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.

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.

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.

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.

Navigation cocktail

Navigation cocktail at Metrovino: Reposado tequila, jalapeno tomatillo jam, Ferrand dry curacao, lime, and egg white. Cinnamon on top.

Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan Cookbook is a title that called out to me, especially after seeing many positive reviews for it. Though I don’t have any strong desire to move back to Texas (except on income tax day), I do miss the food. And while Portland’s restaurant scene is taking a few stabs at Tex-Mex, nothing I’ve tried has fully hit the mark yet. My best bet is cooking at home, and Lisa Fain’s recreations of Texas cuisine from her New York City apartment have been an excellent guide.

The recipes are consistent winners. One of the standouts is a tomatillo jalapeno jam spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. I made it to serve with chevre, but it’s so good that I knew I wanted to work it into a cocktail too. The Navigation, a play on the Margarita, is the result of that experimentation:

1 1/2 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz dry curacao
3/4 oz lime juice
1 egg white
2 barspoons tomatillo jalapeno jam
cinnamon, for garnish

Shake the ingredients without ice to aerate, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a dusting of freshly grated cinnamon.

We use Ferrand for the curacao at Metrovino, but other cognac-based orange liqueurs like those from Combier or Mandarine Napoleon would also work well. For the jam recipe you’ll have to buy the book. If you happen to be in Portland, this is on our current menu.

Recent reading

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen — David Quammen is one of those writers whose books I’m guaranteed to pick up when they come out. He writes about nature with a deep love for the subject and explains the science behind it with a rare clarity. His latest, on how infections leap from other animal species to humans, is fascinating throughout, and could unfortunately become relevant in an upcoming flu season.

Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop — In the realm of cookbooks, Fuschia Dunlop is another writer whose books I’ll buy sight unseen. Her Land of Plenty was the first book that got me into cooking. Her newest is her most user-friendly, with a focus on Chinese home cooking that tends to steer away from techniques like deep frying that are more easily accomplished in a restaurant. This book also has a greater emphasis on vegetables and has single-handedly led to me buying more of these and eating more healthily. This became one of my most used cookbooks as soon as it arrived, and I can’t give it a higher recommendation than that.

Existence, David Brin — Very good sci-fi; touches on themes from his previous books The Transparent Society and the Uplift series, and offers a very creative answer to the Fermi Paradox.

In Praise of Hangovers, Evan Rail — Sounds like a Slate pitch but is actually a recent Kindle Single from beer writer Evan Rail. it’s not an easy case to make, but Evan makes it enjoyable and informative.

Introducing Cocktails on Tap

The first lesson I’ve learned about the world of publishing: Publishing a book is hard! As many of you know, for the last few years I’ve been collaborating with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik on a series of beer cocktail events called “Brewing Up Cocktails.” I realized early on that there was potential to create a book based on our exploration of beer as a cocktail ingredient. People love beer and people love cocktails, so this seemed like an easy sell. I wrote up a long book proposal, which was a learning experience in itself, and began the long process of pitching publishers and agents.

Unfortunately, despite getting great feedback about the content of the proposal, it turned out that traditional publishers didn’t agree with my assessment of the book’s potential. They deemed beer cocktails too niche — surprising when I look at the number of niche cookbooks that do make it into print — and weren’t confident that it would find a market large enough for their needs.

Not long ago, my only likely options from there would have been to either drop the project, settle for a small publisher with lower production values, or self-publish. Thanks to Kickstarter, I’m trying a new way to go forward. I’ve teamed up with Ellee Thalheimer of Into Action Publications to try a different model that combines some of the best attributes of larger publishers — ease of distribution, lower printing costs, and quality production — with the nimbleness of a small imprint. If we meet our funding goal, we’ll produce a book that looks fantastic and get it into stores faster than a traditional publisher would.

Of course, there are trade-offs. Had a larger publisher picked up the book, I’d likely have received a small advance and, if it sells well, modest royalties. It would have been a low-risk, low-reward proposition. In contrast, our approach is high-risk, high-reward. I’ve put in a lot of work and expense upfront. Even if our Kickstarter is successful, I may be working on practically no advance, with no income coming from the project for a long time. And if the book doesn’t sell well, none of that will be recouped.

But, obviously, I believe in the book and in its appeal to beer and cocktails lovers, so I’m taking the chance. And if it succeeds, I’ll have a much greater stake in the project than most first time authors ever do.

If you’re a regular reader of this site and enjoy the drinks I post here, I hope you’ll give it a shot too. For $20 you can be among the first to get a copy of the book as soon as it’s off the presses, and we have other rewards built into the Kickstarter for higher levels of support. Smaller contributions are appreciated as well. You won’t be charged at all unless we reach the minimum amount we need to produce the book — enough to cover printing, graphic design, photography, and the other costs associated with bringing a real physical book into existence. Please check out our Kickstarter here.

I couldn’t be more excited about the creative team assembled for the book. I’ve already mentioned Ellee, who’s also the co-author of Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Craft Beer Scene, by Bike. We also have the extremely talented David L. Reamer as photographer and Melissa Delzio as graphic designer. With them on board, I can guarantee this book is going to look fantastic.

Finally, I’d like to offer a few words of thanks to those who have helped get us this far, regardless of what happens from here: Yetta and Ezra for kicking off our series of events; author Diane Morgan for invaluable advice on getting started; Natalia Toral, Dave Shenaut, and Raven and Rose for letting us shoot in their Rookery Bar; our video crew, including Ben Clemons, for doing an amazing job; and Todd Steele, owner of Metrovino, for indulging my beer cocktail experiments over the years, even when they are of questionable cost-effectiveness.

Press so far for Cocktails on Tap:
Allison Jones at Portland Monthly
Anna Brones at Foodie Underground
Erin DeJesus at Eater PDX
Marcy Franklin at The Daily Meal
Jeff Alworth at Beervana
Mutineer
Imbibe
Drink Nation

Miscellaneous year end list 2012

Best new bar: Bellocq at the Hotel Modern in New Orleans. Pick any spirit you like from their modest but well-curated selection and they’ll craft a cobbler with it. The cobbler is an underrated drink and it’s very cool to see Bellocq revive it. (Opened December 2011.)

Best new spirit: Gamle Ode dill aquavit. I tasted many aquavits with many people in the second half of this year, and Gamle Ode was a consistent standout. Its dill aroma is spot on and it sips very nicely from the freezer or mixed into a simple Collins. Distribution is currently very limited but will hopefully expand.

Best bartending experience: Brewing Up Cocktails Spirited Dinner in New Orleans. 240+ cocktails in four courses, half of them using eggs, cranked out with the help of my collaborator Ezra, Andrew and Amanda from Seattle, and one very big immersion blender.

Best drinking experience: Sipping Scotch on the dock at my family’s place in the Michigan Upper Peninsula for the final time. I’ve visited every summer since birth, but we sold the place this year.

Most memorable dining experience: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville.

Most memorable dish: A tom kha mousse kind of thing frozen with liquid nitrogen from Uchi/Uchiko at Feast Portland’s Night Market. It cast off pieces of itself like some kind of explosive geologic event while deliciously capturing the flavor of a classic Thai soup.

Best overall dinner: Restaurant St. Jack in Portland.

Favorite travel destination: Los Angeles.

Best magic performing experience: Successfully pulling off the Cups and Balls on the street. It’s a classic of magic with difficult angles in an uncontrolled environment. The situation was not often right to attempt it, and on a couple occasions it failed. Getting it right, however, is immensely satisfying.

Best reading experience: Arguably, the final anthology of essays from Christopher Hitchens. I know of no other writer who’s as consistently challenging or capable of making such a broad array of topics interesting. (Published in 2011, but I just recently picked it up.)

Best economics and policy book: A Capitalism for the People, Luigi Zingales. Briefly reviewed here.

Cocktail and spirit prediction for 2013: It’s hard to top last year’s Bone Luge prediction, but I’ll give it a shot: Aquavit. I’m obviously doing my own part to promote it, but there are other reasons to expect the spirit to become increasingly popular. 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.

Cocktail recipes: Publish or perish

All-star mixologist Jim Meehan talks to Eater about why he shares his cocktail recipes:

Do you think the cocktail world sees publishing recipes as revealing secrets? Or more as a way to share and communicate?

I think they fall on both sides. Certainly some of my colleagues are not as giving as others as far as recipes go. Some people proudly consider some of their recipes to be things that they developed over years, they spent a lot of time and energy and resources on them and don’t see the need to just give them away.

But I think there are others, like myself, who are on the complete opposite side. It’s more along the lines of publish or perish. Maybe not perish, but become irrelevant. Maybe it’s because I live in New York, but I find that in New York when you think of a great idea, if you don’t act upon it someone else is going to be acting upon it. I feel like great ideas are more the result of intelligent people putting different things together. So do you want to be remembered, do you want to at least document that when you did it? Or do you want to rely on the oral traditions to verify that? I personally prefer to stake claims. I’d rather document it.

I’m with Meehan on this. A cocktail might appear on my menu for just a few months before it’s replaced with something new. A recipe only lives on if other people make it, and hearing that other people are enjoying my drinks is gratifying. There are merits to making complicated, ephemeral cocktails that only last a season, but it’s also nice to see them proliferate.

And, for the most part, I don’t see that much value in keeping recipes secret. I earn much of my living by getting people to come to my bar and pay for drinks; publishing recipes is a good way to establish a reputation for creative cocktails. Or as @CaptDavidRyan put it in a different context on Twitter recently,* “content is a loss-leader, ie advertising for something not so easily stolen.” Individual recipes are much easier to duplicate than the full experience of visiting a bar.

Some previous posts on mixology and intellectual property:
Mixing it up without IP
Dark and Stormy and the piracy paradox
Two Pimm’s, one cup

Also, I highly recommend Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book. Though the recipes can be a bit esoteric, it’s a beautifully illustrated and insightful look at how one of the best bars in the country does its work.

*Post updated for clarity.

Book giveaway winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the drawing for The Cocktail Hour series from Scout Books. First prize, which also includes my out of print The Cocktail Collective, goes to Brian Russ. Full sets of The Cocktail Hour go to commenters Joy and Eric. Winners were selected via a random number generator.

For everyone else, sets of all three collections are available from Scout Books for just $12, shipping included, and they would make a fun holiday gift.

New site design and book giveaway

After more than three years of running Thesis, I’ve given the site a long overdue design update and switched to the Genesis framework. Aside from finally enabling threaded comments, most of the changes are just aesthetic for now. Stay tuned, however, for the likely addition of new sections and more frequent updates. (And if you’re reading this via RSS, click over to check out the new site.)

To kick off the new design, I’m giving away a few books. Publisher Scout Books from Portland, Oregon, recently invited me to contribute to a new series of pocket recipe guides called The Cocktail Hour, launching with a trio devoted to rum, gin, and vodka. The books include recipes from me and many other West Coast bartenders and bloggers, including Camper English, Sue Erickson, Jordan Felix, Lauren Fitzgerald, Brian Gilbert, Ricky Gomez, Tommy Klus, Tom Lindstedt, Junior Ryan, Mike Shea, Daniel Shoemaker, and David and Lesley Solmonson, among others.

The books retail for $12 a set and would make a great stocking stuffer. For this contest, I’ll randomly pick winners for the following prizes:

First prize (one winner) — A complete set of The Cocktail Hour: Rum, Gin, and Vodka, plus a copy of my out of print recipe guide from 2010, The Cocktail Collective.

Second prize (two winners) — A complete set of The Cocktail Hour: Rum, Gin, and Vodka.

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post, one comment per person. I’ll randomly select winners from the list of comments around noon on Wednesday, November 28, 2012.

Update 11/12/2008: The contest is now closed. Winners announced here. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Resplendent Island

New cocktail at Metrovino: Margarita flavored with Sri Lankan curry and honey, cumin-salt rim.

If I were making a parody of my own cocktail menus, a Sri Lankan Curry Margarita is exactly the kind of drink I’d put on it. Yet after a making a batch of this curry powder, I knew it had to put it into a drink. At our chef’s suggestion we’re pairing it with tequila in a Margarita variation on the latest Metrovino cocktail menu:

1 1/2 oz reposado tequila (Espolon)
3/4 oz Sri Lankan curry-honey syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/4 oz Royal Combier
salt and ground cumin, for garnish

Moisten half the rim of a rocks glass with lime juice and coat with the salt and cumin mixture, then fill with ice. Shake cocktail ingredients with ice and strain into the glass.

About that curry blend: It’s the roasted curry powder from Rice and Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking by Skiz Fernando, Jr., a very interesting cookbook a friend sent me recently. Rather than copy that recipe here, I’d rather encourage you to support the author by buying the book or purchasing his blend directly, which you can do here. It requires a few hard to find ingredients like curry leaves and a dozen spices, so buying the blend is the easier approach. I recommend the book though and have enjoyed the wonderfully flavored curries I’ve made from it.

Once you have your blend, here’s how to make the syrup:

2 tablespoons roasted curry powder
1 cup honey
1 cup water

Simmer all ingredients for a few minutes until flavorful, then add a pinch of salt. Cool, strain, and bottle. Or save yourself the trouble and come enjoy one at the bar.

Recent reading

The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria, Ferran Adria — As I’ve gotten more into cooking over the past year, my biggest obstacle to doing more of it is taking on recipes that are too complicated, too time-consuming, or require too many esoteric ingredients. As a result I enjoy cooking when I get around to it, but all too often I end up getting food out and putting off trying new things.

Ferran Adria of elBulli, the legendary restaurant famed for its innovative culinary techniques, is not the person I thought would reverse this. But his book of home cooking, which collects recipes from the “family meals” elBulli served their staff each night, does exactly that. The dishes by necessity tend to use readily available ingredients that are mostly inexpensive; each dish is given in quantities for two, six, twenty, or seventy-five diners. The methods are fairly simple and make the most out of light lists of ingredients. I brought it with me to Upper Peninsula Michigan and was able to cook from it there; if you can source items in the U.P. you can source them anywhere. I still have a lot more to try from this book, but so far everything has been good. More importantly, it’s a book that I’m actually using with frequency.

A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, Luigi Zingales — Recommended by everyone from Tyler Cowen to Brad Delong to Paul Ryan, this is an impressive book. It’s libertarian without being ideological, diagnosing the cronyism that plagues our economics system and offering institutional solutions to fix it. Capitalism has taken a bruising in the past decade, not least of all from its supposed defenders. Zingales’ “promarket populism” hits exactly the right tone; I’d unhesitatingly recommend this to friends on the left and the right.

Ron Paul’s eEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, Brian Doherty — I hadn’t planned on buying this book but picked it up when Brian Doherty visited Powell’s in Portland. Having read Brian’s previous book and followed Reason magazine’s daily coverage, would I really enjoy an entire book about Ron Paul? The answer is yes, and I finished the book appreciating Paul’s career more than I had before.

Recent reading

The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic, and Prohibition Since 1800, Christopher Snowdon — Snowdon’s Velvet Glove, Iron Fist is one of my favorite books on tobacco policy, so my expectations for his history of modern Prohibition were high going in. Its chapters cover alcohol, opium, snus, and contemporary drug panics, the last of which is particularly prescient given the recent hysteria over bath salt zombies. A very good book on the Prohibitionist mindset and how enthusiasm for restrictive laws gets promoted.

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters, Gordon M. Shepherd — This is more technical than the average popular science book but still interesting. Shepherd focuses on the importance of retronasal smell in our perception of food and drink, the evolution and neuroscience of smell, and how our sense of smell resembles our sense of sight.

Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse — I’ve ignored most of the recent books about atheism but this one, co-auhtored by one of former philosophy professors, was worth picking up. Perhaps it helps to hear the arguments in Talisse’s voice, which I couldn’t help doing while reading. The book offers challenged to atheists and the faithful alike while remaining respectful throughout.

The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson — Completely fascinating, especially regarding the comparison of altruism in insect and primate evolution. But read also Dawkins’ critique of Wilson’s controversial advocacy of group selection.

Recent reading, spirits and cocktails edition

gin1Gin: A Global History, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson — One of the challenges confronting a cocktail writer is finding ways to make drinks sound interesting day after day. Anyone can write a recipe, but presenting it memorably with context and story is a rarer talent. Few pull it off as well as the husband and wife team of David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, authors of the 12 Bottle Bar cocktail blog. Lesley has put that talent to work in a new book chronicling the history of gin.

In my job as a brand ambassador I’m immersed in gin and genever (not literally — OK, sometimes literally) but I still learned a great deal from reading this. It’s the best presentation I’ve come across explaining the stylistic evolution of juniper spirits from early, medicinally-inspired Dutch genever to the old toms of England, then to London dry and the botanically diverse gins made by contemporary distillers. The story is enhanced with many illustrations reaching back to gin’s earliest days and concludes with a selection of essential cocktails. Highly recommended for gin enthusiasts.

pdt1The PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan — Leave aside the recipes for the moment: This books raises the bar for quality on its production values alone. Omitting photographs in favor of colorful illustrations by Chris Gall, this is easily the prettiest volume on my cocktail bookshelf.

But, of course, the recipes are stellar too. There are more than 300 of them, some classics but mostly originals from the renowned PDT speakeasy in New York. It’s a fantastic snapshot of how one of the best bars in the world operates at the top of its game; there’s plenty here to keep one busy trying new things.

The only difficulty with this book is that Meehan specifies brands for every recipe. This is useful for knowing exactly how they make the drinks at PDT, but it’s not always easy to tell when a substitution would be welcome or when a specific brand is essential to a cocktail. Readers will have to use their judgment or else do a lot of shopping; some guidance in the notes would have been a welcome addition. Nevertheless, this is an instant classic. If you reference cocktail books, you should own this.

beercocktailsBeer Cocktails, Howard and Ashley Stetzer — A collection of beer cocktail recipes is obviously a book that’s going to interest me. The publisher sent me a copy of this one and I’m grateful for the chance to look through it. The drinks run the gamut of beer styles, the recipes are clearly written with brief but entertaining introductions, and the photography is appealing.

There’s somewhat less variety in the spirits used. Allspice dram and Root liqueur show up surprisingly often in a book of fifty recipes, as do nut-flavored liqueurs. A few of the ingredients — vodka, PBR or similar mass market lagers, 99 Bananas — strike me as missed opportunities, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I’m also left thinking the book may have benefited from more research into beer cocktails from other writers and bartenders; the authors’ Sympathy for the Devil, a mixture of gin and Duvel with an absinthe rinse, is nearly identical to Stephen Beaumont’s Green Devil cocktail. This is likely an honest mistake, but it was jarring to see it.

There are bright spots too, including some of the classic beer drinks that the Stelzers include. I like their Knickertwister, which combines sweet and dry vermouth with allspice dram, orange bitters, and IPA (mixing vermouth and beer is underexplored territory). I’m also eager to try their Sleepy Hollow flip, which calls for rye, apple brandy, maple syrup, a whole egg, and pumpkin ale; it sounds delicious, but I’ll have to wait for pumpkin beers to come back into season to give it a go. I have several other recipes marked to try out in the future.

There’s a lot to try here and I’m glad to see beer cocktails, which are popping up on more and more menus, getting a whole book devoted to their creation. Definitely recommended if you’d like to explore more ways of mixing spirits and beer. Follow the authors’ blog too at Beyond the Shadow of a Stout.

An Economist Gets (a Zero Martini) Lunch

economistTyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch is, as he would say, self-recommending. When I lived in the DC area Cowen’s ethnic dining guide was a reliable source for finding good restaurants off the beaten path. If you read Marginal Revolution you already know his style and have a good idea of whether you’ll like the book. A few of the policy-oriented chapters are perhaps too brief to convince devoted skeptics of genetically modified organisms or long-distance trade, but they inject a healthy dose of economics into the conversation about how to improve the food system. I highly recommend it and agree with almost all of it.

Like Cowen, I place a high value on making every meal count. Given the nature of my job as a brand ambassador for a spirits company, however, I must often take a different approach than he does to seeking out good restaurants. When I travel I’m rarely able to eat in the suburbs, unless I’m going to an airport or distribution warehouse. And I definitely can’t avoid the places with vibrant social scenes selling lots of drinks – not if I’m doing my job properly, anyway. Yet despite this I still manage to eat very well.

With the exception of wine, Cowen seems to have a blind spot for alcohol. He notes that Prohibition sent American food into decline by shuttering many of the better restaurants, but aside from wine pairings one doesn’t get the impression that he would have missed the drinks had he been alive then. Post-Prohibition he laments the continued popularity of drinking spirits with food through the 1940s. Beer is noted mainly for its high mark-up. I don’t think cocktails are mentioned at all. The section on dining in Tokyo does recommend izakaya bars, but only secondhand via an email from another blogger and with the preface of “the sake aside…”. His book is about food, not drinks, but given how often the two go together – and more importantly, how often informed consumers of one are also informed about the other – paying so little attention to their intersection leads one to miss out on some good dining opportunities.

Cowen notes that the influence of alcohol on food can run in two directions. On the plus side, profitable drinks serve as a cross-subsidy for quality food, helping cover costs of rent and labor. On the negative side, an emphasis on drinks and sociality can take the focus off of meals and attract customers who come for other reasons. Just as a restaurant with a great view can skate by on mediocre food, so can one full of attractive, happy, socially lubricated people. The challenge is to find the places where quality of the food and the drink is high.

I’m happy to report that there are ever more places doing both very well. For a long time drinks received too little care in part because two of the same forces that damaged American dining – Prohibition and World War II – cast an even longer shadow on American drinking. The former threw talented barmen out of work or overseas. Both events were disastrous for quality wine, beer, and spirits. Home brewing of beer wasn’t legalized until 1978, helping open the field to new entrants. Spirits and cocktails have taken an especially long time to recover, due to complex and restrictive laws regarding distribution and service that differ in every state. The rediscovery of vintage cocktails and spirits began taking off in the late 1980s and has only recently expanded widely.

The upshot is that the quality driven parts of the drink industry attract people who are passionate about all aspects of food and drink. To succeed one has to taste widely and pay attention to technique; it would be surprising for this passion not to transfer to related domains in food. When I want to find good places to eat in a city I don’t know, I ask for recommendations from a bartender or barista who cares about what they do. They rarely steer me wrong.

This same thinking applies to customers. People who have cultivated their taste in drinks demand good food to go with their beverages, and I think it’s increasingly difficult for a good restaurant to skimp on its bar (if it has one) without putting off informed consumers. The same is true for bars: If they’re serving high-end drinks, they’ll want any food on offer to be of comparable quality. The rise of the gastropub is an example of this, but it extends to many types of cuisine. In my current home of Portland, Oregon, new, high-quality ethnic restaurants often make a point of hiring a talented bar staff. Some of the best new French, Thai, Mexican, and Japanese places to recently open here have included very respectable bars. (It helps that the barriers to obtaining a liquor license are fairly low in Oregon.)

When quality cocktail bars do serve food, they can be among the best options in a city, especially at night. For example, on a recent trip to Nashville I arrived too late to find anything but places with active bars still open. I went to Patterson House, a “speakeasy” themed cocktail lounge considered one of the best in the city. Drinks get by far the most attention here but they do offer food. It was quite good and, I think, better than almost anything else I’d find in the city at that hour. If you want to make every meal count, sometimes you have to go to the cocktail bars.

Reading An Economist Gets Lunch inspired me to think explicitly about how to find good food in American bars. Here are a few general suggestions based on my own experience:

Avoid places with lots of vodka and light rum. These can be bought cheaply and are easy to dress up in crowd-pleasing ways with liqueurs, fruit, and herbs. If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

In contrast, look for ingredients that signal a knowledgeable staff and consumers. Italian amari, herbal liqueurs, rhum agricole, quality mezcal, batavia arrack, and – lucky for me – genever are good indicators. If I see a bar stocked with these I’ll want to see the food menu.

Go into the city. The density of consumers with expendable income, knowledge of food and drinks, and access to transportation that doesn’t require them to drive is in urban areas.

Laws matter. In some states regulations require that places selling spirits also serve food. Where these laws don’t exist, many of the best cocktail destinations won’t bother much or at all with food, so one might plan to eat and drink separately. (These laws are bad news if you just want to drink, since your drink prices may be covering the cost of an under-utilized cook and kitchen or bars may simply close earlier to save on labor. Virginia’s law creates particularly perverse incentives.)

Follow the food trucks. In cities with liberal regulations quality bars can team up with quality food trucks to outsource their kitchen. The truck parks outside and customers travel just a few steps to reach it. This is a fantastic way for each business to focus on its strengths and keep informed customers happy.

Charcuterie is your friend. Much of the preparation is done in advance and it pairs well with drinks, so it’s ideal bar food.

Don’t forget to Bone Luge.*

Finally, a note on behalf of cocktails. Cowen writes of the United States that our access to quality raw ingredients at affordable prices is inferior to that in much of the world. Thus, he advises, go for dishes that are composition-intensive, not ingredient-intensive. “The best option is buying prepared food from people who can put together sufficiently good raw ingredients in an interesting way.” He’s talking about cooking but its an apt description of what bartenders do.

David Wondrich describes mixed drinks as “the first legitimate American culinary art.” And why not? Mixology plays to our strengths. We are good at trade and distribution; we can take flavors from around the world, have them distilled for us (literally), and combine them to make novel creations. The toolbox available to a bartender in a well-stocked bar is incredibly broad (this is one reason I switched to making cocktails from making coffee, with its more limited range of flavor profiles). The skills needed for mixing cocktails are also highly transferable, requiring less tacit knowledge than the many complex processes that go into food preparation, so that a successful cocktail recipe is easily spread. These factors suggest that if your culinary interests extend beyond just food, quality cocktails and spirits offer rewards to exploration.

*Only kidding on this one. Maybe.

Sufferable Portland

Food Carts in Portland

A story from San Francisco:

The Ice Cream Bar opened Jan. 21 in the Cole Valley neighborhood — an homage to the classic parlors of the 1930s, complete with vintage soda fountain and lunch counter seating. It has become an immediate sensation, packed with both families and the foodie crowd, savoring upscale house-made ice creams and exotic sodas (flavorings include pink peppercorn and tobacco). The shop also employs 14 full- and part-time workers.

But getting it opened wasn’t easy.

“Many times it almost didn’t happen,” said Juliet Pries, the owner, with a cheerful laugh.

Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open. [...]

Ms. Pries said she had to endure months of runaround and pay a lawyer to determine whether her location (a former grocery, vacant for years) was eligible to become a restaurant. There were permit fees of $20,000; a demand that she create a detailed map of all existing area businesses (the city didn’t have one); and an $11,000 charge just to turn on the water.

A story from Portland:

At the end of 2011, confectioner Amani Greer started spinning sugar into cotton candy at schools across the city, as well as on the streets of Alberta during Last Thursdays. Then, in February, she opened the doors to Candy Babel, a candy store dedicated to sweets from around the globe. Her goal, she says, is to provide those obscure treats that so many travelers have enjoyed on their sojourns abroad but couldn’t, until now, find stateside. Specializing in artisanal sweets (think chipotle-candied bacon strips or a Moroccan mint tea lollipop) and European confections, Greer plans to expand her candy scope and bring the city’s Vietnamese and Somali communities the candies they once enjoyed as children before resettling here. Greer also says she still plans on spinning clouds of Candy Babel’s more than 135 flavors of organic, kosher cotton candy. Current hours are 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily, except on Tuesday when the store is dark.

Last week The Weekly Standard ran a story by former Oregonian Mark Hemingway titled “Insufferable Portland,” a lengthy screed against the new “capital of cool.” Though sneering at times, it’s worth reading. The city’s much-lauded public transit, for example, deserves a much more critical look than it often receives locally. And he’s right that this is a tough place to move to if you’re young, educated, and looking for a traditional professional career; I’ve watched many friends become justifiably frustrated by the lack of job prospects. However Hemingway fails to appreciate some of the virtues of the artisanal economy that flourishes here:

While it’s hard not to root for entrepreneurial initiative wherever you find it, in Portland it carries a whiff of desperation. I submit that the real reason Portland has a thriving artisanal economy is that the regular economy is in the dumps. Portland’s hipsters are starting craft businesses in their garages and opening restaurants not merely because they “reject passive consumption” but because they can’t find jobs, the kind that offer upward mobility. If there’s a more rational reason why a small city like Portland has 671 food trucks, I’d love to hear it.

And:

Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses.

And yet smart, creative people keep voting with their feet in favor of Portland. Why? It can’t be just about the beer.

Hemingway quotes from “Portlandia” that Portland is “where young people go to retire.” It’s one of the most incisive lines from the show, but they don’t necessarily mean the kind of retirement where you sit on the porch all day and do nothing. It’s the kind where, after decades of working an unsatisfying job, you finally have time to pursue your passions. Or at least it can be. Again from the show:

“I gave up clowning years ago.”

“Well in Portland you don’t have to.”

I recently read Tim Harford’s new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, and was struck by how well the ideas he lays out apply to Portland. Harford lists three Palchinsky Principles named after Peter Palchinsky, an engineer executed by the Soviet government for questioning their top-down methods of planning:

1. Seek out new ideas and try new things.

2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.

3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

One of the best things Portland has going for it is its embrace of the first and second principles. “Keep Portland Weird” say the bumper stickers. “Buy local.” This isn’t always insufferable hipness. The virtue of these attitudes is that if you’re an entrepreneur or an artist, you can try something different and people will at least give you a hearing.

Granted, many of these ideas will suck. That’s where principle two comes in. Whatever its flaws, Portland’s love of small, boutique start-ups makes failure survivable. A failed food cart is a smaller loss than a failed brick-and-mortar restaurant. This lowers the barriers to entry for people without access to a lot of capital. It’s a great way to test ideas and identify talent. The successes can expand into more traditional businesses.

A great example of this is Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant that began as a take-out shack in front of chef Andy Ricker’s house in southeast Portland in 2005. Today Ricker is a James Beard Award-winning chef with multiple restaurants in Portland and New York. Other entrepreneurs echo this success on a smaller scale, moving to brick-and-mortars, expanding their cart empire, or signing book deals.

This low-risk aspect of Portland is what attracted me to it when I moved here from the East Coast a few years ago. The food and drink scenes in San Francisco and Seattle were equally attractive, but the costs of moving to either of them without a job or a specific plan for finding one were daunting. In Portland, failure was survivable: It took me six months to become employed full-time, but the dynamic culture has allowed me to do creative work and almost (though not quite yet) turn it into a profitable career while living pretty comfortably. This required some degree of luck, but it’s hard to imagine things working out quite so well in San Francisco.

This is the upside of Portland’s unique culture and what other cities could do well to emulate (as opposed to, say, our streetcar projects, which are glamorous wastes of money). I may or may not stay here much longer, pursuing larger paychecks and sunnier winters in a bigger city. But as a place to spend a few years of my twenties developing talent and drinking fantastic beer, I’ve found Portland eminently sufferable.

[Photo of Nong's Khao Man Gai, one of my favorite Portland food carts, which has now expanded to three locations. Courtesy of Flickr user camknows.]