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

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.

Negroni Sbagliatos for a crowd

Image courtesy Manhattan Cocktail Classic

The Manhattan Cocktail Classic has officially drawn to a close. This is one of those epic events where bartenders serve hundreds — in some cases thousands – of cocktails at a go.  There were plenty of mediocre offerings, to be sure. But there were a great many memorable drinks too. And this was perhaps the most memorable drink of them all.

Likely, I was particularly attuned to this drink because of the Cocktails for a Crowd book. No doubt I was paying closer attention than ever before to how batched drinks were presented, ranging from the punch served in painted ceramic punchbowls at Dead Rabbit to colorful pink and orange Palomas decanted into swing-top glass flasks and arrayed on silver platters during a seminar.

But Campari topped them all, offering wee cans of Negroni Sbagliato cocktails. It’s a relatively simple classic cocktail:  Campari, sweet vermouth, and dry sparkling wine, like Prosecco. I first heard of it after Frank Bruni wrote about it a couple of years ago; it started popping up on drink menus shortly thereafter, though it’s still lesser-known vs the Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin).  The cans were handed out at the splashy MCC gala, as well as at a party thrown by the brand a couple of nights later.

Apparently, the genesis of this canned cocktail began at last year’s gala, where Negronis were pre-batched, carbonated and bottled. At the event, bartenders merely popped off the bottle caps and inserted a straw. It was on-trend — arguably, ahead-of-trend– fun to drink and speedy to serve. The canned cocktails had been floated for the 2012 gala, a PR rep told me (as we sipped Sbagliatos, natch), but tabled until 2013.

Apparently, a great deal of effort went into those canned cocktails. They had to be specially made, the cocktail had to be made in large quantities, and they had to be shipped over. The red-and-white striped plastic straws (not paper, which disintegrate quickly), were sourced from Etsy.

Everyone noticed them. From a drinker’s perspective, it was a good cocktail — truly, the most important part of this equation — and it was fun to drink, so people actually walked around and drank from the cans. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t too boozy, so it was one of the few cocktails I actually finished at the Gala. From a marketer’s perspective, it was clearly branded — no mistaking the distinctive Campari red, and it was labeled in big letters anyway, identifying the brand and the name of the drink. It was memorable and everyone asked where to get one. It was clever and not too ostentatious. Even the straws reinforced the branding, but in a tasteful way.

Now here’s where things fall apart. Despite this marketing coup, no one can buy this product. And I heard many people say they would gladly purchase a six-pack of Sbagliatos (I was one of them). You can buy a cans of Pimm’s at convenience stores in the UK, yet in the United States, the Ready-To-Drink category is limited to pouches of awful slushy Margaritas made with fake lime flavoring. If Campari brought the canned Sbagliato product to market, I would consider it to be an outright marketing success. If not, it was just a clever flash-in-the-pan that will need to be topped again next year.

4 Batching Secrets from the Cocktail Pros

Rounds of peel cut from oranges during prep for Manhattan Cocktail Classic

As of this week, Cocktails for a Crowd is officially out there in the wild!

As I’m gearing up for the Manhattan Cocktail Classic this coming weekend and many of my favorite bartenders are winging their way into town, I’m thinking about one of my favorite parts of working on the book:  gathering advice (and recipes) from bartenders.

By design, this book owes a lot to mixologists. Many of the recipes are bartender originals, of course. But I got a kick out of asking bartenders to spill their secrets about batching (creating large batches of drinks), which often happens behind the scenes at events, cocktail conferences (like MCC) and bars, too.

Here are some of my favorite tips — some of this info is in the book, some not.

You can never have too much ice. That’s not a secret, of course. But Portland bartender Kelley Swenson explained how to figure out how much ice is enough:  for each 750 milliliters (3 1/4 cups) of cocktail (the size of a standard bottle of liquor), allot 7 pounds of ice.   Another useful metric: allot 1 to 1.5 pounds of ice per person. Either way, get what you need and then get some more, because (say it with me!) you can never have too much ice.

Mise en place is your best friend. The French culinary term mise en place means “putting in place.” If you’re throwing a soiree, before your guests arrive, put everything you’re making drinks with in place.  EVERYTHING! Squeeze the citrus, set the glassware where you can reach it, make sure you have all the liquor you need (and all the ice too)! When you go to a bar early in the evening and they’re bustling about even though you’re the only guest at the bar, that’s what they’re up to back there — mise en place. You should do it too.

Control the dilution. Watery drinks suck. This is one reason bartenders consider their ice so carefully. If you can use a large block of ice to chill a punch or even a pitcher of drinks, that’s ideal. It melts more slowly than a handful of ice cube tray ice cubes, which seem to dissolve in record time while your guests are still shrugging off their coats.

Jason Asher, head mixologist at Young’s Market of Arizona, was one of the first to flag for me that for batching purposes, you can add the water yourself, and then chill a drink in the refrigerator or set it on ice. “My rule of thumb is 25% to 30% water comes from dilution” caused by shaking a cocktail, he explained. (I worked with 20% to 25% as my baseline for the drinks in the book.) “For a stirred cocktail, I like to add ice, then stir it, taste it, and when it hits the right amount, then strain the ice out.” You wouldn’t want to do this too far in advance — but a few hours ahead, and it works beautifully.

Learn how to make oleosaccharum. I swear it’s the difference between a good punch and a great punch. Try it and see.  In brief, you muddle citrus peel with sugar, and then the magic ingredient is time. Wine Enthusiast recently published an oleosaccharum primer if you’d like more how-to detail.

Thanks for the advice, barkeep!

Introducing my new book – Cocktails for a Crowd!

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVEROn May 14, my new book, Cocktails for a Crowd, will officially hit the shelves!

This one has been in the works for a while. It’s all about batching cocktails for large groups — a concept that professional bartenders know well, but few at-home bartenders do.  If you’ve never heard of “batching” before, it’s what goes on behind the scenes at cocktail conferences and other events:  I have seen bartenders stirring up drinks for 200 people in giant plastic vats, stirring with what look like rowboat oars….and yet, when they’re dispatched into glasses and garnished with care, it looks (and tastes) like the drink was painstakingly made just for one.  So I asked some of the smartest bartenders I knew how that gets done — and how people can do it at home.

This book, which spans punches, pitchers, bottled cocktails and other large-format drinks,  includes updated classics as well as original cocktails from bartenders. (PS, I think this may be the first book to include a range of bottled cocktails!) The lovely photos were taken by Teri Lyn Fisher. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite drinks and techniques in coming weeks.

If you want to be one of the first to get your hands on a copy, it’s available for pre-order now. Perhaps you’re already thinking about summer entertaining or thinking about host/hostess gifts  – if so, I hope you’ll pick up a copy. Cheers!

Garnishes Gone Wild!

Courtesy Wine Enthusiast magazineDon’t pretend cocktails are good for you.

That’s a rule. Cocktails won’t make you healthier. There’s no such thing as a “skinny” cocktail, no matter what reality TV stars may preach. Cocktails aren’t a necessary food group. Cocktails are a luxury and a vice, and that’s why we like them.

So when I received a copy of Alex Ott’s new book, Dr. Cocktail, I turned up my nose at its “homeopathic beverages” message. Healing and invigorating! Hangover cures and magic tinctures! Really, now. (I do, however buy into the “Anti-Stress Cocktails” conceit — a good drink surely is one of the best anti-stress fixes around. But so’s a good hour at the gym.)

But I’m glad I didn’t toss this book aside. It has some of the best creative garnish ideas I’ve seen in some time.  Lemon wheels are sliced into translucent squares. Orange twists are rolled into rosebuds, accented with a fresh green bay leaf, or stamped into stars (as in the photo above). Cucumbers are carved into miniature crowns. I may not buy into the concept of the otherwise lovely gin drink adorned by that cucumber crown – “The Fountain of Youth” — but this book is worth flipping through to learn more about garnishes. Detailed, useful instructions are provided — even experienced bartenders will learn a new trick or two. 

I used some of Ott’s ideas, plus others around the country, in my “Garnishes Gone Wild!” article for Wine Enthusiast magazine, including a special zoom-in for the online edition, “One Fruit, Two Garnishes. “

After researching this article and learning about zany, inspired ideas for topping cocktails (three words:  dried chicken foot!),  I’d like to propose another book idea:  how about a book dedicated solely to creative drink garnishes?

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:

DR_full monty

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.

DR_cocktail menu

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.