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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Hangman’s Bier

Hangman's Bier. Photo by Paul Willenberg.
Hangman’s Bier. Photo by Paul Willenberg.

One of the frustrations of writing a cocktail book, rather than a continuously updated blog, is the long interval between writing and publication. In the time between sending the book to the printer and seeing it arrive on store shelves, you’re bound to come across drinks you wish you’d been able to include. And with Cocktails on Tap coming out tomorrow, I’m sure this process will only accelerate as I hear from bartenders and cocktails enthusiasts about their favorite beer cocktails.

This post is devoted to one of these that I’d love to go back in time and slip into the manuscript. My friend and colleague at the Multnomah Whiskey Library, Jordan Felix, introduced me to it, and it was a popular cocktail on the menu there this winter.

The “Hangman’s Blood” is a cocktail that reportedly first appeared in Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica. From Wikipedia:

Hangman’s blood… is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter… Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

In the 1960s, novelist Antony Burgess offered an even more potent recipe to The Guardian:

Into a pint glass doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port, and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added, and the whole topped up with champagne or champagne surrogate. It tastes very smooth, induces a somehow metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover… I recommend this for a quick, though expensive, lift.

“This is a highly dangerous mixture and consumption is not advised,” warns The Burgess Foundation, who “takes no responsibility for illness or injury caused by following this or any other recipe by Anthony Burgess.” A fair warning.

Let’s be honest. Both of these drinks sound abominable. But part of the fun of exploring old cocktail recipes, especially those with a literary pedigree, is reviving them with better balance. Jordan’s Hangman’s Bier is a much simplified take on the drink, with lime and demerara standing in for funky Jamaican rum, and this version is a lot less likely to leave the imbiber awakening the next morning feeling like he’s been worked over by a gang of droogs.

1 1/2 oz rye whiskey (Wild Turkey 101)
1/4 oz rich demerara syrup (2:1)
1/4 oz lime juice
4-5 oz porter or stout
nutmeg, for garnish

Pour the whiskey, lime juice, and demerara syrup into a collins glass and stir to combine. Add ice and top with the beer. Stir gently and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Cocktails on Tap goes on sale everywhere on March 24. I’ll be doing a signing at Powell’s tonight, March 23, at 7:30 pm, followed by a party at the Multonomah Whiskey Library. Both events are open to the public.

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Cocktails on Tap release parties in Portland

My beer cocktail book, Cocktails on Tap, is now just a couple weeks away from publication. We’ve arranged a couple of fun events in Portland as we approach the official release.

March 17 — Is there a better holiday to celebrate a book of beer cocktails than St. Patrick’s? On March 17th, my friends at the Bull in China bar shop are hosting an informal toast to the book. We’ll be serving complimentary glasses of Abbey Street Punch, a recipe contributed by Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. We’ll also have a very limited number of books available for pre-release sale, and Bull in China is offering special deals on their fantastic new mixing glasses too. Check out their recommendations in the new issue of Portland Monthly.

Featured in the punch will be Teeling Irish Whiskey and Deschutes Black Butte Porter, complemented by a blend of Jamaican rums, lemon juice, sugar, allspice dram, soda, and nutmeg. It’s a great punch, and a favorite of friends who tested the recipe at parties. We’ll also have Teeling an Deschutes on hand for when the punch bowl runs dry.

March 23 — On March 23 we’ll be hosting our big release party at two of my favorite places in Portland. The evening will begin at the iconic Powell’s bookstore on Burnside, where we’ll be hosting a signing starting at 7:30 pm. Then at 9 pm we’ll walk over to the Multnomah Whiskey Library, where they’re generously opening the doors and offering a special menu of beer cocktails and punches from the book.

I look forward to seeing readers at all three events. For those of you not in Portland, stay tuned for book signings and cocktail parties in additional cities and pre-order your copy now.

[Photo of the Abbey Street Punch courtesy of David L. Reamer.]

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Dirty hands and raw meat

There’s nothing the media loves more than an elected Republican saying something stupid, and Republicans this week have been happy to oblige them. Rand Paul has, thankfully, backed off his anti-vaccine remarks, but Senator Thom Tillis stepped in to fill the void. He casually remarked that restaurants perhaps shouldn’t be legally forced to require employees to wash their hands, so long as they post signage alerting customers to the policy. Any restaurants doing so would presumably go quickly out of business. The free market at work!

This non-story was the most read political item at The Washington Post, it’s been covered by tons of news outlets, and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people piling on in mockery of this call for extreme laissez faire capitalism.

But the thing is, Tillis was sort of right. Not about this particular regulation, one that has precisely zero constituency calling for its removal, but about the idea that consumers often ought to be allowed to opt-out of restrictive health codes to eat and drink what they like.

Health codes governing restaurants exist to protect consumers from risks that they can’t easily ascertain by themselves. As a diner, there’s no easy way to know whether the back of house is clean, whether the food has been stored safely, or whether contamination is occurring. Instead we have codes that govern these things and inspectors that pop in periodically to make sure everything is at it should be. It’s not a perfect system, but it works tolerably well.

But while codes are uniform, consumers’ risks preferences aren’t. Often health officials have concerns about an ingredient or cooking technique, but some subset of consumers demand it anyway. In those cases, informing consumers of the risk before they proceed is a viable compromise. This happens in restaurants all the time and it arguably should happen even more.

The most obvious example is the cooking temperature of meat. Health officials are wary of serving meat, especially hamburgers, that has not reached temperatures sufficient for killing E. coli. They advise against eating burgers cooked rare or medium rare. Consumers who know the pleasure of a perfectly cooked patty are willing to take the risk. Fortunately, under federal codes they have a choice. Restaurants can serve meat at lower temperatures as long as they put a warning on the menu along the lines of “consuming raw or undercooked meats may increase your risk of foodborne illness.”

In principle, that’s not too far off from what Tillis was suggesting. Even in 2014, undercooked meat isn’t legal everywhere. North Carolina didn’t legalize rare burgers until 2012, and I’m unclear on the law in South Carolina. All of Canada is a apparently a hamburger wasteland unless you find a chef willing to take his chances with the law:

The official “safe” temperature for hamburger meat, as enshrined in municipal codes and provincial acts across Canada, is 71 degrees Celsius, eight degrees higher than the generally accepted threshold for medium rare. […] “Every so often a restaurant will come up and advertise pink burgers, and we will go in and talk to them,” said Anna Marie D’Angelo, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, the city’s health inspection agency. If West Coast diners see even a tinge of pink, health authorities advise them to “ask it to be recooked for their own safety,” said Ms. D’Angelo. Health Canada takes it a step further: After sending back the offending burger, “ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too” reads an advisory on the federal agency’s website.

These are real people with real jobs backed by real government power! They make chefs wary of speaking on the record about something as mundane as cooking hamburgers.

“I’ve served probably 100,000 burgers and nothing’s happened,” said Greg, a Canadian restaurant owner who isn’t in fact named Greg but wished to stay anonymous, arguing that media attention could attract unwanted scrutiny from the health department. Greg sources his own meat and grinds it in-house, but he still treads a narrow legal line. “A lot of guys do it, but we do it under the radar. If we put our names out there … they’re going to stop it.”

As with meat in the United States, so with sushi, oysters, eggs, and many other foods that are often best prepared raw or with minimal cooking. Want to dip your fries in aoili? Want to drink a cocktail shaken with egg whites? Want to sip Scotch in one of the few remaining smoking lounges? Then be glad health officials deign to let us off with just a warning.

In the United States, raw dairy is probably the best example of a food we should be able to eat given a clearly stated warning, but currently cannot. As cheese lovers know, the FDA forbids the interstate sale of raw milk cheeses that have been aged for fewer than sixty days, keeping delicious fresh cheeses off the market. Some states allow the sale of raw milk with a suitable advisory, while in others it’s completely banned, forcing consumers to buy on the black market or find legal workarounds. Thus we have the spectacle of federal agents conducting sting operations and arresting farmers for selling milk and cheese. Wouldn’t it better to let people make their own decisions after being suitably informed of the risks?

If you think so, then you and Thom Tillis are sort of on the same page. If you enjoy sushi, “undercooked” meat, various egg-based sauces and dishes, or lighting up in a cigar room, then you’re on board with the principle Tillis was clumsily attempting to illustrate. If you’ve experienced a perfectly cooked steak pulled from a sous vide bath, be glad New York officials stopped fining the chefs who use the technique and worked with them instead to write regulations that effectively govern it.

If we didn’t push back against risk-averse health officials about what we eat, drink, and smoke, our bars and restaurants would be a dull culinary landscape of overcooked food and excessively sanitized interiors. Everyone’s laughing at Tillis’ hypothetical hand-washing scenario, but it was just a year ago that California was stupidly ordering every bartender in the state to wear disposable latex gloves. Of all the people saying Tillis is nuts, foodies especially ought to know better. (I’m looking a you, Eater.)

As an illustration of excessive regulation, requiring employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom is obviously a dumb one. Tillis deserves to be mocked not because he’s wrong about regulation, but because he picked such a stupid way to make his point. That this is the best example he could come up with is, as Thoreau notes, just the latest evidence of the GOP’s utter uselessness.

But the gist of the argument isn’t crazy. There is, thankfully, no consumer demand for cooks with filthy hands and this isn’t a legal change that we need to be remotely worried about. We do, however, have reasons enough to be concerned about overzealous regulators interfering with the choices consenting adults make about food and drink. The principle at stake is worth defending, and it’s unfortunate that it falls to people like Tillis do it so ineptly.

[Photo used under Creative Commons license from roboppy.]

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Hot take on beer

Today at The Atlantic, I have a literal “hot take” on beer:

If there’s one thing big beer marketers know, it’s that people like their beer cold. “It’s a simple fact that consumers love ice-cold beer, and we love providing it,” writes MillerCoors, touting their cold-activated labels with mountains that turn blue to indicate when beer “goes from cold … to Super Cold.” The problem of insufficiently frigid beer apparently plagues the American consumer and technology is here to help.

But since this is the middle of winter, consider an alternative suggestion. Why not drink hot beer?

Read the whole thing. If you find the drinks in the article intriguing, you should of course pre-order my book. There’s an entire chapter on these “Hot Helpers” with recipes for recreating them with modern ingredients.

[Photo courtesy of David L. Reamer and my publisher, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.]

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The Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books about drinks for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aquavit Week 2014

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

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Two new aquavits to try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Announcing Cocktails on Tap

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

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

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

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GMO labeling in Oregon

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

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

Read the whole thing.

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

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Playing with the Novo Fogo Caipirinha Kit

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

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

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

Well, almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A visit to Diam’s high-tech cork facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 Bottle Bar comes to Portland

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

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

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

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

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