2013 blog in review

“Sometime in the past few years, the blog died,” Jason Kottke wrote recently for Nieman Journalism Lab. “…[The] function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.”

Increasingly, the blog is where I write things that are too long for Twitter and too esoteric or personal for other publications. Use of the site as a means of sharing links is basically dead, replaced far more effectively by Twitter and Facebook.

My own blog didn’t die this year, but it was certainly wounded. For the first time in the ten years that I’ve been blogging, overall traffic dropped precipitously. In 2012, this site recorded 96,344 visits. In 2013, that number dropped to 74,616, a decline of 22%.

There’s no mystery as to where the missing traffic went. Surprisingly, traffic from nearly all sources is up. The one giant exception is search referrals from Google, down 66% from 2012. The total number of site visits dropped by about 21,000, but visits from Google alone dropped by nearly 30,000. I don’t know what I did to make the Google Gods angry, but that’s clearly something I need to work on.

One predictable result of this is that the infamous post about camel crickets is no longer the most viewed entry on the site. That honor now goes to the almost equally inane stapler post, thanks to a huge surge from Reddit. Two posts from 2013 cracked the top 10, one on tobacco policy and the other an April Fools’ post.

Top posts of 2013
1. The stapler’s secret
2. MxMo Redemption: Harvey Weissbanger
3. Camel crickets invade DC
4. My coffee smells like tuna fish
5. How to get rid of camel crickets
6. Defining “tobacco use” for cigar smokers
7. Using a jigger? You’re doing it wrong.
8. How to make coffee bitters
9. Mixing with the Mad Dog
10. Get sweet on liqueurs

As mentioned above, search was not the key driver of traffic this year. Here are the top twelve results (counting two extra because the top result being my name without a space in it seems fishy).

Top search referrals of 2013
1. jacobgrier
2. weird fish
3. jacob grier
4. coffee bitters
5. how to get rid of camel crickets
6. french vermouth
7. coffee bitters recipe
8. camel cricket
9. clarified lime juice
10. crickets
11. curse of scotland cocktail
12. what is the other side of the stapler for?

Though the order switched a bit, the list of countries visiting this site the most is completely unchanged over the past two years.

Top visitor countries from 2013
1. United States
2. Canada
3. United Kingdom
4. Australia
5. Germany
6. India
7. Netherlands
8. Sweden
9. France
10. Philippines

The city list is fairly similar too, with London the only international city cracking the top ten.

Top visitor cities from 2013
1. New York
2. Portland
3. Los Angeles
4. Chicago
5. Washington
6. Phoenix
7. London
8. San Francisco
9. Seattle
10. Boston

For the second year in a row, Reddit is the number one referrer of traffic to the site. Blogs have notably fallen off the list, with The Pegu Blog sneaking in at the ten spot. One interesting result: Referrals from the Facebook website dropped 26%, but this was partially offset by a 67% increase in referrals from Facebook mobile.

Top non-search referrers for 2013
1. Reddit
2. Buzzfeed
3. Facebook
4. Twitter
5. Gojee
6. Pinterest
7. Foodjournaling
8. StumbleUpon
9. Liqurious
10. The Pegu Blog

Late in 2012 I added a new section to the site devoted entirely to cocktail recipes, both for convenience of presentation and in hopes that it would be good for search engine optimization. That hasn’t quite worked out, with the section as a whole pulling in only 4,538 visits. Interestingly, the top two traffic cocktail posts were for ingredients instead of finished drinks.

Top cocktail recipes for 2013
1. Clarified Lime Juice
2. Apple Cider Gastrique
3. Clubland
4. Shift Drink
5. Cleared for Departure
6. Ethan Allen
7. Averna Stout Flip
8. Spiced Plantain Syrup
9. Aquavit Hot Toddy
10. Alto Cucina

There are still lots of good reasons to keep a blog, both as a repository of news and research and as a way of increasing my profile; I get a decent amount of consulting work as a result of having the site. And with the notable exception of Google, traffic from most sources continues to increase. I’ll be curious to see if the decline reverses in 2014.

When I started this site in 2003, blogging had cachet. Now, not so much. As Jason Kottke harshly puts it, “blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.” But there’s no point in stopping now. I embrace my role as an old man in internet years and will probably continue blogging long after the kids have moved onto HoloTumblrs.

Magic in the movies: Desperate Acts of Magic

2013 was a good year for movies about magicians, with the fairly high-profile releases of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Now You See Me. On the indie front, there’s Joe Tyler Gold and Tammy Caplan’s Desperate Acts of Magic.

I first came across this movie in 2010, when the team was raising funds for production. I was excited about it then, and now that it’s been released Joe was kind enough to send me a DVD for review.

What sets Desperate Acts of Magic apart from other magic movies is that it was made by and with magicians. Joe, who also stars in the film, is a magician himself and draws on his own performing experiences for some of the scenes. For me, part of the fun of watching was seeing familiar magicians and effects brought to the screen. Cuts are intentionally kept to a minimum, so the presentations are very close to what one would see in real life. I’ve attended a lot of magic conventions over the years and the movie gives a pretty accurate feel of what it’s like to be at one. (No surprise there — a few scenes were shot at an actual magic convention.)

Along with an obvious affection for magic and the (mostly) men who practice it, the film hits on the downsides of the art: the cliched costumes and presentations, the indignities of working gigs, and the casual sexism that so often relegates women to mere lovely assistants. The trailer’s declaration that magicians are “the third most-mocked profession” isn’t too far off the mark; the lead character’s decision to persist in magic anyway reflects the desire to rise above all that.

There’s obviously a lot here for magicians, but how about for people who don’t have entire drawers full of playing cards, half-dollars, and rubber appendages? I watched it with a non-magician friend who also enjoyed it, saying the movie exceeded her expectations. It’s a fun, light-hearted comedy, the tone of which accurately comes through in the trailer.

If you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the magician in your life, Desperate Acts of Magic definitely fits the bill. The DVD is available here and the movie also streams on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Elevating tea in Sri Lanka

My first post about Sri Lanka talked about my informal, very quick tour of Colombo. For the rest of my visit with Dilmah and Bols I was on a much tighter schedule, with a ten day trip around the country devoted to tea education, video and photo shoots, various cocktail events, and some amazing excursions. From that point forward we were also joined by a professional photographer and film crew, so these posts will have great images like the one above in addition to my amateur shots.

Our began at Dilmah Tea headquarters with a tasting, which took me back to my coffee cupping days. The tasting process for tea is similar to that of coffee, involving examination of the dry leaves, infusion, and lots of really loud slurping.

Another parallel to coffee is in the desire to emulate wine. Wine is the template for many other foods and drinks that producers seek to raise from commodity to specialty item. Dilmah follows this path with their Watte (literally “garden”) series of teas. Marketed in direct opposition to commodity blends, these each highlight a different growing region of Sri Lanka. They’re all black teas, grown and processed pretty much identically with the exception of elevation. The difference this makes is striking, as one can tell just by viewing the brewed teas next to each other.

The low elevation tea is darker, stronger, and robustly astringent. As origins get higher into the hills, the tea mellows and becomes lighter and more delicate. Dilmah makes the parallel to wine explicit in their marketing, comparing each tea to a different grape or style:

Yata Watte (low garden, 1000 feet above sea level) — In the style of Cabernet Sauvignon!

Meda Watte (middle garden, 2-3000 feet above sea level) — In the style of a Shiraz!

Uda Watte (high garden, 4-5000 feet above sea level) — In the style of a Pinot Noir!

Ran Watte (golden gardens, 6500 feet above sea level) — In the style of fine Champagne!

This was the most enlightening tasting of the trip, and I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about tea.

With initial classes out of the way, we moved on to the really fun part of the trip: Departing the city and heading into the hills to visit tea estates. While on the road, each of us bartenders was also tasked with filming a short cocktail video. I volunteered to be one of the first, gathering ingredients as we worked our way up and improvising a drink with local ingredients.

Our first stop was a roadside fruit stand where I picked up nelli fruit, also known as the Indian gooseberry (not pictured). Tart and fibrous, and tough to eat on their own, these were completely new to me. Locally they’re often prepared by long simmering in sugar syrup to sweeten and soften them, so I figured I would use them that way.

Stop number two was our first actual tea estate. Sri Lanka produces much of the world’s true cinnamon and the estate cultivates cinnamon trees interspersed among the tea bushes. Inside we inhaled the heady fragrance of fresh cinnamon bark being shaved and bunched into sticks, then got to try our hands at it ourselves. Below, UK Bols ambassador John Clay gives it a go.

Further upward at the estate manager’s bungalow, fellow bartender Simon Toohey and I coaxed this fantastic cinnamon into a lightly tart syrup with sugar and nelli fruits. The final ingredients needed for the cocktail were tea from Dilmah and spirits from Bols. Being in the region, I naturally picked the Yata Watte low grown tea. And while one might have expected me to indulge my love for Bols Yogurt, being outside of the US I seized the opportunity to use the six year old Corenwyn, my one bottle of which I ration carefully at home.

Lastly, it was up just a little higher to a spot on the estate with a stunning view. Behind me going down the hill were rows of tea bushes. Rising up in the distance, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This is, without a doubt, the most stunning setting in which I’ve been invited to make cocktails.

It was not, however, the easiest. We had to contend with fading light, an incoming storm, and, most vexingly, a bakery truck — like an ice cream truck in the US — playing its music somewhere in the rolling hills. Seemingly every time we began a take, the dulcet tune of Fur Elise would come echoing through the pristine setting. Getting around this required clever mic work from the video crew, and whenever it started to rain I was rushed into the van to stay somewhat dry. The set was completely broken down and put up again at least once. Between takes, Bols brand manager Ara Carvallo kept me looking presentable.

By the time we got to the final close-up shots, rain was pouring down and we huddled awkwardly with umbrellas to keep things somewhat dry. It’s a testament to the crew that in the actual video everything comes together so smoothly.

Here’s the recipe for the Nelli Hot Pot (aka the Rainmaker), on the off chance anyone reading this happens to have Dilmah Tea, Bols Corenwyn, nelli fruit, and real Ceylon cinnamon on hand.

1 1/2 oz Bols Corenwyn 6 year
1 oz cinnamon-nelli syrup
5-6 oz hot Dilmah Yata Watte tea
Combine ingredients in a tea cup.

And finally, just to demonstrate the skill of the crew in dealing with the elements, here’s the glossy shot:

And here’s what director Steve McCallum and I actually looked like when the shoot was over:

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]

Aquavit Week: Bob Dillin’

Definitely #AquavitWeek weather. Gamle Ode Dill, Genki-Su cranberry vinegar, lemon, simple, dandelion & burdock bitters.

This week in Portland has been among the coldest since I moved here five years ago, which has its downsides, but is also perfectly fitting for Aquavit Week. The dusting of snow is light by Scandinavian standards but enough to shut a lot of things down here, freeing up time to warm up with aquavit.

This is a new cocktail from our Aquavit Week menu using the delicious Gamle Ode Dill aquavit. Following last year’s Dill Collins, which inadvertently reminded everyone of Phil Collins, we’re sticking with the musician theme with the Bob Dillin’:

1 1/2 oz Gamle Ode Dill aquavit
scant 3/4 oz Genki-Su cranberry drinking vinegar
3/4 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 dashes Elmegirab’s Dandelion and Burdock bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Shake and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, garnishing with the lemon peel.

Aquavit Week 2013 Menu

Aquavit Week 2013 is finally here! Below is the menu we’ll serving tonight (and all week long) at The Hop and Vine. In addition to the drinks below, we’ll have an aquavit barrel-aged braggot from Breakside Brewing, neat pours of various aquavits, and a selection of Scandinavian-inspired fare. We also have a bunch of other bars and restaurants joining us for the celebration, all offering aquavit cocktails of their own.

Hot Toddy 9
Linie aquavit, Swedish punsch, lemon, star anise

Bob Dillin’ 10
Gamle Ode Dill aquavit, cranberry vinegar, lemon, sugar, dandelion and burdock bitters

Swordplay 10
Temperance Regnig Dag aquavit, Maurin quina, Campari

Aquavit & Tonic 9
Sound Spirits aquavit, dill and mustard seed tonic

Norwegian Rose 10
Krogstad Gamle aquavit, Laird’s bonded apple brandy, lime, grenadine

Golden Lion 10
North Shore aquavit, Dolin blanc vermouth, Galliano, celery bitters

Dudley’s Solstice Punch 9
Raspberry-infused Krogstad Festlig aquavit, St. Germain, lemon, sparkling wine

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

A deluge of new aquavit

A few days ago I joked on Twitter that every time I get my hands on a new American aquavit, a new one springs up within 24 hours to make my collection incomplete. That couldn’t be more true than in the month of November, during which four — or maybe 3 1/2 — new aquavits distilled in the United States came on to the market. I’ve also heard through the grapevine of several more in the works for 2014.

This rendered my comprehensive guide to aquavit available in the United States rapidly out of date, so I’ve updated it accordingly. Here are the new arrivals:

Riktig Aquavit – A brand new offering from Old Ballard Liquor Co. in Seattle. Flavored with caraway, mustard, and spices, then rested on local alder wood. Only six cases released in the initial offering. I really like it, so hopefully there will be more on the way.

House Spirits Small Batch Aquavit – This is a very limited edition spirit, with just over 100 375 ml bottles available for sale at the House Spirits tasting room. Apparently aged for several years and flavored with caraway, anise seed, grains of paradise, and dill. If you’re in Portland, swing by the distillery ASAP to pick up a bottle before their gone forever.

Montgomery Distillery Aquavit – A new aquavit from Missoula, Montana, infused with caraway, dill, citrus, and other botanicals.

Green Hat Ginavit – Not quite an aquavit. A gin-aquavit hybrid from Green Hat in Washington, DC, aged in Laird’s apple brandy barrels. A limited release for the winter.

In my year-end post for 2012, I predicted that 2013 would be a big year for aquavit:

Small distilleries need to generate revenue by making products that they can release with little or no ageing. Gin and vodka are the usual choices, but both of these markets are very competitive. The aquavit market is uncrowded and offers great opportunities for creativity with new botanical profiles. This is complemented by growing interest in the “New Nordic” cuisine.

A couple years ago, the only two domestic aquavits in constant production that I am aware of were Krogstad and North Shore. Now there is also the aged Krogstad, Sound Spirits, Gamle Ode, and a limited release from Bull Run. In 2013 I predict more new aquavits and more bartenders discovering the spirits’ versatility in cocktails.

A month ago this wasn’t looking like a great prediction, but now it looks like it’s finally panning out.

Mixologists and the Teamaker trip to Sri Lanka

When I was 21 years old, living in DC for the first time, and knew nothing about alcohol, my friend Courtney took me to a bar and handed me a drink. “Try this,” she said. “It’s a Long Island Iced Tea.”

“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t like tea.” It was then that I learned that while a Long Island Iced Tea does use practically every other ingredient on the face of the earth, it doesn’t contain any actual tea. Ten years later, I would still politely turn down this cocktail, but for different reasons. And real tea, I now know, is wonderful stuff.

I thought of this story a few months ago when I was offered an incredible opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka to learn more about tea and explore its use in cocktails. As part of a collaboration between Lucas Bols, with whom I then worked more directly, and Dilmah Tea, a unique Sri Lankan tea company, I joined nine other bartenders from around the world — England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and New Zealand — for a ten-day tour of the country packed with tea tastings, tours of tea estates, and Iron Chef-style challenges to create tea cocktails at various stops along the way. It was in many ways the trip of a lifetime.

But first there was the matter of getting there, which required nearly 24 hours of travel. Surprisingly the northern route took about as much time as heading west, taking me from Portland to Seattle, from Seattle to a seven hour layover in Dubai, and finally from Dubai to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo for an early morning arrival. I was the first bartender to land, and despite the time change, was stir crazy from all those hours in planes and airports. So I left my bags at the hotel and wandered off in search of fresh air and street food.

I might as well have had a large “T” for tourist written on my forehead for as obvious as it was that I’d just arrived. It wasn’t long before a friendly off-shift employee of one of the hotels offered to show me around. I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted to walk and find a place to eat. But he was persistent, it soon became obvious that going on foot wasn’t getting me anywhere interesting in that area, and my schedule for the rest of the trip was out of my hands, so I eventually thought what the hell and gave in. We flagged down a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis, and were on our way for the most whirlwind tour of a city I’ve ever been on. To where? I had no idea.

As the tuk-tuk drove us up an isolated dirt road, I began to doubt the wisdom of zipping off with this stranger in an unknown city. But I needn’t have worried. Our first stop turned out be a towering Hindu temple, which was strikingly ornate, although deserted at the moment. We walked around, snapped a few photos at my guide’s insistence, and were on our way to the next stop within a few minutes.

This turned out to be another temple, Buddhist this time, bustling with people. And one elephant. I wasn’t expecting to find a live elephant right in the middle city, but there he was, getting a good scrub down.

Also present: the temple elephant’s predecessor, preserved in the courtyard. The inside, too, was packed with stunning works of ivory that I hoped were at least few decades old.

Our next stops were political landmarks, including what I think is the capitol and then Independence Square, built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948. It was empty save for a snake charmer performing on the steps, from whom I kept my distance.

From what I can figure from Googling, the next place we visited was Viharamahadevi Park, the largest public park in the city. Though a nice place, I wasn’t sure why my guide was walking us through it. It was almost entirely full of young couples in various states of making out and that definitely wasn’t on my agenda. Then we got to the tree above. The things hanging from it? Those are flying foxes, among the largest bats in the world.

These are amazing creatures, circling the tree even in day time. It was fantastic getting to see them in person, and I only caught glimpses of them the rest of the trip, so I was grateful that my guide brought me here.

Through all this we still hadn’t stopped for what I initially set out for, which was food that didn’t come from a plane or airport. I finally convinced him to take us somewhere for us to have lunch. By this time I had no idea of where we ended up, but it served some of the best crispy chicken I’ve ever had.

Finally it was time for me to get back, but the guide insisted on one more stop, trying to sell me on bargains at a dubious gem store from which he’d presumably get a kickback. Then there was an offer of stopping for a massage with implied extra services, which I also declined. The tuk-tuk brought us back, and I paid for the tour — a little too much, in hindsight, but it was a side of the city I wouldn’t see during the more structured experience to come.

Back at the hotel I went to the pool and found a David Wondrich book left open by a chair, a good sign that other bartenders had arrived. Our first day was mostly free of responsibilities, so we spent it drinking Dilmah teas and spirits from our home countries. The next day, however, we had a our first challenge: Presenting a variety of tea cocktails to about 70 guests visiting from all over the world to learn more about tea.

My usual go to for tea cocktails, smoky black lapsang souchong, was picked by someone before me. But Dilmah had something even more interesting, what they called their Ceylon Souchong. Instead of firing the tea over pine, they use fragrant wood from cinnamon trees, which are often grown right alongside tea plants. I made a simple syrup with the brewed tea and it worked perfectly in a variation on one of my drinks from a few years ago, the Smokejumper:

2 oz Bols Genever
3/4 oz Ceylon Souchong syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz Galliano
freshly grated cinnamon, for garnish

Shake and serve on the rocks.

Here’s a short video of the event, which was a fun way to kick off our week of events:

This was the first of five cocktail challenges we had throughout the trip, so I’ll be posting the rest soon, along with notes from the more official parts of our tour.

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]

Aquavit Week 2013

Aquavit Week returns in its second year with new aquavit, a new location, and a new aquavit barrel-aged beer from Breakside Brewing. A new website and a new logo too. Check out the site for all the details.

Nicotine and regulatory capture

horsebrass 021

The FDA is expected to announce very soon new regulations governing chewing tobacco, cigars, and likely electronic cigarettes. If you’ve followed my writing on this, you know I don’t think this bodes well for the quality side of the tobacco market. The law giving the agency authority over tobacco products was brokered by an alliance of Philip Morris and anti-smoking groups, and the new head of the FDA’s tobacco division, Mitch Zeller, came to the job straight from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline on nicotine replacement therapies. The agency’s record so far has been distinguished much more by its anti-competitive effects than by any actual achievement improving public health.

The Boston Globe recently interviewed Zeller to get some indication of where the agency may be headed. As expected, it appears likely that Zeller will pursue mandating the removal of nearly all nicotine from cigarettes:

1. Create a non-addictive cigarette. We have the authority given to us by Congress to reduce nicotine in cigarettes down to nearly zero,” Zeller said. Since nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes, teens who start smoking products that are almost nicotine-free could, in theory, never get hooked in the first place. Researchers now have access to 9 million cigarettes with varying amounts of nicotine to start testing whether products with lower amounts will lead to less addiction among new smokers. But don’t expect an ultra-low-nicotine product for at least a few years, Zeller added, since the studies are just beginning.

A few notes on this:

1) This would obviously be good news for Zeller’s former client in the pharmaceutical industry. Removal of nicotine from cigarettes would leave smokers craving nicotine and many of them would likely turn to patches, gums, and the like. Zeller indicates in the same interview that the agency should perhaps remove warning labels from nicotine replacement therapies that discourage consumers from using them long-term, noting that using these products for life is healthier than smoking.

Even if this is good policy, Zeller’s previous job casts doubt on the FDA’s ability to consider the issue impartially. As many warned at the time of his appointment, his role as lead regulator of tobacco creates a blatant conflict of interest at the agency.

2) Mandated removal of nicotine could be good news for makers of electronic cigarettes, which now include the Big Tobacco companies. But it’s not clear that the FDA will turn a favorable eye to those, either. If the agency’s performance on cigarettes is any indication, e-cigarettes could be caught in a bureaucratic morass that keeps new products off the market with scant scientific justification.

3) Rather than turn to pharmaceuticals or e-cigarettes, at least some smokers will likely switch to cheap, low-quality cigars. Even if the FDA does not initially regulate nicotine levels in cigars, this will provide the impetus to extend the regulation. We’ve seen this before with bans on flavors or changes to tax policy when producers and consumers respond with products that technically qualify as cigars or pipe tobacco. Lawmakers and regulators then attempt to close the “loophole.” Makers of high-quality, traditional cigars would be caught in the crossfire. Whether or not one has any personal interest in cigarettes, if you enjoy an occasional pipe or cigar, then the FDA’s path should have you worried. There may be no way to produce a traditional cigar and comply with the FDA’s demands. This is the road that could lead to the complete destruction of the industry.

For more on how the FDA is getting tobacco regulation wrong, see my articles from the past year:
Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?
How the FDA is keeping new cigarettes off the market
The case against a smoke-free America

Recent reading

In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, Maureen Ogle — I first heard of Maureen Ogle through her engaging history of beer in the United States, Ambitious Brew. I enjoyed that book, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of her newest work.

In both books Maureen tells the stories of industries that began with local producers, consolidated into industrial scale, and then saw the rapid recent growth of smaller, quality production alongside the corporate giants. But she doesn’t she go for an easy narrative of good versus evil. The story of meat is driven by changes in production, transportation, regulation, and the incentives they impose on the market. This is very much a microeconomic history: the industry is the way it is because entrepreneurs made understandable choices in the pursuit profit.

Maureen takes an ambivalent view of modern meat production, as, in reality, do most of us. We abhor the cruelty of factory farming and the environmental destruction wrought by consuming so much meat. We also like being able to enjoy meat in plentiful, affordable quantities, whether it’s humanely-raised and artfully prepared or greasily devoured at a fast food restaurant. As she notes in the introduction, meat is like gasoline. It’s easy to extol moderation when it’s cheap, but few desire the hardship of making it expensive.

To readers seeking a condemnation of modern meat production, this book may come across as insufficiently damning. Even so-called “pink slime” gets its due. “[The] process was simply a high-tech version of what frugal cooks have done since humans stood upright: it allowed processors to utilize every available morsel of protein and calories,” she notes in the concluding chapter. “Only a food-rich society like ours enjoys the luxury of dispensing with frugality.” But this hard-headed approach to the subject is exactly what makes In Meat We Trust worth reading. There is probably no better source for understanding our carnivorous society, in all its plenitude and horror.

Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen — This is Tyler Cowen’s follow up to The Great Stagnation, examining economic trends stemming from what he describes as “some fairly basic and hard-to-reverse forces: the increasing productivity of intelligent machines, economic globalization, and the split of modern economies into both very stagnant sectors and some very dynamic sectors.” The basic ideas are summed up pretty well in this New Yorker interview. One exchange from that apltly describes my friend circle in Portland:

I think there will be much larger numbers of people who live somewhat bohemian, [freelance] lifestyles, who culturally feel very upper-middle-class or even upper-class, but who don’t have that much money. (Think of many parts of Brooklyn.) Those individuals will be financially precarious, but live happy, productive lives. How we evaluate that ethically is very tricky. Still, I think that’s what we’re going to see.

Initially reading the book, I didn’t think my own career in the spirits industry was likely to be affected very much by the need to work with intelligent machines. Robotic bartenders? A novelty, and change-resistant regulators would be wary of taking humans out of the exchange. Smart software to create novel recipes? That’s only part of the job, and we already have The Flavor Bible. But on further reflection, I realize a lot of my relative success in the industry comes not because I’m good at making drinks — lots of people are — but because I’ve combined that well with social networking and blogging. The topic of how to make a long-term living making drinks is one that comes up often, and understanding how to use SEO and online platforms is a factor to consider in this and so many other lines of work.

If you follow Marginal Revolution or have read Cowen’s other books, you’ll know whether or not you’ll like this one. I found it thought-provoking throughout and even enjoyed the long sections on competitive chess, a field in which Cowen sees signs of where other jobs and life pursuits are headed. (Freestyle chess, which combines teams of humans and computers, reminded me very much of David Brin’s recent science fiction novel Existence, recommended in the previous round-up.)

Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun — Given the ubiquity of cigarettes in the twentieth century, its easy to forget that tobacco was unknown to Europeans prior to the arrival of Columbus in the New World. It’s easier still to forget that tobacco has been enjoyed in many forms and contexts, from pipes and cigars to religious rituals and enemas. There’s much more to tobacco than addiction and cancer, and this compilation of essays gets at nearly all of them.

“Havana Cigars and the West’s Imagination;” “The Houkah in the Harem: On Smoking and Orientalist Art;” “Smoking in Modern Japan.” These are just a small sampling of the subjects covered, all of them amply illustrated with art, photos, and vintage advertisements. I know of no other book like it, and if the topic of tobacco is at all of interest than it is worth picking up.

Yuzu Sour

Yuzu Sour 1

Here’s another of our new cocktails at The Hop and Vine, this one using a delicious drinking vinegar from Genki-Su, a new company based here in Portland:

1 1/2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz yuzu vinegar
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Shake, strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

The Genki-Su vinegars are very good and can be purchased online. I especially like their shiso flavor, which I’ve used in a very similar cocktail with rum.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

New cocktails at The Hop and Vine

Red Right Hand

My bartending these days has migrated from the west side to the east side of the Willamette River, allowing me to trade in monochrome dress slacks for denim and plaid. But the approach to cocktails remains the same. In addition to picking up occasional shifts at the exceedingly cool Expatriate, I’ve taken over the menu at one of my favorite places and long-time collaborators, The Hop and Vine.

With their frequently changing tap list and expansive bottle shop, The Hop and Vine is a great place to work on beer cocktails. The Mai Ta-IPA and Averna Stout Flip are both featured on the new menu. Of course we’re doing more than just beer though. Here’s a look at one of our other new cocktails, the Red Right Hand:

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaca
3/4 oz Aperol
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz honey-chamomile syrup

Shake and serve up. To make the syrup, simply mix equal volumes of honey and chamomile tea.

Bartenders will often tell you that the hardest part of creating a new cocktail is naming it. I came up with this recipe for a Bars on Fire event at The Coupe in Washington, DC. I’d been stuck on the name and forgot to send it in before deadline. I remembered while listening to “Red Right Hand” just as the gong hit; thanks to a red hue provided by Aperol, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds solved my naming problem.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

GMO labeling: Bad science, good politics

Rally to Support GMO Food Labeling

Over at The Umlaut, I have an essay up today about why mandatory GMO labeling is probably inevitable in the United States, and why that may not be a good thing:

I would be more sympathetic to the cause of GMO labeling if its advocates were not so intent on stigmatizing genetic engineering. Instead, whether for reasons of political expediency, profit, or simply poor judgment, they too often associate with any idea that could bolster their cause, regardless of its scientific merits. Thus we end up with labeling advocates on stage in front of a Whole Foods banner, sowing fear among foodies that exposure to genetically modified crops may cause autism in their children.

Read the whole thing here.

[Photo via CT Senate Democrats.]

Oola-la!

Oola-la! Oola bourbon, dry vermouth, Gran Classico, Seven of Hearts late harvest viognier.

It’s been a while since I posted a cocktail recipe here, so here’s one that was slated for a menu I never got to put together — maybe for the best, as the name is a bit too cute. It features bourbon from Oola in Seattle, a very nice bourbon made with a blend of aged bourbons and Oola’s own four-grain mash. A high rye content comes through in a pleasant spiciness.

The other Pacific Northwest ingredient I planned to use in this one is the delicious Seven of Hearts Ice Princess dessert wine pressed from frozen viognier grapes, which goes very well here. Mostly this drink shows once again the fantastic flexibility of the Alto Cucina and why it’s one of my favorite cocktails to play with:

1 oz Oola Bourbon
1 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz Gran Classico
1/2 oz Seven of Hearts Ice Princess Viognier
orange peel, for garnish

Stir, serve up, and garnish with an orange peel.

These are fairly local brands, so feel free to make substitutions.

The costs of convenience

Abandoned liquor store

Over at Blue Oregon, politico and former pub owner Jesse Cornett argues against liquor privatization, satisfied with the system the way it is:

Bar and tavern owners obtain their liquor almost the same way that anyone in Oregon does: they buy it from a liquor store. It comes with a small discount and can include delivery. When I called in my order, they would ask when I wanted it. Right away? Sure. See you in 30 minutes. At a certain time? Great, we’ll see you then. Run out of a particular product late in their hours? Just pop by. Call on your way and it’s sitting at the counter waiting for you. The system works exceptionally well for Oregon’s pub, bar and restaurant owners. Obtaining liquor was much more convenient than any other product.

Jesse is absolutely right about this. Oregon’s system makes buying liquor simple. To stock the bar I manage, I make one phone call, receive one delivery, and write one check. Easy! In contrast, our wine buyer deals with more than a dozen distributors, taking separate deliveries and writing individual checks for each of them. Pain in the ass!

So yes, the current system is convenient for bar managers. But that’s a terrible reason to keep it in place. It leaves unaddressed, for starters, the cost to the bars. Licensees in Oregon receive only a very small (about 5%) discount off retail. The set price means we don’t spend time bargaining or making deals, or what is known in less regulated states as “doing your damn job.” It also means we pay more for our liquor, making it harder to put quality spirits in our menu cocktails.

The situation is even worse when we want to bring in relatively esoteric spirits from other states. Oregon distilleries benefit from the fact that the state’s monopoly buyer, the OLCC, gives them de facto favorable treatment. The agency is very likely to “list” their products, meaning it will purchase them in bulk and sell them at a lower price. That’s good for local distillers, but not so good for out-of-state producers and the consumers who want to buy their spirits.

As an example, I requested aquavits made in the Midwest as special order items this year. To the OLCC’s credit, they both eventually arrived, but our system renders the prices exceedingly high. The Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit sells in Oregon for $42.45 a bottle. In its home state of Wisconsin, I see it selling for $29.99. The North Shore Aquavit from Illinois? $47.25 in Oregon, $27.99 at Binny’s in Chicago. Shipping costs account for a portion of the difference, but not nearly all of it.

Advantaging local distillers over out-of-state producers shouldn’t be the goal of our distribution laws. It may even be unconstitutional. I have no doubt that skilled local producers will continue to thrive in a private market, just as they do in the privatized beer and wine system. And if there are some producers who cannot survive without the government buying their product in bulk, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the business.

(As a point of contrast, Matt Yglesias notes at Slate today that Washington, DC’s unique openness to importing spirits is part of what has made the city’s bar scene so fantastic. Oregon would do well to follow its lead.)

If Jesse’s argument were correct, there would be no reason not to extend it to restaurants’ other inputs. If a state monopoly on liquor is so great, why not monopolies on beer and wine too? Or on meat and cheese and fish and bread and vegetables? It would be so much easier on the chefs! But no one would take these ideas seriously, because we’ve long since figured out that essentially free markets are the best way to distribute normal goods. Liquor is a mostly normal good – and to the extent that isn’t because of negative externalities, taxes are a far better way of addressing that than inefficient distribution is.

As I never tire of reminding people when it comes to questions of distribution, markets are for consumers. Not only consumers who want local products, but all consumers – even the ones who just want stuff that’s basic and cheap. They would very much like to pick up a bottle for a few dollars less than they pay now and not have to visit a special store to get it. This is why privatization is likely to happen eventually, regardless of how it affects bar managers and local distilleries. Consumers are tired of dealing with a distribution system designed for the 1930s.

And this is where Jesse has a good point: There are going to be winners and losers with privatization, and distributors and large retailers are going to exert their influence to ensure that they get an advantage. This is one reason that Washington state’s privatization measure bars entry to new, smaller stores. If Oregon privatizes via ballot initiative, as appears increasingly likely, then we may end up with similar problems.

The solution to this is acknowledge that getting privatization right is difficult, but doable, and to demand that the legislature write a bill that learns from Washington’s mistakes and puts consumers first. The alternative is to wait for ballot initiatives written by retailers, one of which will inevitably pass.

[Photo by Joseph Novak used under Creative Commons license.]

[Disclosures: In addition to working as a bartender, I consult for several spirits brands and beverage-related products. I have not worked for retailers or distributors.]

New cocktail books — and a reader giveaway

In the past few months a slew of cocktail books have come out that share one detail commending the excellent taste of the authors: They all include a recipe or two from me. That’s all I need to know to conclude that a book is worth buying, but for those with more exacting standards, here’s a little more information about them.

901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide, Stew Ellington — For truth in advertising, it’s hard to beat the title of Stew Ellington’s book. It is what it says it is. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect from it. The size is the first surprise. The book is big, with a nice hardcover, and spiral bound so that it lays flat while open. This makes it ideal for referencing while mixing. Like the title says, it’s practical.

After a brief introduction the book launches into “68 lists of the cocktails by type, flavor, theme, and more” to fit every mood, occasion, or whim, including “postprandial” and “expensive.” Then comes the meat of the book, 901 Ellington-approved cocktails presented in alphabetical order and given a star ranking.

My Shift Drink is one of the cocktails, earning a ranking of 4 1/2 stars. Before this goes to my head, I’ll note that other 4 1/2 star cocktails include the Surfer on Acid and the Goober. Part of the fun of this book is that it’s so eclectic and isn’t afraid to slum it with ingredients like coconut rum and Midori. These drinks appear right alongside mixologist favorites like the Brooklyn and Boulevardier. Stew is a passionate enthusiast rather than a professional bartender, and even if I question some of his selections, he reminds me to take off my blinders and try things I may normally overlook.

One of my frustrations with many contemporary cocktail books is that in the hunt for originality, they call for ingredients that are too esoteric or require too much preparation for easily trying things out. These books certainly have their place, and I enjoy them, but making complicated drinks is what I do for a living. When I come home, I want a book I can flip through to find something to try on a moment’s notice. Generally eschewing homemade or hard-to-find ingredients, 901 Very Good Cocktails is perfect for that. Anyone wanting a cocktail book that rewards casual and frequent exploration will be very happy with it.

Savory Cocktails, Greg Henry — Greg is a food and drink writer based in Los Angeles. His collection of savory cocktails rounds up mostly contemporary drinks in chapters focusing on sour, spicy, herbal, umami, bitter, smoky, rich, and strong. This is a very culinary approach to cocktails, and many of the recipes will require some shopping or preparation. They look like they’re worth the effort. A couple beer cocktails, including a take on the Dog’s Nose garnished with porcini mushroom powder, I have bookmarked for trying soon.

My own Golden Lion and Smokejumper are included, along with classics, Greg’s originals, and contributions from other notable bartenders. Greg is also a professional photographer and the book is very attractively shot. Definitely recommended for fans of strong, unusual flavors and those willing to put some work into making fantastic drinks.

Mezcal: Under the Spell of Firewater, Louis E. V. Nevaer — Where to begin with this one? A friend alerted me that my Mexican Train mezcal cocktail appeared in this book, so I ordered a copy expecting a solid introductory guide to the spirit. How could I have anticipated that Mezcal 101 would include a chapter on mezcal and sex?

You deserve just the right kind of mezcal. The kind that will make your nipples erect and irresistible to your partner. (Who needs ice cubes when you have mezcal on hand?) The kind that will make oral sex explode like fireworks. The kind that will mix with the taste of sweat, and salt, and the pheromones that emanate from each other’s nether regions to create something that, if it were to be bottled, would sell millions of flasks at Bergdorf Goodman.

If I’d written a chapter like that, perhaps The Cocktail Collective would have sold better. So maybe this book could have used a little editing, but in few spirits guides does the voice of the other come through so directly. It’s a slim volume, very offbeat, and you may find better resources for straightforward, factual information about mezcal. That said, it’s a fun book, and would probably be a useful reference if you’re visiting Oaxaca (which I’ve yet to do). The recipes for mixing and cooking with mezcal are also intriguing.

The Cocktail Hour: Whiskey, Brandy, and Tequila, Scout Books — You may remember Portland-based publisher Scout Books’ first trilogy of pocket cocktail guides, devoted to vodka, gin, and rum. They’re back with a sequel collection for the spirits above, once again featuring recipes from a bunch of mostly West Coast bartenders and writers, along with charming illustrations.

As with the first collection, I’m giving away a few sets of this new one to a few lucky blog commenters. To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post, one comment per person, before the end of the day this Friday (PST). On Saturday I’ll randomly select three winners and send them the set of books.

On the brand ambassador lifestyle

What being a brand ambassador is like the other half of the time. Photo from N. Huisman, Dubai Airport.

For the past three years, I’ve had one of the most fun jobs the hospitality industry has to offer: brand ambassador for a major spirits company. Being a brand ambassador means you get to be a bartender without committing to actual shifts. You get to be a salesman without having to actually do sales. You’re paid to combine the roles of educator, enthusiast, and bon vivant. You travel. You visit the best bars and bartenders around the country, try their drinks, and put the tab on the company card. The job’s got its perks.

My work as a brand ambassador was strictly part-time. I expect that doing it every day would have taken too destructive a toll on the body, like being a professional athlete but without the ennobling physical struggles and achievements. Unfortunately, my role was scheduled to change in July. The company was growing and it was decided that ambassadors would need to leave their other work behind and take the job full-time. I was naturally in line for the position, which offered the kind of compensation I haven’t enjoyed since leaving DC to make drinks and write for a living. A salary! Benefits! Paid vacation!

It was certainly tempting. But I’d already become frustrated with the extent to which my professional life was tied to alcohol. When your job involves spending a lot of time in bars sampling tasty cocktails, complaining about long hours isn’t the sort of thing that earns one sympathy from friends in more traditional lines of work. And I’m not going to lie: Having experienced both, a bad night at the bar is generally better than a good day at the office.

Even so, work is work, and it’s more satisfying when it’s doing something productive than when it’s simply logging hours. At times the brand ambassador job can feel like the latter. Regardless of whether the activity will accomplish any concrete objective, one feels the pressure to visit accounts. When there are more fulfilling ways to spend the time — writing, reading, cooking, being at home with a significant other — this gets to be a lot less fun than it sounds. But hey, it beats digging ditches.

Nearly every source of income I’ve had for the past few years involves some amount of drinking. The brand ambassador position does, of course. So do managing a quality bar program and writing about spirits and cocktails, both of which require tasting at the very least. This combination clearly wasn’t sustainable for the long-term, and going full-time into the most consumption-oriented job of them all would have been much worse. I could already picture the weight gain, the frequent meals in restaurants and airports, the late nights and groggy mornings. Some people manage to pull it off while remaining in reasonably good shape, but I doubted I’d be one of them. I figured I could do it for six months, max. Long enough to pay off some debts and maybe move to a new city.

That was my intention going into what should have been a breezy phone call to work out the details of a position that I’d already been essentially offered. But over the course of the conversation it became clear that what I wanted from the job and what the company needed weren’t in alignment. I mentioned my concerns about balancing health with the demands of constant travel and time spent in bars. I mentioned the book proposals and other projects I had in the works, and the priority they would take if they go forward. I’m not really sure whether it was excessive commitment to honesty or unsuppressed desire to tank the interview that led me to bring these things up, but bring them up I did. They needed someone more committed. The conversation went south. I knew, hanging up the phone, that I would not become a full-time brand ambassador. This was financially challenging. It was also a relief.

Having the job for a few years was a fun ride that took me all over the US and to Amsterdam and Sri Lanka. It was great while it lasted as a part-time thing, but taking it on full-time and exclusively began to be, despite the perks, a prospect I greeted with considerable ambivalence. I’m glad to be moving on and am already feeling healthier from easing out of the role the past few months.

The company and I parted on friendly terms and we’ll still work together on occasion. And lest this post sound too preachy, I’ll note that I’ll be working with some other brands and beverage-related products too. I’m not leaving the business (and I still like to Bone Luge — I’m hardly one to rail against excess). However my work going forward will be much more focused on discrete projects and events; these are the most interesting parts of the job for me anyway. And when I’m off work, I’m really off, so I’ll be free to devote more time to projects outside the industry.

In the months ahead I’ll be more often on the non-drinking side of the bar. I’m still running the cocktail side of things at Metrovino, and also picking up one night at week at my friend Kyle Webster’s new spot, Expatriate. I’m currently working with six different companies in the drink world on a variety of projects. Recent forays into street performance have reignited my enthusiasm for magic and led to actually earning some money from it. And as mentioned above, I have book proposals in the works, so if all goes well I’ll be having to write furiously in the not too distant future. For now I’ve narrowly avoided full-time employment once again, but this is more than enough to keep me busy and may even loosely resemble a career.