Sporting Chance

Probably the biggest surprise for me on this vacation was just how prosperous Bloomington seemed. (More on that later.) If I had any doubts on this front, they were laid to rest by my visit to The Rail.

Contemporary craft cocktails and tapas — in Bloomington? I was impressed. And I was even more impressed when it came out that our bartender, Colin Boilini, had won a contest with Tales of the Cocktail. They’ll be bringing him down here to New Orleans next week.

Naturally we commanded Mr. Boilini to prepare for us his award-winning cocktail — which he did.
Continue reading “Sporting Chance”

Tales Highlights, Part IV

Yes, a month after the fact I’m still recovering from Tales of the Cocktail. Here’s my fourth and final installment.

I learned some fascinating stuff from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. For example, I didn’t know that the legendary founder of the Tiki Craze, Don the Beachcomber, came from New Orleans. (Wikipedia says otherwise but I have it on good authority.) It was also a treat to see Ian Burrell do his ninja shake.

I also learned the true origin of the Mai Tai cocktail. So that was all highly edifying. No complaints there.

But after this session I had to hurry over to another on the Gin & Tonic. Does the idea of Tiki drinks followed by G&Ts sound appetizing to you? I have no one but myself to blame, of course, as I made my own schedule.

As long as I’m bellyaching, look at this Powerpoint slide.

Powerpoint

It’s so bad the presenter even made fun of it. I’m tactfully omitting her name to prevent further embarrassment. But at least I got to see a bunch of rare and unusual products which I most ardently desire to possess. If you want to get me a special gift (and why wouldn’t you?) anything pictured here will do.

Wish List

Next up (Saturday morning actually) I was shocked and awed by a seminar on vinegar. This paired nicely with Wayne Curtisseminar on colonial American drinks, because we kicked things off with a Haymaker’s Punch, also known as switchel, a beverage made with vinegar and sweetened water which “originated in the Caribbean, and had become a popular summer drink in the American Colonies in the late 17th century,” according to Wikipedia. I gather switchel was a non-alcoholic drink popular during the temperance movement, but I’m pretty sure they put some rum in this version. Presenter Kelley Slagle called it “the original sportsman’s drink.” All I could say was, “Wow.” I really liked it.

Kelly came to vinegar as a bartender. One of the other panelists, Karl duHoffmann, came at it from a medicinal angle. I’m probably recalling incorrectly but I think his family had connections to homeopathy back in the day. (I found this doubly intriguing because I was reading The End of Mr. Y at time, a science fiction novel in which homeopathic medicine plays a central role. I cannot recommend the book, alas.) Karl cracked me up when he compared volatile acidity in wine to “a woman of great beauty with flaws but no faults.”

Acetic Acid

Truly, it was astonishing the level of passion these folks brought to the subject of vinegar. They even presented original research, trying to correlate acidity, pH levels and subjective taste. Their results were inconclusive, but I love that they tried.

Cardamom Club

Then, at last, it was time for “The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium.” Attentive readers may recall that, though I conducted a pre-interview with the presenters, I was not at all sure I’d be able to wangle my way into the seminar itself.

But wangle I did, and a good thing too. This session was my second favorite of the whole conference. We went all the way back to 1552 BC, which is the date of some written references to wormwood, on papyrus no less, and we worked our way forward from there. I’m probably dense, but I never realized why we call it wormwood: It’s a traditional cure for intestinal parasitical worms. We learned why vermouth has a Germanic name despite its Italian origin. We learned how absinthe was invented and why it was really banned. Fascinating stuff, brought to life by Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller.

Jared Brown

(By the way, I sure did notice a lot of seersucker at Tales.)

I couldn’t get a good photo of Anistatia. She was far too animated.

I was also suitably impressed by Giuseppe Gallo, who uttered the following quotable: “Our recommendation is to drink responsibly — but drink everything.”

We also learned:

  • Génépi is a liqueur similar to absinthe, made with artemesia. Chartreuse is derived from génépi. There are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of génépis made by families in the Alps and Pyrenees each year, which are not widely available on the market, and in most cases probably not available at all.
  • Does Campari contain Artemesia absinthium? The precise ingredients are top secret, but in a word: yes. Also gentian.
  • Speaking of the bitter mountain herb, gentian liqueur has been known sometimes as the Yellow Fairy.

And there you have it. There were no Sunday seminars this year, so I was effectively finished with Tales on Saturday. I’m sure they curtailed the Sunday activities for any variety of sensible reasons, but a part of me already misses the hangover jokes requisite to an early Sunday morning cocktail seminar.

On a more personal note, I found myself fielding one question from most of the people I met at Tales thus year: “What’s your blog about?” My typical reply was: “It’s all about me!” I’ve been a unabashed and unapologetic self-centered egotistical narcissist for so long that such an answer comes very naturally. But at the same time it’s got me thinking that it may be time to make some changes. More on that later.

What the hell, here’s a “parting shot.”

Samogon Cocktail

‘Til next year.

Tales Highlights, Part III

Probably my favorite thing about having a media credential for Tales of the Cocktail is breakfast. And of course lunch, but a good breakfast is essential. There’s a super-secret room where presenters, media and VIPs get to tie on the feedbag. Each meal has a different sponsor, usually a distiller. Cocktails are served, of course, and the food complements or incorporates the featured spirits. For example, the Bulleit lunch included salad with bourbon vinaigrette, bourbon glazed chicken, bourbon braised brisket, potatoes with bourbon gravy, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Get the idea? I also met Hollis Bulleit, and from Tom Bulleit I learned that their new rye is made in Indiana. I made sure to pick up some Bulleit Rye soon after Tales ended. Good stuff.

That was a delicious meal, but my favorite of all was the breakfast sponsored by Pisco Portón. I had ceviche, quail, andouille and potatoes, coffee, pisco smoothie.

Snapper Ceviche

I’ve been making ceviche for a year now, as I’ve mentioned recently. But this was the first time I got to taste some I didn’t make myself. (Well, except for that Canton ceviche I tasted at Tales back in 2009, but that was in a very different style.) I felt extremely validated, as it tasted more or less like mine. Conclusion: I must be doing it right.

Strangely enough I also ran into Judy Walker of the Times-Picayune. It was her column that got me crazed for ceviche in the first place.


I had a little gap in my schedule and so found myself unexpectedly gawking as Jon Santer cut through a 300 lbs. block of ice.

Anu Apte and Andrew Bohrer can be seen catching snow for juleps. Madness! Andrew described this as the “least philosophical seminar” at Tales: “It’s using a tool to cut a thing.” Andrew’s posted more videos and his slides. His blog is really quite a lot of fun, so check it out. See especially Ten Rules of Drinking Like a Man.


Did you know that Pierre Ferrand launched their 1840 Original Formula Cognac at Tales this year?

Pierre Ferrand 1840

It should be available around the country by now, but they started in the New Orleans market. According to Kevin Gray, this style of Cognac is well suited to mixing in cocktails. Cognac was once a very popular cocktail ingredient, and it seems to be resurgent, which is fine by me. Brandy is my favorite spirit. I’ve got a couple of these 1840 sample bottles which I hope to revisit when the time is right.

More to come.

Tales Highlights, Part II

Tales of the Cocktail isn’t all about seminars. There are also plenty of tasting rooms and other events. But perhaps best of all, you get to meet new people who aren’t a part of any formal program.

Barker & Mills

Ryan Barker was promoting his handmade cocktail garnishes. These bourbon-vanilla cocktail cherries were sublime. They should be commercially available soon. More info on his website.


As a rule, I don’t linger at Tales of the Cocktail past 5PM or so. I’m a local, and I like to be home for dinner. I’d love to hang late one of these years for a “Spirited Dinner,” where cocktails are pared with gourmet food, but those things are expensive, and I’m on a tight budget. Actually, this year I was invited to two dinners gratis, as a blogger covering the event, but the first invitation was a mistake, subsequently retracted. The second dinner featured a lot of shrimp and crab, so I had to decline. Crustaceans don’t agree with me. But I digress.

The other evening events at Tales are parties. I love a good party, but after a full day of drinking seminars, I’m usually pretty wiped out. Nevertheless, this year, I thought I’d check one out just for laughs. I managed to get a ticket to the Diageo Happy Hour, with the theme “Cocktails from Around the World.” I didn’t really know what to expect. It was at the Cabildo, and upon arrival I was handed a pamphlet listing the 40 mixologists who were on hand serving up 40 cocktails. That’s right, 40 different cocktails. Then I was handed a “passport” booklet which listed each cocktail recipe with a blank place to be stamped at each station. “Around the World,” get it?

Stairwell

I went up to the third floor and worked my way down. No, I didn’t drink 40 cocktails. But I had a few. I was amused at the little signs everywhere that said, “Please drink responsibly.” But now that I think about it, I have to say this: You’d be hard-pressed to find more responsible drinkers than those who attend Tales of the Cocktail. These people can handle their liquor. This is my third year; I’ve never had a hangover. (Oh, I’ve had hangovers on my own, but never associated with Tales.) I’ve never run into anyone who seemed obviously inebriated. Given the number of people in attendance, and the number of drinks being served, I’m sure there is some overindulgence, but I’ve never seen it. Just thought that was a point worth making. But I’m digressing again.

Of all the drinks I did sample, it would be hard to pick a favorite. But if pressed, I think I’d have to go with Bernardino’s Bulleit by Misty Kalkofen of Drink (Boston).

Misty Kalkofen

Little did she know she was back-to-back with Shawn Soole who was also using Fernet Branca. Bartenders after my own heart. Misty, if you ever see this, I just wanted to say: Your cocktail rocked my world. Also, nice tattoo.


With any luck you’ll see some follow-up interviews with some of the above-mentioned folks in this space in the future.

More to come.

Tales Highlights, Part I

Tales of the Cocktail ended last week, but it’s taken me this long to sort through all my photos and videos and notes.

When I tell people about Tales of the Cocktail, they either get it right away or seem puzzled by the whole thing. To some, the idea of a conference on the subject of cocktails simply does not compute. What is there to talk about? How could this topic not be exhausted after a few minutes? Who comes to this thing anyway — bartenders? makers of spirits? aficionados? (Yes to all three, by the way.) I hope the following smattering of highlights gives some indication of the breadth of the event, but know that I have only scratched the surface.

Loggerhead

My favorite seminar, without question, was “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks.” Since I interviewed Wayne Curtis in advance, I thought I knew what to expect. I was not prepared, however, for the sight of Mr. Curtis in full colonial getup, complete with tri-cornered hat, a look he described as “Yankee Doodle Douchebag.” Nor was I prepared for the flavor of drinks like the Calibogus or the Stone Fence. (Actually, J mixed the latter way back in ’92 according to a recipe that I know now is highly suspect.) Not that I was particularly wild about any of these drinks, but they all had interesting flavors that transported me mentally to another time. Wayne Curtis was a consummate showman, managing somehow to evoke the fascination of bygone days while also maintaining a sense of (hilarious) ironic detachment.

The grand culmination of this session was the making of an old-fashioned ale flip. This involved thrusting a red hot poker into a jug filled with ale, rum and molasses. I was conscripted into service holding a second mic for the moment of truth, and it was indeed a glorious moment when the sound of boiling booze filled the air. As noted elsewhere, “the seething iron made the liquor foam and bubble and mantle high, and gave it the burnt, bitter taste so dearly loved.” I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to record it myself.

Oh wait, I did.

Ale Flip by Editor B

The recording doesn’t really do justice to the sound. I guess you had to be there. (Todd Price was there and he wrote about it too.)

Carbonated Negronis

Another highlight of the conference was the Negroni seminar (see previous interview). Paul Clarke made a convincing case for regarding the Negroni as the first modern cocktail, born of the collision of the European aperitif tradition and the American cocktail tradition. He event went so far as to call it a Cubist drink.

It was most enlightening to hear from Luca Picchi, in translation via Livio Lauro. Luca is probably the world’s foremost expert on the history of this cocktail, and his book should be in English available soon. Watch for it. Personally I was just grateful to learn that a Negroni really should be built on the rocks, not shaken.

Livio is no slouch either, and he endeared himself to me forever with the following remark:

The American palette has changed. We’ve gone from sweet to bitter.

Just as I suspected.

The Negroni was created by dropping soda water from the Americano in favor of gin. But what if you like the fizz? This problem was neatly resolved by the first public deployment of the Perlini system, which can carbonate cocktails just by shaking ’em.


Stanislav Vadrna is the Guru of Swizzle.

Swizzle Guru

I don’t just say that as a lame cliche. The man evinced a surprisingly spiritual approach to swizzling. It’s not something you see much in the cocktail context. Stanislav abjured his followers to find their center, feel the love, and “be here now.” And you can’t argue with the results.

More to come.

Bloggers Reception

Last night Arnaud’s French 75 Bar hosted a blogger’s reception to kickoff Tales of the Cocktail, sponsored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

Naturally I was there.

Arnaud's French 75 Bar

It’s fascinating to me that blogging still seems to be on the ascendant. I met a number of local bloggers, including people I hadn’t met before such as Alan and Shercole, as well as old comrades like M Styborski.

The Cocktail Summit cocktail and the hors d’oeuvres were fantastic, and I learned that cognac flavors can be organized by season in an aroma wheel.

Posting may be a little thin here over the next few days as the program ramps up, but I’ll have a full debriefing when the conference is over.

Tales of the Negroni

Aperitivo - Negroni

If you pinned me to the wall and demanded to know my favorite cocktail, the first word I’d blurt out would be probably “Negroni.”

(In the event that you, Dear Reader, are not familiar with this wonderful aperitivo, I urge you to have one before your next meal. Equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin; garnish with orange.)

So, when I saw that the prolific Paul Clarke was moderating a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail devoted solely to the consideration of the Negroni, I jumped on it. Paul graciously answered a few of my silly questions, which I now share with you.


I’ve noticed an uptick of interest in bitters and bitter liqueurs such as Italian amari. Is the American palate shifting, and what does that mean for cocktails like the Negroni?

I think the American palate is certainly expanding. Sure, there’s still a lot of work to do, and we may never overcome the preponderance of Big Macs and vodkapops, but the growth of interest in bitter liqueurs is absolutely happening. I think the Negroni is both aiding that, and benefiting from it — aiding it in that it’s a classic cocktail that can be made in almost any bar, so people who are discovering the pleasure of bitter can order one without much difficulty; and it’s benefiting from the growing interest in bitter flavors in that it’s a core drink like the Manhattan or the Martini: even after a person has explored the different options out there, it’s a simple yet always engaging drink that drinkers will always come back to.

The Negroni is infinitely variable. Do you have a favorite variation, and if so what is it?

I’ll always come back to a classic Negroni (equal parts, rocks, orange wheel or twist). But you’re right that there are many relatives; one I often mix for myself is an Agavoni, which is simply a Negroni made with reposado tequila, served with a grapefruit twist. Tequila and Campari are made for each other. And of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of American whiskey, I think a bourbon-based Boulevardier is never a bad thing.

The last (and only) time I was in Italy, I was woefully unaware of the Negroni (not to mention underage). Is it a truly popular drink there? What are your chances of walking into a random bar and successfully ordering a Negroni in Italy versus America? (I’ve had to instruct bartenders here on how to make one, alas.)

The Negroni has a longer history (obviously) and a bigger following in Italy than in the U.S. While it’s growing in popularity here at home, in Italy (particularly in Florence), it’s a home-grown cocktail, and I think a Negroni novice will have much better luck.

The vodka Negroni (as seen in *Thank You for Not Smoking*) — pure abomination or does it have a role to play?

My vodka partisan days are (mostly) behind me; if someone really enjoys a Vodka Negroni, then more power to ’em (though please, give the drink its own name). Campari is the ingredient in a Negroni that’s usually the hard thing for a newcomer to come to terms with; if someone wants to embrace that flavor without the moderating factor of gin, then who am I to judge?

This year I’ve found myself drawn to seminars that concentrate on exploring particular cocktails. If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

The Negroni seminar came to be for one simple reason: I like Negronis, and I know I’m not alone. The Negroni is an evergreen drink, and among bartenders there’s never a wrong time to have one (well, maybe 8:30 am, but I’m sure you could come up with a good enough reason if you tried). Since Tales of the Cocktail attracts bartenders and cocktail fans from around the country (and beyond), I knew we’d have a substantial fan base for the drink that would likely be interested in hearing what I and the other panelists have dug up about this iconic drink.

Finally, I know you did a session on aperitif wines. Sadly I missed it. I love them too. However I’ve only had the most basic and readily available ones. So I’ve got to ask if you have any hot tips on this front, any must-try recommendations?

It’s been a good couple of years for aperitif wines: after Cocchi Aperitivo Americano and Bonal came into the US last year, this year we’ve seen the arrival of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, which is absolutely lovely, along with other aperitif drinks like Cardamaro. I’m curious to see what’s on the aperitif front for the coming year, but you’re also seeing bars and bartenders taking a greater interest in these kinds of drinks, so I think we’re just getting started on the aperitif angle.


So there you have it. If anyone was wondering what to buy me for a special present, how about some Cocchi Vermouth di Torino?

I’ll report back after the seminar itself.

Photo: Aperitivo – Negroni / Dario / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Old School with Wayne Curtis

TOTC10 161

I recently got in touch with Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum. I was astonished to learn that he 1) lives in New Orleans and 2) reads this blog. Blow me down. He was even aware of my work with FOLC. I was momentarily disconcerted, embarrassed and abashed. Upon regaining my composure, I asked Wayne a few questions relating, more or less, to his upcoming seminar at Tales of the Cocktail. He’ll be doing a session called “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks,” delving all the way back to the 18th century. That’s what I call “old school.”


If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

Not much of a story. I gathered a fair amount of information on colonial drinks when researching my rum book, but never really had time to process it and make more sense of it. Nobody seemed much interested in drink pre-Jerry Thomas. But once David Wondrich came out with his book on punch last year, the cocktail crowd seemed a lot more curious about what else folks were drinking, so I decided to dig back in and see what I could find. I’ll be curious to see if anyone thinks there’s much merit in drinks flavored with spruce sap.

Is the American palate shifting? Is there any quick and dirty way to characterize shifting tastes over the years, going back to the 18th century? Does the notion of a national palate even make sense in that context?

I’ve made the argument that late 19th century America once had a big taste for bitter — much as Italy still does — but lost it during the Prohibition when sweet was ascendent and has never regained it, at least until now. It always astounded me how many different bitters were available prior to Prohibition, and how many recipes there were in bar guides for crafting different styles of bitters. One of my favorite soft drinks is Moxie, which was a New England favorite (and is still available up north). It’s basically a gentian root soda, and sort of tastes like an Angostura soda. For years, until the 1910s, it outsold Coca Cola. And I’m willing to wager that Coke was once more bitter and less sweet than it is today. I’m glad to see that bitter is coming back, in everything ranging from cocktail bitters to Jagermeister to Starbucks Coffee to those frizzy, bitter greens now available in many supermarkets. It seems like an overdue re-discovery.

Vodka: for or against? (I tried to figure a way to relate this question to the subject of your seminar but failed.)

I used to be anti-vodka, but now I’m neutral. I realized I was reacting to the glitzy over-advertising of the big distillers, and the fact that people who argue about vodkas tend to be people I don’t want to hang out with. (BTW, have you seen the website www.douchebagslovegreygoose.com?) I agree that there is a difference in vodkas, but those differences are relatively minute and are of interest only to people who drink vodka straight, which I don’t. On the other hand, I think the I Hate Vodka meme had gotten out of hand, and threatened to alienate topers who could be allies in Better Drink if brought along to other spirit pastures more gently. And I’ve found that a little vodka added to a drink with another base spirit (like a rum) actually can work to highlight other flavors by bringing up the spiky alcohol sense without adding much flavor. So I’ll never be a vodka person, but I’ve stopped being a vodka basher.

Do you have a favorite old-time cocktail, and if so what is it?

I like lots of old, bitters-forward cocktails, far more than the sweet ones. A Sazerac is still one of the most sublime drinks ever — I usually make it Dale DeGroff style, with half/half rye and brandy, and both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. This summer I’ve been favoring a lapsang souchang Manhattan. I use a simple syrup made with the smoky tea, and Bitter Truth’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. Very tasty.


Hm, I’ve got some lapsang souchang at home. Great stuff, but I never thought of making syrup with it. I will have to give that a try.

Of course, the drinks we’ll be considering (and hopefully tasting) in Wayne’s seminar will be even older than Sazeracs and Manhattans. They have funny names like bombo, syllabub, switchel, and flips. No, not the more familiar flip made with an egg — that came later. The earlier flip involved a red hot poker. We actually featured one of these years ago on ROX, though I had no idea then of its antique provenance. (An individual video is not available but you can get the full episode; the flip clip begins at 16 minutes and 40 seconds.)

Photo: TOTC10 161 / Rocky Yeh / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tales of Artemesia Absinthium

Wormwood

Tales of the Cocktail is just over a week away. One seminar I’m very much looking forward to is The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium, which aims to explore the bitter and mysterious herb more commonly known as wormwood. This will be most familiar to people as the (formerly) forbidden flavoring in absinthe, but there’s more to it than that. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with panelists Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, the “inseparable cocktail couple,” and ask a few pointed questions in advance of the actual event.


I’ve noticed an uptick of interest in bitters and bitter liqueurs such as Italian amari. Is the American palate shifting, and what does that mean for cocktails and spirits flavored with Artemesia absinthium?

The American palate is shifting as wonderful traditional ingredients are re-discovered. Both consumers and bartenders are reaching a level of sophistication not seen in a century, ever since two world wars and Prohibition — not just in the US, but in Canada, parts of the Caribbean and eastern Europe — broke the master/apprentice bond between generations of bartenders.

For consumers, this means a whole new range of remarkably balanced flavours, and a step away from the cirtus inundation of the past decade (it should be noted that too much citrus damages tooth enamel — thus bartenders who taste every drink and mix a lot of citrusy drinks find themselves buying a lot of toothpaste for sensitive teeth).

Despite the current broad fascination with wormwood, we were surprised when we hosted a cocktails evening at Portobello Star in London recently, that no one we encountered had ever seen fresh wormwood before.

Do you have a favorite cocktail that incorporates Artemisia absinthium in some way, shape or form? If so please do tell.

Gin and Wormwood! Jerry Thomas included it in the 1862 edition of his book. There was an intimation that it was a rather colloquial drink, not really something you’d find in posh establishments. After all, you simply pick a few choice sprigs of wormwood, stuff them into the gin bottle, and let it rest for about thirty minutes. This reveals surprisingly sweet flavours in the wormwood, along with a subtle bitter undertone. If allowed to infuse too long, the mixture will turn into wormwood bitters, so it is best to make just enough for the evening. We stir it over ice, then strain it into chilled cocktail glasses. We have also served it in chilled shot glasses, but that diminishes the nose.

Was the ban on wormwood in absinthe an example of “reefer madness,” that is, unwarranted hysteria and moral panic, in your opinion?

Actually, we’re conspiracy theorists on this one. It might have been dressed up as hysteria and moral panic, but we suspect the French wine industry might have had a hand in promoting it. They had been beaten down by phylloxera for years. Now, they were recovering and the government had given them substantial funds and other incentives to help them get back on their feet. Large chunks of this were spent on anti spirits propaganda. They also attacked cocktails and even mineral water.

Absinthe was not a contributing factor any more than wine, beer, etc. in either of the infamous “absinthe murders”. If you look at the epic quantity one of the perpetrators consumed throughout the day before the murder, absinthe accounted for a small portion of his alcohol intake. As far as thujone tipping the scales, it is found elsewhere in our diets in greater concentration than in absinthe. (The active compound in absinthe was and always will be the alcohol.)

Inspired by the “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka” panel last year, I’m asking everyone for some sort of opinion on vodka. Since I already know your [Anistatia’s] position on this delicate matter, perhaps I can ask you if there is any significant intersection between the subject of your seminar and vodka. Any Artemesia absinthium flavored vodkas, or any decent cocktails involving such a spirit and vodka, or — well — anything?

First, a point that didn’t really come up in last year’s Love/Hate session. Vodka? That’s a pretty broad generalization. Imagine a similar session on whiskey. The first comment would be, there’s great whiskies and crap whiskies. There are great vodkas and miserable ones. But that’s a rant for another day.

We just tried Babicka Wormwood Vodka. It is surprisingly good. We expected something wrenchingly bitter. It was actually like sipping a good Gin and Wormwood: sweet and bitter notes in an herbaceous balance. It has a place next to (or a shelf above) bison grass vodka.

I have long been fascinated by Artemesia absinthium and grew it for years before absinthe became re-legalized. (I wasn’t flavoring anything with it; I just thought it was a cool herb.) If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

We came to wormwood from the other side, the one less traveled. We are huge fans of vermouth. Yes, it’s not so many years since a bartender in one of New York’s top new cocktail bars said to me with sneer of disdain when I asked for a Carpano on the rocks, “I could never respect anyone who drinks straight vermouth!” Those days have past, but people still find fascination with wormwood primarily for its association with absinthe. We, on the other hand, have traveled through France, Italy, and Spain seeking out vermouths. The name vermouth, of course, comes from the German word Wermut meaning wormwood.


I have to admit, if it wasn’t for Tales of the Cocktail, I too would remain a benighted vermouth skeptic. I got a taste of Carpano Antica Formula last year and it rocked my world. Took me ten months to find it on the local shelves. But I digress.

Alas, The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium is sold out, and even my media credential has not been sufficient to guarantee access; nevertheless I hope to wangle my way in at the last moment. If so, you’ll read more about it here.

Photo: Wormwood / Rebecca-Lee / CC BY-ND 2.0

My Five

James Has a Cocktail

I got my media credential, so happily I will be attending Tales of the Cocktail this summer for the third time.

There’s a host of interesting events at Tales. I find myself drawn to programming around particular spirits (or categories of spirits) and particular cocktails (or categories of cocktails). Your palette may vary. Here are my “top five” seminars which I plan to check out.

  • Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks
  • The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail
  • Who’s Your Daddy? A Mai Tai Paternity Test
  • “Making Love to His Tonic & Gin”
  • Vinegar: The Other Acid

I also hope to check out “The Journey of Artemisia Absinthium” if I can wangle my way in. In fact there are several other seminars I’ll try to attend by flying stand-by. My media credential is not an “all access” pass. Also on my agenda is the VIP session, “Cocktails from Around the World.” It’s sponsored by Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits. And there are a plethora of tasting rooms and other events.

But the single thing I’m most excited about is free and open to the public.

Cynar Frozen Concoctions

Time: 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM
Date: Wednesday the 20th of July, 2011
Venue: Hotel Monteleone Front Steps

Enjoy a cool Cynar-inspired frozen concoction! On Wednesday, the fabulous Amaro will be featured in a delectable frozen treat outside the Hotel Monteleone on Royal

Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Of course I’ll be reporting back here on all these fine festive goings-on. Check back in July. In the meantime, you can satisfy your thirst for cocktail lore my roundup of last year’s event.

Post-Tales

Empty Chairs

Tales of the Cocktail is over. But there are a few more things I wanted to mention.

I really liked the way Tales handled media this year. The application process was more rigorous, but once approved, I was guaranteed access to five seminars. That worked very well for me, and was a big improvement over last year’s procedure.

I tried to write with some depth about each seminar I attended. That was a challenge, but my aim was to provide a unique form of coverage. I want to get invited back next year after all. I figure what I lack in numbers (readership) I can perhaps compensate in quality. I’m already thinking about how I could do this better next year. It might behoove me to interview presenters, either in advance or at the event.

Just for the record, here are all my write-ups from this year’s Tales:

Being media also got me some good meals. The breakfasts were spectacular. The breakfast cocktails were spectacular.

Moonshine Breakfast

The Monteleone was spectacular. I especially liked the ceiling in the Queen Anne Ballroom.

Ceiling Detail

I didn’t stay for any of the evening soireés, but I did hit up a few tasting rooms and other events between seminars. One such event was a mix-off sponsored by Cointreau with food by John Besh. I couldn’t miss that. The room was jammed, but somehow I managed to sample a libation from each of the competing bartenders.

Danielle Marchant

It gave me pause to think about the multiple facets that go into the art of mixing a drink. If I had to vote, would I simply pick the cocktail most pleasing to my palette, with all its peculiarities? Or the one that seemed most inventive and innovative? And what about the personal rapport established by the bartender? Surely that counts for plenty. In the end, I didn’t have an opportunity to vote. But Danielle Marchant was the winner, and she was clearly ahead of the competition in that last category.


I rode my bike each day. When I met people from other far-flung places and they asked me whence I came, I’d say, “From New Orleans. I rode my bike here this morning.”

Ride

From last year I know there’s a bike rack in the alley behind the hotel, so that’s where I parked.

And that’s how I got to see the barrels of citrus waste waiting for pickup.

Citrus for Compost

I’d read in the paper that these were being taken to Hollygrove Market & Farm for composting. Seems like a great idea. Now if they could figure a way to recycle (or better yet re-use) all those tiny little cocktail cups, we’d have a markedly greener event.

Mid-way through the conference, Chris Hubbard and Leigh Bryant interviewed me for a bicycle documentary. I couldn’t tear myself away from Tales, so they came to meet me at the Monteleone. We shot the interview in the Cathedral Room.

Chris and Leigh

That really doesn’t have anything to do with Tales, but it was cool nonetheless.

I guess that’s about it. Except I should mention that I took home a bunch of swag.

Swag

Of all this stuff, my most prized score was a bottle of Gran Classico Bitter. I tasted some after the session on amari, and it was fantastic. (It’s not currently available in New Orleans, but should be soon.) I still haven’t cracked open the small bottle I brought home with me, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

Alas, it will have to wait. I’ve just embarked on a massive sobriety binge.

The Eggpire Strikes Back

At Tales of the Cocktail this year, media types like myself were guaranteed access to five seminars. I had exhausted my five — but there was one more I wanted to check out: “The Eggpire Strikes Back.” Yes, this was a session dedicated to the subject of eggs in cocktails.

My fascination with this topic goes back to 1992, when we featured a Port Flip on ROX. As memory serves it was quite tasty, despite our best efforts to do everything wrong. And of course I was aware that many “flips” and other eggy drinks appear frequently in old cocktail books. They fell out of favor long ago, but could they be making a comeback? I’d already had two flips at Tales so far.

But first a word from our sponsor.

Each seminar at Tales has at least one sponsor. Usually they are spirit brands. Sometimes they are an obvious match with the subject matter at hand — sometimes less so. In this case, who’s going to sponsor a session on eggs?

Gin & Advocaat

Geranium Gin, that’s who. The connection to eggs is beyond tenuous. But no one complained, as we enjoyed what Henrik Hammer billed as the first tasting of Geranium in the USA. (You can read more about Geranium on A Mountain of Crushed Ice.) Let me just say this: quite possibly the best gin I’ve ever tasted. Delicious with just a little water to open it up. I hope it’s available in New Orleans soon.

In the picture above, the Geranium is on the left. The mysterious yellow stuff on the right was staring me in the face unexplained until the very end of the session. So I’ll come back to it.

On to the panel.

Henrik, Andrew, Timo

One Dane, one South African, and one Dutch guy. As Andrew Nicholls said, “If we were any more laid back, we’d be horizontal.” But that was not really true, because when it came to the subject matter of at hand they evinced an intensity that could not be ignored.

Timo Janse

Timo Janse seemed to do most of the talking. He’s a bartender at Door 74, the first and only bar in Amsterdam to bring back fresh eggs in their mixology.

Hold on, because we need top have a cocktail right about now.

Coffee Cocktail

I kept thinking I was hearing the name wrong, but this was indeed a “Coffee Cocktail” even though it doesn’t have any coffee. It does, of course, have an egg. Here’s one recipe.

1 oz cognac
1 oz ruby port
1 small egg
1/2 tsp sugar

Shake all ingredients well with ice and strain into a small wine or port glass. Dust with nutmeg, and serve.

Very similar to that Port Flip we had 18 years ago.

Appropriately fortified, we began an extended exploration of eggs in art, literature, and culture at large. We considered the age-old conundrum of “which came first?” According to Timo, the bible in Genesis 1:19-22 makes clear it was the chicken. The theory of evolution, on the other hand, would seem to indicate the egg came first. From a Buddhist perspective, the question simply doesn’t matter, but I forget why.

Did you know the bible only has six egg references? Are Christians anti-egg? Other religions accord the egg much greater prominence. This line of reasoning inspired me to wonder if hardcore anti-abortion activists eat eggs — and if so, how do they justify it?

According to some, the death of Francesco de Medici was a result of experimentation with egg drinks, but I think this 400 year old mystery has not been solved.

From here we delved into the anatomy of the egg. Each egg has an air sac toward one end. A smaller air sac is better, apparently, at least as far as we’re concerned, though I’m not sure how one controls for that.

At greater length, we considered the complexities of washing and refrigerating eggs. It seems that they come out of the chicken with a protective mucous membrane, so it was recommended not to wash them — except perhaps immediately before use. Unfortunately they may be washed before they even get to the store. I made a mental note to check with my community garden about this, since we get fresh eggs from there on a regular basis.

We discussed a pre-swizzle technique which was recommended as a method to get the best foamy consistency from your eggs. My notes are missing crucial details on this because I got distracted by our next cocktail.

Clover Club

The Clover Club was born in Philly. It’s pink and nutritious.

Where were we? We learned of the use of egg white in sours — a technique of which I was not previously aware.

At last we came around to the salmonella threat. It was helpful to compare eggs to lettuce, for example. The risk level from lettuce is greater than the risk from eggs. It seems most food poisoning comes from fruits and veggies. As far as eggs go, salmonella if present is almost exclusively on the outer shell, so it might make sense to rinse immediately before use. It takes three to five weeks to develop, so insist on fresh eggs. Furthermore, salmonella can’t survive in a solution of more than 17.5% alcohol. If you make your drinks stiff enough, there shouldn’t be any risk.

Time for one last cocktail.

Eggy Cocktails

Yeah. I didn’t catch the name of this cocktail but it certainly rocked. Egg + carrot juice + gin + absinthe. I think there was something apple in there too, but the carrot was dominant. We should have more carrot cocktails.

Anyone know what this might be called?

We also gave passing consideration to the Chinese delicacy known as the “century egg.” Alas, we did not have any on hand to sample, so I offer this photo by Lee LeFever.

Century Egg

Doesn’t that look yummy?

In lieu of a century egg, we sampled a little advocaat. I guess I might as well reference that same photo again.

Gin & Advocaat

On the right is some advocaat, a liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy. It’s rich, creamy, thick as can be, and very tasty. It’s so thick it’s more of a paste than a liquid. I’d classify it more as an alcoholic custard rather than a drink.

All in all, an informative and enjoyable seminar. Well done.

Religious Spirits

How does one spend Sunday morning at Tales of the Cocktail?

Bible Reading

How about a seminar on “Religious Spirits”?

This session was conducted by Garrett Oliver and a thankfully clean-shaven Allen Katz. Allen talked about spirits and Garrett talked about beer. I never thought I’d be drinking beer at Tales, but this session attempted to bridge the gap between distilling and brewing — in the monastic traditions.

It’s not really contradictory for monastics to make booze. We learned that beer once had a reputation as a temperate drink. Back in the olden days, people didn’t drink water much.

Garrett

As Garrett put it, “Water can kill you.” In fact, water can kill the whole village. However, no known pathogens can live in beer, so beer was the safe and wholesome drink, and it didn’t have much alcohol.

Monasteries had brewed beer for a long time. When some monasteries started going “commercial” in the 1700s and 1800s, they had an edge on everyone. Their beer was the best, because of they had the science and the scholarship. Furthermore, the penalties for brewing bad beer were severe, so the competition was not fierce, and the brewing enterprise proved very worthwhile for the monasteries.

We tasted some Trappists beers. The Trappists have a reputation for being severe and silent. Many orders were driven out of France by the Revolution and ended up in Belgium. We learned the distinction between Trappist beers and Abbey beers; the former are made entirely within the walls of the monastery, while the latter are simply beers made in the same style by just about anyone, anywhere. Today, Garrett estimated, about 80% of Belgian beers are just such copies. We all know the Belgians make the best beer, and it’s pretty much because of the influence of the Trappists.

We discussed the Westvleteren Brewery, located in the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren. Their beer is reputed by some to be the best in the world. The monastery is extremely closed to the outside world. Garrett doesn’t know anyone who has visited them. As for the beer, it’s a rare commodity, because they brew at a very low volume. The bottles have no labels, as all legally required information is printed on the cap. In order to get some, you have to call on the “beerphone,” register your license plate, and drive there to pick it up yourself. Nice if you live in Belgium, I guess. They take these strict measures to eliminate reselling. They’re not interested in making a ton of profit, just enough to sustain the monastery and their philanthropic causes.

Beer from Rochefort Brewery may be the second rarest of the Trappist ales, in production since 1595. Alas, both Westvleteren and Rochefort were simply too difficult to obtain to be served at the seminar.

Trappist Ale

But what we had instead was nothing to sneeze at. First we tasted some Westmalle Tripel. It’s the very first Tripel, a hugely influential style. It comes from Westmalle Brewery, run by the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle. The abbey was founded 1794, and they’ve been brewing since 1836. These days they have a lot of secular workers who come in from outside to help produce the beer.

The second beer we had was from Achel Brewery, run by the Abbey of Saint Benedict. I think it was the Bruin. It was quite delicious but I preferred the Westmalle.

Allen raised the question, why do some monasteries brew beer while others distill spirits? But he said he had no clue as to what the answer might be other than the availability of ingredients.

Apparently, “innumerable” monastic orders have a tradition of distilling, but we talked about two of the most prominent, the Benedictines and Carthusians. Both are Catholic orders that were founded quite a long time ago.

The Benedictines were around for a good thousand years before they started distilling Bénédictine liqueur in 1510. The original formula was lost in French Revolution, but was “miraculously” rediscovered in early 19th century. The enterprise is now entirely secular and commercial. I think it’s now owned by Bacardi.

By way of contrast, Chartreuse is still made by the Chartreusian monks — indeed, they are the only major order where the monks still have complete control and do all the work.

As a footnote, Bénédictine is made with 27 herbs and botanicals, Chartreuse with 130.

The Chartreusian order was founded founded in middle of the 12th century, but distilling didn’t come into the picture for several hundred years. They live as a community of hermits, which I find utterly fascinating. Garrett and Allen described a visit to a monastery like peeling back layers of an onion. They both talked about hanging out with monks. Monks had lives before they took their vows, and apparently they are even capable of remembering that time before they cloistered themselves away from the world.

Given that we’re in New Orleans, no account of Chartreuse would be complete without a nod to the Krewe of Chartreuse, a Carnival walking club that’s been around for many a year. I’ve never participated in their festive Chartreuse-fueled rites, but I’ve certainly been aware of them for a good long time. Indeed, I was introduced to my first taste of Chartreuse by founding Krewe member Loki, Minister of Volume, back in the day. And here’s the incomparable Maitri at Mardi Gras 2007.

Maitri Contemplates the Green

That photo was taken by fellow traveler M Styborski, someone I knew mainly through social network sites until this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, when by sheer happenstance he landed in the seat next to me.

Photography

As you can see, he’s a photographer. Check out his photostream. And his presence was far from a coincidence. Indeed, he was there to cover the event for Humid City, the NOLA über-blog founded by none other than the Minister of Volume himself.

So you see we’ve come full circle.

Yes, we had some cocktails, the Last Word featuring Chartreuse and the Vieux Carré featuring Bénédictine. This last has the added allure of being invented at the Monteleone, and of course the Monteleone is ground zero for Tales of the Cocktail.

So you see we’ve come full circle. Just like the Carousel Bar. Which is at the Monteleone. Help, I’m trapped in an Eternal Return!

But seriously, I want to give props to Allen and Garrett for a seminar that seemed to represent the highest level of scholarship and intellectual depth of any of the seminars I attended this year.

Post scriptum: Allen offered a giveaway of a bottle of Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse. This stuff is impossible to get in the United States and is said to be the ancestor of the Chartreuse liqueur. (Though that may be nothing but a “wonderful fantasy.”) In any event it seems this was an early effort by the Chartreusians to make a healthful medicine. And thus I have to post this classy photo by Brother O’Mara which caught my eye not so long ago.

Elixir Vegetal

So you see we’ve come full circle.

I Hate Vodka

The world loves vodka, you may have noticed.

Not me.

I’m not a hater by nature, but I get tired of always playing the nice guy. It’s fun to hate on occasion, isn’t it? All the other kids seem to dig it, so I wanted to give it a try. I hate vodka! It’s a flavorless, odorless affront to anyone who values character and integrity.

I first became aware of anti-vodka-ism at Tales of the Cocktail 2009, when Audrey Saunders wondered out loud if she’d helped create a monster. She emphasized whiskey cocktails and hid the vodka under the bar. “Are we fascists?” she asked. Come to think of it, that was the same day I heard Jacob Briars apologize for being a “vodka professor.” He didn’t expect much love from the Tales crowd. “You hate us,” he said, “because we just add some flavoring and put ‘-ini’ on the end and call it a cocktail.”

Such were my thoughts as I entered the North Ballroom at the Royal Sonesta for a session titled “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka.” I was not alone in being drawn to this smackdown. The room was soon packed. (This was the same room in which I’d enjoyed the sparsely attended Armagnac seminar just a few hours earlier.) However, any hope that we would enjoy a fair and balanced debate was quickly dispelled when I saw that “I ♥ Vodka” t-shirts were being distributed to all.

Pre-Vodka

I suppose that was to be expected, since the seminar was sponsored by two vodka manufacturers, Belvedere and Russian Standard.

Another clue that this “debate” would be skewed: The original title of the seminar was “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka,” but they cleverly switched it around at the last moment.

Switcheroo

Furthermore, the “moderator” was Claire Smith, a longtime brand ambassador for Belvedere.

Claire Smith

Impartial she was not. In fact, she kicked things off by announcing we would be debating the merits of the world’s best selling spirit. She took a particular glee in noting that global sales of vodka are about 6.5 billion bottles, which is one bottle for every man, woman and child on the planet. And she was quick to debunk the legal definition of vodka as a spirit without flavor or odor, effectively knocking the legs out from under the haters before they could even get their hate on.

Vodka Shot

The panel consisted of six experts in the world of spirits, three haters and three lovers. The haters went first, with the best case made by Ian Burrell.

Vodka Is Dead

(I wanted Ian’s shirt, but after the debate someone else beat me to it.)

Ian derided vodka as “the whore of the industry.” While acknowledging that quality vodkas exist, he observed that much of it is overhyped and overpriced. It’s one of the easiest spirits to distill, and it costs comparatively little to make vast quantities. The pimps purveyors of vodka have marketed the hell out of it and suckered gullible consumers to drop a bundle on premium, super premium, and ultra premium brands that are virtually indistinguishable, especially if mixed into some godawful Appletini.

On the love side, Angus Winchester made perhaps the strongest argument. In fact he read a prepared statement in which he denounced the “cocktail Taliban.” He chided the haters for not being grateful to vodka for leading the way to a mass resurgence of interest in mixed drinks.

Angus Winchester

Yes, he said, vodka is insanely popular, and perhaps it is especially popular with the clueless, but you shouldn’t hate vodka because of that. That would be like hating Hawaiian shirts because they are popular with fat white men. That line drew a roar of laughter, because I was sitting directly in front of him wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He actually apologized to me, though I certainly didn’t mind.

Sex on the Beach was served as the “hate” cocktail, a negative example of what not to do with vodka in a mixed drink. Coincidentally, Sex on the Beach was laid to rest at Tales of the Cocktail one night later with a jazz funeral, but that was not known when this drink was selected for this seminar. A happy coincidence — but not a very good cocktail.

Sex on the Beach vs. Harvey

By way of contrast, the “love” cocktail was a variation on the Harvey Wallbanger, renamed simply Harvey. I’m not sure exactly how it differs from the original.

One audience member observed that the entire panel seemed to be in agreement on many points. He suggested a better title for the session might have been “I Love Vodka, I Hate Marketing.” There also seemed to be plenty of antipathy for popular vodka cocktails and clueless vodka consumers, but as Angus observed, these problems are not unique to vodka.

At the end of the debate, Claire asked for a show of hands from the audience and we found the lovers outnumbered the haters by a large margin. I believe her exact words at that point were: “IN YOUR FACE BITCHES!”

My friend Daisy wondered why a person like me would attend a debate like this. After all, my mind was made up, right? I hate vodka. So what’s the point? Well, I always like to examine an issue from different sides. I like to consider the possibility that I am wrong. And in this case, after due consideration, I have to concede that I was wrong. I don’t hate vodka. I doubt I’ll ever be a big fan, but I’ve learned that it’s not neutral and flavorless — It’s just extremely subtle. Give me a chilled shot of some good stuff and a little caviar or some black bread. That’s the best way to enjoy it, I think. They say drinking the vodka first enhances the flavor of what you eat after.

However, I do think it’s a shame that vodka cocktails dominate so many drink menus. I prefer my martini or Collins or tonic made with gin, thank you. I also don’t mind vodka if used in certain cocktails, like a Moscow Mule or a Bloody Mary, though I think I can make a better tasting drink with gin.

But this raises another uncomfortable question. The day before, I heard Dave Wondrich suggest that gin might be thought of as “juniper flavored vodka.” Claire asked if gin wasn’t just “a flavored vodka that hasn’t reached a tipping point.” This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Legal definitions aside, is gin technically a vodka? I don’t even want to think about that. The cognitive dissonance would make my head hurt.

The hate was fun while it lasted.

Armagnac

I confess I didn’t know who Dale DeGroff is. I was probably the only person at Tales of the Cocktail who didn’t recognize his name. Turns out he’s a legendary bartender — the best in the world according to some. I didn’t know that when I came into the seminar he was moderating, but by the end I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

Let me back up. I popped my head into the ballroom at the Royal Sonesta a little early, as they were pouring the samples we were about to enjoy, and caught a whiff.

Armagnac Preparation

Imagine if you will a large room full of glasses full of fine French brandy. It’s as if the entire room has been transformed into a giant snifter. The scent alone is intoxicating.

OK. So then when the seminar begins, Dale introduces himself quite modestly as “a bartender who got lucky.” He thanked everyone who was participating in the seminar by name, including the cocktail staff. It was a very brief thing, but in all the seminars I attended it was unique, and I immediately liked the guy for it.

Dale DeGroff

The session was sparsely attended, but nevertheless I heard one person remark that he was impressed by the turnout. That’s Armagnac in a nutshell. In most of the world, it is an afterthought or a footnote appended to the dominance of Cognac. But, as this seminar argued convincingly, it’s actually the most popular brandy in France, and it’s also the first French brandy, with the first recorded mention dating back as far as 1711.

Doug Frost and Alain Royer were on hand to help us understand the unique qualities of this spirit, with great passion and intelligence, but it was Philippe Gironi’s presence that really made this into a standout session.

Philippe Gironi

Philippe speaks very little English. He spoke to us exclusively through Alain’s translations. And frankly much of the discussion was over my head, but still it was fascinating to hear. Philippe was all set to become a cop until he got dragged somehow into the family business. He’s a roving distiller. He drags his stills all over the Armagnac region to various vineyards transforming wine into brandy. Much of the session turned on the finer points of the process, and I just don’t know enough about distillation basics to appreciate that, but from what I gathered the stills Philippe uses are rather unique, combining aspects of both pot and columns stills.

Of course, we tasted while we talked, starting with a 2008 Armagnac and progressing to a barrel sample from 2006, Réserve Spéciale Darroze Bas-Armagnac, Hors d’Age Château du Busca, culminating in a 1985 vintage Château du Busca. Each was better than the last, and the last was heavenly.

But since we are at Tales of the Cocktail, we must give due consideration to mixed drinks. The session started with a d’Artagnan, which I believe is considered de rigueur for an occasion such as this. We ended with a little something invented for the occasion by Dale DeGroff, which he had not yet even bothered to name.

Untitled

I took one taste of this thing, and that’s when I realized Dale was a giant. It was made with orange curaçao, white Armagnac, ruby port and pineapple (juice?). I’m not exaggerating when I say this was perhaps the most interesting of the hundred or so cocktails I sampled over the course of this year’s event.

A Shot of Black Stuff

My palate has shifted over the last year. I know this, because at Tales of the Cocktail 2009, I had my first taste of Amaro — and I didn’t know what to make of it. Amaro is a category of Italian liqueurs noted for their bitter flavor. The stuff I had, Amaro Averna, threw me for a loop, and I certainly didn’t think it was something I’d ever enjoy.

But a few months ago, I picked up a bottle of Cynar on a whim, and to my surprise I loved it. Since then I’ve tried just about every Amaro I can get my hands on. When I revisited Averna, I was really knocked out by how wonderful it is.

How to account for this? I don’t know. But it seems I’m not the only one who’s feeling the love, judging by the packed room (160 attendees) at Thursday’s seminar, “A Shot of Black Stuff: Amazing Amaros and Brilliant Bitters.”

Amaro Audience

I signed up for this one based on the topic, but when I realized it was led by Jacob Briars I knew I was in for a special treat. I saw him last year in a presentation that involved splattering the audience with absinthe in the interest of science. But where was his accomplice, Sebastian Reaburn?

Jacob Briars

Sure enough, Jacob had only just gotten started when Sebastian burst in and made like an old time medical huckster, going round the room and offering everyone a sample of his “Koala Brand” bitters.

He soon revealed that he’d made these bitters from Listerine, NyQuil, gin and Chartreuse. To his credit he warned people not to drink it. The point of this shenanigan, I think, was that many bitters have their roots in some pretty dubious medical quackery.

Quackery

Then we got down to the serious matter at hand, not just Amari but also bitters. These two topics were lumped together, as the name of the seminar implied. They are distinct but related categories. Bitters are a key ingredient in many classic cocktails but are so powerfully aromatic that they are generally measured in drops; Amari on the other hand can be drunk by the glass (Jacob called them “pouring bitters”) and do not have as much currency in cocktails.

(Which makes me wonder — which topic drew the crowd?)

We discussed the medical traditions from which bitters sprang: Galen’s theory of humors, and the doctrine of signatures. Interestingly enough, there was a lot of American history here, as the manufacture and marketing of bitters as medicine seems to have been quite a phenomenon in the New World. George Washington was mentioned as a victim of the questionable medical practices of the time; Abraham Lincoln came up a couple times too, particularly the fact that some wacky “onguement” tried to take credit for his beard.

We sampled some mushroom bitters which Jacob had made himself from reishi mushroom extract, mushroom puree, vodka and cinnamon. It was truly some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever tasted. As Jacob said, “Even though I made it myself I must confess it tastes fucking disgusting.” He was quite sincere, however, in praising the health benefits of reishi mushrooms. The point they intended to drive home, I think, was that the bitters which survive today must either taste good — or actually work as medicine.

Sebastian delivered the take-home message succinctly: “Bitters were not in a cocktail to make the cocktail taste good; the cocktail was added to the bitters to make the bitters taste good.”

To make up for the mushroom bitters, we had a cocktail made with an Amaro, an Averna Pineapple Shrub, which was of course delicious. Yet the discussion was still focused on bitters rather than Amari. One of the primary challenges at Tales of the Cocktail is synchronizing a presentation with the drinks being offered. Finally, about halfway through presentation, they shifted gears and started talking about Amari.

Bitter Flight

We tasted six Amari. Well, actually five. The first glass was Antica Formula, which they claimed to be the first vermouth. It was great and if I ever see it on a local shelf I will snatch it up. The five Amari we sampled were: Averna, Luxardo Abano, Bitter Truth Elixier, Fernet Branca, and Braulio.

What worked for me in this seminar: Jacob and Sebastian. Their irreverent and dynamic style of presentation was entertaining and also educational. What didn’t work so well, in my opinion, was the conflation of two distinct but related topics. I found the transition between the two a little awkward, the connection a bit tenuous. I think we had here a case of two great seminars crammed into one. Despite the fast pace, they just couldn’t cover all this material in the allotted time, and so some things were given short shrift. For example, they promised to explore a connection between bitters and fascism, which sounded fascinating, but that never materialized. I learned a lot more about bitters than I expected, but also a lot less about Amari than I had hoped for.

Our final cocktail was a Bax Beet Pinot as invented at the Tippling Club, which drew a big round of well-deserved applause.

Definitely a step up from the Koala Brand bitters.

Koala Brand

Gin & Prohibition

The first seminar I attended at Tales of the Cocktail this year was called “Prohibition & Gin” but I think perhaps a better title might have been “Gin & Prohibition.” It was mostly a history of gin, with Prohibition as simply one chapter in the story. That was a minor disappointment, as I find the Prohibition experiment very interesting, but that’s a mere quibble, as the seminar was quite fascinating.

Simon Ford was the ringleader. David Wondrich and Nick Strangeway played supporting roles.

Simon Ford

In this session, I learned that gin is like Quaalude — that is to say, it was a purported aid to health that no one really took for health reasons. I also learned that William of Orange brought gin to popularity in England after the Glorious Revolution; that early gin was often flavored with turpentine; that vodka became more popular than gin (in the USA, I think) in 1967, the year I was born; and that Snoop Dogg is the godfather of gin.

We discussed the popularity and reputed medicinal uses of the juniper berry. We passed some around and smelled them, which was new to me. What do they smell like? They smell like gin.

And we tasted a variety of gins.

Gin Sampler

We started with Genever and moved on to Old Tom and Plymouth and then a facsimile of “bathtub gin” which had been concocted by adding juniper essence to moonshine.

What about Prohibition? It seems that these dark days in America were actually a boon to the rest of the world. Outlawing booze created a diaspora, as it were, with bartenders and the like fleeing the States and taking their craft abroad. It’s sort of like Prohibition was a big swizzle stick that mixed up the global cocktail culture. This was very interesting; I only wish they’d spent more time on this particular era.

We sampled some Beefeater as an example of a classic London dry gin, and to cap it all off we had a Satan’s Whiskers cocktail, which was of course delicious.

David Wondrich

I also learned that nail polish remover is the national drink of Australia, but I think David may have been joking about that. I loved David’s story about ordering a dry gin martini as a young punk rocker.

Gin Punk by Editor B

David also referenced the notion of gin as “juniper flavored vodka.” More about that later.

More to Come

From this point on it’s going to be a challenge for my writing to keep pace with reality. I attended two seminars Thursday, and I fully intended to write about at least one of them Thursday evening, but I had a meeting last night — it’s tough to meet after a full day of drinking, but I persevere for the greater good — and now here it is Friday already, time to gear up for another day at Tales of the Cocktail.

Cocktail

It’s my intention to write about each seminar I attend at Tales of the Cocktail, but it may take me a few days to get it done. Stay tuned. Keep an eye on Tropical Storm Bonnie for me. I’m off to learn all about Armangac.

Toast to Tales

Toast

Toast by Editor B

Tales of the Cocktail kicked into full gear today. The seminars on this first day are all “professional track,” geared toward industry professionals, with topics like “Raising the Bar: Spirited Media Skills for Cocktail & Industry Professionals.” I’m anything but a professional, so I did not attend any of these, but there was still plenty to do.

For example, I got to meet my fellow attendees (Cocktailians)? I hung out with Martha Stewart’s people and the guy who brought Pabst Blue Ribbon back from the dead, while enjoying an Oxley Breakfast Martini.

I also made the rounds of the tasting rooms and sampled a wide array of spirits from around the world. There were so many I lost count, but two stand out and are worth a mention: Root and Bonal Gentiane-Quina. The former is a fairly new product from Pennsylvania which is about to get bigger distribution. I had it in a cocktail called a Root Flip which was out of this world. To compare the flavor of Root to root beer would give the wrong impression and kind of miss the point. It’s actually an attempt to recreate ye olde root tea, which is what root beer itself is based on. It really only tastes like root beer as I know it in the vaguest way; they describe it as “fairly clean on the palate with strong notes of birch, peppery herbaceousness, spices, citrus and vanilla bean.” As for the Bonal Gentiane-Quina, that’s an old aperitif from France, but I’d never even heard of it before. I gather it’s a quinquina because it contains quinine. It also has plenty of gentian and other herbs. Decidedly bitter, wonderful stuff. It’s imported by Haus Alpenz. I even got to meet the legendary Eric Seed.

And of course I was there for the toast in front of the Monteleone. The official cocktail this year is Death in the South Pacific, invented by Evan Martin. It’s a complicated drink, but it’s most notable (to me anyway) for having an even more complicated garnish. Seriously, the recipe for the garnish is longer than the recipe for the drink itself. You essentially construct a little man out of fruit pieces who is then hung over the side. Obviously they couldn’t do this for the thronging masses in front of the Monteleone, but I’d love to have the full-on version someday. I should also note that it’s delicious.

Tomorrow I start hitting the seminars. I’ll report back here.

Seminars

Bully Boy

Here are the seminars I’ll be attending at Tales of the Cocktail. You can expect an in-depth account of each one on this blog come late July.

  • Prohibition & Gin: “This seminar will explore gin and gin cocktails during some of the golden years of the cocktail (1890’s – 1919), the Bath Tub Gin and Gin Cocktails that came during the dark days of Prohibition and Prohibition’s effect on the gin industry in US after that noble experiment.”
  • A Shot of Black Stuff: Amazing Amaros and Brilliant Bitters: “From the simple frat-house pleasures of Jagermeister to the artisanal charms of Braulio and of course the take-no-prisoners of Fernet Branca and Underberg, you’ll learn, (and likely forget) the hundreds of herbs that give these drinks their intense flavour, as well as their serving styles, both old and new.”
  • Armagnac, France’s First Brandy: “Alain Royer Cognac and Armagnac authority explores the history and production of Frances oldest grape brandy. Find out why although Cognac is Frances biggest export brandy Armagnac is its most beloved by at home.”
  • I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka: “Despite Vodka being one of the worlds most popular spirits it has become much maligned in today’s mixology community. A lively debate on one of todays most contentious spirit categories. The debate will be comprised of two speakers for the case of Vodka and two against.”
  • Religious Spirits: “in depth tasting and discussion of the history and lasting influences of the Trappists, Carthusians, Benedictines, Malthusians and other sacred orders.”

Five seminars maxes out my media “budget” but I’ve also got my eye on this one:

  • The Eggpire Strikes Back: “A presentation that hopes to clear up all the confusion, myths, and abuse of the world’s most feared cocktail ingredient: the egg.”