Cigars for me but not for thee

The city of St. Louis implemented a smoking ban on January 1, 2011. There’s one place, however, where people still smoke with impunity:

The 109-year-old downtown Missouri Athletic Club may wriggle free from the city’s smoking ban.
City officials have prepared an agreement which exempts the private, invitation-only establishment — long frequented by judges, attorneys and politicians — from the municipal no-smoking ordinance.

The club, known as the MAC, has flouted the law since it was enacted Jan. 1, 2011, openly leaving ashtrays in the lounge, hosting hazy boxing matches and allowing men in suits to gather weekly at the bar with tumblers in one hand, cigars in the other.

The city cited and fined the club twice. The citations ended up in municipal court, where attorneys began working out a deal.

On Thursday, city Health Director Pam Walker presented a draft agreement to her advisory commission, the Joint Boards of Health and Hospitals, arguing that the nonprofit MAC is a unique entity, governed neither by rules for private clubs nor by those for businesses.

Hat tip to Michael Siegel, who inducts St. Louis health director Pam Walker into his Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame for carving out this exemption for local elites.

St. Louis isn’t the first city to engage in this kind of smoking ban favoritism. In Washington, DC, city councilman Jack Evans voted in favor of the District’s smoking ban, then took advantage of his position on the council to create special exemptions for organizations he likes:

The city’s smoke-free law provides an economic hardship waiver for struggling bars and restaurants, Evans said, but it leaves no wiggle room for a single event, like the St. Patrick’s Day gala or Fight Night at the Washington Hilton.

“Once a year, 1,000-plus people go there to drink Irish whiskey, smoke cigars and have dinner,” Evans said of the dinner. “Now they’re not allowed to do that. From my reading of the law there’s no other way to get an exemption but to legislate.”

Evans has continued to seek these one-time exemptions while leaving less connected charities who’d like to host cigar events out of luck.

As I wrote in 2009:

Evans has discovered the pain of having one’s treasured tradition banned by a bunch of meddling bureaucrats. I’d be sympathetic if not for the fact that Evans is one of those meddling bureaucrats. If he doesn’t like the law, he should introduce changes that open up smoking venues to everyone, not just to clubs that happen to have a city councilman in their membership.


Mai Ta-IPA


When warm weather arrives, I start thinking about the Mai Tai. Not the sickly sweet concoctions of rum, juice, and sour mix that sometimes masquerade under that venerable name, but rather the real thing, made with real orgeat. When mixed correctly it’s a drink that needs no improvement.

It does, however, welcome variation. Last summer at Metrovino we offered the Transatlantic Mai Tai, an all-grain take on the cocktail that substitutes genever and rye for the usual rums. This year we’re trying something different using one of my favorite cocktail ingredients, beer.

The genesis of this drink is the Brewing Up Cocktails Spirited Dinner that Ezra Johnson-Greenough and I are putting on at Tales of the Cocktail next month. One of our sponsors is El Dorado, maker of exceptional rums in Guyana. We thought their rum went fantastically in a Mai Tai — or, for this event, a Mai Ta-IPA:

1 oz El Dorado white rum
1 oz El Dorado 8 year aged rum
1 1/2 oz IPA
1 oz lime juice
3/4 oz B. G. Reynolds’ orgeat
1/2 oz Combier liqueur d’orange

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled collins glass. Garnish with a cherry (on a parasol, of course!).

The classic Mai Tai offers a perfect balance of sweet, sour, and spirituous elements. It doesn’t offer anything bitter. The addition of a hoppy IPA brings just a touch of bitterness to the drink while the carbonation makes it deliciously light and frothy.

If you’re attending Tales of the Cocktail this year, make reservations for our dinner with El Dorado and Drambuie at Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse, where we’ll be offering this and three more beer cocktails. Or if you’re in Portland, come by Metrovino to find a Mai Ta-IPA on our summer cocktail menu.


Turley is right, but privatization is hard

Jonathan Turley has an op/ed in USA Today arguing for privatization of spirits sales and the end of state liquor boards:

Seventeen states continue to exercise control over liquor as absurd relics from the 1930s. Ironically, there is no better example of the failures of central planning than the “ABC stores” around the country from Alabama to Pennsylvania. Indeed, if Karl Marx were alive and trying to buy Schnapps today, he might reconsider aspects of Das Kapital after dealing with our central alcohol planners. […]

Most states have gotten rid of these boards and fared well in relying on the market and conventional regulations to protect consumers. Just last month, Washington state embraced the free market and got rid of its state control. Thirty-three states rely on what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market where consumers choose among products — and the law of supply and demand handles the rest. However, eleven of the seventeen control states — Alabama, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Utah — exercise direct control over the retail sale and price of liquor, sometimes even owning the ABC stores where it is sold.

In the long run, Turley is obviously right. There’s nothing special about spirits that makes them uniquely amenable to state distribution. As with most normal goods, consumers would be best served in a bottom-up, unplanned market with minimal barriers to entry.

The problem, alas, is getting there from here. As clearly demonstrated by Washington state this year, privatization is difficult. Any process of privatization will have to contend with entrenched interests that include distributors, retailers, state employees, and the state itself all seeking to bend the new regulations to their benefit. Economists call this regulatory capture. Or, in this case, deregulatory capture: Using the guise of deregulation and privatization to protect their own interests.

In Washington’s case, latent support for privatization was widespread. Yet it was Costco who did the work of getting an actual initiative on the ballot. Included in the initiative was a rule restricting most new retail licenses to stores of 10,000 square feet or greater. This is good for large retailers, but not so good for consumers or for smaller entrepreneurs who’d like to take a more boutique approach.

The state made sure to keep its cut of spirit revenues too. Voters supported privatization envisioning California-style low prices. The Tax Foundation explains what they got instead:

… the initiative introduces several new fees which not only make up for the lost profit, but are likely to actually increase the state’s total revenue from alcohol sales. Private retailers are burdened with a new liquor retailer license fee of 17 percent of gross revenues, as well as an annual renewal fee of $166. Also, liquor distributors must pay a liquor distribution license fee of 10 percent of gross revenues. Unfortunately for consumers, these new fees will end up costing them more at the check-out than the old system they replaced.

When the Washington initiative first came up for debate, my friends and I in Portland, Oregon envisioned crossing the border to shop for liquor. In fact, the opposite has occurred: Consumers in privatized Washington are coming to state-controlled Oregon to buy their booze.

None of this means that privatization is not a worthy goal; it’s absurd that nearly eighty years after Prohibition ended we still have state boards determining which products consumers can and cannot buy. But advocates of privatization and deregulation need to be smart lest they give these goals a bad name (remember Enron, anyone?). Competition and privatization are not the same thing; we should seek the former without fetishizing the latter. And no amount of privatization will lower prices if the state imposes high taxes on the supply chain.

It’s too early to judge the results of Washington’s attempt in full, but that state’s experience should serve as a warning. When advocates present privatization as a magic bullet without bothering to get the details right, consumers may end up spending a lot more than they bargained for.

[Update with disclosure: For those of you who don’t read here regularly, I should mention that I work or have worked in various guises in the spirits industry. Opinions here are my own.]


Recent reading, spirits and cocktails edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filtering tonic water with the Espro Press


Homemade tonic water is delicious. Homemade tonic water is also a real pain to make. The natural source of quinine, cinchona bark, usually comes in a very fine powder that’s difficult to filter out of the finished product. It can take hours to drip through coffee filters and leaves a sticky mess on the counter if you’re not careful. Difficulty of filtering is the number one reason many people I know buy commercial tonics, many of which are now quite good, instead of making their own. But there are still reasons one might like to make a homemade tonic, including lower cost and the freedom to flavor it exactly how one wants.


Happily, I recently stumbled onto a solution that makes filtering tonic water easy. One of the hit new products at this year’s Specialty Coffee Association of America show was the Espro Press, a new kind of French press developed in Vancouver, Canada. Two things make this press unique. One is that the brewing chamber is enclosed by double wall vacuum-insulated stainless steel, so that it retains heat very well. The second is that it uses not one but two filters on the plunger. The primary filter is much finer than that on a standard French press and the secondary filter is finer still. This allows it to brew French press coffee without the “sludge” that the brewing method tends to leave in the bottom of the cup. It makes a nice cup of joe and I’ve been using it fairly often for my morning coffee the past few weeks.



I realized that the same things that make the Espro Press good for brewing coffee could also make it good for making tonic water. The heat retention should make it possible to brew the entire tonic in the press without need of a stovetop pan. And the dual filters, if they don’t get clogged with cinchona, would be perfect for removing the fine powder. The Espro sold out quickly at the show but luckily I was able to buy their demo press. I brought it back to the bar to try it out. The experiment worked and I have to say that I was a little more excited than a grown man should be when the first runnings of nearly perfectly clarified tonic came pouring out of the press.

What follows is a sample recipe for making tonic with an Espro Press. The proportions aren’t meant to be definitive, as this isn’t something I’ve needed to make consistently for a menu item. My usual approach to tonic is to riff off a standard recipe with whatever citrus and spices I happen to have on hand. A couple recipes that I often work from are this one from Kevin Ludwig in Imbibe magazine and this one from Jeffrey Morgenthaler (whoever he is). Two notes before proceeding:

Note 1: Quinine has effects on the body and can be dangerous in high doses. Read up on the possible adverse effects before proceeding. I’ve never heard of anyone coming to harm from homemade tonic water but I’m a bartender, not a doctor. Proceed at your own risk!

Note 2: Contrary to what some recipes say, add the sugar and citric acid after you filter out everything else. These need to be dissolved but they don’t have flavors that need to be extracted with heat. Adding them early just makes the mixture more viscous and more difficult to filter. Make life easier and add them at the end.

That out of the way, here’s one of the recipes I used to make tonic with the Espro Press:

4 cups hot water
3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons citric acid
3 tablespoons cinchona bark
zest of one grapefruit
zest of one lime
6 oz grapefruit juice
2 oz lime juice
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dill seeds

Step 1: Pre-heat the Espro Press with hot water so that the temperature will remain stable when you brew the tonic.

Step 2: Discard the water and place the cinchona bark, citrus zests, citrus juices, and spices into the press. Add the four cups of hot water and stir. Place the plunger on top of the press to seal in heat and let sit for twenty minutes.

Step 3: Lower the plunger to filter the tonic. The bark will offer significant resistance so you can’t just Hulk Smash the plunger into the chamber. Proceed slowly, using your weight to gently press the plunger down.

Step 4: Pour as much of the tonic out of the press as possible. When it stops flowing, rotate it and pour from a different angle; I think this gets around some blockage caused by the cinchona powder. Doing this a few times will maximize the yield.

Step 5: Beneath the filters there will still be some liquid remaining with all the powder and spices. You can filter this with some more labor-intensive method or simply discard it. This recipe being all about making things easy, I opt for the latter.

Step 6: Add the sugar and citric acid to the tonic to make a syrup. Stir to dissolve and pour into a bottle for storage.

That’s all there is to it. The syrup is ready to enjoy with soda water or mixed into a classic Gin and Tonic:

1 1/2 oz gin
3/4 oz tonic syrup
lime wedge

Combine all ingredients in a glass with ice, squeeze in the lime wedge, and stir.

A few additional notes…

I’ve made two batches of tonic with the Espro Press. It’s easy to clean afterwards and I don’t think repeated use would be a problem. However I haven’t put it up to the rigors of regular use in a busy bar, so if you’re buying one for that purpose I can’t guarantee that it will hold up. If you’re buying one for home use it should be fine and you’ll get a stylish coffee brewer too.

The Espro Press comes in two sizes. I bought the larger one, which at 30 oz is large indeed. The 8 oz one is intended for single servings of coffee. I haven’t tried it out for tonic. A list of retailers selling the Espro Press is here. It’s also available on Amazon (large; small). Cinchona powder can be purchased in bulk at herb shops such as this one.

Finally, in a surprising bit of synchronicity this isn’t the only post published this week about using coffee equipment to filter tonic water. Camper English of Alcademics features a method from Kevin Liu for using an Aeropress to accomplish the same thing. Check out that post too and keep following Camper’s blog for additional ideas.

[Photos of the Espro Press courtesy of Espro.]