Category Archives: At the bar

In My Experience …

Writing over at ShakeStir, Paul Clarke has launched a new column called In My Experience. ShakeStir is a relatively new platform for bartenders, meant to provide information and advice about managing their professional interests. Clarke’s column provides a good look at what ShakeStir is all about. He interviews veteran bartenders about work/home balance, managing money, drinking, staying healthy, and generally keeping your sanity while working long shifts in the service industry.

His first two interviews feature a couple of guys who know a thing or two about working behind the stick: Dale DeGroff and Gaz Regan. The questions are smart and the answers incisive and wise. I’m looking forward to future installments.

Incidentally, I have a profile there, if that really matters to anyone.

DC Stealth

Last week, I made a quick and mostly unpublicized visit to Washington, D.C. The reason for the visit? Simple. I had never been there before. That’s right, I had seen other national capitols, but not my own. We had a little money to spare, and Jen and I talked about sending me down for a couple of days. I started watching airfares, and one day about four weeks ago, I saw one that made my head spin.

JetBlue, as it turns out, has just inaugurated service between Boston’s Logan Airport and DC’s Reagan National. The carrier has been flying between Logan and Dulles for some time now, but only on 11/1 did JB start serving National–seven flights a day, seven days a week. And as JetBlue does, they advertised a special fare: $7 each way.

That’s not a typo. Seven dollars each way. Seventy dimes, seven hundred pennies, etc. So for $14 plus 21 bucks for taxes and fees, I had a round-trip to DC in my hands. (To put this into perspective, my train fare from Providence to Boston cost $7.75 each way. That’s right, I paid more to take the train to South Station than I did to fly to DC.) I kept the trip on the cheap by staying in the Hosteling International hostel on 11th near K St. Yeah, bunk beds, but also? $40 a night, and in a convenient location. For two nights, I won’t complain about bunk beds.

The trip was mostly touristy and mostly in central DC. I saw this …

… and I saw that …

… and this …

The next day, I went here …

Library of Congress

… and I went here …

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

But these days, I can’t travel anywhere without sampling the local imbiberterias. I had alerted my friends Sean-Mike and Marshall, of DC’s superfamous Scofflaw’s Den, to my impending travels, and they agreed to meet Tuesday evening for dinner and drinks.

We started at PS 7’s, where I eventually lost track of my drinking. I met their bar star, Gina Chersevani, who is not only a great bartender but a real sweetheart as well. I started with the oddly named Gnome’s Water–gin, cucumber water, lemon juice, and lavender. Very refreshing and tasty. Then, the Boiler Room–Bourbon, lemon juice, and Allagash White Ale. Delicious. There’s something to these beer cocktails, I think. After that, details fade into the mist, in part because the light got dim and my camera was no longer of much use. I know I tried their delicious cider-bourbon punch. There was a Sazerac done up special for me. And we ended on shots of smoky, smoky mezcal.

Gnome's Water

Boiler Room

We then repaired to the Passenger, and this is even more dim. I couldn’t shoot my drinks at all there, and I no longer had the hand-eye coordination to take notes, so instead, let me play up the vibe of the place. Tuesday evening, not most bars’ busiest night, and thus was also true of the Passenger. Nice sized crowd, though, and very mellow. We sat at the bar, me near a pillar covered in graffiti–much of which from visiting bartenders. I remember seeing Voisey and Meehan’s names there, and I think some wag had scrawled Gary Regan’s name next to a phone number that may or may not actually be his. The bartenders were chatty and attentive, letting me look at bottles I had never seen (High West whiskeys, for example, which aren’t distributed in Rhody or Mass.) and suggesting cocktails we might enjoy. Passenger’s co-owner Tom Brown was absent that evening, but his brother (and fellow co-owner) Derek was on hand, and he offered us a tour of the Columbia Room, which is closed on Tuesdays.

Jake Parrott arrived while we were at the Passenger, and after another round or two, we wound up at ChurchKey, a wonderful beer bar at 14th and Rhode Island. I started with a cask ale called Oliver’s The Darkness. I remember moving on from there to a sour beer, but alas, the name of said sour is lost to the fog of inebriation.

Year Five

Pepe et femmeWith another February sneaking slowly out the door, we’ve reached another milestone at A Dash of Bitters–our fourth anniversary–and with it comes another look back and forward.

Looking Back

When we last celebrated an anniversary, I was feeling a little glum. Unemployment had cruelly struck and I was lamenting my limited prospects for the future. Well, year four turned out rather better than I was expecting it to. No, I didn’t make it to Tales of the Cocktail, but that wound up really the only bleak part of my cocktail calendar. I made three trips to NYC for cocktail events and racked up a lot of Amtrak miles in the process. In April, I participated in the Beefeater 24 Thursday Drink Night at Quarter Bar in Brooklyn (special guests Dan Warner and David Wondrich); in November, I made it down for the Live portion of the Bar Smarts Advanced certification; and in December, I participated in Junior Merino’s Liquid Lab.

I was a judge for Rhode Island’s statewide IronTender competition, which introduced me to some … well, interesting drinks but more importantly to some great new friends. Ted Haigh included me along with some great vintage friends in the latest edition of his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Then came the Foodbuzz nomination, which still surprises me.

I became a published cocktail/spirits writer during this last year, with a regular column in Edible Rhody magazine. (Locals should look for the Spring issue to–yes, I’m going there–bloom around March 20.) Speaking of print media, this past year also saw Jen’s mug gracing the New York Times (which has fuck-all to do with me, but hey, I’m still proud of and stunned by that.)

Jen’s burst of fame came as a direct result of her participation in the Food52 website and cookbook project. And just this week, I was startled to see a familiar face in Food52’s Cook Spotlight feature. (Which reminds me, I should post more cocktail recipes to that site.)

Sooooo, yeah, it wound up being a very good year.

Looking Forward

But it’s Year Five that excites me even more: I’ll be moderating a panel at Tales of the Cocktail and editing the official Tales blog this year. (Which reminds me, I should arrange my flight and hotel soon.) And of course, there’s this baby:

cook and brown logo

And some of you may be wanting another update. We’ve been very busy, I can tell you that much.

We’re planning to open in mid-March; the date right now depends a lot on the contractor because we’re mostly set. Our DIY demolition work is finished and we’re ready for the contractor’s team to come in and rebuild the bar and dining room. Nemo and Jenny have hired pretty much the entire staff–cooks, servers, and dishwasher–and our first staff meeting is tomorrow afternoon. We have a preliminary menu and a full cocktail menu for both brunch and dinner. (The food is preliminary because Nemo’s cooking is ultra-seasonal. If he’s planning a braised lamb shank and it’s suddenly 60º out, there’s no sense in having announced braised lamb three weeks in advance.)

On the beverage front, I’m putting together a list of spirits and barware that we’ll need to order. Adam Mir, our sous chef is in charge of the beer list. We’re talking with beer distributors and hope to have a fun announcement to make, soon, regarding our beer program. Nemo’s fronting the wine program; we’ve been tasting wines all week and have another tasting tomorrow, so we should have our list of Old World wines ready next week. We’ve tasted coffees from New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket. And finally, I’ve been in touch with a local soda bottler, Yacht Club Beverage, and we hope to speak to them soon about supplying our soft drinks.

DISCLAIMER: I am no longer a part of Cook and Brown.

Big, major announcement! ZOMGreally!

2010 is shaping up to be a busy year. Among the several things I have to announce is a career change. See, I’m currently employed by unemployment, having lost nearly all of my freelance gigs in 2009. In the next few weeks, though, that’s gonna change, assuming everything proceeds as planned.

Here’s the announcement: I recently agreed to become the bar manager of a new restaurant. My hobby is about to become my profession.

The restaurant is called Cook & Brown Public House (there’s a website, but it’s pretty skeletal right now), and it’s opening on Hope Street in Providence in late February. The owners are a young couple, Nemo and Jenny Bolin. Nemo’s worked at Craigie St. Bistro, No. 9 Park, and similar places in the Bay Area. His sous chef just finished a stage at Gramercy Tavern. Nemo envisions a menu that changes daily, sourced from local, seasonal ingredients. They’ll be breaking down primals and whole animals, and Nemo’s planning to work with Farm Fresh RI‘s farm-to-chef program, which supplies local produce to restaurants.

For the bar, he envisions a small cocktail menu, also with a seasonal focus, using house-made tinctures, syrups, bitters, and sodas. As bar manager, I’ll stock the bar, create cocktails, hire a backup bartender, talk to suppliers, and take care of the more mundane aspects of running a bar.

(As an aside, I’ve been wanting to tell Camper English how closely I’ve followed the discussion on his post, “Why Can’t I Get a McDonald’s Hamburger at Chez Panisse?“, but until recently, I couldn’t say much about the new gig. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to serve people who ask for cosmopolitans, rum-and-Cokes, Bud Lights, and so on.)

You may be thinking, I don’t recall Dietsch mentioning ever working in a bar. You’re right, I haven’t. I haven’t actually worked in food service in any capacity since college, too many years ago. So, why me? How’d I catapult to the top? Nemo subscribes to Danny Meyer’s theory of hospitality–that most of the battle is about hiring people who have it, and then training them on technique, so his idea (and time will prove him right or wrong) is that he’d rather bring in someone passionate about cocktails and then let that person grow into the job of bar management.

I’m lucky in a way. The Cook & Brown space will be fairly small, seating about 50-60 people. We’re hoping that a good night, when we first open, will see about 50 plates of food go out. Even if all 50 guests order cocktails, which isn’t likely, I’d be mixing about 50 drinks a night. Some of you who tend bar do that in half an hour or less. Realistically, I’ll probably only mix half that number a night, when we’re starting. So I don’t expect to get weeded.

I know this market, and I’ve dined in other local restaurants that cater to it. You don’t often see drunken people misbehaving at them. I’m sure it happens, but this won’t be some dive or college bar. So I shouldn’t have to break up fights or cut people off on a regular basis.

I know this job will be about more than mixing drinks and offering bon mots in a cool setting; I don’t want anyone to think I’m naive. I’ll have chapped hands daily from all the running water, and they’ll probably get cut up even more often than I already expect. The hours will be long and seem longer as my 41-year-old back and feet adapt to a torso that’s upright all day.

The hardest part is that I’ll be away from my wife all day. When the restaurant opens, I’m committed to being there every day it serves customers, for the first few weeks, until I know the bar, the clientele, and the food. At that point, I’ll bring someone in to cover a shift or two a week so I can have a break.

But for Jen and me, our lives will change. She’ll still leave the house before 7 every morning to get to Boston, and she’ll still come home just before 7 every night, but the difference is, I won’t be here. This will affect her blog, and she’ll weigh in on that herself soon, but more importantly it’ll affect our marriage. Luckily, she has a standing invitation from the proprietors to come up to the restaurant and have a meal and a couple of drinks. They want her to be part of the family, and they want the restaurant to be part of the community. Jen’s such a strong proponent of the local food scene that just having her on hand could be good for business.

And this change will affect this blog as well. One thing I’m seriously hoping to do is document the process of opening a new place, from the p-o-v of a newbie. Taking this on is a challenge, but since I am so passionate about it, I’m hoping it’ll be a fun one. At times, it seems pretty intimidating, but there’s one thing that stays in the back of my head. I’m unemployed now, and my benefits are close to running out. It’s been a hard year as I’ve applied and applied for jobs with no result. I have very, very little to lose here, and potentially a very lot to gain.

Here’s to the start of an exciting ride, and I hope you all have a great 2010.

Everybody comes to Rick’s

From the why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-this-before department, Reuters ran a story last week about an American ex-pat entrepreneur in Casablanca who’s opened a new cafe…named Rick’s, after the gin joint in one of my favorite films, Casablanca.

I don’t know whether I’ll be in Morocco any time soon, but somewhat closer to home, anyway, is the Cocktail Film Fest in New Orleans, the weekend of March 21-22. Hosted by Cheryl Charming, the festival features three films, Casablanca, The Seven Year Itch, and Guys and Dolls, along with themed cocktails and meals. But alas, even that’s too far for me.

I had no such excuse on Monday, when Tales held a media reception at Manhattan’s Flatiron Lounge, just blocks from my office. Julie Reiner’s always graceful staff brought around several New York-themed drinks, including the Slope, the Southside Fizz, and the New York Sour. The Slope was a particular favorite of mine. Named for Park Slope (my first landing strip when I arrived in NYC in 2002), it’s a derivative of the Brooklyn cocktail. Jen and I couldn’t stay long, unfortunately, but we both thank Ann Tuennerman for the invitation.

I’ve made my hotel reservations for Tales of the Cocktail. Have you?

The Slope

  • 2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye (preferably bonded)
  • 3/4 ounce Punt Y Mes
  • 1/4 ounce Bols Apricot liqueur
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Garnish: cherries

Technique: Stir and serve in a chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish.

Texas Jim

Mrs. Bitters and I had dinner last night at Hearth, in the East Village, and as we normally do, we started with cocktails. I got the Jim Hogg, named after an old-time Texas governor. Delicious, well-balanced drink. I don’t have proportions, but the ingredients are pecan-infused rye, sweet vermouth, and maple syrup. The spicy rye carries the drink, but the herbal notes from the vermouth marry well with the pecan. With sweet vermouth, you don’t need much added sweetener, and the bartender rightly keeps a light hand–the maple is present, but more as flavoring than as sweetener.

I don’t know where the pecan-infused rye came from, but I should note a couple of similar drinks that have graced local bars. A Holy Roller was on the menu for a time at Pegu Club–with pecan-infused bourbon and Demerara simple syrup, it appears to be the same drink that’s on the Death & Co. menu as the Buffalo Soldier. I might be wrong, but the mention of “Brian” in the eG post makes me think that both drinks are Brian Miller’s.

Because I enjoy the simplicity of an Old Fashioned, I love the idea of a drink that’s just whiskey and Demerara syrup. Pecan-infused whiskey might be worth playing with at home.

MxMo Double X: Pairings

mxmo20-pairingsSo, yeah, the overtime is still kicking my ass. I leave home at 8, I get home 12 hours later, and I don’t feel like much other than the classics–aviation, martini, old fashioned, Manhattan, etc. Not much creativity these days. I do have a pretty bottle of Canton ginger liqueur that I’m playing with (more on that later this week, I hope), but that’s it.

In other circumstances, the lady of Last Night’s Dinner and I would have had great fun planning a pairings menu and then probably cross-blogging it, with her focusing on the food and me on the drink. Aaaaand, we’ll probably do that some time. But not now alas. We had a couple ideas for simple pairings we could put together, but time just ran out.

But then Death stepped in.
Continue reading MxMo Double X: Pairings

Thursday drinking

Instead of cooking at home Thursday night, Mrs. Bitters and I went out for dinner. We chose Brooklyn’s Marlow & Sons, a gourmet market with a gastropub-type place in back. Marlow usually has an inventive cocktail menu, and last night was no exception. Among the drinks on the menu was Ramp Vodka–a blend of ramp-infused vodka and walnut oil. I have to say we didn’t try it, but it was certainly intriguing.

I ordered an Old Fashioned that I didn’t much care for–actually pink from the muddled cherries, topped off with way too much seltzer, and served in a tall glass instead of an Old Fashioned glass. I don’t understand why a simple drink like the Old Fashioned is such a minefield.

The next round was better. Jen ordered a drink called Italian is English (only the most devoted restaurant geeks will get this reference, I’m sure)–Junipero gin, Punt e Mes, lime, and seltzer. I got the Gigolo–Mount Gay rum, coconut water, and lime. Both were well-balanced and properly mixed.

After we left Marlow, we started walking to the bus plaza, a few blocks away, commenting that we wished we could get a bottle of wine to drink at home. We have some bad package stores in our neighborhood, so simply grabbing a bottle of good wine on the way home is much harder than it sounds.

As we passed another favorite restaurant, Dressler, bartender Jim saw us through the open window and waved. We waved back, walked a bit farther, and decided to go back. Jim’s a great bartender, and as any cocktail geek knows, a great barkeep is fun to watch. He greeted us, told us about his trip upstate to Gary Regan’s Cocktails in the Country, and picked back up on conversation about bitters that we had started two or three months ago, the last time Jen and I were there.

Another gentleman came in and approached the bar. Jim interrupted our conversation to turn to the man and say, “Stella, as usual?” The man nodded and Jim drew him a pint, while easing back into our conversation. A man and woman approached the bar. Jim said to the man, “I’ve got a new port I’d like you to try. I don’t think you’ve had this one.” They discussed the port and compared it to Dressler’s other offerings. That man’s got a good memory.

As for our drinks at Dressler… the bartenders there have continued a great and longstanding tradition–naming drinks for movie stars. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and now Gena Rowlands. Jen loved this drink, a mix of gin, orange-blossom water, honey, and lemon.

I tried something new that Jim and his colleagues have been playing with. Unnamed as yet, it’s a Negroni variation made from gin, Aperol, and Fernet Branca, with a mint leaf rubbed around the rim of the glass. Very tasty.

Tasty food, refreshing drinks, and great conversation–it was a wonderful evening.