Category Archives: Cocktail happenings

Meanwhile, on Kickstarter …

Swizzle sticks are interesting devices. I don’t mean the plastic straw-like things that we know today as swizzle sticks. I mean true wooden swizzle sticks.

Originally made from slender tree branches, they’re meant as stirring tools for a type of cocktail called a “swizzle.” The swizzle is a tall drink, made of rum, lime juice, crushed ice, and sugar. In a way, it’s similar to a mint julep. The stick is a long-handled device with four or five “spokes” radiating out from the end in a star-like pattern.

Plunge the swizzler into the glass, all the way to the bottom. Take the stick between your palms and spin it. The spokes will spin around in the bottom of the glass and get the ice moving. Then you move the stick up and down in the drink, you’ll see the glass frost over.

The problem of the swizzle stick is not an easy one to solve.

Swizzle sticks are unique in cocktail ephemera, and they’re very hard to find; you normally have to import them from the West Indies, or have a friend bring some back. They’re natural products, so they vary a lot from stick to stick. Further, for working bartenders, true swizzle sticks can be a pain. They’re delicate and break easily, which means they need to be replaced often. And then you’re stuck, again, trying to ship some in from Martinique.

Two guys in the Boston area think they have a solution. One of these guys is Adam Lantheaume, friend to A Dash of Bitters and proprietor of The Boston Shaker, the awesome barware store in Somerville, Mass. He’s teamed up with a product designer, Brian Johnson, to develop and test a plastic swizzle stick, one that looks and works just like the wooden model but lacks its drawbacks.

The only thing is, the plastic model is a complex piece of product design, and it requires a special steel mold — one that’s expensive to produce. So Adam and Brian have turned to Kickstarter to fund the production of the mold. Further, to launch a product like this, they need to meet minimum order quantities, and the Kickstarter campaign will fund those, too.

So check it out. Like all things Kickstarter, there are fun premiums if the project is fully funded.

Incidentally, what Adam and Brian are doing here is surprisingly normal in the cocktail world. If a bartender needs a tool or ingredient that she can’t find, there’s nothing stopping her from just making it for herself or adapting another item to the task. Bartenders used to make their own liqueurs and tools all the time, so this DIY approach is right on target.

Tales 2011

This week marks the beginning of Tales of the Cocktail. In its ninth year, Tales opens on Wednesday with a set of professional seminars, and then on Thursday, seminars for the general public begin.

I would like to be blogging excitedly right now about the events I’ll be attending and covering, but I will not be at Tales this year. Let me flash back a year and give a little context that might help explain why. Last year, I was at Tales, and I had a great week, even presenting a seminar for the first time.

Strangely, though, as hot as it was in New Orleans last year, it was even hotter in Providence and I left my poor wife at home to suffer while I caroused, ate way too much, took a few too many spins at the Carousel Bar, and made much merry.

This year looks like much and more of the same kind of weather. Right now, for example, it’s 86º in Providence, and 77º in New Orleans. (And raining. Ha!) Tracking the forecast over the next few days shows a roughly equivalent level of misery in New Orleans and Providence. 87º, 93º, 92º, 87º, 88º. Those temperatures appear on both five-day forecasts, the only difference being the order in which they’ll befall each city.

The biggest difference this year, of course, is that we’re expecting a baby.

I had to make a decision in the first part of the year about whether to attend Tales, and this thought — that Providence might well be as steamy as NOLA — was at the front of my mind. Jen’s pregnancy is proceeding very well, luckily. She and the baby are both doing great. But we couldn’t have assumed that, five or six months ago, when I would have been applying for a media pass and making travel and hotel arrangements.

Third trimester, 90º+ weather. Sounds like hell.

When I’m at Tales, I’m not always easy to find. Sure, I carry my cell around everywhere, but my AT&T reception in NOLA is sketchy. There are areas within the Hotel Monteleone where I get no reception at all. Events during Tales take me to various venues in the city — and those are the official events. Because these events feature alcohol, they’re sometimes loud and crowded–not great places to take an emergency phone call. And in addition to the official events, I often decide on a whim to have lunch at Coops, take dinner at Lüke, or enjoy a cigar and a cocktail at the French 75 Bar.

With the forecast as it is, and with Jen having a ninety-minute commute in each direction, my choice wasn’t a difficult one to make.

The chances that Jen might need me to be suddenly be at her side during the next five or six days are pretty low, and thank whatever deity you worship for that. But if she did need me and couldn’t find me, I would feel like the world’s biggest asshole.

I’ll miss Tales this year, and I’ll especially miss catching up with friends. But there’s more than Big Fun at stake. Those who’ve never been might think it’s just a giant party, but the opportunities to actually learn a few things, meet influential and important people in the industry, and get your name and face in front of people who matter — those are immeasurable advantages of being in New Orleans in mid July every year. Jen feels bad that I’m missing it this year, and this post might well make her feel a little worse, but my regrets are few.

I’ll mix a Sazerac tomorrow or Wednesday, lift it in the general direction of New Orleans, and start scheming for 2012. After all, that’ll be TotC’s 10th anniversary, and I’m sure it’s going to smoke.

Sazeracphoto © Jennifer Hess. All rights reserved.

And we’ll be a little more careful and try not to make Baby #2 between now and then.

He Lives!

How sad. I log in to my blog’s dashboard so infrequently these days that it doesn’t even remember who I am anymore. But! That doesn’t mean nothing’s going on. Oh, there’s plenty going on.

Happy Anniversary, Baby

I completely missed the fact that A Dash of Bitters turned five last month. I normally spend some time at my blogiversary looking back at the previous year and forward to the year ahead. But oh man, the last year was one of some major churn. I seem to recall that I was, albeit briefly, actually behind the stick in 2010, working my ass off, climbing a steep learning curve, and generally having a great time, and I’m still just like wha? That happened?

More exciting was the presentation I led at Tales of the Cocktail, which now seems like a million years ago, on the topic of introducing basic mixology to rookies. I was pleased to have one of the foremost experts on the subject at my side that day, Robert “Drinkboy” Hess, along with Adam Lantheaume, proprietor of the Boston Shaker, a wonderful Massachusetts shop that sells drink paraphernalia and teaches cocktail classes for newbies.

What I never expected was that the Cocktail 101 idea would become a thing that I write about every week, but thanks to my editor, Maggie Hoffman, and the other fine folks at Serious Eats and Serious Drinks, that’s just what’s happened.

But now for the looking-forward part, and if you thought I was giddy with excitement last year, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

One Dead Rabbit

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you already know the biggest thing that’s happening around here these days: my wife and I are expecting our first child this year, in September.

This has meant a few changes to our drinking rituals, as you can imagine. Jen is abstaining entirely right now. We’ve yet to decide whether rare, small portions of beer or wine are safe, later in the pregnancy (and that choice will probably remain entirely our business at any rate), but she’s off spirits and cocktails–not just through the pregnancy but while she’s nursing, as well.

For me, it’s also meant changes, and that will probably be a post in itself at some point. I tend to drink more when I have a drinking buddy, and now that my main one’s off the market, I’ve found myself slowing down. However, I’m also perfectly happy to drink an Old Fashioned (or two) every evening, which isn’t exactly interesting to write about.

So to keep things moving along, I’m planning to feature a new drink a week here, starting next week. Since I’ll be whipping up NA cocktails for Jen, expect some of my drinks of the week to be mocktails.

I also have some product reviews to work on, and I hope to feature those each week as well. I want to tackle new projects, such as milk punch. Erik Ellestad has several recipes up at Underhill Lounge. Honestly, I was skeptical about milk punch, but then Misty Kalkofen served us some at Drink one night, and I was hooked.

I want to sample new ingredients, whether that’s spirit categories that are somewhat new to me, or just bottlings I’ve never tried. And, finally, Ad of the Week will probably come back in some fashion, although I haven’t decided how yet.

Oh, and I should probably get back into this Mixology Monday thing at some point. It’s been months.

Seminar Preview: Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies

Rookie. Newbie. Freshman. Dare I say, virgin? Cocktail enthusiasm continues to grow in the United States as more and more people are developing an interest in craft cocktails. Cocktail bars are spreading across the country, and there are even brick-and-mortar stores now that sell cocktail equipment and tools. So, say you’re a bartender and it’s a slow night. You’ve got a patron across from you who’s finishing up her beer and puzzling over your cocktail menu. “I don’t really know much about cocktails,” she says. “What do you recommend?”

So, hotshot. What do you recommend? And if this patron becomes a regular at your bar, diving fully into the cocktail ocean, how do you help her navigate the shoals?

Tales of the Cocktail 2010 represents a first for me: I’ll be moderating a seminar called Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies.” My fellow presenters–Robert (DrinkBoy) Hess, Adam Lantheaume of the Boston Shaker in Somerville, Mass.–and I will lead a discussion of techniques and tips bar professionals can use to teach the world of cocktails to customers. Whether you’re a bartender, bar manager, brand ambassador, spirits writer, or other bar professional, we hope to have ideas you can use to turn a patron into an aficionado.

Robert will discuss his book, The Essential Bartenders Guide, as well as his work at Small Screen Network, producing video tutorials of cocktail recipes and techniques. Adam will describe the classes he teaches in his store and lead a demonstration of a technique he uses in his Bitters class, in which he provides a flight of martinis, each made with different bitters. We’ll all discuss our own journey from novice to knowledge, we’ll talk about cocktail mentors and gurus, and talk about perfect starter cocktails for newbies. And we’ll take questions and ribbing from the audience. It’ll be a good time, so join us.

Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies
SAT, 24 JULY 2010
La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, Hotel Monteleone
10:00 AM - 11:30 AM
$40 (advance), $45 (door)

Infusions

first batch
photograph © Jennifer Hess

Oh, hey. I knew I left a blog laying around here somewhere. I guess I should breathe a little life into the poor thing again.

Things have been slow around here. I grabbed a couple of rent-a-tender shifts over Memorial Day weekend, doing catering-bartending for Brown University’s commencement and alumni-weekend ceremonies. It was mostly beer and wine, but it was fun and I got tipped out well. Mostly, it keeps me fresh and in front of people.

There’s a lot ahead to look forward to, sitting like a jar of tequila in a cool closet consummating a marriage with strawberries, but it’s hard to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet. There’s Tales of the Cocktail, and oh yeah, that’s next month already. I’m moderating a panel there, and I’ll preview that, here, soon. (Can I just admit right now that I’m a little–more than a little, in fact–terrified by this?) In addition, I’m working on something for this blog that I hope will be really cool–not Tales related, but still cool.

My honorary cousin Emily, just published her latest column for Providence Monthly, in which she talked tinctures. (It’s not online, unfortunately, or I’d link out to it.) She even obliquely name-checked me; while researching her piece, she asked me for some advice, and I gave her a few words. She closed out the piece thusly:

[M]y honorary cousin M. induced envy, for instance, when he described plans to use leftover celery cuttings for his own tincture experiment. Clever, clever, M. I can taste it in my gin and soda now. Care to organize a trade?

Oh, what’s this “honorary cousin” business? Just one of the most fun coincidences I’ve ever experienced in my life. Emily, you see, is also a spirits and cocktail columnist in Rhode Island. The odds of this small state having two writers in this niche are already pretty daunting, but here’s what makes it better: Emily, you see, is Emily Dietsch.

And although we’ve both fielded questions about whether we’re related, we aren’t, and in fact have never even met in person. What’s especially remarkable about this is how rare the Dietsch name is in the United States: out of every 1 million people in the U.S., only 30 of us are Dietsches. So to have two of us writing in the same niche, in the same city? You’re more likely to be struck by lightning at the exact moment you contract salmonella poisoning while climbing a tree in Death Valley.

The latest on Cook & Brown

What’s the latest? We’re open for business! Not much time for blogging, so here are a few photos shot during our opening week, some by Jen and some by me.

Cocktail Menu
St. Paddy’s Day menu. Photo by Jen.


Jen’s Friday martini. Photo by Jen.


Friday dinner. Photo by Jen.


The barman straineth. Photo by Jen.


Setup. Photo by Jen.

P1030816
Chef/owner Nemo Bolin working on the floors in the bar, February 14, 2010. Photo by Dietsch.

P1030998
Bar, March 19, 2010. We’ve come a long damn way in a month. Photo by Dietsch.

P1030997
Bar by day. Photo by Dietsch.

P1030969
Bar by night. Photo by Dietsch. (Yes, we need more shelving.)

P1040001
Dining room by day. Photo by Dietsch.

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

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.

Cook and Brown update

A couple of you have asked me to journal the process of opening Cook & Brown and becoming a professional bartender, so today I’ll begin a series of (I hope) weekly updates documenting the process.

and so it begins...The first big news to announce is that the Bolins closed the deal on Friday, which means the restaurant is officially theirs. It was tricky to publicly discuss the location, since it was an operating restaurant. The owner told his staff on Tuesday, “Hey, we’re closing tomorrow; you’re canned.” But with that behind us, I can announce the location: 959 Hope St., Providence.

Opening is scheduled no later than March 1. They’re operating as a new business and not a turnkey operation, so it’s not as simple as closing a few days to clean the kitchen. They need to repaint, make minor repairs, rebrand the exterior, thoroughly clean (especially the kitchen), hire staff, stock the restaurant and bar, etc. We could open sooner, and in fact they’re hoping to open somewhere around the 20th. One thing they’ve decided which I think is smart is to not shoot for Valentine’s Day. That’s only about 3 weeks away and would require everyone to rush too much. The last thing we want is to spoil a couple’s romantic evening by being unprepared. Bad hospitality, bad PR.

With the restaurant in their hands, the Bolins welcomed Jen and I up for lunch yesterday afternoon. (Jen had the holiday off.) She was eager to meet them; after all, I’ll be seeing them more often than I will Jen after the restaurant opens, and she wanted to start to get to know them. As often happens when I meet up with Nemo, the conversation flew and we talked for hours.

I was eager to get behind the bar and see the setup the previous owners left behind. The Bolins agreed to buy up the place lock, stock, and Apple Pucker–which they had fun discarding over the weekend–so I wanted to get an idea of what equipment, glassware, and bar stock was left behind. (By the way, if anyone wants Purplesaurus Rex Smirnoff, let me know. I won’t be needing it.)

We wound up pitching in, using razor blades and elbow grease to scrape the Restaurant Oak decals from the windows, signaling to the neighborhood that things were changing. Alas, we had to cut the conversation short. Tomorrow’s our (fourth) wedding anniversary, and Jen needed to get home to start braising the oxtails we’ll have for dinner.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back up there, with tentative plans to meet a friend who’s a distributor; he’s the guy who brought Bols Genever into Rhode Island and will shortly be distributing Haus Alpenz products here–a good man to know. I’ve been poring over cocktail books and the Rhode Island Beverage Journal for weeks, thinking about our opening cocktail menu, and it’ll be fun to sit down and talk about the practical aspects of alcohol distribution.

Also, I’m working on staffing the bar, and getting a kickass team in place. More on that later.

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.

Quick, Robin, to the Liquidlab!

Two weeks ago, I was in the Riverdale section of da Bronx, getting all mad scientist in Junior Merino‘s Liquid Lab. Junior’s a consultant and former bartender who created the Liquid Lab in a Riverdale apartment, as a facility where he can create and test new recipes for cocktails and food flavored with spirits. The Lab is stocked with thousands of bottles of spirits, liqueurs, mixers, and bitters–many of which are otherwise unavailable in the United States.

Gird Your Belly!

Junior’s wife, Heidi, had warned me in advance that I needed to start my day with a hearty breakfast, to provide a base for all the spirits and cocktails I’d be tasting. So after a hearty repast, I caught the subway up to the Bronx. When I arrived at the Lab, I met my fellow attendees: bartenders from Drink and Craigie on Main in Boston, and drink slingers from Hotel Delmano, Pranna, and Eleven Madison Park in New York. Rounding out the group was Village Voice writer Chantal Martineau, who’s beaten me to the roundup scoop, with her writeup here. We signed a release form (no photography or video allowed, which is why I have no pix of my own here), donned lab coats, and got ready to go.

The Gang

All photographs are the property of The Liquid Chef Inc. and are used with permission.

First up, though, was a true breakfast of champions: punch-spiked cereal. Talk about yer basic snap-crackle-burp!

Aroma Architecture

Next, Junior launched into a section he called Aroma Architecture. He passed around various herbs and greens, and urged us to sniff and taste each one, to think about using their flavors in cocktails, and also to think about how similar flavors come through in the taste of certain spirits. Some of these herbs are relatively common cocktail ingredients–mint, sage, dill, hibiscus. Others were surprising, but upon tasting them in this context, I could start to make some connections between my salad plate and my mixing glass; among these were baby chard, baby kale, carrot greens, borage, and pea shoots. When we started down this road, I knew I was in for a great time at the Lab because I knew I’d be tasting new flavor combos all day long.

Willy Wonka Cocktailing

Then we got into the heart of the Lab. Now, if you’ve never been, let me explain how it works. Junior secures sponsors for each Lab, for both base spirits and liqueurs. Each Lab is broken into five flights and mixing sessions. For each flight of base spirit, you blind-taste five examples of that spirit and discuss the flavors and aromas with Junior and your fellow participants. So, for example, you taste five piscos or five gins. Then you get to mixing with that base spirit.

The rules of the Lab are, you make two drinks per base spirit. Each of your two drinks must include the sponsor’s product, plus at least one of the sponsor liqueurs. Any other ingredients are your choice, using any spirit, liqueur, herb, spice, bitter, syrup, salt, or garnish that Junior has available. You mix up one drink, divvy it up among nine tiny cups, and distribute those out to Junior and the other guests (leaving one for yourself, of course).

The Lab!

That’s a Lotta Cocktails!

How many? Let’s rock some mathemagics now. For each base spirit, you’re mixing two cocktails, which means that over the course of the day, you’re creating 10 new cocktails. Eight other people in the room are mixing 10 drinks a piece (including Junior), and you’re tasting every single cocktail. Including your own drinks, that adds up to 90 cocktails. Zam! Now, each taste is only about half an ounce, but that still means, if you actually drink each one instead of just taking a sip, you’re consuming about 45 ounces of cocktail over the course of a day. That’s roughly 15 full-size drinks. Luckily for us, we had ample supplies of bottled water, but now you see why Heidi urged us all to have a large breakfast first.

Tipsy & Overwhelmed

Our base spirits, in order, were pisco, cachaça, rum, tequila, and mexcal. In each category, Junior had bottles of the spirit on its own, and he had several infused bottles. You could choose to use the plain spirit or one (or more) of the infusions. I wish I could tell you what I mixed up for these spirits, but I simply can’t remember, and it wouldn’t matter anyway because to be honest, my drinks weren’t that good. The thing you have to understand is that the Lab is fast-paced; I mean lightning fast. I was around professional bartenders here, who serve some of the top restaurants and bars in the Northeast.

In a very short time, we had to choose between the plain spirit and the infused options (tasting if you wished before you decided), then choose the liqueur, and then track down a third ingredient and anything else we wanted in there, and not just once, but twice. For an amateur, it was a challenge. I tried to get creative; I was grabbing bottles and herbs and whatever, just to see what worked together and what didn’t. Tequila, coca liqueur, and ginger-hibiscus syrup, with muddled electric Szechuan buttons? Why the hell not, what have you got to lose? (A bartender from Eleven Madison teased me at one point: “Why not use that? No one likes your drinks anyway.” At least, I think she was teasing.)

The Lab

But when I said my drinks weren’t that good–well, I don’t really know whether they were or not. It was a little beside the point, in a way. I mean, yeah, you want to make good drinks whenever you pick up a shaker. But often the cost of creating a really great drink is mixing your way through many bad ones first, until you find the right notes. I do know that at one point, I was playing with the tequila, and I paired it with Combier triple sec and something else. I realized the balance was off and added lime juice. Then I smacked myself in the head when I realized I had reinvented the fucking Margarita. Dammit!

My problem was, I was a little cowed by the talent around me, and I was letting it get to me, and starting to play it safe. After the fucking Margarita, I started taking chances again and having more fun as a result.

It’s Not Just About the Drinks, Though

At one point, Junior passed around plates of edible cocktails, and these were fun and surprising:

  • Macchu Pisco sour marshmallow
  • Siembra Azul tequila and Combier Liqueur D’Orange gummy
  • White chocolate, Castries Peanut Rum Creme, Chairman’s Reserve Rum, and Domaine de Canton truffle
  • Leblon cachaça and Vita Coco coconut-water popsicle

The truffle, of course, was amazing, but I think my favorite “edible” was the pisco-sour marshmallow, which really captured the essence of a pisco sour. Lunch, served I think after the cachaça round, was an amazing spread of booze-infused food. Here are just a few examples:

  • Tuna Lollypop: sushi grade tuna, marinated in whiskey that has been infused with pinepeppercorns, some asian spices, herbs, and grenache vinegar. Served with a cube of watermelon and topped with Koppert Cress Basil Cress.
  • Guava Chipotle BBQ short ribs: short ribs braised for 12 hours in herbs and cinnamon, and dressed with a bbq sauce made with guava, chipotle, and Chairmans’s Reserve Rum infused with vanilla and other spices. Served with a cipollini onion roasted with Royal Combier and topped with Koppert Cress Atsina Cress, that has light licorice notes.
  • Elotes: traditionally a staple in Mexican households, this dish is made by cooking ears of corn, then smothering it in a homemade Scorpion Mezcal aioli, queso cotija (aged dried cheese), and powdered chipotle pepper.

The Feast

Traditionally, Junior and Heidi then take everyone out for dinner and drinks. We wound up in the Bar Room at The Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant connected to the Museum of Modern Art. This was a little heady for me, since the only other Danny Meyer place I had ever dined at was Shake Shack! Coincidentally, I was in the middle of Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, which covers the role of hospitality in business, so it was fun to both talk to the Eleven Madison bartenders about his book, and also see his concepts in action at The Modern. Everyone was pretty wiped out after dinner, so we chose to eschew the post-dinner cocktail round.

Was It Worth It?

Oh, hell yes. I’d do it all again if they’d let me, but I know they need to spread the joy around to many other bartenders. I took a lot from this day of creativity and rabble-rousing. First, as I said earlier, I loved sampling all the various herbs and thinking about creative ways to use them in drinks. Next, just being in the room with such talented and witty people was energizing. It made me really want to try to push my own ingenuity forward. It was also nice to see that nearly every bartender turned out at least one dud. Why wouldn’t that happen? You’re trying crazy new ideas, and not all of them are going to work. Finally, the day was just fun. Junior and Heidi kept a good, positive spirit flowing in the Lab and made it a really great experience.

I’d recommend Liquid Lab for anyone in the spirits industry; it’s that good.