Recent reading, drinks edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brewing Up Cocktails Returns!

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

Trigger Warning

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

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

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

Habanero syrup:

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

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

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

Bars on Fire at Cafe Saint-Ex

Corrida de Cavalos

I’ve been too wrapped up in book duties to post many cocktails lately, but now that that’s mostly complete I’m back to blogging and tending bar. My next stop takes me back to my old home of Washington, DC where I’ll be guest bartending at Cafe Saint-Ex on Tuesday with Franklin Jones of The Gibson! We have a menu of Novo Fogo cachaça cocktails ready for our Bars on Fire event, happening 5-8 pm. Here’s a preview of one them, the Corrida de Cavalos. It wasn’t made with horse racing in mind, but the use of mint and the timing of the Kentucky Derby is such a nice coincidence that I’ll pretend it was intentional.

2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaça
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz mint vinegar
1/2 oz rich simple syrup (2:1)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz soda
mint sprig garnish, for garnish

Shake cachaça, lime, vinegar, syrup, and bitters with ice and strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda, garnish with fresh mint.

To make the mint vinegar:

1 cup champagne vinegar
leaves from 5-6 mint sprigs

Bring vinegar to a boil, pour over leaves, and allow to infuse overnight or for a couple days. Strain and bottle.

Say “Grrr…” to new growler regulations

Avid beer drinkers are familiar with the “growler,” a big jug used for transporting beer from a tap to one’s home. Filled and sealed properly, they keep beer fresh and carbonated for short-term consumption. (With caveats!) They’re great for when you want to bring home a beer that’s only available on tap or want to entertain guests. Living in Portland, one of the best beer cities in the world, I’ve taken advantage of this convenience many times.

In recent years, wineries have also begun selling their wine in kegs. In some situations — properly equipped restaurants, for example — this can more cost-effective and less wasteful than dealing with bottles. And, naturally, some places with wine on tap have also begun filling growlers. Oregon and Texas have both legalized wine growler sales in various venues and Washington is following suit. Here in Oregon, licensed wineries, restaurants, bars, and retailers are all free to fill growlers with wine.

Last week, however, the Tax and Trade Bureau weighed in on the practice. First the good news: selling wine in growlers is legal under federal law. Although states had gone ahead with wine growler fills, this was apparently ambiguous. It’s good to have it clarified.

Then there’s the bad news: Selling wine in growlers is going to involve a lot more red tape than selling beer. Under federal regulations, filling a growler with beer is considered filling a large glass and doesn’t impose additional burdens. (State laws, of course, may vary.) The TTB’s new ruling [pdf] clarifies that it’s not going to be so simple for wine. Specifically, the agency has determined that filling growlers with wine for off-premise consumption is considered bottling or packing for tax purposes, and that any person engaging in the activity must first qualify as a bottling house of taxpaid wine.

This means that before they can sell wine in growlers, businesses will have to apply to and receive permission from the TTB. And once qualified as a taxpaid wine bottling house, additional regulations will come into effect for wine growlers that don’t arise with beer:

1. Proprietors will have to “keep records of taxpaid wine received, bottled or packed, and removed.”

2. Proprietors will be responsible for measuring customers’ containers and ensuring accurate fill level and alcohol content.

3. Proprietors will have to label each container with “the name and address of the premises where bottled or packed; the brand name [...]; the alcohol content; the kind of wine and the net contents of the container.” They will also be required to remove or cover any preexisting labels on containers that don’t accurately describe the new contents.

It’s not clear to me yet exactly how burdensome these regulations are going to be, but the decision does seem to put the kibosh on dreams of making wine growler fills as ubiquitous and easy as they are for beer. With more restaurants and urban wineries offering wine on tap, growler fills were poised to be a new and convenient option. Here in Portland, for example, the forthcoming Coopers Hall announced plans to open with forty different wines on tap for on-premise consumption or take-away.

Assuming they stick with the plan, they’ll have to comply with these new regulations. I’m guessing that large retailers like Whole Foods will also find it worthwhile to qualify. But depending on how much of a hassle it is to do this, I expect many other restaurants with wine on tap may not bother.

The TTB notes that the Internal Revenue Code has different provisions for wine and beer and that this is the justification for the differential treatment with regard to growlers. Absent a change in the law, their hands may be tied. But from a policy perspective, it will be disappointing if this turns out to be an effective obstacle to the further adoption of wine kegs and reusable containers.

[Hat tip to Cole Danehower on Twitter, a great source for northwest wine news. Photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Kaitlyn Tierney.]

Quick Little Pick Me Up

Cocktail blogging has been slow here as I’m currently on break from working in bars and restaurants to focus on writing my beer cocktail book. It now has a publisher and will be coming out early next year from Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, with photography by the extremely talented David L. Reamer. We’ve completed about half the shots at this point and I can tell you already that the drinks are going to look fantastic.

That means I’m not doing much drink creation at the moment, but here’s one from a while back that I’ve been meaning to post. I got the idea of doing a coffee-infused amaro from Matthew Biancaniello in Los Angeles. I made an infusion of Stumptown Hairbender espresso beans and Ramazzotti amaro, then played around with it in several cocktails that I was never quite happy with. The infusion itself was delicious though, so I ended up just putting it on a big ice cube with a lemon twist. Sometimes easiest is best.

This drink started out on the Metrovino brunch menu, then migrated to the after dinner menu, and finally made it over to The Hop and Vine. I don’t think it’s available anywhere right now, but it’s simple to make at home.

8 oz Ramazzotti
10 grams coffee beans

Lightly muddle the coffee beans to crack (but not pulverize) them. Seal in a glass jar with Ramazzotti. Infuse for 24 hours, strain, and bottle. If you want to make more, just scale the recipe upward.

To serve, pour two ounces in a glass with a big rock and express a lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.

[Photo by Julia Raymond for The Hop and Vine.]

Tour Portland by Bitcoin

Depending on whom one asks, Bitcoin is the future of currency, a useful tool for conducting transactions with vast untapped potential, or a speculative bubble of no lasting consequence. Enthusiasm for Bitcoin also signals various commitments, as Tyler Cowen notes, such as for libertarianism and technological optimism. Bitcoin has had a big week, with Overstock.com agreeing to accept it and The Chicago Sun-Times trying out a Bitcoin paywall.

The less obvious uses of Bitcoin are also intriguing. Writing at the Umlaut, Eli Dourado explains how the programming language that makes Bitcoin work opens up all kinds of possibilities, including contracts, micropayments, and proof of identity. It’s enough to convince me that Bitcoin or a successor cryptocurrency will likely be increasingly relevant and that it’s worth getting familiar with how to use it. And though I’ve in all likelihood missed my chance to strike it rich, there are far worse gambles than speculating on Bitcoin from my living room. It’s cheaper than Vegas and the drinks are better.

But if one is holding on to bitcoins for any reason beyond speculation, one will eventually want to spend them. There are lots of ways to do this online. Transfers between friends are also easy. But what about a night on the town? Where can one go to, say, turn bitcoins into beer?

To find out, my friend Tom and I consulted CoinMap.org to plot an evening out in Portland exclusively patronizing businesses that accept Bitcoin. As one might expect, it gets a little weird.

Sadly, we weren’t able to experience what likely would have been the weirdest stop on our itinerary. At Float On in southeast Portland, customers exchange dollars or bitcoins for 90-minute sessions in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating in complete darkness and silence. Float On’s FAQ promises that floaters will not drown, that it’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo, and that “only a small percentage of floaters turn into proto-human monkeys.”

Would I hallucinate a UFO abduction, be inspired to take up impressionist painting, or perhaps receive a vision of Bitcoin’s future value? I didn’t get to find out. Float On was booked until 2 am the night of our adventure, which was a little later than we were willing to commit to. The business closed for renovations the following day, promising to re-open in February. I was looking forward to this, but it will have to wait for some other time. I suppose it’s good to know for future reference that if one craves sensory deprivation at two in the morning, there’s a place in Portland to find it.

Our first stop instead was browsing the Mirador home goods store on southeast Division street, which was pleasant, if not quite as mind-expanding as a plunge into sensory deprivation. The store offers everything from standard pots and pans to more Portlandian items like home cheese-making kits. Tom picked out a cutting board and a cocktail strainer, and I made my first Bitcoin purchase, a small brush for cleaning out metal straws. I’d been needing one of those!

The checkout process at Mirador was the smoothest of all the places we visited. The clerk rang up our orders, then used a computer to generate a QR code containing a unique Bitcoin wallet address and the total price of our purchase. We simply held our phones up to the screen, approved the transfer, and the transaction was completed within seconds.

Our next stop was just two blocks away at Papa G’s vegan organic deli, which offers dishes such as a tofu dog, tempeh reuben, and house “nochos.” While the aromas at Papa G’s were enticing, we were not its target demographic and spent a while mulling our options. Eventually we settled on a couple of their house made drinks, a hibiscus cooler and ginger beer kefir. These were both good and refreshing. For those seeking harder stuff, the deli also offers a selection of bottled beers.

Checkout was completed by scanning a QR code taped to the register that is linked to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the owner. This was fast and easy, but leaves the staff without a direct way of verifying the transaction.

A few minutes north is Madison’s Grill, a place I’d passed by many times but never visited until last week. Madison’s began accepting Bitcoin at the urging of local enthusiasts and hosts the Portland area Bitcoin Meetup group. The menu offers standard pub fare like burgers and fish and chips, and the fourteen-handle tap list includes both familiar brands and a rotating selection of craft beers, among them Awesome Ales and No-Li on our visit. This is easily the best place to convert bitcoins into beer in Portland. Given the rise in Bitcoin’s value from when I first bought in a few days before, my beer was essentially free.

We ended up sitting next to the owner, Steve Brown, an outgoing guy who’s having fun with his experiment being the first full-service bar and restaurant in Portland to accept Bitcoin. Though not yet a huge part of his business, the venture does seem to be paying off with new customers and press.

Madison’s is also notable for being the only place on our crawl that has found a way to integrate tips into their Bitcoin transactions. These are recorded by wait staff and factored into their paperwork at the end of the night, much like a credit card tip.

No tour of Portland is complete without a visit to food carts, so our next stop was Whiffies Fried Pies in the pod at southeast 12th and Hawthorne, just one block away from Madison’s. Whiffies makes sweet and savory fried handpies that I’ve enjoyed many times in the past. Tom and I both opted for the BBQ brisket and mozzarella pie, which came out steaming hot and delicious. This is my pick for the best place to trade bitcoins for food in Portland.

Just like at Papa G’s, checkout here was completed by scanning a QR code linked to the owner’s account.

Along with its coffee shops, breweries, and food carts, Portland’s hospitality industry is famous for its strip clubs. Out of town guests make a point to visit them, the local alt-weekly reviews their steak offerings, and the likes of Tyler Cowen and Josh Barro comment on their economic strategies. While there are plenty of sleazy ones, others feel like good dive bars that just happen to have naked women in them. It’s a strange dynamic, perhaps best summed up like this: In other cities, you go to the strip club and don’t tell your wife. In Portland, your wife invites you.

Thorough research demanded that we conclude our evening at the Kit Kat Club, a new bar that claims to be the first strip club to accept Bitcoin. (This is only the second nerdiest reason I’ve gone to a strip club, the first being the time I went to the Boom Boom Room to see magician Reed McClintock perform card tricks.)

Implausible as the idea seemed, we hoped that this might mean that one could tip performers in Bitcoin, perhaps through creative use of tattoos and QR codes. Alas, that isn’t the case, and for obvious reasons they don’t want customers using phones that could just as easily be recording video as transferring currency. That aspect of the business remains a cash affair. (That said, it seems that an enterprising, tech-savvy dancer could set herself up to accept Bitcoin individually. Paging Lynsie Lee.)

The bar incorporates aspects of cabaret, with an emcee and themed performances, but it’s still very much a strip club. The staff was fun and friendly. Stumptown Dumplings offers food; their pork dumplings with chili hoisin were pretty good, though they require a separate non-Bitcoin transaction. My only knock against the place would be the beer selection, which is bottle-only and dominated by mass market lagers. Is there much of an overlap between people who spend bitcoins and people who go to strip clubs? I have no idea, but if there is, Kit Kat is the club they’re looking for.

Below, a few assorted thoughts and observations from our Bitcoin crawl…

Ease of use: Getting set up with Bitcoin was easy. I signed up with CoinBase for my primary account, linked that to my checking account to purchase Bitcoin, and transferred Bitcoin to a Mycelium wallet on my cell phone to spend while we were out.

Integration: Though all of our transactions went smoothly, Bitcoin payments aren’t yet easily integrated into the point of sale systems of the places we visited. In some cases, the money was sent to an owner who wasn’t on the premises. Staff could potentially verify transactions by watching a customer’s phone screen, but this is hard to monitor closely. At Madison’s they asked for a name and phone number as back up. Right now people paying with Bitcoin are early adopters and trust is high, but better integration with POS systems would make bar and restaurant use of Bitcoin more secure.

Tipping: As mentioned above, Madison’s was the only one of the four bars and restaurants we visited that factored tipping into their accounts. At every other stop we needed cash for tipping staff, making it impractical to spend a night out using only Bitcoin. (However if a restaurant wanted to switch to a percentage service charge model, that would be easier to handle.)

Privacy: I think that only one of the businesses we patronized generated a unique address for each Bitcoin transaction. Since the blockchain documenting Bitcoin transactions is public, anyone who knows the address used by a business can see how much money it has received. Right now this is a small enough part of their volume to be of little concern, but if Bitcoin becomes more popular one can imagine that they may not want to broadcast their sales so easily.

Volatility: It should go without saying that the volatility of Bitcoin prices is a concern for businesses to consider. Right now, I doubt many local businesses would have any trouble converting their Bitcoin receipts to dollars if they don’t want to carry a large balance. On the other hand, if they’re optimistic about Bitcoin’s future value, they may want to hold on to them.

New customers: Perhaps the best reason to start accepting Bitcoin now is to attract new customers. There are people who want to spend bitcoins and they currently have few options for where to do so. There is a benefit to being one of the first in an industry to accept the currency, both for being discovered by new clients and for getting press coverage. Even if one is skeptical of Bitcoin and rapidly converts all sales to dollars, it could be worthwhile to get on board before competitors do.

Advantages over credit cards: Credit card transactions take time to post, they can be reversed if a customer protests, and the associated fees are significant. Standard Bitcoin transactions are fast, irreversible, and cheap. (It is possible to structure Bitcoin transactions so that they can be arbitrated and reversed, but getting a refund for a standard exchange requires the retailer’s consent.) I doubt Bitcoin will replace Visa anytime soon, but these are advantages for a small business to consider.

One additional way restaurants might use Bitcoin is to hold reservations. Popular restaurants lose revenue when a reserved table sits empty. Even if a restaurant takes a credit card number to charge in the case of a no-show, it’s possible that the customer will contest the payment. Restaurants could instead require a deposit of Bitcoin to hold a table and then either return it when the party arrives or deduct an equivalent amount from the bill.

Taxation: Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to accepting Bitcoin is figuring out how to factor it into one’s taxes. This seems to be a gray area at the moment and could get complicated.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of room for expansion when it comes to accepting Bitcoin. Integrating it into one’s business will probably get easier over time, but there are also advantages to being among the first to try it out.

Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut arrack

My trip to Sri Lanka was primarily dedicated to tea, but along the way we made a point to explore as many aspects of the local drinks culture as possible. For distilled spirits, that meant coconut arrack, the country’s signature and most popular spirit.

To prevent confusion, it’s best to start with what coconut arrack is not. It’s not Batavia arrack, the Indonesian spirit distilled from sugar cane and red rice. It’s also not Mediterranean arak or raki, the anise-flavored liqueur. Though these spirits may share a common etymology, the similarities end there. The tastes and methods of production are completely different, and they’re not substitutes for each other.

Sri Lankan coconut arrack is distilled from nectar drawn from coconut flowers, collected by “toddy tappers.” This nectar rapidly ferments into a low-alcohol beverage called toddy. Sadly I did not have an opportunity to try this, but it’s photographed below.

The fermented toddy is distilled and aged in barrels of oak or halmilla, an indigenous tree species. After ageing it’s bottled and sold in the ubiquitous “wine shops,” which purvey all kinds of alcoholic beverages.

In every example that I encountered, spirits were purchased by walking up to a window display and ordering from a cashier who retrieves the requested bottles and completes the transaction. Even if the alcohol counter was within another store, it was completely cordoned off. I’m guessing this is a legal requirement. Regardless, outside of the airport duty free store I didn’t come across any place where one could freely roam the shelves.

The shop windows range from utilitarian…

… to more upscale.

As seen above, a lot of the big global brands are here. There’s also a variety of coconut arrack to choose from. The cheapest of these can be had for about three US dollars per 375 ml bottle. At the higher end, I found an offering from Mendis with an eighteen year age statement that sold for about $35 for 700 ml. In total, I sampled about eight different bottlings of coconut arrack, and brought four home with me.

One word of advice about buying arrack in Sri Lanka: Read the fine print! One of the bottles I picked up was awful. So awful, in fact, that not even a bus of bartenders would drink it. A glance at the label revealed the reason. Just as there are mixto tequilas that blend agave with neutral spirits, there are coconut arracks that do the same with neutral spirits and distilled toddy. But whereas mixto tequilas require at least 51% of the spirit to come from agave, the percentage of coconut spirits in some arracks is as low as 3%. The ones I tried have nothing but price to recommend them.

The pure arracks, though, can be quite nice. They strike me as most comparable to rum, though with a distinctive floral note and brightness. Barrel ageing contributes hints of vanilla and smooths out the spirit.

Fortunately, one no longer has to go all the way to Sri Lanka to try it. White Lion VSOA is now available in the United States, produced by Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka. The VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” an abbreviation used to comply with American labeling regulations regarding the word “arrack.” It’s definitely among the best I’ve tried and worth seeking out for a unique addition to one’s bar. (White Lion also provided the toddy photos above.)

One more word of advice when shopping for alcohol in Sri Lanka: Keep an eye on the sky. Poya, which fall about every thirty days and follow the lunar calendar, are religious holidays. If there’s a full Moon, the sale of alcohol is forbidden. Even in hotel bars catering to tourists, you will be greeted with a sign like the one above. Fortunately our hosts warned us of this the day before, and our bus of thirsty bartenders was well rationed with local beers and arrack.

Speaking of beer, the one above was my favorite of the ones I tried in Sri Lanka. Most of the beers sold here are refreshing lagers, but this was a full-bodied stout. Was I man enough to deserve it? Maybe not, but I enjoyed it anyway.

By this time in our trip we’d made it well up into the hill country to Nuwara Eliya, once known as “Little England” for its popularity with the British. I understand the appeal. Up here the weather is comfortably temperate compared to the heat and humidity along the coast. It’s no wonder the British moved inland and upward, bringing colonial architecture, a golf course, and billiard rooms with them. Visiting the Grand Hotel is like stepping back in time a hundred years, with wi-fi.

Indidentally, I wonder now if the American drinks writer Charles Baker stayed in the same hotel. In the foreword to Jigger, Beaker, and Glass, he mentions spending “two days in Newara Eyliya, hill station back of Colombo, Ceylon, to get our breath.” On that same adventure he also went to visit a friend at Galle Face…

“… where we swam in the blood-warm Indian Ocean and drank enough of his Flying Fish cocktails to do, and lay on the cool sand and listened to Tauber sing Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz on the gramophone. Then when we swam again we slipped out of our suits to make the water feel better, and finally, when it was very late indeed, we dressed and said goodnight and vowed eternal friendship to our host; then for precisely no reason at all dismissed our waiting carriage with a flourish of gross overpayment and walked all the way back in our evening clothes through a new quiet rain to the jetties and the motor launch, just in time to prevent one of our best American cruising friends from consummating bribery of of the Quartermaster of the good ship RESOLUTE into letting him hoist a purchased baby girl elephant — whom he said was Edith, and over whom he politely held a Burmese parasol of scarlet oiled silk — from a hired barge onto the forward hatch in a sling!”

And, well, you get the picture.

The Grand Hotel is home to one of Dilmah’s T Bars, cafes in which one can order a nearly full range of Dilmah teas. Whether coming down to it for tea in the morning or sitting outside late into the night with a hookah, I loved this place.

On our final night here, we each gave a presentation on various ways to incorporate tea into cocktails. For my own, I opted to go with a riff on classic punch technique, which often uses tea instead of water to dilute the strength of the higher proof ingredients. Given how much coconut arrack I was hauling around with me, I wanted to use that too.

Teamaker’s Punch
500 ml Dilmah green tea
100 g palm sugar
7 oz lemon juice
6 oz Damrak gin
3 oz White Lion coconut arrack
cinnamon
nutmeg

Brew the tea and then pour it hot into a punch bowl with the palm sugar. Using a muddler, crush the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients, grate nutmeg and cinnamon atop the punch, and slip in an ice block or ladle into ice-filled punch glasses. (In Nuwara Eliya I used jaggery, but I’ve adapted the recipe to palm sugar, which I find more readily here.)

And, finally, remember not to let good punch go to waste.

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

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.

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 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.]