Where to find me at Tales of the Cocktail

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If you’re headed to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans next week, please come say hello! Here’s where you’ll find me — that is, when I’m not tippling at one of NOLA’s many amazing bars:

Wednesday, July 16, 1:00-2:30 PM:  Innovation: Pathbreaker or Abomination? seminar

We’ll be talking about “the good, the bad and the ugly of innovation” — including the thought process behind creating innovative new spirits and other products; when does innovation enhance the industry and when does it harm it?; the difference between how consumers and the trade perceive innovation; and what journalists look for when deciding whether to write about innovative new products.

Panel participants include Avery Glasser of Bittermens; William Grant brand ambassador and self-described “cheeky monkey” Freddy May; Derek Elefson, a veteran of the flavor industry, and me. Audrey Fort of Domaine Select is moderating the panel.

This panel is intended for “the industry” — bartenders, spirits producers and the like — but if you’re an interested civilian I’d strongly encourage you to attend for one simple reason:  a crazy-innovative cocktail will be served. And it’s something you can’t get anywhere else. I can’t reveal what it is (yet), but when Audrey told me what it was I stopped and said….”Wait. You can DO that?!?”

Friday, July 18, 2:30-3:00 PM:  Cocktails for a Crowd book signing

I’ll be in the lobby of the Monteleone signing copies of my book about big-batch cocktails. Drop by and pick up a personalized copy to find punches, pitchers and bottled cocktails to make for your next summer soiree, or to give as a gift for your favorite host or hostess.

See you in New Orleans!

Spirited Award finalist! This one is for the bartenders.

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVEROver the Memorial Day weekend, I received some particularly exciting news: Cocktails for a Crowd was named a Spirited Award finalist in the “Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book” category. The awards – part of the Tales of the Cocktail conference held in July – are a very big deal within the drinks industry, honoring bars, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and writers/authors from all over the world.

Though I’ve attended the awards before (this will be my 7th time at Tales!), this is the first time I’ve been been a finalist. And it’s particularly meaningful that the nod is for Cocktails for a Crowd, because the book has its roots at Tales – where I first saw really good drinks being batched in enormous quantities – and incorporates advice and recipes from so many bartenders I’ve met there over the years.

Take a look at the full list of finalists – I’m up against some hard-hitters and winning this is a long shot (although wouldn’t that just be the alcoholic frosting on an already booze-soaked cake?!?).

So I’m going to go ahead and say thank you now to the bartenders who contributed recipes and insight for Cocktails for a Crowd:  Jason Asher, Scott Baird, Corey Bunnewith, Martin Cate, Kevin Diedrich, Tasha Garcia-Gibson, Charles Joly, Ryan Maybee, Jim Meehan, Stephen Savage, Colin Shearn, and Kelley Swenson. Many of these fine folks are up for awards themselves this year, and at the awards ceremony, it’s for them I will be cheering myself most hoarse.

Baijiu: it’s coming for you, America

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Front view of the ByeJoe box.

Are Americans ready for baijiu, China’s overproof firewater?

 

No, they are not. But baiju is coming for them anyway.

 

Here’s what’s going on:

 

Baijiu – a clear, rice- or grain-based spirit produced in China – has long been a staple of business culture in China. A friend living in Shanghai explained it to me this way “that’s what Chinese businessmen drink, and if you’re doing business in China, may as well get used to it, because repeated baijiu toasts at long banquets are de rigueur for doing business here.”

 

Usually, it’s distilled at a tongue-numbing 100 proof or higher (by comparison, vodka usually is bottled at 80 proof), and it’s downed as a shot. Matching your host shot-for-baijiu-shot at a banquet is a test of endurance and solidarity. To the Western palate, it “tastes slightly worse than petrol,” my friend insists.

 

But times are changing in China. Younger drinkers in China are favoring Western-style tipples (wine, beer, whiskey, brandy) over traditional baijiu. And most troubling of all: a crackdown on Chinese officials’ lavish spending has affected domestic sales of baijiu, a customary drink at those legendary banquets and a common luxury gift.

 

Uh-oh.

 

So baijiu producers are setting their sights on Western drinkers. Never mind that baijiu is the top-selling liquor in the world (according to International Wine & Spirit Research, baijiu accounts for more than a third of all spirits consumed globally). Outside of Asia, few have heard of baijiu. But by this time next year, that may change.

 

Signs of the times:

 

More baijiu bottlings are coming to the U.S.: The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, often a harbinger of trends in the marketplace, wrapped up a few weeks ago. Of note: increased entries of the Chinese spirit, Baijiu.

 

More producer-led industry education is available: Moutai (a producer of baijiu) has been sponsoring events at conferences (LA cocktail week, Tales of the Cocktail), hiring brand ambassadors to promote the spirit. And Americans seem interested in learning more: at the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, the “Baijiu: Demystified” seminar has already sold out.

 

More English-language information is becoming available: Author Derek Sandhaus has a new English language)book called “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits,” released by Penguin Books Australia.

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to Western palates: London (a particularly adventurous and forward-looking cocktail city), held its first-ever Baijiu Cocktail Week in January (timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year).

 

More baijiu cocktails suited to AMERICAN palates:  In LA, Peking Tavern opened a few months ago, calling itself a “Beijing gastropub.” It’s probably the only place in the US right now where you can sip baijiu cocktails like the “Bloody Mei Lee” (Bloody Mary variation, natch). Peking Coffee (baijiu, coffee and horchata liqueur) or Wong Chiu Punch (baijiu, hibiscus, fresh lemon juice).  My opinion: cocktails are the only hope for getting Americans to drink baijiu.

 

American-made baijius are starting to pop up:  Personally, I think these stand a better chance of gaining traction than Chinese-made versions – they tend to be lower proof, and have packaging that’s more accessible to American buyers. Houston, Texas-based distillery Byejoe USA is importing a baijiu base that is then filtered and sold in the U.S.  (It’s 40% abv, infused with fruity flavors, and tastes like vodka, in my opinion. It’s also packaged in a cutesy-poo box that looks like a Chinese food takeout container.) Meanwhile, Portland, OR-based Vinn Distillery is producing a small-batch artisan baijiu.
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Top of the ByeJoe box.

 

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.

How super high-proof spirits are like “the flashiest girl in the room”

My article about super high-proof spirits (“Idiot Proof“) went up on Slate yesterday morning.

Although I stand behind my opinion — that I prefer lower-proof spirits, and that above 90 proof, most spirits lose what makes them nuanced and drinkable - whoo, those Slater/haters sure do love to argue! The contentious comments have stacked up fast. Luckily, the editors at Slate encourage provocative topics and good arguments.

Yet, I can’t help wondering how the haters might have responded to this comment about rising alcohol proofs, which had to be removed (because it’s not attributed):

“It’s gotten over-the-top,” one well-known producer (who asked not to be named) told me over shots of (pleasantly 80-proof) bourbon. Some distillers use high-proof spirits to attract attention, he hypothesized, comparing pumped-up alcohol volume to a dramatic boob job. “It’s like they’re trying to be the flashiest girl in the room,” he continued. “It’s a way of saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’”

Funny how timing works out, too. The article was written months ago – but now, it’s being published only days before my Tales of the Cocktail seminar on Low Octane Libations. That seminar will focus more about praising lower-proof cocktails rather than bashing higher-proof variations. Then again, Tales is about the cocktail lovers — not the haters.

A story three years in the making

The “Cooperage in Spirits” story that became the cover story for the August 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal magazine was nearly three years in the making.

Three years! Some whiskey spends less time in barrels than that.

For me, it all started at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, when Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace gave a small group of journalists an early peek at what was about to become the Single Oak Project:  an experiment that painstakingly isolated variables including mash bill, aging time and environment, distillation techniques and barrel types in pursuit of creating “The Holy Grail” of Bourbon.

A total of 1400 experimental barrels were created — many with only seemingly minute differences. The experimental bottlings were slated for release starting in 2011, and many since have been widely lauded.

“We’re considering American, Canadian, Mongolian, and Japanese oak,” in addition to the standard French oak, Brown told us, explaining that some added sweet notes (Canadian), while others added spice (Mongolian).  “We’re looking at different oak grains, and different barrel sizes.”

To drive the point home, we did a comparative tasting of whiskeys aged in fine- and wider-grained barrels. The former showed a more-developed caramel character, while the latter had a hotter feel because more liquid had evaporated through the grain, leaving a more concentrated, higher-proof spirit in the barrel.

It was an eye-opener.

This article afforded me the luxury of diving deep into this admittedly geeky topic — learning why cooperage expert Brad Boswell says “60 to 70 percent of a spirit’s aroma, flavor, and color comes from the barrels.”

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.