The Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World

Aquavit Week is over, but the aquavit cocktail blogging continues!

When planning the menu for our Nordic Night dinner at Fenrir, I had one spot left to fill in which I knew I wanted to feature the Krogstad Gamle aquavit. I tried out a bunch of ideas, but none of them were coming together quite right. Worse yet, I was running out of aquavit. I needed an idea soon!

As I often do in such situations, I turned to The Flavor Bible, an indispensable guide to flavor pairings that work. Reading the pairings for the strong anise note in Krogstad, nutty flavors kept coming up. That got me thinking about amaretto, which got me thinking about The Best Amaretto Sour in the World™.

That drink comes from my fellow Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who combines amaretto with cask-proof bourbon. It’s an awesome cocktail. With a few adjustments, could it work with a barrel aged aquavit? The answer was yes, the drink worked on the first try, and I didn’t have to devote any more of the non-existent Aquavit Week budget to yet another purchase. In a nod to Jeff, our Nordic Night humbly offered The Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World.

1 oz Krogstad Gamle aquavit
1 oz amaretto liqueur
1 oz lemon juice
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup
1/2 egg white
lemon twist, cherry, or star anise for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a shaker and give it a dry shake to aerate. Add ice and shake again. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish.

Below is the full menu from our Nordic Night, and here is a review from Portland Mercury restaurant critic Andrea Damewood, who happened to be in attendance that evening.

2014 blog in review

In my annual blog review last year, I noted that 2013 was the first year in which traffic to this site dropped substantially. That trend continued in 2014, with traffic dropping 13% to just 64,893 visits. That’s not surprising, given how rarely I’ve updated this year. On the plus side, I’ve done more writing for external sites and more long-form writing, with at least one book slated to come out in 2015.

Here are the top posts of 2014, three of which were actually written last year. Staplers and camel crickets continue to grab the stop spots.

Top post of 2014
1. The stapler’s secret
2. MxMo Redemption: Harvey Weissbanger
3. Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut Arrack
4. Camel crickets invade DC
5. My coffee smells like tuna fish
6. Quick Little Pick Me Up
7. How to get rid of camel crickets
8. What proposed FDA regulations mean for e-cigarettes and cigars
9. Defining “tobacco use” for cigar smokers
10. Mixing with the Mad Dog

I used to get a lot more traffic from random searches. Today only a few search terms draw significant traffic.

Top search referrals of 2014
1. weird fish
2. camel cricket
3. arrack
4. coffee bitters
5. Harvey Weissbanger
6. coffee bitters recipe
7. apple cider gastrique
8. Sri Lankan arrack
9. spider crickets
10. shaker

As seen in the searches and country traffic, being one of the few English speakers writing about Sri Lankan coconut arrack has apparently brought in a decent number of visitors. I think this is the first year Sri Lanka has been in the top ten countries to visit the site.

Top visitor countries from 2014
1. United States
2. United Kingdom
3. Canada
4. Australia
5. Germany
6. Sri Lanka
7. India
8. France
9. Netherlands
10. Sweden

The list of cities is predictable except for tiny Boardman, Oregon. I don’t know how to explain that one.

Top visitor cities from 2014
1. New York
2. Portland, OR
3. Chicago
4. Los Angeles
5. London
6. Dallas
7. Washington
8. Seattle
9. Boardman, OR
10. San Francisco

No big surprises in the top referrers list.

Top non-search referrers from 2014
1. Buzzfeed
2. Cool Material
3. Facebook
4. Twitter
5. Reddit
6. Chuggin McCoffee
7. Alcademics
8. Liqurious
9. Overlawyered
10. Pinterest

I can also break down the stats to see which posts in the cocktail recipe section of the site are performing well. It’s interesting to note that four of the top ten are for ingredient preparations, not finished cocktails.

Top Cocktail Recipes from 2014
1. Apple Cider Gastrique
2. Clarified Lime Juice
3. Clubland
4. Shift Drink
5. Harvey Weissbanger
6. Aquavit Hot Toddy
7. Averna Stout Flip
8. Spiced Plantain Syrup
9. Swedish Punsch
10. Straits Sling

In the past few years social media has replaced blogging for conversational purposes and writing for other outlets has replaced much of my writing here. I don’t expect that to change in the short-term, but stay tuned for links to writing elsewhere and the occasional update.

Books about drinks for Christmas

As we approach the end of 2014, I have a stack of cocktail books awaiting review building up on my coffee table. This has been a better for year for books about drinking than any I can recall since I started writing about cocktails. A lot of these would make great last minute gifts for the drink lovers in your life. Of course one could also buy your friends my own book — waiting for its March 2015 release date will only add to their anticipation! — but impatient drinkers will also find joy in receiving the books below.

The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, Jeffrey Morgenthaler with Martha Holmberg– Jeff’s new book has instantly become the top book I recommend to people wanting to learn about cocktails. There aren’t many recipes here, although the ones that do appear are very good. Instead the focus is on techniques, topics like stirring, shaking, juicing, making syrups, incorporating dairy products, and making high quality ice. Jeff goes into the reasons to do things in certain ways, busting bartender myths as he goes. Although the advice is drawn from working in a professional environment, it’s also very useful to know for any home bartender who wants to elevate their drink making. If you enjoy mixing cocktails, this book needs to be in your library.

Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, Michael Dietsch — Michael Dietsch has his work cut out for him with this book. The first question potential readers will likely ask about shrubs is, “What are they?” When they find out that shrubs are infused, sweetened vinegars that you’re supposed to drink, I suspect their second question is, “Why?” But as craft bartenders have recently rediscovered, and as a few communities have known for years, shrubs are delicious. They’re a great way to preserve seasonal fruit and make easy, tasty drinks mixed with soda water or cocktails.

Dietsch’s book is sure to be the definitive source on the topic. It’s so new in my pile that I haven’t had a chance to try out the recipes yet, but the flavor combinations sound very good. His exploration of the history of using vinegar in drinks is interesting too. And though shrubs work great in cocktails, and Michael does include a chapter of cocktail recipes, this isn’t just a book for people who drink alcohol. Anyone who abstains in the long or short-term, but doesn’t want to give up imbibing drinks with complex flavors, would get a lot out of this book.

Proof: The Science of Booze, Adam Rogers — Wired editor Adam Rogers’ Proof is a good popular science book all about alcohol, tracing its journey from the yeasts that ferment it to the hangovers that all too often follow on the heels of its consumption. Mostly non-technical and an enjoyable read.

Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, Dave Arnold — Even before this book came out, Dave Arnold was having a positive influence in my bars and kitchen. His technique for clarifying citrus juice with agar agar is one I picked up right away and incorporated into cocktail menus, and his Searzall culinary torch has been a welcome addition to my sous vide set up at home. Though I haven’t yet made it to his bar Booker and Dax in New York, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan.

In Liquid Intelligence, Arnold dives deep into the science of making cocktails better. Sometimes this requires tools beyond the reach of most bartenders, such as rotary evaporators or centrifuges, but he also makes an effort to make recipes replicable at home. Ultimately, though, I think I’ll be turning to this more for reference and inspiration than as a recipe book. There’s a lot to digest here and I’m only partially through it after skipping to some especially interesting parts. Highly recommended for the working pro or home enthusiast who wants to gain a much better understanding of how drinks work and how to use that knowledge to make them better.

Honorable mentions: The 12 Bottle Bar, which I wrote about earlier this year, would also make a great gift. Drink books from 2014 that I’ve not yet read, but that are on my list, include: Sherry: A Modern Guide by Talia Baiocchi; The Old Fashioned by Robert Simonson; Death and Co. by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald, and Alex Day; The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffmann.

Break out the cigars? Not yet.

[Update 12/21/14: An expanded, more detailed version of this post is now up at Reason.]

Today’s announcement of more normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is welcome news for many reasons, but the one that seems to spring to mind for many is that Cuba’s most famous export, cigars, may finally become legally available in the United States. If only it were that simple. Here are three obstacles to getting Cuban tobacco into the US.

1. The embargo is still in place.

The new rules allow American travelers to return with up $400 of Cuban goods, of which only $100 worth can be alcohol or tobacco for personal use. This is still a long way from allowing commercial import. As before, any significant trade in Cuban cigars will be on the black market.

2. Trademark battles are going to be complicated.

The United States is the world’s largest market for premium cigars and our embargo with Cuba has essentially divided the global market in two: us and everybody else. Our embargo has created dueling trademarks for cigars. Cuban brands such as Cohiba, Partagas, Hoya de Monterey, Bolivar, and Punch are sold around the world. The United States does not recognize the Cuban trademarks, so cigars of non-Cuban origin with identical brand names are sold here. A legal dispute over the American and Cuban claims on the Cohiba trademark has dragged on since 1997 and still has not been resolved.

So even if the embargo is lifted entirely, the transition to allowing Cuban cigars won’t be a smooth one. Many of the Cuban cigars one can currently buy abroad would violate trademarks if imported to the US. Companies will have to fight this out in court or come to mutually beneficial agreements. Other likely outcomes are that Cuban products will be marketed under different names in the US or that non-Cuban companies will start using exported Cuban tobacco in their products. In any case, buying that Cuban Partagas Lusitania I enjoyed so much won’t be as simple as stopping into the nearest cigar store, at least in the short term.

3. The FDA could ruin everything.

The FDA has already announced that it intends to begin regulating cigars and outlined two approaches to doing this. The agency’s so-called “Option 2″ would create an exemption for premium cigars, allowing them to be sold under less scrutiny than cigarettes and other tobacco products. The proposed standards for this exemption are problematic (see my Daily Beast article for details), but they would leave the door open for eventual Cuban imports.

The FDA’s Option 1, however, would be very bad news for Cuban cigars. Option 1 treats cigars just like cigarettes. Under the Tobacco Control Act, all tobacco products introduced to the United States after February 15, 2007, must receive explicit approval by the FDA. Getting approval is virtually impossible. As of my last coverage of the topic, only two new cigarettes had ever made it through the process, while thousands of product applications continue to languish in bureaucratic limbo. (See my articles in The Atlantic and Reason).

There were a lot of cigars legally on the market in 2007, but obviously none of them were Cuban. We don’t know yet know which option the FDA will choose, but Option 1 would have a disastrous impact on innovation in the cigar market. All Cuban imports and any new Cuban blends would have to somehow get past FDA regulators, whose record on cigarettes is terrible. The trade embargo could be lifted in the near future, just in time to have a new, de facto embargo imposed by bureaucrats at the FDA.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for something like Option 2, but given political opposition to removing the embargo, complicated battles over trademarks, and byzantine regulations imposed by the FDA, I suspect that I’ll be slipping Cubans into my luggage on trips abroad for many years to come.

[Photo courtesy of Alex Brown on Flickr.]

Aquavit Week 2014

My favorite week of the year, Aquavit Week, begins today. What do we have in store for 2014? An opening party tonight at The Hop and Vine, a cocktail pairing dinner at Racion, a “Nordic Night” and Fenrir, and more than twenty Portland restaurants featuring aquavit cocktails. It’s also been a good year for aquavit, with the number of aquavits available in the US also surpassing twenty this year. Get all the information at the Aquavit Week website, and hopefully I’ll see you at one of our events around Portland.

Two new aquavits to try

It’s getting harder for me to keep up with all the new aquavit coming on to the American market, which is a great thing considering how few bottles were available just a few years ago. When I first started writing about aquavit, there were only four producers in the United States. Now there are at least twice that many, with several of them making multiple expressions. Imports from Europe have increased too. Not long ago Linie was the only one left; in the past year at least three additional imports have come ashore. As I make plans for Aquavit Week 2014, here’s a look at two of the new arrivals.

If you’d told me a year ago that there would be aquavit distilled in Montana before it was made anywhere on the East Coast, I would have been skeptical. But to the best of my knowledge, no American distiller east of Illinois has taken up the challenge of making aquavit. Montgomery Distillery in Missoula, Montana has. My friend Paul Willenberg smuggled back a bottle of their Skadi aquavit on a recent business trip and it’s become one of my favorites.

Named after the goddess of “bowhunting, winter, mountains, and justice,” (how’s that for a resume?), Skadi is vapor-infused with caraway, dill, lemon peel, and other botanicals. The caraway is pleasantly assertive. The spirit would probably be good in cocktails, but I’ve already finished too much of my bottle to try it out. This is one to store in the freezer and drink straight. I only have a couple pours left, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed someone I know is headed to Missoula soon.

The most recent aquavit I’ve purchased is Brennivin, a.k.a. the “Black Death” of Iceland. This is the stuff of legend. Anthony Bourdain drank it on “No Reservations.” It shows up in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Dave Grohl says it makes you feel “like you’ve done acid… like you can’t feel your feet.” One of the first media outlets to cover its arrival in the United States was Vice, of all places. Brennivin is metal.

At least it is if you’ve never tried aquavit. At the risk of destroying its image, to me it’s nice and well-balanced. This is another aquavit I’d gladly drink straight from the freezer, and it also works well in a Negroni-type cocktail. It’s good stuff, and really one of the more approachable aquavits I’ve tried. The label is striking, and at about $35 a liter it’s affordable too.

But most people haven’t tried aquavit. And Iceland, especially, has a weird relationship with alcohol. The country was an early adopter of Prohibition. They legalized liquor in 1935, but didn’t get around to allowing beer until 1989. With beer unavailable, one can imagine why unaccustomed visitors might have found this schnapps intense as the plague. If Dave Grohl promising people that they won’t feel their feet is what it takes to popularize aquavit, then I’m all in favor. Drink that Black Death.

Announcing Cocktails on Tap

If it seems like I’ve been writing very little this year, there’s a good reason for that. I’ve actually be writing more than ever, but that effort has been going into my first full-length book. Since 2011 I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a book on beer cocktails. The road to publication is long and winding, and for a long time it looked like the project was not going to happen. Then in the fall of last year everything finally clicked into place, thanks to the work of my agent Jud Laghi. In December we signed a deal with Stewart, Tabori, and Chang to publish Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.

The upside of being patient is that the book is far better than it would have been had I written it a few years ago. Stewart, Tabori, and Chang makes beautiful books, and my editor there, Laura Dozier, has been supportive the entire way of making this the definitive book on mixing with beer. You can see that commitment to quality in the cover above. And on the inside? Full-color photographs shot by David L. Reamer, whose most recent work includes the Toro Bravo and Le Pigeon cookbooks. A foreword by Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Guide 2015. A deep dive into the weird history of beer cocktails, the best of my original drinks and collaborations with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik, and contributions from some of the most creative bartenders I know. More than fifty recipes for cocktails and punches made the final cut. I’m sitting in a coffee shop now approving the final color proofs and I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all turned out.

Cocktails on Tap will be released on March 17, but you can pre-order it now. And please do! This book has been in the works for a long time and I can’t wait to get a copy into your hands.

GMO labeling in Oregon

My latest makes the case against the Oregon ballot measure to require labeling of food made with GMOs:

Whole Foods would like to sell you on the virtues of the Rio Star organic grapefruit. “For juicing, Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit” and is “widely viewed as the best” grapefruit grown in Texas, home to “some of the sweetest grapefruit in the world.” And despite originating from a breeding program that blasted grapefruits with radiation to scramble their DNA, eating them probably won’t kill you.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, my views haven’t changed since this same debate came up in Washington last year.

Playing with the Novo Fogo Caipirinha Kit

The Caipirinha — a simple, rustic combination of muddled limes, sugar, and cachaca — is one of the world’s most popular cocktails. It’s also one of the easiest to prepare, tolerant of some imprecision in measurement and requiring no straining whatsoever. Just muddle the limes and sugar, add cachaca and ice, shake, and pour the whole thing into a glass. A basic recipe:

2 oz cachaca (Novo Fogo of course!)
1/2 lime, quartered, trimmed of pith
1 tablespoon superfine sugar

That’s pretty easy. To make it even easier, Novo Fogo Cachaca recently introduced a new Caipirinha Kit containing a bottle of their silver cachaca, a nice wooden muddler, and two mason jars in which to make and serve the cocktails. The jars eliminate the need for even having a cocktail shaker; shake everything in the jar, pop the lid, and drink. It’s so easy, even a pug can do it.

Well, almost.

Since I work with Novo Fogo, they sent me a few of the kits to play around with and try out in some seasonal variations. Another great thing about the Caipirinha is that it’s incredibly versatile. The simple base of sugar, lime, and cachaca lends itself to lots of possibilities, pairing nicely with fresh fruit, herbs, and other spirits. I took the kit out to a few parties to see what we could come up with.

First up was meeting with my friends Tom, Kristen, and Porter the Pug. Taking advantage of end of summer Oregon produce, we hit the backyard with a bunch of berries. A couple combinations that worked: A Caipirinha with huckleberries and basil, and another with blueberries and St. Germain. In both drinks a handful of fruit was muddled along with the lime and sugar, then everything shaken together.

The next stop was a picnic with the Portland Culinary Alliance at Goschie Hop Farms in Silverton, Oregon. This was right at the beginning of fresh hop season, so hops were everywhere. As you can imagine, the place smelled amazing. (Yes, that’s an entire room filled with hops.)

This gave me the idea of making a fresh hop Caipirinha. The Caip-beer-inha, a Caipirinha topped with a splash of IPA, is a cocktail Ezra Johnson-Greenough and I have served many times, so this seemed like it could work. It turns out that muddling hops doesn’t actually extract a ton of flavor, although the drink was nice enough. A fresh hop cone does make a killer garnish though. When they’re in season, I could imagine using them to decorate a Caip-beer-inha.

Finally, at a cocktail fundraiser event at Fish Sauce, Tommy Klus, Will Ray, and I dialed in a Caipirinha made with kummel, a liqueur flavored with caraway and other savory herbs, proving that Caipirinhas really can work with just about anything. This one had cachaca, lime, sugar, kummel, and Angostura bitters, and was surprisingly tasty. (Recipe coming soon; the photo above is our old-style mason jar.)

The Caipirinha Kits are already available in a few states, including Oregon, with many more on the way.

(Some photos courtesy of Tom and Kristen. Check out Kristen’s Etsy design store for wedding and party ideas.)

A visit to Diam’s high-tech cork facility

Most of the press trips that wine, spirits, and beer writers are invited on focus on what goes into the bottles we drink. In July, I was invited to Spain for a trip dedicated instead to the part that seals so many of those bottles: cork. Corks are one of those things we tend not to think about until they malfunction by crumbling apart, oxygenating a wine, or introducing “cork taint.” The growing acceptance of screw caps and synthetic corks is partly a response to the challenges of using natural cork. Our host in Spain, Diam, is a company that makes a sort of hybrid technological cork, combining natural cork material with new techniques for removing impurities and increasing consistency. They brought us to their facility in San Vicente de Alcantara to show off the process.

Preparing for this trip, I had romantic visions of the cork forests of Spain and Portugal. These visions were eventually fulfilled on an evening trek into the countryside, as seen in the photos above.

However most of our visit was spent here to learn about Diam’s technological process for transforming bark from cork trees into reliable stoppers that won’t ruin a bottle of wine. This was more industrial than romantic, but it was a fascinating learning experience.

We arrived a little too late in the season to see the local cork harvest, but the photo above (provided by Diam) shows how it’s done. The bark of cork trees is rich in suberin, a rubbery, waxy substance. In nature, the suberin prevents water loss by keeping moisture inside the tree. This same quality makes it great for keeping wine locked inside bottles.

Slaking the world’s thirst for wine requires a lot of cork. (Above: piles of fresh cork bark awaiting processing at Diam; you can barely make out a few people working on top.) Fortunately, harvesting bark doesn’t kill the trees, and after reaching maturity each tree can be harvested about once every decade. Driving through this region of Spain and Portugal, the brightly colored trunks of recently stripped trees stand out along the roadside.

After processing, traditional corks are made by punching through the bark. Obviously punched corks can only be extracted from sufficiently thick bark and much of the material is left behind. This can be put to other uses, including the technological corks made by Diam.

Here my friend Baylen demonstrates his invention of cork knuckles. Not a product offered by Diam — yet.

The Diam process begins by grinding the bark and sorting out the suberin-rich powder, which they call “cork flour,” so that it can eventually be reformed into a cork shape with food safe binders and microspheres. Agglomerated corks have been around in some form for years; it’s the step prior to agglomeration in which things get interesting.

Diam’s biggest innovation is treating this cork flour with supercritical carbon dioxide. In a supercritical state, created under very high pressure, fluids take on properties of liquids and gases. They are able to both permeate a substance and dissolve materials. By fine-tuning pressure and temperature to control its density, supercritical CO2 can be used to extract some substances while leaving others behind. If you drink decaffeineated coffee, there’s a good chance the beans you brew were treated in this way. The CO2 process is one of the main methods used to selectively extract caffeine from green beans.

Diam uses this same process to remove impurities from cork. The most important of these are TCA and TCB, the chemicals associated with cork taint. But lots of other stuff gets removed too, resulting in a cork that is neutral in its potential flavor impact on wine. (Above: quality control testing of corks by infusing them in water.)

A neat advantage of making corks this way is that other characteristics can be controlled too. By varying the elasticity of the corks, Diam can design them for less expensive, short-term aging, or for higher end wines intended to age for years. The box above shows their 1, 3, 5, and 10 year corks; they’ve also recently introduced a cork designed to last for 30 years.

They’re also able to control the permeability of the corks. Corks are naturally permeable, but a cork allowing too much air into a wine can ruin it. On the other hand, depending on the wine, a little bit of oxygenation could be a good thing. These corks come in varying degrees of permeability, allowing wine makers to choose the corks best suited to their wines.

Though conversation about corks tends to revolve mostly around wine, Diam also uses its process to make corks for beer and spirits (photo above courtesy of Diam). The corks for spirits raised an interesting question for me. I’ve rarely come across spirits I’d identify as suffering from cork taint, but on the few occasions I have the off aromas have surpassed anything I’ve come across in wine. Since spirits are much higher in alcohol than wines, and since alcohol is such a good solvent, I’d have thought that TCA would be an even bigger problem for spirits than it is for wine. Yet we rarely hear about spirits being “corked.”

As it turns out, I was half right. Spirits are a more effective solvent. But the team at Diam directed me to a scientific paper evaluating tasters’ ability to detect TCA in cognac, and it turns out the threshold level for perceiving it is much higher. The paper is in French, but in loose translation the tainted spirits had aromas of “mold, mushroom, wet mop, etc.” However the concentrations needed to perceive these notes unambiguously appear to be an order of magnitude larger than for wine. Higher alcohol seems to have a masking effect for the TCA. (I suspect that the tendency to store wine on its side, in contact with cork, and to store spirits standing vertically may also be a factor, but I don’t know for sure.)

One funny aspect of the Diam corks is that, at the insistence of wine makers, they have striations printed on them to mimic natural cork. A casual consumer could pull one out with a corkscrew and never notice the difference. Seeing the unfinished Diam corks come out and then get printed to resemble their purely natural punched cousins reminded me, of all things, of Howard Roark’s critique of the Parthenon in The Fountainhead:

“Look,” said Roark. “The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

Because wine is tied up with tradition, that’s why. Despite the rise of synthetic stoppers, screw caps, and wine that comes in kegs and boxes, people still want to pull a plug of wood out of a bottle neck, even if that means occasionally dumping a corked bottle down the drain. And for wines that are meant for aging, corks are still one of most proven tools.

Are all these new high-tech corks really necessary? Claims about the rate of cork contamination are controversial. For one thing, cork isn’t the only source of TCA; it can enter wine at other stages of the production process, but the final consumer will declare the wine to be “corked” regardless of whether the cork is the actual source. Other defects, real or imagined, may also be attributed to the cork. (Working for several years in a top wine bar, it wasn’t uncommon to have “corked” wines returned that seemed fine to me. Did customers imagine it or just not like the wines? Am I less sensitive to TCA than other consumers? I suspect it was a little of both.)

Estimates of the rate of cork contamination range from 7% at the very high end to under 1% on the low end. The Cork Quality Council claims that rates have dropped more than 80% in the past decade thanks to improvements in the industry; they have a website, CorkTaint.com, dedicated to rehabilitating cork’s image and promoting studies showing low rates of contamination. Diam, for its part, declined to wed itself to a particular number.

Still, no one likes to open up a special bottle of wine to find that it’s been ruined by a fault that could have been prevented. The market now offers a lot of options varying in price, consistency, and longevity for sealing different wines, all of which have their place. The Diam corks are an interesting addition to that spectrum. I’m not a winemaker, nor do I pretend to possess the expertise to say which closures are best for which wines, but after this visit I certainly wouldn’t mind finding a higher tech cork in the next bottle I open.

12 Bottle Bar comes to Portland

David and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, authors of the 12 Bottle Bar weblog, have long been two of my favorite cocktail writers. After knowing them online for several years, we finally met in person at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Chicago last March, where we presented a panel together on the history of beer cocktails. And now they’ve turned their blog into a full-length book, The 12 Bottle Bar from Workman Publishing.

The premise of the book is simple: If you’re making drinks at home, you may not want to be like me and have an entire corner of your living room taken up with booze bottles, a kitchen counter covered in bitters, and a refrigerator so full of vermouth and other aperitifs that there’s barely any room for food. You may only want, say, twelve bottles.

The 12 Bottle Bar is their take on which dozen bottles those should be along with creative, engagingly written recipes for cocktails you can make with them. The picks aren’t all obvious. Genever makes the cut but tequila doesn’t. Lesley literally wrote the book on gin and genever a few years ago, and of course I’m glad to see genever getting more appreciation, but that choice will surely drive some conversation. The drinks include contributions from many of their friends in the industry, including a few from me (but don’t let that call their good taste into question).

David and Lesley will be in Portland this Thursday (September 18) to promote the book. At 7:30 they’ll be doing a signing at Powell’s on Hawthorne Avenue. Then around 9:00 we’ll all head down the street to Bazi Bierbrasserie for a few cocktails from the book featuring El Dorado rum and Bols genever. Come buy a copy and join us for a round.

Big Tobacco vs little e-cigs

Last month, the FDA closed its comment period for its proposed regulations on e-cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products. The three Big Tobacco companies are among the parties submitted comment. The submission from Reynolds was particularly self-serving:

Reynolds American Inc. has fired an expected shot across the bow of small vapor cigarette manufacturers.

A Reynolds division recommended to the Food and Drug Administration in a 119-page submission that the agency ban the use of vapor electronic cigarettes.

Traditional e-cigs are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a self-contained disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled. The manufacturers have provided few flavor choices, in part in expectations that the FDA would limit flavorings as they do with combustible cigarettes.

By comparison, vapor products can feature a liquid capsule that is inserted into a cartridge, known as an open-system format. Vapors offer consumers a wider variety of flavors, included fruits and candy.

The Big Tobacco companies have invested heavily in disposable cartridge e-cigs. These compete with the more customizable, DIY devices favored by many vapers and sold by small producers. But why try to win consumers over when you can persuade the government to ban the competition instead? The FDA’s new regulations give Big Tobacco the opportunity to try that, so of course they’re taking it.

This kind of regulatory capture has been baked into the FDA’s handling of tobacco from the beginning. The initial legislation was backed and negotiated by Philip Morris, owner of Marlboro; it benefited from new marketing restrictions and barriers to entry that protect its brands from competition. The market for cigarettes has been essentially frozen in its favor since the FDA’s extremely burdensome review process went into effect in 2009.

Reynolds is trying to repeat the same trick with e-cigarettes, stoking fears of an unregulated market to protect big brands from competition. They might succeed. Meanwhile the public benefits of FDA tobacco regulation remain extremely dubious.

Previously: My own comments to the FDA are here, and more detail on the FDA’s anti-competitive tobacco regulation is in my article for Reason.

Comment on the FDA’s cigar regulations

If you’ve been following my writing on the subject, you know that FDA regulation has the potential to devastate the market for cigars, pipes, and e-cigarettes. Tomorrow is the final day to submit public comments on the agency’s proposal to extend their authority to these products. Comments can be submitted here. Helpful suggestions for commenting can be found here from the site Halfwheel. My own comment, limited to cigars, is below.

Comments submitted for FDA regulations regarding premium cigars, Docket No. FDA-2014-N-0189:

As an avid, though only occasional consumer of premium cigars, I have been following closely the FDA’s regulation of tobacco products. The Tobacco Control Act empowered the FDA to review all new tobacco products before they come to market, with the aim of ensuring that these products are, at minimum, no more harmful to the health of society as a whole than the products already being sold in 2007. While this is arguably a laudable goal, in practice the implementation of pre-market review has been hampered by infeasible standards that render the market for tobacco less competitive without corresponding benefits to public health.

Though this consequence is unintended, it was not unforeseen. Testifying to Congress in 2007, then commissioner of the FDA Andrew C. von Eschenbach predicted that the law would not allow enough sufficient time for the agency to develop science-based rules regarding tobacco and would “unduly and unfairly raise the public’s expectations about what the Agency could accomplish.”

The agency’s record so far has shown that Eschenbach was correct. Since taking over regulation of cigarettes, the FDA has received nearly 4,000 applications for substantial equivalence. Only a tiny percentage of these have been approved, and these have mostly involved either very basic products (i.e. rolling papers) or very minor changes to existing products (i.e. substituting one type of cigarette paper for another). The vast majority of applications remain stuck in regulatory limbo.

The experience of companies trying to bring new products to market suggests that doing so is nearly impossible. Lorillard, one of the largest tobacco companies, was able to do so only after extensive delays going well beyond the 90 or 180 day deadlines implied by the Tobacco Control Act. The smaller startup Hestia has found itself mired in insurmountable bureaucracy. Documents provided by Hestia show that more than two years into the review of its substantial equivalence application, the FDA has not even begun to examine the physical characteristics of its cigarettes, focusing instead on marketing materials relating to identification of the predicate product. These details are irrelevant to the health impact of Hestia’s cigarettes and call into question the scientific basis of pre-market review. (Since pending applications are not made public, the experience of the vast majority of applicants remains unknown.)

The unintended consequence of this lengthy review process has been to freeze the market for cigarettes as it was in 2009, protecting the brands that dominated then from competition. The health benefits of restricting the entrance of competitors are unclear, especially when reviews do not reach the stage of evaluating the actual physical characteristics of new products.

Given that the market for premium cigars is much more dynamic than the market for cigarettes, with potentially thousands of new products being introduced each year, applying the FDA’s current rules and procedures to cigars would be devastating both to producers and to cigar smokers who value variety. It would also overwhelm the agency with applications, assuming producers bother attempting to navigate the review process.

This raises the question of how the FDA can regulate cigars without unduly burdening manufacturers. One possibility is to simply not apply the deeming regulation to cigars. This is my preferred course of action, though it is obviously unlikely that the FDA will accept it.

A second option is that proposed by the agency to exempt premium cigars from many of the regulations that apply to cigarettes (“Option 2” in the FDA’s proposal). This requires the creation of a legal distinction between premium and non-premium cigars. The agency’s proposal suggests eight factors that would distinguish premium cigars. They would be wrapped in whole tobacco leaf, contain 100% leaf tobacco binder and primarily long filler tobacco, be made by hand, lack any filter or mouthpiece, have no characterizing flavor other than tobacco, weigh no more than six pounds per 1,000 units, and retail for no less than $10 per cigar.

This definition shares many similarities with that in proposed legislation to exempt premium cigars from FDA regulation. The most glaring difference is the retail price requirement, which would set an effective price floor of $10 for all new cigars. This would be a very large price increase for consumers; one industry analysis finds that only about 15% of premium cigars currently sell for $10 or more.

The price of a cigar obviously has nothing to do with its objective characteristics that could affect a smoker’s health. A $5 cigar is no less or no more healthy than a $25 cigar. A $10 price floor would rightly be seen as politically expedient rather than scientifically justified, a means of keeping wealthy cigar smokers happy.

Another likely consequence of instituting a $10 price floor would be to incentivize black market sales. If all new premium cigars in the United States are required to retail for at least $10, consumers will be attracted to the greater variety and lower prices of cigars sold abroad (including those from Cuba, which are already illegal in the United States). Internet sales and in-person smuggling of foreign cigars would certainly increase. These black market cigars would not be regulated by the FDA at all, undermining the goals of regulation.

Nonetheless, the agency may conclude that some price floor is necessary to separate premium cigars from the cheap that allegedly draw in youth smokers. In that case, a compromise implementing a much lower price floor would better reflect the reality of the market.

A second objection to the proposed definition is the ban on all characterizing flavors other than tobacco. It is unclear what this would entail. Some flavors in cigars arise from ageing them in various woods. Many flavors such as whiskey or rum are not the kind one thinks of as being aimed at teenagers and are marketed to adults. A blanket ban on all flavors would be overly broad. Instead, the agency should work with the industry to identify types of flavoring that are of particular concern and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

A third objection is to the requirement that all premium cigars be produced entirely by hand. This also is unrelated to the health impact of cigars and would advantage producers in places with low labor costs. It would likely end some cigar production in the United States, which is often assisted by machine. This, too, is an area in which the agency could consult with the industry to refine its definition of premium cigars.

Finally, I would like to suggest broader changes to the way the FDA handles substantial equivalence applications. In current practice, applicants must identify a specific predicate product and provide detailed empirical analysis showing that their proposed new product is substantially identical to it, raising no new questions of public health. This is unduly burdensome on new producers and unfairly advantages existing players, who possess information about their own products and the funding to analyze them. Even when proposed new products raise no new questions of health, applicants may not have access to information about predicate products that would allow them to reach the empirical stage of FDA review. For example, applicants are expected to provide documents such as bills of lading from more than a decade ago to prove that their selected predicate product was marketed in 2007. If the owner of the predicate product is a potential competitor, they obviously have no incentive to assist in the provision of such materials.

To make the substantial equivalence application process more equitable, the agency should establish objective guidelines for new products that would allow them to be considered substantially equivalent to products already on the market. Current applicants do not know how much variation from predicate products is acceptable and often cannot access information about predicate products in the first place. Clear guidelines established by the FDA would give smaller producers a chance at navigating the process without sacrificing public health. The current substantial equivalence pathway would also remain open to those who prefer it.

Regardless of whether the substantial equivalence pathway is streamlined, I hope that the FDA will adopt some variation of Option 2, exempting premium cigars from most of the requirements of the Tobacco Control Act. The market for premium cigars is akin to those for craft beer, wine, or coffee, defined by skilled producers and specific origins of product, and completely unlike the relatively commodified market for cigarettes. It is incompatible with the expensive and time-consuming review currently required of new tobacco products. And as the FDA itself has noted in its proposal, requiring such review would likely accomplish little for public health, given that premium cigars are consumed and marketed to adults and that their use is less likely to lead to addiction. Existing research also suggests that moderate use of cigars is much less harmful to health than use of cigarettes.

The differences in the impact on population-level public health among individual cigars would be so small as to be impossible to ascertain. Given that the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products has limited resources, its employees’ time can be put to much better use than the review of countless substantial equivalence applications for premium cigars.

– Jacob Grier
Portland, Oregon
August 7, 2014

Recent reading, drinks edition

Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, Tony Abou-Ganim with Elizabeth Faulkner — Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, except among fancy mixologists. As craft cocktails have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade, whiskey, gin, rum, bitter and herbal liqueurs, and other flavorful spirits have found favor with bartenders. Vodka, though in demand from many consumers, often struggles to find a place on the menu.

Vodka doesn’t have much presence in the canon of vintage American cocktails, which is one reason cocktail bars shun the spirit. Whiskey, gin, brandy, rum, and fortified wines abound in vintage books. Vodka arrived late on the scene, not taking off in the United States until enterprising marketers mixed it with ginger beer to create the Moscow Mule, served in frosty copper mugs. This early success set a smart strategy for vodka: Rely on other ingredients to provide flavor and present cocktails in a striking way.

Like many bartenders, I tend to avoid vodka on my own menus. There are a limited number of ounces to work with in a drink and it can seem a waste to use them up on a spirit that is legally defined in the United States as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” With the wealth of other spirits now available, there is almost always something available to complement the other elements of a drink and provide additional layers of complexity: The botanicals of gin or aquavit, the funky notes of rum or cachaca, the oakiness of cognac or whiskey. Why opt for vodka instead?

Thus Tony Abou-Ganim has his work cut out for him Vodka Distilled. Abou-Ganim aims to fix the disconnect between consumers who love vodka and the craft bartenders who often ignore it. With more than three decades in the industry, including landmarks such as Po and the Bellagio, there’s no one better suited to do it.

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me to write this book,” writes Abou-Ganim in the introduction. He also disputes the popular notion that all vodkas are the same. “Think about tasting and comparing one vodka to another not, not as comparing apples to oranges but akin to comparing apples to apples — apples of the same variety grown in different orchards with differing geography and under various climate and nutrient conditions.” Though subtle, the differences are there.

Following his advice, I pulled out the myriad bottles of vodka I’ve acquired over the years, most of them never opened, and had an impromptu tasting. I tried them first neat at room temperature, then again after chilling in the freezer. It’s been a long time since I put much thought into tasting vodka, and I have to admit that it was a worthwhile experience. Subtle nuances were readily apparent and drinking them chilled was enjoyable.

The most valuable part of the book may be the chapter of vodka cocktail recipes. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, one’s guests (at home or in a bar) are likely to request vodka cocktails from time to time. It’s good to have some drinks up your sleeve. Vodka Distilled provides a good selection. And while I might be tempted to substitute gin in a few of them, they make a tasty collection of classics and a few new creations.

Other sections of the book look at vodka and caviar pairing — currently out of the budget of this reviewer; regulations and definitions; methods of production; and tasting notes on 58 different vodkas. Photographer Tim Turner’s work is elegant. I learned quite a bit from the book, and recommend it.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, Amy Stewart — How much fun can a book that’s essentially an orderly listing of plant facts be? If it’s about how plants are transformed into drinks and it’s written by Amy Stewart, quite a lot. I found myself eagerly consuming The Drunken Botanist — sassafras to sundew to sweet woodruff, to take a random selection — on a long plane trip. It begins with the plants used for fermentation of alcohol, moves on to those used for flavoring during productions, and ends with fresh ingredients added at the last minute in the making of cocktails.

The book includes recipes and tips for gardening, though I’m going to find the most use of it as a very thorough reference (at least until I move into a place more friendly to growing plants). It’s engagingly written and highly informative, easily one of the best drink books to come out last year.

The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, Tom Acitelli — Maureen Ogle, who has been the go-to historian of American beer since the publication of her book Ambitious Brew, endorses Tom Acitelli’s history of modern American craft brewing: “My reign is over. Craft beer has a new historian, and I hereby hand my crown to him (and do so with good cheer).”

It’s a very thorough, well-researched book, and covers both the very early days of brewing at Anchor and New Albion along with recent developments. (Maybe I’m being provincial, but my one complaint is that the Pacific Northwest brewing scene seemed to be a bit neglected.) The history may be too detailed for a casual reader who’s not deeply into beer, but for those who are, this is the book to get.

Bar Jutsu: The American Art of Bar Fighting, James Porco — This book isn’t about drinking, but rather the potentially violent situations that arise when people drink too much. Having spent most of bartending career in genteel spots like The Carlyle and Metrovino, my qualifications for reviewing a book on bar brawls are extremely dubious. I did fence in college though, and took a year of aikido, so my skills may come in handy if a fight ever breaks out while I’m sabering a bottle of champagne.

James Porco, a professional bouncer and certified ninjitsu instructor, is qualified to write one. His book explains basic techniques, with an emphasis on ideally avoiding violent confrontation altogether and on ending it as quickly as possible with strategic grapples when fights do erupt. It’s written in a jokey style, sometimes veering too much into bro territory, with some amusing real life anecdotes involving pickle fights and drunken circus clowns (really). Techniques are broken down with photographs and instructions. You’ll need a partner to practice the maneuvers, and learning from a book is much harder than learning in person, but there seems to be enough detail here to try things out. It’s a fun book with some sound advice that, hopefully, one won’t have many occasions to use.

Brewing Up Cocktails Returns!

Nearly two year since our last event, Brewing Up Cocktails is back with a new menu of cocktails featuring beers from Ninkasi. Join us at Circa 33 this Tuesday for our reunion during Portland Beer Week.

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: This cocktail may produce discomfort in those who have a low tolerance for capsaicin, perceive cilantro as a soapy flavor, suffer from a real or imagined gluten sensitivity, are in a state of shock over the price of limes, or believe that putting beer in a cocktail will lead only to discord. All others may find it refreshing and enjoyable.

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo barrel aged cachaça
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz habanero syrup
small handful of cilantro leaves
2 oz wheat beer

Combine the cachaça, lime juice, habanero syrup, and cilantro in a shaker. Shake with ice and strain into a flute or cocktail glass. Top with the beer and stir gently to combine.

Habanero syrup:

2 cups sugar
2 cups water
5 habanero peppers, stemmed but not deseeded

Combine sugar and water over heat and stir until dissolved, bringing to a boil. Add peppers and remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain and keep refrigerated.

This cocktail was created for Novo Fogo’s Bars on Fire event in Washington, DC, where offense was kept to a minimum.

Cigars at The Daily Beast

My first contribution to The Daily Beast explains what’s at stake in the proposed FDA cigar regulations:

Ever since the FDA was given authority over cigarettes in 2009, cigar makers have been pushing a bill in Congress to keep stogies out of the agency’s purview. That an industry would try to protect itself from FDA regulation is not surprising. That the FDA might agree with them is. And given the agency’s record on cigarettes, keeping its hands off of premium cigars is the right idea.

Read the whole thing here.