Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Drank No. 7: Reading Edition

These people are aging cocktails for six weeks in barrels. Gilding the lily? Perhaps they acquired a taste for vanilla from oaky California Chardonnay? In which case the cocktails will probably be a hit.

This guy thinks it’s a load of bunk. Hooray for the lonely, ostracized critic of “small, local, expensive” who says, first and foremost, it has to taste good, and small batch doesn't have a monopoly on flavor.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Drank No. 8: New Orleans, or What makes a great drinking town?


I had a drink at the French 75 bar at Arnaud’s in New Orleans. In some towns, including my home, New York, this act would be perceived as helplessly passé. It’s somewhat of a tourist destination. The room has been hopelessly updated, it’s too bright, there’s too much polish on the brass. The drink—eponymously named for the bar—is far from hip. But in ways unrelated to the typical qualifiers, the experience was perfect.

The bartender, in his mid to late 30s, had a foppish hairdo that reminded me of Richard Branson. He wore a white jacket, de rigueur for many classic New Orleans bars and almost unheard of elsewhere in America since it's at least fifty years out of (current restauranting) style. Before accepting our drink orders he asked what we last drank at our previous stop. Based on our answers he told three of us our orders were OK. But the fourth, he suggested mildly, you might choose another, and he offered advice. We took it. The drinks were uniformly excellent.

This unsolicited advice may seem untoward. It wasn’t to me. There’s a certain amount of authority and insight I want a bartender to have. I can ignore it and move along or I can put myself in their hands and let them take care of me. Personally, I love it when I meet a bartender with knowledge, sincerity and skill who pushes my boundaries. I let them take over, something I’d almost never do with a waiter, but I might do with a chef. Maybe it’s because a bartender is kind of like a waiter and a chef all in one?

The drink was excellent and we wrapped up our night. But before we left there was a bit more to the story. One of us complained about another bar. He said he got a lemon twist in a Manhattan. (I’m almost sure it was my friend Allen Leibowitz, who makes a small art of tender complaints.) The bartender overheard him.

“Where did you get that drink?” he asked.
“The International Hotel Bar.”
“From a woman?”
“Tall? White blond hair, pony tail?”
“Lucy, probably.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me tell you,” the bartender said, “She knows how to make a Manhattan. She was making what she thought you wanted in a Manhattan. There are a lot of people who expect it that way, for some reason.”

What makes a great drinking town? New York is grand in many ways, and to some extent it’s a place where you can enjoy a drink for what it is. But, in my experience, most of America’s bars are not sincere. They are drinking places that are proxies for other things: doing business, hanging out with friends, hooking up. In New Orleans, however, the rubber meets the road. Here, drinking is about the act. It’s the experience of the cocktail cool and golden in your hand. The room, full of people worth looking at. The bartender, yours only.

This kind of service that our bartender offered — knowing who was making Allen’s drink in another bar, what she thought, why she made it that way — this does not happen in the real world. New Orleans is not the real world. We should all thank our lucky stars that, in spite of flood and oil and neglect, it still exists.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Drank No. 9: Memorable checks

The Hide is one of my favorite bars in London. It’s just south of The City (what the dead center of town is called, essentially London’s Wall Street), across the Thames in Bermondsey, due east of teeming Borough Market. It’s run by a kind fellow named Paul who also writes its email newsletter which I recommend subscribing to since it's about far more than what's going on at the bar; I almost always learn something from it. It’s posted as a blog at http://www.bloodandsand.com/.

When your evening is over and you ask for the check at The Hide this is what comes. A single figure, written on a business card. Very discreet and charming.

What’s even more fun is what’s on back.

I bet lots of people keep these, like me.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Recent Reading

What presidents ate. Jefferson liked anchovies. Grover Cleveland, snickerdoodles. Teddy Roosevelt, pigs in a blanket. Bill Clinton, Egg McMuffins and Kool-Aid. My favorite list, especially for the last dish, Woodrow Wilson: Chicken salad, ham, peach cobbler, fresh eggs (sometimes raw), biscuits, strawberry ice cream, and Georgia kiss pudding.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Drank No. 10: Some things bars are doing

Guest bartenders
It’s increasingly common for serious bartenders in big cities to either hold shifts at multiple bars, or to do guest residencies. The first time I noticed this was in San Francisco when I had drinks at Bourbon and Branch, Heavens Dog and Alembic on three different nights and had the same bartender serve me each time. The New York Times saw it too.  Chefs and cheese mongers and baristas have done this for some time, I think it shows how the craft of bartending is maturing.

Guest drinks
I’ve been to a couple restaurants and bars where they offer a drink from another contemporary establishment. The other place is named, the drink is given full credit to the bartender who invented it, and there’s maybe a short explanation about it on the menu. I think it’s a great idea that builds community and credibility.

Bars based on a single alcohol
New York now hosts bars whose entire cocktail menu is based on gin (Madame Geneva), tequila (Mayahuel) and rum (Cienfuega). There are several who do brandy (The Brandy Library) and Bourbon (Char No. 4), though they mostly focus on the main ingredient, not mixing it. There’s also The Bubble Lounge which features champagne, something we should all be studying. I am sure there are some that I’m missing. These are great places to taste a spirit in depth and see how it performs in all kinds of concoctions.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Drank No. 11: Italian Amari, Campari and Negronisplosion

il Negroni sbagliato
Campari is one of a family of Italian alcohols called amari (plural of amaro). The literal translation of amaro is “bitter” but that really doesn’t mean the same thing so I’d stick to using the Italian word. There are lots of different amari. It seems like every village in Italy makes one. Besides Campari two other popular amari include Aperol and Cynar.

In Italy Campari is usually served as an aperitivo. The word sounds like appetizer and, essentially, that’s what it is. Think of an aperitivo the same way you think of an appetizer at dinner. For example, an oyster. Eating one makes you hungrier. It inspires you to eat more. Same for drinks. They should whet the appetite.

Amari are built from a base of wine, not liquor, so their alcoholic content is low, usually not more than 20%. That makes them a good choice before dinner.

Their origins are medieval. Monks macerated spices to extract their supposed medicinal properties. Amari are still chock full of spices and weirdness. Aperol has sixteen different ingredients, Campari has ninety-nine.

The modern development of amari began in the late 19th century in the café cultures of Milan and Turin. When you think of café  here you should erase any idea of Starbucks from your mind. These were grand places, with vast ceilings, windows and chandeliers. The waiters wore serious clothes. Table service was the norm. American doesn't really have an equivalent, the only thing I’ve seen that comes close are grand hotel bars.

In northern Italy, before dinner at a restaurant or trattoria, you’d take an aperitivo at a café. (It’s a tradition that’s still followed today.) You would make a reservation for a drink at one place and, later, a reservation for dinner at another. Doesn’t that sound splendid?

The best cafés had a position called the maître’ d di liquiriza —the liquor host. They worked in front of and behind the bar where they blended their own amari. A bar with a great liquor host who had a great proprietary amaro got a lot of reservations so they were kind of a big deal. The two most famous liquor hosts of their day were the friends Gaspare Campari and Alessandro Martini (the first half of Martini & Rossi, the vermouth).

These two celebrities collaborated on a cocktail, mixing their namesake alcohols, Campari and Vermouth, in equal portions with soda and a wedge of orange. The result was the Milano Torino, named after the two towns where they worked. It was the most famous drink of its day. No one calls it that anymore, though: U.S. soldiers fell in love with it and the name changed to the Americano.

Later, a Count in Florence 86'd the soda and replaced it with gin. He drank it in the afternoon, something you can do when you're a Count. His name was Negroni and the drink has been called that ever since. The Negroni has taken off in the last couple years and, to some extent, it's become a placeholder name for lots of 3-part coctails that use an amaro, a vermouth and something else. I even saw "Negroni of the Month" on a menu at a restaurant recently. 

The best of the new-Negroni lot has probably been been to replace the soda or gin with prosecco, an invention of Bar Basso in Milan where it was named il Negroni sbagliato or “the mistaken Negroni" (in the US it's usually known as "sbaglio"). Having ordered several over the past couple years I can assure you that as far as mistakes go it is delicious. Replacing 80 proof gin with prosecco nicely reduces the alcohol level which takes the Negroni—an aperitivo by nature but one that has too much alcohol to make you a reliable dinner guest—back to its role as a great pre-meal drink. Apparently the Milanese absolutely go bonkers for ice in il sbagliato, something you'll recognize as strange if you've traveled in Europe where ice cubes are rarer than white tennis shoes. It's often served in oversized wine goblets loaded with cubes.

I'm of the opinion that Negronis should be stirred, not shaken (and you can't shake a sbaglio—it'll ruin it). Shaking makes a completely different drink, changing the color of the Campari and adding bubbles which reduces the luxurious feeling on the tongue, one of the Negroni’s most lovely features. I've tasted one delicious variation where orange wedges were marinated in sweet vermouth overnight, caramelized on a flat top, then muddled into the drink.