Category Archives: Tales of the Cocktail

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.

Things I Learned, or Relearned, at Tales 2010

  1. Enough already with the early-morning Tuesday flights. Next year, if I need to be at Tales on Tuesday, I’m arriving Monday afternoon or evening. Also, it’s impossible to get a drink at 6am in my home airport.
  2. Always eat when you’re offered food, especially if said food is free. You’ll be drinking the rest of the day; you need something to absorb the booze.
  3. Ditto for water. The bottles of Fiji they offer at every session and in every tasting room? I drink more bottles of Fiji water in five days at Tales than I do the rest of the year.
  4. You really don’t have to finish every drink that’s offered at seminars. I relearn this lesson every year, and will probably continue to relearn it.
  5. The Cocktail Apprentices, or CAPs, work their asses off. They deserve to be thanked by name at every panel, by every moderator. I saw Eric Seed do this on the Full Proof/Overproof panel and vowed to do it at mine. For the record, ours were Frank Cisneros, Hal Wolin, and Lou Bustamante.
  6. Enough already with the early-morning Monday flights. I was bored, bored, bored on Sunday (in part because I blew all my money on Tales and couldn’t go to Cure or Cochon). Also, it’s impossible to drink in the airport at 6am. Hell, it’s nearly impossible to eat in the airport at 6am, assuming you want hot food. Either leave after the last panel Sunday or leave later on Monday and find something to do Sunday night.

The Mysteries and Secrets of Distilling in Cognac, the Cellar Master’s Essential Work and Classic Cognac

This one’s quite a mouthful… Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and unhappy to be awake, I stumbled to the Royal Sonesta for Dale De Groff’s cognac seminar.

His panelists included Salvatore Calabrese, Alain Royer, and Olivier Paultes. Calabrese is one of the world’s most famous bartenders and also author of a book about cognac. Alain Royer has worked with cognac for most of his life and now works with Renaud-Cointreau Group. Olivier Paultes has also worked with cognac most of his life; he is now cellar master for Frapin and Fontpinot. And if you don’t know who Dale is …

So DdG started off with a history of cognac, the region and the spirit. He moved quickly through this material, so my notes are somewhat sketchy. He wanted to get right into the first tasting portion of the panel. We started with a 2009 distillate of cognac, bottled off the still. Not a lot of complexity to this, as you’d imagine. Floral (lavender, violet) and fruity (a hint of citrus zest) on the nose and tongue, but also quite hot. It needed a few drops of water to open it up and get past the alcohol burn. We moved on to a VSOP Frapin, then a VSOP Château Montifaud and an XO Château de Fontpinot. I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to cognacs of this caliber, so I don’t really trust my tasting notes. I’ll just say I thought the Fontpinot was just gorgeous, though.

A quick aside here: if I remember Dale’s definition correctly, in cognac terms, a château is a single house producing all its own cognac. These cognacs don’t blend their cognacs with distillates from other houses, like mass-market cognacs do. This is, in a rough sense, analogous to a single-malt scotch.

The final cognac tested was called Vat 49, and it was unusual. It’s from the Forgotten Casks program imported by Preiss Imports. A blend of older cognacs, containing brandies from 1904 and 1955. Interesting and a bit of a challenge.

Next part of the panel dealt with still construction in the cognac region, and this part was great. Royer played a video showing craftsmen taking a flat sheet of copper and hammering, bending, and shaping it into the rounded wall of the boiler. Someone interrupted with a question to Royer: “What’s the price of a cognac still these days?” Answer: “A Ferrari.” As labor intensive as it is to build one, I’m not surprised.

We were running low on time at this point, but Calabrese, the mad bastard, had a couple of surprises for us. First up, a pre-phyloxera cognac from 1865. That’s Eighteen Sixty-Five, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Phyloxera is a pest that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the late 1800s. The only salvation was to take European vines and graft them onto North American rootstock, which had evolved alongside phyloxera and was thus resistant. Many wine and brandy experts insist that pre-phyloxera wines and brandies were much different in flavor and character from today’s. I don’t know the provenance of the stuff that Calabrese brought along, but it’s a survivor. I thought it nosed like a madeira or a sherry, and caught a lot of complex aromas, but I also thought that the flavor was a little flat.

However, it was the other surprise that was a true treat, an 1805 Sazerac cognac.

A little history here: when the Sazerac cocktail–now rye whiskey, sugar, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters–was originally a brandy cocktail. And the brandy of choice was Sazerac. From what I can tell, though, the Sazerac cognac succumbed to the phyloxera pest. A bottle from 1805 is a rare thing indeed.

Which made it surprising when Calabrese mixed about half of a 200ml bottle into a Sazerac. I was one of the few who caught a sip of it, and zoh-mah-gah. The drink was far richer and more complex than any Sazerac I’ve made or tasted with rye or modern cognac, and I can reasonably suspect, a tipple I’ll probably never taste the likes of again.

Botanical Garden

Thursday morning, I had the pleasure of sitting in on the Botanical Garden seminar, presented by Charlotte Voisey and Jim Ryan of William Grant & Sons. Voisey and Ryan discussed the roles that various botanicals play in gins.

J&C

The seminar was lighthearted but info-packed. Four actors played the role of different botanicals and were decked in colorful outfits. At the right moment, the actor would come out into the room, dance or strut or even swagger around to music, and then exit. It sounds cheesy but it was actually quite fun.

Juniper

Charlotte started, describing the history of the science of botany, and how our understanding has evolved over time.

They then split the world of gin botanicals into four groups: spice, floral, citrus, and other. They said there was honestly no better term they could derive than “other.” In spice, they covered first the biggie: juniper. They worked through coriander, caraway, and cubeb.

The cocktail served during this portion was the Snapper. Their version included Hendricks gin, rice wine vinegar, spices and a float of port.

They moved on to citrus: orange peel, lemon peel. They use a bitter orange, like that found in marmalade, for Hendrick’s. As for the lemon, it’s there to help correct and soften other flavors. Cocktail was the Citrus Fizz, in which they tried to layer the citrus flavors in the drink. It was gin, Solerna Blood Orange Liqueur, creme de violette, rhubarb bitters, and the juices of orange, lemon, and lime.

Among the floral botanicals used in making Hendricks are chamomile, elderflower; meadowsweet, and rose petal. The cocktail served here was the Pall Mall Punch: Hendricks, chamomile tea, lemon, honey syrup, and Peychaud’s. Lovely drink.

wee cuke

Finally, the elusive “other.” Just three things here, one of which will certainly not surprise anyone: first, angelica root, and orris root and the non-shocker, cucumber. I was interested to learn that cucumber’s essential oils are too low to be added in distillation, so they’re infused in afterward. For this round, they served up the La Luna, which was really kind of fun, but a little strong: Hendricks, cucumber juice, jalapeno syrup, and lime. A very green drink.

Tales 2010: Blow-out Beginning

So it begins… Tuesday, I hit the ground in New Orleans, after waking up at too-early-o-clock for my flight. After an exhausting morning of travel, I checked in to the Monteleone and came down shortly after for my first drink at the Carousel Bar, a Sazerac.

First drink in NOLA

In short order, I met up with the ladies of LUPEC Boston, who aren’t normally as fuzzy as Pink Lady is, here:

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They were off to Coop’s Place for lunch, and asked me to join them.

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Soon, the Pacific Northwest fell upon us, with a stray Texan in tow.

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(That’s Paul Clarke facing away, Rocky Yeh facing toward, John the Bastard facing away, and stray Texan Mindy Kucan facing toward, marking her Twitter handle–@drinkswmindy–on her arm.)

Later, it was off to d.b.a. for the Tuesday Tasting. Organized by Jake Parrott, the tasting is a venue in which anyone interested can bring a sample bottle of some obscure booze, whether found in your grandma’s private closet or made at home.

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Bandwagoneering: White Manhattan

Talking to bartenders, reading blogs, I’ve noticed a trend rising over the last several months: you take a classic whiskey cocktail, such as the Manhattan or the Sazerac, and you swap in an unaged (“white”) whiskey for the brown stuff. If you’re not familiar with white whiskies, they’re nothing more than unaged whiskies that have never seen a barrel. Spirits straight from the still, and cut with water (in most cases). You can say they’re like moonshine, but the key point here is that moonshine by definition is illegal. As my friend Matthew Rowley wrote, “If you can you buy it in liquor stores, it’s not moonshine.” (For more information: Simonson, Clarke, Cecchini, Rowley)

Legal white-dog whiskies, as the unaged stuff is called, aren’t exactly new to the market. I tasted some at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008. But they’ve been slowly gaining ground among bars and consumers since then and started making their way onto cocktail menus. As I mentioned above, one popular way is to replace the brown spirit in a classic whiskey drink with a white. I wanted to riff on this, but instead of using a white dog, I chose Bols Genever. It’s a favorite in our household, a malty botanical spirit that’s the precursor to modern gin. Bols tastes uncannily like whiskey, so I thought it would play well in this type of preparation. I tried a couple of different ideas–one using Carpano Antica vermouth–to re-create the Manhattan cocktail, but this is the one we liked best.

Nieuw Amsterdam

Stir, squeeze on lemon peel, discard peel.

Nieuw Amsterdam

photograph © Jennifer Hess

ToTC 2010: Tentative Schedule

Next week brings the 2010 edition of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and I thought I’d run down some of the events I’m planning to attend. My calendar’s booked pretty solid this year, although I have a bit of downtime near the beginning. I booked my sessions back in March, when I was a working bartender, so bear in mind that some of my choice had a lot to do with bringing cocktail ideas back to a restaurant bar. I could be upset about that, but as John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Onward. Some of this is subject to change. Most of the seminars are solid, but I might try to move one or two around if I can.

Two years ago, I arrived on Wednesday and left Sunday morning, thus missing one of the seminars I was most interested in, St. John Frizell‘s look at the life of Charles Baker. (He adapted his talk into an article for the Summer 2008 issue of Oxford-American magazine, fortunately, and the text of the piece is online at St. John’s website.) This year, I’m staying through Sunday and leaving Monday morning, also ass-early. Look for my bleary-eyed mug at MSY.

Tuesday

  • Get up ass-early for a 6:30 flight from Providence to O’Hare. After an hour-and-a-half layover, it’s off to Louis Armstrong Airport.
  • Cab to the Hotel Monteleone, where I’ll be crashing out for the week.
  • Probably grab a po-boy and then hit the Tales Tuesday Tasting at d.b.a. that afternoon, which I’m eager to do. I love the d.b.a. bar in New York’s East Village. I would sometimes take an afternoon off work and repair to d.b.a.’s patio with a beer, a good book, and a cigar. I’ve never been to the NOLA d.b.a., and I’m looking forward to it.
  • Then, it’s back to the Quarter for the Tales Blogger reception. Then dinner, somewhere. Not sure yet.

Wednesday

  • First up, one of my working-bartender choices: Liquid Disc Jockey – Controlling the Flow of Any Room. I will probably try to switch out of this, maybe attend Camper English’s seminar on presentations which is at the same time.
  • Next up, the Beefeater Welcome Reception. The 2008 version was off the charts in terms of the amount of food served, so I plan to stuff the heck out of my face.

Thursday

  • Busy, busy, busy. First up, Botanical Garden, Charlotte Voisey’s look at the use of botanicals in distillation. Another event chosen to enhance my skills behind the bar. This one, though, I’ll keep because it sounds great, even to someone who’s “just” a writer/blogger. Using seasonal herbs and other ingredients in cocktails is my “beat” at Edible Rhody, so I hope to learn a lot that I can bring to the magazine.
  • Then, At Full Sail, the look at overproof spirits with Audrey Saunders and Eric Seed. This one will be popular, I know.
  • After that, Umami in Cocktails, moderated by my friend Darcy O’Neil. Again, a professional-bartender choice, but again, one I’ll keep because I like the topic and it’ll give me writing ideas.
  • Then, another private event, one I hope to be writing about post-Tales.
  • Spirited Dinner will probably follow, although I’ve made neither choice nor reservation.

Friday

Saturday

  • My big moment: Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Rookies. Assuming I don’t stroke out first. I get to share a seminar with the Robert Hess who isn’t my father-in-law? Damn.
  • Blair the Bear’s Tiki Now! I think this one’s close to selling out.
  • Paul “The Godfather” Clarke’s Art of the Aperitif. Great topic for Tales.
  • Then, I’ll probably disco-nap prior to the Bartender’s Breakfast at midnight.

Sunday

  • A light schedule. Dale DeGroff’s Cognac panel to start…
  • Followed by the Sprezzatura Bartender panel. I want to get the cut of Vadrna’s jib.
  • Then probably just a few last drinks at Carousel with any other stragglers.

Monday

  • MSY > CLT > PVD > bed for a week.

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.