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!

Introducing my new book – Cocktails for a Crowd!

Cocktails_for_a_Crowd_COVEROn May 14, my new book, Cocktails for a Crowd, will officially hit the shelves!

This one has been in the works for a while. It’s all about batching cocktails for large groups — a concept that professional bartenders know well, but few at-home bartenders do.  If you’ve never heard of “batching” before, it’s what goes on behind the scenes at cocktail conferences and other events:  I have seen bartenders stirring up drinks for 200 people in giant plastic vats, stirring with what look like rowboat oars….and yet, when they’re dispatched into glasses and garnished with care, it looks (and tastes) like the drink was painstakingly made just for one.  So I asked some of the smartest bartenders I knew how that gets done — and how people can do it at home.

This book, which spans punches, pitchers, bottled cocktails and other large-format drinks,  includes updated classics as well as original cocktails from bartenders. (PS, I think this may be the first book to include a range of bottled cocktails!) The lovely photos were taken by Teri Lyn Fisher. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite drinks and techniques in coming weeks.

If you want to be one of the first to get your hands on a copy, it’s available for pre-order now. Perhaps you’re already thinking about summer entertaining or thinking about host/hostess gifts  — if so, I hope you’ll pick up a copy. Cheers!

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?

Cocktail experiment: Sweet Broiled Lemon Margarita (by way of Tony Conigliaro)

grilled lemon

When I was in San Francisco a few weeks back, I popped into the awesome Omnivore Books and picked up a copy of Tony Conigliaro’s new book, Drinks.

It’s a really interesting book:  deeply scientific, with lots of rumination about concept drinks and recipes that most people can’t make at home unless they happen to have sous-vide equipment and malic acid on hand.

This is not one of those recipes.

Rather, this is from the “Culinary Skills” chapter (aka Chapter 2), one of the more accessible chapters in the book — although readers still will need to flip to the back of the book to learn techniques like say, how to make Grilled Lemon Juice.

Note:  Conigliaro’s recipe is called the “Grilled Lemon Margarita.” I used the broiler on my stove rather than an outdoor grill, so to my American mind the key ingredient is “Broiled Lemon Juice” — not “Grilled Lemon Juice.”

Semantics aside, Broiled Lemon Juice is worth the effort — it tempers the tartness found in uncooked lemon juice, and creates a lightly caramelized flavor and slightly thickened texture. Explains Conigliaro:  “Grilling the lemon relieves the fruit of its acid bite by caramelising the fructose and killing its vitamin C.”

Conigliaro rightly points out that the caramelized/caramelised lemon juice is a perfect match for the caramel and toffee notes found in reposado tequila. I also experimented with rye whiskey — also full of caramel and vanilla notes — and it was an equally harmonious match.

Home bartenders will find two hurdles in trying to make drinks from this otherwise fascinating book. First, there’s the molecular wizard hurdle — I don’t own a Superbag or a homogenizer, so in the recipe below I’ve adapted it using tools I have in my own kitchen. Second, he’s English, so recipes are given in milliliters (um, millilitres) instead of ounces, as American recipes use. So in effect, I’ve translated this recipe twice.

Take that as a hint:  make two drinks.

Sweet Broiled Lemon Margarita

adapted from Drinks, by Tony Conigliaro

Step 1: Make Broiled Lemon Juice

This makes about 1/4 cup lemon juice – enough for 2 drinks, with a little extra. (Conigliaro calls for 5 lemons; I cut this down.)

2 lemons, cut in half

Place lemons, cut side up, under a broiler. Grill under high heat until golden brown. (Note – Conigliaro calls for “medium heat.” My oven doesn’t have that setting. It took 12 minutes for the lemons to turn brown.)

Juice the broiled lemons. (Note – the lemons will be HOT. Allow them to cool first. Happily, the lemon halves will now juice as easily as if they’re made of butter.)

Strain using cheesecloth. (Conigliaro calls for a Superbag.)

Step 2: Make the cocktail

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila

3/4 ounce broiled lemon juice

1/2 ounce triple sec

Sugar, for the rim

Combine all of the ingredients except the sugar in a cocktail shaker and shake with cubed ice.

Fine-strain and pour into a chilled coupette with a half sugar rim.

5/7/13:  UPDATE:  Apparently I’m not the only one translating measurements. An Americanized version of Conigliaro’s “Drinks” book will be published on July 16, under the name “The Cocktail Lab.”

How to open a wax-topped Armagnac bottle (and not lose your mind)

Yes, apparently a primer on how to open Armagnac bottles actually is needed.

I’ve been working on a review column for Wine Enthusiast magazine focused on Armagnac, the famed French brandy (yet, not as famed as Cognac). Usually, I’m pretty well focused on what’s IN the bottle, not the bottle itself. But the (quite substantial) review pile included eight bottles firmly capped with hard wax. No string or other pull cord to help start a strip to remove the wax, and even sharp scissors and hardscrabble fingernails removed only the tiniest portion of wax. How the heck was I going to evaluate the goods if it was like Fort Knox to get in?

Photo: End of Day 1

I vented my frustration on Twitter, and received some helpful suggestions:

@DeliaCabe: Thin wire, like the kind used to slice cheese. How about a wine foil cutter? X-acto knife?

@Virginia_Made: Corkscrew through the wax. When you pull up the wax will tear open.

@Ponchartrain_Pete: Hulk smash? Try butter knife to chip it off.

The corkscrew seemed like a viable idea – it works with wax-topped wines all the time. So I brought my corkscrew to the office and tried. Turns out, there’s a plastic cap under the wax, so I made a couple of gouges, but no further headway.

Photo: end of Day 2 (corkscrew gouge)

I vented on Twitter again. Replies this time veered from sympathetic to sublimely ridiculous (which I welcomed — at this point I needed a laugh!)

@NeilKopplin: Samurai Sword?

@boozedancing: How about a Sabre then? You know. Like they do with champagne. 🙂

At this point, I also emailed my editors back at Wine Enthusiast. That tells you how desperate I truly was:  I’d like my employers to believe that I am competent enough to open a bottle (surely that’s the absolute bare minimum for doing my job, yes?). Luckily, Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Director Lauren Buzzeo was cool-headed enough to suggest that I reach out to one of the Armagnac producers and ask how to open the bottles without damaging them. Christine Cooley of Heavenly Spirits, an importer of  various Armagnac brands, provided this helpful reply:

Honestly, depending where I find myself, I just gently bang the top of the bottle against a metal table foot or on a cement floor, or I also take a metal corkscrew and hit the wax gently until it breaks and chips, then I clean the wax and blow on it to ensure that no wax or wax dust can enter the bottle. In the bars, they usually put the top of the bottle under the espresso steamer and the wax softens enough so the bartender can cut it with a knife.

While I don’t have an espresso steamer handy at my office, I tried the “bang-it” method on Day 3 – and it worked! Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Score the edge of the wax with a sharp knife.

Step 2: Gently bang the wax-covered bottle against a metal object (here, the edge of a stainless steel sink).

Step 3: Use a knife to loosen any remaining pieces of wax.

Success!

Now – what really baffled me was the bottles with SCREW CAPS beneath the wax – see below. WTF?????

So – was it worth all the effort to break through the hard wax coverings? For the most part, yes — many of these turned out to be some of the best Armagnacs I had the opportunity to sample. However, I would have enjoyed the brandy just as much with an ordinary cork or other closure that didn’t require crowd-sourcing to open. 

(P.S., the Wine Enthusiast issue with the Armagnac ratings drops at the end of December.)

A story three years in the making

The “Cooperage in Spirits” story that became the cover story for the August 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal magazine was nearly three years in the making.

Three years! Some whiskey spends less time in barrels than that.

For me, it all started at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, when Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace gave a small group of journalists an early peek at what was about to become the Single Oak Project:  an experiment that painstakingly isolated variables including mash bill, aging time and environment, distillation techniques and barrel types in pursuit of creating “The Holy Grail” of Bourbon.

A total of 1400 experimental barrels were created — many with only seemingly minute differences. The experimental bottlings were slated for release starting in 2011, and many since have been widely lauded.

“We’re considering American, Canadian, Mongolian, and Japanese oak,” in addition to the standard French oak, Brown told us, explaining that some added sweet notes (Canadian), while others added spice (Mongolian).  “We’re looking at different oak grains, and different barrel sizes.”

To drive the point home, we did a comparative tasting of whiskeys aged in fine- and wider-grained barrels. The former showed a more-developed caramel character, while the latter had a hotter feel because more liquid had evaporated through the grain, leaving a more concentrated, higher-proof spirit in the barrel.

It was an eye-opener.

This article afforded me the luxury of diving deep into this admittedly geeky topic — learning why cooperage expert Brad Boswell says “60 to 70 percent of a spirit’s aroma, flavor, and color comes from the barrels.”