Friday, May 31, 2013

Drank No. 17: His beard may be lying, there are false distillers among us.

During microwbrewing's first wave in the 1990s large brewers like Budweiser and Miller made a quick move to get in on the act. They started new macro-batch beers and made them look like microbrews with new names and quirky labels. They charged a little less than microbrews but a little more than standard beer, then filled their coffers with gold.

The same thing is happening in micro-distilling, except this time it's sort of the other way around. Micro-distillers are using macro-distilled product and selling it as small batch. How's that? Well, it turns out after you put the alcohol percentage, the category of spirit and some warnings to pregnant women on the label, you can pretty much say anything you want. You don't even have to say you didn't distill it but you can still call yourself a distiller. Buy a vat of clear distillate from Smirnoff, run it through your filter, put it in your apothecary bottle: voila, instant artisan.

There's no law against it and frankly, I don't think there should be. You've got to expect a certain amount of these shenanigans when people have essentially been given a license to sell drugs. The better distillers will come forward because they explain what they do and you can taste the difference. It's just important to keep your eyes clear and ask questions. One question might be what's the benefit of small batch distillation in the first place?

This news comes on the heels of learning about Bruichladdich, the resurrected Islay scotch maker (Islay being the Scottish island famous for its peaty, smokey scotches). From the New Yorker:

 “all its barley is sent to a huge malting plant in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, which returns malt with a specified amount of peat smoke.”

Pretty much sounds like the liquid smoke version of Scotch to me. Drinkers, keep vigilant.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New calendar technology

A follow-up to yesterday's post about calendars. We've started testing a project timeline calendar that looks like a bit like a Gantt chart, which is a newfangled calendar technology (meaning it's a hundred years old, not several thousand—there's not a lot "new" in calendars this century). It has a special jagged red line "right now" feature you'll see below. They key thing is that, like a calendar, time starts on the left and moves to the right. Whenever you need to visually represent time progression that's the best way to go.

Here's an example of it (hat tip to J Atlee). It was used to plan and report on our progress as we performed a multi-day rearrangement of our warehouse floor. The red line, where we're currently at, moved every few hours. Here it shows where we were Day 1 at 1pm (ahead of schedule on the part of the red line that angles a "V" to the right, the rest on schedule):

At 4pm (behind schedule on the part that angles to the left, ahead on the angle to the right, the rest on schedule—also the line is drawn at the chart's 5pm, not 4pm, because they stopped an hour early):

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ancient calendar technology

I don't know when seven day week calendars began — they predate the Romans — but I don't think it's a stretch to call them ancient. Or maybe I should say heirloom. Whatever the word, calendars work crazy well. Everyone knows how to use them, the structure is the same worldwide so you don't need to understand a local language to read one, and they're super fast to scan and pick out the exact info you're looking for. When you want to tell people something specific to a day of the week there's nothing better. So I'm always surprised how many times people choose to ignore them and force customers to wander their word maze to find the information they're looking for. Like this restaurant:

Here's the same information written as a calendar:

Monday, May 20, 2013

C.S. Lewis writing before cable TV

"You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?
- C.S. Lewis 
 For me, magazine food photography, mostly the same feeling.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Phrasing! The problems with names.

Be careful what you name things. An off-the-cuff name concocted in a meeting tends to stick. Years later you regret it. For example, we used to call the groups of free-ranging crew on the production floor, the folks who could work any station, "Floaters". Thankfully that stopped. We now call them "Mercs," short for "Mercenaries," which, while tinged with what's probably an unhealthy amount of war and vengeance, at least has some glamour in it. UPS, at their Louisville hub, calls them "Hot Spares" which I wish we thought of first.

This naming problem shows up everywhere. Take Global Warming. What a terrible name. The fact that Global Warming often causes extra-cold weather has, in my opinion, done more to hurt its credibility than just about anything else. Most news agencies have started calling it Climate Change but that's blanded it into a position no better. It's a phrase that lacks any urgency or sense of direction.

You may be be like, "Pshaw, Mo, you are a writer marketer talking about word choice. Of course you care about names. But most people see through words. They know what things really mean." Maybe. But I think the clarity and power the right phrase evokes can have a huge effect. I'll keep posting to this theme under the tag "Phrasing" and share more evidence. Meanwhile I'll leave you with a couple historical examples to think about.

It used to be called Sex (Discrimination), and then:
“I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secretary, 1970s, as she was typing Gingsburg’s briefs to present to the U.S. supreme court when Ginsburg was a practicing lawyer. Ginsburg changed the word to “gender discrimination.” She was hailed for winning more cases on this cause than any lawyer in history. New Yorker
In used to be called Birth Control, and then:
In 1962, the director of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Harlem (over whose opening, three decades earlier, W. E. B. DuBois had presided) met with Malcolm X. Malcolm X said that he thought it would be better if the organization called its service “family planning instead of birth control.” (The meeting notes, sent to Guttmacher, read, “His reason for this was that people, particularly Negroes, would be more willing to plan than to be controlled.”)  New Yorker

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Drank No. 16: Fernet's moment

On the mini bar at the Wythe Hotel.

Fernet-Branca is having a moment. It's on cocktail menus everywhere, mixed in a raft of recent drinks. It's on industry night happy hour menus at bars in New York where it's known as "Fernet" (rhymes with "hairnet") and drunk by the shot, straight. The buzzy new restaurant Pearl and Ash has a Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich on the dessert menu. The Wythe Hotel, Williamsburg Brooklyn's swankiest hotel — well, Brooklyn's only swanky hotel — offers a bottle in its mini bars and not much else.

If you've ever tasted it you may wonder what on earth is going on. If you haven't then let me suggest the flavor is what might happen if you took Jagermeister on a trip to Italy. And in some ways that explains its appeal. It's extreme, like Jagermeister, yet it's not Jagermeister, which most food industry insiders think jumped the shark years ago. It's an amaro, the herbal infused fortified wine family that includes Campari and Aperol, which means it's part of a growing back bar assortment that drink makers have been working with to improve their cocktails (where it does some of its best work). It's probably the most intensely flavored of all the Italian amari and that pedigree, given this is America and we do like extremes, also explains why we've gravitated so strongly towards its menthol orbit.

Traditionally, amari are served before or after the meal. If they're served before they tend to be lighter, fruitier, and often get ice and citrus added to the glass to further soften their impact. If they're served afterwards they tend to be richer and more medicinal, offered neat or with a single cube of ice. In Italy they're known as digestivi. Fernet-Branca definitely falls into the after-dinner camp, where it resembles the German Underberg, one of a long line of medeivally inspired European attempts to medicate overindulgence with alcohol. Thanks, Europe.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Same day delivery? How about same hour delivery?

eBay now has $5 same-hour delivery in certain cities for certain items. This comes on the heels of Amazon announcing same-day delivery. Is this something food mail order companies should be worried about?

I don't think so. This is set up for self-buyers (people buying for themselves), not gift givers, and food mail order is largely a gift business. (Imagine the message it sends if a person wearing a one-hour delivery shirt shows up at your door with your birthday present.) Another reason is perishability. The way same-hour and same-day works is they need to park inventory in every city to have it ready to ship on a moment's notice. That's a real pain to do with food — at least the food people want to give as gifts — since it tends to expire at a rapid rate.

Should any business be afraid? In general it pays to be afraid of eBay and Amazon so yes, someone should be scared. If you sell commodity electronics or home goods — i.e. if you're K Mart or Sears — you might want to be extra fearful. Well, if you're one of those two you're probably already scared to death since you're so far behind in retail period. WalMart — they might get a little nervous too. They've announced same-day delivery as well, using their network of stores, but they've yet to make their online business connect like Amazon's does.

Then again maybe there's not much to worry about. Others have tried this and failed plenty of times. Most notoriously, I remember New York's Urban Fetch and Kozmo in the late 1990s. You could order a CD, a box of donuts and a pint of Ben and Jerry's (my first order) and a bike messenger would deliver them to you in an hour, often with free warm cookies! It was amazing, so amazing that it lost mountains of money and both were gone within a year.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Don't break the wrong part of yourself.

In America we insure parts of our bodies separately. Eyes are covered by optical insurance. Mouths are covered by dental insurance. The rest is covered by "health" insurance.

In other words if you fall and break your nose and teeth and you have no dental insurance, only health insurance — a pretty common situation in America where dental insurance is considered a "luxury" — the doctor would fix your nose but not your mouth.

"Sorry, I know they're both located on the same appendage an inch from each other but you didn't have coverage for one of them. Good luck with the eating." 

How did this come to be? Why are our eyes and mouth treated differently from the rest of us by insurance companies? How did these parts of our bodies get carved off, so to speak, from the rest of medicine? They're crucial to our overall health, our body is one unit, why are they insured separately?

Imagine different car companies insured different parts of your car. You got in an accident and had to go to the fender insurance company to file a claim to fix your fender and the bumper insurance company to file a claim to fix the bumper. It would seem absurd. Surely someone would come along and offer to insure the whole thing to make it simpler for car owners.

Surely, someone, right?

The Worst Run Industry In America is my look at the American health care industry, its service, prices and promises, from my view as a merchant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Easy on the brain

Zipcar identifies which car you're renting by name, not license plate number. Why? It's much more memorable, it's far easier to recall. It's a good thing to keep in mind whenever you're designing a something that works better when it's quicker to remember, like, in our business, the identification of a pick rack or a route.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Slate signs

They are natural, reusable, make writing easy to read, and, when rough like these, have an amazing texture you can't replicate with printed material.

Drank No. 1: Death and Co.


Death and Co. was opened in 2009 by former bartenders of Milk & Honey and Audrey Sanders's impeccable Pegu Club. It marked what was the peak, and therefore the beginning of the end, of the speakeasy bar trend—at least in New York. (Milk and Honey, the founding father of the movement, has since closed up its tiny reservations-only speakeasy in Chinatown and moved to a bigger, no-reservations space in the Flatiron district.) 

The speakeasy elements Death and Co. maintains are a door with no sign, lots of darkness inside, a tight menu heavy with historical drinks, bartenders with rolled-up sleeves, vests, ties tucked inside their shirt, suspenders, arm bands—all of which look good and, more importantly, keep their clothes out of drinks.

A few more observations:

Many drinks are stirred and when done they use Japanese glass pitchers so you can see the stirring.

Stirring with big, beautiful classic bar spoons.

Thick black short straws, not the chintzy little red stir sticks.

Homemade syrups are on a section of the bar in different clear glass jars and bottles, lit from behind.

During down time bartenders polish silverware and glasses.

All glasses checked for spots against a candle before a drink is made in them. All drink making done up in front of the guest. A small design detail that shows a thoughtful bartender designed the space: the drink well is not present across the entire bar space. That means bartenders can stand in front of you to make your drink and not lean forward across the well. It's a small thing but after you notice it you realize how awkward it is at other bars. And if you work at a bar you know how much it can be a pain on your back.

Death & Co.
433 E 6 St