Is Havana Club rum coming your way soon?

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Well, THAT was fast.

Last Thursday, my article on questing for Havana Club rum went up on Bloomberg’s site. In short, it’s about the fact that the 50-year-old trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba means that you can’t get Cuban rum — at least, not through most legitimate channels (although I found a loophole, and some worthwhile rum alternatives.)

And then yesterday came this surprise in breaking news: the U.S. is expected to normalize relations with Cuba. And that includes access to Cuban rum.

But wait — does that mean a bottle of Havana Club on every bar? Not exactly. Provisions include this little tidbit:

Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

$100 in alcohol isn’t a lot. And since retail outlets (and presumably, importers that sell direct to bars and restaurants) won’t have access yet, this effectively limits imports to private citizens who are bringing a few bottles at a time back from Cuba or duty-free in other areas. And it may not even be called Havana Club: according to rum maven Robert Burr, it may be re-labeled as Havanista.

What’s actually changing is that Cuban rum just moved out of the realm of “illicit alcoholic beverage.” That great thumping sound you hear? That’s bartenders across America pulling their contraband bottles of Havana Club out from under the counter and plunking them down on the bar in plain sight.

I’m glad I had the chance to search for my “holy grail” of rum. Now that it’s (slightly) easier to find, it’s your turn. Get out there and order your Havana Club; I’d love to hear where you find it and what you think of the rum.

It’s Slivovitz season!

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

A Saturday stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket reminded me that plum season is back. Every stall seemed to have luscious plums in shades of yellow, red, deep purple. And to me, plums = Slivovitz.

Earlier this year, I wrote for Tablet Magazine about my newfound affection for Slivovitz, the sometimes-fiery brandy distilled from plums, and my very recent discovery that sliv can be a spirit worth seeking out:

When I complained about firewater slivs to Angus MacDonald of the Coppersea Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, he scolded me—and then gave me a sample of his first batch of locally-made sliv.

“Slivovitz is rough by nature; it’s meant to be,” MacDonald insisted. “It’s old-country grappa, and the people who drank it were tough-ass mo-fos.” But he also assured me that if made right, it can be more drinkable. And sure enough, his version was delicate and pure, more eau-de-vie than paint thinner.

…Clearly, the time is right for giving slivovitz a second chance. Plum brandies—good ones!—are making their way to the U.S. marketplace.

Want to try some of those plum brandies? Head to the 10th annual Slivovitz Festival. coming up on Sept 20, in Glenn Dale, Maryland. Prefer to DIY? Take a look at this article on how to make your own Slivovitz, written by Cathy Barrow for the Washington Post a couple of years back. Either way, now is the time to give Sliv a chance.

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

Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits

 

Italy

The April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is the annual “Italy issue.” That means a strong focus on Italian wine, food and travel. For me, it meant the opportunity to drill down into Italy-made spirits like never before, ultimately resulting in a feature story, “Beyond Grappa: a regional guide to Italy’s spirits.” And it was an incredible rabbit hole to fall down.

I thought that anyone who is currently learning about spirits (or wine, for that matter — or writing, even), might enjoy a peek behind the process that led to this article, since it’s kind of geeky and completely different from the usual get-out-on-the-road-and-see-what-you-find reporting approach.

It started with the reviews. Here’s what happened: we put out a deliberately wide-ranging call for “Italian spirits” — and I was completely unprepared for the volume of bottles that poured in. The only way to keep from losing my mind was to find a way to organize the spirits.

I started with categories. It was easy enough to identify the familiar bottles: the aperitivo spirits (Aperol, Cynar) the brisk and bitter amaros (Montenegro, Nonino) and even a handful of vermouths made from fortified Italian wines.

After that followed a parade of fragrant anisettes and sambucas. I used to think of Sambuca as a specific brand of anise-flavored liqueur, but no, it’s a rather large category of its own. Sunny limoncellos were segregated into a cheerful yellow pile, made with fruit from sunny Southern Italy. Fiery grappas, mellower aged brandies, and even a vodka distilled from Italy’s famed grapes also factored into the mix. And rounding things out came a pile of digestivos, lovely sticky sweeties flavored with fruit, coffee, chocolate, almonds and even Italy’s beloved biscotti.

This organizational system got me through the reviews, and safely to the other side. It was an exhilarating process.

At the end of it all, I realized there was another way to view all of these spirits:  by region. Since so many of Italy’s spirits are made from the raw materials that grow nearby, they can be categorized by place — just as we do wine. And just like that, a map started to form among the bottles: the roots and herbs that grow in the northern Alpine regions are used to flavor amaros; the grape-growing regions contributed the grape-based aperitif wines, vermouths and brandies; the fruit of sunny Southern Italy are macerated into limoncellos and liqueurs.

I photocopied a map of Italy and started a crude visual system of sticky-note flags to indicate where each of the bottles were produced – at least, those where I could figure out the provenance. Then I removed a bunch, ending up with the map above. That became my feature article about Spirits of Italy, as I then drilled down to learn more about where and how each bottle was made. It also reminded me of previous visits to Italy — during my last trip, I had noticed how every village seemed to have its own very specific, very personal and regional take on pastries. So why wouldn’t spirits have similar regional tales to tell?

I learned a tremendous amount working on this particular issue, and I can’t wait to repeat this with another region. Though maybe next time, instead of backing in from the bottles,  I’ll start by getting out on the road.

A Tequila Sunrise for grown-ups

Image

The first mocktail I ever had was a Virgin Tequila Sunrise:  orange juice with a bit of grenadine poured on top for a dark-to-light effect, but no tequila. Around age 12, we’d order them non-stop at bar and bat mitzvahs, until the harassed bartender would pretend to run out of grenadine. (PS: no, I don’t count the Shirley Temple, which is not a “mock” drink – if anything, it’s the rum-soaked Shirley Temple Black that’s the “mock” version of the original).

Later on in college, the standard Tequila Sunrise was one of the first drinks I learned to order by name. It was fruity and it wasn’t beer, and that was all that mattered at that point in time, well before the craft cocktail movement brought better options even to college dive bars.

And that was probably the last time I sipped a Tequila Sunrise — until about a month ago. While researching this story for The Wall Street Journal about revitalized 1970s cocktails, I found my glass full of minty green Grasshoppers and vanilla-citrus Harvey Wallbangers. And this updated classic, which didn’t make it into the final article, but is worth making at home. It speaks volumes about how much has changed in recent decades:  non-mixto tequila, fresh-squeezed juices, and pomegranate juice or syrups instead of sugary fake grenadine. Finally – it’s a Tequila Sunrise you don’t have to be embarrassed to drink as a grown-up.

Tequila Sunrise

Created by Don Lee for Golden Cadillac

1 ½ ounces Siete Leguas Reposado Tequila

1 ounce Passion Fruit juice

1 ounce Orange Juice

1/2 ounce Pomegranate juice

In a cocktail shaker, combine the tequila, passion fruit and orange juices with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a Collins glass over pebbled ice. Gently pour the pomegranate juice over the rounded bowl of a spoon to “float” the juice over the top of the drink. Garnish with a half orange wheel.

How super high-proof spirits are like “the flashiest girl in the room”

My article about super high-proof spirits (“Idiot Proof“) went up on Slate yesterday morning.

Although I stand behind my opinion — that I prefer lower-proof spirits, and that above 90 proof, most spirits lose what makes them nuanced and drinkable – whoo, those Slater/haters sure do love to argue! The contentious comments have stacked up fast. Luckily, the editors at Slate encourage provocative topics and good arguments.

Yet, I can’t help wondering how the haters might have responded to this comment about rising alcohol proofs, which had to be removed (because it’s not attributed):

“It’s gotten over-the-top,” one well-known producer (who asked not to be named) told me over shots of (pleasantly 80-proof) bourbon. Some distillers use high-proof spirits to attract attention, he hypothesized, comparing pumped-up alcohol volume to a dramatic boob job. “It’s like they’re trying to be the flashiest girl in the room,” he continued. “It’s a way of saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’”

Funny how timing works out, too. The article was written months ago – but now, it’s being published only days before my Tales of the Cocktail seminar on Low Octane Libations. That seminar will focus more about praising lower-proof cocktails rather than bashing higher-proof variations. Then again, Tales is about the cocktail lovers — not the haters.

Celery-spiked cocktail recipe: Green Hornet

My article, “Put A Stalk In It,” about celery-spiked cocktails, is in the May/June issue of Imbibe Magazine.

Although it may seem like an obscure ingredient for cocktails, once I started looking around, I found myself spotting celery everywhere, in various forms. Erick Castro has a Paloma riff at his new bar, Polite Provisions, subbing Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda in place of grapefruit Jarritos. Celery foam tops Bloody Marys.  A Celery Gimlet is on the menu at Saxon + Parole, one of my new favorite bars — with celery juice and Maldon sea salt. Celery shrub here. Celery bitters there. Celery seed-infused syrups. Housemade celery cordial at Dead Rabbit. In researching a separate article on Rock & Rye, I came across a 1902 reference to “La Rue’s Celery Rock & Rye.”  

It’s enough to make you want a good drink.  So here’s one to try. Although it didn’t fit into the Imbibe article, it’s a mighty refreshing cocktail nevertheless.

Green Hornet

Tona Palomino, Trenchermen, Chicago, IL

The menu description reads simply:  celery gin and tonic. “A lot of people thought it was celery gin,” notes Palomino. “Rather, it’s a celery-flavored gin and tonic.”

1.5 oz. gin

1.5 oz. fresh celery juice

3/4 oz. simple syrup

3/4 oz. lime juice

I dash  Bitter Truth Celery Bitters (optional)

1 oz.  tonic water

Measure everything but the tonic water into a cocktail shaker. Cover with ice and shake. Strain into a 12-ounce Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Top off with the tonic water.