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A blog about Pegus...

and other assorted ramblings on the cocktail life.

1
A Review of That New Fancy Cocktail Bar Near You
2
It Be International Talk Like A Pirate Day, 2014!
3
James Bond (and NPR) Had it Wrong With the Martinis
4
Book Review: The Bar Book, by Jeffrey Morganthaler

A Review of That New Fancy Cocktail Bar Near You

That Bar
I want to review today that new bar that recently opened nearby. It is actually a restaurant, but the main architectural feature is the bar, which dominates the wall. The food is really quite good, though a little weird in some parts of the menu. But as this is a cocktail blog, I’ll concentrate on the drinks, which are what make this place part of a newer phenomenon anyway.

A tremendous amount of thought and skill went into the physical design of the bar. The long, sweeping extent of the bartop, with its natural surfaced top, sends the message, “this is a place for serious drinks of substance.” The seating is also striking and unusual, but I think they spent a bit too much time and money on the unique legacy look, and not quite enough on the comfortable place to park my butt functionality. About half the stools wobble a little bit.

When a cocktail lover like myself sits down, the huge wall of the back bar shows so much promise it can’t help but bring a smile of anticipation to the face. There are tons of bottles back there, but no rows of identical flavored vodkas. There is no prominent display of any major, commercial brands, actually. They are all there, even the vodkas, but the bottles filling the featured spaces are a varied collection of the kind of product that is the hallmark of modern craft cocktails. Bottles from micro-distilleries, especially the local ones, are front and center, surrounded by an exotic imported gin, an Irish whiskey you don’t often see, and a bottle or two of Whistle Pig I think, or maybe it was some good Templeton. I’m not sure, but they have some good rye. The rum selection is a little meager, but hey… There are a number of the more useful liqueurs, all topped off by the real clinchers of modern cocktail insiderdom, a bottle of Fernet, another amaro or two, and a full bottle of Creme de Violette.

In the bartender’s workstation near your seat, you see a selection of bitters. Most of them are Fee’s though. I like Joe Fee a lot, and many of his products are extremely useful, but I do get a little sad when I see a bitters tray that is filled with a lone bottle of Ango and a bunch of Joe’s kids.

Whatever, the menu is very promising. A single sheet, the back side is all beverages. The front is a fairly mouth-watering array of that slightly weird food I mentioned above. (Even if you are only there for a drink or two, get the fries.) On the side that matters for this review, there are a bunch of micro-brews. Someone has gone to great lengths to ensure that each one has been carefully selected so that a guy like me will have never heard of any of them. But the hops nerd three stools down will be making excited noises, which is as much recommendation as I need if suds are your thing.

The wine offerings are perfunctory.

The cocktail list will reignite your anticipation. It is a nice collection of standards offered correctly (the Margarita is served up, not blended, for instance), and some appealing sounding house cocktails. Only a few of them are vodka and sweet things in a glass, the rest are made with real spirits. One of the better bartenders downtown consulted on the list from what I hear, so there is a nice, broad selection.

The renewed anticipation is a problem, since it may take a bit for one of the surprisingly large number of bartenders to actually take your order. The problem isn’t sloth. Everybody back behind the stick is working their butts off. But the head bartender is a grizzled vet of maybe 28 years old, and his underlings, all identically attired in jeans and black logo-bearing t-shirts, are fresh-faced and, um, fresh-fingered. When you watch them work, you can see that they each need to think about each move as they do it, work on only one drink at a time, and spend time searching each time they turn to get a bottle from that marvelous, promising back bar…. They aren’t fast, is what I’m saying. The lead guy seems to know his stuff reasonably well, but he’s spending most of his time taking care of the servers or answering questions from his assistants.

The house originals from the menus, when they finally arrive, are quite tasty. They are not up to the finest offerings from Dead Rabbit, but they don’t cost sixteen bucks, and this isn’t a multimillion dollar signature bar in lower Manhattan either. But the test of a good bar is how they deliver drinks beyond the 14 menu items they make over and over again. That is the terrain that separates the craft cocktail bar from the place that has ambitious cocktails. This place has ambitions…. Try ordering an Aviation, or some other new era rediscovery. The results, after further delay to consult with the Boss on its recipe, will not excite. I don’t mind a bartender consulting a recipe book or app. I do it myself on drinks I’ve been making for ten years. But go to the book. Don’t ask over the shoulder of head bartender who is frantically trying to get orders out to the servers who are stacked up over the service bar station like FedEx jets over Memphis airport at 3AM. If he knows the answer, and if he gets it right, and if your bartender hears it correctly, it still will take forever and still be spotty in the results.

I really shouldn’t harp on the service speed in and of itself. I’m a Craft Cocktail™ guy. We fetishize slow service as the hallmark of hand-crafted excellence. A really good cocktail bartender takes her time making a drink because she is being exacting, and frankly because she understands what is happening in the tin or glass before her. The staff here is taking a long time because they don’t. The jiggering is neither crisp nor consistent; the shake is either just long enough to combine the ingredients, or so long as to over-dilute the drink; and the stirs last until something else distracts the bartender. They don’t pipette the drinks, so they don’t know whether, in their distraction, they got it right. And if they did pipette the drinks, I’m not sure they have the palate developed yet to judge the results, especially for a drink they don’t often make.

To be clear, this staff is a bunch of good, hard-working kids. They deserve a good tip. They are friendly and genuinely want to serve you a quality drink. The problem is that they don’t know if they are or not, and they don’t know that they don’t know.

The place isn’t very near the main entertainment district, so most of the clientele don’t often hit any of the really good cocktail places in town, if ever. They don’t know that they are getting really pretty ordinary cocktails, billing themselves as this new wave of Craft Cocktails. In fact, chances are a Manhattan they order here would be no better than, if not worse, than the one they’d get from Steve at the dive bar a few blocks over whose t-shirt has stains older than the staff here.

This upsets me because for most of these customers, this is their sole experience with what is billed as Craft Cocktails. What they will get here will be OK, of course. And certainly a slight cut above what they are used to from their usual haunts. But what they are missing is the magic. And because they haven’t had it anywhere else, they won’t know they are missing it. They won’t insist that this place keep training hard to eventually deliver it. And worst of all, won’t go looking for it and reap the enriching rewards of doing so. Instead, all they will remember will be the fries.

They really are good.

So what’s the name of this place, and where is it? Well, this is a bad review, and I don’t name names in bad write-ups on this blog. It’s just a policy of mine. But more to the point, this isn’t a review of any specific place. It’s a review of hundreds of bars all over the country. Most of them are in suburban areas, but not all. The details may differ a bit from those in this post, but not much. I guarantee that you’ve hit a few of these places yourself.

And they piss me off. Every time I got to one for the first time, I’m first disappointed, then grumpy. I see a joint where the owners are simply chasing a trend that they just. don’t. get. Worse, I see a whole bunch of customers, some portion of which might really catch the drinks bug if this place delivered, and a lot more of which would appreciate and patronize other premium bars if their experience here was a higher value. Instead, I view a place like this as almost poisoning its own micro market area. If they fail, locals will say of the next place, “They say they are doing craft cocktails? Didn’t the place down the street have those? They weren’t anything special. And they went OB, so I doubt this one will work either.” Worse, the place might succeed. Then it will keep reinforcing the image of mediocrity in craft cocktails and make it even harder for someone else to come in and do it right.

It Be International Talk Like A Pirate Day, 2014!

Via Pop Art
Avast there, ye swabs and lubbers alike! It be impart’nt to remember that terday be International Talk Like a Pirate Day! It be silly. It be fun. It be a day fer drinkin’ lots o’ rum!

Leave yer gin and yer whiskies ashore today, Mateys, the vodka and tequilarrr as well. Today’s imbibin’ must be rum… or the lash!

"Or you can have rum and the lash—Whichever floats your boat...."

“Or you can have rum and the lash—Whichever floats your boat….”

Now, ye can be swilling yer rum w’ all manner o’ side parties. Cap’n Morgan, who be workin’ harder each year to board the good ship ITLAPD, this year wants ye to be drinkin’ Cap’n and Colarrr!

Of course, yer true sea dog, by the end o’ the festivities at least, when the wenches be all auctioned off, the port burnt to cinders, and the loot buried, will just swill his rum straight. But make sure it be the good stuff, or the crew will keelhaul ye!

"And don't drink too much, because I'm not swabbing the deck in the aftermath!"

“And don’t drink too much, because I’m not swabbing the deck in the aftermath!”

But whatever manner o’ concoction ye put together wi’ yer rum tonight, be sure there be plenty o’ lime in it! Limes go great wi’ rum. And you don’t want to be getting scurvy!
it__s_not_scurvy_house_stencil
Belay that, ye scurvy knave! Wi’ pirates, it be always scurvy!

James Bond (and NPR) Had it Wrong With the Martinis

"That's not an olive, 007!And do leave off shaking your Martinis, will you?"

“That’s not an olive, 007!
And do leave off shaking your Martinis, will you?”

The NPR interview I’m referencing here is “old”, in both internet and news parlance. But I just saw it, and shallow science and bad science reporting need a vigorous slapping around whenever it is encountered, no matter how playfully it is presented. The interview in question is with a Dr. Andrea Sella of University College London, who was promoting the fact that he and others had spent someone’s good money on a “scientific” study of shaken versus stirred Martinis. Actually, he’s talking about two studies. One, which isn’t his, is about health differences, and his, which is about taste. The resulting claims, as outlined by Dr. Sella, are as follows:

  • Martinis contain anti-oxidants. When you shake your Martini, you will have slightly higher levels of anti-oxidants. Because vermouth. Anti-oxidants may arrest aging slightly by locking up hydrogen peroxide. Therefor shaken Martinis are more healthy.
  • Shaken cocktails have more water, bits of ice, and bubbles in them, which alters their mouthfeel, decreases their temperature, and increases the dilution. So shaken Martinis taste better.

I’d like to address both of these, but first I’ll embed the audio of the interview, which got a helluva lot of press attention when it first aired.

The claim that shaken Martini’s are healthier than stirred, and the underlying implied claim that both means of preparation have health benefits, is ridiculous. Look, I love Martinis, but praising them for their health benefits is like raving about the fuel mileage in your Formula One race car. Anti-oxidants may (or may not) delay aging a little bit. And there may be some slight increase in their presence in a shaken Martini. But listen to the researcher, the overall amounts of anti-oxidants in Martinis, and the difference between shaken and stirred, must both be pretty slight, or he’d want to tell you how much it is. Drinking enough Martinis to get whatever small anti-aging effect they may offer, shaken or stirred, is going to be more than offset by the liver morbidity that would set in. So if “live fast, die (apparently) young, leave a beautiful corpse” is your desired philosophy, by all means make Martinis a part of your health regimen.
For the sensible among us who like Martinis, drink them small, and drink them sparingly. If you want some anti-oxidants, eat more berries.

As for his credibility on shaken Martinis… I’m sorry, Doctor, but you need better credentials than just multiple advanced degrees in chemistry to convince me. While it is true that there is a debate about which makes a better Martini, shaken or stirred, that debate is between James Bond aficionados and actual Martini drinkers. For the record, I am assuming that we are talking about gin, and not vodka Martinis, though this is never addressed in the interview. Dr. Sella is right about the physical effects of shaking, but not about the actual resulting aesthetics. The giveaway is in the following exchange:

D(r. Andrea Sella): Well, one might expect it to taste somewhat different. Now, first of all, let me declare my interest: I’m not a huge fan of martinis per se.

(Guy) RAZ: Yeah, a lot of people hate martins.

D: Absolutely. I mean, martinis are definitely an acquired taste. But the crucial thing is that when you think about what happens between pouring something into your mouth and experiencing it in your mind, in your brain, it’s not just the sort of chemical components. There’s a lot more going on.

I’m sorry, but if you don’t like Martinis, then you are unlikely to design a test to properly measure what is a good Martini. A traditional taste test methodology, a la the Pepsi Challenge, where a random sampling of humans are given two glasses labeled A and B, takes a sip of each, and expresses a preference, is fundamentally flawed when applied to semi-universal products like soft drinks. It is doubly flawed when used for Martinis.

As Sella notes himself, Martinis are an acquired taste. Did he test only Martini drinkers, or a random selection? I’m guessing the latter. This means that a lot of people, like Guy Raz for instance, were going to experience a test between two drinks, both of which will likely taste like ass to them. The shaken one will be more diluted and muted in flavor, exactly as he predicts. Of course people, when confronted with a cocktail that is frankly pretty confrontational, are going to choose the version that is less a punch in the snoot to unprepared taste buds.

But had they given the test to habitual Martini drinkers alone, who are already accustomed to the unique, assertive medley of gin and vermouth, the results would have swung strongly in the other direction. People who actually want to drink Martinis are looking for that unctuous experience that is figuratively and literally diluted by shaking. Less objectively, the visual experience is better with a stirred Martini. The glass-like clarity of the drink, unsullied by ice flows, bubbles, or foam, is easier and more rewarding to gaze into, and more in keeping with the drink’s flavor.

Incidentally, I was initially also skeptical of the whole “shaking releases more anti-oxidants” claim itself, beyond the fact that there can’t be enough there to provide a usable health benefit, but on consideration, this makes sense. Dr. Sella states they found the anti-oxidant comes more form the vermouth than the gin. Many spirits experts will contend that it is the vermouth, not the gin, which is “bruised” by shaking, resulting in the release of a few new or altered flavors. I can easily see that along with those releases of/changes in flavor, you might also get some additional release of anti-oxidant compounds.

Regardless, if you want to learn to love Martinis, the road there is not through vigorous shaking. Learn to love the taste of gin in gentler cocktails, then try the real thing. And whatever health benefits may come from drinking alcohol, they come only from consumption in moderation, and frankly I suspect most of them come not from chemical effects on the body (for the most part) but simple mental hygiene of a life well lived.

And less you think I’m being too hard on Dr. Sella, he’s really quite the interesting and entertaining scientist and science popularizer. He also has a good sense of humor when things don’t go entirely to plan. You can see quite a bit of him on YouTube, in productions like this fascinating piece:
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Book Review: The Bar Book, by Jeffrey Morganthaler

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, by Jeffrey Morganthaler
Jeff Morganthaler is one of my favorite people in the cocktail industry. This isn’t surprising, since the Morganthler is among the favorite people of most everybody in this line of work. Aside from running the bar at Clyde Common, an iconic bar in one of the world’s iconic cocktail cities, he is one of the most quoted and profiled bartenders anywhere. Jeff also wrote one of the first, and still most respected, cocktail blogs out there, and while he doesn’t update it as much as he used to, many of his posts remain standard references for professional and amateur mixers years after their publication.

Now he has written his first book, and like everything else he sets his mind to, it is a true winner. The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique is a pretty unique book in a number of ways, all of them good.
I divide cocktail books into two general types: References, and Reads. References are books filled with discrete, useful ideas that you grab when you need to refresh yourself on something specific you are working on, usually recipes. Reads are books you can relax with in a comfy patio chair while you toss back a Gin Rickey on a lazy weekend afternoon. The Bar Book is that very rare cat that is both of these.

More importantly, The Bar Book manages to break new ground in its central subject matter: technique. Morganthaler assembles an exhaustive A to Z of what it takes to actually make a great drink. The first half of the book focuses on the selection, care, and handling of the for the most part non-alcoholic ingredients that make or break most great drinks. He starts with citrus and other fruits; how to purchase, handle, and juice them to get the most, best out of them. In covering carbonation and carbonated mixers, Jeff combines some interesting historical reflection on “mixers” with detailed how-tos for things like his signature ginger beer and tonic syrup. He moves on to simple syrups, examining the different types of sugar, their flavors and textures, and how they each effect a drink. How many times do you see a recipe that calls for demerara simple, or honey syrup, with no explanation for why it was chosen? Building on that is a great chapter on more advanced syrups such as the borderline molecular mixological gomme syrup, and all manner of herb and fruit concoctions.

An author could probably do a three volume set on the production of bitters and tinctures, but the chapter here gives a clear and detailed enough outline of the basics to enable anyone with the creative culinary chops to produce anything worthwhile more than enough to go on. The chapters on measuring, dairy and eggs, and ice all seem like insanely simple subjects, but mess any of them up and your product will fail.

The twenty pages on shaking and stirring are hugely entertaining and if you disagree with the slightest detail therein… you are wrong.

There is a huge and fun section on all the sort of tools and techniques where a lot of the fun in making drinks, and watching them be made, come in. Jeff’s discussion of things like muddlers, swizzles (the real kind), and especially fire as cocktail tools is going to fascinate, whether you are a newbie or an old pro.

The final chapter is fittingly on the garnish. He combines his discussion of with some evangelization for the subject of garnish. It is true that too many bartenders, even higher end pros and crafty amateurs (like me on occasion), view the garnish as an afterthought to be omitted when one can get away with it. To this, Morganthaler replies,

Although I applaud the modernist, minimal approach in the right situation, there is a time and place for everything. And when it comes to garnishing, the time is often, and the place is in your drink.

In my liver-ruiningly comprehensive experience, good garnishes make you happy, bad garnishes make you sad, and no garnish makes you bored. No one making a drink for anyone, even themselves, should be in the business of making the recipient sad or bored.

Throughout, The Bar Book is filled with beautiful photographs that are much more than just drinkporn, but essential elements of the instruction, often filling in details that would have been very hard to otherwise describe. Jeff told me and a few of Columbus’s best at a meeting of our book club that it took eight straight 12-14 hour days to do all the pictures for this book, and that time and effort shows through. Indeed, my only real complaint with the entire book was that there weren’t more pictures in a few places. And while it is in no way a recipe book, there are a bunch of recipes throughout, each one designed and placed to illustrate an ingredient or technique or concept that was just discussed. Drinking your way through The Bar Book over the course of a couple of weeks would make an excellent final exam, a test of how well you’ve absorbed the knowledge therein.

For a hundred years, no major cocktail book has given much more than a perfunctory nod to the bedrock, essential skills, tools, and techniques a person must possess to properly construct all the marvelous recipes that are being created or rediscovered in modern days. Detailed treatment of technique in the preparation of food has always been an essential part of cookbooks and culinary texts. As cocktails gain more and more respect as a culinary art, this kind of book is well past due. What took you so long, Jeff?

Current and aspiring professionals who would like to be able to work in the high craft end of the bar industry will need virtually every piece of knowledge in The Bar Book at some point in their careers. Buying it, reading it, absorbing it, and at least making a start at proficiency with many of the skills taught in it will put you head and shoulders ahead of competing applicants. And please also understand, even if your bartending aspirations are just rocking away Saturday nights behind the stick at Applebee’s while you complete your degree, there is plenty here to help in that environment as well.

And while the Bar Book is primarily aimed at working bartenders, I think it deserves prime shelf space on the shelf of any amateur mixer who aspires to make great drinks as well.

The Bar Book is currently available from Amazon for about twenty one bucks, or thirteen in Kindle format. If I were you, I’d get it in hardcover. This is a seminal cocktail work, and is going to be a standard reference for the craft and general cocktail industry for years, and probably decades to come.

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