Coffee cocktails get serious

Camper English has an interesting article in this weekend’s San Francisco Chronicle about the new wave of coffee cocktails and high-end coffee liqueurs finding their way onto bar menus:

The craze for organic, shade-grown, micro-roasted slow-drip coffee has percolated into the cocktail world. Bartenders are improving classic coffee drinks, finding ways to harness the beans’ bitter, aromatic qualities rather than just the caffeine kick. […]

Coffee liqueur got a good bit more serious with the April release of Firelit Spirits Coffee Liqueur, made with coffee from Oakland’s Blue Bottle coffee roasters and brandy from distiller Dave Smith of St. George Spirits in Alameda. Jeff Kessinger, the brand’s founder, says Firelit was inspired by a desire to create a better version of his wife’s family’s homemade coffee liqueur recipe. The original called for instant coffee.

The first batch of 1,800 bottles required several hundred pounds of coffee from Yemen and a multi-stage brewing, distilling and flavoring process, with about one-half to one-third the sugar in other liqueurs. “The goal was just to make a coffee liqueur that was about the coffee, not about the sugar,” Kessinger says.

The coffee bitters from me and Lance Mayhew get a mention as well. They’re simple to make and our recipe for them is here; for a cocktail to use them in, try the Antigua Old-Fashioned.

Other coffee cocktails on this blog include the Lebowski-inspired El Dude and the Dimmitude made with clarified coffee.


A dragon for Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner has died. From his New York Times obituary:

Mr. Gardner also wrote fiction, poetry, literary and film criticism, as well as puzzle books. He was a leading voice in refuting pseudoscientific theories, from ESP to flying saucers. He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him.

His mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, but he never took a college math course. If it seemed the only thing this polymath could not do was play music on a saw, rest assured that he could, and quite well.

“Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,” said Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist.

Gardner was a magician too. He wrote the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic; I knew him from his contributions to Magic magazine. Reading the above makes me curious about more of his work.

A few years ago I wrote about an optical illusion created in his honor by fellow magician and skeptic Jerry Andrus. It’s a papercraft dragon that produces an eerie effect by cleverly fooling our perception of shape. Experience it by downloading the file here. There’s also a video, but it’s worth taking a few minutes to make one for yourself.


DC food and drink highlights

The Columbia Room offers the best service I have ever experienced in a bar. Tucked behind The Passenger, this reservations-only bar seats only a few people in a cozy escape from the busy nightlife out front. A flat rate brings Champagne, a small plate from the kitchen, and two expertly crafted cocktails from Derek Brown. This is very much in the Japanese style of bartending: You’re greeted with a hot towel, the ice is hand-carved, and the drinks are made one at a time in a cobbler shaker. Everything I had here was excellent, standouts being the Hibiki whiskey sour and duck prosciutto.

Some speakeasy-style bars take themselves too seriously; I have been in one and watched the host make a customer search her Blackberry for her password even though her name was on the reservation and the bar was nearly empty. In contrast The Columbia Room takes you seriously. It’s all about creating the best experience possible for the guests, from meticulously taking care of every detail to customizing cocktails to suit their tastes. If you’re in DC this is absolutely worth visiting.

Another great surprise is the new restaurant Eventide in Clarendon. This is the kind of place I wish existed when I was there, standing out from the bro bars that have flourished in the neighborhood. The crowd’s a little more restrained, the food is good, and bar manager Stephen Warner makes some excellent cocktails with spirits that were often unavailable in Virginia before he convinced the state bureaucrats to carry them.

Finally, Churchkey lived up to its promise as a beer destination. With 500 bottles, 50 taps, and 5 casks, one would never run out of beers to try here. Fortunately they offer 4 ounce pours of all their taps and casks, making it easier to experiment without getting hammered. My favorites were one of BrewDog’s Scotch-aged beers on cask and Victory’s Scarlet Fire rauchbier.

Other highlights: It’s always great to see Gina at PS 7’s and James at EatBar, Crisp and Juicy still rules, and I couldn’t get enough Salvadoran food.


DC bound

This morning I’m heading back to DC for the Cato Institute’s first-ever intern reunion, a massive event bringing together veteran interns from the think tank’s long history. This will be my first time back in well over a year. On my last visit I’d only been gone a few months and it felt like coming home. This time the city and my lifestyle there seem more distant, though perhaps I’ll slip right back into once I’m there. I will say this for DC: Despite the political world’s constant careerism and its priorities that are often not my own, I do miss the intellectual engagement the city always had on offer and the camaraderie shared by libertarians living in the belly of the beast. Where else could one pack a bar to the walls by offering drink specials and airing a Milton Friedman documentary?

In any case, the weekend will be fueled with copious food and drink. I already have a reservation at Columbia Room and Sunday brunch plans at my old hangout Eatbar (even if we can’t light up stogies there anymore). The lure of pollo a la brasa is strong. I’d like visit all the places on my old list, though that’s impossible. Eventide and Birch and Barley have opened since I left and I would love to visit them. What else is new that I should seek out?


Chefs smoke marijuana and they like it

I initially wasn’t going to link to this New York Times piece about how marijuana has “fueled a new kitchen culture” focused on delicious, casual food that stoned back of house staff like to eat. As causality goes that’s a bit of a stretch and it’s not news that people in the service industry like to light up now and then. However I agree with Radley Balko and Will Wilkinson that the more successful people who come out as marijuana users the better chance we have of changing our disastrous drug policy, so for that reason alone the article is worth pointing out. The main reason I’m linking though is this appearance from Portland:

Duane Sorenson, the founder of the coffee roaster Stumptown, said that fat buds of marijuana often end up in the tip jar at his shops.

“It goes hand in hand with a cup of coffee,” he said. “It’s called wake and bake. Grab a cup of Joe and get on with it.”

This happened to me once even in the staid atmosphere of Carlyle. A customer (service industry, of course) left me a large bud along with his cash tip. According to my coworkers it was a generous gift but unfortunately it was wasted on me. Not knowing any better I took it home and put in my humidor. It turns out this is not the correct way to store it, which is apparently common knowledge among my friends who would have gladly taken it off my hands. It turned into a big ball of mold that went straight into my trash can the next time I opened the lid.

I consider this story karmic revenge for all the times people have told me about the fantastic Cuban cigars they’ve been saving for a special occasion without keeping them humidified.


What’s wrong with the liquor stores we got?

The Washington Post reports that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is making progress on his proposal to privatize the state’s liquor stores. That’s good news, but what’s really interesting are the comments on the story. Commenters overwhelmingly oppose the idea. A sampling:

One of the nice things about living in Virginia, is not seeing big “LIQUOR” OR “CUT RATE LIQUOR” signs on every corner.

Virginia’s ABC stores are clean, quiet, civilized, and a good neighbor on the block. I’ve never been in a commercial liquor store that wasn’t ugly and dirty.

People aren’t clamoring for privately owned liquor stores in Virginia. In fact, to many of us, the well run, neat, and safe Virginia ABC stores are highly preferable to the seedy private liquor stores that you see in other states.

I agree with most of the comments posted. If it’s not broke – don’t fix it. All in all, the Virginia state store system works. While prices may not be as low as those in D.C., they still are competitve. Let’s not sacrifice a system that works for a short term, one-time injection of cash.

Agree that it is nice to have clean liquor stores and not ghetto liquor stores on every corner like in other states.

I completely agree with those who point out that having the ABC stores selling liquor means I don’t have to see billboards and signboards on every corner advertising cut-rate liquor. It’s one of the nice things about Virginia.

It’s hard to imagine any good reason why the state would be better at selling liquor than profit-seeking business owners. It’s a safe bet that none of these commenters are particularly into spirits. While Virginia stores might be clean, they’re also completely soulless: The same convenience store atmosphere and poor selection at all of them. The employees usually have no knowledge of the products they carry, prices are high, and if your tastes go at all beyond the basic brands they probably don’t have what you’re looking for. Spirit lovers either buy in DC, buy online, or suffer without.

People who aren’t into spirits have no incentive to care about this. Ads for sale prices are of no interest to them, though people who drink are happy to receive the information. The same applies to the poor selections. Who cares if you can’t find creme de violette in Virginia? A handful of consumers and specialty entrepreneurs might, but the law prevents them from doing business together and is not easily changed.

Call it the Beer We Got principle, after Alabama representative Alan Holmes’ classic speech objecting to a bill to legalize high-alcohol beers in his state (starts about 5:30):

Yeah, what’s wrong with the beer we got? I mean the beer we got drink pretty good, don’t it?

To the uninterested consumer the “X we got” will always be good enough. That’s why the state should pretty much never be in the retail business.

[Via @ivangosorio.]

Go, Bob, go!
Virginia’s Archaic Beverage Commission


Fair Trade follow-up

Following up on last month’s post about libertarians and Fair Trade coffee, it’s worth noting that leading roaster Counter Culture Coffee has released its annual transparency report for its Direct Trade certified beans. It’s available here in PDF format and is very cool. For every coffee in the program it tells you which employee visited the farm, when they last visited, the price paid for the beans, the beans’ cupping score, the number of years CCC has been buying from that farm, and a paragraph-length description of their work at each location. You really can’t beat that level of transparency.

To put the numbers in context, here’s a quick summary: The minimum price required for Fair Trade certification is $1.26 per pound. Counter Culture’s Direct Trade certification has a minimum of $1.60. The actual lowest price the roaster paid last year was $1.65. They paid as high as $4.45, with many coffees falling somewhere above $2 or $3.

As I said before, I’m not reflexively against Fair Trade, but I don’t want consumers to think it’s the best or only game in town. When you put that program up against the Direct Trade programs of the best specialty roasters it’s easy to see why many coffee lovers prefer the latter model.

[Via @CoffeeGeek.]