Pictorial: pineapples as bar decor

Over the last couple of years, the pineapple has had a resurgence as “a sign of hospitality,” a historic refrain. No wonder I’ve been seeing an uptick in pineapples used as decor in bastions of hospitality – bars and restaurants. Here are a few recent examples.

At Dear Irving, as bartop adornment.  

Votive holder, at Mother of Pearl.  

Wall sconce, at MiddleBranch.   
Brass pineapple cocktail cup. This was at Tales of the Cocktail, but I’ve seen them at many bars around NYC and elsewhere.   

Floor tile, at Florian.  



10 puzzling new liquor products seen at WSWA

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) conference in Orlando, FL. It was my first time attending, and it was an eye-opener, to be sure.

I’d been warned ahead of time:  “It’s not a craft cocktail conference;” and “It’s not Tales of the Cocktail.” Which is is code for, “hey, liquor snob, don’t expect anyone to debate the merits of which vermouth is best in a Negroni.” Which is fine by me:  there’s a whole world out there beyond the speakeasy set.

But I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the products I’d find on the WSWA conference floor. Some have me outright baffled — why is there a need for cognac-flavored moonshine? and others have me scratching my head, but I can see the market. Take a look:

Penthouse flavored vodkas.

Penthouse-branded cherry-flavored vodkas infused with herbs intended to enhance libido, “for him” and “for her.” I learned later that the magazine has nothing to do with the product, by the way, it’s just a licensed brand.


Sinfully THINN whiskey: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the media about how this is being marketed as a “diet whiskey” and isn’t that just awful. I have to be honest, no one said a peep to me about diet anything. Rather, they harped about how this is “light whiskey,” which is a new category no one has ever tried before. (C’mon, I can’t be the only one who remembers Kansas whiskey.) “It’s like white dog and we clean it up,” chirped the marketing rep. It tasted like vodka.


Chilled Dills pickle flavored vodka! I liked this one – had me thinking Bloody Marys and Picklebacks.


Jevo: Described as a “Keurig for jello shots.” It’s created by someone who has a background in technology rather than the hospitality industry. It has a big old electronic ad slapped on the front and they were already marketing this as a vehicle for Pinnacle flavored vodka. I suspect this is going to do very well. You can watch it in action here.


It’s alcohol butterscotch pudding. IN A POUCH. “It’s like Go-Gurt for grown-ups,” I was told. 


These are BuzzBallz. Premixed cocktails in ball-shaped cans. The container floats. The juice wasn’t bad, if a little sweet – they do both wine- and liquor-based versions. I can see this doing very well.

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Vodka, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Tequila, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don't understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don’t understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

Cocktail batching horror stories


Batched & bottled Negronis from yesterday’s event at Grape & Grain.

This past weekend, I visited with the Jacksonville, FL chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). The game plan was to talk about Cocktails for a Crowd — but although much of the book is informed by advice from bartenders, I was worried:  what could I possibly tell these USBG pros that they didn’t already know?

So I prepped for the event by turning to other bartenders, asking them for their craziest stories about batching cocktails. Here’s what they told me (names removed to protect the innocent & lightly edited). In general, I learned three lessons in particular:


“We were batching cocktails for an event once for the Kentucky Derby in a hallway outside the main venue, and had about 35 gallons of cocktails picked up and locked in a closet by a janitor because he thought it was paint left out. We went for sandwiches before the event started. We came back and thought someone took them all. Had to come up with something on the fly. Found out a couple of days later what happened.” –Louisville, KY-based bartender.

“Spent a couple of days figuring out how to clarify lime juice for a pre-batched Moscow Mule.

Ended up making about a half gallon of clarified lime only for it to be thrown out because someone wanted the cambro to make ice-tea. [NOTE FROM KARA: A Cambro is a plastic storage container, aka. “restaurant size Tupperware.”] Two days work literally down the drain right before a busy weekend where the drink was supposed to be featured.

For awhile we would tape down the lids of the cambro with descriptions, dates, and death threats.”  – Oakland, CA-based bartender


“A former boss hired me to come to his 10-year college reunion & make drinks & give a talk. About 500 people where scheduled to be there. I got the specs, the menu, and prepared a talk related to historical drinks to the school.

I planned to make 60 gallons of cocktail. I got there at 1PM, the event started at 8PM. I showed up, and the prep kitchen is a porch. There’s one electrical outlet, and it’s as close to the floor as you can get. And the juicer is a $20 Black & Decker for grannies to make juice in the morning.

I made three to four gallons of citrus juice squatting down in a catcher’s stance, then standing up and emptying the container. By the end of the experience, the juicer was broken.

During the event, out of 500 people, maybe 12 had drinks. 98% of the drinks were thrown away. There were maybe 10 people listening to my talk. But one turned out to be one of my best regulars. So I’d say it was 100% worth it.” –NYC-based bartender


“I watched a large frozen spider fall into my punch (frozen inside a large chunk of ice). Out in Arizona when I worked at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel as a chef… Spiders would make their way in from the desert just outside because it was cool inside. they would eventually get into the ice block machine and end up quite frozen.” –MA-based author

About a decade ago I ran a Tequila bar. It was a busy joint so I used to make large batches of the many *flavored* house margaritas.

One day while I was doing the deed I had two batching containers on the floor with tops on them. I had a drink in my hand *quality control* when I decided to step over both buckets. My foot got caught on one of the lids which popped it open– my foot fell into the large vessel with a giant splash!

I reflexively threw my hands in the air from shock/surprise throwing my full drink into my face!

Thankfully there were only a few people at the bar to see one of my proudest moments. I proceeded to work the rest of that evening with a red stain up to my right knee.” — New Orleans, LA-based bartender

“I was helping prep for a major consumer event in Chicago and had to squeeze about three cases of limes. The hotel we were staying in was nice enough to let me use their professional juicer – otherwise it would have to be done by hand! – and I was set up in a corner of the kitchen with my cases. Even so it took a few hours, and ran into dinner service. As the kitchen was getting busier and busier, a chef walked by and accidentally bumped into the nozzle where the lime juice was being collected. A slow drip of lime juice started falling on the floor. Luckily we caught it after a few minutes, but still, sad.” –NYC-based PR rep

“Friend of mine dropped her new iPhone in a batch of Bloody Marys — wet and corrosive. Got her a case that is waterproof down to 7 feet, No problems so far anymore.”— New York state-based spirits blogger

Pictorial: What’s your still’s name?

“Hi, my name is ___.” Go ahead and introduce yourself, because some stills have names too.

What kind of distiller names their still? I can only imagine it’s the same kind of person who names their car, boat or musical instrument. After all, many distillers spend as much time with their beloved hooch-making apparatus as they do with their loved ones. So why not refer to “George” vs. “Still No. 2”?

Of course, this tradition doesn’t apply to everyone. When I asked Brian Lee of Tuthilltown whether he named his still, he seemed taken aback. “Never!” he cried. “These stills need to be repaired and replaced pretty often. If I named one, I’d get too attached to get rid of it.”

Meet a few stills, below.

This is Old George, pictured with bartender Shawn Soole, at Fermentorium Distilling in Victoria, BC. Old George primarily makes Stump Gin. Where did the name come from? “It’s British,” Soole shrugged. “It’s old.” (It’s a 1920s copper still.)
IMG_0838Below, meet Mary, at A. Smith Bowman in Fredericksburg, VA, pictured with master distiller Brian Prewitt.  She’s an enormous 30-foot-tall copper still, installed in 1991 and named after Mary Hite Bowman, who was the mother of the Bowman brothers who founded the distillery. When I visited the distillery in December, Prewitt (who refers to the still as “my good friend Mary,”) told me he would be getting a much smaller (8 foot) still in a couple of weeks for making gin. And it will be named for Mary’s husband, George.IMG_0790IMG_0792This is a photo of George, who I understand has arrived at Bowman since my visit.IMG_0793

Meanwhile, Ugly Betty is the name of the still at Bruichladdich that makes gin, not Scotch. Designed in 1955, it’s described as a cross between a pot still and a column still; key to the design is an ugly, thick column-like neck with three extra removable sections for flexibility – sort of a Frankenstein’s monster approach. I’ve been told that it’s more common for gin stills to have names than whiskey stills, though I don’t know why.


Finally, meet Wee Witchie, at Scotland’s Mortlach distillery. The smallest still at Mortlach was given its name in the 1960s by then distillery manager John Winton thanks to its unique shape: fat and rounded at the bottom and pointy at the top, resembling a pointy witch’s hat. At least one run of spirit from the Wee Witchie still is included in every bottling of Mortlach (a single malt Scotch starting to make inroads in the U.S. this year).


In the photo below, Wee Witchie is the small still at the far end of the line-up.2014-06-22_17-26-25_994If you know of other stills that have been given names, I’d love to know — I’m sure there are plenty more out there!

Added 2/16: How could I forget about Ethel the Still, at North Shore Distillery in Lake Bluff, IL? Unlike the stills above, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of making Ethel’s acquaintance in person. However, Ethel is probably the only still to have a Twitter account — so appropriately, she reached out to me via Twitter to remind me of her presence. Thanks, @StillEthel.

Pictorial: Malting Floors, USA

While Scotland has plenty of malting floors in its whiskey distilleries — literally, floors upon which barley is spread to germinate — the United States has exactly five. I’ve managed to visit four of ’em (still need to get to Rogue Distillery in Oregon). Each looks a little different, and has its own personality – take a look for yourself.

Copper Fox (Sperryville, VA)

Wasmund_2Wasmund_1At Copper Fox, the malting room actually has two malting spaces. Above, that’s Rick Wasmund standing in between the two, puckishly noting the two malting floors, North and South. “At night, they re-enact Civil War battles,” he deadpanned. “It’s a mess in morning.”

Leopold Brothers (Denver, CO)


This is their new distillery, which opened in 2014. I’m not sure if their old distillery had a malting floor. They weren’t malting when I visited – but they use their malted barley for gin and vodka, not just whiskey. It’s definitely the most spacious malting floor I’ve seen.


Check out the malting shovels – a local furniture designer made them, using oak from former whiskey barrels and bolts – no glue.

Coppersea Distillery (West Park, NY)


The photo above was taken by Scott Gordon Bleicher, for an Edible Manhattan feature I wrote about Coppersea. When I visited, they weren’t malting that day. It’s less exciting to see without the malt spread out – it just looks like an empty garage (see Leopold Brothers, above).

You can’t really see it in this photo, but they use a jagged-tooth malting rake; Christopher Williams (the gent dragging the rake above) commissioned it from a local metalsmith, using an old engraving as the prototype.

Hillrock Distillery (Ancram, NY)

hillrock_EHVPhoto credit: Edible Hudson Valley. The malting floor looks more like a room in a quaint B&B than a working distillery, doesn’t it?

Rogue Spirits (Ashland, OR)


Photo credit: Rogue Spirits. Here’s hoping I get to Oregon in 2015 to see this in person and round out the collection.

8 articles I’m glad I wrote in 2014

One of my goals for 2014 was to write more narrative-driven pieces, particularly those with a personal connection. Here are a few I’m particularly proud of – I hope you enjoy reading them. See you in 2015.

Drink This Now: Excellent Rums with a Cuban Connection (Bloomberg) Yes, it’s a particularly ironic twist of fate that an easing of the Cuban-U.S. trade embargo was announced barely a week after this ran. (It had been in place for 50+ years!!! Couldn’t you have waited one more month, President Obama?) But I still had a blast chasing down Havana Club and other rums, so sorry/not sorry.

Humble Pie On the Rocks (Wine Enthusiast) I’ve loved how many people have responded to this essay about blundering my way through a cocktail competition.

Gonzo Vodka: Drinking a Bit of Hunter S. Thompson (PUNCH) I went to Woody Creek, Colorado, an enclave of leftist hippies and the home of late Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Now it has its own distillery making vodka, which, in a crazy way, is about the closest thing you’ll get to having a drink with HST.

Drink This Now: Meaty Mezcals Distilled With Chicken, Pork and Rabbit (Bloomberg) This slightly racy article yielded one of my favorite compliments of all time: “I have never been so hungry, thirsty and turned on all at the same time.”

In Praise of the White Russian (Saveur) Because I’ve always wanted to write about the time I knocked back a bunch of them with my Nana at a bat mitzvah, culminating in a Rockettes-style family kickline. There’s video footage of that moment somewhere. Don’t judge.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again, and Fall Again) of NYC’s Tiki Scene (Thrillist) This piece took a LOT of reporting: interviews, outings to various tiki nights (I know, poor me), tracking down old newspaper articles. But I felt like it let me connect the dots between various waves of tiki culture, and give me insight into why New York Tiki refuses to die.

In Praise of Slivovitz (Tablet) Plum brandy or paint thinner? My ode to the spirit we love to hate. After this and the White Russian story, I’m declaring a moratorium on titling anything “In Praise of…” in 2015.

Whiskey & History (Edible Manhattan) This profile was two years in the making – after meeting the producers quite a few times and sampling on the fly, I finally got to spend some quality time at their Hudson Valley and witness first-hand Coppersea’s unusual approach to “heritage distilling.”

Is Havana Club rum coming your way soon?

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Well, THAT was fast.

Last Thursday, my article on questing for Havana Club rum went up on Bloomberg’s site. In short, it’s about the fact that the 50-year-old trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba means that you can’t get Cuban rum — at least, not through most legitimate channels (although I found a loophole, and some worthwhile rum alternatives.)

And then yesterday came this surprise in breaking news: the U.S. is expected to normalize relations with Cuba. And that includes access to Cuban rum.

But wait — does that mean a bottle of Havana Club on every bar? Not exactly. Provisions include this little tidbit:

Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

$100 in alcohol isn’t a lot. And since retail outlets (and presumably, importers that sell direct to bars and restaurants) won’t have access yet, this effectively limits imports to private citizens who are bringing a few bottles at a time back from Cuba or duty-free in other areas. And it may not even be called Havana Club: according to rum maven Robert Burr, it may be re-labeled as Havanista.

What’s actually changing is that Cuban rum just moved out of the realm of “illicit alcoholic beverage.” That great thumping sound you hear? That’s bartenders across America pulling their contraband bottles of Havana Club out from under the counter and plunking them down on the bar in plain sight.

I’m glad I had the chance to search for my “holy grail” of rum. Now that it’s (slightly) easier to find, it’s your turn. Get out there and order your Havana Club; I’d love to hear where you find it and what you think of the rum.