Mixologists and the Teamaker trip to Sri Lanka

When I was 21 years old, living in DC for the first time, and knew nothing about alcohol, my friend Courtney took me to a bar and handed me a drink. “Try this,” she said. “It’s a Long Island Iced Tea.”

“No thanks,” I replied. “I don’t like tea.” It was then that I learned that while a Long Island Iced Tea does use practically every other ingredient on the face of the earth, it doesn’t contain any actual tea. Ten years later, I would still politely turn down this cocktail, but for different reasons. And real tea, I now know, is wonderful stuff.

I thought of this story a few months ago when I was offered an incredible opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka to learn more about tea and explore its use in cocktails. As part of a collaboration between Lucas Bols, with whom I then worked more directly, and Dilmah Tea, a unique Sri Lankan tea company, I joined nine other bartenders from around the world — England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Australia, and New Zealand — for a ten-day tour of the country packed with tea tastings, tours of tea estates, and Iron Chef-style challenges to create tea cocktails at various stops along the way. It was in many ways the trip of a lifetime.

But first there was the matter of getting there, which required nearly 24 hours of travel. Surprisingly the northern route took about as much time as heading west, taking me from Portland to Seattle, from Seattle to a seven hour layover in Dubai, and finally from Dubai to Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo for an early morning arrival. I was the first bartender to land, and despite the time change, was stir crazy from all those hours in planes and airports. So I left my bags at the hotel and wandered off in search of fresh air and street food.

I might as well have had a large “T” for tourist written on my forehead for as obvious as it was that I’d just arrived. It wasn’t long before a friendly off-shift employee of one of the hotels offered to show me around. I didn’t want a tour, I just wanted to walk and find a place to eat. But he was persistent, it soon became obvious that going on foot wasn’t getting me anywhere interesting in that area, and my schedule for the rest of the trip was out of my hands, so I eventually thought what the hell and gave in. We flagged down a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis, and were on our way for the most whirlwind tour of a city I’ve ever been on. To where? I had no idea.

As the tuk-tuk drove us up an isolated dirt road, I began to doubt the wisdom of zipping off with this stranger in an unknown city. But I needn’t have worried. Our first stop turned out be a towering Hindu temple, which was strikingly ornate, although deserted at the moment. We walked around, snapped a few photos at my guide’s insistence, and were on our way to the next stop within a few minutes.

This turned out to be another temple, Buddhist this time, bustling with people. And one elephant. I wasn’t expecting to find a live elephant right in the middle city, but there he was, getting a good scrub down.

Also present: the temple elephant’s predecessor, preserved in the courtyard. The inside, too, was packed with stunning works of ivory that I hoped were at least few decades old.

Our next stops were political landmarks, including what I think is the capitol and then Independence Square, built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence from British rule in 1948. It was empty save for a snake charmer performing on the steps, from whom I kept my distance.

From what I can figure from Googling, the next place we visited was Viharamahadevi Park, the largest public park in the city. Though a nice place, I wasn’t sure why my guide was walking us through it. It was almost entirely full of young couples in various states of making out and that definitely wasn’t on my agenda. Then we got to the tree above. The things hanging from it? Those are flying foxes, among the largest bats in the world.

These are amazing creatures, circling the tree even in day time. It was fantastic getting to see them in person, and I only caught glimpses of them the rest of the trip, so I was grateful that my guide brought me here.

Through all this we still hadn’t stopped for what I initially set out for, which was food that didn’t come from a plane or airport. I finally convinced him to take us somewhere for us to have lunch. By this time I had no idea of where we ended up, but it served some of the best crispy chicken I’ve ever had.

Finally it was time for me to get back, but the guide insisted on one more stop, trying to sell me on bargains at a dubious gem store from which he’d presumably get a kickback. Then there was an offer of stopping for a massage with implied extra services, which I also declined. The tuk-tuk brought us back, and I paid for the tour — a little too much, in hindsight, but it was a side of the city I wouldn’t see during the more structured experience to come.

Back at the hotel I went to the pool and found a David Wondrich book left open by a chair, a good sign that other bartenders had arrived. Our first day was mostly free of responsibilities, so we spent it drinking Dilmah teas and spirits from our home countries. The next day, however, we had a our first challenge: Presenting a variety of tea cocktails to about 70 guests visiting from all over the world to learn more about tea.

My usual go to for tea cocktails, smoky black lapsang souchong, was picked by someone before me. But Dilmah had something even more interesting, what they called their Ceylon Souchong. Instead of firing the tea over pine, they use fragrant wood from cinnamon trees, which are often grown right alongside tea plants. I made a simple syrup with the brewed tea and it worked perfectly in a variation on one of my drinks from a few years ago, the Smokejumper:

2 oz Bols Genever
3/4 oz Ceylon Souchong syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz Galliano
freshly grated cinnamon, for garnish

Shake and serve on the rocks.

Here’s a short video of the event, which was a fun way to kick off our week of events:

This was the first of five cocktail challenges we had throughout the trip, so I’ll be posting the rest soon, along with notes from the more official parts of our tour.

[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols and Dilmah.]

Aquavit Week 2013

Aquavit Week returns in its second year with new aquavit, a new location, and a new aquavit barrel-aged beer from Breakside Brewing. A new website and a new logo too. Check out the site for all the details.

Nicotine and regulatory capture

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The FDA is expected to announce very soon new regulations governing chewing tobacco, cigars, and likely electronic cigarettes. If you’ve followed my writing on this, you know I don’t think this bodes well for the quality side of the tobacco market. The law giving the agency authority over tobacco products was brokered by an alliance of Philip Morris and anti-smoking groups, and the new head of the FDA’s tobacco division, Mitch Zeller, came to the job straight from consulting for GlaxoSmithKline on nicotine replacement therapies. The agency’s record so far has been distinguished much more by its anti-competitive effects than by any actual achievement improving public health.

The Boston Globe recently interviewed Zeller to get some indication of where the agency may be headed. As expected, it appears likely that Zeller will pursue mandating the removal of nearly all nicotine from cigarettes:

1. Create a non-addictive cigarette. We have the authority given to us by Congress to reduce nicotine in cigarettes down to nearly zero,” Zeller said. Since nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes, teens who start smoking products that are almost nicotine-free could, in theory, never get hooked in the first place. Researchers now have access to 9 million cigarettes with varying amounts of nicotine to start testing whether products with lower amounts will lead to less addiction among new smokers. But don’t expect an ultra-low-nicotine product for at least a few years, Zeller added, since the studies are just beginning.

A few notes on this:

1) This would obviously be good news for Zeller’s former client in the pharmaceutical industry. Removal of nicotine from cigarettes would leave smokers craving nicotine and many of them would likely turn to patches, gums, and the like. Zeller indicates in the same interview that the agency should perhaps remove warning labels from nicotine replacement therapies that discourage consumers from using them long-term, noting that using these products for life is healthier than smoking.

Even if this is good policy, Zeller’s previous job casts doubt on the FDA’s ability to consider the issue impartially. As many warned at the time of his appointment, his role as lead regulator of tobacco creates a blatant conflict of interest at the agency.

2) Mandated removal of nicotine could be good news for makers of electronic cigarettes, which now include the Big Tobacco companies. But it’s not clear that the FDA will turn a favorable eye to those, either. If the agency’s performance on cigarettes is any indication, e-cigarettes could be caught in a bureaucratic morass that keeps new products off the market with scant scientific justification.

3) Rather than turn to pharmaceuticals or e-cigarettes, at least some smokers will likely switch to cheap, low-quality cigars. Even if the FDA does not initially regulate nicotine levels in cigars, this will provide the impetus to extend the regulation. We’ve seen this before with bans on flavors or changes to tax policy when producers and consumers respond with products that technically qualify as cigars or pipe tobacco. Lawmakers and regulators then attempt to close the “loophole.” Makers of high-quality, traditional cigars would be caught in the crossfire. Whether or not one has any personal interest in cigarettes, if you enjoy an occasional pipe or cigar, then the FDA’s path should have you worried. There may be no way to produce a traditional cigar and comply with the FDA’s demands. This is the road that could lead to the complete destruction of the industry.

For more on how the FDA is getting tobacco regulation wrong, see my articles from the past year:
Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?
How the FDA is keeping new cigarettes off the market
The case against a smoke-free America

Recent reading

In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, Maureen Ogle — I first heard of Maureen Ogle through her engaging history of beer in the United States, Ambitious Brew. I enjoyed that book, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of her newest work.

In both books Maureen tells the stories of industries that began with local producers, consolidated into industrial scale, and then saw the rapid recent growth of smaller, quality production alongside the corporate giants. But she doesn’t she go for an easy narrative of good versus evil. The story of meat is driven by changes in production, transportation, regulation, and the incentives they impose on the market. This is very much a microeconomic history: the industry is the way it is because entrepreneurs made understandable choices in the pursuit profit.

Maureen takes an ambivalent view of modern meat production, as, in reality, do most of us. We abhor the cruelty of factory farming and the environmental destruction wrought by consuming so much meat. We also like being able to enjoy meat in plentiful, affordable quantities, whether it’s humanely-raised and artfully prepared or greasily devoured at a fast food restaurant. As she notes in the introduction, meat is like gasoline. It’s easy to extol moderation when it’s cheap, but few desire the hardship of making it expensive.

To readers seeking a condemnation of modern meat production, this book may come across as insufficiently damning. Even so-called “pink slime” gets its due. “[The] process was simply a high-tech version of what frugal cooks have done since humans stood upright: it allowed processors to utilize every available morsel of protein and calories,” she notes in the concluding chapter. “Only a food-rich society like ours enjoys the luxury of dispensing with frugality.” But this hard-headed approach to the subject is exactly what makes In Meat We Trust worth reading. There is probably no better source for understanding our carnivorous society, in all its plenitude and horror.

Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen — This is Tyler Cowen’s follow up to The Great Stagnation, examining economic trends stemming from what he describes as “some fairly basic and hard-to-reverse forces: the increasing productivity of intelligent machines, economic globalization, and the split of modern economies into both very stagnant sectors and some very dynamic sectors.” The basic ideas are summed up pretty well in this New Yorker interview. One exchange from that apltly describes my friend circle in Portland:

I think there will be much larger numbers of people who live somewhat bohemian, [freelance] lifestyles, who culturally feel very upper-middle-class or even upper-class, but who don’t have that much money. (Think of many parts of Brooklyn.) Those individuals will be financially precarious, but live happy, productive lives. How we evaluate that ethically is very tricky. Still, I think that’s what we’re going to see.

Initially reading the book, I didn’t think my own career in the spirits industry was likely to be affected very much by the need to work with intelligent machines. Robotic bartenders? A novelty, and change-resistant regulators would be wary of taking humans out of the exchange. Smart software to create novel recipes? That’s only part of the job, and we already have The Flavor Bible. But on further reflection, I realize a lot of my relative success in the industry comes not because I’m good at making drinks — lots of people are — but because I’ve combined that well with social networking and blogging. The topic of how to make a long-term living making drinks is one that comes up often, and understanding how to use SEO and online platforms is a factor to consider in this and so many other lines of work.

If you follow Marginal Revolution or have read Cowen’s other books, you’ll know whether or not you’ll like this one. I found it thought-provoking throughout and even enjoyed the long sections on competitive chess, a field in which Cowen sees signs of where other jobs and life pursuits are headed. (Freestyle chess, which combines teams of humans and computers, reminded me very much of David Brin’s recent science fiction novel Existence, recommended in the previous round-up.)

Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun — Given the ubiquity of cigarettes in the twentieth century, its easy to forget that tobacco was unknown to Europeans prior to the arrival of Columbus in the New World. It’s easier still to forget that tobacco has been enjoyed in many forms and contexts, from pipes and cigars to religious rituals and enemas. There’s much more to tobacco than addiction and cancer, and this compilation of essays gets at nearly all of them.

“Havana Cigars and the West’s Imagination;” “The Houkah in the Harem: On Smoking and Orientalist Art;” “Smoking in Modern Japan.” These are just a small sampling of the subjects covered, all of them amply illustrated with art, photos, and vintage advertisements. I know of no other book like it, and if the topic of tobacco is at all of interest than it is worth picking up.

Yuzu Sour

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Here’s another of our new cocktails at The Hop and Vine, this one using a delicious drinking vinegar from Genki-Su, a new company based here in Portland:

1 1/2 oz bourbon
3/4 oz yuzu vinegar
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Shake, strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

The Genki-Su vinegars are very good and can be purchased online. I especially like their shiso flavor, which I’ve used in a very similar cocktail with rum.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]

New cocktails at The Hop and Vine

Red Right Hand

My bartending these days has migrated from the west side to the east side of the Willamette River, allowing me to trade in monochrome dress slacks for denim and plaid. But the approach to cocktails remains the same. In addition to picking up occasional shifts at the exceedingly cool Expatriate, I’ve taken over the menu at one of my favorite places and long-time collaborators, The Hop and Vine.

With their frequently changing tap list and expansive bottle shop, The Hop and Vine is a great place to work on beer cocktails. The Mai Ta-IPA and Averna Stout Flip are both featured on the new menu. Of course we’re doing more than just beer though. Here’s a look at one of our other new cocktails, the Red Right Hand:

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo silver cachaca
3/4 oz Aperol
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz honey-chamomile syrup

Shake and serve up. To make the syrup, simply mix equal volumes of honey and chamomile tea.

Bartenders will often tell you that the hardest part of creating a new cocktail is naming it. I came up with this recipe for a Bars on Fire event at The Coupe in Washington, DC. I’d been stuck on the name and forgot to send it in before deadline. I remembered while listening to “Red Right Hand” just as the gong hit; thanks to a red hue provided by Aperol, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds solved my naming problem.

[Photo by Julia Raymond.]