Behind the Book – Cocktails for a Crowd

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Photo credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Note: This is adapted from a guest post I wrote for  Monica Bhide’s A Life of Spice blog.

If you like my new book, Cocktails for a Crowd, you can send Michael Ruhlman a thank you note.

Not that Ruhlman had a hand in writing the book. In fact, we’ve never met.

But in part, the book came about because I was inspired by his “Ratio” app, which posits that every recipe starts with a basic ratio of ingredients – like cookie dough is 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour – and variations take off from there.

Right away, I recognized that the same is true of cocktails. Most of my favorite drinks comprise 2 parts spirit, 1 part sour and 1 part sweet. The classic Margarita is often a 3-2-1 configuration (3 parts tequila, 2 parts Cointreau, 1 part lime juice). Not to mention drinks like the Negroni – a perfect equilateral triangle, made with a ratio of 1-1-1, three ingredients in equal measure (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth), plus a splash of soda on top.

Why was I inspired by the app based on Ruhlman’s Ratio book, instead of the book itself?  Because my initial concept was for a Cocktails for a Crowd app – not a book.

I had just returned from the IACP conference in Austin (yes, that’s two years ago– still about how long it takes to shepherd a book from proposal to print at a traditional publishing house), where I’d attended a seminar on apps.

The idea for Cocktails for a Crowd crystallized during that seminar. Right away, I visualized a tool that would scale drinks from a single cocktail for one up to “cocktails for a crowd,” with the swipe of a finger. It would convert between ounces (which bartenders prefer) to cups (which home cooks prefer). It would even generate a shopping list – since further complicating what I’d come to refer to as “cocktail math,” liquor bottles are sold in 750 milliliter or 1 liter sizes, neither ounces nor cups. Only later did I realize this was a book idea too.

The app idea drove the book idea, even the book’s name. The app was a central feature of my book proposal, and I’m fairly certain it helped sell the project to Chronicle Books.

So as soon as I’d hit the “send” button on the manuscript, my next email was to inquire about the companion app.

“What’s next?” I ventured.

There would be no app, said the disappointing reply, although my publisher agreed that an app would have been a perfect extension of this particular book concept. “The trouble is that no one (publishers or developers) are seeing the sales levels we need to justify the production expense that’s required to make these products great.”

The hard truth is:  people still expect apps to be free, or nearly free. Naturally, publishers are focusing their energies on profitable products – books, not apps.

Today, there still is no “Cocktails for a Crowd” app — and likely will never be, unless I pursue it independently.

Which brings me back to the app-tastic Ruhlman. I turned in my manuscript in January 2012. A few months later, I joyfully noticed that Ruhlman had begun “Friday Cocktail Hour” posts, starting with the classic Martini (8 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth) and the Old-Fashioned (6 parts bourbon or rye, 1 part sugar, 1 part bitters). He hasn’t yet broken down cocktails into his “Ratio” format, but I say it’s just a matter of time. (If you’re impatient, I’d recommend picking up a copy of DIY Cocktails, which emphasizes the ratio aspect of cocktails.)

Are apps related to cookbooks dead in the water? I’m starting to think so.

Perhaps I should grease the wheels of optimism a bit and send a copy of my new book to Ruhlman. Because I see a “Ratio: Cocktails” book in his future. And possibly an app to go with that, too.

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.

IACP winner!

iacpI was pretty darn excited to learn that I’d been named a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in the “Writing About Beverages” category, a prestigious award given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

And I really didn’t think I had a shot at winning. This is not false modesty — I truly thought that the biggest name in the category was likely to be the one to take it all home.  When I flew out to San Francisco to attend the conference, I tried not to think about it. During the conference, I was so immersed in planning my “Fountain of Vermouth” panel and the general intensity of meeting and greeting, so it was really easy to forget about the awards. And then Tuesday night arrived, and I gamely put on my little black dress and expected to clap for the other guy, like a good sport.

And then they called my name. In fact, it turned out to be a tie! In the end, the scores meant that Seattle Weekly’s Mike Seely and I both won. I loved his piece (Murray Stenson’s Accidental Tourists), so I’m happy to share this honor with him. I was just sorry that he wasn’t there to celebrate with me over a drink – guess I’ll just have to take a raincheck.

IACP finalist!

Exciting news to share – one of my articles, Cognac’s Sultry Side, was named as a finalist for the Bert Greene Award in the “Writing About Beverages” category. This prestigious award is given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The full list of finalists is posted here – let’s just say I’m in VERY good company. The names on the list include some major culinary and literary talent, as well as friends and acquaintances I’m delighted to see receive some well-deserved recognition. I’m truly honored to be part of this group.

Here’s a look at my article, which appeared in Inspirato Magazine, a high-end travel publication.

IACP Checklist: 16 essential NY eating & drinking experiences

Have you already booked your ticket to New York for the IACP annual conference?  Excellent. 

Now lean in and listen close, because this longtime New Yorker is going to tell you everything you need to know while you’re in town. Shhh…don’t tell the locals I told you any of this.

First, a few ground rules for blending in. Walk fast – pretend you’re late for a meeting and you’ll fit right in. No meandering, rubbernecking at the buildings or blocking the sidewalk by walking four abreast. When in doubt, wear black – a bonus: it hides food stains! Buy a Metrocard and use public transportation. For God’s sake, don’t call NY “The Big Apple” or “New York City.”  It’s New York. Period. We like to pretend that nothing exists outside of the city. Tip well. Doubling the tax on your bill is an easy shortcut. Tip bartenders at least one dollar per drink; two is better.  Get the hell out of Times Square. Yes, yes, it’s our home base for the conference. It’s also a tourist trap and a culinary wasteland. Photograph the lights and the crowds… then affect the proper disdain and go elsewhere to seek even a shred of New York authenticity.

Where to go? Here are a few suggestions, specifically for IACP visitors:

1. Any indie coffee shop. I have nothing against Starbucks, but face it, you could have it anywhere. My favorite coffee shops are 71 Irving and Stumptown in the Ace Hotel. A final note – if you spot an Internet access terminal in a coffee shop — RUN. It’s like an early warning signal that the coffee will suck.

2. Anywhere in Brooklyn and/or Queens. Jackson Heights. Red Hook. Williamsburg. IACP has some good optional tours — sign up. If you’re an independent adventurer, go have pizza at Roberta’s and eavesdrop on Heritage Radio Network, which tapes in the back.

 3. Arthur Avenue. Skip Little Italy, and head to the Bronx.

4. Astor Wines & Spirits. Pack a box full of hard-to-get potables and ship it home.

5. Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, or another great hotel bar steeped in New York history and featuring an excellent cocktail list.

6. Chelsea Market. The Food Network is located here, along with lots of food-happy shopping outposts.

7. Eataly. Batali, Bastianich, Barolo, bagna cauda, birreria…..

8. Kalustyans. This Indian market recently expanded its space, and will blow the minds of spice-lovers. It’s also good for hard-to-find cocktail ingredients like bitters and syrups. And it provides a convenient excuse for snacking your way through Curry Hill’s other Indian eateries.

9. Kitchen Arts & Letters. A great indie cookbook store. Ask about any book, from any place or any time. These guys are amazing.

10. Momofuku. Anything in the Momofuku family will do, whether it’s Crack Pie at one of the Milk Bars, a quick bite at the Ssam Bar (and a drink at new, uber-hot Booker & Dax), or a full-on wine dinner at Ma Peche.

11. New Amsterdam Market. Weekends only; check the calendar. In addition to all the artisan food vendors, take in the cobblestones and the East River, and imagine you’ve travelled back in time.

12. Pegu Club, or another great cocktail bar:  Lani Kai, Employees Only (west side) Death & Co., Cienfuegos, Amor y Amargo (east side) all are excellent options for of-the-moment cocktails. So is Clover Club in Brooklyn. Although there are a bazillon other wonderful (and newer, hotter) bars in NY, I’m deliberately suggesting these because you’re assured of A) a great drink and B) name recognition bragging rights when you go home.

13. Russ & Daughters – Bagels, lox, appetizing, and loads of history.

14. Second Avenue Deli, for a true kosher pastrami sandwich. (Hint:  it’s relocated and it’s no longer on Second Avenue. Pretend you already knew that bit of NY trivia.) Katz’s is an acceptable second choice, though it’s not kosher. Carnegie Deli is for tourists; avoid it.

15. Union Square Greenmarket. Especially early on a Wednesday, when the chefs shop (keep an eye out for restaurant kitchen jackets).

16. Zabar’s – the one on the Upper West Side, for both food and local color. The one on the East Side is for sissies.

If you have a suggestion, please feel free to add a comment before March 29, when the IACP conference begins!

“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.

5 Things I’ve Learned About…Tequila

The May 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Tequila.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing!

2. 100% agave, or don’t bother. Go big or go home.

3. Like wine, terroir plays a part in tequila’s taste. Most tequila originates in Jalisco, Mexico; those from agave plants grown in the highlands tend to have a fruity, floral, herbaceous quality, while in the lowlands, volcanic soil yields an earthier, drier tequila. Further, a number of smaller producers specify particular estates where the agave plants were grown.

4. The unaged version is referred to as blanco, silver, or plata; it may be barrel-aged for up to two months and still be considered blanco. Reposado tequila is “rested” in oak barrels from two months to one year, while anejo is aged for longer than a year.

5. In general, most blancos are light and crisp, with lightly honeyed agave-nectar, peppery, or citrusy characteristics. But barrel-aging changes the game:  after some barrel time, many tequilas were reminiscent of light whiskeys, with sweet agave giving way to more caramel, cocoa and butterscotch flavors, and peppery notes evolving into sophisticated smoky accents.

Shameless plug alert!  If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining me in Austin, Texas, on June 4, for panel on “Tequila, Texas, and Terroir” at the International Associations of Culinary Professionals national conference. I’ll be joined by Austin barman Bill Norris and tequila expert Lucinda Hutson, and we’ll be tasting tequilas and fab tequila cocktails!

Feeding cocktails to children is bad, right?

Someday, I’m going to look back on all this and laugh. Right?

I was in Portland, OR last week, promoting Spice & Ice in between general networking and merriment at the IACP conference. I had exactly two promotional opportunities planned:  a cocktail segment on KATU (the local ABC-TV affiliate), and book-signing at the IACP Cookbook Expo. What could possibly go wrong?

Part I:  Morning

The KATU studio, with Robo-Camera. It's like the world's biggest Roomba!

I arrived at KATU bright & early at 8:45 am, all my cocktail gear in hand. (Including all my chopped cucumbers, poblanos, and more, lovingly peeled and cut in my hotel room the evening before, aka “hotel mise-en-place.” Isn’t my life glamorous?) I set up quick-as-a-wink on a bar that would be wheeled out into the studio at the appropriate moment, and waited for my cue.

And then, they brought in the “studio audience.” I’ve never done a cocktail demo in a TV studio before, and certainly never in front of a studio audience. And for a moment, I froze.

They were children on a class trip.

Not exactly an ideal group for a cocktail demo. In fact, it’s a wildly inappropriate audience for a cocktail demo.

But I took a deep breath, and when the time came, I did my thing, doing my best to forget about who was watching, and focusing instead on making 3 Margarita variations. If you’d like to watch, the video is posted here.  Look for the host’s “trick” with the ice cubes. At least that part amused the kids.

Part II:  Afternoon

Repeat to myself:  no feeding cocktails to children, no feeding cocktails to children.  Fat chance!  At the IACP Cookbook expo, alphabetical order dictated seating order. To my left was Cynthia Nims, promoting her fun new book Gametime Gourmet with fun Scrabble tiles and other fun games. And to my right was Jackie Newgent, promoting her Big Green Cookbook  with “hyper-baked” chocolate chip cookies. Games + Cookies = children, like moths to the proverbial flame.

I found myself shooing away said moths reaching for a glass of pretty pink liquid to wash down their cookies. (Kool-Aid?  No, Blood-Orange Jalapeno Margaritas.) I’d say, as kindly as I could, “there’s alcohol in that,” and they’d snatch away their little hands as if I’d said “there’s poison in that.” 

Feeding cocktails to children is bad, right?  Then why does the universe seem to want me to do just that?

Cocktailing: Why Brooklyn wishes it was Portland

I’m back from the IACP conference in Portland, Oregon, and I have to say, Portland is one city that knows how to get its geek on. I’ve never seen so many passionate foodies in one place (and I’m not even referring to the conference). Everywhere, there’s great coffee, great cocktails, great food. A sprawling greenmarket that makes my precious Union Square look like a postage stamp. Everyone seems to be making something or building a small business, and sporting a deeply personal tattoo while they’re at it. It just feels like a place where it’s easy to find one’s tribe.

In other words, it’s like the the best bits of what has become funky Brooklyn sprawl were all mashed together into one clean, rain-swept, bike-able small community, minus the Manhattan envy.

Let’s take cocktail culture, for example. (You knew I was going there eventually…) And it is indeed a culture.  Perhaps it’s because real estate prices are just so much lower than other metro areas, and scale is less of an issue, it seems like anyone with an artisan cocktail pipe dream can open a bar (hello, Beaker & Flask!) or start a business (hello, Trader Tiki and Aviation gin!)

My first day at IACP, I sat next to a local denizen who insisted that “Portland is a beer city located within wine country. Cocktails are a far third.” After spending some time in the local watering holes, I have to heartily disagree. Yes, there is plenty of great local beer and wine — especially the latter. I finally understand all of the references to “good bread” in France. The vinious equivalent of “good wine” surely must refer to the enjoyable, drinkable stuff made in Willamette Valley.

But the cocktails!  What I loved most about Portland’s cocktail scene was the  joy everyone seemed to take in experimentation.  I didn’t get to try every place I wanted (sorry, Teardrop Lounge…Saucebox…Belly Timber…Vault. next time, I promise).  But here are some places I did get to try, and highly recommend:

Cocktail shakers at Beaker & Flask

Beaker & Flask:  I was lucky enough to have Patrick Coleman, food editor from the alt-weekly Portland Mercury, as my tour guide for an evening. He knows all the bartenders and best tippling spots, plus he’s quite the snappy dresser so it was fun to be seen with him. Our first stop was Beaker & Flask, one of those spots where they embrace local brands and make their own grenadine, syrups, and coconut water ice cubes. I tried The Triple Lindy (Muscat Grappa, Riesling Syrup, fresh lime and lemon, demerara sugar). It was light and oddly floral, although it grew on me the more I sipped.

“It’s an intellectual drink,” Patrick quipped. “It’s like someone you respect, but don’t enjoy talking to.” His drink, Between the Posts (Rock & Rye soda, fresh grapefruit, Campari, Peychaud’s bitters), would have been the better dinner companion.  I swiped the menu on the way out -scroll down if you’d like a closer look.

Thatch:  A sweet little tiki bar, kitch, pupu platters and all. I was astounded that we easily scored seats at the bar, which would never, never happen on a weekday night in New York.  We were offered a preview of the new spring/summer menu, which hadn’t yet been printed up (nothing for me to pocket, alas). I tried a fabulous, fragrant rum drink called “The Broadway Baby.” It was also quite potent, as tiki drinks often are, so I can’t recall what else was in the drink.

Clyde Commons Negroni

Clyde Common:  I went later in the week, explicitly to try something with Jeff Morgenthaler’s famed barrel-aged spirits, and settled on a Negroni. And yes, everything you’ve read about it being the best Negroni you’ve ever had are true. About halfway through the drink, Morgenthaler slid over another drink, in a slightly smaller glass, and uttered those magic words that are like catnip to a drinks journalist:  “It’s not on the menu yet.” It was Robert Hess’s Trident creation, equal parts Cynar, Sherry, and Whiskey (here, barrel aged about 8 weeks). 

Again, I swiped the menu (last seen beneath my cocktail, in the photo at right). And again, I’m scanning it so you can view it below.

Bar Ten 01:  I went, but didn’t stay, since it was understandably packed on a Saturday evening. But since I saw charming barkeep Kelley Swenson at an IACP event earlier in the week and thoroughly enjoyed his Chamomile Sour cocktail there, I say it counts.

Beaker & Flask Cocktail Menu

Clyde Commons cocktail menu