Miller’s Tiki Mondays was the guest bartenders.  It was always fun and interesting to watch them take on the classic tiki drinks, as well as seeing them invent new drinks, based on the spirit sponsor that week or their own personal preferences.  When Tiki Mondays moved to Mother’s Ruin, there was then a frozen drink machine available, which Brian and the other bartenders were able to employ in very unique ways.  For example, it was a fantastic kitschy idea for them to turn the Jungle Bird, a classic Campari-based tiki drink, into an amazing frozen drink.” –Nicole Desmond, Rhum Rhum Room

“In 2008, 2009, I saw a New York Times article about Jeff Berry. Quote: ‘you can’t get a good Zombie in NY.’ He was talking about Otto’s Shrunken Head. At the time, no tiki bars existed. And places said, let’s do something about that. As soon as I was able to legally go out and drink, I went out to those places (i.e Flatiron Room). When I got back to NY, Lani Kai and PKNY were up. I’m an Angeleno transplant, where we have Tiki Ti and some smaller places. It was great to see the evolution of the people doing this and their bars, and going to the openings of both of those places. Participating in that first Tiki Monday, and the rush of people coming downstairs. That was something I’d been waiting for a good five years to do. And having people love the drinks and having a good time.” –Garret Richard, bartender at Prime Meats, and host/creator of the Brooklyn Luau

What the #Limepocalypse means to your next cocktail

As someone who knows a bit about how agricultural commodities work and lot about how cocktails work, I’ve been following the recent ascent of lime prices, which has been causing bartenders considerable pain. If you love Margaritas, Daiquiris or or any other drink that depends on lime for its citrusy zing, you may be feeling the squeeze yourself.

What’s going on? In brief, Mexico, which produces 98% of the limes consumed in the U.S, is now seeing a shortage of limes thanks to a perfect storm of poor winter weather, plagues and threats from organized crime. As a result, we’ve seen lime prices spike from an average of $14 to $25 a case to an unprecedented $100 (or more) per case. You can read more on the backstory here or watch a video here.

If we were taking about the price of burgers, it would make sense to talk about cattle futures as a hedging mechanism. But lime futures don’t trade on U.S. commodity markets — or anywhere else in the world, that I know about. (Feel free to educate me if you know of a market where they are traded.)

In the meantime, what does the spike in lime prices mean to your next cocktail? It means one or more of the following scenarios:

  • Scarcity. In other words, if bartenders can’t get limes, you might not be able to get some of your favorite drinks for a while. For example, it’s been widely reported that Toby Cecchini has taken his famed Gimlet off the menu at his Long Island bar in Brooklyn (after all, the key ingredient is a housemade lime cordial).
  • Substitution. Your favorite drink might taste a little different for a while, as bartenders make creative substitutions. Some are switching to a mix of lemon and lime juices or grapefruit. Others are turning to acids beyond citrus, such as phosphates and lactarts. I would expect vinegar-based shrubs to follow as well. Upside:  who knows what innovative cocktails this forced creativity may yield?
  • Deflection. Some bars will discreetly “adjust” cocktail menus to showcase drinks that don’t include lime. Negroni, anyone?
  • Inflation. You might have to pay more for your drinks. I’d especially expect to see this happen at places like large Mexican chain restaurants, where taking classics like the Margarita off the menu would cause too much outcry. Downside:  once menu prices move higher, they rarely are adjusted lower when ingredient prices moderate.
  • Degradation. Aka crappier drinks.  Keep an eye out for sour mix, prefab lime cordial and frozen lime juice as substitutions for fresh lime. And that lime wedge garnish on on the side of your glass? Say goodbye to that too, for a while.
  • Finally, some bartenders will simply eat the rising cost. Martin Cate announced last week that his San Francisco tiki bar Treasure Island will NOT make any changes to the menu, and will NOT raise prices. Since tiki/tropical drinks use a lot of limes, this is big deal.

[Shameless plug: if you find this explanation interesting and will be in the NY area on Wednesday, 4/2, I’ll be reading from The Secret Financial Life of Food (and talking a bit about the “limepocalypse”) at DISH, a food and beverage-themed literary event at Housing Works in Soho.]

 

photo credit: flickr/Troy Tolley

Pictorial: throwing booze around

Who knew there were so many different ways to do this? As in, quite literally tossing it around, whether from bottle to cup, cup to cup or even from vessel directly to thirsty, open-mouthed consumer. Here’s exhibit A:

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Dave Wondrich, demonstrating the “Blue Blazer” technique he has re-popularized. You can’t tell from this image, but he takes a flame to high-proof hooch, and pours the flaming liquid from one pewter mug to another, and back again, increasing the distance between the two until he has a thin blue flame streaming from one mug to the next.

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This pitcher-like vessel, called a porron, is sometimes used to serve (and share) wines in Spain. Here, it’s used for pisco (this was at the StarChefs International Chefs Conference a couple of weeks ago). Bottoms up!

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And finally, here is a pourer in action during cider week, at Tertulia.  Apparently, this is part of the culture of the Asturias region in Spain:  the cider typically is held up high above the pourer’s head….

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…and poured in such an elongated stream that I couldn’t capture the action in a single shot. The more experienced pourers don’t even look down while they pour.

Low Octane Libations: “cocktails are balanced libations that bring people together to celebrate life.”

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From left to right: Amanda Boccato, Greg Best, Joaquin Simo, Kirk Estopinal

This good-lookin’ crew was my panel from Tales of the Cocktail. We had assembled to talk about “Low Octane Libations” — and although I’ve long been a fan of lower-alcohol cocktails, there’s nothing like hearing the gospel straight from the bartenders. In retrospect, I think this topic hit a sweet spot, sandwiched among seminars and tasting events that focused on vermouth, sherry and other lower alcohol options, and I’ve been tickled to see post-Tales roundups listing “lower alcohol” as a trend in the making.

Although I was preoccupied with moderating the panel, I did manage to scribble down some insightful comments from the panelists. Highlights included:

  • Amanda Boccato, brand ambassador from Lillet, noted that “historical cocktails can be reinvented using lower proof spirits as the base, such as a Lillet Julep.” Unprompted, later on in the session Joaquin Simo of Pouring Ribbons noted that he had tried out a Lillet Julep spiked with Green Chartreuse. “It was so good,” he said.
  • This comment, from Greg Best of Holeman and Finch:  “As stewards of cocktail culture, we’re obligated to define cocktail culture endlessly. No one ever said it has to be boozy with bitters – there’s no rule.” Then he paused to define what cocktails are: “Balanced libations that bring people together to celebrate life.” The audience applauded!
  • Joaquin Simo on the rising phenomenon of Bartender’s Choice cocktails: “It’s an opportunity to bring out that coffee-infused vermouth – not Red Stag. If [guests] are giving you that much latitude, let’s not abuse it.”
  • Kirk Estopinal’s Pineau de Charentes Cobbler. All the cocktails were top-notch (and props to our Cocktail Apprentice leader, Christopher George and his team for making that so), but I especially loved how he defined the garnish:  as “good snacks on top.” His cobbler was topped with a quarter-wheel of lemon,  sprinkled with bitters and then sugar. How to get more guests at bars drinking cobblers? Here’s Simo’s idea: “Tell them the Cobbler was the Cosmo of the 1800s.”
Here’s the drink recipe:
Pineau de Charentes Cobbler  (Kirk Estopinal, Bellocq)
1 1/2 oz Ferrand Pineau de Charentes
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup (1:1)
¾ oz Calvados or Cognac
Boston Bitters-coated lemon pieces, for garnish
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Add all (except garnishes) to a tin and shake hard with big ice. Strain over crushed ice and top with garnish.

Is this the future of cocktail menus?

Cocktails are seeing all kinds of innovation these days — but not often the menus that list those drinks.  Sometimes it seems like nothing much has changed since the invention of those always-sticky laminated menus.

But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed some innovative and compelling approaches to cocktail menu presentation. Of course, there’s the “axis approach” on Pouring Ribbons’ menu, which plots all the drink on an axis spanning from “comforting” to “adventurous,” and from “refreshing” to “spirituous.” And there are the growing ranks of iPad menus, which sometimes use technology to provide a little extra information about items, such as winemaker videos.

But the two following menus display a tremendous amount of thought about design and drink concepts, as well as high production values.  Are either of these  likely to set a new template for cocktail menus going forward?

Exhibit A:  Menu-as-Book:  Dead Rabbit

The Bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast made waves years ago when they started publishing cocktail menu books, and I spotted a couple of copycat menus-as-books during a trip to Dublin a few months back. But the idea hasn’t caught on here in the U.S. But now that Sean Muldoon has moved stateside to open his new Dead Rabbit outpost in NY’s Wall Street area, he’s brought his menu books — and their high production values — here as well.  A look at the menu:

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This is the full monty: the hard-backed drink menu book on the left, a seasonal drink update in the middle, and the soft-backed spirits list book on the right.

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A closer look at the cocktail menu. It feels like soft leather, and is published by Drinksology.com. Can’t help wondering how the cover will hold up after a few drinks are spilled on the outside.

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A look inside the book: one of the few spreads with more than a minimum of color.

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A listing of punches, served in individual portions. The format here follows throughout the menu pages – illustration and quote on the left, menu on the right.

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It’s an extensive little book – so extensive as to require a Table of Contents to navigate.

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Here’s a look inside the Spirits List. It lists not only product name and the price per pour, but also extensive tasting notes, the proof, the country of origin, and for ryes and whiskeys, the mash bill! I’ll be hanging on to this document for future reference.

 

Exhibit B:  Menu-as-Newspaper:  The Vault at Pfaff’s

Another interesting use of medium – instead of the super-permanent book, The Vault at Pfaff’s has opted to go with the super-disposable newspaper format. The top lists cocktails, and wines are listed inside, spirits on the back. It’s a clever nod to the fact that The Saturday Press was published in the same space that now houses the bar — 157 issues of the literary weekly were published from the 1850s through the 1860s, with a hiatus for the Civil War. (An aside: thanks to Lehigh University, you can browse copies of The Saturday Post online.)

Although it’s an eye-catching and tactile experience to hold newsprint, a nice nod back to the historic space, it has failed in one way, beverage manager Frank Caiafa confided:  “We thought people would want to take them home, as a keepsake,” he said. “But people seem to think they’re too nice to take!” Luckily, I had no such compunctions, and here are a few snaps of my menu:

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The front of the newspaper-style menu. Insane scrawlings and circles are mine – not part of the design!

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A look inside the newspaper. I’m not sure how this works on nights when the bar is crowded – I have trouble finding space to open a newspaper on a subway, let alone a crowded bar.

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A closer look at one of the “ads” on the inside — they’re not advertisements at all, and no one has paid to be featured in the menu, Caiafa says. Some are antique scraps of text, others provide information about a specific brand (here, Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin) that Caiafa thought guests would want to learn more about.

Is this the last Irish whiskey you can taste only in Ireland?

During a recent trip to Ireland, I stopped into the Palace Bar, the oldest bar in Dublin. It still has all its original Victorian-era fittings, including a “Writer’s Bar” – now, how could I possibly resist that?

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While seated at the bar, I noticed a display of private-label Palace Bar Irish whiskey. Although it’s becoming a novelty for U.S. bars and restaurants to have their own private-label brand or barrel, it’s not a widespread practice across Ireland. At least…not any more. (A side note: I saw very few people drinking Irish whiskey during my stay – it’s broadly a beer and wine culture– and very few bars offering more than a handful of bottlings. And no wonder:  it turns out that a whopping 90% of Ireland’s spirits are exported.) But here was a rare Irish whiskey that can’t be obtained anywhere else but in Ireland.

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I asked the barkeep for a closer look at the bottle. It’s a 9-year-old single malt, single cask whiskey, bottled at a fairly strong 46% abv, and touts the bar as “Famous for Intellectual Refreshments.” It’s also made by the Cooley Distillery, newly acquired by U.S. spirits company Jim Beam. Cooley was the last indie whiskey distillery in Ireland; William Grant owns Tullamore Dew; Diageo owns Bushmills; Pernod Ricard owns Jameson. Cooley had been the last indie holdout.

Would Cooley continue to make the Palace Bar whiskey? “No, they have no interest in smaller bottlings,” the barkeep said mournfully. He’d been working at Palace Bar for fully four decades, and was there when they’d launched the Palace Bar whiskey not even a year prior. In the 1940s, he continued, it was traditional for pubs to have their own brand, but that practice had largely died down. The Palace Bar last had a private-label whiskey maybe 50 years ago.

So that means that the remaining Palace Bar bottles may soon be rare. Priced at 50 euros, it doesn’t sound like they are in danger of selling out right away, however. At least not according to the bartender: “People come in around Christmas time and buy a bottle as a gift for family, or for friends who stopped in 20 years ago.”

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Come to my seminar at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic!

Is there a book idea on your cocktail menu? If you’re a bartender or cocktail enthusiast considering writing a book, come hear an all-star panel of authors and publishers share their secrets about the book biz, and how they got their cocktail books written and published.

I’m really excited about this panel – as an author, this is a subject close to my heart. Hope to see you there!

Where: The Manhattan Cocktail Classic - Industry Invitational. At the Andaz Hotel (485 Fifth Ave., Second Floor, Liquor.com room – Studio 1BC).

When: Saturday, May 12, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm.

Who:  I’ll be moderating the panel, which includes Jim Meehan, managing partner of PDT and author of The PDT Cocktail Book; Lori Narlock,  publisher, Hang Time Press; Brad Thomas Parsons, author, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All; and Maks Pazuniak & Kirk Estopinal, co-authors/publishers of Beta Cocktails.

What: The cocktail book landscape is changing – fast! Will this be YOUR year to publish a cocktail book and kick your career up to the next level?

Two of 2011’s strongest sellers were Bitters (which went into its second publishing run just one month after it came out) and PDT’s acclaimed new cocktail book. But in addition to conventional publishing, new paths are available for the bartender (or cocktail enthusiast) with something to say. Consider the cult success of Rogue Cocktails/Beta Cocktails, which was self-published, or the even newer e-publishing options for iPads, Kindles and other devices. One new publisher (Hang Time Press) is even publishing e-books containing 10 drinks apiece.

* Learn about the changing book publishing landscape for cocktail books.
* Get the details on self-publishing and e-publishing a cocktail book.
* Hear from the experts how they sold their book projects.
* Gather ideas for developing and selling your own cocktail book.