DC Drinks

Reviews, rantlets and ribald on all things alcoholic.

Monday, January 30, 2006

How Al Gore Invented the Manhattan

I'm no historian, but I find it fascinating how sometimes cocktails can illuminate history. How following the trail of one ingredient, or the perfect mix, you can come across some of the most interesting and, sadly, relevant, details of the past. I would take that a step further (and I will in a future post) that the story of our civilization could be told through the story of booze.

So with that in mind, here's an unusual twist on a classic cocktail. (No pun intended.) In doing research on the Manhattan, I came across the greatest election scandal of the 19th Century. Samuel J. Tilden, who won the popular vote against Republican Rutheford B. Hayes, was denied the presidency based on some unusual counting involving Reconstruction politics (Did they have chads back then? What is a chad again?). The details of which you can pursue on your own. Here's some help from Wikipedia. But it sounds eerily familiar.

The Manhattan was named after the Manhattan Club in New York but mixed for presidential hopeful, get this, Tilden after he was elected as Governor of New York. I can see why he won the popular vote. I would vote for him after being the inspiration for such a great cocktail, that's for sure.

With that said, we don't usually trade in recipes here at DCDrinks but I couldn't help it this time. Let me direct your attention to the ingredients for the perfect, but not "Perfect", Manhattan. The Perfect Manhattan being with sweet and dry vermouth (see here). The perfect referring to the best, IMHO.

1 1/2 oz. Wild Turkey Rye
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
2 dashes Angustora Bitters
1 Italian Preserved Cherry
Spoon a 1/4 or less teaspoon of cherry juice around the rim

DO NOT SHAKE, GODDAMMIT! Stir for three to four minutes. Enjoy.

Now the question is, should we rename it the Gore?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bourbon Bunk: Hype and America's Greatest Spirit

I might not be the first to notice the strong correlation between alcohol and exaggeration, but reading some Bourbon labels you might be led to believe Kentucky is the one true home of Bourbon, the kind Abraham Lincoln drank and drinking it is synonymous with freedom. Bullshit.

As much as I love Bourbon--and I really love Bourbon--these marketing myths just aren't true. Now I suppose this is no revelation to the experienced Bourbon drinker, but it doesn't hurt to point them out to the novice or uninitiated.

Made in Kentucky
While most Bourbon is made in Kentucky, you could make it in sunny California and call it the same. Bourbon, in order to be Bourbon, only has to follow a few regulations. One of those regulations is that it must be made in the United States but not, necessarily, Kentucky. Look for "Kentucy Straight Bourbon" on the label to indicate it's made in Kentucky, not that you can't make perfectly fine Bourbon in, say, Virginia.

Abraham Lincoln Drank Here
The connection between Bourbon and Abraham Lincoln is the same connection you could make between Bourbon and just about anyone from Kentucky in Honest Abe's time. Lincoln, "...personally did not drink except for an occasional 'drop of champagne, just to be civil'," says Bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery. Lincoln fell in a creek. He lived near what is now the sight of the Knob Creek distillery. He owned a few bars. But don't expect Lincoln to be the great hero of Bourbon. Although he waffled on this point, he also signed legislation advocating temperance.

Freedom is Never Free... That's Why We're Charging You $80
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old is a really great Bourbon, truly great Bourbon, with the thickest America-loving, flag waving, gobs-of-shit story on the side. I truly expect the Eagle to turn toward the drinker/reader and shed a tear for polluted forests. I love the true Bourbon story. I love America. If I wanted to read this kind of propaganda I would move to a thoughtless mind-controlling police state (please no comments about the current administration). Whenever your heart strings are strummed, expect your purse strings to follow.

Here's an excerpt:

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is the ultimate symbol of our undying pursuit of freedom. It is that freedom that gives us our heroes, those individuals with an unparelled passion, regardless of the odds... buckety-buck.

I'll stick with Bourbon just the same, and I'll even praise Bourbon's unique American qualities. Just don't expect me to pledge allegiance everytime I drink a bottle.

Friday, January 20, 2006

An Interview with Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh

If you don't know the name Ted Haigh, and you love to drink, you've got some catching up to do. Haigh is a giant. Known by most as "Dr. Cocktail", he's the vanguard of the classic and quality cocktail resurgence. Author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, co-creator of the wonderful Regan's Orange Bitters, curator of the Museum of the American Cocktail, graphic designer for a whole slew of movies, and founder of cocktaildb.com, Ted Haigh is a drinking man's national treasure. DC Drinks recently had a chance to ask him a couple of questions.

DC Drinks: We want to know your favorite watering holes in the northeast U.S.

Dr. Cocktail: Well, for me, a West Coaster for lo these last 16 years, memory runs a little vague. I can speak of great Ethiopian food in Adams Morgan, but for bar experiences, I must turn to New York. I love Milk & Honey, anywhere that Julie Reiner or Audrey Saunders choose to shake their shakers, and the 21 Club. Mainly, be it a dive or a palace, it’s all about the enthusiasm (and cooperation) of the barkeep.

DC Drinks: A lot of folks in our camp have a disdain for vodka because by definition it's colorless, odorless and flavorless. What good things---if any---can you say about vodka?

Dr. Cocktail: Vodka is flavorless not by history but by ATF edict. Czarist vodka would’ve been nice and rough, and likely informed by flavors from the distillate. I really can’t say much good about modern trendy vodka. Smoothness is overrated. The drinks thought up by the massive multinational holding companies that own the brands are sweet and they hide even what tiny alcohol flavor and kick their products still possess. My rule of thumb: If a child would like the drink, it is dangerous and the cocktail promotions these companies do promote is alcoholism, period. Zubrowka is wonderful though.

DC Drinks: In your opinion, what are some essentials for a quality bar?

Dr. Cocktail: An enthusiastic bartender and lots of varied spirits. Really, only the first is very important to me, and the barkeep need not know everything about the craft to win my approval. Work in a dive, work amid the clouds, it doesn’t matter. If they’ll listen and learn, I’ll end up as gratified as if I meet a certified maestro.

DC Drinks: What are some deal-breakers for a bar?

Dr. Cocktail: Bad attitude from the bartender. You might think I walk into a bar with my reputation on my sleeve. I do not. If it looks like cocktails would be a stretch (or a hassle) for the bartender, I can sip Scotch or Bourbon (or gin or rum, or Irish or Mescal) happily. I don’t try to trick the guy or gal behind the stick, and I don’t show off to them. If they are a kindred spirit, we’ll talk. If they are surly from the git-go I’ll try a little harder, and 80% of the time I can win ‘em over. The other 20% are in the wrong profession and are costing their bosses money. My MAIN deal breaker is cheating: charging for more drinks than ordered, serving a drink not ordered and then charging for it, serving a bad pour, serving from the well when call liquor was requested. These are the hallmarks of fraudsters and scam artists. I won’t raise a ruckus but I’ll never go back and I’ll tell everyone I know.

DC Drinks: What's your take on the uber-expensive cocktail trend among some bars like the Reserve Club in Chicago?

Dr. Cocktail: Sucker bait. This technique---same as brandy in a Baccarat bottle---has been around forever. At any given price point, I want my brandy in the plainest bottle possible. That’s why Pierre Ferrand Selection des Anges is the equal to Louis the 13th at a tenth of the price. Unless you are a glass collector, skip the fancy stuff. We’re talking high roller plumbing fixture salesmen on expense accounts. The cocktail aspect of it is (mostly) a fad that will pass, and none of the drinks will be remembered. An exception is the Ritz Sidecar as served by Colin Field in Paris. It’s still too damned expensive, though. You all KNOW how to make a great cocktail...now go to it!

DC Drinks: Classic cocktails are making a small resurgence, thanks in part to the work you've done. What suggestions would you have for the average mixology connoisseur to further this resurgence?

Dr. Cocktail: Pick no more than 4 or 5 drinks you want to explore. Search out and buy the ingredients for them. As you expand your selection, you’ll be able to use ingredients you previously acquired thus saving you money and minimizing the acquisition of products you might never use. Always use fresh juices. Buy a really good juicer, a really functional cocktail shaker, an ice bucket (and an ice scoop, not tongs), a set of measuring spoons that show teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon (1.5 teaspoons or 1/4 oz) measures. Buy restaurant jiggers: 1/2 oz-1 oz, 3/4 oz-1.5 oz, 1 oz-2 oz hourglass jiggers. Buy a proud muddler. Get real cocktail glasses. They don’t have to match, but real glass stemware – even if from your local thrift store makes for better drink presentation than a beer cup or a Ball jar. Invite friends over and you can all end up being cocktail evangelists!

Dr. Cocktail's website can be found here.

The CNN story on the Museum of the American Cocktail can be found here.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Drunk Before Noon: My Favorite Brunch Cocktails

Brunch is the least important meal of the week. It inevitably means Sunday, which is a throw away day anyway, you are often hungover and, at best, are sharing it with a total stranger. Just skip it. Sleep in. Wait for lunch.

But, if you must attend this twilight of the day, do it right. Drink heavily. Take advantage of the ambiguity of brunch, which often leads people to order up to four beverages--OJ, coffee, water, bloody mary--at once. Just please, please, avoid the Mimosa. That it has become a staple of brunch is a tremendous shame--it lacks the stuff that great cocktails are made of. Rarely has a great cocktail ever come from simply pouring OJ in to a wine or spirit even if Alfred Hitchcock was purported to have invented it.

Here are some of my favorite drinks for brunch, although I have not stayed within the brunch box. To make it easier for you, I have arranged them by degree of hangover suffering.

Mild lethargy
Amarula & Coffee
Amarula is a fruit. So it seems breakfasty, but the liqueur is creamy like Bailey's. Elephants eat fermented amarulas by the pound, although I'm told they never get drunk off them. The real highlight here is why you could substitute Bailey's for Amarula ultimately--it's a speed ball. The key is to get alcohol, which is a depressant, and coffee, a stimulant, together. Nice.

Slight headache and mild nausea without any embarrassing or painful memories from the night before
The Velvet Swing
This cocktail is a little, how should I say, delicate sounding. And, if done right, it's accompanied by a rose petal. Not exactly a manly combo. But it's a really good drink. Champagne, Port, Cognac. What could go wrong? Order it in a hushed tone and ask them to hold the flowers (becoming a theme with me isn't it? See my post on the Mai Tai).

Slight headache and mild nausea with embarrassing or painful memories from the night before
Champagne Cocktail
Still not exactly a manly Bourbon neat, this classic is easier to say if you are still reeling from embarrassing memories from the night before. Plus it has bitters, good for the nausea.

More severe headache and nausea, possibly embarrassing or painful memories from the night before
Pink Gin
What I mistakenly referred to as the Pink Lady (that has grenadine and cream). Gin and bitters. In a word, breakfast. Especially if you're a sailor. Try it room temperature.

Still drunk, feeling hazy and have a general bodily numbness that is soon to be followed by sleep and/or a severe headache and nausea
Slippery Mary
You need vitamins and minerals, my friend. Your body is waiting to see how smart you are. If you fail the test, you'll be useless all day. Here's the crib notes: Vodka, tomato juice, spices, lime and a side of oysters on the half shell. Maybe some water too.

Still drunk, feeling hazy and have a general bodily numbness that begs for more alcohol in large quantities
Ugly Maria
The ubiquitous Bloody Mary is the worst part of brunch. And, no, you shouldn't order it for dinner. I can't stand most mixes, doused in horseradish with wilted celery hanging off the side. So, why not amp it up? Try the Ugly Maria--Tequila, beer (a lighter lager or pilsner), tomato juice (I like spicy V8) and hot sauce.

However, I often settle for a beer. It's the aspirin of the booze world. Johnny Cash said it best (actually Kris Kristofferson said it best and Johnny Cash sang it best):

Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sayonara Sake, Here Comes Awamori!

Like Mr. Miyagi, God rest his soul, I thought Okinawa had only two things: fish and karate. Maybe some American servicemen. But my latest discovery is from the Japanese island.

Awamori is a distilled spirit made from Thai rice and Koji (an indigenious yeast to Okinawa), which is aged in traditional clay pots. Awamori is colorless (althouh some may have a slight oxidized color like Madera). The Okinawa Awamori Distillers Association has a very simple explanation of how Awamori is made at their website.

The bottle I picked up in Oahu--Dancing Sea Platinum Awamori--is aged three years and comes in around 86 Proof. It's nougaty with hints of orange peel and some floral components. It has a decent amount of heat but is, overall, pretty smooth. It almost reminds me of Grappa. So you might hear me calling it Japanese Grappa, although it shares much more in common with Sake.

If you see it, grab a bottle. Try the premium stuff neat before you add water or ice. Mix the cheap stuff with cranberry juice and OJ, add a mint leaf and call it an "Okinawan Sunset"--delicious.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Stick with the Bitters: Angostura 1919 Rum

“Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which the worst by far is rum." - Bernard De Voto

I wanted to love this rum. It was given as a gift by a Trini employee of mine and had all the makings of a great find. It's animated by a unique story, particular to one place and purportedly aged with care. I should have eaten it up. I'm a sucker for marketing. Only it tastes like the unfortunate combination of vanilla extract and paint thinner. But then what rum have I ever loved? Is it me, do I hate rum?

Pyrat XO Reserve is pretty damn tasty. I like Goslings Black Seal 151, although that shouldn't give you confidence in me. Mt. Gay and Cruzan. But none of them are amongst my favorite spirits and, with the exception of Pyrat XO, I have never owned a bottle. Maybe I don't like rum except as a mixer. At least there is a certain bias. But 1919 also marks the year of prohibition--an unfortunate omen. My recommendation... stick with the bitters.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Mai Tai: How Hawaii Ruined and Resurrected a Perfectly Good Cocktail

"What the hell is this?" is the thought that comes to mind when I see your average Mai Tai. Picture, if you will, seven different kinds of fruit adorning the rim of a plastic rendition of the Tiki god Lono, shaded by a tiny purple paper umbrella and filled with a juicy sweet, heavily Grenandine-infused contrivance. I have to ask, "How could you serve this monstrosity and, in good conscience, call yourself a bartender?"

But I can't blame you. Bartenders just give people what they want. So I'll blame Hawaii.

Yes, the entire state. Once pineapple was substituted for lime sometime in the 1950s, the slippery slope from good taste became a landslide. The Mai Tai, developed in 1944 by the legendary Trader Vic, once rum, triple sec, lime juice, orgeat syrup (almond syrup) and simple syrup, garnished with a solitary mint leaf, became the gargantuan liquid lollipop it is today through the island's influence.

Yet it was on a trip to Honolulu over New Year's that gave me faith in the Mai Tai again. House Without a Key in the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki makes a splendid version that has both flavor and style, although you will have to push aside the orchid served in each one. Come to think of it, order your Mai Tai and ask them to hold the flowers.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Lillet Blanc: In Defense of Fortified Wine

The only reason I have a bottle of Lillet Blanc is because it was called for as part of the Twentieth Century cocktail in Ted Haigh's beautiful book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. After the one party where I served this beverage, like Haigh's book says, it was forgotten until months later when I picked up the bottle and thought, what the hell is this stuff anyway?

Fortified wine is like regular wine, except that a distilled spirit (usually brandy) has been added, often during the fermentation process. Some popular examples are sherry, vermouth, port and my new friend, Lillet Blanc. But most people think of the notorious Mad Dog 20/20 or Thunderbird when fortified wine is mentioned. When I was a kid there was even a rumor that "fortified" meant that it was made alcoholic through the use of radiation, which is, of course, 100% bullshit. Those homeless man's poisons aren't even worth mentioning in the same breath as Lillet. But I'm digressing.

Simply put, Lillet Blanc is wonderful. It's a bouquet of sweet white wine, orange, lemon and a smidgeon of alcohol burn which makes me feel like I'm sitting at an outdoor cafe in a rustic Mediterranean town. Serve it up, or on the rocks with a lemon twist. If you're tired of the red and white run-around of un-strong Cabs and Chardonnays, try Lillet. You won't regret it. And rumor has it that James Bond preferred Lillet to vermouth in his Martinis.