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.

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.

Celery-spiked cocktail recipe: Green Hornet

My article, “Put A Stalk In It,” about celery-spiked cocktails, is in the May/June issue of Imbibe Magazine.

Although it may seem like an obscure ingredient for cocktails, once I started looking around, I found myself spotting celery everywhere, in various forms. Erick Castro has a Paloma riff at his new bar, Polite Provisions, subbing Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda in place of grapefruit Jarritos. Celery foam tops Bloody Marys.  A Celery Gimlet is on the menu at Saxon + Parole, one of my new favorite bars — with celery juice and Maldon sea salt. Celery shrub here. Celery bitters there. Celery seed-infused syrups. Housemade celery cordial at Dead Rabbit. In researching a separate article on Rock & Rye, I came across a 1902 reference to “La Rue’s Celery Rock & Rye.”  

It’s enough to make you want a good drink.  So here’s one to try. Although it didn’t fit into the Imbibe article, it’s a mighty refreshing cocktail nevertheless.

Green Hornet

Tona Palomino, Trenchermen, Chicago, IL

The menu description reads simply:  celery gin and tonic. “A lot of people thought it was celery gin,” notes Palomino. “Rather, it’s a celery-flavored gin and tonic.”

1.5 oz. gin

1.5 oz. fresh celery juice

3/4 oz. simple syrup

3/4 oz. lime juice

I dash  Bitter Truth Celery Bitters (optional)

1 oz.  tonic water

Measure everything but the tonic water into a cocktail shaker. Cover with ice and shake. Strain into a 12-ounce Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Top off with the tonic water.

Talking and tippling with the 3 “Vermouth-kateers”

The "Vermouth-kateers":  Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

The “Vermouth-kateers”: Carl Sutton, Neil Kopplin and Andrew Quady

Julia Child splashed French vermouth into much of her cooking. James Bond added Italian vermouth to his famous “shaken, not stirred,” martinis. But American-made vermouth is what’s now taking the cocktail world by storm.

So on April 8, it was my pleasure to moderate a panel of West Coast wine and vermouth producers, “Fountain of Vermouth,” at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in San Francisco.

The three panelists- who jokingly refer to themselves as “vermouth-kateers“-  were Neil Kopplin, a former bartender and current partner of Portland, Oregon’s Imbue Cellars, who makes his Bittersweet Vermouth with Willamette Valley Pinot Gris; Carl Sutton, owner of Sutton Cellars in Sonoma, Calif.; and Andrew Quady, a Madera, California-based winemaker who also produces vermouth under the Vya label.

Quady first provided the attendees with a definition of the aromatized, fortified “wine-but more than just wine,” including an overview of some of the botanicals used to flavor it.

That was followed by a lively debate between Kopplin and Sutton, who have divergent philosophies about what makes for good vermouth. Sutton said he starts with both wine and brandy that is “absolutely neutral” in character: “I want a completely blank canvas, something I can project onto.” He then adds as many as 17 ingredients for flavoring.

Kopplin, for his part, insisted that since the wine makes up 75-80% of what’s in the glass, it should be “the bright shining star” that the botanicals are selected to complement. He fully expects his vermouth to change from year to year, he added, since he switches up the base wine with each vintage. This year, he’s using local Pinot Gris; next year, the base will be Sémillon.

To cap it all off,  Sutton mixed up a round of Bamboo cocktails for the crowd – here’s the recipe:

Bamboo Cocktail

1½ oz. Lustau amontillado sherry

1½ oz. Sutton Cellars dry vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir together all ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass.   Garnish with a lemon peel twist.

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?

13 Cocktail and Spirit Trends for 2013

crystal_ballIt’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2012 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2013:

1. Cider-tails. We’ve seen plenty of wine- and beer-based cocktails. But given all the excitement around hard ciders now, I predict that 2013 will see the rise of cider-based cocktails.

2. Vermouth will be the new bitters. By that, I mean that we’re going to see a spate of new products coming on the market, including hyper-local variations and fun, unique vermouths from bartenders and commercial producers alike.

3. Vintage in the glass. Look for more well-aged vintage spirits and cocktails ahead. 2012 brought lots of vintage whiskeys (30, 40, 50 years old); Karlsson’s released their second single-year vintage vodka; I’ve been invited to a tasting for 60-year-old gin (I’m skeptical….details later); bars like Pouring Ribbons in New York and Bellocq in New Orleans are making names for themselves with old bottlings of Chartreuse and other spirits.  I’m even coveting this “Antique Manhattan.” Clearly, this is a trend.

4. We’ll put a bottle on it. I’m not bold enough to suggest the demise of glassware, but expect to see lots of cocktails served in bottles. One of the hits at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was the “Bottled Negroni,” and bars like the Experimental Cocktail Club have been serving drinks that are carbonated and bottled. But that’s just the start:  for example, Germain-Robin has been experimenting with bottled drinks like the Saratoga and the St. Nick, to wonderful effect.  And there are home-entertaining applications for this trend too (self promotion alert!!) – I have a book coming out in May (Cocktails for a Crowd), and yes, I’ve devoted a whole damn chapter to DIY bottled cocktails.

5. Low-Alcohol Libations. If 2012 was the year of cask-strength, overproof, seriously high-octane spirits (and cocktails to showcase them), expect a backlash in 2013 to kinder, gentler drinks.

6. We’ll drown in a sea of whiskey. There seems to be so much of it coming to market in the year ahead.  New Japanese whiskeys. Earnest local grain-to-glass bourbons. Fiery white whiskeys. Canadian whiskeys in wacky flavors.  Scotches with backstory.  So. much. whiskey.

7. “Stunt spirits.” Speaking of backstory — now maybe I’m imagining this, but it seems like there’s an increase in spirits (particularly whiskeys) that are garnering attention because they are recovered from deep within arctic ice (Shackleton’s) or launched into space (Ardbeg Galileo). Luckily, both have yielded fine whiskeys. But I suspect the rule of diminishing returns applies:  from here on in, the stunts will get sillier, and the spirits less notable.

8. Gin will get exciting. This is an extension of my “new gin” prediction from last year.  There’s more envelope pushing in the gin area:  barrel-aged gins. savory gins. gin-based liqueurs. weird and wild gins.  Can’t wait to see the cocktails that result, either.

9. Canadian whiskey will get flavorful. I’m less optimistic about this trend, but it’s coming, all right:  Canadian whiskeys will increasingly become vehicles for flavorings — maple, blueberry, cinnamon, and so on.

10. A barrel on every bar. The barrel-aged cocktail trend is going mainstream this year. Look for a (small) barrel on a bar near you by the end of 2013.

11. The line will blur between wine and spirits. It’s not just that fortified wines, wine-based vermouths and aperitif wines like Lillet have become more interesting. It’s not just that more cocktails now feature fortified wines like port and sherry.  It’s not just that cocktailians are using wine’s methode champenoise to carbonate drinks. It’s not just that we’re seeing vodka-wine hybrids or cognac-wine hybrids coming to liquor store shelves. But put it all together, and it has the potential to steamroll, with nary a tired “wine-tail” in sight.

12. Asia will provide drinking inspiration. Hard to say whether that will come in the form of the growing ranks of affluent drinkers in China (hey, Wine Enthusiast even launched a Mandarin edition in 2012! – plus, I’m hearing of more spirits producers making special, often sweeter bottlings just for the growing Chinese market) having a greater say in drink trends or an influx in Asia-made tipples like baijiu coming to U.S. bars.

13. Glassware gets more attention. Whether that means antique cut-glass coupes for cocktails or specially shaped snifters for Scotches, I’m anticipating that the form and function of the glass itself will get as much attention as what’s in the glass.

So there you have it – 13 possibilities for 2013. Please feel free to add your opinions — and predictions! in the comment box below.

Would you put vodka in your Negroni?

So, this writer walks into a bar….

No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s what I did Tuesday night. Not a craft cocktail bar, not a fancy hotel bar, just an ordinary neighborhood bar on my way home. And I ordered what’s become my go-to recently:  “A Negroni, please.”

“Certainly,” the bartender responded. “Would you like that with vodka or gin?”

That gave me a moment’s pause — no one has ever asked me that before!– and I stuttered out my response: “Gin, please.” As the bartender finished another order and then began mine — Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin –I thumbed out a quick post on Twitter:

The responses flew in before I’d even finished my drink. “RUN!” urged @inukena. “YES, RUN!” echoed @feeedme. Emboldened by alcohol, I finally asked the bartender:  “So…do people really order Negronis with vodka?” He nodded solemnly. “Oh, yes. It’s the vodka generation. But personally, I prefer gin.” I polished off the rest of my drink and posted again:

But clearly I had touched a nerve. The responses continued to roll in over the next 24 hours:

@inukena:  (Collective sigh of relief)

@RobertOSimonson:  He still should never ask that question. With a Martini, I’d grudgingly accept it. A Negroni? No.

@LegendofMyself:   you can choose between the Negroni which is with gin, the Negroski with dry vodka and the “wrong” Negroni with brut champagne 🙂

@orpheum:  People order Negronis with vodka? Shame on them. Shame!

@raelinn_wine:  VILE! pffff vodka in a negroni.

@nikki_d:  Vodka in a negroni? Yikes!

@SpiritManager:  But if you make it with Vodka, is it still a Negroni? Shouldn’t it have a different name?

All this anti-vodka vitriol! OK. So cranky contrarian that I am, I couldn’t help it. Last night, I returned the same bar, and asked the same bartender:  “Negroni, please. But this time….I’ll try it with vodka.”

He did a double-take, but quickly recovered, and made my drink. As he stirred, I explained my reasoning:  My preferred gin for a Negroni is Plymouth, because it’s soft and neutral, and not overly juniper-y. But isn’t that just a step removed from vodka anyway? And wouldn’t bitter Campari overwhelm the nuances in gin, anyhow?

 He nodded, clearly placating the babbling guest, and set my drink down.

So how was it? The gin-based Negroni was much, much better than the vodka version.  I can’t explain why. Frankly, it’s not logical, and the best I can offer is some lame excuse about the alchemy between the three ingredients that make up the cocktail.

But the bartender understood when he saw me push away the barely-touched drink, and repeated his line from the night before.

“Personally, I prefer gin.”

Me too, barkeep. Me too.

12 Cocktail and Spirit Trends for 2012

It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead.  (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2011 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2012:

1.  Rum will be the new “it” spirit. Although in 2011 whiskey was the belle of the ball, for 2012 rum seems to be on a speedy ascent. I’ve tasted some utterly amazing aged rums in the past few months. Online magazine Got Rum? relaunched in 2011, and a new rum advocacy group got off the ground during the year as well. And rum-soaked tiki drinks and punches continue to have legs. Let the rum-running begin.

2. We’ll let them eat cake. File this one under trends I wish would go away, but just won’t:  cake-flavored vodka. And marshmallow fluff. And whipped cream. Oh, and I just saw an ad in Cheers magazine for a Swedish fish-flavored vodka. Can some mixologist/dentist please pull this sweet tooth, and soon?

3. Cocktail conference overload! It’s official:  there are too many cocktail festivals for me to keep up with all of them. Just when I had the MCC/Tales thing down, festivals (and good ones, too!) popped up in San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver. Tales of the Cocktail keeps taking Tales on the road – I think most recently, roadtripping through Texas. I hear Scottsdale, Arizona is hosting a cocktail conference in February. Not to mention festivals devoted to whiskey, rum (see above), indie spirits, etc. etc. etc. I suspect there will be more to come.

4. We’ll roll out the barrel. Barrel-aged cocktails have become a certifiable international bar craze. Add to that extra cask-aged spirits (i.e., whiskey “finished” in sherry barrels) and even barrel-aged beer. I’m waiting for someone to debut barrel-aged appetizers to pair with any of the above.

5. Tipplers will get it on tap. Wine. Americanos. Vermouth. Barrel-aged martinis. I’ve seen ‘em all spouting from a tap in recent months, and expect to see still more.

6. Lushies and slushies. Can you believe the frozen Margarita was invented 40 years ago? And now, four decades later, they’re back, in the slightly more sophisticated guise of “Sno-Gronis” (frozen Negronis) at the Tippling Lounge in Chelsea or Moonshine-spiked blackberry sno-cones at The Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. Alco-popsicles and spiked milkshakes abound too.

7. Bitter will be the new black. Not just cocktail bitters (and there’s a new one every minute, right?) but also spirits and cocktails with bracingly bitter flavors, from Fernet to Cynar. I’ve been wild about some new cocktails with a bitter edge, many of which are compiled into Brad Parson’s groovy new book, Bitters.

8. We’ll all be Ready-To-Drink. The RTD category, as the trades abbreviate, is on the upswing. Some of them aren’t half bad, but I’m hoping that the bar can be raised beyond premixed Margaritas and Mudslides. Can we get the Pimm’s Cup in a can, like they have in the UK?

9. Carbonated Cocktails. I’m blaming crediting Jeff Morgenthaler with popularizing this one too. Every bartender with a Perlini will be adding a bit o’ bubbly to drinks in the year ahead.

10. “New Gin.”  New-style gins have been rolling out at a fast and furious clip. Some are “New West” style, such as St. George – which went as far as releasing THREE new gins at a go, including “Terroir,”  infused with Douglas fir. Others are what I’ve been thinking of as “Anything But London Dry” gins – the profile isn’t that far from a London Dry, but the base spirit hails from Ireland or Scotland. And then there’s the “Florals” – I can’t count how many new gins seem to be packed with a florist shop’s worth of pretty botanicals, from rose to lavender. Now…is anyone drinking all these new gins?

11. You’ll make Your Own Damn Tonic Water. You can use one of the three new ‘tonic syrups” which debuted on the market within the past few months (Tomrs, Jack Rudy, Commonwealth from Bittermans). New gin, why not new tonic? (NOTE – the “bittering agent” gentian also gives tonic syrup a brisk bitter edge, so this might go hand in hand with prediction #7.)

12. Cocktail books will become e-books. Have you been to the bookstore lately? The cookbook section has shrunk considerably, and cocktail books have taken the worst of it. (my Barnes & Noble now allots one measly shelf to the cocktail genre). More narrative-driven wine books and “food lit” books seem to be holding up OK, as are more general cookbooks. But cocktail books — essentially, smallish recipe collections– seem destined for e-book territory sooner rather than later.  Frankly, I find this terrifying. (Have I mentioned that I’m writing another cocktail book, due out in 2013?  How the heck will book-signings work without books or for that matter, bookstores?)  Personally, I will go kicking and screaming, but I can see that it’s coming whether I like it or not.   The good news? Your vintage copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book just became more valuable.

Take this quiz: is it perfume or hooch?

It’s no secret that aroma counts for a lot in enjoying spirits. And it’s no secret that many spirits bottles resemble perfume flagons. But the line between liquor and perfume is getting awfully blurry. Don’t believe me? Take this little quiz. Is it perfume or hooch?
 
Example 1:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Eau de Robideau

Answer:  HOOCH!  This pretty flask, full of Scotch, was passed around at a recent Women & Whiskey event, and we were encouraged to spray it on our wrists. It smelled sweet and Bourbon-like, with woodsy and fig-like notes.

Example 2:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Suntory spritzers

Answer:  HOOCH! This is whiskey again. These little perfume spritzers were given out to journalists at a Suntory whiskey launch. But we were asked to spray it into glasses for sniffing the aroma, not encouraged to spray it on ourselves. (Note – atomizers could be a great way to do an absinthe “rinse” for Sazeracs.)

Example 3:  Is it perfume or hooch?

Fresh Sake

Answer:  PERFUME!  Sold at Sephora, folks.

Want more proof? Jump over to the informative Cocktails & Cologne blog to read about the new arrangement between perfumer Roja Dove and Macallan whiskey.

So…how long before someone comes out with a truly potable perfume? Or a spirit meant to spritzed on without leaving you smelling like a sticky Manhattan? Gin seems to be taking on an increasingly floral cast — that gets my vote for most likely to cross the perfume/hooch frontier once and for all.