Classic Hits From Tales of the Cocktail 2016
With so much to see and sip, it’s impossible to cover all the booze-splashed ground of Tales of the Cocktail, though I do my best. This year’s nearly week-long drinks and spirits conference seemed especially concentrated, but also spread out at the same time. Seminars, tasting rooms and special events were scheduled simultaneously throughout each day, with more competing events and dinners in the evening. Amidst the chaos, it can be challenging to identify a theme or trend. The modern cocktail renaissance is by its very nature steeped (or pickled?) in new ways of old drinking, but this year seemed more so than usual, as seminars focused on new research about classic drinks (and also how not to kill yourself and others making them), new brand presence with more attention to finer authentic details and new releases of older (as in maturity) spirits in general.
One of my favorite parts of the day is tasting new spirits and meeting the people behind them. It was a pleasure to finally make the acquaintance of Francesco Amodeo of Don Ciccio & Figli. He specializes in liqueurs from authentic Italian recipes, though using American fruits, botanicals and other ingredients sourced via his adopted home base of Washington, DC. The nocino, aperitivo and various styles of amari are especially impressive and could easily satisfy any purist of these spirits. Pro tip - the nocino splashed into chicory iced coffee from Café Beignet. The authenticity of their spirits was highlighted even more in comparison to Saturday's transportive Spirit of Italy Brunch Italiano with amari, liqueur and vermouth from the likes of Luxardo, Pallini, Cocchi, Varnelli, Strega, Lucano and Nardini.
Other tastings included a delightful snapshot of Oregon craft spirits, featuring Ransom (profiled here this spring as true protectors of the old craft), Pacific northwest pioneers Clear Creek, Elixir (more American-made liqueur Italiano), House Spirits (celebrating 10 years of Aviation Gin) and Oregon Spirit Distillers. My bicoastal Brooklyn neighbor, Andy Ricker, even flew in to promote Pok Pok’s deliciously addictive drink mixers, including the sipping vinegars (think shrub, but more savory and alluring).
20th Century Enters the 21st
Combining analog cocktail culture with digital advancement, the Sazerac Company took this opportunity to introduce its new website based on the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide. The book itself (Mr. Boston was a brand of spirits that published the original guide in 1935 in the wake of Prohibition) is a treasure of information that is still relevant for any type of drink mixer, but the digital platform expands the knowledge with more convenience, offering expert tips on bar basics, history and spirits with options to search via occasion, ingredients and even type of glassware. The site, still in its early stages, will include articles from noteworthy drink authors and eventually users will be able to contribute their own drink recipes.
DIY At Your Own Risk
The cocktail movement has inspired many a home bartender to try things at home, though sometimes this can result in disastrous health and safety practices. Writer Camper English, of Alcademics, known for his coverage of some of the more science-y aspects of spirits and cocktails, and Avery Glasser, founder of Bitterman’s Bitters, led “The Roof is On Fire! Dangerous Drinks” seminar. This talk not only discussed a bit about fire safety (though mostly with a hilarious slide show of drinks gone wrong from the internet that was projected prior to the main presentation), but more importantly, it focused on not-so-obviously-toxic ingredients or those that could at least result in some uncomfortable itching. Now that practically any botanical can be sourced online, almost none of it comes with a warning label, yet a proliferation of amateur infusion and bitters recipes still rather irresponsibly call for them. For instance, homemade amaretto recipes require an infusion of bitter almonds. Sounds innocent enough, except “bitter almonds” are not really almonds like the ones we eat, which are technically seeds and not nuts. Bitter almonds are the dried seeds of stone fruits like peaches, cherries and apricots which have to be professionally distilled (as in Amaretto Disaronno) in order to avoid cyanide poisoning! Think fat-washed spirits like bacon bourbon are yummy? Hope you’ve refrigerated the infusion during the process to avoid meat spoilage… English and Glasser even compiled a handout, the Danger Guide, listing many popular ingredients and their allergy-inducing or potentially poisonous effects, even pointing out the differences between related items like cinchona bark and quinine when making home tonic water. Safety first, drink nerds!
Tossing In Some Cocktail History
One person who is well practiced in the art of the drink, and certainly knows his quinine from his quinidine, is drinks historian and Sipsmith master distiller Jared Brown. Gathered on the roof above John Besh’s Pigeon and Prince, Brown hosted a multinational group of skilled bartenders for Game of Throws - the ultimate challenge in the all-but-lost art of throwing drinks. Throwing a cocktail, that is, mixing it by transferring the liquids between glasses from an extended height, does a better job of aerating aromatic ingredients such as vermouth by creating more elegant and precise bubbles than conventional stirring and shaking. However, it takes quite a bit of practice not to aromatize one’s own shirt instead. Not only was this an entertaining bit of theater in both verbal presentation and action, but guests were also treated to some delicious Sipsmith gin drinks while they watched the fun.
Later that week, Brown’s seminar “The Life and Times of the Singapore Sling” explored the journey of the classic cocktail, from its early 20th century birth in the Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel to the more familiar pineapple and sour mix concoction with the “kabob of garnish” from the 1970s. Brown dove into the research a couple of years ago, when Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy was contacted by Raffles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the drink by creating a custom Raffles 1915 gin in the style that would have been served in the bar back in the day (Long story short, the caller from the hotel chain was gobsmacked when at the time merely sussing out potential gin candidates, Galsworthy mentioned his full name was Stamford, named for his great, great, great uncle
Sir Stamford Raffles). The gin itself is a beguiling concoction that differs from London Dry, at the time a style that was not available in Singapore, with a botanical mix that includes pandan grass, makrut (the more PC name for “kaffir”) lime leaf, cardamom, jasmine, lemongrass, pomelo peel and other regional aromatics. The presentation traced the history of the Singapore Sling from before the invention of that drink to its parent, the gin sling, to its creation and original Raffles recipe, which was simply gin, lemon, cherry brandy (specifically Cherry Heering), Bénédictine ,and topped with soda and orange peel garnish. However, because world traveled cocktails often reach their destinations like a game of Telephone, the most familiar recipe that stuck, adding powdered sour mix and canned pineapple juice “...could not be more disco if it came out in gold lamé pants and rollerskates.” These days both versions of the cocktail are served at Raffles, though with a more sophisticated, fresh ingredient pineapple sour iteration, but head to the Writer’s Bar if you want the classic recipe served with Sipsmith 1915 Raffles gin.
Tales Of the... Whisky?
As delicious and even exciting as many of the cocktails at this year’s Tales were, it was a refreshing change to drink some whisky. However, this being the occasion it is, there was pretty dang fine hooch to be had. As visiting alcohol professor Jake Emen mentioned in his coverage a few days ago, Diageo hosted one of the most extraordinary Spirited Dinners I’ve had the pleasure of attending. To be honest, many of these affairs tend to be the cocktail equivalent of NY Restaurant Week (the worst way to gauge a good restaurant? Order the discount tasting menu!), showcasing a venue’s signature dishes, batched and warmed under heat lamps, with batched and diluted (and sometimes also warmed thanks to the climate) cocktails that don’t really match the food. This time, Commander’s Palace chef Tory McPhail took great pains to
match the food to the Special Releases whisky, with delicious results. Highlights included The Cally 40 Year Old grain whisky with foie gras & yellow fin tuna set off with plaintains and pineapple. The smoky ghost distillery whiskies, Brora 37 Year and Port Ellen 32 Year single malts, partnered with smoked duck and a complex wagyu beef dish that included Cuban cigar-infused jus. One of the most decadent and addictive chocolate desserts ever, a Creole dark chocolate sheba, was surrounded by shavings of six different chocolates from light to dark, which we were encouraged to dip into with our fingers and taste with Dailuaine 34 Year (you know you’ve reached the pinnacle of adulthood when you are encouraged to play with your dessert and drink fine single malt Scotch). Cocktails, which also deftly highlighted both the food and whisky pairings, were provided by London’s Ryan Chetiyawardana (a.k.a. Mr. Lyan) and served by Diageo brand ambassador (“badassador”?) Todd Richman. The whole evening was overseen by the restaurant’s ineffable co-owner, Ti Adelaide Martin, and hosted by the highly entertaining styles of Diageo masters of whisky - Dr. Nick Morgan, Ewan Morgan (no relation) and Dave Broom. (Incidentally, this bunch also led, by many accounts, one of the most fun and informative whisky talks in the history of Tales for MMA 2016, some of which can be viewed here.)
Rounding out this year’s fest, having spent a week on my feet in the heat and ready for the home stretch, I had the unusual, if not somewhat outer body experience, of riding around downtown New Orleans with Macallan brand ambassador Raquel Raies in a Bentley while sipping the Rare Cask release, named thus because a large portion of the casks in which the whisky was aging come from Spanish sherry bodegas that are no longer in operation. After a smashing dinner with friends at Compère Lapin, where between a large group we tasted almost everything on the food menu (while most of us opted for low ABV drinks or nothing alcoholic at all), I re-entered Macallan land for their Nite Cap event. Here I met up with Adam so we could divide and conquer, able to taste all the other expressions of Macallan’s 1824 Master Series - Reflexion, No. 6 and M (the latter two packaged in Lalique crystal decanters).
As the rest of the troops met again in the hot sun in the Marigny for Pig n Punch and with only a couple of hours till my flight home, I was ready to pause for reflection and one more taste of the city’s superb cuisine. This called for a Brandy Milk Punch at Broussard’s, a jazzy brunch with friends who don’t mind sharing bites off their plates and yes, we had to, because when burning in Rome, Bananas Foster flambéed table side. What’s old is fondly repeated again indeed, maybe better this time round. That’s why they call them “classic,” after all.
You think it’s hard to organize an article around this? Try putting it all together! Thanks to Ann and Paul Tuennerman for making it happen, and all the CAPS for their utmost professional assistance in the events and seminars. Cheers, y’all!