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.

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.

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!

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!

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?


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.


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.”


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.


A view of the chateau from the outside.


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.

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.

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

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.

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:




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.)




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.

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.

“I will not use sour mix….” and other notes from Austin

“I will not use sour mix.”  A reminder posted (over and over and over again!) above the bar at Second Bar & Kitchen, in Austin TX.

This is probably a good lead-in to talking about other bibulous notes from the IACP conference in Austin. I’ve already posted about Tipsy Texan’s Rumble Sour, but I haven’t yet gotten into the details of what brought me to Austin in the first place:  moderating a panel on Tequila, Texas, and Terroir. (If you care to, you can buy access to video archives of my panel and others here.)

My panelists were local tequila expert/author Lucinda Hutson, who made a fabulous picante sangrita, and bartender extraordinaire Bill Norris.

A couple of nights before the panel, I tried out drinks at Haddington’s, where Norris  runs the bar. In addition to the conversation-stopping Duck Fat Sazerac, my favorite drink on the menu there was The Dubliner, a mix of Jameson’s, Aperol…and Dr. Pepper reduction. It sounds unbelievably odd, but it worked beautifully, and put me in mind of the barrel-aged Trident I had at Clyde Common in Portland.

But I didn’t get to try any cocktails made by Norris until my seminar, when he made Diablos, with silver tequila (we used Siete Leguas). Here he is in action, in the “staging room” before the seminar. (Why is the culinary volunteer to the right so distracted? NOLA chef John Besh was in the room too….causing one of the other volunteers to have a celebrity-induced teary meltdown.)

And here’s the finished Diablo:

Diablo Cocktail – from Bill Norris

1.5 oz Silver/Plata Tequila

.5 oz Creme De Casis

.5 oz lime juice

Ginger Beer

Combine tequila and lime juice in a shaker with ice.  Shake and strain over crushed ice-filled collins glass.  Top with ginger beer and float casis on top.

The Rumble Sour

Just back from Austin, TX, where I was hosting a seminar on tequila for the International Association of Culinary Professionals.  Most of that time was spent working (or should I say, “working,”) but I took an evening off to see a local sight:  hundreds of thousands of bats swarming from the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Sunset at Congress Bridge

I signed up for a booze cruise, including dinner and drinks by Tipsy Texan, aka David Alan, who I’d met at Tales of the Cocktail a couple of years back.

Tipsy shakes it up

One of the drinks he made for our crew was The Rumble Sour, made with a local Texas liqueur that was new to me, Balcones Rumble. It’s made with texas wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and mission fig, and reminded me a little of Wild Turkey’s American Honey liqueur.

Balcones Rumble


Rumble Sour

The Rumble Sour, by David Alan

1 1/2 ounces Balcones Rumble honey liqueur

1/2 ounce orgeat

1 egg white

3/4 ounce lemon

In a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously with ice. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.