Why the best cocktail doesn’t always win

Make that cocktail work.

Last night, I fell asleep while watching Project Runway. While the contestants  buzzed about the workroom in the usual frenetic panic, the on-screen mayhem manifested itself in an unusual way:  I dreamed that I too was a contestant — in a cocktail contest. “Taste this,” I urged an imaginary co-contestant in my dream. “It’s missing something, isn’t it?” I raced around the workroom in my head, pressure building as the clock ticked down (“we’re out of ice!” I screeched), my hands shaking as I tried to pleat a lemon peel into a “make it work” garnish.

Oh, the drama.

I don’t have to be Freud to interpret this particular dream:  I’ve been judging a number of cocktail contests lately. This is a task I enjoy – tasting drinks from talented bartenders, hearing the stories behind the drinks, rendering an opinion.

But usually, I’m one of a panel of judges.  (Hey, just like the panel of judges on Project Runway!)  At the weekly Mixology Mashup held at Coppelia, I was one of three; at the Caorunn Gin “Storytellers” competition at Tales of the Cocktails, one of four; and at the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up held at Weather Up to benefit baristas and bartenders, one of five judges. Obviously, the greater the number of judges, the greater the number of opinions. And the drink I think is best isn’t necessarily the one that takes home the prize. Here’s why:

Different judges bring different viewpoints to the table. The Coffee/Cocktail Mashup is a prime example:  I voted based on which cocktail I preferred. But the coffee expert sitting next to me was more interested in the characteristics of the coffee varieties used.

Sometimes one judge gets the deciding vote. This is particularly so at more informal confabs. For example, at the Coppelia event I attended, Chef Julian Medina selected the winner, breaking a tie. (On Project Runway, I suspect that Nina Garcia always casts the deciding vote. But I digress…)

Showmanship often trumps the drink. On paper, it’s all about the drink — and a great recipe can get a bartender to the contest finals. But in person, it’s also about the bartender’s attire and demeanor and their ability to wow the judges. At the Coffee/Cocktail Mash-Up, the winning drink was delicious, but it didn’t hurt that it was also the only drink that came with a Polynesian soundtrack and was set on fire!

A poor story can undermine a great drink. When presenting a drink, usually a bartender will explain a little about the inspiration behind the drink. This was especially true at the Caorunn event, which was explicitly about “storytelling.” One bartender presented a drink…and then proceeded to tell a long story about tuberculosis. I don’t even remember the drink — the offputting sad-sack story completely torpedoed what was probably a perfectly fine cocktail. But my notes — full of detail about the other drinks in the line-up — had just one pleading line for this contestant. Please stop talking about tuberculosis, I’d scrawled.

The next time I fall asleep watching Project Runway, I hope I dream about Tim Gunn instead.

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.

Spicy cocktail contest finalists

Did you enter the “build us a spicy cocktail” contest? In case you missed all the excitement, spice goddess Monica Bhide is hosting this contest to find the best original spicy cocktail — and I have the pleasure of judging the entries. So over the weekend, I made (and drank!) the three finalist cocktails. Here they are:

Poddy Toddy, submitted by Lamb’s Munchings & Musings

1/4 cup shots boiling water
4 whole cardamom pods, lightly crushed
2 teaspoon honey
1 thai chili, cut in half lengthwise through the stem
2 shots brandy
whipped cream
ground cardamom (optional)

Steep cardamom pods in boiling water for at least 10 minutes. Strain, and stir honey into water, add the chili halves, and reheat water until hot or boiling.

Remove chili halves and reserve. Add brandy. Divide liquid between two mugs. Top each with a dollop of whipped cream, a very light dusting of ground cardamom atop the cream, and hang half a chili from the side of each mug.

Panaka Punch, submitted by Panfusine

1 oz chilled Lemon flavored Vodka
2 oz Domain de Canton Ginger liqueur
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon powdered dry ginger
2-3 pods Cardamom (seeds lightly crushed)
1/2 a lime ( juice squeezed )
3 ounces chilled sparkling water or lime flavored seltzer

Muddle the brown sugar, cardamom seeds, ginger powder and lime juice till the sugar dissolves. add the vodka, and ginger liqueur along with the seltzer/sparkling water. Strain into glasses (rimmed with sugar if desired) & serve chilled.

Saffron Mojito, submitted by nitu didi

To make 1 cup of saffron syrup, boil 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water for about 6 minutes and add a pinch saffron to the sugar water mixture.

30 ml of white rum

60 ml of saffron sugar syrup
a few mint leaves
20 ml of lime juice
lots of crushed ice

In a fancy glass crush the mint leaves with the back of the spoon to emit their flavor. Add the rum, sugar syrup and the lime juice and taste. You can always make it sweeter, more sour or even more potent!!! add the crushed ice and give it a stir!!!!!!!!!!

and the winner is…..? 

Build us a spicy cocktail!

A photo Monica snapped of SOME of the prize booty.

Want to win a copy of Spice & Ice, plus an amazing passel of cocktail-worthy goodies?  Strut your stuff by creating your own original spicy cocktail!  All the details are posted here.

Spice goddess Monica Bhide is hosting the contest – if you’re not already familiar with her, let me tell you, the woman is a walking spice encyclopedia. Among her many accomplishments, she’s the author of the fab ” iSpice” app as well as Modern Spice, a mouthwatering book focused on Indian cooking.  Clearly we share a love of bold flavors in food and drink.

I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Monica on this giveaway. Wait until you see the incredible box of goodies she’s put together: spices from Williams-Sonoma and MySpiceSage, Bar Keep Bitters ( love those Baked Apple Bitters), a cocktail shaker from Perfect Puree of Napa Valley, and a LOT more. No wonder Monica says this is her biggest contest EVER!

One more detail: I will make (and drink) the top 3 finalist cocktails, and will be posting those finalist recipes on this site. But only one winner gets the grand prize box (…AND publication on both Monica’s site and mine…AND of course, bragging rights)!

Deadline to submit is Sept. 30.  Click here to check out all the contest details and view the giveaway prize!

Look, Ma, I’m in Penthouse magazine

Well, there’s a headline I never thought I would write!

To be more specific, my book and I are quoted extensively in the July/Aug issue of Penthouse (get yer mind out of the gutter…). Here’s a scan of the article. I have every confidence this column will boost Spice & Ice sales through the roof. Because we all know everyone buys this particular magazine just to read the articles.

Drink recipe: River Tam

Remember our cocktail buddy Dr. By Day? We connected through the serendipity of the blogosphere when he was looking for a recipe for habanero syrup, and found it here

I am so excited to share the news that Christopher Day, a UCLA chemist and talented cocktailian, recently won the TOMA Tequila Championship with his amped-up version of the habanero syrup.  (“I used a lot more habanero,” he admits. “I’m a masochist.”) His recipe will be featured on the menu at Ortega 120.

Here’s Dr. By Day’s award-winning recipe. Congratulations, Doc!

photo credit: Joshua Lurie

River Tam

By Christopher Day
-1 1/2 oz tequila (blanco is fine, but anjeo would probably be better)
-Juice from 1/2 lime (about 3/4 oz)
-1/2 oz habañero simple syrup*
-3 small slices fresh ginger root
-club soda
Pulverize 2 slices of ginger in habañero simple syrup*, followed by adding spirit and squeezing in the lime. Add ice and shake. Pour into a low ball glass filled with ice (with strainer if you don’t want to chew on bits of ginger…which I tend to like) and top it off with club soda and give it a quick stir. If you want, you can garnish with a wheel of lime, but – in all honesty – I only did it for show…the drink stands on i’s own!
*(1 cup water to 1 cup sugar; 4 fresh habanero peppers, stemmed and sliced in half)

Winner of The Bloody Mary Olympics

Mary on the Piste (photo courtesy of thepublican.com)

I’ve been on a Bloody Mary kick lately. Can you blame me? They used to be among my least-favorite drinks on the spicy spectrum, because too often they serve as an un-subtle tomato juice delivery system for booze. But recently they’ve been adopted as a wonderful canvas for exciting flavors and innovation. 

And so it was with great delight that I stumbled upon an account of a Bloody Mary Olympics held in London about a month ago. 

The rules:  entrants were given a dazzling and slightly nutty range of ingredients to work with, such as beetroot juice, Guinness, paprika, wasabi and roast garlic cloves. They were expected to pair the drinks with bar snacks ranging from filo pastry lollipops to popcorn crayfish marinated in vodka to corned beef hash. And each drink had to include a shot of Absolut, the spirits company sponsoring the event (grand prize was a trip to the Absolut Academy in Sweden). 

Here’s the winning drink, which I am translating into Americanized measurements.  (Speaking of translation, I had to look up “on the piste.” It’s a ski slope reference. I was concerned it might be crude menstrual cycle slang, considering the drink category and the British propensity for puns. I’m already sorry that I brought this up. Moving on…)

The cocktail was served with a frozen celery stick dipped in horseradish snow (similar to an ice cream, it melts slowly into the cocktail as you drink it).  And the accompanying snack was corned beef hash cakes and piccalilli (kind of a chopped tomato relish).

Although I don’t see any instructions for making “horseradish snow,” my best guess  is to mix together crushed ice with prepared white horseradish or grated fresh horseradish.

Mary on the piste

3 1/2 ounces tomato juice

1 1/4 ounce Absolut Peppar (or I suggest making your own jalapeno-infused vodka)

1/2 ounce dry sherry

Juice of half a lime

4 dashes of Lea and Perrins

2 dashes of Tabasco

1/2 tsp of Bovril diluted 1/10  (Yanks – try beef bouillion as a substitute)

Celery salt

Freshly ground pepper

Mix together and pour over ice in a 10oz glass. Make horseradish snow & spread on half a celery stick to garnish. (These are frozen & great for summer!) Serve with corned brisket of beef hash cakes with mustard and piccalilli.

6 ways to fast-track from bartender to mixologist

I’m not a mixologist, but I have access to insight from some of the best and brightest in the biz. This shortlist is based on intel gathered from conversations with those mixologists and other experts, as well as what I’ve observed first hand.

And yes, I know some people bristle at “mixologist” used as a fancy-pants term for bartender, but in this case I mean it to reflect someone who has achieved professional success in the field, sort of an as-chef-is-to-cook analogy.  From what I’ve seen and been told, success follows those who take some or all of the following steps:

1. Enroll in BarSmarts. A disclaimer up front:  I’ve not personally taken this course. But I’ve heard from smart people I trust that it’s a worthwhile educational program, and a far cry from crappy “Bartender School” programs that teach you to mix Apple-Tinis. The introductory “Wired” course opens for registration on July 1, and it’s a prerequisite for the more advanced programs that follow.

2. Join the US Bartenders Guild, or better still, a local chapter. The point is to get involved, build contacts, avail yourself of educational opportunities….and cocktail competition opportunities! Winning a few cocktail contests builds your visibility fast and makes you highly marketable.

3. Apply for the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail.  It’s competitive, but it’as also a networking hot-button. Personally, I think the term “apprentice” is misleading — it implies that the individual is a newbie who is “apprenticing” him or herself to the masters. Most of the CAPs, as they’re known at Tales, are up-and-comers who already have considerable skill and experience.  A year from now, they’ll all be celebrities in the mixology world, so if you’re at Tales this year and meet someone in the CAP program, be nice to them. (Besides, they’re doing menial labor and making your drinks and likely nursing a wicked hangover, all of which is reason enough to be nice to them anyway!)

4. Build a website or write a blog. Or better still, do both. One of the big differences between a “bartender” and a “mixologist” is the marketing. The world is now online, so put yourself out there and build a presence and a platform for yourself. (If you’re looking for an online resource to help you get started, I recommend ProBlogger.)  Which takes me to my next tip…

5. Write a book. You know you have expertise and great drink recipes to share. Plus, a book gives you a product to promote besides yourself , and can help catapult you to the next position. (If you have an idea, but don’t have the time or inclination to write,  email me, and let’s talk. This is what I do!)

6. Practice your craft. Wait, did you think the headline promised 6 EASY ways to fast-track? There’s still no substitute for knowing what you are doing. Even if you don’t consider yourself a master yet, get out there and be the best bartender you can be, at any level. Take a leadership role if you can. Learn about your ingredients, practice great hospitality, and just plain make amazing drinks.  Tips 1 through 5 above might help you add to your knowledge, personal network, and visibility, but only you can make yourself into a great mixologist.

Spice & Ice virtual cocktail party, part 1

Welcome to the party!

I’ve invited a dynamic group of bloggers, cocktailians, food/drink writers, and authors to make a drink from Spice & Ice and “bring it to the party” on their respective blogs, and mine.  Credit for this idea goes to Modern Spice author Monica Bhide, who held her own “virtual potluck” a few months back (and who will be one of the party guests here as well). 

Check back over the next couple of weeks as party-goers share their stories and photos. I’ve also encouraged everyone to tweak recipes as they see fit.  Meet the first group below — and I encourage you to click through to read the full posts on the individual sites — such wonderful stories!  So pour yourself a drink, and join the party…

Fall Spice Cordial:  “So, how does it taste? Intriguing and delightful! The acidity of the orange tempers the sweet caramel notes of the bourbon; and the hint of chipotle provides a rather addictive bit of warmth on the finish. Simply put, it makes you want to take another sip – and that’s the sure sign of a well-crafted cocktail. I loved it and you will too!” Diva on a Diet / Beach Eats    

Dragonfire Cocktail:  “For over a week I was surrounded by dragons. My neighborhood, on the edges of NYC’s Chinatown, was in the midst of Chinese New Year celebrations. …So it was only natural that for the virtual cocktail party I’d make the Dragonfire Cocktail. 

The verdict: Hot stuff, but not overly so. This is a potent drink, yet it was smooth to drink… I enjoyed the lingering taste of jalapeno, lime and orange. The copious amounts (for me) of tequila acted as a potent sleeping elixir. Even if a real dragon had passed by my window that night, I’m certain I wouldn’t have heard it.”  –The Busy Hedonist 

Sparkling Ginger Daisy:   “The drink is not-too-sweet, with a lovely bite. The unexpected pairing of gin and ginger works beautifully and the grenadine adds colour to an otherwise pale beverage. I’m not usually a champagne girl, but the added fizz is perfect in this cocktail. I can see Sparkling Ginger Daisies becoming a summertime drink I could like a little too much.”  – Charmian Christie

Red Dawn:  “This drink is not your mother’s Bloody Mary… The Red Dawn cocktail gives you the familiar flavor profile that you love in a Bloody Mary and it’s frightfully easy to make. One ingredient that pulls it all together is Harissa.  Harissa is a Moroccan chili paste whose components easily replace the traditional tabasco, lemon juice, worcestershire, and celery salt combination that is normally found in a Bloody Mary. 

But please do not take my word for it.  You’ve got to try this drink for yourself.”  —Heather Jones, Project Foodie

Drink recipe: Rouge Noir

I’m heartened to see how the bar industry is pitching in to help benefit the crisis in Haiti. This morning I walked past Wildwood BBQ; they’ve created a special cocktail and 50% of all proceeds from the drink will go to help the earthquake victims in Haiti. Sunday night I’ll be headed to a “Hearts & Cocktails for Haiti” benefit at BAR*CELONA.  And while not strictly bar-related, dynamic food writer Ramin Ganeshram is organizing a Food 4 Haiti cookbook sale and food festival on Jan. 30 (I’ve donated a signed copy of Spice & Ice for auction, among the many, many other books that will be on offer.)

But the earthquake also potentially affects a spirits brand I was recently introduced to:  Combier’s Liqueur d’Orange and Royal Combier both are made with orange peels sourced from plantations throughout the island of Haiti.

So it makes sense to add Combier to the list of do-gooders: the company will donate 20% of all earnings from January 20 until March 1, 2010 to Doctors Without Borders – Emergency Relief Fund in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

With this in mind, I’m featuring a Valentine’s Day drink made with Combier Rouge, which the company describes as “light and fruity with hints of pepper and licorice.”  Although I didn’t detect much in the way of pepper when I tried the liqueur, it does have a  rich ruby color (it’s made with black cherries), and pleasing cordial-like sweetness balanced with a touch of bitter orange and spice.

Like Chartreuse and Benedictine, apparently Combier Rouge is another in the currently fashionable family of monk-made (or at least monk-invented) liqueurs. According to the press materials:  “The original composition for Rouge was first conceived in 1632 by the Reverend Mother Gautron of the Benedictine Abbey of Samur, and became so popular that it delighted the court of King Louis XIV.  True to tradition, it is still produced much like it was nearly 400 years ago.”

Rouge Noir Cocktail

Rouge Noir

1.5 oz Combier Rouge
.5 oz Combier Orange Liqueur
4 oz brut
1 Orange zest

Pour Combier’s Rouge and Orange Liqueur in champagne flute. Top with champagne. Garnish with 1 orange zest.