New at Reason: The latest threat to mezcal

This week at Reason, I look at the proposed Mexican law that threatens small producers of mezcal:

That legislation is NOM 199, a proposal that would place additional restrictions on some of the least advantaged producers of agave spirits just as just as mezcal is finally beginning to receive the global acclaim it deserves. These distillers are already forced to compete without using the word “mezcal” on their labels; the term is governed by Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations that limit its use to just seven states in Mexico. Producers outside of those regions make spirits historically and informally known as mezcal, but they’re not permitted to call it that on their labels or when exporting. Instead, they must market their products as “destilado de agave,” or agave distillate.

This is a truthful description of their product, though many producers resent being excluded from the mezcal DO and make the case that use of the word has precedent in a much larger area than current law recognizes. But all definitions of spirits by geographic borders involve some arbitrary demarcation, and if this were only a debate about where to draw the line for where the word “mezcal” can be put on a bottle, it would be a less interesting story. NOM 199 goes even further, banning producers not only from calling their product mezcal, but requiring them to abandon use of the word “agave” as well. A new word, “komil,” would be forced upon them. Critics assert that this would further marginalize the producers of these spirits, many of whom are poor and live far from the central Mexican government.

Read it all here.

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Friday Drinks: Collaboration Beer Fest in Denver

collaboration

Until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d visited Denver was 2013. And the last time I’d been to the city with exploring beer on the agenda was even longer, going back to my move across country in 2008. That’s a long time to be away from one of the country’s best beer states. So when I was invited by the organizers of the Collaboration Beer Fest to fly down as a guest and visit a few local breweries, I gladly took them up on the offer.

As the name implies, the concept of the festival is beers made collaboratively among two or more breweries. What’s really impressive is the scale at which they pull it off: The 2016 fest featured more than 85 beers from almost 150 breweries, with the only limitation being that at least one partner on each beer come from Colorado. Some paired with other in-state brewers, but the enthusiasm for this event is strong enough to bring in brewers from all over the country and even a few international entrants.

The scale and concept puts it in fairly unique territory among beer festivals. It’s theme-driven, but it brings in a massive number of beers and brewers, spread out within the halls of an NFL stadium. (This comprehensive list gives an idea of the breadth and diversity of beers available.) It also makes it a tricky fest to write about. By the nature of the event, most of the beers are one of a kind and may not ever be made again, so recommendations to seek them out aren’t helpful. Instead, this is more of a snapshot of Colorado brewers and what they find interesting at the moment. (Short answer: Lots of big IPAs, sour fermentation, and barrel ageing.)

Wrangling that many breweries to work together is an organizational feat, but the entire event smoothly. Even at peak times, the lines for the most popular beers only required a few minutes of waiting. Having all inclusive passes rather than having to constantly trade tickets or tokens helped as well. And one of the best touches were notebooks with information on each beer, a five star “enjoyment meter” to pencil in, and space for several lines of tasting notes. It can’t have been easy to get all this laid out and printed, but they were great for making organized notes to remember what you’re trying — which, lets be honest, isn’t always easy at a beer festival.

The beers below were the best I tried at the festival. The recommendations for these specific beers may not be useful — though who knows, they could be made again — but if you’re visiting Colorado, perhaps they will steer you to some good breweries to try. And should you be in town for next year’s Collaboration Fest, I highly recommend attending.

Baere Brewing Company, Mockery Brewing, Inland Island Brewing “Mocking Baered Episode II La Isla Se Esta Quemando” — Possibly my favorite beer of the event was this collaboration between three different breweries, a “tropical saison” flavored with fresh and smoked pineapples. I’m partial to smoked beers in general, and smoking pineapples with applewood for this beer was inspired decision. The fruit, the robust smoke, and the saison-style ale came together perfectly for my tastes. The only thing missing was a glass of mezcal on the side.

Blue Spruce Brewing Co. and Rock Bottom Brewery “Petrified Spruce” — The biggest surprise of the fest was this unassuming India Pale Lager made with an unnamed experimental hop. At a festival where so many brewers are showing off barrel aged beers, sour ales, hop bombs, or unusual flavor additions, this collaboration played it safe. Yet the brewers knocked it out of the park. Sessionable, moderately bitter, and with a pleasantly piney aroma, it was the beer I could most happily drink all day.

Baere Brewing Company and Mother Road Brewing Company “Mother Baere” — Baere really was the standout brewery for me at this fest, with their second collaboration — this rye saison aged in for six months in rye whiskey barrels — being another of the best beers I tried there. I’ve had a handful of rye beers, but can’t remember any others with so much of that distinctive rye spice coming through.

Crazy Mountain Brewing Company and Stillwater Artisan Ales “Neoteric” — On a personal note, it was fun running into Brian Strumke from Stillwater, who I got to work with on a Kopstootje project with Bols Genever a few years ago. The itinerant brewer’s collaboration was this IPA made with wort soured by wild yeasts and hopped with Sauvie, Citra, and Mosaic hops. It wasn’t overly sour and had great aroma. (As with many of Brian’s beers, the name might need some explanation. For what it’s worth, this one means “modern.”)

Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Evil Twin Brewing “L ‘Brett D Lil B” — Of all the ways breweries can make a collaborative brew, this might be the simplest: Taking one beer from each brewery and blending them together. If I remember correctly, that’s what these two did with barrel aged beer from Crooked Stave and Evil Twin’s Lil B Porter to make a “dark sour.” It’s a combination that works, with a strong raspberry aroma and a pairing of berries with dark, roasty malt.

Denver Beer Co. and DC Brau “Peanut Butter Lunchbox” — As a former resident of DC who moved away before the city had any brewing scene to speak of, I was excited to see a brewery from the District taking part in the fest. This Elvis-inspired ale is made with the malt bill of a brown ale, is fermented with Weizen yeasts for banana notes, and has local peanut butter from Boulder added to the brew. With a very strong peanut aroma, it was sort of reminiscent of dan dan noodles, in a good way. It was one of the most interesting beers of the fest, and it had consistently long lines to try it. It was intriguing, and I enjoyed it, though it may a little too out there for drinking regularly.

Little Machine Beer and Bull & Bush “Mechanical Bull” — I was a little wary of this dark lager aged in syrah barrels, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the fest. With light smoke, notes of stone fruit, and a roasty bitterness, they hit the nail on the head with this one.

Falling Rock Tap House and Star Bar “Rock Star” — This beer breaks the mold of the fest a bit, being a collaboration between the owners of two of Denver’s best beer bars rather than two brewers. Chris Black from Falling Rock and Justin Loyd from Star Bar (my favorite place to end a night in Denver) create this custom blend from New Belgium’s “Foeder Forest,” the breweries collection of wooden vessels for sour ales. This is the third year the bars have made a blend, with this one falling on the lighter side of the spectrum. It’s tart, funky, and really good — definitely one to look out for in successive years.

Oskar Blues Brewery and Horse & Dragon Brewing Company “I Smoka” — Oskar Blues is one of the best known Colorado breweries outside of the state, whose offerings I enjoy fairly often in Portland. For this collaboration, they stayed local with additions of chocolate and coffee. That’s is a solid combination with stout, and it came together really well with roasted coffee aroma and fruity chocolate on the palate.

Weldwerks Brewing Co. and Snowbank Brewing Co. “Barrel-Aged Mocha Stout” — This was another beer with consistently long lines. And with good reason: This was one of the richest beers at the fest, very decadent and chocolaty, approaching the edge of being too sweet. But it was excellent, and a moderate pour would make it the perfect night cap.

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A tour of Reykjavik’s craft distilleries

Despite my obsession with all things aquavit, I’d never set foot in any of the Nordic countries until last month when I was invited to Iceland as a media guest for the second annual Reykjavik Bar Summit. The event brings in bars from all over Europe and the United States for two days of friendly cocktail competition and is also a great opportunity to showcase Iceland’s emerging cocktail, beer, and distilling scenes.

I wrote about my favorite spots to drink in Reykjavik for Eater, so head over there for tips if you’re planning a visit. In this post I’ll write about the local distilleries, three of which I got to visit on a tour around the city. I’d arrived fortuitously on the morning of “Beer Day,” the anniversary of the day Iceland finally fully legalized beer on the surprisingly late date of March 1, 1989. We celebrated with cans of Bríó on a northbound bus, learning about the country’s long, strange relationship with the temperance movement along the way.

Langjokull cave

The most famous Icelandic spirit is Brennivín, an aquavit flavored with caraway, for whom I do a bit of work in the United States. We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the distillery, but the Bar Summit arranged an even better setting for imbibing it: inside the ice cap of Langjökull glacier. Man-made tunnels allow visitors to hike down into the ice, where caves, gathering rooms, and even a small wedding chapel await. No marriages occurred among our group, but we did enjoy a celebratory toast of ice cold Brennivín.

From there we went on to enjoy a few more drinks in hot tubs under a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, followed by a late night cocktail dinner that had us back at the hotel around 4 am. That allowed for just a few hours sleep before the next morning’s tour of three distilleries local to Reykjavik.

64° Reykjavik Distillery

64 Reykjavik

I’ll confess that I was still feeling the combined effects of jet lag, aquavit shots, and a post-midnight four-course cocktail dinner when we made the drive over to 64° Reykjavik, so I wasn’t quite as up to enjoying their wares as I would have liked to be. Co-founder Snorri Jonnson had prepared combinations of desserts topped with his fruit-forward liqueurs that looked amazing. Fortunately I was able to take a few of the elegantly designed bottles home to try later.

The liqueurs feature local Icelandic ingredients: blueberry, rhubarb (“rabarbara”), and crowberry. The pale pink rhubarb liqueur is bright and lively; I could see it going great with brut sparkling wine, and it worked well in a tequila cocktail I mixed up at home too. The crowberry liqueur is made from small, black berries that grow all over the country; it’s richly colored, with dark, jammy fruit notes balanced by a touch of tannic bitterness.

The distillery also makes three dry spirits: a vodka, gin, and aquavit. I was most interested in the last of these, of course. Their aquavit is flavored with caraway and angelica seeds. It’s clean and crisp, with assertive caraway flavor that doesn’t excessively dominate the spirit. You could keep it in the freezer, but it’s soft enough to enjoy neat and unchilled.

Eimverk Distillery

EimverkOur next stop was Eimverk, where a glass of tonic water revived me to life and put me back in the saddle for more spirits tasting. Eimverk is best known for their Flóki malt whiskey made from 100% Icelandic barley. Their lightly aged young malt is currently on the market and their fully aged single malt will be out in limited quantities soon. I also got to sample a batch made from barley smoked and dried over burning sheep dung, the Icelandic equivalent of a peated Scotch. It was deliciously smoky, and I’ll absolutely buy a bottle when it’s released to market if I ever get the opportunity.

Eimverk also makes a gin called Vor and aquavit called Víti. The aquavit is also distilled from malted barley, which comes through on the nose with the familiar graininess of new make whiskey. The brash notes of young malt combined with unusual botanicals — Icelandic moss, kale, meadow sweet, among others — make this one of the most unique and interesting aquavits on the market.

Foss Distillery

Image via Foss Distillery on Facebook.
Image via Foss Distillery on Facebook.

Our final stop was Foss Distillery, where the distillers transform Icelandic birch into enchantingly complex spirits. The mildly astringent, woodsy Birkir snaps is made by infusing birch into neutral spirits lightly sweetened with local birch syrup. The more approachable Björk is more heavily sweetened, though not at all cloying. Both are finished with a small birch twig in every bottle, and both are well worth picking up; I already have plans for Birkir on an upcoming cocktail menu.

Foss also just unveiled two new products, Eimir vodka, which is vacuum-distilled with birch, and Börkur, an intense birch bitter. I enjoyed all of their spirits; with Birkir and Björk both available in the US, I’d recommend picking up Eimir or Börkur if you’re traveling through the country.

A note on buying spirits: The duty free shop at Keflavik airport does a great job featuring Icelandic spirits, and everything mentioned here is or will be on sale there. Given Iceland’s high taxes on alcohol, your best bet for buying these is at the airport on your way home.

DESIGNER CELEBRITY EVENING DRESSES
View from the wing of Greenland on the flight home.
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Crony capitalists of craft beer

My latest story for Reason looks at how some of the biggest names in craft beer are raking in millions of dollars in public subsidies to fund their expansion:

“Virginia is for beer lovers,” Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) proclaimed at a recent press conference. He was obviously not referring to a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of an antiquated “habitual drunkard” law to jail indigent citizens without due process, but rather to $3 million in corporate welfare from the state’s Commonwealth Opportunity Fund that he approved to lure Bend, Oregon based Deschutes Brewing toRoanoke for the construction of their first East Coast brewery.

For those of us who follow the beer industry, the announcement stirred feelings of déjà vu. It was less than two years ago that McAuliffe was tapping a keg from San Diego’s Stone Brewing and putting Virginia taxpayers on the hook for a $5 million grant to bring Stone to Richmond. That was in addition to a $1.5 million economic development grant, a $500,000 sustainability grant, and $31 million in bonds from the city to build a brewery and bistro.

Read the whole thing, which includes many more breweries, including Stone’s new operation in Berlin.

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Cocktail videos for Tales

aquavit Victoroa

A few months ago I shot a few how-to videos for Tales of the Cocktail at my friend’s new bar in Portland, Victoria. The videos detail a couple of my favorite techniques.

  1. How to make a very old school Flip using a metal loggerhead and a torch.
  2. How add a touch of hoppiness to tropical drinks, as in my Mai Ta-IPA.
  3. How to mix aquavit, demonstrated with a Dill Collins.

Speaking of aquavit, I’m also interviewed on the topic in the April issue of Wine Enthusiast.

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Flip out!

Today my publisher, Abrams, re-printed an excerpt from my book on the Colonial era Flip. Made with ale, rum, and sugar, the drink was originally prepared by plunging a red hot metal poker into a tankard with all the ingredients. That’s a really fun way to do it — here’s a video of me demonstrating the method for Tales of the Cocktail — but you don’t need a poker and a blowtorch to enjoy a Flip. You can borrow a technique from the Spanish Coffee to get a similar caramelized sugar flavor. Read on at the Abrams site get all the details and some history of the drink.

Photo by David L. Reamer.
Photo by David L. Reamer.

And as a reminder, I’m giving away one copy of the book to a reader of this site. Just leave a comment on this recent post by midnight on Saturday to enter.

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Four days in Berlin

Back in October, I was invited to Bar Convent Berlin to give a presentation on beer cocktails. It’s a great convention, and I highly recommend going if you get the opportunity. It also gave me a chance to write a drinking guide to the city for Eater. There was no way to get to every bar I wanted, but I gave it my best shot! Thirteen of my favorites are mapped out here.

Wunderbar
Me IRL.

Unfortunately, a wave of fog left me stranded in Amsterdam for a day on the way there, cutting my trip a bit shorter than intended. (Being stuck in Amsterdam isn’t such a bad thing, but most of that time was spent at the airport trying to figure out when I’d be leaving. Thanks KLM!) That meant I didn’t get to do much in Berlin that didn’t involve drinks and didn’t get to any of the museums I wanted to visit. Nevertheless, there is more to life than bars, or so I’m told. Here are a few of the other places I enjoyed visiting and recommend if you’re in the city.

Atheist Shoes

AtheistYes, it’s a shoe store for atheists! Does the religious affiliation of one’s shoe store really matter? Not really, but I’d shop here regardless of the owners’ beliefs; the fact that some of their shoes come with “Ich bin atheist” etched into the soles is just a bonus. I picked up a pair of their blue “Das Petrol” boots and they’ve become one of my favorite pairs of shoes; I’m wearing them as I type this, in fact. The store is tucked into a courtyard but worth the effort of seeking out. They also ship to the US and occasionally do pop up shops here, so don’t let the lack of travel plans to Germany dissuade you shopping. Pet owners should also consider commissioning a pair of their “Walkies Forever” for when their furry friends pass on (offer valid only on the first of April).

Zeha

I was also coveting the retro athletic sneakers at Zeha, which has multiple locations around the city. They were a little outside this freelance writer’s budget for one trip, but I expect I’ll be taking advantage of their online store sometime soon as well.

Imbiss 204

ImbissThis cozy kitchen came highly recommended on the Berlin Food Stories weblog. It’s so good I went here twice, despite having such a short time in the city. It’s simple, well-executed German food, and it’s irresistibly good. Great meats, delicious sauces, and tremendous portions. Just go.

Le Boui Boui

Boui

I ended up here needing a bite to eat after a visit to Monterey Bar, a craft beer and rock-and-roll bar I recommend in my Eater guide. Delicious flammkuchen prepared on the spot in a tiny, charming space make the perfect post-drink snack, especially if you’ve already had your share of currywurst or doner kebab.

Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur

KochanAny time I travel abroad, I try to find a unique spirit or two to bring back home in my suitcase. This geeky liquor store was the perfect place to shop. It’s almost all unusual spirits; I think they carried just one brand of vodka. I left with an amazing Swiss single malt called Santis Edition Dreifaltigkeit, which is aged in oak beer casks and carries a tremendous, meaty smokiness. Had I the luggage space, I could have picked a lot more of interest here.

Cafe CK

This coffee shop is co-owned Cory Andreen, who I used to work with back in barista days in DC. I went to Portland, he went to Berlin. As much as I love Portland, I’m starting to think he made the better decision. He opened Cafe CK there a few years ago and has been elevating the local coffee scene (here’s an interview with him on the topic). He’s also become known for serving draft coffee on nitro. I’m normally a skeptic of cold coffee, but Cory’s is brewed hot and then rapidly cooled, which allows bright acidity to come through. His draft coffee stand at BCB fueled my time on the floor there, and Cafe CK was my regular stop post-convention.

Soul Objects

celebrity dressesThis is the kind of shop that would be very hard to open in the US, given our restrictive liquor licenses. It’s an eclectic shop with art, barware, home goods, personal grooming products, and a selection of very high quality spirits, including rums from Samaroli. I especially liked this collection of porcelain inspired by nautical tattoos, though with my limited luggage space, I only took home a couple of the shot glasses (pictured above with an appropriately nautical bottle of aquavit from my home bar).

Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun

Should you happen to be in Berlin on a Thursday night, head to this market hall for a massive selection of street food vendors. It’s packed with people, global food offerings, and plenty to drink.

Thai Park

I didn’t actually get to experience this one. I’d planned to make this my first stop when I landed, but my flight delays led to me missing it entirely. It’s a spontaneous gathering of Thai expats who cook in the park on Sundays when the weather is good, selling to anyone who comes by. I didn’t make it on this trip, but it’s number one on my list the next time I make it to Berlin.

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The blend that dare not speak its name

Today at Reason, I write about antiquated liquor laws that forbid producers from being completely honest with consumers:

Like many other whisky brands, Compass Box doesn’t distill their own spirits. They source whisky from other producers to create unique, proprietary blends. And like most companies making blended whisky, they tend to keep their precise recipes secret.

But for these two blends they took the unusual step of posting infographics on their website that provided detailed breakdowns of every component whisky, including the source distillery, tasting notes, the exact proportion each takes up in the blend, the type of cask used for ageing, and the length of time each whisky spent in barrel.

For the type of whisky drinker who’s willing to shell out three figures for an exclusive bottle, Compass Box’s complete transparency is a welcome departure from brands that obscure the provenance of their spirits with varying degrees of honesty. But at least one competitor viewed Compass Box’s openness as a violation of liquor marketing regulations. An anonymous distiller contacted the Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group for Scotch, who in turn informed Compass Box that its detailed disclosure was illegal.

The article covers not just whisky in the European Union, but also gin and aquavit in the United States. Read the whole thing.

I was also quoted in The Wall Street Journal this week in an article about reviving hot drinks made with beer. Readers interested in trying these drinks at home should pick up my book, which has an entire chapter dedicated to “hot helpers.”

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Benny and Hot

Benny and Hot

Unlike my East Coast friends, I’m not buried in snow at the moment. I do have a cold however, which has made this weekend the perfect time to try out one of the drinks that’s been on my list for a while. My friend Jacob Briars mentioned it on Twitter, noting that it comes from the Burnley Miner’s Club in northwest England. By some reports the club goes through more Benedictine than any other bar in the world, all because of this drink.

The cocktail couldn’t be simpler. It’s just Benedictine, hot water, and a slice of lemon. Traditional proportions are 1:1, but twice as much water seems to be a popular recommendation. It’s a great way to highlight Benedictine, an herbal liqueur that’s typically used as more of an accent in a cocktail. In this take on a Toddy it gets to play a more prominent role. The drink has won me over and is going into my rotation of winter favorites.

1 1/2 oz Benedictine
3 oz water just off the boil
lemon wheel, for garnish

Combine Benedictine and water in a heated mug, garnish with lemon, and serve.

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End of year catching up: Drinks

Working as a beer and spirits writer, I get to try a lot of cool drinks throughout the year. I don’t always get around to writing about them, either because of other work demands or the products just not fitting in to current projects. The bottles end up piling up on my desk waiting for me to make time for them (and making anyone who sees my work space assume I have a drinking problem). So at the end of the year, here are a few of the things I liked but haven’t had he chance to cover elsewhere.

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Schlafly Eleventh Labor — Living in Oregon, I don’t have much experience with St. Louis based Schlafly brewing. Eleventh Labor is an entry in their limited edition Ibex Series. This one’s a Berliner weisse flavored with apricots and aged for at least six months. I liked everything about this beer, from the striking packaging to the beer’s bracing acidity. I enjoyed it on Thanksgiving, where its brightness and low abv made it perfect for appetizers. The only catch is the price, which at $20 for a 750 ml is getting high for a Berliner weisse. That aside, it’s a great beer and bodes well for the increasing popularity of the style.

Tariquet XO and 1993 Vintage Armagnac — These were pitched to me for cigar pairing. Though I rarely turn down the opportunity to a light up a good cigar, I haven’t an opportunity to try these with a smoke yet. The XO, aged 12-15 years, is light and very oaky. The 1993, aged 17 years, is more full-bodied and carries more fruit notes, along with a higher proof. I enjoy them both, though I lean toward the latter. Come better weather I look forward to taking a glass outside to try them with a stogie.

Amaro Lucano — It’s possible that the day will come when I decide that there is enough amaro on the market, but I doubt it. I’m always excited to try ones that I haven’t had before. Amaro Lucano has been around since 1894, but it was new to me this year. Its recipe includes more than 30 herbs and spices, including wormwood, angelica, and gentian. It’s pleasingly bitter, but not so much so that it would scare off drinkers new to amaro. I’ve been enjoying it neat at home. I also came across it during Aquavit Week at Angel Face in Portland, where it was featured in their Tesoro Frio cocktail, made with Krogstad aquavit, Amaro Lucano, Dolin dry vermouth, and Real Tesoro PX sherry, which was very nice and rich.

Tanqueray Bloomsbury — The latest limited edition gin from Tanqueray, following Malacca and Old Tom, is Bloomsbury, based on an 1880s Tanqueray recipe. It’s strongly juniper forward, and at 47.3% abv it’s great for mixing. It’s been my go-to lately in Martinis. It’s reasonably priced and won’t be around forever, so gin lovers should definitely pick up a bottle.

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Two new cocktails for Aquavit Week

The fourth annual Aquavit Week celebration is now in full swing, which is the kind of thing I would have blogged about if keeping this blog updated in a timely manner was still a priority. The site is still good for posting cocktail recipes though, and I have two new aquavit drinks for you today. There’s also still time to catch Aquavit Week cocktails at more than forty bars and restaurants, and to attend our closing party in Portland at La Moule on Saturday night.

Ringlefinch

The first cocktail, which we’ll be serving at La Moule, is the Ringlefinch, a wintry sour that uses a new aquavit barrel aged tea from local teamaker Steven Smith. For this holiday release black tea was aged in a Krogstad aquavit barrel and flavored with mulling spices, cranberries, and roasted hazelnuts. The tea is wonderful on its own. For the cocktail, I’ve used it in a strong tea syrup. The drink is loosely inspired by Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Norwegian Wood, but taken in a citrusy direction.

1 1/4 oz Linie aquavit
3/4 oz calvados
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz aquavit barrel aged tea syrup
1/2 tsp Clear Creek Doug Fir eau de vie

Shake all ingredients and serve up in a chilled coupe.

This particular tea is only available in limited quantities, but other black teas made with mulling spices could also work. For the syrup:

4 tsp Steven Smith aquavit barrel aged mulled black tea
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

Bring the water just off the boil and steep the tea in it for about four minutes. Strain and combine with one cup sugar to make a syrup.

Nordic Holiday Punch

The next drink is a punch I created for Portland Monthly’s December magazine feature on Scandinavian cooking. It gets its festive color from hibiscus tea (Steven Smith once again makes a great choice here). For the aquavit, go with a crisp, unaged spirit. I’ve made this with both Brennivin from Iceland and Skadi from Montana with great results.

4 sachets hibiscus tea (or loose leaf equivalent)
4 cups water
3/4 cup honey
2 cups aquavit
1 cup Meyer lemon juice
2 cups sparkling wine, chilled
Meyer lemon wheels, for garnish

Bring the water just off a boil and steep the hibiscus tea in it for about five minutes. Remove the sachets (or strain if using loose leaf) and stir in the honey until dissolved. Allow the mixture to chill. Combine remaining ingredients in a punch bowl right before service, slip in a large ice block, and ladle into punch glasses.

Check the Portland Monthly feature for a much better photo and some great recipes to complete a Nordic menu.

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Mixology Monday: Cocktail Chronicles

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It’s not unusual for a new cocktail book to come out. These days, it’s not even unusual for a very good cocktail book to be published. But a new book that I’ll not only use regularly in my own home, but also unhesitatingly recommend to friends who don’t make their living in the drinks industry? That’s a rarity. Paul Clarke’s newly released The Cocktail Chronicles is that book.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember Paul from Mixology Monday, the monthly “cocktail party” he initiated years ago to inspire creativity and exploration within the community of cocktail bloggers. Paul was one of the first to make a go of cocktail blogging, launching The Cocktail Chronicles blog in 2005. (My own site launched in 2003 — take that, Paul! — but he beat me to blogging about mixing drinks.) The cocktail world was a much smaller place back then, and a lot of the writers in it were brought together by these monthly blog round ups. (Looking back, some of the drinks from those days should stay in the past. I believe my first MxMo contribution was a combination of Scotch, amaretto, and cigar-infused whipped cream, which I don’t think I’ll be reviving any time soon.)

As Paul notes in his new book, few of those early blogs rarely, if ever, update anymore, though some of the writers have moved on to bigger things. Blogging itself has declined in importance. Or depending on how you look at it, blogging is more important than ever, having infused itself into mainstream journalism and popular social media. We’re all bloggers now. But at a minimum, blogging has lost its cachet as a distinct medium and the esprit de corps that united the people that wrote in it.

The publication of The Cocktail Chronicles seems like an apt occasion to revisit some of the traditions of the early days of cocktail blogging. I’m going to indulge in three of them: Participating in Mixology Monday, getting excited about a new spirit, and writing very much past deadline.

This month’s Mixology Monday (which was actually last Monday), is hosted by current MxMo chairman Fred Yarm. For the momentous occasion of MxMo C, the 100th edition, the theme is “Cocktail Chronicles, a fitting tribute to the guy who started it all:

But what does Mixology Monday “Cocktail Chronicles” mean? I figured that we should look to Paul’s magnum opus and digest the theme of it all — what is timeless (or potentially timeless) and elegant in its simplicity. Paul commented in his interview, “[it]’s wonderful to see that level of creativity but simplicity is going to be the glue that continues to hold interest in the cocktail together. The moment that we make cocktails too difficult or too inaccessible to the average guest, the average consumer, then we start losing people.” Paul does support a minor tweak of a major classic as well as dusting off a lesser known vintage recipe like the Creole Contentment; in addition, proto-classics like the Chartreuse Swizzle and the Penicillin intrigue him for their potential to be remembered twenty years from now. Moreover, he is a big fan of the story when there is one whether about a somewhat novel ingredient like a quinquina, the bartender making it, or the history behind a cocktail or the bar from which it originated. Indeed, I quoted Paul as saying, “If I write about these and manage to make them boring, then I have done an incredible disservice. So I feel an incredible obligation not only to the drinks themselves, but to the bartenders who created them, and also to the heritage of cocktail writing to try to elevate it.”

There’s a lot to like in Paul’s new book, but what stands out the most is how accessible it is. I enjoy reading a lot of the recent cocktail books, but they’re often not the sort that I can casually flip through to find a new drink to make. The Cocktail Chronicles features more than 200 recipes. While they’re not basic, they use bottles of spirits and bitters that any enthusiastic cocktail drinker is likely to have on hand or be able to easily acquire. They rarely call for much homemade preparation, esoteric liqueurs, or overly specific identification of brands. It’s the kind of book that works as both a guide to standards of the modern cocktail renaissance and as a jumping off point for discovering overlooked drinks.

Skipping through the book, one of these for me was the Savoy Tango. I was recently sent a new bottle of sloe gin from Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, California. (Sample bottles seemed to show up with more frequency in the golden age of blogging.) When I started writing about cocktails, good sloe gin made with real sloe berries was impossible to find. Cocktail bloggers would have been ecstatic to try it. Just a few years later, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to well-made spirits. This is a really nice sloe gin, with a bright fruit and acidity, and I wanted to find a new cocktail in which to take it for a spin. Thankfully The Cocktail Chronicles features two sloe gin cocktails, neither of which I’d encountered before. The Savoy Tango, from the Savoy Cocktail Book, particularly caught my eye:

1 1/2 oz sloe gin (Spirit Works)
1 1/2 oz applejack (Clear Creek apple brandy)

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

With just two ingredients and no garnish, this sure doesn’t sound like much. But it’s a surprisingly good drink, the kind one could easily pass over unless a trusted guide recommended it. That’s exactly the sort of cocktail one finds in Paul’s book, which is full of these accessible and delicious recipes. The book doesn’t get too deep into history, technique, or rare ingredients, but it’s perfect for finding easy-to-make drinks that stand the test of time, along with just enough background and instruction to introduce them. For readers looking for one book to guide them through the new standards of the cocktail renaissance, The Cocktail Chronicles is the one I’d recommend. Cheers, Paul.

(And thanks also to Fred for hosting and keeping Mixology Monday alive. I’ll try to be on deadline next time around.)

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Red Bull and Hennessy

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Inspiration for cocktails can come from strange places. This week it came from Jenny Lewis’ fantastic concert at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, where she played a new song with the title “Red Bull and Hennessy.” Not a good cocktail, she noted. “Don’t drink that.” But she also threw down a challenge. This being Portland, there had to be a fancy mixologist in the house who could make Hennessy and Red Bull taste good. The friend I was with insisted — demanded! — that I take a shot at making this happen.

I didn’t have either one of these ingredients on hand, but after a quick stop at 7-Eleven and the dodgy neighborhood liquor store, I was in business. Before this I had only a vague idea of what Red Bull tasted like. It was actually better than I remembered, with some pleasantly fruity notes, bright citric acidity, and a touch of carbonation. Yeah, I could work with this!

The drink formats that came to mind were either a Paloma or a tropical swizzle. I ended up sort of combining the two, incorporating a little Combier pink grapefruit liqueur and serving over crushed ice. (Crushing the ice required the use, fittingly, of a Lewis bag.) Try this for a fancy Red Bull and Hennessy:

1 1/2 oz Hennessy VS
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Combier pamplemousse rose
2 oz Red Bull
Angostura bitters
mint, for garnish

Fill a tall, chilled glass with crushed ice. Add the Hennessy, lime, pamplemousse, and Red Bull, and swizzle to combine. Garnish with mint sprigs and float Angostura bitters on top.

Cocktails made with energy drinks aren’t in my usual repertoire, but this was surprisingly good, proving that sometimes it pays to be more adventurous.

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Brookstone (Maple Daiquiri)

Maple Daiquiri

I usually ignore the endless number of marketing holidays that exist only to give PR people a hook for their press releases, but I’ll make an exception this morning for National Rum Day. That’s partially because I work in the rum business with El Dorado, partially because I’ve had this photo and recipe sitting in my post queue for months.

This is a cocktail I created a few years ago as part of a consulting gig for the Perfect Drink app. A few months before meeting the entrepreneurs behind the app I’d written an April Fool’s post about why bartenders should start weighing their drinks by the gram instead of relying on jiggers. Soon after I was recruited to work on a project to do exactly that. I was skeptical at first, but I was won over to how such a device could be useful in the right environment (home entertaining, for example).

The first retailer for the device was Brookstone, so we wanted to have a namesake cocktail for them. The company is based in Vermont, which suggested maple syrup as an ingredient. Hence this maple Daiquiri, a dark, rich take on the drink:

2 oz aged rum (El Dorado 8)
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz real maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lime wedge if desired.

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Riedel, magic, and the Streisand effect

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A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a wine tasting led by Georg Riedel, current head of the famous glassware company. The tasting wasn’t about the wine itself. It was about the glassware it’s served in. Riedel markets an extensive line of glasses designed for specific varietals of wine that goes well beyond separate glasses for red and white: One glass for cabernet and merlot, another for oaked chardonnay, still another for syrah, etc. If you believe Riedel’s pitch, having the right glass for each varietal enhances the experience of drinking it, optimizing aromas and balancing tannins. If you’re a skeptic, you probably think this is a clever ploy to sell people more glassware than they really need.

My own experiences put me somewhere in the middle. When I turned twenty-one, my aunt sent me a basic set of Riedel glassware as a birthday present. They’re lovely, and twelve years later I’ve only shattered one of them. I’ve never laid out the cash for a broader line of varietal specific versions for home use. Though open to the idea that the glass shape matters, at least within some parameters, I’ve never felt that my wine drinking at home suffered in any way from an inadequate selection of stemware.

More recently, when I worked in what was Portland’s best wine bar, we served nearly everything in various glasses produced by Riedel. We even had two separate glasses for the same grape, pinot noir, depending on whether it was new world or old world pinot. This was arguably veering into affectation, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you run a wine destination. The varietal-specific glassware signals that a place puts thought into its service, just as a square white ceramic plate signals a different approach to food than a styrofoam tray. The aesthetic aspects of dining are important, and as long as one keeps a clear idea of what is truly functional, it’s fine to indulge in these details.

Going into the tasting a few weeks ago, that was pretty much my attitude toward Riedel glassware. The glasses are elegant, and I’m happy to use them, but getting deep into varietal-specific ranges struck me more as signalling extravagance than as a necessity for enjoying wine. But I also have a relatively undeveloped wine palate, so I was open to being convinced.

Arriving at the tasting, we were seated in two groups. On one side of the room were press and trade, and on the other were consumers. In front of us were five empty Riedel glasses, three plastic cups of wine, one empty plastic cup, and four squares of chocolate. (Disclosure: We were allowed the keep the Riedel glasses.) Over the next hour or so, Georg Riedel led us through a highly structured tasting featuring various wines, mineral water, and even Coca-Cola from his line of glassware, punctuated by chocolate pairings.

What did I think of the tasting? Before we get to that, why I am writing about in the first place? I posted very briefly about it on Facebook and Instagram, but hadn’t intended writing anything beyond that. The event was brought back to my attention this weekend because another wine blogger, Ron Washam, a.k.a. the Hosemaster of Wine, recently posted a biting, satirical, imaginary interview with Georg Riedel. The Riedel company responded with a cease-and-desist letter accusing Washam of defamation and threatening legal action if the post was not removed. Though Washam lives in California, the post was published on a site based in the UK, where there is less robust legal protection for satire.

Having just been through one of Riedel’s tastings, I thought the opening of the fictional interview was pretty funny:

“Riedel me this,” Georg said. “What’s the difference between drinking from my specially designed Sangiovese glass, and drinking your Chianti Classico from an ordinary wine glass?”

Silence.

“When you drink from my Sangiovese glass, your lipstick leaves a mark — on my ass!”

Other parts of the piece struck me as needlessly mean-spirited. Regardless, I’m sure I never would have seen it if not for Riedel’s cease-and-desist. Their law firm should have been aware of the Streisand effect, “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” I suspect Washam’s post would have gone mostly unnoticed if Riedel had ignored it or simply requested that the site clearly mark it as satire; instead, the post has been widely linked and discussed in the wine media, with most writers predictably siding against Riedel’s heavy-handed tactics. The dispute has now been resolved amicably enough, with the site posting a disclaimer that the piece is satirical and Georg Riedel affirming his commitment to free speech.

I wouldn’t be writing about the issue, except that one paragraph of Washam’s fictional depiction of Riedel so closely mirrored my thoughts from the tasting:

In the beginning, Georg preached that his wine glasses, designed specifically for Bordeaux, or Burgundy, were designed to funnel the wine to the proper areas of the tongue to maximize the pleasure of drinking your First Growth or Grand Cru. It was misdirection. Magical thinking. But in a controlled situation, with Georg holding court, he could convince anyone that his wine glass was superior to any other for a particular wine variety. Much as an illusionist can convince you he can restore a bank note with your signature on it after he’s torn it into pieces. It’s sleight of hand, of course. Georg is the master of sleight of tongue. And it’s the reason his company is the legerdemain source for handblown, and overblown, glassware.

I don’t know much about wine, but I do know a bit about magic. I took it up as a hobby in middle school, continued through college, and now practice the art as an occasional street performer (as one does as a resident of Portland, Oregon). I have a couple yards of shelf space devoted to magic books and DVDs, crates of props stowed around my apartment, and have seen some of the best magicians in the world perform or lecture on their methods. Watching Georg Riedel conduct his tasting a few weeks ago, the thought I kept coming back to was that Georg cut the perfect figure of a Golden Age magician, an impeccably dressed and charming gentleman from Europe authoritatively leading his audience through an exhibition of wonders. As I followed along, pouring wines from glass to glass, I found myself thinking that some of the techniques employed by good magicians were at work in his presentation too. Riedel was expertly setting the audience’s conditions of perception.

Being good at this is essential to presenting magic well. For an audience to experience the full impact of a magic trick, the magician has to ensure that the audience is aware of the conditions that make the climax impossible. For example, let’s say a magician presents an effect in which a deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled and then magically restored to perfect order. For the conclusion to be magical, the audience must first be aware and convinced that the deck was shuffled. If the performer casually shuffles when the audience is focused on something else, or shuffles unconvincingly, they may not believe that the deck was ever shuffled to begin with. The trick fails because the conditions for appreciating the ending were never established.

When I used to do regular coffee cuppings, we tasted in silence and wrote our notes down for comparison later. That’s because we knew that if one us said we tasted a note of, say, blueberries, we’d all be primed to pick out that same characteristic. Independent tasting requires being free of that influence.

At the tasting, Riedel was happy to suggest what he wants the audience to taste or smell — fewer tannins, more pronounced fruit, whatever –often telling them what aromas or flavors they will taste before or as they’re tasting them. This creates expectations, establishing favorable conditions for what he hopes they will perceive.

Riedel is also very skilled at managing his audience. The tasting we did was complicated, with lots of liquids being poured into lots of glasses, and bites of chocolate in between. Getting an entire room of people, most of them under the influence of alcohol, to follow along is no small feat. As a magician, I know how hard it can be to direct volunteers so that they don’t grab a prop at the wrong time or spoil a climax prematurely. Georg Riedel is a master of audience direction, and during the tasting I remember thinking that aspiring magicians could learn a lot from watching him in action.

Finally, there’s the art of the miss. The purpose of Riedel’s presentation, obviously, is to convince the audience that they should buy Riedel’s varietal-specific glassware. To this end, the tasting is aimed at persuading guests that pinot tastes best in the pinot glass, cabernet in the cabernet glass, etc. There is one moment of self-effacement, however. For one of the wines, he has the audience compare the aroma when served in the wrong Riedel glass to its aroma in a disposable plastic cup. The cheap cup, he says, is better than the expensive Riedel glass. This shows that he’s not merely pushing his own glassware, that sometimes a plastic cup can be better than a fine crystal stem. (The properly selected Riedel glass, of course, turns out to be best of all.)

Magicians sometimes incorporate a similar strategy, especially when performing routines involving mentalism or mind reading. If a performer breezily recites whatever it is an audience member is thinking of, the effect can appear too perfect and suggestive of artifice. But if the mentalist struggles and occasionally gets things wrong, the performance looks more like “real” mind reading. Riedel’s carefully placed miss plays the same role, ultimately making the argument that one needs varietal-specific glassware more persuasive.

None of this is meant to disparage Riedel’s glassware or Riedel himself. Rather it’s intended to shed some light on the ways his presentation is structured to lead the audience where he wants them to go and taste the things he wants them to taste, from the perspective of someone who has some experience managing perceptions in a different field. Judging by the reactions of the audience, this is a skill he has finely honed. A woman seated one row behind me responded with increasingly vocal astonishment as the tasting proceeded — the kind of spectator every magician desires in a crowd!

When you’re led through a carefully designed tasting such as this, it’s hard not to be influenced. I was seated next to the wine buyer from a successful restaurant, and we did our best to taste independently. For some wine and glass combinations I perceived what Riedel suggested I would, for others I tasted the opposite, and for several I struggled to note any differences between the glassware at all. We both estimated that Riedel’s tasting notes matched our own with perhaps a 50% hit rate, even with his guidance.

The most interesting aspect of the tasting by far was the opening sequence drinking cold water, not wine, from each of the stems. This focused attention to where different glass shapes caused the water to land in the mouth, which is not something I had ever thought about. Unfortunately, Riedel tied this loosely to the old idea that different parts of the tongue are attuned to different elements of taste. The old “tongue map” idea is at best a drastic oversimplification and I was surprised and disappointed to see a professional taster making uncritical reference to it in 2015. Much of the audience had probably learned about it in school, however, and to them it likely added a veneer of science to the tasting.

Is varietal specific glassware necessary? I left the event not really more convinced than I was going in. I don’t have a particularly well developed palate for wine, and this tasting was designed to lead to a pre-ordained conclusion. I’d like to repeat it sometime in conditions more favorable to blind, independent tasting.

I don’t doubt that glass shape matters on some level, but how precisely this can be determined for different varietals or how many different glasses could plausibly be useful is a question I leave to the wine pros. At home I’m content with my own hodgepodge of mismatched glassware. At the end of the tasting, all I can say for sure is that Riedel makes some very nice glassware that I’m happy to use, and that if the crystal business ever dries up, Georg could likely succeed in a second career as a professional illusionist.

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Cocktails on Tap comes to DC

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I’ll be making the first East Coast stop on my book tour this weekend, returning to my old home of Washington, DC. Join me at Upshur Street Books and Petworth Citizen this Sunday evening for a reading and drinks from Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer. We’ll have the book for sale and some tasty beer cocktails on offer. (7:00 pm, Sunday, May 17, 827 Upshur Street, Washington, DC.)

Klink

Can’t make the event? We’re also teaming up with Klink, the innovative new alcohol delivery service, to bring a book and cocktail package right to your door. We’ll have a limited number of gift sets that include the book and everything you need to make the Harvey Weissbanger, a contemporary take on the Wallbanger made with Galliano, fresh orange juice, and wheat beer. Read about Klink here, and visit the website or download the app to start shopping.

Photo by David L. Reamer.
Photo by David L. Reamer.

Praise for Cocktails on Tap:

“Jacob Grier was at the forefront of the beer cocktail renaissance before many of us had ever contemplated the idea of a beer cocktail. His vast knowledge of beer and passionate dedication to this area of mixology is certain to push the craft of cocktails forward in a positive new direction.”
–Jeffrey Morgenthaler, author of The Bar Book

“Jacob Grier is a masterful guide through the wickedly creative terrain of beer cocktails, offering not just delightful recipes, but history and cultural commentary, too. Connoisseurs and neophytes alike will find much to savor, and the latter will appreciate Jacob’s tutelage in cocktail basics. Grab a copy and start mixing!”
— Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

“As affable and inquisitive as its creator, the book ping-pongs from arcane, centuries-old recipes like eggnoggy curdled-cream-and-ale possets to contemporary beer cocktails gathered from bar pros around the country. A Breakside Brewery IPA, for instance, lends froth and bitter tang to a tiki classic or cuts the cachaça sweetness of a Brazilian “Caip-beer-ihna,” while Mexican lager branches out from the michelada to mingle with serrano-infused mescal and pineapple shrub. The takeaway is clear: it’s time to liberate beer from its bottle.”
— Kelly Clarke, Portland Monthly

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Beer cocktails finally legal in Virginia

My former home of Virginia is known for its archaic, overly strict alcohol laws, but there is some good news from the Old Dominion: Beer cocktails are finally legal. Well, some of them anyway:

Virginia law allows restaurants to mix spirits with beer or wine “pursuant to a patron’s” order, meaning that individual cocktails prepared for a customer are perfectly legal. Storing drinks that mix spirits with wine or beer remains illegal, however, unless that mixture can be passed off as sangria (defined vaguely by the mixologists in the state legislature as containing “brandy, triple sec, or other similar spirits”).

Most of the drinks I write about would therefore be legal in Virginia, but there’s a long tradition of batched beer punches that the state’s bars are still forbidden from serving. Ale Punch, a recipe from the great nineteenth century American bartender Jerry Thomas, or Blow My Skull, the favorite of an eccentric Tasmanian governor known for drinking his subordinates under the table, would both fall afoul of the rules. So too would “Beer Nog,” a contemporary take on egg nog that adds porter to the usual mix of brandy, eggs, and cream. And if any Virginians want to go wassailing in the winter, they’ll have to settle for low-proof versions of the beverage that do not fortify the warm ale with stronger spirits.

That’s good news for my book Cocktails on Tap. Read the rest of my article at Reason for a look at more of the country’s liquor laws, and also check out fellow Portland writer Niki Ganong’s new book The Field Guide to Drinking in America, which breaks them down state by state.

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