Dan Smith Will Teach You How To Drink

If you’ve lived in New York for any amount of time, you’re familiar with the fliers posted in every record store and coffee shop promising, “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar.” They’ve been around for at least a decade, possibly longer. So I was gleeful to see that a new East Village restaurant, King Bee, had created a drink with that name when it opened last week, wink-wink all you long-time New York denizens. So gleeful, in fact, that I promptly tweeted:

Sometimes I forget that celebrities have twitter accounts. Even NYC micro-celebrities. So I searched, and lo and behold, there he was.

I was pleasantly surprised when he replied, though he dashed my meta-dreams of trying out his eponymous drink with me:

How many of us have a drink named after us? A little (sincere) flattery seemed in order.

Now, here’s the kicker. I guess the moral of the story is, if your brand ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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

A Tequila Sunrise for grown-ups

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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.

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.

Why the best cocktail doesn’t always win

Make that cocktail work.

Last night, I fell asleep while watching Project Runway. While the contestants  buzzed about the workroom in the usual frenetic panic, the on-screen mayhem manifested itself in an unusual way:  I dreamed that I too was a contestant — in a cocktail contest. “Taste this,” I urged an imaginary co-contestant in my dream. “It’s missing something, isn’t it?” I raced around the workroom in my head, pressure building as the clock ticked down (“we’re out of ice!” I screeched), my hands shaking as I tried to pleat a lemon peel into a “make it work” garnish.

Oh, the drama.

I don’t have to be Freud to interpret this particular dream:  I’ve been judging a number of cocktail contests lately. This is a task I enjoy – tasting drinks from talented bartenders, hearing the stories behind the drinks, rendering an opinion.

But usually, I’m one of a panel of judges.  (Hey, just like the panel of judges on Project Runway!)  At the weekly Mixology Mashup held at Coppelia, I was one of three; at the Caorunn Gin “Storytellers” competition at Tales of the Cocktails, one of four; and at the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up held at Weather Up to benefit baristas and bartenders, one of five judges. Obviously, the greater the number of judges, the greater the number of opinions. And the drink I think is best isn’t necessarily the one that takes home the prize. Here’s why:

Different judges bring different viewpoints to the table. The Coffee/Cocktail Mashup is a prime example:  I voted based on which cocktail I preferred. But the coffee expert sitting next to me was more interested in the characteristics of the coffee varieties used.

Sometimes one judge gets the deciding vote. This is particularly so at more informal confabs. For example, at the Coppelia event I attended, Chef Julian Medina selected the winner, breaking a tie. (On Project Runway, I suspect that Nina Garcia always casts the deciding vote. But I digress…)

Showmanship often trumps the drink. On paper, it’s all about the drink — and a great recipe can get a bartender to the contest finals. But in person, it’s also about the bartender’s attire and demeanor and their ability to wow the judges. At the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up, the winning drink was delicious, but it didn’t hurt that it was also the only drink that came with a Polynesian soundtrack and was set on fire!

A poor story can undermine a great drink. When presenting a drink, usually a bartender will explain a little about the inspiration behind the drink. This was especially true at the Caorunn event, which was explicitly about “storytelling.” One bartender presented a drink…and then proceeded to tell a long story about tuberculosis. I don’t even remember the drink — the offputting sad-sack story completely torpedoed what was probably a perfectly fine cocktail. But my notes — full of detail about the other drinks in the line-up — had just one pleading line for this contestant. Please stop talking about tuberculosis, I’d scrawled.

The next time I fall asleep watching Project Runway, I hope I dream about Tim Gunn instead.