Category Archives: On the road

Meet the Grande Dame(s) of New Orleans

In many ways, Ella Brennan is the Forrest Gump of N’awlins:  if something notable in the world of hooch happened, she was there. During Prohibition, she helped her uncle make bathtub gin. Trader Vic squired her around California during tiki’s heyday; she sipped daiquiris at El Floridita in Cuba when Hemingway probably crouched just a few barstools down. And her family built, piece by piece, the bars and restaurants that are now treasured pieces of New Orleans history, from the Absinthe House to Commander’s Palace.

And I got to meet her. Hell, I got to drink with her. 87 years old, and “Miss Ella,” as everyone calls her, still has an Old Fashioned brought to her living room by the staff at Commander’s Palace. I think I want to be her when I grow up.

I wrote about our conversation for Wine Enthusiast, conducted in said living room over said Old Fashioneds. But it’s only part of the story.

The women below also are an important part of the New Orleans arc. On the right, that’s Lally Brennan and (far right) Ti Adelaide Martin, aka “Miss Ella’s” daughter. The two are cousins and co-proprietors of the legendary Commander’s Palace,  Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and cocktail bar SoBou.

And the three women on the left are the “bar chefs” for the Brennan’s empire. (Yes, it’s just a coincidence that a woman helms the beverage operations at each, though it brings a certain neat symmetry to the story, from Miss Ella on down to the next generation of bartenders.)  How is a “bar chef” different from a bartender? Abigail explained it this way: Chef = chief.  “A bartender is about the hospitality aspect,” she said. ” A mixologist is about ingredients and technique. A bar chef is all of that. Like Ginger Rogers, you do it all backwards and in heels.”

Image

Left to Right: Lu Brow (bar chef, Adelaide’s), Ferrel Dugas (bar chef, Commander’s Palace), Abigail DeGullo (bar chef, SoBou), Lally Brennan, Ti Brennan drink “A toast to Adelaide, our Auntie Mame.”

If you don’t recognize where they’re seated, it’s Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick in the Loews Hotel, named for Adelaide Brennan – big sister to “Miss Ella,” and aunt to Lally and Ti.  The  Swizzle Stick Bar was named for Adelaide’s necklace, Ti explained: “It would dangle in her decollete – a gold swizzle stock would pop out of her necklace and she would lean over and swizzle her Champagne.”

Just as Ella Brennan learned to make cocktails as  a child (Eight years old was old enough to learn, she said. “Before that, you let them put the ice in the glass.”) Adelaide passed that tradition down too, Ti reminisced.

“We learned how to make cocktails at a very early age. Adelaide didn’t wake up too early and was never on time. It was always part of our life.”

Image

Printed on cocktail napkins at the Swizzle Stick, Adelaide’s personal “vapor remedy.” Ti surmises: “The ‘vapors’ might have been a hangover, or hot flashes.”

After paying my respects at Adelaide’s, we headed over to Commander’s Palace, in NOLA’s grand Garden District, where I enjoyed La Louisienne (equal parts Sazerac rye – natch, Benedictine and sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of Herbsaint and Peychaud’s for good measure, two more NOLA products). Although Ferrel wasn’t behind the bar, she had mentioned earlier that she had started out as a hostess at Commander’s Palace, while “a grumpy Italian guy worked behind the bar.” Ti knew immediately who that was:

“Mr. Leroy!” she exclaimed. “He was the head bartender at Commander’s Palace forever. We have a Manhattan riff named after him. With rhubarb. Sweet vs. bitters, and super strong.” She even remembered him growing up:

“It’s the south, and we were little girls. He was Mr. Leroy. She was Miss Ella. To everyone.”

Image

La Louisienne, as made at Commander’s Palace.

Drink consumed, it was time to head across the courtyard to meet “Miss Ella.” A uniformed server soon followed, bearing Old Fashioneds on a silver tray:  “An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella.”

Image

Miss Ella, in her New Orleans sitting room with her Old Fashioned.

Most of what we talked about that July evening is encapsulated in the Wine Enthusiast Q&A. But good stuff always gets lost on the cutting room floor, right? For example, Ella’s fond memory of the Absinthe House, which her brother Owen owned. Although their mother was scandalized that anyone would try to start a business in the nasty French Quarter, her brother helped gentrify the area. Ella called it “sophisticated” – Owen would wear a black suit in the winter, a white suit in the summer.

“The Absinthe House,” she said, dreamily. “That’s where you’d go to have an Absinthe Frappe, and Absinthe Suisesse, at least four different absinthe drinks.” (Modern-day tipplers, try to reconcile this with your current beer-sticky experience at the Absinthe House – I dare you.)  She had a job purchasing whiskey for the Absinthe House, although it was done on the down-low. “Women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street yet,” she said.

Dummies,” I heard Ti snarl, sotto voce.

Frankly, I can’t fault her for that sentiment. After all, just look at her legacy now.

Leave a comment

Filed under On the road

Cocktails for a Crowd book signing – 8/11 at Salt & Sundry, Washington DC

This Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC, signing books from 2-3:30 PM at one of the most beautiful housewares stores I’ve ever seen:  Salt & Sundry, inside Union Market. I already have my eye on some new glassware.

We’ll also be sampling cocktails from the book and bites provided by The Red Hen. Mark your calendar now!

2 Comments

August 5, 2013 · 10:58 am

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.

5 Comments

July 25, 2013 · 3:58 pm

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Classes and seminars, Drink recipes, Drink trends, On the road

History or hooch? Chicago – I’m coming your way!

 Chicago area friends:  I’m so excited to be heading to the Windy City next week! Here’s my schedule – whether your taste runs to history or hooch, please mark your calendar.  I hope to see you while I’m in town.

Monday, April 22:  Lecture on The Secret Financial Life of Food, with the Culinary Historians of Chicago. 

I’ll be giving a talk about my book, The Secret Financial Life of Food, at an event presented by The Culinary Historians of Chicago.

Since so much of agricultural commodities history took place in Chicago, I’m especially thrilled to have an opportunity to talk about grain, cattle and other food-related futures here. And I fully expect to learn a thing or two from this particular group!

Location:  Kendall College (900 N. North Branch St., Chicago, IL)  at 6:30 pm.

Tuesday, April 23: Drink.Think heads to Chicago!

I’ll be hosting Drink.Thinka literary reading event about all things drink. Come out and hear your favorite Chicago-area beverage and food writers read from their work. We have a great line-up of writers, authors and industry pros coming out for the event. Admission is free, plus we’ll have some complimentary whiskey tipples on hand. (Win-win!)

Location:  Tavernita, 151 W. Erie St, Chicago, IL. Come out at 6pm to drink; the reading starts at 7pm.

See you in Chicago!

Leave a comment

Filed under Classes and seminars, On the road, The Secret Financial Life of Food, Uncategorized

Literate drinking: Drink.Think heads to San Fran on Feb 5!

image courtesy Monica BhideDrink.Think is going on the road…to San Francisco!

If you’ll be in the Bay area on Tuesday, Feb 5, I hope you’ll come out to Cantina to enjoy a drink and hear an amazing group of writers read from their work about beverages.

In addition, Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa Rum will be pouring samples of their products.  (The regular bar also will be available.)

Date & Time:  Tuesday, February 5, 2013.  The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.

Location:  Cantina, 580 Sutter St at Mason St, San Francisco, CA

Admission: FREE admission and samples of Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa. Drinks will be available for purchase.

Featured Readers:  Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:

  • Camper English, cocktail/spirits writer for San Francisco Chronicle, Details.com andFine Cooking
  • Courtney Humiston, columnist, 7×7 Magazine and founding editor, TableToGrave.com
  • Duggan McDonnell, writer, bartender and boozy entrepreneur
  • Gayle Keck, food and travel writer
  • Virginia Miller, food and drink correspondent, San Francisco Bay Guardian and blogger, ThePerfectSpotSF.com
  • Jill Robinson, travel writer, San Francisco ChronicleAmerican Way and more
  • Michael Shapiro, freelance travel writer, National Geographic Traveler and Islands magazine
  • Stevie Stacionis, wine writer and Director of Communication at Corkbuzz Wine Studio
  • Liza B. Zimmerman, editor-at-large Cheers and contributing editor to Wine Business Monthly

I hope to see you at Cantina on Feb 5 – come thirsty!

Leave a comment

Filed under Classes and seminars, Food and wine writing, On the road, Uncategorized

Is this the last Irish whiskey you can taste only in Ireland?

During a recent trip to Ireland, I stopped into the Palace Bar, the oldest bar in Dublin. It still has all its original Victorian-era fittings, including a “Writer’s Bar” – now, how could I possibly resist that?

image

While seated at the bar, I noticed a display of private-label Palace Bar Irish whiskey. Although it’s becoming a novelty for U.S. bars and restaurants to have their own private-label brand or barrel, it’s not a widespread practice across Ireland. At least…not any more. (A side note: I saw very few people drinking Irish whiskey during my stay – it’s broadly a beer and wine culture– and very few bars offering more than a handful of bottlings. And no wonder:  it turns out that a whopping 90% of Ireland’s spirits are exported.) But here was a rare Irish whiskey that can’t be obtained anywhere else but in Ireland.

image

I asked the barkeep for a closer look at the bottle. It’s a 9-year-old single malt, single cask whiskey, bottled at a fairly strong 46% abv, and touts the bar as “Famous for Intellectual Refreshments.” It’s also made by the Cooley Distillery, newly acquired by U.S. spirits company Jim Beam. Cooley was the last indie whiskey distillery in Ireland; William Grant owns Tullamore Dew; Diageo owns Bushmills; Pernod Ricard owns Jameson. Cooley had been the last indie holdout.

Would Cooley continue to make the Palace Bar whiskey? “No, they have no interest in smaller bottlings,” the barkeep said mournfully. He’d been working at Palace Bar for fully four decades, and was there when they’d launched the Palace Bar whiskey not even a year prior. In the 1940s, he continued, it was traditional for pubs to have their own brand, but that practice had largely died down. The Palace Bar last had a private-label whiskey maybe 50 years ago.

So that means that the remaining Palace Bar bottles may soon be rare. Priced at 50 euros, it doesn’t sound like they are in danger of selling out right away, however. At least not according to the bartender: “People come in around Christmas time and buy a bottle as a gift for family, or for friends who stopped in 20 years ago.”

image

Leave a comment

Filed under Bar culture, On the road

A trip to Pierre Ferrand Cognac house

After spending a few days conferring on how to persuade women to drink Cognac and touring the big Cognac houses, I was more than happy to spend some time at a smaller Cognac maker, getting down to the nitty-gritty of how the spirit is actually distilled.

I had met Alexandre Gabriel, president and owner of Cognac Ferrand, on one of his visits to New York, and liked a number of his products, so I was happy to learn that I’d been invited to spend a little quality time at his family’s distillery before heading back home.  Here are a few snaps from that visit.

imageIn the distillery, we sampled the Cognac in virtually every stage, including the relatively undesirable “heads” and “tails,” as well as the desirable “heart” (Coeur) of the spirit. It’s crystal clear at this point; barrel aging is what provides the amber color.

image

A view of the chateau from the outside.

image

Inside the warehouse where the Cognac ages. Note the colorful mold growing on the floor and the cobwebs and dust on top of the barrels; we didn’t see much of either in the larger Cognac houses. This was very old school.
image

This is bartender Willy Shine — it’s a little hard to see, but he’s holding an apparatus used to extract Cognac from the barrels for sampling. It’s akin to a large eyedropper; in whiskey language they call this a “whiskey thief” or a “valinch.” I’m sorry to say I don’t recall what the Cognac folks call this device.
image

My glass of Cognac, fresh from the barrel. I swear it tastes better this way; it was like liquid butterscotch.
image

After the Cognac barrels are emptied, Ferrand then re-fills those barrels with other spirits, a technique known as “cask-finishing.” Here, the barrel has been refilled with rum from Trinidad. This one also was particularly delicious.
imageBack inside the chateau. This is Alexandre Gabriel, treating Willy and me to a sampling of some of his extremely old and rare Cognac collection. Really, a remarkable way to end the visit to Cognac.

4 Comments

Filed under On the road, Uncategorized

A peek inside “Big Cognac”

Continuing thoughts from my recent visit to Cognac, this trip gave me the opportunity to visit three large Cognac houses (what blogger DJ Hawaiianshirt has dubbed “Big Cognac“). We didn’t really get to see the inner workings of the distillation process — it was more of a heavily-guided marketing tour with better tastings than the tourists get, plus the Cognac is for chicks angle added in. But it was fascinating nevertheless. Here are my favorite and least-favorite moments:

image

image

image

At Courvoisier:

Favorite Moment:  Viewing the mini-museum. (image above, with the copious pretty pretty bottles.) They had one of Napoleon’s famous tri-cornered hats on display.

Least Favorite Moment: Experiencing “smell-o-vision.” We went through a sensory experience called   “La Nez” (‘the nose’), which was “designed for younger professionals, to help create a more engaging experience.”  We were blindfolded, then a fan blew fragrance essences around the room, along with music selected to accompany each. We each smelled crème brulee, iris, and orange.

A “smell-o-vision” movie (my wording, not theirs) also was available; I ducked out, but asked someone who just exited, “how was it?” She replied, waving her hands toward herself, “crème brulee, crème brulee, crème brulee.”

Cognac for Chicks: We were served Courvoisier Rose, a mix of Cognac and fortified red wine from the South of France, intended for a female audience. It’s the first Cognac ready-to-drink (RTD) though technically it’s considered a liqueur, and has 18% abv. Launched in June 2011.  Coming to the U.S. in spring (May) 2012.

Our group’s comment: “it’s like Sangria in a bottle.”  It was served with Indian tonic and lime wedges (“squeeze the lime in,” advised Dominique LaPorte, sommelier. He was right – it was much better that way. Refreshing and went down easy.)

image

image

image

At Remy-Martin: 

Favorite Moment: I just adored this monologue from our 60-something chic blonde tour guide, who I thought of as the embodiment of “Real Housewives of Cognac.”:

“Cognac is a coquette. Cognac is feminine in that it doesn’t give its age directly. ‘Hello, I’m VSOP.’ How old am I? Like Cognac, I have no age.”

Least Favorite Moment:  I have to stress – this is not Remy’s fault in the slightest. But something I’d eaten earlier in the day gave me food poisoning, so I spent the end of an otherwise lovely evening projectile-vomiting in Remy’s lovely ladies room.

Cognac for Chicks:  Our evening began with a degustation of Coeur de Cognac, billed as “an interpretation of femininity.”  It had a nice orange peel and vanilla aroma, with lingering honey and creme brulee flavors.

At Hennessy:

Note – photo above courtesy of Odd Bacchus. I’d forgotten my camera back at the hotel!

Favorite Moment: Spotting demi-johns (glass jugs holding  20-60 liters, inside straw baskets with straw tops – see the background of the photo above) containing Cognac dating back to 1860. 1860! “Do you know what America was doing when this was made?” I marvelled to Rob Frisch of Odd Bacchus. “We were building railroads. We were at the beginning of the industrial revolution.” He continued the thought: “We were preparing for Civil War.” Just amazing, to be in the presence of so much history.

 Least favorite moment: Hennessy makes 5.5 million bottles of Cognac a year. Their aging warehouse holds 350,000 barrels of eau-de-vie (as they call it pre-bottling).

However…the tour guide bristled at the concept that “we are a big old monster company. We are an artisan…but we are like a conductor, directing other artisans as to our specifications….We are not just a big old ‘thing’….we are not a factory”  (we all agreed later, the lady doth protest too much.)

(Note:  we were warned at Courvoisier that the French equate “big” with “poor quality,” which might account for the insistence here.)

That said, I did appreciate that all of the barrels in the warehouse we toured have intricate calligraphy on each barrel — put there by a full-time staffer employed just for that — what a cool job! Each barrel also had a bar code (none of the other facilities we toured used bar codes).

Cognac for Chicks:  “Vin de Paradis” – launched in 2002 as a “delicate fruity flavor” meant “to appeal to the ladies.” We drank it mixed with tea, out of very ladylike glass tea cups.

4 Comments

Filed under On the road, Uncategorized

If whiskey is for women, is Cognac for chicks?

Is Cognac for chicks? (This seems especially relevant today, as it’s International Women’s Day.) 

That was one of the assumptions at the International Cognac Summit I attended mid-January, in France’s Cognac region. In fact, the event, hosted by the BNIC, revolved around how to persuade more women to take up Cognac.

It’s taken me a while to organize my still-scattered thoughts about this trip, and it seems best to post them in three tranches — a few general ideas, then a look at the “big 3″ Cognac houses, and finally, some snaps from an independent Cognac maker.

A few takeaways:

The French don’t drink Cognac. “In France, this is a digestif for old men,” we were informed by Elise Gartio, a sociologist with LadyVin (yes, that’s the name of the research firm). When we met with reps from the Cognac houses, they underscored this point: most Cognac is exported to the United States, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Physician, heal thyself?? Considering how women around the world follow French fashion, perhaps it’s time for French women to become Cognac ambassadors.

The cocktail is regarded as the savior for Cognac, particularly to attract female drinkers. This makes sense; most spirits are consumed in this format. There was a lot of talk about how to do for Cognac what “Mad Men” did for whiskey and gin. I suggested resurrecting the Japanese Cocktail, but I don’t think I sold anyone on that idea.

We had a cocktail making “competition” – the winner was the Lady Coeur (team led by Willy Shine):  VSOP Cognac, Carpano Antica, lemon and orange juices, brut Champagne, dusting of cinnamon, orange zest). It’s a good cocktail, although I still can’t shake my misgivings about creating a cocktail “for the ladies.” This is a good cocktail. For human beings. Whatever (eye roll).

Packaging matters to Cognac drinkers. Frankly, I think this is true of all spirits categories. Lest you think this was just another cushy press trip, let me assure you that we had to sing for our supper:  for every Cognac tasted, we were expected to fill out a lengthy form evaluating the appearance and packaging, aroma and flavor profiles for each product. (Nearly 1,400 forms were collected from the group of about 30 people…you do the math!)

After the survey dust settled, the bottles that ranked highest among women (or among men who thought they were predicting for women) were generally XO Cognacs (the oldest and most delicious) housed in perfume-like bottles described as “luxury, rounded, original” and featuring soft/round aromas with “tasty” notes (the charming French translation for food-like aromas such as vanilla, spices, fruit or dried fruit, or pastry-like aromas). Sommelier Dominique LaPorte summarized that women “are looking for elegance, not power, in Cognac aromas.” I suspect that’s true of drinkers of any gender, though.

2 Comments

Filed under On the road, Uncategorized