Is Havana Club rum coming your way soon?

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Photo credit: Tejal Rao, for Bloomberg

Well, THAT was fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2015


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 2014 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2015:

1. Bars become more casualSpeakeasies aren’t going away, but they are no longer the center of the cocktail universe — they are not just one option among many. As many of the old-school cocktail dens celebrate the decade mark (hello, Employees Only), the new entrants to the bar scene are more casual (Boilermaker, the Happiest Hour, Midnight Rambler, Pastry Wars, etc.) and less overtly theme-driven compared to 2014. There’s still a LOT of effort going on behind the scenes – but the overall effect is a whole lot breezier now.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I think I was too early with this one last year. I’m (still) waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass, but Scandinavian food is still ramping in the food world, plus I’m grooving on Baska Snaps lately. Call me when IKEA opens a pop-up bar, okay?

3. We’ll drink lots and lots and lots of shots. To be clear: I’m resisting this trend with every fiber of my being, because I think shots are about getting drunk fast, not about enjoying a cocktail experience. But I see it coming anyway, in the form of upscaled boilermakers (a drink with a shot dumped in it) and “backs” (beer + a shot on the side) and miniaturized cocktails served as “shots.”

4. Bartenders and budtenders will collide. That’s right: cannabis cocktails are in the offing. Considering the growing number of states legalizing and de-criminalizing marijuana and chef-driven experiments with gourmet edibles and potables, I’m expecting to hear more about weed-laced libations in 2015. Oh, and can we talk about the “marijuana-inspired” vodka that just landed on my desk?

5. Single-grain Scotch will attract attention. That’s single grain vs. single malt, not whiskey made from a single type of grain. New entrants to the field include Haig Club (that David Beckham-backed brand from Diageo), and Girvan (William Grant). Irish whiskey already has plenty of single grain options, but we haven’t heard much about single-grain Scotches to date. That will change in the year ahead.

6. Jetsons-style cocktails will come to life. Between flashy robot bartenders on cruise ships, Monsieur the “robotic bartender,” and Keurig-style “automated craft cocktail machines,” technology will complete its takeover of the world, one cocktail at a time. OK, I’m exaggerating. But just a little.

7. More flavored whiskey, less flavored vodka. This seems true of both unaged “moonshine” as well as the brown stuff. Can’t wait to see some of the over-the-top flavors. Speaking of which, I’m going to leave these press releases for Butterscotch Moonshine and pecan pie-flavored whiskey liqueur right here.

8. We’ll spring for cocktail accoutrements. The cocktail revolution has finally matured — and so has a generation that came of age during the craft cocktail movement. Think about all the now 30-somethings (yes, including “older Millennials,” for those of you obsessed with marketing to that demographic) that now have mortgages and babies, and now entertain at home instead of hanging around for last call. They’re the ones making nests (and wedding registries) that include coupe glasses and fancy bar carts. 

9. “Outlaw gin” will be in. I’m excited about the direction that gin seems to be taking. There seems to be more experimentation, more expression, more outliers. Not just the barrel-aged stuff, either (which I suspect has peaked, by the way). But I’ve had a quite a few “I didn’t know you could DO that” moments with gin lately:  gin made with extra juniper, with almost no juniper; no citrus; gin from sugar cane; from Yerba Mate; savory gin, sweet gin, gin from all corners of the globe, even one with an AOC. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. These gins defy the usual categories and I’m very excited about them.

10. Japanese whisky will skyrocket. Asia’s whiskies already were on the ascent in 2014, as Taiwan’s Kavalan and Japan’s super-smooth whiskies came to the forefront. But then, whiskey guru Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as his top-rated pick in the latest edition of the World Whiskey Bible, catapulting it above even Scotch whiskies. This category will be unstoppable in the year ahead, and Suntory and Nikka will be flooding Western markets with plenty of good stuff. Enjoy it – by 2016, we’ll be declaring Japanese whiskey as “over.”

It’s Cyber Monday! Order Cocktails for a Crowd

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVERTaking advantage of all those Cyber Monday deals? Good for you. Now’s the time to order Cocktails for a Crowd  – whether it’s a gift for a friend who loves to entertain, the party’s at your home and you’re seeking drink inspiration, or you’re celebrating elsewhere and need a host/hostess gift.  Throw in a bottle of booze or bitters, and you’re officially the best gifter in the world.

–>Order “Cocktails for a Crowd” from Amazon

Book Cover

–>As long as you’re browsing online, you can also buy a copy of my other book,  The Secret Financial Life of Food: from commodities markets to supermarkets, for the history-minded foodies on your gift list. New this holiday season: it’s also available in paperback format!

–>Order “The Secret Financial Life of Food” from Amazon

Many thanks and happy holidays!

Celebrating a new book with the Redeeming Spirits cocktail

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

My always-inspiring friend Monica Bhide has a new book out, The Devil in Us. Although Monica usually writes thoughtful musings about food and her Indian heritage (with good reason, her work frequently is featured in the annual “Best Food Writing” compilations), this is her fiction debut, a collection of short stories.

I was honored when Monica asked me to create a spicy cocktail to celebrate the new book — and here it is, perfect for sipping while you read. There’s a non-alcoholic version too, at Monica’s request. Enjoy!

Redeeming Spirits 

A variation on the classic Moscow Mule, this drink is powered by the heat of pepper-infused vodka. Choose a good commercial brand (I like Oola, from Washington State), or marinate a sliced fresh jalapeno in one cup of unflavored vodka for a couple of hours. Note – a traditional Mule uses ginger beer; here the sweetness of ginger ale should help balance out the jalapeno spice.

1 1/2 ounces chile pepper-infused vodka

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

4 ounces ginger ale

Jalapeno slice (to garnish)

In a tall glass, pour in the vodka and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass, and add a scoop of ice. Add ginger ale to fill the glass and stir.



4-6 ounces spicy ginger beer

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

In a tall glass, pour in the ginger beer and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass. Scoop in ice and stir to chill.

Dan Smith Will Teach You How To Drink

If you’ve lived in New York for any amount of time, you’re familiar with the fliers posted in every record store and coffee shop promising, “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar.” They’ve been around for at least a decade, possibly longer. So I was gleeful to see that a new East Village restaurant, King Bee, had created a drink with that name when it opened last week, wink-wink all you long-time New York denizens. So gleeful, in fact, that I promptly tweeted:

Sometimes I forget that celebrities have twitter accounts. Even NYC micro-celebrities. So I searched, and lo and behold, there he was.

I was pleasantly surprised when he replied, though he dashed my meta-dreams of trying out his eponymous drink with me:

How many of us have a drink named after us? A little (sincere) flattery seemed in order.

Now, here’s the kicker. I guess the moral of the story is, if your brand ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

A visit to Woody Creek Distillers

Right now, everyone is up in arms about so-called “craft distillers” that don’t actually distill. But some spirits producers are getting it right. For example, last week I got a closer look at Woody Creek Distillers, located in Aspen, Colorado. Right now, it’s prime season for harvesting potatoes, which then are made into Woody Creek’s flagship vodka.

Emma Farm, located in Basalt, CO

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Picking potatoes

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These are Rio Grande indigenous potatoes. It takes roughly 13 pounds of these potatoes to make one 750-ml bottle of vodka.

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The potatoes are loaded up here…

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…and dropped off here. This is Gabe, with the “potato-cleaning contraption” designed by Woody Creek (yep, that’s what they call it). Each bag holds 700 kilos (roughly 1500 pounds); during harvest season, enough potatoes are harvested to fill six or seven bags a day.

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Inside the distillery. Note the bag of ‘taters behind this gentleman, Mark Kleckner, who is one of the masterminds behind Woody Creek. Seconds before this photo was taken, he snapped that potato in half, “like jicama,” to show the moisture inside. Potatoes can dehydrate within one month, Kleckner explained, so they are digging and distilling vodka now: “By Thanksgiving, we’re done.”

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This next set of machinery cleans, peels and grinds the potatoes.


About 20% of the peel is left on for nutrients and yeast during fermentation.

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Distillation in the column still.

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Close-up – I couldn’t believe how much it looked like mashed potatoes.


In addition to the regular Woody Creek vodka, a Reserve (pictured here) also is made at the distillery, from Stobrawa potatoes.

It’s Slivovitz season!

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

Image credit: Hiltrud Möller-Eberth, via Flickr

A Saturday stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket reminded me that plum season is back. Every stall seemed to have luscious plums in shades of yellow, red, deep purple. And to me, plums = Slivovitz.

Earlier this year, I wrote for Tablet Magazine about my newfound affection for Slivovitz, the sometimes-fiery brandy distilled from plums, and my very recent discovery that sliv can be a spirit worth seeking out:

When I complained about firewater slivs to Angus MacDonald of the Coppersea Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, he scolded me—and then gave me a sample of his first batch of locally-made sliv.

“Slivovitz is rough by nature; it’s meant to be,” MacDonald insisted. “It’s old-country grappa, and the people who drank it were tough-ass mo-fos.” But he also assured me that if made right, it can be more drinkable. And sure enough, his version was delicate and pure, more eau-de-vie than paint thinner.

…Clearly, the time is right for giving slivovitz a second chance. Plum brandies—good ones!—are making their way to the U.S. marketplace.

Want to try some of those plum brandies? Head to the 10th annual Slivovitz Festival. coming up on Sept 20, in Glenn Dale, Maryland. Prefer to DIY? Take a look at this article on how to make your own Slivovitz, written by Cathy Barrow for the Washington Post a couple of years back. Either way, now is the time to give Sliv a chance.