Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things to Come

Ok, I've been slacking. There's just so darn much to do these days, what with the new job and everything. But I'm going to get back on track; there are some questions I have and I'd love to get them off my chest and out in the open. For now though...consider the philosphical ramifications of time travel...if you could, would you? Should you? Would it matter if you did? Could you change things, knowing that the minute you altered something in your past you would also be removing your intial motivation to change said event? Would that event stay changed? If it did (or didn't), would that point toward the possible existence of a higher power in the universe?

And that is one of the reasons I love bartending; I had that very conversation with three or four guys at the bar the other night, in between bourbon education and cocktails.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The gastronaut abroad, pt.1

So…been a while. I haven’t been slacking, really; new food menu implemented a couple of weeks ago, trips to Seattle and Louisville, working on cocktails for the fall menu, organizing a goat roast at LUSH and tacos and elotes at a friend’s house. Plenty to keep me busy.

So I am in France right now. In the airport on my way to Amsterdam, actually, and trying to catch up and digest the past few days. Apparently not sleeping and losing 10 pounds at Tales had its benefits, as Cointreau invited Eric Simpkins and me to travel to Paris, then Angers, then Paris again, all in the name of bartendering, or something.

Joining us are two cool cats from Las Vegas; Joseph Jenson and Raymond Speight; Ray won a Cointreau competition in Vegas; he and Joe had made a pact to bring the other if either was to win.

Day one started off…long. Tons of running around in Chicago before the flight; my phone absolutely bit the dust about three days ago and I wasn’t able to get it fixed in time. No big deal; I was aware that using my phone overseas would be dangerously expensive, and the fact that it rendered itself inoperative was rather serendipitous…but it still feels weird to be unhooked.

Landed in Paris at 8.30, then met my driver and sat in heavy traffic all the way to the downtown area…first thing I noticed was the geometry of the surrounding traffic; there was a smattering of familiar-bodied VWs and Mercedes, but hosts of Renaults and Peugeots, as well as others I couldn’t recognize. Overwhelmingly, the hatchback is the most popular design, and traffic is cut with legions of scooters and motorcycles. A curious road sign caught my eye a few times: a car with its hood on fire or exploding. No idea what it could mean, forgot to inquire when I hit Paris.

Made it to the offices of Remy Cointreau with no problems, only to find that the rest of the guys got stuck at the airport when someone’s abandoned baggage was discovered and a terminal-wide lockdown was initiated. Funnily enough, I recalled hearing that announcement over the PA, but since I was in a different terminal it didn’t affect me.

So I met Richard Lambert, brand ambassador for Cointreau, a native of Angers, and an all-around good guy. We split for Montparnasse train station immediately, met the rest of the guys, and hopped the TVG for Angers, a high-speed, ear-popping hour and a half away from Paris.

After checking in to the hotel I wandered out to try to find (a) a place to change my American dollars for Euros, and (b) an adapter for the unfamiliar sockets in France. The first proved to be nearly impossible, as most of the folks I met spoke not more than a word or two of English, and my French wasn’t up to the task of deciphering directions and complicated instructions. Eventually, however, I found a BNP and just withdrew some cash, discovering just how poor our economy is right now…everything in France is expensive as it is, and the exchange rate just kills you here.

Back to the hotel for a nap, then on to our first surprise of the trip: a freaking hot-air balloon ride from a freaking castle, over the vineyards of Layon and Sancerre…kind of brought all those wine classes into perspective. The folks running the balloon ride were awesome; Miguel, Helen, Sondra and one other young lady who’s name I can’t recall at the moment were professional, funny, and very gracious; after we helped pack up the balloon and load the basket onto the truck we sat and sipped some sparkling wine from the Layon valley as the sun set over the vineyards. Pretty damn magical, to say the least.

Afterward we hopped in the truck and proceeded at breakneck speed through tiny streets to the starting point, where Richard waited with our taxi driver. We hung around for a moment and battered our collective heads against the language barriers before stopping off to grab a bite; sushi, surprisingly, and very very good.

Finally, our last stop of the night was L’Abbaye, where a chap named Dorian prepared some excellent cocktails for us and tasted us on some local spirits. We sat outside in the beautiful evening and watched the locals wandering by. Words like “idyllic” and “holy crap, we’re in freaking France” kept rolling through my head.

Next up: Tour of Cointreau, train back to Paris, the Mamashelter, Buddha Bar, Chez Flottes, La Gambetta.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cocktails tore up my family

Ah, Robbie Fulks. Check him out if you haven't already, folks.

Working on a stirred gin-sloe gin concoction right now; the idea (i think) is sort of a gin manhattan...having a lot of trouble with the sloe gin interacting with various vermouths I've thrown at it...a little stuck right now.

Also in development is a Manhattan sour, with a little ginger syrup to make it interesting. I'm digging the way the Carpano plays off the spice of the ginger, and the egg white just opens it all up and smooths it all together. Still needs a bit of work.

Hoping to head down to Louisville next week to see Old Crow Medicine Show in concert, it'll all depend on whether or not I'm going to be putting the summer food menu into play next week. At this point it might make more sense to just run a couple of small changes, and then overhaul the whole thing for fall. We'll see.

Television? Maybe. We shot a sizzle reel at Moto a couple of weeks ago, and right now we're just waiting to hear back from the networks. Here's hoping. This is just a rough cut, of course; I've taken a look at the series bible for Future Food and it looks pretty damn tasty, I'll tell you what.

Finally, go check out Rogue Cocktails, the brainchild of Kirk Estopinal and Maksym Pazuniak--two inestimably fine bartenders whom I have the true pleasure to call friend. This is the blog of the book--a cocktail book written by bartenders, for bartenders--as well as cocktail nerds who have developed a taste for the bold, the bitter, the wild, and the new. Flagrant self-promotion; I've got a few cocktails in the book, as do many of the fine gents at Violet Hour. The book is, for me, a delightful affirmation of the direction my tastes have run lately. The cocktails are big and brash and loud, yet wonderfully complex and maintaining of a certain integrity and even subtlety that has to be tasted to be understood.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Long Distance Dreams

So I survived Tales of the Cocktail 2009... barely. I won't go into all of the details, but suffice to say it was madness not just on another level, but on a plane of existence completely divorced from reality. In brief, then, some touchstones: Obscene alcohol abuse. Flagrant disrespect for centuries-old traditions and spirits. Shots of Tobala mezcal with Ron Cooper and Steve Olson. Roaming the hallways with Don Lee at 4 am. Losing my mind in the awful soul-withering chaos that was 7 Deadly Sins. Helping to make over 10,000 cocktails in one day. Finishing multiple bottles of Cynar. Standing guard in the Monteleone lobby and doing shots with all who passed through at 5 am. Seeing Kermit Muffett (sp?) in a perfect little NOLA dive. Dinner at Bacchanal, with music by the Moonshiners. Stepping behind the stick at Cure. Drinking Chartreuse with Philip Duff in the airport. Rapid stress level swings. Meeting and working with some of the funnest and downright coolest folks in the biz. Jamie Boudreau everywhere. Midnight walk through the Quarter with Darcy O'Neil. Old Absinthe House. Crowdsurfing Harry Johnson while chugging Averna. Jeff Grdinich, Don Lee and John Deragon, my heroes. 60/40. George T. Stagg Juleps by the rooftop pool. Nuff Said.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bourbon Immersion, pt 3 back on track. Day four found us, as usual, running late and frantically trying to bang clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet before heading out to Woodford Reserve for a personal tour of the facilities. Now, the last time I was there, we were graced by the wonderful Chris Morris himself, who personally took us through every step of the process from grain to goblet--and then sat down to lunch with us. The man is loaded with knowledge not only of the craft of distillation, but of the history of the industry as a whole, and truly, deeply passionate about distilling.

We sat through the standard 7-minute video introducing the plant and whiskey in general, then made our way down to the fermenters. We walked into the fermentation room and were greeted by the sight of a very fat, very happy cat lazing on the bottom of the stairs leading up to the tanks...not something I think you'd see at any other distillery. The fermenters are cypress, and quite a bit smaller than the other distilleries we'd seen thus far; all but two were empty; our guide explained that their output was being diminished prior to shutdown for the summer in a few weeks. As the wood sits empty, it dries, and starts to shrink; we could see where the metal bands hugging the tanks had pulled away from the wood. Prior to startup in the fall, they need to steam the tanks for up to two weeks in order to restore them to mash-holding capabilities.

The stills are beautiful. They are, I believe, the only non-Vendome stills currently operating in Kentucky. (I do need to double-check that, so bear with me.) Scottish in origin, three copper pot stills stand to the side of a massive wood floor, at the head of which stands the proof box--hand-turned to make the proof cuts--and a large notebook, with actual cuts, proofs and times written down, by hand, with an actual pen, by an actual person.

That, I think, was the thing that stood out the most for us: the attention to detail, the hands-on nature of the plant, and the tiny, tiny output as compared with behemoths like Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace. The last time we toured Woodford, Chris Morris tasted his white dog with us, next to the finished product, and I still remember being stunned at the beautiful, clean, ripe melony, almost mezcal character of the distillate. Now, I do enjoy Woodford, but I feel that its true expression is...dulled, somewhat, from the still to the bottle, and we couldn't figure out what was going on.

When we entered the bottling room, we were surreptitiously offered a taste of woodford--straight from the barrel. Uncut, unmingled, high-octane...I still think about that taste of whiskey. It was phenomenal, to say the least. I would buy that at barrel strength, a la George Stagg or Parker's Heritage, or even at 107 proof, unmingled with Old Forester, maybe in a single barrel expression. Chris knows what he's doing with his "honey barrels" of Forester, but I'd love to see the character of the stuff he's got at Woodford be able to shine through...I mean, c'mon, we've had a Four Grain, and a Sweet Mash, and a Chardonnay-barrel finish, which are very nice and cool and whiskey-dorky, so how about a micro-run of single barrel stuff? Please? And while we're at it, maybe a bottle or two of "Woodford White?"

Ah, well, if wishes were horses...

After a lovely lunch on the patio in the noon sun, which did much to restore our flagging vitality, we proceeded on to Wild Turkey; this time taking a back road which, after zigging and zagging and eroding our confidence, abruptly spat us out on an S-shaped bridge...and WHAM! there was Wild Turkey. Riding over the Kentucky River, the green-and-red silos and buildings of the plant beckoning us onward, and the four of us singing along to Merle Haggard belting out "Okie from Muskogee," we truly felt great things were in store for us...

We pulled into the Turkey parking lot, walked into the visitor center, and stopped dead--there, sitting casually in a rocker just inside the front door, was Jimmy Russell, Master Distiller. Holy crap. We'd met him very briefly a few months before, at Whiskeyfest in Chicago, and again when he stopped in at our bar, but this was just too damn cool for words. We went up to him and introduced ourselves, and he recalled us as being the ones who made all those "crazy drinks." Yep. Jimmy Russell remembered us. We tried very hard not to be too fanboyish, but we were fully stoked.

The public tour was pretty standard; the requisite video, then viewing the barreling and ageing facilities; the positively immense fermenters (of which there are dozens,) and then the still, where we were able to taste the white dog. Turkey's white dog is lovely, perhaps a bit lighter than Woodford or Trace, but a bit meatier than Heaven Hill. We were the only ones on the tour who stepped up for a taste of the white dog, and we got some hilariously dirty looks when we went back for seconds. Look, we weren't drinking it to get plastered; the first little drickle we were allowed we rubbed on our hands, and smelled for about five minutes, before going back to actually taste the stuff. White dog makes great hand lotion, by the way.

Tour over, we rambled back along the road to Woodford, bypassing it, and continuing along to the Old Taylor distillery...this is where I really wish we had thought to bring a camera, as the grounds are just incredible. The distillery is abandoned, but the buildings are still there, and with a little hopping around we were able to walk through the grounds. (Note: this was technically trespassing. Do Not Do This. We are bad people.) The plant itself is beautiful from the outside; with everything overgrown and turning to mildew and vegetation, the atmosphere was appropriately post-apocalyptic. Down along the river... a roofed-in reflecting pool and a pair of beautiful gazebos. Now that Sazerac has acquired the brand, I'm wondering if they might consider purchasing and renovating the property here; it'd rival Woodford in its quiet charm and beauty.

We couldn't stay long, however, and so were off again, back to Louisville, for a dinner at the exclusive Pendennis Club, supposed home of the Old-Fashioned. (Definitively not true, as they claim it dates from the 1880s, which is about 50 years too late. Perhaps the originator of the "new-wave" old-fashioned, with muddled cherries, orange and soda water, but certainly not the original cocktail. --digression.)

Pendennis, however, has a no-jeans policy, which of course ran counter to our sartorial packing choices, so a stop was made at a Wal-Mart to purchase dress slacks on the way there...and of course, since we were already late, the first Wal-Mart Googlemaps took us to was a grocery store. (I had no idea Wal-Mart even had grocery stores. Frightening.) Eventually, after much hilarity and finger-pointing and peanut butter rock, we made it to town, showered, dressed, and ran out to meet Bobby from Bulleit at Pendennis. Honestly? Good food, if a trifle unimaginitive, and truly the best damn turtle soup I'd ever had...

A couple games of pool later and we were off to Nachbar (again), and then Seidenfadens, a little karaoke-friendly dive bar in Germantown, where we reprised Okie from Muskogee to a stunned crowd of Kentuckian semi-hipsters...we closed the place down and then rolled back to the hotel at about 5 to contemplate our 10 am appointment with Jim Rutledge at Four Roses...showing great fortitude by turning down invitations to continue the party at a friend's house.

Next up: Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, 732 Social, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, Nachbar (again).

more whiskey stuff

So I'll be getting back on track with my bourbon blowout in a couple of days; but right now things are just shakin'. New food menu is more or less finalized, new cocktail menu at VH will get sorted tomorrow (WITH the inestimable Toby Maloney at the helm!), and Tales is a week away, but tonight I'll be heading over to the Whistler to drink some Rendezvous Rye and chat with David Perkins, master distiller at High West! I'll try to remain sober enough to pose a question or two that may be worth posting here...but no promises. Mostly I'd love to find out from whence their current stock hails, as fruitless as that tack may be. Update later.


Monday, June 22, 2009

bourbon immersion, pt. 2

Day two was a rough start...we awoke too late to tour the Four Roses rickhouses near Bardstown, and had to hightail it to Louisville to make our appointment with Heaven Hill. Upon pulling into the parking lot we were met by Jim Land, a 30-year veteran of Heaven Hill. He started the tour by pointing out the brick aging warehouses all around us; they were built in the 1930s and were currently used solely to age Christian Brothers brandy, the moneymaker brand for the company. He was quite candid about every aspect of the whiskey-making process; for instance, the company uses one mash bill for practically every whiskey they make; the differences come strictly from the barrel and mingling processes. He also gave us the precise proportions they use, explained the relationship between fermentation--they prefer a 3-5 day fermentation--and temperature--as low as 64 F for a 7-day fermentation. Heaven Hill was amazing in its level of automation; we were introduced to two operators who, using a simple graphical interface, were controlling the mash cook, cooling, fermentation, column distillation, doubler distillation, and transfer to holding tanks. Uniquely, they ship their uncut white dog out to their rackhouses in Nelson County, where it's cut to 125 proof and aged.
The fermentation tanks were covered; the first of that style I'd seen. The operators stressed that we had to look inside them, very important...we discovered why when Jim opened up a tank and bade us stick our heads in to smell...and a concentrated blast of carbon dioxide almost knocked me off my feet! With the open-top fermenters I'd seen before, there's a layer of CO2 above the tank, but nothing as intense as the rush we got there. This was immediately after tasting the white dog, which was delicious, if a little less interesting than that of Maker's or Woodford, but a little more complex than that of Buffalo Trace. After a breakfast of white dog and carbon dioxide, we were directed to walk down three flights of curving stairs...Those folks have a heck of a sense of humor, I'll tell you.
Jim then showed us the receiving area where the grain is dumped, and pointed out the trucks that are constantly on the move to and from Wisconsin, hauling the stock for their whiskey. Around back he pointed out the bullet holes in another set of fermenters...Yeah, bullet holes. Kentucky, right? His words, not mine.

At this point our lack of breakfast was fast becoming a serious issue, so we saddled up for Mike's Feed Store, and tucked into some of the best damn ribs and worst damn cornbread I'd had in a while. A cold glass of root beer and we were on the road for Lawrenceburg, for an appointment with Wild Turkey. I'd toured this distillery the last time we were in Kentucky, and wasn't expecting much, but still game to learn a little more...Unfortunately the last tour was at 2.30, not 3.30 as we'd thought...a fact that was to prove fortuitous in the end. We bummed around the gift shop for a minute, then split for downtown Lawrenceburg to see the sights...and ten minutes later were on the road again. No disrespect intended to the town; there just wasn't much going on for out-of-towners.

So back to the hotel for a quick nap, then dressed in our Sunday best and off to Basa, in my opinion the best restaurant in Louisville. Full disclosure: the owners and chef are good friends of ours, and so we feel incredibly warm and welcome whenever we go, but even so, the food is just plain amazing. Authentic, classic Vietnamese done with French sensibilites and technique. Perfect seasoning, execution and presentation. Fine food in the company of good friends, washed down with Rittenhouse Bonded, then off to 732 Social, their new hot spot on Market Street. Great spirits and cocktails--one in particular called a Dirt Funk, which recipe unfortunately escapes me at the moment--again in the company of good folk. The bar closed, we repaired to Nachbar once again, for more Old Fitz and Barton. Note: every bar in Louisville has a great whiskey selection.

That's about where things get hazy, so we'll continue tomorrow with Woodford Reserve, really Wild Turkey, Old Taylor, Pendennis Club, Nachbar (notice a theme here?), and Seidenfaden's.