Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Barrel-Aged Cocktails...Patience, Grasshopper!

Why dump a perfectly good cocktail like a Negroni or Manhattan into a wood barrel for a couple of months?

1) It’s fun in an old-world mad-scientist kinda way.
2) It may make your cocktail luxuriously smooth and even add a bit of wood character.

For over an hour, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Gable Erenzo and Naren Young hit the highlights of this relatively new approach (with roots in older practices) to fiddling with cocktails. Booze nerds like these guys are always on the hunt for ways to improve your drinking experience, and barrel-aging cocktails is one of the latest methods that’s gaining popularity in cocktail programs worldwide. Here’s a few informational nuggets they shared…

~ Bottled cocktails originated in the Jerry Thomas era as way for customers to take drinks “to-go” and enjoy later. Being that I’m New Orleans as I write this, I can’t help but think the “go cup” phenomenon here somehow owes its existence to this earlier incarnation.

~ In the early 1900’s, the Heublein company sold pre-made cocktails that had been aged in wood.

~ A few years ago, Tony Conigliaro began experimenting with aging cocktails in glass, prompting modern bartenders to rethink the concept and apply it in new ways, using different materials, spirits and processes.

~ Experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails coincided nicely with the internet making it easy to contact distilleries and procure their used barrels.

~ Much as single spirits do, aging a cocktail in a barrel will allow it to pull distinctive characteristics from the wood. However, using new barrels can be risky because too much wood flavor can be imparted very quickly. Score another point for recycling!

~ It easy to overage a cocktail, but if that happens, it’s not a lost cause. Often simply introducing more fresh cocktail to mix can salvage the batch.

~ While experimentation is encouraged, using ingredients like eggs, cream and citrus should be avoided. But I’m sure our intrepid bartending community is already hard at work coming up with a way to get around this though.

~ Generally speaking, lighter, unaged spirits like gin, vodka, unaged Tequila etc., seem to yield the best results.

~ For those not inclined to wait several weeks for a barrel-aged cocktail to reach maturity, you can get quicker results (and satisfy any latent gadget jones you may be experiencing) by using smoked wood chips and an iSi whipper to infuse your cocktail. I’ll need to track down specific instructions for this asap.

Now go find some barrels!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Classic Hotel Bars

Being that I’m staying in a hotel and doing a fair amount of drinking in a nearby hotel containing a well-known bar (that’d be the Carousel bar at the Monteleone) I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t attend the “Classic Hotel Bars” seminar.

The focus was mainly on the hotel bars of London, with occasional detours to other cities. Anecdotes abounded, histories were revealed, and as expected, cocktails were served. Here’s a sampling of the wealth of information that was provided…

~ Unlike most “regular” bars, working in a hotel bar makes you realize you have to think beyond local drinking preferences. Your are catering to a varied clientele, and have to be prepared to meet a broad spectrum of expectations drink-wise.

~ Hotel bars have spawned great bartenders, great drinks and great bar guides. Every time you name-drop someone like Jerry Thomas or Hugo Enslin you have a hotel bar to thank. Likewise the Savoy Cocktail Book or Charles Baker’s Around the World With Jigger, Beaker and Flask. Ever had a Pina Colada or Hanky Panky? Just two of many classic cocktails that originated in hotel bars.

~ The Savoy was the first hotel in England equipped with electricity. ( I like to think having a world-class bar on the premises played a role in this).

~ The Criterion bar (which still exists) is the location where Sherlock Holmes and Watson first meet. It also has the distinction of being the first “American style” bar in England.

~ Until recently, bartending in the UK was not considered a reputable occupation, and doing so in a hotel bar was even less prestigious. Fortunately this perception has reversed in recent years and many hotel bars in the UK are leading the way in quality cocktail-crafting.

~ Part of what makes a good hotel bar experience is the idea that it is not only just a drink stop, but also a place where you are taken care of. Some “regular” bars certainly provide this, but it should be a priority for hotel bars.

~ Martini enthusiasts owe it to themselves to make the pilgrimage to Duke’s, which is famous for its exacting, signature Martini preparation which uses no ice, shaking, or stirring. All the ingredients are kept chilled, and are simply, elegantly combined in the glass. Ian Fleming was a regular there, and was fond of these. If they were good enough for him, they should be good enough for you.

~ The Connaught Hotel is another London cocktail destination famous for its attention to detail and tailoring of drinks to the customer’s preference. Connaught bartender Ago Perone says of his customers: “We are not there to tell them what to drink” and puts that idea to practice by offering a selection of bitters for patrons to choose from when ordering a Martini.

~ The concept of the fine cocktail experience goes hand-in-hand with that of the fine dining experience. If a hotel has a top-tier restaurant on he premises, then the bar must be of similar caliber.

Book your room now! (or at least swing by for a cocktail).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: The Carousel after 5

The Carousel Bar at the Monteleone is a hub (figuratively and literally) of activity during Tales of the Cocktail. During the day it’s both a convenient meeting place and a handy spot for a quick drink to fortify yourself before venturing out to other watering holes. This makes it a very busy place during the day, and finding a spot to sit or even stand takes a little effort and patience.

But after 5, things change a bit. Everything slows down a little and the crowd thins out. Some no doubt head for dinner. Some probably look to take things uptempo and head to a livelier bar. Some take a nap and/or a shower before considering their next move.

This is when I like the Carousel best. The lights seem a little dimmer, the music a little softer, and the drinks a little smoother.

This is also when I’m more aware that the Carousel moves. Not just moves, but turns, slowly revolving and treating me to a gentle magic carpet ride that always brings me back to where I started. It makes me feel slightly sorry for the folks in the chairs around the edge of the room…they’re missing out on the fun.

I also have a theory that a moving bar helps keep things civilized. It’s hard to get rowdy when you’re on a slo-mo merry-go-round. It likely has something to do with being rocked as a baby, but I’m not going to question it too deeply. All I know is that bars come in many shapes and configurations, but I’m coming to the conclusion that round is ideal. And if your round bar also revolves and is decorated in an old-time amusement park motif, then all the better.

The one other thing I like about the Carousel is the array of unobtrusive mirrors placed behind the bar. You can easily ignore them if you like, but I happen to think occasionally seeing your reflection aids in self-reflection. Plus, you can tell if someone is sneaking up behind you. Genius, as far as I’m concerned.

So I think I’ll have one more round. And one more go ‘round.

Tales of the Cocktail: the First 24

The first 24 hours surrounding Tales of the Cocktail. is a hectic and joyous period. No matter when you arrive and begin your activities, that first day or so is always an intense, gleeful mixture of anticipation, participation, and disorganization. Here’s a few thoughts and observations from my initial 24:

~ I know it doesn’t rank very high on the list of existential dilemmas, but I always have trouble deciding whether my first drink during Tales of the Cocktail should be at the Carousel Bar or on the plane to New Orleans. (Yes, Tales officially begins when they board your section of the plane. Wasn’t that covered during orientation?)

~ Speaking of which, why does a can of Coke always taste better on a plane? I think it has something to do with altitude. And maybe that an attractive woman opens it for you. And maybe that mine had whiskey in it.

~ Not to beat the plane thing to death, but when did commercial airline flights become flying produce stands? The guy in the seat in front of me brought an entire bag of plums as a snack, and the woman two seats over had a banana and a sack of strawberries. I really had to fight the urge to muddle something.

~ After flying all day, stepping out of the airport shuttle in the middle of the French Quarter is a bit like landing on Mars…if Mars had a bar every 15 feet

~ Some hotels have a basket of fruit or a flower arrangement waiting in your room as welcoming gesture. Mine had a bottle of gin. I think I prefer that option.

~ Never, ever, underestimate the simple, restorative properties of a nice shower. With gin.

~ In most busy places, you can cause a riot by throwing fistfuls of cash into the crowd. In the Monteleone lobby you can achieve the same result with bottles of obscure bitters.

~ I was starting to get uncomfortable with the New Orleans heat, then I went to the Beefeater party and saw a ballerina dancing inside a plastic bubble. Remember: it can always be worse.

~ I’m not exactly sure how using goats and cows to promote your product works, but I predict that all the PR and marketing types will pounce on it, and we’ll be seeing a lot more livestock at future cocktail events.

~ I didn’t think it was possible to make an Airstream trailer any cooler-looking, but putting retro tattoo designs on it is a decent start.

~ Drinking in a big crowd can be fun. Drinking in a big crowd while wearing a whimsical sailor hat and surrounded by old tanks and fighter planes is bonus fun.

~ I know the local bars and restaurants make a ton of money during Tales, but whoever is selling mutton chop sideburns and tiny hats is making the real cash.

~ Did I mention the showers already?

~ Based on how crowded the Kahlua bar at the Monteleone is, I’m guessing next year we’ll be seeing a satellite event titled “Tales of the Coffee” where everybody gets jacked up all day and then has to spend the next morning drinking booze to get settled down.

~ While it’s probably not ergonomically correct, sitting on a nice, cool marble floor and leaning against a nice, cool marble wall is an ideal way to use a laptop computer. A nice, cool cocktail helps too.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tales of the Cocktail: Preemptive Strike (Part 6)


With Tales of the Cocktail officially kicking off in less than two days, I have time to sneak in just one more preemptive strike before the madness gets in gear. This time I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Jonathan Pogash. In addition to being a top-notch bartender, Jonathan also consults on cocktail matters with bars and restaurants worldwide as well as several spirits brands. As if that didn't keep him busy enough, he's also swinging by Tales of the Cocktail this year to moderate the panel discussion "The European Bartending Perspective."

I didn't want Jonathan to give away the store, so I asked him to just tease us a bit with some of the topics that will no doubt be discussed...

~What are one or two of the biggest differences between bartending styles in Europe and the US?

There are more similarities than there are differences, really. When developing this seminar we had a ball debating the topic. One difference is cocktail menu style and layout.

~ Guest bartending (where bars encourage members of their staff to visit other bars and work a shift or two) is a popular phenomenon in the US. Does this sort of thing happen in Europe as well?

I know several American bartenders who have been welcomed with open arms behind bars across the pond.

~ Do the drinking habits of the average European bar patron differ from that of their American counterparts? If so, how do those differences affect how bartenders approach their technique?

The main difference is that of US cocktail lounge vs. UK pub and cocktail bar.

~ Are there any specific drink ingredients that tend to be staples of the cocktail scene in Europe that may be unfamiliar to most American drinkers?

With the way our world is now, most ingredients are available on both continents. Except for the fact that sodas are made differently in Europe than in the US (i.e. Coca-Cola).

~ Do bartending techniques and philosophies in Europe differ from country to country? (For example, are there subtle differences between the way bartenders practice their craft in Italy vs. France?)

Let's see what Simon Difford has to say about this one!

"The European Bartending Perspective" happens from 3:30 to 5:00 pm July 21 in the Grand Ballroom North at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. It is currently sold out, but check with event organizers in case there are any cancellations.