Wednesday, August 19, 2009

R-E-S-P-E-C-T for VS & FC


Same great and improved!

If you talk to enough booze nerds, certain patterns emerge. Cocktail enthusiasts tend to share an affinity for a lot of the same things (i.e. bitters, Hawaiian shirts), and you'll begin to hear specific names get dropped frequently if you hang out with these folks long enough.

There are certain people, products and publications that are perennial favorites- every drink geek worth his or her salt will be at least vaguely familiar with them. To try to list them comprehensively is an ambitious task, but let's just say that if you found yourself in the average booze nerd's house, you could make pretty accurate guesses as to what you'll find on their bookshelf and in their liquor cabinet.

For now, we'll leave the subject of people's liquor collections aside...analyzing what bottles people let reside in their homes is a pretty tall (and contentious) order. Book-wise, there tends to be a bit more agreement on what volumes are "must-haves." And there's one title that crops up again and again when you ask discerning drunks about books that they always keep within easy reach and refer to with great frequency: Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails.

This book, assembled by Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh performs an admirable double-duty. It's a great collection of drink recipes and related historical info. But it's also responsible for the creation of many drink geeks. Ask your average cocktail obsessive what got them started on their pursuit of quality tipples, and you'll find that several of them credit running across a copy of VS & FC as being responsible for kick-starting their quest.

That's what happened to me. Back in the 90's the Bamboo Babe had given me an edition of the Mr. Boston's guide, which gave me a glimpse into what you could do with booze and a few mixers. But it wasn't until her mother gave me a copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails a few years ago that the hook was set (apparently both these women want me loaded as often as possible).

Full-throttle geekery ensued. I imagine my trajectory wasn't terribly different from anyone else's: Wondering what the hell half the ingredients were. Then trying to FIND those ingredients. Discovering through trial-and-error which things I did & didn't care for. Learning proper mixing techniques. Spending unhealthy amounts of time online researching and sharing info with other enthusiasts. Wondering if there were any actual bars making these drinks anymore, or were they being crafted solely by hermits with outsized liquor stashes and a penchant for history?

So I ended up doing what many booze nerds embrace as the next natural step in the progression: Blogging. I don't know why so many of us feel the compulsion to document our drinking publicly, but there you have it. I began to notice a lot of boozebloggers were frequently posting recipes from VS & FC, and we compared notes. Clearly there were lots of others who were using this book as their bartop lodestone, and with good results. I also told anyone I met offline who expressed curiosity in drinking well that VS & FC was one of the first books they should get.

Then I discovered the damn thing was out of print. After telling everybody and their brother to go get it , the only place one could apparently be obtained was on the secondary market for well above the cover price. I guarded my copy like a religious artifact and refused to let it leave the house.

Except for when I toted it to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail in 2008. You see, by then I was deep enough into my obsession to have reached the next stage in the game: making the annual pilgrimage to Tales. I knew that Ted Haigh would be there and if I ran into him I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed his book and possibly get him to sign it. Also, he had been nice enough to comment on one of my earlier posts, and I wanted to thank him for visiting my site.

Fortunately, that happened. He was gracious, funny, knowledgeable and kind enough to invite me and the people who introduced us to have a couple drinks with him, despite his being short on time and sleep. Like I said, a heckuva guy.

It was at that time that Ted mentioned the possibility of a revised and expanded second edition of VS & FC. Several months later, it had apparently become a reality, because Ted emailed several people (including me), asking our thoughts on the role blogging plays in the current resurgence of interest in cocktails. I was tremendously flattered he wanted my feedback, and I answered his questions as thoughtfully as I could, assuming that I probably hadn't offered up anything particularly insightful or that hadn't been better articulated by others.

Fast-forward to this past June, when I was able to get my hands on a copy. It turns out that the blogger-specific content that Ted had described ambiguously as perhaps a small sidebar feature or occasional bit of color commentary ended up becoming an entire section of the book. It's titled "Pioneering Champions of the Forgotten Cocktail: The 25 Most Influential Online Cocktail Pioneers" and includes profiles of people who have used (and are still very much using) their access to the internet to advance the cause of good drinking.

As I scanned the list, I recognized many people, several of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting personally, and others I knew by reputation. Almost all have some presence of one kind or another on the internet, and they represent a truly frightening volume of booze knowledge.

Oh, and there's also this one guy who gets buzzed and makes cartoons about it.

Yeah, I'm in there for some reason. To me, that section of the book is 24 people who really know their stuff, and one dork who drinks and draws. But I'm incredibly honored to be in such good company. Most of them are listed over there on the right, and if you have the book you know who they are...and you should be stopping by their sites as often as possible.

If you don't have the book, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the new edition, even if you're just mildly interested in making good drinks. It's got all the stuff from the first edition, plus a bunch more...and I guarantee there will be at least one drink in there that you'll like well enough to revisit many times.

However, I won't reveal which drink in VS & FC I find myself going back to again and again- I don't want to create any preconceptions. When you get the book, I suggest you simply do what I did, which is to explore with abandon.

Just don't get mad at me when you find yourself typing "Amer Picon" into a search engine at 2:30 am.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I Never Go To Bars


I realized at some point over the last couple years of boozeblogging that there is a key difference between myself and the majority of my fellow drink geeks: I almost never find myself in bars.

It's not that I actively avoid's just that I never seem to patronize them with any real frequency. Odd, considering I adore bars. I think they're absolutely fascinating places. I love dives and swanky joints alike, and I've had wonderful, memorable times in almost every watering hole I've stepped into. Yet I do 99% of my drinking at home.*

This puts me in direct contrast with most of the other bloggers, bartenders, and assorted booze nerds I know who chronicle their public drinking escapades online. These people do some serious traveling, and not only do they hit up seemingly every bar in within reach, they can pretty much find hooch everywhere. On any given day of browsing blogs, social networking sites and emails, I encounter a flurry of miniature liquor-centric travelogues such as:

"The Moroccan Mixologists' Guild is sponsoring a VIP event...I'm sitting on a camel and sampling concoctions from 478 of the finest bartenders in North Africa!"

"Having drinks in New York's hottest new cocktail spot. To get in, you have to use a jetpack to fly to the roof, then rappel down 18 floors and climb through an air-conditioning vent. Totally worth it- best Negroni EVER!"

"I'm crouched in an igloo drinking Inuit moonshine!"

"Finished judging the Pan-Asian Craft Cocktail Showdown in Hong Kong. Jackie Chan just invited me to the rollout party for his new vodka!

"Got off the plane in Madagascar, and I'm being whisked to the island's only rum distillery for a VIP tour by the owner's daughter. She's been pouring me samples the whole time in the back of the limo. Did I mention she's a lingerie model? "

"Who knew a commercial whaling vessel would have a fully-stocked absinthe bar??"

And so on. Now, if I documented my drinking this way, it would essentially be endless variations of:

"Went to the basement and rummaged through the liquor shelf. Made a weird drink I found in some old bar guide and then watched 'Intervention.' Maybe I can draw a dopey cartoon about it later."

However, despite the fact that I rarely travel past the end of my driveway,** I've recently made several trips to what I'm confident is Pittsburgh's only craft cocktail bar: Embury.

I should point out that in addition to not doing product reviews here (much to the chagrin of the many brand reps who kindly send me samples, I'm sure), I don't review bars. I don't see myself as a critic, and I try to avoid going into that territory as much as possible. That being said, I do need to say just a few words about Embury :

Go there.

If you're in the greater Pittsburgh area and enjoy well-crafted cocktails, you need to go there now. Embury is the domain of Fred Sarkis, a phenomenally skilled & talented bartender who is using the cozy ground floor of the popular Firehouse lounge to bring pre-prohibition bartending to the 'Burgh.

Fred's been doling out the hospitality at Embury since March, and he continues to do so with a high degree of enthusiasm and class five nights a week . As I said, I won't attempt to do the place justice with a ham-fisted review. I'll just say that if premium spirits, fresh juices and homemade bitters & syrups are what you like in your drink, go there. If uncompromising attention to detail and technique in cocktail creation is your thing, go there. If original recipes that can stand alongside the classics sound appealing, go there.

To see a proper review and a photo of this fine gentleman in action (with FIRE!), go here and here.

I should also mention that Fred and the good folks at the Firehouse/Embury recently hosted a live Thursday Drink Night event and good-naturedly let a flock of booze nerds slap their laptops and webcam on the bar, much to the curiosity of the other patrons. Fred gallantly endured us barking pisco-themed recipes at him all night long while the management tried to avoid a wi-fi meltdown from the sheer volume of geekery. Many thanks, gang!

And because it bears repeating...

Go there.

* there are number of reasons for this, among them being that I'm a cheap bastard (according to the Bamboo Babe)

**A notable exception is that big yearly event in New Orleans that all the booze nerds go to. If you're reading this, there's a halfway decent chance you go there too.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Drinking AND Writing

Recently a fine, enterprising group of booze nerds formally known as the Cocktail & Spirits Online Writers Group descended upon New Orleans and held its first official conference. Waving a giant banner bearing Stan Jones' likeness, they invaded a fairly sedate stretch of Rampart street and set up a base of operations from which both cocktails and cocktail knowledge would issue forth.

The 2-day extravaganza dubbed "drink. write" took place in two locations: a stately Victorian dwelling dubbed the "Mixo house" and a cozy gathering spot located literally across the street . Two days worth of intense drink-related knowledge was shared in the conference facility, while the casual swapping of booze-centric info, socializing and imbibing took place largely at the Mixo house.

Camper English, Jay Hepburn, SeanMike Whipkey and Paul Clarke drop some science.

The presentations and panel discussions covered topics such as how to be a better writer, connecting with the cocktail community at large, how to optimize your blog's effectiveness, taking nifty photos of your drinks, and making dazzling garnishes. These events drew upon the collective skill and talent of people like Jay Hepburn, SeanMike Whipkey, Paul Clarke, Tiare Olsen, Rick Stutz, Martin Cate, Jamie Boudreau, Darcy O'Neil, Camper English and Chuck Taggart , who were kind enough to get up in front of a herd of knowledge-hungry cocktail geeks and dispense wisdom.

After the PowerPoint glare had faded and all the citrus carcasses had been swept up, the gathering eventually shifted to the Mixo House, where the surprisingly named "Mixo Bar" formed the centerpiece of the proceedings. Seemingly everyone took a turn behind the stick, and if you couldn't get a good drink, it was probably your own fault- the generosity of the sponsors ensured that product was in good supply, and there was always someone on hand who knew what to do with it.

Chris Stanley personifies bartender bushido at the Mixo bar.

I could attempt to do a blow-by-blow chronological narrative of the whole conference, but as I mentioned in my Tales of the Cocktail wrap-up, I'm better at disjointed commentary. Bearing that in mind, here's a handful of thoughts filtered through the hazy lens of my memory (and barely legible notes)...

~ After a few nights of wondering why my bed felt so cold, I realized an AC vent in the floor was positioned dead-center below my bed (or more accurately, my bed was positioned dead-center above an AC vent). Thereafter, I began keeping bottles of vermouth under my mattress.

~ The "Foxy Cocktail Garnish" session resulted in more slaughtered produce than I've ever seen in my life. It was like those old civil war battlefield aftermath photos. Except the North was limes, the South was lemons, and the horses were oranges.

~ You can really test the performance envelope of an ice machine by placing it in a poorly-ventilated utility shed. In New Orleans. In July.

Our ice machine makes its feelings perfectly clear on where we chose to put it.

~ Every night ends with scotch (regardless of how large a variety of drinks you may have consumed up to that point).

~ Banging a muddler up and down a flight of wooden stairs is a traditional old New Orleans method used to rouse revelers who may be flagging late in the evening. Or maybe someone just made that up to justify their doing it at 1:30 am.

~ You can never have too many bitters.

~ When a third of the house's liquor supply is stored in your bedroom, you wield unimaginable power.

Me realizing my bed is probably underneath all that liquor.

~ Next year I will be organizing a scavenger hunt. The first person to find a restaurant offering an item that contains neither pork nor shellfish wins.

~ Pouring Branca Menta directly into an open wound will not only disinfect it, but will give you +2 on your saving throw vs. breath weapon.

~ If you enjoy cigars, I can think of nowhere better to have one than a secluded, quiet, brick-paved courtyard surrounded by lush greenery. Having a fully stocked bar mere feet away in the air-conditioning is also a bonus.

~ Despite claims to the contrary, you CAN make a meal out of nothing but cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese.

Joana Marquette making sure we ingest something other than hooch.

~ A broken toilet does not seem that urgent or troubling when you are holding a glass of 23 year-old-rye.

~ With great karaoke comes great responsibility.

~ A 6-month old child was able to weather several days in New Orleans with more resilience and fortitude than I could. He can probably out-drink me too.

~ I consider the large patch of mint growing next to the Mixo house a gift from the Garnish Gods.

~ When Tiare moves to New Orleans, she's hosting all the afterparties.

Also, a few quick words of thanks & recognition need to go out to the following:

~ Matthew Rowley for his fine work moderating the discussions.

~ Joana Marquette for her seemingly endless stream of top-notch munchies.

~ Nathan Lutchansky for barbacking above and beyond the call of duty.

~ Sponsors and representatives for supplying us with product and stopping by to help sling it.

~ Fellow members of the CSOWG who all contributed to making the event a success!