Midnight Shift

Midnight Shift cocktail on my rooftop.

It’s been a while since I posted a “brown, bitter, and stirred” cocktail (as my friend Lindsey likes to order them). It’s also been a while since I made a new cocktail with Novo Fogo cachaça. The Midnight Shift addresses both of those oversights:

1 1/2 oz Novo Fogo Gold Cachaça
3/4 oz Cynar
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz Galliano L’Autentico
2 dashes mole bitters
1 dash absinthe
orange peel, for garnish

Give all the ingredients a good long stir with ice and strain onto a big frozen cube, if you have one handy. Otherwise serve it on your normal rocks. And don’t omit the orange peel. Like Jeff Lebowski’s rug, the citrus oil really ties everything together.

Speaking of Novo Fogo, the other purpose of this post is to inform you that Novo Fogo founder Dragos Axinte and Los Angeles bartender Jaymee Mandeville of Drago Centro will be guest bartending at Metrovino on October 22 as part of Novo Fogo’s “Bars on Fire” series. Come by from 5-8 pm to welcome them to Portland and enjoy creative cachaça cocktails.

Genever is genever

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The title of this post doesn’t promise anything informative: Genever is genever. Yet when I hear people explain what genever is, they usually say something like “Genever is Dutch gin.” Or a kind of gin they drink in Holland. Or a malty style of gin that was popular in the United States before London dry took over. Gin gin gin gin gin. Look, I enjoy gin too — the gin shelf in my apartment is filled to overflowing — but genever is a different thing. Genever is genever. Labels are admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but I’d like to persuade you that there are good reasons to think of genever as its own distinct category of spirits.

I should first disclose that I’m not a disinterested party on this matter. I work for the Dutch distillery Lucas Bols and my job largely consists of encouraging people to drink more genever. It’s a better pitch for me to walk into a bar and say, “You should carry at least one genever” than it is to say, “You should carry an additional gin, and it should be this unusual Dutch one.” However that’s not the only reason I’m urging this change in classification. The spirit is maltier and less botanical than gin and it doesn’t mix in the same way. Calling genever a type of gin creates confusion.

Consider a typical consumer. He walks into a liquor store, sees a bottle of genever in the gin section, and is intrigued enough to buy it. He takes it home and puts it in his favorite gin drink, a Gin and Tonic. This is a classic pairing for a London dry. But genever and tonic? Eh, not so much. The bottle gets tucked away and forgotten.

Or consider a bartender who finds genever added to the gin section of his employer’s menu. He makes a Martini with it. Is that going to make him enthusiastic about genever? Probably not.

Both of these drinks are excellent with gin. They’re not ideally suited to genever. It’s no fault of the consumer or the bartender that the cocktails didn’t turn out as they’d hoped: They were told genever was gin, so they tried mixing it in absolutely standard gin drinks. They were given the wrong expectations about the product. If they knew what genever is actually like and how to use it, that disappointment could have been avoided. The first step in that education is getting them to think of genever as genever rather than as a kind of gin.

Here’s an analogy I sometimes use to explain my work with Lucas Bols. Imagine that your job was to promote tequila before many people in the United States had any idea what tequila was. You might tell them it’s sort of like rum, produced in the southern latitudes and with an affinity for mixing with lime and other citrus. Or you might tell them it’s like whiskey or brandy, aged in barrels and very nice to sip neat. Neither of these descriptions is completely accurate, but they give consumers a starting point for enjoying the spirit.

In fact, that is pretty close to how some Americans first encountered tequila. Bottles arrived in the American market labeled “Mexican Whiskey.” You can see these in the Sauza Family Museum in Tequila or in this photo. It’s an interesting snapshot of how an unknown spirit reached many consumers in the guise of something more familiar. (The labeling regulations didn’t get worked out until the 1970s.)

When we encounter a new spirit, our impulse is to understand it by reference to spirits we already know. This is perfectly sensible. But eventually, if we really want to know a spirit, we need to understand it on its own terms. For tequila, we need to know about agave, not grain. Tequila would have never thrived the way it has in the American market if it was forever viewed through the lens of whiskey, if its essential “agave-ness” were never allowed to shine through.

amsterdam-017

Genever today is in a similar position to those early tequilas. As genever re-entered the American market a few years ago, people needed an existing spirit to compare it to. They needed a section of their menu or their liquor store to put it in. Seizing on the etymology and botanicals it shares with gin, they reasonably grouped the two together. My view is that this classification misses the essence of the spirit, that genever is to “Dutch gin” as tequila is to “Mexican whiskey.” (Above: A photo I took at a liquor store in Amsterdam. There’s a lot of genever and it gets it own shelf!)

So if genever is not gin, what is it? The spirits do have one thing in common: They are both flavored with juniper berries. Early Dutch distillers sold spirits flavored with juniper and other botanicals for their alleged medicinal qualities. The spirits were produced in pot stills, which retain much of the character of the grain, producing a product that was essentially whiskey with botanicals added. It was called genever, from jeneverbes, the Dutch word for juniper. English speakers shortened this to gin.

With the invention of the column still in the nineteenth century, Dutch genever and English gin began to diverge in style. The English went for the new, purer spirit, essentially making botanical flavored vodka. The Dutch stuck with their malty genever. To distinguish between the two, English speakers called the latter “Holland’s gin.” It was a useful distinction until the triple blow of changing tastes, Prohibition, and World War II reduced genever’s prominence in the American market.

Thus gin evolved from genever, but that doesn’t mean that we should declare genever a kind of gin any more than we should think of the blues as just a proto-form of rock and roll. Gin and genever are “about” different things. Gin is primarily about botanicals. If you line up three different gins and want to describe the differences among them, you’re going to talk mostly about their botanical profiles. This one has very assertive juniper, this one is more floral, this one has a licorice note, etc.

Genever is partly about botanicals, but it’s also about the malty base spirit. As agave is to tequila, this maltwine (moutwijn) is to genever. When tasting different genevers, the differences in maltwine and the effects of barrel ageing are at least as important as the botanicals, often even more important.

As I write this I am sipping on a glass of the Bols 10 year old Corenwyn, one of the maltier styles of genever. There is juniper in it, but its presence isn’t obvious in either taste or aroma. The flavor is of grain mellowed by a decade of barrel ageing. It’s very good neat. If I had to compare it to another popular spirit category, I’d undoubtedly choose whiskey over gin. However it’s not quite that either. The botanicals are there, and they do make a difference.

This particular bottling isn’t currently available in the states, but aged genevers are starting to appear. A few months ago Bols introduced Bols Barrel Aged Genever, which is aged for a minimum of one and a half years in oak. It’s more than 50% maltwine, as is the original Bols Genever. As these spirits arrive in the market, the classification of genever as a type of gin is going to become more and more inapt.

Take the 10 year old bottle I mentioned. Let’s say you went to Amsterdam and brought a bottle back for your bar. You could insist, if you like, that any spirit that has so much as kissed a juniper berry counts as gin. But you would have to explain that this is a very strange gin that’s made mostly from a whiskey-like grain distillate, that’s aged for years in oak barrels, that doesn’t really taste like juniper at all, and that’s good in cocktails but also very nice on its own with no chilling or dilution. You could say all that. Or you could say, “genever is genever.”

I think the latter approach is simpler and more sensible. Take a couple examples from the press this week. Today at The Atlantic Clay Risen has a good article about barrel aged gins:

My favorite so far (and the most widely available) is Lucas Bols’s Barrel-Aged Genever. Unlike most gins available in the United States, Bols and other Dutch gins, or genevers, use a maltwine base, a combination of corn, rye, and wheat. They are also less intensely distilled, and usually through pot, rather than column, stills, producing a robust whiskey-like quaff, which connoisseurs prefer to drink chilled and neat. It’s thick, like a liqueur; you wouldn’t think to mix it with tonic for a summer-day quencher.

I’m delighted that he enjoys our product, but that’s a lot of words to explain how unlike gin our gin is! The classification is straining at the seams.

Here’s another from The Oregonian, which on Tuesday published its annual list of “100 Things We Love.” Kopstootje Biere, our collaboration with Portland’s Upright Brewery to create a beer designed specifically to pair with Bols Genever, made the list. That makes me very happy. Yet here’s how they introduced it: “A traditional Dutch ceremony consisting of genever, a type of gin, with a beer back.” If you know about genever, or especially if you tried this pairing last year, you know that this is a tasty combination. But to everyone else, a glass of gin with a beer on the side probably doesn’t sound very appealing. Even if you like gin, you don’t ever drink it like that.

So let’s stop saying that genever is gin. If someone asks what genever is, say “genever is genever.” From there you can explain how the spirit is made, where it comes from, and what it tastes like. Maybe after that talk about its relation to gin. Gin is wonderful and its evolution is a neat story, but it is not the story of genever.

flying-hart-1

If you’ve read this far, the least I can do is offer you a cocktail. At the beginning of this post I mentioned that putting genever in gin cocktails doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does; I’ve had delicious twists on the French 75 and the Corpse Reviver #2, to name a couple. However at other times it makes a better stand-in for whiskey and substituting genever in your favorite whiskey cocktails is a promising way of coming up with new drinks.

This one is the latest addition to our menu at Metrovino, featuring Bols Barrel Aged Genever. It’s a fairly straightforward adaptation of one of my favorite rye cocktails, The Remember the Maine. In keeping with the sunken ship theme, it’s named the Flying Hart (Vliegenthart), after a notable Dutch shipwreck.

2 oz Bols Barrel Aged Genever
1 oz sweet vermouth (Dolin)
1/4 oz cherry Heering
2 dashes Brooklyn Hemispherical fig bitters
1 dash absinthe

Stir, serve up, and garnish with a cherry. Prost!

MxMo absinthe and the Atty cocktail

Atty cocktailMixology Monday is back and this time it’s hosted by Sonja at Thinking of Drinking, who chooses absinthe as our theme:

The topic for February is Absinthe. That much maligned, misunderstood, mistreated spirit, suddenly plentiful again in the US and other parts of the world. Absinthe played a role, whether large or small, in a variety of great cocktails from the 1800′s and early 1900′s – the Sazerac, Absinthe Suissesse, Corpse Reviver No. 2… I’m getting thirsty.

So let’s celebrate absinthe’s history, and it’s future, with all manner of cocktails using absinthe.

I tend to drink absinthe most often as an accent in cocktails rather than on its own and even then I don’t turn to it very often. So lacking inspiration this month I turned to Difford’s Guide #7, a massive book that includes recipes and photos for more than 2,250 cocktails conveniently indexed by ingredient. The drinks are of decidedly mixed quality but there are some gems in there, including the Atty cocktail:

2.25 oz Plymouth gin
.75 oz dry vermouth
.25 oz absinthe
.25 oz creme de violette

Stir (not shake!) over ice and optionally garnish with a lemon zest, though the aromatics of the absinthe and violette are strong enough that it’s not strictly necessary. The recipe is adapted from the Savoy Cocktail Book, which to my shame I don’t have in my library yet. Erik Ellestad posts the original recipe here.

The interplay of the absinthe and floral flavors is really nice here. It’s similar to the absinthe and lavender combination in Neil Kopplin’s Envy cocktail, though much more restrained. I like this drink a lot, and the color is fantastic (as you could see if I was a better photographer). Definitely recommended.

Incidentally, Difford’s Guide is available online as well, but the physical book is great to have on hand to browse through for ideas. The new edition #8 is available now.

A bevy of booze reviews

It’s hard to believe 2009 is almost at an end. Among my unfinished business is a stack of spirits up for review. Time’s a wastin’, so let’s get to it…

Gosling’s Ginger Beer — A few months ago I wrote about trademarking cocktail names, a discussion inspired by an ad run by Zaya touting its rum as an ingredient in a Dark ‘n Stormy (traditionally made with Gosling’s rum, ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime). It turned out the name of that cocktail is owned by Gosling’s, who defended the trademark. I sided with Zaya at the time and in response Gosling’s kindly sent me a six-pack of their ginger beer so that I could experiment with the drink.

The beer has a fairly strong ginger kick which is essential in this cocktail. And as they say, the Gosling’s rum makes a tasty Dark ‘n Stormy. But here’s the thing: So does Zaya. I tried them side-by-side and enjoyed them both. They’re different, with a bit more of the rum coming through on the Zaya, but I can’t imagine anyone getting turned off this drink because they tried it with Zaya instead of the original Gosling’s.

In defense of Gosling’s, I understand why they want to defend their trademark so that it’s not used by low-quality rums. And I’d gladly recommend its use in this cocktail, especially given that it can be found for one-half to a third of the price of Zaya. However I stand by my earlier general stance against trademarking cocktail names.

House Spirits White Dog and Barrel Strength Whiskeys — As microdistilleries have boomed across the country we’ve started to see releases of whiskey along with the usual vodkas and gins. While often interesting, I don’t always find that these new whiskeys are worth their boutique prices. Two that are come from Portland-based House Spirits’ newest additions to its apothecary line. The unaged White Dog, made of 100% malted barley, is hot and complex with an intriguing malty flavor, easily my favorite of the white dogs I’ve tried so far. Their cask-strength whiskey aged for 32 months in new American oak is good as well, with a big, spicy kick mellowed by caramel notes from the wood. With only 150 375 ml bottles of White Dog and 160 375 ml bottles of Barrel Strength released, these are hard to find and worth adding to one’s whiskey collection. (House has released a 750 ml Straight Malt whiskey too, but I haven’t purchased a bottle yet.)

Pernod Aux Plantes D’Absinthe Superiore — I’m by no means an absinthe connoisseur but when a bottle of Pernod arrived at my door I was happy to try it out. The first thing I noticed was the strikingly green color, the result, unfortunately, of adding artificial dyes. I suppose they’re doing this to meet customer expectation that absinthe is green but I’d rather see the natural results of maceration.

It louches predictably in a traditional preparation. Without sugar it has a lingering bitterness; with sugar it smooths out. I might use it as an accent in cocktails but with so many other absinthes on the market now it wouldn’t be my choice for drinking on its own.

Xanté Pear Liqueur — Given the sex-fueled marketing that used to attend this product I was expecting a cloyingly sweet, night club-style liqueur. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is actually a well-balanced spirit. At 76 proof it’s not excessively sweet and the pear flavor is strong but not overwhelming. It’s enjoyable to sip with an ice cube or two and I could easily see it working in fall or winter cocktails.

Balcones Rumble — We’ll wrap up with a product from my home state. Balcones Rumble is distilled in Waco, Texas from wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and mission figs. The nose is unique and the flavor has sweet, stone fruit notes. I like the initial taste but the lingering heat is a bit much, comparable to a cigar that burns too hot. I’d like to try this product again with a little more aging or perhaps a lower proof, but it’s nonetheless an original spirit I’m glad to have on my shelf.

Belgian beer cocktails

If you like big Belgian beers but wish they had more alcohol on in them, then 1) you’ve got a problem and 2) will enjoy this guest post from me today on Rob Kasper’s Baltimore Sun beer blog.

Green Fairy at 20,000 Feet

shatner

So let me get this straight, TSA. Bringing a bottle of shampoo or a pair of nail clippers on the plane is a threat to national security, but letting passengers guzzle absinthe is A-OK? Priorities, people! (Meaning let’s allow both, not let’s ban absinthe.)

According to BoingBoing, Virgin America is going to start serving absinthe on its flights. I’m all in favor of improving the spirit selection on airplanes, but there’s some bad news here too: The absinthe they’re serving is Le Tourment Vert and it’s absolutely terrible. I don’t like to trash liquor brands on this blog, but absinthe is a new spirit in the US with a lot of buzz around it, so first impressions count for a lot. Le Tourment Vert is a slickly (and sometimes clumsily) marketed product with a sexy bottle and a high price tag; it’s also full of artificial coloring and tastes like mouthwash. People whose first taste of absinthe comes from Virgin America may be turned off of the spirit forever, missing out on some truly artisan spirits. If you’re flying Virgin, don’t waste your time.

Now if only some airline would feature Aviation Gin. That’s an obvious tie-in and a worthy product to feature.

Previously:
Night with the Green Fairy

Back behind the stick

Carlyle Bar

This post has been a much longer time coming than I anticipated when I quit my previous job in July, but now I can finally say it: I am employed! Well, partially. I’m only working one night a week. But given the state of Portland’s restaurant scene right now and the fact that Oregon has the nation’s 6th highest unemployment rate, I’ll take what I can get.

Luckily, what I get is a pretty sweet bar. Starting next week I’ll be covering every Tuesday at the Carlyle, an upscale bar and restaurant in the northwest part of town. As bar manager Neil Kopplin described it to me when I first met him a few months ago, working here is like having a huge toybox at your disposal and the freedom to do whatever you want with it. He wasn’t kidding. Pictured above is our giant wall of whiskey and spirits, which doesn’t include the two shelves below it, the well, or the big cabinet full of bottles behind the bar.* Notice also that there’s no ladder, so reaching the high shelves requires a bit of monkey-like climbing. If you ever want to tick me off at work come in and keep changing your mind about which top shelf liquor you’d like after I get them down.

Neil has put together an excellent cocktail list with an emphasis on quality spirits and fresh ingredients. Below is my current favorite on the menu, the Envy:

Carlyle -- Envy

.5 oz Marteau absinthe
.75 oz green Chartreuse
1 oz Meyer lemon juice
.25 oz lavender syrup
.25 oz honey syrup

Shake over ice and strain into a Martini glass, topping with a bit of soda. Even though it has just a little over an ounce of spirits in it, they’re overproof, flavorful, and strong enough to stand up to the citrus. The Marteau is an excellent new absinthe distilled right here in Portland; it’s wonderful on its own and contributes pure herbal deliciousness to this cocktail.

I’ll be behind the bar Tuesdays from 4:00 to close, which is generally between 9:30 and 10. Happy hour prices on the bar menu run until 6:30. I’m having a great time mixing drinks professionally again, so come in sometime to say hi and enjoy a tasty beverage.

*Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the left-most column is actually a reflection, not a shelf. But that’s still a lot of spirits!

Ethanol, not thujone, makes you crazy

We’ve got our problems with too much ethanol, and so did nineteenth century cafe goers. But while our excess ethanol wastes money and starves the poor, theirs just made absinthe drinkers a little too drunk:

An analysis of century-old bottles of absinthe – the kind once quaffed by the likes of van Gogh and Picasso to enhance their creativity – may end the controversy over what ingredient caused the green liqueur’s supposed mind-altering effects.

The culprit seems plain and simple: The century-old absinthe contained about 70 percent alcohol, giving it a 140-proof kick…

The modern scientific consensus is that absinthe’s reputation could simply be traced back to alcoholism, or perhaps toxic compounds that leaked in during faulty distillation. Still, others have pointed at a chemical named thujone in wormwood, one of the herbs used to prepare absinthe and the one that gives the drink its green color. Thujone was blamed for “absinthe madness” and “absinthism,” a collection of symptoms including hallucinations, facial tics, numbness and dementia.

Prior studies suggested that absinthe had only trace levels of thujone. But critics claimed that absinthe made before it got banned in France in 1915 had much higher levels of thujone than modern absinthe produced since 1988, when the European Union lifted the ban on making absinthe.

“Today it seems a substantial minority of consumers want these myths to be true, even if there is no empirical evidence that they are,” said researcher Dirk Lachenmeier, a chemist with the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Laboratory of Karlsruhe in Germany.

Lachenmeier and his colleagues analyzed 13 samples of absinthe from old, sealed bottles in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the United States dated back to the early 1900s before the ban. After uncorking the bottles, they found relatively small concentrations of thujone in that absinthe, about the same as those in modern varieties.

Perhaps this will put to rest the debate about the authenticity of the new wave of absinthes, and if we’re really lucky persuade the US government to become less uptight about approving them.

Previously:
Night with the Green Fairy
Sazerac variations

Night with the Green Fairy

When I was in New York last month I stopped into a liquor store to pick up a bottle of Lucid, the first genuine absinthe approved for sale in the U.S. in nearly a century. With unusual restraint I held onto the bottle through the holidays and for several weeks after, waiting until I could have a few friends over to try it out. A few days ago we finally got around to cracking it open — about a week after it became available in DC.

Absinthe
[Pale green Lucid, before the louche]

The story of how absinthe came to be banned, degraded, and finally reborn, is long and winding. The short version is this: In 1912, on the basis of myths about its tendency to drive people mad, prohibitionists succeeded in getting absinthe banned by name in the United States. In 1972 the ban on absinthe was superceded by a more scientifically precise definition. The new rule forbade products containing thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, in quantities greater than 10 ppm.

For decades it was assumed that this requirement effectively prohibited absinthe. In fact, it has been shown that at least some traditional recipes come in well below the legal limit. Once this was realized, talented distillers began once again to develop products for the American market, navigating byzantine government requirements every step of the way. (The launch of one brand has been delayed by the Treasury Department’s disapproval of a monkey on the label. Government regulators actually make a living considering such things.) Now, finally, Americans have access to a few artisan absinthes instead of just lousy smuggled knock-offs and extremely bitter “kits.”

Absinthe is very high in alcohol; Lucid weighs in at a serious 124 proof. This is one good reason to dilute it with ice water. The other is that the water transforms the drink, bringing out insolubles from the herbs that soothe the liquor’s soul and give it much more complexity. This is the louche that turns it from a clear green to milky white. Before adding water, Lucid is hot and powerfully anise-flavored. After, it’s smoother, with notes of licorice candy and herbs. Stirring a sugar cube into the glass is another option. About half of our group preferred it that way. (Lighting the cube on fire is a contemporary bar trick and not generally recommended.)

Absinthe tasting
[Jason Talley listens intently to his absinthe-driven hallucination of Radley Balko]

Drinking absinthe straight isn’t for everybody all the time. A great way to use it is in the Sazerac, one of the classic cocktails with which bartenders endlessly tinker. Here’s a typical recipe:

2 oz. rye whiskey
Several dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Rinse of absinthe
sugar cube
lemon zest

Chill one cocktail glass with ice water. In a pint glass, muddle the sugar with the bitters. Add ice, add the rye, and shake. Pour out the water from the first glass and rinse it with absinthe. Strain the rye mixture into the glass, wipe the rim with lemon zest, and serve. It’s a fantastic drink. (Early recipes called for cognac instead of rye. I like the spice of the latter, but try both.)

Absinthe
[Bonus photo: Fire with absinthe might be lame, but there's nothing lame about capping the night with Jeff Morgenthaler's Angostura-Scorched Pisco Sour. "Flare" bartending?]

For more background on absinthe, see the cover story in the latest Imbibe, this New York Times article, or the Wormwood Society. Absinthe spoons and other accessories are available at La Maison d’Absinthe.

[Credit to Radley and Courtney for the photos.]