Tag Archives: bartender

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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?

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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.

DR_Spirits

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.

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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.

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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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Would you put vodka in your Negroni?

So, this writer walks into a bar….

No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s what I did Tuesday night. Not a craft cocktail bar, not a fancy hotel bar, just an ordinary neighborhood bar on my way home. And I ordered what’s become my go-to recently:  “A Negroni, please.”

“Certainly,” the bartender responded. “Would you like that with vodka or gin?”

That gave me a moment’s pause — no one has ever asked me that before!– and I stuttered out my response: “Gin, please.” As the bartender finished another order and then began mine — Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin –I thumbed out a quick post on Twitter:

The responses flew in before I’d even finished my drink. “RUN!” urged @inukena. “YES, RUN!” echoed @feeedme. Emboldened by alcohol, I finally asked the bartender:  “So…do people really order Negronis with vodka?” He nodded solemnly. “Oh, yes. It’s the vodka generation. But personally, I prefer gin.” I polished off the rest of my drink and posted again:

But clearly I had touched a nerve. The responses continued to roll in over the next 24 hours:

@inukena:  (Collective sigh of relief)

@RobertOSimonson:  He still should never ask that question. With a Martini, I’d grudgingly accept it. A Negroni? No.

@LegendofMyself:   you can choose between the Negroni which is with gin, the Negroski with dry vodka and the “wrong” Negroni with brut champagne :)

@orpheum:  People order Negronis with vodka? Shame on them. Shame!

@raelinn_wine:  VILE! pffff vodka in a negroni.

@nikki_d:  Vodka in a negroni? Yikes!

@SpiritManager:  But if you make it with Vodka, is it still a Negroni? Shouldn’t it have a different name?

All this anti-vodka vitriol! OK. So cranky contrarian that I am, I couldn’t help it. Last night, I returned the same bar, and asked the same bartender:  “Negroni, please. But this time….I’ll try it with vodka.”

He did a double-take, but quickly recovered, and made my drink. As he stirred, I explained my reasoning:  My preferred gin for a Negroni is Plymouth, because it’s soft and neutral, and not overly juniper-y. But isn’t that just a step removed from vodka anyway? And wouldn’t bitter Campari overwhelm the nuances in gin, anyhow?

 He nodded, clearly placating the babbling guest, and set my drink down.

So how was it? The gin-based Negroni was much, much better than the vodka version.  I can’t explain why. Frankly, it’s not logical, and the best I can offer is some lame excuse about the alchemy between the three ingredients that make up the cocktail.

But the bartender understood when he saw me push away the barely-touched drink, and repeated his line from the night before.

“Personally, I prefer gin.”

Me too, barkeep. Me too.

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Four things I’ve learned about…Orange Liqueurs

The February 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Orange Liqueurs.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. It’s the “Bartender’s Ketchup.” At least, that’s what one wise-acre bartender I know calls it.  In other words, it’s sweet, versatile, and gets dashed into everything to sweeten and round out drinks.

2. Orange liqueur sweetens roughly 1 in 4 drinks. That’s not an official statistic; that’s my estimate after leafing through I-don’t-know-how-many cocktail menus. In craft cocktail havens, it sweetens fewer, as bartenders diversify with simple syrup, agave nectar, fruit juices and other sweeteners. In sports bars or other less mixological joints, orange liqueur might be dashed into drinks more frequently.

3. I didn’t realize (but should have) that the base of these liqueurs can be anything – brandy, particularly Cognac, is most common, but I also tried tequila/agave and rum based orange liqueurs. It probably makes sense to complement, say, a tequila-based drink with a tequila-based orange liqueur.

4. Most orange liqueurs on the market are Curacaos. It turns out, Curacao is a generic term used when the bitter oranges are grown on the Caribbean island of Curacao. That family includes a number of brand names you’ve likely heard before:  triple sec and Cointreau, for example. The infamous blue curacao also is part of this family. (As an aside – I tried a new “dry curacao” from Ferrand, which I really dug.) 

PS – How do you pronounce it, anyhow?  CURE-a-sow. Though I’ve also heard some more pretentious types add a mysterious “l” on to the end to pronounce it more like “cure-a-cell.” Hmm. I have absolutely no idea where that “l” sound comes from.

If you know — or if you have a favorite orange liqueur or drink that features the Bartender’s Ketchup, I’d love to hear about it, please post a comment!

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