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.

porron

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.

How much water should you add to a pre-batched cocktail?

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

Dave Arnold (image courtesy MOFAD)

This is a question I grappled with throughout the recipe-testing process for Cocktails for a Crowd.  It might seem like a trifling matter — but you’d be surprised how much it impacts a cocktail. The right amount of water makes a cocktail better — that’s one of the reasons we add ice to drinks.

Although I ultimately landed on adding about 25% to 30% water to simulate the effect of melting ice, as usual, Dave Arnold figured out a more precise way to figure out the right amount of water to add.

And he figured it out years before I did.

If you don’t already know Arnold, he’s the poster boy for better cooking (and drinking) through chemistry. He’s the mastermind behind Booker & Dax, a chemistry lab-turned-cocktail bar. He’s also one of the driving forces behind the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) — an enterprise I’m excited about– and hosts the longtime “Cooking Issues” podcast on Heritage Radio Network.

During a 2010 episode of Cooking Issues, Arnold tackled the topic of how much water to add to a pre-batched cocktail. Not only that, he compared how to handle drinks that are traditionally shaken vs. those that typically are stirred. “It’s hard to pre-batch a shaken cocktail,” he admits. “You really do need to shake it to get the texture right.”

Of course, his mad-scientist approach involves using liquid nitrogen to dilute the drink and still get the properly aerated texture that shaking provides. Most home bartenders, of course, aren’t about to start fiddling with liquid nitro. “If possible, choose a stirred drink to pre-batch,” Arnold concludes.  (I agree — but then again, I might be up for replicating shaken drinks for 20 people, where he would be replicating them for a “crowd” of 200 guests.) Here’s how Arnold determines how much water to add:

Make a single drink, using volume, the way you normally would, with jiggers. Weigh it on an accurate scale. Write the number down, that’s how much drink you’re starting with. Add your ice, stir it, then strain it. Now weigh how much the drink weighs now. That’s the weight of the total cocktail. Subtract the weight of the liquor you used from the total weight of the cocktail, and that’s the amount of water you should add. That’s the way to do it, instead of guessing in your head at 25%. If you just add water at room temp and taste it – When you chill it, the balance will be off.

It may seem tedious, but Arnold notes that you only need to do it once – if you get it right and write the recipe down, you don’t need to re-test it every time. And as Arnold says, “Your pre-batched drinks will thank you for it.

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.

4 tips for bargain boozing

Last week, Financial Post reporter Melissa Leong interviewed me for an article, “Five things you can do to have a boozy time on a budget,” which ran over the weekend. (It’s part of a yearlong series on extreme personal finance, including amusing videos called “Save Your #@%* Money,” which I fervently hope becomes the title of the book she’s clearly meant to write).

Our conversation got me thinking about ways to drink more inexpensively — but still drink well.  Some of these tips appeared in the article, some did not.

1. It’s always less costly to drink at home vs. out at a bar. The mark-ups that go into cocktails can be staggering. Think about it:  two $14  rye Manhattans (plus tip) = a 750ml bottle of good rye + a 375ml bottle of vermouth. That yields far more than two cocktails.   (Or, yes, you can find less expensive drinks at another bar. The  alcohol mark-up still will be significant.)

2. Make your own ingredients. You can purchase a 750 ml bottle of Monin cane syrup for $6 or more.  Or you can buy a box of granulated sugar and make your own simple syrup. By the same token, you can also DIY grenadine and Maraschino cherries.  Raw ingredient costs are low; what you’re paying for in these products is labor, packaging, and distribution costs. When you go to a bar, you’re paying for labor again, plus real-estate and other expenses too.

3. Choose your booze wisely. Armagnac is often better value than similar Cognacs; yet both are grape brandies from France with similar flavor profiles. American-made whiskies are often better value than imported whiskies.  And for god’s sake, save the top shelf and longer-aged stuff for drinking straight, not for mixing into cocktails.

4. You don’t have to buy expensive glassware. Punchbowls and glassware in multiples have been on my mind ever since I started researching Cocktails for a Crowd. Sure, I’d love to drop a bundle at Crate & Barrel for pitchers and punchbowls and a few dozen new glasses every time I throw a party. But it’s not necessary:  you’d be surprised what can be used to showcase large-format drinks.  Vases. Fish bowls. Fondue pots. Mason jars. Not to mention all the gorgeous vintage glassware to be scooped up at flea markets and yard sales. A word of caution, though:  whatever vessels you use for serving drinks, make sure they are thoroughly clean.

I’d love to hear your tips for drinking/entertaining on the cheap. If enough ideas come in, I’ll publish a follow-up to this post.

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!

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?