Monday, June 27, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 5)


Rolling along with the pre-Tales "Cavalcade of Booze Knowledge" (tm) I got the chance to grill Christine Sismondo on her presentation "The Bad Boys of Saloons.''

If you don't know Christine, she's the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, as well as Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History. She also contributes drink columns for Report on Business and Eye Weekly magazine. She kindly let me toss a few questions her way regarding her upcoming seminar.

What were the main characteristics that distinguished these types of places from their more upmarket counterparts?

There was an "anything goes" ethic in play. The main idea was to do whatever it took to get patrons in the door and keep them there. Many of the drinking establishments during this period (the 1850's-1900's) were what were called "tied houses", which meant they were affiliated with a particular beer company. Due to the exclusive nature of their relationship with one specific brewer, their profit margins were very low, so there were a lot of frauds and scams happening in order to boost the bottom line.

What were some of the drinks commonly found in these places?

In addition to whatever the house beer was, there were a lot of drinks that were basically un-aged white whiskey with other things added to make them palatable. These could contain a multitude of flavoring agents as well as drugs like camphor, for instance.

Can you describe the types of people who frequented these types of bars?

There was a popular perception that these types of places catered to the worst people engaging in the worst drinking behavior. The impression was that it was just immigrants getting plastered, and that dovetailed with the general demonizing of whatever the most recent wave of "just-off-the boat" people was. The truth is that you were just as likely to encounter questionable behavior and poor drinking habits in the upscale bars. As a matter of fact, you were quite likely to find well-heeled citizens slumming in these places, but that's a story unto itself.

What prompted the creation of these types of establishments? Was it simply an attempt to offer cheaper booze and undercut the competition?

The thing to keep in mind is that everyone was in the booze business during this time period. Grocery stores, pharmacies, soda fountains, and almost any merchant you can think of sold some type of alcohol. In the 1840's the average person drank twice as much alcohol as today. It was part of daily living, and was considered good for you. With that kind of consumption, the demand for booze was high, and sales were unregulated as well. The result was a tavern, grog shop, or liquor vendor within easy reach almost anywhere.

Could you find these places in almost any city or town? How widespread were they?

There were times where cities or counties would go dry, but even then there were ways to get booze to the public. It was pretty commonplace, even in places where the law stipulated there was to be no liquor sold.

Due to their illicit nature, were these places able to weather prohibition any better than the higher-profile reputable joints?

These places were generally fly-by-night joints, so they were used to being under constant threat of shutdown. Since they were accustomed to closing and reopening at a moment's notice , prohibition really didn't impact them...although everyone was forced to get creative during that time.

"The Bad Boys of Saloons" happens from 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm July 21 in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone. Go here to purchase tickets.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 4)


Continuing with the pre-Tales festivities, we check in with Ed Hamilton. Ed is a noted authority on rum, and has written about various sugar cane spirits for a number of magazines and newspapers. He has also written two books on the subject, and is probably most familiar to rum enthusiasts for his work at the Ministry of Rum website.

In a little over a month from now, Ed will be escorting us through the tasting /seminar "6 Rums You'll Probably Never Have the Opportunity to Taste Again." He didn't want to give too much away beforehand regarding these mysterious rums, but he did let a few things slip...

Is this the first time that a rum tasting of this kind has been held at Tales of the Cocktail? Or anywhere else?

Yes, to my knowledge.

Have any of the rums you're showcasing ever been bottled for sale before?


What are some of the reasons these aren't made available for mass consumption?

Low production. There’s only a little bit of these rums around anywhere.

How much blood, sweat and tears went into rounding up all these great rums and getting them in the same place at the same time?

I’m lucky to have good relations with a lot of distilleries, so the hard part will be getting them transported to New Orleans.

How many of these (if any) have you sampled previously?

I’ve sampled rums from all of these distilleries before, but these will be unique as every barrel is different.

Would anyone in their right mind mix with any of these, or are they strictly intended for sipping?

I wouldn’t recommend mixing any of them, though any of them would make a great rum old fashioned.

"6 Rums You'll Probably Never Have the Opportunity to Taste Again" happens from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm July 21 in the Grand Ballroom South at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Go here to purchase tickets.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 3)


Next up in this series of pre-Tales dispatches is a brief Q &A with Wayne Curtis. Wayne is a freelance journalist who has written for many fine periodicals including The New York Times, Saveur, The Atlantic and Travel+Leisure. However, booze geeks likely know him best as the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the World in Ten Cocktails.

This year Wayne will be heading up the presentation "Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks and How to Mix Them", and he graciously let me pepper him with questions concerning this period in American drinking.

You wrote in And a Bottle of Rum that rum played a big part in the drinking scene during the early days of the US. What were some of the other things people were drinking at that time?

Mostly cider, lots of beer, and whiskey was starting to come in, but it remained hampered by transportation issues (no trains or canals from beyond the Appalachians until nearly the mid-19th century). Rum was cheap and easy to find in port cities since there was lots of trade between the 26 British colonies (of which 13 elected to break off and declare independence.)

Could you briefly describe the role alcohol played in the day-to-day life of the average person in colonial America? For example, was it common to consume alcohol with every meal? Was it mainly consumed recreationally and socially?

Beverage alcohol was medicine, provider of comfort, salve, healer of all ills including chilblains. You had some in the morning to start your day properly, then you had some more spirit when you took a lunch break, and there was no better way to cement the bonds of friendship and catch up on the news than having a slug of rum or cider at night at the tavern.

What is an example of a popular alcoholic beverage that could be found in a pub/tavern during this time period?

Punch, of course -- taverns almost always had punch bowls and ladles and cups. But tavern owners were creative and mixed up what they had to create potions that would distinguish them from their competition. Shrubs were popular -- this was a way of preserving berries or stone fruits into the winter by soaking them in vinegar. Pour out a little of that, add sugar, some rum, and you could turn a dark February evening into a taste of summer. Which was sort of a remarkable thing in an era before refrigeration and air-express shipping.

How much distilling was done at home vs. commercially?

Home distilling was far more common then than now -- because if you lived on an isolated farm, you had to make most everything you needed. So small stovetop contraptions would provide a bit. And rural folks knew other tricks, like leaving a pail of hard cider out in the barn during the winter, and then scraping off and discarding the ice periodically, which would increase the proof and result in a sort of crude applejack. (Water freezes before alcohol.) In the cities, with the proliferation of taverns and distillers, there was less home-distillation. Remember that in New England alone, there were something like 160 commercial rum distilleries cranking out product on the eve of the American Revolution. You didn't have to go far to find a tot of rum, especially in the seaboard cities.

Were the drinking habits of the wealthy markedly different from the poor?

Everybody drank, and heartily, but the rich drank better, of course. They could afford imported Madeira and port to mix in their punches. And they would drink rums from the West Indies, which most contemporary accounts suggest tasted far better than the rums made in New England.

What types of drinking vessels were the most commonly used (glass, metal, earthenware, etc.) and what drinks were traditionally served in them?

Glass was favored by the upper crust -- elegant punch glasses and the like were more expensive to obtain, and when you had them you took good care of them. Otherwise, it was whatever you had on hand -- be it pewter mugs or crude earthenware or more refined ceramic tankards, or sipping out of the ladle. You'd find a real mix of vessels around the colony, with the poorer imbibers obviously using the cheaper earthenware.

Were there any drink ingredients or preparations being used at that time that we would find surprising today?

Flip is most surprising -- it was made by mixing up rum, beer, and a sweetener like molasses in a pitcher, then stirring it with a piece of iron that had been heated to red-hot in a fireplace. The mess would foam up and sputter, and the end product had a distinctive taste... strangely, a bit like Starbucks coffee, from all the grains in the beer being burned.

"Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks and How to Mix Them" happens from 10:00 to 11:30 am July 21 in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone. Go here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Days of Wine and...More Wine.


No cause for alarm. This isn't turning into a wine blog.

I just thought I'd take a small, one-post detour into wine territory since I found myself attending the Pittsburgh Wine Festival recently. Now normally when I go to a gathering where adult beverages are served, I'm usually looking for a cold beer or a colder Martini. But I'm amenable to the occasional glass of wine, so when the opportunity came up, I took it.

But before we go any further, I should mention a couple of items just so we're all on the same page:

1) I know squat about wine.

2) That being the case, at no point in this post will there be tasting notes.

You see, a big reason I wanted to hit up this event was in order to remedy item #1 above. And since I'm approaching this whole enterprise as a rookie, the last thing I'm going to do is attempt to describe and evaluate a bunch of wines when I have neither the experience nor vocabulary to do so effectively.

Back to the event: Normally, finding myself in situation like this would result in my lurching randomly from vendor to vendor, hoping to stumble onto something I liked, and also remembering to write down its name for future reference. However, I have a secret weapon.

A good friend of mine is studying to be a sommelier, and I enlisted her help in plotting out a plan of attack. She kindly reviewed the vendor list and provided me with detailed written instructions on which vendors and specific wines would be good to try. This information proved crucial, and I printed an extra copy for my stalwart companion who dubbed it our "cheat sheet."

Now that a battle plan was in place, we laid siege to Heinz Field, the very same venue where I previously pillaged the liquor offerings at the Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival. Erupting from the elevator with my wristband held high, I embarked on 4 (or so) hours of wine education, and my observations of the proceedings are as follows...

~ The event took place on Cinco de Mayo. I'm betting there were a lot of people who thought starting the evening with wine and ending with Tequila would be a seamless transition. I'm also betting the next morning many of them were proven wrong.

~ Despite the event being located in two very large lounge areas, it was still incredibly crowded by the third hour. I recommend attending the first session unless you are an intensely extroverted person who thrives in loud, sardine can-like environments.

~ There was a truly astounding amount wine on offer. I don't have hard numbers, but suffice to say if you attempted to sample even a tenth of it, paramedics would be involved.

~ As far as I could tell, I was the only dork running around with a clipboard furiously taking notes on the various wines I tasted. I guess everyone else's memory was better than mine. Or maybe they just didn't want to look like they were going to ask someone to take a survey.

~ The attendees were a relatively diverse group, and it was nice to see people of all shapes, colors, sizes and ages. There was a noticeable upscale vibe, with much of the crowd using the event as an opportunity to show off their shiny new jewelry, formalwear and trophy wives.

~ Despite this, there was the occasional scruffy-looking oddball.* I found it refreshing, and my favorite attendee was a guy in a tie-dyed t-shirt emblazoned with the National Bohemian mascot. I'm not certain this guy actually knew where he was, but he seemed to be having a good time.

~ In a feat of engineering and creativity, the PLCB managed to erect a temporary but fully-functioning State Store on the premises in case anyone wanted to purchase a bottle of something they sampled during the event. Maybe someday they can bring this same know-how to bear and figure out how to open their stores on Sundays.

~ Domestic vendors and imported vendors were placed in two completely separate locations, but you could travel from one to the other on chauffeured golf carts provided as courtesy. This was a nice touch, and proved that you do not actually have to be playing golf to enjoy riding on a golf cart while hammered.

~ Unlike similar events showcasing beer and spirits, there was virtually zero swag given out by vendors. This was disappointing, because I really wanted to get my hands on one of those Château Margaux baseball caps I see all the kids wearing.

~ Kudos to the venue for providing ample food & water throughout the evening. Based on how several of the attendees looked and sounded a few hours into the event, I'm guessing there would have been a hell of a lot of pizzas being delivered to Heinz Field had the organizers not kept the grub in good supply.

~ I had the good fortune to run into local wine guru Sean Enright, who helpfully directed me to a handful of really good wines to try. As with many things, recommendations from people in the know are a great way to get acquainted with stuff you're unfamiliar with.

And speaking of wines I thought were pretty good? Here are a few in no particular order...

Bertani Villa Arvedi Amarone '06
Terlato Boutari Naoussa '07
Marchesi Di Barolo Dolcetto '09
Château Moncontour Vouvray Predilection '09
Cono Sur sparkling brut
Blue Coast Château Vignelaure '05
Valckenberg Maximin Grünhäuser Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett '08
Grapes of Spain Genium Cellar Ecologic Priorat '06
Terlato Gaja Magari '07
Vineyard Brands Château Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge '08

All things considered it was a very decent event. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what they put together next time around.

But I'll still likely require a cheat sheet.

* I fall firmly into this category.