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!

4 tips on cocktail book publishing – MCC recap

At the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I organized and moderated a seminar, “Is There a Book Idea on Your Cocktail Menu?” As an author (and now, a hired gun for book proposals and book co-writing), this is a topic close to my heart.

My seminar was part of the “Industry Invitational,” meaning the room was packed with those in the trade. And I do mean the room was PACKED — I suspect that had a lot do do with the all-star panel, which included Jim Meehan of PDT and the PDT Cocktail Book, and Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters — both fresh off of their respective James Beard wins! — Maks Pazuniak and Kirk Estopinal, bartenders and authors, and Hang Time publisher Lori Narlock.

A few key takeaways from the panel:

1. Be prepared to write a lengthy book proposal.  This is the document you need to sell a book to a traditional publishing house — it outlines the scope of the book. Jim’s proposal ran about 20 pages (that’s about the same length my proposals tend to run for cookbook projects too). Meanwhile, Brad created a detailed book proposal that was 60 pages long. 

Lori Narlock explained why the proposal is key:  “That’s your blueprint,” she said. And from an publisher’s standpoint, “if you can’t write a proposal, you can’t write a book. You need to commit.”

2. Your agent is not your mom. Apparently some people get that confused.

3. Options exist outside of traditional publishing houses. For example, Maks and Kirk, who describe their Beta Cocktails book as “a punk rock complilation album,” went the self-publishing route. It took a $3,000 investment to get it done, but I’ve seen that lovely little volume sell out every time I go to Tales of the Cocktail, so I’ll assume they’ve recouped the expense (or are darn close). And even inside publishing houses, the “book” format has become fluid.  I love what Lori has started: innovative mini “e-books” of 10 cocktail recipes each, as she ramps up Hang Time’s full-length book offerings.

4. Your publisher won’t sell the book — you have to do it!  What I found most interesting here was how other people promote their books. For bartenders (Jim, Maks, Kirk), having the platform of the bar seems to be effective. Jim is also a proponent of using video to show how drinks are made and to build excitement. However…while social media has proven to be an effective tool for Brad for keeping Bitters in the conversation, Jim is emphatically — I might say gleefully!– not on either Facebook or Twitter.

Come to my seminar at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic!

Is there a book idea on your cocktail menu? If you’re a bartender or cocktail enthusiast considering writing a book, come hear an all-star panel of authors and publishers share their secrets about the book biz, and how they got their cocktail books written and published.

I’m really excited about this panel – as an author, this is a subject close to my heart. Hope to see you there!

Where: The Manhattan Cocktail Classic - Industry Invitational. At the Andaz Hotel (485 Fifth Ave., Second Floor, Liquor.com room – Studio 1BC).

When: Saturday, May 12, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm.

Who:  I’ll be moderating the panel, which includes Jim Meehan, managing partner of PDT and author of The PDT Cocktail Book; Lori Narlock,  publisher, Hang Time Press; Brad Thomas Parsons, author, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All; and Maks Pazuniak & Kirk Estopinal, co-authors/publishers of Beta Cocktails.

What: The cocktail book landscape is changing – fast! Will this be YOUR year to publish a cocktail book and kick your career up to the next level?

Two of 2011’s strongest sellers were Bitters (which went into its second publishing run just one month after it came out) and PDT’s acclaimed new cocktail book. But in addition to conventional publishing, new paths are available for the bartender (or cocktail enthusiast) with something to say. Consider the cult success of Rogue Cocktails/Beta Cocktails, which was self-published, or the even newer e-publishing options for iPads, Kindles and other devices. One new publisher (Hang Time Press) is even publishing e-books containing 10 drinks apiece.

* Learn about the changing book publishing landscape for cocktail books.
* Get the details on self-publishing and e-publishing a cocktail book.
* Hear from the experts how they sold their book projects.
* Gather ideas for developing and selling your own cocktail book.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Blended Scotch Whiskey

The September 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Blended Scotch Whiskey.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. We hear constantly about single malt Scotches, but not much about blends. Some of them are pretty darn good. (of course, some not so much.)

2. What is blended Scotch?  The Scotch Whisky Association provides downright draconian guidelines. For starters, It comes from Scotland.  Yes, this seems obvious, but I think it bears noting that the “blend” doesn’t mean whiskey from other countries can be blended in there. It’s all Scotch whisky (the Scots drop the ‘e’), and it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. However — it may be bottled in other countries.

3.  (aka “2a”) There’s at least one Single Malt Scotch in blended Scotches. The pesky SWA has more to mandate here: Blended Scotch mixes together one or more Single Malt Scotches, often with one or more Single Grain Scotches. For this tasting, blends ranged up to 40 different whiskies in a single bottle (that was Johnny Walker Black Label). A blend that contains only Single Malts is called a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky.

4. (aka “2b”) Wait, so now I have to figure out the difference between Single Malt and Single Grain Scotches? Damn you, SWA. Fine:

–Malt whiskey is made from malted barley (grain that’s been germinated or sprouted), and is distilled in old-fashioned pot stills, considered an essential part of the whisky’s flavor and character.

–By comparison, grain whisky, which mixes together malted barley with unmalted grains (primarily corn), is distilled in a continuous still – a more efficient technology than old-school pot stills, but many experts say the resulting liquor is correspondingly less flavorful.

(*Screeching to a halt*)  You know what?  I’m changing my “what I learned” points here:

3. (Revised) The Scotch Whisky Association is a pain in the butt.

4. (Revised)  It’s a good thing that I have a copy of Gaz Regan’s “Bartender’s Bible” to help clarify the finer points of Scotch nuisance appreciation.

5. Where was I before that peevish digression? Right. Bartenders are understandably reluctant to mix rare Single Malts into cocktails. But they are less skittish about mixing more readily available –and often more affordable– blended Scotches into classic drinks like the Blood and Sand or the Bobby Burns.

…Or to create original new cocktails. In fact, at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May, bartender Jason Asher created the Northshore Cocktail for my “Whiskey is the New Black” seminar, made with Peat Monster from Compass Box. It turned out to be a lovely, smoky riff on the tiki genre. Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, and be sure to to curse, I mean toast, the SWA when you drink.

Northshore Cocktail

By Jason Asher

1/2 ounce Hum liqueur

3/4 ounce Monin almond or orgeat syrup

1/2 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce Peat Monster whiskey

Serve on rocks, garnish w/ lemon peel

Scenes from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic – Sunday

At this point, I’ve been asked a few times how I make it through booze-soaked events like the MCC without becoming utterly sozzled. My response is a simple one:  Receive a drink. Take 3 sips. PUT THE DRINK DOWN, and move away. If I continue to hold the drink, I’ll continue to sip it while I’m chatting with someone.

This was a valuable strategy yesterday, since I believe I went through easily 2 dozen cocktails and spirits pours in this manner. Rather than list every drink, here are a few highlights.

The cocktail I most wanted to finish (but didn’t): Brompton Cocktail (Tito’s Vodka, Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters, Licor 43, Lillet Rouge, lemon twist)

Most intriguing and maddening spirit:  At a tasting held at Amor y Amargo, I sampled the intriguing Sir Walt’s, an oddly savory liqueur with caraway and anise notes, and a gin-like finish. Maddening because the rep insisted it had ginger notes, and I didn’t detect any. Maddening because I want some and it’s not sold in the U.S. (although another rep suggested I could purchase it online from the UK’s Whiskey Exchange).

Best marketing attention-getter:  Patron effortlessly coaxed me over to their flavored tequila corner of the world with whoopie pies infused with their coffee tequila and orange tequila. The enormous branded cell phone charging station also brought lots of people over….who stayed to babysit their precious devices while sipping drinks like the  “Ultimat Breakfast” (Patron XO Cafe, Ultimat vodka, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, heavy cream, dusting of cayenne pepper).

Wildest bartender technique:  Chad Solomon used a Cryovac to infuse an orange slice with curry spices, which he used to garnish a drink at last night’s Campari event. I foolishly did not capture a photo of the drink, but here’s a shot of another curried Campari drink. This photo shows suave Italian bartender Francesco LaFranconi finishing a Campari drink (dosed with a teaspoon of curry powder) with coconut foam.

Scenes from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic – Friday/Saturday

It’s been a crazy couple of days here at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, so I’ll let the photos do the talking:
 

Friday Night  – Gala

I couldn’t fit a camera in my teeny vintage purse. The following 3 photos are courtesy of belathee.com.

MCC  signage inside the New York Public Library 

 

This shot-sized drink was made with gin, chamomile tea, and raspberries, and was garnished with a rose petal.

 
 

  Adam Seger, looking fab as usual.  

Saturday: MCC Seminars

For me, the big highlight of the day was my “Whiskey Is The New Black” seminar. I was pretty much consumed with making sure all went well behind the scenes, so I didn’t take many photos. (I’ll save my tales about panic over the whiskey that almost didn’t show, transporting 15 pounds of cheese for whiskey/cheese pairings, and the supreme awesomeness of my panelists – Michter’s distiller Willie Pratt and mixologist Jason Asher – for another day). The couple of snaps I managed were taken “backstage” in the kitchen area, and were taken hastily with my cellphone. I’m a little embarrassed to have them on the same page as professional-quality photos, but they do more or less reflect the hurried quality of my day.

Oranges roasting on the stovetop – I think these were intended for the Italian Aperitivi seminar, as Negroni garnishes.
 
 The amazing sideboard of ingredients for the volunteer mixologists to use in batching the hundreds (thousands?) of drinks being served in seminars.