Meet the Grande Dame(s) of New Orleans

In many ways, Ella Brennan is the Forrest Gump of N’awlins:  if something notable in the world of hooch happened, she was there. During Prohibition, she helped her uncle make bathtub gin. Trader Vic squired her around California during tiki’s heyday; she sipped daiquiris at El Floridita in Cuba when Hemingway probably crouched just a few barstools down. And her family built, piece by piece, the bars and restaurants that are now treasured pieces of New Orleans history, from the Absinthe House to Commander’s Palace.

And I got to meet her. Hell, I got to drink with her. 87 years old, and “Miss Ella,” as everyone calls her, still has an Old Fashioned brought to her living room by the staff at Commander’s Palace. I think I want to be her when I grow up.

I wrote about our conversation for Wine Enthusiast, conducted in said living room over said Old Fashioneds. But it’s only part of the story.

The women below also are an important part of the New Orleans arc. On the right, that’s Lally Brennan and (far right) Ti Adelaide Martin, aka “Miss Ella’s” daughter. The two are cousins and co-proprietors of the legendary Commander’s Palace,  Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and cocktail bar SoBou.

And the three women on the left are the “bar chefs” for the Brennan’s empire. (Yes, it’s just a coincidence that a woman helms the beverage operations at each, though it brings a certain neat symmetry to the story, from Miss Ella on down to the next generation of bartenders.)  How is a “bar chef” different from a bartender? Abigail explained it this way: Chef = chief.  “A bartender is about the hospitality aspect,” she said. ” A mixologist is about ingredients and technique. A bar chef is all of that. Like Ginger Rogers, you do it all backwards and in heels.”

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Left to Right: Lu Brow (bar chef, Adelaide’s), Ferrel Dugas (bar chef, Commander’s Palace), Abigail DeGullo (bar chef, SoBou), Lally Brennan, Ti Brennan drink “A toast to Adelaide, our Auntie Mame.”

If you don’t recognize where they’re seated, it’s Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, named for Adelaide Brennan – big sister to “Miss Ella,” and aunt to Lally and Ti.  The  Swizzle Stick Bar was named for Adelaide’s necklace, Ti explained: “It would dangle in her decollete – a gold swizzle stock would pop out of her necklace and she would lean over and swizzle her Champagne.”

Just as Ella Brennan learned to make cocktails as  a child (Eight years old was old enough to learn, she said. “Before that, you let them put the ice in the glass.”) Adelaide passed that tradition down too, Ti reminisced.

“We learned how to make cocktails at a very early age. Adelaide didn’t wake up too early and was never on time. It was always part of our life.”

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Printed on cocktail napkins at the Swizzle Stick, Adelaide’s personal “vapor remedy.” Ti surmises: “The ‘vapors’ might have been a hangover, or hot flashes.”

After paying my respects at Adelaide’s, we headed over to Commander’s Palace, in NOLA’s grand Garden District, where I enjoyed La Louisienne (equal parts Sazerac rye – natch, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s for good measure, two more NOLA products). Although Ferrel wasn’t behind the bar, she had mentioned earlier that she had started out as a hostess at Commander’s Palace, while “a grumpy Italian guy worked behind the bar.” Ti knew immediately who that was:

“Mr. Leroy!” she exclaimed. “He was the head bartender at Commander’s Palace forever. We have a Manhattan riff named after him. With rhubarb. Sweet vs. bitters, and super strong.” She even remembered him growing up:

“It’s the south, and we were little girls. He was Mr. Leroy. She was Miss Ella. To everyone.”

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La Louisienne, as made at Commander’s Palace.

Drink consumed, it was time to head across the courtyard to meet “Miss Ella.” A uniformed server soon followed, bearing Old Fashioneds on a silver tray:  “An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella.”

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Miss Ella, in her New Orleans sitting room with her Old Fashioned.

Most of what we talked about that July evening is encapsulated in the Wine Enthusiast Q&A. But good stuff always gets lost on the cutting room floor, right? For example, Ella’s fond memory of the Absinthe House, which her brother Owen owned. Although their mother was scandalized that anyone would try to start a business in the nasty French Quarter, her brother helped gentrify the area. Ella called it “sophisticated” – Owen would wear a black suit in the winter, a white suit in the summer.

“The Absinthe House,” she said, dreamily. “That’s where you’d go to have an Absinthe Frappe, and Absinthe Suisesse, at least four different absinthe drinks.” (Modern-day tipplers, try to reconcile this with your current beer-sticky experience at the Absinthe House – I dare you.)  She had a job purchasing whiskey for the Absinthe House, although it was done on the down-low. “Women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street yet,” she said.

Dummies,” I heard Ti snarl, sotto voce.

Frankly, I can’t fault her for that sentiment. After all, just look at her legacy now.

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For Burns Night: DIY Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Pre-batched, bottled cocktails are officially a thing.  Bars across the nation are mixing up batches of cocktails ahead of time.  (I’ve even received a couple of press releases for bars that are offering nothing but – are bartenders obsolete?) You can even buy pre-batched cocktails by the bottle at liquor stores.

Or you can go the DIY route, for a party or to keep in the fridge at home after a long day. Here’s my recipe for making Bobby Burns cocktails by the bottle. Whip up a batch for Burns Night this weekend.

 

Bottled Bobby Burns cocktails

From Cocktails for a Crowd, by Kara Newman

Serves 8

Looking for an excuse to chase away the late-January blahs? Celebrate Burns Night on January 25. This drink—perfect for Scotch lovers—is named for the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.”

12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  Scotch
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups)  sweet vermouth (such as Carpano Antica)
5 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons)  water
2 ounces (1/4 cup) Benedictine
8 lemon twists, for garnish

In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine the Scotch, vermouth, water, and Bénédictine and stir well. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-ml liquor bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until chilled.

To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each glass with a lemon peel.

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Hey Millennials, wine and liquor marketers think you have a target on your back

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It’s wine, Jim, but not as we know it.

Last month, a pair of essays I wrote ran in Slate. The first focused on the rise in “gender-specific” spirits (i.e. vodka designed for women, flavored cognac engineered just for men), the second dealt with pop-culture branded wine (i.e. Downton Abbey wine, Duck Dynasty wine).

Two very different topics, but one disturbing thread connects both:  clearly, wine and liquor marketers think Millennial drinkers have a big old target on their backs. What I heard over and over again was, “it worked when they were kids; it will continue to work now.”

Consider this comment, from the gendered spirits article:

Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist at University of California–Davis (coincidentally, a school famed for its winemaking programs), sees parallels between how toys and these candy-like alcoholic beverages are marketed…“The people who were children in the 1990s when I started to see toys color-coded by gender, pink and blue, they are becoming young adults,” Sweet observes. And “they are used to gender differentiation in products.” In other words, millennials are desensitized to gender-specific marketing; many have never known anything else.

Alongside this comment, from the pop-culture wine article:

Millennials in particular grew up with branding, and they don’t think anything of it,” says Kara Nielsen, a consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insight. “They grew up with a cartoon character on their toothpaste. This is like Mickey Mouse-branded treats for the grown-up set.”

A note to the over-21 Millennial set: when you were a kid and someone handed you a blue SpongeBob Squarepants toothbrush or a pink Disney princess toothbrush, you probably didn’t have much choice in the matter. You’re an adult now, with an astonishing array of choices before you. Please choose wisely. It’s your prerogative to choose candy-flavored whiskey or Star Trek-branded wine if that’s what you truly want, but please, make sure that it’s YOUR decision. Don’t let marketers decide for you.

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Your ultimate New Year’s Eve cocktail: French 75 Punch

photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher, for Cocktails for a Crowd

Happy New Year!  Here’s why this is the drink for your New Year’s Eve bash:

1. It’s sparkling, and you know you need something bubbly for toasting at midnight.

2. Between the fancy block of ice and simple orange-wheel slices, It looks great in a punch bowl. But it’s easy to put together and difficult to screw up. If all else fails, just pour in more bubbly.

3. As the ice melts over the course of the evening, the punch mellows a bit, but never waters down (thank you, gin), so the party keeps going until Auld Lang Syne.

French 75 Punch

From Cocktails for a Crowd

Serves 8

Total Volume: 7 3/4 cups (without ice)

The French 75 is a classic cocktail usually made with cognac, though gin is sometimes substituted, and that’s the spirit I call for in this recipe. It typically isn’t served as a punch but works quite well in this format. Serve this fresh, fragrant variation at any occasion that calls for toasting.

A simple chunk of ice, such as one frozen in a loaf pan or bowl will suffice, but for a special, decorative touch, consider freezing orange wheels inside the ice.

16 ounces (2 cups)  London dry gin
8 ounces (1 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 ounces (3/4 cup) simple syrup
1/2 teaspoon orange bitters
32 ounces (4 cups) dry champagne or other sparkling dry white wine, chilled
1 large ice block
8 orange wheels, for garnish

In a punch bowl, combine the gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters and stir well.

Just before serving, pour in the champagne and stir gently. Add the ice and garnish with the orange wheels.

To serve, ladle into punch glasses.

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Order Cocktails for a Crowd for Christmas, New Year’s

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVERWhew! November and December were remarkably busy – book promo parties, events, signings, the occasional press interview. It’s been a glorious whirlwind. But now I’m ready for a looong winter’s rest.

But one final gift-list reminder:  Now’s the time to order “Cocktails for a Crowd”  – whether the party’s at your home and you’re seeking drink inspiration, or you’re celebrating elsewhere and need a host/hostess gift or holiday gift.  Throw in a bottle of booze or bitters, and you’re officially the best guest in the world.

–>Order “Cocktails for a Crowd” from Amazon.

 
Book Cover–>As long as you’re browsing online, you can also buy a copy of my other book,  The Secret Financial Life of Food: from commodities markets to supermarketsfor the history-minded foodies on your gift list.

 

Many thanks and happy holidays!

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10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014

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It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2013 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2014:

1. Fun will make a comeback at the bar. I suspect the goofy fun factor of places like Golden Cadillac (retro 70s) and Butterfly (retro 50s) will start making its way into the mainstream – like the way tiki used to be fun. It’s not a coincidence that cereal is now a hot (if silly) drink ingredient. After years of super-serious mixology, we’re ready for some fun and decadence again.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I’m waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass.

3. The bartender will become obsolete. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect. But in terms of format, definitely seeing more pre-batched kegged drinks (lookin’ at you, Derek Brown)  and bottled & canned & other “batched” cocktails – even high-end Ready-to-Drink cocktails that are actually worth drinking. And I’m not the only one who sees this trend on the horizon.

4. We’ll fortify our drinks with sherry and other fortified wines (but mostly sherry). Sherry cocktails in particular are ramping quickly. But port, Madeira and others are not far behind.

5. Low abv and even no abv drinks will go mainstream. I totally admit to lobbying for this trend. But I’m hearing more about lower proof drinks, and seeing better and more interesting low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks on menus. I foresee this going mainstream this year.

6. We’ll find hard cider cocktails in our glasses. Buzz is building. I think I was too early with this one last year.

7. Flavored whiskey will continue to expand at a rapid-fire clip before burning out altogether. And – what the hell – I’m already calling flavored tequila as a trend for 2015.

8. We’ll develop a heated affection for Asia whiskeys:  some of the best products I’ve tasted this year have been whiskeys from Japan and – much to my surprise – Taiwan. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.

9. Consumers finally will wake up to coffee cocktails. Some of the craziest, most euphoric, no-holds-barred experiments I’m seeing now all seem to involve coffee-cocktail hybrids in some way. (I’m still thinking about the experimental cold brew coffee made with White Pike Whiskey seen at the Dizzy Fizz Holiday Spirits Bazaar a few weeks back – and that’s just the tip of the highly caffeinated iceberg.) I suspect we’re not quite there yet, since the coffee flavor still seems to dominate the drinks in a clumsy way- but man oh man, we’re getting closer to something wonderful.

10. Vodka will develop character.  Usually, vodka bores me. Most have been distilled and filtered to a very limp death. But lately, I’ve been seeing growth among new and interesting vodkas — no longer “odorless and flavorless.” Some have been single varietal vodkas, others (like Karlsson’s, for example), have introduced new vintages each year, reminding me of whiskey or wine. I predict that we’re about to see variety in vodka explode in coming months.

Okay, folks. Have a happy happy and a very merry. See you back here next year.

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You’re invited to the Drink.Think NYC – 12/3 at Jimmy’s No. 43!

Photo credit: Jill Howe, for Drink.Think

Photo credit: Jill Howe, for Drink.Think

Drink.Think is returning to New York! Come out to hear drink and food writers read from their work about beverages, enjoy drinks at the bar, and otherwise celebrate our favorite literary muse – booze!

Date & Time:  Tuesday, December 3, 2013.  The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.

Location:  Jimmy’s No. 43, 43 E. 7th St., New York, NY

Admission: FREE admission. Drinks and food will be available for purchase; books will be available for purchase and signing (hello, holiday gift list!).

Featured Readers:  Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:

Hope to see you there!

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