Tag Archives: Tales of the Cocktail

Low Octane Libations: “cocktails are balanced libations that bring people together to celebrate life.”

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.


July 25, 2013 · 3:58 pm

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.

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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.”

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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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What’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

I’ve just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktails and spirits conference/bacchanal held in New Orleans.

What’s fresh in my mind is the final question posed at the final seminar I attended, “Drinking on Deadline,” a panel discussion about drink writers moderated by drink writer extraordinaire Paul Clarke, with Dave Wondrich and Wayne Curtis.  

Since it was asked quite literally at the last minute of the seminar, it was never properly answered:  what’s the difference between tasting notes and reviews?

 As someone who writes plenty of both, I have a simple response:  Tasting notes describe; reviews judge.

Tasting notes, like menu descriptions, are intended to explain what’s in the bottle, allowing the reader to decide for themselves whether it’s something they might like. It’s usually a short blurb that describes the aromas, flavors and texture, with perhaps a nod to the color or method of distillation if that’s notable. But what’s important here is that it’s a neutral description. For example:

Tequila X:  The scent of this tequila is almost like an infused vodka –  zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel.

By comparison, reviews are intended to judge a product. Sometimes numerical scores, stars or other rankings are used; but often it’s a matter of language. Spirits may be described as “lovely” or “inferior” to another bottling. In any case, the goal is to provide the reader with direction to try or not try the spirit. If a tasting note is akin to a menu description, a review is similar to asking the sommelier or waiter for a recommendation on what to order. For example:

Tequila X:  94  Among the best of the blancos. The scent is almost like an infused vodka, zingy, bright, citrusy and sweet. It also has a relatively sweet flavor, with hits of lemon and pepper on the finish. Smooth, soft feel, and definitely Margarita material.

(and yes, that’s text from an actual review.)

Is there a gray area? Sure. Most notably, when writers compile tasting notes, and editors add a headline that changes the meaning. For example,  “5 new piscos” becomes “5 great piscos” or “5 piscos to try,” adding an implication that these bottlings are recommended above others. It changes the scope from neutral to recommended, even if that wasn’t the author’s original intent.

Questions? Disagreements? Want to write a review of this post (or a tasting note)? Use the reply box below for your poison pen screed.


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Spicy Spirits: Fireball Whiskey

I’m psyched to see more cinnamon-flavored spirits coming out in the market.

I was a fan of De Kuyper’s “Hot Damn!” cinnamon schnapps, which was on the market/ then off the market /and now back in 80 and 100 proof format. The version I tried (before the relaunch) reminded me of those tiny red-hot candies — very sweet, but lots of sizzle. 

In addition, Hiram Walker is launching “Original Cinn,” also a cinnamon schnapps, clocking in at 90 proof. I’ve not yet tried the product, but their marketing boilerplate promises an “aroma like fresh-baked cinnamon rolls with notes of vanilla and a warm, spicy finish on the palate.” 

And last week, at Tales of the Cocktail, I tried Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, and frankly I was ready to pocket the bottle and bring it home. It’s made with Canadian whiskey, and has the usual caramel/vanilla notes and amber hue found in the spirit. But the taste, heat level, and finish truly reminded me of those round red fireball candies — in other words, hot stuff!  Unlike liqueurs, it wasn’t overly sweet, either. I’m dreaming of mixing it with fall apple cider.

However, I’m not so much a fan of the tagline printed on the back:  “tastes like heaven, burns like hell.”  The heat was more of a gentle glow than a Tabasco-like fiery furnace. I suspect that “burns like hell” will scare off less adventurous imbibers.

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Scenes from Tales of the Cocktail

Greetings from New Orleans!  Here are a few early snaps to share the goings-on….a more detailed post to come later.

duckies flating in punch at the Beefeater party

Simon Difford and friend


Jeff Berry & Martin Cate

"Green Chartreuse - it can help you look younger too"



The Blanche DuBois at Bar Tonique

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Tales Preview: Spirited Dinners, Spicy Cocktails

Tales of the Cocktail is just one week away!  Already my mind is in New Orleans.

One of last year’s highlights was the tiki-themed Spirited Dinner. This year, I’ve already reserved my spot for RioMar. (holler if you’ll be there too!)  In browsing through the options, I’m delighted by the bold cocktail choices dotting the menus, such as:

Gabriel’s Share (@ Bacco): Cognac, Sauternes, black peppercorns, sweet cherries  (Quite a few peppercorn-spiked cocktails on the menus this year!)

Ocam’s Second Thought (@Boucherie) Bols Genever, Domaine de Canton, Trader Tiki vanilla syrup, Thai chile pepper

Pop (@Coquette) celery soda, vodka, Louisana hot sauce, lemon juice & peel, celery seeds

Paulina Meat Market Cooler (@Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse) Meat-infused cachaca, roasted chipotle pepper, agave nectar, fresh watermelon juice, lime juice

And yes, that only takes me to “D” in the list of restaurants, which should give an indication of how many other fabulous spicy cocktails are available if you make it through the entire list. Go ahead, make a reservation. You know you want to.

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Tales of the Cocktail Preview: Fern Bars

Wait, we’ve barely finished detoxing from the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, and already I’m talking about Tales of the Cocktail? You betcha. Already I’m looking forward to attending The Smooth and Creamy History of the Fern Bar, to be led by tiki tastemaker Martin Cate.  In a nutshell, Cate traces a line from “fern bars” to frozen-Margarita-slushie-abomination chains like TGI Friday’s and Bennigan’s, as well as the Regal Beagle of Three’s Company fame.

Cates’s tiki-themed Spirited Dinners are always one of the highlights of Tales, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to inquire what polyester-attired mischief he’s up to this time.

Kara:  Tell us about the Fern Bar concept you have planned for Tales.

Martin Cate:  The event started as a conversation between me and Jeff Berry, we were talking about this forgotten and despised era in history. It came up recently because I became interested in Norman Hobday – his name is mentioned in Tony Abou-Ganim’s book as a legendary cocktail figure. I did some research and started to learn more about him. His bar, Henry Africa’s in San Francisco, was considered by most to be the first Fern Bar. Hobday was an esoteric character. He wore safari suits and was a larger-than-life figure. He had the idea to do this bar, more like your grandmother’s sitting room vs. a dark, dungeon-y space. It attracted professionals, girls, and changed the bar into a more relaxed, familial atmosphere.

It’s widely thought that he invented the Lemon Drop. He was something of a crazed character. He invented a chain, went out of business, came back later, started another. He’s a cocktail impresario of the era…but unlike Don the Beachcomber or Jerry Thomas, he’s alive.

Is he coming to Tales?

No, he won’t be there, but I’ll be interviewing him for the event. Has a place in San Francisco. He has this cat – a Katrina rescue cat, named Mr. Higgins. He’s huge – he has to be the biggest cat I’ve ever seen. He sleeps on the bar. It has to be one of those strange, only-in-San-Francisco stories. It’s a story of the era, the style, the look and feel of the era.

We’ll be talking about what made these places popular, what was their appeal, their draw. The cocktails – universally hated now, these ice cream, syrupy drinks. But people were crazy about them. I don’t think the trend will go back. But when you look at the drinks you can say – what were the inspirations? What were the flavors? That you can apply to current mixology. Sure you can dismiss the ingredients as high fat, etc. But what was it that people got a kick out of with these drinks? Tastes change, but there’s something to be learned.

It will be fun, a lively affair, with music and entertaining apparel. We’ll keep it light and breezy, like a top AM hit.


The Regal Beagle - the ultimate Fern Bar

So a Fern Bar is…what exactly? 

The look and feel is Victorian looking. It’s got brass rails and Tiffany lamps and lots of things like lots of ferns and potted palms. You can see that example in films. It’s a place for yuppies – the 70s into the 80s. Great example:  The Regal Beagle in Three’s Company is the archetypal fern bar – California yuppies with feathered hair enjoying ice cream drinks in a Victorian parlor-esque setting.  It started in very early 70s, popular through the 70s, and petered out in mid 80s.

You’re going to single-handedly revive this, aren’t you?

I hope not!  But it’s a change of pace from tiki. I just thought it was uncovered territory. People want to shove it under the mat. I hope people get a kick out of it.

What drinks are you planning to serve up?

We’re putting the final touches on it now. I don’t want to spoil it by telling too much. They’re going to be frozen. They’ll be the lesser-known ones from the era, rather than go to the Lemon Drop, Harvey Wallbangers, wine spritzers, Fuzzy Navels, Pina Coladas.

Wanna share one?

No. I’m afraid if I share one people will stay away. My descriptions will challenge your concept of “good.”

One thing I can tell you is that we’re devoting the latter part of it to a singles mixer – we’ll put on mellow 70s tunes and say hello to all the pretty ladies.

It’s like that Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin –

Two Wild & Crazy Guys? It’s not entirely unrelated.

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6 ways to fast-track from bartender to mixologist

I’m not a mixologist, but I have access to insight from some of the best and brightest in the biz. This shortlist is based on intel gathered from conversations with those mixologists and other experts, as well as what I’ve observed first hand.

And yes, I know some people bristle at “mixologist” used as a fancy-pants term for bartender, but in this case I mean it to reflect someone who has achieved professional success in the field, sort of an as-chef-is-to-cook analogy.  From what I’ve seen and been told, success follows those who take some or all of the following steps:

1. Enroll in BarSmarts. A disclaimer up front:  I’ve not personally taken this course. But I’ve heard from smart people I trust that it’s a worthwhile educational program, and a far cry from crappy “Bartender School” programs that teach you to mix Apple-Tinis. The introductory “Wired” course opens for registration on July 1, and it’s a prerequisite for the more advanced programs that follow.

2. Join the US Bartenders Guild, or better still, a local chapter. The point is to get involved, build contacts, avail yourself of educational opportunities….and cocktail competition opportunities! Winning a few cocktail contests builds your visibility fast and makes you highly marketable.

3. Apply for the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail.  It’s competitive, but it’as also a networking hot-button. Personally, I think the term “apprentice” is misleading — it implies that the individual is a newbie who is “apprenticing” him or herself to the masters. Most of the CAPs, as they’re known at Tales, are up-and-comers who already have considerable skill and experience.  A year from now, they’ll all be celebrities in the mixology world, so if you’re at Tales this year and meet someone in the CAP program, be nice to them. (Besides, they’re doing menial labor and making your drinks and likely nursing a wicked hangover, all of which is reason enough to be nice to them anyway!)

4. Build a website or write a blog. Or better still, do both. One of the big differences between a “bartender” and a “mixologist” is the marketing. The world is now online, so put yourself out there and build a presence and a platform for yourself. (If you’re looking for an online resource to help you get started, I recommend ProBlogger.)  Which takes me to my next tip…

5. Write a book. You know you have expertise and great drink recipes to share. Plus, a book gives you a product to promote besides yourself , and can help catapult you to the next position. (If you have an idea, but don’t have the time or inclination to write,  email me, and let’s talk. This is what I do!)

6. Practice your craft. Wait, did you think the headline promised 6 EASY ways to fast-track? There’s still no substitute for knowing what you are doing. Even if you don’t consider yourself a master yet, get out there and be the best bartender you can be, at any level. Take a leadership role if you can. Learn about your ingredients, practice great hospitality, and just plain make amazing drinks.  Tips 1 through 5 above might help you add to your knowledge, personal network, and visibility, but only you can make yourself into a great mixologist.

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