Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tete Gras

Here we are: Go-live for the papist moratorium on fun and the pleasures of the flesh.

According to Wiki:

During the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally proscribed. Thomas Aquinas argued that “they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.”

Rest assured,  I will abstain from nothing -- nothing -- for the next forty days. I will, however, raise a glass at any excuse: So, here’s to my costumed brethren, the devout, the festive.

But what to drink, what to drink?

Hurricanes -- the drinks, I mean -- give you a headache. Stand around Pat O’Briens in the French Quarter if you want to see some other stuff they can do to you. Usually, when I think of New Orleans, I think of Abita Beer and Sazeracs.
In the early 1800s, the Sazerac was originally made with Cognac and Peychaud's Bitters, created by Antoine Peychaud. He named the drink for his favorite brand of Cognac from Limoges, France, the Sazerac-de-Forge-et-fils. In 1870, with Cognac harder to come by due to phylloxera in France, rye whiskey was substituted. Absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, and hence Pernod or Herbsaint was substituted to coat the glass.
Last year, it became New Orleans’ official cocktail, largely due to the efforts of the excellent Ann Tuennerman (the genius behind Tales of the Cocktail).

But still, drinking a Sazerac in my house is like waking up -- it happens every day, more or less.

In a surprising coincidence, I just bought a bottle of Lemon Bitters from The Bitter Truth. On their website, looking for something to drink, I found the Mardi Gras Cocktail.

They call the liquors therein, but I don’t like to go to the store and I assume that they called Labrot and Graham because they have a relationship with Brown and Forman, or want one. Nothing wrong with that, but I pour Weller.

Shot bourbon, splash absinthe, lemon bitters, stir. Pour it on the rocks and decorate it with an orange peel.

I eventually added a few dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters, to make it a little more complicated.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Your mad parade

After a harrowing series of landlord conflicts (and floods, and gas outages) LeNell Smothers has lost her lease and closed her nouveau-bordello styled liquor shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The place has never been my sort of drink, but I’ll miss it anyway.

Her shop was driven by the engine of her personality. She’s abrasive and foul mouthed, showily oversexed and energetic. She invented a character for herself and she plays it to the hilt. In the shop, this was evidenced by eccentric touches such as displaying her gin selection in an old clawfoot tub. It wasn’t all titivation. She managed to get Buffalo Trace to send her so many bottles of George T. Stagg that there were three left in the shop when it closed. But there is -- was -- something off, something wrong about the place, and I’d never been able to nail it down. Last week, I came across this interview LeNell did with Lucy Baker. Baker asked LeNell if she thought the trend to posh speakeasies was gimmicky, and LeNell said:
Every bar is gimmicky. Everyone has some sort of shtick. I don't think it's a bad thing. Is it gimmicky to have a phone booth that you walk through? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have chandeliers hanging and a big fat wooden door? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have girls dancing on a bar? Of course it is.
This is breathtakingly cynical. Surely it’s true that New York is chock full of gimmick-first venues, but that doesn’t mean that “everyone has a schtick.” Lots of the best places (be they restaurants, bars, liquor stores, yarn shops) are organic reflections of the judgment and enthusiasm of the owner. Other places are branded manifestations of an invention of the owner. The former wins every time. Although, I suppose the liquor store I shop in (most often, anyway) has a gimmick: It’s huge, well stocked, and the prices are good.

This is not to say that I’m happy to see LeNell’s gone. She was, after all, the matchless queen of bourbon in New York City. Her selection was without equal. She somehow managed to glide past the rule that liquor stores in New York cannot sell things which are not liquor and carried a wide selection of excellent bitters. I grabbed a bottle of The Bitter Truth’s Lemon Bitters while I watched and eavesdropped as LeNell worked through the shop’s final hours.

It was an interesting scene. She did a photo shoot -- she got naked and lounged in her bathtub by the front door of the shop, covered in bottles of gin -- but most of the day was spent receiving teary eyed customers who brought her a strange assortment of gifts (chocolates, xeroxes of vintage Gourmet Magazine issues) and plucked the bones of her shop clean. She even sold a bottle of Bols Genever from the photo shoot.
“This one was covering my right breast,” she announced.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How does one get a Dacha, anyway?

It’s sometimes hard to tell if a story is hopeful or grim, and certainly the recent dispatch from Russia in Time is puzzling in just this way.

There's no surprise in reading that Russia is ravaged by alcoholism, though the specifics are jolting:

alcohol poisoning has helped lead to a population decline. In January, The Moscow Times reported that the reason for so many deaths is that 300 million liters of substances never intended for human consumption are drunk annually

 People are drinking perfume, for crying out loud.

The bright side: the remedy involves cooking up batches of homemade hooch in stove-top stills.

Nikolai Gusev takes the prize for the most ironical comment of the week: “I don't do this to get drunk.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Black and White Tincture

Tinctures & bitters & decoctions & so forth are the rage, of course. I don’t have the patience for recipes like this, but I do like to have some super secret bottles of mysterious ingredients on the back bar. Here’s one of my favorites:

Black and White Tincture

1 Vanilla Bean
Scant 2 Ounces Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate, 99% cacao
1 1/4 Cups high proof vodka such as Spirytus or Devil’s Spring
A jar with a lid
Cane Sugar Syrup (see below)

Roughly chop the chocolate until it is the size of chunky, irregular chocolate chips and shavings. Put the chocolate in the jar.

Split the vanilla beans in half and scrape out the insides with the edge of a sharp knife. The scrapings look like something between sevruga caviar and hashish.

Put the scrapings in the jar, chop the husks into inch lengths, and put those in the jar, as well.

Pour in vodka.

Put the mixture on a shelf and shake it every day or so for a month.

The last time I made this, I used sugar cane chunks. I want it to be a little sweeter this time, so I’m going to make cane sugar syrup (one measure cane sugar to one measure water, bring it to a boil in a saucepan, turn off the heat, pour it into a bottle -- it’s good to have it around for cocktails).

When the tincture is done, in a month or so, pour it through a strainer into another jar and slowly add some cane syrup. I’m thinking that I’ll add about a quarter of a cup.

A word of warning: do not leave the chocolate in the jar indefinitely. With some tinctures this looks really neat, but the chocolate absorbs fluid and inflates like one of those sponge toys that grow in water. Eventually, all you’ve got is a disgusting, spongy, pale jar of what looks and feels like a chocolate mousse.

When the tincture is ready, I’ll make this drink:

The King of Jordan

2 oz rye (high proof, such as Rittenhouse straight or Wild Turkey preferred but not necessary)
1/3 oz Averna (an atypical bar measurement, but you can achieve it with 2 teaspoons)
1/4 teaspoon Black and White Bitters
Lemon twist

Put a few drops of absinthe in a cocktail glass and swirl it around to thoroughly coat the inside of the glass. Discard the absinthe. Combine rye, averna, and bitters in a pint glass filled 2/3rds with ice and stir with a cocktail spoon for about thirty seconds. Strain the drink into the absinthe-rinsed cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I ate these wonderful bones at the Moonshiner's Jamboree in Climax, Virginia. There's no moonshine to be had. Your inquiries will be met with icy stares.

Great ribs, though.

Rivers of moonshine, blood in the streets: honey, grab your coat, we're going to Mexico

George Plimpton used to love to tell the story of how he asked the first son of the Aga Khan for money to finance the Paris Review as together they ran from the bulls in Pamplona: "Yes! Yes, I will!" (Read about it here, or here).

Whatever desire I harbored to run with those animals in Spain has been supplanted. I recently learned that the bulls run in Tlacotalpan every year. It's the best news to flip through my virtual transom in a long time.

But unlike Pamplona, where a pack of bulls chases people for a few
minutes down a carefully cordoned-off path, in Tlacotalpan the beasts
are let loose to rampage through the streets for hours as crowds taunt
There's more here to pique my interest than simply a bunch of crazed bulls goring the townsfolk.
The dangers increase after hours of drinking sweet creamy cocktails
called "toritos" ("little bulls") made with local moonshine, sugar,
milk and fruit or peanut flavoring.
The wanton disregard for the safety of, well, everyone and everything is admirable.

The first drink I ever ordered at a bar, I think

Years ago, I spent a rollicking weekend roaming around New York City with some buddies. We were underage, but the City in those days was not the sort of place that worried about technicalities. Two of us found ourselves in the bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel.

This was not the Schrager redesigned Gramercy, just an old-school New York hotel with a dark, woody bar. I remember it was silent and empty. The barman was tightly wound up in a white vest, and he regarded us with weary indulgence as we approached the bar.

We were slick kids, and we posed the question thusly: “Can we charge drinks to the room?” Dealing with the issue of whether or not they’d serve them to us at all en passant.

The answer was yes. We wanted to pump our fists up and down and hiss “Yes!” but we kept ourselves together. Inside, however, I was a roiling mess of anxiety. Having successfully stepped up to the plate, I was now called upon to swing the bat. I had no idea what to order. What do people drink? What do grown-ups drink? I drank Rolling Rock and occasionally swigged Southern Comfort out of a bottle at a party. I didn’t have time, or I didn’t feel that I had time, to consider my options. I didn’t have the confidence to ask the bartender for a recommendation he’d call me out as the amateur I so clearly was. I asked for a martini on the rocks, and my friend asked for the same.

We gathered up our drinks and slunk to a little table where we gingerly slurped at our very bad ideas. We weren’t ready for the glassy burn. Our young palettes were in no shape for astringency.

I was nervous, I lacked vocabulary, and I ended up with something I didn’t want.
I’m not suggesting that we should set up cheat sheets for underage drinkers, but outside of the cocktail culture itself, drinkers might need a little help finding things they’d like to drink. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a primary menu like a card on top of the drinks menu that has friendly, accessible, affordable drinks (and never mind if they’re shaken or stirred, classic or new wave). Slapping a binder down with byzantine classifications and triple digit price points for glasses of whiskey is no way to introduce someone to the French 75, which, of course, they’d love, if they ever got a chance to try one. I like David Wondrich’s recipe:

French 75

* 2 ounces London dry gin

* 1 teaspoon superfine sugar

* 1/2 ounce lemon juice

* 5 ounces Brut champagne

Shake well with cracked ice in a chilled cocktail shaker, then strain into a Collins glass half-full of cracked ice and top off with champagne.

Although come to think of it: what would have happened to me if I'd actually liked the first drink I ordered in a bar?