Tobacco news roundup

New FDA Center for Tobacco Products director Mitch Zeller tells Bloomberg to expect action from the agency soon and that he seeks to craft a “comprehensive nicotine policy.” What could that mean? Unmentioned in the article are Zeller’s ties to producers of pharmaceutical nicotine replacement products or his interest in reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes to near zero, a proposal he brings up in the most recent issue of Tobacco Control.

My friends the Stogie Guys have a couple recent posts that are worth reading. In the first, they explain how Big Tobacco has become the enemy of small, premium tobacco through its lobbying efforts. In the second, they examine what a new bill requiring online merchants to collect sales taxes may mean for the cigar industry.

Hestia Tobacco, the brand whose struggle to navigate the FDA’s approval process I documented for The Atlantic, is finally in business. Not selling cigarettes, of course, but rather filtered little cigars. Sale of their cigarettes must await greater competence at the agency. If the product interests you, go check them out.

Christine Quinn, a leader in polls to replace Bloomberg as New York City’s next mayor, appears to have embraced Bloomberg’s nannying legacy. She has proposed raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes within the city to 21. As J. D. Tuccille notes at Reason, this would be good news for black market sellers, who already claim more than 60% of the state’s cigarette market.

Mixology Monday: East Indies Bloody Mary

East Indies Bloody Mary

April’s Mixology Monday theme is the deceptively healthy sounding “Drink Your Vegetables.” From Rowen at Fogged in Lounge:

Want to get more vegetables but you’re always eating on the run?… Well then, how about a vegetable cocktail? No, not that nice little glass of red stuff Grandma put at each place setting—we’re talking something with a kick in it. You can definitely start with the little glass of red stuff and expand it to a Red Snapper-style drink like a Bloody Mary. Or how about a cucumber-scented cooler like a Pimm’s Cup, or maybe a cocktail featuring a vegetable-based ingredient like Cardamaro or celery bitters? Maybe you’ve been wondering if you can get more mileage out of that juice extractor before consigning it to the garage sale. However you get them in that glass, be prepared for the most fun with vegetables ever.

A while back I was tasked with coming up with a creative take on the Bloody Mary. In a town with as many brunches and savvy bartenders as Portland, coming up with something unique and tasty was a challenge; here even the Aquavit Bloody Mary can seem routine. After quite a bit of experimentation with different spirits and spices, I eventually settled on one made with Batavia arrack — a funky, assertive spirit distilled from sugar cane and red rice — and accented with a spice paste inspired by Indonesian cuisine. To top it all off, the cocktail is garnished with house made pickles and a spicy grilled prawn.

I’ve been meaning to post this recipe for a while, so I’m glad to finally have the opportunity. To make it you’ll need a basic Bloody Mary mix, the spice paste, and Batavia arrack.

For the spice paste:

4 tablespoons sambal oelek
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine all ingredients and mix well.

For the East Indies Bloody Mary:

1 1/2 oz Batavia arrack
4 oz Bloody Mary mix
2 teaspoons Indonesian spice paste
cumin salt rim, for garnish
pickles, for garnish
grilled prawn, for garnish

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, and strain (but don’t fine strain) into an ice-filled pint glass rimmed with a mixture of salt and ground cumin. Go crazy with the garnishes. A grilled prawn flavored with turmeric and other spices is a good touch. When we served this we pickled various vegetables such as long beans, green beans, lotus root, daikon, and cucumber in the brine from the Indian-style pickled cauliflower recipe in The Joy of Pickling.

Coming up on my to-do list: Trying this spice paste on grilled meat. In the meantime, drink up.

[Photo courtesy of Lush Angeles.]

An appreciation of pipe tobacco

Writer Wil S. Hylton has a fantastic appreciation of pipe tobacco published last week in, of all places, The New York Times Magazine. Wil tells the story of coming across an obscure variety called Semois and tracking it to its source in Belgium, adding one more item to the long list of reasons I need to visit the country. Unlike so many food and drink writers, Wil gets that tobacco deserves a spot at the culinary table. I love this passage:

I was struck by how unfamiliar the scene would have been to my American friends who have, in a fashion typical of our generation, embraced the current culinary boom with maniacal fervor, boiling obscure reductions to drip onto bits of fruit exploded by bicycle pumps in homage to Ferran Adrià, and yet, despite this globe-trotting gustatory zeal, haven’t the slightest comprehension of the exquisite flavor that haunts tobacco. If the modern mythos of the kitchen had arrived a decade earlier, before the vilification of tobacco was complete, the pipe might occupy a place on the palate alongside argan oil and hijiki and yuzu. Somewhere in the multiverse, there is an alternate New York City where the Union Square farmers’ market brims not just with heirloom melons and leeks and squash but also with local tobaccos as vibrant as the Cherokee purple tomato. There is a literature still waiting to be written on fine tobacco; tobacco awaits its Julia Child — who, it should be said, loved to smoke, as so many other chefs have and do. It is axiomatic these days that smoking ruins the palate, but this would come as news to Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain and all the other celebrated chefs who enjoy a good smoke.

Read the whole thing.

Tobacco tax skepticism

My latest article for The Atlantic provides four reasons to oppose the new tobacco taxes proposed in the White House budget.

DC wants to ban e-cigs in bars

People in DC bars are “vaping,” or using electronic cigarettes, indoors. A couple members of the DC city council — Yvette M. Alexander and David Grosso — have introduced a bill to include e-cigarettes in the city’s smoking ban:

In an interview, Alexander said e-cigarettes are being “used to usurp the smoking ban.”

“It is smoking, is an inhalant and it’s similar to smoking,” said Alexander, chairwoman of the Health Committee. “We don’t know what the ill effects of this are, and it’s still a bother to some people.”

“Similar to smoking” and “a bother.” Time was city officials at least made a show of finding evidence of harm before imposing bans. E-cigarettes may be annoying to other patrons, but there’s no evidence or reason to believe that secondhand vapor (is that a thing now?) is something to fear. And to point out the obvious, bar and restaurant owners are perfectly free to set their own policies if guests prefer to avoid it.

What I’ve been drinking

Unexpected travel has made me a bit delayed reviewing spirits. Here are some recent arrivals to the home bar:

South Sea Rum — This is an “agricole” style rum distilled in Australia from first-pressed sugar cane. It goes through pot and column stills before resting for two years in old and new American oak. How to review it? Taken as an agricole rum, it doesn’t have nearly as much hogo, or distinctive funk, as counterparts from, say, Martinique. It is a very tasty rum though, with nice vanilla notes from the barrel and a long finish. I’ve gone through about half a bottle already, mostly drinking it neat. At $30-35 the price is right too.

Zumwohl Kirsch — It’s a dry, German style schnapps. It’s from New Zealand. And, oh yeah, it’s 132 proof. Sipping this neat is not for everyone, but if you try it you will taste cherries along with dark chocolate and a bit of a medicinal note. A more user friendly way to pour it is in a Straits Sling, where it fits perfectly. It’s not available in the US, so bug your Kiwi friends to send you a bottle.

Elixer Combier — According to the Combier website, this is a revival of one of their 19th century recipes, an herbal liqueur that includes “aloe, nutmeg, myrrh, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron” among its ingredients. At 76 proof it has enough heat to be enjoyed on its own without being too sweet. It’s very complex and I’m sure it could do great things in the right cocktail. But which cocktail? I haven’t figured that out yet, but I will be sure to experiment.

Concannon Irish Whiskey — For a spirits writer, March is the month when samples of Irish whiskey arrive. One year Lance Mayhew and I tasted nearly thirty versions of the spirit, a feat of endurance from which I’m still recovering. This year I tried just one new bottling, Concannon. Distilled by Cooley, it spends time in a mix of bourbon barrels and wine barrels from the Concannon Winery in Livermore, California. I picked up a slightly fruity note when tasting, which it turns out is also what the press release says the wine barrel finish provides. Like most Irish whiskeys it’s light bodied and easy drinking.

New taxes on pipes and cigars?

According to Bloomberg, President Obama will be proposing new tobacco taxes to fund pre-kindergarten programs:

Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, to be released April 10, would finance a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds with higher taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The president outlined the program in his annual State of the Union speech to Congress. He’s seeking to increase spending in areas such as education while Republican lawmakers are pushing for additional budget cuts as a way to reduce the federal deficit.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to elaborate on the proposed tobacco-tax increase. “Wait for specifics,” he told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

Never mind for now that cigarette smokers already suffered a more than doubling of the federal tax in Obama’s first year in office. The “other tobacco products” part of this proposal is reason to worry for those who enjoy pipes and cigars.

The 2009 tobacco tax increases to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program created some significant disparities among similar products. Pipe tobacco was taxed at a far lower rate than roll-your-own (RYO). Large cigars sometimes get much more favorable treatment than small cigars. As a result, producers and consumers shifted to pipe tobacco instead of RYO and added just enough weight to small cigars to qualify as large. The distorting effects of these taxes were immediate and striking:

These changes are almost entirely a matter of legal classification. Actual consumption patterns haven’t changed in the way the chart suggests. Neither pipes nor premium cigars have enjoyed an explosion of new consumers as a result of these taxes.

Nonetheless, the government wants to fix this disparity. A report from the General Accounting Office, the source of the chart above (PDF), estimates that in the first two years of new taxes these substitution effects may have cost the treasury up to $1.1 billion.

One way to fix the disparity would be to lower taxes on RYO and small cigars, but that’s not going to happen. So don’t be at all surprised if the proposal from the Obama Administration includes tax hikes on pipe tobacco and large cigars, imposing substantial new costs on consumers and retailers.

For more, read Michael Siegel’s take on the tax proposal. And for a longer explanation of how smoking bans, higher taxes, and FDA regulation threaten the premium cigar industry, see my December article in The Atlantic.

Update 4/10/13: Via International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers on Facebook, this is apparently the language in the budget proposal:

Increase tobacco taxes and index for inflation

Under current law, cigarettes are taxed at a rate of $50.33 per 1,000 cigarettes. This is equivalent to just under $1.01 per pack, or approximately $22.88 per pound of tobacco. Taxes on other tobacco products range from $0.5033 per pound for chewing tobacco to $24.78 per pound of roll your-own tobacco.

The Administration proposes to increase the tax on cigarettes to $97.65 per 1,000 cigarettes, or about $1.95 per pack, increase all other tobacco taxes by about the same proportion, and index the taxes for inflation after 2014. The Administration also proposes to clarify that roll-your-own tobacco includes any processed tobacco that is removed for delivery to anyone other than a manufacturer of tobacco products or exporter. The rate increases would be effective for articles held for sale or removed after December 31, 2013.

As predicted, all loose tobacco would be treated equally, resulting in a huge tax increase for pipe smokers. Details on cigars are lacking, but it looks they would be hit too.

Evolving regulation of nicotine

If you’re using nicotine gums, lozenges, or patches to quit smoking, the FDA has good news for you. It’s also good news for the producers of these products, such as pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. The agency announced yesterday that it’s revising its labeling requirements for nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) as an aid to smoking cessation:

The Food and Drug Administration says smokers who are trying to quit can safely use over-the counter nicotine gum, patches and lozenges for longer than previously recommended in a move to help millions of Americans kick the habit.

Current labels suggest consumers stop smoking or using other products containing nicotine when they begin using the products to help them quit and that they should stop using nicotine replacement products after 12 weeks at most.

The federal agency said Monday that the makers of gum and other nicotine replacement products can change the labels that say not to smoke when using the products. The FDA also said the companies can let consumers know that they can use the products for longer periods as part of a plan to quit smoking, as long as they are talking to their doctor.

This is a sensible move. Nicotine, taken in small doses and divorced from the carcinogens produced by combusting tobacco leaves, is not particularly worrisome. And any small harms that could accrue from using these products certainly pale in comparison to the alternative of continuing to smoke. So this looks like a good decision from the FDA.

What’s interesting, though, is the timing. The FDA has indicated that this month it will announce new proposed rules expanding the reach of its tobacco authority, deeming additional items to be tobacco products covered by the Tobacco Control Act. Among these may be e-cigarettes, an increasingly popular alternative to smoking that delivers nicotine via vapor.

E-cigarettes haven’t been studied nearly as extensively as traditional NRT products, but evidence that consumers use them to reduce or quit consumption of cigarettes continues to grow. A new study to that effect came out last week, in fact. And though there have been some concerns about e-cigarettes, no reasonable person believes they even approach the dangers of the real thing.

The question is whether the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products will allow e-cigarettes to continue as a viable approach to harm reduction or whether it will subject them to the full slate of regulations applicable to cigarettes. As I documented in my Atlantic article, the thicket of rules enforced by the CTP can be absolutely paralyzing, with the agency failing to rule on a single new product application in its three years of operation.

It’s at this point that one must mention the new director of the Center for Tobacco Products, Mitch Zeller. Zeller took over on March 4, stepping down from his pharmaceutical consulting position at Pinney Associates. His big client at Pinney? GlaxoSmithKline.

Neither Zeller nor the CTP are responsible for yesterday’s announcement about NRT labeling, which came from the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. However the relationship will be one to consider when and if the agency issues new rules regarding e-cigarettes. Hopefully the agency will take same the sensible approach to these potential competitors to traditional NRT as it has to GlaxoSmithKline’s own products.

Additional note: Buried at the end of Michael Felberbaum’s article linked above was this tidbit:

Meanwhile, the FDA said it is missing a Monday deadline to submit three tobacco-related reports to Congress, which the agency said are nearing completion. It also is missing another deadline to publish a consumer-friendly list of the levels of dangerous chemicals found in cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as tobacco company testing and reporting requirements for ingredients and additives.

There are no penalties for forgoing the deadlines outlined in the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority to regulate a number of aspects of tobacco marketing and manufacturing.

Keep up the good work, FDA!

Using a jigger? You’re doing it wrong.

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“Making cocktails is a lot more like baking than it is like cooking.” I hear this all the time from bartenders, the point being that precise measurement is vital to making balanced drinks. A bit too much citrus, too little vermouth, and your finely crafted, expensive cocktail isn’t is as good as it should be. This is why we encourage bartenders and home mixologists to use a jigger. It’s more consistent and delivers better results than “free-pouring” as the bartending academies instruct.

But at the heart of this adage is a lie. We pat ourselves on the back saying we’re as precise as pastry chefs, without acknowledging the obvious fact: Pastry chefs know better than to measure by volume. Volume is inconsistent. Is your jigger held perfectly level? Do you pour to the meniscus every time? Have you taken into account the effects of humidity and elevation on the local atmospheric pressure? Is the Manhattan you make in New Orleans identical to the one you make in Denver? No, it is not, and it’s time for us to catch up with our flour-dusted friends in the kitchen. It’s time to start weighing our cocktails.

This requires some adjustment, but it can be done. I’ve already seen it accomplished in some coffee houses, where baristas measure their water in grams. I’ve seen wine poured this way. Mixology is lagging behind. As hard as we’ve worked to get people to use jiggers, it’s time to throw them away and replace them with digital scales.

It’s a simple set-up, really, using no more space on the bar than a set of jiggers. Place the shaker or mixing glass on the scale and tare it to zero. Pour in the first ingredient to the desired weight, then tare again. Proceed until all the ingredients have been added.

Measuring by weight entails rewriting our recipes. Take the Last Word, for example, a cocktail in which the right balance of flavors is crucial. Here’s the recipe in the out-dated, traditional form:

3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz Chartreuse
3/4 oz maraschino liqueur
3/4 oz lime juice

Since each of these ingredients has a different density, converting the Last Word into a weight-based recipe looks like this:

17 g gin
19 g Chartreuse liqueur
22 g maraschino
21 g lime juice

Yes, this is harder to remember than the volume-based recipe with its convenient equal parts, but keeping an encyclopedia of obscure data in one’s memory is part of the bartender’s art. With a little practice the adjustment comes easily.

Another benefit of weight-based bartending is that it allows for objective quality control. The finished cocktail can be weighed after being poured into the glass to make sure that it has been diluted by the proper amount, eliminating the inconsistency of testing by taste. The finished Last Word, for example, should weigh between 105-115 grams. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t get served.

Weight-based bartending also allows us to eliminate that embarrassment to the craft, “the dash.” Dashes of bitters are terribly inconsistent, varying with the amount of bitters left in the bottle, the size of the hole in the cap, and the hand of the individual bartender. Mixologists, save your sprezzatura for your wardrobe! By setting a standard — I suggest .33 grams — we can finally get this right. Thus the previously mentioned Manhattan can now be made like this:

53 g rye whiskey
29 g sweet vermouth
.66 g Angostura bitters

See, it’s easy once you get the hang of it.

A final reason to adopt this system is that it will ease communication between those of us accustomed to measuring in fluid ounces and those who use the metric system. Sharing recipes between the U.S. and Europe requires conversion, which is rarely done with any precision. Measuring by weight solves the problem by creating a universal standard. Just remember: “Dram for dram, a gram’s a gram.”

I don’t doubt that measuring drinks with gram scales will initially be met with resistance, but eventually it will prevail on the merits. Within five years, we will look at bartenders using jiggers the way we now look at bartenders free-pouring, and think maybe we should just have a beer instead of taking our chances on a cocktail. That is why starting today, April 1, all recipes on this site will henceforth be given in grams instead of ounces. I hope that the rest of the industry will follow suit and finally give our craft the precision it deserves.